HC Deb 01 December 1992 vol 215 cc145-6 3.35 pm
Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to specify the procedures to be followed when the closure of a coal mine is proposed; to require assessments of efficiency, profitability. contribution to import substitution, competitiveness with other fuels and related matters; to set criteria for the approval or disapproval of a proposed closure; and for connected purposes. I wish to introduce the Bill to try to prevent any repetition of the disgraceful scenario following the announcement by the President of the Board of Trade during the recess which led to the infamous 13 October statement. I believe that such a Bill is long overdue.

The country was told in 1984, when the modified colliery review procedure was placed before the deputies' union, NACODS, that the procedure would be sacrosanct. Unlike certain Ministers and many hon. Members, on the Opposition Benches, I understand what "sacrosanct" means. It does not mean that, when things turn a little nasty, the procedure is totally ignored. The procedure has now fallen into disrepute, and I would like to see something replacing it on a statutory basis.

It was all very well for Lady Thatcher and the then Energy Minister, Mr. Peter Walker, to assure the House that the review procedure would be followed. As time went on, they went missing from the House. Statute law does not go missing; it continues.

Two issues make me certain beyond doubt that we need to take this matter out of the hands of the Department of Trade and Industry. On 12 October I wrote to the President of the Board of Trade, asking for some borehole information on the coal measures off the Northumberland and Durham coast, information going back to the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Today I have been informed by the Energy Minister that the Department of Trade and Industry has no such information and that if I require it I must approach the National Geological Survey or British Coal. This leads me to believe that the disgusting decision taken in the recess was taken without proper knowledge of the subject.

What makes me even more convinced that that is the fact that in answer to a question from me in the House the President of the Board of Trade stated that he could not understand why people were buying nuclear or gas-generated power if it was more expensive than coal. If that is his understanding of the subject, we badly need a review and we badly need to take it out of the House, the Department and the Ministry.

All I ask is quite simply that we go back to what we were promised by the Government in 1984. If that comes about, we will never again have the stupid and ridiculous state of affairs in which a Minister has to come to this House and state quite categorically that he needs three months' breathing space.

I say again to the President of the Board of Trade that the miners and those who support them have not been fooled by what has been said. We know that the decision to be announced in January or February will be based upon what public pressure can be brought to bear rather than upon the facts of the matter. It is no use Ministers coming to the House and asking for time if they do not intend to do something tangible in that time. Nothing leads me to believe that it was anything other than that.

I went to Wearmouth colliery last week. Perhaps one or two Conservatives know where that is, but I will tell those who do not. It is in the county of Tyne and Wear, formerly County Durham, and it is in Sunderland—not particularly noted for having a good football club, but a place that will be known to most people. I went down the mine at Wearmouth colliery to see a new face which it has cost £20 million to get to over many years. The face is in some of the best conditions that anyone, including me, will have seen in this country. It is in a seam of coal in undisturbed geological strata more than 8 ft thick. Yet that colliery, according to the President of the Board of Trade, was to be mothballed. I was supposed to be thankful for that. It meant that, out of the 21 collieries proposed for closure, it was somewhere between numbers one and four in the rating, so there were at least 17, and possibly 20, behind it. I am not satisfied with that, and there are many other people who are not satisfied with it. That is why I am asking the House to support the Bill.

I should like to pay a tribute here—I have not had an opportunity to do so before—to hon. Members on the Government Benches who supported the miners and those who support them by voting with the Opposition to ensure that a proper review was carried out. We shall be eternally grateful to that handful of Members. One of them has certainly suffered, and it may well be that others will do so, but they have our gratitude. Many hon. Members stated that they were voting only for the review and that their final vote would be based upon what was proposed by the President of the Board of Trade as and when the review was completed. We hope that those hon. Members will join us should we not get the result that we wish to get.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bill Etherington, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Alan Meale, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mr. John Cummings, Mr. Ronnie Campbell, Mr. Jimmy Hood, Mr. Eric Clarke and Mr. Michael Clapham.