HC Deb 05 July 1993 vol 228 cc122-46 10.29 pm
The Minister for Energy (Mr. Tim Eggar)

I beg to move, That this House authorises the Secretary of State to pay, or undertake to pay, by way of financial assistance under section 8 of the Industrial Development Act 1982, sums exceeding £10 million in total but not exceeding £120 million in total to support sales of coal produced from underground mines in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

In our earlier debate, I tried to get an answer to a question but no response was forthcoming in the Minister's reply. In a letter to hon. Members dated 28 June, the chairman of the British Coal Corporation said that British Coal had made a very competitively priced offer to the generators for additional sales", which had been rejected. The Minister said five days earlier that no one had actually asked for the subsidy to secure additional sales for British Coal. Could he tell us whether, when British Coal asked the generators, it knew how much per gigajoule the subsidy would be, or whether it was trying to negotiate with the generators without knowing how much the subsidy would be?

Mr. Eggar

Nobody knows what the level of subsidy is. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have noted from the parliamentary answer that I gave about two weeks ago that we have asked for a response both from British Coal and from private sector coal producers to assist us in setting the level of subsidy. To paraphrase my answer, we have basically asked for information regarding the world price of coal as they perceive it—as the hon. Gentleman will understand, there is a dispute about the level of the world price of coal.

We have asked producers for an indication of what their production costs are and, on that basis, we should like to proceed to set the level of subsidy that is available. I apologise for not being able to address the hon. Gentleman's point in my earlier remarks, but I can assure him that it was not a valid one, because there has as yet been no application for subsidy from British Coal.

Mr. Barron

Is the Minister telling the House that British Coal did not have the subsidy when it tried to negotiate additional sales and made the offer that has fallen through and been rejected by National Power, and probably also by PowerGen?

Mr. Eggar

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, by definition, British Coal did not know the level of the subsidy when it entered into whatever commercial negotiations it entered into with National Power. He has only to look at the answer that I gave.

The House will be aware that the White Paper outlined the Government's intention to offer financial support both to British Coal and to private sector coal producers who could secure a genuinely additional market for United Kingdom underground coal for electricity generation at world-related prices, where that was consistent with the relevant European Community provision. The Government propose to provide that support under section 8 of the Industrial Development Act 1982. At this stage, I propose to set the limit for expenditure on the subsidy at £120 million.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

Will the Minister make sure that he explains to the House how the subsidy works, in terms both of timing and of prior knowledge? He appeared to be saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) that, at the time of negotiation with the generators, the scale of the subsidy is not known. That being so, how can anyone wishing to take advantage of the subsidy know what its value is?

Mr. Eggar

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Further exploration is needed. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands, there is a genuine difference of view about the world price of coal.

Mr. Barron

indicated dissent.

Mr. Eggar

It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. We have received representations from a number of different parties arguing about the world price. There are genuinely conflicting views, and much depends on what one factors in for transport costs and so on. In order to assist us with setting the level of subsidy, we have asked for information not only on what people perceive the world price to be—the House will understand the difference between spot and contact prices and so on—but also on production costs, because, as the Government and the Select Committee have repeatedly said, the subsidy is the difference between the world price and the production cost. At this stage we are waiting for additional information.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

We know that at least two of the 12 market-tested pits have been closed as a result of all the shenanigans that have gone on. What will happen to the other 10? We cannot afford to wait a long time. There was speculation that, without this debate, British Coal would close one of those pits on each day of the miners' conference. This debate probably helped to prevent that for a while.

Here we have 10 pits that are still in the market-tested regime—we think. Let us assume that they want to take advantage of what is now a fairly favourable world market for British coal. We can argue about the price per gigajoule and all the rest, but we are close to it and better in many cases. The game will be finished before the end of the year for those 10 pits, so what is the procedure to ensure that miners and management can keep them open? The Minister must tell us exactly what the procedure is for ensuring that subsidy is paid so that they can get some of the extra market.

Mr. Eggar

The hon. Gentleman's assertion that there is little difference between the production cost of some pits and the world price is probably not correct.

Mr. Skinner

Some of the pits are excellent.

Mr. Eggar

I quote from memory, because I do not have the figures exactly to hand, but I think that it is fair to say that the lowest cost deep-mined pit in the United Kingdom is the Selby complex, which is producing coal at slightly above £1 a gigajoule. Depending on the adjustment that one makes for the calorific value of our coal compared with world coal, and for such matters as chlorine and sulphur content, it is generally felt that the world price landed at ports is quite considerably less than £1 a gigajoule, although there is an argument about whether that is spot or contract prices. Transport costs must be considered as well.

A difficult and complicated assessment must be made to arrive at the world price. [Interruption.] This is a very difficult and important area. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) asked a perfectly reasonable question, and I am trying to answer it.

When private sector producers or British Coal have secured additional contracts or are advanced in their negotiations, they will provide the Government with the information for which we have asked—there is nothing to stop them providing it in advance—and we will consider each case on its merits. We shall bear in mind what the Select Committee said about the appropriate level of subsidy and make a decision in the light of that. We shall want to listen carefully to what British Coal and the private sector producers have to say.

Mr. Fisher


Mr. Eggar

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman wants to make a speech, but it may help if I deal with questions in replying to the debate.

Mr. Fisher


Mr. Eggar

If the hon. Gentleman still wants to intervene, I shall, of course, give way.

Mr. Fisher

The Minister has given us some idea of how the procedure works. Is he telling the House that it is the procedure that operated on the occasion referred to by Mr. Neil Clarke in his letter to hon. Members? He wrote: We made a very competitively priced offer to the generators for additioanl sales". That offer was rejected by National Power.

Is the Minister saying that the generators came to him in the way that he has just described to the House? Has the procedure that he has described every been put into effect, and was it put into effect on that occasion?

Mr. Eggar

I thought that I had made the position clear; I apologise if I did not. British Coal has not come to us, and I think, although I am not certain—[Interruption.] I am trying to be helpful. I am sure that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) will make his own speech if he wishes; I shall try to pick up his points after that.

British Coal did not come to us. This is a commercial matter between British Coal and the power generators, and I understand that British Coal made an approach to the generators before the Government made clear what system they would adopt—in an answer to a parliamen-tary question from, I believe, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson).

Before I was interrupted, I was saying that we proposed to set the limit for expenditure on the subsidy at £120 million. Let me add, for the avoidance of doubt, that I intend to return to the House for further authorisation for funding if and when additional finance is required, because of the size of the subsidy.

As I have said, I shall seek leave of the House to answer any further points. I commend the motion to the House.

10.41 pm
Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

The constituency that I have the honour to represent is synonymous with the history of coal. Every village in that constituency started, in mediaeval times, as a small farming community, developed a coal industry in the same period but was thoroughly exploited in the last century. Houses, roads and railways were built deliberately to provide for their lordships' coal, as it then was. Now there is only one pit left in an area that used to have more pitheads than any other English constituency, and that pit is under threat.

I do not want to repeat arguments that have already been adduced, but I feel that neither the Secretary of State nor the Minister has answered some of our questions. We have been talking specifically about the market. The Secretary of State spoke of what had happened under Labour and Conservative Governments, which was not helpful to the future of coal; if we are looking at history, we should try to draw some lessons from it. The lesson that we have drawn from the throwing away of coal is that the market does work; the Arabs cornered oil and made the price shoot up, because they controlled it. That was a world market—a market that we must guard against; but we will guard against it only through the diversity of the supplies that we produce.

As was said by the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison)—who is not known for his left-wing views—every reliable international study shows that, at the turn of the current century, the main energy source throughout the world will indeed be coal, and perish those who have not sufficient coal to deal with the markets then. It does not matter whether it has a particular subsidy; the point is, into what sort of market are we selling?

We are in danger of selling into a market that we cannot control. That is one of the problems with British Coal. We have said often enough, and, to be fair, some Conservative Members have repeated it, that the quality of British Coal's top management is not what it should be, certainly not when it comes to finding the markets they could for exports. The markets are there, but British Coal is not attempting to do anything about them, with or without a subsidy. Neil Clarke's expertise lies in spot selling worldwide. He is used to selling uranium and massive amounts of various ores. That is where his mining interest is to be found, and it is a dangerous example for the market with which we are concerned.

The motion implies that the provison of a subsidy to coal is a charity handout, but there have already been handouts. People no longer recall the dash for gas. Let us not forget that British Gas was willing to sell to the electricity supply industry at its price, what it called an economic price that was in British Gas's commercial interests. Against its judgment of the marketplace and despite what the market would take, British Gas was compelled to sell gas more cheaply, although it had a perfectly good reason for not doing so. Incidentally, there are many good reasons why it should maintain a monopoly, but that is a subject for a different debate. The argument is that, as the chairman of British Gas clearly said, one should not be compelled to sell at a price that is uncommercial.

Let us consider the strange way in which the pits were deemed to be economic and how it was decided whether they needed a subsidy. The Minister will no doubt say that Houghton Main has to be taken with Grimethorpe, but let me deal in more detail with the two pits with which I have been closely associated. John T. Boyd, a company not known for its affiliations to left-wing causes, produced a report for the Government. I could read out all the references to Grimethorpe, as they make excellent reading, but I shall mention only the salient points.

The first is that Grimethorpe already had a positive cash flow of £1.668 million", which is a lot of money. The report also states: On an economic basis Grimethorpe has the potential to operate as a stand-alone colliery". That is important, because the Minister has regularly talked about putting it together with Houghton. There are certainly shared facilities, but it is possible for the two collieries to operate without them with some technical alterations.

I shall wait until the Minister is ready before saying that, in agreeing to knocking out Grimethorpe straight away, the Government and British Coal showed bad faith to British Coal's customers. When one is trying to sell coal, it is bad to say that one does not care about those whom one is supplying. The first that the industrial customers —the majority of Grimethorpe's customers were industrial customers—knew about their coal supply being stopped was on the news. Only if they happened to listen to the news did they hear about it. What sort of commercial sense is that? What sort of management is that? What is more, firms previously supplied by Grimethorpe are now paying more for their fuel. That is a funny sort of marketplace and a funny sort of subsidy.

Frickley is the last remaining pit in my constituency. The Government brought in Rothschild—eminent bankers, indeed. Rothschild said that Frickley was among the most profitable pits. It recommended, "Sell it off and whizz it out for privatisation." It recommended that Frickley should be on the front shelf for everyone to shop for. However, Frickley mysteriously appears on the Government's list of 21 pits. The only reason for Frickley's inclusion is that Frickley pit was very loyal to the National Union of Mineworkers.

I have not traditionally been a believer in conspiracy theories. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has referred to the political dimension. That point is made in The Times so it must be correct. The Times stated: Clarke to undermine the miners. Brian Crozier describes what happened. What is particularly sinister is the private army he formed prior to the 1979 election when he met the then shadow Cabinet. That was when the plotting started against the miners. That is indeed sinister. There is no justification in economic or energy terms for getting rid of Frickley.

I regret to say that, in the earlier debate, no mention was made of the package—as the Government call it—to help areas like mine. I would be only too happy if that help were given. Let us consider the RECHAR money. Contrary to what the Government say, a lot of the money being spent on the coal industry and the regeneration of coal industry areas does not come from the Government; it comes from the European Community.

Between July 1990 and December 1993, almost £12 million-worth of schemes in the Wakefield metropolitan district area were approved. They are licensed and approved and there is no nonesense about that. However, as a result of the Government's shilly-shallying, so close to December 1993, Wakefield has received only £862,043. That is a disgrace. If the Government intend to bring in emergency action, what kind of resolution does that show and what kind of signal does it send? In addition, we do not have assisted area status, when we have one of the largest concentrations of unemployment in Yorkshire.

One hundred years ago, on 7 September, the Featherstone massacre occurred. James Gibbs and James Duggan were shot by an army sent in by a Tory Government. The Tory Government are not going to send in an army now; they are killing us bit by bit, slice by slice. It is the massacre of the innocents.

10.53 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

In the previous debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) set out his conviction and mine that the Government lack any coherent policy for the coal industry and have failed to set coal in the framework of a sensible energy policy.

I want to consider the matter from the slightly narrower perspective of my constituency where we have the only remaining pit in the Northumberland coalfield. I have seen three pit closures there in my time as a Member of Parliament and several more before that. So far as I can establish, my constituency produces more opencast coal than any other constituency in the United Kingdom and there are many more opencast coal applications hanging over my constituency.

The subsidy that we are discussing must be one of the most ingenious ever devised. I am convinced that someone in the Department of Trade and Industry must have sold it to the Treasury on the basis that the Treasury would not have to pay out very much of it and that it could be accepted on the basis that the prospect of having to pay it was pretty limited. It was a device to get the Government off a political hook, and it was based on the fiction that, somehow, the market conditions had been substantially changed by the creation of the subsidy.

The subsidy alone does not change those market conditions. Indeed, it has about it an air of impermanence which is greater than that which surrounds the other features of the market, even though there might also be some uncertainty about them. Among the other features of the market, I include the substantial investment by the regional electricity companies in gas generation and the peculiar position of the nuclear industry.

There is a stronger sense of permanence about the consequences of the investment in gas generation. Clearly, a generator which sees a profit stream coming from the generation is much less concerned about the price that it will have to pay for electricity. That situation already exists, and it will continue throughout the working life of the generating unit in which the regional electricity companies have invested. We have something which, from their point of view, looks a rather better long-term bet than the possibility that they might buy some coal at a price which was brought to the world price by a Government subsidy. Indeed, all the incentives are for them to use the generating capacity in which they have invested, even if the purchase price is higher.

The subsidy does not change that market position. It does not alter that advantage, which is protected by the monopoly power of the regional electricity companies as distributors of electricity to the households of their region. That power has been unabated by the regulator, who, in a very cavalier way, has accepted that the decisions made by the regional electricity companies to invest in that gas capacity were reasonable at the time that they were made. I do not think that that was a proper use of his powers. However, whether I like it or not, it is now a fact that the regional electricity companies' ability to use their monopoly to protect that use of gas has been effectively confirmed by the regulator. Just how far he will allow them to push up the price in response remains to be seen, but so far he has given all the indications of a toothless watchdog. That crucial part of the market is rigged against coal, even when the subsidy is applied to it.

The nuclear section of the market is protected by the non-fossil fuel obligation and by the substantial subsidy of the nuclear levy. The nuclear levy has taken a very interesting but extremely worrying turn. It was made clear in discussions in the Select Committee that that subsidy is being used to finance the expansion of nuclear generation at Sizewell.

The Secretary of State, who, unfortunately, is out of action because of his heart attack, made it clear to the House that he thought that that subsidy was entirely for the benefit of the environment, to be applied to decommissioning for purely environmental reasons. It is not. It has been seized by Nuclear Electric in order to fund its current expansion. It is being misapplied by Nuclear Electric. The argument that it used to defend that action is that it is better off doing that than putting the money into a building society. That is an extremely doubtful proposition in the case of building a nuclear power station at Sizewell. The building society, in any normal market, would have been a better bet.

Today, of course, we were reminded that there is an even more absurd element, which is that French-generated nuclear electricity, purchased and brought through the interconnector, benefits from the levy. What inquiries have the Government made into whether French electricity generators intend to use the benefit that they gain from the nuclear levy for decommissioning purposes when they commission their power stations? I do not think that there is any likelihood at all that that will be done.

The argument is blown into smithereens. It is obviously not effectively a ring-fenced sum to be used for decommissioning purposes, which in itself, incidentally, is still a very powerful subsidy to the nuclear industry. It is being used as an operating subsidy for the nuclear industry on a considerable scale. But that subsidy exists alongside a piece of market protection in the non-fossil fuel obligation. The subsidy will not change the fundamental market position.

Ellington colliery is not one of the dozen pits on the original list—it is one of the so-called core pits and is left to maintain its own market. Its market depends crucially on two things. First, it depends on electricity generation at the Blyth power station. Blyth is an old power station, but it is still working effectively. However, a threat hangs permanently over it. Secondly, the market depends on the electricity that is generated for the Alcan smelter. The coal for that smelter is supplied directly by conveyor from the Ellington colliery to the plant.

If either of those markets were to go, the future of Ellington would wholly depend on British Coal finding a further market for coal, jostling alongside all the other claims on that further market from whatever is left of the original 12 pits. Earlier, we discussed the fate of those 12 pits.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon pointed out earlier, there is not much evidence that British Coal is doing well at seeking out that market. It seems to be dominated by a mentality of retrenchment and shrinkage, not one of going out aggressively to seek the market. I make that criticism against the background that, in domestic terms, the market is rigged against the pits.

I wondered whether we would get any announcement today about the future of British Coal, but the debate was marked by the total absence of announcements from the Government about anything at all. Indeed, it was not until we started to debate this subsidy that the Minister showed some signs of wishing to deal directly with questions from hon. Members and to tell us something. During the previous debate, we heard nothing from the Government that gave us increased confidence in the ability of British Coal to find a larger market for coal for any of the 12 pits or any of the pits that are not on the list but which communities feel will soon be the subject of the retrenchment approach of British Coal.

Will there be a secure future for Ellington? Will that future rest in the aluminium industry, which already has many problems? That cannot be a safe future for Ellington. We want the Alcan contract to remain at Ellington. It is an extremely efficient method of operation —the delivery of coal direct from one plant to another. In the aluminium industry, coal must compete with hydro-electric power and the arrival of aluminium from eastern Europe, where no genuine costing has taken place. The dumping of aluminium has resulted from the disruption of the situation in eastern Europe.

The market of electricity generation must be maintained if Ellington is to have a genuine future. Alongside the future of Ellington, we have a massive expansion of opencast. The impact of that on the subsidy element is not entirely clear. I have always taken the view that we must maintain enough opencast sites in our area, especially in Northumberland, to give some future to an industry that provides many jobs. However, that should not be done at the expense of massive despoliation of the environment in Northumberland or huge expansion of the areas involved. We are at that point now.

British Coal is arguing that it must have an opencast site outside the village of Ellington in which to put the waste from Ellington colliery, which it currently puts into the sea. That is a fairly unconvincing bargain to offer a community whose pit does not have a guaranteed or secure future. Indeed, there are considerable doubts in the area about whether the pit will last long enough for the restrictions on the dumping of coal in the sea ever to necessitate putting the coal in an opencast site for which permission is granted on those grounds. Therefore, those grounds will not weigh heavily. I hope that they will not weigh with the Minister when he eventually considers the application.

The future of all the coal pits—not simply the 12 pits that sparked the row—depends on a market that is rigged against the coal industry and was so rigged by the Government. They cannot escape the blame for that. They cannot refer to market conditions as though those conditions were simply handed to them. There are genuine market forces at work. However, the way in which those forces operate is predetermined to a significant extent by the decisions made by the Government when they privatised the electricity industry—the way in which they structured the regional electricity companies and protected nuclear power, and look like continuing to do so.

Nothing that the Government have said, and they have said so little, has carried the debate forward. I am extremely worried about the future of the coal industry in my constituency. I share the concern of Opposition Members who have already expressed their anger about what has happened to the pits in their constituencies.

I should mention the Minister's earlier touching reference to my party's election manifesto. He referred to one of our apparent aspirations to generate 45 per cent. of electricity from wind power. We had no such aspiration. I have looked up the text of that manifesto and we are guilty, I admit to it, of giving excessive credence to Government figures. The relevant passage notes: Government estimates show that up to 45 per cent. of electricity demand could be met from wind power. I do not believe that we should ever place such confidence in Government figures and the Minister will note that we went to argue that such a target could not be met.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

Why put it in the manifesto then?

Mr. Beith

We noted that we might produce 20 per cent. of our energy from all the renewable sources, including wind and wave power. [Laughter.] The Minister and his colleagues seem to think that that is funny, but they must consider problems such as emission targets, pollution and resource depletion and make some genuine attempt to address them.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

I have a copy of "The Times Guide to the House of Commons April 1992", which contains a copy of the Liberal manifesto. Its section on energy does not bear much relation to what the right hon. Gentleman quoted; it is ambiguous, confusing and very Liberal in its approach. Under the heading, "The environmental balance sheet" and the sub-heading, "Renewable energy generation", it states: 45 per cent. of electricity demand could be met from wind power. Under the subsequent heading of "Positives"—whatever they are—it notes: Britain has a massive advantage in natural resources that give it the potential to be at the forefront of renewable energy generation. Government estimates show that up to 45 per cent. of electricity demand could be met from wind power. That potential is referred to twice on page 345 of that guide. The right hon. Gentleman should have checked it. Admittedly, the Liberals' policies are invariably confused, but, in this case, they are not only confused but confusing to the people who read that manifesto.

Mr. Beith

That possibility may have been referred to twice in that guide, but it appeared just once in the original manifesto. It is recorded as a quotation from the Government. To place undue credence on any Government figures is never a terribly good idea and that is why we argued for no more than a 20 per cent. contribution to energy supplies from all renewables.

The Government are prepared to bolster artificially the position of nuclear power and I cannot understand how they can so readily dismiss the aspiration to increase the proportion of our energy supplies derived from renewables. If they and the Labour party think that that option is funny and the wrong way to go, they have a lot to learn about the desired energy policy.

We are discussing whether the subsidy will ensure that coal has a better and fairer opportunity to win markets in the next few years. I do not believe that the subsidy will achieve that aim.

11.7 pm

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

It is interesting that the Minister made little attempt to claim very much for the motion, but perhaps that is scarcely surprising since the Government are throwing away billions of pounds worth of assets in coal reserves. The money on offer is very small in comparison to them and in relation to the £1.3 billion a year that is given in subsidy to the nuclear industry.

The subsidy on offer is largely illusory, since the Minister knows that, given the present structure of the energy market, the chances of that subsidy being called upon is also non-existent. The idea is also illusory, because we have learnt from what the Minister has already said in answer to interventions that the mechanisms of the subsidy are largely illusory. Although the Minister described those mechanisms, he admitted that the one time that British Coal has attempted to negotiate with National Power, the subsidy and the mechanisms were not in operation. The Minister is offering British Coal a subsidy, but it will not know in advance what it will be worth. It will therefore be unable to offer anything of value to the person with whom it is negotiating.

The Minister probably knows that practical jokers, or confidence tricksters, perform a trick involving a pound note on a piece of elastic or string. The pound note is put in one's hand, but as one's hand closes, it is whipped away. I suspect that this subsidy is based on very much the same principle. The appearance is of a sum of money being provided, but it is very well attached to a piece of elastic, the other end of which is being held by the Minister. I doubt whether any of the money will ever be called down.

The Minister has said how small the market is and has told us that it will be impossible for British Coal to create new markets. He knows very well that if new markets are not created, this assistance will not be called upon. When the illusion—I will not call it a confidence trick—is understood by the British people, who were outraged last October by the Government's action, there will be equal anger. The Government ought to behave better towards the coal industry. The reason for people's concern last October was their recognition of the debt that the country owes to the industry. This is a strange way to repay that debt.

If the Minister had any sense of history, he would realise that the only reason for our being a manufacturing nation, the only reason for our having been a great industrial, economic and political power for the past 200 years, is that there was an industrial revolution based on coal. My city, Stoke-on-Trent, owes its very existence to the coal seam on which it is based. The Government owe the industry better treatment. In their outrage last October, the British people, even if they did not understand the full complexities of the energy market, sensed that something was wrong. Nothing in the provision with which we are dealing tonight will suggest to them that the situation is being put right. This subsidy will change nothing.

It is clear that the Government are in a very curious and confused position. During today's debate on the closure of mines, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Energy repeatedly claimed that they could not interfere with the energy market, that pure market forces would determine everything. Despite that, the Minister is offering a subsidy. He is intervening, albeit in a thoroughly small and inadequate way, by providing a sweetener for any sales that British Coal may be able to secure. This demonstrates that the Government are able to intervene in the market; indeed, it is necessary that they do so. Thus, their earlier argument—that it is impossible to intervene in the energy market, as it is a pure market—is torpedoed.

This minimal assistance for the industry does not accord with the professed concern of the Secretary of State for Employment for the coal industry and all those working in it. It may be claimed that that concern is reflected to some extent in this very small subsidy. It is certainly not reflected in the way in which British Coal is treating miners who are made redundant. The Minister will know that workers in the coal industry can qualify at the age of 55 for early retirement.

Trentham, which is in my constituency, closed on 4 June. Miners who reached early retirement age two or three weeks later have been denied early retirement procedures. That is in marked contrast to the way in which British Steel operated when it closed Shelton Bar and other works 10 years ago. However harsh the conditions of those closures were, British Steel was at least sympathetic towards people who had spent their entire working lives in the industry and were on the brink of achieving early retirement.

The Minister is raising his eyebrows in apparent surprise. Let him ask Mr. Neil Clarke about the procedures for miners who are within days or weeks of achieving early retirement. Those in my constituency are told that they will have to wait a further seven years. For the past few years, miners have based their early retirement on retiring at the age of 55. In one case, a person was denied early retirement because of a matter of only two weeks. That is a disgraceful way to treat people who have given their whole lives to the industry. If the Minister wants his view that he cares about those who work in the industry to be credible, I hope that he will take that up with Mr. Neil Clarke and see what can be done.

Similarly, I hope that the Minister will take up the question of the effect of so-called "voluntary redundancy" on miners' home security. I hope that he now understands that, because of his Department's requirement, British Coal has forced those redundancies through as voluntary redundancies, when he and the rest of the world know perfectly well that they are compulsory. Because they are nominated as voluntary redundancies, the insurance clauses in miners' mortgage agreements will not operate. All insurance clauses on mortgage policies are made null and void if somebody volunteers for redundancy.

So miners have not only lost their jobs; if they fall behind with their mortgage payments, they have no insurance protection and stand to lose their homes as well within a few weeks or months. Is that what the Minister wants for people who have given their whole lives to the industry? He could do something about the behaviour of British Coal towards early retirement and pensions, and miners' home security. I urge him to do both.

Will the Minister talk to the Department of Social Security and ensure that the Government make a ruling on how regulation 51(7) of the Income Support (General) Regulations 1987 operates? I hope that he understands that, under those regulations, if the Benefits Agency believes that somebody receiving a lump sum has deliberately reduced that lump sum with intent to claim benefit, it is entitled not to pay income support.

On being made redundant from Trentham, a single parent constituent of mine spent his redundancy money on reducing his large mortgage because the job that he managed to find was low-paid. As a responsible parent, he knew that he could not sustain the mortgage that he had undertaken when he was a miner, so he used his redundancy payment to pay off the mortgage. When he was made redundant a second time a few weeks later, the Benefits Agency refused to pay him income support on the basis that he had disposed of his capital. He had used his redundancy payment responsibly and found another job, as the Government wanted him to do, but when he was made redundant again it was implied that he had tried to con the system and therefore would not be allowed income support. That cannot be how those regulations are intended to be applied. In that instance, the case was overturned on appeal and the man found that he was entitled to income support.

Nevertheless, if the Minister wants to act constructively he should look at the matter and, together with the Department of Social Security, issue guidelines so that miners in such a position are not denied income support when they have acted perfectly honourably. He could and should look at those important points, as those measures would take some of the pain and anxiety away from our constituents, whom the Government have thrown into that appalling position.

The Minister has not made many claims for the subsidy, which is at least something. He should, however, look at those other points, because how the Government treat the men who have worked all their lives in that industry and the resources which they make available to them are every bit as important as subsidies to the price of coal. I hope that he will bear that in mind.

11.19 pm
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

In his wind-up speech in the earlier debate, the Minister accused the Labour party of being the captive of history. I am not sure whether the word "captive" is correct, but we are entirely justified in paying careful attention to history. Those of us who represent mining districts have a considerable and relevant history to study.

Reference has been made to the links between some constituencies and the mining industry. The link is as deep in my constituency as in most others. Pits were closed in the 18th century and in the 19th century. Between 1814 and 1939, we lost four pits, we lost one in the early 1970s, one in the late 1970s and four in the 1980s.

At no time in the past when a colliery closed—be it long ago or more recently—has it been against such a grim, severe and declining economic background as that of Britain today. It is time that the Government understood that the fundamental cause of Britain's economic weakness is the balance of payments deficit, which is enormous and is likely to grow considerably as a result of the present decisions being made about the coal industry.

I realise that many of my hon. Friends regard the subsidy as little better than a myth, but I am more suspicious than many of my hon. Friends. I see the subsidy as part of a three-pronged approach to privatisation. It was interesting that, at one point in his speech, the Minister appeared to suggest—I hope that I am not misinterpreting his view—that, at some time, the Government could return for a little more. That suggestion aggravated my suspicions about a three-pronged approach.

We have watched the Government privatise the energy resources of Britain, and arrange various sweetners to assist in that privatisation. We have seen unnecessary increases in the price of electricity. The Government were careless about the bad effect of those increases on heavy energy users in industry. The prices were increased in advance of privatisation to make it more attractive.

Mr. Eggar

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hardy

It is no good the Minister for Energy shaking his head, as the record is clear—the electricity price rose enormously and excessively before privatisation so that the sales could proceed, and the same happened with gas. The Government did not merely sell it for less than it was worth: they sold it against a background of excessive profits—and they could not care less about the effect on manufacturing industry or the poorer domestic consumer.

I am suspicious. The Minister now has the capacity to dangle sweeteners, if they are needed, to assist the Government's friends. They are not our friends—the Conservative party, not the Labour party, will receive the little donations in gratitude.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

Some of them are not so little.

Mr. Hardy

My hon. Friend is right. I do not think that the Conservative party will receive the same sums for the purchase of a pit as it does from overseas residents seeking to encourage the Government to maintain tax breaks. The subsidy provision exists to encourage privatisation.

The second prong of the Government's approach to privatisation involves pension prospects. The Government do not seem to understand that pensions are part of a worker's reward. I do not know how anyone can find the moral justification to grab workers' earnings in the form of pension funds. I think that the Government may find themselves in deep water over that issue.

The third prong, to which the Minister referred in passing, concerns me deeply. On 29 March I intervened in a speech of the Secretary of State and was pleased with his answer, because it was unequivocal. He said that nothing would be done to prejudice safety standards in the mines."—[Official Report, 29 March 1993; Vol. 222, c. 31] Since that debate in March, which does not seem long ago, British Coal can claim that productivity has increased by 22 per cent. If that astonishing improvement, which has not been matched in any other industry at any time since the second world war, can be achieved in the coal industry, why do the Government wish to make the dramatic changes in safety regulation?

Again, I am suspicious. The Secretary of State gave the House an unequivocal assurance, as he described it—but shortly afterwards, the Health and Safety Executive took to the Department of Employment its proposals for dramatic changes in the mining industry's safety regime. I can think of no other reason for that, other than for it to join the subsidy and the attraction to the pension funds of the greedy eyes of those the Government would like to see own the coal industry rather than the community.

I said that the subsidy was a myth. I am extremely sensitive to electricity prices. We have in my constituency perhaps the finest engineering steel industry in Europe, and certainly in Britain. My hon. Friends who represent the Rotherham area are well aware of its enormous achievements and of the records that it holds and repeatedly breaks. They know also of the problems that confront that industry because electricity prices are far higher than they need be—and would be, were coal to account for a larger share of the generation market.

If there are to be any subsidies, they should subsidise the privatisation of the coal industry but the maintenance of adequate levels of industrial activity in this country.

I do believe that this is not a myth, but something more perverted—part of a three-pronged preparation for privatisation. It is part of the record and prospectus of a Government who have created the decline in our recovery that made our nation plunge down into the poverty league, so that, before long, Spain, Portugal and Greece will pass us in the EC's economic league, in the same way that Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have done in the last 10 years. For as long as such policies are pursued, that decline will be unavoidable.

That decline is due to the short-sighted calculations of a Government who do not seem interested in the welfare of the economy—and because of that, I do not believe that the Government are sufficiently interested either in the safety of people who work below ground.

If the Minister has time to reply, I hope that he will tell the House where we stand in relation to pit safety. Is safety to be no greater a reality than the subsidy? May we expect that the promise given to the House by the Secretary of State—who, unfortunately, cannot be with us today—on 29 March will be kept? Are we to see the disappearance of the role of the colliery deputy, who will no longer have a statutory power to secure safety in the mine? Will we once again see the Government sacrificing the interests of the nation and of the individual to the rather sordid sort of people with whom the Government seemed to have been concerned over the past 10 years?

11.27 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) referred to redundancy payments made to miners and to others that ran foul of social security laws in respect of mortgage repayments, and so on. I hope that the Minister will pass on that information. The Department in question ought to make a statement, to ensure that people do not have to appeal because of variations throughout the country.

Some local Department of Social Security offices are saying one thing, and some are saying another. A fortnight ago, I obtained about £1,200 in back money for one of my constituents—a miner who was made redundant. If that is happening on a wide and varied scale throughout the country, it is time that the regulations were made firm, to end the situation whereby people in certain parts of Derbyshire will be paid, whereas people in certain parts of Staffordshire and Yorkshire will not. I hope that that will be dealt with.

The debate is about the subsidy and about the Government buying time after their announcement to save 12 pits. We knew that that was a confidence trick and, as many of us also knew at the time, the subsidy would not add up to a row of beans. It was a Portillo subsidy, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was quite happy about it. When it was discussed with the Secretary of State, it was probably said, "Look here, we will tell the House in this great White Paper debate that there will be a subsidy, but don't bother about it a great deal. You will be quite happy with it, Mr. Portillo, because at the end of the day not a great deal of money will be spent, if any at all."

We thought that that would happen. The Tories were bought off, but more importantly, the people outside were disgusted at this confidence trick carried through by the Government. This short debate about the subsidy will put on record over and over again that we do not expect a great deal to be paid. It is a pity that the Minister did not quite finish what he was telling me about how the mechanism would work. I was becoming intrigued, but then he recovered himself and said something about it being a commercial matter between British Coal and somebody else. For a time, I thought that he would reveal a little more.

I would like a subsidy for mining similar to the set-aside scheme for farmers. Coal is a great national asset. It would be sensible to say that, as great tracts of land are set aside at £100 an acre—I think that the royal family made about £250,000 out of the scheme—such a scheme should operate for mining. It is said that farming is beset by the problems and elements of mother nature and cannot compete in the same way as someone working in a factory or a shed. Therefore, the argument goes, a subsidy must be paid because bad weather could result in crops not growing.

Does not the same argument apply to the pits? Miners have to deal with mother nature underground, so there should be a set-aside subsidy for mining. That would mean that, when a colliery struck a bad seam, the miners could be told, "Set it aside. We will set aside money so that the pit can ignore the bad seam." The Minister spoke about some of the 12 pits and said that they are not making money. No pit in Britain makes money in the first half of the financial year, because that is when nearly all the holidays are taken. But the second half of the financial year, when there is only one holiday, Christmas, often makes up for the massive loss in the first six months.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

The hon. Gentleman makes a great deal of the comparison between pits and agriculture. We are being ripped off by the European Community because the Germans are being allowed to set aside 19 per cent. of their land, whereas we are allowed to set aside only 12 per cent. In 1991, the Germans paid £9 billion to their miners but, according to the Minister, we paid only £180 million. I accept that there is a nuclear levy, but irrespective of that, our mining industry is being ripped off.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we are being ripped off right across the system, because Britain is being sold down the line in respect of agriculture, the single market and the coal industry. I want the European Community to work, but not on the terms being described at the moment.

Mr. Skinner

For a short period, I thought that the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) and I were on the same playing field. However, he then said that he wanted the European Community to work. I do not. I think that it has been an unmitigated disaster, and I want it to fail. However, I have always accepted that it is not as easy to grow food in a country such as Britain as it is to grow food in the Mediterranean countries and in California. Therefore, I have always accepted the idea of having subsidies or, better still, deficiency payments, so that we do not have to import too much food.

My worry is that the money has gone into the wrong pockets. I would sooner see the money in the farmworkers' pockets than in the pockets of the rich business farmers. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Stafford about £20 for every family going into the common agricultural policy. I have no doubt that thousands of miners are saying, "If there can be that kind of subsidy for the CAP, we should have some sort of subsidy for the coal industry, because it also has to battle against the elements."

Let us not kid ourselves. "Subsidy" is not a dirty word. We have to have subsidies to run a highly technological society. One cannot run a school without subsidies, although I know that the Government are trying. However, subsidies are paid even to opted-out schools, so that they have more money than schools that are still under local education authorities. That is true of almost all aspects of our lives. There could not be a royal family without subsidy. I am in favour of the demise of the royal family, but I understand how they manage to live in the lap of luxury.

We are always hearing about Nissan coming to Britain. Of course Nissan came to Britain. The Government said, "Here is £300 million to come to build a factory in Sunderland." They said to Toyota, "You can have a bit more if you come to Derby." Every local authority in the area said, "We will give you some more advantages as well." That is a subsidy. There are subsidies for most things in life.

We have always argued that there is a way in which to deal with the coal industry. It should not be dealt with on the basis of a phoney subsidy to buy time to con the British people. The subsidy should be based on a pit's work from year to year or over a five-year period. The period must be five years to deal with cycles within a pit, as it goes through bad work and good work. Proper payments are needed. We have always argued that we need a big coal industry, so that the strong can help the weak and vice versa, in good times and bad.

The only thing that made me smile was the French interconnector subsidy. That subsidy goes from the Government, through the nuclear levy, and we then pay the French to send us electricity that competes with our electricity. The French get a big sum out of us. It is a joke that the French are able to send us electricity for which we have paid a massive price in the process.

I am still trying to find out whether there is anything in the following idea. As the Government work on the principle that they help people who help the Tory party with donations, especially foreigners, I wonder whether any of the French subsidy money has an Asil Nadir lurking among it. That has not been discovered yet. I just throw the idea in. Is there somebody who has sent the Government some money?

The French people say, "We have a really good score going here with the British Government. They are a bit thick and they are run by a wimp, but we are actually selling them electricity and they are paying us to send it." There is bound to be a hidden agenda, with somebody saying, "We must slip them a few quid," or, to use the parlance of Terry Venables, "bung them a bit." It is odd that we are getting electricity while the French are laughing.

I suggest to the hon. Member for Stafford, who follows these matters very carefully, "Check that out." He is a man for detail on French subsidies. It is just possible that he might discover something much more serious.

I have seen figures of £1.2 billion and £1.3 billion for the subsidy to the nuclear power industry. That subsidy enables it to capture 22 or 23 per cent. of the market. It is a subsidy. The Government can argue that the money is to do with decommissioning, but anyone who knows anything about the industry knows that it is a subsidy. The only difference between the subsidies to which I have just referred and the one that we are discussing tonight is that the one that we are discussing tonight is a fairy-tale subsidy—it is about fantasy land—whereas the others are real.

Mr. Beith

Cash in hand.

Mr. Skinner

Cash in hand, as the right hon. Gentleman says.

The sad thing is that a great national asset is going down the pan. We are not talking about rebuilding a factory, which can be done in a short space of time. As you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will know, having been born and bred in a mining community—like many hon. Members present tonight—when pits have gone, they have gone. Once the ground is made unstable by opencasting, there is nothing that can be done.

Suppose that, in 25 years' time, an enlightened Government come along and say, "All the gas has gone and all the oil has gone. We ought to get back to coal, because we don't have enough windmills." Suppose that they have made an effort but there are still not enough —that they have not got up to 5 per cent., never mind 45 per cent., even though the commitment has appeared in 15 manifestos. They will have to turn back to coal. The trouble is that, once opencasting has taken place, they will not be able to do that.

My guess is that that is part of the conspiracy referred to earlier in the debate. British Coal has got off pretty lightly in this argument. I am not averse to attacking the Government every day of the week—

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

You do.

Mr. Skinner

And I do. But British Coal is part of the conspiracy. It wants a small privatised industry; make no mistake about it. It is in this business; it wants pits such as that referred to by the hon. Member for Stafford—and all the others to which my hon. Friends, referred—shut. It wants a tiny little group of pits so that it can get the 30 million tonnes at the power stations next year. It does not want much else and, what is more, it does not want any competition.

The best way of achieving that end is to ensure that, before the year is out, the pits are closed. British Coal will then have a dozen or 15—the figure could even be as high as 20, although it will probably diminish if the Government stay in power much longer—of the best pits left. It will have a captive market, just like the gas market.

It will make a bomb and Neil Clarke will he running it. That is why I challenged him in July 1992 when I went to Hobart house with my hon. Friends from the mining group. I asked every member of the board, "Will you have anything to do with privatisation?" Ken Moses jumped up and said, "Don't try and talk to me, Skinner. I won't touch it with a bargepole." Neil Clarke said, "Don't anyone else answer that question," and took his members—the board —out of the room. He did not want to let the cat out of the bag.

British Coal wants that small industry so that it can make profits—

Mr. Cash

Does the hon. gentleman accept that rumours are circulating round the coal industry at the moment to the effect that, in respect of the prospectus—bearing in mind that the applications for licences have to be submitted by 16 July—there are two sets of figures? The amount of money that is expected to be forthcoming for the top end—for management—is one figure, but there is also a real figure at the bottom line, which they will accept.

In other words, there is a serious question mark over the figures. The Minister has an obligation to tell us whether there are two sets of figures for those who want to acquire those mines. If the mines are to be privatised, some people could get in on the inside track, and it could be the management of the coal industry.

Mr. Skinner

That is another question that the Minister must answer. I hope that the Minister has heard quite clearly that there is a Cash rumour going round that there are two sets of figures. Let me buy that theory for a moment or two, and ask the Minister to reply.

The other sad thing is that we are talking about men's and women's lives. We are talking about communities that have been smashed asunder. There have been closures throughout my time as a Member of Parliament, and there were closures while I worked in the pits. I saw the pit close in which my father worked and in which I worked. I saw all that, so I do not want to hear, "You closed more than we did." In my view, hardly any of the pits should have closed anyway. Parkhouse colliery, where I worked, was shut and there was a lot of coal left. It was opencasted later, which proved the point.

We are talking about miners who will not get arty jobs —no voluntary redundancy. Everybody in Lancashire has been told that there are three jobs at Point of Ayr. Everyone in Yorkshire and in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) who says, "I do not want to leave the industry," is told that there are three jobs at Point of Ayr. It is like the subsidy—a confidence trick from beginning to end, because not everybody can take those three jobs at Point of Ayr in the north Wales coalfield.

There will be a lot more casualties. The Government might be able to whisk them away on some other scheme, so that they do not show up as unemployed. They will use all the techniques of statistics to say they have not been added to the dole queue, but each hon. Member who represents a mining area knows that we can count them, because we know almost everybody who lives on every street.

The sad thing is that, if we think about it, we come back to another subsidy, because, if 100,000 people lose their jobs in Britain today, it costs £900 million per annum. We are talking about a public sector borrowing requirement of £50 billion. At end end of the day, it is not about us, but about people out there in the communities; that is why the Minister has an obligation to answer all the questions and to tell us precisely how the subsidy will be paid.

He was on the track once: he was going to tell us. My guess is that, by the end of the financial year, hardly any, if any, of it will be paid. I know that one thing is certain: any more of this and a lot more people will be on the dole queue.

11.46 pm
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

The Minister mentioned the subsidies. As other hon. Members have said, the subsidies are bogus; they are not going to happen. Who has had any money? How many extra bags of coal have the Government lifted a finger to try to sell? Not one. Who will qualify for any of the subsidy? My view is that nobody will qualify because they were never intended to qualify for it.

Let me put my cards on the table. I was born and bred in a mining community and I still live in the heart of a mining community. Only the other week, the Minister and I had a debate on the Adjournment about the closure of Thorpe Marsh power station. He knows only too well my concern for the two pits in my constituency that will be affected. I should like to see some subsidy going to those two pits because they have lost a third of their market due to the closure of Thorpe Marsh power station and they are both under market testing. I should like to know, and I have never had a proper answer yet, where on earth those two collieries are to get a third of the market and stay in operation under this so-called market testing?

We are debating a very serious issue. Unfortunately, some Conservative Members seem to think that it is funny and that it is an opportunity to score cheap party political points. It is not. It is a very serious issue. This afternoon, in my opinion, which I know is shared by some Labour Members, the Secretary of State for Employment, who led for the Government, made a disgraceful speech.

Mr. Burns


Mr. Hughes

It is not rubbish. The Secretary of State spoke rubbish for almost an hour. He tried to make cheap political points for television sound bites. I tell the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) that this is a very serious issue. Hundreds of thousands of people will lose their jobs because of his Government's lack of an energy policy. Pits will be closed, power stations are now closing, railway jobs, engineering jobs and steel workers' jobs will be lost. There is no end to the knock-on effect of closing a pit.

My constituency has an unemployment rate of 14 per cent., which is not funny. Two more pits are likely to close; Thorpe Marsh power station will close. Some Conservative Member should tell those people in Doncaster where they are to find jobs. There simply are not any around, and communities are being torn apart.

I have watched the hon. Member for Chelmsford all day. He has sat there smirking and pulling stupid faces. He should be out of a job, trying to live on the current rate of unemployment benefit: that would wipe the stupid smirk off his face.

Doncaster has been promised development area status and an enterprise zone. The Minister and I have discussed the matter on many occasions; as he knows, I would like him to tell the people of Doncaster what their position is likely to be—and, more important, when the Government will put some money back into the community that they have systematically raped since 1979.

I have been passed a note asking me to end my speech, so I will end it shortly. As the Minister knows, Doncaster borough council has worked very well with local industry in trying to regenerate Doncaster; it has worked closely with the people there. It is doing all that it can to regenerate Doncaster and put some new jobs into it, but it cannot do that alone. It needs the subsidies, it needs the enterprise zone and it needs development area status.

Mr. Cash

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At least three Opposition Members have spoken. I voted against the Government on this issue twice—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Opposition Members have spoken because I have called them; most had been sitting in the Chamber all day. With great respect, the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) arrived late for the debate, and his interventions have been too long.

11.51 pm
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

In his introduction—if it can be called an introduction—the Minister made it clear that, following a recommendation from the Select Committee on 26 January and a White Paper on 25 March, the Government are still no nearer determining what they mean by "subsidies". They can give us no clear indication of the amount involved; it could be anything between £10 million and £120 million. The Minister could come back and ask for more if necessary. Some hon. Members have said that it will not be necessary, because there will be no market; I am not so pessimistic, which is partly why I do not wish to oppose the motion.

I think that British Coal will eventually want to take advantage of the position, and that there will be sales later in the year. I do not think that the sales will be significant, or that they will keep many people in employment; but I think that there will be some sales, and I hope that the subsidy will be there to be taken advantage of.

Our present difficulty is that we have a British Coal management led by one of the most supine chief executives most of us have ever encountered. He does not seem interested in driving any of his senior management to look for new markets; the organisation has never had to sell any of its output before, because there has been a guaranteed market for it. For a number of reasons, that market no longer remains in its previous form.

One of the tragedies of the Clarke regime in British Coal is that the chairman has not been capable of devising a strategy to enable the organisation to seek new markets and develop products that those new markets could require, either here or elsewhere on the continent. I have sympathy with the suggestion that the regime is not interested in expanding the market because it envisages a Rothschild-type model which will be in the order of 12 to 14 collieries, capable of being privatised in a neat little package. We shall just have to wait and see; I am not sure whether it will happen but, like other hon. Members, I suspect that it will.

It is clear that the Government will have to do a great deal more homework in the next two or three weeks if they are to be able to tell us the sums that will be made available and the nature of the subsidy. They have had the statistics for some considerable time. Information given to the Select Committee by the National Union of Mineworkers could act as an outline, and information about the price per gigajoule of colliery output would be a starting point. The calorific content of the coal is another variable, but such matters are not great mysteries. The statistics are available to British Coal, and the energy section of the Department of Trade and Industry should have them.

I suspect that one of the major problems is that the dilatory, indifferent, dithering approach which has characterised the regime at the DTI in the 14 months since the general election, still prevails in the important sphere of the Government's so-called energy strategy. After all these months, the Government are still not able to tell us what the sum should be—how much there will be for each power station and what it should be across the board. Until they are able to tell us, we shall be entitled to take the view that the subidy is a mirage. Until we have specific figures, we shall unfortunately have to accept the motion on the nod. If we did not, we should be frightened that the subsidy would be needed in the summer and the House would not be sitting to sanction it.

11.56 pm
Mr. Eggar

With the leave of the House, may I point out gently to Labour Members that in the previous debate we heard various accusations about the market being rigged against coal. The gist of their comments today has been, "We want a subsidy, we want it big and we want it clear." There seems to be a slight inconsistency—I put it no stronger than that—in those two positions. I set out the procedures in response to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) on 16 June, and hon. Members will no doubt benefit from reading it.

In the time available, I shall try to pick up some of the issues that have been raised. The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) mentioned specifically Grimethorpe and Houghton Main. I have taken careful note of what he said and, as a number of the issues involve British Coal, I shall ensure that British Coal also studies his remarks. I noted his comments about RECHAR. Of course, more than £200 million extra is going to the coalfields as a result of the decision in October, and we need to consider carefully how the hon. Gentleman's council and local community can access some of the funds.

Mr. Cash

Will my hon. Friend the Minister give way?

Mr. Eggar

I shall deal with my hon. Friend in a moment. I hope that he will forgive me for not giving way, but I am under a considerable time restraint.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) advocated renewables; in fact, he did not advocate them but tried to explain why the Liberal manifesto contained a reference to windmills—he had not meant it but it was intended only for those windmill nuts who happened to read it. It is unfortunate that my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) is not here, because he described windmills as great lavatory brushes in the sky and he would no doubt have had something to say about Liberal party policy. There is also an inconsistency in the right hon. Gentleman's remarks because he is against subsidies for the nuclear industry but in favour of large subsidies for the renewables industry.

The hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) made some specific points, and I undertake to ensure that my colleagues in the Department of Social Security examine them. For a moment there was an interplay between my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) and the hon. Member for Bolsover. Images crossed my mind of the hon. Member for Bolsover as a Minister, accompanied by his private secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, whose love of detail the hon. Gentleman recognises. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford would go along with the hon. Member for Bolsover. I have an interesting letter from the hon. Member for Bolsover. It is written on behalf—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded forthwith to put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 ( Exempted business).

Question agreed to.

Resolved, That this I-louse authorises the Secretary of State to pay, or undertake to pay, by way of financial assistance under section 8 of the Industrial Development Act 1982, sums exceeding £10 million in total but not exceeding £120 million in total to support sales of coal produced from underground mines in the United Kingdom.