HC Deb 22 October 1984 vol 65 cc446-60

4.6 pm

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Peter Walker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about developments in the coal dispute during the recess.

Between 9 September and 14 September the National Coal Board held negotiations with the National Union of Mineworkers in an attempt to reach an agreement that would settle this dispute. During these negotiations the National Union of Mineworkers refused any formula that would have permitted any pit closures on any economic grounds.

In September, the pit deputies' union, the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, decided to ballot its members on three questions. Its members were not asked to give their approval or disapproval on these questions separately but were asked to give their approval or disapproval on all three together with a single yes or no.

Since the ballot, the Coal Board has resolved with NACODS two of the issues that had led the union to hold a strike ballot of its members. The third issue, dealing with the reduction in the industry's capacity, resulted in NACODS requesting the National Coal Board to hold meetings with the National Union of Mineworkers under the auspices of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. These talks took place between 11 and 15 October.

At the start of these talks it was agreed that ACAS would distil the NUM's position and circulate it to the other parties. After the NCB had commented, ACAS, having heard the views of all the parties, undertook to put forward its own text. As the chairman of ACAS, Mr. Lowry, has confirmed, this was the only paper carrying the title of "ACAS Proposal". The NCB accepted this ACAS compromise proposal, but the NUM rejected it — circulating instead a further text of its own. Subsequent to the talks, Mr. Scargill confirmed publicly that on the key question of pit closures he had not moved his position since the dispute started in March.

The Government regret the failure to accept the ACAS compromise proposal, which would have enabled the damage being done to the coal industry to cease and the widespread violence that has occurred throughout this dispute to come to an end. Over 70,000 men were at work in the mining industry last week — a third of the industry. Most of these men had the chance of a ballot as required by normal NUM procedures. They had decided to work.

There are substantial stocks of coal at the power stations, and I am pleased to inform the House that power station stocks at the end of last week were higher than they were at the end of August. The Government will continue to take all the actions that are necessary to see that the power stations continue to provide the energy necessary to protect the life of the nation and to preserve jobs.

Following the negotiations that have taken place throughout the summer, I wish to remind the House of the package that is now on offer to the miners: a wage increase from last November providing earnings way above average industrial earnings and greater than that gained by many groups of workers; an undertaking that any miner who wishes to continue working in the industry will be able to do so; exceptionally generous provisions for those who choose a course of early retirement when a pit needs to close; a capital investment programme more than double that of the rest of the European Community put together; a programme to secure an industry capable of obtaining expanding markets in the future; an amended colliery review procedure which includes all the provisions that have operated under Labour and Conservative Governments for many years past but adds to it provision for an independent review body, whose advice will be given full weight before any decision is made; the creation of the new enterprise company whereby for the first time the Coal Board will be active in financing, advising and providing accommodation to new enterprises and businesses to benefit the mining communities.

In order that there should be no doubt on the Opposition Benches, I repeat that the board not only remains committed to the operation of the colliery review procedure but is prepared to enhance that procedure. Furthermore, any pit proposed for closure by the board can be examined through the amended procedure. It is a package of proposals which is good for the miner and good for the mining industry. I am confident that it would be accepted by miners had they the opportunity of a ballot on those terms.

Strife and industrial action can only intensify the damage being done to pits and to markets for coal, and therefore to the future of the miner and his family. I hope that the miners' union can be persuaded of the good sense of accepting the proposals made by ACAS earlier this month.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)

How can the Secretary of State for Energy make a statement of this or any other length about the current mining dispute without even a mention of "Plan for Coal", which the Government endorsed as recently as 1981? Does not the Secretary of State understand that "Plan for Coal" is fundamental to all consideration of the dispute and all attempts to secure a settlement? Will he not agree that if a clear undertaking were given to withdraw the proposals for a 4 million tonnes cut in capacity and the loss of 20,000 jobs substantial progress could be made? Will he not agree that such an undertaking would be rational in view of the fact that at least 54 million tonnes of coal production has been lost during the course of the dispute?

Why is there a reluctance to agree to keep the five named pits open when an agreement had been concluded between the board and the unions in respect of each of those pits before 6 March?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there have been three sets of propositions from ACAS on the table, as ACAS announced in a press statement issued on the evening of 12 October?

Will the Secretary of State clarify the appointment of Mr. Michael Eaton? Will Mr. Eaton become part of the NCB negotiating team? What are his powers, what is the extent of his discretion, and where does his appointment leave Mr. MacGregor?

The National Union of Mineworkers' negotiating team this morning reiterated its willingness to accept ACAS documents 1 and 3, and was prepared to continue talking on all the propositions, whereas we have the misfortune that the NCB withdrew from the discussions.

Can the Secretary of State tell us whether Mr. Eaton has advocated a return to discussions with the NUM and NACODS? If he has, or if he does, will he have the backing of the Government?

Finally, will the Secretary of State tell us what the Government will do to get the parties together under the auspices of ACAS?

Mr. Walker

I am very surprised that the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) has repeated the statement, continuously made by Mr. Scargill, that there were three ACAS papers. [Interruption.] I cannot do better than to use the words of the chairman of ACAS, Mr. Lowry, on the "World at One" programme on 17 October. I hope the House will listen so that we may put to an end Mr. Scargill's totally false allegation. [Interruption.] Mr. Lowry said: The first two papers—one was prepared by the NUM and it was headed 'Suggestions arising out of discussions with the NUM' … and that set out what we understood to be the NUM's requirements. The NCB drafted their own ideas … The third document is the only one that carries the title 'ACAS proposals'. That was a document we prepared to try and reconcile the differences between the two sides … The fourth document … is headed 'Modified suggestion arising out of discussions with the NUM.' Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman is repeating Mr. Scargill's statement that he agrees with the two papers that he drafted, but that he disagrees with what Mr. Lowry described as the only paper that ACAS put forward as its own paper. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to check that quotation personally with Mr. Lowry he will find confirmation of it. Therefore, I hope that we shall cease to have this totally monstrous deception — [Interruption.]—when, as we now know from Mr. Lowry, two of the papers were NUM papers, one was an NCB paper and only one was an ACAS paper.

As to the 4 million tonnes and what the right hon. Gentleman describes as 20,000 jobs, I should have thought that he would know that on 18 July, at the talks which took place then, the NCB made it perfectly clear — as has been confirmed since by the Leader of the Opposition—that the proposals concerning the 4 million tonnes would be reviewed in the light of what had happened, and that the proposals concerning the five pits would be based upon a future review under the normal procedures that had been agreed.

With regard to the appointment of Mr. Eaton, that was a decision made by the NCB, a decision by Mr. MacGregor, to appoint somebody to assist communications in the industry. [Interruption.] In view of the package that is available from the NCB to the industry, the more improvement there is in communicating that package to the public and to the miners, the more I shall rejoice.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the formula that has been produced by ACAS should be fully supported, and that its full acceptance should, if necessary, be encouraged by the TUC over the head of Mr. Scargill? If it does not do so, the whole credibility of the trade union movement will be lost to the people as a whole.

Mr. Walker

It was at the request of NACODS that the NCB and the NUM met under the jurisdiction of ACAS. Having heard both sides and seen papers from both sides, ACAS came forward with a compromise proposal. That was a compromise proposal that the Leader of the Opposition, under questioning, considered to be one that would probably have created a settlement. I deeply regret that the NUM did not recognise that that was a sensible compromise settlement, and that, as a result of its decision, the dispute continues, with all the damage that it is doing to the coal mining industry.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Will the Secretary of State agree that helping to create new jobs in mining areas must be the highest priority? [Interruption.] Will the Secretary of State therefore increase from £5 million to £50 million the NCB enterprise start-up fund? Why has a new chief executive not been appointed? But beyond that, will the Secretary of State accept that there are now many people who must wonder whether there is any further room for any more concessions?

Will the Secretary of State agree that the critical test of any negotiated agreement will be the assessment of the 70,000 miners who are currently working? Will the Secretary of State do as the new spokesman for the NCB has not done, and recognise that, if there can be no sensible negotiation, the issue will have to be settled by miners voting with their feet?

Mr. Walker

I think that many miners have already voted with their feet and many more would do so if it were not for the mobs and intimidation. I very much regret that after all the rhetoric about violence, of both the TUC conference and the Labour party conference, as far as I know nobody on the Opposition Front Bench has appealed to Mr. Scargill personally to do what he succeeded in doing in Brighton, which was to call off the violence.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the vast majority of the British people feel that the offer that has already been made is over-generous compared with what the rest of British industry gets? Is he further aware that references to "Plan for Coal" are totally unrealistic, as the targets for pit closures, productivity and output were never met in any one year under any Government? As 20,000 people have been offered voluntary redundancy, is it not time that those who, I understand, have volunteered to take that redundancy were given it?

Mr. Walker

With regard to my hon. Friend's final point, he is correct in saying that there is no shortage of people who want to take advantage of the generous early retirement provisions of the NCB. With regard to "Plan for Coal", nothing would be nastier for miners than if we were to revert to it. Already we have invested £650 million more than was envisaged in the plan, which also envisaged the reduction of 4 million tonnes of capacity every year.

Mr. Jack Dormand (Easington)

What is the difference between the new, amended, closure proposals that the Secretary of State mentioned in his statement and the old procedures? What was wrong with the old procedures?

Mr. Walker

There is no amendment to the old procedures whatsoever. All the existing procedures continue. An addition to those procedures is proposed by ACAS in that, having gone through the normal procedures, if either side requests it, an independent review body will give its opinion upon the proposal and full weight will be given to the opinion of that body. Therefore, all that I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the procedures that have existed over the years remain unchanged, but with an additional process if either side wishes to use it.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the dispute has been marked on the one hand by the concessions that have been made by the NCB, and on the other by the total intransigence of Mr. Scargill and the NUM? Will he take this opportunity to remind the Opposition energy spokesman, the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), in the hope that he will remind Mr. Scargill, that the 1974 "Plan for Coal" envisaged the closure of between 15 and 17 pits a year on uneconomic grounds?

Mr. Walker

In its calculations, "Plan for Coal" said that there would be a reduction in capacity of about 4 million tonnes a year. That was in the original "Plan for Coal". With regard to negotiations, my hon. Friend is perfectly correct to say that all the concessions and attempts that have been made to reach a solution to the problem have come from the NCB. On 19 October, when confronted with the suggestion that he had not moved an inch from his position in March, Mr. Scargill stated categorically, "That is absolutely correct."

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley, Central)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the announcement by the NCB that there should be a reduction in output of 4 million tonnes and the closure of 20 pits sparked off the trouble at Cottonwood and the national strike, the main reason being that it made nonsense of the pit review procedures? If the Minister told the NCB to withdraw the pit closure risk, whether he liked it or not, as a prerequisite to a settlement, and if we reverted to the pit closure reviews that we had before, progress towards a settlement might be possible.

Mr. Walker

Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that in March there was no proposal for the closure of 20 pits and no list of pits. There was the suggestion that there was a need to reduce capacity by 4 million tonnes, which would be discussed at regional level and go through the normal procedures. Therefore, there was no attempt at any time by the Coal Board not to go through the normal procedures.

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

Will my right hon. Friend, who said that he would back the working miners to the hilt, advise the NCB about the position on Thursday of those miners who will be unable to go to work? Has he any idea whether the NCB will pay them for not going to work after Thursday?

Mr. Walker

It is very important that one gives full consideration to the issues at stake and that NACODS members do that before Thursday. I am sure that they will. Therefore, I do not share my hon. Friend's view that on Thursday it is certain that NACODS members will come out. I repeat the Government's undertaking that we shall look after the position of those miners who not only voted under the normal NUM procedures and have worked for the whole of the past eight months but have done so in the face of dreadful mobs and intimidation.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the appointment of Mr. Eaton highlights the fact that the appointment of Mr. MacGregor was a disaster? Will he make a more comprehensive statement than the recent remarks on television by himself and his colleagues to the effect that the Government are keen to assist mining communities affected by pit closures by encouraging industry to come into those areas in future? What plans does the right hon. Gentleman have to encourage industry to come into my constituency, where the closure of two pits was announced and agreed before the strike?

Mr. Walker

I shall reply both to that question and to what was said by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) when he asked about increasing the capital for the enterprise company. The amount of £5 million will be put in as initial capital for the start of the company. It was made clear by the Coal Board that it would review the finances required as progress was made. At the moment it is making up a strong team of people to operate that company and a strong and active board of directors to run it. I do not think that there will be any risk of criticism of the activity and impact of that company. I remind the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) that the appointment of Mr. Eaton was made by Mr. MacGregor, and also that Mr. MacGregor is the first chairman of the NCB to give a guarantee that any miner who wishes to continue as a miner will be able to do so.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)

Has not the time come to allow those who wish to take advantage of the generous redundancy payments the chance to do so? In areas where closures are inevitable, will my right hon. Friend consider changing the law to allow the board discretion to make redundancy payments to enable those who wish to start fresh careers to do so?

Mr. Walker

That matter is being and will be considered by the NCB, and I shall convey my hon. Friend's views to it.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Secretary of State aware that on 12 October ACAS issued a press statement saying that three documents had been before the negotiations and that the NUM was prepared to discuss all of them and was prepared to accept completely the first proposal? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the ACAS statement said that two documents had been tabled by ACAS, the first of which was acceptable to the NUM, the second of which was acceptable to the Coal Board? Is not the real reason why the talks have broken down the fact that Mr. MacGregor is determined to rewrite or abandon "Plan for Coal", to which the Secretary of State made no reference in his statement? Is it not now clear that the Government's attack on the coal industry, which has cost more than the Falklands war, has inflicted great damage on this country, that Mr. MacGregor has lost the confidence of all the unions in the industry to such an extent that a spokesman has had to be appointed to replace him, and that the miners are more solid and winning more support as every week goes by?

Does not the Secretary of State think that the time has come to withdraw the pit closure plan, to appoint a new chairman, and to get discussions going with the NUM on the basis of "Plan for Coal" as it was agreed by the Labour Government and confirmed at an early stage by the present Government and by Parliament?

Mr. Walker

We welcome the right hon. Gentleman fresh from the Militant Tendency rally. As far as his "Plan for Coal" is concerned——

Mr. Benn

Answer the question.

Mr. Walker

I will. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, as far as "Plan for Coal" is concerned——

Mr. Benn

Answer the question.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is no good the right hon. Gentleman saying "Answer the question." The Secretary is seeking to do so.

Mr. Walker

If we had followed the "Plan for Coal" as agreed by the right hon. Gentleman, we would have invested £650 million less in the industry. We would have paid the miners less and given them nothing like the guaranteed early retirement measures that they are being offered.

Mr. Peter Rost (Erewash)

As pits are being geologically damaged beyond repair, and markets lost, is it not clear that the NUM leadership is implementing its own pit closure programme and butchering the industry by causing the loss of thousands of jobs which might not otherwise have been lost?

Mr. Walker

It is perfectly true, not only that the damage done to coal faces is probably now equivalent to the closure of five or six pits, but that markets are being lost on an enormous scale. The Government were much more successful than their predecessors in persuading people in industry to convert to coal. Sad to say, this totally unnecessary industrial dispute has completely destroyed that programme.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Will the Secretary of State accept that the latest discussions failed because no agreement was reached on the three words "the principles of"? On 15 October the chairman of the National Coal Board told the press that accepting those three words was paramount in his view because — I quote from the Financial Times of 17 October— it would have been interpreted by the NCB as permitting closures on economic grounds. Can the Secretary of State tell us how far the NCB has moved in the past eight months? The chairman is still saying exactly what was said in the meeting on 6 March.

Mr. Walker

The board has never moved from the basic suggestion that it is crazy to continue to invest money in something that is totally uneconomic when one can invest money in other collieries and coal faces, with good results for the industry. The board has never shifted, also, on the right of management to manage. What the board has agreed to is a change in the closure procedures — the compromise proposal suggested by ACAS. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Mr. Scargill, as he himself has claimed, has not moved one inch since 6 March.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

Will my right hon. Friend remind the House that, because of the failure of the NUM to comply with its own internal rules, the High Court has declared the strike and the picket lines unofficial? Does my right hon. Friend agree that unofficial picket lines never impose any moral obligation upon any trade unionist, and that those who urge miners to respect those picket lines are disregarding the rule of law?

Mr. Walker

Naturally, I note the legal action that there has been, and the disregard for the rule of law. One of the great tragedies of the dispute is that having on three occasions been defeated in a ballot, and knowing the terms that were on offer, Mr. Scargill attempted on this occasion to get a national strike without following the normal procedures of the union. I am relieved to say that a third of the miners did not follow his line, and have continued working throughout.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the package. Will he confirm that the one ingredient which, sadly, is missing from the package is trust in the NCB? Will he accept that that lack of trust has been the cause of the seething anger in my own association, NACODS? Will the right hon. Gentleman also accept that, had the conditions put forward by NACODS been met, as was widely suggested, the strike would probably now be ending? It would be far better for the right hon. Gentleman to consider the appalling condition of some of the coalfields of Britain than to spend his time trying to find the right piece of paper with the ACAS imprint on it.

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that NACODS balloted on three issues and on two of those issues there has been a total settlement.

Mr. Hardy

There has not.

Mr. Walker

On the third issue, there was the request of NACODS that the board should go to ACAS for talks. Not only did the NCB go to ACAS for talks; it also agreed to the ACAS compromise proposals. The pity is that NACODS could not persuade the NUM to act in the same way.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the appointment of Mr. Michael Eaton is widely welcomed by those who know him in the industry, particularly in my own area, where he has worked for many years as the NCB's area director for north Yorkshire? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, whoever conducts negotiations, or represents people in the mining industry, the only viable future for that industry is one that is based on investment rather than subsidy? No amount of intimidation or violence will change that reality.

Mr. Walker

I agree with my hon. Friend that the tragedy of the industry is that not only is there a Government who are willing to invest heavily in it, but there are enormous prospects for that investment. We have good seams of coal, good collieries and good mining machinery. The tragedy is that a year that could have been spent in making good progress for the industry has resulted instead in a very bad setback.

I welcome the remarks about Mr. Eaton made by my hon. Friend, with his knowledge of the gentleman concerned. Naturally, I wish Mr. Eaton every success in his task.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Will the Secretary of State concede, in relation to ACAS, that he has displayed ignorance of industrial relations? ACAS would be highly unlikely to put papers before a body for discussion or negotiation unless those papers had at least ACAS's imprimatur on them. In the seven or eight months of the strike, when has the right hon. Gentleman attempted in any way to meet the National Union of Mineworkers? Instead of pleading with other people to do so, will he use the responsibility and dignity of his office to bring the parties together to solve this vexatious dispute?

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman says that any document circulated at ACAS has ACAS's imprint on it. If the paper is headed "These are the views of the National Union of Mineworkers" or "Views of the National Coal Board", one cannot suggest that that is true of that particular document. The chairman of ACAS said that there was only one document which carried the title "ACAS proposal" and in fact represented an ACAS proposal.

It is no use the Opposition trying to dodge the issue. There is only one ACAS proposal, and that is the one that the NCB has accepted.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

This strike has gone on for much longer than many of us expected, because of one unique element of the dispute. For the first time in trade union history the leader of a union is willing to destroy his own industry to prove a point that he wishes to make. Would not my right hon. Friend agree that the industry is being gradually destroyed because those who might have bought our coal will not now do so and a thousand firms that might have changed to coal will not do so? Would anyone in his right mind now change from oil to coal? That is what the cost of the strike will be. Mr. Scargill is asking people to be pall bearers at their own funeral.

Mr. Walker

It is a tragedy. Not only has this form of strike done immense damage to the prospects of the industry, but it has deeply divided mining communities and been the cause of a great deal of violence. I believe that the strike should never have taken place because there was never a single industrial reason for calling it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the strike is, to use the Chancellor of the Exchequer's words before the summer recess, "a worthwhile investment"? Rather than making abstract statements, will he say precisely what were the stocks of coal at power stations last week? Previous Governments have always done that. Will he take into account the fact that, whereas the Government encourage the closure of so-called uneconomic pits that have some coal reserves, on Sunday 30 September, and supposedly with the same philosophy, they, with the Bank of England, organised the rescue of Johnson Matthey — an uneconomic bank that had completely run out of reserves? Are not the Government operating double standards — one for bankers and another for miners?

Mr. Walker

As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, the financial assistance given to the coal industry before the dispute was of gigantic proportions. That has been the case for many years. Since coming to power, and during years in which there have been no coal industry profits, the Government have invested £2 million a day. I am pleased to say that, since the strike has been on, stocks at power stations have been published in the normal way. They always will be.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Will my right hon. Friend give his estimate of the number of jobs in the mining industry and outside it that will be destroyed for ever if Scargill and his Communist associates succeed in dragging this purely political strike on to the end of the year or beyond?

Mr. Walker

A wide range of jobs are being lost, especially in firms that would normally be supplying the coal industry. It was planned this year to invest £700 million in the coal industry but, sadly, much of that investment has not taken place and now will not take place. Jobs have been lost because of that. If the mobs that Mr. Scargill has organised had had their way, we would by now have massive unemployment in the steel industry and many others. I am delighted to say that that has been stopped.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

If NACODS comes out on Thursday and the pits shut, is it not a fact that, within one month, the Government will have no option but to try to move stocks at pits? That would take 50,000 lorry loads a week. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that would require use of the Emergency Powers Act 1964? When does he intend to use that Act to end this disastrous nonsense? What effect will that have on the pound?

Mr. Walker

I remember being asked on 2 April in a private notice question tabled by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) what I would do, as all of the transport unions had decided to stop moving coal and as there would be disaster within a few weeks. Since being asked that question, 18 million tonnes of coal have been moved.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

In view of the reported behaviour of the Department of Health and Social Security, in company with some banks and building societies, is it correct, as was recently stated in a television programme, that some miners are as well off now as if they were working, because their mortgages and other payments are being met?

Mr. Walker

I saw the programme. Under the present regulations, payments for mortgage interest are paid directly to the person concerned, whereas payments for council house rents are made to the local authority concerned. The fact remains that, in general, miners have suffered a massive loss of income and have plunged deeply into debt as a result of this utterly unnecessary strike.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, although the National Coal Board has now conceded two of NACODS' grievances, it is the same Coal Board that created the grievance that led to the unprecendented vote for a strike? Until then, NACODS had been a loyal union. Has not the Coal Board virtually turned a partial strike into a complete one? What more evidence does the right hon. Gentleman need to show that the Coal Board has been in the wrong hands for the past year? Is it not time that Mr. MacGregor was put out to grass to enhance the prospect of a settlement?

Mr. Walker

In the proposals for the future of the industry—looking after mining communities, guaranteeing employment to miners and in the wage increases that have been offered — Mr. MacGregor has produced a good package for the industry. I only wish that he had been allowed to put it into operation.

Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)

Will my right hon. Friend welcome further negotiations with the NUM or with NACODS this week? Is there any possibility of further negotiations this week?

Mr. Walker

The NCB has made it clear that it is willing to enter negotiations at any time that is requested. If there were talks this week, I am sure that the Coal Board would be willing to attend them.

Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

In his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), was the Secretary of State assuring the House that he would not bring in the Army and the Navy to move coal by land and sea?

Mr. Walker

I was saying, as I said on 2 April, that there is no need to contemplate such action in present conditions, as plenty of coal is moving.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

In respect of the controversial pits which the NCB wishes to close and which the NUM thinks should be kept open, has the Coal Board thought about offering the running of those pits to local miners' co-operatives? We could then see who is right. That is a sound syndicalist solution to the problem.

Mr. Walker

That is an attractive idea but, in fairness to the NUM, it has never maintained that those pits are economic. It agrees that they are heavily loss-making and therefore has no desire to take them over.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Why has the Secretary of State tried for more than 30 weeks to discredit the NUM leadership just because it would not take his advice and hold a national ballot? Now that NACODS has had a national ballot, in which more than 80 per cent. voted in favour of strike action, the Secretary of State has the brass neck to tell it to have another ballot. Rather than try to move the goal posts and bring on a last-minute substitute for MacGregor when he knows that he is on a loser, why does not the Secretary of State sack MacGregor and intervene to achieve a peaceful solution based on "Plan for Coal"? The dispute has dragged on for more than eight months and has cost more than £2 billion.

Mr. Walker

As to discrediting the leadership of the NUM, it is a fact that the present leadership has always been unwilling to ballot its members. The one third of NUM members who decided to ballot voted overwhelmingly against strike action. It is also a fact that the NUM leadership has used the mob in a way that Britain has not seen in living memory.

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, during the strike, there has been an air of unreality because the strikers believe that, however great the damage that is done to the industry, the cost of reparation will be met by the taxpayer and no jobs will be put at risk? Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to say that there will come a time when the taxpayers' patience runs out and we will not be able to guarantee the number of jobs that have been guaranteed hitherto to the NUM during negotiations?

Mr. Walker

The immense damage that the strike is doing the industry is a tragedy. I mentioned earlier the damage that it is doing to the market prospects for the industry and to coal faces and how it has stopped a massive investment programme taking place. I hope that the NUM leadership will, as I suggested in my statement, recognise that the ACAS compromise proposal is sensible. In the interests of its industry, the NUM leadership should accept it.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Will the Secretary of State stop quaking with anger and exasperation long enough to assure the House that he will ask his colleagues how, in view of the courts fining Mr. Scargill £1,000 and the union £200,000 for describing the dispute as official, the Government can continue to deduct £15 per week per family on the basis that the strike is official and that strikers receive strike pay?

Mr. Walker

I shall naturally draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of my colleagues.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm my understanding of the NUM's demand for a return to "Plan for Coal" of 1974? Does he agree that the NUM agrees with only one thing in that plan —that the level of production envisaged in it should be continued? Does that not mean producing coal in excess of demand and therefore having to stockpile it?

Mr. Walker

There is no doubt that if we abided by all of "Plan for Coal", it would massively reduce investment in the pits and substantially increase their closure rate. Obviously, miners would not want that. It is much more sensible to apply the principles of "Plan for Coal", which is that major investment should bring higher productivity.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

While the Secretary of State is self-confident about the level of coal stocks, and that power cuts are unlikely to occur this winter, why have the Government during the past two months taken delivery of more than 12 million candles? Does the Secretary of State realise that if he attempts to use the troops to move coal stocks he will be responsible for provoking the first general strike in Britain for more than 60 years?

Mr. Walker

I do not know of the Liberace-like figure who has ordered his candles. If he has, he is wasting his money.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Is The Times correct in stating that the NACODS ballot was not conducted strictly in accordance with the law? If there is a dispute on Thursday, will NACODS be liable to legal action by anyone damaged by such a dispute?

Mr. Walker

Lawyers could best give an opinion on the legality of that ballot under present legislation. The important thing about that ballot was that there were three points put but only one vote taken. I believe that the National Coal Board has met all three points.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Is the Secretary of State aware that his reference to, and continued emphasis in these exchanges on, the potential of the enterprise company for rehabilitating devastated mining communities will strike the House as coming late in the day if we are to accept that the policy was well thought out from the beginning and that the welfare and future of those mining communities has never been lost sight of?

Mr. Walker

I understand why the hon. Gentleman said that. The announcements were made many months ago and plans have been prepared. Obviously during this period no closures have taken place. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is important that the Coal Board is active and successful in this sphere. There is no shortage of financing for it and I know that the board is recruiting a team of able people.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

Many people cannot understand how the Labour Government, and specifically the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), the then Minister, managed to close coal mines everywhere under the 1974 "Plan for Coal". What criteria did they use to define an uneconomic pit?

Mr. Walker

Some pits closed then had substantial reserves in terms of years and thousands of tonnes of coal. The 17,000 miners who became voluntarily redundant during the period when the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) was responsible must deeply regret that they did not have available to them the present terms.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

According to the National Coal Board's criteria, how many more coal mines have become uneconomic over the past months as a result of the drop in the value of the pound? If the pound becomes so low that it equals only #1, how many more mines will become uneconomic? Are the Government proud of importing coal from Jaruzelski's Poland to break a free trade union in Britain? Can our coal mines have the same subsidies as General Jaruzelski gives to Polish mines?

Mr. Walker

If the NUM accepted the ACAS compromise, we would export coal instead of importing it.

Mr. Keith Raffan (Delwyn)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that miners working at Point of Ayr in my, constituency, even those in favour of going on strike, have said again and again that they will continue to work for as long as possible because they, unlike Mr. Scargill, believe in democracy and a national ballot?

Mr. Walker

Many miners hold that view. Alas, many are prevented from taking the action that they would like to take by the threats of intimidation from the mob.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the continuous use of invective against the parties to the dispute is counterproductive? Does he agree that it might be more productive if he came to my constituency and spoke to the several thousand miners there and ascertained that the basis of the problem was that they had no confidence in the National Coal Board, especially considering what happened at Cortonwood? Does he agree that a basis of settlement could be reached by going back to the beginning, freezing all that has been said in the past, having a period during which the industry could cool off and then by developing a system whereby negotiations could take place in good faith on the part of the Coal Board regarding the future of coal?

Mr. Walker

The Coal Board clearly states that all pits that will be proposed for closure in future will go through the procedures that operated in the past, and can go through those amended and suggested by ACAS. That includes Cortonwood. That was stated in July. Clause 2 of the National Coal Board paper lists the five pits and states that they will all go through those procedures. If the Opposition have followed this case, it is extraordinary that they do not recognise that that has been the NCB's proposal since July.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Will the Secretary of State admit that the appointment of Mr. Ian MacGregor was wrong and that the appointment of Mr. Michael Eaton, irrespective of where it comes from, shows, as the Labour party has said for a long time, that there are many people within the management structure of the board more capable and able than Mr. MacGregor? Does he agree that the guilt of this tragic position lies on the shoulders of the person who appointed Ian MacGregor and those responsible for the breaking of an agreement that has stood the test over a period of time during which many collieries have been closed? Does he agree that those collieries, irrespective of when they were closed, were closed by agreement between the board and the unions involved? Does he not think that it is time for him, as Secretary of State, to bring the parties together to deal with the problem? When he talks about 20,000 voluntary redundancies, does he mean that any person who volunteers for redundancy, irrespective of job, colliery or place of work, will be accepted?

Mr. Walker

In answer to the last point, the case has always been that people involved in pit closure can volunteer for redundancy. If jobs need to be provided in nearby pits for those who do not wish to volunteer, early retirement will be offered those in such pits. That has always been the proposal. Regarding Mr. MacGregor, I repeat that it is he who has put forward proposals which, had they been put to ballot, miners would have accepted.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have called all those right hon. and hon. Members who have sought to catch my eye regularly. It is time that we moved on. Mr. Stanley Orme.

Mr. Orme

I do not wish to get involved in an argument across the Floor about ACAS and Pat Lowry. However, I wish to put the record straight and read the press statement of Friday 12 October. ACAS stated: The discussions have been adjourned until tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon. The following is the overnight position: Two documents have been tabled by ACAS, the first of which was acceptable to the NUM, the second of which was acceptable to the NCB. ACAS has tonight taken delivery of some proposals from the NUM and formulated these into a document which the NCB and NACODS have been requested to consider overnight. That is the official press statement and should be put on the record.

Secondly, the Secretary of State said to me and to the House that there is no hit list. In a press release on 23 March the NCB stated: We plan to take out in the coming financial year about 4 million tonnes of heavily loss-making capacity. There will have to be a reduction in manpower of about 20,000 jobs. That is the hit list to which we have referred.

Finally, will the Secretary of State consider what I said earlier, which was that not only was the NUM prepared to negotiate on ACAS documents 1 and 3, but it was prepared to continue talking about all the propositions?

Mr. Walker

The right hon. Gentleman quotes the press handout of 12 October. I quote the statement made by the chairman of ACAS on 17 October when he said categorically that one paper was the NUM's proposals put forward and tabled by ACAS and the other was the Coal Board's proposals put forward by ACAS. The only paper containing ACAS proposals was the one that outlined the ACAS compromise. I hope, now the Labour party recognises that that is the fact, that it will join in supporting the ACAS compromise proposals.

As to talks, the Coal Board has always expressed its willingness to talk and has certainly not refused to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman now makes it clear that there never was a hit list of collieries. There was a suggestion about what was needed to reduce capacity, and it was stated that this would have to be discussed at regional level and would go through the normal procedures. However, as the right hon. Gentleman should know, on 18 July the NCB said this: On March 6th the NCB put forward proposals designed to influence the prospects of the industry and to equate production with market requirements. There have been losses of output resulting from the dispute and changes in the needs of the market. In the light of the changed circumstances the Board will reexamine the proposals for the industry and revise the objectives for the individual Areas. I hope that when the Opposition have studied carefully the facts instead of the myths they will support the ACAS proposals.