HC Deb 03 June 1985 vol 80 cc5-7
8. Mr. Beith

asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether, when he next meets the chairman of the National Coal Board, he will discuss the future potential for coal extraction under the sea off the north-east coast of England.

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

I am aware of the prospects for further development of coal mines under the sea in north-east England, and expect to discuss these with the chairman of the National Coal Board from time to time as the board's plans develop.

Mr. Beith

Does the Minister agree that the closure of old pits with expensive production costs will prove to have been a disaster if it is not accompanied by new investment in areas with high potential, such as the North sea? Will he note that the sinking of a new pit in the Amble area could give access to enormous reserves and be of tremendous value in creating employment in that area?

Mr. Hunt

I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question. I was very pleased when, on 26 April, the north-east area of the NCB announced approval for a £3 million drilling rig for Westoe, Wearmouth and Ellington collieries. I was very pleased to hear about that when I went underground at Ellington just over two weeks ago.

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is good potential for the extraction of coal in the north-east only if there are markets for that coal? In that respect, the coal conversion scheme is very important. Can he say how that scheme has been progressing since the strike, in the hope of expanding markets?

Mr. Hunt

Sadly, the shadow of the NACODS position still hangs over the coal industry. Nevertheless, there is still a very good argument for industry to convert to coal, and there is still a useful amount of money in the coal conversion scheme. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in what he said.

Mr. Mason

When the Minister next meets the chairman of the National Coal Board, will he draw his attention to the severe breakdown in industrial relations in the coalfields, caused particularly by the stupid and outdated attitude of the chairman and his deputy, Cowan? Will the Minister also mention the reports that local trade union officials are working five days a week underground and are put on a three-shift system, which makes it difficult to have good trade union relations at the pithead?

Will the Minister note that, having disturbed and misled NACODS, the country is now hovering once more on the brink of a national strike? What will the Minister and the Secretary of State do to rectify and get a grip on the position?

Mr. Hunt

I hope that when the right hon. Gentleman is able to consider carefully what he has just said he will recognise that it was extremely wrong and in bad taste for him to use that inflammatory language at such a crucial stage—[Interruption.]—in the present situation. I ask him to take time to go underground, as I have done at Point of Ayr, at Ellington and at Selby—[Interruption.]—and he will hear from the men underground that all that they want to do is to put the tragic strike behind them and to work together for the future of the industry.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It would have been more appropriate if the right hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason) had asked his supplementary question after the next question. However, he has his answer now.

Mr. Dormand

Is the Minister aware that the multi-million pound drilling project in the north-east has been generally welcomed? Will he urge the National Coal Board, when it talks about pit closures, to give full consideration to the fact that the reserves in the Durham coalfield have been established for some time? Some of that coal will easily be obtained. When the chairman of the National Coal Board talks about the economic aspects of pits, surely that is a matter that should receive the utmost consideration before further pit closures are thought about?

Mr. Hunt

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about extensive coal reserves, because last year the National Coal Board located at least 200 million tonnes of new reserves off Westoe and Wearmouth collieries and has spent about £15.5 million in the past 12 years drilling for coal in the North sea. A further £3 million will be spent this summer. He is also right to stress that the coal industry's future lies in the development of low-cost productive pits, such as the massive Ellington complex. Of course, that has to be taken into account when allocating resources in the future.