§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. David Hunt)
I beg to move,That the draft Redundant Minerworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 11th March, be approved.On 26 November 1984, I commended to this House a draft order amending the redundant mineworkers payments scheme to loosen the link between entitlement to RMPS weekly basic benefit and pension supplement and eligibility for unemployment benefit. The order was necessary because one consequence of the long and damaging strike in the industry was that some redundant miners found themselves disqualified for receiving unemployment benefit for the duration of the dispute by virtue of section 19(1) of the Social Security Act 1975.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
I am sorry to intervene so early in the Minister's speech, but will he bear in mind that in my constituency I have miners who became redundant last year? Although the dispute appears to be over, the Department takes the view that it is not yet resolved, and still denies them the benefit to which the Minister referred.
§ Mr. Hunt
The hon. Member uses one word wrongly. It is the view not of the Department but of the independent adjudication officer. I very much hope that during the course of this debate hon. Members on both sides of the House will have an opportunity to raise points of that nature, to which I shall reply in detail at the conclusion of the debate.
The strike is now over, and I was encouraged to hear this afternoon that the NUM executive will be recommending to a delegate conference next Tuesday that the overtime ban should be lifted. I am sure that I speak for the whole industry when I say that we all look forward now to a return to normal working next Wednesday. The message for the future must be, "Let us get going and put this strike well behind us," but the consequences of the strike are going to be with us for some time to come. The main purpose of the order is to deal with one such consequence.
Hon. Members who take an interest in the operation of the scheme will be aware that the level of basic weekly benefit paid to men aged 55 or over on redundancy depends upon the level of their pre-redundancy earnings in the tax year which preceded that in which their redundancy date falls. Either because they were on strike, or as I he result of the disruption in the industry, many miners had exceptionally low earnings in the tax year 1984–85, and if they took redundancy from 6 April they would therefore, under existing rules, be entitled to significantly reduced benefits. The Government intend to do something about that situation.
The National Coal Board and the Government have said that there is no question of compulsory redundancy. Miners who wish to stay in the industry will be able to do so, but those who do not will of course be entitled to payments under this scheme. The Government have always made it clear that they are determined to ensure that those who take redundancy should be properly treated.
The draft order therefore amends the definition of "pre-redundancy earnings" so that, for the vast majority of men 762 who take redundancy in 1985–86, their basic benefit will be based on whichever is the greater—their earnings in the tax year 1983–84 or in 1984–85. Those working miners whose earnings in 1984–85 were better than their earnings in 1983–84 will be able to take advantage of that fact, subject only to the normal maximum limit on earnings of £160 a week for benefit purposes. For those who did not work normally through 1984–85, however, the new definition, together with the new table updating benefits as in previous years, will mean that the level of their weekly benefits, including unemployment benefit, should be broadly the same as if they had left the industry in 1984–85.
There is another main change in the draft order which applies to very few people, but it is nevertheless important. This offers further protection to men with breaks in service due to sickness or incapacity. I know that this subject is close to the hearts of many Members on both sides of the House who have constituency mining interests. The further change proposed, though modest, will, I hope, be widely welcomed.
Under the existing rules, a period of more than 26 weeks during which an employee was in receipt of an incapacity pension under a suitable scheme established or continued by the board does not break continuity of employment for scheme purposes. This rule has served to protect numbers of men who would otherwise have had breaks in service due to incapacity. But it has not helped men who, though taking redundancy now, suffered such breaks before 1979 when they lacked sufficient service to qualify for a pension.
§ Mr. Hunt
I should like to finish this point.
The change therefore ensures—and this may answer the question that the hon. Gentleman is going to raise—that if, but for a lack of suitable prior qualifying service, a man would have been entitled to such a pension, he will be treated under the scheme as if he had received one.
If the order is approved the change will come into operation on 1 April 1985. However, to ensure consistency of treatment, ex gratia payments will be made to all those men who took redundancy between the effective date of introduction of the original safeguards — 11 March 1981—and the introduction of the amendment.
The amendment order is designed to ensure that the redundant mineworkers' payment scheme continues to serve the purpose for which it was introduced. It is no radical new departure; it builds upon what has gone before.
§ Mr. O'Brien
The Minister referred to workers who take redundancy now and said that they would benefit under the scheme. Is he aware that anyone who accepts redundancy today operates under the shadow of section 19 of the Coal Industry Act and that no benefit is due to him?
§ Mr. Hunt
I am aware of that. The hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) is referring to my earlier comments, not the change to which I am currently referring. Of course, what he says is extremely important and I shall respond with comments which I hope will be of help.
Provided that the industry returns to normal working next Wednesday, the problem will disappear for the 763 future. As I said on Monday, we look forward to a major decision on 16 April which will enable those who suffer up to the moment when the industry returns to normal working to be dealt with properly. I am sure that that matter will be raised by a number of hon. Members.
The order emphasises the Government's continuing support for the National Coal Board as it attempts to attack and tackle the problems which must be overcome if the coal industry is to have a successful future. I hope that the order will be welcomed by Members on both sides.
§ Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)
The scope of the order is so wide that we can debate the coal industry generally tonight. We are talking about jobs in the coal industry. I do not want to repeat what the Minister said. We welcome the pre-redundancy earnings provision. We also welcome the amendment to the original article 17(2). I shall not restate what the Minister said about that.
I hope that the Minister will consider the position of men aged 55 and over who are made redundant on or after 1 January 1986. Under the scheme, I understand that they will be disqualified for receiving weekly basic scheme benefit unless the scheme is amended. That anomaly arises from the fact that for a person to qualify for weekly benefit, he must register as unemployed and receive unemployment benefit. In certain circumstances a person might still qualify when he does not receive unemployment benefit. However, the scheme does not provide for a person who is disqualified for receiving unemployment benefit. That applies to many workers who, in the tax year 1984–85, have paid insufficient national insurance contributions to meet the requirements for unemployment and sickness benefit in the benefit year commencing 1 January 1986.
The Secretary of State is absent, and I am not complaining about that, but the Minister will remember how he talked in a polite and dignified way about the bargain that had been made. There was a problem about 400 men who were serving their redundancy notice when the strike began. That was taken care of by an amendment. A union circular said:As RMPS weekly benefit is paid four weeks in arrears, the next payment will be made on the 11th January, 1985, and subsequent payments at 4 weekly intervals, thereafter.In regard to a problem about pensions, the circular said:This anomaly likewise has been rectified and the men in question will receive a lump sum to compensate them for the loss to the 8th December, 1984, with restoration of the regular payments.Although we welcome the two aspects of the scheme that the Minister has dealt with, there is a further anomaly. I hope that he will consider it, because it will affect people over 55 who become redundant on or after 1 January 1986. There was a dignified and positive solution to the other problem. There was nothing yah-boo about it. The Secretary of State was constructive and gave a moderate and considered opinion on it.
§ Mr. Eadie
My hon. Friend is very moderate and conciliatory in all things that he says.
The order that we are debating unavoidably spills over into the miners' strike and what will happen in future. It presents the House with an opportunity to make its views 764 known. The ending of the miners' dispute produced in its wake an increase in redundancies, and, as a consequence, the necessity to update the redundancy scheme, as was known to all hon. Members who take an interest in these things. What a difference it would have made to the climate of the debate if the dispute had ended in an honourable, principled settlement. We must accuse the Government of acting in bad faith because it did not end in that way. It was not a settlement but victory that they wanted. In her address to both Houses in the United States, the Prime Minister quoted Bismarck:Do I want war? No! I want victory.That sums it up.
I substantiate my assertion of bad faith by drawing the attention of the House to column 695 of Hansard of 4 February. The Under-Secretary will recollect that in that debate on 4 February—
§ Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. To the best of my knowledge, we are supposed to be talking about the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order. It is proper for the hon. Gentleman to introduce this, but, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am having great difficulty in relating previous debates on the coal strike to an amendment to a particular scheme which is before the House now.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
I have got the substance of the hon. Gentleman's point of order. It is in order to pursue it, as the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) has been doing, so long as it is related to the order before the House.
§ Mr. Eadie
I shall relate it to what has been happening in the industry. I got the concurrence of the Minister that this is a wide-ranging debate because we are talking about redundancies and jobs in the mining industry. The hon. Gentleman tried to pull the same trick during a recent debate on pensions. If he cannot understand the issues, I am sorry for him.
§ Mr. Michael Morris
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to be clear about this matter as I wish to take part in the debate. Are you saying that this is a debate on the whole of the miners' strike since it began and the future prospects for the coal industry? If it is, I know where I stand.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I was not saying that. The hon. Gentleman knows the nature of the order before the House. Provided that speeches are related to that, they are in order. The Chair will decide whether hon. Members are in order, not those taking part in the debate.
§ Mr. Skinner
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish to be helpful to the smooth running of this place. I appreciate that you have a difficult job. In your judgment, you must take account of the fact that it was a 12-month strike that resulted in redundancies or otherwise, with the £2.5 billion that the Chancellor told us was a worthwhile investment but which has cost the country dear. Therefore, is it not fair to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) has trodden narrowly on the order? If we are to talk about the loss of money involved in trying to smash the NUM, there is a large gap in the fence, and I hope that my hon. Friend can get through it.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. This is a three-hour debate. The longer we take discussing what is in or out of order, the larger the number of hon. Members who will not be called. The Chair will decide what is in or out of order.
§ Mr. Eadie
I regret the interruptions, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because they prevent hon. Members from contributing to the debate. I have many points to make, and I assure you that they are entirely in order.
In a debate on 4 February 1985, the Under-Secretary of State said:The Leader of the Opposition shouted to me about the NACODS agreement, and I should make it clear that, if the NACODS agreement is accepted, there will of course be no need for any written undertakings. It is a written agreement and can be accepted by the NUM. It has always been on the table.My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) said:What the Under-Secretary of State is saying is very important. Are we to take it that the suggestion put forward from the Dispatch Box is deliverable by him through the NCB, and that there will be no request to the NUM to give a written undertaking to the NCB in that regard?The Under-Secretary replied:I have made it quite clear and will repeat again that if the NUM wishes to accept the NACODS agreement, there is no need for any written undertakings of any sort. I have made that absolutely clear".—[Official Report, 4 February 1985; Vol. 72, c. 695.]That is why I said that the Government have acted in bad faith. They should know that before the decision of the special conference to end the dispute by an organised return to work, the full national executive of the NUM decided to accept the NACODS agreement in full. I was authorised by the national executive to telephone the Secretary of State for Energy to inform him of that decision. That would have been an honourable ending to the dispute. I deeply regret that he decided not to speak to me.
The atmosphere in which we are debating the order is polluted by the way that the strike has ended. My fear is that it will haunt the coal industry for some time to come. It gives me no pleasure to say that.
I understand that NACODS believes that the agreement has been breached by the National Coal Board, with the acquiescence of the Government. All that is capable of reaching serious proportions. I have been informed that NACODS was today in the High Court challenging the NCB for riding roughshod over a modified review procedure which was agreed in October 1984. It is a strange irony that, as we debate the order, we are not sure of the scope of those procedures. We cannot verify with the unions involved what new waves of redundancies will confront the mining industry. We can only read reports in the press, because there is no conciliation or consultation in the industry today.
The NCB refuses to consult or conciliate with the NUM. I have personal experience of that. I went with a deputation of Scottish colleagues to meet Mr. Wheeler, Mr. Cowan and Mr. MacGregor. We discussed the future of the industry in Scotland, but they were unable to tell us about redundancies and closures. We also discussed the 200 sacked miners—43 per cent. of whom are branch officials and 18 per cent. of whom were doing official union picket duty. We said that the decision of the Scottish area director to sack without consultation or conciliation was in contravention of all natural justice. We asked Mr. MacGregor to undertake a review of the cases — a moderate demand. Some of those men have never been 766 before a court, and those who have have had no serious charges levelled against them. We were supported by the churches and three chief constables.
Mr. MacGregor agreed to consider those cases. We left at 3.40 pm, and at 5 pm the chairman of the NCB announced, through a press release, that all of the men remained sacked. He could not possibly have considered 200 cases in that time. His action showed indecent haste and was a breach of faith. The word of the chairman of the NCB is not his bond.
The Minister should be required to spell out the implications of the order for the industry. He should have told us how the conciliation and consultation machinery will be followed. He cannot, because the NCB is in breach of those procedures. If the Minister takes time to read the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946, he will find that section 46(1) provides:It shall be the duty of the Board to enter into consultation with organisations appearing to them to represent substantial proportions of the persons in the employment of the Board, or of any class of such persons, as to the Board's concluding with those organisations agreements providing for the establishment and maintenance of joint machinery for—I also have a copy of the guide to the consultation machinery. I shall not ponder over it because of the lack of time, but it lays down the procedure which should be followed. Mr. Wheeler, Mr. MacGregor and the NCB are clearly law-breakers. The NCB is a creature of statute. Every one of the sacked miners has a right for his case to be heard individually with trade union representation. Mr. Wheeler and Mr. MacGregor have no right to sack men without invoking the procedures laid down by Act of Parliament in 1946. If the Minister supports them, he is guilty of breaking the law. The conduct of the NCB as a law-breaker may be the subject of a court decision. At present, opinion is being canvassed. I hope that the Secretary of State for Energy and his hon. Friends will be held to have been in breach of the law. I hope that they will go before the courts and be charged with breaking the law, because they have connived with the NCB in flouting the 1946 legislation.(a) the settlement by negotiation of terms and conditions of employment, with provision for reference to arbitration in default of such settlement in such cases as may be determined by or under the agreements".
I wish to raise with the Minister the question of redundant miners not receiving unemployment benefit because of a decision of adjudicating officers. He referred to that matter in his opening remarks. In the debate on Monday evening I told him that the Government were suspected of being party to that decision. I have been informed that some of the cases, in which I was involved last week, have been resolved. I can speak only for Midlothian. I have not yet been home to confirm that information. The Minister has a responsibility to inform us who originated that decision. We want to know. In the debate on Monday I suggested that it originated in Manchester. Some investigative journalists are hot on the trail to find out who originated it. The Minister owes it to the House to give all the information that he can. It is nothing but spite and vindictiveness to deprive redundant and victimised miners of unemployment benefit because somebody somewhere saw that the industrial dispute was not coming to an end.
Overtime is not mentioned anywhere in the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946. Somewhere it 767 mentions overtime in relation to safety, but there have been no violations of safety regulations. The law-breakers should be accountable to Parliament.
§ Mr. Eadie
I am about to finish. I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he has nothing to contribute.
The Minister must tell the House where the Government stand on this question of spite and vindictiveness. He must clear them of it and assure us this evening that they were not behind it.
I do not intend to recommend to my right hon. and hon. Friends that we oppose the order. However, the Minister must respond to my point about the amendment being sought in the redundant mineworkers' payments schemes. He must give us information about the law-breakers in the NCB—Wheeler, MacGregor, and the rest.
§ Mr. Eadie
I understand that Eaton may even be in the building. If he is one of the law-breakers, he must be made accountable. We in the mining industry are entitled to consultation and conciliation. That is why the mining industry has been a model for consultation, and why we have not had a general industrial strike for 46 years. Our conciliation and consultation procedure has been the envy of industry generally.
The Minister must also tell us about miners being deprived of unemployment benefit. We look forward to his reply.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
Following the death rattle of Scargillism from the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie)—[Interruption.] If hon. Members are patient, they will discover that I have something to say. I shall not follow him down the road of turning the debate about the order into a re-run of the failure of the Labour party and the Socialists to bring Arthur Scargill to the negotiating table, because that would be pointless. The Opposition had plenty of time in which to mount such a debate. They had plenty of Supply days, but they used only one to have such a debate. I shall bring the House back to the order, because I know that Opposition Members, like me, have constituents who had accepted voluntary redundancy but who were affected by the strike.
I should tell my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that many of my constituents, and, I suspect, the constituents of many Labour Members, welcome the Government's action last December in moving the amending order, which enabled the redundant mineworkers payment scheme to be made available to men who had accepted voluntary redundancy before and during the strike. Hon. Members on both sides of the House must welcome what the Government did; certainly my constituents tell me that they welcome it.
The reason why I wish to speak in the debate is that one of my constituents took his case to a tribunal. He is a miner of 38 years' standing, and before the strike he accepted, informally, voluntary redundancy. The period of notice ran from the end of March to 2 June 1984, and on that date he took his voluntary redundancy. The hon. Member for 768 Midlothian paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste), who made a concise and clear speech on Monday with which hon. Members on both sides of the House agreed. As my hon. Friend said, those men accepted voluntary redundancy on the basis that it was a deal: in exchange for accepting voluntary redundancy, they would be covered by the redundant mineworkers redundancy scheme and they would receive unemployment benefit. The reason why many of us are here tonight is that many men are still not receiving unemployment benefit.
My constituent's case was upheld by the tribunal, but the Department of Employment appealed. Then the case went to the social security commissioner for a decision. In February, Commissioner Munroe, sitting alone, came to a conclusion, and it might help the House if I recited some of his arguments. I understand that several other cases have gone to individual commissioners. I suspect that I am not alone in the House in finding the whole business of tribunals completely labyrinthine and confusing.
On 8 February, Commissioner Munroe came to a favourable conclusion. My constituent had accepted voluntary redundancy at the beginning of the strike. He was unable to get to work for two weeks before the buses were laid on, but once they were he remained at work until 2 June, when he left the pit altogether. The commissioner said:Here the claimant after losing his employment as the result of the stoppage regained it. And the regained employment did not terminate as the result of the stoppage; it terminated as the result of redundancy and would have continued but for the redundancy. From the moment that the claimant regained his employment in April 1984 he could no longer be classified as 'a person who has lost his employment' but rather as a person who has at one time lost his employment but has subsequently regained it. In my judgment thereafter section 19 no longer applied to him unless and until he lost his employment again, and then only if he lost it on account of some relevant clause. As he lost his employment in June on account of redundancy he is not affected from then by section 19 … I do not consider that I am thereby bound to conclude that a person cannot escape from the consequences of section 19 during the currency of a stoppage if he regains his lost employment thereby ceasing to be a person who has lost his employment during the stoppage, and thereafter becomes unemployed for some extraneous reason. If that were so, a person who becomes bona fide employed elsewhere would be better placed than a person who becomes bona fide employed at his place of employment.In other words, if that man had left the pit and gone off and got employment elsewhere, he would have been entitled to pick up unemployment benefit. The commissioner is saying that the fact that the man left the pit because he could not get into it because of the strike, and then went back to the same pit, means that it would be monstrous if he were denied access to unemployment benefit. That is why the commissioner upheld the case.
§ Mr. Howarth
The hon. Gentleman may experience the need for redundancy pay after the next election.
We should tread carefully, because, unlike many of our constituents, our security of tenure is not very good. As reselection goes on in the Labour party, one or two Labour Members may not be smiling in a few months time.
My constituent has been through all the procedures and has had his case examined by the commissioner. It has been upheld, and he told me tonight that he has been paid his arrears. That should be a precedent for all hon. 769 Members who have constituents in similar circumstances. I accept that there may be some variations, but many of us may have constituents with that problem.
I heard the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) saying that he has constituents who are still not being paid unemployment benefit, and some have not appealed. I have the case of another constituent, who has been told that it is not worth appealing until these cases have been decided. Another constituent left Littleton colliery on 29 September 1984 after 40 years service, although he was aware of the difficulties that were then prevailing. Mr. Wright accepted voluntary redundancy, but even now that the dispute is over he is not being paid unemployment benefit. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can help us on that account because there are men who are suffering genuine hardship, and who feel that, because the dispute is over, they should be able to obtain unemployment benefit.
A third category of ex-miner has not been mentioned tonight, and was not mentioned on Monday. That is those men who left the pit and decided to go and do something else, but their other job fell through, and they found themselves unemployed.
§ Mr. Howarth
I see that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the problem.
Those people are in a worse position because they have picked up no lump sum payment under the redundant mineworkers payment scheme. They have nothing to survive on—no lump sum payment to keep them going. I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister can look into the cases of such men.
I am concerned about the time it has taken for the tribunal procedures to be carried out to resolve these matters and about the large number of men who are still awaiting a decision. I am also concerned that the decision in the case of my constituent—whose clear-cut and well argued case I have cited and whose name I have been asked not to reveal—has not acted as a precedent.
I hope that the Minister will do what he can to ensure that when the commissioners meet on 16 April, they will be clear as to the consequences of failing to endorse the decision of Commissioner Monroe, otherwise we shall be back to square one and find that these men will have exhausted all the procedures and will still be denied the deal which they struck and to which my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet referred on Monday.
The commissioners are not open to influence, in the sense that one cannot bring pressure to bear on them, but I hope they will realise the seriousness of the task that lies before them. I hope that if they fail to reach the right decision, the Minister will give an assurance immediately thereafter that action will be taken to make sure that these chaps get the deal which they struck.
§ Mr. Alec Woodall (Hemsworth)
The hon. Gentleman said that he was disappointed about the length of time it had taken for these cases to come before a tribunal. Will he take it from me that he will be delighted how quickly they come before a tribunal after next Wednesday?
§ Mr. Howarth
I shall be delighted if the decision on the 16th is correct and the matter is able finally to be resolved.
§ Mr. Howarth
I am not interested in rehearsing arguments about the strike. That would be pointless at this stage. As I said on Monday night, the president of the NUM should say that the dispute is now finally over. Then we could get back to the business of making the pits profitable. I conclude on that hopefully optimistic note.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I welcome the order. It is a necessary detail to make a fairly generous scheme work. I call it a "fairly generous" scheme in terms of the benefit that it provides, but there is a fundamental problem about it which is at the root of the complaint that hon. Members have made tonight.
The scheme is founded on the falsehood that those made redundant under the scheme are intended by the Government to go out and seek work. That is why they are asked to sign on at unemployment exchanges, why their contributions records are relevant and why they finish up as tribunal cases of the kind described by the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth).
The policy of successive Governments has been that these men, having served a large part of their lives in the coal industry, should now be given the opportunity to make way for younger men and be provided with the financial basis on which to retire. However, they are treated under our legal system as unemployed men nominally seeking work, and they therefore come within all the apparatus of commissioners, tribunals and the rest. That is an inherent falsehold in the scheme.
It used to be more difficult for such people until some of the rules were relaxed. There was a time when all who benefited from the scheme had to sign on weekly, even from rural and isolated pit villages, on the basis that they were looking for jobs, which everybody would have been dismayed had they taken because the people who should have got those jobs where those who did not have the benefit of the redundancy scheme.
In those days, if a man went away on holiday or, say, went with his wife to visit his son serving in the forces in Germany, he lost his benefit under the scheme, supposedly being treated as a redundant miner. Thankfully, the scheme has been the subject of some improvement, though we are bound to come across the sort of difficulties with which we are dealing tonight because of the way in which the scheme was originally devised. It was devised in good faith and to meet a need, but it was devised on the basis of an officially approved falsehood. We are talking about a group which we treat as comprising unemployed men who are seeking work. In fact, we are trying to enable men to retire to make way for younger men to do the work which they have previously undertaken in the industry.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the order will change the 1984 redundancy terms, which provide that those aged 21 are able to be made redundant? We are talking also of those who have retired under the voluntary early retirement scheme at the age of 60 years or more. They are made to sign on and look for work for the first 12 months of their early retirement.
§ Mr. Beith
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. In describing the genesis of the scheme, I did not say that in the course of its history it has been extended widely to facilitate the removal from the industry of many younger 771 men to whom it was not originally intended to apply. I accept that that has been a necessary part of restructuring the industry. I am glad that those who go out of the industry at a much earlier stage than was envisaged originally still get some benefit from their service in it. In that respect thay are in a better position than those in a number of other industries.
Whenever these matters are discussed in my constituency there is a sharp division between those who benefit from the scheme in the industry as miners and those who are excluded from it as opencast mineworkers. This issue arouses a great deal of anger, division and dissension in areas where the two groups of men live and work virtually side by side in the same community or in neighbouring ones. There is quite heavy redundancy in the opencast mining industry in parts of north-east England, and this has brought the issue to the fore. That is certainly the position in my constituency in places such as Amble, which has recently been excluded from development area status.
The redundancies have caused considerable anguish and there is some bitterness that the opencast mineworkers cannot benefit from the same generous terms as their colleagues, notwithstanding that the European money that goes into the scheme is determined on rules which would allow opencast mineworkers to benefit in Britain.
I understand that the Transport and General Workers Union is taking the Government to the European Court and challenging the exclusion of opencast workers. It appears that, if the scheme were extended to include opencast workers, the Government would receive European assistance. There is a great sense of injustice among opencast workers, certainly in the north-east, about their exclusion from the scheme.
It is possible to range quite widely in the debate, as it involves redundancy and what happens to those who are made redundant under the scheme, but that should not draw us to pick at the sores of the strike, which would be extremely damaging. That would stop the healing process, which must continue.
However, some issues have to be raised, and one of them is the sackings which have taken place and the doubts which surround them. There is genuine doubt, which goes far wider than the narrowest confines of the dwindling group of the NUM's most determined supporters, and a feeling that there is something wrong, at least in some areas, in the number who have been sacked. It is right to consider the background to the sackings and the inevitability that those who want to make a success of the industry will not be happy to see the violence that was at the pit gates brought back into the collieries. That is why there was widespread support, certainly in my constituency, for not re-employing those who were guilty of crimes of violence or serious damage—[Interruption.] Perhaps hon. Members will allow me to complete my assertion. I was about to say that there is an obvious distinction between those to whom I have referred and those who have not been convicted of serious crimes.
§ Mr. Eadie
The hon. Gentleman must not be allowed to get away with this. I referred to a group of about 200 mineworkers in Scotland who have been sacked. None of them has been found guilty of outrageous violence. Well, 772 there might be one among them, but I doubt it. They have appeared before the courts for minor offences. Indeed, some of them have not appeared before the courts. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would support my argument. I say that the NCB had no right arbitrarily to decide that these men should be sacked when there was good conciliation and consultation machinery within the industry.
My plea is for the Government to carry out the provisions of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946. These cases should be considered individually. They should not at this stage even be the subject of consideration by an industrial tribunal. The matters should have been settled at the pit, in accordance with conciliation and consultation procedures. The men should even have had the right to go to an umpire.
§ Mr. Beith
The hon. Gentleman could not have been listening carefully, because I was seeking to draw a distinction between cases about which there is widespread public acceptance outside and inside the industry, that right is on the side of the coal board in not re-employing those who have been found guilty of serious offences to persons and property, and cases about which there is genuine and reasonable public doubt. The coal board exposes itself to the industrial tribunal machinery created long after the 1946 Act—it has already done so—if it dismisses people who are not guilty.
If hon. Members do not understand why there are strong feelings about this matter, they must understand that in the part of the coalfield that I represent it was violence that turned the return to work into a massive return. That is the history of what happened during the strike. The Government must remember that a small group of miners seeking to return to work were stoned in a stationary bus by a crowd of violent men after allowing regional NUM officals to put their case to them and listening fully to the case that they should not return to work. After that incident, the return to work was not just a trickle but a surge, with women and children lining the streets cheering the men as they returned to work. That is what happened in my constituency. Government Members may not have seen what we saw in our areas at that time. The extent of the violence turned the strike.
Not all the people involved in the violence were miners. It was fascinating to see paraded before the magistrates courts as having been involved on the picket line unemployed Australian printers, unemployed fishermen and various other people—
§ Mr. Beith
There was no such case before a court in my constituency. There were people who had no previous connection with the coal industry but who were guilty of violence, and that contributed to the atmosphere. Those people are not causing the problem now. They will probably not be anywhere near the Northumberland coalfield for a long time, if at all.
There is genuine public anxiety about those men who were not found guilty by the courts, against whom there is no clear evidence that they committed violence or caused serious and significant damage to property. The Government must recognise that that anxiety exists.
I share the views expressed by a number of hon. Members, although not yet by a spokesman for the Labour party—I hope that one will do so at some stage—that 773 the fact that the strike is over is to be welcomed. The industry has to return to a proper working footing and its prospects for the future must be enhanced. I say that with particular feeling because I represent an area in which we are fighting against the Government's determination to site a nuclear power station in the area. The hardest period to sustain that argument has been the past 12 months, because the NUM's leaders placed in the hands of the nuclear power lobby the argument that they wanted—that coal supplies and the coal industry were unreliable. I want to scotch and dispense with that argument, because I believe that the future of coal is central to our country's future and energy supplies. Thank goodness the industry is back at work. Let us keep it that way.
§ 11.8 pm
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
I should like to endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). He said that no Labour Member had welcomed the strike's end. That was rather unfair, because the hon. Gentleman is well aware that every Labour Member has been desperately anxious for the strike to be resolved. He could bear in mind the fact that a number of us tried to ensure that the dispute did not take place. If the Treasury Bench had hearkened to what was said by the Opposition in November and December 1983 and January and February 1984, the strike which we smelt coming would not have taken place and the country would have been saved at least £6.5 billion, money which could have been spent upon generating jobs.
These figures approach a degree of generosity, but they are necessary for the men who are leaving the industry, especially for young and fit men in their early twenties, because in my area and in many other coalfield areas there are no other jobs. In my constituency there are communities where not a single teenager is in normal employment. In other communities the number of teenagers in normal employment can be counted on the fingers of one hand. If miners are to leave the industry and enter the economic desolation to be found in so many parts of this island they must be treated with reasonable generosity. I do not know whether the word "generosity" is the correct word to use when one thinks of how much the chairman of British Petroleum has been awarded in the last few days. There are Conservative party members who think that we are being generous to the miners. If men who have served the industry well are never to work again, it is right that they should be treated decently.
I hope that the Opposition will not vote against the order. Therefore, I was pleased to have the assurance of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie). I suspect that there are one or two Conservative Members who would have liked to rebel against the Minister's cause, but in this Parliament we do not see much real rebellion on the Government Benches. Nevertheless, I thank the Minister for the way he opened the debate. He has made it clear that he is prepared to listen to a good case. I hope he will pay considerable attention to the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) so that this longstanding problem which affects several of my constituents can be resolved.
It is very sad that a little more wisdom and compassion was not shown earlier. The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood made a very relevant point. If it had been recognised before February and March 1984 that there was 774 a problem, a different approach might have been adopted either by the Government or by the National Coal Board, or preferably by both, and the dispute would never have taken place. But at least the Minister has demonstrated that he recognises that the coal industry has a very necessary and important part to play. It is from that point on that we begin to have anxieties. Those anxieties are relevant to the order. The Minister and his hon. Friends recognise that the coal industry has a very important part to play and that help will be needed to establish decent relationships and a forward looking approach. However, I wonder whether the future role of the coal industry as envisaged by the Opposition is quite the same as that envisaged by Conservative Members.
Although the Opposition welcome the order, at the same time we have to consider the implications of another document from another Government Department for the future of the nationalised industries. The National Coal Board may be involved in considerable expenditure so that advantage can be taken of whatever changes in ownership are brought about by the Government.
It will soon be necessary for the House not merely to debate these much needed, sensible and acceptable orders but also the Treasury document on the future of the nationalised industries as that is particularly relevant to the energy industries which include the NCB.
Let me add my word to the point which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) and, to some extent, by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). Men were sacked. In Scotland that was the result of a rather aggressive approach, perhaps with an eye to the changes which have taken place at senior levels of the NCB. Promotion stakes beckon even at that level. But it is not only in Scotland that that has happened. It has happened at pits in south Yorkshire. At one pit in my constituency men were sacked before their cases had been decided by the court and without their even being given a hearing. I understand that they simply received a letter immediately dismissing them. That is no way to carry on.
§ Mr. Hardy
It is, but I am not so concerned about legalities. I do not like law in industrial relations. I never have. Britain would have been a great deal better off over the past 14 years if that obsession had not been pursued by Conservative Members.
At its best the coal industry is a family industry. In a family industry we should not be looking through the rule book to find patterns and codes of decent behaviour. We should have seen a recognition from the top of the board right down to the youngest apprentice that, after this sad and damaging chapter, we should move forward to success. I hope that we shall soon have apprentices in the industry as well. At the very time when that concept should have been encouraged, we saw men being sacked even though they had not been convicted in the courts. That is sad and the sadness that I feel eats away the benefit of the order before us this evening. If the Minister cannot take action on that, I hope that the NCB will. If it does, I trust that the Minister will give it his encouragement.
I also hope that the Minister will give considerable encouragement to the NCB and maintain the consistency in his approach by ensuring that the NCB is yet again reminded—I shall not labour the point now, but it is 775 appropriate that it should be made — that the Government are backing the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers' agreement. I hope that my association will not have to start running to the courts again to try to ensure that that agreement is met. The sooner that that agreement, with all that it implies, is extended towards the whole industry, the better I shall be pleased and the better the industry will be served.
I trust that this brick will help to build a wall which will be less easily broken down than the construction of the industry and the relationships within it were demolished last year.
§ 11.1 pm
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
I am pleased that we are having this debate tonight, if it is only to educate the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) on what the mining industry is all about. The difference between him and I is that I have spent 35 years in the industry. I know it from A to Z: I know it inside out. I know exactly what is going on. I know all about what has happened in the past couple of years. It is a good thing for Conservative Members to be sitting in, even if they cannot participate. But some of them make me a little sick when they get up and make interventions without realising what they are saying. The Chair rules in this place. The hon. Gentleman did not get very far with his point of order, because he was wasting time in the three hours that we have to debate a serious problem for the mining industry. The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but I still maintain that he is getting an education. If he sits quietly and listens, he will learn some more. I accept that there is a definite improvement over redundancies in the mining industry. A step has been taken in the right direction. However, some of my hon. Friends are correct to say that the agreement could mean finishing at the pit and taking redundancy pay at the age of 21. That is a ridiculous state of affairs.
Hon. Members must understand what the average age is in the mining industry. All the elderly chappies went years ago. They went before I became a Member of Parliament in 1979. I saw them go. As a local branch official I helped to negotiate at a local level, so I know something about that. But the average age is about 34. That illustrates the problem for redundancies. I should like the Government and the NCB to come into the open and to tell us where those pit closures are to be. I want them to be honest with the whole mining industry and with the nation.
I am worried stiff. I am convinced that the Government are planning, behind closed doors, to sell off the nation's profitable pits. If that is so—and I am sure that it is—there will be many pit closures. The Prime Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and at conferences and says time and again that uneconomic pits must close. The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) can take that smirk off his face. This is a serious matter, but he is grinning all over his face. He thinks it is funny. He has never seen a shovel in his life. Not many Conservative Members know what work is. We know what it is. We come from industries where the people work hard. It is time that Conservative Members understood that. When they start grinning, it does not help.
776 If Conservative Members had done what we have done, and had looked at the report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on the mining industry, they would know that each pit is mentioned, together with whether or not it is economic. The report shows that we could be left with about 100 economic pits. That is how serious the Prime Minister is when she talks about uneconomic pits — [Interruption.] It is all right for some of these solicitors who have two jobs, and who earn money outside. They cannot even listen to an argument put by an Opposition Member. They always act like that. Why do they not shut up and listen? Some of those solicitors used to have pits in their constituencies before they became the Members of Parliament. However, slowly but surely the mining industry is being destroyed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) has mentioned the conciliation procedure and industrial relations.
For many years in this Chamber the mining industry, with its conciliation procedure and its industrial relations procedure, has been held up as second to none and an example to any other industry and any other trade union. I am afraid that the Government have allowed it to be destroyed.
Hon. Members shake their heads. They do not know anything about it. I say that the industrial relations and the conciliation procedure are being destroyed, and I can tell the Minister why. Before we had the strike we begged the Government not to appoint MacGregor chairman of the National Coal Board—three months before. We said that if they appointed MacGregor it would mean constant confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers and the other trade unions within the mining industry. And we have been proved correct. The only way we are going to get back to some normality in the future in the mining industry is by shipping MacGregor back to the United States. We have plenty of people working in the mining industry who have had experience on both sides and are eligible and able to run the industry as its chairman. The sooner we ship MacGregor back the better—and I am prepared to pay his fare.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman really must relate his remarks to the order before us.
§ Mr. Haynes
I am trying to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I kicked off by talking about redundancies and about the youngsters who will not be able to get work. In my constituency we have five pits; we used to have nine. Thanks to this Government, four have gone. There are young lads in the villages who will not be able to get work when they leave school. We are told that the shutters are down at the pits for youngsters. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) is right about apprenticeships. There is a first-class apprenticeship scheme in the mining industry and there always has been, but we are not using it to the extent that we should. We want lads to come into the industry to be trained to be the future miners, mechanics and electricians. We have gone along with modernisation of the pits right from day one.
777 I did my stint with a shovel in my earlier life, but we accepted mechanisation of the industry in the interests of the people who work in it and of the nation.
I believe that under the redundancy scheme some people are not going to be treated fairly. We are going to have some real problems.
One of the things that really bothers me is safety. We have talked about safety over the years in the mining industry and the lads themselves have made suggestions for improvements. Yet this Government have not allowed the number of Her Majesty's pit inspectors to be as high as it should be. Indeed, it is well below, and this Government are responsible because of the cutbacks in public expenditure. There are not enough inspectors to carry out the provisions of the Mines and Quarries Acts in the pits. We have put down many questions over the past two or three years, but they have never been answered by the Government. The requisite number of inspectors have never been appointed, so I hope that the Minister will look at this problem and do something about it. It is essential that we have those inspectors on the job to make sure that everything is in order.
I have made my points. I am sincerely interested in what is going to happen to the mining industry in the future. I agree with the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) when he ended his speech by saying that he hoped we would get back to normality soon. I want the industry to return to what it was in the days when I was at the pit; when we worked together as one. Then we were all interested in what happened.
The Government must back off. They have much to answer for. Their one big mistake was to appoint that American chairman of the NCB. The Government must now encourage the NCB and workers in the industry to work together—to be sensible, not daft—so that the mining industry works for the people who work in it and for the nation.
§ Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)
The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) referred to the generosity of the scheme. I commend the Minister's actions during the dispute and now that it is at an end. He obviously has the interests of the coal industry at heart.
I have always believed that one day we should achieve the logical objective of a successful low-cost coal production system with a skilled, highly paid work force. Unfortunately, every action by the NUM leader and his associates has resulted in serious setbacks to the coal industry.
We have heard impassioned pleas about loss of jobs in the industry. The NUM president likes to say that he is fighting for jobs, but his actions have without doubt destroyed more jobs and closed more coal faces than the industry's management planned. It is sad that, despite the financial support given year after year by this Government and previous Conservative Governments for redundancy payments, concessionary coal and pensions, all that we get in return is militant and rigid trade unionism which is never backed by democratic vote. It is against the wishes of the majority of coal miners and uses the twisted mechanics of the NUM procedure book.
It would be a natural reaction for anyone to say that taxpayers should not continue to support an industry which 778 is so self-destructive. If I did not believe in the future of coal as our main industrial feedstock for the years to come, I should sympathise with that reaction.
The responsibility for managing this great industry is now back where it belongs — with the NCB. The Government once again are fulfilling a promise made during the dispute, and in the years before it, that pensions and redundancy payments will continue to be made and improved. Under the Labour Administration, no capital payment of note was made to redundant miners under 50 years of age. The Government's generosity has to be put on the record. This Government have introduced substantial improvements in payments to redundant miners.
Despite all the noise from the Opposition, the Conservative Government are providing handsome pensions in capital payments for miners who choose to leave the industry.
§ Mr. Barron
If a miner in my constituency took redundancy at age 25 he would be able to get a lump sum of £9,000 under the new scheme. That seems handsome, but if he were then to join the 20 per cent. unemployed in the constituency for the rest of his life it would be a paltry sum. What does the hon. Member think of that?
§ Mr. Hannam
It is a load of rubbish to talk about miners being unemployed for the rest of their lives. Mining is an extractive industry, which means that there is a constant movement of labour from one part of the country to another. When I have visited coal mining areas in the midlands and in Kent, I have met miners who have come from Scotland, from the north and from every other part of the country. That is the nature of such an extractive industry. It is a load of codswallop for Opposition Members to talk about long-term unemployment for young men who are given that sort of redundancy payment.
It was reported in the newspapers only a week ago that a miner who had been on strike for a long period was offered a substantial redundancy payment a few days after returning to work. He grabbed it with both hands to go off to start up his own business. So there is a clear indication of what will happen to many younger ex-miners.
I am not under-estimating the short-term problems of those who leave the industry and remain in their own communities where there will not be jobs. What I am saying is that, if we create the right sort of mobility, which has to exist in an extractive industry, as the economy grows and develops we shall see new jobs.
I believe that the industry can be taken to the point where it becomes a high-volume and low-cost industry, which will not only supply all our coal needs but will be able to get back into the business of competing for the export of coal as well. Mr. MacGregor was appointed with declared objectives and targets. One was to secure new markets for the sale of coal which previous managers, concerned much more with the internal administration and the problems which existed between management and the NUM, had failed to do. There are major opportunities, if coal is produced at the right price, for export to other parts of Europe and the rest of the world. I believe that Mr. MacGregor is the man to achieve those objectives. This is what he will achieve in years to come.
§ Mr. Hannam
I do believe that, beecause that is precisely what he achieved in the steel industry. He raionalised that industry. It is now profitable and has achieved a bigger share of world markets. I am convinced that he will do the same for the coal industry.
We should be concerned all the time about the future for coal. In that regard, may I ask my hon. Friend to confirm that the coal conversion scheme for industry will be reactivated now that the coal dispute is over? I am getting inquiries about that from major industries. For example, the paper and board manufacturing industry declared just a year ago that it intended to switch over to coal burn for its continuous processes. It stopped its plans when the dispute broke out. Now it is inquiring whether it can be reassured that the coal conversion grants will be continued so that it can switch over to coal burn.
That does not just mean that that industry will benefit by the cost saving that will result; it also means jobs. The manufacture of the millions of pounds worth of plant and equipment that will be needed in the mills and factories will create jobs elsewhere in the economy. If it had not been for the disastrous coal dispute, that industry would have been well on the way to switching over to coal burn and extra jobs would have been created elsewhere.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his efforts and the efforts of the Government to re-establish a viable, effective coal industry. Once the dust of the coal dispute has settled I am sure that the majority of miners will also support what he and his right hon. Friends are trying to do.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
On 1 March 1984, the chairman of the NCB gave figures for tonnages in the industry. He also suggested that 20,000 people would be made redundant. The miners have returned to work during the past three weeks, so it would be interesting to know how many people will be affected by this order which was introduced on 1 April 1984 and will end on 30 March 1986. As these so-called generous offers have been made to miners, it would be interesting to know how many people will benefit. That is something that the House should know so that we can estimate how much it will cost.
I congratulate the Minister on proposing to pay people who have left work through incapacity. Their broken service has been taken into account in the past, but now they can benefit from the scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) raised this matter in 1983. He will be pleased to know that that anomaly has been rectified.
This appears to be a debate for congratulating decisions. I congratulate the NCB on its decision last night to extend the executive from the chairman and deputy chairman to a wider board. That move will be welcomed throughout the industry, especially by the NUM, NACODS and the British Association of Colliery Managers. Those trade unions have, during the past 12 months, been highly dissatisfied with what has happened in the NCB. Mr. MacGregor packed the NCB with part-time professional people from other industries and ignored the highly qualified and skilled mining engineers who have worked in the industry for many years and who recognise the industry's needs. It is a pity that some of those people have now finished with the industry; and that can be directly related to dissatisfaction with the chairman.
I am tempted to ask the Minister to extend the order to include someone at the top. Whether that person wants to 780 return to America or to his native Scotland does not matter. I am not offering to pay his fare, but I am sure that a collection could be made if necessary. He was paid a reasonable transfer fee when he joined the NCB. No one would object if the order was extended to the man at the top. I am sure that there are others more capable than him of running the industry.
The order is wide-ranging. I wish to direct my remarks to the aftermath of the strike and the question of dismissed miners. Many miners have been dismissed by decision taken outside the usual conciliation procedures. That point was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie). According to statements in the media, it is clear that men have been dismissed without proper conciliation. That has much to do with the strike. People who were dismissed many months ago could not have their cases discussed formally at local level because of the strike. However, my information is that there has been little discussion since the strike ended, certainly in Yorkshire. I regret that. It appears from the media that the NCB's answer has been to tell those who have been dismissed to go to an industrial tribunal.
I do not know whether right hon. and hon. Members know about industrial tribunals, but they are second best to conciliation procedure in industrial relations. That is clear from the involvement of ACAS as it settles many cases before they get anywhere near industrial tribunals. The NCB has let the industry down by saying that men should go to industrial tribunals.
§ Mr. Eadie
My hon. Friend is making a serious point. I mentioned law, because we always get law from the other side of the House. Is my hon. Friend aware that, when I saw Mr. MacGregor and Mr. Wheeler, I asked them whether, if an industrial tribunal decided that a victimised miner should not have been victimised, they would give an undertaking that he would get his job back and that Mr. MacGregor refused to give such an undertaking? Indeed, Mr. Wheeler is on record in the press as saying that he would not give them their jobs back. The consultative and conciliation machinery in the industry, not industrial tribunals, is the answer.
§ Mr. Barron
My hon. Friend is right. The director or, perhaps, ex-director of the Scottish coalfield has said that, if someone was found to have been dismissed unfairly by an industrial tribunal, he would not be set off.
The tribunal can find in favour of a man and say that he has been dismissed unfairly, but it must meet again to say whether compensation should be paid. Compensation averages £700—nowhere near the figures that have been mentioned in connection with the redundant mineworkers' payments scheme. The tribunal can say that someone should be reinstated, but the employer does not have to reinstate him. In terms of justice, there is a fundamental flaw in that system.
The NCB has also claimed that those who have been found guilty of misconduct in the past 12 months have been treated no differently. On the basis of my experience of working for the NCB for some 20 years, I do not believe that that is the case. I have seen violence offered underground. People have admitted to being in breach of the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 because they have fallen out and fought. I have even seen that happen with officials. They have been taken to the office, where they have realised what they have done, in the heat of the moment 781 and they have been fined. I remember one person being suspended for a few days. They have then worked in the industry for many years after, and there has been no recurrence of trouble. The NCB is now saying that such people could never be trusted again, and so must be got rid of. Again the NCB is wrong in making public statements to the media that it is treating and has treated people during the past 12 months as in the 12 years prior to that. Anyone who has worked in the industry and considers the position of dismissed miners today, knows that that is not true.
I shall highlight the matter with two constituency cases. The first relates to a miner who works at Kiverton Park colliery. He was arrested and charged with besetting a working miner's home and with using threatening behaviour through abusive language. He and two others were taken into custody and he was in Armley gaol for three weeks. His solicitor told him that he could come out of custody only by pleading guilty to besetting, and also that a deal had been struck, as they are in court between prosecuting and defence solicitors, that if he pleaded guilty to besetting, the other charge would be dropped. He pleaded guilty last year, thinking that that way he could get back to his family and away from being for the first time in prison on remand. Although I have never taken part in besetting, I have personal knowledge of the incident, and know that the besetting was nothing more nor less than shouting abuse across a road in the presence of dozens of policemen.
The important point is that the man took a decision in January to return to work. He had been on strike since March 1984 and decided that he had had enough. He worked for six weeks at the colliery, where the man whose home he had been charged with besetting was also working. When at the beginning of this month the miners in the Yorkshire coalfield decided to return to work, that man was taken into the manager's office and sacked for that alleged offence. The man, as he claimed in the local media, was used by the NCB for those six weeks. There was no recurrence of any violence that may have occurred when he was charged. That man has a case to argue that what happened to him was wholly wrong. Although he worked for six weeks beside the man he was supposed to have wronged, it was decided that he was not to be trusted and he was sacked. He remains sacked today.
The second case is about a man at Maltby colliery who was also charged with threatening language and besetting a man's home. He returned to work on 4 March and received a letter from the colliery manager which extended a warm welcome to him for returning to work. The vast majority of miners at that colliery returned then. On 18 March he was taken into the office and sacked. He received a letter on the same date, which saysI am satisfied that you were involved in besetting the home of a working miner. Your action amounts to gross misconduct justifying my dismissing you from your employment with the Board. Your conduct was an interference with the Board's business in that it was an attempt to intimidate a Board employee so as to try and prevent him from fulfilling his Contract of Employment.That man has yet to appear in court. He has never been in court in his life, yet he is being sacked on the say-so, presumably, of either the police or an employee to the employer. That smacks of injustice. Although I cannot speak in great detail about the man's case, because it has not yet been to court, it appears that the NCB management has found him guilty of shouting at a working miner. I 782 should add that the vast majority of workers at that colliery have been found guilty, at some time during the past 12 months, of shouting abuse at working miners. The circumstances may be different when that man goes to court, but my information from his solicitor is that he has a good chance of getting off.
That man, together with two others who were arrested on the same day, has been sacked, although they have not been near a court of law. Although they met the management once, they have not had the opportunity to use the conciliation procedure. Under that procedure, if the management were not satisfied with the man's explanation at the beginning of the month, he could have gone to see area NUM officials and area NCB management to argue whether he should have been dismissed. But now he has been told that he must go to an industrial tribunal. What is happening at present is wrong, and there are double standards in the industry where there should not be.
The thread of this debate—this brings in section 19, to which the Minister referred earlier — is how they should be treated when they are dismissed. One of my constituents came to see me earlier this month. He was dismissed in February. He went to the local unemployment office and asked to sign on because he had been found guilty in a court of law of two offences, and had been sacked. The officials there told him that he was still deemed to be on strike and that he had to claim supplementary benefit. When he went to do that, he was told that he could claim it only for his wife and children, less the £16 a week that he was alleged to have been paid by the National Union of Mineworkers.
I wrote on my constituent's behalf to the local office, because, in my view, the strike had finished on 6 March at that colliery. I believed that he was entitled to receive supplementary benefit for himself, and that the 16 a week should not be removed from him. I received a letter from the local office dated 13 March, which stated:I am writing in reply to your letter dated 11 March regarding Mr. Christopher Hill of 35 West Street, Thurcroft, Rotherham … The decision whether a person is involved in a trade dispute is made by an Adjudication Officer at the Unemployment Benefit Office. Although the majority of mineworkers have returned to work, the Adjudication Officer has now to decide whether or not the dispute can be deemed to have ended and the date thereon on a pit by pit basis. In these circumstances, Section 8 of the Supplementary Benefit Act 1976 requires the Supplementary Benefit Adjudicating Officer to continue regarding Mr. Hill as not being entitled to benefit for his own requirements and that he can only receive benefit for his family.I assume that the officials still deem him to be in receipt of £16 a week.
I then wrote to the district adjudication office in Rotherham, which forwarded my letter to the regional employment office in Leeds. This week I received a letter dated 25 March from a Mr. D. Holmes, who signed for the regional benefit manager. The letterhead is the Department of Employment at City house in Leeds. It states:Your letter … addressed to the Adjudication Officer, Rotherham has been passed to this office for reply as a trade dispute adjudication is dealt with on a regional basis by this office.The second paragraph is a broad history of Mr. Hill's position, and it mentions section 19.
The letter continues:In this connection I should perhaps explain that, in deciding this type of case, the Adjudication Officer is bound to take account of relevant case law. In decision R(U)12/72, the Social Security Commissioners laid down that where a person is due to 783 end his employment (for whatever reason) but a stoppage of work intervenes and causes him to lose employment earlier, then he has lost employment by reason of that stoppage of work and a disqualification for receipt of unemployment benefit will normally follow and will remain in force until the stoppage of work ceases.If I have not confused everyone yet, perhaps I can continue with the penultimate paragraph, which states:I should perhaps point out that the fact that a strike is over does not necessarily mean that the stoppage of work due to that strike has come to an end.Most people would have thought it logical that it did.
We know that the strike in which Mr. Hill was involved has ended, and we have written to his Colliery Manager to establish the position on 5.3.85—with a view to deciding whether the stoppage of work has ended at that particular pit. Under the terms of the Social Security Commissioners decision R(U)25/57, the stoppage of work cannot be regarded as having ended until work is proceeding normally and the effect of the overtime ban on normal working is a factor to be considered.I phoned up Mr. Holmes yesterday to find out what the letter meant, because there seemed to be a contradiction in one or two of the sentences of the letter. I asked Mr. Holmes what he meant by "normal working". The Minister will recall that I told him on Monday that one coal face in one of my collieries has been withheld by the board from normal working, whether it is for incentive or deeper reasons.
Mr. Holmes told me that the adjudication officer who takes this decision is the chief adjudication officer in the Department of Health and Social Security. I asked where his office was, and Mr. Holmes said, "I am not sure. Sometimes it is in London and sometimes it is in Southampton. He moves between those two places. His name is Mr. Parsons, he is a legal man and a very nice man." I did not know whether to phone London or Southampton to talk to Mr. Parsons.
I then asked Mr. Holmes what was meant by "normal working", and I was told 90 per cent. of the normal production of the colliiery in 1983–84. Since the strike has ended, we have heard much about the loss of coalfaces, and some colleries may never get back to 90 per cent. of the 1983–84 production level. Presumably, in that case, the adjudication officers will never think that those collieries have returned to "normal working". What does the Minister deem "normal working" to be?
My office is in the village in which Mr. Hill both lived and worked before he was dismissed. I was talking to my secretary yesterday, and she told me about the wife of a miner who had gone back to work on 6 March, and was claiming single payment from the DHSS for that week. I said that that was impossible because single payment had always been denied to striking miners, throughout the strike, because they were caught in the trap of social security legislation. If one has fallen on hard times and is living on supplementary benefit, one can get the single payment, but if one is a trade unionist, or the family of a trade unionist, with principles that mean that one will stand up and fight for something, one cannot be paid single payment.
My secretary told me that there was no problem. The miners went back to work at Thurcroft colliery—the one from which Mr. Hill was dismissed — on the week starting Monday 5 March. If they had not got any wages to come on 8 March, they could claim supplementary benefit. Each one could claim the full amount, including 784 the £16—which had been stopped for 12 months—and payments for single men on supplementary benefit, who had been without a penny for so long.
Despite that, Mr. Hill, who had been dismissed by the NCB in February last year, has been denied the same benefits, because he is deemed to still be on strike. There has either been some interdepartmental bungling, or some victimisation of Mr. Hill—or perhaps both.
It is not satisfactory for hon. Members to be talking about tribunals and adjudicators when that sort of thing is going on in my constituency. Mr. Hill is suffering beyond reason. He has been fined in court and sacked. He has suffered twice for the crime that he committed. He should not be made to suffer more as a result of the operation of the social security system or through the bungling of a DHSS adjudicator who obviously does not know what day it is.
I want the Minister to investigate that and any other cases of its type to ensure that people who have been dismissed are not victimised by the NCB or by supplementary benefit officials. The Minister said that he would like to put the strike firmly behind us. It will never be put to rest while Mr. Hill and people like him are bearing the scars of the dispute in the way that I have described.
The summary decision of the NCB to sack people—for crimes that they have, or perhaps have not, committed; the courts have not yet decided many of the cases—will not enable us to put the strike behind us. The injustices, some of which I have mentioned, must be put right as soon as possible.
§ 12.6 am
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
I support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and wish to add to his comments about redundancies and the situation in the mining industry. He was right to say that the NCB had established itself as judge and jury and that people were being punished twice for having done something wrong. That is foreign to everything that the NCB has stood for over the years, going back to the time when I worked for it, until Ian MacGregor became its chairman.
I hear people say that they have faith in MacGregor. I have not and I never have. I will not challenge his management expertise, but such expertise as he has is wrong for the NCB, just as it was wrong for the steel industry. I met him on half a dozen occasions when he was chairman of the British Steel Corporation and at that time he was saying exactly the same for steel that he is now saying for coal. "My job is to find the means of selling the product," has been his claim.
What has been the result of MacGregor's attitude, for example, on my area? I received a letter today telling me that Tinsley slab mill, one of the most modern in Europe, is to close. It will close, causing enormous redundancy in the area, because Samuel Fox, which is now British Steel, Stocksbridge, part of Tinsley Park and part of Aldwark, used to be the United Steel Company. The whole lot could become part of United Steel, but that is a prosperous organisation and will, no doubt, be ripe for selling off after the slab mill has gone.
What did MacGregor, as chairman of British Steel, do to find new outlets? He used British Steel money to try to buy a clapped-out steel works in America, because he wanted to transfer slabs from here to sell them in America. 785 But that never came off. I cannot think of anything positive that Ian MacGregor did for the steel industry, except close steel works.
Then MacGregor became chairman of the NCB. Time and again I have said that there are far better people within the management structure of the NCB than MacGregor ever was and ever will be.
In considering the whole question of redundancies and the activities of Ian MacGregor, the first question to ask is why certain people have left the NCB. For example, why did Geoff Kirk leave? Why did Paul Glover leave? Why did Ned Smith leave? These men were advising the National Coal Board from its inception. Why did they leave? Why is the NCB hardening its attitude? It is something which is foreign to the industrial relations which have been built up over the past 25 years.
§ Mr. McKay
In that case, why was there not trouble much earlier? My constituents know why the strike started. The sad feature is that it should never have happened. The opportunity to start a strike should never have been available. It is significant that the closure of Cortonwood took place when Mr. MacGregor became chairman of the NCB. The industry has been working to create low costs and high wages for the past 20 years. That is the end to which many have given a life's work.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
We are here to listen and to try to be constructive. I am sure that my hon. Friends want to see the coal industry return to full operation. However, we find it difficult to understand why so many miners worked throughout the dispute without being persuaded by the arguments that we are hearing this evening. They were not persuaded that Mr. MacGregor and many other things were wrong for the board. These miners worked individually and collectively. Until an explanation is given for that, the hon. Gentleman will not persuade many of my hon. Friends to accept his argument.
§ Mr. McKay
I shall not go down that avenue this evening. However, I shall be glad to answer the hon. Gentleman's question when we have a full debate on the coal-mining industry. The answer lies in the history of the industry and of the board, and unless he has studied that history he will be unaware of the answer.
There has been talk about the responsibility of management. The right of the management to manage has never been in question. Indeed, that right is enshrined in law. Until recently, management in the coal industry has been by consensus, not by fear. We must return to the conditions that applied before Mr. MacGregor became the chairman of the board. That is why I applaud the extension of the management structure at Hobart house. I hope very much that it will soon be in operation.
It seems that there will not be as many redundancies as I feared, but there will be some, and that is why the order is designed to make the redundancy scheme attractive. Some of the measures, which have been introduced gracefully by the Minister, have been well received. I am 786 sure that they will be similarly well received outside the House. However, I shall want to examine them and their implications in the cold light of day.
Conservative Members have talked about jobs for everyone, and the debate provides an opportunity to say what that means. I placed redundant miners in Scotland and Durham in the prosperous coalfields of south Yorkshire. I had the misfortune on one or more occasions to move them from colliery to colliery. However, there comes a time when there is nowhere to which they can move. Conservative Members should consider the location of jobs and the implications for those who they think should take them. Colliery closures mean the virtual closure of villages. Because there is no work, people do not want to buy the miners' homes. Miners have to remember that the future of their children, who may be taking A-levels or O-levels, must be considered before they move from an area.
Les Hill, who lived at Cawthorn, provides one example of the difficulties facing miners. He worked at Shafton workshops, which decided in a rationalisation that some of its work would be moved to Carcroft. Mr. Hill found it difficult to move from Cawthorn to Shafton; he found it impossible to move from Cawthorn to Carcroft. At 54, he had no alternative but to take redundancy. One could say, "There was a job for him". There are supposed to be jobs for everyone, but there was not a job for him at Carcroft, so there is not a job for everyone.
In February, Mr. Hill was counselled to take his redundancy payment. Because he was a foreman, management asked him to stay on to take down the machinery that was being transferred to Carcroft rather than take his redundancy payment. Like a good workman, he did. Because he did what management asked, he was caught up in the strike. He lost six months' service pay and unemployment pay, even though he was on notice. The management made him redundant in September, while the strike was on.
If it was right to make him redundant while the strike was on, it was right that he should have been paid unemployment pay at the same time. That is one of the examples that the Opposition can bring to the Minister's attention at any time.
The adjudication officers' decisions were entirely wrong, because they did not take into account what the law said. The law says that a person will not receive unemployment pay because of a stoppage. The measure was introduced simply to prevent people from drawing unemployment to offset wages due to loss suffered because of a stoppage. Since the men returned to work, there has not been a stoppage. The stoppage is over. The present overtime ban started before the stoppage. During the strike, people were made redundant or left the industry and received unemployment benefit.
Are the adjudication officers vindictive, or have they been terribly wrong in their reading of the law, and decided accordingly? Ministers say that they cannot do a thing about this. Ministers have influence, and they can bend arms and ears. If peace is to be brought back to the coal mining industry, arms and ears should be bent and adjudication officers should decide according to the law on stoppages.
For years, there has been conciliation and consultation machinery. The coal board has always dismissed people who have fought on colliery premises. It has never dismissed people who have fought off colliery premises or 787 committed misdemeanours on colliery premises, provided that they were not committed against the NCB. Why has there been a change of attitude? What has the coal board decided, on top of the civil action which has correctly taken place, irrespective of whether the action occurred on colliery premises? That has never been done before. For how long will this continue? The NCB has created a precedent. If a man says in 10 years that he was insulted by a person who was on strike, will that former striker be dismissed, or will he carry on, as has always happened in the past?
Why should somebody be dismissed, because a finger has been pointed at him—we come back to the witch hunt—unless the National Coal Board has decided that those who work for it are its property? It is well known that American miners were the property of the coal company. They had to live in the company's houses and spend at the company's shop. Mr. Ian MacGregor's hostility towards American miners and the American system is well known. So we come back to the head of the National Coal Board.
We welcome the changes. They will make redundancy more attractive and will create the justice that has been missing for quite some time. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) will be cheered up no end—illness in the family has kept him away from the House for the past two weeks —when he reads in Hansard that something for which he has been fighting has been brought to fruition.
I welcome the redundancy payments scheme. The scars have to be healed, but this can and must be done. As the Minister knows, there are those in the National Coal Board who would be better able to heal those scars than the chairman of the board. It is time that they were given their head and that the coal board was brought back to what it was before the strike.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I do not think the coal board will get back to what it was before the strike, and I do not think the miners should allow themselves to be put in a position where that kind of collaboration goes on as it did before, because those years of collaboration and conciliation did not get the miners anywhere. They allowed the board to build up massive stocks of coal. The Government and the board—people like Mr. Eaton and the rest, besides Mr. MacGregor—then decided to take advantage of the fact that supply had outstripped demand and, with all the other facets of the Ridley plan, they got stuck into the miners and their families. So my plea to the miners, notwithstanding the fact that they have gone back to work, is to make sure that they carry out the policy of equating supply with demand.
The miners can do better than that. They can make sure that supply does not equate with demand. They should keep it just a little bit below demand. That is the way to keep pits open. Everybody who knows a little bit about this industry knows that at times when pit closures were at a low ebb the supply of coal equated with demand, or supply was even less than the amount that could be sold on the open market. That applied to Governments of whatever colour. I make no specific point about that.
Therefore, my advice to the miners I have addressed in the coalfields still is, and I use this debate to say it again, 788 to adopt the maxim that the miners of old adopted: leave a little bit of coal for tomorrow; do not smash any productivity records; do not get their photograph in Coal News so that Eaton and MacGregor can fawn over them and say what a wonderful job they have done by breaking another European record, after which the NCB chiefs will sit drinking champagne and gloating over the miners for having smashed records.
I hope miners have had their political consciousness raised during the last 12 months and that they will adopt the market economy philosophy, just as the Tory party have adopted it. I hope they will make sure that they do not supply too much coal so that the report in the Daily Telegraph on 22 March 1985 can be kept intact for a long time. It gladdened my heart to read in that report:Coal supplies, so bountiful, are now dwindling so much that rationing has been introduced in parts of the south-east. The problem apparently surrounds anthracite and other coal which merchants bought from abroad while home supplies, hewn in South Wales, were unavailable. The merchants have decided to hold out against ordering more of the expensive anthracite from Germany, America and South Africa with the prospects of cheaper, home-produced fuel.I thought that the strike was all about shutting pits and the fact that we do not have cheap coal in Britain. I thought that it was all about the fact that there was so much cheap coal on the open market that we have got to shut pits. According to last week's Daily Telegraph, ours is cheap. The article went on:The merchants were caught out by the latest cold spell and now foreign imports have dried up.I want that to last because the miners' bargaining power will remain high while the markets are there. I fancy the miners' chance in that situation.
One of the credits in the strike, notwithstanding all the difficulties, is that during that year not more than 80 million tonnes of coal was mined. That means that, despite all the oil supplies and the additional use of nuclear power—
§ Mr. Skinner
The moonlighting barrister should be careful. He has plenty of jobs on his plate. I have got some more references to him if he keeps on interjecting.
We are now in a strong market position. Massive amounts of coal have not been produced and stocks have been reduced from the 60-odd million of those dire days of 1983 to 12 million tonnes, if that, as the Secretary of State said the other day, behind the power station fences.
We must ensure that the miners that we represent are not placed in the predicament that they have been placed in before by building up those stocks of coal. My advice to the miners in the Chamber and outside is that they should never allow those stocks to be built up again so that people like Mr. Michael Eaton can take a rise out of them when it suits them.
In a capitalist economy where market forces operate, the miners need to carry on the war of attrition. The miners did not start it. The NCB decided to send in Mr. MacGregor. The NCB and the Government decided to take on the miners and smash the union if they could get away with it. It is our job to see that the miners' morale is kept up. I shall do my best to ensure that that happens.
I have no doubt at all that if we are to get an amnesty for all those miners who have been referred to today, the 789 way to do it is not to co-operate and collaborate with the NCB or the Government but to make sure that we have that bargaining power at the pithead.
Why should there be no amnesty? Why should there be victimisation? The House of Commons does not operate that sort of system. I well remember a few years ago when an ex-Tory Minister called Reginald Maudling got involved up to the neck in the Poulson scandal—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I realise that the hon. Gentleman is on his preamble, but he should make his remarks relevant to the scheme.
§ Mr. Skinner
I am talking about people who were removed from this place. There was a vote in the House which you will remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Reginald Maudling got an amnesty. The same was true of the ex-Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, when he was director of London and County Securities which was trading falsely and breaking the law, touting for custom when it was on the verge of bankruptcy.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will relate his remarks to the redundancy scheme.
§ Mr. Skinner
Yes. I am doing that. I am saying that, if the miners are to be fined in a court of law, and some of them not even that, and are then told by tinpot managers under the Government's direction—that is what it is really all about—that they will lose their jobs, then it is right and proper for me to say that other people in society and in this House of Commons have got away with the same thing. The same was true of the ex-Liberal leader, who was the director of London and County Securities, which was trading falsely and breaking the law. Yet that man still kept his job.
The same was also true of another former Member of Parliament called lain Sproat. He was another Tory. He had eight directorships and he failed to carry out the law and to file those accounts for several years under the Companies Act. But he kept his job. There was an amnesty for him. The list is as long as your arm. I challenge any Tory who is a director of a company to stand up and say that every one of his colleagues is carrying out the law of the land as set down in the Companies Act. I have a few more cases up my sleeve.
There is a lot of injustice in this world. We say that the miners have a right to be reinstated. Every one of them who fought for the right to work should be reinstated. They were not involved in a dispute about money, greed or materialism. The dispute was over saving their jobs, or saving the jobs of others. It was about preserving a future for the children in the community. Some of those who took part in the strike were on the verge of retiring, so they were not even fighting for their own jobs. They were fighting for someone else to have the job after they left. We want an amnesty for them all. We shall get it not by begging but by fighting. We should ensure that we operate on the basis of not supplying this Government with too much coal.
The order deals with concessionary coal. In recent times, the NCB has introduced a new system of taking coal away from pensioners. There used to be two sorts of householders. There were those who had retired from the 790 pits and their widows, who lived as householders. It did not matter whether they lived in flats, in bungalows, or in three-bedroomed houses in the private or public sector because they all qualified for five loads of coal a year. That was not a lot, but it was almost enough to get by on. The other category consisted of those living in lodgings, who were quasi-householders. The NCB now has another category. Apparently, it has now started measuring the square feet in any given bungalow or flat. If the figure is below a certain level, some coal is taken away. That is a scandal.
The Minister has been paid some compliments tonight. I shall not pay him any, because he played a wicked role during the strike. But will he get on to the NCB, and try to investigate why it is stealing coal from retired miners or pensioners who have gone into small flats or bungalows? That should be put right.
§ Mr. Beith
Is it not extremely unfair that concessionary coal should be withdrawn from a widow because she has gone out and scrubbed a few floors? After that date she will lose her concessionary coal for ever. Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that the NUM has done enough to end the withdrawal of that concessionary coal?
§ Mr. Skinner
Whether or not the NUM has done enough, I can say that I am not satisfied because the NCB has been so vindictive. The hon. Gentleman has just graphically illustrated again how deep the bitterness and hatred is within the NCB and the Government. In order to exact retribution from the miners, those who have served the industry, and who were not even involved in the strike, have been attacked.
There has been a lot of talk about the Minister dealing with the cases in which unemployment benefit has been lost. I believe that these people need retrospective payment, every single one of them, for every single week that they have lost. There must be no date at which it is said that the strike is now ended. We want full back pay for every single person who has been treated like the two or three I have mentioned in my constituency—people who have left the industry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said. We have all had examples of that and we want to make sure that they get their back pay.
Those are just a few of the things that need to be dealt with. I can assure the Minister that we shall not be letting him or the Secretary of State off the hook. It is our job to see to it that we represent our mining constituents as well as the others.
§ Mr. Skinner
We are going to make sure that we represent them, in order to keep pits open. We are going to see to it—at least, I am—that they do not make a rod for their own backs ever again. We are going to encourage them not to build up stocks so that the Government can have another Ridley plan ready to try and smash them into the ground. This debate has been important for that reason, if for no other.
We know that the redundancy payments will help people who have got the sack, but they will never be as good as those in the Common Market. Is it not a strange 791 irony that, although there is no money in this country to keep pits open, so the Government say, during the strike we had the galling experience of prospective redundant commissioners in the Common Market — a totally uneconomic unit of production, with no financial reserves—being made into vice-presidents three weeks before their retirement so that they could get a big, fat redundancy payment to which they would otherwise not be entitled? And this Government connived at it.
It is in that spirit that I speak tonight on behalf of the miners and others who have been victimised by the Government, and it is in that spirit that I intend to carry on.
§ Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)
I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) for not being here when he made his opening remarks, but I was on the Transport Bill in Committee and we were busy voting on certain clauses. I want to give him as much backing as I possibly can.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is completely right. There certainly is a problem, as I found out myself this week from one of my old-age pensioners, over this concessionary fuel. It came as a terrific surprise to me when I was told that in a certain area of my town, because some rooms have been unclassified now, all of a sudden these old-age pensioners are losing 2 tons of coal a year. When they have been used to having it, this comes as a terrible shock to them.
It came as an even worse shock to me when I found this in the agreement, that it was what we had agreed to. How that slipped through I just do not know, but it is causing some problems, an the last thing we want in the mining industry at this time is more problems.
I agree with my hon. Friends representing other areas that there are problems concerning the adjudicating officer, because he seems to have taken a carte blanche decision about the whole industry. In our area, members who have finished with the coal board for one reason or another—nothing whatsoever to do with the strike—are finding that their unemployment pay, their DHSS pay, has been stopped because somebody somewhere on high has said that the industry is in dispute.
Some workers in my area lost not a day's work during the year of dispute. I do not argue about the rights and wrongs of that, but it seems odd that people who worked throughout the strike and who have now retired are deemed to be on strike. It is hard for people to understand and it has caused bitterness.
The Minister should take the adjudicator to one side. Perhaps he might have to twist his arm. I back my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover on this. Those affected were told to put in their appeals. However, the appeals were not dealt with during the dispute. A backlog has built up over the year.
Surely the adjudicator does not have to hear every case. One case should be enough. A decision to pay could be made after hearing one case. If the decision goes their way, applicants should be given back pay from the day that they made their application.
§ Mr. Barron
A man from the regional employment office in Leeds told me that he did not make a decision in 792 one case at one colliery because he did not want one man from a village working at one colliery to be paid when someone from the same village working at another colliery was not paid because no decision had been made for that pit. Perhaps we shall have to wait until the men at all the British coalfields are working normally.
§ Mr. Concannon
That is why I think that the Minister should settle the matter with the adjudicator. Letters from the DHSS and employment offices give us a breakdown of what is happening, but then we are told "This is your problem. You make the laws and you must sort out the difficulties." That is what I am told, in all friendliness, by the manager of my local DHSS office. The men in my area have not been on strike, but if they are no longer employed by the coal board for one reason or another, they are in difficulties.
I heard of the case last week of an 18-year-old lad who suddenly found that he was no longer employed in the coal industry. He does not have a penny a week to live on. Without his parents I do not know what he would so.
The Minister should pick up the phone tomorrow and say "For goodness sake, take one case, use it as a precedent, and pay the men." Payment should be from the date of application. That would take some of the bitterness away. I want to back up my hon. Friends from other areas. This has been a national decision—
§ Mr. Concannon
When the problem arose, I was told first that the decision had been taken in Birmingham. When I tried to get hold of Birmingham, it turned out that the decision had been taken in London. It was a case of being caught up in Tebbit's law.
In my area people were working all the time, but those who became redundant or lost their jobs were caught up in the problem. They may have got sympathy but they were left without unemployment and other benefits. There is a lot of bitterness and misunderstanding. The Minister would do himself and many others a great favour if he got on the telephone tomorrow and said, "Get cracking on it; make a decision and then start paying the lads the money that is due to them."
§ Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)
I hope my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will not go in for any arm-twisting. There are some of us who represent industrial areas who have seen the same thing happen before. It may come as a surprise to Opposition Members, but when there is a national overtime ban that is not normal working. Certainly it is not normal working in the shoe industry or in engineering in my constituency. It may seem like normal working to some people in the mining industry, but it is not normal working.
Cases have been mentioned that should be considered, but I hope my hon. Friend will not be tempted to go along the path of doing some arm-twisting just to meet a difficulty—
§ Mr. Morris
No. Nobody on the Opposition side gave way to me, and I am not giving way to anyone.
793 There are genuine anomalies that should be investigated. The processes of the law should be followed. The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and other hon. Members have quoted cases that should be investigated.
Is it not remarkable, however, that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) should have gone on at some length about the victimisation of Scottish miners who have been dismissed? He tried to leave the House with the impression that not one of the 200 miners to whom he referred could possibly have been involved in violence. It is worth recording that of 10,372 alleged offences, there were 3 for murder, 5 for threatening to kill, 1,019 for criminal damage, 39 for assault causing grievious bodily harm and 429 for assault causing actual bodily harm. There are many more that in normal circumstances would have resulted in fines. If the hon. Member for Midlothian is suggesting—
§ Mr. Morris
I shall not give way.
If the hon. Member for Midlothian is suggesting that no miner in Scotland was involved in any of those crimes, he must think that we are a lot of fools.
§ Mr. Morris
No, I did not ask the hon. Gentleman a question. It was a rhetorical question. If he cannot understand the difference between a rhetorical and a genuine question, he ought not to be here.
The hard fact—and somebody has to say it—is that it was a political strike from the start. It was a contrived strike by the NUM. The pity of it is that the hon. Member for Midlothian did not seek tonight to mend some of the hurts. The industry has a future, as both he and I know. We have the best fossil fuel resources in Europe. The only way forward is to heal some of the wounds. I hope the next time that the hon. Member for Midlothian speaks in a debate on the coal industry, he will refer to the future of the industry and not look back on all the difficulties created during the past 12 months.
My hon. Friend the Minister has made a major contribution to the healing process. There is much work still to be done. I hope that all hon. Members will do their best to ensure that the industry succeeds.
§ Mr. David Hunt
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply to the debate.
I shall attempt to answer the many important points which have been raised, and will write to those hon. Members whose questions I do not have time to answer. I recognise the difficulty that will arise after 1 January 1986 because many miners will have insufficient national insurance contributions to qualify for social security benefits. I shall carefully consider the implications of that for the scheme. As the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) recognised, the problem will not arise until next year. It is too early for me to say what changes might be introduced.
The hon. Gentleman made accusations about law-breakers that were not true. It is a fact that NACODS this 794 morning sought leave to apply for a judicial review on the ground that the NCB had failed to undertake statutory consultation under section 46 of the 1946 Act, concerning in particular the proposed closure of Bedwas colliery, but in the generality also. It also sought an injunction to prevent the board from making any closure until the introduction of the revised colliery review procedure. The court refused it leave to challenge the board in that way. Therefore, I cannot understand how the hon. Gentleman can maintain that the NCB should be regarded as having breached the terms of the 1946 Act.
The hon. Gentleman attempted to rewrite the history of the dispute. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) was right to say that it was a wide aspect of the debate. However, it is right to stress that the NUM rejected the NACODS agreement in October and on several occasions in subsequent months. When we debated the issue on 4 February, that was still the case, as it was in the following days.
However, later the NUM did accept the NACODS agreement, and that was made clear to the TUC. It was that step that prompted the TUC to approach the Prime Minister on the basis that there was but a narrow gap between the NCB and the NUM. If the hon. Gentleman refers to the TUC document, he will note that clause 4 states:The parties accept that it is of value to outline, at this stage, the procedures that flow from a commitment to modify the Colliery Review Procedure.Accepting that the NACODS agreement was part of the final agreement between the NUM and the NCB, what were the consequences that would flow from that?
There was a crucial difference in the dispute between NACODS and the NCB and the dispute between the NUM and the NCB, and that was a major problem to overcome. The NUM, not NACODS, had been on strike on the main issue of uneconomic pits. Conservative Members and several Opposition Members have termed that as an irresponsible demand that no uneconomic pit should ever close. That issue had to be dealt with over and above acceptance of the NACODS agreement. That is why other clauses were in the document presented by the seven top trade union leaders to the NUM as the best deal that they thought was available.
§ Mr. Eadie
I am as tired as the Minister having spent six and a half hours at a national executive committee meeting in Sheffield and six hours on a train today. I hope that he will not rewrite history. I was present when the magnificent seven from the TUC went to the NUM. They did not have a TUC document but an a NCB one. I quoted what the Minister told the House on 4 February when we asked whether anything would have to be signed, and, if so, would the ACAS-NACODS agreement of October 1984 have been accepted. The Minister said no. He is now telling me that the NUM had to sign something in the document submitted by the TUC. We were told that it was negotiable of and capable interpretation but had to be signed before negotiations started. It is the Minister, not me, who is rewriting history. He gave an undertaking to the House on 4 February. I am accusing the Government of bad faith in not carrying it out.
§ Mr. Hunt
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman does not have it right. I have spent many hours, often late into the night, with those seven top trade union leaders. The hon. Gentleman has not denied that they went to the NUM 795 executive and presented that document — presented to them by the NCB—which was the subject of discussion between the TUC and the NCB. It was the best deal available. Time and again I have criticised the Opposition, because if only they had supported Norman Willis and the TUC, the document would have formed part of the final agreement. It would have been a just and honourable settlement. I accept that the hon. Gentleman and I disagree.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) made several telling points about disqualification and unemployment benefit. I assure the House that the social security commissioners, who ultimately determine entitlement to unemployment benefit under social security legislation, are entirely independent of government. There is no question of arm twisting. The commissioners are all barristers or advocates of at least 10 years' standing and, like judges, are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor. It would not be proper for Ministers to try to influence them, and I hope that Opposition Members accept that no attempt has been made to do so in cases arising out of the coal dispute.
§ Mr. Barron
The House has some dealings with the commissioners, because it draws up the legislation that they operate. Why can people who have gone back to work at Faircroft be paid under legislation presented by Ministers when Mr. Hill, who has been dismissed and is no longer an employee, is deemed to be on strike and cannot get the same payment? It seems to me that there is something radically wrong.
§ Mr. Hunt
It would be improper for me to seek to interfere with the commissioners exercising their judicial jurisdiction.
I understand that a tribunal of commissioners will hear an appeal from a redundant miner on 16 April. Unlike the four appeals to date, which have been considered by individual commissioners, the decision of this tribunal will be binding on all similar cases. The decisions of the four appeals followed a series of commissioners' decisions and a decision of the tribunal of commissioners, which arose from the coal strike of 1972, as the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) mentioned. The commissioners stated that they were following the ratio decidendi of the stare decisis doctrine of the original decisions made in 1972.
I am told that the tribunal of 16 April will consist of the chief commissioner, Judge Bromley, and two other commissioners of longstanding, Mr. J. S. Watson and Mr. Morcom. When they make their decision, my colleagues and I shall examine it most carefully, as will many miners who have appeals to the commissioners outstanding. The payment of back benefit depends on the result of the tribunal hearing. The tribunal has power to backdate the benefit in full to the date of application. I hope that that clarifies the position and demonstrates that there can be no question of the Government interfering.
§ Mr. Eadie
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's remarks. However, he must answer the point raised in the debate. Who took the decision? It was not taken in the individual areas, but it came down the line. Who told adjudicating officers that they could not pay? Who took the decision 796 and sent it to Yorkshire and Scotland and so on to say that the dispute had not ended and to instruct the adjudicating officers? We must know who took the decision that influences those people?
§ Mr. Hunt
As the hon. Member for Bolsover, (Mr. Skinner) stressed, the hon. Gentleman is looking for a scapegoat in the Government. He will not find one. The Government did not interfere or intervene. The adjudicating officers have stated that they were following a decision of commissioners of a tribunal in 1972, which is binding. Now we have a new tribunal at the highest level which will look at the position again. I suggest to the House that we await that decision and consider the position thereafter.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) asked about opencast workers. The terms of employment in the opencast coal industry are, as he knows, more like those in the civil engineering industry than in the deep mine coal industry. That is recognised. However, they are still a crucial part of the coal industry. Typically, opencast sites last only a few years, with men moving from one to another. By contrast, the redundant mineworkers' payment scheme is designed to alleviate hardship when a deep mine closes in a settled community, typically after 60 to 80 years of life. That is the difference. Obviously, I shall consider carefully his points.
The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) said that the strike should never have happened and, of course, it should never have happened. As my right hon. Friend has stressed time and time again, the miners had before them the most generous offer since nationalisation. If only they had accepted it—they would have accepted it, if it had gone to a ballot—the damaging strike would never have occurred.
§ Mr. Hardy
I accept that the Minister assumed his office while the strike was underway. For months before the strike, some Opposition Members pleaded with the Secretary of State to take part in the tripartite arrangements so that he could tell the unions in the mining industry of the splendid deal. Is it not a pity—£6,500 million of pity—that he did not take our advice and avoid that appalling bitterness and expenditure?
§ Mr. Hunt
The hon. Gentleman must be aware that the miners knew of the offer. It was explained to them. I could show him many documents in which it was set out clearly. Sadly, the miners were not given the opportunity to vote in a ballot. But we shall not get anywhere by looking into the past, as the hon. Gentleman would be the first to agree.
The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) raised many important points, which I shall consider. I disagreed with much of what he said, but he would not expect anything different, judging by his attitude and accusatorial finger, which pointed in my direction on several occasions.
I appreciated the kind remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam), and I completely agree with him that successful low-cost production with a highly paid work force must be a major objective of any policies on the coal industry. I agree with his comments about Arthur Scargill. We do not wish continually to kick Arthur Scargill, but, my goodness, his members do it every day of the week. He is beaten in ballot after ballot after ballot. Of course, my hon. Friend is right to say that the Government's commitment to coal is as strong as ever. He 797 asked about the coal conversion scheme. The coal-firing scheme is a practical expression of our commitment to the future of the coal industry. It is impossible to say exactly how much of the £75 million has been used, since, on past experience, several applications that are in the pipeline may be withdrawn or may not merit a grant. Companies must continue to apply, as a useful amount remains in the fund.
As for the future, the Government will be reviewing the long-term future of the scheme later in the year, and we shall certainly take careful note of my hon. Friend's points.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I lose no opportunity to promote that excellent scheme, and later today I shall visit several firms in the west country that have converted successfully. I shall also open the National Coal Board's new office in Bristol. We shall continue to intensify the campaign.
The hon. Member for Rother Valley asked me to estimate the number of people who will be affected. This order merely amends the March 1984 order. The terms currently available will continue to apply until the end of March 1986. No decision is likely about a further order for the period beyond 1986 until much nearer that time, and any decision will depend entirely upon the circumstances then prevailing. But much will depend upon the numbers who come forward, so I do not have a figure to give to the House. The terms that are now available will still be available against the important background of no compulsory redundancy.
The strike has had a major impact on the coal industry. Now that it is over, the board must undertake a thorough review of the damage done and its actions for the future. But it is too early to say wht the outcome of the board's review might be and, hence, the numbers of men who may take voluntary redundancy in 1985–86 and thereafter.
I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter about Mr. MacGregor's decision to widen the executive, and I join the tribute paid by him to the work of Ian MacGregor as coal board chairman. I make that point clearly.
The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) also paid tribute to the new management structure, and I am delighted that it has such a blessing from this place. He raised the case of Les Hill. I say to Mr. Hill, through the medium of the Chamber, that not only did the hon. Gentleman raise the matter in tonight's debate but he has already made a detailed submission to the Secretary of State and to me. We shall consider carefully all the points that have been made.
I join the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse). I am sad to hear that illness has prevented him from being in the Chamber tonight; indeed, many hon. Members said that it must have been something like that to have kept him away. He is responsible for the continual pressure to improve the redundant mineworkers pension scheme, and I pay tribute to him.
Several hon. Members have asked about dismissal. I hope that all hon. Members realise—we have said it 798 many times—that the dismissal and re-employment of employees are matters for the board. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South read out a relevant list of offences, but the board has made it clear that all cases are considered on their merits. The Government have said that that is a good policy. If hon. Members have evidence that the policy is not being followed, I shall consider carefully any points made.
§ Mr. Eadie
The Minister must not say that all cases will be considered on their merits. I told him in my opening speech about what has happened in Scotland. I told him what happened when I met Mr. MacGregor and Mr. Wheeler. There were more than 200 cases, and none was decided on its merits. It is a complete violation of the conciliation and consultative machinery. I was surprised by how neatly the Minister sidestepped my point that there is conciliation machinery in the industry, and that the board has violated it.
§ Mr. Hunt
The hon. Member for Bolsover made some disgraceful comments about Michael Eaton. Mr. Eaton cares more deeply about the coal industry than the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the NUM does not listen to the hon. Gentleman's strictures, and I do not believe that it will. The message for hope for the future of the coal industry is that the moderates are defeating the militants. The ballot result, the decision yesterday—this has been a bad week for the hon. Member for Bolsover, and Mr. Scargill, but a good week for Britain.
The hon. Member for Bolsover, and the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) both spoke about concessionary coal. As they know, miners' and miners' widows' concessionary coal is determined by an agreement between the NCB an the NUM. The NUM negotiated a new agreement, containing the provisions to which the hon. Member for Bolsover has objected, in 1983. In the light of what has been said, I shall carefully consider all the points that have been raised on that agreement.
I sense that there has been unanimity in the debate that there should be a return to normal working next Wednesday. The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) said that it will be a total victory for the Government. No — it will be a victory for common sense. This has been a useful and important debate. Let us now all agree to put the past well behind us. Let us get going with the urgent task of rebuilding our great industry. I hope that the House will support the order.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Scheme) (Amendment) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 11th March, be approved.