HC Deb 07 July 1986 vol 101 cc2-5
2. Mr. Lofthouse

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what are the latest available figures of imports of coal into the United Kingdom and from what sources.

8. Mr. Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will list the countries from which the United Kingdom imports coal; and what proportion of United Kingdom enegy needs are met by coal imports.

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

The latest available figures for imports of coal into the United Kingdom cover the period January to April 1986. I shall publish the information in the Official Report. On a primary fuel input basis, 4 per cent. of United Kingdom energy needs were met by coal imports in 1985.

Mr. Lofthouse

Now that the Foreign Secretary is not going to South Africa, does the Secretary of State think that a good response from him would be to ban all imports of this blooded coal? Does he appreciate that the continued import of coal is a kick in the teeth for the mining communities and the miners? The Secretary of State is aware that there is to be a rundown of miners' jobs. Will he assure the House that any miners made redundant after March 1987 will under a new scheme receive benefits equivalent to those that they receive now?

Mr. Peter Walker

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the European leaders have agreed upon an approach to South Africa which after three months would include action on a number of materials, including coal. That is the right approach and I hope that it will have some influence on negotiations in the coming months. The hon. Gentleman asked about benefits for miners. The present scheme ends in March 1987, and if further redundancies are required it will be the responsibility of the Coal Board to decide what measures are needed.

Mr. Evans

Will the Secretary of State explain to the British people why, when we have massive coal reserves and over 4 million people unemployed, we need to import coal, especially from countries with regimes like that in Poland, which has no free trade union movement, or South Africa, which has no freedom? Surely this is one case where sanctions against South Africa would be of benefit to Britain and Britain's work force?

Mr. Walker

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point of view. Figures that I shall publish in the Official Report will show that in the past six months Britain imported far more coal from Poland than from South Africa. However, during the period of the last Labour Government pits were being closed and unemployment increased, and imports from South Africa and Poland continued throughout the whole of that period.

Sir Trevor Skeet

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a recently negotiated agreement between the Central Electricity Generating Board and the National Coal Board makes little provision for imports, the result of which is likely to be that the public will be deprived of the opportunity of cheap coal from countries other than South Africa, which would be greatly to their advantage?

Mr. Walker

On the other hand, the CEGB wants continuity of supply and our coal industry to continue to provide the volume of coal that is necessary to meet electricity demand. It is perfectly reasonable therefore for it to enter into long-term contracts to ensure that that supply continues to be available.

Mr. Neil Hamilton

Does my right hon. Friend agree that were it not for the activities of the private sector in coal production, imports would be higher than they are? Given that the private sector is anxious to expand its operations, does it not make sense to strike off the restrictive shackles that have been placed upon it so that it can expand its output and thereby cut our import bill still further?

Mr. Walker

If we look at the totality of coal production, we must recognise that under the present system of nationalisation there is a very substantial coal industry in which this Government have invested heavily. It is providing very substantial yields of coal, with much better productivity figures. No Government can ignore those factors.

Mr. Mason

Is the Secretary of State aware that for every 1 million tonnes of coal imported 1,000 jobs are lost in the British coal industry and in supporting industries? Over 12 million tonnes of coal were imported last year, which means that 12,000 British jobs have been lost. Where does the Secretary of State's interest really lie? Does it lie with South Africa and those countries which export cheap coal to Britain, or does it lie with the British miner and the British coal industry? In view of continuing low-cost oil imports, 20,000 more jobs in the British coal industry are threatened. That is another reason why all coal imports should cease.

Mr. Walker

If the right hon. Gentleman really believes that last year's figures were so important for unemployment, I should point out to him that the reason for the enormous rise in imports was the disastrous strike led by Arthur Scargill, supported by the Labour party. The reason for the rise in unemployment is completely, in my view, to be laid at the feet of Arthur Scargill and nobody else. As for imports, the right hon. Gentleman also knows, as a former Cabinet Minister, that every Government of which he was a member closed pits and also imported coal.

Mr. Redmond

On redundancy payments, is the right hon. Gentleman saying that this Government will make finance available to the Coal Board if it wishes to continue to make the same kinds of payments?

Mr. Walker

We shall discuss, as would any Government, the financial requirements of the Coal Board in the years that lie ahead and the public expenditure that it requires. Because of his great interest in the coal industry, the hon. Gentleman knows that the scheme that has been operated by the Government was a temporary scheme, and it was announced that it was a temporary scheme to bring about the considerable transition in the coal industry that was necessary. When that major transition ends, it is perfectly reasonable that that responsibility should be returned to the Coal Board.

Mr. O'Brien

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the European Commission that is concerned with coal believes that imports into member states are necessary? If so, what will be the influence of the EEC's policy on the size and output of the British coal industry?

Mr. Walker

Imports over the past six months were about 4 per cent. of our coal requirements, and some of those imports were of specialist coals, some of which are not available here. Had we not had the disastrous strike, there would not have been such a rise in imports. I hope that now, if there is stability in the industry, we can reduce imports.

Mr. Orme

Is the Secretary of State aware that last week I met the president and general secretary of the South African National Union of Mineworkers, who impressed two points on me? The first was about the imprisonment and internment of trade unionists in South Africa, including members of the South African NUM. The second was their desire to see the imports of South African coal into Britain stopped. I note what the Secretary of State said about consideration by the EEC. That is insufficient.

Mr. Walker

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that during the whole period that he was a Minister, the regime in South Africa was just as intolerant to the position of the blacks, and imports from South Africa came in every year.

Following is the information:

Coal Imports January-April 1986
(thousand tonnes)
Country Coal Imports
Australia 1,361
United States 1,139
Poland 493
South Africa 196
F R Germany 184
Canada 143
Netherlands 115
Belgium 47
Columbia 35
Others 65
Total 3,781

(Figures may not add to total because of rounding.)