HC Deb 22 June 1994 vol 245 cc233-4
20. Mr. Skinner

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what recent meetings he has had with the chairman of British Coal to discuss pit closures.

Mr. Eggar

Both my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and I meet the chairman of British Coal as necessary to discuss a variety of coal industry matters.

Mr. Skinner

Is it not tragic to tour the coalfields of Britain—a once-proud industry—and see the decimation that has gone on over the past few years with hardly any pits left and the remaining ones having been privatised and taken over, with 250 men employed where perhaps 1,500 had been employed before? Does that not contrast sharply with the fact that when the President of the Board of Trade was asked last week on radio whether he wanted another job as chairman of the Tory party he said, "No, I want to keep my present job"? We should contrast that with position of the 31,000 miners he chucked on the scrap heap.

Mr. Eggar

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would learn to look forward, not backwards. I also wish that he would pay tribute to the work done by both central and local government to provide new opportunities for work, whether in the north-east, in Scotland, in Wales or in the central coalfield, and to the tremendous efforts made by many agencies to provide training and new jobs for miners.

Mr. Riddick

Does my hon. Friend agree that the real tragedy of the British coal mining industry is that it was not privatised many years earlier? Does he agree that if that had happened, working practices would now be much more up to date than they are, the stranglehold of the National Union of Mineworkers, which has done such immeasurable damage to the industry, would have been broken, the British coal industry would have been able to compete in the modern world and, as a result, many more pits would be open today?

Mr. Eggar

I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the great tragedies of the coal industry is exactly that. If we are able to achieve the significant productivity improvements that we have achieved over the past year or two, why was it not possible to do that 10 years or 15 years ago? I have to tell the country and the House that a lot of the blame for that lies with the NUM in particular.

Mr. Redmond

Will the Minister explain why British Coal is closing down pits in this country and importing fuel and coal from abroad?

Mr. Eggar

One reason why we are importing coal is that we no longer have coking coal or anthracite in significant quantities. [Interruption.] Hon. Members who know anything about the coal industry know perfectly well that that particular quality of coal has been virtually mined out over the past 200 years in this country. Opposition Members should also know that one of the major objectives of the private sector companies that have taken over the pits closed by British Coal is to provide coal to the industrial and domestic markets, which previously were not adequately competed for by British Coal.