HC Deb 14 May 1990 vol 172 cc583-5
5. Mr. David Evans

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what progress is being made in preparing the coal industry for privatisation; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Baldry

The coal market is being progressively opened up to greater competition. Privatisation of the coal industry is a matter for the next Parliament.

Mr. Evans

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply. Does he agree that with the closure of 90 pits, and a work force that is halving but with output remaining the same—mainly because of the 75 per cent. increase in productivity—the coal industry is moving inevitably towards privatisation? Does he further agree that the people of Great Britain will ask the Labour party time and again why it did not condemn the miners' strike in 1984–85? Is not it now apparent that the union leaders took Libyan blood money when they should have been looking after the interests of their members?

Mr. Baldry

It remains the Government's firm intention to introduce legislation in the next Parliament to return British Coal's mining activities to the private sector. The way in which British Coal returns to the private sector will, to a certain extent, depend on the increases in productivity that the coal mining industry makes in the meantime. The activities of the National Union of Mineworkers during the strike are a matter for which the leadership will have to answer to its members. The future of the coal industry depends on it increasing its productivity. I believe that the industry has the investment and the technology and, more importantly, that it has the men with the skills, to make that possible.

Mr. Eadie

Is the Minister aware that some of my hon. Friends will think that he was less than candid when he told us that there were no plans for privatising the coal industry? Does he accept that some of us think that plans for privatising the coal industry have already been made? Is he aware that there is great concern about the code of practice and the regulations governing safety in the mining industry and that there is little consultation between all the unions involved? The Minister should know that the Department of Energy has a joint consultative role when deciding on safety measures in the coal industry.

Mr. Baldry

Obviously, I did not make myself clear enough, so for the avoidance of any doubt let me make it quite clear that when the Conservative party wins the next general election, it will privatise the coal industry. Let there be no doubt about that. But let there also be no doubt that Conservative Members are as committed to safety in the coal industry as is the hon. Gentleman, and safety in the coal industry is a matter for the Health and Safety Executive.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

Has my hon. Friend noticed that some of the best privatised industries have been formed as a result of workers' buy-outs? Therefore, will he assure the House that when British Coal is privatised after the next election, he will welcome offers from the National Union of Mineworkers to run the industry, as it seems to think that it knows better than British Coal?

Mr. Baldry

As I have made clear, once we have won the next general election, we shall consider how to take forward our proposals to privatise the industry. Clearly, employee participation is one factor that it will be important to consider.

Mr. Doran

Where are the Government's policies?

Mr. Baldry

The hon. Gentleman asks where our policies are. Our policy is clearly that we intend to privatise the coal industry. That is clearer than the Labour party's policies on energy generally. If The Sunday Correspondent is to be believed, even such detailed policies as the Labour party has had on energy are now being abandoned as too turgid.

Mr. Morgan

The Minister seems to be giving a display of the old English proverb: When Blackadder is away, Baldrick will play. Will he give serious thought to the fact that coal privatisation has just been put back five years, in part because of the abandonment of the qualifying industrial users schemes, by which large, intensive electricity users were able to buy some of their marginal coal at cheaper world prices? One of the beneficiaries of that practice was Brymbo steelworks, the closure of which was announced this morning, with the loss of about 1,000 jobs in the Wrexham area and of roughly the equivalent of the output of one medium-sized coal mine. That will impose a considerable additional burden on all domestic electricity users in the Merseyside and north Wales area, who will have to pick up the tab for the 200 MW worth of lost electricity sales in that district. Will the Minister confirm that one of the effects of the abandonment of the qualifying industrial users schemes for large coal users has been that users such as the sadly departed Brymbo steelworks expect a rise of 60 per cent. in three years in the price that they will pay for their industrial electricity?

Mr. Baldry

The proposals to privatise the coal industry have not been set back by one day. The previous Secretary of State made a clear commitment to privatise the coal industry in the first half of the next Parliament. He made that commitment in November 1988——

Mr. Barron

That was the historic pledge.

Mr. Baldry

As the hon. Gentleman says, the historic pledge. That commitment to privatise the coal industry was restated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in a reply on 30 April this year, and again when he was in Nottingham earlier this month. Let me make it clear, because it seems that Opposition Members have not understood it: when we win the next general election, the Conservative Government will privatise the coal industry. That will happen during the lifetime of the next Parliament, and not one day has been lost in that commitment.