HC Deb 11 November 1991 vol 198 cc766-7
4. Mr. Skinner

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what were the total amounts of coal imports and the countries from which the coal was exported in the last year.

Mr. Wakeham

Coal imports in the year to September 1991 were 19.6 million tonnes. The principal sources were the USA and Australia.

Mr. Skinner

Does the Minister agree that every 1 million tonne of coal imported is roughly equivalent to the closure of a pit of average size and probably results in the redundancies of about 1,000 men, between 67 and 80 per cent. of whom are thrown on to unemployment benefits and other systems of benefit? That means that there is an increase in the amount that the state has to pay for people thrown out of work. Every 1 million tonnes of imported coal is equivalent to £40 million on the balance of payments. If one considers the issue from either angle it must be economic lunacy to continue the import programme.

Mr. Wakeham

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. The best protection for the British Coal industry is for it to produce reliable supplies that are competitive on the world market. I want to achieve the largest competitive coal industry. To consider only the balance of payments effect of imported coal is to consider merely one part of the issue. The buying of more high-cost British coal would increase the cost of electricity which would be bad for competiveness, for the consumer and for the balance of payments.

Mr. Eadie

Did the right hon. Gentleman read a report in the Sunday Post two or three weeks ago which stated that Colombian imported coal was being subsidised by the drug barons? Is he going to examine the question of imported coal in a broader sense, as there have been complaints about unfair competition and we are doing British coal miners out of jobs by importing foreign coal?

Mr. Wakeham

The question of unfair imports of coal is a matter for the European Commission to investigate. It is for the Commission to consider British Coal's complaints. The hon. Gentleman must keep these matters in perspective. Colombian coal is a relatively small amount of the total coal used in this country. The most important task for British Coal is to be competitive.

Mr. John Marshall

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is significant that the Opposition refuse to speak for consumers? Do not coal imports help those, such as old-age pensioners, who consume coal and are not they good for employment in energy-intensive industries? They are objectives that most people would share.

Mr. Wakeham

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A low and competitive price of coal used in power generation will reduce the price of electricity. That is the most important issue that the coal industry must face.