HC Deb 25 April 1984 vol 58 cc731-8 3.31 pm
Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East) (by private notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement about the current coal mining dispute.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Giles Shaw)

There are pits working normally today in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Cumbria and north Wales. That means that over 35,000 men in over 40 collieries will again today demonstrate their readiness to continue working. Allowing for holidays and maintenance work, that is a level of activity fully consistent with that of last week and the previous week, when Parliament was still sitting. Picketing continues, but it has not deterred those intent on reporting for work.

Coal stocks at power stations are at a high level for the time of year, sufficient to enable the electricity industry to meet demand for many months. The National Coal Board and the coal trade are maintaining at least limited supplies to most other major customers.

The chairman of the NCB has made it clear that the board, for its part, is ready to continue discussion of the industry's long-term problems and how best to achieve the restructuring necessary to realise the high-volume low-cost industry which is the board's aim. It is a matter of regret to all those who want to see the industry resolve its present difficulties that the National Union of Mineworkers has not attended any of the recent meetings of the industry's consultative committees, including the joint meeting today of the Coal Industry National Consultative Council and the Coke Oven National Council.

I understand that the national delegate conference of the NUM decided last Thursday to amend its rules so that no more than a simple majority would be required to carry a motion in a national ballot concerning industrial action but that the opportunity of consulting the union's membership through a ballot on the present dispute was again forgone.

Mr. Orme

The reply that the Minister has just given to the House is totally unsatisfactory. The real responsibility for the dispute lies with the Government. The dispute is about jobs, the survival of whole communities and the future of a vital industry, yet after seven weeks of a major coal strike the Government have taken no action to reach a solution.

I should like to ask the Minister the following questions. To what extent are the Government subsidising the NCB to hold out against the strike? How much taxpayers' money is being used to fund the fight against the miners, money that would be better spent keeping pits open and jobs intact? What is the extra cost to the Central Electricity Generating Board of the increased use of oilburn and nuclear power to generate electricity? How is that being paid for? What are the effects of the dispute on important sectors of manufacturing industry? How can the Minister justify the closure of Cortonwood and Polmaise collieries? How can the closure of those modern pits advance the interests of the industry? Where do they fit into Mr. Ian MacGregor's picture of so-called uneconomic pits?

How do the proposals made in the press yesterday by Mr. MacGregor differ from his original plan to sack 20,000 miners and close 25 pits? What efforts are the Government making to achieve fresh negotiations that would put aside the closure plans and result in a plan for the coal industry agreed by both unions and management?

I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not present to answer my final question. He and the Minister have obligations to the coal industry. Will they now assume those responsibilities and sort out the energy policy for this energy-rich country? That policy must be based on long-term planning, as opposed to short-term financial targets, and must recognise the importance of coal as a fuel for the future.

Mr. Shaw

The right hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the future for coal, which is primarily within the hands of the industry itself. The future for coal has been underwritten by this Government and their predecessors, inasmuch as large volumes of taxpayers' money have gone into the industry.

The right hon. Gentleman also referred to subsidy. I remind him that about £1 billion is going in each year from other workers through their taxes to sustain this industry, and that there is investment of £2 million a day. That is an extremely high level of investment.

It is because we have provided very substantial sums of money that the industry can look forward to a viable and high-production future. That objective is fully shared by the board, and it has been widely recognised within the industry. That is why 40,000 miners are today working for the future of the industry. I very much hope that there will be some response to the view that, given these consultative committees, the NUM should join in these discussions.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Is my hon. Friend aware that every day last week up to 300 flying pickets from Yorkshire invaded the tiny port of Glasson Dock in my constituency despite the fact that most Lancashire miners would like to work unless and until a national ballot votes that they should all strike?

Mr. Shaw

My hon. Friend is right. Pickets are in attendance throughout the coalfields in an attempt to deter those seeking to go to work. It is the Government's objective to see that they have that right and to ensure that that right is preserved.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

Does the hon. Gentleman support Mr. MacGregor's recent statement that no miner will be forced to accept redundancy? If that is an honourable intention, and if the 20,000 miners whom Mr. MacGregor intends to make redundant all refuse to accept redundancy pay, how will he be able to close the 25 pits?

Mr. Shaw

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the NCB will determine how the redundancy scheme will operate, and he also knows full well that the NCB has made the offer genuinely. It intends to see that this year, as last year, there are no involuntary redundancies in the programme.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the tragic dilemma of those miners, particularly in Wales, who wish to safeguard their excellent labour reputation by continuing to work in the present difficult circumstances? Will he give them the consolation of assuring them that the Government's commitment to the coal industry remains entire?

Mr. Shaw

I certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. He will know that the commitment to the Point of Ayr development is just as strong.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Why will the Secretary of State not take the positive step of summoning a meeting of the chairman of the board and the president of the union with one item alone on the agenda—"Plan for Coal"—and how it can best be implemented?

Mr. Shaw

The hon. Gentleman must recognise that, given the present position in the industry, the board and those who work in it have the capacity to resolve this issue. Clearly, the NUM is split on this matter. It is not feasible for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that somehow this can be resolved by a wave of the wand from outside.

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

As the Nottinghamshire miners have voted to continue to work, and have shown that they will continue to do so, is it not time that the NCB implemented the new wage proposals that have been on the table since last year? Out of respect for those miners who voted against a strike, it would be only right if they received the increased pay award.

Mr. Shaw

I note what my hon. Friend says, and the House will be aware that the Nottinghamshire miners have been forthright in their acceptance of their duty to work for the future of their industry. The matter of payment is one for the National Coal Board.

Mr. Alec Woodall (Hemsworth)

The Minister has just made great play about the large stocks held by the Central Electricity Generating Board—enough, he says, to keep the electricity supply going for the next few months. is he aware that a few weeks ago an appeal was made to the officers of the Yorkshire area of the NUM by the British Steel Corporation at Scunthorpe for 16,000 tonnes of coal to be released to keep that steelworks open? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the coal required is high quality coking coal, the coal that is produced at Cortonwood, but the National Coal Board cannot supply those 16,000 tonnes of coal for Scunthorpe? This is where the dispute started. Will the Minister give an assurance that he will tell Mr. MacGregor to withdraw the closure notices and bring this silly dispute to an end?

Mr. Shaw

No, I shall not give any assurance on that, because, as the House should know by now, the National Coal Board runs its business and it is not the business of the Government to intervene. As to the hon. Gentleman's question, I am glad that arrangements have been made to ensure supplies to the Scunthorpe steelworks. However, as I think I have said to the hon. Gentleman before, consultative procedures can be initiated on Cortonwood if the NUM is willing to do so.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

Will my hon. Friend refute the unfounded allegations made by Mr. Scargill on "The World at One" yesterday that in some way the Government have broken the terms of "Plan for Coal" of 1974? Is it not the case that the Government have upheld their agreement by investing in the coal industry throughout the years and that it is the NUM that has broken the agreement by preventing the agreed closure programme of the uneconomic pits?

Mr. Shaw

My hon. Friend is right. Investment is one of the important factors in "Plan for Coal", and the amount invested is far higher than envisaged. The productivity increase of 4 per cent. per annum that was aimed at has not been achieved, and it was only last year that we achieved a 4.7 per cent. increase. The reduction in capacity was expected to be about 3 or 4 million tonnes per year, but less than half that has been achieved. My hon. Friend is right. The Government have kept their promises in terms of "Plan for Coal."

Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)

For how much longer will the hon. Gentleman deceive the House and the country that this is just a local dispute, when 80 per cent. of the miners are on strike? Are the hon. Gentleman and his Government prepared to do something constructive? Why do they not call a meeting of the tripartite inquiry, over which his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland could preside, to try to bring an end to this dispute through conciliation rather than confrontation?

Mr. Shaw

If the hon. Gentleman is after conciliation, why does he not advocate a national ballot on this issue?

Sir William Clark (Croydon, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposed number of pit closures is smaller than the number of pit closures carried out by the Labour Administration? Is not this strike nothing to do with pit closures and everything to do with politics? Is it not a disgraceful fact that Mr. Scargill, as head of the National Union of Mineworkers, refuses to negotiate?

Mr. Shaw

It is a fact that the president of the NUM has drawn his own conclusions as to what the dispute is about. It is equally incontrovertible that the future of the industry is critical, but the people who are being most damaged by what is going on are the miners, and the future of the industry is at stake.

Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)

How does the Minister equate Mr. MacGregor's recent statement about his willingness to phase in the colliery closures programme over a longer period with the Prime Minister's statement, made on two occasions to the House, that the closure programme is being scheduled? Would not the country be better served on this occasion if the Prime Minister went back to the corner shop?

Mr. Shaw

The chairman of the National Coal Board has made it clear in the consultative committee—it met again this morning — that he is prepared to discuss matters with those who are concerned with the long-term future of the industry and that the restructuring of the industry is an essential part of those discussions. Those discussions have been held with several unions in the industry. So far, the National Union of Mineworkers has refused to be a party to them.

Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the gravest consequence of the strike is upon our steel industry and those who work in it whose jobs depend on coal, and upon our coal miners whose jobs depend on supplying the steel industry? Does he agree, further, that it seems apparent that the National Union of Mineworkers and its leadership are quite prepared to see the steel industry sacrificed upon the altar of Arthur Scargill's political ambition?

Mr. Shaw

I understand fully my hon. Friend's concern with the steel industry. So far the arrangements are very tenuous. They have been made to try to maintain some supplies of coal into the steel industry. It must be recognised that this is a very fragile arrangement arid that the future of the steel industry is clearly at risk.

Mr. Jack Dormand (Easington)

Will the Minister confirm that the Central Electricity Generating Board, as a result of the dispute, is buying oil at a cost of £15 million a week to the taxpayer? In view of the fact that we are being told constantly that there are sufficient coal stocks to last until the autumn, is not some deception being practised at the moment?

Mr. Shaw

I have made it clear that there are sufficient stocks available to carry us through well into the autumn and for many months after that. Of course, oilburn has to be done where supplies of coal are restricted. The hon. Gentleman would be the first to complain if proper precautions were not taken.

Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)

Is not it unfortunate that the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) did not include in his comments some encouragement to the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Mr. Scargill, to meet Mr. MacGregor, as he has been invited to do?

Mr. Shaw

I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman has heard my hon. Friend's observations. The fact remains that the president of the National Union of Mineworkers has his own view of what the dispute is about.

Mr. Michael Welsh (Doncaster, North)

Is the Minister aware that the National Union of Mineworkers desires an end to the strike on reasonable terms? Is he aware, further, that the union's representatives will not negotiate at consultative meetings but will insist on conciliation meetings, which are quite different and are laid down under the nationalisation Act? Will the Minister now persuade the chairman of the National Coal Board to invite NUM representatives to meet him? It appears that Mr. MacGregor has asked every reporter and every pundit on television and radio, but has not contacted officials of the NUM. Will the Minister put pressure on the chairman to invite NUM representatives direct so that they can negotiate under the conciliation machinery?

Mr. Shaw

The National Union of Mineworkers knows full well that there are consultative meetings which involve all the unions in the industry and that they meet regularly. The hon. Gentleman will know that there have been several such meetings in recent weeks. He will also know that the National Union of Mineworkers has declined to attend. The discussions are available. The chairman of the National Coal Board has reiterated his willingness to see full union representation round the table. The National Union of Mineworkers can send its representatives if it wishes.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Has my hon. Friend any information about the cost of the private armies that are marauding round the north midlands trying to persuade fellow workers not go to their places of work? What are their rates of pay, and who is financing them?

Mr. Shaw

I have no information of the kind described by my hon. Friend. I remind him that the miners themselves are losing substantial amounts of money. It is absurd that other people are trying to prevent them from resuming their earnings.

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

Is the Minister aware that miners, too, are losing money? Is he also aware of the remit that MacGregor was given when he was appointed by the Prime Minister? He has ratted on his remit. Therefore, is not the best way out of the dispute to sack MacGregor and get someone else into the chairmanship who will negotatte with Arthur Scargill?

Mr. Shaw

I understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman has always expressed on Welsh coal matters. But he is quite wrong on this issue. He is quite wrong when he suggests that the remit has been reneged upon. The remit given to the chairman of the National Coal Board was virtually identical to that given to his predecessor and concerns the future viability of the industry. If the hon. Gentlemen is really concerned about that, he should be working now to achieve that structural viability.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

Would the Minister agree that it is all very well for Opposition Members to talk about negotiations but that there is little point in Mr. MacGregor negotiating with Mr Scargill until he knows whether Mr. Scargill even has the confidence of his own members? Does he agree that until such time as a national ballot is held, Mr. MacGregor cannot know that?

Mr. Shaw

My hon. Friend is right. It was demonstated here today that about 35,000 miners in the industry are working — [Interruption.] — that about 35,000 to 40,000 miners are working in the industry. [Interruption.] The fact remains that, until a national ballot is held, the president of the union does not know precisely what his people really want.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Although this is a private notice question, in view of the interest by hon. Members with mining constituencies and others I propose to call those hon. Members who have been standing.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is it not clear that, despite everything that the Government and Mr. MacGregor have said, they have totally failed to persuade a vast majority in the NUM to accept—[Hon. Members: "How do you know?"]—as evidenced by the fact that a national overtime ban has been going on and that 80 per cent. of the miners are involved in industrial action. Is it not clear that the Government and Mr. MacGregor have totally failed to persuade NUM members that it is right to go for a massive policy of pit closures?

Despite all the assurances by Ministers, is it not clear that the Government cannot maintain the energy supplies needed by industry? Is it not also a fact that support by the transport unions shows that many millions of people in Britain recognise that the miners, by their action, are safeguarding the nation's future energy supplies?

Mr. Shaw

I hardly think that the right hon. Gentleman's last statement is consistent with his previous statement. A 4 per cent. reduction in production or output is required of the industry in the next year. That can hardly be stated to be a massive reduction in the industry's capacity. With a £2 million investment per day there is no suggestion of a major cut in resources to the industry.

Mr. Benn

That is not correct.

Mr. Shaw

The right hon. Gentleman must get the facts right. If the coal industry is to have a future it must produce volume priced according to the market and not just according to what is in the ground at the time.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

When will the Minister come to the Dispatch Box and admit that Ian MacGregor is doing this Government's dirty work? Bearing in mind that Ian MacGregor has already announced 20 pit closures, will the Minister say whether, if he gets away with those 20 closures, another 20 will close?

Mr. Shaw

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that, after the discussions about the future of the coal industry, there is agreement that contraction must take place. There can be no question of retaining every single pit. We now require acceptance that, if that objective is not reached soon, the prospects for the British coal industry in terms of competing with world supplies are remote.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South East)

Does the Minister recognise that, apart from the political ping-pong, we are talking about a national asset, the jobs of people and the future of industry? When will the Minister stop looking as detached as an undertaker at a funeral? When will he intervene to bring the two sides together?

Mr. Shaw

It is absurd to suggest that we are not directly concerned with the industry's future. This Government have done more than most of their predecessors to demonstrate that determination by increasing investment and by ensuring that the industry has redundancy terms which are better than any other industry has had.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Can the Minister explain why this Government are prepared to ensure that marginally uneconomic oilfields receive money from the taxpayer as a result of the Petroleum Royalties (Relief) Act which went through the House in the last 12 months, whereas marginal pits which are likely to last much longer cannot receive the same assistance to keep them open? Is it not a nonsense to spend £850 million currently on the strike together with the £500 a week that it costs to police the strike in the Midlands? Will the Minister look at the long-term aspects? Does he agree that this winter we started with 53 million tonnes of coal in stock, that we shall start next winter with less than 30 million tonnes in stock but that we shall be better placed then than we were in 1972 and 1974?

Mr. Shaw

No, Sir.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the sad fact is that the people who will be hit hardest by the strike are likely to be the miners? Is that not because the leader of the NUM is seeking to pursue his political ends in that action? When the miners have been balloted nationally, as they should have been, they will show that they fully understand that position. Will the Government show that they fully understand the anxiety in communities direly affected by the pit closures by pursuing the proposal made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) to establish an NCB industry company to do the type of work that the British Steel Corporation (Industry) Ltd. did after the closure of steel plants?

Mr. Shaw

I understand the importance of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, but the characteristics of the coal industry are vastly different from those affecting the steel industry, in which large plants were sited in isolated communities. We are dealing with a more widespread issue. For many years, a traditional method has been established to deal with that issue.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Can the Under-Secretary of State tell the miners in my constituency, especially those formerly employed at Bogside, how much credence they can place on Mr. MacGregor's view on rephasing pit closures when at Bogside there is a clear sign of industrial vandalism on the part of management? On 12 April when I and my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) met him, Mr. MacGregor had not taken the trouble to read the report on the events leading to the cessation of production at Bogside. How much credence can the miners in my constituency give to the attitudes of a man who is paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to disregard what is happening to vital national assets?

Mr. Shaw

I fully understand the position to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We have discussed that problem together. The fact remains that the NCB did not take any action conducive to the loss of that pit.

Mr. Douglas

That is not true.

Mr. Shaw

That statement was made after a thorough examination of the position, and I am satisfied with it.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Will electricity prices be raised to fund additional oil purchases by the Central Electricity Generating Board?

Mr. Shaw

That is not a matter involving this question. [Interruption.] I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxieties, but that is a matter that the CEGB will, no doubt, consider in due course.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)


Mr. Speaker

Order. In the interests of balance, I shall call the hon. Member, although he has not previously sought to intervene.

Mr. Adley

Pursuant to the question raised by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member closed more than 250 pits in six years and that about 60 pits have been closed during the past six years?

Mr. Shaw

I can confirm that several hundred pits were closed during the period of the Labour Administration whereas many fewer—about 30—were closed during the period of the last Conservative Government.

Mr. Orme

I underline the central point made by my hon. Friends: Mr. MacGregor is carrying out Government policy. Consequently, will the Government intervene, as the Prime Minister did in 1981, to bring both sides together to reach a solution to this problem? A solution can be achieved if the Government have the will to do so.

Mr. Shaw

The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that there is grave disarray within the union. He must equally be aware that attempts to invite a national ballot of the union membership have not been acceptable to the union leadership. The union must look at that position. For its part, the NCB will be looking for discussions about the industry's future, which the chairman has today reiterated his willingness to have.