HC Deb 18 February 1985 vol 73 cc711-8
2. Mr. Adley

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

3. Mr. Nellist

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

6. Mr. Proctor

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

9. Mr. Douglas

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

10. Mr. Dormand

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the latest position in the coal industry dispute.

11. Mr. Strang

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the dispute in the mining industry.

12. Mr. Parry

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

13. Sir William van Straubenzee

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

19. Mr. Barron

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the mining industry.

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

Since I last made a statement to the House, more pits have returned to normal working, more pits have started to produce coal, and so far during the first few weeks of 1985 more than 17,000 miners have returned to work. Movements of coal and coal stocks at the power stations have remained at a very high level. Sixty-one coal faces have, unfortunately, been lost since the start of the dispute, including 38 working faces.

During the past week Mr. Norman Willis, on behalf of the TUC, has held a series of talks with the chairman of the National Coal Board. As a result of those talks a document was prepared which dealt with a number of crucial matters in connection with the dispute. The National Coal Board stated that it was willing to accept this. The document outlined the duty of the NCB to manage the industry efficiently, it recognised the responsibilities and rights of the unions in representing their members' interests, it outlined a plan to prepare a revised "Plan for Coal" within six months, it set out the need for urgent talks to create the early establishment of the modified procedures agreed with NACODS, and it stipulated that any future closures for any reason would thereafter take place under the modified colliery review procedures, and that all parties would be committed to give full weight to the view of the independent review body.

Unfortunately, this statement was not acceptable to the National Union of Mineworkers, and Mr. Willis outlined to the Coal Board changes that it would seek in such a statement. In the view of the board those changes would have meant that the document failed to meet the main issue of the dispute, and I regret that only yesterday Mr. Scargill, as president of the NUM, made it clear that he would never agree to any closures.

The Government naturally regret that the latest efforts have failed to bring an end to the dispute, particularly as there is on offer a substantial investment programme, good pay for miners, a closure procedure better than has ever been previously available, generous early retirement provisions and substantial resources to bring new enterprises and businesses to mining communities. The Government continue to hope that the damaging industrial action which has taken place without a ballot will swiftly be ended.

Mr. Adley

My right hon. Friend says that the document is not acceptable to the National Union of Mineworkers. Is it not more accurate to say that it is not acceptable to Mr. Scargill? Is it not a tragedy for the miners that he has been unwilling or unable to see the immense benefits that the latest offer gives to the members of his union?

I welcome the efforts of Mr. Willis and his meeting with the Prime Minister, but will my right hon. Friend agree that from now on the less Mr. Scargill is involved in the negotiations, the greater the chance of a negotiated settlement?

Mr. Walker

The past year, during which hundreds of millions of pounds of capital investment has not taken place, markets have been lost and pit faces destroyed, has been a tragedy for the industry. That is why the offer—probably the best since nationalisation — should be accepted quickly.

Mr. Nellist

How does the Secretary of State define "uneconomic"? Does he hold to the definition that he gave to Members of Parliament in July last year, that it was intended to close 12 per cent. of capacity in the industry to save £275 million? If that is the definition, how does he explain his toytown economics of the past 11 months in which he has spent £5,500 million in trying to save the country £275 million?

Mr. Walker

If the hon. Gentleman's economics include the belief that when any militant leader decides to use mob methods he should be given whatever he demands, that would be the most lunatic form of economics that any country could pursue. May I say how pleased I am that last week the Coventry pit returned to normal working.

Mr. Proctor

When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister meets leaders of the TUC to discuss these matters, will she impress upon them the need for the leadership of the NUM to live in the real world, by accepting the code of practice on picketing, the widely accepted provision for balloting, and the necessity for the closure of uneconomic resources?

Mr. Walker

As my hon. Friend knows, that is the view of many of us, and was demonstrated by what happened in the one third of Britain's coalfields that did have a ballot. If the NUM's normal procedures on having a ballot and on peaceful picketing had operated throughout the dispute, it would have ended a long time ago.

Mr. Douglas

Will the Secretary of State resist some of the more outlandish views put to him by his right hon. and hon. Friends, and recognise that it is time for conciliation and a constructive settlement of the dispute, which we all desire? Is he aware that any desire on his part or on the part of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to have Mr. Scargill's head will be decidedly misplaced and will reverberate against a settlement, so we should be constructive and conciliatory, and not vindictive?

Mr. Walker

I have no desire to have Mr. Scargill's head or any other part of his anatomy. A great deal of patience and effort was put into the talks that took place last week, and anybody who studies the statement that was prepared will recognise that it is a constructive and objective statement, which should have been the basis for a settlement.

Mr. Dormand

Does the Secretary of State accept last week's figures from the Department of Trade and Industry, which show that the cost of importing oil and coal has risen by 42 per cent. to £10 billion in 1984, the highest figure ever recorded? Does he further accept the Central Statistical Office's figure of £3.5 billion for the cost of the strike until January? If he does, what possible justification can there be for his boasting of the miserly £10 million that has been given for new jobs in coal mining areas? This dispute is about jobs.

Mr. Walker

I have repeated constantly that the £10 million for the new enterprise company is all that is required at the commencement of its activity. The NCB and I have made it clear that the NCB will review that ceiling when it becomes necessary and there are more applications. If the figures that the hon. Gentleman gave were published, obviously they are accurate, but no one regrets more than I do that this form of industrial action without a ballot has resulted in us importing coal instead of producing our own.

Mr. Strang

Is the Secretary of State aware that his description of the NCB's document would be contradicted by not only the NUM but NACODS? Will he comment on the fact that both Mr. McNestry and Mr. Sampey, the NACODS leaders, stated at the weekend that the Coal Board document involved breaching the NACODS-NCB agreement?

Mr. Walker

The Coal Board has made it clear to NACODS that it is keeping to the sanctity of that agreement. NACODS was concerned with the item that said that normal colliery review procedures would continue until the new modified procedure had been put into place. I am certain that if it were left to NACODS, the Government and the Coal Board, the new procedure would come into place virtually immediately. However, one could not have a situation in which, if the NUM decided to veto the details of such an organisation, there would be no procedures in place whatsoever.

Mr. Parry

Now that the strike is in its 50th week, will the Secretary of State urge his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to have an early meeting with TUC leaders to see whether an agreement can be reached with honour, whereby the gallant miners, who have defended their jobs and communities for nearly a year will not be brutally crushed into submission?

Mr. Walker

Certainly, there is no desire to see miners who have been prevented from having a ballot being in any way humiliated as a result of what has occurred during this period. The Prime Minister has agreed to meet the TUC tomorrow at 11.30 am, and will listen to what it has to say.

Sir William van Straubenzee

Is not the evidence clear that, since we have been talking about cost, the personal cost is not so much to some of those who are on strike but to those who supply them, such as the small shopkeepers and so on and those who supply the industry? Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is very much in the interests of those people that the terms that are now on the table are taken up?

Mr. Walker

There is no doubt that jobs have been lost in many parts of the country, especially by firms supplying the coal industry and those connected with mining communities. One deeply regrets that, and I am sure that those firms join the Government in wishing that there had been a ballot at the outset, which would almost certainly have resulted in there being no dispute.

Mr. Barron

Does the Minister accept that there is a contradiction between his statement that NACODS is happy with its agreement and the NACODS statement several times last week that it is not happy about it because it is not happy at what the NUM is being asked to accept? Will the Minister now be honest enough to admit that the NCB is trying to lay down preconditions which will undermine any agreement with NACODS?

Mr. Walker

The statement prepared following the talks between Mr. Willis and the NCB carries a clause which makes it clear that the procedures agreed with NACODS should be implemented with the greatest possible speed. It is certainly the hope of the Government, the NCB and NACODS that that should happen. I only hope that that is also the object of the NUM.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a negotiated settlement is essential if an orderly return to work is to be achieved and anarchy avoided in the future? Will he clear up a matter that concerns many people about the latest NCB document? Does it represent an agenda for discussion or a final take-it-or-leave-it offer?

Mr. Walker

Mr. Willis's objective in seeking such a document was to ensure that the crunch issue of the dispute was agreed and settled. There will, of course, be other items and issues that both sides will wish to discuss.

Mrs. Currie

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the miners of south Derbyshire, who have worked normally throughout the strike, have just voted by 78.4 per cent. to give their local leaders the power to defy the national executive if necessary? Does that not show that most mineworkers want the right to go to work in peace and a free and democratic union to look after their interests, not one that wishes to play revolutionary political games?

Mr. Walker

The dispute has undoubtedly done considerable damage to NUM unity both locally and nationally. I am sure that many members of the union regret that.

Mr. Rost

Instead of the inquiry demanded by Mr. Scargill, will my right hon. Friend prepare a White Paper acknowledging that because the nationalised monopoly has failed the economy, the consumer and the miners, it is now time for the Government to put privatisation of the coal industry at the top of their priorities?

Mr. Walker

No. It has been perfectly clear throughout the dispute that the Government's intention has been to ensure that the industry in its present form has a stable and prosperous future. I am sure that that is the first priority.

Mr. Foot

Is the right hon. Gentleman really implying that he understands the NACODS agreement better than the NACODS leaders understand it? Why does he not use his influence to get the NACODS agreement properly understood by the NCB?

Mr. Walker

There is no misunderstanding about the agreement. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will use his influence to ensure that the NUM agrees speedily to the details of the NACODS agreement.

Mr. Gregory

If the learned judge was correct in his comment the other day that six pickets was the maximum permitted, will my right hon. Friend have discussions with his colleagues to ensure that that is implemented wherever possible in the coalfields so that the dispute can be resolved at the earliest possible opportunity?

Mr. Walker

The judgment related to certain pits and certain local conditions. It will be necessary to examine the national implications of that judgment.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

Why has the Prime Minister now agreed to meet the TUC to discuss a dispute that has been running for 11 months? Have circumstances changed to alter her view and that of other Ministers that the Government should not be involved in negotiations relating to the dispute? If the Prime Minister has anything to contribute towards a settlement, why did she not become involved at a much earlier stage?

Mr. Walker

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has, rightly, always agreed to see the TUC or any major trade union leader if they request her to do so, and she has done so on this occasion.

Sir John Wells

Can my right hon. Friend make any specific statement about future proposals for the Kent coalfield, which is in a somewhat different position from the monolithic coalfields in the rest of the country?

Mr. Walker

No, Sir. The future of any individual pit or coalfield is a matter for negotiation at regional level.

Mr. Mason

Has the Secretary of State carried out the promise that he made to me on 28 January that he would convey to the chairman of the NCB the request that the future of those miners arrested on the picket line and since then completely acquitted—there are now 1,190 of them —should not be imperilled when the strike is over, or, in other words, that there should be an amnesty for those men? What was the NCB's reply?

Mr. Walker

Yes, I have conveyed that point. I have not yet received a detailed reply from the NCB. When I do, I shall certainly let the right hon. Gentleman have it.

Mr. Powley

In view of the substantial number of miners who have gone back to work of their own free will, will my right hon. Friend consider discussing with the NCB the possibility of the board making a statement to the effect that those miners who choose to stay on strike after a predetermined date — say, in three weeks' time —should be told that their services are no longer required in the industry?

Mr. Walker

No, Sir.

Mr. Lofthouse

Is the Secretary of State aware of the statement made by Mr. Willis on breakfast television this morning that the gap between the two parties is now very small? Will he request his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when she meets the TUC, to consider the miners and the miners' wishes? If the Prime Minister is to bridge that gap—which she certainly has the authority to do—she should base her judgment not on revenge on personalities but on the needs and wishes of the miners, who want a fair and honourable settlement.

Mr. Walker

Yes, Sir. There has been no stage in the dispute when the offer available has not been to the advantage of the miners and their families and communities.

Mr. Spencer

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the words of Mr. Jack Jones, the leader of the Leicestershire NUM, today? He said that the economy of pits has always been a subject that he has discussed both locally and at regional level. If that is good enough for Leicestershire, is it not good enough at national level.

Mr. Walker

Yes, Sir. Not only that, but Mr. Lawrence Daly has put in writing that when he occupied a vital post in the NUM he accepted the essential nature of the need to close uneconomic pits. With the Coal Industry Act 1977, the last Labour Government also made provision for the eradication of uneconomic pits.

Mr. Benn

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Government's decision to abandon the requirement that the NUM should sign a document before talks could begin is welcome, as is the Prime Minister's final realisation that she must meet the TUC in order to bring the dispute to an end? However, is he also aware that despite his regular statements in the House over the past six or eight months to the effect that the strike was crumbling, the Government have not succeeded in getting a majority of NUM members to return to work? Those who have returned have done so because they have been starved into submission. Like the majority of the British people, as revealed in the polls, NACODS and BACM—many senior managers—do not regard the Government's handling of the dispute as in any way creditable.

Mr. Walker

The Government's handling of the dispute cannot be compared with that of the right hon. Gentleman's which, from the beginning, has been full of wholly wrong predictions. Last November, there were 94 pits where no one was present. Today, there are nine. I can make clear the impact of that change upon those whose views are close to those of the right hon. Gentleman by saying that last week Coventry and Bolsover collieries returned to normal working.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the majority of people in this country are fed up to the teeth with hearing about what Mr. Scargill says or believes? Is it not a fact that with 46 per cent. of the miners back at work the battle is already over, and the rest of the miners should go back to work, too, because that is where the future lies?

Mr. Walker

Yes, Sir. The longer the dispute continues, the more damage is done to productive coal faces and to prospective markets. As I said in my statement, the Government hope that the dispute will quickly be ended.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Secretary of State aware that, on a day such as today, it would be regarded as more than a little insecure for a Minister to mislead the House? I have been trying since 14 January to ascertain the size of coal stocks, distributed and undistributed, for the end of the year 1984, and have been unable to get any further than 31 October. Perhaps the Secretary of State should now have the guts to tell the nation just what the coal stocks are so that he cannot be accused of misleading anyone.

Will the Secretary of State also take into account the fact that it would be a good idea if, instead of waiting——

Hon. Members

Too long.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Skinner

Rather than waiting for the Chairman of the Select Committee to tell the nation the real truth about the loss of £2,000 million to the Central Electricity Generating Board, ought not the Secretary of State to admit that the strike has cost more than £100 apiece for every man, woman and child in the country?

Mr. Walker

I can confirm that the strike has been costly and a great tragedy, but it has been most costly to the coal industry, to coal miners and to miners' families. As to stocks, I know that when the January figures are published, the hon. Gentleman will be delighted at how very little they have fallen. I originally gave an assurance that there would be no power cuts in 1985, and I am glad to say that I can now give an assurance that there will be none until well into 1986.

Mr. Skinner

We have had some.

Mr. Walker

It is time that the hon. Gentleman listened to the 90 per cent. of NUM members who are at work in the Bolsover pit.

Mr. Skinner

It does not matter to me if they all go back—I am not giving in.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton

Will the Secretary of State care to comment on an article in The Times this morning which suggests that he has taken over the role of negotiator for the NCB? On a local matter, will he consider the claim by local people in Fife for assistance from the EEC to restore work in the Seafield and Frances collieries?

Mr. Walker

Yes, several forms of help from the EEC are being examined actively by the Coal Board.

Mr. Orme

Will the Secretary of State confirm that Mr. Willis stated during the weekend that the document was not a joint document but was prepared basically by the NCB? Will the Secretary of State ask the Prime Minister to facilitate direct negotiations between the NUM and the Coal Board so that a negotiated, honourable settlement that is acceptable to the NUM and NCB can be arrived at?

Mr. Walker

I think the right hon. Gentleman knows —I made it clear in my statement—that this was not a document prepared by the TUC. I never claimed that. I have claimed, and I am sure that Mr. Willis agrees, that the document was prepared after considerable detailed negotiations and talks with Mr. Willis in an attempt to create conditions in which a settlement could take place. That was the basis of the document, which I think was good. I very much regret that it was not accepted.

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