§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Michael Spicer)
I beg to move,That the draft Coal Industry (Limit on Deficit Grants) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 8th February, be approved.I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that during this debate you will allow me to deal with a few of the questions that were asked in the debate on the previous motion.
The purpose of this order is to lift the limit on deficit grant available, in respect of this year, from £100 million to the full £200 million allowed under section 2 of the Coal Industry Act 1987.
The tough market conditions and the damaging effects of industrial action have led to a significant reduction in the number of pits during the year, which has resulted in additional depreciation charges of over £150 million. British Coal's deficit for the year has risen from a planned level of just under £100 million to a deficit well in excess of £300 million.
The 1987 Act enabled the Government to contribute up to £100 million deficit grant towards this and made provision for an additional £100 million to be paid, subject to the approval of this deficit grants order. It is our intention to pay out the full £200 million available towards meeting the deficit this year. Payment of the additional £100 million is subject to the approval of a Supplementary Estimate presently before the House.
The draft order is necessary for the continuing process of putting the coal industry in a strong position from which it can exploit the opportunities that lie before it. Whether the opportunities are taken is up to the industry, its management and the men who work in it. The Government are willing to stand behind British Coal, but it is up to it to put the taxpayers' money to good use in order to fight off the undoubted competitive pressures that lie ahead.
I commend the draft order to the House.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)
Before I put the Question, I remind the House that we had a wide-ranging debate on the first order. That debate would have been much more appropriate to the two orders being taken together. This order is much narrower and the debate should be confined to the desirability or otherwise of increasing the aggregate limit on deficit grants.
§ Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)
My contribution to this debate will be to make a request of the Minister, but before I do so, I want to say yet again how much I welcome this Government's total commitment to the coal industry. An investment of £2 million a day is to be admired. I see this investment at first hand when I visit collieries in my constituency.
The Nottinghamshire miners are meeting the feared challenge from abroad head-on by increasing production by over 60 per cent. They are sending coal to the Trent valley power stations at a price delivered, in real terms, 22 per cent. lower than it was before the industrial dispute of 1984. These miners produce 14 per cent. of the nation's coal requirements. In the last half-year, 50 per cent. of 1094 British Coal's operating profit of £100 million was met from the Nottinghamshire coalfield. That example could be followed by the country's other coalfields.
When my hon. Friend next meets the chairman of British Coal, he should ask him to consider further the request of Nottinghamshire miners to be paid for the days they were sent home through no fault of theirs when industrial action was taking place three weeks ago. Loyalty is two-sided. I should like my hon. Friend to ask the chairman of British Coal to consider paying those miners for their lost time.
§ Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)
Collieries in my constituency have received a great deal of assistance and investment over the last 10 years. One of the first things I did as a prospective parliamentary candidate was to visit the Castlebridge sinking when my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), as the Minister, cut the first sod at the development stage.
In my constituency we have one of the biggest single investments in the British coal industry. The tragedy is that, within a short time, some £70 million of the investment programme of British Coal over the last 10 years may be thrown away because of the Government's headlong rush into the privatisation of electricity generation. I am conscious that I have to be careful about the range of debate, but we are talking to a Minister who has dual responsibility in his Department for the privatisation of electricity and for the safeguarding of the taxpayer's interest in the money which has been spent on our behalf by him and by British Coal on the development of Longannet, which was mentioned in the previous debate.
That investment involves not only money but the commitment of 2,000 people directly as employees of the coal industry, people whose livelihood would be gravely endangered if, as we are led to believe, the South of Scotland electricity board sought to import coal from abroad and if the order, with its limit on deficit grants of £100 million, was to be applied. In the central belt of Scotland, we cannot switch off and switch on the capability of the mining industry.
We have a work force of some 2,000 people in that area of the Clackmannan and Stirlingshire coalfields. The men come from Fife, Clackmannan and Stirlingshire. In the last four or five years, they have become little better than industrial gipsies. We are in the predicament that this is the last fight of the Scottish coal industry. The gipsies have to circle the wagons and to fight for what they believe to be their industrial right to jobs in the Longannet complex because they are capable of producing steam coal which can be converted into electricity at prices which compare with power stations anywhere in the country or in western Europe.
The Minister is responsible not just for coal but for the privatisation of electricity. I know that the Secretary of State for Scotland has a special responsibility for the generation of electricity within Scotland, but the nature of the privatisation proposals which were introduced to the House last Thursday and today show that there is now a United Kingdom perspective on electricity generation which goes far beyond the responsibility of St. Andrew's house and the Scottish Office.
If the limit of grant is laid down as £100 million, it will be insufficient to meet the problems that may arise in the 1095 short term—and we believe that the problems are only short-term problems. We believe that in the long term the Hirst seam, which extends throughout my constituency into Stirlingshire and beyond, is perhaps the richest directly available source of coal in the United Kingdom. We know that coalfields in Yorkshire have been expanded and are in the process of being exploited, with tremendous publicity. In some respects, the Longannet complex is the unsung development project of the British coalfield. Slowly and quietly that complex has been expanded and developed.
We now have an understanding between the Coal Board and the miners' union; we are talking about flexible working without precedent in the Scottish coalfield —with the unanimous acceptance of the men. We have a prospect for the use of the skills of the men in the coalfield that would never have been considered possible four or five years ago.
That possibility is now available to the Coal Board and the Department of Energy, and the Government ignore it at their peril. They may jump at the prospect of getting a couple of years' cheap coal on the spot market. The simplest economic understanding suggests that if one takes the spot market price and increases the demand, the price will rise because the spot market price reflects demand at a particular time. Before very long, the coal industry in this country will be able to produce coal at prices far better than anything that the spot market can offer, and will provide the continuity of supply that lies at the heart of the energy debate.
Let me back up my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas): we are not talking about an under-capitalised industry with low productivity or an industry that has a poor product and is far away from its customers. We are talking about a coal industry that is directly below its customers and is tailored to their needs. It has a work force that is flexible and understanding but not subservient. I would not wish to represent industrial slaves or make a virtue out of their subservience. The men have made reasoned judgments about their prospects, and they understand what they have to do to keep themselves in employment and to serve the country and the industry to which they have given their working lives.
The men look to the Government for the backing that is required of those responsible for a major strategic industry. If the Government choose—in the interests of privatisation and tax cuts—to throw away the unique opportunity being offered by the people of my constituency and the constituencies around it, they do so at their peril. They will find that it is to their cost not just in the short term at the ballot box but throughout the Scottish economy and outside it.
We are circling the wagons; we are fighting the last fight for the coal industry. We ask the Minister responsible for the defence of that industry to get off his backside and back us with all the power at his disposal. This matter is in his hands. Overall strategic responsibility for the coal industry and for energy generation lies not with the Minister's surrogate at the Scottish Office but with the Department of Energy. A deficit grant of £100 million is chickenfeed compared to the costs that the country will have to bear in the decades ahead if we do not take the opportunities offered to us tonight.
§ Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)
In view of all that has already been said, I intend to be brief. Looking at the order, I wonder how the fairy godmother is suddenly able to find an extra £100 million for the coal industry when the Government are incapable of finding funds for other sections of society.
The Minister intends to toss in £200 million to make up the Coal Board's deficit. Has he asked the board why it needs the money? If not, I suggest that he should do so, because it is an important question. Sir Robert Haslam will say that industrial action by militants has lost the board x million tonnes production and he needs the deficit grant to balance the books.
If the Coal Board and the Government ran the industry as it should be run and talked to the unions that operate within it, there would be no bad industrial relations and the deficit grant would not be required. The Government may regard £100 million as chickenfeed — perhaps the Minister will confirm that—but I wonder whether there is an ulterior motive behind the increase. Perhaps the Government want perpetual conflict in the industry, in order to run it down and put it at a disadvantage when privatisation of the CEGB takes place. The Minister should spend more than a mere two minutes at the Dispatch Box and give us a better explanation of his motives.
I hope that the Minister will involve himself a little more deeply in the industry and stop the Luddite approach by management, which is causing so much internal conflict and losing millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. The Conservatives are always talking about the need to protect taxpayers' money. I want to give the taxpayer value for money. Blindly tossing another £100 million to the Coal Board does the country and the industry no good whatever. If we are to save not just the additional amount but the original sum that was budgeted for, the Minister should get off his backside and find out why the industrial conflict is going on day after day, week after week and year after year. Indeed, if the Government and the Coal Board have their way it is likely to go on for decades yet.
I sincerely ask the Minister to get involved and to find out what is happening in the industry—there are two sides to every argument—and whether the Coal Board is deliberately provoking the work force.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Coal Board would not need so much deficit grant if the management did not create industrial disputes as it has done at Kellingley colliery, where for the past five weeks the men have mined 55,000 tonnes per week and the management has deliberately created a strike by doubling the work of the deputies?
§ Mr. Redmond
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I lost a bet on whether the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers would go on strike, because I said that it would not. Obviously it did so because British Coal—one assumes with the connivance of the Government — deliberately provoked a conflict with the union, which has now led to further trouble, further losses of coal and to this order to make up a deficit.
If the Government and British Coal had sat down with the people from the other side of the industry, we would 1097 be talking not about increasing the deficit grant by £100 million, but about reducing it and giving that money back to the taxpayers. We are all taxpayers. Unfortunately, as a single man, I pay more than most people, but that is the penalty that I pay for my freedom.
The Minister should consider what is happening within the industry. The previous order only tossed more money at the industry, with no thought being given to its direction. In this order we are doubling the grant—not increasing it by one third or 50 per cent. I would be content with half that amount.
The Minister, if he is to save the taxpayers' money, must find out what is wrong with the industry. I hope that he will say that he intends to involve himself a little bit more in the future than he has in the past.
§ Mr. David Shaw (Dover)
As we are talking about deficits, it is appropriate to ask why there is such a deficit in the turnout of Labour Members. I understand that 46 Labour Members have coal mines in their constituencies, yet not even 50 per cent. of them are present. Even Arthur Scargill had a 50 per cent. turnout, although it is questionable whether that turnout was given some encouragement by the more physically well built of his supporters.
The poor attendance of Labour Members proves that the Opposition do not support the coal industry, and that it is dependent on its one main supporter — the Goverment. The Government have put over £,4.6 billion into the coal industry. Investment is at record levels, and by the next general election virtually all the plant and machinery in use in the British coal industry will have been bought by money given by the Goverment. I hope that as miners go to work in 1991 they will appreciate that it is the Government who have provided them with the tools to do their work.
I am concerned about productivity at the Betteshanger coal mine in my constituency. It is a pity that it produces only 1.8 tonnes per man shift, compared with the national average of 4 tonnes. I know that the coal is of good quality, and I believe that most, if not all, of the miners want to keep the pit open. I know that many of them will work hard to keep it open.
What we do not want is the disruption that has caused deficits in the past. That disruption and those deficits were caused by the attitude of the last Labour Government. It is worth noting the problems facing that Government, and the way in which they tackled them, in relation to deficits at that time. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) once said:I have never found the NUM in any way unreasonable where closures are necessary because of exhaustion or because pits are out of line in economic terms."—[Official Report, 4 December 1978; Vol. 959, c. 1015–16.]The NUM certainly was not unreasonable to him because, as Secretary of State for Energy, he closed 32 pits, and two Labour Governments closed 295 pits between them. The present Government have increased deficit grants, because the present Government have shown a commitment to right the wrong of previous Governments. They have shown a commitment to the coal industry and the coal miner. I hope that the message is now clear: that the miners should show a commitment to the Government.
§ Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck)
I appreciate the point that you made earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker, about sticking to the brief. I shall therefore restrict my remarks to the question of how the extra money is being spent.
May I touch on a point that I made earlier in an intervention, about the management of the industry at all levels? I am not super-critical of the management at colliery level. Having worked in the industry for 39 years. I have come across good management and extremely bad management. The problem is that extremely bad management is also extremely costly. Perhaps I can cite some of my experiences.
Lynemouth colliery was not in my constituency, but in that of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). It did, however, employ a considerable number of my constituents. The system of working in that colliery —as the working was under the North sea—was called the "board and pillar" system. When the coal was extracted, a pillar of coal 31 yards square was left in the workings to support the sea bed.
Back in the 1960s, the management decided to change the method to long wall extraction, which meant taking all of the coal out. The management felt that there was promotion in production, a consideration which is probably still relevant today. The production manager in those days was a man called Mr. Lang, and it was he who decided to change to the long wall system of extraction.
As a consequence of the new system, a considerable amount of coal had to be left in what was called the "goab" — for the benefit of those who do not understand mining terms, that is the area from which the coal has just been extracted—and the roof collapsed. The coal caught fire. As a result, half that pit—a pit that Lord Robens, when he was chairman of the board, described as having 80 more years of life—had to be flooded, and only half was left.
It is no use saying, "Take what is left." The mine closed three years ago, simply because no coal worth working remained. The man who made the decision, Mr. Lang, was promoted, and was awarded a decoration in the Queen's honours list. That is what has happened in the mining industry.
Here is a personal experience of mine. Before I came to the House, I was an engineer at Ellington colliery. A drift was driven into what is now the main area of working —a very profitable seam of coal. That drift was driven on the instructions of senior management, at an angle that everyone in the mine knew to be impossible. Everyone knew that it would not carry coal over the conveyor system. Nevertheless, the drift was driven.
Ordinary miners — not mining engineers with qualifications—recognised the problem; they had lived with such problems for countless years. But the drift was driven. When the coal seam was opened they could not get the coal out of the pit. They still cannot get it out. I would hesitate to say how many millions of pounds were spent on that exercise.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
My hon. Friend has cited an instance in his area. The point must be made, however, that that example could be repeated in almost every part of the British coalfields. In my area, in a place called Woolley West, two pits were closed at Pilsley, many years ago. It was decided to drift into Woolley West, a farming area where the seams basseted out. When they got 1099 in, they did some more calculations on the oil influx into this country, and were not altogether sure that they needed the coal from Woolley West. The management—not the miners—decided that they could close up the pit and said that it had a high sulphur content. So the word went around: Woolley West would not be exploited because it had a high sulphur content. That was a load of nonsense. They were just making sure that they did not provide the additional coal.
In almost every single year in which closures have taken place—my hon. Friend knows the industry well and will know this—that sort of sabotage has happened on a grand scale. Conservative Members should be responsible for some of the deficit grants; they are not very different from the Minister, who ran a computer system that went bankrupt.
§ Mr. Thompson
That was a useful intervention. [Interruption./ I am being serious. It endorsed the point that I am about to make.
What happened in Northumberland is another example of what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has described. Just after the miners' dispute, there was a proposal to close Bates's colliery. It was recognised that 29 million tonnes of reserves were left in the area. The proposal went to the new independent inquiry, which came out in favour of keeping the colliery open. But the Coal Board—now British Coal—would not accept that, and it had to close. So there are 29 million tonnes of coal under the North sea that cannot be recovered unless we spend thousands of millions of pounds to do so.
This year, Ashington colliery in my constituency is to close on 25 March because its reserves are exhausted. The miners accept that they are. Would it not have been logical to keep open Bates's colliery, with its 29 million tonnes of reserves, and to close Ashington colliery, redeploying the Ashington men in Bates's to extract the coal? But that coal is now written off. Countless millions of tonnes of coal are being written off in this country—yet coal is one of our most valuable assets.
I suggest that the Minister consider other elements of what British Coal does, rather than condemning the mining unions and the miners for their activities. If the Minister has not yet visited a mine, I suggest that when he does, he spends more than the usual two hours underground to get the feel of mining. Perhaps he should try 12 months; that would give him a better understanding of the industry.
§ 12.3 am
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
It is always useful to scrutinise affirmative orders when they involve expenditure, especially in view of Opposition suspicions that many of them pave the way for privatisation.
The order covers an increase in deficit grant from £100 million to £200 million. It will be interesting to learn from the Minister why the Government's policy of many years of supporting the coal industry by loans has changed. It is welcome that it has. It is an extremely useful development to have grant rather than loan aid, but loan aid poses the problem, when it comes to privatisation, of the accumulated loans of the enterprise, organisation or whatever the Government decide to call it.
I do not want to use the word "enterprise" too much, because I do not particularly endorse the enterprise culture. It is a rat race: it is every man or woman for 1100 himself or herself, and the devil take the hindmost. I do not accept the philosophy of greed and cheating that is behind the Tory enterprise culture, and that is why we query the idea of grants as opposed to loans.
I welcome grant assistance, but what is at the back of the Minister's mind? Will privatisation take place once the Government have closed enough pits, usually those which were prominent in the strike and which are well organised? That is the basis on which the closures are taking place. Closure decisions have nothing to do with coal reserves running out.
As has been said, pits were closed under a Labour Government. The miners have always recognised that a strong case can be made for closure where the reserves have diminished and the workings are uneconomic. In those circumstances the miners will accept the closure, but when they know that the seams have not been worked out and that there is no economic case for closure — this happens time after time — they reasonably resist management decisions for closure because they have seen the investment of hundreds of millions of pounds. That is why we are discussing the deficit grant order tonight.
Management has invested in the industry, yet the workers in the industry were not consulted about that investment. The workers' skill and ability are not brought into play in the running of the industry. Management must manage is the kind of echo that we hear in the industry. I can hear Conservative Back Benchers saying in their dulcet, posh tones, "Hear, hear." Surely people have the right to contribute the ability and knowledge that they may acquire from spending all their working lives in an industry. It is wrong for some tinpot manager to make decisions without consulting the men. We must not forget that that is why we are considering the order about deficit grant-aid. Some of the managers' decisions have not been in the best interests of the industry, of the workers in the industry or of the communities in the industry.
What was the miners' strike about? It was not about pay, it was about jobs. It was about trying to keep jobs and communities going so that everyone could work together to maintain pits and produce coal to generate electricity and so provide energy for the nation.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
Does my hon. Friend agree that during a Labour Government's pit closure programme the deficit grant was used to provide new housing estates, establish new communities and find employment for miners? In the present circumstances, young men in the mining industry will never work again.
§ Mr. Cryer
My hon. Friend is quite right. When the Labour Government considered closures, there was relatively high employment when compared with the present position. Alternative jobs were available and, as my hon. Friend said, the Labour Government tried to plan facilities for an area and ensured that alternative jobs were available.
It is all very well for Conservative Members to talk about competition. All industry receives a massive subsidy from the dole queue. That is just a transfer payment. Instead of supporting industry with grant aid of one sort or another, the Government withdraw the grant aid and it is transferred to the Department of Employment in unemployment benefit payments. There is also a loss of tax revenue because people are not working. That is why we are considering the order tonight.
1101 I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us what is behind the order and the assistance that is being provided. Has there been some pressure for privatisation from hon. Members in the Tory ranks? After all, over the past few months we have witnessed a Cabinet Member resigning from the Cabinet and popping neatly on to the board of a recently privatised company. Rich pickings indeed. Now we have learnt that the electricity industry is to be privatised and that the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit)—
§ Mr. Cryer
Yes, the skinhead. We have learnt that the right hon. Member for Chingford is to become an adviser to the chairman of British Aerospace. He is to be an honorary adviser, but it is a paid office. That is a peculiar position. British Aerospace is being given exclusive rights to negotiate for the purchase of the Rover Group. I have suggested—
§ Mr. David Shaw
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) is a director of a company that has handed over the largest cheque to the taxpayer and the Exchequer in the history of the country relevant to the debate?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
It would be a good idea, for the good order of the debate, if we returned to the order before us.
§ Mr. Cryer
I was just about to do that. I do not think that that was a point of order, and I am shocked that Conservative Members should abuse the procedures of the House to raise spurious points of order so that they can interrupt my speech. I want to return to the order before us.
We are talking about the deficit grant helping to provide a competitive position for the British coal industry. I want to receive the assurance of the Minister that the money is not being given so that the coal industry can compete against South African miners. If the Minister is talking about that sort of competition, he is talking about coal that has been produced by the blood of black miners who are exploited in South Africa.
I wonder whether the deficit grant is contributing in some way to the massive amount of money that we pay out as part of our membership of the Common Market. When we joined the Common Market we were told that there would be a large market for coal. The reality is that we sell tiny amounts of coal to the Common Market, but the Common Market imports coal from South Africa. I ask the Minister whether that is fair competition? I also ask the Minister whether the increase of £100 million to £200 million in deficit grant will be accompanied by a clear declaration from the Government that they will intervene in imports from the Common Market of South African or other cheap source coal, which is imported to the Common Market and then brought across to the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Stewart
I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman's argument. He was talking about importing 1102 South African coal. Can he tell us exactly how many tonnes of South African coal were imported into the United Kingdom in the past 12 months, and at what price it was delivered at the docks?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. That might be a most interesting question, but it does not relate to the debate.
§ Mr. Cryer
I am willing to engage in such arguments, but I am prepared to take your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. I accept your strictures because I am not willing to go outside the rules of the Chair. The Chair has provided useful and helpful guidance so far tonight.
The deficit grant is an important means of keeping the Coal Board buoyant. However, because of the hierarchical structure of the coal industry, the responsibility for that is currently in the hands of the management. The management has not been working very well recently, because it has lurched from confrontation to confrontation, which it has engineered at the behest of the Government. I want an assurance from the Government that none of this money will be used to give preferential treatment to the Union of Democratic Mineworkers and that the National Union of Mineworkers will not be discriminated against, as has been the NCB's policy over many months. That policy has been followed often at considerable cost, and part of it is reflected in the money announced in the order.
§ Mr. Redmond
On the point about the treatment of the NUM versus the UDM, does my hon. Friend agree that, because the NUM membership was deliberately provoked into taking industrial action, which provocation must obviously have been condoned by the Government, the NCB has had to come back for a doubling of the original £100 million?
§ Mr. Cryer
There is much substance in my hon. Friend's comments. This extra £100 million goes, not to the miners, but to the management for use in its decisions. Some managers who have been in the industry a long time, who cherish it and do not want it damaged or destroyed, will want to resist the Government's pressures. The Government are trying to destroy the NUM. They have failed and they will continue to fail, but they spent a great deal of money — £6 billion — in their last attempt at confrontation with the NUM. Since their failure they have been trying by every means within their power to erode the NUM's negotiatiing rights and position. I want an assurance that this money is not earmarked in any way for further damage to industrial relations.
The mining industry is a dangerous industry in which it is hard to work. It has overcome its many difficulties with a minimal loss of working hours through strike action. I would wager that more days have been lost through industrial injury than through strike action. Can the Minister assure me that part of this extra money will be used to maintain high safety standards of the kind that have impressed Labour Members? Many of my hon. Friends, a number of whom are here, have worked in the mining industry in those safe conditions which are expected as a right. This can be compared with the situation in other countries; for example, in South Africa, where working standards are frequently appalling and certainly well below those that prevail in the United Kingdom mining industry.
I hope that the Minister can assure me that the Coal Board will spend this money positively, in maintaining 1103 standards of health and safety at work, and that the Department of Employment will not seek to lower standards by the use of codes of practice instead of absolute statutory provisions as laid down in the Mines and Quarries Act 1954.
§ Mr. Jack Thompson
Does my hon. Friend recognise that the pit deputies' role with regard to safety is important? The idea that has been floated to remove that responsibility from the deputies is dangerous.
§ Mr. Cryer
I was going to mention that, because the Union of Democratic Mineworkers has attempted to erode safety standards in the pits by the offer virtually to take over from the deputies. [Interruption.] My hon. Friends support my claim, which has been clearly reported. I am merely seeking an assurance from the Minister that the money involved in the order will be used to maintain existing safety standards. Deputies are responsible for operating safety standards and carrying out safety work, but safety is everyone's responsibility.
If the management behaves well towards the employees and takes them into its confidence, and if there are proper negotiations at every level throughout the mining industry, that breeds confidence and improves the level of safety work. Conflict is diminished and, therefore, the number of accidents that take place because people are drawn aside is reduced. The workers' safety watch may be diminished because of the pressure for negotiations. If those are kept to a minimum, safety can become a priority watchword, as it has been for many years in the industry. There has been an attempt to undermine the established safety position and the position of the deputies by a so-called union, which is in fact a company union, very much like the Spencer union during the inter-war years. [Interruption.]
Despite the interruptions by Conservative Members who are trying to undermine the constitution of this place and wreck the scheme of parliamentary discussion, I am still prepared to say that Opposition Members cherish the system of safety in the coal industry. We want to ensure that the money is used for that purpose and to build up the industry, not to damage industrial relations.
We cannot hope for real developments and security for the mining industry until we have a Labour Government reasserting decent industrial relations. [Interruption.] We recognise the value and importance of the contribution of working men and women.
§ Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford)
If the hon. Gentleman believes that a Labour Government would be so helpful and beneficial to the coal mining communities, why does he think that at the last general election so many coal mining communities voted Conservative?
§ Mr. Cryer
Not many mining communities voted Conservative. I often wish that the constituencies of Keighley and Bradford, South had a few drift mines open. They would be very handy.
If miners and their families had come to the House to listen to the debate, they would have seen the sorts of interjections made by Conservative Members. Not many miners go out in a dinner suit to the club to relax. That typifies the snobby, lofty attitude of the Tories towards this basic and important industry.
I would have concluded my remarks by now had it not been for the continuous interruptions. If I continue to be 1104 interrupted, I may have to start all over again to make sure that my remarks are on the record, as Hansard will have had a great number of difficulties.
We need a Labour Government to ensure that we have a decent coal mining industry linked to a publicly owned and controlled electricity generating industry. When we have a Labour Government, the spivvery that is selling off the CEGB and the SSEB will be brought to an end. We shall take those industries back into public ownership, working with a coal industry that is under workers' control, with a decent future for both the workers and the communities around them.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) referred to the UDM and NACODS. However, he did not mention that the UDM members have threatened to take on the jobs of the deputies when the same bosses' union said, during the strike, that its members were departing from the NUM and going through the picket lines because there had not been a ballot. NACODS had a ballot, and the same people still scabbed. No doubt my hon. Friend would have dealt with that point had he had more time to speak.
So far, there has not been much reference to the 250-odd sacked miners. I want to know whether any of this additional money will be used to give them a fair crack of the whip. It is now almost three years since the end of the strike and those 250 remain without a job. The Secretary of State got his job back, and it is high time that he had the decency and the morality to start negotiations in every coalfield, using some of this money if necessary, to make sure that every one of those miners gets his job back.
The Government keep saying that nobody has been forced out compulsorily, but some people have. If the Government mean what they say, why do they not use some of this money to give those people their jobs back this year?
§ Mr. Redmond
My hon. Friend is making an important point. There is no doubt that the vast majority of these people were sacked simply because someone said, "He hit me," or, "They shouted out a nasty word." They have lost their livelihoods, and if we are to get back to good industrial relations, to avoid the problem of coming back here this late at night and asking for additional taxpayers' money, should not the coal board go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service to learn about industrial relations?
§ Mr. Skinner
My hon. Friend, who is well versed in these matters, and has been, along with his colleagues in the miners' parliamentary group, doing a sterling job in making representations at all levels to ensure that these matters are dealt with properly, is right to say that in front of the Minister. Ministers have influence, although it might be marginal in some cases, and could use it. They are always on about flexible working for miners. All the miners who have been sacked would like a chance to get back to work to ensure that productivity is increased.
We hear that there has been a 60 per cent. increase in productivity. How much of the extra £100 million will go in the form of extra wages? if the miners have increased productivity by 60 per cent., why are the NUM men not 1105 even allowed the 4.2 per cent. increase that has been allocated to the UDM? How much of this money should be allocated?
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
Is it not a fact, and does my hon. Friend not agree with me, that miners are probably the only people in the country to be charged in a court, found to be innocent and then have the court pass judgment on them even though they had been found innocent?
§ Mr. Skinner
Yes. Would it not be a tidy state of affairs if hon. Members or people from the other place were treated in that fashion? There would be an outcry if it happened to somebody, let us say, from the City of London, who got his finger in the pie, like some of those in the Guinness affair. If Mr. Saunders, one of these leading Tories, or one of the others got off in court, would there not be an outcry if someone tried to suggest that they should be victims of double jeopardy, that they should be dealt with twice over?
§ Mr. Skinner
The hon. Gentleman keeps referring to Lord Kagan. I do not know whether he wants to say that outside or not, but I will tell him this: I hold no brief for Lord Kagan. As far as I am concerned, if people are accountable to to others—not that he is, because he has never been elected—if they are in a position of trust and if they do something wrong and get their money mixed up—as some Tories have in their time—they must take the rap. That rule applies to anybody.
It also applies in respect of these grants. If there are some people in the Common Market who are fiddling, as we shall hear in the next debate—to which I will not refer—to the extent of £2 million—worth of fraud, they should be surcharged. Why should it only be the Lambeth and the Liverpool and the Clay Cross councillors? So if the hon. Gentleman wants justice for Lord Kagan, why does he not deal it out to those of his friends among the Tories who are lining their pockets right, left and centre?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. If the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder) has anything to say, will he speak in an intervention, so that we can have it recorded in the Official Report? Mr. Skinner.
§ Mr. Skinner
There was one called Maudling. Does the hon. Gentleman want me to go any further? There is a whole gang of them.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I must refer the hon. Gentleman to the order that is before us. Perhaps he will not deal with personalities but with the principle of the order.
§ Mr. Cryer
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I draw your attention to the fact that the Whip on the Conservative Benches, who is supposed to help conduct the place by example, has been bellowing out all the time that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has been trying to conduct a serious debate about a serious issue?
§ Mr. Skinner
Somebody referred, when my hon. Friend was speaking, to the question of closed pits, something which I opposed no matter which Government were in power — it is all there on record. There was some reference to the fact that grants and loans used to be made at such times to try to find alternative employment. I remember being involved at the time of the Labour Government, before I became a Member of Parliament, in getting intermediate area status for the area of north Derbyshire which I now represent. In order to try to combat the losses of work in the mining areas, we set up the intermediate area status. This Government, who are always talking about jobs and what the Labour Government did, got rid of the intermediate status. It was one of the first things that they did. So not only are they concerned about shutting pits, with all the grants and all this, that and the other; they also get rid of any opportunities there might be for other jobs as well.
§ Mr. Redmond
Would my hon. Friend agree with me that there would be no need for the Government to be here tonight, seeking to double the deficit grant, if British Coal set its own house in order? British Coal says that, as a result of the overtime ban, it has made extra tonnage and extra profits. Bearing in mind that an overtime ban tends to reduce the overheads of the industry, ought not British Coal to be thanking the union for introducing an overtime ban, which is, in effect, helping to reduce the deficit grant that it is seeking? If that is the case, would my hon. Friend agree that, because of all this help that British Coal is getting from the National Union of Mineworkers, it really ought to pay the wages that are outstanding?
§ Mr. Skinner
It is one of the scandals of the past few years since the strike. The NUM has by far the greatest membership and is represented by my hon. Friend and many of us who have mining constituencies — [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"]. Many of them are here tonight. Throughout the debate more than 20 representatives from mining areas have been present. Let us place it on record that during the debate there have sometimes been only two or three hon. Members on the Tory Benches.
§ Mr. Skinner
I am not taking any lectures from the bald eagle. I can manage without that. We are talking about the deficit grant. It is my job to keep in order. I know that it is important to stick to the order, never mind what the hon. Gentleman has to say.
At the beginning of the first debate the Minister talked about £9,000 million. He did not say that some of that consisted of loans. Compare that to what the farmers receive. None of that is loans. That is all dead money. That is the distinction we have to make when the Minister talks about money.
I was referring to alternative employment. [Interruption.] You do not have to be Pythagoras to work out that some of the £9,000 million to which the Minister referred includes loans. Not all of it is dead money, stretching over the period since 1979. However, the money that goes to farmers through the agricultural policy, whether in Britain, in West Germany or anywhere else, is all dead money. It is taxpayers' money and it is a straightforward subsidy. Some of that £9,000 million 1107 consists of loans that hang like an albatross around the neck of the coal mining industry. That distinction must always be made.
The Government now have another cock-eyed scheme. They do not need deficit grants. They have introduced a set-aside scheme which will allow land to lie fallow, and farmers will be paid £150 an acre for not using it. Imagine what would happen if we had a deficit grant system in which we said that we would not work a coal seam under the sea and that we would let it lie fallow and pay the miners £150 a week for doing nothing. There would be such an outcry if we had fallow coal seams similar to the schemes that are proposed by the Common Market. All the Tory press would be talking about the coal seams that were not producing coal, yet the Government can find all sorts of cock-eyed systems to provide subsidies for the people they support.
We want to make sure that the deficit grants will go to those who create wealth in the industry, who produce the coal on the pit top and elsewhere.
§ Mr. Michael Spicer
I shall put the hon. Gentleman right and tell him that every penny of that £9.5 billion is a grant. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's logic is as bad as his facts.
§ Mr. Skinner
The Minister is not well known for getting his facts right. He introduced a system for all the Tory constituency parties to link up with a computer. The Minister's figures were so bad that the company went bankrupt and all the Tory constituency parties ran out of floppy disks. The most incredible thing arising out of all that mess is that somehow or other the Minister managed to escape from underneath and the Prime Minister gave him the tinpot job to wreck the coal industry, and now we know why.
My final point, Madam Deputy Speaker, will touch your heart. There are a few thousand widows in the coal mining communities who are still waiting for concessionary coal. They are the pre-1968 widows. A few retired miners are also waiting for concessionary coal. Before 1968, those people did not get concessionary coal and they did not receive money in lieu. For a few hundred people in the Lancashire coalfield and in the north-east and for a considerable number of people in my constituency and in other areas in Derbyshire there was no proper redundancy agreement and no concessionary coal agreement. Some of those people are over 80.
Why are the Government unable to devise a scheme that would provide them with about 5 tonnes of coal a year to compensate them for the many years when wages were extremely low? In some cases, their husbands worked for 50 years but never had the benefit of a cob of coal. Some of these management people pick up £100,000 when they are made redundant and then start a drift mine somewhere else. They pick up £100,000 of taxpayers' money from the deficit grants that were made in years gone by and then make a small fortune on the side.
My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) has been to Hobart house today to make representations on behalf of miners. They get concessionary coal, yet these few hundred people—
§ Mr. Redmond
I hope that the Minister will not say that elderly people cannot receive a concession from this Government or from the Coal Board. It appears that there 1108 is no compassion in the coal board. It says that the agreements are sacrosanct. It shows no compassion for this small group of people.
The Minister ought to ensure that these people are taken care of. He ought to issue a directive to the Coal Board that would ensure that widows and pensioners in their twilight years are provided with comfort and warmth.
§ Mr. Skinner
I do not know whether you heard all that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because you have just come to the Chair. I shall not repeat what my hon. Friend has just said, but if this Government had any decency, they would resolve the matter.
The Coal Board has a get-tough policy on subsidence. It refuses to pay subsidence compensation for all the houses that are tumbling down. It is a scandal. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) has some of those houses in his constituency and he has introduced two Bills on the subject. Additional deficit grant money ought to be made available so that the people who live in those houses can be given proper subsidence payments.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are other categories of aged people, miners' widows in their 80s and older, who are unable to leave their threebedroomed council houses to go into local authority sheltered schemes because they would lose their cash in lieu of fuel allowances? Does not he think that some of this money should be used to protect those people?
§ Mr. Skinner
My hon. Friend is right. He has referred to that before in these debates. It is important to keep bringing it to the attention of the Government. At a time when they intend to hammer those at the bottom of the scale through social fund payments — we will have a campaign about that tomorrow — they also intend to attack people in coalfield areas by preventing them from getting what is due to them. The same is true of the subsidence payments. It is a scandal that the Government have stopped making the payments—
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member to give way to another hon. Member who has been absent from the debate for 2 hours 45 minutes when other hon. Members have been waiting to make a contribution? The debate had been going on for 2 hours 45 minutes before the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) came into the Chamber.
§ Mr. Redmond
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unlike you, I have been in the Chamber throughout the debate on the two orders. Is it in order for an hon. Member to make a point of order about hon. Members seeking to speak when the hon. Member in question—the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin)—has not sought once to catch your eye? May I ask you whether that is in order?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
There is less than a quarter of an hour to go in the debate and the House has not yet had a response from the Minister. I therefore think it would be better if hon. Members got on with the debate.
§ Mr. Skinner
I have been trying to make haste. I have been trying to get through a compendium of points about the order. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, who 1109 has been trying to introduce two Bills to bring relief to people who have had to put up with all the miseries of subsidence, wants to intervene to make a small point.
§ Mr. Meale
I thank my hon. Friend. The Minister is aware that I have two Bills listed for debate in the House. Is he aware that thousands of properties in the north Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire areas are affected and that there has been no action by the Coal Board to try to relieve the problem? Is he aware that the common system used to try to avoid handling the cases is to send letters to Members of Parliament saying that the matter is sub judice because it is in the hands of the agents? Is he aware that the Coal Board says that it cannot handle the cases even though they have not entered court? Is it not a disgrace and is it not time the Coal Board put the matter right?
§ Mr. Skinner
These debates provide a wonderful opportunity for hon. Members to make these points.
I want to deal with another very important matter before I conclude. It has had some publicity and I think that it needs more. I am worried that some of the additional £100 million grant may finish up with British Coal Enterprise Ltd. which is a bogus laundering organisation. It is a front organisation for a few people who are conning their way around the coalfield areas by saying that they will provide jobs.
We decided to investigate the matter. We heard the Prime Minister say in the House that British Coal Enterprise Ltd. which was set up during the strike with £30 million of taxpayers' money, a straightforward subsidy, had provided 18,000 job opportunities. She did not say jobs but job opportunities. We wondered where they were.
I asked my hon. Friends the Members for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) and Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay); I asked others of my hon. Friends from Wales, the north-east and Nottinghamshire. None of us could find the jobs that were supposed to have been provided. We could not find 18, never mind 18,000.
Being a little curious and cynical and sceptical, I put two and two together and decided to invite the director of British Coal Enterprise Ltd, to the House. He hot-footed it over here in a crack. I invited him in my capacity as the chairman of the east midlands group of Members. He thought to himself, "Hello. Here's another gravy train I can jump on. I bet the east midlands group will want to invite me up to the east midlands so that I can con all the local authorities in the area about how I am spending this £30 million on jobs." Little did he know that I was the chairman. When he arrived we asked him to enumerate the jobs provided in each constituency.
§ Dr. Clark
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has asked the Minister a number of questions, which he hopes the Minister will answer. I wonder whether you, Sir, can advise us how the Minister can answer all the questions that have been asked if he does not have time to say a few words at the end of the debate.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
All that I can do is remind the House that the debate must end in 10 minutes' time.
§ Mr. Skinner
Some people might say that it was kinky dress. It is different; there is no doubt about that. [HON. MEMBERS: "At least he's got more than one suit." He may have more money, but that does not make him any better.
We were discussing a very important point about backhanders — people using taxpayers' money, on the face of it to provide jobs, but in reality only to con people. We asked for a list of jobs in every constituency in the mining areas of Britain. Mr. Merrik Spanton, ex-Nottinghamshire coal board, refused to give those figures. One of my hon. Friends said, "I've got four," and others of my hon. Friends knew of two or three. But we could not find the jobs. When we asked the director to put the figures in the Library, he refused. We are talking about handing out public money. Will any of the money find its way to Merrik Spanton's British Coal Enterprise?
§ Mr. Jack Thompson
Is my hon. Friend aware that following his confrontation with representatives of British Coal Enterprise, they have now refused to meet the northern group of Members?
§ Mr. Skinner
Once bitten, twice shy. He probably thinks, "If I go to the northern group I shall be asked the same very awkward questions that I was asked at the east midlands group." What he did not realise was that I had imported some Yorkshire group members into the east midlands group meeting. He said that the jobs were not in the east midlands but in Yorkshire. Then my Yorkshire colleagues pounced. That is why he did not go to the northern group. He was running out of territory. He now says, "Well, most of them are in Scotland and Wales," but my hon. Friends from Scotland and Wales do not know where they are.
This is a serious matter. We are talking about £30 million. The Prime Minister often talks about taxpayers' money. "Remember, the taxpayer is your next-door neighbour," she says, but £30 million of taxpayers' money has been spent and we can find no more than a handful of jobs created.
We tested British Coal Enterprise further. My colleagues and I concluded that it was laying claim to jobs that were being created by the Scottish Development Agency and the Welsh Development Agency. We were told, "We had an input." That £30 million is one long gravy train stretching right across the coalfields of Britain, touting its way from one area to another, masquerading as a provider of jobs for people who have been thrown out of work in the coalfields when the jobs that have been created — there are certainly not enough of them — have actually been created by local authorities, by the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies and by other development bodies.
I hope that no more money will be going to Mr. Merrik Spanton and his merry men.
§ Mr. Skinner
We did not meet any, but there may well be some. It is a very sinister operation.
We told Mr. Merrik Spanton that if £30 million had been used in that way by a Labour local authority there would have been surcharges, Tory Members of Parliament would have been asking questions every day and the Tory press would have been running horror stories about it, but, because these people are friends of the Government and the Prime Minister, nothing is done about it. In a few minutes' time we shall be talking about fraud on a massive scale in the Common Market. Here we have something akin to that in British Coal Enterprise Limited and it is time that it was sussed out. It is conceivable that it will be investigated by a Committee of this House.
Plenty of things could be done with £100 million, but I return to my original point about the 250 sacked miners who have been waiting three years to get their jobs back. It is time the Minister got together with people in the coalfields and gave those people a chance to work again. It is time he showed a little humanity for a change. Instead of always concerning themselves with their own people, the Government should be doing something about those 250 miners. If some of the extra money is used to find those people jobs in Scotland, in Yorkshire, in the north-east and everywhere else, this debate will have been useful.
§ Mr. Michael Spicer
I have been left three minutes to sum up three hours of debate and questioning. Needless to say, I cannot possibly answer all the questions that have been raised.
The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) seem to see the deficit grant as some great capitalist plot against the coal industry. His hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) went perhaps not further but down a slightly different track. He was suspicious and sceptical about the amount of money being spent. It is 1112 reasonable for any Member of Parliament to be worried when the Government ask for more money, so the hon. Gentleman has taken a very honourable position. I assure him that the intention is that the coal industry should break even next year, so this will be the last occasion on which we shall have to make this kind of request on its behalf.
One of the reasons why we are confident that the industry is capable of standing on its own feet—
§ Mr. Spicer
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot give way.
The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) discussed the question of imports very thoroughly and many other hon. Members mentioned the assumed contract currently under dispute between British Coal and the South of Scotland electricity board.
I agree with the hon Member for Midlothian that the cards are by no means stacked against the British coal industry. Long-term contracts will be hard to establish, and there are no facilities for large-scale imports, but—this is fundamental to what we have been saying tonight—the industry has a great future, or we would not be putting the amounts of money behind it that we are. We have confidence in the industry, but every Labour Member seemed to imply that it was not capable of standing on its own feet. We are the friends of the industry. We are putting more money behind it than ever before.
§ It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted Business)
§ Question agreed to
That the draft Coal Industry (Limit on Deficit Grants) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 8th February, be approved.