HC Deb 22 April 1994 vol 241 cc1230-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Arbuthnot.]

2.33 pm
Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this debate, although I must admit that a week ago I did not think that the circumstances in which I would speak would be as they are today.

I wonder how many hon. Members in the House have seen grown men weep, women cry and frightened children clutch their parents' arms apprehensively, knowing that something very wrong has happened but not quite understanding why or what. That was the dreadful scene in and around Tower colliery earlier this week. In the end, the miners accepted that their heroic battle to save the pit was over as it became obvious to them that they could no longer put any trust in the promises and pledges made to them by the management of British Coal.

I had to tell members of the National Union of Mineworkers lodge that, in my considered opinion, Neil Clarke, the chairman of British Coal, could no longer tell the difference between right and wrong and that in the conversation that I had with him he lied, lied and lied again.

I can remember the days when people in public life, even those with whom one disagreed, upheld standards of decency and integrity. They were driven by notions of fair play. Plain dealing, plain speaking and an honest approach to others were important to them. I very much regret that, in falling short of those ideals, Neil Clarke, the chairman of British Coal, has debased, demeaned and diminished public life. As a public servant, there is only one last thing that in honour he should do. He should resign from public life and promise never to return.

Put bluntly, Neil Clarke played politics with miners, their families and the local community. The sheer brutality of what he did was summed up to me yesterday when Tyrone O'Sullivan, the lodge secretary, overcome with emotion, said to me:

Yesterday, when I went down to Newport, when we were called at short notice, to sign the final death writ on Tower Colliery, I couldn't talk, I couldn't look at them. He was referring to the management. He continued:

They said we must sign the pit over now, officially, that it was to close. We stated that nobody on behalf of the National Union of Mineworkers of Tower Lodge would sign any document that agreed to the closure of Tower Colliery, and that was endorsed by the General Meeting unanimously, that Tower Lodge officials, because of the work they had done for the pit, should never, ever have to sign that final document as we felt that it would be degrading to us, as a lodge, as we had only fought for the future. But worse of all, when I returned to the car, I could not face anybody and half way home I stopped the car and I could not stop crying. I last felt like this when my father got killed in the pit and on the last afternoon, when they were taking the coffin, out of the front room to go to the hearse, and I had not cried throughout the whole period, as I was the oldest son at home and I had to look after my youngest brother and sister, but at that moment my whole world fell apart. At that moment, yesterday, when I was driving back from Newport, it was exactly the same feeling, I felt as though I had lost my father again. The emotion I went through at that stage was quite incredible, even talking about it, I feel exactly the same." He stopped at that point. He could not go on. The Coal Board attempted to force on the miners of Tower colliery the final humiliation—to sign away one by one as members of the lodge the future of that pit. The fight to save the last pit in south Wales has been going on since 1992. We have had countless debates, rallies, delegations and petitions. You mention it, we have done it, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Just before Easter the lodge officials were called to a meeting with British Coal. They were told that the pit was to close. Press leaks the day before from British Coal mentioned geological problems as the reason. The miners knew otherwise. The next day British Coal was forced to admit that the loss of markets was the reason for closure. As we all know, those markets had already been rigged against coal.

Two days later, Tower NUM held a ballot on closure. A majority voted to fight on, but within hours British Coal's dirty tricks outfit started to try to undermine the result, telephoning men at home to try to break their resolve and briefing the press.

A week last Wednesday, 13 April, Neil Clarke, chairman of British Coal, agreed to meet my hon. Friends the Members for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) and me the following week to discuss Tower. He did not say that by then it would be shut.

Last Friday, 15 April, when I came up from the pit, I read a press release from British Coal that stated categorically that the pay of miners would not be cut and that conditions of work would not be altered for the worse. Miners voted again, by a much bigger majority, to fight the closure. Just one hour later, the lodge was being given a totally different story by British Coal and that promise was broken.

This Monday, 18 April, I spoke again to Neil Clarke, who assured me that the pay and conditions of miners at Tower would not be changed and that a so-called time limit of 6 pm that day, by which miners had to decide whether to accept enhanced redundancy and the other sweeteners, simply did not exist. Yet, at the same time, the lodge was told by local management, on instructions from British Coal, that it would have to accept the wage cut and that there was a 6 pm deadline. Dishonesty on this scale is almost impossible to comprehend, so one is bound to ask on whose behalf Neil Clarke was acting.

That brings me to the role of Ministers and the Government. The President of the Board of Trade and his Minister for Energy have practised a massive deception. The fact that nobody from that Department is here today speaks for itself. They have practised a deception on miners, who were asked to improve their productivity and who broke all the records, only to find that it did not make a scrap of difference, deception on the people of Britain, who were persuaded that their massive protest against pit closures in 1992 had worked, only to find that the only change was the time scale in which the pits were to be closed and deception on Conservative Back Benchers who voted for the White Paper, only to find that the 12 pits that they thought were to be saved were to be closed anyway.

Many of us remember the report that N. M. Rothschild, the merchant bankers, originally prepared for the Government—a secret report by Tory bankers predicting that thousands of miners would be thrown on the dole and that Britain could have as few as a dozen working collieries. The then Secretary of State for Energy, Lord Wakeham, blamed Labour for scare stories, which he dismissed as coming from cloud cuckoo land.

As for the present Secretary of State for Wales, let us not forget that he was investment manager and director of N.M. Rothschild between 1977 and 1987 and was a specialist on privatisation. Small wonder that he was uncontactable, as his office told me on two or three occasions, during the crucial week when the House was on holiday and the closure of Tower colliery announced. He had gone to ground, yet some months ago he was warmly congratulating miners in his office on their productivity and profitability.

The tragedy for Tower colliery and many others is that if Labour had won the last election we would have taken steps to end the rigging of the market so that British coal would have had a fair chance to compete.

I know many men who have lost their jobs in coal in my valley, and many of my hon. Friends here can say the same. Those miners have families and mortgages, and some are still trying to make up for the money that they lost during the strike of 1984. Of those made redundant in the past 10 years, less than half have found other jobs. Redundancy money goes very quickly when one has a family to support and the years slip by. As they get older, they are even less likely to get a job in the kind of world created by this Government.

Recently, men coming to my advice surgery tell me that although they have applied for 50 jobs or more, they have not got even an acknowledgment, let alone an interview. One ex-miner came to see me with tears in his eyes. He asked, "What do they expect me to do? Walk into the river?"

Miners have consistently been treated appallingly by Tory Governments. Yet another example of that was the chronic bronchitis and emphysema regulations, introduced in September 1993, which were drawn up in a way that makes it almost impossible for a miner to succeed with an application. The original regulations are in great need of amendment, and I support the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) which would reduce the qualification period from 20 to 10 years, reduce the disability threshold from 20 to 10 years, replace the FEV—forced expiratory volume —test with a sensitive medical examination and make soft expensive X-rays universal for diagnosing dust retention.

I remember walking down a street in the village of Penrhiw-ceihr during my by-election and being introduced to miners there. In almost every house in that street there was a miner taking oxygen. I walked down that street two years later and people said, "He is dead," and, "He is in hospital." Many of us can repeat similar stories. Therefore, I urge the Government to support my hon. Friend's Bill.

The economic consequences of the closure of Tower colliery on Cynon Valley are all too obvious. The independent consultants Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte recently carried out an impact study which showed those consequences. They found that it would have the single biggest impact on the economy of the valley of any industry in the area. More than £10 million each year will be lost to the local economy and male unemployment could, in their estimate, rise to one in four.

Before the industrial revolution, in the part of Wales that I represent, squirrels were able to jump from tree to tree from Hirwaun all the way to Cardiff, a distance of about 25 miles. Of course, that is no longer possible because Cynon Valley and its population are built on coal. At its peak, the industry employed more than 30,0(X) miners in more than 40 mines. At the time of nationalisation in 1947, there were still 13 coal mines employing more than 8,000 men. When I was first elected to Parliament, there were three working pits in the valley. Five thousand mining jobs were lost to the area in the 1980s and, of course, we have not escaped the national decline in manufacturing industry.

Cynon Valley can claim a number of indicators of deprivation: falling population, high levels of reported long-term illness, many people without a job and a relatively high proportion of households lacking basic amenities, even in 1994. Two years ago, crime increased by 13 per cent. on the previous year compared with an increase of 4 per cent. in south Wales overall. The Aberdare job centre told me this morning that 38 people are chasing every vacancy. What is more, those figures cover only the people currently claiming unemployment benefit. If we include those who are without work but who are not entitled to benefit because the Government are massaging the figures, the position is even worse.

The economy of Cynon Valley is heavily dependent on a small number of major employers. In 1989, nearly 60 per cent. of the work force was directly employed by 2.5 per cent. of the companies in the valley. The growth of service industry jobs has been wholly insufficient to make up for the decline in other sectors.

The Great Britain increase in overall employment of 5 per cent. between 1981 and 1989 compares with the decline of 17 per cent. in Cynon Valley. It already costs £32 million each year to keep the unemployed of Cynon Valley on the dole and we can add another £5 million each year to the figure now that Tower has closed. The cost of closure to the Exchequer, in terms of redundancy, lost tax and unemployment benefit, will be more than £30 million in the next three years.

The much-trumpeted valleys initiative has provided minimal help. Its main economic aim was to create jobs —everyone agrees that it has failed in that. Even the statistical department of the Welsh Office confirms the failure of the valleys initiative. Some 6,500 manufacturing jobs were lost during the period of the programme. Furthermore, the Welsh Office has yet to provide figures that show how much additional money the valleys initiative has provided.

A report last year showed that Cynon Valley was fourth from bottom of the Welsh district poverty league table in 1981. Ten years later, using the same indices, the report's authors found that despite all the hype surrounding the valleys initiative, Cynon Valley had moved from fourth from bottom to second from bottom. I quote one section of the report, which says:

the valleys initiative has either largely failed the core valley problem areas, or has an immense amount of work remaining, depending on one's level of cynicism. The Minister will know that now that Tower has closed, the loss of the subsidy provided for the valleys' rail link to Cardiff by coal freight may mean the closure of the line. That would be a desperate blow to efforts at regeneration in Cynon Valley. I should like the Minister to make a statement today that will assure a secure future for that rail link.

There was no case for the closure of Tower; it is economically viable. There was a profit of £28 million in the past three years and overall productivity at Tower increased by 35 per cent. in 12 months. Last year, Britain imported 15.3 million tonnes of coal at prices ranging from £28 per tonne to £38 per tonne. That compares with the best of Tower production, which cost £30 per tonne.

Tower will now operate on a care and maintenance basis which means having to pay the costs of mothballing without getting the benefit of output. It also means that in an area of cruel and long-term unemployment, the men will receive their redundancy payments and then be put on the dole.

The Government will, of course, claim that they have done their best for the coal industry and that there is no market for coal. However, they rigged the energy market against coal. That market that has been rigged to the advantage of everyone in the world except the British coal industry and the British people. It is rigged to the advantage of the nuclear industry, foreign coal producers, the multinational oil companies, which sell the British people their own North sea gas, the foreign suppliers of orimulsion and the foreign builders of the gas-fired power stations appearing all over Britain. Indeed, the Government's energy policy is clearly intended to help every energy industry in the world except our own.

I was elected to represent Cynon Valley in the middle of the miners' strike in 1984. I have always had a strong bond with the National Union of Mineworkers—as a journalist, joining its campaign for proper compensation for pneumoconiosis and as a politician, supporting many of its struggles. I know of the human cost in lost lives and poor health for those who worked in the industry and I know of the comradeship of those who worked down the pits. Today, I join in the distress of the men at Tower and their families that the dishonest manoeuvrings of the Government and British Coal have killed the last pit in south Wales.

2.53 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Gwilym Jones)

I should wish to think that it is emotion—an emotion I understand—that justifies the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) in her intemperate and unjustified approach to the issue. I totally reject the charges of deception and dishonesty she so carelessly and unjustly throws at my right hon. and hon. Friends.

I well understand the uncertainties and unhappiness created in recent weeks by the discussions between British Coal and the mining unions over the future of Tower. The hon. Lady should not think that she has a monopoly on affinity or empathy with the miners of South Wales. Neither of us was born in South Wales and I have probably more coal dust in my veins than she has—both my grandfathers worked in the pits of South Wales.

The decision to end the work of the pit was announced by British Coal, following further discussions with the National Union of Mineworkers. The colliery is to be put on a care and maintenance basis and offered for sale alongside the corporation's other assets in Wales. Tower is not necessarily closing permanently. The opportunity is there for new owners, perhaps the management and employees, to take over the mine. I am sure that everyone in the House and outside it would want a prosperous future for the colliery under new ownership. If the management and employees of Tower are interested in pursuing the possibilities, Government support is available of up to 50 per cent. of the consultancy that would be involved, up to a maximum of £80,000.

I accept entirely that the immediate effect of the announcement has been to cause great anxiety among the miners and more generally in the community about employment prospects and about the economic outlook of the area. Our response to recent events must be and will be a comprehensive and co-ordinated action programme, involving all the main parties which are concerned with economic and social regeneration of the Cynon valley.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Will the Minister explain why he is replying and not the Minister responsible? The tenor of my hon. Friend's remarks was concern about how the decisions were taken and how the opportunities for the colliery to stay in existence and to stay working were thrown away by the deception of the senior management of British Coal. Surely, a Minister from the Department of Trade and Industry should be answering, not someone from the Welsh Office who is sweeping up the mess created by the inadequacy of the DTI and British Coal.

Mr. Jones

I certainly do not accept the criticism implied by the hon. Gentleman. The Welsh Office is equally interested in and concerned about Tower and the Cynon valley. That is why I am content to be here at the Dispatch Box answering the hon. Lady.

Our aims are to create more locally based employment opportunities, to improve local infrastructure and the local environment and to create the right conditions for more investment, and to improve the attraction and training position of the towns in the area. That will require a strong and effective partnership between Government, local authorities, the Welsh Development Agency, the training and enterprise councils, British Coal Enterprise Ltd. and others, which are all fully committed to the task and working to a common agenda.

The heart of the programme must be determined by the local authorities representing the people in the communities of the Cynon valley. They understand better than anyone the problems and needs of the area and are in the best position to devise and co-ordinate an effective development strategy that sets out a clear vision for the future as well as a realistic and deliverable programme for its achievement.

At this point, I must pay tribute to the Cynon Valley borough council, which has shown skill, imagination and commitment in its economic development work. Its activities have won the confidence of the public and private sectors. I can tell the House that the borough council yesterday proposed the establishment of an enterprise zone in the Cynon valley, which it believes will improve the climate for new investment.

Of course, that is a complex and difficult area in which there are also European Commission controls. We are suggesting to the borough council that it may wish to consider obtaining professional help in assembling a full case for consideration. The Welsh Office will be offering to fund a consultancy for that purpose. We shall be ready to examine carefully any application that may be submitted.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is determined that the authority should have the fullest support. It will be available on five main fronts. First, as some hon. Members will be aware, in 1991, the Welsh Development Agency, the borough council and Mid Glamorgan county council formalised their working relationship as an urban joint venture partnership with the aim of generating substantial public and private sector investment in the Cynon valley.

To date, the Welsh Development Agency has spent almost £9,000,000 in the area on a range of activities. By the mid-1990s, the agency will have been involved in reclamation of approximately 1,000 acres of derelict land. Business parks such as Cwm Cynon and Navigation are being developed as well as the industrial estates at Hirwaun and Aberaman park.

All that has represented solid progress, and on 7 April, the Welsh Development Agency announced a major expansion of its commitment to the area. Planned investment by the agency over the next two years will be increased from just over £17 million to just under £28 million, an increase of more than 60 per cent., with schemes ranging from road improvements to factory building. Those additional moneys will be channelled through the joint venture.

The Welsh Development Agency estimates that that level of investment will, over the next three to four years, trigger substantial additional investment by initiating projects that will have the backing of private companies —up to £19 million of commercial investment is anticipated in 1994-95 and a further £22 million in 1995-96. The work on that highly-productive joint venture will continue to be supported and strengthened through the operation of the Welsh Office's own programmes.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend recently announced that the A465 heads of the valleys road is to be developed as one of the major strategic east-west links. The dualling of the nine-mile Aberdulais-Glynneath stretch at a cost of £80 million began in January of this year and dualling of the 25 miles of road between Abergavenny and Hirwaun is to be accelerated. The dual carriageway link between the M4 and the A465 is to be completed, with the Pentrebach-Cefn Coed improvement due to start soon at a cost of £50 million. Those major improvements to communications with and within the valleys are a crucial consideration for investors. They form an essential part of the regeneration process.

Thirdly, in recent years, the Cynon valley has benefited substantially from support under the Welsh Office's urban programme. From the current financial year, that programme has been succeeded by the new strategic development scheme. In the recent bidding round, Cynon Valley borough council, together with Mid Glamorgan county council, submitted very sound strategies focused on the development of Aberdare and Mountain Ash.

Following recent discussions with the local authority, the Welsh Office expects shortly to give full approval to a single strategy for the area, with funding of almost £4,500,000 over three years to support 15 projects. The outputs expected from that investment include new flexible industrial units with a floor space of 25,000 square feet; improvements to 12 acres of land for development; leverage of £3,100,000 of commercial investment, achieving a total of £7,500,000; and important road improvements near Mountain Ash and access improvements.

Projects covered under the strategy include the Abercynon innovation centre; the Cynon Valley business centre; realignment of the railway line; and construction of a new station.

Allied to this urban development activity, and within the framework of the programme for the valleys, £500,000 was recently announced for Bryncynon for its successful community revival strategy bid for the development of community facilities in the area.

Work is also expected to start in June on the construction of a specialised scenery store and workshop in the Royal Opera house at Aberaman. Urban investment grant of nearly £1.5 million has been awarded towards total project costs of £5.5 million.

Fourthly, the training and enterprise councils play an important role in the regeneration process because of their support for the training and re-training of individuals so that they acquire the skills that the market needs. But the training and enterprise councils also have the ability to devise—

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at three minutes past Three o'clock