HC Deb 23 June 1993 vol 227 cc298-300
12. Mr. Corbvn

To ask the President of Trade v, hat recent discussions he has held with British Coal on the future of the coal-mining industry.

Mr. Eggar

My right hon. Friend and I meet members of the board of the British Coal Corporation as necessary to discuss a range of issues.

Mr. Corbyn

Will the Minister confirm that, in those discussions, he has talked to British Coal about the principle of market testing the 12 pits? Does he agree that market testing is a cruel con and a deception because the Government have already ensured that there is not a market for that coal and that there is a rigged market against the coal industry? What they are trying to do, and have been trying to do since 1979, is punish miners by closing pits and destroying the coal-mining industry, when it could be a safe and secure source of energy for the next 300 years.

Mr. Eggar

The hon. Gentleman would not recognise a market if he fell over it. He simply does not understand that British Coal has to find customers for the coal that it is producing. Currently, about 45 million tonnes of coal is stockpiled, either with the generators or with British Coal. If British Coal is to get additional sales—it has told us that there are additional markets available for coal—it must be able to compete with other forms of electricity generation. Surely the hon. Gentleman recognises that.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Will my hon. Friend remember in all the discussions with British Coal, that gas, nuclear and oil-producing communities are just as important as coal-mining communities? Will he accept that I am grateful for the robust comments that he made earlier, and may I ask him to obey the instruction on my badge, "Don't bash gas"?

Mr. Eggar

I always pay close attention to whatever my hon. Friend says.

Mr. O'Neill

The Minister said that the difficulty in selling coal to the generators is attributable in part to the summer weather and high levels of stocks. In order that the collieries can sell coal and benefit from the subsidies that he is apparently still prepared to provide for some time, will he be prepared to extend the enhanced redundancy arrangements so that collieries are not closed prematurely before 31 December, when the agreement expires?

Mr. Eggar

Clearly, we extended—partly in response to points that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends made the period up until 31 December. It is too early to say what the future for those terms will be, but we want to allow a proper opportunity for market testing to take place and we want the private sector as well as British Coal to be able to enter into serious discussions with generators. I recognise that we have to give that a reasonable amount of time.

Mr. Oppenheim

Bearing in mind that, for decades, British Coal was protected from low-cost imports, that, for decades, it was protected from competition from gas-fired generation and that for decades, the Government insisted that it should be given cosy, Government-inspired contracts with generators, if the market has been rigged, surely it has been rigged in favour of coal. Everyone is concerned about miners' jobs, but should not we remember that there are consumers as well as producers of coal and that if we further rig the market in favour of coal, we will lose jobs in other sectors of the economy that rely on cheap energy?

Mr. Eggar

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The basic core contracts that have been agreed between British Coal and the generators contain a subsidy from British consumers directly to the British Coal Corporation of about £500 million for every year of the contract, making certain assumptions about world prices. In addition, since 1979, some £18 billion of taxpayers' money has gone into the British Coal Corporation on restructuring and other grants. It simply is a complete misrepresentation of the situation to pretend that the market has been rigged against coal. In fact, a considerable subsidy has been available to it for a number of years, both from the Government and the consumer.