HC Deb 14 May 1984 vol 60 cc8-11
5. Sir William van Straubenzee

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

10. Mr. Dykes

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on progress in talks to resolve the dispute in the coal mines.

Mr. Peter Walker

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall answer these questions together.

The main effect of the present dispute is to damage the prospects of individual pits and of the coal industry as a whole. To date, those on strike have lost over £200 million in wages, and the progress made in encouraging industry to convert to coal has been stopped.

Mr. Dormand

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for intervening now, because I know that you prefer points of order to be raised at the end of Question Time, but if I do not raise my point of order now it will be too late.

The Secretary of State has asked permission—I do not know from whom — to answer two questions together. My question No. 18 is on exactly the same topic—

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, he may be a happier man.

Sir William van Straubenzee

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Has he noted reports of intimidation of the wives and families of individual miners? Does he understand how abhorrent that practice is to the vast majority of people, and has he any evidence to suggest that intimidation or other measures are reducing the numbers who are continuing to work?

Mr. Walker

On cannot measure the effects of intimidation by the numbers going to pits on any one day. I can only say that at the end of last week we had record numbers working at the pits, and I am pleased to say that this morning more miners arrived at the pits than at the same time last week.

Mr. Dykes

My right hon. Friend has observed the dispute at close quarters in recent weeks. What percentage of the dispute does he believe is due to miners' genuine grievances and what percentage is due to the demonic and relentless ego trip of the most mischievous trade union leader in British history?

Mr. Walker

There is no way of judging the views of individual miners. All that one can say is that the majority of the fields that have had the opportunity of a ballot decided to work.

Mr. Concannon

Is the Secretary of State aware that he should take no joy from what is happening in Mansfield, because the Nottinghamshire miners are as opposed to the NCB policy as anyone else? The other dispute is an internal one within the industry.

I add my voice to the pleas that my hon. Friends have made to the Secretary of State. We have two entrenched positions. Only a middle man can help. The Secretary of State is that middle man, and he should get the parties round the table.

Mr. Walker

I do not believe the right hon. Gentleman's case that there are two entrenched positions. The programme for the coal industry, which is a good one that gives it the potential for expansion and opportunities to conquer new markets, is something that the Coal Board is happy to discuss. Two of the mining unions are prepared to discuss it, and I hope that the other mining union will think carefully and will also be prepared to discuss it.

Mr. Ray Powell

The question refers to a statement. Is the Minister aware that we have yet to have a full-scale debate in the Chamber on the dispute, which has gone on for 10 weeks? — [Interruption.] The Leader of the House is sitting next to him. Is he not aware that this dispute has lasted for 10 weeks and that not only miners' families but the whole of the nation will suffer if he does not take his head out of the sand and do something about it?

Mr. Walker

The best way to do something about it is to bring to the attention of miners the reality of what is on offer to them, which is good for their future and good for the present health of the mining industry.

Sir John Osborn

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the country will have noticed that there has been no plea from the Labour Benches for Arthur Scargill to meet the Coal Board with the other two unions on Wednesday? Is he aware that many people in the coal industry, particularly where I live in Yorkshire, did not want to go on strike but were driven out by flying pickets and intimidation? I am waiting for that plea from the Labour Benches.

Mr. Walker

I should naturally welcome it if the Labour party endeavoured to persuade the NUM to come to the negotiations. Some weeks ago it urged a national ballot, but there has been no sign of its doing so recently. Perhaps it will revert to that plea.

Mr. Dormand

Does the Secretary of State realise that there is no possibility of an early end to the dispute, particularly given the feeling that many of us have come across in our constituencies at the weekend? Is he aware that the Government's attitude of pretending that this has nothing to do with them is not seen as the correct stance? Does he agree that, above all things, the economy is suffering, and he has responsibility for that, together with the Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet? Will he take action before it is too late?

Mr. Walker

It is because I consider that the coal industry has an important and major future in our economy that I persuaded my colleagues to provide the finance for a decent pay offer, with no compulsory redundancies, and a massive investment programme. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will do more to persuade the leaders of the NUM that that is what it is about.

Mr. Burt

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the longer this dispute continues the greater the likelihood of an increase in power prices, which will be directly attributable to those who have stimulated and preserved the strike? Is he further aware that this strike could threaten the jobs of those employed in energy-intensive industries, many of whom would have given their eye teeth to have the redundancy terms that are now offered to the miners?

Mr. Walker

It is true that the voluntary redundancy and early retirement provisions, the capital investment and the pay offered in the coal industry make those in other industries jealous. They will particularly resent it if their jobs are threatened by industrial action when all this is on offer.

Mr. Pike

Why does the right hon. Gentleman not give a simple answer to a simple question, face up to the Government's responsibility and accept that the Government should intervene and call for both sides to come together? Will he take that responsibility and call an early meeting of both sides to try to resolve the dispute?

Mr. Walker

The Government's responsibility was to see that miners and the mining industry had a good future. That responsibility we carried out rather better than it was by the last Labour Government.

Mr. Hickmet

Does my right hon. Friend believe that there are any lessons for the mineworkers to learn from the strike in the steel industry in 1980? Is it not true that although the immediate problems of blast furnaces and coke ovens at various large steelworks have been resolved for the time being, the long-term problem is hanging on to markets, with over-capacity in steel in Europe? Is not the strike in the coal industry placing at risk the jobs of thousands of steel workers?

Mr. Walker

I am pleased to say that, to date, production of British steel has been maintained at a high level and I hope that this will continue. There are about 1 million tonnes of sales of coal opportunities for Durham alone, which may be put in jeopardy if this action continues.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some of us feel that it is unlikely that Mr. Scargill will enter into realistic negotiations until he is under more pressure to do so from his members? With that in mind, and acknowledging the degree of commitment, in terms of investment, that the Government have given to the coal industry, will the right hon. Gentleman publish as soon as possible a comprehensive plan for energy in which the balance between nuclear generation, oil, coal and other sources of energy would be spelt out much more clearly than the Government have yet done?

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman is asking for the type of publication that goes into great detail about future projections. However, developments and activities on the international scene as well as at home can bring about enormous variations. Nevertheless, I can say categorically that, in terms of energy, we are blessed with a good oil industry, a good gas industry, a nuclear industry and a major coal industry, and that it would be crazy for any Government not to keep all the options fully open and keep all those industries active and successful. They have an international as well as a national application.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

Are we not living in the strangest possible world, when Mr. Scargill, who is obviously an honourable man, tries to make people believe that the coal industry is being run down by a wicked and uncaring Coal Board and Government, when in fact £3 million a day of taxpayers' money is being spent on the industry? Would my right hon. Friend care to speculate on what a real rundown would look like? If the engineering industry in the midlands were given a subsidy of £3 million a day, there would be the industrial prosperity of a new age.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that—

Mr. Speaker

Order. One at a time.

Mr. Walker

I believe that this very substantial capital investment programme is in the interests not only of the miners but of the nation. The position in our economy is that we may be able, as part of a move for energy efficiency, to persuade many industries to convert to coal. We were doing that, and I am sorry that the strike action is damaging that prospect.

Mr. Strang

Is it not time that the Government abandoned the pretence that the strike is not having a serious effect on the national economy and admitted that the uneconomic use of oil in power stations, the additional police costs, and the loss of coal and other production is costing hundreds of millions of pounds?

Mr. Walker

I have never suggested that industrial action in any major industry does not damage the economy. That is why we created the conditions in which there was no need for industrial action.

Mr. Orme

If that is the case—and because of the seriousness of the situation—will the Secretary of State use his good offices to invite Mr. MacGregor and Mr. Scargill to his office this week to discuss these matters? The Secretary of State could tell them what he has just told us and could hear the arguments in the other direction.

Mr. Walker

I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman should also have a meeting with Mr. Scargill — [Interruption.] I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman should say to Mr. Scargill, "As the Government and the NCB are currently investing twice as much in the industry as we did and paying the miners much better than we did, why are you on strike?"

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