HC Deb 11 November 1991 vol 198 cc767-8
5. Mr. Strang

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what measures he is taking to prepare the coal industry for privatisation.

Mr. Wakeham

Decisions about the form and timing of the privatisation of British Coal will be taken after the election.

Mr. Strang

Is not it clear from the Rothschilds studies that the re-election of a Conservative Government would sound the death knell of this country's coal industry? Does not the Secretary of State recognise that to close more than two thirds of the pits to facilitate privatization—as envisaged by Rothschilds—would mean subjecting electricity supplies and prices in the long run to the vagaries of international markets, do enormous and permanent damage to our balance of payments, wipe out billions of pounds of productive investment and mean the loss of thousands of jobs? Is not that a policy of economic sabotage and one more reason why the country needs a Labour Government?

Mr. Wakeham

The privatisation of coal in Britain will not close one pit and Opposition Members had better face that fact. The real question that must be faced is how the coal industry can best become competitive, because, whether it is in public or private ownership, it will not be able to sell coal to the generators if it does not. I am optimistic about the coal industry's ability to adjust itself to the market that exists and to be a thriving and growing industry.

Mr. Andy Stewart

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the initiative of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers and its decision to instruct its bankers to prepare a bid for the British coal industry is the mark of a forward-looking trade union? Will my right hon. Friend's Department co-operate fully with the president of the UDM, Roy Lynk, and his bankers in preparing that bid?

Mr. Wakeham

Yes, Sir. I have already written to Mr. Roy Lynk inviting him to come to see me with his advisers so that I may give him all the information that I can. I am anxious that the UDM should play a part in the eventual privatisation of British Coal because I believe that that union and its members recognise that coal has a future, but only if it can be operated on a profitable and economic basis.

Mr. Dobson

Why will not the Minister publish the secret reports that he is receiving on the future of the coal industry from Tory merchant bankers Rothschilds, whose privatisation unit is headed by the Tory candidate for Hampstead and Highgate? Are not the 60,000 miners and their families and those living in the coalfield communities, whose lives, livelihoods and communities are at stake, entitled to know? Is the right hon. Gentleman ashamed of what is in the reports? Is he frightened of them? If not, why cannot he come clean? Or will we have to rely on my getting the reports in plain brown envelopes a week or two after he has received them?

Mr. Wakeham

If the hon. Gentleman gets something in a plain brown envelope, we can rely on him to issue a press release putting the worst possible complexion on the matter from the point of view of British coal. Those who seek to speak for British coal must recognise that they do the industry great damage by their Jeremiah, sour remarks. The advice that I am receiving from Rothchilds about the size of the coal industry is neither accepted or rejected by me. The size of the industry will be determined by the facts and will depend on the contracts that British Coal can obtain in the renegotiation of contracts with the generators which is due to start in April 1993.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my right hon. Friend do everything in his power to encourage not just buy-outs by the UDM or by management, but employee buy-outs in the coal industry, as the long-term commitment of the work force is crucial for employment and for the industry's prosperity?

Mr. Wakeham

I agree very much with my hon. Friend, but I believe that we should address the problems in the proper way. The first step is to determine the best size for the coal industry and that will depend on the market that the industry can obtain in sales to generators. After that, questions of privatisation will be determined—after the next general election.