HC Deb 07 March 1988 vol 129 cc4-5
2. Mr. Roger King

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy how much public funding is being provided for British Coal in the current year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Michael Spicer)

The Government expect to provide £916 million in grants to British Coal in 1987–88.

Mr. King

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware of the great and widespread concern among manufacturers at the high cost of investment within the coal industry, which they are having to pay through their taxes? Is he further aware that some companies, such as the Rover Group, have learnt to live within their means and have not borrowed from the public purse, nor will they in future, and that they look upon the cost of providing the coal industry with the resources it wants as a direct burden upon their profitability? When is the coal industry going to pull itself up by its own boot straps?

Mr. Spicer

My hon. Friend is right to say that we have been backing the coal industry with taxpayers' money as no other Government have done before. It has been provided with £9 billion in the past nine years—an average of £1 billion per year. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the taxpayer naturally expects a return on his money. That is why we deplore any continued disruptive action in the pits, which has so far this year cost British Coal £100 million of operating profit. That happens to be the same as the estimated cost of building Margam.

Mr. Cummings

Will the Secretary of State join me and the House in congratulating the work force of Murton colliery on breaking all productivity records during the week in which we celebrated our 150th anniversary and the cutting of the first sod? Does the Secretary of State agree that, in order to facilitate an atmosphere for increased productivity greater efficiency and better industrial relations, the dismissed miners who lost their jobs during the 1984–85 dispute should now be offered their jobs back?

Mr. Spicer

Of course I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the workers at Murton colliery—which I know because I was a candidate there for 10 years, opposing various predecessors of the hon. Gentleman—on their productivity record. It is true that British Coal as a whole has been making great strides in productivity.

As to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, this matter has been gone over heavily. Of all the many miners originally considered, only about 50 of those dismissed have any kind of case. The hon. Gentleman knows that that dispute resulted in a great deal of bad behaviour by many people, which led to an enormous number of court cases. There is no question of our reconsidering the position.

Mr. Andy Stewart

My hon. Friend may care to know that the miners in Nottinghamshire appreciate the Government's total commitment to investment in the coal industry and that, given the opportunity, they will continue to increase productivity. Does my hon. Friend agree that there has been not only increased productivity but increased safety? Only last year the safety record in Nottinghamshire increased dramatically and, given the conditions there, that record will continue to improve.

Mr. Spicer

I very much agree that a thriving coal industry, with the backing of modern equipment, will be a much safer industry.

Mr. Hardy

Does the Minister accept that the Government's case for public investment in the coal industry is imperilled by the enthusiastic shortsighted pursuit of cheaper, uneconomic and often dumped coal imports? Does the hon. Gentleman also accept that not only that investment but the future of the coal industry and the mining engineering and equipment industry may be imperilled if that reckless course is pursued, at enormous cost to Britain's future balance of payments?

Mr. Spicer

I should rather put my answer the other way round: British Coal, with the backing of the taxpayer in recent years, is in a good position to compete against all corners if it will use the equipment properly. The key question is whether that equipment will be used properly.