HC Deb 27 January 1986 vol 90 cc627-9
1. Mr. Andy Stewart

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement about the latest productivity figures for the National Coal Board.

6. Mr. Hickmet

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement about current levels of productivity in the pits.

15. Mr. Maclean

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what improvements in productivity are currently being achieved by the National Coal Board; and if he will make a statement.

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

The NCB has recently, for the first time in its history, achieved average deep-mined productivity of 3 tonnes per man shift. This major improvement since the ending of the strike is a clear demonstration of what can be achieved with determined effort by all those in the industry.

Mr. Stewart

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The 30 per cent. increase in productivity is extraordinary. If my right hon. Friend had suggested that 12 months ago, he would have been accused of living in a dream world. Now that that is a reality and there is a total commitment from those in the industry, will my right hon. Friend give the Government's commitment to the industry and its secure future?

Mr. Walker

As we have maintained throughout, there is no doubt that, with the best coal reserves in western Europe, and with immense skills in mining and mining engineering equipment, the industry has a considerable future, provided that it applies the abilities and talents that are available to it. Therefore, we rejoice at the achievements that are currently taking place and look forward with confidence to the industry's future.

Mr. Hickmet

Are not those excellent figures a triumph of the Government's policy in relation to the coal industry? Will that not release more taxpayers' money for the National Health Service and for pensioners, enable NCB (Enterprise) Ltd. to be adequately financed, and provide the prospect for finally removing the burden of the coal industry from the rest of British industry?

Mr. Walker

I know that my hon. Friend has industries in his constituency which depend upon the availability of coal at competitive prices. There is no doubt that the achievements that are taking place, and the greater achievements that will be available in future, give a great prospect not only to those who make possible such achievements. My hon. Friend said that the credit for this was due to the Government's policy, but in fact the credit is due to those who work in the industry and produce those figures.

Mr. Mason

Is the Secretary of State aware that I thought that pit survival was based on profit per tonne, but now gigajoules have been introduced into that calculation? The NCB now states that individual pits have to cut their output costs to 165p per gigajoule. If the right hon. Gentleman knows anything about gigajoules, will he explain the relationship between output costs and gigajoules for the benefit of myself and my miners?

Mr. Walker

No, Sir, but I should explain that "Plan for Coal", in which the right hon. Gentleman played such a positive part, envisaged that productivity would increase by 4 per cent. per annum, but that, alas, as he knows, as a member of the Labour Government during the five years that they were in power, output declined from 2.28 tonnes per man shift to 2.24 tonnes per man shift. I am delighted that some of the ambitions of "Plan for Coal" are now being achieved by this Government.

Mr. Benn

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he has held any formal or informal discussions about the privatisation of all or some of the pits now operated by the NCB?

Mr. Walker

None, Sir. All I can say is that had I been Secretary of State during the declining production of the right hon. Gentleman's period in office, I probably would have done.

Mr. Michael Morris

Do not those figures clearly show what a change good leadership makes? However, is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a shadow on the horizon in relation to opencast coal—the rate at which planning permissions are being given? Will my right hon. Friend look at that problem?

Mr. Walker

Planning permission for opencast coal is now a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I think that he is concerned, as we all are, about delays in the granting of planning permission, which leads to delays in improved productivity and other activities.

Mr. O'Brien

In view of the Secretary of State's reply and reports that pits are breaking all output records, has he any information about NCB policies to increase the sale of coal and to improve exports so that we can ensure that no pits close because of overproduction?

Mr. Walker

As the hon. Gentleman knows from his great interest in this subject, the Government have extended the coal conversion scheme, and in all the energy efficiency programmes that we are pursuing throughout the country we are putting forward the advantages of that scheme. Research is being done on other uses for coal, and the present management of the NCB is more interested in marketing than was any previous management.

Sir Raymond Gower

Is my right hon. Friend aware that against the background of this significant achievement, some areas, including south Wales, have suffered a disproportionate loss of jobs because of the age and exhaustion of their pits? Will he discuss with the NCB the possibility of sympathetic consideration being given to early approval of the new pit at Margam?

Mr. Walker

I shall certainly convey my hon. Friend's views to the NCB management. The exhibition in the Palace of Westminster last week of the activities of the enterprise company showed that in that sphere, too, much activity is taking place in the interests of the mining communities.

Mr. Hardy

Does the Secretary of State accept that this significant advance has been achieved at high cost, especially to the coalfield communities? Does not the logic of the situation suggest to him that there should be further NCB and Government endeavour to enhance the sales of British coal in the industrial market?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also take care to ensure that future achievements are not imperilled by high accident rates, and will he look at the situation in certain coalfields, notably Nottinghamshire?

Mr. Walker

I agree that the maximum safety standards must be retained at all times, and they are being retained. The hon. Gentleman has an immense interest in this subject, and I suggest that he must ask why, for so many years, after all that was predicted in "Plan for Coal", the improvement in productivity did not take place, despite a massive injection of investment. We are, thank heaven, at last getting a return on that massive investment, and that will be to the benefit of the whole industry.

Dr. Michael Clark

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Select Committee on Energy visited the south Wales coalfield last week and saw at first hand the increasing productivity in that area? Is he also aware that many pits in south Wales are becoming profitable for the first time since the 1950s and that that achievement is bringing about a welcome increase in morale among everyone associated with those coalfields?

Mr. Walker

It is astounding that some pits which it was argued could never make a profit under the previous criteria are now achieving production levels that make them profitable.

Mr. Eadie

We should be pleased about the increases in productivity, but does the Secretary of State not realise that we must translate that into another avenue? For example, the miners want to know what the consumption of coal will be this year. The CEGB and the NCB have been spreading doom and gloom in the past year, so what will the 1986 figures be? In addition, why are imports so disgracefully high?

Mr. Walker

Nobody has done more to bring doom and gloom to the prospects of the industry than Mr. Arthur Scargill.

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