HC Deb 11 March 1985 vol 75 cc2-6
2. Mr. Proctor

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

5. Mr. Parry

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

7. Mr. Douglas

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

8. Mr. Barron

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

12. Mr. Willie W. Hamilton

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

13. Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

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

18. Mr. Nellist

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

19. Mr. Knox

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

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

This morning there were full attendances at virtually all collieries. I hope that the industry will get back to normal working very quickly and take advantage of the opportunities available to it.

Mr. Proctor

My right hon. Friend will know that that statement meets with the approval of the House as a whole. Will he confirm that there will be no general amnesty and that the National Coal Board will consider individual cases on their individual merits?

Mr. Walker

Yes, I can confirm that.

Mr. Parry

Will the Secretary of State ask for urgent talks with Mr. MacGregor in support of the case for an amnesty for sacked miners? Surely the NCB is adopting double standards. During the strike, to boost the return-to-work figures, it reinstated striking miners who had been sacked. Is the present stance of the board vindictive and hypocritical?

Mr. Walker

No, Sir. Many of those who were convicted during the strike have returned to work during the past week following the decision for a continuation of work.

Mr. Douglas

Would the Secretary of State care to arrange an urgent examination of the happenings this morning at the Comrie colliery, Fife, where, contrary to what he said, the management, in a vindictive, boneheaded and stupid fashion, locked the men out? These were men who wanted to go to their work. They were locked out [Interruption.] This is no laughing matter. Will the Secretary of State arrange for Mr. MacGregor to come to his office immediately with Mr. Wheeler to explain why Scotland should be excluded from the language that he is using today? Will he do that immediately? If not, will he immediately sack them both?

Mr. Walker

I am informed—I hope accurately—that the men marched from Oakley village to Comrie this morning, held a meeting and returned home.

Mr. Douglas

Nonsense. I was there.

Mr. Walker

There are about 25 NUM members at the pit and about the same number of NACODS members.

Mr. Barron

The Secretary of State talks about full attendance at the Comrie colliery this morning. Why were miners sacked last Monday who had been working in collieries in my constituency for two months before the settlement? The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister praised these men in the House over many months, yet they have been sacked. Why have miners been sacked in the Yorkshire coalfield after being found not guilty in the courts? Why have miners whose cases will not be heard by the courts for perhaps many months been suspended from work with no pay? What type of settlement will the industry end up with? Will it be one that will take it forward? Surely the vindictiveness and victimisation that is now being practised will, more than any strike, help to destroy the industry.

Mr. Walker

I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman's assessment of the case. Hundreds of men are working today who were convicted of offences during the strike. The hon. Gentleman's portrayal of the scene is wholly inaccurate.

Mr. Hamilton

Has the right hon. Gentleman's attention been drawn to the report in The Guardian this morning about elderly miners who have committed relatively minor offences and been fined small amounts but, nevertheless, have been dismissed by the Coal Board and stand to lose £30,000 or more redundancy pay? If that is the case, how can any hon. Member or any member of the Government defend such injustice? Will the right hon. Gentleman issue a directive to the Coal Board at all levels to give a firm assurance that that will not happen to such men who are possibly being deprived of their rights? The right hon. Gentleman knows my views on the strike. If the Secretary of State, the Government and the Coal Board persist in this victimisation and terrorisation, there will be no end to the trouble in the coal mines.

Mr. Walker

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's views. There is certainly no Coal Board policy to dismiss people because they are elderly and, therefore, possible candidates for substantial compensation. There is no reason why the Coal Board should hold such a view. All the redundancy payments and early retirement provisions are paid out of a separate fund which has nothing to do with the Coal Board. The Coal Board has no financial vested interest whatsoever in those payments.

Obviously, I cannot give the figures for Polmaise, because the people are not at work. Leaving aside Polmaise, and taking Scotland generally, of 900 people convicted during the strike, 181 have been dismissed, not 900, as is sometimes the impression given by certain people. Having carefully examined all of the individual cases, the Coal Board considers that those dismissals are justified.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the tragedy could have been avoided if the NUM had stuck to its rulebook and held a national ballot?

Mr. Walker

My hon. Friend's view has been completely confirmed this week by a certain publication known to be close to Mr. Scargill and his supporters, called the Socialist Worker. A leading article stated: In the aftermath of the strike one of the criticisms bound to be levelled at the miners is that the strike was lost because there was no ballot. But this ignores one central fact. If there had been a ballot there would not have been a strike.

Mr. Knox

Now that this unfortunate dispute is over, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will do everything that they can to bring about a reconciliation in the coal industry, in keeping with true Conservative principles?

Mr. Walker

Yes. It is encouraging that this morning there have been large attendances at virtually all pits. There is no doubt that the majority of miners want to return to normal working. The Government and the Coal Board will do everything that they can to encourage that.

Mr. Foot

Has the Secretary of State had time to study the disgraceful interview yesterday given by Mr. MacGregor to the Sunday Telegraph? Having read that interview, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Mr. MacGregor is as unfit to run an amnesty as he is to run the coal industry? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept Mr. MacGregor's statement in that interview that the Secretary of State has had nothing whatsoever to do with any of the decisions? Is Mr. MacGregor telling the truth? Would it not be better to send Mr. MacGregor back to America as soon as possible?

Mr. Walker

On the radio programme yesterday Mr. MacGregor made clear the relationship which always prevails between the Government and a nationalised industry. I saw nothing in the Sunday Telegraph article yesterday—about ensuring that no amnesty was given to people who had committed serious crimes—that differed from the view of either the Leader or the Deputy Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Andy Stewart

Will my right hon. Friend assure those miners who chose to go to work before the strike ended that they will be afforded protection? We do not want a repetition of the incidents that we saw on television on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights with the Watson family in south Wales. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that those union members in Yorkshire who chose to go to work before the strike ended and who have not been able to go to work since last Tuesday will be afforded protection? Such behaviour is unacceptable in this country.

Mr. Walker

It is important that proper protection is given to those who under difficult conditions courageously exercised their legal right and freedom to go to work. I find it interesting that those who ask for an amnesty for those who have committed grievous crimes——

Mr. Barron

What about those found not guilty?

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Walker

—of violence against others are the same people who argue that no forgiveness should be shown to those who legally went to work during the dispute.

Mr. Mason

How does the Secretary of State react to MacGregor's words over the weekend that people were discovering the price of insubordination and insurrection and, by God, was he going to make it stick?

Does the Secretary of State agree that those are the words of an angry, foolish old man and cannot be a prerequisite to conciliation and negotiation? The Secretary of State should tell him to curb his tongue. Will the right hon. Gentleman now take the lead in encouraging negotiations between both sides, and will he not allow the overtime ban to be a bar to those negotiations? The ban has been running since 17 weeks before the strike, and it should not be a bar to negotiations beginning.

Mr. Walker

Alas, many miners throughout the country are finding that during the dispute appalling damage was done which was completely unjustified on any basis. I am afraid that they have paid a heavy price and are continuing to do so. With regard to the overtime ban, I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman, with his knowledge of the industry, does not recognise that the industry's best opportunity of recovery from the disaster of the past year is to get back to normal working.

Mr. Skeet

Will my right hon. Friend say how many coal faces have collapsed, what money he is prepared to spend on them and what can be done to think positively and not destructively about the coal dispute?

Mr. Walker

During the dispute 39 working faces have been destroyed. Apart from that, a great deal of machinery has been damaged and a great deal of repair work will have to be done before any form of normal working can be achieved. I am afraid that instead of having, as the industry would have done, £800 million of capital investment last year and a similar amount in the coming year, we now have the problem that substantial capital investment will have to go into restoring the appalling damage that has been done.

Mr. Wallace

By the creation of NCB (Enterprise) Ltd. the Government have accepted, to some extent at least, the need to put new jobs into communities threatened with closure. If and when a closure is threatened, will the Government support, including with financial support, the deferral of any closure until adequate new employment opportunities have been created?

Mr. Walker

If we did, it would be a different policy from that pursued by the Lib-Lab pact when it was in operation.

Mr. Yeo

As the benefits of the Government's resolute handling of the dispute will be felt by the country as a whole and not just by the coal industry's customers, will my right hon. Friend use his best endeavours to ensure that the cost of the dispute isborne by the country as a whole and not by the industry's customers?

Mr. Walker

The cost of the dispute, in all its forms, will be a complicated calculation. It will have effects over several years in both directions. The overall cost is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Hardy

In support of the reconciliation to which the Secretary of State has already favourably referred and which is urgently needed in the industry, will the right hon. Gentleman consider the case of a number of my constituents who have been sacked by the National Coal Board, although their cases have not yet been decided by the courts, and who have been given no opportunity to explain their position or defend themselves? Does he accept that that is an embittering factor at a time when we should see the healing of wounds?

Mr. Walker

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the objective of the National Coal Board is to look at every individual case on its merits. If there are any cases in which that is not being done, the board will be willing to re-examine them very carefully. If any mistake is made, the power of the industrial tribunals in that respect is considerable.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson

In any future discussions on pay, will my right hon. Friend encourage the chairman of the board to spend more money on an improved bonus production scheme—an area in which Mr. Scargill so lamentably failed?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who talk about continuing the dispute, and about anarchy and guerrilla warfare, are more concerned to disguise their own failure as leaders of the industry than to hell) those in the industry who have already suffered enough misery?

Mr. Walker

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. There is no doubt that Britain's coal reserves and the skills of its miners and mining engineers are such that, with high productivity, the industry has a good and secure future. In pay agreements and in any other sphere, it is in the industry's interests to ensure that there is maximum encouragement for improved productivity.

Mr. Orme

Will the Secretary of State, having heard the genuine and various points of view put to him this afternoon by Opposition Members, accept that in the present situation the position of the NCB is untenable? Will he also accept that the situation in Scotland is unacceptable? If there had been a negotiated settlement, as in 1972 and 1974, the present difficulties would not have arisen, and the problems could have been resolved without the bitterness that has been engendered in the industry.

Mr. Walker

That is why I regret that the Opposition did not do far more to encourage the ACAS compromise proposals, and far more to move Mr. Scargill from the completely intransigent position that he adopted.