HC Deb 09 February 1994 vol 237 cc274-7
7. Mr. Steinberg

To ask the President of the Board of Trade when he expects to meet the chairman of British Coal to discuss the privatisation of the coal industry.

Mr. Eggar

Both the President and I meet the chairman regularly to discuss the privatisation of the coal industry and other matters.

Mr. Steinberg

Is the Minister aware that the National Rivers Authority has instructed British Coal to continue pumping mined water from the closed pits in the Durham coalfield? Is he further aware that if pumping were to cease it could be calamitous for the River Wear in particular, where the pollution would be horrendous? Will the Minister give myself, my constituents and all the people who live in the Durham area a commitment that he will instruct British Coal before privatisation to continue to pump? Will he also instruct the body that takes over after privatisation to keep pumping until it is 100 per cent. certain that pollution will not occur?

Mr. Eggar

I am aware of the widespread concern about this matter in the north-east and the hon. Gentleman and others brought a delegation to see me. I assure him that, while the matter is the responsibility of the NRA as the regulatory body, the responsibilities that currently rest with British Coal will be transferred to the coal authority following the enactment of the Coal Industry Bill. I am sure that the coal authority and the NRA will co-operate, in the same way as co-operation exists at present between British Coal and the NRA.

Mr. Churchill

While congratulating Malcolm Edwards and R. J. Budge on their recent purchase of certain redundant pits from British Coal, and while sending my best wishes to the miners in the pits involved, may I ask my hon. Friend to say when the hard-pressed electricity consumer may expect to see passed on the 30 per cent. reduction in the cost of the generator's principal source of energy? What are the Government doing to ensure that those vast reductions in fuel costs are passed on to the consumer?

Mr. Eggar

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the interest of the private sector in British Coal pits. Opposition Members do not seem to realise that no fewer than eight pits are in negotiation or are controlled by the private sector. Clipstone, Betws, Trentham, Coventry, Rossington, Markham Main, Calverton and Wearrnouth are all under discussion. Why do not the Opposition welcome the success of the private sector in its negotiations with British Coal? As for my hon. Friend's specific question, that is a matter for the Director General of Electricity Supply, who is in discussion with both the generators and the electricity supply companies.

Mr. Beith

Is the Minister aware of the huge anger and sense of betrayal of more than 1,000 miners who work at Ellington in my constituency at the fact that, only weeks after it announced a plan to keep the colliery in operation with a reduced work force, British Coal has announced its closure? When he meets the chairman of British Coal, will he do everything in his power to ensure that, at a time when there is genuine private interest in taking over that colliery, the pit is kept in a condition in which it can be taken over by someone else and the machinery essential for that is kept in the pit?

Mr. Eggar

I am aware, of course, of the understandably strong feelings in south-east Northumberland about the proposals announced by British Coal. The chairman of British Coal has made it clear that if a decision were made to close Ellington—we cannot prejudge that because there is a modified colliery review procedure—the pit would be kept on a care and maintenance basis until the main privatisation took place. He has given me an undertaking that the equipment at Ellington and the other pits that were the subject of consideration last week under the general review procedure will not be removed from the pits unless it is essential to do so for safety reasons or because the reserves of a pit for closure are reallocated to adjacent mines. That is a major step forward.

Mr. Batiste

Has my hon. Friend had an opportunity to pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment the real concerns expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House during the Coal Industry Bill Second Reading debate? We expressed concern that the guidelines in mineral planning guidance 3, and the consultation process that takes place under them, should provide for a much tougher regime to prevent unsuitable applications for opencast mining in green-field sites from proceeding.

Mr. Eggar

I am aware of the strong feeling on the matter. It is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. Consultations are being held on MPG3. I personally brought to the attention of the Department my hon. Friend's speech in the Second Reading debate on the Coal Industry Bill.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that there is a suggestion among the British Association of Colliery Management people—[Interruption.] I will say it again. Is the Minister aware that there are people in BACM—the senior management of British Coal—who are saying that by March they could be down to six or eight pits only? Will he confirm that that is correct? Will he acknowledge that, in the past 18 months, the man who is sitting at his side—the President of the Board of Trade, who aspires to be the next leader of the Tory party—had the gall to talk about saving pits? He conned Parliament. He conned these tinpot Tories who talked a good fight but were no good in the ring. What is more, he conned the British people. At the same time, the Government are allowing subsidy for nuclear power and the French interconnector link. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Mr. Eggar

I think that the Liberal Democrats sitting behind the hon. Gentleman wound him up too much. It does the coal mining community and the country no good to use the scaremongering tactics which are such a feature of the hon. Gentleman's approach. Why does not he welcome the fact that Clipstone, Betws, Trentham, Coventry, Rossington, Markham Main, Calverton and Wearmouth, and perhaps other mines, are pursued for privatisation by private sector companies that want to make a success where British Coal has failed?

Mr. John Marshall

Does my hon. Friend accept that many people recognise that privatisation is the only hope for a competitive cost structure in the coal industry and that only a competitive cost structure can guarantee the long-term future of employment in that industry?

Mr. Eggar

I completely agree with my hon. Friend—privatised industry has a great future.

Mr. O'Neill

On the question of a competitive cost structure, will the Minister tell the House why Manton colliery, which produces coal at prices lower than the world spot market price, is going to be closed? Does not that show that the Government have no concern for the coal industry and that the promised subsidies last year, which have saved no jobs whatsoever, were a complete sham and a distortion of the truth?

Mr. Eggar

The hon. Gentleman has been shadow energy spokesman for almost two years. Surely he should know that such issues are the responsibility of British Coal and not the Government.

Mr. David Evans

Does my hon. Friend agree that the privatisation of the coal industry is the best thing for the miners and for the production of coal? From 1974 to 1979 the lot opposite closed 10 times more pits than we have closed in 14 years.

Mr. Eggar

I wish that I could put my points across with such elegance.

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