HC Deb 25 February 1991 vol 186 cc630-1
4. Mr. Mullin

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy how many pits he expects will still be operating by 1993.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Decisions on future capacity are a matter for the British Coal Corporation, but it is clear that the future of every pit depends crucially on the degree to which management and men are successful in containing costs and continuing their productivity improvements.

Mr. Mullin

The Minister will be aware that, since the privatisation of electricity, the country has been flooded with cheap coal, which no amount of productivity improvements are capable of competing against. In the unhappy event of the Minister's party winning another general election, not one pit in the north-east will survive. I invite the Minister to deny that.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

The future capacity of the north-east coalfield is a matter for the British Coal Corporation. It would not be right artificially to restrict imports of coal and to insulate British industry from overseas competition. The future of that coalfield depends on continuing the productivity improvements of recent years, and I pay tribute to the British Coal Corporation and to those who work for it for the 85 per cent. productivity improvement since the coal strike.

Mr. Hannam

The Government have invested some £7 billion in British Coal since 1979. That is surely proof that the Government see a good future for a competitive coal industry. Does my hon. Friend agree that the 85 per cent. productivity increase since the miners' strike is evidence that the coal industry has an important role to play in the future energy market?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I entirely agree. The Government have put more than £17 billion of grant aid into the coal industry since 1979. That is proof of our financial commitment to the industry. The future prosperity and success of that industry, however, depend on continuing those productivity improvements.

Mr. Hardy

Will the Minister offer the House some estimate of the effect on the balance of payments deficit, which is already enormous, of our increasing reliance on imported coal, which will become more and more expensive, to the ruinous deprivation of the country?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

It would not be to the advantage of the balance of payments or of British industry artificially to restrict imported energy sources. I confirm, however, that until 1993 British Coal has secure contracts with the electricity generators and I anticipate that after 1993 electricity generators will recognise the value of an indigenous source of supply.

Mr. Dickens

Is not it a fact that the future of the British coal industry lies in the hands of the mineworkers themselves? Is not it marvellous that once the power of stupid trade union leaders such as Arthur Scargill is diluted the men at the coal face respond and have increased their productivity by 87 per cent. since the coal strike?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I cannot improve on my hon. Friend's description of the situation.

Mr. Barron

The Minister knows full well that the framework of privatisation of the electricity supply industry has thrown British Coal's marketing into chaos. Does he honestly think that the £17 billion investment of which he boasts is a sound investment, given the ending of current contracts in 1993? When will the Government take action not just in the interests of the miners, who have improved their productivity, but in the national interest, instead of increasing the growing energy deficit of this energy-rich country?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

It is up to the industry to prove the soundness of that investment, but the signs are that management and workers are rising to the challenge and can mine coal competitively.