HC Deb 25 May 1995 vol 260 cc950-67

4.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy (Mr. Richard Page)

I beg to move, That the draft Coal Industry (Restructuring Grants) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 1st May, be approved. This will be the ninth annual order under section 3 of the Coal Industry Act 1987, and it has two purposes. First, it specifies the kind of restructuring expenditure incurred by British Coal in the present financial year for which grant may be paid. Those are: redundancy and early retirement; retraining through the job and career exchange scheme; and, new employment. The latter includes the costs incurred by British Coal Enterprise in promoting new job opportunities in areas affected by pit closures.

Those are the same categories of expenditure as was specified in last year's order, except for transfer allowances, which are not included in this year's order, since British Coal will not be incurring any expenditure in that area this year.

Secondly, the order sets at 90 per cent.—as last year—the maximum percentage of restructuring costs which can be met by restructuring grant in the current financial year.

Restructuring grant has proved to be an essential part of the Government's assistance to British Coal. It has helped the industry to adapt to changing circumstances, by supporting generous redundancy terms for miners and staff who are losing jobs as a result of closures and efficiency improvements. British Coal Enterprise estimates that it has created over 120,000 job opportunities, and retrained and resettled, mostly in alternative employment, some 57,000 people since 1984.

The order will allow the Government to continue to support the industry for a further year. The main expenditures this year will be related to retraining and new employment.

I commend the order to the House.

4.10 pm
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

I am grateful for the opportunity of responding to the Minister on this matter.

It is perhaps fitting that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are in the Chair. I should like briefly to refer to the death yesterday of Harold Wilson, because I have here a book that he wrote in 1945, entitled "A Plan for Coal". This book was sent by him to Will Lawther, who was president of the National Union of Mineworkers and who was kind enough to pass it on to me.

With your mining background, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will appreciate that Harold Wilson was a great friend of the industry and the miners. He regularly attended the big meeting days, and made major speeches before them. I remember how in 1965, when he came to the Durham miners' gala, it poured down all day, and the crowds could not assemble. He nevertheless passed out his speech to the press as if he had read it, and enjoyed the festivities as best he could.

It is fitting that, in discussing this mining industry order, he should be remembered today as he was yesterday, and that the work that he carried out half a century ago in "A Plan for Coal" is remembered and placed on the record.

I am grateful to the Minister for taking us through the order. It may be the last day before the recess, and the day of a by-election, and it may be eighth or ninth order which the Minister and Government have brought to the House, but nevertheless it would have been helpful if the Minister had taken a little longer to go through it. We on this side of the House will seek to rectify that for him.

As the Minister said in his brief introduction, under section 3 of the Coal Industry Act 1987, the Secretary of State can, and does, make grants to British Coal to cover some of the costs incurred as a result of the restructuring of the coal industry. In October 1992, the Government announced what they described as a substantial and wide-ranging package of new measures to assist the coalfield communities. They included extra help for inward investment, promotion and additional activity in British Coal Enterprise.

We fully recognise the role that BCE has played in helping to create over 120,000 job opportunities in coalfield areas across the country—a role which covers business funding, the workplace and outplacement. We also recognise that the £93 million that BCE has committed to job creation projects has attracted from other funders a further £670 million of inward investment into the coalfields. The future existence of BCE, however, remains uncertain, notwithstanding the commitments in the Government's White Paper.

I am glad to see that I am in very good company today, with my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington), for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson), to name but a few.

We want to debate the order and to consider the future of British Coal Enterprise and its work force, who did not know, for example, until February of this year that the grants given for 1995–96 by this statutory instrument would be forthcoming. Consultation is never a high priority in the Government's mind. To this day, the staff of British Coal Enterprise do not know whether they will be in a job this time next year.

The staff of British Coal Enterprise are not alone in the uncertainty they feel about their jobs. Many of us meet constituents who tell us that they are on short-term contracts. We meet constituents who are casual workers and whose jobs do not provide holiday pay or sickness benefit. Those people cannot feel the so-called feel-good factor, because they do not know whether they will be in a job in a year's time, and they do not know whether they will have a roof over their heads. Low morale afflicts the country, so it is not surprising that morale at British Coal Enterprise is extremely low.

Low morale can affect not only the individual concerned, but the services that that individual renders. From all the information we are getting, it is clear that many ex-mining staff still need long-term assistance. A report produced by the Coalfield Communities Campaign, after surveying almost 900 ex-miners from five pits that ceased production in October 1992—the figures are supported by an independent CBI survey and by a survey conducted by Derbyshire county council—showed that only 44 per cent. were in employment. Some 46 per cent. were unemployed, and 9 per cent. were in training or education.

Of those who were unemployed, 80 per cent. had had no work since leaving the industry. Those who were in employment earned much less than they had as miners. On average, they earned £70 a week less than they had in the mining industry. Overall, 89 per cent. were worse off at the time of the survey than they had been when they worked in the pits.

We submit to the House that there is much hidden unemployment among ex-miners. Some 30 per cent. were claiming sickness benefit which did not show up on the unemployment register. That is a higher proportion than one would expect, as a result of the unhealthy effects of working down a pit, especially as the average age of those surveyed was 38. Those surveyed were in the prime of their working lives.

The survey shows that morale is low among redundant miners, and that low morale can lead to illness. It shows that the hope of getting a job is so small that it is not surprising that morale is low. With low morale and so few job prospects, as in all such circumstances, it is the small, niggling things in life which attain greater importance.

If we take an overview of the economy based on the survey and assume similar levels of unemployment and low pay throughout mining areas, we can see that spending power of more than £300 million a year has been lost to coalfield communities as a result of the job losses since October 1992.

As my hon. Friends know, I come from a mining area. I have written a book about colliery life, which is not as famous as other books that I have written in my time. My father spent 51 years in the pits, and I began my working life in the colliery office.

I can testify to the House that there is a keen sense of community spirit in the mining areas, as you know well, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The former pitmen have a great desire to be independent and to pay their own way through life. With that background, that desire, a sense of independence and a sense of community spirit, how fertile is the prospect for regeneration. Even under this Government, it would not take a great deal, if they brought all the assistance together, for the former miners to be able to help themselves.

We shall not let the Government forget their 1992 White Paper, in which they declared that they would increase the amount available for regeneration measures up to £200 million. It announced that the funds would allow important new major projects to go ahead, which would promote new employment opportunities.

The Opposition are entitled to ask where the money has gone. It has gone into training and enterprise councils, and industrial estates. We have seen, somewhat tardily, two enterprise zones, and a third has only just opened. But that is not new money, and it is not conditional. How often have we sat in the House and heard the President of the Board of Trade tell us that he is putting new money into the economy? It turns out to be the same money as he announced in last year's White Paper, and the same money that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Budget.

The £200 million which the Government talked about was already allocated to training and enterprise councils, English Estates and even the Welsh Development Agency. Among the Government's other great attributes, they are able to launder money. They have used the same money time and again, but they say in their White Papers that it is new money.

Apart from laundering money, what else have the Government been doing in terms of energy policy? What other nefarious activities have they been up to? As Opposition Members know, and as the mining communities know better than anyone, the Government have no energy policy other than a dash for gas. They have set miners and mining communities aside, as tools to be disposed of at will. The Government's higgledy-piggledy approach to energy created those circumstances in the first place. Miners who have not found work and who are on the dole must look askance at the so-called "fat cats" in the energy industry, who line not only their own pockets with monumental fees and share options but the pockets of their wives.

Those of us who watched the extraordinary exchange between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition will have noticed that the one thing which the Prime Minister has not learnt is Lord Healey's adage: "When you are in a hole, you should stop digging." The Prime Minister kept digging throughout the exchanges. He talked about independent taxation and gifts inter vivos. Obviously, that was over the heads of all those who listened and watched it on television.

I remember as a child learning a poem about the mining industry, which told of how the pitman was wakened in the early morning and made his way to the coalface.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

Tell it to us.

Mr. Bell

As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) will know, he was wakened by the coaler's knock on the window. He went to the coalface to batter at the grimy rock, and he thought of all those pampered ones sleeping in what he described as the "midnight sable gloom". And he thought of all those who were above sleeping, and how they could safely bloom.

What does a former miner who is unemployed see as he looks around him at those who run the energy industry—and even at their wives? Not only are they taking home lavish pay packets and enjoying wonderful share option schemes, but their wives are dipping in, too. What we saw was not a dash for gas but a dash for greed—[HON. MEMBERS: "A dash for cash."] It is cash for questions, cash for gas, but no cash for unemployed miners.

We acknowledge and accept the considerable help from the European Union's RECHAR fund to help coalfields across the European Union. The first phase brought £135 million of European Union funding to the United Kingdom, and the second phase was recently agreed. However, that will only begin to deal with the scale of the effort needed to regenerate coalfield economies. If the Government were to allow British Coal Enterprise to go, and if they fail to honour their commitments in the 1992 White Paper, the United Kingdom would be the only coal producer in Europe without a regeneration programme in the coalfields.

In helping coalfields regenerate, we are a poor second to France and Belgium. In the Flemish coalfield, closures were phased over 10 years, to allow a proper transition within the local economy. In this country, the coal industry has had the best vocational training and education schemes. The old National Coal Board was among the best in that respect.

One personnel director began as an apprentice electrician in the industry at the age of 15. He worked his way to the metaphorical top because of a training scheme. Another man, who became director of the north-east area of British Coal, also began working in the industry at the age of 15.

Miners have shown a willingness to undertake training, to learn new skills, to develop new enterprises and to be part of the changing economic scene. They need help over and above that offered by the order. They do not need any rhetoric, although we certainly did not get any from the Minister. They need assistance; they do not need promises. They need certainty; they do not need doubt and confusion.

Since the original pit closures were announced on 13 October 1992, the Government and British Coal have closed 34 of the 50 deep-mine pits then in operation. That led to the loss of 40,000 jobs directly—half the number of those at Wembley stadium watching the cup final on Saturday. Tens of thousands of other ancillary and support jobs were also lost. Before that announcement, 150,000 jobs had been lost from the industry in the previous 10 years. Wembley stadium could be filled twice over with unemployed miners.

The industry now has to cope with the uncertainty about British Coal Enterprise. If the Government had a heart and the will, they would stir themselves within the Department of Trade and Industry. If they cared, they would bring together various strands of policy aimed at regeneration. If they cared, they would create a coherent regional development policy that drew upon the strengths of the coalfields. If they cared, they would replace pessimism with hope, and offer a fair deal to former miners to help themselves.

Although the Opposition welcome the order, as we have welcomed other orders introduced in the past few years, the Government, might, just might, give the impression to the coalfield communities that they care.

4.26 pm
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) that, since the order is providing some resources for the mining industry and mining communities, it would be illogical for the Opposition to vote against it. That does not mean that we should allow the debate to pass without drawing attention to the grievous scale of need that exists in the coalfield communities.

As my hon. Friend has said, we have seen an enormous contraction in the industry. Coal is not being mined in my constituency, for the first time in more than three and a half centuries. When I entered the House there were 12 collieries in my constituency, and other related industries; now we have none. We are now witnessing the consequences of the destruction of jobs on a scale not seen at any other time in our industrial history. That loss emphasises the need to which my hon. Friend has referred and is why I endorse what he said about the importance of maintaining British Coal Enterprise.

We were fortunate, I suppose, to receive recycled, or laundered, money to finance the Dearne valley city grant, which was one of the first such schemes to be established. It has been relatively successful, but it is not far from the end of its projected lifespan. If our local authorities continue to be subject to existing capping procedures, they will be unable to fund that project and carry on the work that the Government exhorted us to undertake.

British Coal Enterprise is one agency that could assist in guaranteeing that work. I have considerable respect for Mr. Philip Andrew, the leader of that undertaking. I believe that security of tenure should be offered to Mr. Andrew and his organisation, because that would at least enable those of us who represent constituencies covered by city grant schemes to be certain that mechanisms will be created to allow the substantial investments that have already been made to be brought to fruition.

It has cost thousands of pounds per acre to reclaim some of the land used in such schemes. The Government would surely be idiotic if they allowed such investment to be made but did not fund the agencies that would ensure that it bore fruit.

That is particularly true in the Dearne valley, which has benefited from one of the first city grant schemes—now coming to an end—and one of the two enterprise zones to which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) referred. We were promised that enterprise zone a long time ago, but it has only just been authorised. The loss of the agencies or any organisation that could help to develop the enterprise zones would constitute a betrayal of areas in enormous need.

I remind the Minister that, in the 1960s, when some of us wanted economic diversification in our area because our eggs were all in the baskets of coal and steel, public bodies such as the regional civil service told us that ours must be the major coal reservoir in the British Isles. They specifically discouraged economic diversification. Following the decision to inflict rapid contraction on our industry, there must be a national obligation of some kind.

If that constitutes wisdom, the obligation is even greater. The miners may have received redundancy pay, but the jobs have disappeared. The outlook for the younger generation in areas such as ours is very bleak. Ministers should understand that they have an obligation to serve the whole country, even areas that have rejected the Government decisively.

As I have said, in our Dearne valley enterprise zone, substantial amounts of public money have been spent on reclaiming land and preparing it for the economic development that we so desperately need. Immediately south of the enterprise zone and the Dearne valley reclamation area is a portion of green belt. It is green belt because the local authority has taken cognisance of the local community, and because it needs to be green belt: it is attractive, although it is adjacent to hundreds of acres of dereliction. British Coal, however, refuses to fulfil its promise to sell that farm land to the farmer, as many of us expected it would, because it is going to try to sell it as development land.

I ask the Minister to comment on the sanity of spending public money to reclaim devastated, derelict industrial land at enormous expense when British Coal wants to take neighbouring green belt land out of the green belt and sell it for development—thus negating the investment in the reclamation just a few yards away, and making a particularly pleasant farm unviable by reducing the acreage to below the minimum required.

I wrote to British Coal about the matter, and was told, "British Coal believes that it should be development land"—although the local authority and the local community believe that the land should remain in the green belt. We have little enough attractive green belt land as it is; I see no point in taking any away when 1,200 or 1,400 acres of land are being reclaimed under the city grant scheme.

I then wrote to the Minister, pointing out that the decision appeared to constitute a broken promise and an example of irresponsibility that disdained the public investment that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Has the hon. Gentleman's letter to the Minister anything to do with the order? I hope that he will return to that subject.

Mr. Hardy

Let me explain, Mr. Deputy Speaker. British Coal seeks not only to obtain the money that the order makes available, but to obtain more than it should from the sale of green belt land. That is perfectly logical—but let me take your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and say that I hope the Minister will ensure that the Government are not so parsimonious that British Coal must go around selling green belt land to make money when it ought to sell it for the much lesser sum that would be available if the tenant farmer were given the opportunity he should enjoy.

Finally, let me remind the Minister of a point I made earlier. A few months ago, the Church of England Children's Society brought some young people to the House to see me. They were ordinary boys and girls of about 15 years of age who were not the sorts of kids who would go into higher education. I do not suggest that they were below average ability, but they were the sorts of boys and girls who would become skilled and semi-skilled workers—the backbone of our society. In the previous two centuries, they would have been employed in the coal and steel industries. But those jobs have now gone.

The worst moment of my 25 years' service in the House of Commons came when I talked to those ordinary kids of 15 about their outlook, prospects and hopes for the future. The Minister should understand that they have no hope, and they see few prospects or opportunities. Therefore, we are not begging the Minister to provide crumbs for the coal areas and the coalfield communities; we are telling the Minister that a wise Government will ensure that the hope that has been blighted in the past 20 years is somehow restored. This measure will provide a little of the assistance that those people need.

4.35 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The draft Coal Industry (Restructuring Grants) Order is set against the very bleak background to which my hon. Friends the Members for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) have referred. It is probably the bleakest period in all of my years in this place.

We have talked about the possibility of mass unemployment, and I suppose that on many occasions we have made what some would consider to be idle threats about it. The truth is that mass unemployment has now reached devastating proportions, and that it affects every constituency. The scale of the problem is almost unbelievable. Unless this or a future Government address their task properly and provide adequate restructuring grants, they will be unable to deal with the difficult social climate and the devastated social fabric of coalfield communities. That is a terrifying prospect.

Whatever little money will result from the grants for retraining, retirement packages and new industries or from the puny efforts of British Coal Enterprise Ltd.—which I am afraid I cannot laud to the skies; we must emphasise that job opportunities are not jobs—it will be infinitesimal compared with the job in hand.

There are no pits left in my constituency or in the whole of north Derbyshire, and the prospects of attracting new industry on any reasonable scale pale into insignificance when compared with the 1960s, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth mentioned. I saw pits close in my local authority area. It was possible for most of those miners—or a good proportion of them—to find work in other pits, because there were other pits to go to.

However, there are no pits to go to now. Probably only 10 per cent. of miners are able to find work in the few pits that remain. A survey conducted by the county council—we can see it also from a head count of local people—found that more than 50 per cent. of miners and all the inhabitants of some pit villages are unemployed. The situation is not improving. Whatever the feel-good factor may be in the rest of Britain, those people are not feeling it. They are becoming more disillusioned with every week that passes.

We have some responsibility to try to find a way out of that predicament. Assuming that the Government are not interested—apart from passing today's relatively minor order—we must have a plan ready on this side of the House to try to combat that mass unemployment. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth referred to what happened in the 1960s. I was a part of that. Some 700 miners and 700 other staff used to work in a big factory in Pit lane. We thought we were great, and we were. Industry was on the move in the 1960s.

It was possible to attract industry by establishing special enterprise areas. Our claim to fame was that we attracted industry that would otherwise have gone to the continent, by getting an industrial development certificate. However, those certificates would not amount to a great deal today—first, because industry is not on the move; and, secondly, as a result of technology, there are no jobs, anyway. If five sheds on a big industrial estate have about 30 people working in them, they have done exceptionally well. We have to turn our attention to the background of the restructuring grants in an attempt to get round the problem.

We must be careful about opencast. In many cases, if opencast is agreed to in the pit environs, the prospect of introducing anything else is held back for another decade. Apart from the environmental shambles that it creates, opencast in all the coalfields will prevent the operations to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth referred.

Unless we examine the prospects for what we can do, we all have to acknowledge that, even if we had 10 per cent. of the manufacturing increase that occurred in the 1960s when pits closed, we would be doing exceptionally well. We have to consider where the rest of the jobs are to come from. Assuming that we are returned to office, the Labour party has to get back to the idea of sharing work, and everyone working shorter hours to make more work available.

In all our constituencies, thousands of what would have been young miners receive neither training nor retraining. They do not even have the chance to go to the old Coal Board workshops or anywhere.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough said, notwithstanding the restructuring grants, the amount of money circulating in the economy has reduced dramatically. The chances of creating more jobs as a result of people spending what bit of money they have are not very good. I should say in passing that now we have a wage freeze for the miners but a 23 per cent. increase for Richard Budge, the man running the English pits. That will also reduce the money available.

The grants do not address the real issues. We read every day, and it has been said in the House, that the grants should be applied to the problem of the water that is pouring out without control in every coalfield. There should be no more pumping. None of the money will be used for that. Land slicks are occurring in almost every coalfield; methane is pouring out of some of the old pits, and nobody gives two hoots. The grants should be applied to that in future, and there should be many more of them. That is the bleak picture, and we all know about it in our communities.

Of course we shall vote for the grants today, but they do not add up to a row of beans compared with the problems we face. They are set against the background that we forecast two or three years ago, when it was proposed to close the 31 pits—never mind the others. The world price of coal was already likely to rise, and it has already started to move.

What a crazy economic policy that was. We all know that it was the revenge of the Tory Government, and it has accelerated and accentuated the problems in our constituencies. We shall have to turn our attention to it in a year or two, and we had better ensure those on our Front Bench get some decent plans ready, because mass unemployment brings all kinds of problems in its wake.

4.43 pm
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

The Minister says that we are discussing the ninth such order. We do not know whether it will be the last, but it is important and significant as it votes money to British Coal Enterprise. The Minister will need no reminding that during the passage of the Coal Industry Act 1994 the Government gave a commitment that British Coal Enterprise would survive the privatisation of British Coal and continue for some time after that. I am dismayed by the ad hoc arrangements that appear to have been made for British Coal Enterprise.

The order votes money for British Coal Enterprise in the current year, but I am well aware that there has been a protracted struggle to agree its future. It is important as it is the only economic development agency that focuses primarily and principally on the coalfield. It brings venture capital to companies in coalfield areas, it attracts new business and £78.6 million has been invested in business in coalfield areas. It has brought workshops to the areas. We needed the £40 million that enabled us to create 1.3 million sq ft of factory space on 47 sites. Most importantly, it is a partner for economic development. It can work with others such as the local authorities, to bring new jobs, new investment and a new future to coalfield communities.

That partnership has been blighted, however, by the lack of clarity about the long-term future of British Coal Enterprise. One does not take a partner that could die at the end of the current financial year, and that is a real possibility for British Coal Enterprise.

I remind the Minister of the report that British Coal and the Department of Trade and Industry commissioned on the future of British Coal Enterprise entitled, Market Opportunities and Structural Options", that was produced in November 1994. I am disappointed that the report was never published. It sets out four options for the future of British Coal Enterprise, but as yet there is no clear way forward.

It is important that we agree a timetable. It is important that all of us who are actors in the coalfield and want to create a new future know what the platforms will be and who the actors are because there is still a need in coalfield areas. In 1980, there were 40,000 miners in Nottinghamshire; today there are fewer than 3,000. To put it another way, in 15 years, more than nine out of 10 mining jobs have gone.

Unemployment is reaching dangerously high peaks. The gap between unemployment in the United Kingdom and that in the coalfield communities is constantly increasing. Inequalities are being created. In April 1991, the gap between United Kingdom unemployment and the employment in the Mansfield travel-to-work area, which covers a large part of the Nottinghamshire coalfield was 2.1 per cent. By April 1995, that gap had grown to 6 per cent.

There is a clear divergence. Unemployment is worsening in pockets of the coalfield communities while nationally it is reducing. We have to take action on that and ensure that a clear timetable spelling out the future of British Coal Enterprise is discussed and agreed quickly. I understand that the Department and British Coal have Samuel Montagu and Co. Ltd. working on the issue now, but it is important that they come clean and that early decisions are made. People can live with decisions, but they cannot live with uncertainty.

Some former miners have found jobs. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough talked about the work of the Coalfield Communities Campaign, which found that half the miners have found work, but are paid one third less than when they worked for British Coal. This year, Derbyshire county council produced a report with similar findings, showing that miners earn half what they earned down the pit, so there are real and continuing problems.

There is a severe loss of income into the local economy. One has only to walk around coalfield communities to see the number of shops that have shut to see how difficult things are.

Some miners have been more fortunate. I have with me the minutes of a meeting held on 11 January 1993. It was agreed at the meeting that the former miner concerned was to receive good redundancy terms and excellent pension arrangements from British Coal, together with a car and a new house. He has gone on to be appointed by the Government to work on industrial tribunals at £80 a day, and has been appointed to the Coal Authority at £5,500 a year. He is also employed by the Prince's Youth Business Trust as a business advisor at £20,000 a year. That post is funded by British Coal Enterprises. As well as his redundancy package, this gentleman is now receiving nearly £30,000: he has been well looked after.

The man in question, Roy Lynk, is the former president of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. I find it astonishing that he should get his pension and a house and a car and yet be paid nearly £30,000 from Government funds. There are people in the coal industry who say that he is being well looked after. I wish that the Government were looking after the other miners who have lost their jobs and who feel betrayed as well as they look after Mr. Roy Lynk.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on this and give another group of people a fair chance for the future. He will perhaps know that the British Association of Colliery Management is holding its annual conference at the moment. He has received letters from the president of the BACM about a small group of people who are members of what is known as the triple-S scheme—the staff superannuation scheme. They worked for British Coal right to the end of its life and were then transferred to new employers. They, like their colleagues, can get their pensions at 50 if they leave their jobs in, or are made redundant by, the successor company. But if they move from the successor company to another firm and then lose their jobs, they cannot take their pensions at 50.

Fewer than 3,000 people make up this small group. I hope that the Minister will treat them with equity and examine ways of enabling them to take their pensions at 50, like their colleagues do. The money is already there—it is in the pension fund. I hope that the Minister will therefore consider my suggestion, and take this opportunity to respond to an invitation from the BACM and the pension fund trustees to discuss the issue. I am dismayed to learn that he has so far not met them. The conference meets tomorrow. I hope that the Minister will take a step forward and announce that he is prepared to discuss the future with the conference.

Tonight we are discussing that future. There is a strong feeling in the coalfield communities that the Government have buried the deep coal industry deep and then tried to walk away from it. We in the coalfield communities are pragmatic and hardworking. We want more for our children than we have had. We need to invest in jobs and infrastructure to create a better future for them.

4.53 pm
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

After one false start we finally get to the blocks, as it were.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this order, which will permit funding to be released for the costs of retirements, redundancies, retraining and new employment following the changes in the coal industry resulting from the privatisation of British Coal. The full cost of that privatisation in terms of jobs has been immense. Before privatisation the Government spent years encouraging the industry to run itself down to a small rump in preparation for the goal of selling it off. The Government's closure programme finished off the last two pits in my constituency—Bentley and Hatfield—and they had already closed down the Askern and Brodsworth collieries a couple of years before.

Taken together, the closures were nothing short of industrial vandalism on a massive scale. Closing profitable pits such as Bentley was economic madness. The jobs lost at Hatfield numbered 700, and 600 were lost at Bentley. That was a further blow to Doncaster's already damaged economy which, in the 1970s, relied on 10 pits and 18,000 mining jobs, not to mention all the other industries that worked in and about the mining industry.

Now the town is having to rebuild. I suppose that the little money from these orders will go towards helping it to do so. Incidentally, the Hatfield pit has reopened under a private management buy-out scheme, and is doing quite well selling coal that the Government said could not be mined or sold economically. The team at the colliery is doing well. I wish its members well and I hope that they will build on their success.

There has thus been some relief in the way of jobs, but not much. Only 200 people work at the pit, but every job is encouraging. Still, the unemployment rate remains well above the national average. What towns like Doncaster need is Government support to make up for the difficulties of the closures. We need more retraining and the creation of new jobs by attracting firms to Doncaster. The local authority has done a great deal in this respect. The town's amenities have been improved; it has good road links in the form of the M1, the M18, the M62 and the A1. The east coast main line runs through Doncaster, and we are developing a railport so that we can key into European railfreight.

Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck)

My constituency is slightly further north than my hon. Friend's but I regularly travel through Doncaster on the main line. Indeed, my hon. Friend and I often travel north together on the train from King's Cross. Has he noticed, as I have, the huge industrial and commercial developments around Peterborough and Grantham? I think that, with the right sort of support from the Government, they could have been located in Doncaster, Wansbeck or other parts north. There is no particular reason why they should have ended up in the home counties. Under the old industrial development certificate arrangements such industries did come to areas such as ours.

Mr. Hughes

My hon. Friend's point is perfectly valid. Each time I travel on the east coast main line—I look forward to doing so again later today—I notice those developments at Peterborough. We need Government help for such projects in Doncaster and Wansbeck.

To the east, west, north and south Doncaster has good road and rail links which will prove a key feature of the council's attempts to rebuild—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hesitate to interrupt, but the hon. Gentleman has strayed rather wide of the order. Will he now come back to it? I am sure that he is well aware of what it contains.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My point is that the money granted in these orders could and should have been used in the areas that I have described to replace the jobs that have been lost in mining. Certainly, the Government have put some of the money into Doncaster, but at the same time they have cut spending on the town, which makes life difficult for the local authority. The local authority, however, is working with the private sector. There are successful partnerships that will be able properly to use the funding that will flow from the order, as well as funding from other sources.

If the Government want to help Doncaster, they could support its attempts to secure RAF Finningley as a commercial airport after the RAF pulls out next year. That could help them to solve the problems surrounding the fifth terminal at Heathrow. After all, Doncaster is only one and a half hours away from London by train. It takes almost that time to travel from this place to Heathrow. Another consideration is that Manchester is only a short drive from Doncaster across the M62.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That may well be, but the hon. Member must direct his remarks to the order.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am talking about the order in terms of training and helping to reskill the work force in Doncaster in assisting it to find new jobs.

Doncaster has been lucky to have the benefit of British Coal Enterprise Ltd., which is mentioned in the order. The House will know that BCE has worked alongside the industry to help it reskill and to place former mining employees in new work with new opportunities.

I am concerned about BCE's future, which is still in the balance. The Government have not decided specifically what they intend to do with BCE in the long term. If the Minister is able to do so, he should tell the House of his intentions.

The Government made an allocation of £3 million for retraining when the Bentley and Hatfield collieries closed. The moneys were allocated to the Barnsley and Doncaster training and enterprise council. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the TEC spent the money in a different area of Doncaster. The areas most directly affected by the closures, which should have received the money that the Government brought forward and which should receive the money that will be made available by the order, did not receive their fair share.

The TEC is well aware of my concerns because I have talked about them to its representatives on many occasions. My latest information is that the area covered by the constituency of Doncaster, North received only a third of the £3 million that was made available.

I have corresponded with Ministers about the designation of other moneys that have been allocated to try to ease the difficulties caused by pit closures, including the economic difficulties that have been faced by Doncaster generally. Of the £8 million allocated to English Partnerships, most of the funding has been directed to projects on the other side of Doncaster from my constituency. The areas in which pits have closed, which should be receiving moneys from the order, as well as from other sources, have seen funding go elsewhere. A derelict land grant has been made available to clean up the Askern site, but the majority of the funding has been spent elsewhere. Some of the money should have been used to help areas north of Doncaster in my constituency where mines have closed and where unemployment is especially bad.

April figures show that in one ward in my constituency there is almost 18 per cent. Unemployment. Other wards have unemployment of 13 and 14 per cent. Within these wards are pockets where unemployment is as high as 20 per cent. and over. The moneys that will be made available by the order should be used to help unemployed people reskill and retrain for other work that the council is trying to bring into the town.

Against that background, the Government have cut the training-for-work budget by over £100 million for the next financial year. That is difficult to understand. By 1997, the budget will have been cut by as much as 12 per cent. That is madness when 11 per cent. of firms nationally are reporting that it is difficult to fill job vacancies. I understand that in Doncaster we have already lost 1,200 places. Indeed, more are likely to be lost. Without training, how are towns such as Doncaster expected to make the best use of the human resources that are available to them?

The Government admit that the cost to the economy of keeping someone unemployed is £9,000 a year. In Doncaster, North alone, that means that £50.5 million will be spent on subsistence for the unemployed this year. It is criminal to spend thousands of millions of pounds each year to keep people unemployed while at the same time reducing the opportunities for them to earn money for themselves in employment. The Government's approach creates a huge burden for the taxpayer instead of using Government money to encourage success. The Government should not be financing economic failure. We should be giving people a hand up, not a hand out. That is what they want and that is what they need if they are to equip themselves with the skills that they require to ensure that they get back into work.

5.7 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

The order gives the Department of Trade and Industry authority to fund 90 per cent. of British Coal's redundancy costs for 1995–96 and to meet the operating losses of British Coal Enterprise Ltd. for that year.

The first aim of meeting British Coal's redundancy, retraining and relocation costs that have been caused by closures is relatively unimportant because the corporation has already disposed of all its mining operations and the majority of its non-mining activities. It is welcome, however, that the order will provide for redundancy arrangements for the staff who are left with British Coal to dispose of the residual holdings.

The second aim of the order is much more important because it concerns the future of BCE. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) was right to concentrate on the need for secure funding for BCE as well as on a coherent approach to regional policy. We require a fair deal for the coalfields to ensure regeneration of the areas. It is clear that the coalfield areas have not had a fair deal when we set the order in the context of the 1993 DTI White Paper, "The Prospects for Coal", which set out the measures that would be taken in coalfield areas.

We were told, for example, that Barnsley and Doncaster, as well as Mansfield, would have assisted area status. The White Paper informed us that there would be assistance from the Economic Union. We were told that there would be a concentration on infrastructure aid from English Estates. It was said that there would be assistance from the jobs service and the training and enterprise councils. It appeared that there would be set up a coalfield areas fund of £244 million. We were to have new enterprise zones, extra help for inward investment and additional assistance for BCE.

The Government's record leaves much to be desired. Despite a substantial programme since 1985, they have yet to devise a framework for coalfield regeneration. When we talk about that closure programme, it must be borne in mind that we are talking about the closure of 140 collieries, with 160,000 men being made redundant. That has had an enormous impact.

The Government's approach contrasts starkly with that of our European partners. For example, Belgium, France and Germany have a strategy for phased closure of surplus coal capacity that is linked to a regeneration framework that empowers local communities. The French Government are contemplating the closure of the Lorraine coalfield and have set a date of 2005 for doing so. Since 1993, the French national Government, in partnership with the local region, departments and communities, have worked on a framework that will help to regenerate the community, so that as the coal mines are closed other jobs will be available.

That has not happened in any of our coalfields, and the Government introduced a package in 1993 only after a public outcry over colliery closures. One could question whether it could be described as a coherent approach. It certainly does not have the coherence that one would expect in the light of the enormous colliery closure programme since 1985.

Let us look at what we were promised, and it does relate to the grant, which is important, as it provides a little extra help. We were promised, for example, assisted area status. That has been granted, but it would have been granted to any area with unemployment that was created by the closures, so it is not as though it is extra help.

What about European Union assistance? The RECHAR programme, which has been of enormous help, was promoted not by the Government but by local authorities. Indeed, as we have seen many times, the programme has been obstructed by the Government, and only after arguments have they accepted additionality.

What about English Estates? It has made some improvement in the provision of business sites, the effect of which has been limited by the lack of a coherent strategy. The same is true of jobs and services from training and enterprise councils.

The record of the programmes supported by the coalfield fund, mainly through TECs and English Enterprise, does not support the argument that the fund was used to provide additional services. Those additional services have not been forthcoming. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what further assistance is likely to be available through the coalfield fund.

Enterprise zones were offered to the coalfields but they are still hot fully operational—they certainly were not at the beginning of this year. I understand that the enterprise zone for the Dearne valley in south Yorkshire still has not been designated, but perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us on that.

It is important to consider three main aspects in relation to British Coal Enterprise. The provision of start-up finance is important for coalfield communities, because if we are to create jobs we shall do so in small and medium-sized enterprises. We must therefore concentrate on that sector.

Secondly, we must consider the provision of workspace units. Jobs will be created in smaller, growing industries within coalfield communities, so we must concentrate on them. Thirdly, we must consider the outplacing and retraining of redundant coal staff.

Those three aspects are the major part of the second aim of the grant. It is important that the Minister realises that BCE has helped in creating jobs in coalfield communities, although there is some anxiety that it may not continue to do so. Is funding for BCE likely to continue after the order expires in 10 months' time? We do not know whether the grant will continue and, therefore, whether BCE will be able to continue.

Let us consider the situation that former mining communities face every day. My hon. Friends have already made the point that there are pockets of unemployment. In areas such as Worsbrough or Grimethorpe, as many as 40 per cent. of the male population of working age are unemployed. Poor infrastructure has resulted from a concentration on mining, with little diversification. The engineering industry that grew up around mining was very much allied to the mining industry. Consequently, as mines closed, the engineering industry also closed. Two city challenge bids have already been made to try to reverse that situation in the Dearne valley.

We need an appropriate skills base. There is a lower level of skills among some of our young people and we need to be able to lift that, which means concentrating on the appropriate skills to attract the industry that we require into coalfield communities. If we are able to offer the skills that our young people need, perhaps some of them will be able to move to work in areas such as Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester. It is important that we concentrate on the skills that are required for the future.

Environmental degradation has resulted from coal mining. The enormous problem that we face from mine water pollution has been mentioned. If I may, I shall refer to the Minister—within the context of the grant, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Not so long ago, he visited the Koyo factory at Dodworth in my constituency. If he had taken the time to travel one and a half miles beyond that, or if his schedule had allowed him to do so, he would have been in Silkstone, where, as he crossed the Silkstone beck, he would have noted just how polluted it is. The beck is orange. The local garden centre can no longer use the water from the beck for irrigation. Four rivers in my constituency are badly polluted—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

This is all very interesting and no doubt correct, but I am having difficulty understanding what it has to do with the order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will enlighten me.

Mr. Clapham

The point that I am making is that we require more grant to tackle some of the problems in our mining communities. We need more money for training, for business finance, to deal with contamination from polluted mine water and to develop the infrastructure.

Although Opposition Members have some reservations about the extent of the order, because of the limitation on the finance that is to be available, we shall not vote against it. We would, however, like the Minister to assure us that finance will continue after the order expires, which would allow BCE to continue.

5.19 pm
Mr. Page

This has been an interesting debate although, I confess, it has been a little short on the substance of the order and fairly long on constituency problems. However, I see no harm in that. Part of the skill of any interested Member of Parliament is, wherever possible, to raise constituency problems. It is a matter of a battle of wits with the occupant of the Chair to see whether one can float in and out of order to convey one's message.

I had a most enjoyable visit to the Koyo bearing factory in the constituency of the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). I was most impressed by it. It is a classic and shining example of the Government's inward investment scheme, which has brought several hundred jobs to the hon. Gentleman's constituency. No doubt he will thank the Government for that significant move in the right direction.

As I said in my opening remarks, the purpose of the order is to allow the Government to continue supporting the coal industry for a further year in order to help it to adapt to changed circumstances. The main restructuring expenditures to be charged against British Coal's accounts this year will be in respect of retraining and the job creation activities of British Coal Enterprise.

I admired the way in which the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) raised a constituency problem. I shall not respond to it, but I shall make some inquiries and come back to him on his particular difficulty.

Nor shall I respond to the unwarranted and, I thought, unjustifiable attack by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) on Mr. Lynk, who is carrying out valuable and important work for the coal communities. The hon. Gentleman seemed to be upset by the fact that Mr. Lynk is getting less money than a Member of Parliament. We all have our ways of approaching these matters.

I come now to the eulogy of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) in respect of BCE, which was echoed by other Members of Parliament. I commend its valuable work. It might be churlish of me to remind hon. Members that when BCE was first created Opposition Members were rather hostile to it. However, I am quite prepared to be churlish when the occasion demands. [HON MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, hon. Members were.

Mr. Hardy

I was not.

Mr. Page

I accept that the hon. Gentleman has a way of ploughing his own furrow with distinction. However, there was not the uniform enthusiasm when BCE was first created that was apparent in the House today.

It is well to remember that, since its inception in 1984, overall net financial assistance for BCE has totalled some £167 million—roughly £100 million for economic regeneration and some £65 million for resettlement of former British Coal employees. I reassure the House, particularly the hon. Member for Wentworth, that the Government are conscious of the need to ensure best value for money from the substantial investments that BCE has already made.

Options for the future have been raised by several hon. Members. It is important to ensure access to funding to allow the activities of BCE to continue. Access to European funding will be of prime importance. However, the availability of European regional development fund grant for coal areas is not dependent on the role of BCE. Applications from those areas can come from other sources such as local authorities and a range of other regeneration bodies.

In addition to the structural funds in eligible areas, the Government secured the highest allocation of any member state from the RECHAR II initiative. That money will make an important contribution to the economic regeneration of the coalfield communities.

Contrary to the impression that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough may wish to give the House and the nation, the Government have recognised, and do recognise, that during the past decade BCE has made a valuable contribution in assisting the regeneration of areas affected by coal closures. The Government and British Coal continue to explore the future options for BCE. I recognise the need expressed by the hon. Member for Sherwood for an early decision and, despite the detour around terminal 5, I recognise the point made by the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes).

Mr. Kevin Hughes

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Page

No, I am running out of time and I want to put these last few points on to the record.

No final decision has been made but the Government have agreed to continue to provide funding for all BCE's activities, including the workspace and business funding activities in order to allow them to continue during the current financial year.

That course of action, recommended by Mr. Neil Clarke, chairman of British Coal, will allow time for British Coal and its advisers to identify future strategies and make recommendations for meeting the needs of the coalfield communities during the longer term. Consideration is being given to the full range of options, including forms of partnership with other regeneration bodies at national and local level. All options require careful consideration before any firm decision is made, as I am sure all hon. Members will agree.

I can assure the House that I am acutely aware of the difficulties faced by many in the coalfield areas and I shall take careful account of all the points raised in coming to a decision on this important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Coal Industry (Restructuring Grants) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 1st May, be approved.