HC Deb 20 January 1993 vol 217 cc360-2
2. Mr. David Nicholson

To ask the President of the Board of Trade when he expects to announce the conclusions of his review of the Government's energy policy.

9. Mr. Canavan

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what recent discussions he has had with representatives of British Coal about the future of the coal industry; and if he will make a statement.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

I hope to be able to publish the coal review White Paper as soon as possible next month. As part of the review process I meet British Coal as necessary to discuss a range of issues.

Mr. Nicholson

Any fair-minded person will recognise that resolving the problems that my right hon. Friend inherited will require some cost—whether financial, legislative or ideological. Will my right hon. Friend carefully examine the case for more private enterprise, rather than more subsidy, in the coal industry? Will he also take a hard look at the hidden subsidy that the British consumer pays, through the channel link, to the French nuclear industry and to the dash for gas?

Mr. Heseltine

I know of my hon. Friend's concern in such matters and I assure him that both the Select Committee and, I hope, my Department have carried out an extremely comprehensive and thorough review. I hope shortly to put the findings of the review before the House and I assure my hon. Friend that the matters that he has raised will be included in our review.

Mr. Canavan

Will the Secretary of State investigate the astonishing claim made earlier this week by the chief executive of Scottish Power that, towards the end of last year, British Coal did not even bid for a contract to supply 800,000 tonnes of coal to Scottish power stations, so that Scottish Power had almost no option but to go for subsidised imports? In view of the Government's complete lack of an integrated energy policy and the fact that the Secretary of State was found guilty of flouting the law by unnecessarily closing pits, will the right hon. Gentleman face up to his responsibilities and intervene to save the British coal industry, or resign and make way for someone who will?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman will realise that the specific issue of tendering for coal supplies to the Scottish electricity industry or any other consumer is a matter for British Coal. I shall certainly draw the attention of British Coal to the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman. British Coal is charged with the responsibility of advancing the interests of British coal and it must decide whether to bid for contracts. As to the hon. Gentleman's general observations, he will find that our review will be extremely comprehensive and we shall look carefully at the large subsidies in the energy industry, many of which we have sought to reduce during the past decade to fulfil our energy policy objective of providing a diversity of supply at competitive prices.

Mr. Robathan

In my right hon. Friend's deliberations on the future energy policy of the United Kingdom, will he take into account his Department's renewable energy advisory group recommendations, in particular the generation target of 1500 MW by the year 2000 and the idea of a renewable energy obligation? Will he also look into the sensible use of combined heat and power and municipal waste-to-energy schemes? When is he likely to make his decisions on those matters?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend raises two more aspects of the wide-ranging review that we are conducting. I assure him that we shall deal with both matters when we produce our White Paper.

Mr. Fisher

As part of his review of energy policy, will the President of the Board of Trade give the House the time scale for the review of the 10 pits ordered by the High Court? Will he assure the House that that review will be no less thorough and rigorous than that of the 21 pits? Will he allow coaling to start in the 10 pits so that the reviews may be of equal parity and importance and conducted on an equal basis?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman is right. We have asked Boyds—an internationally respected firm of consultants—to introduce the degree of independence to the consultative processes now under way in the light of our judgment of the court findings. It is now for Boyds to conduct the review and we have asked it to look at the evidence and the state of the pits. That matter was also raised in the light of the assurances given by the chairman of British Coal to myself, the Select Committee and the courts. It is for Boyds to determine the speed at which it conducts its review, which must be done thoroughly. It is for British Coal to consult the unions on whether they accept the element of independence that the appointment that I have made could provide in the circumstances. When the exercise has been conducted and I have received the report, I shall ensure that the House is fully informed.

Mr. Kynoch

While conducting his review of energy policy, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is a proper balance between all forms of energy, with particular reference to the North sea oil and gas industry, which contributes an important amount to the economy of the north-east of Scotland?

Mr. Heseltine

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that all aspects of energy provision are considered in our review and that is what we are doing.

Mr. Robin Cook

Has the President already forgotten that since last Question Time, the courts have ruled that his decision of 13 October was unlawful and that his decision of 19 October to shut 10 pits was both unlawful and irrational?

Would not the rational response to that ruling be to let the miners who clock on at those pits every day go underground and dig coal? Why, then, does not the right hon. Gentleman instruct British Coal to reopen the 10 pits that it unlawfully shut? As he has told the House that he has met the top people in British Coal, who will all keep their jobs, will he say which pits on the list he has visited during the review and what meetings he has had with the people working there who face the sack?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman is fully aware that we have continual discussions with British Coal, which is responsible for the management of pits. We have not instructed British Coal to resume coaling at the 10 pits, for the simple reason that it advises us that it does not need the additional coal. It already has large stocks, both at the pithead and with the generators. The contractual prospects for British Coal would not justify the additional cost of extracting that coal now.

Mr. Riddick

Is my hon. Friend aware that my local council—Labour-controlled Kirklees—is imposing smokeless zones on the rural parts of my constituency, despite the fact that the council's own figures show that emissions of smoke and sulphur dioxide are well within the legal limit? The result will be that hundreds, if not thousands, of local households will switch from burning coal to burning gas. Is not that Labour hypocrisy in action?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend brings out one of the less attractive features of the controversy that has surrounded the pit closures. It must also be said that we have not heard a great deal from the environmental lobbies, which were so vociferous in urging us to achieve better environmental standards in this area.