§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Mr. Speaker
There is considerable pressure to speak in the debate, and I propose to put a cautionary 10-minute limit on speeches between 7 and 9 o'clock. However, if Members called before that time bear the limit in mind I hope that it may be possible to relax it later in the evening.
§ The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. John Wakeham)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Bill is of great importance to British Coal, enabling the corporation to continue the restructuring of the industry which is essential for its future.
Clause 1 extends the availability of restructuring grant by three years from March 1993 to March 1996 and raises the ceiling on the payment of grant from £1,500 million to £2,500 million. That ceiling will be increasable by order to £3,000 million. Restructuring grant was introduced by section 3 of the Coal Industry Act 1987. It provides support for British Coal's expenditure on redundancy, early retirement, transfers and retraining. It also assists the finances of British Coal Enterprise.
The existing ceiling on the grant is likely to be reached during the next financial year. Without restructuring grant British Coal would face heavy losses and a financial crisis. It is clearly necessary to raise the limit, but the increase is only an increase in the limit. It is not based on a specific view of what any future manpower rundown may be.
The actual requirement for restructuring grant payments will be determined primarily by the degree to which British Coal succeeds in cutting costs further and winning business.
Clause 2 concerns the repeal of the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)
The 1908 Act is most important. Has the Secretary of State arranged for it to be available for us to read? The Act concerns more than just the number of hours to be worked. It has wider implications.
§ Mr. Wakeham
The Act is available in the Library. I do not have a copy of it here, but I shall explain what the Government have in mind.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I had better make a little progress first, then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Clause 2 concerns the repeal of the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908. That Act, which regulates hours of work, has long been recognised as out of date by most of those working in the industry—mineworkers and management alike.
§ Mr. Wakeham
The 1908 Act restricts hours of work to a prescribed period of no more than 7.5 hours. Everyone 1250 working in the industry knows that to be too rigid a constraint. The limit reflects neither the latest mining methods nor good mining management.
§ Mr. Wakeham
Absolutely. If the hon. Gentleman listens to the arguments he may learn something to his benefit.
The 1908 Act does not take account of the technology that has been the backbone of the industry's modernisation and increasing competitiveness. Mechanisation has been under way in the coal industry since the 1950s.
Over a period of 40 years or so the 1908 Act has been becoming increasingly impractical and constraining. It is by adopting greater flexibility in working practices, by developing improved modern management and by investment in modern mining technology that the industry has achieved the improvements in productivity that are so vital to its future.
The safety of mine workers is of paramount importance. The Government's policy is that the much-improved standards that have been achieved must be maintained. The Government will not bring forward any measure that will prejudice safety. Unnecessary fears have been raised by the Opposition.
§ Mr. Redmond
Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that there should be special legislation for those working underground'?
§ Mr. Wakeham
The hon. Gentleman has asked me a question; perhaps he will do me the courtesy of listening to the answer.
What replaces the Act depends entirely on whether it is possible to meet the conditions of a European directive that covers these matters. The hon. Gentleman has rightly referred to safety. Before we presented this legislation we consulted the Health and Safety Executive, which advised us that no questions of safety arise under these proposals.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Health and Safety Executive consists of paid public officials whose responsibility is to the Health and Safety Commission, which has not been consulted?
§ Mr. Wakeham
As I understand it, the Health and Safety Executive is presenting its views to the Health and Safety Commission. The latter will then know what the position is.
The commencement order for this Act becomes operable after Royal Assent. I give an undertaking that I have no intention of signing the necessary papers to operate the commencement order until a European directive is in place—or at least until I have come to the House to explain what is happening. I have no other intentions at the moment. Opposition Members would be a little wiser if they allowed me to explain the Govenment's 1251 intentions before being so free with their criticism. I shall explain what I intend to do and then allow hon. Members to intervene.
The safety of mine workers is of paramount importance. Government policy is to maintain the much-improved standards that have been achieved. The Government will not introduce any measure that will prejudice safety—the fears that have been raised are ill-founded.
The repeal of the 1908 Act will not prejudice safety. The improving record of mine safety is due primarily to technology. Last year there were 11 fatalities at British Coal workplaces and I am sure that we all agree that that was 11 too many. But at the beginning of the century, when the 1908 Act was introduced, there were more than 1,000 fatalities a year.
The harsh labouring conditions of that era led to the legislation which prescribed a limit of 7.5 hours per shift. But, like so many industries, coal mining has seen major improvements in working conditions over the past 80 years. The industry has long left behind the days of hewing coal by pick and shovel. No one who has a genuine interest in the future of the industry wants to see its efforts being hampered by the antiquated legislation of a bygone era. Conditions in the coal industry have been transformed by mechanisation and by the application of modern technology. Outdated constraints clearly need to be removed if the coal industry is to be able to compete.
The proposed European directive on working time would present the British coal mining industry with a difficult challenge. The directive is still under debate and the outcome is uncertain, but it is clear that a combination of the 1908 Act and the directive could increase the industry's unit costs. It could also reduce the earnings of its employees.
If the directive comes into force, it will apply immediately to British Coal as a public sector body, while private sector companies will not have to comply until the United Kingdom implementing legislation came into force. To ensure that British Coal would have time to negotiate new working agreements, we are including a provision in the Bill to enable the 1908 Act to be repealed by order at the appropriate moment.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
The Minister said that the Government regard safety in the mines as important, so would not it have been reasonable if the Government had entered into a modicum of consultation with the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, whose statutory responsibilities involve safety? Does not he understand that one reason for the advances in safety in the mines has been the existence of legislation such as that which he proposes to dismantle?
§ Mr. Wakeham
The hon. Gentleman's second point is far from realistic, but the first part of his question was perfectly reasonable. To conclude the negotiations in time we have to repeal the Act in steps because the European directive, if agreed, will come into force immediately. I do not intend to sign the order repealing the 1908 Act until the European directive comes into force, but by the time that happens we must have held the negotiations because the directive comes into force immediately.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
I concur with the Secretary of State's remarks about British Coal's excellent safety record, but does he agree that all the 1252 advances in safety in mining took place during the period of nationalisation when there was a mines inspectorate, an independent body under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy? Even now, under the Health and Safety Executive, it can make independent judgments.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I have considerable doubt whether the hon. Gentleman is right that all the improvements in safety have taken place since nationalisation. I certainly agree with him that we should pay tribute to the significant improvements in safety since 1946 when the mines were nationalised. They have largely been a result of enormous improvements in technology and investment.
§ Mr. Skinner
The Government say that they will oppose the bureaucrats in Brussels in respect of the advances in the social charter, so why must they take orders from the Common Market on increasing the hours of underground workers? The right hon. Gentleman should have a word with the Leader of the House, who last week suggested to the Select Committee on Sittings of the House that Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers should work a four-day week. This hypocritical Government are introducing a measure to increase the hours of miners. If it is all right for Members to work a four-day week, why is it not right for the miners?
§ Mr. Wakeham
I do not think that my hon. right hon. Friend's proposals for a shorter working week necessarily applied to Cabinet Ministers, or even to hon. Members, who perform many duties outside the Chamber.
The European directive's impact on the private and the public sectors will vary significantly. The public sector must implement it immediately, but it cannot do so while the 1908 Act is in place. I shall not sign the order repealing that Act until we have an alternative because I fully recognise that a proper regime must be in place.
§ Mr. O'Brien
Coalmining has certainly moved away from the hewing of coal at the coal face and has introduced mechanisation. The right hon. Gentleman assured the House that before signing any document he will wish to ensure that safety is the paramount consideration.
Will the Secretary of State consider the conditions that prevail underground? As a result of mechanisation, there are conditions which must be reckoned with. Before he signs away the 1908 Act, will he consult the people working in the industry about the current conditions underground, including dust and other hazards? Instead of agreeing to longer hours per shift for people working in those conditions, will he consider the demand for shorter working hours? That is how we should be making progress in the mining industry. There should be shorter days underground, not longer days.
§ Mr. Wakeham
It is not for me to negotiate the hours of work or anything of that kind. The 1908 Act will not cease to operate in the British mining industry until it is replaced by an alternative which will be arrived at either through a European directive or as a result of proposals in the House. I have no intention of producing such proposals at the moment.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
The implication of the proposal to repeal, not to revise, the 1253 legislation is that there will be no statutory control from this Parliament over the minimum and maximum number of hours that people work underground. However, the Secretary of State has not mentioned another option whereby the British Government, in negotiations in the European Community, try to ensure that the same requirement in the 1908 Act is part of the directive. The Secretary of State has not addressed that. He has not told us why it cannot be perfectly permissible and legitimate for a similar provision to be contained in European Community legislation.
§ Mr. Wakeham
The European directive will cover the same issues about hours of work as those covered in the 1908 Act, although not necessarily in the same way. However, that matter has not yet been negotiated. I will not repeal the 1908 Act or stop it operating until we have an alternative which can be discussed. We cannot move into a period when there are no regulations. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is right. The European directive could be as restrictive and restraining as the 1908 Act. As I have said, we believe that there are shortcomings in that proposal.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I will give way to my hon. Friend in a minute, but I must first make progress or we will be here rather longer than we should.
The coal industry's performance over the last five years has been remarkable by any standards. British Coal has raised productivity by over 100 per cent. since the 1984–85 strike. It has cut colliery unit costs in real terms by over 40 per cent. during the same period and last year British Coal achieved a bottom-line profit for the first time in 13 years.
Those achievements, which I am sure are welcomed on both sides of the House, would not have been possible without massive support from the Government. That support includes the £6 billion provided under the Coal Industry Act 1990. That £6 billion provision enabled the corporation to carry out a major financial reconstruction. The debt burden of the corporation was reduced by over £4 billion and it was relieved of annual interest payments of some £400 million. As a result, British Coal's financial results now more accurately reflect the performance of the current ongoing business. I have been informed by the chairman that British Coal is once again on course this year to make a bottom-line profit.
That excellent improvement in British Coal's performance has not been achieved without difficulty and sacrifice. The market for British Coal has been in decline for decades and in recent years British Coal has also needed to deliver coal prices falling in real terms. In the past five years over 70 collieries have closed and the number of employees has been reduced by over 100,000.
This problem is not new. The coal industry has faced difficult periods of adjustment and reconstruction in the past, including during the term of office of the Labour party from 1964 to 1970. In April 1964, there were 576 pits. 1254 By the time Labour left office in 1970, the number had fallen to around 300—a reduction of nearly half, down by 280 collieries and about 170,000 men. It is a tribute to the work force and management that the recent contraction in the industry has been achieved without disruption.
British Coal has been able to offer alternative jobs to any man who has chosen to remain in the industry. Those who have decided to leave have received substantial sums in redundancy payments. They can also obtain retraining and counselling through schemes run by British Coal Enterprise.
The Government's commitment to the industry goes far beyond providing the finance needed to ease the problems of redundancy. I want to reaffirm the Government's commitment to an ongoing economic coal industry and its long-term future. Since 1979 we have approved investment expenditure of over £7.5 billion in the coal industry. That is more than all other Governments since the war taken together. We have also provided grants totalling over £11 billion in addition to the £6 billion provided last year. We expect to provide nearly £700 million in grant this year.
Our commitment to the coal industry is not only demonstrated through financial assistance. Last Session, for instance, we tackled the long-standing problem of subsidence. The provisions of the Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991 should greatly improve the coal industry's relationship with those under whom it mines.
What of the future for British Coal? Our main aim is to ensure that we achieve the largest coal industry that is economically sustainable. The main challenge for the industry is to try to win the best possible outcome from the contract negotiations with the generators. The measures that I have described are essential to the future of the industry and would be necessary whether the industry's future lay in the public or the private sector.
Of course coal, not just in this country but worldwide, faces challenges over the next five to 10 years. Here in Britain the power generators, the market for the bulk of the corporation's coal, are turning increasingly to environmentally friendly gas. Our policy and the policy of all Administrations over the past two decades has been to support diversity of fuel supply. Nuclear, renewable energy and gas all now have key roles to play as well as coal. Increased use of gas in generation brings enormous benefits to the electricity consumer and to the environment.
The consumer benefits from the lower electricity prices that will result. The environment benefits from lower levels of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide emissions. The threat of global warming and the problems of acid rain are reduced. The Government are not going to hinder the development of the competitive market that we have created with the privatisation of power generation by interfering with the use of cost-effective gas. We are not convinced by doomsters who say that all coal not extracted now will never be accessible in future. It is foolish to subsidise coal extraction now when improvements in mining technology are likely to make much of that coal exploitable on an economic basis in later decades.
I turn for one moment to the Labour party's plan for the coal industry. On the surface that plan is straightforward. It is, according to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), to maintain the coal industry at its present size—by protecting it at all costs from the rigours of competition that everyone else has to face. How would the Opposition do that? They 1255 would stop coal imports and restrict the mining of opencast—or so they say. They would "deter" the use of gas for power generation and phase out nuclear power—or so they say. They would renationalise the national grid, at huge cost to the taxpayer, and attempt to force the generators to burn high-cost coal—or so they say.
The coal industry recognises that it has to live in the real world—not in the twilight zone that some Opposition Members seem to inhabit. For the truth, as most people now know, is that Labour could not fulfil any single one of the pledges that I have just outlined.
Restrictions on imports would be contrary to the European internal market—less than 14 months away—and to our obligations under GATT. They could not restrict opencast coal mining without putting at risk 10,000 deep-mined jobs. They could not "deter" the use of gas because gas stations are already being built and the gas has already been contracted for.
The hon. Gentleman's pledgeto maintain the coal industry around the size it is nowis not worth the paper it is written on. He could not fulfil his pledge—nobody could. I challenge him to say specifically what he would do to fulfil his pledge and to say what the costs to the consumer, the environment and the taxpayer would be.
I make just one other point on Labour's plans, although I am sorry that the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) is not here to take note. That concerns the inherent contradiction between Labour's environmental commitments and its energy policies. There is no way in the world that the Labour party could ever meet its commitments on carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide emissions at the same time as meeting its commitments to the National Union of Mineworkers. If Labour is determined to phase out nuclear power and to deter the use of gas, at the same time as meeting the environmental obligations that it has set itself, it would have no option but to destroy the coal industry. Opposition Members can seek to protect the environment or they can seek to preserve the coal industry at its present size—but their policies will not do both.
The Government believe that the best protection for the coal industry is to become economic and we have demonstrated our commitment to that objective, with finance, support and action. I believe that it is time for the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras to give the House a proper explanation of his party's policies and what it would do—and perhaps with a little more precision than is usual for him.
I do not normally comment on what the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras says before breakfast, but I have received a message from the management of British Coal that they are incensed at his suggestion this morning that there would be any reduction in safety standards in the British coal industry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to withdraw any such suggestion.
Finally, British Coal must face the challenges to its market head on. No one can deny that much has been accomplished in the years since the miners' strike. Much still needs to be done. British Coal must fight for every tonne of commercially viable business. It must build on the increases in productivity already achieved. Further productivity gains are essential if the growing competition from other fuels and imported coal is to be met.
1256 The Government have provided strong backing and very large sums of taxpayers' money to enable the industry to restructure and increase productivity further. The Government will continue to give strong support to this important industry. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ 5.3 pm
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
As the House will recall, on Thursday 31 October, in the debate on the Queen's Speech the Government said that they wouldcontinue to prepare for the privatisation of the … British Coal Corporation."—[Official Report, 31 October 1991; Vol. 198. c. 6.]On Friday 1 November, they published this Bill. Nothing could be clearer—the Bill is intended as the next step on the road to coal privatisation. It does two things. First, it doubles the money available for redundancy payments from £1,500 million to £3,000 million, and extends the date that that will be available beyond the existing deadline of 1993. That is necessary, because, if privatisation occurs, there could be as many as 30,000 redundancies in 1993–94 alone.
Secondly, the Bill would reduce the cost of mining by reducing safety standards, by repealing the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908. Before the Secretary of State quotes British Coal in support of his contention that lengthening mining hours will not affect safety, I remind him that Mr. Moses of British Coal once gave his opinion that a 10-hour shift would not be objectionable.
We will vote against the Bill because it tampers with the safety of mines and miners. It is a disgrace that the Government have brought it forward.
Let us look first at the doubling of the restructuring grant to pay for redundancies. The previous Coal Industry Bill was before the House almost exactly two years ago, in November 1989. It doubled the redundancy fund from £750 million to the present £1,500 million, and extended its period of availability to the present limit, 1993. We said then that that was to finance as many as 30 pit closures with the loss of 30,000 jobs in the three and a half years until 1993. The Secretary of State accused me of scaremongering. British Coal called us Jeremiahs.
I invite the House to consider what has happened. In November 1989, there were 77 collieries in operation. Since then, British Coal has closed 21 collieries and announced the proposed closure of another five. Against our estimate of 30 closures in three and a half years, we have seen 26 closures in the first two years. That is worse—far worse—than anything we predicted. When the Tories challenge our predictions now, people should remember what they said about our predictions two years ago.
§ Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)
I understand the passion that one sometimes hears from hon. Members who have been down the mines, but then I look at the record and see 295 pit closures under Labour Governments, and I am not surprised to find that Labour mining Members are to test the loyalty of their leader at a meeting. If Labour Members do not trust the Labour party to look after the mines, why should the miners?
§ Mr. Dobson
If the hon. Gentleman from that well-known mining area of Battersea has been sent in by 1257 the Tory Whips to ask a question based on a totally misleading article in today's Evening Standard, the best that he can do is to keep quiet.
§ Mr. O'Brien
I have worked down the pit for more than 30 years, so I know exactly what the conditions are. The figures that were given and the suggestions that were made two and a half years ago were on target. Notices have been issued to collieries in west Yorkshire that, within the next six months, there will be a further rundown of manpower. In my own colliery, Sharlston, there is an indication that there will be a rundown of manpower. The figures that we gave the previous time we discussed mining legislation were correct.
Included in the Bill is the intention to take away the concessionary fuel allowance for miners' widows and retired miners that has been available ever since the industry began. Why should that happen in this legislation? May we have an assurance that retired miners and miners' widows will not lose that fuel allowance?
§ Mr. Dobson
I regret to say that I cannot offer any assurances about what the Government or British Coal might do. In the light of the assurances that have been given by successive Secretaries of State for Energy and chairmen of British Coal, it is clear that nobody in their right mind would accept any assurance from any of them because they scarcely ever deliver.
§ Mr. Dobson
I shall give way in a moment.
I do not have the up-to-date figures for the number of job losses since November 1989, but when 18 pits closed, 20,000 jobs went too. Those closures not only harm miners, their families and the coalfield communities, but the whole country.
§ Mr. Dobson
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me get on a bit.
Taxpayers will have to pay out a fortune if pits are closed. Enormous sums will be required in benefits, and there will be not only a massive loss of income tax, but also of other taxes, including VAT. Those are the consequences for the taxpayer of this scale of closure.
Another consequence of pit closures for the rest of the country is the effect on the balance of payments. In the first nine months of this year, 15 million tonnes of coal were imported. I remind the Secretary of State that foreign coal also produces sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide and cannot be said to make a big contribution to the environment. That 15 million tonnes in the first nine months of this year compares with the 15 million tonnes that were imported for the whole of last year and grotesquely exceeds the 4 million tonnes that were imported in 1982. We all know that PowerGen are investing in more and more coal handling facilities at ports around the country and that they intend to import more and more coal and to put more and more British miners out of work by closing more and more British pits.
During the summer the Government appointed Rothschild merchant bank to advise them on coal privatisation. Lest anyone should think that an objective, 1258 professional and expert approach will necessarily be adopted, I remind the House that the privatisation unit at Rothschild is run by an exceedingly neutral and objective person—the Tory candidate for Hampstead and Highgate. At great expense to the taxpayer, Tory merchant bankers have produced secret reports that can be considered in secret by Tory Ministers. The Secretary of State has refused to publish any of the Rothschild reports. Some of them have been leaked—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] When I published the information that Rothschild considered that only 28 of the then 60 collieries would remain after privatisation, I faced the usual charge of scaremongering. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) went on the radio in the east midlands to say that I did not know what I was talking about—[Interruption.] Well, the next thing that happened was that the Financial Times produced another document that proved that Rothschild had whittled down its figure of 28 to just 14 collieries that might survive the privatisation process.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
Will the hon. Gentleman specifically deny that it was he who leaked the Rothschild report to the power generators and that the Labour party was entirely responsible? In doing that, does he accept that he has jeopardised British Coal's commercial position and sold down the river the prospects of every single person who works for British Coal?
§ Mr. Dobson
Yes, I will answer that question in a minute, but I shall make my own speech in my own way—[Interruption.] Let me make it clear that if the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) had read the Rothschild report, which I made public—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] Yes. If he had read it, he would have found that Rothschild recommends that the Secretary of State should get involved in the discussions between British Coal, National Power and PowerGen to ensure that, for a start, it got a good contract. I sold no one down the river—[HON. MEMBERS: "You did."] Well, I shall tell the hon. Member for Harrow, West and his hon Friends that I have not received any complaints from any miners in this country about releasing information about the Tory bankers who advise Tory Ministers behind the backs of the miners and their families and who seek to treat them like chattels to be bought and sold.
Anyone reading that report from Rothschild will understand why the Secretary of State kept it secret. It envisages a deep-mined output of just 20 million tonnes in this country, and imports of 30 million tonnes; reducing the number of deep mines by 1993–94 to 20, which will then fall to 14 or even 12. It also envisages 33,000 redundancies in 1993–94 and that most of the British coal industry will end up in foreign ownership. In other words, there will be more pit closures and more redundancies. The Government need this legislation so that they can find the money for the redundancy bill that will prepare the industry for privatisation.
§ Mr. Peter Rost (Erewash)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Rothschild report also recommends a miners' buy-out as one of the privatised options? As the Rothschild investigation considered that to be a reasonable prospect, does the hon. Gentleman support it?
§ Mr. Dobson
Either the hon. Gentleman has another version of the Rothschild report or he has not read the one that I have. The report specifically warns miners to be wary of investing and buying shares in their own pits. Creswell and Gedling collieries in the Nottinghamshire coalfield have closed in the past three weeks. If the miners there had owned shares in their own pits, they would have lost their savings as well as their jobs. That is what Rothschild warned. It does not recommend the course of action to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
The Secretary of State and his right hon. and hon. Friends still deny our assertion that the coal industry will be virtually destroyed. On Monday, the Secretary of State once again described me as a Jeremiah. I assume that that was intended as an insult, but modern Tories are an ignorant lot. I went to a grammar school in York that was founded during the reign of Henry VIII by an archbishop of York. It was wise to learn a little bit about the Old Testament. I learnt that Jeremiah prophesied dire consequences if the people in charge did not mend their ways. He was denounced by the powers that be, who ignored him. They did not mend their ways. The destruction that Jeremiah predicted then happened. I do not take it as an insult if I am called a Jeremiah. He was certainly a better forecaster than any Tory Minister. In deference to one of my newest hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright), I should add that that Tudor archbishop of York would probably have been on our side in this debate because his potted history relates that he was born a poor scholar in the parish of Hemsworth near Pontefract. Let us have no more Tory talk about Jeremiahs.
We do not need a prophet's crystal ball because we have the Rothschild report. We know what the hard-faced Tories think should happen to the coal industry. They want to run it down, close it down and sell it off. They would be closing the cheapest and most efficient coal industry in Europe. It costs three times as much to mine a tonne of coal in Germany as in Britain. The dearest coal in Britain is cheaper than the cheapest coal that is mined in Germany.
As the Secretary of State referred to Radio 4, I shall do so. This morning on Radio 4's "Today" programme he said that we needed to import cheap coal to stop the rise in the price of electricity. As he is not a physician, I cannot say, "Physician, heal thyself." But as he is an accountant, I can say, "Accountant, read thine own figures." Over the past five years coal has not increased in price whereas electricity has increased in price by 30 per cent.
It is not the fault of British miners that electricity prices have risen. The coal industry and the coalfield communities look set to be sacrificed on the altar of the Tory privatisation dogma. They have already been severely damaged by electricity privatisation and now they are being damaged by preparations for coal privatisation. The impact of coal closures on not only miners but on entire communities is truly awful. As that impact is felt we get crocodile tears from Tories around the country who feel that their seats might be at stake.
Speaking about the closure of the Coventry colliery, the hon. Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. Maude) is reported as saying that he wanted tomake sure that everything is being done to protect the interests of my constituents who work there.I wonder whether this is what he meant. It is taken from the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 9 November this year: 1260Humiliated miners have been forced to play bingo for the chance to work. Hundreds of miners were given raffle tickets and were told to wait in the pit canteen for their numbers to be called out.The 'winners' received an interview with private contractor Thyssen which is recruiting salvage teams at the colliery. The losers were simply ordered into the redundancy line. On Tuesday there was a queue of men three deep and 50 yards long desperate for work with the contractors. The following day, they were giving out tickets to the men who were told to wait in the canteen where a man with a microphone called their numbers out.I assume that that is what a Treasury Minister sees as protecting the interests of his constituents. That is the humiliation which is heaped on miners, their families and their communities. We do not oppose generous redundancy terms for the miners. We do not want them to he made redundant in the first place.
On safety, we start off with some clear facts. British coal mines are the safest in the world. They are twice as safe as those in Germany, five times as safe as those in the United States and 50 times as safe as those in South Africa, Colombia or the Soviet Union. Any Government should take pride in that record, seek to keep it up and, if possible, improve it. Any Government who had pride in this country would seek to promote the raising of standards around the world to match our standards. Any Government with any real pride in our people would get on to our European partners and say, "Bring up the standards in your coal mines to our standards." God knows, not many British industries are three times as efficient and twice as safe as their German counterpart. But that is true of the coal industry.
However, the Government are not thumping the table and telling other countries to bring their standards up to our level. Quite the reverse. They are repealing the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908—the only legal limit on the hours worked underground—and applying the European directive on working time.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
I agree with my hon. Friend that British mines are the safest in Europe and probably in the world. However, they are not as safe as they used to be. British Coal is not using the safest method of supporting the roof. I have here a death certificate of a miner killed at Allerton Bywater colliery only a few weeks ago. Under cause of death it says:following and due to a fall of roof associated with the application of tension to roof bolts in the course of his employment at Allerton Bywater Colliery".The chief inspector of mines has told the Energy Select Committee on two occasions that that is not the safest method. The safest method of supporting roadways is by arch girders. British Coal is no longer using that method.
§ Mr. Dobson
Indeed. I was going on to refer to the way in which the Government, including, I regret to say, the mines inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive, have gone along with proposals from the management of British Coal which damages safety. This morning British Coal was apparently so incensed by what I said that an official rang the Secretary of State to complain. I have to say that no one rang me.
§ Mr. Dobson
The hon. Gentleman might be surprised to know how often British Coal rings me on other matters.
The European directive sets minimum standards for all workers in all workplaces. It does not even pretend to 1261 cover especially hazardous work in especially hazardous workplaces. The directive makes it clear that Britain can still apply laws and regulations which provide greater protection for health and safety.
It is a bit rich for the Secretary of State for Energy to say that in future he will rely on the European working times directive at the self same time as the Secretary of State for Employment is foaming at the mouth, denouncing it as a gross interference in British affairs and seeking to persuade his fellow Ministers in Europe not to adopt it.
The Government's proposals affect the safety of miners. Setting aside issues such as decent industrial relations and promises that other people have made, one would have thought it common courtesy for the Secretary of State at least to ask the miners whether they thought that the change was reasonable. Has the Secretary of State consulted the miners? No. Has he consulted the underground supervisory staff? No. Has he consulted the colliery managers? No. He has included the provision in the Bill without even consulting the Health and Safety Commission. It is no good him saying that he consulted the officials of the executive. The commission is responsible and it has not received a paper. Its secretariat told me that it might not even be able to consider it before Christmas. However, the provision was put in the Bill on 1 November.
§ Mr. Dobson
This is the legislative approach of Tombstone: legislate first, ask questions afterwards. The proposal epitomises everything that the Government are about. They are a Government of know-alls. They think they know better than the people whose lives are at risk in the mining industry what is good for safety in that industry.
§ Mr. Dobson
In their comfortable offices in Whitehall they think that they know what is best for the safety of men working a mile or more below ground. The industrial accident that Ministers are most likely to suffer is to trip on a carpet or cut their finger on the sharp edge of a piece of paper. Yet they think they know more about safety than a man working a coal cutter three miles under the North sea off the Durham coast.
However, I have to say that that has not been a common characteristic all along.
§ Mr. Dobson
In a moment. Let me finish that point.
When the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) was Secretary of State for Energy he appeared before the Energy Select Committee and said that no steps to repeal the 1908 Act would be taken without consultation with the miners. He said:I think if the industry were agreed that this"—getting rid of the 1908 Act—was beneficial to the industry and the talks I have mentioned could take place successfully"—that is with the representatives of the miners—I would presume any Government…would be very happy to change the legislation…The reason why the 1262 legislation was originally put in was very much on safety grounds, the importance of the protection of safety. Judgement on that would have to be taken by the Health and Safety Commission and, if it were judged to be totally safe,"—after all the consultations and if the industry agreed,and no deterioration in safety resulted,he said that perhaps changes could be made. Why has this Secretary of State not kept the promise of that Secretary of State? In legal terms, they are both the same person. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission produced a preposterous report which, although all the witnesses mentioned safety in their evidence, did not mention safety in its part of the report. Even the MMC stated that if there were to be changes in working practices they should take place after consultation.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
Throughout the hon. Gentleman's speech there are references to the 1908 enactment as a great piece of safety legislation. I have read the Act. Has the hon. Gentleman bothered to go to the Library to read it? There is nothing in the Act that is remotely connected with safety. It deals solely with hours worked below ground. If the Act has been amended to introduce safety provisions, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us. Has it been amended to include safety considerations rather than simply hours worked?
§ Mr. Dobson
Dearie me. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the length of working hours has no connection with safety——
§ Mr. Dobson
My hon. Friend is right. If that is what the hon. Gentleman thinks, he should not be in this place.
Miners believe that a coal mine is an especially hazardous place in which to work. The deputies believe that and so do the colliery managers. Surely they are right to take that view. If they are right, surely miners are entitled to special laws, including legislation on working hours, which have a clear bearing on safety. Surely miners are entitled to expect special laws to cover the time that is worked underground.
When the Secretary of State responded to an intervention on this issue, he seemed to suggest that he did not believe that there was a need for special legislation for miners. It seems that he does not believe that they need any special protection.
§ Mr. Dobson
I shall not give way for the moment.
The Secretary of State suggests that as practices down the mines have changed since 1908 there is no need now to have such short working hours. I remind Conservative Members that in 1908 the bulk of miners lived in terraced houses within five or 10 minutes walk from the pit. Nowadays, some miners, especially because of successive mine closures, have to drive 20 or 30 miles to work. They have to change and then they go down the pit. They get on a manrider and travel perhaps two or three miles before they reach the face. The hours that pass between leaving their own front door and returning to it are longer now than they have ever been in history.
§ Mr. Dobson
No, I shall not give way.
I recognise that the Secretary of State is not likely to be convinced by anything that I say to him. However, I have referred to the 1908 Act and I have read the debates that took place on that measure. If the Secretary of State is not convinced by what I have to say, I recommend him to read Hansard of 6 July 1908. On that day, 120 Tory Members voted against the measure passing through the House. For good measure, they then voted against the introduciton of old age pensions. Those Divisions took place on the same day.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I was reluctant to interrupt the hon. Gentleman when he was telling us that he went to the Old Testament to learn how to run a modern coal industry, and when he went on to tell us about the debates that took place in 1908. I want, however, to make the position clear.
I am proposing that the 1908 Act be replaced by the European directive. If the directive is not satisfactory and is not agreed, the 1908 Act will stay and we shall then consider what to do. We have no proposals yet. Secondly, during the process of preparing the Bill the Department has, of course, kept the Health and Safety Executive informed of proposals to amend the 1908 Act. The executive will he recommending to the Health and Safety Commission later this month that this repeal would not diminish safety in mines.
§ Mr. Dobson
The HSE is not sacrosanct. The executive is heavily involved in general measures relating to mine safety and in proposing changes that everyone in the industry, with the exception of the top brass of British Coal, think will make mining more dangerous. I am not surprised when I hear what the executive's officials may have done. If the Secretary of State is not convinced when we say that miners deserve special treatment, I recommend him to read the closing speech that was made on behalf of the Government on 6 July 1908. The then Minister read an extract from a book that spelt out the advantages of shorter working hours for employees and for employers, and for society as a whole. He then said:But it may he said that these arguments are general, and that special circumstances existed to differentiate the case of coal-miners from that of many other industries in this country. Others have spoken of the heat of the mine, the danger of firedamp, of the cramped position, of the muscular exertions of the miner, at work in galleries perhaps a mile under the ground. I select the single fact of deprivation of light. That alone is enough to justify Parliament in directing upon the industry of coal-mining a specially severe scrutiny and introducing regulations of a different character from those elsewhere."—[Official Report, 6 July 1908: Vol. 19, c. 1331.]That is a quotation from the speech of the then President of the Board of Trade, Winston Churchill. I agree with what he said that day. Today, 83 years later, the new Tories, under the man they tried to portray as "Nice Mr. Major", say that there are no special dangers down the mine. I do not think that they can believe that. So why are they proposing to introduce change? They are doing so because it is the first step along the road to privatisation. It is intended to attract foreign buyers for British Coal. It is intended to cut costs by cutting safety. It is intended to make our mines more attractive to companies such as Peabody Coal in the United States, which has recently been prosecuted and fined about £500,000 for deliberately, regularly and comprehensively fixing test filters in its 1264 mines. In effect, the Government are saying, "Come to Britain. We are levelling down our safety standards to yours."
That is why we shall vote against the Bill. That is why we shall oppose privatisation. That is why, after the general election, the incoming Labour Government will abandon privatisation and bring new hope to the coalfields and the coalfield communities.
§ Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)
This Coal Industry Bill must be one of the shortest of its sort ever to come before Parliament. It is, however, consequential to the future of our coal industry. It implies a great degree of uncertainty, but equally it presents a challenge to the management of British Coal to fight for every ounce of viable business that it can obtain. That will mean continuing to reduce unit costs, while increasing productivity.
Clause 1 complements that process and shows the Government's continuing commitment to the industry. It allows, where necessary, generous redundancy terms for men who wish voluntarily to leave the industry. It is worth saying that this Bill has nothing to do with privatisation or the Rothschild report; it will give the tools to British Coal so that it can compete successfully for the coal contract post-April 1993.
We already know what is possible—over five years, the miners have increased productivity by 108 per cent., while prices have reduced in real terms by 40 per cent., representing an annual cash reduction to the generators of £150. What the people of Sherwood and many others want to know is why National Power and PowerGen have not reflected those bargain purchases from British Coal in lower electricity prices.
The current price paid to British Coal is 180p per unit of energy, with 24 units to the tonne. When processed into electricity, it arrives at our domestic power points costing £20. Therefore, for the generating companies to say that by importing coal at the present world price of 145p per unit would benefit the consumers is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. What it would do is close our collieries, place this country at the mercy of international coal traders, and give Britain an added trade deficit of about £900 million per annum, for a hypothetical saving of just over £1.25 per week for the average household.
Any industry, whether public or private, depends for its success on markets. What British Coal needs to know now, to enable its investment programme to proceed to meet the threat from coal imports, is the size of the United Kingdom coal market post-1993. Will it be 40 million, 50 million or 60 million tonnes? What we do know is that pre-emption means that no fewer than half the power stations' fuel markets in England and Wales are entirely removed from the danger of competition. Nuclear power survives on the back of the coal industry, subsidised by the fossil fuel levy. If the reverse were true, coal would be delivered free to the generators with a cash bonus of £10 a tonne.
Gas has also been given favoured status, supposedly to help Britain to meet its modest sulphur reduction targets. So far, the contracts signed for plants coming on stream up to 1995 are equivalent to 25 million tonnes of coal. To help the process along the way, the Labour party acolytes on Humberside county council fell over themselves to be the first to grant planning permission for gas generators at 1265 Killingholme, replacing coal requirements by 3 million tonnes and with a loss of 3,000 mining jobs. The synthetic anguish and wringing of hands by Labour Members fools nobody. However, what stings the coal industry is that all but a few of the new gas plants will produce power at a total cost about 15 to 30 per cent. above that of British Coal.
§ Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously trying to say that the Labour council in Humberside is responsible for the Killingholme port? That was forced through this House by Government policy and their votes. Will he reflect on the fact that, if the Bill is passed, redundancy arrangements will be forced on the coalfields, and especially the pits in Nottinghamshire? Those pits already have 40 per cent. of places that they cannot fill because miners have already been moved there from other pits. If the Bill is passed, there will be a mass pit closure programme in Nottinghamshire, and mainly in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Is the hon. Gentleman really trying to be serious, or will he come through the Lobby with us tonight?
§ Mr. Stewart
There were two parts to the hon. Gentleman's intervention. The first referred to his colleagues on Humberside county council. There is no question but that they granted planning permission for Killingholme. Planning permission was not required from the Department in London. I shall deal with the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question later in my speech.
What is worse, the part of the fuel market to which I have referred will be closed to competition for no less than 15 years, because the only way to obtain the gas is to sign a binding 15-year contract. That means that, with the pre-emptions, all coal plants—even the biggest and the cheapest—will be pushed off base loads, forcing 12GW of modern coal plants to close prematurely. We must not sanction the contracts lying on my right hon. Friend's desk—and by that I mean that there should be no more contracts for gas generation.
Accepting that half the coal market will have gone to privileged fuels by 1993, what are the real business prospects for British Coal, the miners and the coalfield communities? They will be doubtful if the little Englander view prevails both here and in the boardrooms of the generating companies. I use the metaphor in the knowledge that Scottish Power has recently signed a five-year contract with British Coal. It is ironic that Scotland, with an over-production of electricity, is already contracting its surplus to industry south of the border. Talk about playing golf while Rome burns; just leave the canny Scots to pick up the bargains.
Forget the doubters: British Coal knows that it has only one way to go, and that is forward. Nevertheless, its greatest threat comes not only from coal imports but from the Labour party. First, there were the financial consequences of Labour's blind support for a dictatorial trade union leader, who is now as popular in Walworth road as a fox cub in front of the Quorn hunt.
When Labour's support was needed in the House to block the building of the Humber port, which will be capable of handling 10 million tonnes of imported coal, Labour Members showed their true colours and left the Commons at 8 pm. Only 49 of the 229 Labour Members 1266 felt any sympathy for British miners and voted against the Bill. At that time, their motives were questioned but the questions remained unanswered. Now, all is revealed through Labour's policy decision to ban opencast mining.
§ Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)
Will my hon. Friend remind the House how many Conservative Nottinghamshire Members of Parliament attended that unfortunate debate, compared with the attendance of Labour Nottinghamshire Members? If all Labour Members, who were supposedly so opposed to the Bill, had turned up, the Bill would not have become an Act.
§ Mr. Stewart
My hon. Friend is correct. All Nottinghamshire Conservative Members were present at that debate, and they voted against the Bill. If the Labour party had put its money where its mouth was and voted with us, the problem facing us today would not have arisen. As I said, at that time the motives of Labour Members were questioned, and the questions remained unanswered. Now all is revealed through Labour's policy decision to ban opencast mines. The implication of that for Nottinghamshire's deep mines is catastrophic. Thousands of jobs will be lost.
Thirteen of the 14 Nottinghamshire collieries require low-chlorine coal from opencast sites to sweeten their product, on a ratio of 6 tonnes deep mined to 1 tonne open cast, before it is accepted by the power generating companies. The loss of that low-chlorine coal by itself is disastrous, but the loss of the £200 million annual profit from British Coal's opencast division, which is used to subsidise deep-mined coal, would increase prices by almost £5 a tonne, leaving British Coal with no market or jobs for its miners. That bombshell, coming from the Labour party at a time when Nottinghamshire miners are continually breaking production records, shows Labour's lack of faith in and support for the coal industry, and why Nottinghamshire miners abandoned socialism in 1985.
Notwithstanding that threat, I am confident in backing our miners, because only they can offer the generators long-term contracts which guarantee falling prices, paid for in sterling and free from exchange rate fluctuations. It is an offer that no other coal supplier at home or abroad can make.
One may well ask why, with such a generous offer, the chief executives of our generating companies are not queuing up at British Coal's door. For a start, they are inexperienced in the commercial world, having spent their earlier years in the cosy surrounds of a nationalised concern. Since privatisation, they have yet to make a major decision. Remember, the present coal contracts were fixed for them by my right hon. Friend.
With such complacency, it would be an abrogation of our duty to allow two commercial companies to ruin a major industry and its jobs and to wipe out a multi-billion pound investment made on behalf of taxpayers. Therefore, the time has come for my right hon. Friend to exercise our 40 per cent. shareholding in National Power and PowerGen and instruct the chief executives to sit down with British Coal and negotiate a mutually beneficial contract from 1993.
What I have advocated is possible and not just a dream, but it would be remiss of me not to consider the nightmare scenario of colliery closures at a time when we are increasing restructuring grants by £1,000 million. The death of a pit is the end of an era, in some cases lasting 1267 more than 100 years. Gedling colliery in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) closed a week ago after a four-year battle by the miners to make it successful. Nobody, not even the Labour party, could change the geological conditions. On behalf of the 400 men from Sherwood who work at Gedling, I thank my hon. Friend for his endless time and effort, not only during the past few weeks but over years, to keep that colliery open. He was such a regular visitor that he was given his own pit boots and locker.
However, we must ensure that there is life after death by creating new workplaces on the former colliery sites. The target number of jobs should equal those lost from the indigenous mining communities. A prime example of that can be seen at Blidworth in my constituency. Within hours of the colliery closing, Newark and Sherwood district council started work, in conjunction with other agencies, on a rebuilding programme. Two years later, the new developments are on stream, bringing the target of 400 job opportunities even closer.
The only criticism is the time taken to put the financial package together before work could begin. Grant applications have to be made to the EC, the Rural Development Commission and the Department of the Environment, with approvals taking months at a time when speed is of the essence. A simple change of policy, making British Coal Enterprise Ltd. responsible, would be a first step. It has a proven track record, creating 71,000 new job opportunities since it was formed seven years ago.
A closure dowry based on a ratio of £X million for every 100 jobs lost would enable BCE to take control on day one, working in partnership with local authorities and matching pound for pound any EC contribution. By doing that, we would eliminate the 12-month delay. Time wasted cannot be recovered, so it is crucial that we have a system designed and ready to implement the moment that any colliery closes.
Britain has commercial coal reserves at today's extraction rates to last more than 200 years, whether in clean coal power generation, gasification, liquefaction or chemical derivatives. It is one of our most valuable assets, like the land that produces our food. No one in his right mind would ever suggest that our farmers become nothing but park keepers as a result of surplus food in the world. Agriculture is part of the common agricultural policy and I urge my right hon. Friend to see the British coal industry as part of an integrated European energy regime. It would keep our industry competitive and offer a future to our miners. They deserve no less.
§ Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)
I shall be better able to reply to the speech of the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) when the usual conventions no longer apply in three weeks' time.
In the meantime, I pay tribute to my predecessor George Buckley. No one could but admire the fortitude with which he bore his last painful illness and the way in which at the same time he stuck to his constituency work which he performed with great conscientiousness. He had been equally conscientious as a councillor when I worked with him and he was a fine and scrupulous justice of the peace.
I recall, and perhaps you recall, too, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that during one election period George Buckley 1268 was accused of being an extremist. He was extremely hurt by that and announced that he was a moderate and a patriot. I declare here and now that I intend to follow that same path.
Above all, I should say that George was a family man. He looked after his family; he cared for them. I am sure that the House will join me in sending our condolences to his widow and children.
Because Hemsworth has always had a large Labour majority, it sounds like a great monolith, but it is very far from that. It is a series of villages in the south-east of Wakefield metropolitan district which were essentially rural in character. But over the years, because of coal mining and their transformation into pit villages, they have become rural areas with urban problems, with poor communications. But each village has a fierce patriotism. The patriotism is not to Hemsworth unless one lives in Hemsworth. To someone who lives in Upton, Upton is the centre of the universe. Perhaps Upton people are right to say that because they have a tremendous history. I am sure that they will have a tremendous future. They populate the world. It is said that one cannot go anywhere—I know that this was true in west Africa—without meeting someone from Upton who will give good and wise advice.
There is also the village of Ackworth, where Geoff Boycott took his first faltering steps at the crease to become the greatest cricketer that the world has ever seen and a great Yorkshireman. Ultimately, because we pray for him every night, he will change his politics.
The constituency has been destroyed because of the destruction of its industry, mining; a destruction that was completely unnecessary. We are left with real problems of unemployment and all that goes with that with the drifting away of hospital care so that everything is centered outside the constituency; with the drifting away of real jobs so that people have to move outside. One reason for that drifting away is that, as a result of the Government's failure to obey European Community rules, we are not getting the money that we should under RECHAR.
Cato used to end all his speeches with the words, "Delenda est Carthago". I will conclude all my speeches with a plea for money from RECHAR. We have already sown the seeds of what needs to be done to bring about job regeneration in my area. The small extra amount of money for that purpose already approved by the Commission would make a tremendous difference.
The mining part of the community that I represent is extremely important, even though only one working pit is left. Our history and our traditions are in mining, and those traditions remain even when people move into other kinds of industry.
I want to consider for a moment the true price of coal. A very good friend of mine, George Gough, died last Saturday from emphysema. I pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) in the area and promise that I will assist him in his fight. The true price of coal centres on the lack of safety that is to be found in the mines, which reflects the lack of concern that is often shown.
The fear the Frickley colliers have now is that when their mine is privatised—and they are convinced that will happen soon, unless there is a change of Government—safety standards will fall. They look forward to other assistance from Europe in respect of the social charter. The Minister said that the Government are waiting for certain European directives, but failed to mention that the 1269 Government are blocking several directives that would assist workers in my constituency. I think particularly of consultation on change, which must take place under the social charter but which has not been observed. The miners of Frickley have in no way been consulted over their futures. I warn again that I will be fighting for that, too.
Featherstone is another area that once relied on coal and it is also where I taught for 12 years as deputy head of a comprehensive school which I established. I am extremely proud of the comprehensive education system. My school vied with eight grammar schools and produced results better than any of them—and for many more children. That is why I am proud of the comprehensive system and why I will support my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) in all his splendid work to make education once more a human thing with human values.
Also in Featherstone we have a rugby team which will win the cup this year. I look forward to the Prime Minister being present that day—but, of course, by then it will be a Labour Prime Minister.
I will co-operate with and fight alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) for the interests of coal and do all that I can to assist my party's energy team in that fight.
I want to make sure that Hemsworth can continue to be proud of its history. I will rail against its present problems and I will certainly fight for its future.
§ 6.4 pm
§ Mr. Martin Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)
It is truly a privilege to follow a maiden speech, and I am sure that I express the view of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House in extending a warm welcome to the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) and complimenting him on his words. Given the hon. Gentleman's background, he will clearly represent the constituents who elected him last week. I thank the hon. Gentleman also on behalf of us all for his glowing and deserved tribute to his predecessor.
The hon. Member for Hemsworth stuck, within reasonable bounds, to the conventions of the House in not making an over-contentious maiden speech, but he came very near to being contentious—[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."]—when he suggested to a Nottingham Member of Parliament that Boycott was one of the best cricketers in the world. Given that I was born and brought up in Middlesex and spent my childhood idolising Compton and Edrich—[HON. MEMBERS: "More rubbish"]—the hon. Member for Hemsworth ought to be more careful in his support for Boycott, or he will fall out with many of his own right hon. and hon. Friends. As to his reference to rugby league, I plead ignorance and will not interfere with private griefs.
I declare a small and indirect formal interest in the affairs of the coal industry and in British Coal. If ever there was a clear indication of the Government's understanding of the changing needs of industry, the effect of change on a particular industry, and the Government's willingness to take on board the social consequences of change, the last 1270 five years and the Coal Industry Bill clearly demonstrate the Government's balanced commitment to honouring their duty to consider the wider public interest.
I am committed to the coal industry, but not blindly so, as are some Labour Members. I am committed to Nottinghamshire miners, which is hardly surprising—but that is not the case, or has not been, with Labour. I am committed also to the wider public that we must all represent. That requires an understanding of the environmental impact of energy production and usage, and of the price of that energy to commercial, industrial and domestic users. It is the Government's role to understand and to respond to the need for balance.
Labour is clearly unwilling to address that issue, and tailors its words to suit its audience. If one considers the commitments of various members of Labour's Front Bench whose portfolios touch directly or indirectly on energy, one finds total conflict, one with the other. In that regard as in others, we wonder what the policy of Labour Members would be if, heaven forbid, they ever sat on the Government Benches.
There is no way that we can be sure, from the statements of members of Labour's Front Bench, what the Opposition's policies would be in the context of the Bill and of the industry that we are trying to preserve and strengthen. If coal was just another industry or a medium-sized company in the private sector whose product was not as much in demand as previously, or had been superseded by another product that it could not make or compete with it, that industry or company would slim down or might even close altogether—with the same tragic effect on families and communities as has been seen in the coal industry. Given the social changes that have been necessary, and the consequences of those changes, I doubt whether any incoming Government would have looked after the coal industry as the present Government have.
§ Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)
We are discussing not a medium-sized company like any other, but a company that is concerned with one of our great energy assets. Energy, by any definition, is out of the ordinary: it is very close to the cockpit of politics. The need of a nation for energy—for the consistent supply of electricity, for instance—is vital, unlike the need for the products of many medium-sized companies.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
I do not disagree with that. I apologise if I did not make myself clear. I meant that, in the case of any other industry, we probably would have let nature take its course. Firms slim down; firms close. There would have been no more than the statutory redundancies. Over the past five years, however, the Government have taken account of the very point that the hon. Gentleman has just made. All that has happened proves that they have taken on board the social consequences of change, while also recognising the future needs of a very special industry—the energy industry.
Yes, the coal industry has slimmed down; yes, it may even have to slim down further. But no, it will not disappear—because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly implied, it is a vital resource. It therefore has a long-term future. By producing this Bill, and by everything that they have done, are doing and will do, the Government are endeavouring to give British Coal the time and the means to meet what we perceive as longer-term needs.
1271 As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already given a thorough airing to the detail of the Bill—as, perhaps to a lesser extent, has the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson)—let me address one or two other points. The Government have given British Coal Enterprise Ltd. some £60 million of public money, which has generated some £500 million of private-sector finance. Labour always scorns and derides the role of the private sector, but, as a result of that investment, an estimated 70,000 job opportunities have been created.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
I used the phrase "job opportunities" deliberately. I know how difficult it is to establish exactly how many jobs are involved in such cases. I mentioned the figure of 70,000; my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) referred to 71,000. Let us not argue about a couple of thousand in either direction. An awful lot of jobs have been created by the £60 million of public investment and the £500 million of private investment. We can be certain of one thing: the private sector does not put £500 million into an enterprise that has no end product—in this instance, jobs.
§ Mr. Illsley
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman used the phrase "job opportunities". There is considerable dispute about exactly how many jobs have been created by British Coal Enterprise. Opposition Members would take issue with the 70,000 figure; the number of actual jobs is very much smaller.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
The hon. Gentleman is playing with words. I thought that I had met him halfway: even I did not say, "Oh yes, I am right, it is 70,000." The figure concerned is fairly large, and it is represented by efforts, to the tune of over £560 million, to recognise the special needs of mining communities. The Bill extends the possibility of doing that.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is no longer present. I listened with anger to what he said this morning on Radio 4. I felt that it amounted to criminial misrepresentation to suggest that the Government—or, more particularly, the management and staff of British Coal—would consciously risk the lives of men working below ground by cutting safety provision.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
That is a gross remark to make about the management of British Coal. It is unworthy of the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is not much of a miner in my book. Perhaps the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) will tell us just how many mines his hon. Friend has gone down to find out what he rabbits on about from the Front Bench week after week.
The remarks that were made this morning on Radio 4 were not only unworthy of a Member of Parliament—they lowered party politics to the level of the gutter—but were 1272 certainly unworthy of someone who seeks to become Secretary of State in, heaven forbid, an incoming Labour Government.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about safety. I do not know of any colliery manager, deputy or workman who would deliberately plan to send people to work in unsafe conditions. As I have said, however, because of the recent drive to increase productivity and thus lower the prices of coal—in order to maintain the market—roadways in mines are being protected by roofbolts rather than arched girders. The chief inspector of mines has told the Select Committee on Energy twice that arched girders are safest. The use of roofbolts has led to men being injured and even killed. am not saying that the managers want to create unsafe conditions; they are being forced to do so by the economics of the coal industry.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
I accept that the hon. Gentleman's experience is much greater than mine, but I find it hard to believe that the Health and Safety Executive would allow the use of a technique that had not been tried and proven, at least in another country. I cannot believe that an untried system that was considered dubious would be permitted.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is not an ex-miner, but I know that he will spend an enormous amount of time in following up what the hon. Gentleman has said. If it turns out that the new technique is indeed unsafe, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be the first to say that he wants to hear more about it.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
The system that I described is American. The safety there is four times worse than ours, and that statistic is based on recorded accidents in only 40 per cent. of unionised mines.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
Constituents of mine have been using the roofbolting technique at Littleton colliery, just outside Cannock. I have discussed it with those responsible, as I did not understand how the system worked. If it had not been safe, it would not have been introduced into the United Kingdom—from Australia, incidentally, rather than the United States—and the men would not be using it. None of my constituents have made any representations to me about its safety.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has drawn attention to the fact that it might have been Australia rather than the United States. It is a great shame. on a matter so important, that, when my hon. Friend tried to place information before the House, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), who raised the matter, started gasbagging to his neighbours as though it did not really matter. That was outrageous.
We have to acknowledge the role that gas can play, is playing and certainly must play, as well as the environmental benefits that flow from it. Gas must have a reasonable share of the future energy market. The Labour party cannot talk about coal to one audience and about environmentally safe energy to another.
Renewables must also have a share of the energy market. If my mailbag is anything to go by, people are 1273 complaining that the Government are not forcing the pace fast enough on renewables so that there can be an even quicker rundown in the use of fossil fuels.
The Labour party is inconsistent. None of us can avoid recognising the adverse effect that the burning of fossil fuels has on the environment. Although all these alternatives are coming on to the market, I am certain that British Coal understands and can meet all the challenges. All it is asking for is that it should be given the time and the resources to fulfil its essential role in the future mix of energy generation and to ease the social consequences of the changes that will take place over the coming decades.
British Coal has shown that it can be competitive. Its productivity post-Scargill has proved that. Contrary to Opposition claims, no generator in his right mind would want to rely over-heavily on imported coal. Security of supply, at a known contracted price, is absolutely essential if the generators are to fulfil their contracts with their distributors. British Coal would be even more viable and would have an even more secure future if United Kingdom coal, the lowest-cost coal in Europe, were competing on an equal level with Germany and Belgium, which still heavily subsidise their coal industries. The European Commissioners either turn a blind eye or are unable to enforce their rules and regulations.
The Bill deals with the possible funds that will be needed up to 1996 to handle all these complexities and changes, but let us not forget that there is more to British Coal than just taking the stuff out of the ground—although I acknowledge that that is its prime purpose.
Looking ahead, let us not forget some of the current research that is being undertaken by British Coal. It should be on the record. We have had many debates about the industry in the past few years, but rarely have we talked about the research work undertaken by British Coal into advance clean coal technology, small and advanced power generating systems, heating development, waste utilisation, atmospheric pollution, low CO2 power generation and options for its abatement, the coal science of nox formation and mineral behaviour, and liquid fuels. All these research projects are in the long-term interests of the nation. It would be mad to ignore all these potential gains for the long-term future of what is an almost inexhaustible home-based fuel.
Most of the heat and anger generated today relates to whether or not the 1908 Act should or should not be repealed, but let us understand what that Act was all about. The 1908 Act set a limit on the amount of time that a mineworker could be underground. Those of us who never were mineworkers may not be aware that a different limit was set for deputies. No limit was set for management. I assume that management go underground and spend a fair amount of time there, but, I repeat, no limit was set for them.
When I intervened during the speech of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, I said that no reference to safety is to be found in the 1908 Act, or in any subsequent amendment to that Act. I admit that I have not read all the Hansard reports of the debates, so it is perfectly true that there may be a reference to safety in Hansard. However, safety was not the purpose of that Act.
1274 Opposition Members know that it is what is contained in an Act that counts, not the speeches that were made in support of it.
The present limit for mineworkers is 7.5 hours. That is made up of a seven-hour period that can be extended at the manager's discretion by half an hour. Opposition Members must tell us whether that is the absolute maximum that they are looking for. Is that what they say is provided for in the 1908 Act? Is that what is fussing the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras?
The 1908 Act sets a strict limit not on hours of work but on the hours that may be spent underground, whether or not the mineworker can properly be judged to be working. It has already been acknowledged that travelling time is included as part of working time. Someone pointed out to me today that miners can travel in an underground train in conditions that are somewhat better than those enjoyed by the average south-east commuter. It was also pointed out that at least miners have a reserved seat.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
The 1908 Act dealt with health and safety. The hon. Gentleman, however, referred to miners travelling on a train. If he had ever worked underground, he would know that, when miners leave their paddy train, they have to walk a mile or a mile and a half to reach the coal seam. The hon. Gentleman should also remember that he has never smelt the stale air underground after seven hours there, and should take into account the fact that the stale air that miners breathe after seven hours underground, even though it is safe from the point of view of the regulations, makes them feel tired.
It is at that point that the safety factor is essential. One can have all the safety regulations in the world, but if a person in middle management is also tired after that time, the problem is made even worse. That is why the hours worked are seven and a quarter, plus winding time.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
I very much respect the hon. Gentleman's views, and I do not dispute what he says. He believes that the 1908 Act was a health and safety measure, but his hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) said, from a sedentary position, that it was not—that it was the other way round. There is total confusion on the Opposition Benches.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
It is vital to set out how long a person should work underground. I do not wish the safety risks to be increased. All I am saying is that none of the papers that I have read, or the Act that I have perused, remotely addresses the safety factor. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras may believe that the 1908 Act was a health and safety measure, but most people acknowledge that the Act that addresses health and safety is the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. Section 2(1) says:
It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.That is the position now, and even if the 1908 Act is repealed, that will continue. We will not have diminished that statement one iota.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras stands accused of introducing safety as a smokescreen. He is trying to play on emotions that should not be played upon 1275 in the House. If the hon. Gentleman's real objections are founded on a desire in some way to prevent or frustrate privatisation, he should have said so. Productivity is just as vital in a nationalised industry as in a private-sector industry. Nothing will have changed.
If the British miner cannot get his industry in a condition to compete four square with the rest of the world, we are in trouble, and the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras should make up his mind about what he wants. If he is saying that he would rather have no deep-mining industry than one that is thriving in the private sector, let him say so. That seems to be the message from the Opposition Front Bench. I do not believe that the knee-jerk reactions of Opposition Members remotely address the real purpose of the Bill, which is to ensure that British Coal has a future. Conservative Members will ensure its future this year, next year and for a long time to come.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
I join in the tributes paid to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) on his maiden speech. It was agreeable, amusing and knowledgeable and his politics are rooted strongly in the locality that he represents. He will be able to see, as was everyone else, how warmly his speech was received. He brings one other quality to bear and that is the role of education in politics and the need to tell people what is happening and why it is happening. That is one thing that we can do in the House tonight.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth, I represent a mining constituency. When I came to Chesterfield in 1984 a quarter of all the jobs in that great centre of the north Derbyshire coalfield were dependent on coal. If the Rothschild report is carried through, the entire north Derbyshire coalfield will close. There will be only four pits in Nottinghamshire and those who defended the Union of Democratic Mineworkers throughout the strike will learn how foolish it was for any miners to put their confidence in the Government.
I speak with some interest in the matter, apart from the fact that, for five years in all, I had the privilege of being Minister of Power and Secretary of State for Energy. Although we shall be defeated in the Lobby tonight, I can try to explain to people who listen to the debate or read Hansard what the Government are really doing. They are deliberately financing a further rundown in the mining industry at the expense of the safety of miners and their working conditions in the hope that profit can be made for private owners by a small number of pits with the rest of the coal being imported or coming from opencast mining.
I was astounded at the suggestion that the 1908 Act had nothing to do with safety. Does anyone honestly believe that if we abandoned all controls on pilots flying jet aircraft and said that they could fly for 24 hours a day, it would have no effect on safety? Does anyone honestly believe that if an industry becomes more technological, we need fewer safety requirements? After all, a man who is tired and carrying a pick and shovel cannot do much to affect the safety of others. However, with the high investment underground today, a tired miner can do enormous damage to the pit and to other workers. If the 1276 hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) does not understand that exhaustion is a danger in a high-tech industry, he does not understand very much at all.
§ Mr. Benn
I am not giving way because many miners want to speak. I shall use my brief speech to explain to people who read the debate what the Government are doing. The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) will have plenty of opportunity to speak because very few Conservative Members are interested in the industry and many are not here to listen to the debate.
One reason why privatisation is advocated now is that the pits were re-equipped with public money and now that they are available for privatisation a lot of profit will be made from them for somebody. As my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson)—shortly to be my right hon. Friend—said, the money is not for investment but to finance redundancies. Another hon. Member intervened to say that some of the money is probably to be used to end the concessionary coal. That is widely suspected. To repeal the 1908 Act is to return to Victorian conditions. It is no good mentioning the European directive, because even if it is introduced—other Ministers do not want it—it provides a lower level of safety than the 1908 Act and would be no substitute.
I want to look at this policy in the light of the policy that has been pursued by the Conservative party since 1979 and before. The first policy for the mining industry was prepared by the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) in preparation for the great miners' strike of 1984–85. Coal was stocked, police were recruited, the riot squads were trained and the Association of Chief Police Officers was prepared for the task given to it. I shall come to the question of Orgreave in a moment. I was on the platform with Arthur Scargill at the Durham miners gala in 1983 when he warned that 70 pits were on the hit list. It was dismissed completely. In June 1984 Mr. Ian MacGregor wrote a letter to every miner, a copy of which I have. It said:I have been accused of planning to butcher the industry…I have no such intention or desire…This is a strike which should never have happened. It is based on very serious misrepresentation and distortion of the facts … Your leaders have told you that the Coal Board is out to butcher the coal industry; that we plan to do away with 70,000 jobs; that we plan to close down around 86 pits, leaving only 100 working collieries. If these things were true, I would not blame miners for getting angry or for being deeply worried, but these things are absolutely untrue. I state that categorically and solemnly. You have been deliberately misled.That was the chairman of the Coal Board who had been appointed by the then Prime Minister to butcher the industry. A total of 109 pits were closed, 70,000 jobs were lost and many of the people on the dole who we hear about now in the monthly figures are unemployed miners. Communities have been destroyed. In one ward in Chesterfield which is in a mining area, unemployment is above 25 per cent. Coal imports have been deliberately encouraged to undermine the strength of the British mining industry. When I became Secretary of State for Industry in 1974, I discovered that the previous Conservative Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), had instructed the generating board to import Australian coal. When it 1277 arrived it was so costly that it was more expensive than British coal. The generating board sold the Australian coal at a loss to Electricity de France. My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) remembers the story well.
People talk about the Coal Board not wanting to endanger the health and safety of miners. However, if we import coal from South Africa and Colombia, where conditions are appalling, and tell our own miners to meet the price, we are telling them to lower their working conditions to the level of conditions and wages in South Africa and Colombia. There is no fair competition in the import of coal.
Opencast mining is the final insult to mining areas. They lose their pits and then their environment is destroyed. It is disgraceful to talk about being environmentally conscious and dealing with the sulphur in coal while allowing the present level of opencast mining. Desulphurisation techniques have been known for years and with scrubbing plants it would be possible to use coal with no risk.
The Government speak as though they have just discovered that gas is cheaper. We always knew that it was and there has never been any dispute about it. The question was whether it was sensible to burn gas. The Rothschild report says that there is no prospect of exporting coal, but we could export the gas and then burn our coal. It is a deliberate strategy.
The argument is that the Government are only following market forces. What a lie! Nuclear power is three times the cost of coal. Market forces? When shall we hear Conservative Ministers say that the nuclear industry will survive if it can compete with the cost of South African coal? No market forces are involved here. It has been emerging for some time that the cost of nuclear power is three times the cost of the pits that are being closed on economic grounds. There is a statutory requirement that the generators should use a certain amount of nuclear power, but there is no statutory requirement that they should use coal.
Let us consider agriculture. Do Tory Ministers ever say to farmers that if they cannot compete with the foreign price of food, the Government will close the farms? Of course they do not say that. They tax foreign food up to the level at which British and Community farmers can produce food.
One should not leave out of the account the cost of closures because it would have taken 15 years of running a so-called uneconomic pit to have lost as much as is lost by closing the pit. One still has to pay for subsidence and pensions. The cost of the strike was £5 billion or more. One might add to the calculation the fact that the Yorkshire police had to pay £400,000 to people whom they had wrongly charged with riot at Orgreave. That was the proof of the policy of the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley).
This has been a political strategy from the beginning. I have never believed a word that Conservative Ministers have said about their regretful adoption of market forces and about how they would love to help the industry. That has never been the case. After 1926, 1972, and 1974, this Government decided to break the power of the National Union of Mineworkers. It gives me some satisfaction that 1278 the Prime Minister who took on Arthur Scargill was slung out by her own party, whereas Arthur Scargill is still the president of the National Union of Mineworkers. Why is that? The reason is that he told the miners the truth. He said from the beginning that the industry would be butchered. The Government are butchering the industry and they did butcher the industry, so it is somewhat pleasing to me that Arthur Scargill still enjoys the confidence of the miners.
We know what will happen with privatisation. Enormous profits will be made. The East Midlands electricity board—I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras for furnishing the figures—paid £7 million to the City to be sold off. Its shares have gone up by 88 per cent. and its directors have had a 225 per cent. wage increase. The chairman now gets £3,500 a week. That is what privatisation is about. It is about lowering the wages and the health and safety standards of the people who do the work and about boosting the profits of the speculators. If the Conservative party had the honesty to say that that is why they are doing it, we could at least believe them, but they tell us all the time that everything is due to market forces.
If we are to make sense of the difficult decisions of energy policy, we must have a national energy policy. We shall have to phase out nuclear power because it is not cheap, it is not safe and it is not peaceful. We shall have to stop the coal imports and no one should tell me that we cannot stop them. We could stop them by saying that imported coal had to be produced under the same conditions under which coal in Britain is produced. We could keep coal imports out by saying that miners in the exporting countries should have the same wages and the same conditions. We shall have to stop or limit opencast. We shall have to put money into flue gas desulphurisation. We shall have to try to export coal. Our coal is far cheaper than European coal, so why do not the Government, who talk about the level playing field, do something about it? Why do they hire Rothschilds to say that there is no prospect for the profitable export of coal? We should also go for energy conservation and alternative energy.
The wealth of this country was built on coal. The prosperity of our industrial society was built on coal and on the products derived from coal, such as chemicals. This country's future depends on coal because, when the oil runs out, there is 1,000 years of coal under our territory—if one includes coal under the North sea. A policy that was designed, politically, to butcher the coal industry and to punish the National Union of Mineworkers is not just a betrayal of the industry, but a betrayal of the national interest. That issue will remove one or two Conservative Members when the election comes and will bring to power a Government who will put coal back in its proper place as the heart of our energy policy.
§ Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)
I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) on his excellent maiden speech.
I am sorely tempted to pick up some of the points made by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). but I will refer only to one. He implied that concessionary coal would be in danger after any future privatisation. His hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) could 1279 correct him, because he received an answer in the past few days which confirmed that the same amount of concessionary coal finance will continue to be paid.
§ Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)
I have not intervened because I hope to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that, when the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) refers to my question, he will inform the House about my second question. The Secretary of State replied that it was for British Coal to decide whether it wanted to buy out concessionary coal. That was an important answer.
§ Mr. Hannam
It was made clear that the concession would continue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that whoever controlled British coal—whether British Coal or a privatised company—would still have that obligation. 'That point should be made clear.
I recall attending many Coal Industry Bill debates over the years and being a member of many Coal Industry Bill Committees. I do not recall one Coal Industry Bill that did not present a large increase in funding for the coal industry during the 20-odd years during which I have been involved. Throughout those two decades, the industry has experienced two contrasting scenarios. In the 1970s, money was provided to fight the battle of trying to maintain an artificially high level of production of coal, which resulted in artificially high levels of electricity generation from coal. Coal Industry Bills reflected the huge subsidies that were needed for that policy.
In the 1980s, a different scenario evolved. The coal industry slipped down quite dramatically to its present size, and at the same time it improved its productivity threefold over the average of the 1960s and the 1970s. The 1970s and the 1980s were contrasting decades for the coal industry. No Government in history have been as committed to Britain's coal industry as the present Government. Since 1979, they have invested more in British Coal than all the Governments since 1945 put together. There has been more than £7 billion of investment in the industry, and a further £17 billion in grant aid has been made available. That is the equivalent of £2 million in British Coal every working day since the Conservatives came to office.
The response from the miners has been superb. In 1985, the average miner produced 571 tonnes of coal each year. The figure has now soared to 1,187 tonnes per miner per year. It is right that we all pay tribute to the determination of the miners to keep their industry afloat in ever more difficult times.
We all know that the peak of pit closures occurred not during Conservative periods in office, but during Labour periods in office—from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1979—when 295 pits were closed down. Since 1979, there have been just 140 closures—less than half Labour's level over the same time span.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
Is my hon. Friend aware that more pits were closed when the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) was Minister than were closed under almost any other Minister? The redundancy arrangements offered to miners under his pit closure programme were far less generous than those offered by this Conservative Government over the past 12 years.
§ Mr. Hannam
My hon. Friend's point is relevant to the Bill. We have heard of the prospect of the coal industry 1280 contracting but becoming more competitive all the time. The Government have not only provided massive investment for the industry—more than all other Governments since the war put together—but written off debts and put British Coal on a solid financial footing. They have also tackled the long-standing problem of mining subsidence.
The Bill will continue the commitment to provide generous grant support for the process of restructuring. That continued support has enabled British Coal to achieve its vital restructuring without a single compulsory redundancy. I find it hard to believe that anyone could vote against the Bill on the grounds of the increased resources and the amount made available for redundancy payments and retraining costs.
Having said that, I agree that the debate offers the House a chance to consider the future of the industry. Regardless of any future privatisation plans, which I do not believe bear on the Bill, the tough challenges facing coal production throughout the world mean that difficult decisions and changes still have to be made. We are still in that process.
We have read the Rothschild report, or at least a leaked copy which has been circulating. It projects a dramatic fall in demand for coal in the United Kingdom from 90 million tonnes in 1990–91 to about 65 million tonnes in 1994–95 and to about 60 million tonnes by 2000. The report forecasts a reduction in deep-mined coal of about 65 million tonnes from about 58 collieries at present, to 25 million to 30 million tonnes from about 20 collieries in 1993–94. The report also predicted a rather dramatic further fall to about 14 collieries thereafter.
I have spoken to some energy experts about the report. Their general view is that, if the expansion of gas generation of electricity continues at its present level and if the generators import up to a third of their reduced coal demand, the Rothschild report's forecasts could come true. However, I am not so sure. I feel strongly—I have talked to a number of energy experts—that, after the initial burst of increased use of gas and oil and after the stepping up of coal imports, there will be a medium-term levelling out as prices of gas from the new gas technologies become less competitive.
I also believe that, as imports of coal on the world market increase, that will influence the world price of coal. I do not believe that the scenario projected by the Rothschild report as the ultimate and most serious scenario is necessarily the one that will happen.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says about the Rothschild report, but in view of its status, is not it strange that the Secretary of State did not even mention it in his speech?
§ Mr. Hannam
I am not responsible for what my right hon. Friend said, but he painted a clear picture of the coal industry as it will be affected by the Bill. The Rothschild report has not been published. It is a leaked document, and it would be wrong to expect my right hon. Friend to comment on it. I am talking about the future of the coal industry, and I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten us on how he sees the coal industry developing, because that is an important issue.
Traditionally, coal has always been a main source of fuel for our power generators, but during the past 20 years 1281 —under Governments of both parties—much diversification has taken place. Renewables, nuclear energy and gas now play a key role. I believe that we shall always have a substantial market for coal in this country. I take seriously the point about the potential for the exports of coal. That will increasingly come into focus in the coming years.
However, our aim should be to ensure that, when we talk about a market for coal, we mean a market for British coal, competitively and efficiently mined. A privatised coal industry will have the best chance of achieving such a target, but in the meantime I am concerned that morale and confidence are being sapped by the uncertainty.
Unfortunately, at the moment, as contracts are being negotiated and likely to be completed by 1993–94, and with world prices of coal not yet affected by any major jump in imports, I understand that it is very difficult for the Minister or for the Secretary of State to make any projection about the future level of coal demand except in the most general terms. However, I hope that the Minister will be able to agree to some extent with my premise that, in view of factors such as those I have mentioned—an increase in the costs of gas generation after a flush of stations are completed, an increase in coal import costs and improvements in environmental protection technology—there must be a strong chance of our coal industry achieving even greater productivity under privatisation, thereby attaining a median level—not the Rothschild bottom level—of deep-mined production much closer to 40 million or 50 million tonnes. That is what I believe could happen, rather than the frightening lower level forecast by Rothschild.
§ Mr. Meale
The hon. Member talked about morale in the industry and the importance of maintaining it, but there is another aspect. Does he not believe that the introduction of the Bill, which would increase the hours worked underground, would involve offering bigger redundancy packages, and therefore more job losses in mining areas, and would therefore seriously undermine the morale of mining communities?
§ Mr. Hannam
The hon. Gentleman's interpretation of the Bill's intention is wrong. It has no such aims, but takes account of the changes likely to occur because of the European Community, and it prepares the ground for any legislative changes.
I return to the point that I was making about a healthier future for the coal industry than that which is generally supposed. The Rothschild report states that a 10 per cent. across-the-board cut in costs for deep-mined coal would create 10 million tonnes more than the central reference case that it set out. Last year, British coal's productivity rose by 9 per cent., and this year it stands 12 per cent. higher. Therefore, a 10 per cent. rise during the two to three years when the contracts come into place is eminently feasible.
According to the National Association of Colliery Managers, with which I had a meeting last week, the present contracts with the electricity generators which are due to expire in March 1993—one of the crucial dates—give a price for British Coal of £1.80 per standard unit of gigajoule. At current world prices and exchange rates, imported coal delivered at the coast would cost about £1.30 per standard unit.
1282 The 50p gap is undoubtedly too wide to close immediately in 1993–94. Unless a European carbon tax is imposed which would blow all our calculations sky high, a staged reduction in price—possibly in two tranches of 10 per cent.—could be achieved by the industry. Colliery managers believe that that could be done in the next few years. How that is achieved will depend on the view taken by generators, the Government and the industry about the long-term security of supply and the balance of payments needs, but it must be considered carefully as we approach another era of restructuring in the coal industry.
Where do the Opposition stand? We have read reports in the Evening Standard of meetings that have taken place or that are proposed between coal-mining Back-Bench Members of Parliament and the Leader of the Opposition. Clearly they get no satisfaction from the fact that their party has a cohesive policy for the coal sector. The Labour party talks about maintaining the present size of the industry. Everyone knows that, in view of the new gas generators being built, that will be impossible—that is the reality of the market.
We hear of restrictions on coal imports, but such a protectionist policy would be unacceptable to GATT and to the European Community. The Labour party talks of forcing generators to burn coal irrespective of cost and to phase out nuclear power. That must run counter to their green party image, as it would create more carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide, therefore making it impossible to reach their target of stabilising carbon dioxide emissions at the 1990 level by 2000. It would also mean a return to heavy subsidies which, as Germany is learning to its cost, are unacceptable to the European Community. The German coal industry is having belatedly to follow the restructuring path that we have been painfully following. The Germans plan to axe 30,000 jobs and to reduce national output from 70,000 tonnes to 55,000 tonnes over the next few years.
The policies proposed by the Labour party add up to a sham attempt to fool miners and electricity customers that they can have their cake and eat it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has put the arguments fairly and squarely to the Opposition spokesman, who, as usual, replied with a lot of wind power but no facts.
I support the Bill because I see it as a further sign of the Government's support for a competitive coal industry. I do not pretend that the path ahead over the next few years will be easy for our miners, but there is a good future for coal as an integral part of our energy scene. I hope that, as the present period of uncertainty over contracts comes to an end, our miners will be given the chance to rise to the challenges ahead, as they have done during the past few years.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)
I have to remind the House that speeches between now and 8.50 should be limited to 10 minutes.
§ Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)
Perhaps we should say that we are really discussing the coal industry (privatisation) Bill, phase two. The Bill is getting the industry ready for privatisation.
I pay tribute to the first-class speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright). He replaces a 1283 first-class lad. I might mention that George left owing me a bottle of wine, so I hope my hon. Friend will remember that.
The Bill refers to restructuring, redundancies, and the repeal of the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908. Indirectly, the Government are giving away taxpayers' money. By giving it to the Coal Board, they intend to send it back to their friends in the City. One needs only to look back through the great privatisation sales to realise who has made the profits from them—not the little shareholders dabbling in a few hundred shares but the big City finance chiefs. Of course, one expects that from the Government.
Let me get the record straight. The hon. Members for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) referred to coal imports. We played a small role in fighting the importation Bill, and there were no crocodile tears then. When I asked those two hon. Members to try to cajole their hon. Friends into our Lobby, they disappeared. I would not want Nottinghamshire miners to be misled by their crocodile tears now.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), because the Rothschild report reveals the Government's true intentions. The tragedy is that the Government will not for once stand up and tell people exactly what they intend for the industry and the country. They have faithfully followed the market forces philosophy since 1979, and the Bill goes the same way. It does nothing for the industry and nothing for the long-term interests of the country. It demonstrates the economics of the cat house. The Government had better go back to the cat house and find out what economics should be about.
Like King Canute, the chairman of British Coal seems to stand on the beach and allow all the privatisation and all the coal imports that the old Central Electricity Generating Board wanted and the two new generating bodies appear to want, while he does nothing. Yet he has a large salary. I do not understand why. The industry for which he is supposed to fight is declining each week, let alone each year. But does the chairman's salary decline? It does not. Does Hobart house decline? No.
Restructuring is taking place in coalfields throughout the country, bringing savings from the vast reductions in manpower, yet we still have Hobart house, that ivory tower. When will that be subject to restructuring? Why has British Coal not moved to Doncaster—to Coal house St. George's, in Thorne road? The concept of nationalisation has gone. King Canute and the rest of his cohorts on the board do not wish to get involved in trying to save the industry.
The closure of pits and the annihilation of coalfields means the dereliction of pit villages. Regrettably, the Government are not providing the alternative jobs that are so vital to mining communities. It is time that they reconsidered their market forces philosophy.
The sums mentioned in the Bill do not represent the true cost that the country will have to pay. We must realise that the taxpayer will have to pay at least £200 million more each year because of the rundowns and job losses in the coal industry, and the resulting state benefits. My estimate is a little conservative. The cost will probably be a lot higher. Jobs connected with the mining industry will also be lost if the Bill is passed, and that will increase the 1284 £200 million tremendously. The Government have no long-term employment policies, only a policy of continued unemployment.
The Government also fail to take into account the Bill's likely impact on our overseas balance of payments. Because of the reduction of mined coal in this country, there will be a need to import coal and that will affect our balance of payments—apparently we have not solved the export problem. The Government do not seem to have considered the import-export problem or our balance of payments at all. The market forces philosophy works only from day to day.
When the cartels have total control—as the Government appear to want—the country will start to pay the price that the cartels expect. The poor old taxpayer and consumer will have to pick up the bill for the Government's bad industrial policies. No wonder we are in such a mess.
Why are we repealing the 1908 Act? I listened intently to the Secretary of State, but I did not hear him say the word that would answer that question. The word is "privatization". I wish that the Government would stop trying to kid people.
The former Prime Minister wanted us to go back to Victorian values. I do not want a return to those Victorian values—women worked down the mines then, and they would still be doing so under Conservative legislation. Perhaps children will be next. Before anyone starts laughing he should consider the social policies that the Conservative party has adopted since 1979. This legislation is designed to increase the number of hours worked underground, but the Government cannot have their cake and eat it. They screamed their refusal to implement the social charter, and they are wholly opposed to the minimum wage. The Government should stick this Bill somewhere I cannot mention, and we should vote it down this evening.
§ Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)
In an indifferent speech the Secretary of State aroused suspicions about the 1908 Act. He has only himself to blame. He did not tell us much about the directive; he merely gave us some Eurogobbledegook about the directive applying immediately to British Coal but not to the private sections of the industry. It would have been more sensible to bring the directive to the Floor of the House, once it is agreed, in legislation that would, if necessary, repeal the 1908 Act. That will have to be done anyway. Perhaps the Secretary of State did not brief himself properly. He certainly did not quell our suspicions; on the contrary, he further aroused them by the manner in which he handled the repeal of the 1908 legislation.
The right hon. Gentleman gave us the impression—indeed, he said—that gas was cheaper than coal. Perhaps it is, but the revenue costs of running a gas-fired power station and a coal-fired power station are roughly similar. Even in terms of running costs, coal is competitive with gas at today's prices. The difference lies in the capital costs of constructing power stations. This Bill will subsidise redundancies and the creation of new jobs at the expense of mining jobs. Often those new jobs are created by British Coal Enterprise in the service sector. Many of them are part-time. But why not subsidise new clean coal-fired power stations to preserve jobs in the coal industry which 1285 create wealth and maintain a decent standard of living for those in it? It is not a question of subsidy or no subsidy; it is a question of where subsidies are most sensibly deployed.
§ Dr. Kim Howells
My right hon. Friend is highlighting one of the central hypocrisies of the claim that gas will solve all our environmental problems. Gas-fired stations are being bolted together because that is cheaper than retrofitting the desulphurisation systems of the coal-fired power stations which might use this great fuel.
§ Mr. Davies
My hon. Friend is right. Coal stands up well in any like-with-like comparison.
I am one of a dwindling band of Members who represent constituencies that still have at least one publicly owned deep mine. My constituency, together with Carmarthen, covers the entire anthracite coalfield in Britain and one of my purposes in speaking tonight is to speak up for that coalfield, which tends to get ignored.
I recently wrote a letter to the new chairman—I also wrote one to the former chairman—of British Coal. I suggested that British Coal set up a small mines company to develop and mine the anthracite in west Wales.
§ Mr. Davies
It certainly is. Anthracite is still in demand even for domestic purposes. People cannot get enough of it, particularly if it is anthracite of the best quality. It is also a clean coal. We have heard a great deal about the environment; everything that is burned creates carbon dioxide, but anthracite has a low sulphur content. The dust from it can be used in the new-technology clean-coal power stations.
The Welsh anthracite field is the only one west of Poland, so I thought that there would be a tremendous market for it from here all the way to Poland, the more so since 1992 is on the way. The east Germans have had problems with brown coal pollution, so in my naivety I thought that there would be a splendid market for this splendid product. As for imports, the Chinese tried and failed, the Vietnamese have occasionally tried but have not got far and perhaps the South Africans will try. But we can compete with the imports if and when they come. The problems that arise in respect of soft coal and bituminous coal do not arise with anthracite.
In my constituency there is some activity among the small private mine operators. Planning applications are being sent in to the county council asking for permission to extend or construct small mines. So the market seems to think that there is profit to be made—hence my belief that my idea for a British coal operation was in tune with market forces.
Such a venture would not cost much. The mechanisation does not need much money spent on it. Our two main assets are the coal itself and the skills of the miners. I was not asking for enormous investment in the new venture. Unsurprisingly, however, the answer was no. It was not a reasoned no or an analytical no: it was a British Coal no. I have been in the House for 20 years, so I and other long-serving Members know what a British Coal no is. It is a no pregnant with the inflexibility and lack of 1286 imagination that have characterised the senior management of British Coal for so long—factors that have contributed to the sad state of the coal industry today.
I was told that demand for anthracite was falling. The next paragraph of the letter directed me to the headquarters of the opencast executive in south Wales. After 20 years here I know about that executive, too. I was told that its members might talk to me. That executive wants to gouge out more parts of my constituency. Eighty per cent. of the anthracite produced in Britain, and hence in my constituency, is produced by the opencast executive; only 20 per cent. by small mines.
We are told that opencast coal is cheaper to produce. I do not know if that is true. It is certainly not cheaper for the environment or in terms of noise, or dust in the atmosphere, or even the gases that come up from opencast mining. New research suggests that methane and other gases are released by opencast mining. They are not released by deep mines, slant mines or drift mines. Opencast mines are not cheaper, either, in respect of the sterilisation of the coal. The sterilised coal is below the coal that the opencast machinery can reach. Why not impose on opencast companies the condition that they must construct concrete tunnels so as to reduce the costs of getting at the coal which cannot be reached by machines? Overall, I do not believe that opencast mining is any cheaper.
In the past we have tolerated opencast mining in west Wales because we have accepted the argument—perhaps we should not have—that profits from it are used to maintain the deep mines. That loyalty is disappearing and it will disappear even further if British Coal and the opencast executive are privatised. There is no more loyalty. In future, we will fight every planning application in west Wales to extend opencast mining. We believe that the balance of 80 per cent. to 20 per cent. is wrong. That balance must be redeemed, reduced in favour of deep mining, slant mining and the proper mining of anthracite. I cannot believe that British Coal or the Government will achieve that. However, I am confident that my right hon. and hon. Friends will do it.
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
I want first to apologise for the fact that I have not been here for all the debate and for that reason, if for no other, I will try to be relatively brief because other hon. Members wish to speak.
My constituency is about as far away from the coal mining areas as it is possible to get. It shares a border with the English channel and its immediate acquaintance with mining relates to clay mining. People from my part of the world who know their ancestry will be aware that the clay miners reckon that they are as hard a bunch of men as there could ever be. They would not in any sense take second place to coal miners. It would be a bad mistake for me to carry that particular idea forward in the Chamber tonight, so I will not do it.
In the relatively few years that I have spent in this place, I have noticed the increasing tendency of people who write to me to be concerned about the environment. Twenty years ago the words "ecology" and "environment" were probably not used in the normal course of conversation. These days they are the main topic of conversation.
Ever since 1983 I have noticed that when people write to me about environmental matters, their contributions 1287 have become relatively better informed and more subtle. It is clear from my postbag that, while at one time it was thought the debate was that nuclear fuel was dirty and therefore by implication everything else was clean, people are beginning to realise that, inevitably in life, sometimes things are not that easy.
One cannot simply say that nuclear fuel will always be dangerous. Increasingly people now understand the polluting effects of fossil fuels. One needs only consider the horror stories from eastern Europe to understand how dangerous and devastating fossil fuel pollution can be. It would be impossible to calculate the damage that this country has suffered from the burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution. However, I believe that that damage is incalculable, vast and grave.
When we consider what is in this country's long-term interests, when we consider the advantages of fuel resources available to us and when we consider how fortunate we are to have such stocks of fossil fuels, even if we consider the damage to communities when traditional industries can no longer manage, the one ingredient that we cannot ignore is the environmental bill which must be paid.
§ Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that his postbag is full of letters from people lobbying him to support nuclear power? That is not my experience nor, I would imagine, the experience of the majority of hon. Members. The opposite is usually the case. The environmentalists lobby against nuclear power. The hon. Gentleman appears to be lobbying for it.
§ Mr. Nicholls
I partly agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, when I consider my postbag in 1983, the environmental views were straightforward. Nuclear power was bad and, by implication, any other form of power was good.
Nowadays, when people write to hon. Members, they do not write to say that they are pleased about something; they write in to complain. They write in to complain about the nuclear power industry. However, it is my experience—one that the hon. Gentleman may not share in his part of the world—that there is a growing realisation that life is not quite that simple. Even those who believe that nuclear power is ultimately a polluting industry now realise that the argument is not quite so straightforward. In a sense, one gets ought for nought. People realise that there is a price to be paid for fossil fuels as well. That is a welcome development because, although it makes the argument more difficult, it shows that people are beginning to realise that there is a subtlety in the argument which perhaps did not exist before.
I hope that when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy replies to the debate, he will consider the implications for the environment. So often our debates in this place polarise and Conservative Members defend their communities while Opposition Members defend theirs. I come from an agricultural community and I can understand how the care for one's community sometimes overrides all economic logic. One need not apologise for that as it is a simple fact of life. At times I have to tell farmers that, like it or not, an economic price must be paid which may be too great for the preservation of a lifestyle which they and their forefathers enjoyed. Opposition Members must be aware that a balance must be struck and 1288 a price must be paid. That price may be too great from an environmental point of view. I do not say that flippantly or lightheartedly, nor do I take any comfort from saying it.
There seem to be contradictions in Labour's position on pollution and what it means in terms of fossil fuel which simply cannot be resolved. We have heard that coal is good and clean and that point was emphasised by the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies). However, it is not clean or cheap. As I understand it, Labour wants to discourage the use of gas in power generation. That can be achieved only by burning more fossil fuels and by increasing the amount of coal that is used. An environmental price must be paid for that.
Unusually these days we are all communautaire——
§ Mr. Nicholls
Well, apart from those who are completely prehistoric. These days we try to be more communautaire than thou. No doubt the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) would say, "En passant".
As I understand our responsibilities and obligations in Europe, we no longer have the freedom of movement that we might want in terms of banning imports. The days when we could defend good old British bulldog industry by slamming on trade tariffs and erecting a barrier against the rest of the world have gone. Will it be possible in the context of our presence in the European Economic Community for us to restrict coal imports? I doubt whether that will be the case. As I understand our obligations in Europe and in GATT, even if restriction was a good idea—and we could debate that if we had to—that will not happen again. I cannot see how that aspect of Labour party policy can be squared.
If it were possible to diminish the use of gas, to increase British coal production and to erect trade and tariff barriers to ensure that we cannot import foreign coal, what would the consequences be for those who want to use the power that is generated? Understandably we hear a great deal about how increases in the very staples of life bite on those who can very often least afford those increases. The consequences of erecting barriers—even if we could do that—to produce and use fuel at a price that we could achieve only if we erected those barriers would have a direct effect on the cost of power.
It is easy to debate in this House and reveal inherent contradictions between one side and the other and to make simplistic points about how one side must be right and the other wrong. I do not do that in this debate.
The Labour party is utterly impaled on the horns of a dilemma from which it cannot escape. On the one hand, Labour Members know where their roots are and they know how much they matter to them desperately. On the other hand, they know that the price of preserving their communities in the way that they want will be too high for their own country to have to pay.
The words of the Green party are not usually cited by Conservative Members to justify their own position. I cannot think of many times when I have been able to say that the Green party is very much on our side in this matter. The Green party has said that the Labour party's position iswobbly, ineffectual and dictated by the unions.That view was quoted in the Daily Mail in September last year. At the end of the day, those who pay the piper must call the tune.
1289 There is a price to be paid for not realising that the days of production of coal at the expense of all other power fuels are over. We need to know more about that price. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to help us on that point tonight.
§ Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)
In his maiden speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) demonstrated great knowledge and ability. Hon. Members will be glad to hear him speak again. The most significant aspect of my hon. Friend's speech was the reference to his predecessor, George Buckley. His comments will certainly endear him to his hon. Friends.
As the debate rages on, the Government will surely not attempt to deny that the moneys provided in the Bill will be regarded by thousands of miners as the prelude to the Government's plan to privatise the coal industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) referred to the speed with which the Government introduced the Bill and his comments add credence to my view. It would be weak for the Government to deny it, because the ink of the Queen's Speech is hardly dry, and it stated that the Government willcontinue to prepare for the privatisation of the … British Coal Corporation.All hon. Members are guilty of using flowery language. I am certainly as guilty as everyone else. However, certain language to which I take exception is used when the Tory party tries to defend the privatisation of the coal industry. I read—I do not know whether it came from the Department of Energy or from Conservative central office; I suspect that it was the latter—that privatisation of the coal industry will drive a stake through the heart of Dracula, the leader of the NUM. What a way for a party to defend its proposals. Yes, a "stake" is involved—the jobs of 30,000 to 50,000 miners.
The Government must be reminded that the average age of the labour force in the coal mining industry is about 30 years. The prospect of being flung on to the scrap heap in a period of rising unemployment is daunting for young men with wives, children and mortgages. The dangled prospect of £30,000 is not much if one is trapped in the dole queue in an area where employment prospects are practically nil.
That point enables me to raise with the Minister the matter of aid to mining areas, which was also referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth. Hedley Salt, chairman of the Coalfield Communities Council, wrote to me on the subject of RECHAR and additionality. Much-needed economic generation is taking place in Germany, Belgium, Spain and France because RECHAR money has been made available to them. However, the United Kingdom Government will not honour the regulations that they agreed. The RECHAR programme is covered by the same European Commission regulations as the structure funds in general. I repeat that the Government agreed those regulations. We hear talk nowadays about being good Europeans. The Commissioner will not release the funds unless the United Kingdom agrees, as Germany, Belgium, Spain and France have done. It is stated that the moneys have to be 1290 additional to any funding by a member country which qualifies for assistance—hence the word "additionality", which is associated with funding.
I am advised by the Coalfield Communities Campaign that RECHAR moneys—£100 million—allocated to United Kingdom coalfields in December 1989 have still to reach the United Kingdom. Therefore, it is urgent that the Minister's Department and the Government honour what they agreed, or that money and many other benefits will be lost to the United Kingdom.
I now refer to the proposals regarding the repeal of the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908. The Secretary of State did not provide a good defence of the Government's proposition. I wish that I had time to go into the matter in more detail, because the proposals in the Bill are seriously flawed. It is no use any hon. Member saying that the length of miners' hours has nothing to do with safety. That argument was demolished in speech after speech by my hon. Friends. The 1908 Act currently limits the shift length for underground miners to seven and a half hours.
The 1908 Act was introduced and subsequently amended because of the realisation of the dangers caused by excessive working hours in the mining industry. As well as providing legislative protection, it underpins the collective agreement which provides for a basic shift of seven and a quarter hours plus winding time for underground workers and eight hours for surface workers. It is a disgrace that the Government's proposition was incorporated in the Bill without any consultation with the unions. The only consultation that the Government had was with civil servants. Some of my best friends are civil servants, but what the hell do civil servants know about working in the mining industry?
The clear view of both miners and my hon. Friends is that the proposed abolition of the 1908 Act is to pave the way for privatisation by deregulating vital safety provisions and allowing the employer to introduce an extended normal working day in the guise of a flexible shift. What upsets and angers my hon. Friends is that the Department of Energy is praying in aid the proposed European Community directive on working time as a justification for that change. I wish that I could go into the matter in more detail. The Government's attitude is two-faced—they are also devoting all their energies to preventing the directive from coming into force. The directive is based on minimum standards—but I am caught out by the time, Madam Deputy Speaker.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
I begin by welcoming the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) to the House. I say that on behalf of the party he beat as opposed to the one that he put into third place—the Conservative party, which was marginalised in that by-election. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman's choice of best cricketer in the world, because I am a Glamorgan supporter, or with his preference for league rather than union rugby, because I am a Welshman by background. However, I am sure that, if he can add support for those sports to his campaigning on behalf of his electorate in west Yorkshire, he will serve his people well. I wish him well in that job.
1291 It is obvious from the speeches of the hon. Members for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) and for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and from that of the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) that underlying today's debate is a debate on Britain's energy policy. We would not have needed much of today's debate if we had a proper energy policy. One of the frustrations of being in opposition for so long to what is, in effect, a minority Government is having to watch this country go on for such a long time without any energy policy.
If we had a rational energy policy, we could ensure not only that coal had a role to play now, but that it could continue to play an important role in the future. The hon. Member for Teignbridge cannot argue simply that nuclear power is cleaner and environmentally more safe and that it should therefore always take precedence over coal, because we can do things to coal that would make it environmentally far more acceptable. In addition, nuclear power is potentially far more dangerous to the world than any activity in a colliery.
I should like to make a couple of points about the Bill's two substantive provisions before turning to its hidden agenda. My hon. Friends and I will vote against the Bill on Second Reading because——
§ Mr. Hughes
No, it will not only be me. My colleagues and I will vote against the Bill, and not for any obscure reason. We do not believe that its two main provisions have a necessary part in this year's legislative programme unless they are intended to enable the privatisation of British Coal next year if the Tories are still in power. That argument is self-evident from the words and figures.
The Bill's first provision is to extend the power of the Secretary of State to make grants to the British Coal Corporation beyond the 1987 legislation. The figures are clear, and the Library note confirms them. The Secretary of State's capacity to make grants is at present limited to £1,500 million. The table provided in the Library note projects that we shall not come up against the upper ceiling of the present capacity in either this or the next financial year. It is true that we have had to continue to increase the amount of money that is paid by the Government—by the taxpayer—for restructuring the industry, but we will not reach the ceiling either this year or next year. We could address the issue of whether we need to raise capacity just as well next year as this year.
I have not heard a single argument—there was not a sentence in the Secretary of State's speech—to suggest that the upper limit will be reached in the coming year. It will not be reached as a result of any programmed present redundancies, or by any new contracts with the generating industries, because they will not be renewed until early 1993. Therefore, I can see no immediate obvious or even superficial justification for the provisions.
The same argument applies to the repeal of the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) had some difficulty about attributing this and therefore did not say that that eminent legislation was passed by a Liberal Government. At that time, Winston Churchill was a Liberal Minister. I am glad that he finds such favour with the Opposition.
Apart from the fact that the 1908 legislation was commendable and is still valid, it is unnecessary to repeal 1292 it, because the European Community directive is intended to establish minimum standards. Let us assume that the directive is fully supported by the Government, who do not wish to amend one jot or comma of it and who are willing to sign up to its immediate implementation. The directive does not impose any stricter standards than the 1908 Act.
That legislation is a tougher regulatory measure governing hours of work than the current European Community directive. The last draft of the directive that was considered by the European Parliament refers to a normal minimum of eight hours' work. That is made clear in the Library note and is generally known. For historical reasons, to which many hon. Members have referred, the 1908 Act has a lower minimum. If one wished to do so, one could sign up for the directive while keeping the 1908 legislation in force.
There must therefore be another reason for the Government's proposals, and it was not honest or honourable of the Secretary of State to pretend otherwise. He said that he would not introduce his power to repeal the 1908 Act until the directive was in force, but it is not necessary entirely to repeal the legislation when the directive comes into force, because they are compatible. Under the European Community legislation, one could have tougher standards in national law without any difficulty. One could not have more standards, but there is no argument on that.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) tried to get himself out of a large hole——
§ Mr. Hughes
Indeed, out of a pit.
I was amazed that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South could believe that the provisions have nothing to do with safety. One need only read the 1908 debate—as I have done—to see clearly that the Liberal Government addressed that question. To complement the quotation from Winston Churchill's reply to the debate on the then Coal Mines (Eight Hours) Bill that was given by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, I should like to draw the House's attention to other words of Winston Churchill in the same speech, which are as self-evidently true today as they were then:We have reminded the hon. Gentleman of it often; but why should cheapness of production always be achieved at the expense of the human factor? The hon. Gentleman spoke with anxiety of the possibility of a rise in miners' wages as a consequence of this Bill. Has he considered the relation of miners' wages to the selling prices of coal?At that time, miners' wages were only 60 per cent. of the selling price of coal. It is very often possible to have better wages and cheaper production costs. It does not necessarily follow that decent wages and working conditions with fewer hours mean a higher cost to the consumer.
The peroration was typically Churchillian. He said that, in 1847, Parliamenttrusted the broad generous instincts of common sense; they drew a good, bold line; and we to-day enjoy a more gentle, more humane, more skilful, more sober, and more civilised population the blessings of which have followed their acts."—[Official Report, 6 July 1908; Vol. 191, c. 1332–34.]Winston Churchill's argument was based on health, welfare and scientific considerations, and aimed to support the work force. Although I have never worked as a miner, 1293 I was brought up in south Wales and have been down pits there and in the east midlands coalfield. I am aware of the conditions in which miners work. The air, the cramped conditions, the sometimes incredible heat in the pits and the importance of the job require that those working there be given special protection by legislation. I challenge any hon. Member to say that those who provide one of the most fundamental sources of Britain's ability to earn its way in the world by supplying our energy needs should not be afforded proper legislation by this House. The Secretary of State's argument was no defence.
Like the debate, the Rothschild report conceals the hidden agenda, or does so until it is leaked. The agenda is hidden in both senses of the word. The Rothschild report was hidden because it was a secret and we could not see it, and the legislative agenda is hidden because the Government in fact have a clear view about privatisation. I and my colleagues who have had this portfolio have argued consistently over the years that our national coal assets should belong to the Crown, that these rights such as those for oil and gas should belong to the Crown, and that the Government should give licences rather than that there should be a private monopoly, which is what the Government presently propose.
Only in that way will we continue to sustain a competitive coal industry. Only in that way will we avoid the outcome of which the right hon. Member for Llanelli warned us—more and more opencast mining, to the detriment of our environment and the industry which has served us well.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
I declare an interest as a consultant to the Confederation of United Kingdom Coal Producers. As is customary in these regular debates on the increase in funds for British Coal, I shall also take the opportunity to expand on the problems facing the coal industry. It is always a feature of these debates that we listen to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) who rewrites history to a certain extent. For sheer brass-neck gall, it is usually a virtuoso performance.
The Bill is certainly short but it involves a substantial amount of money. It is the latest example of the Government's massive commitment to the British coal industry since 1979. Since that year about £24,000 million has been invested in coal by the Government. That investment has produced modern equipment which, as we have heard, has led to a much safer record in pits. It has led to a massive programme of alternative jobs through British Coal Enterprise Ltd. and to the most generous redundancy terms. I submit that that is an unparalleled record of commitment.
As both Conservative and Opposition Members have said, the industry has responded to that investment. Since the end of the strike productivity has increased by 100 per cent. and is continuing to climb. That compares favourably with the 2.5 per cent. increase in productivity achieved under the Labour Governments from 1961 to 1979, although I recognise that in that period there was a Conservative Government.
We have also seen the industry cut its unit costs by 40 per cent. The 1990–91 results show that it has made the first 1294 profit for 13 years. That is no mean achievement. My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) referred to the enormous increase in the amount of coal produced per man. I am proud that my constituents who work at Littleton colliery in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) continue to produce record amounts of coal. They are currently ahead of their target of 27,000 tonnes a week. I salute the contribution that my constituents have made at a difficult time.
The figures that I have given show that the industry has enjoyed favoured status. There have been great demands on Government spending and everyone in the coal industry and the coal communities should recognise and acknowledge the priority that the Government have given it. That is a real priority, not the phoney type of priority that we get from Labour Front Bench spokesmen. It is no wonder that the miners of Britain know that the Conservative party is the miners' friend.
British Coal has made advances and a new attitude is permeating its management. At long last the nationalised industry is recognising that the United Kingdom private sector, which is extremely active abroad, has something to offer us here. The private sector already employs some 40,000 people and has capital equipment valued at about £2,500 million tied up in the winning and processing of coal in the United Kingdom.
Of course, the private sector has always been responsible for the winning of opencast coal, but in recent years a refreshing new approach has begun to appear elsewhere. In the past three years or so British Coal has invited the private sector to tender for a variety of work such as surface plant hire, road haulage, some development and maintenance work and the washing and processing of coal at the pithead. That growing partnership between the public and private sectors must be in the interests of the modern British coal industry. But much more can continue to be done.
I welcome the opportunity that my right hon. and hon. Friends are taking to repeal the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908. It has been instructive to listen to the debate today. As I understand it, the regulations have been broken for years on end. If the matter is of such importance to safety—none of us puts safety other than first—and miners are so at risk, why did not any Labour Government prosecute? Why are not the trade unions beating a path to the door not of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State but of the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, based in his coal mine of Holborn and St. Pancras, asking him to demand that the Government enforce the Act?
I suspect that Labour Members' opposition to repealing the Act is an example of the Labour party being rooted in not 1948 but 1908. Today's management and unions want to get on with producing an effective and efficient coal industry. If their safety was being impaired, the unions at least would be demanding that the Act be enforced.
Other things could be done and I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Minister is not taking the opportunity to do them in the Bill. I should like to see the limit on the number of men allowed to work underground lifted altogether. When my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) was Under-Secretary of State for Energy, I was his parliamentary private secretary. I was delighted that we lifted the limit of 30 men to 150. It seems 1295 that that limit could be dispensed with altogether. That would offer the realistic prospect of the private sector working mines which British Coal considers unworkable.
Our overriding concern must be not for the producer but for the consumer. We need to ensure that industry and the householder have the cheapest possible supply of energy. Competition in power generation, so derided by socialists as Conservative party dogma, is making that a reality. That competition has brought pressure on British Coal to keep its costs under control and it is doing so. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) highlighted the need for power generators to secure long-term contracts for coal in the same way as gas contracts have been made. I understand his point. Concern for the consumer must be paramount but if the generators believe that they can screw down British Coal with the threat of imports, they would do well to consider the consequences of refusing indigenous British Coal.
First, the world market in coal is small and a large uptake by the United Kingdom could result in a sudden large increase in price. Secondly, long lines of supply could be disrupted in times of crisis. Thirdly, coal mines which have been closed would be expensive if not impossible to reopen. The generators would be at the mercy of overseas suppliers who have alternative forms of supply.
§ Mr. Howarth
The hon. Gentleman says, from a sedentary position, that that is market forces. I am pointing out to the generators what market forces could do to them if they were not cognisant of the need to take advantage of long-term contracts with British Coal.
The Labour party has offered nothing constructive at any point in the debate. Indeed, it knows that since it was in government the industry has been contracting and a continuing degree of contraction is inevitable. We have had contradiction after contradiction from Labour Members. They profess anxiety about unemployment. I do not doubt that that anxiety is genuine. But everyone knows how difficult conditions are in the coal mines, although with modern equipment they are far less difficult than before.
What does the Labour party want? Does it want 200,000 to work in those difficult conditions or does it want a modern, efficient industry in which the minimum number of people are subjected to work in those intolerable conditions? My constituents in Staffordshire would much prefer to work in a clean environment than to have to work with all the risks which exist even today in the coal industry.
There was a contradiction of attitudes when we debated the Coal Mining Subsidence Bill, as it then was. The measure was enacted in 1990. The Opposition spent all the time that was available to them seeking to impose yet more intolerable burdens on British Coal. When doing that they said that they were supporting the interests of the coal industry.
What is the Opposition's view on the size of the industry? If they want to maintain it at about its present size, how will they ensure that that happens? Would they restrict coal imports and break EC rules? Would they ban the use of gas, when stations are being built and the gas is already contracted for? Will they phase out nuclear power and increase CO2 emissions? The Labour party seems to want to have it both ways. It wants to portray itself us 1296 green as the Benches upon which Labour Members sit, yet it wants to protect and cosset an industry that is perhaps not the greenest in the world.
§ 8.1 pm
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) will forgive me, I hope, if I do not take up his remarks. He may be among those Conservative Members who think that we should not perceive clause 1 as controversial. As it extends the period of finance beyond the date on which the contracts with the generators cease, we can perceive that there is likely to be an act of folly. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, it is clear that clause 1 has been designed with a view to shedding many jobs and closing many pits.
The Minister will say that clause 1 is designed to provide for redundant miners. He will argue that they should be treated decently, and so they should. However, in providing funds for redundant miners, there is far too little regard for the economic and social consequences that befall the coalfield areas. There is the effect upon the community, the cost of physical restoration and the scale of employment need. I read in my local newspaper today that in the past few years 4,500 jobs have been lost in heavy industry. There is a buoyant note from the Department of Employment to the effect that 3,200 jobs have been created for ladies working part-time. There is no conception of the effect of the reduction of income and the weakening of economic capacity. There is little conception of the effect on young people who have seen the reality of employment starvation.
Happily, the Government will not be in power for very long now. They will not be allowed to see the coal industry diminish to a level at which enormous imports are unavoidable, imports that show that they have no thought for the morrow and the effect of their actions on the balance of payments.
It would not be so bad if we saw a real drive for increases in export achievements. I suggest to Conservative Members that they read the early-day motion that I tabled yesterday, which shows the effect of the rather short-sighted policy of the electricity supply industry. It has introduced enormous additional pricing. The Minister is aware of this, because he has received representations from the trade union movement. Powerful and logical arguments were advanced to him not long ago. The Government appear not to appreciate, know of or care about the effect of enormous price increases on the hitherto successful and exporting engineering steel industry, which has had to curb production. Apparently the Government would rather see people watching imported television soap operas than see Britain create the wealth that it needs, or the overseas earnings that will be required to pay for the coal that the Government wish to import.
I represent the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers. It is an organisation with a long title but it is a most necessary body whose members are fulfilling a necessary and statutory role. It is regrettable—indeed, deplorable—that the Secretary of State should have embarked upon the preparation of clause 2 without consulting those with experience. He should have consulted those in the mining industry who have a duty to care, and not only the Health and Safety Commission. He should have gone beyond the leaders of 1297 British Coal, who have been queueing up to see changes in regulations and who have been bitterly critical of those who have said that people in the Department of Energy and at Hobart house want to dismantle the coal mine safety regulations.
The Department has had to have drawn to its attention the rock on which its privateering vessel would have wrecked itself—the rock of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. After spending four or five years pressing behind the scenes and arguing behind closed doors for the dismantling of the safety structure, the removal of the colliery deputy and the scrapping of the statutory priority for safety, it found that it would not be able to take that approach because of the provisions that are set out in the 1974 Act.
The 1974 Act requires the improvement or maintenance of existing standards, so the Government, in a rather furtive and deceitful way, have sought to make use of a draft directive. They have sought to allow it—I misquote Kipling—to be twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.
Labour Members, however, are not fools, and nor are the members of NACODS. We and they know why the Bill has been introduced. It is designed to assist privatisation. That is the Government's intention. They have no other purpose. Despite the claims of Conservative Members, the Government do not wish to save miners. They have no love for them. Conservative candidates like miners if they have them in the constituencies that they are contesting during elections. Conservative Governments do not like miners because they continue to support the Labour party.
Think of what we have seen. The Government's claimed affection for the mining industry over the past few years has known no bounds. I can see from my home the Dearne valley, where pits have vanished—Corton Wood, Wath, Manvers and Kilnhurst, for example. We have seen all the evidence of Conservative care—the destruction of the economy and the loss of jobs—in the name of profit. Some of those who wanted to see the privatisation of the coal industry will not take a long view. Like those who run some of the public utilities, their salaries are so inordinate that they need hold a job for only two or three years. They are not obliged to look ahead, but the House must do so.
Safety is important. The 1908 legislation is important, because conditions underground may be worse now than they were 83 years ago. There is more machinery, more isolation, a great deal more noise and much more tension. Conservative Members should not seek to create conditions in which men can be compelled to work underground for more than eight hours, and that would be the consequence of clause 2.
The Government must act consistently. I gave notice to the right hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson), a former Secretary of State for Energy, that I proposed to make the following point this evening. On 7 November 1988, I asked the then Secretary of State whether he would give an assurance to the House that, as the Government had no mandate to privatise the mining industry, they would not do so, and would take no significant steps to prepare that course. The then Secretary of State said:I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. There will be no attempt at partial or back-door privatisation in the Parliament.My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) then intervened to talk about safety. He 1298 asked for an assurance that there would be no deterioration in safety standards, and the then Secretary of State replied:I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be no lessening of the regulations governing mine safety."—[Official Report, 7 November 1988: Vol. 140, c. 3.]The Bill is a complete betrayal of the pledge or assurance that was given on 7 November 1988, and there has been no explanation or justification for the Government's change of mind. Do they think that we do not remember what Ministers say about important matters such as the future of the coal industry? We have had deceit and betrayal and now we have the insult of the Government's introduction of the Bill. By all means let us have money for redundant miners, but let us have justice for mining communities and a great deal more common sense in the House.
§ Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)
The House must understand what the Bill actually means. So far, those who have spoken have told us what they think it means. Clause 1 increases the grant from £1,500 million to £3,000 million. It is a pay-off for the miners for the closure of 30 pits and the loss of at least 30,000 jobs. That will be the effect for the coalfield communities, about whom many hon. Members have spoken.
The Government talk glibly about how wonderful coal is. Britain has proven reserves for 300 years. Indeed, there is more coal than that, but those reserves are not proven. Nevertheless, I have received tonight, fresh from the Library's research department, figures for imports of coal which show that if they continue at their present rate for the next few months, Britain will have imported 20 million tonnes of foreign coal this year. That is four and a half times the 1983 level.
I ask the Government to be honest. Is it their intention to close down our industry and bring in foreign coal? There is an increasing reliance on foreign coal from countries such as South Africa, Australia and Colombia. We have heard about the sorts of conditions in which the miners of those countries work. Joe Gormley said in the 1960s and the 1970s that the Arabs would not always live in tents. There will be a day when the South African and Colombian miners will not live in tin huts. The Government should remember that when pushing through a Bill to increase coal imports from those countries.
There has been a big increase in opencast mining. We hear a great deal from Conservative Members about the environment. They should come to my county of Northumberland, which is the country's largest producer of opencast coal. It is devastated by coal hills—and if that is not environmentally unsound, I do not know what is.
We should be concerned about miners' jobs. It costs £8,900 a year to keep one miner on the dole. That is an enormous figure when he could have been digging coal. Of course, the Government do not want the miners to dig coal. They want to have only a few pits where they can get their grubby hands on the profits. What about the families of the miners? What about the children? What about the lads in Newcastle and Oxford who we see on television saying that they have no jobs and no hope? Once, we had the pits and the shipyards, but they are gone because the Government have destroyed those industries and jobs and have left the people without hope. The riots during the past few weeks have been laid at the doors of the young 1299 people, but they have been left without hope of a job. They simply have an employment training scheme that gives them the dole plus £10. I do not know how the Government can say that it is a wonderful training scheme.
What about the safety issues and the hours that miners work? I looked up the Second Reading debate of the 1908 Act and I found a wonderful sentiment—that a man should work eight hours, sleep eight hours, and do what he pleases for eight hours—and that is 24 hours in a day. That is a good and genuine sentiment. Ken Moses, the technical director of British Coal—whatever that means—said that he did not think that there was anything very hard about working 10 hours or more underground. He has never worked underground. He has certainly never worked 10 hours underground day after day, week after week.
Many hon. Members have referred to safety in the mines. I have 27 years' experience of working in the mines, 14 of them on the coal face operating a machine. I have worked in a modern industry with new technology and it is very difficult. When the 1908 Act went on to the statute book, miners used shovels and picks. I have worked in conditions where I could not see my hands in front of me because of the dust from the machines, even though they had dust suppressors. I worked in the mines when the water was coming in and I was soaked for hours on end. The Bill will make miners work in wet conditions, with stones coming away from the roof, for 10 hours a day.
§ Mr. Campbell
My hon. Friend is right.
I am appalled that the Government have introduced this Bill without even having a word with the unions, and in particular the deputies union, which is responsible for safety. The Government did not even ask the unions and the miners what they thought about 10-hour shifts without the right safety conditions.
§ Mr. Christopher Hawkins (High Peak)
I accept that there must be some time limit, on safety grounds. What if the men were happy to work four nine-hour shifts rather than five seven and a half hour shifts, and the unions agreed to that? Currently, that is illegal. Is not that nonsense?
§ Mr. Campbell
If that is what the hon. Gentleman thinks, let us go and meet the miners and talk to them.
Most accidents happen at the end of a shift. The records show that miners are more likely to be hurt at the end of their shift than at the beginning. Currently, they work seven and a half hours. It is a tiring job in an environment which is not comparable with normal working conditions. It is in the bowels of the earth and anything could happen. I have worked in the mines for 27 years and I have seen everything. My hair has stood up on my head with fright at some of the conditions. The Government are now asking the miners to work even longer in those conditions. They have not even tried to think about the consequences. If they were honest and if they were truly trying to do something worth while for the industry, they would ask the miners whether they wanted to work 10 hours, whether they wanted a week off, and so on. The Government have not met the miners or the union representatives to ask them what they want. They have not even asked the mines inspectorate what it thinks about the safety issues.
1300 I hope that the Bill falls tonight, but I regret that it probably will not. I just hope that, when it becomes law, it will not result in a large increase in injury and death in the mines.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
I was unable to be in the Chamber for the early part of the debate. I listened with great interest to the speeches and especially that of the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell). He said that he had spent 27 years in the mining industry. I have no direct experience of the mining industry, but I spent many years in an industry close to it and also in an area close to the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I worked for a company that was then known as C. A. Parsons, and which is now NEI Parsons on Tyneside. I was a design engineer working on steam turbines, with the object of improving their efficiency. We went to great lengths to increase their efficiency by a fraction of a per cent. The benefit of doing that was that lower costs would be incurred in mining coal for the generation of electricity.
That seems to highlight the dilemma facing Labour Members. The hon. Member for Blyth Valley described graphically the difficulties and dangers of the industry. The ideal would be to get coal out of the ground without anyone having to go underground at all. That would he better for all of us. But the dilemma then is what would happen to those who have spent their lives in the industry. I do not accept that they would all have to go on the dole and cost the country £8,900 per annum each.
In the past 10 years, the number of jobs in the industry has declined from about 200,000 to 100,000, but those people are not all on the dole. Many have found other work. The number of people in employment in Britain has risen by 1 million during that period. One must look at the matter in the round and see how the industry can be run with the smallest number of people under the ground. The more efficient the industry is, the more efficient other industries are which depend on coal mining. If we can reduce the cost of electricity, that will increase the number of jobs in manufacturing industry and all other sorts of industry.
Keeping costs down is also important for people who depend on electricity to heat their houses. I have been appalled at the cost of heating a number of homes in my constituency. Many people still rely on the old-fashioned red bar to heat their homes and the cost of electricity is important. Anything that we can do to reduce the cost of electricity is very much to the advantage of people who depend on electricity to heat their homes.
Therefore, we have the dilemma that if we try to protect the industry for the sake of the jobs that exist now, it could be at the cost of other jobs and at the cost of the standard of living of people who cannot afford to pay the high prices which would result. I find Labour's policy confusing. It is one of protectionism. It pretends to be environmentally friendly while not being so at all.
I remember some time ago taking part in a debate with the late Allan Roberts in the Granada television studios in Manchester when we both appeared on the front benches in a mock chamber in the studio. I compared Labour's policies with those of a dirty dinosaur, going round dropping slag heaps and not taking advantage of environmental improvements. 1301 One of the last jobs on which I worked when I was at Parsons was the Drax power station commissioned when the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) was Secretary of State for Energy. He failed to ensure the installation of flue gas desulphurisation equipment at that power station and it is having to be put in now by this Government at considerably greater cost. It is much more expensive to retrofit such equipment. Plenty of evidence was available at the time that that equipment should have been fitted, but if the Labour Government did not want to do something or recognise something that was to the disadvantage of the mining industry, they turned their back on it, closed their eyes and pretended that the problem did not exist. [Interruption.] That is perfectly true. When the order was placed for the Drax power station, there was no provision for flue gas equipment and it is this Government who are spending the money to put the problem right. That exposes the inadequacies of the Labour party's energy policies.
The mining industry is not now active in my constituency, but there are plenty of signs of it. The old miners' hall in Bolton is a fine building and I am pleased to say that it has now provided a new home for the chamber of commerce, which moved in a month or two ago. I am pleased to see the building being put to such good use. There are still plenty of relics of the old industry about. Gullick Dobson near Bolton is a major employer manufacturing mining equipment.
Some signs of the old industry create problems. Considerable environmental costs in subsidence and weak buildings often do not show up until later. The pump house, just off Tonge Moor road in my constituency, has experienced massive difficulties because an old mine shaft was discovered to be in a different place from where it was thought to be and the new building had to be modified, at massive cost to the owners. That has affected their ability to carry on the business. Another fine new building recently put up, Ashton house, was about to be taken over by a Government Department for offices when it was found that further structural foundation work would have to be done because of the old mining works there. Therefore, the industry has hidden costs and the important thing is to recognise them.
I cannot understand the Labour party's attitude when it highlights the dangers and difficulties of the job and then says that we should distort the economic side so that more people should go underground than would otherwise be the case. We should not be afraid of privatisation because that will show the true economics; what is truly valuable. It can make sense for men to go underground and do a difficult and dangerous job only if it is profitable. Profit is not a dirty word; it shows whether an activity is worth while. If wealth is not created for the country, why send people down into the depths of the earth to do such a difficult and dangerous job? It is most important that all industries should create wealth. Unless they do so, how can we run the health service? How can we find money for the welfare state and for all the benefits that we want? If the mining industry is not profitable, for goodness sake do not let us send men underground working in difficult and dangerous conditions.
§ Mr. Ronnie Campbell
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the nuclear industry is not profitable, yet the Government prop it up with thousands of millions of pounds in grants a year?
§ Mr. Thurnham
The nuclear industry should be profitable. It may not be profitable because in many cases the wrong decisions were made about the type of power stations to build. I have no doubt that if one took advantage of the latest designs available, it would be possible to construct a profitable nuclear power station; environmentally, they are much cleaner. It might be sensible to look at gas as the fuel to burn, but it will not be there for ever and we must consider a balance of provision.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak. It is right that we should be introducing the Bill, but I am concerned at the massive sums of money that we have written off in the industry. If it is a worth while industry, contributing to the wealth of the country, we should be able to invest in it without having to write off such monumental sums as £5,000 million. Therefore, let us look forward to a profitable industry with as few people working underground in dangerous conditions as possible, while creating wealth for themselves, the industry and Britain.
§ Mr. John Cummings (Easington)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) on a magnificent maiden speech. I closely identify with his endearing remarks about his predecessor, a dear friend of us all and a good colleague.
I find no joy in taking part in this debate. The prince of darkness, the new area director in the north east, through deception and duplicity, has today announced the closure of Murton colliery where I used to work, with a loss of 1,000 jobs in an area with 20 per cent. unemployment. That pit has made £5.2 million profit since 1987.
There will be many troubled spirits as a result of the Bill but the Londonderrys and the Joiceys will be dancing a fandango this evening in the knowledge that the Bill is likely to become law and reverse the actions achieved by the sweat and blood of my predecessors who, for several generations, have introduced enlightened legislation since the 1908 Act. For longer shifts there will be a price to pay in human suffering, agony, and great distress.
In my maiden speech, I said that I was a sixth-generation child of the mining industry, and looked back with great tenderness on the hardships and efforts of my predecessors in Murton colliery. I know a man of 80 years of age, who after 51 years working in the industry is wracked with pain and extremely distressed. He is my father. After 51 years, his state of health is distressing to behold. He worked seven days a week, and at times 12 hours a day, out of choice, to provide for his wife and family.
However, at least my father had that choice. He could have used the legislation and told his colliery manager, "No—I am working seven and three quarter hours plus my winding time." If the regulations are changed, miners will not have that choice. Management will determine the length of shift. I foresee a legion of gentlemen such as my father in years to come.
§ Mr. Cummings
My hon. Friend is correct.
The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Hawkins) asked whether miners want a nine-hour day or a 40-hour week. We cannot answer that question because there has been neither consultation nor conciliation in respect of the Bill. For a proud industry with a first-class record of consultation and conciliation prior to 1974, it is disgraceful that the Bill has been brought to the House in the way that it has.
As to the closure of Murton colliery that was announced today, I refer to the output of its last five coal faces. E102 was worked with partial extraction and was profitable with 29 weeks of production. E110 was worked with partial extraction, and was profitable for 24 weeks. E112 gave 30 weeks production of partial extraction, and was also profitable. E104 was worked with partial extraction for 16 weeks and was profitable. The cumulative profits of those five coal faces since 1987 totalled £5.2 million.
The deceit arises because coal face E115 was worked with full extraction at the insistence of management, but against the better judgment of unions and of miners who had worked that seam for decades. The consequences were total disaster, losses, and today's announcement of the colliery's closure.
§ Mr. Cummings
It stinks to high heaven.
Until six months ago, there were four collieries in my constituency—Dowdon, Vane Tempest, Easington and Murton—sharing common pumping costs of £4 million. Dowdon went, and that cost was shared between three collieries. If Murton goes, it will have to be shared between two collieries. As sure as night follows day, we are looking at the imminent closure of Vane Tempest and Easington.
The prince of darkness arrived in July, with a salary in excess of £70,000 a year, but with not one idea or positive suggestion to make the industry viable and contribute to the national economy. He was brought into the area to destroy it. He is destroying not just the area but the community.
Anyone who walks through the village of Murton—where my family has worked since 1842—will see a finely-woven tapestry of social history and commitment. Generations before the state thought about providing homes for the elderly, the people of Murton were doing so out of their own pay packets. There are 26 acres of welfare ground, cricket pitches, tennis courts, bowling greens, and football grounds, paid for out of pay packets and pockets at the pick point. Murton also has a 50 m Olympic-sized swimming pool—the only one of its kind between Leeds and Edinburgh—all provided for by the people of the community themselves.
When the colliery closes, I fear that we will see the death of that community and of its various welfare systems. That closure will affect other businesses in the area. Mineworkers who took redundancy and invested in small firms beholden to business coming from British Coal are finding that their investments are being wiped out.
1304 Many statesmen and Ministers want to make a name for themselves. I suggest that the name of the Secretary of State for Energy in 1991 will be engraved in the hearts and minds of the people of Murton, for it was he who murdered Murton, and that will not be forgotten.
§ Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) on his maiden speech. I was particularly pleased with the comments on his predecessor, George Buckley, with whom I shared digs in 1987.
I oppose the Bill, because it will further the privatisation and contraction of the coal industry by closing collieries and increasing redundancy among mineworkers. These days, redundancy schemes are not voluntary, simply because there is not a sufficient number of collieries to which mineworkers can transfer.
The Bill will also buy out concessionary coal entitlements and introduce longer working hours by repealing the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908. The Department of Energy is introducing a measure that relates more to health and safety than energy, but it has no powers of enforcement in respect of health and safety or employment legislation. The Bill seems to have been hijacked as a way of repealing the 1908 Act.
That the Government have no idea of safety measures has been shown tonight by the speeches of Conservative Members. We have seen already measures that will allow women to work underground again. That was done not for the sake of equality, because only certain qualified women will be allowed to work underground. As my hon. Friends have said, it is only a matter of time before children are sent back down the mines.
The extra grant that the Bill provides is for redundancies after 1993. As we know, the new contracts to be negotiated next year will come into force after 1993 and will cover much reduced coal tonnages. Despite all the pleading by British Coal and the Government about commercial confidentiality and the rest, we know that those contracts will involve substantially lower tonnages. Imports will increase by as much as 30 million tonnes.
Mention has been made of the greenhouse effect and environmental implications, but the same amount of CO2 and greenhouse effect gases are given off by imported coal as from British coal. We should consider also the situation in other countries. America has increased its coal burn to 1 billion tonnes, and China to much the same level. It is no use pointing the finger at British Coal and accusing the industry of being responsible for the greenhouse effect and global warming.
After 1993, there will be another wave of closures. British Coal's chairman has already said that his industry will contract to meet the lower tonnages, rather than fighting to take a larger share of the market. According to the Rothschild report, about 14 collieries will be left by the end of the century.
Some of the money will go towards buying out concessionary fuel entitlements. The Government have said that those entitlements will be safe; yes, they will, because some are protected by statute. That, however, will not stop the Government offering pensioners money in exchange for their entitlement. We have already seen the problems that occurred earlier this year with social security payments. The concessionary coal liabilities do 1305 not make the industry particularly attractive to the City—and there are also industrial deafness and subsidence liabilities. How will the Government deal with those problems without earmarking funds?
In 1986, the Nottinghamshire area director, Albert Wheeler, introduced what is now known as the Wheeler plan, which brought flexible working to the industry. Since then, the industry has been considering ways of introducing flexible working hours over a seven-day cycle. British Coal and the National Union of Mineworkers have undertaken studies, whose results are now available, to show how a shift system could be introduced. The NUM's proposals provided more machine-available time than those of British Coal.
In a press release that accompanied the Bill, the Government observed:In practice the 1908 Act has little relevance to the modern coal industry since it reflects the working conditions, practices and technology of a bygone age.That is deliberately misleading. The 1908 Act simply underpins the collective agreement that sets mineworkers' hours; it does not mention seven and a quarter hours plus winding time, which appears in the five-day-week agreement. That agreement was signed on 18 April 1947, and revised in December 1960. It was revised again in the Mines and Quarries Act 1954.
The five-day-week agreement is still in force. Even if the 1908 Act were repealed today, the agreement would have to be addressed, because it sets out hours of work. How will the Government amend that provision? In his latest Green Paper, the Secretary of State for Employment suggests that collective agreements should have legislative force. Will the five-day-week agreement retain legislative force? Will the Government allow negotiations to take place between the NUM and British Coal with the aim of amending the agreement, or will its repeal simply be imposed on the industry as wage agreements have been over the past few years?
Morale in the industry is at rock bottom. Not many mineworkers care what happens to it. Recently, a colliery manager called all the men into the canteen and told them that, if productivity did not improve, he would recommend closure. To a man, they stood up and cheered: they could not wait.
Other misleading statements have been made about the 1908 Act. It is not good enough to say that the Act relates only to hours of work. It was originally intended to protect mineworkers from the effects of long hours working underground; as hon. Members have pointed out, nowadays those long hours are compounded by the time that it takes to travel distances of up to 40 to 50 miles a day to get to and from the colliery.
Some hon. Members have referred to what was said in the House when the 1908 Bill was moved. Introducing the Bill, Herbert Gladstone said:There is the constant anxiety due to the incessant watchfulness necessary on the part of every responsible man in the pit.He also referred tothe darkness, the loneliness, the danger, the discomfort of working continuously in a high temperature."—[Official Report, 22 June 1908; Vol. 190, c. 1355–56.]As my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) has pointed out, there is also the dust and the water.
1306 This year, the Select Committee on Energy produced a report that described roof bolting as not the safest method of providing support underground. Many of the points made in 1908 are still relevant today. There is still darkness, and certainly there is still loneliness. In 1908, 1 million men were employed in the industry, but now there are only about 70,000; the loneliness must be much worse than it was then. There are still high temperatures as well, and, once underground, the men must remain there until they are wound out of the colliery.
The aim of the repeal of the 1908 Act is to increase productivity through a greater use of machinery over a six or seven-day cycle. That has nothing to do with the European directive. Over the past five years, productivity has increased by about 100 per cent., but all that the mineworkers have in return for that are lower wages containing a larger incentive-based element, and agreements that have simply been imposed on them.
Can the Government actually repeal the 1908 Act by this method? Article 16 of the directive allows national legislation to remain, and the Act is relevant to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings). While I may not agree with many of his views, none the less I respect the strength and sincerity with which he advanced them. The House is all the better for hearing views that are based on such vast experience. I have served with the hon. Gentleman on the Select Committee on the Environment and I am only sorry that he is not in the Chamber now.
I welcome the Bill. The Conservative party's record of support for the mining industry over the past 10 years is second to none. No one could possibly say that a considerable amount has not been spent on the industry since 1979, with the amount spent between 1948 and 1979. My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) mentioned that earlier.
Opposition Members should remember that electricity can be generated by other methods. I sometimes think that they overdo the case for coal. I believe in a balanced form of electricity generation and an even-handed environmental and economic approach.
I welcome the developments in the coal industry involving low—nox burners, fluid bed dissolvers and flue gas desulphurisation to cut sulphur dioxide emissions. None the less, in environmental terms there are still problems with CO2 emissions and there are increasing problems over the disposal of coal ash and gypsum. Those two aspects of generating electricity by coal will become more important and more worrying. We cannot continue to fill landfill sites with substances that are the by-products of generating electricity by coal.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) talked about nuclear power, one of the alternatives to coal. One reason for speaking in the debate is that it is important to introduce a sense of balance. There are no coal mines in or near my constituency, but the north-west relies very much on the jobs of those in the nuclear industry to support local prosperity. The right hon. Gentleman said that the nuclear industry is not safe, cheap or peaceful. However, when he was Minister of Technology he had a considerable amount to do with the 1307 nuclear programme. It is a little odd that he should say that now. When he was in office he promoted no end of nuclear power industry projects.
It is also relevant that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention the word "environment" when referring to the nuclear industry. Earlier speakers pointed out that in the past the nuclear industry was considered to have a damaging effect on the environment and that the spotlight was hardly ever directed on the coal industry. During the past few years the nuclear power industry has spent a great deal of money ensuring that nuclear power stations are as safe as possible. Apart from the front-end costs and the capital building programme, there are also the back-end costs of decommissioning. Many of those costs were not in the past—and it is unlikely that this will happen in the future—included in the cost of coal for electricity generation. We hear nothing about the costs of landfill, ash, gypsum and CO2 emissions.
I ask the Government to ensure that when the different methods of electricity generation are considered they should be assessed on what is often referred to these days as a level playing field. We must take into account the back-end costs of producing electricity by coal in just the same way as we take those same costs into account when we assess the cost of producing electricity by nuclear means.
§ Mr. Mans
The reason why that appears to be the case is that the back-end costs of generating electricity from coal are not included in the financial calculations. When one looks at the generation of power from coal, where are the costs of subsidence and of the extra devices that have to be fitted to generating stations, as well as the cost of disposing of ash and gypsum and the overall cost of CO2? Costs are not assessed on the same basis. If they were, I should go further down the road with the hon. Gentleman.
The Opposition's policy on electricity generation appears to be leading in one direction only—towards the increased use of coal to produce electricity. Alongside that policy, however, some members of the shadow Cabinet have an environment policy which is to stabilise CO2 emissions by the year 2000. Again and again Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen have pilloried this Government for suggesting that that target is impossible and for going instead for the year 2005.
The Opposition's policy is clearly inconsistent. To pacify the coal lobby they insist that more electricity should be generated using coal. To pacify the environment lobby they say that they intend to stabilise CO2 emissions by the year 2000. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) suggested that that is not a problem for this country; it is everybody's problem. He suggested that there was no need to look at CO2 emissions from power stations in this country. I submit, however, that there is every need to do so and to get the equation right. If the Labour party wants more coal to be burnt in electricity stations, it will have to say that it cannot possibly meet its target, or the Government's target, of stabilising CO2 emissions by either 2000 or 2005.
1308 The Bill will put the coal industry on a firmer financial footing. I support the help that has been given to the industry in the past. All that I ask is that when the energy needs of our country are examined, the different methods of generating electricity should be assessed in a way that means that we can compare the relative costs in social, economic and environmental terms.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. Three hon. Members have been seeking to catch my eye for some time. I hope, with a little co-operation and good will, that they will all be able to speak before the wind-up starts at 9.20.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) on his excellent maiden speech. He has great knowledge of the mining communities where he has lived for most of his life. I feel sure that we shall hear much more from him, especially in debates of this nature.
I do not understand why this two-clause Bill is necessary. Why do we want to repeal the 1908 Act? A recent Department of Energy press release claimed that the new EC working time directive would necessitate the repeal of the 1908 Act. That must be one of the most hypocritical statements ever made by a British Government. They are fighting tooth and nail to stop the directive being approved. I understand that attempts are to be made next month to find a common position. I understand that that common position will be considered by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers before a final decision is made.
Leaving aside the dubious political argument, the legal argument that the European directive would require repeal of the 1908 Act is manifestly absurd. If that is the case that the Department and the Secretary of State are making for the repeal of the Act, it does not hold water. The directive, like all others about health and safety at work, is intended merely to be minimum legislation and is not intended to replace more advantageous legislation within member states.
I have been looking at some of the early articles of the framework directive which governs all other directives, including those on working time. I have a directive dated 29 June 1989 which states:This directive shall be without prejudice to existing or future national or Community provisions which are more favourable to the protection of the safety and health of workers at work.Therefore, the argument that the European directive would mean an end to the 1908 Act is legally questionable. Were the 1908 Act still in force on 1 January 1993 when the directive is intended to come into place, the provisions of the framework Act and possibly the working time directive would prevent its abolition. Why do we need to repeal it? Why do the Government need to use the excuse—if that is what it is—of the European directive? I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me if I am wrong, and prove it. I shall be surprised if he can. The Government's great haste in rushing the Bill through may be because they want to wipe the 1908 Act from the statute book before January 1993 so that they are not caught by the provisions.
The second part of the Bill makes provision for a large amount of money. That really means providing for the 1309 privatisation of the coal industry. The Government have made it clear that that is their intention and the large amount of money is to enable them to see that through.
Since 1984, the Select Committee on Energy has repeatedly produced reports on the coal mining industry. The 1986 report said that never again should the Government allow the industry to be run down so rapidly that it created the social consequences that we saw up to 1986–87. We now find ourselves with the Rothschild report. It seems obvious that if, God forbid, we were to see the return of a Conservative Government, the industry would be privatised. However, before the privatisation programme, the industry would be cut down to the size suggested by Rothschild.
The big problem is that the Government have allowed the industry and the mining communities to be savaged but there has been very little assistance to enable those communities to recover or create alternative employment. In my area, the Wakefield metropolitan district council area, 28,000 jobs have been lost since 1985. There has not been one farthing of Government support, Government grant or European grant to help the communities recover. My constituency now has only one pit and if Rothschild has his way, it is on its way out, together with many more. There were eight pits in my area prior to the 1984 strike. The Prince of Wales called coal from the area Pontefract gold, but if Rothschild has his way, there will not be any. One can imagine the social problems that have been created.
Apart from those considerations, it is irresponsible of the Government to run down the coal industry and to sterilise billions of tonnes of coal. I was surprised to hear the Secretary of State say this afternoon that British Coal had informed him that the closure of the pits did not mean that billions of tonnes of coal would be sterilised. That was a strange remark. Only yesterday, I got a report from British Coal in which it replied to the Select Committee's report on clean coal technology and the future of the coal industry. The report made it clear that millions of tonnes of coal would be sterilised. How irresponsible is it to allow a major industry and a major source of our energy supply to be run down, and to allow the coal to be sterilised for ever? If the Rothschild report is right, capacity will go down to 30 million tonnes which would meet only half the country's demand for the generation of energy.
We may have to rely for half our coal on imports. When we cannot meet our demand, for how long will imports be cheaper than British coal? The children in the primary schools in my constituency can give the answer to that question. It is the height of irresponsibility to throw away our good fortune in having a colossal energy source under our feet and to sterilise it simply because of the political dogma followed since 1984. That is the problem that we face and I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will have second thoughts.
The repeal of the 1908 Act threatens safety. Despite the genuine efforts of the miners and the management to maintain the markets, men are now being put in positions more dangerous than any since the coal industry was in private ownership. That is not scaremongering. I assure Conservative Members that that is the case, and that men are in danger and are being killed as a result of British Coal's policy.
§ 9.6 pm
§ Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)
I echo the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) on his maiden speech this evening. I also associate myself with his kind remarks about his predecessor, my good friend and colleague George Buckley. George was an especially good friend although, for 20 years, we lived 30 miles apart and never met. He was active in the Yorkshire coalfield while I was active in the Nottinghamshire coalfield. I met George only when I came here, and it was a pleasure for me to meet such a good and conscientious man of the people. I do not envy his successor, because he has a hard job in trying to follow him. George may have been small in stature, but he was a giant of a man to all who knew him.
The Bill is a preparation for privatisation. During the run-up to the general election, the Government do not want to hear the word "privatisation", but that is what is in store for the coal industry—or is it? I believe that there is a third option.
I and my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) have twice met the new chairman of British Coal. Reference was made to the high wages that the new chairman earns. On his appointment, the wages were increased from £90,000 a year—which he thought was a poor salary—to £220,000 a year. I remember that my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian challenged the Prime Minister to comment on the increase, and he answered that the chairman must be worth that salary. The Government must have thought that he was worth the money when they gave him the job and they must value his advice.
The truth is that the new chairman of British Coal has told the Secretary of State that he cannot privatise the coal industry in its present state and that the Rothschild report may understate what is really in store for the coal industry.
The industry may be run down to 12 or 14 pits, and there may be no interest from the private sector, because long-term contracts may not be negotiated, especially in view of the amount of imported coal. The imported coal is heavily subsidised, as we have said many times in the House. If the matter is left to an incoming Tory Government—God help us all if they are re-elected—the choice will be whether to keep a public coal industry or to close it. The third option is the elimination of the coal industry, and we should not overlook that possibility.
I was a miner for 23 years before coming to the House. I was a union representative for 14 years, and I know a lot about the industry and how important the legislation to protect the hours of working is to miners. When I was a union official, most—if not most, a good part—of the serious or fatal accidents that occurred at my pit involved men who were working excessive hours. I am talking not about someone working in an office for a couple of hours but about men working 3,000 ft underground in heat of up to 120 deg, who must swallow salt tablets to stop themselves fainting during their shifts. I remember when I worked at Ollerton colliery in the constituency of the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) that the management had to use haulage bogeys to take fresh water to the miners, who were drinking it faster than it could be ferried to them.
It is bad enough when people are asked to work long hours. In the coal industry, people are now working not two hours' overtime or nine or 10-hour shifts but 12 or 14 1311 hours or sometimes more per shift. The legislation is not intended to legalise what already happens in the industry. It is not intended to legitimise the longer working day in the present industry. It is to accommodate the six or seven-day working week. As I said earlier, that is the thin end of the wedge which brings us closer to the day of ruin.
The former Prime Minister used to talk about Victorian values, and some of my hon. Friends have mentioned them this evening. Victorian days involved 12-hour shifts and six or seven-day weeks, and we are certainly returning to those arrangements. Women are now eligible to work down the pits under previous legislation, but there is protection for kids, for the 16-year-olds who come into the industry. There has always been protection to prevent them from working long hours and being exploited and bullied. The repeal which we are considering will open the way for the exploitation of young kids. We are being led back to Victorian times.
§ Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck)
One element—that of the private mines—has not been mentioned this evening. I understand from the figures given to me by British Coal that more than 1,600 men are employed in private mines. We know that safety standards in private mines are absolutely abysmal and well below those of British Coal. Those miners are open to even more exploitation than the exployees of British Coal.
§ Mr. Hood
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. The safety record in the private sector is worse, because it reflects the fact that those in the private sector are already forced to work longer hours. Miners in the private licensed mines used to receive a few extra pounds for each shift to entice skilled workers away from the coal industry. Now British Coal is getting rid of miners and private enterprise has too much manpower, so it is lowering wages. Miners now work in the licensed mines for less than they were paid in British Coal's mines. That has been happening for some time, but the Secretary of State and the Minister should know that.
I am conscious of the time, so I say only that it will be a sad day if the Government are allowed to change the legislation, not only for the miners and their communities or for those who, directly or indirectly, are involved in or seek employment in the industry, but for the whole of society. We have treasured our coal. I do not want to rely on quotations from Nye Bevan, but he was right when he said that we were a country built on coal. That is certainly the case, but the Government are walking away from that fact by encouraging imports of coal to destroy the fabric of our communities. The mining communities have been hammered enough. The Government govern not by consent or even by diktat but by spite—spite against the mining communities.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
I shall be brief, because I understand that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) wishes to speak. I look upon him as the authentic voice of the Labour party, and I want him to be heard. I respect his views, although I do not agree with them.
I welcome the opportunity to speak. The Government have clearly shown during their 12 years in office that, whatever the Opposition may say, one does not spend £2 million of taxpayers' money every working day with the 1312 objective of closing something down. The Government's objective was to make the industry more efficient, to bring it into the latter part of the 20th century and to make it possible for British mines to produce competitively. All that has been achieved. People with a genuine interest in mining will welcome that.
Coal must still form an essential part of our energy policy. So long as there is coal in the United Kingdom that can be extracted efficiently from the ground, I see no day when we could envisage an energy policy that did not embrace coal. That would be nonsense.
The Bill will produce the finance necessary to allow the mines to operate efficiently and effectively, and will give the people who work in them the opportunity to feel that they are part of an industry no longer hooked on public subsidy. Whatever one's views on public subsidy, the plain fact is that people involved with industries that receive public subsidies always know it and they have that awful feeling that other people are supporting them. That is not true today in many areas that previously had public subsidies.
I do not say that in order to condemn the people who work in those industries. I have tremendous admiration for anyone who has spent a lifetime in the mining industry, especially at the coalface. I have a genuine respect for people who live their lives in that way. Their unique quality is demonstrated in many ways, not least their loyalty and service to the Crown in times of need. Mining communities have always proved admirable in that way.
I see that the clock is moving on, so I shall leave much of what I wanted to say until another day, and let the hon. Member for Bolsover speak.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) talked about subsidies, and that leads me straight to the idea which has sometimes been muttered during the debate—that the mines should not have a subsidy. Yet most mines are interspersed with farming communities. There are a lot of fields, then a pit village, a pit tip and another dozen fields. The farmers get the subsidies, but the miners are supposed to get none.
The real trouble is that we hand over £18 a week for every family in Britain—a total of £14,000 million—through the common agricultural policy. The farmers live cheek by jowl with the pits that are shutting down. Some small farmers say, "We are not getting the money either," and they are right. The tin-pot agricultural policy over there in the Common Market has sent the money to the German farmers and all the rest.
A load of hypocrisy is talked on the subject, and the business about the hours adds more. The Government say, "We are not having any social charter. Get it out of the road. We will not be infected by it." Then, when an idea about making miners in pits work up to 48 hours comes along, the Government, with all their hypocrisy, say, "Oh, yes, we shall have to implement that Common Market directive—in order to make the miners work longer."
There is more hypocrisy to do with imports. The figures for this year show that £20 million-worth of coal will be imported to Britain by the end of December—the equivalent of closing 20 average-sized pits and getting rid of between 20,000 and 25,000 miners by throwing them on the scrap heap. They will then have to get money from the dole or the Benefits Agency, which will cost taxpayers a 1313 great deal more on top of the £25 billion that the state is already paying out for the unemployed. That is the economics of the madhouse.
What is more, 20 million tonnes of imported coal means another £1,000 million added to the balance of payments deficit. The Tory Cabinet comprises so-called business men. Nineteen former Tory Cabinet members enjoy 59 directorships between them. Theirs is the party of big business, yet the Cabinet, littered with all these people with all their business acumen, is making Britain bankrupt because of Ministers' desire to shut pits.
We are on solid ground when we say that we will oppose this Bill. When we get into government, as we shall some time early next year, we will tell the Common Market to stuff its directive on hours. We will make sure, too, that imports are reduced to the same levels as they were under the Labour Government. If we do that, we will save jobs for the miners and make this country richer as a result.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) on a magnificent maiden speech and I agree with him and others who have praised his predecessor, George Buckley, who was a good colleague of ours.
The Secretary of State's ringing declaration that this Bill has nothing to do with privatisation is an example of the double-speak that the Tories use when they start talking about the British coal industry. The Bill clearly belongs to a continuous line of Government action and legislation aimed at the so-called ultimate privatisation of British Coal. As the Queen's Speech put it, the Governmentwill continue to prepare for the privatisation of…the British Coal Corporation.One of the barriers to what the Government would regard as a successful sale is the amount of regulation covering coal mining activities. That is why the abolition of the 1908 Act was sprung on us, on British Coal's management and on the work force. The Government have done this despite repeated warnings from the Energy Select Committee and from elsewhere that such moves should take place only after full consultation and agreement with the unions. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), who spent many years on both sides of the Dispatch Box defending the interests of the nation and the British mining industry, pointed that out in his speech.
A former Secretary of State for Energy, the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), on being asked about a change in the hours of work legislation by the Energy Select Committee in 1986, said thatif it had gone through all its processes. If the unions and the Health and Safety Commission all said it was okay",it would be all right. This Secretary of State does not feel the need to go through such a consultation process. He wants to keep the Government's proposals for the future of the industry a deep and dark secret—and so they remained until the Rothschild report saw the light of day a few weeks ago.
The Secretary of State may try to dodge the issue but tonight he is asking us to allow him and British Coal to pay 1314 for the top-of-the-range redundancy levels which the interim report from Rothschild urges as a necessary prerequisite for privatisation——
§ Mr. Barron
I did. The report is not part of a plot hatched by the Opposition to make the Government look bad. It is part of the Government's plot to trade mineworkers' jobs and one of the nation's most valuable assets for a fast buck. That looks bad not just because the Government commissioned the report, but because they refuse to address its contents. All the ducking and weaving since the report was made public has convinced no one.
The report has informed the contents of the Bill, so will the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary tell us whether the Government are going to reject the advice in the Rothschild report about the future size of the coal industry? Are the Government prepared for the industrial coal market to disappear, something that is implicit in the Rothschild report? If, as we have been told, that is only one of the options, the Minister should tell us what the other options are. If he does not, the uncertainty of the past few months—which has become worse in the past three weeks—will continue to hang over the coal industry.
The Secretary of State said that one of his justifications for further cuts in the coal mining industry is the growth of environmentally-friendly gas generation which we are led to believe is cheap. My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) disputed that in terms of the cost of gas and he had every reason to do so. The hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) referred to that as well.
The debate about the price of generating electricity with gas is one of the most ill-informed debates to enter this place. As evidence of that, I want to refer to comments of Mr. Colin Webster, the marketing director of National Power. He is hardly someone who has made friendly remarks about the coal industry of late. He presented a paper on 5 April in which he stated:I am bound to conclude that looked at from the perspective of the economics of heat and power, it makes no sense to replace existing coal-fired plant with CCGTs unless gas prices are lower than today's.That is not the coal lobby talking—that is the view of senior people in National Power who know exactly what is happening in terms of electricity generation in this country. That removes the Government's mask which they have worn over the past few months as they have tried to pursue the idea of cheap gas. That was simply another attack on the British coal industry.
If the Government sanction all the deals on gas burn that have been agreed to in principle, we will witness the transfer of 40 per cent. of power station coal consumption to gas. Recent information has shown that all but a few of those plants will produce power at a total cost above that of British coal at present prices. Some could be between 15 per cent. and 30 per cent. higher. Even retrofitting of flue gas desulphurisation at the big coal stations would not make them more expensive than some gas burn. That part of the power generation market will be closed to competition for 15 years because that is the length of some of the gas contracts that have been signed.
At the press conference when the Bill was published, the Secretary of State said that cuts in the mining industry are part of a plan for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Those comments were quoted in The Observer 1315 the following Sunday. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions to required levels will not be achieved by ceasing to mine coal in Britain.
No one would disagree about the need for a plan. However, what plan was the Secretary of State talking about in front of the journalists? Under pressure he simply blurted out a few words, but nothing follows from them. He made no mention today of a plan about what the Government are going to do about carbon dioxide emissions. They seem to think that bringing foreign coal into this country and burning it in place of British coal will do something to limit carbon dioxide emissions. What nonsense.
At least the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, the hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), is trying to be sensible. With regard to a carbon tax he said at Energy Questions on Monday that if thatwere done unilaterally ahead of the rest of the world, it could put British industry at a severe disadvantage."—[Official Report, 11 November 1991; Vol. 198, c. 766.]He was absolutely right. He should not introduce such arguments when we know what the Government are after—attacking the British coal industry.
The Bill and the Rothschild report, with their prospects for the closure of 30 collieries in England and Wales, do nothing to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we produce. They merely pave the way for an increasing proportion of those emissions to come from the burning of imported coal. We need a plan, but we need a sensible plan—one that Britain and the rest of the world can agree. The Government obviously do not have such a plan, or it would have been mentioned today. The Government's prime motivation is to carry out an act of revenge on coal miners and coal mining communities.
These days, the Government pretend to care about the environment. However, they use it as a weapon to bash the coal industry. If only they had had the sense to invest in cleaning up our power stations, as the Germans have done, we would not watch electricity industry representatives and Ministers rushing around trying to find cheap fixes to meet their European obligations. If only the Government had concentrated more resources on the development of clean coal generators, we would not be light years behind the United States, Japan and other coal-producing countries in Europe. They profess wholehearted support for clean coal technology, but, by forcing British Coal to search for private sector money, the potentially world-beating topping cycle developments at Grime thorpe have been delayed and delayed.
Why is it that the first and second phases of planned underground gasification demonstration plants are to be made in Spain and Belgium? It is because those Governments have been arguing for coal utilisation while our Government have sat on their hands wanting to take a swipe at miners and their communities. The next Labour Government will look after the future of that great national asset. Whenever the Government want to call a general election, that is what we will do.
Some Conservative Members have made their last speeches in a Second Reading debate on coal. We have enjoyed them. The Secretary of State for Energy, on the Monday of the Labour party annual conference, phoned a few national newspaper editors to talk the Conservative party out of a general election this month. The following Tuesday, the chairman of the Tory party stood up at the Tory party conference and said, "We are going to wipe out 1316 Labour at the next general election." They cannot both be right. They did not want an election on 7 November. Instead, there are two fewer Members on the Conservative Benches than there were in July. Conservative Members know what is in store for them when they have the guts to call the general election. Opposition Members cannot wait to take the majority off them.
An integral part of Labour's plan to look after the coal industry will be the adoption of European proposals for the coal industry. Clearly, decisions reached in the forums of the European Community have affected and will increasingly affect our energy industries with the advent of the single-energy market. In the past, I have argued that using the spot price of coal on the world market as a benchmark for comparison with the British coal industry is simplistic and short-sighted. Recent discussions within the European Community endorse that view.
A current Commission-approved discussion paper that the Secretary of State must know about on state aid for the coal industry states that there is an urgent need to define the reference price for European coal. That is, a price that would establish an acceptable ceiling on production costs, taking account of the regulatory effect on the world market and a premium for security of supply. The reason for that is that the spot market varies with the dollar exchange rate and, for a long time, has been affected by the dumping of coal into Europe—something about which British Coal has complained to the Commission. We still never hear Ministers support the anti-dumping case. The reference price would allow aid for a long-term market to be established.
When the Council of Energy Ministers meets with those proposals before it, Opposition Members and the British coal industry would like to know what attitude Britain's representatives will adopt. Will they support the proposals that would provide for the coal industry's future? Will the Secretary of State bat for the British coal industry in the way that the German Government bat for theirs? It seems perverse that the expensively subsidised and more expensive German deep-mined coal industry has not suffered the rigours through which our coal industry has been put. The agreement that has been reached——
§ Mr. Barron
The hon. Member for Exeter may say that an agreement is about to be reached, but agreement has been reached this week. It will reduce our production by 15 million tonnes between now and the year 2005.
§ Mr. Barron
No, it is the year 2005 when the figure will be 15 million tonnes. The British Government have been practising euthanasia on the British coal industry and the Rothschild report is about to take that even further. Its proposals will make what has happened up to now look like a day out at the seaside.
It seems odd that the coal pfennig has been given the green light by Brussels when we have been continually led to believe that state aid for our coal industry would not be allowed. Industries in Europe, however, will receive state aid until the year 2005. That is not good enough. Nobody could believe that the Government do anything for the British coal industry because they are absent from the debate and have not done anything to help our plight.
1317 The Secretary of State and his Back Benchers talk about how the Government have supported the coal industry. That is yet more Tory doublespeak for a decade that has seen the Government inspire a decline in coal production from 120 million tonnes per annum to 91 million tonnes; for a decline in employment from 223,000 jobs to 74,000 jobs and for the closure of more than two thirds of our collieries. If that is support for an industry, I should not like to be part of an industry that the Government were against.
Thurcroft colliery in my constituency is now threatened with closure because of a short-term geological problem, yet it has 20 million tonnes of workable low-sulphur reserves. If the colliery were allowed to overcome that problem, it could soon continue to earn the money that it has earned ever since the pit was sunk earlier this century. However, the Government are intent on that pit closure by which the nation will lose that asset of 20 million tonnes of coal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) referred graphically to Murton colliery in the north-east and spoke about what it means to a community to lose 600 jobs. That is what is threatened at Thurcroft at the moment.
Even when the Government have closed the pits, their vendetta against our communities continues. What other complexion can we put on their refusal to conform to the EEC regulations on RECHAR? What reason can there be other than the Tory party's vendetta against our coal mining communities?
The Secretary of State said that British Coal's market has been in decline for decades. That was certainly the case until the early 1980s, but British miners then started to lose their jobs to imports. That is what the Government want to continue to happen to miners even after all that they have been through to achieve their productivity increases of 100 per cent. in the past six years. Despite that, the Government want to take away thousands more jobs by importing coal.
The Secretary of State also said that the restructuring grant limit isnot determined by any view of the future of the industry.I hope that I have quoted the right hon. Gentleman correctly. However, only last year in discussions on the level of restructuring grants, I was told by the then Under-Secretary of State that that waslinked to expected redundancies. It is for British Coal to decide what manpower it requires…However the Government need to make some estimate of the number of redundancies in order to seek the necessary estimate provision for restructuring grant.Everyone knows that the Bill is part of the privatisation process. The Government and their Back-Benchers know it. We know it, miners and their families know it, and the country knows it. That is why we shall oppose the Bill in the Lobby tonight.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)
The debate has been characterised by deep-seated differences of opinion, but it has been recognised on both sides of the House that the British coal industry faces formidable challenges. That was certainly recognised by the hon. Member for Hemsworth 1318 (Mr. Enright) in his maiden speech. He made it clear that he will represent the industry in his own way. I disagreed with much of what he had to say, but I welcome him to the House from this Bench and look forward to debating these issues with him on many occasions.
We can certainly agree that coal sales are dominated today by the contracts between the generating companies and British Coal. The contracts specify both prices and volume—70 million tonnes this year, falling to 65 million tonnes next year. They have been cleared by the European Commission because they were transitional contracts. They expire in March 1993. Thereafter, the market will not be easy. Several large gas-fired electricity generating stations will begin to operate and that will inevitably take away a proportion of the market.
Just as natural gas displaced some of the coal and coal gas in the domestic market during the 1960s, so gas-fired stations will affect electricity generation in the 1990s. That is inescapable. But despite those structural changes, there will continue to be a large market for coal. Like Opposition Members, we want to see British Coal secure as much of that market as possible.
Negotiations for contracts after 1993 have not started, so we do not yet know the tonnages or the volumes. However, we know that the volumes will depend on the efforts of the managers and mineworkers in responding to those opportunities. Any Government and any industry in the public or private sector has to face those challenges in not only Britain but other countries.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
I wish to make one more point. The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) mentioned Germany in his closing remarks. The German coal industry has been held out as something of a model by Opposition Members. It has recently announced a likely 30,000 job losses in the years ahead, on top of the 26,000 or so redundancies made during the past three years. The restructuring that we are seeing is mirrored on the continent.
§ Mr. Barron
The Minister mentioned volumes. Will he or the Secretary of State reject the volumes mentioned in the Rothschild report—25 million tonnes deep-mined and 15 million tonnes opencast?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
As the hon. Gentleman has referred to the Rothschild report, let me make it crystal clear that we have appointed advisers, including Rothschilds, to analyse options for privatisation of the industry. As part of that, it considered a range of possible developments in the energy sector. No decisions on the timing or form of privatisation will be taken until after the general election. Those decisions will be taken by the Government, not advisers. Rothschilds and the other advisers have absolutely no role in decisions on the future of individual collieries.
It is perhaps characteristic of the hon. Members for Rother Valley and for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) that they take the most pessimistic scenario and present it as fact. We are determined to ensure the development of the largest possible economic coal industry that the market can support. We are confident that when the new contracts are negotiated the industry will respond to keep the lion's share of that market throughout the 1990s and beyond. Productivity improvements over the 1319 past five years, admittedly from a very low base, have been highly impressive. Moreover, the industry is beginning to lose the industrial image that it once had of a strike-torn and unreliable supplier. I am confident that that, too, will help in the years ahead.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
Both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman made speeches. I ask them to forgive me for not taking interventions.
§ Mr. Ashton
The Government have encouraged the Union of Democratic Mineworkers to consider buying into any sort of privatised industry. If the Government are re-elected—God forbid—is it not a fact that privatisation would come in 1992 and that in 1993 contracts for the supply of coal to the power stations would be awarded? With massive imports, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers would not be able to match the price of that coal and would have to advise its members to take wage cuts to meet the contracts. Is not that the reality?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
Absolutely not. We believe that the best chance of keeping out imports is to improve the efficiency and productivity of the industry. We believe also that that will be best done in the private sector. That is why in due course we shall be making proposals to do just that.
I recognise that there will not be an easy transition. That is why we are introducing the Bill and why clause 1 extends the overall limit on the payment of restructuring grant by a further £1.5 billion. I remind the House that since 1979 the Government have approved over £7.5 billion of new investment and have provided for grant aid of about £17 billion to the industry. That has been provided by the Government—by the taxpayer—and is a measure of the Government's commitment to the industry. We are continuing to invest in it at a rate of over £1 million for every working day.
Restructuring grant represents a specific commitment by the Government to the work force. The money supports British Coal's costs of redundancy, transfers between collieries, retraining for jobs outside the industry and the excellent work of British Coal Enterprise. The money helps BCE to carry out a range of initiatives, including the provision of soft loans for new businesses, managed workshops for new businesses, low-cost premises for expanding businesses, training for ex-mineworkers and job shops. I listened carefully to my hon. Friends, and especially my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), when they set out their ideas for extending and expanding the work that I have described in the affected areas. We shall consider their proposals carefully.
Restructuring grant has been paid by the Government since 1987. It has been raised in progressive stages to the present limit of £1,500 million. The grant provides support for 90 per cent. of the costs of the corporation when it pays redundancy sums to mineworkers. It allows the corporation to pay its mineworkers lump sums of up to £37,000 on leaving the industry, which is generous by any standards. That is why Labour should be supporting the Bill instead of criticising it. If we are to continue the high 1320 levels of payment to those affected by restructuring, the Bill is essential. If we are to continue the retraining and employment schemes, we need the Bill.
The Labour party should know about the cost of restructuring because it did so itself when in government. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, between 1964 and 1970 it was a Labour Government who shut nearly 280 collieries. As a result, 170,000 men lost their jobs in the mining industry during those years. In that period, however, there were not the generous redundancy terms or the restructuring payments that are now available.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
Will the Minister accept that the flaw in his argument is that no figure is projected for the next financial year which will take the amount needed over the present limits agreed under the 1987 legislation? We do not need to increase the limits for at least another 18 months.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
We do not yet know the precise figures required—that is up to British Coal: It controls individual collieries and it will decide the sums required. It is a restructuring grant paid to British Coal, to fund up to 90 per cent. of the sums that may be required when British Coal shuts collieries as part of its restructuring exercise.
§ Mr. Allen McKay
In the finances that are being made available, is there anything to continue the concessionary fuel arrangements? If privatisation occurs, will the Government guarantee everything that currently exists, will that be left to the private owners, or will the miners be sold down the river?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that entitlement to concessionary coal will be preserved. I am happy to put that on the record once again.
If Labour Members oppose the Bill, they and the miners will know that the redundancy terms on offer—which are generous by any standards—the transfer payments available for those wishing to move to other pits, the retraining help, and the managed workshops are all being provided by a Conservative Government, despite opposition from the Labour party. They know that all that would be put at risk if there were the prospect of a Labour Government. Frankly, it is not an adequate response for Labour Members to pretend that they can somehow keep the market for coal at its present level.
The hon. Member for Rother Valley referred to a national plan for energy. He did not tell us what was in that plan, other than mentioning something called a reference price. He did not tell us what the reference was. He avoided any of the hard decisions that would have to be made if he wanted to stabilise the industry at about its current size, as promised by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. The hard decisions——
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
I shall not give way as I am responding specifically to the hon. Gentleman's speech.
Will the Labour party shut down the new gas-fired generating stations, break those contracts and lay off the men? Will it restrict the use of the electricity interconnectors to France and Scotland? Will it ignore the European single market and GATT by restricting coal imports? If so, that is hardly in line with Labour's 1321 new-found enthusiasm for the European single market and free trade. Without facing at least some of those hard choices, Labour's promises remain, quite simply, empty phrases.
We have heard from Opposition Members a wholly misleading account of clause 2. The 1908 Act is an obsolete restriction that is not appropriate for modern mining methods. It has been overtaken by local practices and informal agreements—and that has been the case since mechanisation of the industry began in the 1950s. If it is true, as alleged by Labour Members, that the 1908 Act is so essential for safety today, why did not the previous Labour Government enforce it? I wish that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) had dealt with that point in his speech, because he was the Energy Minister when the letter of the Act was being breached. He did nothing about it then, so how can the Opposition claim that the Act is pivotal to safety in today's mines?
Repeal of the 1908 Act will not jeopardise safety—we would not let that happen. The coal industry has a good safety record and it has a strong safety culture reflecting the accumulated wisdom of the management, the work force and the mines inspectorate. The Act plays no part in the safety regime. Therefore, we intend to repeal the Act when alternative regulations governing working times are in place. That does not affect our commitment to safety and it has nothing to do with privatisation. For Opposition Members to suggest otherwise shows that they have either not understood the Bill or are trying to bolster a weak case with irrelevant scares.
Hon. Members from both sides of the House have commented on the environment.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At 10 o'clock when the Division bell goes, the House will have been sitting for seven and a half hours, from prayers through questions, statements and this debate. Is not that a long enough period for miners to be working down the pit? Some of us will believe that we have done a good job during that period.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
My hon. Friends have made the good point that the Labour party is posing as the party of carbon dioxide reductions while at the same time it wants to force electricity generators to burn more coal, phase out the nuclear industry and, in its phrase, to "deter" the generators from using gas for power generation. That is a neat package for increasing the output of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
But when talking to a different audience at a different time, the Labour party poses as the green party, committing itself to the tough and demanding target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. That is a glaring and continuing contradiction between its energy and environmental policies, and it cannot disguise the fact.
However, I shall at least admit that that contradiction does not exist on the Liberal Democrat Bench. I have been examining the Liberal Democrats' environmental document called, "Costing the Earth". They want—I suppose that there is some merit in honesty—an immediate energy 1322 tax with the highest rate on coal specifically designed to switch fuel use away from coal. Their energy tax is targeted at coal reduction.
I then looked at the section of the report headed "Economic Impact" where there was nothing at all about the damage to the coal industry. It was not even mentioned. That is how it dismisses the coal industry. There may be some honesty there, but please do not let us hear from the Liberal Democrats that, if they vote against the Bill this evening, they have anything constructive to offer either existing coal miners or those displaced by restructuring.
This evening we have seen the old familiar Labour party of intervention, protectionism and high prices. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for reminding us of that in the last speech from the Opposition Back Benches. What we do not know is how it squares those beliefs with its later beliefs in market forces, the EC and industrial efficiency. I shall leave that to be worked out by the political analysts.
I am concerned about the practical effect of the Labour party's opposition to the Bill, which would be to hamper or prevent the necessary restructuring of the coal industry which we all know to be necessary. The Bill will allow British Coal continued and necessary access to restructuring grant. Without that, British Coal will be unable to continue the present level of redundancy pay or the redeployment, retraining or job placement schemes that it supports.
The Bill also empowers the Secretary of State to repeal an obsolete and out-of-date Act of Parliament from 1908 which threatens the industry's productivity and the earnings of its work force. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 287, Noes 196.1325
|Division No. 10]||[10 pm|
|Adley, Robert||Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard|
|Alexander, Richard||Brandon-Bravo, Martin|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Brazier, Julian|
|Allason, Rupert||Bright, Graham|
|Amery, Rt Hon Julian||Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)|
|Amess, David||Browne, John (Winchester)|
|Amos, Alan||Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)|
|Arbuthnot, James||Buck, Sir Antony|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Burns, Simon|
|Arnold, Sir Thomas||Burt, Alistair|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Butler, Chris|
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)||Butterfill, John|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Carlisle, John, (Luton N)|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)|
|Batiste, Spencer||Carrington, Matthew|
|Bellingham, Henry||Carttiss, Michael|
|Bendall, Vivian||Cash, William|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda|
|Benyon, W.||Channon, Rt Hon Paul|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Chope, Christopher|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Plymouth)|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Clark, Rt Hon Sir William|
|Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Colvin, Michael|
|Body, Sir Richard||Conway, Derek|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Coombs, Simon (Swindon)|
|Boswell, Tim||Cope, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Bottomley, Peter||Cormack, Patrick|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Couchman, James|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Cran, James|
|Bowis, John||Currie, Mrs Edwina|
|Curry, David||Knapman, Roger|
|Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)||Knight, Greg (Derby North)|
|Davis, David (Boothferry)||Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)|
|Day, Stephen||Knowles, Michael|
|Dicks, Terry||Knox, David|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Lilley, Rt Hon Peter|
|Dover, Den||Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)|
|Dunn, Bob||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Durant, Sir Anthony||Lord, Michael|
|Dykes, Hugh||Luce, Rt Hon Sir Richard|
|Eggar, Tim||Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas|
|Emery, Sir Peter||MacGregor, Rt Hon John|
|Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)||MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)|
|Evennett, David||Maclean, David|
|Fallon, Michael||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Farr, Sir John||McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael|
|Fenner, Dame Peggy||McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick|
|Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey||Madel, David|
|Fishburn, John Dudley||Major, Rt Hon John|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman||Malins, Humfrey|
|Fox, Sir Marcus||Mans, Keith|
|French, Douglas||Maples, John|
|Fry, Peter||Marland, Paul|
|Gale, Roger||Marlow, Tony|
|Gardiner, Sir George||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)|
|Gill, Christopher||Martin, David (Portsmouth S)|
|Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian||Mates, Michael|
|Glyn, Dr Sir Alan||Maude, Hon Francis|
|Goodhart, Sir Philip||Mawhinney, Dr Brian|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Mellor, Rt Hon David|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Meyer, Sir Anthony|
|Gorst, John||Miller, Sir Hal|
|Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)||Mills, Iain|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Miscampbell, Norman|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Gregory, Conal||Mitchell, Sir David|
|Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')||Moate, Roger|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Grist, Ian||Montgomery, Sir Fergus|
|Ground, Patrick||Morris, M (N'hampton S)|
|Grylls, Michael||Morrison, Rt Hon Sir Peter|
|Hague, William||Moss, Malcolm|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Moynihan, Hon Colin|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Mudd, David|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Neale, Sir Gerrard|
|Hannam, John||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')||Newton, Rt Hon Tony|
|Harris, David||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Hawkins, Christopher||Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)|
|Hayes, Jerry||Norris, Steve|
|Hayward, Robert||Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley|
|Heathcoat-Amory, David||Page, Richard|
|Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael||Paice, James|
|Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)||Paisley, Rev Ian|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.||Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil|
|Hill, James||Patnick, Irvine|
|Hind, Kenneth||Patten, Rt Hon Chris (Bath)|
|Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)||Patten, Rt Hon John|
|Hordern, Sir Peter||Pawsey, James|
|Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)||Porter, Barry (Wirral S)|
|Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)||Portillo, Michael|
|Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)||Price, Sir David|
|Hunter, Andrew||Redwood, John|
|Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas||Renton, Rt Hon Tim|
|Jack, Michael||Rhodes James, Sir Robert|
|Janman, Tim||Ridsdale, Sir Julian|
|Jessel, Toby||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Rossi, Sir Hugh|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Rost, Peter|
|Key, Robert||Rowe, Andrew|
|Kilfedder, James||Ryder, Rt Hon Richard|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)||Sackville, Hon Tom|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Sayeed, Jonathan|
|Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas||Tredinnick, David|
|Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)||Trippier, David|
|Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')||Trotter, Neville|
|Shelton, Sir William||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Viggers, Peter|
|Shersby, Michael||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Sims, Roger||Waldegrave, Rt Hon William|
|Skeet, Sir Trevor||Walden, George|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Walker, Bill (T'side North)|
|Soames, Hon Nicholas||Waller, Gary|
|Speed, Keith||Walters, Sir Dennis|
|Speller, Tony||Ward, John|
|Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Squire, Robin||Warren, Kenneth|
|Stanbrook, Ivor||Watts, John|
|Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John||Wells, Bowen|
|Steen, Anthony||Wheeler, Sir John|
|Stern, Michael||Whitney, Ray|
|Stevens, Lewis||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Stewart, Rt Hon Sir Ian||Wilkinson, John|
|Stokes, Sir John||Wilshire, David|
|Summerson, Hugo||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Tapsell, Sir Peter||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Taylor, Ian (Esher)||Wood, Timothy|
|Temple-Morris, Peter||Woodcock, Dr. Mike|
|Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)||Yeo, Tim|
|Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Thurnham, Peter||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Townend, John (Bridlington)||Mr. David Lightbown and Mr. Sydney Chapman.|
|Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley, N.)||Dalyell, Tam|
|Allen, Graham||Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)|
|Anderson, Donald||Dewar, Donald|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Dobson, Frank|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Doran, Frank|
|Ashley, Rt Hon Jack||Duffy, Sir A. E. P.|
|Ashton, Joe||Dunnachie, Jimmy|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth|
|Barron, Kevin||Eadie, Alexander|
|Battle, John||Enright, Mr Derek|
|Beith, A. J.||Evans, John (St Helens N)|
|Bell, Stuart||Fatchett, Derek|
|Bellotti, David||Faulds, Andrew|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Fearn, Ronald|
|Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)||Fisher, Mark|
|Benton, Joseph||Flannery, Martin|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Flynn, Paul|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Foot, Rt Hon Michael|
|Blair, Tony||Foster, Derek|
|Boateng, Paul||Foulkes, George|
|Boyes, Roland||Fraser, John|
|Bradley, Keith||Fyfe, Maria|
|Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)||Galloway, George|
|Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)||Garrett, John (Norwich South)|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)|
|Caborn, Richard||George, Bruce|
|Callaghan, Jim||Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Godman, Dr Norman A.|
|Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)||Golding, Mrs Llin|
|Campbell-Savours, D. N.||Gordon, Mildred|
|Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)||Gould, Bryan|
|Clay, Bob||Graham, Thomas|
|Clelland, David||Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)|
|Cohen, Harry||Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)|
|Cook, Robin (Livingston)||Grocott, Bruce|
|Corbett, Robin||Hain, Peter|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Hardy, Peter|
|Cousins, Jim||Harman, Ms Harriet|
|Cox, Tom||Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy|
|Crowther, Stan||Heal, Mrs Sylvia|
|Cryer, Bob||Healey, Rt Hon Denis|
|Cummings, John||Henderson, Doug|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Hinchliffe, David|
|Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)||Nellist, Dave|
|Home Robertson, John||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon|
|Hood, Jimmy||O'Brien, William|
|Howarth, George (Knowsley N)||O'Hara, Edward|
|Howells, Geraint||O'Neill, Martin|
|Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)||Parry, Robert|
|Hughes, John (Coventry NE)||Patchett, Terry|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Pike, Peter L.|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Prescott, John|
|Hume, John||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Illsley, Eric||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Ingram, Adam||Radice, Giles|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)||Randall, Stuart|
|Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn)||Redmond, Martin|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)||Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn|
|Kennedy, Charles||Reid, Dr John|
|Kilfoyle, Peter||Richardson, Jo|
|Kumar, Dr. Ashok||Robertson, George|
|Lamond, James||Robinson, Geoffrey|
|Leadbitter, Ted||Rooker, Jeff|
|Leighton, Ron||Rooney, Terence|
|Lewis, Terry||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Litherland, Robert||Rowlands, Ted|
|Livingstone, Ken||Ruddock, Joan|
|Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Lofthouse, Geoffrey||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Loyden, Eddie||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|McAllion, John||Skinner, Dennis|
|McAvoy, Thomas||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Macdonald, Calum A.||Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)|
|McFall, John||Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)|
|McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)||Soley, Clive|
|McKelvey, William||Spearing, Nigel|
|McLeish, Henry||Stephen, Nicol|
|McMaster, Gordon||Stott, Roger|
|McNamara, Kevin||Straw, Jack|
|McWilliam, John||Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)|
|Madden, Max||Turner, Dennis|
|Mahon, Mrs Alice||Vaz, Keith|
|Marek, Dr John||Wallace, James|
|Marshall, David (Shettleston)||Walley, Joan|
|Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Martin, Michael J. (Springbum)||Wareing, Robert N.|
|Martlew, Eric||Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)|
|Maxton, John||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|Meacher, Michael||Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)|
|Meale, Alan||Wilson, Brian|
|Michael, Alun||Winnick, David|
|Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)||Worthington, Tony|
|Mitchell, Austin (G'f Grimsby)||Wray, Jimmy|
|Moonie, Dr Lewis||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Mowlam, Marjorie||Mr. Ray Powell and Mr. Ken Eastham.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you had any intimation from the Government that they might wish to make a statement on what has been said this evening on the wire: that Mr. Marlin Fitzwater, on behalf of the American President, is to consult the British Prime Minister about a response to what has happened in relation to the Libyan findings and that apparently he does not rule out a military response? Some of us, especially those who have recently been to 1326 Libya, think that war solves nothing. We are conscious that 5,500 of our fellow countrymen work in Libya and we wonder whether we can have a statement before any rash action is taken. We should at least wait until a trial takes place.
§ Mr. Speaker
Having not seen the tape this evening, I am not aware of this matter. I am sure that what has been said will have been heard by those on the Government Front Bench.