HC Deb 05 June 1984 vol 61 cc283-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Donald Thompson.]

12.33 am
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

We shall debate for half an hour this evening the strike of the National Union of Mineworkers—a strike that has been the inspiration to the whole of the labour movement not just in Britain but internationally. It has resulted in several thousands of pounds being collected by trades councils and trade unions in both the north and the south of Ireland and solidarity from workers' organisations in many European countries, and I have no doubt that it will provide inspiration in the next few days when the 70,000 members of the National Union of Mineworkers in South Africa begin their strike struggle for decent wages.

This is the longest, bitterest, most important strike to take place in this country for 58 years and its implications are far reaching. When victory comes in the next few weeks it will give heart to millions of working people by showing that the Government can be taken on and beaten. The Government have not been able to inflict a defeat. At first, the Prime Minister hoped that the dispute would be an industrial Falklands in which she could renovate her tattered image, demoralise the miners and other working people and their organisations and pave the way for futher attacks. That now will not happen.

On numerous occasions in the past 13 weeks the Government said that they were not involved and that they would not intervene. Except on one occasion, they have refused to justify in debate in the House their reasons for causing the strike. I use those words deliberately because the Government have prepared for precisely this strike for a long time. They have aided and given succour to those at the top of the police organisations—the Association of Chief Police Officers—who have been waiting 12 years for revenge for Saltley gates.

The 13th floor of New Scotland Yard has been taken over for the National Reporting Centre and the largest police operation this century has been mounted against the miners and their families. Tens of thousands of police have been travelling up and down the country using Boeing 737s and stopping workers and pickets in cars and buses at road blocks. For example, just a few days ago a miner from Warwickshire was stopped on the way home from Yorkshire. His tyres, and his insurance, tax and other documents were checked and he was given a slip to hand in at the police station to produce his other documents within the requisite five days. The top of the slip was marked "(CHECK) (MINER)". In my area and in others up and down the country the police have files and maps with pins to mark the homes of picket organisers. It has been the largest police operation this century and the largest operation against industrial action.

The number of arrests has been massive. Up to 31 May there were 2,764 arrests in England and Wales and 518 in Scotland—3,282 workers arrested for trying to defend their right to a job. That must be the largest number of arrests in an industrial dispute at least since the mid-1920s. Until yesterday the Government had refused to give details of the offences with which those people were being charged. When I finally received the parliamentary answer, the reason became clear because in my view 80 per cent. of them were for spurious reasons. The aim was simply to prevent the organisers of the picket action from effectively organising the strike. The 1,208 charges for breach of the peace, 806 for obstruction of a police constable and 348 for obstruction of the highway add up to more than 80 per cent. of the charges. The object was clearly to remove those people from active picket duty.

The bail conditions imposed then sought to prevent miners from attending marches, rallies, meetings or any picketing area other than their own place of work and in some cases even their own pit. Trial dates were set months ahead for July and August to stop those workers being active in the strike. It is reminiscent of the banning orders in South Africa — an attempt to place the picket organisers under effective house arrest. The massive police presence makes it clear that the Prime Minister used her recent meeting with Botha from South Africa to gain some tips to add to the banning orders and pass laws in British industrial legislation.

There are two kinds of law in British society. First, there are the largely self-imposed laws which we all uphold such as not running down a child on a zebra crossing or taking an axe to the next-door neighbour. Those are the kinds of laws that keep society in check and which every worker would obey. Then there are the class laws against working people which the Government sought to strengthen in 1980 and 1982 and which are sought to be administered by ex-Tory councillors now lords chief justices and enforced by a police force that has received a 119.6 per cent. pay rise in the past five years while young workers on youth training schemes have had a 50 per cent. cut in real take-home allowances in the same period.

The second area of the Government's preparation is to starve miners and their families back to work. They are experiencing real hardship and privation in my area and others because of the Government's activities. What a contrast it is when tonight, as on every night in this place, banquets are given downstairs for 50 or 60 people, while the families of striking miners have £15 a week taken from their strike pay and the food parcels given to them by sympathetic workers are deemed against their supplementary benefit. Their holiday pay has been removed from their pay this year. That will not work. The labour movement will make sure that miners' families are not forced to return to work because of the Government's policies of starvation.

The third area of preparation by the Government is in relation to coal stocks. Before the 1972 dispute, the then Tory Government doubled stocks at the pitheads and power stations. Between February 1981, when the south Wales miners in particular came out against closures and redundancies, and the present dispute the Government have carried out the same tactic. They have doubled the stocks at pitheads and power stations. Stocks rose to 58 million tonnes at the beginning of the overtime ban in November. Eight million tonnes were removed by the overtime ban and 24 million tonnes have been removed during the strike. There are only about 20 million tonnes of coal left.

The Government and the Prime Minister have attempted a cover up by refusing to answer questions about coal stocks. We have heard all of the statements about how many months the miners could stay on strike. They could stay out until Christmas if they wished, as it would not make an iota of difference. I remind the Minister who will be replying to the debate that his predecessors introduced a three-day working week in 1974, when coal stocks reached 14.7 million tonnes. Coal stocks will be at that level in only a few weeks. That is why the National Coal Board is backing off and why British Rail has been told to settle its dispute with ASLEF and the NUR. That is why the negotiations are taking place.

The Government have tried to use oil to replace coal for the coal-fired power stations. Oil-fired power stations usually produce 7 per cent. of this country's electricity. Now they are producing 34 per cent. We have bought oil on the spot market in Amsterdam that is worth £200 million or more. That is a criminal waste of money in trying to beat the strike. Oil-fired power stations are operating far in excess of their manufacturers' specification. The repair and maintenance schedules for this summer and later will be severely hampered by the actions of the CEGB and the Government. The Government have stored up real problems in electricity generation for the coming months.

The Government have deliberately prepared for and provoked this virtual lock-out of NUM members. The preparations for the strike are well known. Five years ago the present Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), wrote a pamphlet, commonly referred to as the report bearing his name, on how to deal with strikes and how to tackle the organised working class. The section dealing with the mine workers says: Build up coal stocks, particularly at power stations; make contingency plans for the import of coal; encourage hauliers to recruit non-union drivers; introduce dual coal oil firing in all power stations; cut off the money supply to strikers and make the union finance them; establish a large, mobile squad of police to deal with picketing. Each of those preparations has been undertaken by the Government. Let us not hear any rubbish about the Government not preparing to tackle a strike.

The Government transferred Mr. MacGregor from the steel industry to the coal board after he had cut 85,000 jobs. That was a preparation. His withdrawal from the negotiations is a sign that the dispute is being won. When hon. Members and workers outside call Mr. MacGregor a butcher and the angel of death—[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish".] It is not rubbish. I used to work for Leyland. He was on the board of directors and during his tenure of office 34,000 jobs went. When losses at British Steel are added to what he hopes to get away with at the NCB, his nine-year tenure in nationalised industries will have caused the loss of 200,000 jobs in Britain. He has received £250,000 in the past eight or nine years, and when he gets out of the industry he will pick up another £2.5 million in indirect fees. That is the preparation for the dispute.

I refer to the real costs inflicted on the country by the Government's actions. The Secretary of State for Energy said yesterday that £197 million had been added to the NCB's operating costs. That is rubbish. The true cost of the strike so far is £2,200 million. More has been spent in three months to break the NUM than the Government have spent in the past three years on investing in the industry. When one adds together the lost production, the cost of the police, the cost of oil and of stocks, and the interest charges on those stocks, it comes to over £2,000 million to be spent on breaking the union and trying to break the strike.

The strike is not just about 20 pits and 20,000 jobs. Reducing coal production to 97 million tonnes takes coal production in Britain back not five, 10 or 15 years, but to 1864. Some 120 years of the history of the coal industry will be sacrificed and a whole generation of miners will be wiped out by the Government's actions.

Last summer, Norman Siddall, the previous ruler of the NCB, admitted that the plan over the next couple of years was to sack 65,000 miners. When Arthur Scargill said that, he was called a liar. Since 1979, the Government have closed 46 pits and sacked 40,000 people from the industry. The real aim is to prepare the way for new technology, for the introduction of new seams in areas such as Selby, Warwickshire and Oxfordshire. There will be a reorganisation of the industry. The replacement of some 25 million tonnes with new capacity is mentioned in NCB documents. That means that 70 pits have to go and nearly 100,000 jobs are at risk. To do that, the NUM must be broken.

The Minister should add up the costs if one sacks 100,000 workers and another 85,000 jobs are lost in ancillary industries. How many hundreds or thousands of millions of pounds will it cost the country in redundancy pay, dole and supplementary benefit, lost tax and national insurance? The costs of the Government's action are horrendous.

The next layer of plans is the privatisation of pits such as the one where my brother-in-law works, at Selby. As with oil and gas, privatisation is the Government's real target. No pit is safe. I hope that that is one of the lessons that will be transmitted to the misguided few — the "minor irritants"— in Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire who continue to work while the vast majority are on strike. Their jobs and the jobs of their sons and daughters will be at risk if the NCB wins the dispute. It has admitted that in Nottinghamshire, by 1987, new technology will replace 44 per cent. of existing pit jobs. That means that more than 15,000 jobs are at risk.

The Government have tried yet another con. They told us that there will be no compulsory redundancies, but transfers. They are trying to create a generation of industrial gypsies, moving from pit to pit as the Government decide what pit is unprofitable and should be closed. What will the Minister tell the miners of Kent when the next redundancies hit that area? The nearest pits to Kent are in France. Will the Minister buy the boats for the miners' daily travel to France?

The Government are creating the grave diggers of their own system. They are politicising a new generation of young workers, particularly tens of thousands of young women who are fully behind the men in the mining industry. There were 58 million tonnes of coal at the pithead for power stations at the beginning of the dispute, in November last year. Those young workers can read in the papers of 50,000 pensioners dying of hypothermia during the winter, who had not enough food or fuel to keep up their body temperatures. They will realise what a crazy system capitalism is that builds up coal stocks and condemns pensioners to long and lingering deaths. That is poverty and desperation amid the production of plenty.

The miners are supposed to be unproductive, but they have increased productivity in recent years while the Tory Government killed off 20 per cent. of industry. That killing off of a fifth of industry has meant fewer factories, less steel, fewer cars and houses, and therefore less, in capitalist terms, need for coal. Capitalism means that workers produce too much for that system to distribute, while 5 million workers live on the dole and are denied decent living standards.

This strike will be won. The miners won in 1972, 1974 and in 1981, and they will win in 1984. But many workers in and outside the industry—especially miners—are beginning to ask whether they must return in another three or four years to take on another Government who decide to close pits and sacrifice jobs. The answer, under a capitalist system, is yes. The Government have already turned Britain from what used to be called the workshop of the world into the warehouse of the world. The boom that we are told is happening at present—it could be more accurately called a boomlet, because there are still 4.5 million people on the dole—is disappearing, and in the next few months we shall head into another recession when the Government and their system will destroy more industrial capacity and factories, and will therefore call for less coal, steel and other goods to be produced in Britain.

When that happens, the jobs of workers will again be under threat and they will have to struggle and fight to preserve those jobs. They will have to struggle while we have nationalised industries where workers have no say, and where instead of workers and their organisations being in the majority we have vicious capitalist bosses such as MacGregor and Edwardes running nationalised industries. Through this lock-out the Government have created a new generation of trade unionists and Socialists, who have taken this dispute from the defensive and who have begun to argue for a restructuring of the industry by shortening the working week to four days and 30 hours, by retiring miners at 55 or earlier and giving their jobs to school leavers, by public ownership of the suppliers such as Dowty, Babcock and the others, by the cancellation of the debt charges by which the Government are screwing £400 million out of the industry this year, by the public ownership of banks, and by real worker control over nationalised industries.

The miners will go back in a few weeks' time with their heads held high, and the ramifications of this strike will lead directly to the sacking of MacGregor and to the replacement of the Prime Minister as the leader of the Tory party. I look forward to a replacement of capitalism by Socialism — to a system based not on profit, but on need, and to a system that guarantees jobs, homes, and free health, education and transport—for a Tory system cannot guarantee those things. The struggle has been immensely strengthened by bringing into industrial and political activity an entire new generation of young workers. The grave diggers of the Minister's system have been created by the folly of his Government's actions.

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

The House, which is well filled with Members on both sides, and my hon. Friends are here in significant numbers, has just listened to an extraordinary oration by the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist). I cannot claim that he was consistent as to what he wished me to answer, but as usual he made several unwarranted assertions, hyperbolic statements and accusations against the Government, my hon. Friends, the chairman of the National Coal Board and against the general activities of the day.

It would be right to make one or two observations on some things that the hon. Gentleman has said recently. I observe that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), newly reappointed to the Front Bench to look after coal matters, and to whom I give an genuine welcome, is sitting in silence listening to the hon. Member, and well he might.

What the hon. Member has ignored is the essential part that the coal industry is to play in the economic development of the country. What the hon. Gentleman has seen fit to set at nought is the amount of investment and the amount of taxpayers' money that has been poured in by successive Administrations, including this one, in the support of that long eluded objective to see a profitable and effective coal industry developed in Britain.

May I remind the hon. Gentleman of what he has ignored? The investment in terms of per employee per year is £2,917 or, if he wishes, £71 per week for every man on colliery books. May I remind him of the fact, which he has ignored, that the total amount of grants that taxpayers are putting into the industry is £4,600 per employee per annum or, if he wishes, £112 per week for every man on colliery books? May I remind him of the fact, which he has ignored, that the deficit grant alone, which removes so much of the coal board's losses incurred on many of its activities, is £3,545 per employee per annum or, if he wishes, £86 per week per man on colliery books? The total, including the redundant mineworkers payments scheme, is currently per employee per annum £5,381 or, if he wishes, £131 per man per week on colliery books.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for this gross intervention in the industry to which he has been alluding. It is a gross intervention by the Government and by their predecessors in seeking to support the industry about which he has been talking in such an insidiously absurd way for the last 25 minutes.

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he must look rationally at the problem with which the industry is now grappling. He has ignored, for example, the fact that there are 50,000 persons or more working in the coal industry today. He has ignored the fact that the right to work is one of the most cherished rights that many persons supporting the party of which he is a member have sought to establish over the years, and the right to work has been established at significant costs in many areas of the coalfields, not just in Nottinghamshire, but in Derbyshire, in Staffordshire, in Lancashire and certainly in Warwickshire.

The hon. Gentleman must recognise that within the coal industry there is a major dispute, and a position in which the National Union of Mineworkers, for the first time in the memory, I suspect, of the hon. Member for Midlothian, has not conducted a ballot prior to engaging in strike action. The consequence of that is that there is a major division within the National Union of Mineworkers unknown in the history of recent industrial relations in the coal industry.

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, when all the problems have been resolved of this immediate difficulty, the coal industry will remain happily a rational industry, led by members in the National Coal Board who have the industry's future at heart. I am certain that the vast majority of those working in the coal industry will equally be fully rational about the crucial importance of the job that they do. They recognise, in area after area of the coal industry, that it is necessary to harness change if one wants progress. They also recognise how vitally important it is to look for future investment in pits from which there can be extracted coal at prices that the public and, indeed, the industrial consumer are willing to pay. They equally recognise that, on the average cost of industrial coal in Britain of £46 per tonne, and the world cost, which is substantially lower than that, there is a major gap to be closed. I am convinced that the vast majority of the

industry is happy to bend to the task of closing that gap to demonstrate that there is a long-term viable future for British mining and for British miners.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to One o'clock.