§ 8.7 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Michael Spicer)
I beg to move,That the draft Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1987, which was laid before this House on 6th July, be approved.This is a technical amending order. I hope that the House will bear with me in what inevitably will be a rather detailed, but short, explanation. The purpose of the order is to make consequential changes to the redundant mineworkers' payments schemes following the introduction of provisions in the Social Security Act 1986.
The redundant mineworkers' payments schemes provide for lump sum and weekly payments to mineworkers made redundant on or before 28 March 1987. Since 29 March 1987, British Coal has been responsible for its own redundancy terms, as announced by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt) on 24 March last year.
There are five schemes still in operation. They are set out in orders made in 1973, 1978, 1983, 1984 and 1986, as amended. They provide for deductions to be made from RMPS basic weekly benefit paid to people who also receive special hardship allowance under section 60 of the Social Security Act 1975. The deductions are made so that a person does not simultaneously receive both special hardship allowance in compensation for reduced earnings through sickness or injury and RMPS benefit based on his full earnings before the sickness or injury reduced them.
The Social Security Act 1986 replaced special hardship allowance from 1 October 1986 with reduced earnings allowance, which is payable in similar circumstances but subject to different detailed provisions.
The reasons for making deductions of reduced earnings allowance from basic weekly RMPS benefit are exactly the same as those for making deductions for special hardship allowance. Our initial view was that in this context reduced earnings allowance could be treated as special hardship allowance under another name. On that view no changes to the schemes were necessary. However, further consideration has led us to the view that the differences between the detailed provisions of reduced earnings allowance and special hardship allowance require consequential legislation.
An important difference is that, whereas special hardship allowance was an increase in disablement benefit, reduced earnings allowance is an allowance in its own right. A change made by the 1986 Act was to increase the threshold level of disablement for receipt of disablement benefit from 1 per cent. to 14 per cent. As a result, special hardship allowance, if it still existed, would no longer be payable to those with disablements of 1 to 13 per cent., whereas reduced earnings allowance is available to anyone with a disablement of at least 1 per cent.
I am therefore advised that for those who receive reduced earnings allowance and have disablements of between 1 and 13 per cent., it is likely that deductions of reduced earnings allowance from RMPS basic benefit are not provided for by existing schemes. It is arguable that the existing rules of the RMPS allow deductions to be made in respect of those with disablements of 14 per cent. or more. Indeed, in substance it is clear that for such people reduced earnings allowance and special hardship 1352 allowance are equivalent. However, rather than leave this question to be tested in the courts, the Government have decided to make full refunds of all deductions of reduced earnings allowance from RMPS basic benefit since 1 October 1986. Those refunds will be made as soon as possible and should be complete by the first half of September.
At the same time it is necessary to amend the redundant mineworkers' payment schemes to provide for the deduction of reduced earnings allowance from basic weekly benefit in the circumstances that I have described. That is the main purpose of the order before the House tonight. The draft order also makes minor amendments to the 1978, 1983, 1984 and 1986 schemes to anticipate the introduction of income support and housing benefit schemes under the Social Security Act 1986.
I invite the House to approve the order.
§ Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)
I may take up the last comment that the Minister made because I believe that it is pertinent to the brief remarks that I shall make.
It would be churlish of the House not to welcome the Minister on his debut in a debate on the coal industry. I have had the privilege of welcoming Ministers for the past 15 years. That is a long time and I am sure that many of the Ministers' hon. Friends may be sick of me standing at the Dispatch Box. Nevertheless, time goes on and we must deal with the issues before us.
To some extent, I accept that a case could be made for saying that these are technical amendments that had to be made to conform with legislation that has already been passed by the House. However, we notice that there is a tendency nowadays to hold few consultations with interested parties. I make no apology for stating that I believe in consultation and conciliation. I know of no other way to further decision-making in industry. That is how I was brought up and that is what I believe.
My inquiries have revealed that there was no consultation or discussion with the mining unions by the gentlemen in the Minister's Department or by British Coal. Of course, we can say that all this is a shift in the policy of British Coal. I remember when British Coal voluntarily briefed hon. Members about legislation that affected the industry. I am sorry to say that it does so no longer. I raised the matter with British Coal during the previous Parliament, and the only response that we had was its press releases. Of course, there has been a great deterioration in industrial relations in the coal industry. British Coal last year had its industrial relations named as among the worst in Britain.
Whenever housing and concessionary coal are mentioned in any order that is associated with British Coal a raw nerve is touched not only among redundant miners but throughout the whole work force. In previous debates we have given a good airing to the policy of British Coal and to some of the scandalous cases that arose from its jumble sale approach to selling off its housing stock. Dubious, speculative figures, as far from the coalfield as London, appeared to be the new owners. It would have tested the powers of a modern-day Philip Marlowe or Micky Spillane to trace them.
We are aware that British Coal had to make some changes in its plans. They may have been minor, but they owed much to some hon. Members, and to the Coal 1353 Communities Council, in particular. Much of what we are debating was discussed during the Committee stage of the Coal Industry Bill last year.
As regards concessionary coal for redundant mine workers and other miners, the many unfair anomalies that have been before us have never really been given proper consideration. One case especially angers all redundant mine workers and all those who work in the mining industry. It relates to what is called a material change in circumstances, and it concerns the case of a widow and what happened following the death of her husband, who had enjoyed cash in lieu under a former agreement. It is surely harsh to classify the death of a husband as a material change, thereby disqualifying the widow from receiving cash in lieu. I am certain that hon. Members will find that absolutely incredible.
British Coal's policy on industrial relations is costing the country dear. I estimate that it is costing us not millions but billions of pounds. Today we learn that there is a danger of the whole of Yorkshire being locked into strike action because British Coal has introduced a new code of industrial practice without consultation or conciliation with any of the mining unions. This order affords us the opportunity to say that it is time the Government looked into the matter, because the unions are having a national ballot on the issue.
I confirm what the Minister has said about the order. As I understand it, weekly benefit under the redundant mineworkers payments scheme can be reduced or extinguished if beneficiaries are receiving a special hardship allowance, supplementary benefit, or workmen's compensation. Moreover, the rent addition payable with RMPS to some tenants of British Coal houses is not paid to claimants who are receiving housing benefit, rent or rate rebates.
The Social Security Act 1986 makes substantial changes to the social security benefit system. Among the changes is the fact that the special hardship allowance has been replaced, as the Minister said, by reduced earnings allowance from 6 April 1987. We shall need to examine the Minister's comment about not wanting to test the matter in the courts. A further change is that supplementary benefit will be replaced by income support from April 1988; and housing benefit, although still called housing benefit, will be completely different from April 1988 onwards.
As far as I can see, all that the draft order does is to substitute the new statutory references for the old. Thus, section 59A of the Social Security Act 1975, inserted by paragraph 5 of schedule 3 to the Social Security Act 1986, replaces special hardship allowance by reduced earnings allowance as the benefit for people whose earning capacity is reduced by an industrial accident or disease.
Section 21 of the Social Security Act 1986 gives the Secretary of State power to set up the new income support and housing benefit schemes by regulation. Income support replaces supplementary benefit as a means-tested benefit for people who are not in work. Housing benefit is means-tested help for rent and rates and is available to low-income families that are in and out of work.
The Minister apologised to the House for the rather technical nature of his speech. I have spent a minute or two illustrating how, although it could be argued that these are technical changes, the propositions put forward by the Government affect people in the industry. They affect members of all the mining unions. There should have been 1354 consultation and conciliation on this order. The order is about people. If the Government do not think that people are important, they should change their attitude. There should have been discussion about the order because it will affect members in the scheme, and those people are entitled to know the impact that the order will have upon them.
The Minister is making his debut. I hope that he will consider some of the matters that I have raised because they are important. The Opposition do not oppose the proposition put forward by the Minister.
§ Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)
This is a slender order and I shall be brief.
It is a great pleasure to welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his first coal debate. He has a hard act to follow, hut, given his formidable reputation, I am sure that he will rise to the task.
The order is a postcript to a scheme that saw the dramatic transformation and restructuring of the coal industry. Those things were an extraordinary achievement because they were done without a single forced redundancy. The order is a technical postscript bringing the scheme into line with current legislation. My hon. Friend's speech was technical, albeit brief. I and my constituents would like to be assured that none of the people who accepted voluntary redundancy under the terms of the scheme as it then stood will be any worse off as a result of this order. If that assurance can be given, I am sure that the House will give a general welcome to the order.
The scheme as a whole has enabled the coal industry to face the future with optimism and with a promise of success. It has provided funds for a variety of important measures. British Coal Enterprise has brought hundreds of millions of pounds of investment into coalfield communities. The new realism that this has engendered has ensured that for the second time, following the last general election, there are now more mining constituencies represented by Tory Members of Parliament than ever before. Miners understand where their real interests lie. They lie with a Government who have resolutely shown——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will address himself to the order before the House. I have clear recollections of the difficulties that he has created for me in the past.
§ Mr. Batiste
I am aware of your strictures in the past, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall not seek to strain your patience on this occasion. I was responding to the point made by the hon Member for Midlothian (Mr Eadie) who talked about consultation and the importance of good industrial relations in the industry. He spoke about the strike that erupted in south Yorkshire this morning. The continuing progress that has been made under the scheme depends upon all who are in the industry ensuring that it can take advantage of opportunities that are open to it. They must produce the right product at the right price and at the right time. Industrial action of the sort that we heard being urged today by the Opposition is the one thing that can cast a blight upon the future of an industry that is otherwise very rosy.
I hope that on mature reflection the hon. Member for Midlothian will reconsider his words and join 1355 Conservative Members in urging members of the National Union of Mineworkers and constituents of his not to take part in such action. We should tell them that Britain needs coal and if the industry can continue to supply that need at the right price and free from disruption there is no limit to the progress than can be made or to the prosperity that will be created. Such success in the mining industry will spread prosperity throughout the mining communities. That is what we all seek to achieve.
§ Mr. John Cummings (Easington)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for affording me the time to address the House for the first time. As I was walking through St. Stephen's entrance shortly after the election it reminded me of going underground for the first time. I follow now the advice that I was given then. It was, "If you do not know, ask." I have followed the advice tendered by officers and staff of the Palace of Westminster and I am truly grateful for their support and help. I am also grateful for the help and advice tendered by hon. Members from all parts of the House.
I am mindful of the fact that I represent a constituency with a very rich Labour and trade union history. I am also mindful of the fact that I follow in the wake of Sydney Webb, Ramsay MacDonald, Manny Shinwell and, more recently, Jack Dormand who was respected by all hon. Members. Like me, Jack Dormand was born and bred in the Easington constituency. He was educated and worked in the constituency and served as a parish councillor, district councillor and district education officer. In 1970 he was elected as the Member for Easington. He served in the Whips' Office and finally was elected chairman of the parliamentary Labour party. I wish Jack Dormand and his wife every happiness and health for a long and happy retirement.
Easington is one of the eight districts in County Durham and it has a rich culture and history. We have fine Saxon and Norman churches, beautiful denes and woodlands and, of course, a delightful coast. Those are the areas that have not been despoiled by mining activities.
Perhaps the most precious assets in Easington are its people. They are a very special breed. The people who populate the area came from Cornwall, following the closure of the tin mines in the 1860s. There are also people who emigrated from Ireland, following the potato famine in the 1840s. Many of those people were called industrial gipsies at the time, and now in 1987 they are again being called industrial gipsies. History has turned full circle. People who moved into the area looking for a future and security mined the coal that was necessary for the nation's wealth and well-being. They made Great Britain great, but now those people are virtually being turned out of house and home and are having to travel or move out of the area to make a living elsewhere. That is a disgrace of tremendous proportions.
According to academics, Easington is a deprived area. It is a deprived area, but we should not confuse deprivation with squalor, for squalor we have not, but deprivation we have. We have been deprived of our pits and of our jobs. We have been deprived of our hospitals. We have been deprived of our beautiful coastline by an uncaring industry and by successive uncaring Governments, who have ignored the problems of 1356 deprivation in the Easington district. I believe that the Minister is the only junior Minister who has not been to Easington. We have had 16 Ministers in the past 10 years. They come with their tea and sympathy, but with no money, and the problem gets worse. I extend an invitation to the only Minister who has not been there to come along, follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and see the shocking conditions that prevail on our beautiful coastline. The polluter must pay. Must we ask Lord Londonderry to cough up? Must we ask the directors of the South Hetton coal company to pay up? It is no longer with us. British Coal must pay, because the price falls on the pit. As the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) said, we must produce at the right price, but I fail to see how it can be done if the polluter has to pay.
We have been deprived and robbed—over over the past eight years, in particular—of the necessary funds to improve a decaying housing stock. We have been deprived of our housing investment programme and our rate support grant. We are losing population. Some 12,000 people have left the area in the past 10 years. We have an abundance of council houses, but we have an ageing population and a chronic shortage of aged persons' and special purpose accommodation, which is necessary to accommodate the aged, who, after a lifetime of work in the mines, are chronically sick and disabled.
The tide must be stemmed, and that can only be done by an injection of funds into the area to enable us to help ourselves and to prime the pump. We do not bellyache or whinge, but we want the Government to help us to help ourselves.
The only job-getting agency that has had any success in the area is to be wound up in 1988. The Government are depriving us of the Peterlee Development Corporation, which has been the only success story in the area. The only direct tap that we have into the central Exchequer is being taken away. Someone has nailed his political dogma to the mast and decided that it should be wound up in 1988.
Feelings in the Easington constituency are of hopelessness and helplessness. We want to be able to help ourselves, but we require the funds to do it. We have the will, the people and the skills, but we require the Government to help us to help ourselves.
We do not want redundancy pay; we want the dignity of a job. I am a sixth generation child of the coal industry. We have had six generations at Murton colliery who have been born and bred for the pit. We went to school at the age of five years and left school at the age of 15 years.
My plea to the Minister—we should not have to plead; it should he our right—is for the Government to return a small proportion of what has been taken out of the area. Give us the opportunity, the funds, prime the pump, and we will get the area back to work.
§ Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)
I have had many honours in this Chamber in the past, but none has given me greater pleasure than to congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) on his maiden speech. It has been my pleasure not only to know the hon. Gentleman since he was elected but prior to that when we worked together in the Coalfields Communities Campaign. He was the vice-chairman of that august organisation, which is doing such marvellous work for the coalfields.
1357 The hon. Gentleman spoke eloquently about his predecessor, Jack Dormand, who was respected on both sides of the House. I know no one who is more suitable to replace Mr. Dormand than the hon. Gentleman who, as he rightly told the House, was born into the coal industry and during his lifetime has given everything to it. He must have been so busy working in the coal industry that he omitted to notice that my hon. Friend the Minister was the Conservative candidate in Easington for 10 years. The hon. Gentleman described his constituency beautifully and made us all wish that we had a beautiful coastline to share with our constituents. If the price had been right, I might have been farming in his constituency rather than in Sherwood.
I listened with great respect to what the hon. Gentleman said about the coal industry. We represent different parts of the United Kingdom, but we are both concerned for this great industry which creates so much wealth for our constituents. I hope that for many years the hon. Gentleman will ensure that future generations have an industry in Easington in which to participate.
Some eight months ago in the debate on the coal industry I told the House that it was recognised that the major reconstruction of the industry would come to an end and that the generous redundancy payments would be phased out. During that debate the new scheme, which was to be funded by British Coal, was introduced. At that time I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider the position of the Nottinghamshire miners over the age of 50 years who were unable to participate earlier in the redundancy scheme because of the coal dispute. As a result of the co-operation between the management and the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, I am pleased to inform the House that all those over the age of 50 years who wished to take part in the generous scheme that was implemented by the Government were able to do so.
In Nottinghamshire there is a very bright future for British Coal. We have a democratic union that accepts the wishes of its members rather than forces them to do what it feels is best. That arrangement provides a strong foundation for a prosperous environment. I am proud to say that Nottinghamshire has set the pace for the rest of the country. Productivity levels are at a record high without endangering the safety of the workers. That has brought about a reduction in unit costs that will guarantee the future for our industry, even after the Central Electricity Generating Board has been privatised. I must remind the House that the CEGB already has the power to buy coal from overseas but does not do so because we do not have the facilities to import large amounts of coal nor the long-term contract prices attractive enough to do so. Those who tell us that that might happen do not seem to understand the system that operates. To deliver the coal from the colliery——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that he is widening the debate way beyond the terms of the order. He must speak to the order.
§ Mr. Stewart
You are quite right, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am just coming to the bit for which you were waiting. I was explaining how the productivity and the means of getting the coal from the pit to the power stations on the merry-go-round would protect jobs from overseas competition. The idea of importing coal and putting ships on the merry-go-round is beyond belief.
1358 Today the Government hope to integrate the redundant mineworker's payments schemes with the social services benefits. That has been the aim of every Government since 1967. The scheme itself is no longer available, but, in my opinion, its replacement emphasises how successful British Coal has become. Like the majority of employers, British Coal has taken on the responsibility for its redundancy payments. It is a sign that the coal industry is no longer the liability that it once was. British Coal aims to break even next year—an aim that I hope and believe will be achieved. The Govenment have pledged £2,000 million investment over the next two years, and new attitudes and new optimism within the industry have made that possible. Because of that, the need for large scale redundancy payments no longer exists.
The coal industry is no longer the poor relation of Europe and its plans for expansion highlight that. It is no surprise that it is the workers who understand the need for six-day coaling. I am sure that I have no need to tell the House that British Coal's proposals do not require the miners to work one day——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. There is nothing about that in the order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will stick to the order. I hope he realises that if I allow him to pursue this course I shall have to widen the debate for everybody else.
§ Mr. Stewart
Because of the prosperity of British Coal, about which we should all hear, we will protect those who work in the industry and we will not need to participate in debates on redundancy schemes.
I am sure that I have no need to tell the House that British Coal's proposals do not require miners to work one day, one shift or one hour longer. It is only the machinery that will be working for six days. The potential for an increased work force is a logical result as is its financial benefit to the workers. It was stated this week in the press that Sir Robert Haslam has indicated to Arthur Scargill that miners would receive up to £20 a week more, ensuring the future of the industry. In Nottinghamshire——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman is opening the way for a debate on the working hours of the coal mining industry. That has nothing to do with the order. I hope that he will stick to the order.
§ Mr. Stewart
It is significant that most of the coal industry is following the Nottinghamshire miners and their optimism. How gratifying it is to see that new optimism in the coal industry and I hope——
§ Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)
Does that new optimism extend to the Linby colliery, which is now under threat of closure? Will it be a further extension of the generosity of the scheme, as we have seen it on the borders of my constituency, with the recent closure of Hucknall and Baffington pit since the hon. Gentleman spoke in the debate last year?
§ Mr. Stewart
The Linby colliery is in my constituency. If you will permit me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to answer my honourable colleague, I will explain that four years ago it was expected that Linby colliery would have a life of seven years. As I understand it, it is being looked at by the management and the trade unions, and I would hate to prejudice the outcome of those discussions.
1359 The miners are entitled to have a redundancy scheme. That safety net is the right of every miner and it should be supplied and secured by British Coal. Alternatively, there has been the expansion of British Coal Enterprise Ltd. which provides alternative employment to those miners who have had to take redundancy, and I hope that this order——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hope that we can stick to redundant mineworkers and concessionary coal and not move on to the subject of British Coal Enterprise Ltd.
§ Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan)
I am pleased to have the opportunity of following the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings). It was an exciting and relevant speech. It is significant that a new Member gave us a clear instruction on the rules of relevancy by the way in which he kept talking about the coal industry and its contribution to the constituency of Easington. I know that we wish him well in every sense, in the same way as he wished his predecessor, our good friend Jack Dormand, well. He was a much-loved figure among Labour Members. We know that the new hon. Member for Easington comes to the House with Jack's good wishes, and we wish him every success. I am sure that his maiden speech helped to give him the confidence that he will no longer require in order to address the House.
I should like to speak about the two issues that relate to the order. One relates to a group of my constituents who will continue to, benefit from concessionary coal, and another group who will benefit from the order because their colliery is, sadly, being closed. I am talking about Polmaise colliery.
I want to refer to those miners and former miners who are at present in receipt of concessionary coal but whose support under the scheme may not be sustained because of the policy of the Scottish Special Housing Association. That policy is changing the nature of the fuel source in their homes from electricity, which attracts payments in lieu of coal, to gas. Many miners and former miners in my constituency living in Scottish Special Housing Association homes in the villages of Tullibody and Sauchie in Clackmannan are losing their benefit under the concessionary coal scheme because of the change in energy source.
Although the Minister may not be able to address himself to that problem at the end of the debate, I hope that he will take that matter up. It is a pressing issue which other Scottish colleagues will want to raise with him. It beggars understanding. The connivance of British Coal in Scotland with the Scottish Special Housing Association is denying people benefits which they have come to believe to be their right, and that has serious affects on the financial circumstances of many of the households in my constituency.
The next issue relates to Polmaise colliery. I intervened in a similar debate in the summer of 1983 when the work force at that colliery was locked out because of a disagreement with the then director of the Scottish area, Albert Wheeler. That walkout soured industrial relations at the colliery. It was subsequently shown to be the fault 1360 of management and the work force had to be reimbursed, at considerable cost to the taxpayer, for the period when they were out on the streets. Very shortly after that the miners strike began, again at a time when the colliery was under threat.
The miners today decided reluctantly to accept the closure of the colliery. It is not for us today to discuss the closure—that is for union and management discussion—but it is clear that the redundancy payments of some of those miners will be affected by the order. This is the third time that Polmaise colliery has been given the death sentence and it looks as though this time British Coal will succeed in closing the pit. The village of Fallin, where the colliery is located, has been devastated by the news. Youth unemployment there is more than 50 per cent. and it had been hoped that the development plan for the colliery, which had been such a great success, would provide opportunities for many of the young males at present out of work.
The dreams of that community have been dashed by the closure. The men at Polmaise fought hard during the miners' strike to save their pit. The strike had 100 per cent. support and pickets were not required because no one went to work. On one occasion, the close co-operation between the police and the striking miners resulted in the coal board being blamed for fomenting trouble at the pit gates.
That colliery contributed a great deal to the colour, verve and life of the Scottish coalfield, and it would be remiss of me not to mention one man now benefiting from the redundancy scheme—John McCormack, who was the delegate at the pit and led the miners throughout the strike and for many years before. The men involved, who may well have to benefit from the order before us, have broken all productivity records in recent weeks and months working on the £18 million development programme which the board brought in after the strike. Having spent £4 million of that sum wisely and well, the board now seems more interested in providing money through the redundancy scheme than in continuing the life of the colliery.
If more and more Scottish mineworkers are not to face the reality of the redundancy scheme, we must have far greater assurances about the long-term future of the coalburn in Scotland and of coal-fired power stations such as those at Longannet, which is just outside my constituency, but which is served by the mines at Solsgirth and Castlebridge. We need to know the Government's intentions in respect of the CEGB. Scotland has the capacity to produce very cheap coal-fired electricity which could be used in England if the Government would convince the CEGB of the desirability of installing switch gear to allow cheap Scottish electricity to be properly integrated into the national grid. If those guarantees are not forthcoming very soon, the order will apply to far more people.
With regard to the tragedy of Polmaise, the last thing that I wanted was to participate in this debate and to have to talk about redundancy for men who fought so hard to save their pit and to save the coal industry in their area. I hope that we can be told something about the board's proposals, and the Government's views on those proposals, for the heating of houses by means other than coal and the effect of that on the concessionary coal scheme as it applies to my constituents.
1361 We shall be coming to the Minister very soon to see what assistance can be afforded to a village which has been devastated by the closure of its pit and which no longer has any industrial employment, where male unemployment is 30 per cent. and youth unemployment 50 per cent. We expect the Government to do for that village what that village has done for the country, to provide it with the sustenance required to create employment for the future. The people of that village have worked hard to make Britain prosperous through the coal that they have dug in the past 100 years. They are entitled to support, not just from British Coal, but from the other arms of the Government which have resources—the Scottish Office and the Scottish Development Agency—to remove that monument to the coal mining industry, the bing which so dominates the village. The village is entitled to something better.
I hope that today's debate will give the Minister the opportunity to appreciate what the cost of hewing coal and the consequences of closure mean for the people of that village. We need far more than the tuppeny-ha'penny order before us today to satisfy their needs and to give them hope and faith for the future.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) on a most eloquent speech, which will surely have marked him out in the eyes of those on the Opposition Front Bench at the time. It was well within the spirit set by his predecessor, whose presence was valued and respected by Members on both sides of the House.
I am delighted that the hon. Member for Easington has such attractive Saxon and Norman churches in his constituency. My constituency used to have an attractive Victorian church. Sadly, it was undermined by mining subsidence and no longer exists. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's churches do not suffer a similar fate. I also share the hon. Gentleman's view about entering this place, although I had not thought of it in quite that way. He likened entering the portals of this wonderful parliamentary building to going underground for the first time. I remember when I went underground for the first time—I have been down three times now—and I understand what the hon. Gentleman means. I think that we work as much in the dark here as some of those in the mining industry.
§ Mr. Howarth
I do not frequent the hon. Gentleman's Bar. He just gives the impression occasionally of having been in there. That is what is so charming about him.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) so rightly said, this scheme was fundamental to the restructuring of the industry that has taken place and led to the great progress that has been made in recent years. It is worth putting on record the incredible generosity of the redundant mineworkers' payment scheme. It was one of the most generous schemes, not just in the United Kingdom, but in Europe, and was unquestionably much envied by others in my constituency who found that they did not have the benefit of such a generous scheme when they were faced with redundancy.
1362 It is also worth bearing in mind that the painful transition that has been made by the industry has been achieved without any compulsory redundancies, because of the generosity of the scheme. No other British industries can claim that they have been able to make painful adjustments to improve modern international trading conditions.
This scheme has come at a time when the outlook for the industry has never been better, as my hon. Friends have said this evening. I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate, not only the miners in my constituency, but those throughout the industry, particularly those in the western area, on their productivity record. It is absolutely essential to ensure that the sort of scheme that was concluded at the end of March this year will not need to be reintroduced.
Littleton pit outside my constituency has reached a productivity level of more than 4 tonnes per man shift and Florence colliery further north in Staffordshire has achieved more than 5 tonnes per man shift. Such output is in line with what is being achieved throughout the country. Productivity is at an all-time high. Last year no fewer than 15 national productivity records were broken, which is evidence that the miners are playing their part in strengthening the industry. I am sure that we all wish to pay tribute to them for all that they are doing.
It is also important to bear in mind the Government's role. Opposition Members often accuse the Government of having a hands-off policy and of having no interest in the essential industries. I hope that, as they usually do in these debates, to be fair, they will pay tribute to the Government's efforts, especially in respect of investment since 1979. We hear a great deal from the Opposition about what they call a lack of investment in manufacturing industry. I dispute that. I think that no Government since the war can hold a candle to this Government's record of investment in the coal industry. I saw it at first hand at Littleton colliery only a few weeks ago, when I saw the new skip winder introduced at a cost of £4 million. Indeed, the hon. Member for Clackmannan mentioned an £18 million investment programme at Polmaise in his constituency. It is important to recognise that these are substantial sums of taxpayer's money.
§ Mr. O'Neill
I was explaining that the £18 million programme has been cancelled after £4 million of it has been spent. The money must now be used for other purposes in the Scottish coalfield because of the constraints under which British Coal is forcing the Scottish coalfield to operate. Therefore, the exact opposite of what the hon. Gentleman was claiming for his coalfield is happening in the one in which my constituents are employed.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman answers that, may I warn him that I have the impression that we are going rather wide of the order. We are dealing, not with investment in the coal industry, but with the redundant mineworkers payments schemes. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not be tempted by the intervention or continue with some of his earlier remarks, but will return to the order before us.
§ Mr. Howarth
I most certainly would not wish to be tempted down the road that the hon. Member for 1363 Clackmannan wishes to lead me. I would merely say that I am sorry if I misunderstood what he said. Nevertheless, I think that £4 million is a large sum.
This debate is the first and will be the last on the coal industry in this new Parliament before the House rises for the long summer recess. Therefore, it is important to set the redundant mineworkers payment scheme in the context in which it was introduced. I shall say nothing more about the productivity record or about the Government's generous capital programme, because I believe that those things are now firmly on the record, not only because of what I have said tonight, but because of what has been said on previous occasions. However, I am bound to say that the industry's future, and the opportunity of avoiding the need for Opposition Members to press my hon. Friend and his colleagues to introduce a further redundant mineworkers scheme, can be secured only if the industry itself takes the necessary action.
It has come as a great disappointment to me, and to many others, that the National Union of Mineworkers has rejected six-day working. I believe that the Margam pit will be launched only if six-day working is introduced. Let me quote from a constituent's letter in Coal News:Yes, I would like to work four days a week instead of five. It would do very nicely. The extra two hours down the pit is only like working over.I think that Mr. Saunders has made my point for me.
I welcome the efforts made by my hon. Friend on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box in our debates on the coal industry, which are always very friendly, if sometimes rather energetic. He has sought to tackle some of the problems that arise from the workings of the social security system as they affect schemes such as this. I believe that the long-term future of the coal industry looks extremely good. However, no Government can guarantee the job of anyone in the country, and the future security of the industry is largely in the hands of the people who run and work in it.
§ 9.6 pm
§ Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy)
I am grateful for this chance to make my maiden speech on a subject that is close to the hearts of so many of my constituents, the mining industry. I ask for your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if, as is customary on these occasions, what I say is somewhat wider than the narrow scope of tonight's debate.
I am privileged to have been chosen by the people of Kirkcaldy and the surrounding villages and towns of Buckhaven, Wemyss, Thornton, Dysart, Kinghorn, Burntisland and Auchtertool, to represent them in the House.
My predecessor, Harry Gourlay, should need no introduction from me. He served the constituency with distinction from 1959 until his untimely death in April this year, when he was denied the long and happy retirement that he and his wife Peg so richly deserved. He was well liked and respected in the House, both for his knowledge of its procedures and history and for his quiet, dry sense of humour. He served as Deputy Speaker, Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means and a Scottish Whip. He chaired important Committees of this House impartially and fairly. In short, I am sure that he will be missed by friend and foe alike.
1364 Before I turn to the subject of tonight's debate, I should like to give some background to my constituency—historical rather than tourist—which may be helpful to hon. Members. It has hosted some important events in Scottish history. Lying in the south of Fife, opposite Edinburgh, the constituency houses in the Wemyss caves some of the oldest cave drawings in Europe, most of them sadly lost through the ravages of time and the failure of the owners of the land and of local and Government authorities to agree on a programme for their safe keeping. That same area is the ancestral home of the Thanes of Fife, immortalised by the Macduff family in "Macbeth"—not very accurately, I may say, but immortalised none the less.
Further along the coast, at Kinghorn, Alexander III fell to his death, precipitating 25 years of struggle that culminated with the victory at Bannockburn and the declaration of Arbroath in 1320.
More recently, the most famous son of the town was undoubtedly Adam Smith, the author of "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations", to whom so many hon. Members adhere and pay tribute, in particular the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) with whom I share a university if not the same political ideology. I shall quote two short passages from Adam Smith which may give hon. Members some cause for reflection. Early in the section on labour he says:No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.He also said:Poverty … is extremely unfavourable to the rearing of children. The tender plant is produced, but in so cold a soil, and so severe a climate, soon withers and dies.Those lines could equally have been penned by somebody with a more Left-wing reputation. They certainly reflect my views on the ills that affect an unfair and unjust society. In my work in health care day after day, I see the results of poverty, unemployment and inequality. I see the full effects of what has tritely been labelled the north-south divide.
The Kirkcaldy constituency has been associated with coal mining for centuries. Prior to the nationalisation of the industry the pits were owned by the Wemyss Coal Company, renowned, as others, for its rapacity and selfishness. Its inheritor, the Wemyss estate, still owns a large chunk of my constituency. The decayed and derelict properties, the run-down houses that are still lived in by so many of my constituents and the overgrown gap sites in the potentially lovely villages of East Wemyss, West Wemyss and Coaltown of Wemyss pay a stark tribute to the estate's commitment to social change and its regard for the community.
What about mining nowadays in my constituency? Kirkcaldy lies on the northern edge of the Dysart main seam. The coal seam is 12ft thick and runs under the Firth of Forth for many miles, and is one of the richest in Europe. On our side of the Forth it is now worked from only one coal face, the Seafield colliery. Formerly, on the north side of the town, the Frances colliery also operated, but the face was lost during the 1984–85 strike.
The only other working pit, the Michael colliery at East Wemyss, was closed in 1967 due to the tragic loss of life after an underground fire. The seam is sadly prone to spontaneous combustion—hence the problems that we have with it. It has to be operated at the horrendous gradient of almost one in two. Anybody with any knowledge of mining technology knows that it is very 1365 difficult for modern machinery to work effectively on such a gradient. One of the most impressive sights in mining is to watch a machine come down the face at that angle, cutting 12ft of coal at a time. If frightened me when I was down there two or three months ago.
Only sterling work by miners and management saved that seam earlier this year, as well as the introduction of new technology, with gas injection around the face to maintain a reasonable working temperature. Spontaneous combustion is still a real danger, and with it would come the total loss of deep mining in the area. Seafield is a tribute to the hard work of its work force. They have secured their future by increased productivity, and in the Scottish coalfields that is not easy. They have increased their productivity to the magical figure of 4 tonnes per man shift. Therefore, the pit's future should be secure.
But faces do not last for ever. There is to be investment in one new face. That will retain the existing jobs and add further years to the life of the mine, but we need more investment in coal seams such as this. Seafield's coal is low in sulphur. Therefore, it can be burnt with very little environmental damage. The rate of extraction could be increased by the development of at least one other face, either at Seafield or at the Frances colliery, which is still maintained on a care and maintenance basis. That investment will depend on the development of a secure market for the coal that we produce both here and abroad.
We need Government support to develop outlets for our coal, perhaps for the new generation of coal-fired power stations that we all know we need so desperately rather than the monument to nuclear technology rising across the Forth from my constituency at Torness which I can only just see on a clear day from my house but which no doubt on a clear night will be much more visible as it comes into production.
I am not just speaking tonight in support of coal mining in Fife. We need to preserve workshops in Cowdenbeath in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown). Those are vital for the future of mining in my area. With the loss of Polmaise colliery, the future of the workshops must be in doubt.
The miners' strike in 1984–85 left a legacy of bitterness in my constituency which must be overcome if the industry is to thrive again. I want to see justice done to the men who were sacked unfairly during the dispute and those who have still not been reinstated two years later. The goodwill built up over the past few years must be encouraged and fostered, not neglected.
The subject of tonight's debate concerns concessionary coal and that subject is frequently raised in my constituency. Unfortunately, I have more ex-miners than miners now in my constituency and the concessions are important to them. I want to draw the Minister's attention to the difficult situation in which many of my constituents are currently placed. Those who live in what are euphemistically described as "non-standard" houses with non-standard flues have been told that, due to the dangerous condition of the chimneys, they can no longer burn coal for heating and the houses will therefore have to be converted. The houses could be converted to a safer system of coal burning, but unfortunately the Scottish Special Housing Association claims that it cannot afford to do that because of restrictions on money. Many elderly people and pensioners depend on concessionary coal as it is part of their income. It is not a freebie or a free gift that they have been given by a grateful industry. Part of their 1366 earnings was committed to that year after year while they were working and they are entitled to it now in their retirement to keep them warm in winter. They will lose that concession and be converted to more expensive forms of heating such as gas.
I am sure that the Minister shares my sympathy for the plight of those people and I want him to do what he can on their behalf. I acknowledge that the difficulty is largely due to the current agreement between the National Coal Board and the unions and there are also problems with the Scottish Special Housing Association. Nevertheless, if the Minister could do something I would be grateful.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to speak in this debate and for your forebearance as I have rather wandered from the subject. My constituency shows the stigma of years of unemployment, poverty and ill health. Coal mining offers many presently employed in the industry, those who are unemployed and the apprentices who could he working a chance of a decent productive future. I will fight to see that they get it.
§ Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)
It is a great pleasure to congratulate a fellow Scot on making his maiden speech in the House. Both sides of the House will agree that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) spoke eloquently and knowledgeably about his constituency and the problems facing his constituents. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) on his maiden speech. Having heard the hon. Member for Easington refer to some of his political predecessors, I wondered whether the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy would refer to the most famous political son to come from Kirkcaldy, and indeed he did. He rightly quoted from Adam Smith to show that perhaps all the propaganda that is sometimes associated with Adam Smith tends to be one-sided. If we read his writings as a whole, we find that parts of his writings could be learned and read by Conservative Members to great advantage. I forgive the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy for omitting to mention one of the other important sons of Kirkcaldy—my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel). I understand that he was born in Kirkcaldy.
We all look forward to hearing the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy speak again. No doubt those of us who are privileged to be members of the Scottish Grand Committee will hear the hon. Gentleman speak in that Committee. We all share in the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy to the late Harry Gourlay who for many years gave great service not only to his constituents and party but to this House.
The order is detailed and limited in its scope, but the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) rightly expressed some concern about the lack of consultation that took place before it was laid. The order might be technical and its purpose may be limited to clarifying that which might give rise to a challenge in the courts, but it is important generally for industrial relations that people are not taken for granted. When that happens, resentment tends to build up in an industry which has had considerable industrial relations difficulties over recent years. I hope that that point will be taken up by the Minister.
1367 The Minister has talked about the need to avoid court action. Even as a lawyer, I would agree with him about that. If court action can be avoided, it is desirable that it should be. It has been argued that payments have been withheld since the introduction of the new social security legislation. I ask the Minister to confirm, when he replies, that the payments have been reduced, not withheld, and that they will be repaid in full over the coming months.
The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) referred to the closure of the Polmaise pit. That is of concern to him as a constituency Member, and over the past 24 hours it has concerned the whole of Scotland. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy put his finger on the problem when he said that there are more ex-miners than miners in his constituency. I understand that 12 years ago there were 1,000 miners employed at the Polmaise pit, and we are now told that the closure will affect 112. That is a measure of the decline that we have seen in the industry. Many of the 1,000 who were employed at Polmaise 12 years ago will be in receipt of the benefits that stem from the scheme that we are debating. British Coal has said that it hopes to find jobs in other parts of the Scottish coalfield for the 112 who will be affected by the closure, but press reports say that many of the 112 are somewhat sceptical about whether they will all find jobs. There is the feeling that there will be redundancies.
However generous redundancy and concessionary schemes may be, they cannot be any substitute for real jobs. We are talking of a community in which over 50 per cent. of the young people are unemployed. Four years ago hope was engendered by an £80 million investment plan. A community can be devastated when that which it thought was within its grasp is taken from it.
I hope that the Minister will be able to answer the questions which have been asked about Polmaise, even though it may mean you stretching a point. Mr. Deputy Speaker, when deciding whether the hon. Gentleman is in order. I hope that he will be able to say whether those who find themselves out of work at Polmaise will have a real chance of re-employment elsewhere in the Scottish coalfield. The devastation that is brought to villages as a result of closures can be compensated only in small measure by redundancy payments. The various divisions of British Coal, the Scottish Office and the Scottish Development Agency must make every effort to ensure that new hope is brought to an area that tonight must be suffering great depression.
§ Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)
The connection between the reduced earnings allowance and the redundant miners payments scheme, which is the basis of the order, highlights the fact that the Social Security Act 1986 was an ill-thought-out piece of legislation. The Government have neglected to tie up the loose ends by means of consequential amendments, and that is the reason for the order.
It is interesting to learn that the Government intend to make repayments to miners who are affected by the terms of the order without there being a need for court action. That is an interesting departure from the situation in 1984. A number of my constituents, and literally hundreds of mineworkers in Yorkshire, accepted redundancy slightly before the 1984 strike, but even now they have not received 1368 redundancy payment or the unemployment benefit that they should have received as a result of the redundant mineworkers payment scheme.
The redundancy scheme was voluntary and we have heard from Conservative Members on at least two occasions that no worker in the mining industry was forced to accept redundancy. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Quite a number of workers have been faced with unreasonable transfers or redundancy. In the circumstances, they have been made compulsorily redundant. It is wrong to talk about the redundancy scheme as being wholly voluntary, particularly now.
Many men were faced with redundancy either at a time when they did not want to accept it, because it would not benefit them, or when they were faced with a transfer to a colliery 30 to 40 miles away, which would involve too much travel-to-work time. These are the compulsory redundancies that have occurred throughout the industry.
We must look to the future to see what problems will arise with redundancy payments. The average age of miners is about 35 years. These are men of my own age and slightly older who want not redundancy but jobs within their industry—something to which they are entitled. The Government should expand rather than contract the coal industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) has already made that point about the closure of Polmaise. In the Yorkshire area, the South Kirby, Woolley Wath, Kilnhurst, Treeton and Manders collieries this year have suffered either partial or total closure. It is obvious that the smaller number of collieries and the increase in technology mean fewer job opportunities or transfers within the industry. Therefore, there must be redundancies if British Coal is to pursue its present policies. How is it to achieve redundancies without some compulsion, which is the next step?
With the problems facing the industry, compulsory redundancy is compounded by a number of issues that are being debated. We heard from the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) that the NUM has rejected six-day working and flexible working. Had he been at the NUM conference last week he would have heard a decision to hold a ballot on the issue, so the members of the NUM have not yet made their decision on that issue. As to four-day working, that is within a seven-day cycle or a continental shift. The four-day period could be over a Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday nightshift. Would Conservative Members relish such a prospect? The industry is facing flexible working practices.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
I am interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman has said about the ballot. However, what is his view? What recommendation will he be making to his constituents on how they should vote?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be tempted by an experienced Member into straying out of order.
§ Mr. Illsley
I shall not be tempted into replying to that question, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is obviously a question for the members of the National Union of Mineworkers, according to the advice that they receive from their leadership. It is not connected with this order.
To return to redundancies and the problems facing the industry, British Coal will be hard pressed to find the collieries and the job opportunities for future transfers. There will be thousands of job losses and colliery closures 1369 because of increased opencast mining, increased imports—especially from South Africa and Colombia—and the privatisation of the electricity supply industry, which will be a forerunner to the privatisation of British Coal.
Earlier in the debate, we heard that there has been a total lack of negotiation and consultation about this order. Since the end of the strike, there has been no negotiation or consultation on any issue between British Coal and the NUM. That includes flexible working, the wage increases that have been imposed during the past two or three years, the conciliation machinery and the disciplinary code of practice.
The dispute over the latter during the past few days has resulted in about 18 collieries in my area taking strike action. Unless British Coal returns to the negotiating table with a genuine and sincere desire to negotiate on these issues, including redundancy, flexible working and a disciplinary code, there will be no peace in the industry and no prospect of achieving the future of which Conservative Members have talked. The industry does not have a rosy future. There will be more decline, more job losses and more pit closures. The problem will be eradicated only if British Coal has a genuine desire to negotiate.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate, partly because I was able to listen to two maiden speeches by Labour Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) is a doctor. He has a doctor's voice. I can imagine a decent Socialist going into his surgery and coming out feeling better. I look forward to hearing a lot more from my hon. Friend.
The same is true of my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings)—a different voice fashioned in a different way. He is not here now, but no doubt he will tell me later that I am right in thinking that his voice was fashioned in the canteen, when it is crowded in the morning, when there is fag smoke—unlike the doctor's surgery—when people have a problem, when the miners are a bit unsure and when there has been no consultation, as with this document. People have to raise their voices and appeal for solidarity. We have all done it—well, nearly all. The Liberals have been doing a bit of that lately. There has been some shouting and bawling going on with them. I do not know whether it has been in the SDP canteen. Of course, they do not have a canteen; it is a telephone box.
§ Mr. Skinner
It is an old one, but the old ones are very good. They keep coming back.
It was delightful to hear the Liberals talking about a merger. It was a little gem to hear a Liberal standing up here and condemning the Tories and British Coal because there had been no consultation, after what their leader has been doing these past few weeks. I know that that has nothing to do with this order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I want to make it clear——
§ Mr. Skinner
I think it is a good subject. The hon. Gentleman keeps intervening. He is heckling me and just encouraging me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a delightful side show and there is no doubt about that.
1370 When all the other things have gone off the front page of the newspapers, the editors can always turn back to the SDP and Liberal merger. The headlines will read "Is it on, or is it off?" That ballot will take longer than our ballot.
I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Easington is now back in the Chamber. I had just referred to the way in which he was able to deliver a wonderful maiden speech and capture the attention of the House. I said that my hon. Friend's voice, unlike that of my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy, was probably fashioned in the canteen, early in the morning, when it is necessary to raise one's voice to get the message of solidarity across. I look forward to hearing more from my hon. Friend.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Easington mentioned churches. It gives me the opportunity to put on record—it does want putting on record—that I have enabled the coal board, or British Coal as it is now called, to start negotiations with Bolsover parish church over subsidence. Negotiations had reached a deadlock, and I was called in. The parish council said that British Coal would not pay subsidence costs. I said, "I will start the negotiations. I will have a debate in Bolsover parish church between me and Haslam." It was not long before British Coal went to its lawyers and started negotiating again.
I am pleased to take part in this debate because a new Minister is on the Front Bench. I shall not welcome him, because I do not know how long he will be here and I am not into that anyway. However, I hope that he will make a better fist of this than he did the Tory party computer.[Interruption.] Well, we judge people by what they do, not what they say. The Minister got involved in running this outfit, the Tory party computer. The computer was to link up with every constituency in Britain, but what happened? The firm went bankrupt. There were 150,000 other bankruptcies in Britain, but there was only one computer firm involved. The Minister picked the wrong one. When we come to think of it, the Minister could have been in easy street now.
§ Mr. Michael Spicer
The hon. Gentleman is going back a bit and scraping the barrel about my past. The Tory party purchased about 200 of those computers. My constituency purchased one and it is still working. I believe that the others are as well. I believe that that computer was rather successful, and we won the election as a result.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The whole House is enjoying the preamble of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), but I hope that he will now come to the order.
§ Mr. Skinner
May I just say that the Minister's reply sounded a bit defensive. The truth is that the Prime Minister and the rest of them in Tory party central office said, "Get it out and start afresh."
This order is important because we believe that debating redundancy payments is not something that we should welcome. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) said earlier, this is all about more people being chucked on the Thatcher scrap heap. Every time we get one of these orders before us, however technical it might be, it is about people being thrown on to unemployment benefit and going to the Department of Health and Social Security. It is about people going for additional payments to Sheffield as contained in this 1371 order. It means that more and more taxpayers have to pay more money to keep people idle. The Opposition want people back in work. If people were back in work we would not have to import coal from about 30 different countries, some of it subsidised up to the hilt by those countries. We would sooner not have these dates on redundancy payments.
One of the reasons for this debate is the special hardship allowance. One of the reasons why the Government have changed from special hardship allowance to income support is that they have decided to get rid of that special hardship allowance. That allowance has been part of our welfare state since 1948. The miners needed that allowance because many injuries occurred in the industry. The result was that the Government changed the system in the Social Security Act 1986. Many miners and others will finish up with less on "special hardship", with its new title, and some will not receive any special hardship-type allowance at all, No doubt there will be a favoured few, but it is worth remembering that that is why the order has been introduced.
The same is true of rent allowances. The adjustment has been made because the Government ensured in the Social Security Act 1986 that people would get less on rent allowance and rent rebate. The result is that people have to make up the money from another source—in our case, the Sheffield headquarters of British Coal, which pays the money out.
The debate is not about sacked miners, as you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If we could get those 350 sacked miners back to work, that would be 350 people who could contribute to the nation's wealth, pay taxes and national insurance and reduce the mammoth bill of £21 billion paid out for those who are out of work. Although this debate is not about them, we cannot talk about redundancy without referring to them.
The same is true of the new problem in the coalfields. British Coal thinks that it has the whip hand. It thinks that it can put the boot in, assisted by Tory Members, many of them moonlighters who come into this building only two days a week, yet want miners to work six days a week. I heard them say that the other day. It is a scandal. They are trotting off for a three-month holiday, yet telling miners to work six days a week.
§ Mr. Skinner
The hon. Gentleman is a farmer. He is getting subsidies from the taxpayers, the miners, yet he wants them to work six days a week.
§ Mr. Howarth
The hon. Gentleman has just said that miners will have to work six days a week. He knows that that is a total untruth and that the British Coal Corporation has made it clear that no miner will be required to work six days a week. What will be required to work six days a week is the machinery.
§ Mr. Skinner
I have to say as quickly as possible, because I know that it is not quite within the realms of the order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman cannot find written evidence from British Coal that is being reported to the NUM or any other union in the industry.
§ Mr. Skinner
The hon. Gentleman is holding a press release. I have seen it. It means nothing. There have been no consultations with any of the trade unions concerned. That is just a bit of sky writing for people like the hon. Gentleman to pick up to try to confuse people in his coalfield. They will not accept six-day working. There will be a majority against it in every area—[HON. MEMBERS: "In South Wales?"] And in South Wales.
The debate is also about coal allowances—it says so in the title. What has been happening lately to the miners' widows of 75 or 80 is a scandal. The Government are taking away the cash in lieu and the coal allowance. They have even introduced a new scheme under which people are put into little flats and bungalows and receive an allowance of 3 tonnes of coal a year instead of 5 tonnes. The Government have introduced other schemes under which people who have gone to live with in-laws, their daughter or son for a short period and then returned home have had their money or allowance taken from them. This is going back to Victorian days.
I make a final plea to the Minister, if he wants to make a name for himself. I have said about a dozens times in the House—perhaps more—in the past 17 years that there is a small group of people who are part of redundancy schemes introduced before 1968 and who do not receive any allowance coal. It is time that they were allowed that coal. There are a few hundred in Lancashire, Derbyshire and elsewhere.
The order is part and parcel of the whole jigsaw which, if the Tory Government remain in office, is a prelude to privatisation of certain parts of the British coalfield. That is why the Government like redundancy payments and coal imports coming in and taking away the jobs of miners. That is why they want to create a rat race and introduce flexible working and a six-day week. It is all part of that same pattern, and that is why we can understand that redundancy payments orders and coal allowance orders are all part of that same Tory creed.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
I welcome the maiden speeches that have been made tonight and since the general election, particularly those by my hon. Friends. I find that we have much quality on our Benches, as demonstrated by the contributions of our new hon. Members.
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. I questioned him on Monday during questions on energy. He said that he was going to help me and my constituents who are in difficulty with claims for mining subsidence. I only hope that he will keep his word and kick over the traces of the raw deals that my constituents, and those of other hon. Members who serve in mining constituencies, have suffered on the issue of subsidence. We want some straightening up and some management of the board from this House.
Under its new name, British Coal is running away with things. I remember the Prime Minister saying fairly 1373 regularly that management is there to manage and the workers are there to work. The order speaks of what I experienced as a lad in the pit when managers managed and workers worked—and we were trampled on and pushed around and had to put up with it. If we did not, we got our cards. That is what we are going back to, and the order is encouraging it.
The Minister comes from a different job. I regularly saw him on the television news. More often than not he was standing in an airport somewhere, so he has obviously been involved with aircraft and flying about all over the place. I am asking him to put his feet firmly on the floor——
§ Mr. Haynes
I was going to say that, but my hon. Friend beat me to it. He should put his feet underground, too. I hope that he will make the necessary visits to talk to the men in the industry, and that he will do something else that British Coal is not doing. I refer to what my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) said about non-consultation between British Coal and the trade unions. That is a shocking state of affairs. It is now up to the Minister—the ball is at his feet—to put this right, because it is wrong. The machinery for consultation should exist and there should be consultation with the trade unions on this order, and on other measures too.
To hear Conservative Members talk, one would think that they were ex-colliers. They have never seen underground workings and do not know what mining is about. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover about moonlighting. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) had the nerve to talk about the subsidy and the investment in the mining industry. The Government pour money into his pocket because he is a farmer. He is doing two jobs.
§ Mr. Haynes
The hon. Gentleman tried to patronise us in his speech. He should be honest about the matter, because he knows full well that the policy underlying this order is linked to the problems in the mining industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) talked about more pit closures and about more people being made redundant. More money will have to be found to provide redundancy pay for those people. There are no jobs for the youngsters in the towns and villages where the pits are situated. There is no work elsewhere either, so the Government put them on a phoney training course that takes them off the dole queue. The hon. Member for Sherwood can grin and scratch his head, but we know what is going on. The hon. Gentleman is not prepared to accept but he knows full well that the unemployment figures are fiddled. Unemployed lads can no longer get jobs at the pits as lads used to do in years gone by.
The order mentions concessionary fuel. The more pit closures we have, the fewer men will be working in the pits. I worked underground for 35 years and made my contribution from my fuel every month to a pool for widows and retired miners. Where has that coal gone? What happened to it? I think that there has been a fiddle. The Government talk about what they will do with concessionary fuel, but they do not realise that, with fewer miners, fewer contributions are being made to the pool.
Retired miners nowadays are living far longer than they used to. There is an army of retired miners who have to 1374 be provided with concessionary fuel. The Government keep closing pits and reducing manpower, and the remaining work force is making fewer contributions to the pool for the people who have given a lifetime of service to the industry and to the nation.
Conservative Members are looking at me in a way that shows that they understand what I am saying but that they did not understand it before. This is a real problem and. the Government are not grappling with it. Most of the problems stem from non-consultation. I have many years of experience in the industry and I know what is going on today. I shall not wander to the subject of flexible hours, but even that will have a serious effect on redundancy pay and concessionary fuel.
Many years ago, the management managed. They kicked us around all over the place. The hon. Member for Sherwood may grin, but he is only a lad and he does not understand.
§ Mr. Stewart
If the hon. Gentleman is so informed about the mining industry, why was it that at the recent election his majority went down and mine went up?
§ Mr. Haynes
I cannot explain that. You should tell me" Mr. Deputy Speaker, not to answer that question.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I believe in being fair. The hon. Gentleman should answer the question briefly, but. we must get back to the order.
§ Mr. Haynes
I am obliged, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is the first time that you have said that to me and I shall take it on board.
How can I know why people voted as they did in Sherwood? I tell the hon. Member for Sherwood that I do not represent only the UDM. I represent all the miners in my constituency, which is more than can be said for the hon. Gentleman. He has been yawping about the UDM, but he never mentioned the NUM. He has NUM members in his constituency, but I represent all my constituents, not just one section. The hon. Gentleman might not get a 5,000 majority next time.
§ Mr. Haynes
The hon. Gentleman might have to return to farming, which would be welcome.
The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues think that they know about the mining industry, but they have never seen a No. 10 shovel. It is as big as a table top. Conservative Members may laugh, but this is a serious matter. I had a No. 10 shovel in my hands for donkey's years. I know what it is like to work underground in a mine. In this order we are talking about people who have given a lifetime's service to the industry but who have been put out of work by the Government because of their policies with regard to the mining industry.
My final plea is that we must return to the way that things were before I came to this place, when the National Coal Board, the trade unions and the men worked as one. That is how it used to be, but it is no longer like that.
§ Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)
When my hon. Friend mentioned returning to the way that things were, there were sniggers from the Conservative Benches. However, if we returned to the way that things were in Ogmore in 1979 1375 we would have seven collieries employing 5,500 miners. I am sure that my hon. Friend would like to comment on that.
§ Mr. Haynes
I shall comment on that, and I hope that Conservative Members will wipe the grins off their faces, because this is a serious matter. Conservative Members have a job, and some of them have as many as seven. One has only to look at the Register of Members' Interests to see the moonlighting that occurs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said.
I used to have nine pits in my constituency, but there are now only four. That is all that is left under this Administration. The young lads who are leaving school cannot get a job at the pit. There are a lot more men who are not making a contribution because of those five pit closures. Therefore, money has to be found from somewhere else and the Government keep coming back with orders such as the one that we are discussing tonight.
I saw a list, not from British Coal to a Member of Parliament, or from British Coal to the trade unions, but in the Today newspaper only this week. It showed a list of pits that are uneconomic and ready for closure. All four of the pits in my constituency were on the list. If British Coal continues in that way, we will not know what is going on until Energy Question Time, when, if we are lucky enough to be called, we can ask the Minister what British Coal is doing and what is going on. It is not telling us anything.
The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) held up a copy of a press release from British Coal. It means nothing. We are not talking about that; we are talking about the real things taking place in the industry, such as non-consultation. We have to keep emphasising that, and I hope that the Minister will do something about it. There is no consultation, either with the trade unions or with the men themselves.
The industry cannot work without the men. The results of the men are fantastic, they really are. The Minister knows that each week output records are being broken. I agree that the machines are doing the job, and they will be doing a bit more in the future if an agreement can be struck between the coal board and the union. That is where it must happen, not in here, not by talking to Tory Members of Parliament who represent mining constituencies. It has to be done in a proper way, like it used to be done before I came to this place. It is only since 1979 that it has all gone wrong. We have told the Government time after time, but they are not prepared to listen. They do not want to know. All they want to do, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said, is to let British Coal keep putting the boot in. That is all that is happening. It is high time it stopped, and I hope that the Minister will do something about it.
§ 10.2 pm
§ Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)
I intend to speak briefly, but I must say to the House, particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), that Conservative Members view the anger of Opposition Members as the anger of people who find that they no longer exclusively represent coal-mining areas. That is largely the reason for the invective imposed upon my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, who—I shall be 1376 corrected if I am wrong—looks after the interests of more pits than any other hon. Member, and Labour Members do not like that.
I thought that the invective coming from Labour Members was a bit rich. It was unfair to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood. The fact that he may be a farmer has nothing to do with this debate. We are debating an order. Snide remarks about people such as my hon. Friend, who happens to do a good job as a farmer as well as an excellent job as a coal-mining constituency Member of Parliament, are wrong. He did not deserve the abuse that he received this evening.
I wish to make two points in connection with the order, and they have both been raised in the previous two contributions. They were raised by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). One would imagine that since the Tory Government took office, and only because the Tory Government took office, we have seen mass redundancies, on an enormous scale. What we never hear from the Labour party spokesmen is that none of them has been compulsory. Those concerned have taken redundancy on very generous terms. It is wrong for the Labour party to suggest otherwise.
It is a smear on the Coal Board, and Sir Robert Haslam in particular, to say that it is asking for six-day working. The hon. Member for Bolsover said that it is all sky writing. I do not think that that is fair either. Sir Robert Haslam has made it perfectly clear. In a press release dated 9 July 1987—sent not just to Tory Members, but to all Members—British Coal states:There is no intention to introduce six-day working for miners. British Coal are proposing to introduce six-day coal production at a limited number of less than a dozen new or extended pits.To hear the invective from some Opposition Members, one would not think that that had been stated publicly and in writing. Unfair party political smears are not to the benefit of hon. Members' constituents or of the industry; the order is.
§ 10.6 pm
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
As usual, the debate has been extremely lively, as it always has been and always will be because there are so many differences of opinion about this great industry.
The Minister says that this is a technical order which makes technical changes. Rather than seeking to explain the details at the Dispatch Box, perhaps the Minister will put explanatory notes in the Library about the technical changes, how and why they have come about, why they are needed and the effects that they will have. When the Government talk about technical changes, it usually means that someone will lose. It does not mean that everyone will win or even stay the same. Under the cover of technical changes, people lose money. I hope that the Minister will place explanatory notes in the Library so that we can advise our constituents.
I was surprised and annoyed that such a measure should be introduced without consultation with the trade unions concerned—any trade unions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) said. It is important that there should he consultation. The six-day week proposal is not new. It has been mentioned many times in the past. There have been changes, because restructuring did not begin in 1979. It began on vesting day 1377 and has been a continuing process ever since, and it will continue for some while yet. That is why there must be consultation before we debate orders of this kind.
When people consider the six-day week, they forget what has happened in the past. Output used to be calculated as output per man shift. Collieries with a high output per man shift were regarded as economic and fairly safe. That no longer applies because profitability is now calculated not in output per man shift but in cost per gigajoule. Miners have never been fools and they realise what six-day working will mean. The coal already on the floor will increase because six days' output will flow from six days' production. If we cannot cope with five days' output, what will happen to the increase? Without a shadow of doubt, it will mean colliery closures.
Lack of consultation shows lack of trust, and trust is very important in the mining industry. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, we had the Fleck report which said that there was too much academic experience in management and not enough practical experience, especially in industrial relations. Colliery closures have made this order necessary and not only miners, but administrative staff have become unemployed. The old, long-in-the-tooth managers and industrial relations officers have gone and we are left with a lot of whizz kids who have no practical experience and do not understand our history.
Before the strike we warned the House in a similar debate what would happen. In Yorkshire 19 collieries are on strike and the warning bells are ringing again. It is no use the Government saying that that is no responsibility of theirs. It is a nationalised industry with a chairman appointed by the Government. The Government must say to that chairman, "Let's bring back consultations. Let's get round the table and talk about these problems and measures." If they do not, they will again force the miners into a corner and the reaction will be exactly the same because that is the mining industry as it is, always has been and always will be.
The problem is that we have Ministers and bosses who do not understand the history or future of the mining industry. A future is there providing the Government take the men along with them. Without the men, the Government will fail. That was my first lesson in industrial relations. However good the idea is, it is no good unless the men accept it.
Let us have more explanation of the order and let us now have an assurance from the Minister that no one affected by it will lose either now or in future.
§ Mr. Eadie
I am proud to refer to the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings). He said that he was a sixth generation miner and was a child of the mining industry. He has mining skills and experience of the coal industry, and he has worked in local government and for his trade union. The whole House will agree that his maiden speech showed that he will make a good contribution to this House as Member of Parliament. I am particularly proud because my hon. Friend is now a member of the largest industrial group in this House, the miners' parliamentary group, and on another occasion we had the opportunity to welcome him warmly.
I should also like to refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie). He has special significance for me because he happens to be my Member 1378 of Parliament. When he described the seams of coal and the gradients of one and two in the Wemyss area where I worked for 30 years at the coal face, man and boy, I began to feel a little sore. He showed in his speech, as he has already shown in the constituency, that he will make a worthy Member and successor to the late Harry Gout-lay. I am pleased to welcome him to the House.
The most depressing aspect of the debate is that only Opposition Members have talked about conciliation and consultation. The hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) completely distorted everything that I said. I made a plea for consultation and conciliation. We heard nothing about that from Conservative Members.
It is wrong to impose, for instance, a code of conduct without any consultation or conciliation taking place with the mining unions. As a consequence, the whole Yorkshire coalfield is now alight. That should be a lesson to us. There must be a fresh attitude. We must get down to talking. discussing and arguing with British Coal as an employer. The Government must assist in that, because they are being accused of conspiring with British Coal to destroy industrial relations. This great industry of ours will never work without proper industrial relations.
There have been no negotiations about the six-day week. It is not good enough to quote a press release. Sending out press releases and saying, "This is what we are going to do" is no way to bring about good industrial relations. New proposals must be discussed with the representatives of the industry. Unless British Coal gets down to consultation and conciliation, when the miners' union decides to hold the ballot vote, I am afraid that. British Coal will get the result that it does not want. Now is the time for talk; now is the time for consultation; now is the time for conciliation. That should be our message, and only the Opposition have tried to convey it throughout the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) talked about the closure of Polmaise. I am very sorry to hear about that, because I was an agent in the area over 20 years ago, and I know the village of Fallin well. The villagers are a proud people, and they were proud of their pit. They had supplied generations of miners to that pit, and I know that they are suffering terribly from the staggering blow that the news of the closure has deak them. Incidentally, as a consequence of that closure, a £4 million investment will be wiped out. I feel for my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan.
We shall listen with interest to what the Minister has to say.
§ Mr. Michael Spicer
It is understandable that the debate, as was anticipated at the outset by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), has ranged somewhat wide of the terms of the order. Concessionary coal, the code of conduct, Conservative party computers and many other issues have been raised. I hope that the House will forgive me if, on this occasion at least, I address my few remarks to points relating directly to the order. No doubt there will be many opportunities to debate some of the other extremely important points that have been raised.
I begin by adding my warmest congratulations to those already given to the two hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches tonight. The hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) spoke movingly of his 1379 constituency and of his eminent predecessors. By coincidence, as has already been mentioned, I found myself opposing two of them—Manny Shinwell in 1966 and Jack Dormand in 1970. I can now say, without harming either Jack Dormand's career or mine, that he was a very close friend of mine, and I fully agree with what the hon. Gentleman had to say about him.
I think that the hon. Member for Easington said that I was the only Minister not to have visited Easington. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman in all humility that I am probably the only Member of either Front Bench who has ever lived there. Be that as it may, I congratulate the hon. Member on a model maiden speech.
I congratulate also the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), who spoke movingly about the Seafield colliery. I know that the House will wish to join him unreservedly in paying tribute to the bravery and dedication of the Seafield miners who in January fought that underground fire.
One of the main themes of the debate has been consultation. The word has been used many times, in particular by the hon. Members for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I recognise the great experience on both sides of the House concerning this industry. Therefore, I have listened carefully to what has been said about consultation. I do not necessarily agree with all that has been said about consultation, but I shall read carefully what has been said about it.
As for consultation on this order, there has been no change in the policy relating to or the substance of the redundant mineworkers payments scheme. It would not have been reasonable, therefore, to engage in a long period of consultation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) asked for an assurance that nobody would be worse off as a result of the order. I can go further than that. I explained in my opening speech that the recipients of RMPS basic benefit who have also been in receipt of the reduced earnings allowance since 1 October 1986 will receive a refund of the reduced earnings allowance deductions that have been made since that date. Apart from that, there will be no significant change to the payment of basic benefit as a result of the order.
The hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland and for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) referred to Polmaise. There will be no compulsory redundancies at Polmaise. Transfers will be available for those who do not wish to accept voluntary redundancy. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) said that payments that are due under the RMPS have not been made in certain cases. I was surprised to hear about that, and if he will write to me I shall look carefully into it.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) made an important point that is a cause of concern to both sides of the House. It relates to payments that should have been made to men who accepted voluntary redundancy before the strike was announced, who became redundant during the strike and who have been unable since then to obtain unemployment benefit. The matter has gone to the social security commissioners. If my hon. Friend could find time to 1380 introduce an order to help those people, he would be doing a great service to the constituents of many hon. Members on both sides of the House.
§ Mr. Spicer
That is an interesting point. As the case is with the commissioners, I imagine that it is being looked at very carefully. However, I shall certainly look into the matter.
The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) said that this is such a technical order that further details, if any, should be placed in the Library. I will certainly consider whether there is any further information that I can sensibly publish. If so, I will write to the hon. Gentleman and put a copy of that letter in the Library. However, I will consider whether there is anything further that can usefully be said of a technical nature.
My hon. Friends the Members for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth), for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Newark (Mr. Alexander) made the theme of their speeches the fact that the industry has a great future if it can continue on its present path of producing coal more and more efficiently. I agree with them. I also agree with those who have said that the greatest challenge of all is to take those who work in the industry with us.
§ Mr. Barron
At the moment, Colombian coal is shipped into the Thames estuary and delivered at 80p a gigajoule. How can the British deep-mine coal industry compete with that? We are competing with very low production costs because children are being used to produce that coal. This House, more than 100 years ago, said that it was illegal to employ children in that way in this country.
§ Mr. Spicer
The hon. Gentleman, who is extremely knowledgeable on this matter, knows that the vast majority of coal that is currently imported is specialist coal for coking purposes. That is why we want to see the Margam pit developed and coming into production. Coal from that pit would be import-substituting. That is why we want that pit to be open and working efficiently. That meets the point raised by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron).
§ Mr. Spicer
I have the perfect answer. British coal of the right type must be produced so efficiently that we do not need to import coal in the way described by the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Batiste
Does my hon Friend agree that the greatest incentive for importing coal is industrial action in the coalfields, which makes customers for coal concerned about the security of their supplies?
§ Mr. Spicer
My hon. Friend has made an extremely important point which I hope will be heard outside this Chamber.
I have had only a short time to look at this industry. However, the more that I look at it, the more I think that it has a great future.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1987, which was laid before this House on 6th July, be approved.