HC Deb 09 May 1984 vol 59 cc1058-64

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

4.55 am
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

The coal mining dispute is of great national importance. At the root of the problem in the coalfield is the fact that the Government and the National Coal Board have reneged on the "Plan for Coal" which was drawn up in the mid-1970s by the Labour Government and the trade unions.

On 22 November 1983, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy made a statement on the Government's objectives for the coal mining industry. The hon. Gentleman read out to the Standing Committee on the Coal Industry Bill an objective, which I believe is one of the main factors behind the coal dispute. He said: the National Coal Board should aim to maximise its long-term profitability by securing those sales which are profitable on a continuing basis, its competition with other fuels. It should plan its marketing, production and capital investment accordingly and bring productive capacity into line with its continuing share of the market." — [Official Report, Standing Committee H, 22 November 1983; c. 38.] That objective seriously undermines the "Plan for Coal" which was agreed by all involved in the industry. For the first time, the coal industry felt it could achieve certain targets in the 1980s and beyond which it had not reached under private enterprise before 1947 or in the nationalised framework since 1947. The industry were given a guarantee for the future.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House might say, "That is fine. We can find the markets for the coal." I am not convinced that the industry needs to suffer the 4 million tonne loss anticipated by the NCB. It is remarkable to note, on listening to debates on the common agricultural policy or other European matters, that we cannot find a market for those 4 million tonnes in the EEC, which imports more than 25 per cent. of the coal it uses. I am sure that there are parts of this country where 4 million tonnes of coal could be used.

In 1980, when the present Chancellor of the Exchequer was in charge, the Department of Energy asked Coopers and Lybrand to study the electricity supply industry and how it should be operated. It produced a report which has only recently been brought to the attention of a Select Committee that was studying proposed increases in gas and electricity prices. Those increases have been imposed on consumers. It was recommended that the electricity supply industry should reduce the price of electricity, I shall not go into the details of the percentage that was discussed. If Coopers and Lybrand's recommended electricity price reductions had been accepted by the Government, we might have been able to use the 4 million tonnes of coal that appears to be behind the present dispute, and people might have been warmer during the winter.

The ripping up of the "Plan for Coal" by the Government in the past 12 months has had a great effect. There is no doubt that the appointment of Ian MacGregor last autumn was a deft ploy by the Government designed to run down the coal industry faster than it had been run down in the previous three years. If one heeded the comments in the media, one would not believe that in the past three financial years we had lost 42,000 jobs in coal mining. That is a remarkable figure. If one listened to the commentators, one would think that not one job had been lost recently. The Government's ploy to run down coal mining faster than ever, and the inroduction of Mr. MacGregor to carry that out, has not been mentioned by commentators.

I draw the attention of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the debate on the Supplementary Estimates that we had on 8 March 1984 when I commented on the position in the coal industry and what other people had said, and said that Mr. MacGregor, the chairman of the National Coal Board, is often called the mad axeman of coal mining. In view of the loss of 42,000 jobs, that comment is not far wrong.

The Government were warned last August by the then chairman of the NCB, Sir Norman Siddall, that the introduction of Mr. MacGregor and the speeding up of mine closures would lead to the present dispute. It is reported in Hansard that I told the House that Sir Norman Siddall had said that it would be foolish for the Government and Mr. MacGregor to treat the coal industry as they had treated the British Steel Corporation. He said that they were two different industries. That has happened in the past six months in the coal industry and has been the major factor which has led to the present dispute.

The dispute has meant that the vast majority of coal miners have been on strike for over two months. That is something that the House does not seem to have fully recognised. This is of national importance, and I look forward to a full day's debate in the House on the dispute, which is of great importance, given the great majority of miners who are on strike.

What is unique about this dispute is that nobody has said how greedy the miners are in terms of wages, incentives, bonus payments and so on, as has been said many times before about the miners when they have taken industrial action. It is important that I stress that the vast majority of the miners who have been on strike for over two months have not been on strike because of any political bias or because they have anything to gain as individuals, certainly in the immediate future. They are on strike because they fear for the future of the mining industry, themselves and the mining communities.

I ask the Minister to take this to heart. The miners do not want something only for themselves. We recognise that pits must close at some stage, such as when seams are exhausted. The dispute started because the National Coal Board announced the closure of Cortonwood colliery, which is not far from my constituency. The miners there were told by the NCB that the jobs would not go and there were jobs for the 850 men in other south Yorkshire coalfields. The premature closure of the colliery takes away job opportunities for many of my constituents and of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett), who is in the Chamber. It is nonsense for the NCB or the Government to claim that there will not be job losses because of this closure, because every closure goes further than the immediate jobs in the pit. It will take away job opportunities for hundreds of people in the area.

I am an ex-coal miner, and I was a craftsman. In four years, one can learn a trade in the industry. If the colliery did not close until it was exhausted, as was promised only last year, young people in our area, which has massive youth unemployment, could be sent to the colliery, work there for four years and learn a trade and would have some opportunity of a job in another place. The high unemployment levels near the coalfield reflect what has happened there recently. It is of great importance that such issues should be discussed in the House.

The future of whole communities is to be decided by the book-keeping methods of the NCB, and that is what the dispute is about We are talking about book-keeping rather than looking after mining communities. The Government know that the cost to the taxpayers of keeping the collieries open is less than the cost of closing the collieries.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy replied to my question on 1 December 1983, in the Standing Committee considering the Coal Industry Bill, by saying that 40,000 jobs was about the number that would be lost from the British coal mining industry and that the 70,000 to 100,000 jobs talked of by the NUM in terms of the costs to coal, were rather high.

The NUM was talking of 70,000 to 100,000 job losses in 1980-81, figures given at that time by the National Coal Board and based on closures of what it then called uneconomic pits. Forty-two thousand jobs have been lost in the past three financial years in the British coal mining industry, and there is nothing schizophrenic about talk of the loss of 70,000 or 100,000 jobs in a 10-year programme, on which the NUM's figures for pit closures were based. We know that the 42,000 job losses, plus the 20,000 proposed this financial year in the British coal mining industry have already grown to more than 60,000 losses. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman remembers saying in committee that 40,000 job losses would be the order of the day.

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the NUM has not been far wrong in terms of the planned reduction in manpower in the coal industry and that the NUM is not wrong about the cost to public funds. It will be more expensive to carry on the reduction in manpower than to stop it now.

Many of my hon. and right hon. Friends have asked the Government to intervene in the dispute. I do not wish to do so, as I believe that the Government are already intervening, and have been doing so for a long time. If I asked the Government to do anything, I would ask them to intervene in a positive manner, and not in the very negative and nasty way that they have done for the past two months. I believe that the Government will go to any lengths in the dispute, no matter what the cost to public funds in any area, to try to defeat the NUM.

I am convinced that that has been the case in the past two months. I do not know whether the Government will force the CEGB, which is a public company over which the hon. Gentleman had much control, as I know from the Committee, to use all of its five major oil-fired power stations to generate electricity, which it is in a position to do, at great cost to the British public. I have no doubt that electricity prices will increase at some stage as a result. It costs about 50 per cent. more to generate electricity using oil than coke.

I also believe that the use of police in the dispute on an unprecedented scale in the Midlands coal field to stop what I regard as the traditional right of trade unionists to picket peacefully and to get the support of other members has had a tremendous effect on the country. The Government or the police authorities have been obliged to spend millions of pounds in this connection. Conservative Members say that that is to uphold the right of people to go to work. However, 3.1 million people are officially unemployed, and it is incredible — insulting in many ways — to consider how little is spent in attempting to give them the right to go to work. We listen to the Government's words when so many millions of pounds have been spent by the police authorities in an attempt to stop the traditional right of mineworkers to picket lawfully.

The treatment of miners' families over the payment of supplementary benefit is also incredible. There is an immediate right to take away £15 which has not necessarily been paid to miners by the trade union. The same is true in other areas such as heating allowance. The families of miners are being treated worse than if they were criminals, held in prison for any crime. That is utterly disgraceful. The dispute has gone on in Britain for over two months now and that is another issue that ought to be debated. Yesterday my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) requested a debate under Standing Order No. 10. Now that the dispute has continued for so long it ought to be debated in the House.

Miners' families are being discriminated against. Why? Because miners are trade unionists and are prepared to stand up and fight for their jobs and for the jobs of their sons and daughters in the future. That is an important fact when one considers that all but one coalfield have unemployment far greater than the national average.

It is important that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy should attempt to answer some of the points that I have put to him. I feel terribly aggrieved that the Government can say that they will not get involved when obviously they are. They say that they will keep their head in the sand, but they do not. The Government are prepared to use public money. How much does not matter as long as it can be seen to feed the lust of the Prime Minister's political ego. The matter has come down to that. That is what it is about.

I am convinced that in the end justice will prevail in Britain and that the miners will win the fight to keep jobs in the British coal mining industry, no matter what is said by the Government. That is most important of all. The Minister should answer the central point, that the Government have recently ripped up "Plan for Coal" and have provoked this dispute when it should have been unnecessary. I shall give the Minister a few minutes to do that. The dispute has been caused by the Government. Ian MacGregor was set on to carry on the work that he did in British Steel. As a consequence, the problems of Britain as a result of the present mining dispute can be laid directly at the Government's doorstep. That is something that the Government must answer for at some time.

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

It is traditional to congratulate an hon. Member on raising a subject on the Adjournment of the House. The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), with his long experience of the coal industry, has been able to deploy his considerable skills in relation to the present dispute.

However, I must make the observation that, while I can understand that the hon. Gentleman should seek a debate on the issues of the coal industry, I am astonished that he has not found the leader of the Labour party prepared to introduce the subject as a matter for debate. Presumably that will be done in due course.

The hon. Gentleman quoted from the objectives given to Mr. MacGregor at the time the Coal Industry Bill was in Committee. I must remind him that the aim of bringing capacity into line with the market place has been fundamental to the objectives given to chairmen of the National Coal Board for a considerable time. I could argue that "Plan for Coal" was an attempt to do just that—to provide an objective for the market for coal.

The hon. Gentleman then dealt with the question of Cortonwood, which I know is also of interest to the hon. Member for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett). I understand entirely why the problem has been raised by successive hon. Members. However, the hon. Member for Rother Valley will be aware that the area director has written to all those who are involved at Cortonwood. His letter dated 28 March makes one or two fairly important observations which the House has not had the opportunity of hearing.

The first thing he stressed was that every man who wants a job will have the opportunity of transferring to another local pit. What I said at the Area Review Meeting, attended by all Trade Unions' Representatives, was that I intended to offer men over the age of 50 the opportunity of voluntary redundancy and the younger men the chance to transfer elsewhere"— with the usual transfer allowances— but nobody will have to leave the industry against his will. He went on to say: At the Area Review Meeting I proposed that we should meet again quickly with the local representatives of each Union present. Two of the Unions have agreed to such a meeting, but the NUM have not. After the meeting with the local Branches, it is still open to any of the Unions to appeal against my decision to bring forward the closure. I also gave an undertaking, which still stands, that until the Review Procedure had been fully exhausted and the outcome known, I would take no steps to implement the closure. No developments will be stopped or production districts salvaged. The hon. Gentleman should understand that, on the record at any rate, those comments were made in a letter of 28 March to all gentlemen at Cortonwood.

The hon. Gentleman's main point is about the thrust of "Plan for Coal", and he criticised the Government for their part in, as he put it, undermining "Plan for Coal." But I see no basic contradiction between "Plan for Coal" and the policies being pursued by the Government. In 1984, even more than in 1974, we must seek to establish an efficient, competitive coal industry with a secure long-term future. However, while the underlying objectives remain the same, the world has changed.

In 1974 we had come abruptly to the end of the era of cheap oil. Energy demand was seen to be rising and the demand for coal was thought to be rising with it. In fact the demand for coal was already falling when "Plan for Coal" was published, and continued to do so in the ensuing years. Nor have other assumptions been realised. "Plan for Coal" envisaged an improvement in productivity of 4 per cent. per year, but by the end of 1983 output per manshift was only 4.7 per cent. higher than it had been 10 years earlier. Closures, too, had been expected to run at a higher rate than has been the case. "Plan for Coal" foresaw 3 to 4 million tonnes of capacity closing each year as against 1 to 2 million tonnes which have closed.

The one area—here the hon. Gentleman will agree with me—in which we have exceeded "Plan for Coal" is in investment. A massive investment programme was a cornerstone of "Plan for Coal" and that has been more than achieved by successive Governments who have spent, in current prices, more than £7,500 million since 1974. Total investment in the coal industry in the five years since the Government took office in 1979 has been £3.8 billion. This is £4.4 billion at September 1983 prices, compared with £2.8 billion on the same price basis in the preceding five years of Labour Government.

The hon. Gentleman must recognise that those are vital contributions to the future of the industry. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Government should intervene in this dispute, but I suggest to him that previous Government intervention has been to provide immense amounts of resources to enable the industry to develop. The Government want to see an effective, viable and productive coal industry which will offer substantial employment and be able to satisfy customers the world over. That is why we backed the National Coal Board in its wage offer of 5.2 per cent., to ensure that the miners continue to be among the highest-paid industrial workers. That is why we shall continue to provide up to a further £3 billion for investment during the next four years. Currently investment is running at £70 per employee per week in the industry. That is why we backed the Coal Board with deficit grants in 1983–84 of a further £70 a head a week for everyone who works in the industry.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the industry's losses before grant last year were equivalent to £70 per employee per week. In return surely we have the right to ask that the industry puts its house in order, recognises the facts of economic life and shapes itself to meet the challenge of future circumstances.

The crucial change the the hon. Gentleman wants to see —I accept his point entirely—is more customers for British coal. That is the only way to secure a future for British mining, yet the chances are that there will be fewer customers. We tried to extend the market to industrial users, but there have been only two applications under the coal conversion scheme since the dispute started. There has been a postponement of probably the biggest coal conversion scheme at ICI. We need more customers, not fewer, and change will bring opportunities for new markets, but only if the price is competitive and if delivery is assured. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that with the prospect of orders not being delivered, or of customers not being able to obtain coal at the price they want, the chances for the future of the industry are bleak. There is plenty of evidence that, despite the efforts made to obtain export orders for British coal, there will be real problems in retaining the confidence of the customers that we so sorely need.

The current dispute is deeply damaging to miners and to the industry. What is required is more commitment to price coal at a level at which customers want to buy. That will assure a delivery increase—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-four minutes past Five o'clock am.