HC Deb 17 December 1984 vol 70 cc1-7
1. Mr. Gerald Howarth

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the strike by some miners.

3. Mr. Ron Davies

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the latest situation in the coal industry dispute.

5. Mr. Willie W. Hamilton

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a further statement on the dispute in the coal industry.

6. Mr. Chapman

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on recent events relating to the coal industry dispute.

8. Mr. Strang

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the coal industry dispute.

10. Mr. Proctor

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the current situation in the coal mining industry.

11. Mr. Hannam

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

16. Mr. Knox

asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he will make a statement on the coal strike.

18. Mr. Douglas

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a further statement on the mining industry dispute.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Peter Walker)

Of the 174 pits, there are now 148 with men present and 66 of these are producing coal. Coal production is at its highest level since the dispute started. Since 5 November more than 16,500 miners who were on strike have reported for work. Coal stocks at the power stations remain at a similar level to what they were in August.

At a meeting with representatives of the Trades Union Congress last Friday, I expressed the Government's regret that the compromise proposal put forward by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, and the detailed agreement reached with NACODS, had not provided proposals acceptable to the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers. With two of the three mining unions not on strike, and with the one third of the NUM which had a ballot voting overwhelmingly against strike action, the Government regret that the two thirds of the NUM continuing on strike have been deprived of the opportunity to express their views through a national ballot.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the encouraging news about the number of men who are working and the number of pits that are remaining open. In view of his slightly alarming remarks last weekend about being available for further discussions, will he assure the House and the working miners that further talks between the NUM and the National Coal Board will not take place until there is genuine evidence of a fundamental shift in the attitude of the NUM to uneconomic pits?

Mr. Walker

I have told the TUC and the mining unions that I am willing to have talks with union leaders or the TUC at any time. That is the correct position for me to take. In my talks with the TUC I made it clear that it would be impossible to end the dispute so long as there was a totally unreasonable demand that every pit, no matter how uneconomic, should be kept open until the last ton of coal was extracted. That is the reality of the scene.

Mr. Davies

Notwithstanding those figures, does the Secretary of State accept that in parts of the mining industry the strike is solid and there is no prospect of breaking it? In view of that fact and the increasing doubt being cast over the Government's accountancy figures, most recently by the London Business School, does the Secretary of State appreciate that there must be negotiations? Would it not be helpful if he instructed Mr. MacGregor to withdraw his weekend statement about preconditions and took the necessary steps to get the parties involved back round the negotiating table?

Mr. Walker

I remind the hon. Gentleman that there have been seven rounds of negotiations. In the one at ACAS, ACAS came forward with a compromise proposal. At the end of seven rounds of negotiations Mr. Scargill is constantly on record as saying that he has not moved his position since 6 March. If the hon. Gentleman wants a settlement to the dispute, he should put pressure on Mr. Scargill.

Mr. Hamilton

Since it is clear day by day that there can be no winners and no losers in the contest—we are all losers, including the miners—will the Secretary of State take an initiative and agree to call together all those involved in the dispute so long as they undertake, before they start discussions, that there will be flexibility on all sides?

Mr. Walker

My difficulty in replying to that question is that in July one side suggested a range of new proposals which showed considerable flexibility, and, at the behest of another miners' union, went to ACAS and agreed a compromise proposal. On Friday the TUC told me that negotiations must take place between the two parties concerned. Until the one party which has refused to move since 6 March moves, there will not be the negotiated settlement which we all want.

Mr. Chapman

Regretting the intransigence of Mr. Scargill, but recognising that some striking miners understandably fear that there will be no other employment in the mining communities, may I ask my right hon. Friend to report progress on NCB (Enterprise) Ltd., which was set up to encourage alternative industries in uneconomic mining areas?

Mr. Walker

As I reported to the House, the company was set up with an initial capital of £5 million. Immediately there were a substantial number of inquiries and applications, and I agreed to double the capital of the company. I have informed the National Coal Board that the Government would be happy to finance an extension of its activities so that that important work can be carried out.

Mr. Strang

Why does the Secretary of State not facilitate negotiations without preconditions between the NCB and the NUM? Is it not clear that the Government are more concerned to inflict a defeat on the NUM, as part of their assault on the trade union movement, than to secure a negotiated settlement in the interests of the mining industry? How much damage will be done to the economic and social fabric of the country before the Government recognise that the vast majority of miners will return to work only after a negotiated settlement?

Mr. Walker

The tone of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is very different from the tone of the remarks that I heard in my talks with the TUC on Friday. There have been seven rounds of negotiations without preconditions, one under the auspices of ACAS, which came forward with a compromise proposal. I have heard no criticism of that compromise proposal by the TUC or the Labour party, and it is time that they tried to persuade Mr. Scargill to accept it.

Mr. Proctor

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real long-term damage to the coal mining industry has been caused during this dispute by the closure of coal faces in economic pits and the loss of contracts to the industry? Will my right hon. Friend comment on that?

Mr. Walker

It is true that 23 producing faces have been lost during the dispute, which is a tragic loss to the industry. As my hon. Friend knows, we were conducting an active and successful campaign to persuade industries to convert to coal. I had hoped that 1,000 firms would convert to coal this year, but the entire campaign has been destroyed by the dispute.

Mr. Hannam

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the dispute is rapidly becoming more concerned with the future of the president of the National Union of Mineworkers than of the coal miners? Will he commiserate with the TUC, which must negotiate on behalf of a union which refuses to budge an inch towards a settlement?

Mr. Walker

I understand the diverse problems of the TUC. From my talks last week and my communications with the TUC, I am sure that it is anxious that the dispute should end with a negotiated settlement as speedily as possible. I told the trade union leaders who attended the talks on Friday that almost no other British trade union has an offer available to it as generous as the offer available to the miners.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

Does the Secretary of State agree that the only people who will change the views of the leadership of the NUM are the members of the union and its executive? What plans does he have for discussions with the TUC and others, and what public action will he take to persuade those members of the union and of the executive to try to bring about that change?

Mr. Walker

I am sure that the 16,500 union members who have returned to work since 5 November are having an impact on thinking.

Mr. Knox

Apart from our foreign competitors, can my right hon. Friend think of anyone who has benefited from the strike?

Mr. Walker

No, Sir.

Mr. Douglas

Does the Secretary of State accept that, for the first time during the dispute, he has gone a little way towards meeting trade unionists, which in a sense is welcome? If we accept that his view concurs with that of the TUC—that the only people who can settle the strike are the NCB and the NUM — what deters him from using his good offices to bring together those two parties in the foreseeable future? It is a mad strike, which must be resolved by sitting round the table, not by attrition.

Mr. Walker

I repeat that on several occasions the two sides have met, and on one occasion, under the auspices not of a Tory politician but ACAS, a compromise plan put forward by ACAS was rejected by the leadership of the NUM. Likewise, the leadership of the NUM has always refused to put the terms on offer to the miners in a ballot. That is the manner in which it is operating.

Mr. Aitken

Will my right hon. Friend give special attention to the position in the Kent coalfield where, before the strike began, three pits were losing £25 million a year, which amounts to a subsidy of £10,000 a year from the taxpayer to each of the 2,500 miners? As the position has deteriorated still further, because of geological and other changes, and as every sensible person in the Kent community knows that we cannot go on for ever in the same lunatic uneconomic way as before, will my right hon. Friend give special priority to the idea of an imaginative scheme by NCB (Enterprise) Ltd. after this strike totters to its close?

Mr. Walker

I assure my hon. Friend that wherever there is a potential closure due to a pit becoming uneconomic and unable to contribute successfully to the future of the industry, the new enterprise company which has been created will deal with the problem. It will have the finance, the managerial advice and, frequently, accommodation and a whole range of services to enable fresh and new enterprises to come into such communities.

Mr. Benn

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that for over a year, since the overtime ban began, he has come to the House week after week and said that the strike is crumbling? Has that not been wholly false, and has not the information that he has given misled the House and the country and deceived himself? Is not his policy in a shambles, and is not the only conclusion that can be drawn from his refusal to encourage talks that he and the Cabinet wish the strike to continue, which is the conclusion that most miners have already drawn?

Mr. Walker

Fortunately, the conclusion that most miners have drawn about the right hon. Gentleman is that his rhetoric during the dispute is different from his record as Secretary of State.

Secondly, as to disputes crumbling—

Mr. Benn

Answer the question.

Mr. Walker

I shall.

As to disputes crumbling, I recall that the right hon. Gentleman told me that the movement of coal would stop in April, since when 25 million tonnes have been moved.

Mr. Rost

As the taxpayer has to pay the bills for this senseless strike, has he not the right to demand that the board should do what every other private and public enterprise would have had to do by now to contain its losses, which is to announce a deadline for a return to work, after which the generous guarantee of a job will no longer be valid? When will the board start to manage?

Mr. Walker

Coal is one of this country's most important resources. Coal has a good, sound and expanding future. I hope that the pressures of all those who are concerned with the future of the industry will ensure that we move back to the potentiality of high investment and good production. I should not want to do anything to damage that prospect.

Mr. Hardy

The Secretary of State mentioned my association, NACODS. Does he accept that the agreement appears to have considerable fragility about it as a result of actions by the NCB? Does he further accept that that suggests that the chairman of the NCB should no longer be allowed to occupy his office, not least because of the pessimistic statement that he made at the very time when the Secretary of State was meeting the trade unions last week? Is it not time for the right hon. Gentleman to take a further initiative to achieve a negotiated settlement, and should he not suggest to Mr. MacGregor that the time has come when there should be an end to the visits to Hobart house of furtive emissaries from the Conservative party?

Mr. Walker

The chairman of the NCB has been through seven rounds of negotiations. He has been to ACAS and accepted its compromise proposal, and he has negotiated with NACODS in great detail and reached a settlement. Therefore, nobody can accuse him of inflexibility. As to being pessimistic, on all seven occasions the chairman has been opposed by somebody whose one boast is that he has not moved since 6 March.

Mr. Gale

Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that the precondition to the negotiations having been laid down by the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, contrary to the impression that the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress sought to give on Radio 4 this morning, the union has not moved from the start of the strike from its entrenched position? Will my right hon. Friend undertake that there will be no further negotiations until and unless the NUM moves from that entrenched position?

Mr. Walker

The basic demand that every pit, no matter how uneconomic, must be kept going until all coal is exhausted unless there are safety or geological reasons for doing otherwise has never been made by any NUM leader in the past and, as far as I know, has never been made in any other coal industry. It is not just an absurd demand. It would do permanent damage to the coal industry if it were met.

Mr. Wallace

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's meeting with the TUC, but I wonder whether the background of the talks was helped by the Government taking £1 off supplementary benefit. Is it wise, for the atmosphere of future talks, for the Government to proceed with their announced intention to strip miners of housing benefit if they are paying rent?

Mr. Walker

Certain advice has been given in NUM magazines about how to obtain additional money from social security. If the hon. Gentleman is interested, he should study that advice. It was given positively on the basis not of what were basic needs but of how to organise these matters.

Mr. Orme

If the tone of the meeting with the TUC was as good as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, why did he not respond to the TUC? The congress put forward positive proposals. The right hon. Gentleman will know that, according to the accountancy report and that of the London Business School, the basis of uneconomic pits has been challenged. Therefore, there is a basis on which to resume talks. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not play a role in seeing that those talks are held, instead of waiting another three or four weeks before anything happens?

Mr. Walker

The right hon. Gentleman asks why I did not respond. The TUC did not come to the meeting on that basis. It started the talks, quite correctly, by saying that it was not in a position to negotiate. We exchanged views on its suggestions. The TUC's problem, as Mr. Willis said afterwards, was that it did not consider that anyone could back down before the negotiations and therefore that it was wrong to suggest that the NUM should move from its position before negotiations began. I had to point out to the TUC representatives that there had been seven rounds of negotiations and that Mr. Scargill had not backed down on any.

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