HC Deb 27 October 1986 vol 103 cc12-4
9. Mr. Couchman

asked the Secretary of State for Energy, in percentage terms, what is the improvement in output per manshift in the coal industry since 1979; and if he will make a statement.

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

Productivity increases by Britain's miners have now risen to new record levels for four successive weeks. For the week ending 11 October, average output per manshift was 3.48 tonnes. This is a record, representing a staggering 55 per cent. improvement over the average of 2.24 tonnes achieved in 1978–79. This continued growth in productivity demonstrates the determination of all concerned in the industry to succeed in the face of severe competition.

Mr. Couchman

Does my right hon. Friend agree that these remarkable figures completely justify the enthusiasm of the National Coal Board to pay by results rather than to submit to an annual round of blackmail by the National Union of Mineworkers? Have not those areas that worked on through the strike produced some of the very best of those results?

Mr. Walker

Yes. Also, I am glad to say that, as a result of the productivity incentive plans operated by the NCB, the men who are producing those fine figures are obtaining the financial benefit for doing so.

Mr. Allen McKay

Does the Secretary of State accept, as I and many of my hon. Friends do, that improved productivity has happened for many reasons? One reason is the investment that took place under the Labour Government—because major programmes take 10 to 12 years to come to fruition — and another is the investment that has taken place under this Government. Will the Secretary of State turn his mind, and not duck the question as the Under-Secretary did in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), to the investment that took place in collieries that have closed and where there is now a burden on the colleries that remain open, with a view to writing off that capital cost?

Mr. Walker

Obviously one has to review the financial background to the balance sheet of the Coal Board as time goes on. I accept that in all industries there comes a time for appropriate write-offs, and I promise that that will be reviewed. The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned investment under both Governments. However, the fact is that under this Government investment has been higher than ever before, and I am glad to say that we are enjoying some of the results of that investment.

Mr. Barron

If that is so, may I ask the Minister why, under the Government, we have had the go-ahead for only one new colliery to take care of the future of the coal industry? May I also ask why some Conservative Members are positively trying to stop the development of the south Warwickshire coalfield?

Mr. Walker

Plenty of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends rejoice at the enormous investment that we have put into existing pits. We cannot have it both ways. If we want to improve the performance of existing pits to help the mining communities concerned, that must be a high priority, and it has been under this Government.

Mr. Michael Morris

Do not the figures demonstrate that morale among ordinary miners must now be at its highest for many years? Does that not reflect the fact that what the ordinary miner wants is peace in the pits and good finn management from the leadership of British Coal?

Mr. Walker

Both sides of the House will regret the fact that the rationalisation of the coal industry has resulted in closures and voluntary redundancies. However, I am glad to tell the House that one of the most significant facts is that the new enterprise company has already provided almost 11,000 new jobs in coalmining communities.

Mr. Powley

When productivity measures were being introduced Mr. Arthur Scargill said that the accident rate in the coal mines would increase significantly. Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether the accident rate has increased as a result of the improvements?

Mr. Walker

One thing is certain. The priority of anybody concerned with the coalmining industry is to see that the highest safety standards are operated. The safety regulations of the coal industry remain very strict, irrespective of any productivity agreements.

Mr. Hardy

Will the Secretary of State deny the logic of this impressive improvement, achieved as a result of the swift savagery of the contraction of the mining industry? Does he not agree that that logic should persuade him positively to support the greater use of coal in Britain? Does he not further agree that the Government should be much more insistent on achieving greater export markets in Europe and that they should make it clear that that improvement makes it obvious that the statistics about the price of coal presented to the Layfield inquiry should be withdrawn or sharply qualified?

Mr. Walker

The NCB is pursuing an active marketing policy. I have recently been to exhibitions and demonstrations for both the domestic and industrial use of coal which have been impressive. At the end of the day, the only way in which that can succeed is for the price to be competitive, and the only way in which that can be achieved is by retaining the present improvement in productivity, which compares favourably with what happened in the previous 10 years.

Mr. Eadie

I am sure the House will agree that we should pay due notice to the increase in output achieved by the miners of this country. However, how does our praise for miners increasing output square with what the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Minister said in a press release, to the effect that it is unquestionable that a fitter, slimmer coal industry is necessary? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is a confession by a Government who want to see the industry contract? That is the language, not of a Minister responsible for coal, but of someone who has flung in the sponge because of the collapse of oil prices.

Mr. Walker

As the hon. Gentleman has heard many times in the House, there was no greater contraction of the coal industry than that which took place under Labour Governments. Therefore, it is strange to hear those views from the Opposition. The hon. Gentleman should also ask himself, with his interest in the coal industry, why between 1974 and 1978 under a Labour Government, compared with a 4 per cent. per annum improvement envisaged in the "Plan for Coal", productivity measured by output per manshift fell in each year.