HC Deb 29 October 1984 vol 65 cc989-94
2. Mr. Eadie

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the current situation in the coalmining industry.

3. Mr. Adley

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the coal strike.

14. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he has any plans to meet the National Union of Miners to discuss the future of the coal industry.

19. Sir William van Straubenzee

asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he will make a statement on the present dispute in the coalmining industry.

20. Mr. Knox

asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he will make a statement on the coal strike.

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

Since I made a statement to the House on 22 October 1984, talks have taken place at ACAS between the National Coal Board and NACODS. After detailed negotiations covering a range of issues on which the NACODS executive had expressed concern, an agreement was reached between the National Coal Board and NACODS. The executive of NACODS unanimously supported this agreement and, as a result, the threat of industrial action was withdrawn.

More than 70,000 employed by the Coal Board remain at work and I fear that the main damage being inflicted by this dispute is damage to the coal industry itself, to miners' families and to mining communities.

Talks will continue this week at ACAS between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers. The Government believe that it would be in the interests of the coal industry if those negotiating for that proportion of the NUM members who have pursued industrial action would recognise, as NACODS has recognised, the good and reasonable proposals that are available.

Mr. Eadie

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his answer, but does he not agree that the House of Commons is owed a fuller explanation of what is happening at NCB headquarters, Hobart House, as it has just been announced that Mr. Eaton has been sent packing? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there has been talk about resignations and even sackings which can be traced back to the presence of Mr. Ian MacGregor at NCB headquarters? The right hon. Gentleman likes to talk about a policy of non-intervention, but is it not time that he took a grip of the situation, intervened publicly and told Mr. MacGregor, whatever he thinks happened over the weekend, that the strategy of starving striking miners into submission will not succeed and that only a principled and negotiated settlement can end this costly and damaging industrial dispute?

Mr. Walker

In view of the rumours that were circulating in the House just before Question Time I contacted the NCB and I confirm that Mr. Eaton, happily, remains in his duties. He very much agrees with the decision to cancel certain press engagements today while the situation following the disclosures at the weekend is being examined. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman once again.

On the main issue and the request for Government intervention, perhaps the Opposition will disclose whether they consider that the patient and detailed talks conducted under ACAS by NACODS last week produced an unreasonable settlement or a reasonable one. If it was the latter, I hope that the Opposition will support it.

Mr. Adley

It is no surprise that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) said nothing about the extraordinary Libyan fiasco. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this has shown Mr. Scargill to be an even more evil man than his sternest critics had imagined? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the NACODS agreement offers a far better opportunity of settlement for the miners—the people in whom we should be interested—than anything that might come from Libya? Finally, does my right hon. Friend imagine that this is the first time that the Bishop of Durham and Colonel Gaddafi have been on the same side?

Mr. Walker

In fairness, the disclosures of last weekend have resulted in the Leader of the Opposition very firmly condemning that attempt by certain NUM leaders. One cannot say that it was the NUM leadership as a whole, as most of the executive were not aware that the negotiations were taking place. I very much agree with the Leader of the Opposition in his condemnation. Some of the people involved attempted to suggest that it was simply obtaining a collection from fellow trade unionists in Libya, but Mr. Salem Ibrahim, whom Mr. Scargill and Mr. Windsor met in Paris on 8 October, is certainly not noted for his trade union activities. Mr. Mumtaz Abbasi, who accompanied Mr. Roger Windsor from Tripoli last week, is also not noted for his trade union activities. Among other things, he is a grocer, but his activities there are nothing compared with his activities elsewhere.

What we have seen over the weekend is that those who provide funds for terrorist activities throughout Europe have been negotiating unbeknown to the executive of the NUM, but very well known to some of the leaders of the NUM. I very much welcome the fact that the Leader of the Opposition has condemned this and I hope that the whole House will do the same.

Mr. Dubs

Is the Secretary of State aware that many people will not be impressed with the fact that he is more willing to answer at length parliamentary questions on the Libyan connection than on the industrial dispute itself? Why will the right hon. Gentleman not advise the NCB to table the "Plan for Coal" as the basis for a settlement?

Mr. Walker

Negotiations have taken place under the auspices of ACAS. ACAS made a proposal to both the NUM and the NCB, which the NCB accepted and the NUM turned down. The NCB then began detailed negotiations with NACODS and the resulting settlement was supported unanimously by the executive of NACODS. The hon. Gentleman should ask himself what Mr. Scargill's motive can be in continuing, after all that, to do such enormous damage to the coal industry, the miners and the mining communities.

Sir William van Straubenzee

In view of the unpleasant developments on some of the picket lines, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that it was really only money that some of the NUM leadership was after when it went to Libya? Does my right hon. Friend understand that these new revelations have strengthened the resolve of the vast majority of the British people to take whatever may come in the way of inconvenience and difficulty in order to see the dispute through to a successful conclusion?

Mr. Walker

Yes, I believe that the British people were very suspicious of a leader who refused to hold a ballot when one third of his members who held a ballot voted decisively against strike action. They have heard from his own lips Mr. Scargill's complete commitment to overthrowing the type of system to which we have become accustomed in this country, and the latest disclosures this weekend have certainly aroused deep suspicions.

As to picket line violence, Mr. Scargill spoke this weekend about taking the Government to court about the £15 disallowance because no money is now available for strike pay for miners' families. However, members of the NUM know full well that he has not paid strike pay to miners' families. He has used the funds to finance the mobs.

Mr. Knox

Does not the disclosure of the contact between Mr. Scargill and Colonel Gaddafi show once again the political nature of the strike? Does my right hon. Friend suppose that Mr. Scargill knows how trade unionists are treated in Libya?

Mr. Walker

Anyone who has studied trade unions in Libya will know full well that there is no free trade union movement in Libya, that there is no right to strike in Libya and that recently there have been vast numbers of public executions in Libya.

It is a rather interesting reflection upon the connection with free trade unions that Mr. Scargill should seek the support of trade unions in Libya but is on record as saying that he is opposed to Solidarity because he believes it to be an anti-Socialist organisation whose desire is to overthrow the Socialist state.

Dr. Owen

The repugnance that the country feels over the NUM's links with Libya is now boiling up to a point where people feel that enough is enough. Will the Secretary of State clarify exactly what the negotiations at ACAS later this week will be about? Are not perfectly honourable settlement terms, accepted by NACODS, now on the table? Those terms should not be changed in any way, and the TUC and the Labour party should say that they wish to accept them. There should be no question of negotiation. Clarification perhaps, but no more negotiation.

Mr. Walker

Yes, Sir, I agree with the right lion. Gentleman. There is to be a meeting at ACAS on Wednesday because of the meetings that took place last week. ACAS finally asked both sides to put their position in writing, because there was some confusion about the position of the NUM on a number of issues. I understand that the NCB will clearly state in writing the basis of the agreement that it has reached with NACODS. I presume that the NUM will continue to state the wholly unreasonable and unwarranted demand, which it has made since the beginning of the dispute, that every pit should remain open. There is no doubt that a decent deal has been done with NACODS, and that should be the basis of an agreement.

Mr. Barron

Will the Secretary of State clarify what he has just said, as I understand that the NUM has never said that every pit should remain open? Three categories were drawn up in the negotiations under which some pits, even those with coal, would close. Exactly what is going on? Is the right hon. Gentleman like the NCB, which seems to know little about what is happening, even in negotiations?

Mr. Walker

Time and again — before and after every talk — Mr. Scargill has made it clear to miners that he will not tolerate the closure of any pit on economic grounds. That demand is utterly unreasonable. No Labour Government have ever conceded it and no previous leader of the NUM has ever demanded it. That is why many of us believe that Mr. Scargill has demanded it only to keep the conflict going.

Mr. Hardy

Although I share the general distaste for Libya, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the present oppressive social security regulations are scarcely designed to inculcate patriotic fervour in the coalfields? Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on a matter that should come within his responsibilities—the decision concerning Mr. Eaton? Does he agree that the decision suggests to close observers that the NCB will now resume the somewhat inaccurate, often clumsy and always infuriating style of disinformation which infuriated my association, NACODS, to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred? May we take it that the dismissal of Mr. Eaton will not plunge us back into disarray?

Mr. Walker

I can confirm that there is no dismissal of Mr. Eaton.

Mr. Skeet

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the coalminers' strike has been considered in the High Court and been found illegal? Is he prepared to act to ensure that the public are safeguarded? Is he also prepared to act against Mr. Scargill, as that might be in the country's interest?

Mr. Walker

Decisions on legal actions for an offence are not matters for me. The way in which the police have stopped the mobs closing steelworks, power stations and working collieries is a great tribute to them and a great condemnation of those who have organised the mobs.

Mr. Benn

Is the Secretary of State aware that the NCB, through its subsidiary Compower, in Cannock, has trained Libyans for many years, and that there is a contract between Libyan airlines and British Airways? Is it not odiously hypocritical for the Conservative party to raise this matter when President Botha and almost every other reactionary dictatorship in the world is always welcome at No. 10 Downing street? Will the right hon. Gentleman deal with the dispute rather than the slurs?

Mr. Walker

I am sorry to hear the right hon. Gentleman's blistering attack on the Leader of the Opposition, who has vigorously condemned this action.

Mr. Benn

He does not support Botha or the Chileans.

Mr. Walker

The right hon. Gentleman's views are probably best explained by the remarkable interview that he gave on the first day of the Labour party conference to his favourite newspaper, the Morning Star. He said: I do not believe the Labour Party has a future unless it comes to terms properly and finally with Marxism. Unless you are prepared to take on board his tremendous contribution, you are always going to have an element of the party that could float off into the SDP.

Mr. Benn

Answer the question.

Mr. Walker

The right hon. Gentleman's encouraging the NUM to link with Colonel Gaddafi will result in a few more floating off.

Mr. Michael Morris

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the increasing evidence that thousands of miners, especially those in Yorkshire, the north-east, south Wales and Scotland, do not understand and know the details of the NCB's offer? If the talks fail on Wednesday, will he ensure that the Coal Board makes it absolutely clear, so that every miner knows exactly what is on offer?

Mr. Walker

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Orme

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has made absolutely clear our views on the Libyan position. I fully endorse them. We want to see the dispute resolved.

The Secretary of State mentioned the NACODS' agreement, of which I have a copy here. It is qualified on a number of vital issues, including the 6 March proposals and the closure of the five pits. Those closure proposals have not been withdrawn, nor have the 6 March proposals. Will the Secretary of State, therefore, now urge the Coal Board to negotiate on the basis of the "Plan for Coal" and the proposals already submitted to ACAS? Furthermore, will he now give an answer about the extraordinary case of Mr. Michael Eaton? It needs to be fully explained to the House. Will he tell us the truth? Did Mr. Eaton resign this morning? Was he replaced? What is the position?

Mr. Walker

I am informed that Mr. Eaton has not resigned. In the coal mining industry, one union, the British Association of Colliery Management has never supported industrial action, NACODS, after patient negotiation, has reached an agreement which is backed fully by its executive, and one third of the NUM membership, in accordance with the NUM's normal tradition, held a ballot and voted decisively against strike action. The Labour party and the Trades Union Congress must decide whether they are on the side of BACM, NACODS and one third of the miners, or on the side of Arthur Scargill.

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