HC Deb 01 August 1984 vol 65 cc323-6
1. Sir David Price

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what has been the effect to date of the continuing miners' strike and other supportive strikes upon the United Kingdom's import and export trades, respectively.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Norman Tebbit)

Little changed since the reply I gave to a similar question from the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) on 4 July. Imports of oil, coal and coke have increased and there has been some reduction in steel exports, but the strike has had a minimal effect on the vast majority of the United Kingdom's import and export trades.

Sir David Price

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although this continuing strike is not good for the economy, it is even worse for the economy of the striking miners and their families? Does he also agree that the terms proposed by the National Coal Board for non-economic activities within the coal industry are the most generous on record in the whole of British industry, and should certainly be accepted?

Mr. Tebbit

Yes, I entirely agree. The subsidies to the coal industry are extraordinarily generous and the offers for voluntary redundancy are among the most generous ever offered. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister observed last night, they are in marked contrast to the meanness of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who supports closures on economic grounds. We are all extremely sorry for the losses caused to so many miners who want to go to work and who are intimidated by massive picketing, and we are puzzled——

Mr. Gould

Answer the question.

Mr. Tebbit

I am answering the question. The hon. Gentleman may make his own judgment. I know that he is afraid that I shall draw attention to the fact that the Leader of the Opposition does not have the guts to ask Mr. Scargill to abide by the outcome of a ballot or even by the TUC's code on picketing.

Mr. James Lamond

As the Secretary of State is so dismissive of the effect of the strike on imports and exports, does he share the view of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that this deterioration in the fabric of the nation, and the starving of women and children in order to drive the miners back to work, is "a worthwhile investment"?

Mr. Tebbit

It is certainly not a worthwhile investment of the funds of the National Union of Mineworkers to employ people to beat up fellow members of the union.

On the question of what my right hon. Friend said, does anyone suggest that it is not right for the Government to ensure the continuity of electricity supplies? That is the cost involved.

Mr. Hickmet

Would my right hon. Friend care to comment upon the description of the strike by the chairman of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation as a political strike, or his assertion that trade union leaders are prepared to see their members' jobs sacrificed to the political ambition of one man—Mr. Arthur Scargill? What effect does my right hon. Friend think that will have upon the British Steel Corporation's export market? Is it not a disgrace that the leadership of the NUM should be prepared to see steel workers' jobs put at risk?

Mr. Tebbit

My hon. Friend is right, except in one respect. This strike is not about one man's political ambitions; it is about the political ambitions of the Leader of the Opposition, who crawls along like a puppy at Scargill's heels.

Mr. Douglas

In the nation's interest, will the Secretary of State give us some idea of the total cost of the strike in terms of the nation's balance sheet? Last night the Chancellor of the Exchequer seemed to suggest that £350 million or so was a good investment from the Government's point of view. What is the real cost to the nation? Does the Secretary of State think that that money is well invested in trying to defeat people who are trying to defend their communities?

Mr. Tebbit

Whatever it costs to ensure that members of the NUM have the right to go to work without being under threat of being beaten up by pickets is worth while. Last night my right hon. Friend quoted the public expenditure involved, which is well worth while to maintain continuity of electricity, to maintain steel workers' jobs and to protect miners against pickets.

Mr. Ward

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents are amazed to hear that every working miner is subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of £130 a week? They are increasingly asking how much longer they can continue to subsidise miners who are taking money out of the pockets of people on relatively low incomes and showing no concern for their own or the country's future.

Mr. Tebbit

Uncharacteristically, my hon. Friend is being unfair to many miners. The average subsidy is £130 a week, but many miners are loyally working in good pits that are not subsidised. The question is how much we can afford to subsidise the uneconomic pits which are a burden on the backs of other miners and taxpayers. Last night the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said that he was in favour of closing uneconomic pits. The sooner we get on with that, the better.

Mr. Ashdown

Is not this dispute a classic example of how this terrible problem has been torn apart by Labour and Conservative Members like a rag doll? We cannot understand why the Leader of the Opposition is not prepared unequivocally to condemn the appalling brutality that is occurring on picket lines. How can the Government sit by and watch the destruction of a great industry, intimidation and violence on the picket lines and the destruction of law and order, and not do anything about it?

Mr. Tebbit

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman cannot understand why the Leader of the Opposition is silent. He is silent because he is Scargill's puppy and dare not say a word. The Government are maintaining the miners' right to go to work through police operations to defend them. We are maintaining electricity supplies to protect consumers and we are maintaining the British Steel Corporation's ability to employ its work force. All of those matters are the responsibility of the Government, and we are fulfilling that responsibility. However, we cannot force Mr. Scargill to have a ballot and to let his members go back to work.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Is not the real point that Britain's economic development depends upon cost-effective energy, as much as possible of it being produced in Britain? Are we not more likely to achieve that if more people know about the cost of subsidies to the mining industry and realise that members of political parties and trade unions dare not go beyond condemning violence? They ought to call on people not to assemble in such large intimidatory numbers and not to get involved in any type of violence.

Mr. Tebbit

My hon. Friend is undoubtedly right, but it would be a helpful first step if the TUC code on picketing, which sets down a maximum of six pickets at any works gates, were implemented. We should then see who wanted to go to work.

Mr. Shore

Will the Secretary of State now stop complaining and answer two direct questions? Does he or does he not endorse what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said last night: that, taking account of the human and other effects and costs of the strike, it represents a worthwhile investment for the nation"?—[Official Report, 31 July 1984; Vol. 65, c. 306–7.] Secondly, if the economic costs of the coal industry are as the Chancellor described yesterday, to what does the Secretary of State attribute the continuing deterioration of the British economy, including the massive increase in the balance of payments deficit?

Mr. Tebbit

There is not a balance of payments deficit. I am sorry to bring the right hon. Gentleman the good news.

Mr. Shore

A deterioration.

Mr. Tebbit

A deterioration—from a massive surplus to balance? The right hon. Gentleman is keen on getting these things right, and I shall put him right. There are many aspects to the swings and roundabouts of trade. We have been in surplus for five years running, which is more than Labour Governments ever achieved, and we shall maintain those figures year over year.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the Chancellor's statement last night. My right hon. Friend was absolutely right. The money spent in resisting the strike is money well spent, because it protects the jobs of steel workers, car workers, dock workers, Transport and General Workers Union workers and many others. Not to have expended it would have been to give in to mob violence. There is no necessity for any starving. If miners were allowed by their union to go back to work, their wives and children would be well fed.