HC Deb 18 February 1985 vol 73 cc719-20
7. Mr. Loyden

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what was the amount of coal imported into the United Kingdom during January.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. David Hunt)

The information is not yet available.

Mr. Loyden

Does the Minister agree that it is patently clear from the answers given this afternoon that the Government are prepared to absorb the high cost of imported coal and all other elements that contribute towards the cost of the dispute because, as the Institute of Directors said at the weekend—it has been far more forthcoming than the Government — before the Government can carry out their economic and other policies, it is necessary to crush the trade union movement?

Mr. Hunt

When the Government came to office the United Kingdom was a net importer of 2 million tonnes of coal a year. By 1983 the position had been reversed, and the nation had become a net exporter of 2 million tonnes. Sadly, that position has now been reversed because of the dispute, and again the country is a net importer. That is yet another example of the enormous damage that the dispute has done.

Mr. Hannam

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Central Electicity Generating Board has not imported any coal during the dispute? Is that not a further tribute to the flexibility that is built into our electricity generating system?

Mr. Hunt

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The CEGB has not imported any foreign coal since the strike began, because it has not needed to do so. The best way for our great coal industry to proceed and to preserve markets is to return to full production at competitive prices.

Mr. Ashdown

Is the Minister aware that much of the imported coal that is being sold for heating domestic appliances will not burn in them and that that therefore adds considerably to the problems of old-age pensioners, especially those in my area? Will he undertake to look at the calorific value of that coal to ensure that it does the job that it is supposed to do?

Mr. Hunt

Yes, deliberate disruption of supply has caused and inevitably leads to hardship for many customers. I pay tribute to the coal distributive trades for having done their best to care for those who need looking after in our society. That is yet another example of the damage caused by the dispute.

Mr. Woodall

Will the Minister confirm the statement that he gave in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden)? Is he aware of the grave concern that is being expressed by many domestic consumers about the quality of the coal that is now being delivered to them by distributors? Is he further aware that that coal is nothing but muck, that it spits, causes a great deal of hardship and anxiety, and is not worth the money that is being paid for it, which is almost twice as much as the price for domestically produced coal?

Mr. Hunt

For many consumers it is better to have this dirty coal than to have no coal. This country produces very good quality coal, and it is about time that we returned to full production.

Mr. Marlow

Is any restriction imposed on either the private or public sectors with regard to the importation of coal?

Mr. Hunt

I shall look into that question as soon as possible.

Mr. Rowlands

Has the Minister read reports of the evidence that the CEGB has most recently produced for the Sizewell inquiry about forecasts for future international coal prices, which show that they might virtually double within the next five years? If so, does it not cast doubt on the so-called criteria for uneconomic pits and revalue our coal reserves? Does it not also suggest that we should treat premature pit closures with caution?

Mr. Hunt

I reiterate the words of the chairman of the NCB to the annual conference of BACM, when even at that stage he stressed that there is tremendous potential for increasing the future markets available to the coal industry. Those great markets for exports exist, but we can hardly take advantage of them when we are not producing coal.