HC Deb 27 January 1992 vol 202 cc694-5
12. Mr. Hardy

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy by what proportion productivity has been improved in deep-mined colleries operated by British Coal during the last three years.

Mr. Wakeham

Poductivity in deep mines operated by British Coal improved by 29 per cent. in the last three years to December 1991.

Mr. Hardy

Can the Minister tell the House of any other industry in Britain that could equal the productivity achievement of British miners? Is he concerned about the rewards for that achievement—the brutal loss of employment, the economic devastation of the coalfields, the adverse effect on our balance of payments, which will get worse, the excessive and inevitable energy dependence, and the deceitful diversion of funds from the coalfields as a result of the Government's approach to the European money that should be available to us?

Mr. Wakeham

I repeat that the European Community money should be for the benefit of coal communities, and we very much regret that the European Commission has not released the funds. It is not the Government who are blocking the money—it is the European Commission.

I have been the first to pay tribute to improvements in productivity in the coal industry, but they must continue if the industry is to provide, as I believe that it can, the bulk of supplies to fossil-fuel generators in the years to come. If the hon. Gentleman believes otherwise, he is inviting electricity consumers to pay over the odds for their electricity.

Mr. Morgan

Does the Secretary of State agree that despite the tremendous advances in productivity made by the employees of British Coal, the perverse reward that the Government give them is to squeeze the British coal industry between the upper and nether millstones? The upper millstone consists of the new gas plants, which are protected by their 15-year contracts. The nether millstone is the nuclear industry, which is protected by the mysterious ENOR—the existing nuclear operating regime—which protects the nuclear industry so that all its power stations will run whenever they are available to run, a condition which may be applied to Sizewell B as well.

Mr. Wakeham

I have made it abundantly clear that the licences of the regional electricity companies require them to purchase from the cheapest suppliers. If the cheapest supplies are from gas, they will purchase gas; if it is coal, I would expect them to use coal-fired methods.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The Secretary of State has something of a reputation for being the Lord Whitelaw of the Government. Will he use his experience and wisdom to sort out the ridiculous dispute affecting the coalfield communities and the money that is due to them? The technical obstacle relates to ring-fencing of local government money. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the substantial sum that the European Community wants to give us, and which the coalfield communities want to receive, is given now when it is needed? Surely the right hon. Gentleman has the wisdom to sort that out.

Mr. Wakeham

I do not think that it is wisdom that is required but if I can do anything, I will. The position is clear: the United Kingdom has paid its contributions to the Commission, and the Commission has the money. We are entitled—and we expect—to get that money back.