HC Deb 21 February 1985 vol 73 cc1199-207 3.31 pm
Mr. Tony Benn(by private notice) (Chesterfield)

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the mining dispute following the decision of the National Union of Mineworkers' executive yesterday.

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

Mr. Norman Willis, on behalf of the TUC, held a series of discussions with the chairman of the National Coal Board. As a result of those discussions, proposals were prepared by the board which expressed the basis upon which an agreement could be reached on the main issues of the dispute. Those proposals took account of the views Mr. Willis had expressed to the board. Over the weekend, the TUC showed that paper to the NUM executive, which asked for amendments to be made.

The National Coal Board confirmed to the TUC that this was its final paper. The TUC then requested a meeting with the Prime Minister. The TUC confirmed to the Prime Minister that the proposals under discussion would, if agreed to, constitute the final agreement on all of the matters with which they dealt, and that they were not a document which would be an agenda or form the basis of any further negotiations on these issues.

The TUC explained to the Prime Minister that it had a number of difficulties with the document, and my right hon. Friend undertook that I would convey its views to the National Coal Board. That was done, and subsequently the seven TUC leaders asked to have further talks with me before they met the National Coal Board. During those talks I clarified the Government's desire to see that the new NACODS procedures were brought into operation as speedily as possible, and that it was the National Coal Board's intention that they would be in place by the time they were needed. I explained that neither the board nor the Government could accept a position where, if the NUM refused to agree to the detail of the independent body, no review procedures would exist because that might have the effect of the NUM being able to frustrate any reasonable plans for closure. The document was therefore amended to express the desire of all parties to see that the new procedures were in operation by 1 June, which would be well in time for any disputed closure to be referred to the independent body.

The document was further reordered to meet the NUM's anxiety that its sequence as originally drafted could have implied that disputed closures would take place prior to going through the proper procedures. A reordering of the document made it perfectly clear that a disputed closure would take place only at the end of the agreed procedures.

I share the TUC's disappointment that the NUM executive has rejected the proposals which had been made. The NUM executive has now rejected proposals in seven rounds of talks, the compromise proposal put forward by ACAS and the proposals prepared following discussions between the TUC and the National Coal Board.

I deplore the fact that the generous and reasonable offers now available to miners continue to be rejected by the NUM executive. Those coalfields which originally balloted voted overwhelmingly against strike action. I can only urge those miners still on strike, though deprived of a ballot, to return swiftly to normal working so that the damage being done to their industry, their families and their communities can come to an end.

Mr. Benn

Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement entirely fails to explain how the executive and delegate conference of the NUM unanimously rejected conditions which were much worse than the ones discussed over the weekend? Is he also aware that the leadership of Arthur Scargill, Peter Heathfield and Mick McGahey—the subject of unfavourable comment in the House—has throughout earned the unanimous support of the executive and the delegate conference?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that the NUM executive is, and remains, ready to meet for discussions without preconditions, but that after the enormous sacrifices made by the miners, two thirds of whom are still on strike—87 per cent. of those who have ever been on strike are still on strike—it is not prepared to accept the 13 per cent. cut in its industry which Mr. Michael Eaton announced on television? Is he also aware that the public is beginning to understand that the Government planned, financed and sustained the strike, and now want it to continue, and that that, among many other reasons, is why there is a substantial fall in the Government's popularity as well as in the value of the pound?

Mr. Walker

The right hon. Gentleman's opening remarks are a gross insult to seven leading trade union leaders. For the executive of the NUM to say that not just Mr. Norman Willis, but people like Moss Evans, David Basnett, Ray Buckton and Bill Keys went back with a document which was worse than the one they took last Sunday is a total criticism of those trade union leaders. No one could look at those documents and say that this was a much worse proposal.

As to the support for the three NUM leaders mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, they are the only NUM leaders in history who have divided their union from top to bottom.

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

It is a personal disappointment that the talks have broken down, and my right hon. Friend has told us why. However, those miners who have been working since the strike began are becoming highly agitated by the fact that their outstanding pay award has not been implemented. Has my right hon. Friend any contingency plans for talking to them?

Mr. Walker

This is obviously a matter for the National Coal Board. The figures which the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) gave about the number of miners now at work are totally and completely inaccurate. In fact, within the next few days I expect more than half the NUM membership to be at work. The other two unions are at work. Yesterday, Mr. Vincent rushed out of the meeting and gleefully said, "We rejected all the proposals". When he said "We", he forgot that in his own area 83 per cent. of NUM members are at work.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that substantial concessions have been made by the NUM, including acceptance of the modified colliery review procedure agreed at ACAS between the NCB and NACODS last October? That was reaffirmed this morning. Therefore, the misunderstanding which has arisen over the NCB document — it is not a TUC document—could be resolved by immediate direct talks between the full NUM executive and the NCB. Did not the TUC also attempt to facilitate those direct talks? Therefore, instead of insisting that there will be no further talks, will the Secretary of State facilitate such a meeting so that a negotiated settlement can be agreed and this damaging and painful dispute brought to an end?

Mr. Walker

I wish to make it perfectly clear that the Coal Board has said — with the Government's full support—that there will be no further talks on the main issues in the document. The reason why there will be no further talks is that the Trades Union Congress came to the National Coal Board, had a series of talks, returned suggesting further amendments, which were made, sat at No. 10, and all seven TUC leaders confirmed that this agreement would not be subject to further negotiation. The Government and the Coal Board stick to that position.

Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that Mr. Willis was hoodwinked? Does he agree that many thousands of ordinary decent working miners have been hoodwinked by Mr. Scargill and his cronies into supporting what is now exposed as a political, not an industrial, strike? Does he agree that the solution is in their hands, and that they should return to work?

Mr. Walker

We know that the Left wing of Labour party politics is currently conducting a campaign against Mr. Willis. It was not just Mr. Willis but a wide range of trade union leaders, from left and right of the spectrum, who took the decisions. We must be clear that anyone who makes accusations about hoodwinking makes them against seven of the top trade union leaders in the United Kingdom.

On the question of who has been led astray, I remind the House that for the first time in living memory miners were deprived of a ballot. They were then subject to mob picketing, never previously witnessed in this country. The tragedy is that, although the best offer has been made since nationalisation, miners' families and mining communities have suffered more than at any time since the war.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the policy of continuous negotiation and of dribbling out concessions has probably extended the strike? Does he agree that there is a strong likelihood that the strike will come to an end more quickly if there is a clear pause in negotiations?

Mr. Walker

At the time of the ACAS compromise proposal it was perfectly reasonable for the Coal Board to say that there was no point in having further talks with Mr. Scargill. The board said that until Mr. Scargill confirmed that he was willing to accept the reality that uneconomic pits must face the prospect of closure there was no point in having further negotiations. Recently, at the request of the TUC, further negotiations have taken place. Mr. Scargill slapped the TUC in the face in the same way that he slapped ACAS in the face. As far as I am concerned, talks about the issues dealt with in the document have come to an end.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there has been a genuine and sustained effort by Mr. Willis and the TUC to help to solve the dispute, and that once again Mr. Scargill and his supporters are out of line with TUC thinking and the way in which industrial relations in the coal industry should be conducted?

Mr. Walker

The seven trade union leaders in the TUC group made a detailed examination. Anyone who objectively studies the documents now available will recognise that it is lunacy not to obtain a settlement based on them.

Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)

Will the Secretary of State explain to the House the role of Michael Eaton in the dispute, who last weekend made statements about negotiations that were taking place in London when he was in Yorkshire? Will the right hon. Gentleman further explain why he has not used his office to bring both sides of the dispute to the table and to chair a meeting so that sensible face-to-face negotiations may take place instead of little lads scurrying to and fro with letters? Will the right hon. Gentleman now come to his senses and allow negotiations to take place?

Mr. Walker

I can only say that talks have taken place across the table between the two parties on seven occasions and after every.meeting Mr. Scargill's boast has been that he has not moved an inch. I am not sure which "little lads" the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but if he is referring to the seven trade union leaders who have done their best during this past week, I find that a rather strange comment.

Mr. Francis Maude (Warwickshire, North)

As the NUM executive has made it quite plain that it is not prepared to make any concessions whatever, will my right hon. Friend make it clear that there is now no basis on which talks can proceed, and that the only hope of ending the strike lies in a continued return to work?

Mr. Walker

With regard to the crux issues which are dealt with in the document, the NCB has made its final position clear. That has been rejected by the NUM executive. Until the executive accepts those proposals, I fear that the strike must go on. But it is in the interests of the industry that every striking miner should recognise that he will serve his industry best by returning immediately to work.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Is the Secretary of State aware that Geoff Kirk, who had been at the NCB since 1947 and who had advised every chairman, and Ned Smith, the chief negotiator, who had been at the NCB since 1947 and who had advised every chairman, have left the board? Is it not a fact that they said that they could no longer stomach what the board, Ian MacGregor and the Government were doing to the miners and the mining industry?

Mr. Walker

What the board was offering in terms of pay, investment, early retirement programmes and businesses for mining communities was better than anything offered by any previous National Coal Board or under any Labour Government.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

How many more coal faces can the NCB afford to lose as a result of the strike before it is forced, even against its wishes, to withdraw the offer now on the table?

Mr. Walker

The situation is already serious in that 38 working faces have been lost during the dispute. Thus there has been a serious deterioration in the industry's capacity. Unfortunately, many of those faces were in pits that had a good future. Miners must recognise that if the strike continues for much longer considerable damage will be done to their prospects.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Does the Secretary of State realise that the 130,000 miners who are still on strike will take great comfort from the fact that the decision of the NUM executive to reject the document was unanimous? While he is checking his figures, will he bear in mind that 70 per cent. of the Scottish miners are on strike, 90 per cent. of the Yorkshire miners are on strike and that 98 per cent. of the South Wales miners are on strike? Despite the documents that the right hon. Gentleman has referred to, this strike will not be over until every one of the 600 miners sacked during the dispute is reinstated and walks back through the pit gates with their colleagues.

Mr. Walker

Given the hon. Gentleman's interest in statistics, I am sure that he would like to know first that 78 per cent. of the miners in the colliery in his constituency are working. I only hope that he goes and listens to them. His figures are totally wrong. The hon. Gentleman is just clinging to the hope that the militant Left who organised this strike has some possibility of surviving. I am glad to say that it has lost this strike. It has done great damage to the Labour party and is now damaging the TUC; but, above all, it has damaged the miners.

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)

Is it not clear that from the start of the dispute Scargill has been much more interested in play acting the British Lenin than in ensuring the well-being of NUM members? Is it not now time to stop just urging those on strike to go back to work? Should we not lay it on the line and say that if the strike continues for much longer we shall not be able to continue with the generous offers that are on the table and that mines will have to start to close?

Mr. Walker

I am certain that miners recognise fully the damage that is being done to machinery, to coal faces and to the prospects for their local communities. I believe that many miners have remained out for a range of reasons, including a strong loyalty to the union. I hope that they now recognise, particularly after the events of this week, that loyalty should not apply only to the present leadership of their union.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Is the Secretary of State aware that many Members on the Opposition Benches make a sharp distinction between the mass of the miners and the leadership of the NUM? Nevertheless, will the right hon. Gentleman understand that the mass of moderate miners throughout the country are deeply disturbed by the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that £4.5 billion, which the strike has cost, is a very good investment from the Government's view? The Prime Minister has talked about "the enemy within"—meaning the miners—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The Minister had better understand that moderate miners believe that. They are frightened by statements of very senior Ministers. Will the right hon. Gentleman, who is much more moderate in these matters than his leader, go back to Mr. Willis and see whether he and Mr. Willis can have one more try to solve this serious and damaging dispute in which there can be no winners?

Mr. Walker

In the speech by the Prime Minister to which the hon. Gentleman referred she made the same distinction as he makes between the present leaderhip of the NUM and the miners. She made it clear that she thought that the enemy was not ordinary, decent miners, but the manner in which part of the leadership operates.

Whatever the cost of the dispute, it was the Chancellor who agreed to a massive investment programme for the years to come in the industry, for hundreds of millions of pounds to pay for generous early retirement provisions and for millions of pounds to be spent on a new enterprise company to bring new jobs to mining communities. When one examines the reality of the Government's performance, there can be no doubt that they have made the most generous offers to the miners since nationalisation. Mr. Willis has shown great patience and was willing to work hard with his colleagues. I am afraid that it was not Mr. Willis who brought the talks to an end, but the NUM executive.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

Bearing in mind that Mr. Buckton was one of the magnificent seven of the TUC, is it not time that he went back to his railwaymen and started the coal trains moving again?

Mr. Walker

There is not much need; they are all moving.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

Is it not extraordinary that throughout the dispute the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have repeatedly shirked their responsibilities on the pretext that the dispute is between management and trade unions and that they have refused to intervene since the strike started? Will the right hon. Gentleman now say whether he is prepared to intervene and to use his good will to initiate further negotiations between the unions and the NCB?

Mr. Walker

No, Sir.

Mr. John Mark Taylor (Solihull)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the jobs of other industrial workers, such as machine tool workers in the west midlands, are far from safe and that they would give their right arms for such an offer?

Mr. Walker

Yes. One of the things upon which I reflected as I spoke for several hours to the seven trade union leaders in my office was that none of them had had an offer for their union like that made to the miners.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Does the Secretary of State recognise that, whether he likes it or not, in a democracy miners have the right to withdraw their labour and to go back when they have a settlement? The right hon. Gentleman believes that the offer is generous, but obviously the miners do not accept the terms. Does he accept that the country needs the coal and to have the miners back at work? There might have been several discussions to date, but no direct discussions have taken place with the third party involved—the Government, who have the power and the responsibility and could, with a positive attitude to the dispute, resolve it. Why do not the Government call the two sides together and resolve the dispute?

Mr. Walker

The two sides have met seven times. On one, they both went to ACAS, which is generally accepted as a genuine machinery for arbitration. ACAS made a compromise proposal which the NCB accepted and the NUM rejected. More recently, to the knowledge of the NUM, with the NUM discussing amendments to the document, the TUC has attempted to bring about a solution but has been rejected. The only conclusion that the House should come to is that we are dealing with an NUM leadership which has not been interested in a reasonable and sensible settlement. Our view is now shared by 47 per cent. of NUM members who are at work, and I believe that it will be accepted by many more.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that 83 per cent. of miners in my constituency are at work and that the pit at which they work is working near normally and is in profit? Is he also aware that they strongly welcome the efforts that the Government have made in an attempt to bring about an honourable settlement? Does he agree that it is only justice to those men who are working that those who persist in refusing to work must be served notice to quit as they clearly do not want jobs?

Mr. Walker

No, Sir; I do not believe that it would be in any way justified to give notices to quit. When miners consider the basis of what is on offer, its fairness and how the TUC has tried to intervene to their benefit, I believe that they will return to work. I shall have no part in saying that, at any given moment, miners, who might have been kept out by all sorts of intimidation, should be dismissed because they have stayed out. As for the numbers who have returned to work, I am pleased to hear the figures for my hon. Friend's constituency, but in north Nottinghamshire, 95 per cent. are back at work, in the south midlands, 80 per cent. are back. In the western area, 82 per cent. are back and in north Derbyshire, 76 per cent. are back. The pattern is being copied all over the country.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Will the Secretary of State stop attempting to mislead the House and make a proper statement about the document that was rejected by the NUM conference today, as it is not that the TUC recommended acceptance of it at the weekend? The document is nothing more than the NCB's and the Government's bottom line, and they want preconditions. The Secretary of State should be a bit more honest and state the facts. He is saying that there are no more negotiations and accepting preconditions, which many trade union leaders have said that it is nonsense for anyone ever to accept.

Mr. Walker

I repeat that seven trade union leaders said categorically at 10 Downing street that the document would be an agreement, not a point on an agenda or for further discussions. If the hon. Gentleman is accusing anyone of deception, he is accusing seven distinguished trade union leaders.

Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)

My right hon. Friend has identified the position as adopted by the leaders of the TUC, the position as adopted by the NCB and the position as adopted by the Government. Has he at any stage during the past 24 hours received a declaration of the position as adopted by the leadership of the Opposition?

Mr. Walker

No, Sir.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Will the Secretary of State spend a little time reflecting on what he has said? Is he saying that his prescription is to sit in the trenches and wait until the men go back to work and, in effect, declare their disloyalty to their union, thus breaking it? Is that what he wants? Ninety-nine per cent. of my miners are still out on strike and will not break their loyalty, not to Mr. Scargill, not to a personality, but to their trade union. The right hon. Gentleman ought to reflect upon what he said and call together the two parties directly involved and live up to his office as Secretary of State.

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman ought to reflect upon what he has said—that because the miners in his constituency have a great loyalty not to Mr. Scargill but to their union they will not break that loyalty. However, the miners are also saying that until Mr. Scargill, as the leader of the union, is satisfied that his demands will be met they will stay on strike. There is no way in which Mr. Scargill's absurd and extreme demands will be met.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

Does not the Secretary of State owe it to the House to tell it what is in his mind about his future actions, which may or may not harm relationships in the mining communities? The Secretary of State said on the radio this morning that if 51 per cent. of the miners go back to work that will not be a magic number. Can he tell us what is the magic number which would trigger off action by the Secretary of State?

Mr. Walker

I believe that it is very important for the whole House to encourage miners to return to normal working as quickly as possible. I am sure that the board would be willing and eager to put into operation the very generous offers that it has made to the miners. I hope that the NUM executive will reflect upon that fact and will quickly accept the very good offers that are available.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the refusal by Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers to accept the proposals of the Trades Union Congress come as no surprise whatsoever, in view of the fact that Arthur Scargill set out not to preserve and save the remaining pits that are still in operation but to attempt to bring down the Government?

Mr. Walker

While I cannot speak for the motives of Mr. Scargill, I can say that his actions have done great damage to miners, mining families and mining communities.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the reason why some of us believe that the TUC delegation was hoodwinked was that when the matter was put to the national executive committee every member, including the miners' leaders in those areas that have been working since the strike began, voted to reject the deal? Every one of them said that the deal was worse than the deal of the previous week.

Will the Secretary of State also bear in mind that, although he seems to be cock-a-hoop about miners returning to work, he ought to look at the area that I represent where miners have returned to work? The fact is that 30 per cent. of the miners are still on strike and coal is costing as much as £200 a tonne to mine. The Government and the National Coal Board have to pay the wages not only of the managers and deputies but of the working miners. Instead of coal being mined at the average cost of £38 per tonne which obtained before the strike, even in those areas where only 30 per cent. of the miners came out on strike it is costing five times as much to mine coal.

The Secretary of State ought to be ashamed of himself. He is forcing the taxpayer to foot this bill for the rest of the strike.

Mr. Walker

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned it, I shall give the figure for his constituency. The fact is that 90.7 per cent. of the miners there are at work. I accept that that is not true of the whole of north Derbyshire because the hon. Gentleman does not have the same influence over the rest of the area.

On the cost of coal, I can only say that the result of this strike, called without a ballot, is that markets have been lost instead of markets having been gained. If during the past year we had put into the industry the capital investment that was available, we should be gaining new markets and producing cheaper coal in the interests of miners.