HC Deb 12 March 1984 vol 56 cc3-5
3. Mr. Allen McKay

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

Mr. Peter Walker

I meet the chairman of the National Coal Board regularly to discuss all aspects of the coal industry.

Mr. McKay

Has the Secretary of State discussed with the chairman of the NCB the statement by the previous chairman, Sir Norman Siddall, concerning the softly, softly approach towards colliery closures and the coal industry in general? Does the right hon. Gentleman not now realise that on the appointment of Ian Macgregor Labour Members were correct to say that there were far better potential chairmen within the NCB's management?

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman is talking about a chairman of the NCB who has kept up a massive investment in the coal industry, who has recently persuaded the Government to put £400 million into the development of Asfordby, and who has seen to it that at pits that have been closed all the miners had the option of either alternative jobs or early retirement, which many have taken.

Sir John Osborn

Did not the chairman of the NCB have a similar experience in the steel industry to that which he is now facing? Will my right hon. Friend urge him to give Mr. Arthur Scargill the same advice as he gave to the leaders of the steel workers union—to go slowly or put many coal miners out of work, with uncompetitive pits?

Mr. Walker

Mr. Macgregor has endeavoured to improve Britain's potential in other markets. I am glad to say that, whereas when the Government took office in 1979 we were a net importer of coal, we are now a net exporter. The one Socialist Government in Europe — France— having promised the miners that they would substantially increase coal production, have now decided to get rid of half the miners in France.

Mr. Lofthouse

Did my right hon. Friend discuss with the chairman the fact that by the turn of the century the BGC expects to be needing about 90 million tonnes of coal? Did he discuss his plans for investment to provide that coal?

Mr. Walker

I have heard no suggestion from the BGC that it will need 90 million tonnes of coal at that time. That is not in any projection that I have received from the BGC.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time that the chairman of the NCB came off what, bluntly, has become an almost softly, softly approach? We cannot go on putting £800 million a year into new investments if it is to be swallowed up in continually loss-making mines which, in the end, will ruin the industry and the taxpayer.

Mr. Walker

The important point is that we have made the massive investment necessary to have good, economic pits. That is happening under this Government to a greater degree than it did under the previous Government. We must go about the closure of uneconomic pits in a sensible and civilised way, which is just what we are doing.

Mr. Skinner

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that if he can say that it is right and proper to give tax relief to uneconomical marginal oilfields, and if it is right and proper to give additional subsidies to hill farms—marginal agriculture—in order to maximise their efficiency, it must surely be right to ensure that marginal uneconomic pits get the same sort of aid in order to make sure that we have energy when oil has run out?

Mr. Walker

Not at all. The big difference between the tax position of the oil companies and the NCB is that the NCB is not taxed, because it makes only losses. Taxes on the oil industry are running at more than 80 per cent. Obviously, I should be delighted if the coal industry made profits that we could tax at 80 per cent. The hon. Gentleman must face the reality that the Government are investing much more in the coal industry's future than did the previous Labour Government.

Mr. Burt

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the division and disunity in the coalfields today, when more than half the mines are working, is a sure sign that the miners have grasped the message of the Government's commitment to and investment in the coal industry and recognise that the real mischief in this situation lies not with the Government, but with the present miners leaders who seek to threaten the industry's future?

Mr. Walker

There is no doubt that many miners are well aware of the massive capital investment that the Government are putting into the mining industry. They are also well aware of the very generous terms that we have offered to those miners now over the age of 50 who have been affected by potential closures. They are aware of both those facts. I think that the events today certainly show that the miners would like the opportunity of a secret ballot to express their view.

Mr. Orme

Because of the present serious situation in the coalfields, has the Secretary of State been in touch with both sides of industry over the weekend? Does he not think that he ought now to intervene and bring both sides together? Does he not think that the MacGregor plan should be put on one side while meaningful discussions take place, and that it is his responsibility to bring the two sides together as soon as possible?

Mr. Walker

No, Sir. Last week both sides of the industry met. They decided that they would prepare a number of suggestions so that they could collectively come to me and express those views. As always, if both sides of the industry wish to come to me with certain aspects of their policy, I shall be only to pleased to see them and to discuss the matter with them. Certainly I shall not intervene in what is basically the clear-cut management position of a management that wishes to invest more in economic mines, cut out the burden of the uneconomic mines, and do it in a civilised and generous way.

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