HC Deb 02 July 1984 vol 63 cc1-11
1. Mr. Douglas

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he plans to have an early meeting with the chairman of the National Coal Board to discuss the current situation in the mining industry.

2. Mr. Strang

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will now take steps to resolve the dispute in the mining industry.

5. Mr. Parry

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

6. Mr. Haynes

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he last spoke to the chairman of the National Coal Board; and what subjects were discussed.

9. Mr. Adley

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

10. Mr. Eadie

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

12. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he will make a statement about the effects of the miners' strike.

14. Mr. Dormand

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

17. Mr. Cohen

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of the National Coal Board; and what subjects were discussed.

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

More than 60,000 people are working in the coalfields, being approximately 30 per cent. of the total work force. The industrial action is obviously having an adverse effect upon the coal industry's substantial investment programme, and is placing expensive investment at risk. It is also having an adverse effect on market prospects for the industry. Substantial export orders are having to be met from continental producers.

In the past three months the campaign which the Government and the National Coal Board were waging so successfully to persuade industrialists to convert to coal has come to a standstill. In the same three months of last year we persuaded 169 firms to convert to coal. In the three months this year, more firms have cancelled their applications than have put an new ones.

Stocks of coal at power stations remain at a very high level, and have reduced in recent weeks by only approximately 1.5 per cent. per week.

To date, those Coal Board employees who have been on strike have lost a total of £350 million in wages.

In recent months, more than 20,000 miners have expressed an interest in the generous early retirement and voluntary redundancy schemes.

Concern must be expressed at the potential geological problems in those pits which have not been in operation.

The chairman of the NCB has expressed his willingness to continue talks with the National Union of Mineworkers, along the lines which took place at the meeting in Edinburgh of Friday 8 June. I hope that the NUM will speedily agree to continue talks with the NCB on that basis.

Mr. Douglas

Apart from the fact that that is not an answer to the question on the Order Paper, will the Minister cease his puerile pusillanimous posturing about the dispute and recognise that both his actions and those of the chairman of the Coal Board, particularly over the weekend, are counter-productive? I speak only for the miners in my area in Fife. The effect is to deepen the miners' resolve to stay out at all costs. They will not be starved into submission. Will the Secretary of State recognise that his role is not to seek political advantage but to call the parties together to see how, in the national interest, this damaging dispute can be resolved?

Mr. Walker

If, instead of posturing, the hon. Gentleman supported the idea that the NUM should quickly take advantage of continuing in a constructive way the talks which were started in Edinburgh and which the NCB is willing to pursue immediately, that might bring an end to this particular problem.

Mr. Skeet

It is encouraging to see more people returning to work at Bilston Glen in Scotland, but will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility of a loyalty bonus for people who are at work and who are prepared to defy the pickets? Will he also use the secondary picketing machinery under the 1980 and 1982 Acts where suitable?

Mr. Walker

Bonuses and the use of any civil injunctions are a matter for the management of the NCB.

Mr. Strang

When will the Government recognise that the strike can be brought to an end only by a negotiated settlement between the NUM and the NCB? Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that his speech and, in particular, that of his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary at the weekend, can serve only to hinder that process? If he has not already done so, will he make it clear to the Prime Minister that there is no way that the miners will be starved back to work?

Mr. Walker

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's statement that the dispute will be brought to an end only by a negotiated settlement involving both sides. At present, one side is willing to continue the negotiations which were constructively started in Edinburgh. I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports that. As for the statement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary at the weekend, I hope that all hon. Members will deplore the criminal activities and violence that we have seen in recent weeks.

Mr. Skinner

The right hon. Gentleman knows all about that——

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson

Since — [Interruption.] — there is now clearly very little trust between the chairman of the NCB and the president of the NUM—[Interruption.]—and since, sadly——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has not yet been called to ask a question, and if he goes on like that he will not be.

Mr. Skinner

The Secretary of State knows all about crime—Slater Walker crime.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I realise the importance of this question, but I must ask hon. Members to treat it with a degree of calmness.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

Since there is clearly very little trust between the chairman of the NCB and the president of the NUM, and since, sadly, the NCB has totally failed to get across to the miners its offer of secure jobs for those who want them, does my right hon. Friend think that there is any possibility of the chairman and the president coming to an agreement? Has he given any thought to a third party possibly helping by getting negotiations going?

Mr. Walker

No. The terms and details of the negotiations are available. A successful conclusion to the dispute would be in the interests of both the miners and the future of the industry.

Mr. Parry

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that when, in his reply to me of 11 June, he said that it was nonsense to suggest that troops were involved in the dispute, he was telling lies to the House, as these photographs show? Will not he now make a statemen——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not say that the Secretary of State was telling the House lies.

Mr. Parry

I said that only because I have photographs with me which show conclusively that the troops assisted the police. Will the Secretary of State now come clean?

Mr. Walker

I know of no involvement of troops in the dispute.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents who are in energy-intensive industries, such as the paper industry, depend for the existence of their jobs on the NCB's' programme of investing in new, low-cost sources of fuel and on the phasing out of high-cost sources of fuel? Will my right hon. Friend not lose sight of that in any negotiations? Indeed, will he emphasise that point in any publicity either in the House or outside about the issues at stake?

Mr. Walker

Yes. The main issue at stake is that of securing a good future for the industry, and that can be achieved only if we obtain the benefits of the enormous investment programme which this Government have sanctioned and if we gain new markets by producing coal efficiently and at low cost.

Mr. Haynes

When the Secretary of State last met the chairman of the NCB, did he encourage Mr. MacGregor to join him and his Cabinet colleagues on a course of character assassination in respect of the president of the NUM? If the right hon. Gentleman and his Cabinet colleagues believe in democracy, they must accept that the policy pursued by the NUM was carried at the annual conference by the NUM's membership.

Mr. Walker

I am aware that most of the coalfields that had a ballot are working and that most of those that did not have a ballot are not.

Mr. Adley

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that all the 60,000 miners who are working took part in a ballot and that miners who are not working were not balloted? Since my right hon. Friend says that Mr. MacGregor is willing to continue the Edinburgh talks, is it not clear that Mr. Scargill and his private army prefer fighting to talking?

Mr. Walker

I hope that they will talk. The Opposition leadership has urged that such talks should take place and I hope that they will take place soon.

Mr. Eadie

Did not the Secretary of State say at the weekend that the miners' dispute was the fault of the NUM president? Is he aware that that is absurd, as is his earlier statement that the strike would have no economic consequences for the nation? Did Cortonwood or Polmaise really happen? Has the right hon. Gentleman forgotten that the chairman of the National Coal Board said that the last talks were suspended sine die? Will the Secretary of State now use his office, put action where his mouth was at the weekend and today announce that he will call both parties together and preside over the first meeting?

Mr. Walker

As the hon. Gentleman knows well, all miners at Cortonwood received a letter from the National Coal Board explaining that normal processes were available to them. The NUM has not taken up that offer.

The chairman of the NCB has said that he is willing to continue the Edinburgh talks. The NUM must decide whether it is willing to have such talks. I have announced in the House the fact that the talks are available. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use his considerable influence to persuade the NUM to attend the talks.

Mr. Aitken

In my right hon. Friend's search for peace in the dispute, does he see some glimmer of hope in the apparent differences of approach that emerged over the weekend between the hard line of Mr. Scargill and the more constructive line of the NUM's general secretary, Mr. Heathfield? In particular, did my right hon. Friend notice that, whereas Mr. Scargill has always refused to discuss pit closures on any ground other than exhaustion, Mr. Heathfield suggested at the weekend that he was willing to discuss which pits are economic and which are not? Is there not some chance there?

Mr. Walker

Certainly there is a report of an interview in which Mr. Heathfield is said to have made that clear. He said that he was willing to look at the difference between economic and uneconomic pits. It would be remarkable if any responsible trade union leader were unwilling to consider that.

Mr. Canavan

Did the Secretary of State and his cronies, the Home Secretary and Mr. MacGregor, collaborate at the weekend in an attempt to conduct a smear campaign against Arthur Scargill and the rest of the NUM leadership? Is it not time that the Secretary of State listened to wiser counsels, such as that offered at the weekend by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, who called on the Government to use every means at their disposal to achieve reconciliation? When will the Government accept their responsibilities for the dispute, instead of sitting back and doing nothing?

Mr. Walker

The Government accepted their responsibility when they created the conditions for a record investment programme, a good wage offer and no compulsory redundancies.

Mr. Hickmet

Does my right hon. Friend not find it astounding that no criticism should come from the Opposition Benches of the NUM's policy to put at risk the future of many thousands of steelworkers? In the light of the steel union decision today, may we have an assurance that all possible steps will be taken to ensure that adequate supplies of coal, ore and coke are moved into the major steelworks at Llanwern, Ravenscraig and Scunthorpe?

Mr. Walker

Yes. It is clear from the TUC steel committee decision and from the attitudes of those employed at the major steelworks that they consider it totally unreasonable and disastrous that steel industry prospects and jobs should be destroyed when the miners have a good pay offer, record investment and no compulsory redundancies.

Mr. Dormand

Given that neither the NCB nor the NUM wish to move from their present positions—the Secretary of State must surely agree with that—what role should the Government now play?

Mr. Walker

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis. At Edinburgh, both sides were willing to talk and to examine objectively the long-term problems of the industry and "Plan for Coal". I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use his powers of persuasion to ensure that the NUM agrees to talk.

Mr. Rost

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that not one Opposition Member has condemned the intimidation and bullying of the increasing number of miners in Derbyshire and elsewhere who are having to fight their way into the collieries for the right to work? Will he give an assurance that he and the NCB will do everything possible to ensure that there is no victimisation of those who have held a ballot, have shown that they want to work, and are attempting to do so?

Mr. Walker

The NCB has given that very firm assurance.

Mr. Cohen

Will the Secretary of State categorically deny the suggestion that troops or military facilities have been used against the miners during the dispute? Has he considered using troops, or asked for them?

Mr. Walker

I am not considering asking for the use of troops, and I know of no troops that have been involved in the dispute.

Mr. Michael Morris

As my right hon. Friend has provided the financial conditions of a good wage settlement with no compulsory redundancies, is it not right that only the NUM and the NCB should settle what is or is not an exhausted pit?

Mr. Walker

Yes. Of course, uneconomic pits have been closed under all Governments during post-war history, including under the last Labour Government. It has always been a matter for sensible and rational decision.

Mr. Mason

With an estimated cost of £1,000 million to the NCB and the Government, with a forecast of a balance of trade deficit of £1.5 billion if the strike continues, with many pits falling into disrepair, with millions of pounds of coal face machinery being jeopardised and with police costs having risen to £50 million, will the right hon. Gentleman, who is responsible for the industry, now take a new version of "Plan for Coal" to the chairman of the NCB, designed to bring together both sides of the industry, and ask him to get on with it before it is too late?

Mr. Walker

Of course I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about costs, but costs such as those for the police would have been very different had it not been decided to use the method of the mob for picketing rather than peaceful picketing. "Plan for Coal" is a sensible plan, which I agree is the basis for the solution of the dispute. The NCB is willing and eager to discuss that with the NUM.

Mr. Ashby

In view of reports of students and professional agitators as well as miners being paid by the NUM to mass picket at various sites, will my right hon. Friend ask our right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to investigate the finances of the NUM?

Mr. Walker

The manner in which the NUM spends its money is a matter for that union.

Mr. Wallace

The Secretary of State has refused on a number of occasions today to take the initiative and chair a meeting between the NCB and the unions. Bearing in mind that "Plan for Coal" was a tripartite agreement between the union, the NCB and the Government, will the right hon. Gentleman explain his extraordinary abdication of responsibility?

Mr. Walker

I thought I had always stated that, after the two parties had met and decided on the points in "Plan for Coal" which they wished to put me, I would be prepared to preside over a meeting of all three parties. That has always been my position, and it has been made clear to both sides.

Mr. Renton

Does my right hon. Friend think that when, yesterday, the leader of the Labour party gave his wholehearted support in public to the miners' strike without any condemnation of the illegality, violence or brutal picketing, he was helping to resolve the dispute or acting in a manner unworthy of the leader of the official Labour Opposition?

Mr. Walker

I hope that the leader of the Labour party will use his influence and connection with the NUM to endeavour to persuade it to continue the useful talks that were taking place in Edinburgh. I realise that the leader of the Labour party has from time to time condemned violence and some of the intimidation that has taken place. I am only sorry that that condemnation has not had any results.

Mr. Benn

Has the Minister taken account of the fact that no pits are working normally because there is a national overtime ban in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere; that Mr. MacGregor's letter to 180,000 people produced a few hundred responses; that his attacks on the NUM are consolidating opinion; that the Prime Minister admits in a letter to me that the use of troops has taken place in a supporting role; and that attempts to starve the miners by DHSS pressures have all failed? What contingency plans does the right hon. Gentleman have for after the miners succeed in defending their interests?

Mr. Walker

All I can say is that they are defending an interest which is very different from the inferior pay and bad redundancy terms that were offered by the right hon. Gentleman, who was responsible for two drops in their pay in real terms and for 17,000 voluntary redundancies on rather bad terms.

Mr. Hayward

In this distressing dispute, is my right hon. Friend aware of the even more depressing aspect of the picketing that is going on at Selby coalfield today, which is trying to spoil the long-term future of coal miners by stopping contract workers going in to develop that coalfield?

Mr. Walker

I find it surprising that there should have been a number of instances where the capital investment programme for the future of the industry has been stopped by this sort of picketing.

Mr. Lofthouse

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that while he and his colleagues are stomping about the country trying to bring discredit on the NUM and its president, personal tragedies are taking place? For example, is he aware that in my constituency a youth and a friend, were attempting to get his grandmother small morsels of coal with which to light the fire, when they saw a police van in the distance, panicked, dived in the river in an attempt to get away and that one of those unfortunate young men drowned? When the right hon. Gentleman next meets Mr. MacGregor, will he draw to his attention the fact that his statement that he would like the strike to continue could result in further tragedies? Will the right hon. Gentleman inform Mr. MacGregor that if he continues to send out stupid letters in an attempt to get the miners to be disloyal to their union, he will be wasting his time? Will he also tell him that it might be advisable for him to keep his silly mouth shut?

Mr. Walker

I agree that a great deal of human tragedy is taking place in this dispute. If the hon. Gentleman could persuade the NUM to go over to the system of picketing advocated by the TUC, much of this human suffering would stop.

Mr. Eggar

Further to the supplementary question asked by the right hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason), will my right hon. Friend confirm that only two things are wrong with the 1974 "Plan for Coal": first, the NUM has signally failed to deliver on its productivity agreements; and, secondly, it has failed to reach the number of closures which it agreed under that plan?

Mr. Walker

Of the three major ingredients of "Plan for Coal", the one that has been more than fulfilled during the lifetime of the Conservative Administration has been the capital investment programme. The productivity figures and estimated closures of uneconomic pits have not been reached.

Mr. Ray Powell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a civil war is going on in parts of Britain? Is he further aware that when the Queen asked for a settlement, Queen Thatcher's response was to send the right hon. Gentleman and other Ministers cavorting around the country to discredit the miners' leaders?

Mr. Walker

If we want to achieve a settlement, the hon. Gentleman should persuade the leaders of the NUM quickly to enter the talks that are now on offer.

Mr. Soames

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the lessons of the dispute so far is that no legislation, not even democracy itself, can survive without a basic respect for the rule of law? What message will he give the House and the brave men who are still at work who are terrified of what may happen to their wives and children?

Mr. Walker

A great deal of courage has been shown by many of the 60,000 who are at work. I have no doubt that if we returned to normal peaceful picketing, tens of thousands of miners would be returning to work in the next few days.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the overwhelming majority of people want to see the two sides together discussing the issues in the dispute and trying to reach a settlement? Will it not be most regrettable if the chink of light that we saw in the pronouncement of the chairman of the National Coal Board and Mr. Peter Heathfield this weekend come to naught? Will he use his good offices with the chairman of the Coal Board to ensure that the offer of talks is still on the table? Will he press Labour Members, who probably, through their party resources, have contributed about £2 million to the National Union of Mineworkers during the dispute, to put similar pressure on Mr. Peter Heathfield and his colleagues?

Mr. Walker

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I thought that the Opposition were endeavouring to get the two sides to speak to each other again. I hope that they will succeed in achieving that task. I have made it clear today that the Government favour that approach, and Mr. MacGregor has made it clear that he favours it. I hope that the NUM will accept the challenge.

Mr. Hardy

The Secretary of State was probably right to refer to the talks at Edinburgh as offering some hope, but does he agree that the other talks since then have been more disappointing and that the talks at which Mr. MacGregor is present seem to be abortive? Is he aware that this has led the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers—it has nothing to do with the NUM—unanimously to call on him to withdraw Mr. MacGregor's appointment? The association recognised the danger to peace and stability in the coalfield, which has been badly threatened by the incompetence and negligence of the Home Secretary, who has yet to reply to letters written to him in March and April.

Mr. Walker

The progress made at the Edinburgh talks was encouraging, and those talks were conducted by Mr. MacGregor. I hope very much that the constructive discussions that took place at those talks will quickly continue.

Mr. Yeo

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proper refusal of the steelworkers to agree to Arthur Scargill's outrageous request that they should co-operate to destroy the steel industry shows a complete lack of union support for Scargill, and that those who are on strike as a consequence of the dispute are those who are intimidated by Arthur Scargill's personal storm-troopers?

Mr. Walker

Throughout the dispute much coal has been produced and moved and not one power station or steelworks has been closed. That remained the position even with the mass picketing at a small part of Orgreave, alas with the need for the protection of the police.

Mr. Patchett

Does the right hon. Gentleman still deny that the dispute was created by the Government's policy of union bashing? Will he now declare where he stands on the issue, bearing in mind that the only contribution that he has made to a settlement is to attack the NUM president? As the dispute started with the appointment of Mr. MacGregor, who is renowned for union bashing, can the right hon. Gentleman still deny that it is all the Government's fault and that the dispute is about union bashing rather than the coal industry?

Mr. Walker

If the provision of record investments, a decent pay offer and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies is bashing a union, I should think that many other unions would like to be bashed.

Mr. Ryman

Will the right hon. Gentleman deal with two aspects of the dispute that have not been referred to this afternoon? First, while he continues to shirk his responsibilities, will he enlighten the House by explaining why the National Coal Board has not sought to enforce the injunctions that it obtained a few weeks ago? Secondly, is he aware that a haemoglobin examination of many miners' families has revealed serious cases of anaemia as a result of malnutrition among striking miners' wives, who are unable to buy basic foodstuffs?

Mr. Walker

The second part of the hon. Gentleman's question expresses the need to discontinue this unnecessary industrial dispute. The enforcement of injunctions in the civil courts is a matter for the nationalised industries and for the individual employer.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

Did my right hon. Friend read the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, in which it was reported that the NCB had said that up to 40 mines would be closed permanently by December? Does he agree that it is the National Union of Mineworkers, and no one else, that is destroying jobs and trying to cripple the industry?

Mr. Walker

There is a question later on the Order Paper on this point. There is anxiety, plainly, about the geological condition of the pits and the condition of the machinery in them. There is also considerable anxiety about the loss of markets that is occurring.

Mr. Skinner

Did the Secretary of State also see in the Sunday Telegraph an article that referred to the number of firms that are losing money during the dispute? Does he know, for instance, that Kennings has stated that its profits have fallen from £4.8 million to £1.8 million as a direct result of the miners' strike?

On the subject of intimidation, despite what he. the Home Secretary and others have said, why does he: not investigate the case of the cripple, Mrs. Mavis Seales, who went out collecting money for striking miners, returned home and found her front door knocked in? Why does he not investigate the case of Malcolm Crane of Hillstown, who reached home on Sunday morning and found that his car had been vandalised? He is on strike. Why does he not investigate the case of the two police officers who went into the soup kitchen at Creswell and were stealing miners' food while masquerading as pickets? Why does he not investigate all those cases? Are they just a smear by MI5?

Mr. Walker

I assure the hon. Gentleman that all the cases he has mentioned will be correctly investigated by the police. I hope that at last he might join in deploring the thuggery that is taking place in many villages and on picket lines throughout the country.

Mr. Orme

After several months of inactivity, why did the Secretary of State make a personal attack upon the president of the NUM? Is that the Secretary of State's contribution to resolving the dispute? Why, after 17 weeks, has he not met the NUM? I know that he has met Mr. MacGregor. Why has he not called them together? The Secretary of State referred to the Edinburgh talks that failed. Will he tell us what happened at Rotherham, and who was responsible for the failure of the talks there? When will he take some action that will help to bring the two sides together and result in a negotiated settlement that is acceptable to the miners and the National Coal Board?

Mr. Walker

The right hon. Gentleman has endeavoured to see that talks have taken place. He is aware that throughout the dispute the chairman of the NCB has always been willing to have discussions on the basis of the Edinburgh talks.

Mr. Orme

The NUM is willing to go to talks.

Mr. Walker

In which case, they can get together quickly. If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that the NCB and the NUM are willing to have discussions on the basis of the Edinburgh talks, the NCB will turn up. Perhaps he will ensure that the NUM does.

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