HC Deb 02 April 1984 vol 57 cc638-9
10. Mr. Tim Smith

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what has been the increase in productivity in the coal mining industry since 1974.

Mr. Peter Walker

Overall output per man-shift in 1974–75 was only 2.29 tonnes, due to the effect of strike action. In 1982–83 it was 2.44 tonnes, representing an increase of just under 7 per cent. The increase between 1972–73 and 1982–83 was only 4.7 per cent. for the 10-year period.

Mr. Smith

How does the first figure, which amounts to less than 1 per cent. per year, compare with what was actually agreed by the parties to the "Plan for Coal" in 1974?

Mr. Walker

The "Plan for Coal" envisaged increases in productivity of 4 per cent. per annum. As I have slated, the increase was 4.7 per cent. over 10 years.

Mr. Haynes

Does the Secretary of State agree that it was not a bad effort by the lads in the industry, in terms of the figures for productivity? One has only to look at the heaps of coal around the nation. Will the Secretary of State have a word with his Cabinet colleagues, including that lass at No. 10, with a view to getting industry back to work? We will then see the coal stocks used up, and at the same time the lads will produce the coal that the nation needs.

Mr. Walker

All parties to the "Plan for Coal", including the National Union of Mineworkers, must be disappointed that, in the past 10 years, the improvement in productivity has been only what they hoped would take place every year. Productivity has been disappointing.

Mr. Bill Walker

Is not the closing of mines which, in the eyes of the National Coal Board, are unproductive, an essential element of increased productivity? If the miners insist that those pits should not be closed, why does the NCB not offer them to the miners as workers' cooperatives at peppercorn rents?

Mr. Walker

There has been no approach on that basis from the NUM or the miners. Any such approach would be carefully considered. In practice, the important thing is that during this period there is major investment in pits that will be economic and successful. That is important for the future of the industry.

Mr. O'Brien

Bearing in mind the Minister's last answer about capital investment in pits, will he at some time give the House an idea of the outlook at pits where there has been capital investment and at those pits that have been starved of capital investment — the uneconomic pits that have been referred to? Does the Minister agree that if there is capital starvation a pit automatically becomes uneconomic?

Mr. Walker

The "Plan for Coal" included plans for investment, and under the Conservative Government the capital investment programmes in that plan have been exceeded, not decreased.

Mr. Michael Morris

Is it not true that over £2 million a day has been spent in capital investment in pits since 1979 and that since that time productivity has increased, except, perhaps, in the remaining 20 pits which are uneconomic? Should the miners not recognise that Selby, Belvoir and the other modern pits offer their youngsters the future opportunities that they seek?

Mr. Walker

Yes, Sir, it is very important for the future of the industry that the least economic pits should be replaced by way of high investment in the pits of the future. That has happened under all Governments, and that is what is happening at present.

Mr. Ashton

If there is too much coal in the country, why do the Government not slash the price of electricity, as any other business man would do if stocks were too high? Would not a massive cut in electricity prices reduce inflation, help industry, create jobs, keep pits open, and help the pensioners? Is that not the answer to the problem, rather than continually increasing the price of electricity?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I believe that the question is about productivity in the coal mining industry.

Mr. Walker

I have read with fascination the columns produced by the hon. Gentleman over the years, but during the period when the Labour Government were in power I did not see any criticism by the hon. Gentleman of the fact that electricity prices were rising every six weeks — rather than every three years as at present.

Mr. Bottomley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a profit improvement of less than 0.5 per cent. per year, such as we have from this major industry, would, if spread across the whole economy, mean that we would have far less money to spend on desirable social objectives?

Mr. Walker

The productivity figures have been disappointing for all sides of the industry, especially in view of the enormous capital investment in it.

Mr. Orme

On productivity, why has the Cortonwood pit in Yorkshire, which has five years' life, been closed with five weeks' notice.

Mr. Walker

The right hon. Gentleman will find, from a statement made in the House and another made by the National Coal Board last week, that the board is willing to discuss the pit with the National Union of Mineworkers but so far the NUM has not taken up that invitation.