HC Deb 12 November 1985 vol 86 cc536-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]

10.17 pm
Mr. Terry Patchett (Barnsley, East)

May I express my gratitude for the opportunity to raise this matter on the Floor of the House? Although I am aware that Darfield Main colliery is the subject of the review procedure between the National Coal Board and the appropriate trade unions, there are certain aspects of which the Minister should be made aware.

Darfield Main is a mine with which I have had close associations for many years. Indeed, I was present at the negotiations when the Silkstone seam was added to the reserves of Darfield Main from Houghton Main, with assurances of at least 15 years of extended life. With the committed investment at Darfield Main of some £28 million, there opened up a potential of 1 million tonnes in the Winterbed seam where headings were already laid out. The 250,000 tonnes in the Melton Field seam took the potential life of Darfield Main to well over 20 years. However, those arguments will no doubt be put forward by the relevant trade unions in the review procedure.

Being experienced in negotiations with the NCB, I am aware of the Government's influence over the NCB. It is to that that I wish to draw the attention of the House. During the miners' dispute, which is generally accepted by political commentators as having been perpetrated on the country by the Government, I wrote to the Secretary of State about the future of Darfield Main.

Darfield Main's future lies with heavy investment in the Silkstone seam which connects to the Cortonwood reserves of the same seam. The then branch secretary of the union, Walter Swift, had written to me expressing concern about the future of Darfield Main in view of the fact, stated many times, that the NCB could not sell Cortonwood coal. We are all familiar with the history of Cortonwood.

I wrote to the Secretary of State and he passed my letter on to Mr. Ian MacGregor, chairman of the National Coal Board. I expressed concern about the future of Darfield Main and Houghton Main collieries, which mine the same seam. In response, Mr. MacGregor assured me—he was writing during the strike—that Darfield Main and Holton Main collieries have substantial reserves, and, unlike Cortonwood, produce coal from other seams as well as the Silkstone. These two pits are part of the south side washery complex, centred on Grimethorpe colliery and they have benefited substantially over recent years from the board's massive programme of capital investment under plan for coal. Both pits now have a complete new underground infrastructure, with streamlined operations for men, material and mineral handling, at low cost. The coal mined from these collieries (including that from the Silkstone seam) will form part of a comprehensive blend to produce a low cost product, suitable for both industry and power stations. That letter was written during a different climate, but given Mr. MacGregor's assurance one can readily understand my amazement when a proposal to close Darfield Main was announced within only four or five weeks of the end of the dispute, after such a glowing reference. I am aware of the dirty tactics used by the board and the Government during the dispute, which misled public opinion so gravely, but an attempt to mislead a Member of the House in such a way by the chairman of a nationalised industry is intolerable behaviour.

When I heard of the proposed closure, I immediately wrote to Mr. MacGregor requesting a meeting to discuss the matter. I was entitled to do so following the assurances that I received during the dispute. He replied by saying that his office was arranging for me to meet the area director of Barnsley area, Mr. Frank Ramsden, so that the present position could be explained, although it was Mr. MacGregor who sent the initial letter. I immediately contacted Mr. Ramsden's office by telephone. I have known Frank Ramsden personally for many years. However, his secretary told me that he was out that day and going on holiday the following day. I made that contact on my initiative—nothing came from the coal board, regardless of promises.

That happened in the middle of July. From that time to this there has been no attempt to contact me by letter or telephone. In fact, that part of the Barnsley area of the NCB no longer exists as it is now under the auspices of the north Yorkshire area director, Mr. Albert Tuke, who has not contacted me either.

I feel strongly that I have been treated with contempt by the chairman of a nationalised industry. Anyone treating a Member of the House in such a contemptuous manner is treating the House itself with contempt. I am satisfied in my own mind that Mr. MacGregor feels that he does not have to justify writing off £28 million of public money to a duly elected Member of the House. I wish to take up that line of thought with the Minister because I feel strongly that that attitude has been encouraged by the Government. The Government have been and are prepared to write off many millions, indeed billions, of pounds during the dispute, to pursue their political dogma. Had the Government been prepared to spend half as much money in creating markets for coal as they have spent in union bashing, I am sure that the NCB would be in a much sounder position today.

I also regret that the Government's arrogance has infiltrated local management. Indeed, Mr. Griffin, the manager of Houghton Main, makes repeated calls to the work force for co-operation, but that is only in public. The work force are members of the National Union of Mineworkers. Away from the public eye, Mr Griffin tells union officials that he is looking for a way to sack them—that is the branch officials, of course. What a way to run an industry.

To return to the major reason for bringing this matter to the attention of the House, I feel that the NCB is in a dilemma because the Government have no clearly defined energy policy. Is it not ironic that the coal board is turning down coking coal export orders to the tune of 2 million to 3 million tonnes to Rumania and a possible 3 million tonnes, going up to 1990, from Denmark; and I am reliably informed of Irish interests preferring British coal to American. I am speaking of coking coal which is the backbone of the Darfield Main colliery—the coking coal that the board could not sell from Cortonwood when it started this trouble.

It is to this dilemma that the Government contribute. For example, the main argument which contributed to the costly mining dispute concerned reserves. Since the strike, this has turned into a question of economics, meaning that even a pit with reserves has no guaranteed future. Darfield Main, with its 20 years' reserves, was set an economic target of £42 per tonne. It had almost achieved that aim and was suddenly told, "You cannot score goals. We are moving the net. We are dropping it to £38 per tonne." It is a ridiculous way to run a business.

I must ask the Minister to come clean on the Goverment's policy for the energy industry. It really is time that he did so. I feel confident that the Government do not have too much of an interest in the electricity generating industry for sales because of their obvious enthusiasm for nuclear energy. It seems clear that the recent reorganisation of the coal board areas is leading up to a sale of lucrative pits such as Selby and the Vale of Belvoir, with its thick seams, not necessarily with a view to competing in the electricity generating industry but with an eye to the potential market in the gas industry. It is quite well known that by the year 2010 the gas board will require as much as 100 million tonnes of coal for conversion purposes when those wasted assets in the North sea have gone, when the Goverment have done with the easy meat.

I ask the Minister, therefore, to give a direction to the board, indeed to the country, by declaring quite clearly and specifically their energy policy. It cannot be so difficult a task when we realise that 2010 is only 25 years away. Until the Minister comes clean on this, the work force will always face the dilemma of not knowing where its future lies. Like Darfield Main, many more pits will face apparently desperate searches for reasons to close them. The reasons vary from week to week. One used to be worked-out reserves. Now it is economics. This is what the coal board is now indulging in. It cannot even find a genuine reason for closing pits.

I ask the Minister to do his duty to the country by spelling out his policy honestly and clearly. We want to know how many more millions of pounds the Government are prepared to write off and how much more of the coal industry will be destroyed before the Government's targets are satisfied.

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

I acknowledge that there can be few Members of the House better qualified to speak on this subject than the hon. Member for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett), with his background as a craftsman at Houghton Main and as a long-standing delegate for the National Union of Mineworkers. I fully appreciate the concerns which have led him to raise this matter tonight.

Colliery closures, particularly in areas of high unemployment, must be of concern to us all. I have pointed out to the House on many occasions that the closure of individual pits is a matter for the National Coal Board in consultation with the unions. I know only too well from experience in my constituency on Merseyside the problems that are caused by high levels of unemployment. However, the hon. Gentleman has not chosen a particularly appropriate occasion to raise this matter for the first time in the House.

The area director of what was at that time the NCB's Barnsley area first proposed the closure of Darfield Main, as the hon. Gentleman knows, at a general colliery review meeting on 16 May of this year, after the strike. Under the terms of the colliery review procedure, a reconvened colliery review meeting was held on 20 June, when the unions indicated their wish to appeal against the proposal. That appeal was heard on 7 November, last week.

As always, the NCB has assured me that it will give serious consideration to the case that has been put forward by the unions. I understand that all three major unions—the NUM, NACODS and BACM—have appealed on this occasion. The House would not want the NCB to make a quick decision on a closure which will affect about 600 of the board's employees living in or around the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I understand that a full meeting of the NCB is expected to consider the unions' appeal at a meeting on 6 December.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of allegations, of which I had no prior notice, against the NCB and its chairman—and I mean no criticism of him for that—but the specific details of assurances given by the chairman must be a matter for the hon. Gentleman to take up with the chairman direct. [Interruption.] Naturally, I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's remarks immediately to the attention of the chairman of the NCB, but on this matter I know that the director, Albert Tuke, has every confidence in his relationship with local Members, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman has a sufficiently good relationship with Mr. Tuke to be able to approach him direct on these crucial matters.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that for some months the NCB and the mining unions have been discussing the implementation of the modified colliery review procedure. Following a meeting on 30 October, that procedure is at last in place. Should last week's appeal prove unsuccessful, the unions will have the option to take their case to the new final stage of the procedure. For the first time, this provides an independent element in the consideration of proposed pit closures in that a panel of eminent barristers sitting alone in rotation will consider the views of both sides of the industry and make a completely impartial recommendation.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

Does the Minister agree that there is evidence that since the end of the strike the pit closure programme has become more rapid than before the strike appeared to be the intention? For example, in my constituency pits such as Ackton Hall and Fryston have been closed when they were originally not on the hit list. Millions of pounds had been invested in them. Indeed, at Ackton Hall just prior to the strike a brand new office block complete with canteen as built. Is it now a case of the victor taking the spoils? In other words, will the industry be run down more quickly because one side thinks it won the strike?

Mr. Hunt

I shall be responding to that question in the context of replying to the general points that have been made.

As the question of the possible closure of Darfield Main is still only at the stage of being considered by the board, and should the appeal prove unsuccessful it has the further stage of the independent review body still before it, it would not be right or proper for me to comment in detail tonight on the pit itself. It would be wrong for me to interfere in the process that I have described. It is a matter for the mining unions to discuss with the NCB direct.

I shall, however, respond to the more general remarks about the coal industry. I start by reminding the House of our commitment to the coal industry and the massive support that we have given in the last six years, support which, despite the longest and most damaging industrial dispute the nation has ever seen, has enabled the miners to remain as some of the highest paid in the industrial pay league. That support has ensured that during the massive and long-overdue restructuring that is now taking place no man has been forced to leave the industry, and those who have chosen to leave have done so on the most extraordinarily generous terms. Government support has led to the creation of National Coal Board Enterprise Limited, which not only brings new industry into mining areas but gives men who worked in the coal milling industry a fresh start to use their redundancy money in creative and imaginative ways.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

Will the Minister tell the House what the Government and the coal board are doing to follow up and develop markets for the sale of British coal? This question was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett). What are the Government and the NCB doing to win the overseas markets which many of us are convinced are available'?

Mr. Hunt

When the Government came to office in 1979, Britain was a net importer of coal. In the period just before the strike we had become a net exporter of coal. That does not square with the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I am trying to avoid responding to party political points because this is not the time to rehearse the old political arguments about the strike. However, because of the politically damaging dispute, we have again become a net importer of coal. I share the hon. Member's and the House's resolve to recapture the markets for coal, but it will be impossible to do so if coal is uncompetitively priced.

Mr. Alec Woodall (Hemsworth)

It is all very well for the Minister to talk about political response. Is he aware of the colliery just two miles from my home with which the Government have had many dealings? Kinsley Drift colliery has been open for only five years and is now on the hit list to be closed. That five-year-old colliery broke records when it opened, despite the fact that it began with a fatal accident in which two men were killed. It is a brand-new pit which is now on the hit list after only five years, despite the Government's commitment. What chance have the older pits that were sunk a century ago and have been working ever since if a pit that is only five years old is on the hit list because the capital charges placed on it by the Government have forced it to close for economic reasons?

Mr. Hunt

Any proposal for a pit closure must go through the review procedure. There is now every opportunity for the unions, if they wish to oppose the closure, not only to go through the old procedure stage by stage but to involve the independent element. The best place to argue about the future of a pit is within the procedures laid down in consultation with the NCB and the mining unions, not in the Chamber.

My remarks about National Coal Board Enterprise Ltd. are in no way intended to establish that the Government have an immediate answer to the problems of mining communities facing pit closures. However, it has made an impressive start. In its first year of operation, the company has created 2,700 jobs and has given direct assistance to 188 projects in the service and manufacturing industries. It has taken over disused NCB properties and created managed workshops where people are going into business for the first time. They have access to shared services and a wealth of advice and guidance on financial, administrative and marketing problems. In addition, the company is working closely with new and existing enterprise agencies, and is providing funds to the tune of £750,000 a year. Staff are being seconded to those agencies from the National Coal Board.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

How many jobs have been destroyed in the mining industry since the Tory Government took power?

Mr. Hunt

The direct answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that the Government have no part in destroying jobs in the mining industry—

Mr. Canavan

Answer the question.

Mr. Hunt

The direct answer is that the Government have no part in destroying jobs in the mining industry.

Mr. Canavan

It is a simple question; answer it.

Mr. Hunt

The Government are in the business of providing a positive future for coal by putting record investment into establishing—

Mr. Canavan

How many jobs have been destroyed in the mining industry since the Tory Government took power?

Mr. Hunt

I am saying that the Government have destroyed no jobs in the coal industry. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a more direct answer than that. But, of course, he will never be satisfied, because it does not accord with his political views, which paint me as someone who is trying to decimate the coal industry. On the contrary, the Government have a positive attitude to the future of coal. Of course, there will be difficulties, but I believe that those difficulties can be overcome. Provided that we can regain confidence in coal, it has a tremendous future in Britain.

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

Cannot the answer to getting cheaper coal be found in my constituency, where week after week miners are breaking production records?

Mr. Hunt

My hon. Friend paints the correct picture. I have been underground at six pits in the past few months, and I have discovered at the coal face a determination to make coal a competitive fuel. The hon. Member for Barnsley, East asked me about the Government's energy policy. It is simple. We are proud and fortunate to have all the main sources of energy: oil, gas, nuclear fuel and coal. Our energy policy is to keep each option active and developing, none more so than coal. There is a positive future for coal.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

The Minister believes that to be a positive attitude, but why is Darfield Main to be closed when it conforms with the board's criteria on breaking even, which is that it should cost less than £39 a tonne to produce coal?

Mr. Hunt

I can readily answer the hon. Gentleman. There is no solution to unemployment in keeping open pits that cannot produce coal in a manner beneficial to the industry or to the nation. I do not prejudge Darfield Main, because its proposed closure is still going through the review procedure. It is for the coal board and the mining unions, in consultation, to determine the future of the pit. But the support of grossly uneconomic capacity has cost the taxpayer enormous sums of money in recent years. The Government refuse any longer to draw a blank cheque in support of the industry on the taxpayer. Of course, the NCB must put its house in order. To do that, and to be able to face the future as a healthy and competitive industry, it is vital that it should close capacity which cannot make a positive contribution.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

The Minister has talked many times about his concern for the unemployed in my region, with which he is closely associated, and he will be aware of the closure of mines in his constituency. What is his view of the Lancashire mines? He has argued vociferously in the House about unemployment in the area that he represents. He does he square that with the closure of mines in Lancashire?

Mr. Hunt

It is clear that the Government want a viable, economic coal industry. With the majority of investment going into existing rather than new pits, the industry has every opportunity to prove itself and individual pits have the chance to reach productivity targets.

We must not lose sight of the subject of this debate. The hon. Member for Barnsley, East cannot argue, as he conceded, that the remaining reserves at Darfield Main will be lost. I understand that they are easily accessible from the neighbouring colliery, and that all those currently employed at Darfield Main will be given the opportunity to remain in the industry if they wish, or to leave on generous redundancy terms. If there are other technical or economic arguments against closure, the proper place to air them is in the colliery review procedure.

Mr. Patchett

Is the Minister aware, when he talks about accessibility to neighbouring pits, that I have worked in the same seam and am quite familiar with it? The neighbouring seam is Houghton Main Colliery. Economic difficulties arise because of the distance men have to travel from the pit bottom to the seam. Darfield Main is closer to the pit bottom and fewer man hours are therefore required.

Mr. Hunt

I am helpless when the hon. Gentleman makes such points because, as I have acknowledged, he knows the area better than any other hon. Member. I have listened carefully to him and I am sure that what he has said will be taken into account in the procedure.

Mr. Woodall

It is all very well for the Minister to talk about a healthy, viable coal industry but is he aware that in Yorkshire alone, since the strike ended in April, 18,500 men have been made redundant? Viability is now so bad that every man at every pit in my area is talking about the future and the lid going on that pit. I can tell the Minister of a brand new pit—it is only five years old—which is now in danger under the review procedure. What about the other pits? It is all very well to talk about viability, but who decides what is viable?

The break-even point started at £42 a tonne and is now down to £38 a tonne. How long will it be before it is £36 a tonne and most pits are in danger?

Mr. Hunt

The hon. Gentleman has begun to answer his own question. The viability of these pits depends upon their ability to produce coal at a competitive price. The redundancies he has spoken about are voluntary under this Government. Often under Labour, they were compulsory. Under this Government there is an enterprise company ready to breath new life into declining areas. Under Labour, there was no enterprise company.

Mr. Lofthouse

I am sure that the Minister is not deliberately misleading the House when he speaks about redundancies under the Labour Government. I was involved in the NCB's administration of pit closures under the Labour Government, when the NCB did not make men compulsorily redundant.

Mr. Hunt


The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.