HC Deb 28 October 1985 vol 84 cc651-5
4. Mr. Hannam

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he expects to announce a new "Plan for Coal".

Mr. Peter Walker

Discussions are taking place to agree the strategy for coal. We are endeavouring to agree a strategy that will provide coal at economic cost to the consumer and a good future for the industry.

Mr. Hannam

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the original 1974 "Plan for Coal" failed on several important counts—productivity, demand estimates and estimates of pit closures? Does not the National Coal Board's new strategy represent a much more realistic set of targets based on achieving a profitable and expanding industry founded on competitively priced coal?

Mr. Walker

Yes. I think that one of the great ptities of the original strategy was the total lack of performance in terms of productivity targets. I hope that productivity will improve substantially. Productivity improvements will give the best prospects for the coal industry.

Mr. Ryman

What progress, if any, has been made in the negotiations between the right hon. Gentleman's Department, the NCB and the NUM about establishing a new, independent appeals procedure to hear appeals on colliery reviews concerning proposed pit closures? I understand from what the right hon. Gentleman said to me on 19 June and 4 October that the bodies are nearing agreement. What is the present position?

Mr. Walker

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows from my discussions with him that I share his anxiety that a modified procedure should be established quickly. On the latest information available to me, I can see no reason why that modified procedure should not be agreed this week.

Mr. Barron

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if his new strategy is based purely on the assumption of the markets likely to be gained, it will inevitably fail because the lead time between investing in the industry and getting coal out of the ground can be anywhere between five and 10 years? What we need is a strategy based not on so-called markets but on coal for the future. Energy policy can be based on that. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that we should be talking about tonnages in the year 2,000 and nothing else?

Mr. Walker

In the last strategy we had 10 years of investment, but, alas, not 10 years of improving productivity.

Mr. Michael Morris

Are not the key determinants in any future strategy, first, that there should be flexibility and, secondly that there should be nothing written in tablets of stone which would prevent the NCB from doing what is in the interests of that great industry?

Mr. Walker

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Eadie

I have here a copy of the new coal strategy. It is a very poor description, and certainly not a policy. It is a strategy for contraction of the coal industry. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, if one examines the document further, one sees that the board doubts whether total coal production will be 90 million tonnes? Coal production could be below that level and, if it is, there will be more massive pit closures.

Mr. Walker

No one knows better than the hon. Gentleman that the only way for the coal industry to expand is to improve productivity. It would be nice to hear some original proposals from the NUM on how productivity can be increased.

5. Mr. Pike

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what further information he has received from the National Coal Board regarding further pit closures.

9. Willie W. Hamilton

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement in the reduction of manpower in the coal industry since the end of the miners' strike; and how many further redundancies are planned for the next 12 months.

Mr. Peter Walker

Individual pit closures and the future manpower requirements of the industry are matters for the NCB. I understand that, since the end of the strike, 16 pits have closed. The net reduction in numbers of men on colliery books from 9 March to 28 September was some 17,100. The level of future redundancies will depend upon the board's operational requirements and the numbers of men volunteering to go on the terms available.

Mr. Pike

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that present and proposed pit closures are not in our long-term interests? Should not the Government's mandate to the NCB be to pay more attention to our long-term rather than short-term energy requirements and to stop pit closures in areas where there is workable coal?

Mr. Walker

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that the pit closures that have taken place are sensible. Our long-term requirement is energy at an economic cost for the benefit of our economy.

Mr. Hamilton

Will the right hon. Gentleman give the figures in the Scottish context? With respect to the answer to question No. 3, how many of those 2,500 jobs have been created in Scotland? The right hon. Gentleman should rest assured that for a long time a large number of Labour Members have regarded Mr. Scargill as the greatest disaster to befall the NUM since its inception.,

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I would have difficulty in disagreeing with the final part of his question. I do not have the breakdown of the Scottish figures, but I shall send them to him this evening. I recognise that there are some considerable problems for Scotland.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

Successive Secretaries of State for Energy have closed pits, reduced manpower, and told us that productivity is being increased, so that in the end we would not have to put more thousands of millions of pounds into the coal mines. Could my right hon. Friend at least tell us when he thinks, as another Secretary of State, we should stop having to put thousands of millions of pounds down the coal mines and will get a real return for the taxpayer?

Mr. Walker

Investment in new machinery in better pits has been on a considerable scale, but, alas, there has been a lack of improvement in productivity. The current productivity figures for this year have been substantial, and I can only hope that that trend will increase. However, I cannot say what industrial or other action might take place to disrupt that progress.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

As the Union of Democratic Mineworkers has clearly demonstrated that it is representative of a large group of people in the mining industry, will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that, if he discusses the future of the coal industry with various bodies, he will include the UDM if it wishes?

Mr. Walker

The coal board has recognised the UDM, so, in its discussions on matters such as the future of the coal strategy, presumably it will be included. I have always agreed to see the leaders of any trade union that is recognised.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

Is it not the case that many pits were overmanned in the first place and that the output now, after some miners have left voluntarily, is not affected too much? Is it not interesting to note that many miners who have been prepared to take voluntary redundancy have been given a good deal by the National Coal Board, which should be supported?

Mr. Walker

It is certainly true that the problem of closures of uneconomic pits is being treated in a more civilised and generous way than it was ever treated by any Labour Government in our history.

Mr. Ray Powell

The Secretary of State has not got his figures correct for Wales, in regard to what my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) said, when he referred to Scargill and his predictions. In fact, the numbers of redundancies were underestimated by him if one considers the way that they have escalated in Wales. Is the Secretary of State aware that, despite an Adjournment debate and a series of questions, St. John's colliery in my constituency is now due for closure—not under the new review procedure that was promised to me by right hon. Gentleman's side-kick on the Front Bench —and that 800 miners are to be made redundant in an area where male unemployment is now 24 per cent. and will escalate to 50 per cent.? What action will the right hon. Gentleman take to deal with the unemployment problems in my constituency?

Mr. Walker

I can only suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, as many Opposition Members know, the coal hoard has made several offers under the modified procedure, which nobody could argue was other than in keeping with the proposals that have been made. If the unions disagree with the offer that is on the table, that will be extraordinary. I gather that if they agree, there is no reason why the closures, including that of St. John's, should not go ahead under that modified procedure.

Mr. Dormand

The Secretary of State keeps referring to the modified review procedure. Is he aware that it is a year since the principles were agreed with the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers? Is it not obvious that the NCB has been deliberately delaying its implementation so that it can get on with closing pits? If the new scheme is agreed next week—we hope it is—will there be a review of all the pits that have been or are proposed to be closed, such as Horden in my constituency and Bates in Northumberland? Will they be subject to the review after the scheme is implemented next week?

Mr. Walker

With regard to the suggestions that have been made, some months ago there was agreement on the terms of reference on all the detail. The disagreement was on the composition. There was an offer of independent planning inspectors and independent lawyers, which was rejected, not by the coal board but by the other side. The agreement that is now available is an independent machinery, which is obvious to anybody. I hope that, not next week but this week, the unions will accept that offer. If they do, several closures that have been going through can be put through the modified procedures.

Mr. Eadie

The right hon. Gentleman must remember that my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) has previously raised the question of the new modified colliery procedure and drawn it to the attention of the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman uses the word "sacrosanct". Is he aware that a new situation has arisen? We find, without exception, that the National Union of Mineworkers, the British Association of Colliery Management and the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers take exception to the National Coal Board deciding unilaterally what kind of independent review proceedure there should be. Will the right hon. Gentleman intervene and tell the NCB that it is time it got back to the negotiating table and to the days when negotiations meant negotiations and not dictation?

Mr. Walker

I totally disagree with that interpretation. There have been a number of occasions on which any fair and reasonable person would agree that a totally independent procedure was on offer. I do not believe that there has been any delay on the part of the NCB.