HC Deb 07 March 1988 vol 129 cc7-9
5. Mr. Eadie

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy if he has had discussions with British Coal regarding its threatened court action against the South of Scotland Electricity Board, announced in the press release of British Coal of 17 February.

6. Mr. Dalyell

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on his discussions with British Coal and the South of Scotland Electricity Board on the future of the coal industry in Scotland.

Mr. Michael Spicer

I hope that British Coal and the South of Scotland Electricity Board will reach satisfactory arrangements. This is a commercial matter for the two industries.

Mr. Eadie

Surely the hon. Gentleman is aware that his Department sponsors the coal industry. Is he trying to tell the House that he and his right hon. Friend did not know that the Secretary of State for Scotland intended to sit on his hands and do nothing about the threat to wipe out the deep mine coal industry in Scotland? We regard the Minister and his right hon. Friend as conspirators in this betrayal of the Scottish miners.

Mr. Spicer

I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding me that we sponsor the coal industry. The Government are totally at one on this matter and no one is conspiring against anyone else. In recent years the Government have invested £120 million of taxpayers' money in the Scottish coal industry. Therefore, there is no doubt that we would prefer British Coal and the SSEB to spend more time talking to each other in an effort to resolve this problem than fighting each other in the press and the courts.

Mr. Dalyell

Does the Minister support the SSEB's short-term marginal costings?

Mr. Spicer

There are two sides to the issue of costings — the question whether electricity consumers are benefited and employees—

Mr. Dalyell

Answer the question.

Mr. Spicer

I will answer the question in my own way. There is also the question whether the consumers or the employees of the coal industry are benefited. The two industries are fighting each other and they each have their own perspective on the issue.

Sir Ian Lloyd

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although it is invariably appropriate and occasionally necessary for parties to a dispute to settle that dispute and determine their obligations before the courts, it is at best inappropriate and at worst disastrous that energy policy is determined by the courts?

Mr. Spicer

As I have already said, the Government would infinitely prefer the matter to be settled as a result of discussion between the two industries.

Mr. McLoughlin

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Scottish coal industry has a bright future, bearing in mind the huge amount of capital invested in the industry by the Government? That future is likely to be blighted only if coal cannot be produced at an effective and efficient price. Bearing that in mind, does my hon. Friend share my surprise that, in the latest ballot held by the National Union of Mineworkers, some 51 per cent. of Scottish miners wanted to continue with the overtime ban, which will do no good whatever for the future of British Coal, but which is no doubt supported by the Labour party?

Mr. Spicer

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The continued disruption at the Scottish pits has done no good whatever. At the end of the day, unless the consumer of electricity in Scotland is to be disadvantaged, coal must be produced at a competitive price.

Mr. Douglas

The Minister has made reference to capital investment in Scotland. How much of that investment was made at the Longannet complex? What return can the nation expect from that investment if the product of the mines in that complex is not used by the SSEB?

Mr. Spicer

The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is £60 million. The answer to the second part of the question is that it depends, as I have already said, on the industry making use of the capital invested. The Government have put the capital behind the industry, but it is up to the industry to make use of it by producing coal at the right price.

Mr. John Marshall

Does my hon. Friend agree that many more people are employed in energy-using industries in Scotland than are employed in the Scottish coal industry? Does he agree also that if the SSEB were to pay through the nose for electricity employment in energy-using industries would be put substantially at risk? Can he justify the calls by Labour Members that the pensioners of Scotland should be asked to pay more for their electricity in order to subsidise the lackeys of Mr. Scargill?

Mr. Spicer

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Speaking from memory, I believe that about 4,000 people are employed in the Scottish coal industry, so my hon. Friend is likely to be right about the number of people who would benefit from cheap electricity prices. The Government's position is that the industries must sort the matter out themselves.

Mr. Salmond

Does the Minister wish to maintain his position of 15 February — that the present impasse between the SSEB and British Coal has nothing to do with privatisation —or does he wish to withdraw or amend that statement?

Mr. Spicer

No, Sir.

Mr. Darling

Do the Government have a policy for the future of the Scottish coalfield, or do they intend to sit back and act like disinterested spectators?

Mr. Spicer

The Government's policy is to provide the most efficient industries for our consumers that it is possible for this country to provide. We put a great deal of money into the Scottish industry in the belief that it would make the best use of that equipment, and now we are concerned about the continued disruption that is preventing that equipment from being used properly.