HC Deb 10 April 1989 vol 150 cc558-61
7. Mr. Janner

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of British Coal; arid what matters were discussed.

16. Mr. Hardy

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of British Coal; and what matters were discussed.

Mr. Michael Spicer

My right hon. Friend and I meet the chairman of British Coal regularly to discuss all aspects of the coal industry.

Mr. Janner

Has the Minister discussed with the chairman of British Coal the deep anxiety of Leicestershire's stalwart, skilled coal miners at the steady loss of jobs for miners in the county and the east midlands? Has the hon. Gentleman considered, either with the chairman of British Coal or alone, the Government's promise even before the last general election to build a coal-fired power station at West Burton, thereby creating 3,000 jobs for coal miners in the area? Is it right to say that nothing has happened? If so, why?

Mr. Spicer

It is not right to say that nothing has happened. The CEGB has filed an application. It must get the approval or disapproval of the planning authorities. As I understand it, discussions are going on between the two appropriate planning authorities—the district council and the county council. I understand also that the one outstanding issue looks as though it will be resolved. If it is, it will be for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to determine whether he wants to hold a public inquiry. The process of applying for that power station is well advanced. Until my right hon. Friend can proceed with his consideration of the application, I must hold his position in reserve.

Mr. Hardy

Will the Minister discuss with the chairman of British Coal the need to extend the perception of the conquences of developing coal import dependency, not least through increased coal prices? Would the hon. Gentleman care to express his support for the retention of British Coal's science laboratories at Wath upon Dearne, an area which has suffered severe contraction, where economic need is dire and where this establishment is needed as a signpost for technological development?

Mr. Spicer

British Coal is increasingly aware of the need to be competitive against imports and also of our view that it will be able to compete against imports if the present procedures for improving productivity are maintained.

The hon. Gentleman was good enough to give me notice that he wanted information about the laboratories to which he referred. This is a matter for British Coal, but my understanding, in the short time available to find out about this matter, is that there is no problem about the laboratories' future. If my understanding is incorrect, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Andy Stewart

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last met the chairman of British Coal, did he reassure him that on his visit to Russia he would say that we no longer wanted Russian coal in Nottinghamshire and that, it was no more welcome than that from South Africa?

Mr. Spicer

I do not think that any imports are welcome. The question before the Government is whether to allow imports in the interest——

Mr. Blair


Mr. Spicer

I said that no imports would be welcomed by the Government. The question before the Government is whether to allow imports in the interest of bringing prices down, especially prices of electricity to the consumer. We have made it clear that we will allow coal imports. We have also said that with £2 million a day being given in investment to the coal industry, we have done a tremendous amount— more than any other Government — to improve the productivity of the coal industry. If productivity increases at the present rate, British Coal should be able to beat off imports.

Mr. Batiste

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already announced his intention that the coal industry should be privatised after the next general election. Can my hon. Friend give a timetable against which the discussions and deliberations will take place, which will lead to decisions about the shape of that privatisation and, in particular, the need for competition in it?

Mr. Spicer

No, Sir. We have said that it is a matter that we want to put to the British people at the next general election and we do not wish to prejudge their decision. We shall have to make decisions about details in precisely the same way as we did with electricity. We shall make a commitment to privatise coal at the next general election. but the shape and content of that privatisation will have to wait until after the election.

Mr. Jack Thompson

At the next discussions with the chairman of British Coal, will the Minister take the opportunity to raise with him the question of the British Coal engineering workshops? The rundown in manpower and the dilution of skills in the workshops is having an effect on the efficiency and, especially, the safety of the industry. Are there any plans to take out the engineering workshops before any proposals are made to privatise the industry?

Mr. Spicer

The future of the workshops is a matter for British Coal. However, I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's comments are drawn to the chairman's attention.

Mr. Gow

Did the chairman of British Coal confirm to my hon. Friend at their last meeting that there was growing interest and support among miners for the proposal to privatise the industry? Did the chairman report that miners, notably in the Bolsover constituency, were looking forward to becoming owners of the mines?

Mr. Spicer

That point was not discussed in those terms with the chairman of British Coal by my right hon. Friend or myself. However, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that it is most probable that the employees of British Coal will be as enthusiastic about becoming owners of that industry as the employees of all the other industries that have been privatised.

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Speaker

Yes, all right.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that, when I was going through my reselection procedures in the past few weeks, not one miner or representative mentioned. ownership or privatisation? They were more concerned that I, along with my colleagues, should make it plain that the Government should stop the chicanery of backing those private Bills which will allow the import of more coal through the Humber ports. If the Government do that, they will be able to stop some of the imports that the Minister wants to stop.

Mr. Spicer

The hon. Gentleman did not tell us whether he won his reselection, but the implication is that he did. Presumably, he meets different people from those whom I meet, or perhaps people tell him different things. I can assure him that there is every sign that, when we privatise the industry, it will have a great deal of support among those who work in it.

Mr. Holt

Does my hon. Friend care to say whether he discussed with the chairman, British Coal's appalling record in polluting the beaches of north-east England and the rather benign statement that British Coal cannot do anything about it? Does he agree that British Coal must learn to clean up its act?

Mr. Spicer

I am very much aware of that problem and that British Coal is under increasing pressure to do something about pollution in that part of England. I shall write to my hon. Friend with details, but I understand that there are specific plans on that question which should be coming to fruition.

Mr. Barron

When the Minister and the Secretary of State met the chairman of British Coal, did they discuss the implications of the imports of coal that are likely to come through the Humber ports, the threat to the midlands coalfields posed by the Bills for the Humber ports and the report recently received from members of the Standing Committee that one Bill went through by the Chairman's casting vote? They said that the implications for the coal industry are horrendous and that the Government should take action to protect our indigenous coal industry. When shall we receive a statement from the Government that they are not going to let the wool be pulled over their eyes by cheap subsidised coal but are going to take some action to protect the coal miners in the midlands?

Mr. Spicer

When one is a member of a Government who are still spending £2 million a day of taxpayers' money on the coal industry, one has to be a little careful on the question of subsidy. That is precisely what we are being at the moment— to counteract the undoubted threat of imports, which we recognise and for which we have allowed, by continuing with the process of improving the productivity of British coal. We have good coal and a good industry which should be able to compete against imports, and that is the way we believe it will be in the future.