HC Deb 12 March 1984 vol 56 cc8-10
7. Mr. Dormand

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he next proposes to discuss investment with the chairman of the National Coal Board.

25. Mr. Patchett

asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he will discuss investment in the industry during his next meeting with the chairman of the National Coal Board.

Mr. Peter Walker

I meet the chairman regularly to discuss all aspects of the industry.

Mr. Dormand

Will the Secretary of State have an early meeting with the chairman of the board on the subject of my question? Is he aware that the level of investment is at the heart of the present difficulties of the coal industry? As we are constantly told that about £2 million a day is invested in the coal industry, may I ask the right hon. Gentlemen to comment on three aspects of the issue? First, does he agree that it is the lowest investment per tonne produced in the EEC; secondly, does he agree that it is about half the subsidy paid to British agriculture; and thirdly, does he accept that it does not even begin to meet the social consequences of pit closures in mining communities?

Mr. Walker

With respect, the hon. Gentleman has his figures wrong. He is mixing the totality of financing for the industry with the figure of £2 million a day, which is purely capital investment in the coal industry. In less than five years while this Government have been in office we have invested £3.5 billion in capital investment in the coal industry. Britain compares favourably with, for example, France, which has just announced that it will halve the size of its coal industry.

Mr. Patchett

Does the Secretary of State agree with Sir Norman Siddall's recent statement on the massive task of returning the industry to profitability within three years? Is it correct that the present management's attitude is hindering rather than helping the position?

Mr. Walker

The number of closures during the past year and the many difficulties that that has created is low compared with the average number of closures during the office of past Labour Governments. Closures in the coal mines have been a regular feature of the industry. During 11 years of Labour Government, more than 300 pit closures occurred. In nine years of Conservative Government, 92 pit closures occurred.

Mr. Skeet

Is the Secretary of State aware that in the past 10 years we have spent £7 billion on the mines, which is equivalent to receipts in taxation in one year from the North sea? Is there not a limit to the capital expenditure and other social benefits which may be granted?

Mr. Walker

It is vital for this country to have a strong and successful coal industry which continues well into the next century. That is why Mr. Ian MacGregor has been correct in continuing with a high level of capital investment and proceeding in a civilised way with the closure of uneconomic pits.

Mr. Neil Hamilton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Conservative Members are scandalised that this year the Coal Board will lose £1,114 million, to which is to be added another £700 million or £800 million in investment in the industry? We should accelerate the pit closure programme to take account of the appalling blood-letting and haemorrhaging on British industry?

Mr. Walker

It is important that we maintain a successful coal industry for the future. It is important also that we close uneconomic pits, but that that should be done in a civilised and generous way. Many of those pits involve whole communities, and there are considerable difficulties. When pits become uneconomic on that basis or scale, the House should show understanding of the problems. Mr. Ian MacGregor and the National Coal Board are doing just that.

Mr. Barron

In view of the Secretary of State's statements just now about investment, will he tell the House and the British public how many new pits have been given permission to be opened since May 1979?

Mr. Walker

No, Sir. I can give the details of very substantial investment in existing pits. I refer to the enormous development at Selby and the recent announcement of £400 million investment in one pit in Asfordby.

Mr. Eggar

Would we not have a much more efficient coal industry if the National Union of Mineworkers stuck by its part of "Plan for Coal", which envisaged closures at a speedier rate than has happened?

Mr. Walker

In three features of "Plan for Coal" the Government have more than exceeded the promises on investment. The two unsuccessful factors have been productivity, which was estimated to increase by 4 per cent. a year and in fact was 4.9 per cent. over 10 years, and the closure rate, which was to have been between 3 million tonnes and 4 million tonnes of uneconomic coal a year, but in fact has been at a rate of between only 1 million and 2 million tonnes a year.

Mr. Ryman

Does the Secretary of State recall recently writing to me and refusing to see me in connection with threatened pit closures and redundancies at Bates' pit in Northumberland? Is he trying to be obtuse, or can he not help that? Does he realise that the National Coal Board's ferocious policy of closing pits in north-east England is causing immense hardship to communities including coal miners and their families, and is occurring against the overwhelming body of evidence which shows high productivity, good quality coal and profitability?

Mr. Walker

There are procedures for pit closures. Details are provided to the unions and full discussion takes place. That would apply to any pit closure.

Mr. Farr

Before my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman, will he have a study made of the feasibility of giving uneconomic pits to the miners to operate as co-operatives?

Mr. Walker

We would certainly consider any approach by miners along those lines. I would not rule it out, but I have not seen any rush of miners to carry out that function.

Mr. Rowlands

The Secretary of State referred to people getting their figures right and wrong. Is it not a fact that the Select Committee—and Mr. MacGregor gave evidence to it—found that, taking into account all the so-called savings of the overtime ban, the net cost of the ban in this financial year is £135 million? When did the Secretary of State discover that figure?

Mr. Walker

The figure was given by the National Coal Board a week or so— I forget the exact date—before the Select Committee met. It was also given in my evidence to the Select Committee. We both gave that evidence. I repeat, the profit and loss on revenue account is different from the cash flow. The Select Committee was informed by Mr. MacGregor and myself that the overtime ban had resulted in an improvement in the National Coal Board's cash flow.