HC Deb 02 April 1984 vol 57 cc633-6
6. Mr. Eggar

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what is the current coal output on an annualised basis.

Mr. Peter Walker

Without the overtime ban and strike action, deep mined coal production would have been about 101.4 million tonnes in 1983–84, and opencast production around 14 million tonnes.

Mr. Eggar

Has my right hon. Friend seen reports that industrial gas and export contracts are being imperilled as a direct result of the industrial action? Is not the likely outcome of the strike that the NCB will have to close more rather than fewer pits?

Mr. Walker

I am concerned that there have been losses in the export trade, as it is only recently that Britain has been able to be a net exporter of coal. That trade is being severely damaged. I am concerned that the good progress that we have been making in applications for the coal conversion scheme has virtually stopped, and that must also have a serious impact on the future of the coal industry.

Mr. Barron

Does not the present dispute in the coal mining industry relate directly to the 4.4 million tonnes, and is it not likely that if the Coopers and Lybrand report were to be implemented in the electricity supply industry, with prices being reduced, people would use that 4.4 million tonnes and we could do without the present dispute?

Mr. Walker

In fairness, there is substantial coal burn, and considerable encouragement is given to coal conversion. This contrasts sharply, for example, with the recently stated position in France, where the French Government have announced that they intend to reduce coal production by 40 per cent. and the numbers of miners by 50 per cent.

Mr. Skeet

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the current market dictates the need for much lower annual coal production? Does he agree also that the National Union of Mineworkers is doing its best to destroy the mines?

Mr. Walker

There are divided views about that union. My hon. Friend knows that the majority of miners at coalfields who have had the opportunity to vote, have voted to stay at work and not to strike. We cannot generalise about the NUM. Unwarranted damage is being done to the industry.

Mr. Redmond

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is not the NUM's action but the short-term policies pursued by the Government, including Conservative Back Benchers, that are causing long-term damage to the industry and this country's needs for the future?

Mr. Walker

Any Government who, during this period, support £800 million a year of capital investment in an industry can hardly be seen to be neglecting its future.

Mr. Ward

How can my right hon. Friend justify the enormous sums now being offered in redundancy payments to relatively young miners when it appears that the NUM's leadership is determined to ruin the industry? That expenditure can only mean increased cost to the taxpayer.

Mr. Walker

I defend the decision to ensure that miners who suffer because of the closure of uneconomic mines are generously treated, and I do not regret that decision. I believe that by any measure, in this country or worldwide, we are treating them very generously.

Mr. Welsh

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that current total output is insufficient to meet the demands in the next four years, when oil supplies will have been reduced by at least 25 per cent? What is he doing to ensure that pits are kept open to produce the coal that the nation will require in four years,' time?

Mr. Walker

Having heard the hon. Gentleman in a recent debate, I believe that he knows from all his experience under all parties in Government that pit closures are not new. Closing the 20 most uneconomic pits, which are producing coal at four times the cost of the most economic pits, and at the same time investing £2 million a day in capital investment in the industry means safeguarding the future.

Mr. Richard Shepherd

Is my right hon. Friend aware that certain west midlands manufacturing concerns are desperately short of foundry coke? What steps can he take to ensure that supplies get through to those commercial interests?

Mr. Walker

At present there are substantial coke stocks. They were built up considerably because of the lack of relative demand. I hope that the people picketing those suppliers will give careful consideration to the likely loss of jobs and the possible loss of firms if coke supplies are not available.

Mr. Lofthouse

Will the Secretary of State put the record straight for his hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Ward) and tell him that the miners are asking not for redundancy payments but for jobs?

Mr. Walker

As the hon. Gentleman knows better than most, under both Governments substantial numbers of miners have voluntarily asked to take advantage of the redundancy payments scheme on an early retirement basis. During the debate last week a number of Opposition Members defended the rights of miners to retire early and take advantage of such payments.

Mr. Lyell

Is it not the case that the last 12 million tonnes of the 100 million tonnes referred to by my right hon. Friend are produced at a loss of more than £250 million a year? Could not that same amount of coal be produced more cheaply, efficiently and effectively at other pits which would better employ many of the miners who are currently employed in the old pits?

Mr. Walker

Yes, Sir. That is why the Government recently gave authority for £400 million to be invested in a new pit at Asfordby.

Mr. Foulkes

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the NCB agreed to reduce coal imports to what it described as the "irreducible minimum"? Why has the right hon. Gentleman therefore allowed coal imports into Scotland to double in the past two years?

Mr. Walker

Coal imports are virtually at an all-time low. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that we are not importing a great deal of the coal that is available at much lower prices, and that we are net exporters of coal.

Mr. Stokes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many British coal merchants in the midlands are reluctantly having to import supplies, sometimes from as far away as Morocco? What long-term effect will that have on the domestic industry?

Mr. Walker

It is important that the domestic industry should produce coal as efficiently as possible and take advantage of the hundreds of millions of pounds of new capital that has been invested in the industry.

Mr. Benn

How much extra coal has been imported since the beginning of the dispute, and at what price?

Mr. Walker

I have no details, but referring to the dispute, which the right hon. Gentleman does so often, compared to his record, the miners have no right to have a dispute.

Mr. Holt

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the futility of the current strike is underlined impressively by the decision of the ICI board not to proceed with the conversion of fuel from oil to coal? That will deny many miners a living in the future which they otherwise would have enjoyed.

Mr. Walker

Yes Sir. I suppose that the ICI scheme was the biggest single project of conversion to coal that the country has witnessed for many years. It was encouraged by substantial Government grants. It would have used 450,000 tonnes of coal a year. I regret that the current industrial action has meant that that decision has been put off.

Mr. Eadie

As the right hon. Gentleman has given the House a long list of the problems associated with the mining industry, why does he not intervene in the present industrial dispute? Secondly, as he has told us about France cutting its coal production and halving manpower in the industry, will he tell the House what France's total coal production and manpower in mining are?

Mr. Walker

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, with all that is on offer at the moment in terms of pay, the manner in which closures will be treated and investment, I should be happy if the miners were given the opportunity to express their view in a ballot. I will explain simply the position in France. The Socialist Government came in with coal production at 20 million tonnes. Their target was to increase it to 30 million, but they have now decided to reduce it to 10 million.

Mr. Orme

In view of the increasingly serious position, and as the Secretary of State is the responsible Minister, what action has he taken this weekend to consult Mr. MacGregor and the National Union of Mineworkers?

Mr. Walker

As the responsible Minister, I am aware from the votes that have already taken place that the majority of miners would like the chance to vote. It is time that the Opposition supported those miners.