HC Deb 09 May 1988 vol 133 cc9-11
14. Mr. Greg Knight

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy, how much has been invested in the coal industry since April 1979.

Mr. Parkinson

Since 1979 the Government have provided British Coal with £9 billion of grants—together with substantial loan finance—of which £6 billion has been spent on capital investment.

Mr. Knight

Is not a healthy economy one of the prerequisites of any Government policy of substantial and continuing investment? Should not those who work in the coal mining industry be grateful to the Government, not only for supporting worthwhile investment, but for helping to create an excellent economic outlook for Britain? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the biggest threat to the industry and to jobs within it comes from those who instigate unnecessary strike action, such as Mr. Arthur Scargill, and those who support such action, such as the Leader of the Opposition? [Laughter.]

Mr. Parkinson

We shall all be voting for the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott).

It is important that modern working practices go with capital investment and that strikes and waste are eliminated. Provided that we have modern working practices to go with modern machinery, I see a very bright future for British Coal, but every strike and work to rule lessens the prospects for the industry.

Mr. Douglas

Will the Secretary of State concede that a substantial proportion of the investment in Scotland has been in the Longannett complex, and that that investment has been endangered by the cavalier attitude of the South of Scotland Electricity Board in importing foreign coal at dumped prices? I recognise that the Secretary of State has shown an interest in this matter, but what steps is he taking to protect the nation's investment in the Scottish coalfields—an investment that can get a return only if the coal is burnt in SSEB stations?

Mr. Parkinson

There are two things in our proposals which I believe will improve the prospects for the Scottish coal industry. First, we are strengthening the inter-connector to England and Wales, which means that there is a big potential market for the electricity produced from Scottish coal. Secondly—and I am pleased to say that Scottish miners have shown great good sense about this—we are encouraging the adoption of modern working practices.

Although the investment has been made, Scottish coal is still relatively expensive. Therefore, we have to find ways of reducing the costs and opening up for Scotland the prospects of a good market. We are also encouraging the two parties to get together. I believe that the Government are doing what they can to ensure a good future for Scottish coal.

Mr. Gow

Despite my right hon. Friend's legitimate pride in the amount invested in the British coal industry during the past nine years, will he confirm that the whole of that investment could have been made by the private sector? What greater justification is there for retaining the ownership of British Coal in the public sector compared with the Government's conviction that the oil industry should be in the private sector?

Mr. Parkinson

We have no plans at present, but it is our ambition that all the energy industries should be returned to the private sector. However, there is a limit to what we can do at any given time. I believe that privatising the electricity supply industry is a big enough job for us at present. I assure my hon. Friend that we have ambitions for the rest of the industries for which we are responsible.