HC Deb 22 March 1994 vol 240 cc246-8
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I beg to move amendment No. 52, in page 2, line 25, leave out 'Great Britain' and insert 'England, Scotland and Wales'.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 51, in page 2, line 27, at end insert 'and to make arrangements to co-ordinate the separate management for the coal industry in England. Scotland and Wales'.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The amendments are intended to explore one issue: whether the Government have a commitment to ensuring that a mechanism is in place to guarantee a future, no matter how small, for the coal industry in Scotland and Wales, as well as in England. The way in which the Government are proposing to privatise the coal industry—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. There are too many private conversations going on. It is very discourteous to the Member who has the Floor.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Government are proposing to privatise the coal industry by passing everything to a Coal Authority, which will then license operation, but with five sales in five parts of the country. As the Minister will know, in that context the remaining British Coal pit in Wales is obviously grouped with pits in England, and there is only one remaining Scottish pit, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) will speak in a moment.

The amendments seek simply to put on record the fact that if the interests of Scotland and Wales are to be looked after equally, there needs to be not only a recognition that there are three countries with three economies and three interests in the future of the coal industry, but a recognition that the management and administration of decisions also needs to reflect local communities in the three countries.

It is bad enough that people in Wales and Scotland are seeing the coal industry run down partly, if not preponderantly, by policies and decisions of a Government based in Westminster. It will be even worse if they see the new structure come into operation, with no opportunity for Scotland or Wales to influence it at all.

I hope that at the end of this short debate the Minister will be able to tell us that there will be a recognition of the desirability and viability of keeping underground mining going—not opencast mining—in Scotland and Wales. There has been little sign in the past two years of the Government's commitment to keep the coal industry going, as has been evidenced in nearly every debate.

I hope that the Minister will say that the Government are prepared to consider the structures of the management of the authority and the industry in the future, to ensure that the case for Wales and the case for Scotland are made and made clearly, and that areas of some of the greatest unemployment in the country and the greatest traditional dependency on the coal industry are not neglected and carved up almost by accident or by default.

11.30 pm
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I do not wish to detain the House too long. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] It is nice to say something popular. I do not wish to detain the House, not least when Members such as the hon. Members for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) and for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) are present; they have first-hand constituency knowledge of the Scottish coalfield—far greater than mine.

I recall that when the hon. Member for Midlothian was still a senior National Union of Mineworkers official in Scotland and I visited him in his office, the Scottish coalfield boasted a considerable number of collieries. The only one that remains open and within the responsibility of British Coal is Longannet. That shows how the Scottish coalfield has shrunk in a relatively short period, when many people were urging us to have regard for environmental considerations. One of the qualities of Scottish coal has been its low sulphur content, so it was a product with an environmental selling point, yet that important factor did not seem to weigh with the powers that be who 'made the decisions.

Therefore, I endorse the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). The purpose of the amendment is to try to find out whether the Government envisage a continuation of the coal industry, not only in England, but in Scotland and in Wales. As the Bill stands, it would be possible for the authority to determine that there was an economically viable coal mining industry in one small part of England only, and that that sufficed for the whole of Great Britain.

Yet even the pits that remain in Scotland and Wales are an important source of employment in the communities that they serve. In addition to the British Coal pits, there is the Monktonhall pit in Scotland and, subject to correction from the hon. Member for Midlothian, I think that it would still be possible for one of the Scottish pits to be rescued if proper investment were put into it. We should be reassured to know that they have not been totally written off. The fact that British Coal recently won an order for the supply of coal to the Kilchenzie and Longannet power stations is something of a filler, but that, of its nature, is a contract of short term or limited term duration.

When the Government privatised the steel industry, they did not provide for a Scottish dimension, as a result of which the Scottish steel industry suffered grievously in later years. We wish to know whether, following the privatisation of coal, the Government will continue their commitment to the coal industry, however small it is compared with its size in its greater days.

Mr. McLoughlin

Amendment No. 52 would require the authority—I think that is important to remember that it will be the authority—to make separate arrangements for managing the industry in England, Scotland and Wales. The amendment misunderstands the role of the authority. It does not have the responsibility for managing the coal industry. The Government's objective is to facilitate the development of the largest economic industry in the Longer term. Privatisation will stimulate commercial enterprise, release management talents and initiate an industry free from political and financial interference, which have had major distorting effects.

We are looking to the licensees to develop a viable industry that is economically capable of standing on its own feet and can compete with other energy resources.

If the thrust of the amendment is that Scotland, Wales and England should have an opportunity to develop their own coal mining industries, I agree with it. My right hon. Friend announced in September that British Coal would be offered for sale in five regional packages based on Scotland, Wales, the north-east and the central coalfield, which will be offered in two separate parts. There will, therefore, be every opportunity to develop separate regional businesses in Scotland, Wales and different parts of England, if that is how the industry can best develop.

The private sector will determine how, and on what regional basis, the industry is to be managed. That is how it should be, so I hope that the House will reject the amendment.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The House has shown that it wants to proceed quickly through the rest of today's business. I have heard what the Minister has said about his commitment to the industry in Wales and Scotland.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

If the hon. Gentleman believes that, he believes anything.

Mr. Hughes

I remain to be convinced, but I shall take the Minister at his word tonight. Together with my hon. Friends from Wales and Scotland, I shall seek to pursue this debate and get some guarantees from him. It is no good just leaving matters to the marketplace without a commitment to the coal industry in Wales and Scotland.

Mr. Hanson

Before the hon. Gentleman finishes his point, will he assure me, as I represent the only pit left in north Wales, that before the Coal Authority is established that pit has a viable future? We are discussing the establishment of the Coal Authority. Before it is established, opportunities to close pits still exist.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman rightly speaks for Point of Ayr, which still wants a future. Other pits in south Wales believe that they should have a future, such as Betwys and Taff Merthyr.

The Minister has said that the Government want a coal industry in Wales. Before the Bill completes its passage through Parliament, I shall be happy if hon. Friends who represent relevant constituencies in Scotland and Wales put more pressure on the Government so that the commitments sought in the amendment are secured. It is not good enough to say that we can allow the pits to die, then set up the authority. It will be too late. We shall test the Minister, but, for tonight, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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