HC Deb 26 November 1997 vol 301 cc910-32
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Before I call the first speaker on the coal industry, I remind the House that even more hon. Members want to take part in this debate than the previous one, so it will be helpful if those who do are as brief as possible, to let other hon. Members have their opportunity.

11.2 am

Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

The coal industry faces a challenging time, as the contracts inherited at privatisation expire on 31 March 1998.

I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this timely debate, and I am pleased to see Labour colleagues from throughout the United Kingdom in the Chamber to support the coal industry. There are hon. Members from Wales and Scotland, but the crucial issue that we are considering this morning is the problem in the English coalfield, so the majority of hon. Members present are from the central coalfield, from Yorkshire, from Nottinghamshire and from the rest of the midlands.

We want to argue the case for coal, which will be extremely difficult to argue in the short term. In 1996, the main English coal supplier, RJB Mining, provided 30 million tonnes of coal to the generators. I do not know what it hopes to achieve in its negotiations next year; I expect that it will struggle to provide 15 million tonnes of coal. I note that RJB has agreed a contract of 4 million tonnes with Eastern, and I understand that this morning RJB and National Power have announced a contract of 16 million tonnes, but spread over four years. A big gap must be filled if RJB is to reach the 15 million tonnes that it talks about.

There is a problem on volume and a problem on price. If RJB achieves 15 million tonnes, that will be less than half what it supplied last year, and I expect that in the short term there will be major restructuring and redundancies in the industry.

It is important to recognise that RJB was privatised by the previous Government. We need to acknowledge that the generating industry was privatised by the previous Government. In the short term, the Minister of State's scope for intervention is very limited. I am surprised that people expect a new Labour Government to offer subsidies to the private sector. I am not convinced that there is a strong argument for rolling existing contracts forward for another year or two years—some of my colleagues may wish to comment on that—but I believe that the Minister has a role to play in the short term, and I know that he has been fulfilling that role.

The Minister's role is to get people around a table, to ensure that the generators and contractors talk to one another. He has a responsibility to take stock of what the industry might look like in a year's time. I hear the stories from RJB. I hear management say, "We might close eight to 10 pits in the short term." That would have enormous consequences for the people we represent—the people we know as hard-working, committed miners, who have done everything asked of them and more, the most productive miners in Europe. Many of them are confronted with another Christmas and new year of insecurity.

I ask the Minister to do what he can to convene meetings between the parties, to ensure that contracts are found and that decisions are taken early. One of the ticking time bombs is that people who work in the industry have redundancy terms agreed from privatisation to 31 March, and I am extremely worried that the company appears to be reluctant to talk about extending those terms. I say this very simply to RJB, "If you want trouble and difficulties in your mines, the way to do so is not to talk to the men about redundancy payments in 1998."

There are things that the Minister can do to help the industry in the medium to long term. Coal generation is growing worldwide, so we must maintain a secure and prosperous coal industry in the UK. There are business opportunities internationally, and British mining suppliers and engineering suppliers should benefit.

I know that the Minister is taking steps. I wish that he would say more clearly and loudly what he is doing. His voice is not being heard in coalfield communities. Let me talk about some of the things that he has agreed to do. He is backing coal companies fighting European subsidies in Germany and Spain. He is giving coal an extra chance against nuclear, as a result of the unwinding of the nuclear levy. Those are important things to do.

It is important to examine how the electricity pool works and to take early decisions. Astonishingly, major power stations such as Drax and Radcliffe, which have flue gas desulphurisation, do not run. I should like the Minister's review of the pool to result in cleaner plant being run in preference to dirtier plant. That does not happen now, and I hope that we shall take steps, through that review and the regulation review that the President of the Board of Trade is conducting, to ensure that coal gets a fair deal in the electricity pool.

By themselves, those steps will not be enough. I hope that the Minister will try to help coal in the medium to long term, because decisions that he takes and announcements that he makes now will influence the short-term position. People will not invest, either in coal or in generation, unless they know what the Government's policy is, and there is confusion about that at present. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will state his position clearly. I hope that he will give us a commitment that when he chairs the Council of Ministers energy meeting— which is not far away and will take place in the new year— he will work to ensure that there is a real market, a free market, for electricity.

I hope that one early step that my hon. Friend will take will be to look at the interconnector with France. It is ludicrous that electricity should be bought and subsidised to come into this country. We want a free market in Europe, a market where British-generated electricity can compete on the continent; the stranglehold that some companies have on the continent needs to be broken, and I hope that my hon. Friend will look closely at that.

I hope that within Europe and elsewhere my hon. Friend will consider the issues surrounding climate change. It is only a few days until the Kyoto summit, in which Britain is a prime and important player. We need to be clear about the consequences of our pledges. Our pledge to reduce further CO2 emissions by 20 per cent. by the year 2010 will create pain— that is perceived in the United States and in Japan. We need to make the reality clear here. The reality in the United Kingdom is that carbon dioxide emissions from coal generation have been reduced by 50 per cent. since 1970, and coalfield communities have felt the pain. Collieries have closed, men have lost jobs, and all over England, Scotland and Wales there are mining communities that cannot see the way forward clearly.

We need to be careful what we say at Kyoto, and we need to use new technology. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is an enthusiast for new technology, and I hope that in the run-up to Kyoto he will make some announcements about clean-coal technology. There has been a lot of research into the subject over a number of years and now is the time to reap the dividends, and to bring the players together to try to ensure that early in the next century we replace existing dirty plant with clean-burn coal. If we can do it here in the United Kingdom, we can export that technology across the rest of the world. There are enormous opportunities for us if we take that policy forward.

The initiative in clean-coal technology must be private sector led, but the Minister and the Government have a role to play in providing security and giving a commitment to that approach. If the Minister makes early announcements on clean-coal technology, I can assure him that he will be cheered all over the coalfield communities in the United Kingdom. What would cheer coalfield communities even more is if the policy on gas generation was spelt out clearly.

I have much sympathy with my hon. Friend's position. As I understand it, when he took up his desk at the Department of Trade and Industry, 25 consents were already agreed for gas-powered stations. If all of them were built— I hope that they will not all be built— we should see the demise of the British coal industry in the short term. Since he took office, my hon. Friend the Minister has agreed five new gas-powered stations, displacing 6 million tonnes of coal. As I understand it, those stations have been mainly plant connected, with combined heat and power, to give greater efficiency, but they are not all like that. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House today what criteria he is using to judge and approve new gas stations. We have a right to know, as does the market.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Will my hon. Friend also tell the Minister that nothing has been said so far about why the European Community wants to import gas from Russia and north Africa at rock bottom prices throughout the continent? What steps could be taken on that? Now or in the near future, is that policy to become part of a big negotiating package affecting such issues as fish quotas, beef exports, wine lakes, trade discussions and disagreements? Will my hon. Friend say a few words about that?

Mr. Tipping

I shall say one or two words about that and come to the substantive point in a minute. I hope that the coalfield communities of the United Kingdom will not be sold out at some bargaining table in Brussels. I know that the people who live in Bassetlaw and Worksop, the area that my hon. Friend represents, are conscious of that and do not want to be pawns in the game.

To return to the gas industry, I know that the Minister has faced challenges and been told that he should put a moratorium on gas. I believe that he may have taken advice suggesting that were he to do so, he would face a legal challenge. I understand the argument, but the soundings that many of my colleagues and I have taken in the industry show that if the Minister were minded to declare a short-term moratorium for perhaps three years in order to see how the rapidly changing energy market settled, there would be concern in the industry, but no serious challenge.

Ultimately, gas generation is pushing coal off the agenda and off the face of the United Kingdom. I mildly say to the Minister that now is the time to step off the gas. If a crash is inevitable, if the closure of the British mining industry is inevitable, now is the time to touch the brake and look closely at gas.

There is a bigger and longer-term issue. In the next few weeks, we shall see some slimming down of the British coal industry; if we are not careful and do not take the steps that I am advocating today, we could see the final demise of the coal industry. We shall be entirely dependent on nuclear renewables and gas. The nuclear industry is now in the private sector, and when replacement is needed, the market will not take the risk of replacement because of factors such as disposal and decommissioning costs.

We need to encourage renewables. As the Minister knows, our target is 10 per cent. by 2010, which will be difficult to achieve. In the longer term, beyond the North sea supplies, we shall be totally dependent on gas from places such as Algeria, Iran and Russia. Perhaps the Minister will look at the discussions that have taken place between the Iran oil ministry and Gasprom in Russia about technical co-operation. What they are talking about is rigging the market and increasing the cost of gas. Some 20 to 30 years from now, we could be dependent on sources of supply that are outside our control and that are now rapidly diminishing. The Minister needs only to look at his own statistics to see that gas exploration is not expanding. For the first time, the amount of gas available is on a plateau and there are signs that availability is declining; moreover, the demand for gas is increasing all the time. We shall see a rapid decline of that gas supply, and we shall be left isolated and totally dependent on gas from elsewhere.

If my hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues can look forward 50 years and take action on climate change, they should do so. They need to establish the baseline now for a balanced energy policy that still has coal as its cornerstone. I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in the matter and that, despite criticism, he has been enthusiastic and has worked hard. I know that he has met miners and will meet others this week; I know that he hears their voice. Put simply, he should hear their cries of despair.

This Christmas and this new year will be yet another time of insecurity and worry. The people who work in the coal industry have done everything that has been asked of them, and more. They are the most productive miners in Europe. They are young, well educated and skilled for the future. We must stick with them. We need to invest in coal, the coal industry, coalfield communities and the future.

Unlike the Opposition, I do not want us to turn our back on coal and to leave the industry to the whims of the market. I want the Government to act now and to do what they can, not in the short term, but in the medium to long term, to ensure that the coal that has for years been in the blood of many of us remains there, and that the coal industry survives and prospers, in the UK and internationally, into the next millennium.

11.20 am
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) must be thanked for initiating the debate, which provides the whole House with an opportunity of hearing what the Government intend to do or not to do in relation to the coal industry.

I had considerable sympathy for the hon. Gentleman as he spoke, as it cannot be easy as a parliamentary private secretary to initiate a debate on a matter as contentious and difficult as the coal industry, and to stay within the bounds of collective responsibility. The House will have understood the constraints within which he was working, and I make no criticism of that. One understands the shorthand.

Those who voted Labour on 1 May in Nottingham and elsewhere would have done so in part because, I suspect, they accepted what the Labour party had promised in relation to coal and other matters. Although it is easy for Labour Members to make comments about the Conservative party, that is not the issue today. The issue is what the Government intend to do, and what the Labour party intends to do in respect of the pledges that it made to the country— the basis on which it was elected on 1 May.

In December 1992, at the time of the previous coal debacle, the then shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is the present Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), and the then shadow Minister for Energy, the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), issued a joint press release presenting a six-point plan, which stated: Labour's six steps would put Britain's coal industry on the road to a secure future by giving it the chance to compete on level terms instead of being squeezed out of a rigged market. The press release continued: Britain's coal reserves are a rich national asset. Our gas reserves will only last into the start of the next century, but our coal reserves could supply Britain's energy needs beyond the end of the next century. Letting the pits close now in a dispute over a one-year contract with the electricity companies would be short-termism on a criminal scale. The six steps in Labour's plan would end the rigged market for gas—no more licences should be issued for gas-fired power stations; open up nuclear power to competition; halt imports of French electricity"— the hon. Member for Sherwood referred to the interconnector— stop unfair dumping of coal imports; provide stability for the future— the reduction in the franchise sector of the distribution companies should be postponed; and invest in clean coal technology.

Mr. Ashton

Then the Conservative Government sold the industry.

Mr. Baldry

All those points are as relevant now as they were then. The House and the mining communities are entitled to hear from the Labour Front Bench the Labour party's policy for coal. One sees headlines in The Independent on Sunday stating, "Labour prepares to spin away 5,000 miners' jobs".

It is interesting that the Minister without Portfolio has spun into the Chamber at this moment— an unusual visitor to Wednesday morning debates, or ever.

The Independent on Sunday reports that the mining communities— not surprisingly and quite rightly— say: Down the generations, we have given far more to the Labour party than Bernie Ecclestone … Why won't they listen to us now?

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry knows that I like him and have a great deal of respect for him, but I cannot understand why he has not yet been prepared to see the Union of Democratic Mineworkers and other unions. That is one of the disconcerting features of recent weeks, although he may now have met the unions.

There is a general constitutional convention in the House— and if there is not, there should be— that Ministers will always see groups with an interest in the policy area that they represent. That was the case among most Conservative Ministers when I was a Minister.

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

I saw representatives of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers yesterday.

Mr. Baldry

The Minister says that he met the UDM yesterday. That is rather belated. The UDM's concern was that on several occasions the Minister had arranged meetings, which were subsequently cancelled. As of a few days ago, I understood that the Minister had failed to see the UDM. If that is unfair, I am sure that the Minister will tell the House when he last saw the UDM.

Mr. Battle

I have met members of the different trade unions on many occasions, not least in the middle of the summer, when the debate started. I met a group of representatives from Asfordby to start with, and we went on meeting. There is one member of the UDM who said that I had not met him personally; that is true.

Let me make it plain that I have met with Members of Parliament, and I have written to all hon. Members with a mining interest, inviting them to come and meet me with representatives of the industry at any time. That invitation stands. The only meeting that was postponed was one at which we wanted to discuss the environmental issues with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, but unfortunately he had to attend talks in America at the time for which the meeting was arranged, so we postponed it; we did not cancel it.

Mr. Baldry

The Minister does himself a disservice. The explanation that he gives the House conceals the fact that the one member of the UDM whom he has failed to see is the president of the UDM. The Minister can hardly be surprised if the UDM. as a major union in the east midlands, expresses concern.

Mr. Battle

Arthur Scargill says the same.

Mr. Baldry

Indeed, if the president or members of the National Union of Mineworkers wish to see him, the Minister would be wise to see them as well. Then it would not be necessary to have Wednesday morning debates such as this. The Minister does himself a disservice if he is unwilling to see leading members of the coal mining communities.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

My hon. Friend may know that I have taken a slight interest in coal. I had many meetings with Ministers when the Conservative party was in government, to try to get them to listen to some of the arguments that we must now present in opposition. Does he agree that it is the Prime Minister who is in the frame on this? Of course I would not expect the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) to point that out, given the sensitivity of his position as a parliamentary private secretary.

I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend said about that, but the Prime Minister has committed the country, much to the fury of the Trades Unions Congress, to achieve a 20 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide. The Kyoto conference is coming up, but that commitment is being driven by a policy for which the Prime Minister is personally responsible. The other day he was arguing for—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Interventions must be much briefer than that.

Mr. Baldry

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is also significant that in his maiden speech to the House, the Prime Minister made a plea against pit closures in his Sedgefield constituency. At that time, those pits were producing high-cost coal. If the Prime Minister thought at that stage that it was wrong to close the pits, we are entitled to know what the Government think today.

Mining communities are worried when they read that the Government's intended strategy over the debacle is to blame RJB Mining for failing to negotiate contracts with the generators, when other 'major producers' have been able to do so", according to The Independent on Sunday. In fact, there are no other major producers. There are no other major UK mining companies, because RJB Mining has 90 per cent. of domestic coal production.

The House is entitled to hear today from the Government what they intend to do in relation to the coal industry. The hon. Member for Sherwood was constrained from saying this in terms, but it is clear that if secure coal contracts are not negotiated over the next few months, a considerable number of jobs will be lost in the coal industry.

I put to the Minister a point that was difficult for the hon. Member for Sherwood to make. Those in the coal mining communities—many of whom are represented by Labour Members—would like the Government to consider extending the current contracts for a further two years until Professor Littlechild's review of the electricity market is concluded. Those communities are understandably concerned that, although productivity in coal has improved enormously and the cost of coal has decreased considerably, the benefit has not been passed on to the consumer. Coal miners believe that their jobs are at risk and that Professor Littlechild's review might provide some useful information and conclusions. It would be sensible to allow existing contracts to run while the review continues and to impose a moratorium on mine closures in the interim.

Such action may involve a cost. The hon. Member for Sherwood said that no one expects a Labour Government to subsidise a privatised industry. I suspect that many miners in his constituency and elsewhere are not interested in ideological niceties of that kind. [Interruption.] They are concerned about their jobs. They want to hear what the Government intend to do to help them— and we look forward to hearing the Minister's response today. The Labour Government will not provide much consolation if they simply say, "We are terribly sorry, but we are going to wash our hands of the matter. We don't think that we can intervene, so we shall simply blame the Conservative party, Budge or anyone else we can think of. We shall not take any action."

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

The hon. Gentleman says that miners are not concerned about "ideological niceties", but they are concerned about fair treatment from the new owners of Britain's mining industry, RJB Mining. For example, the closure of Asfordby colliery was announced to the stock exchange before it was announced to the work force. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that RJB has treated its employees fairly? Many people believe that handing over the British mining industry to RJB is akin to asking Imelda Marcos to mind one's shoe shop: one should not be surprised if it is totally stripped before it is returned.

Mr. Baldry

I hold no brief for RJB. I do not know the facts of the case— apart from the details that the hon. Gentleman has provided. It is beholden on any good employer to notify and brief his employees: that is good personnel-management relations. That is what we expect of any employer, including RJB. The pit to which the hon. Gentleman refers is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), who I suspect hopes to speak later in the debate.

My point is that the House and the mining communities want to know today whether there is a possibility of the Government's intervening to extend the current coal contracts and impose a moratorium on further pit closures. After all, that is what the then Labour Opposition said when there was a similar situation in 1992.

As to where the money might come from, the coal unions have pointed out that the mineworkers' pension scheme has generated an actuarial surplus of £1.5 billion and that the Government, as guarantor of the scheme, are entitled to £750 million of that surplus. With accrued interest, the Government could take £110 million of the surplus every year for the next 10 years. Therefore, enough money would be available without the Government's having to raise additional funds. What do the Government think of that suggestion by the mining unions? Do they believe that it has any merit and, if so, are they prepared to act on it?

On a previous occasion, Labour Members made a lot of noise and many pledges. The miners and the communities of the east midlands and of the entire country want to know which pledges and manifesto commitments the Labour Government will honour—or perhaps, as The Independent on Sunday suggests, they will simply prepare for 5,000 job losses by spin-doctoring between now and Christmas.

11.35 am
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

The charge levelled against the Minister by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) is wrong. I have been involved in the coal mining debate for many years—indeed, since I came to this place—and the Minister met coal miners in my constituency before 1 May to talk about the problems that we knew would result from events over the past decade.

The hon. Gentleman claims that people in coal mining communities want to know what is going on. I suspect that they want to know why the hon. Gentleman and most of his right hon. and hon. Friends set the scene for the present problems in the coal industry. They voted against us in the Division, with one or two honourable exceptions—the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is in the Chamber today. I have had some unhealthy bedfellows in television studios in the past few days. Someone commented that the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), was a strange bedfellow for me, and I nearly replied that I would be sleeping with one eye open. The hon. Member for Banbury is fundamentally wrong— especially in his attack on my hon. Friend the Minister.

I came to the House in 1983, fresh from Maltby colliery. Two weeks ago, that colliery announced 600 job losses from a work force of 850. Maltby colliery is not a Victorian coal mine: its technology is as good as that of, dare I say, formula one racing. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been invested in that mine, and I was there when the major round of investments began under a Labour Government in the 1970s. More than £200 million was invested at that time when the last Labour Government got caught not because they managed the economy badly, but because they had to import energy into this country—which was also the policy of the previous Administration. The price suddenly increased from $2 or $3 a barrel to $20 a barrel, which created enormous economic problems for the nation. It was not the fault of people in the Treasury: there was an attack on the British economy from outside, and the nation invested in the industry to ensure that that would never happen again.

Mr. Ashton

With no North sea oil.

Mr. Barron

My hon. Friend is correct. Hundreds of millions of pounds were invested in those collieries that are still open today. Many people cannot understand why we now face job losses in light of that massive investment. As far as the nation is concerned, the issue of ownership of the coal industry—now and then—is immaterial. Funding for the industry was an investment for the nation so that we would not return to the dark days of the 1970s. The economic attack on this country at that time hurt not just the miners but everyone—indeed, miners received decent wages and there was decent investment in the industry in the 1970s for the first time.

The Government have inherited the current problem, and my sympathies lie with them. For more than a decade, there was a strategy to get rid of coal mining in this country. That may have been a consequence of the 1974 general election result—I was a working coal miner at that time. No matter where the seeds were sown, that policy was enacted for more than a decade in this country. It was the strategy of the previous Administration.

The decline in the coal markets over the past decade inevitably meant that we would end up with the mess that is on our hands at the moment. It is very difficult to see how we can get over it in the short term, but we must find a way. It would be crazy to throw away the investment that we as a nation put into coal mining. Fifty per cent. of European coal reserves are in this country. Are we going to cut off access to those reserves and thus deny Europe, in years to come, the ability to use them and our ability to sell to Europe? I hope not.

The Government are in a very difficult situation, as are my 600 miners and their families, who have a bad Christmas to look forward to. This comes on the back of the thousands of coal miners' jobs that have been lost in my constituency. We need to act in the medium and long term. I accept that we are looking at the electricity markets, where the seeds of the mining industry's downfall are, and where people have not been operating a market system at all, preferring one fuel against another as a base fuel into our power stations. We must look there, certainly in the short term, if we are to get over the likely loss of the coal market from March next year.

I agree that we said in opposition that we should not license new gas-fired power stations. It is right to say that the ones that have been licensed since 1 May will not come on stream for two or three years, but that sends negative attitudes to the marketplace about where we as a Government believe that coal will be in a few years' time. That must be recognised every time a speech or a decision is made. At the moment, coal is on the defensive—it has been for 10 years—and it has been put more on the defensive.

I should admit that I am vice-president of the Combined Heat and Power Association. I agree that we should have CHP gas, but the heat loads of the power stations with CHP are very low. Their intention is to get electricity that is generated by gas into the marketplace, because that is what suits the market. I do not think that we can sustain that. We should look more critically at new gas stations. I know that it causes legal problems and so on, but we should do what we said we would five years ago.

I do not say that just because of the coal lobby. My hon. Friend the Minister received a letter from the Utility Buyers Forum, dated 13 November, which criticises the use of gas for electricity generation. It says that it creates problems not only for our indigenous coal industry but for the people who have been buying gas for many years, who are finding it difficult to keep a supply of gas coming in. The letter says: They are also very concerned that the significant increase in the interruptions to the supply of gas, because of transmission constraints, is a direct outcome of gas being diverted to electricity generation to the detriment of existing gas users. There is a body of opinion—it is not just the pro-coal lobby—that says that we are throwing away a very important fuel in terms of gas. I do not want to throw it away, as it is very important, but it is likely to last a maximum of 15 to 20 years on current use. On that basis, we should look more critically at the situation.

In the short term there are problems for everybody, including coal miners, but if we have plans in the medium to long term that could sustain the deep mines that we have, it would be crazy not to make that plain while the negotiations are taking place. As was said yesterday, the negotiations may be over—who knows? However, it is very important that we pass positive messages that there is a long-term future for deep-mined coal in this country. That is what many of my hon. Friends and many thousands of coal miners and I want to hear from the Government.

11.43 am
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I listened to what the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) had to say with some surprise, because the coal industry in this country has been destroyed largely by the Conservative Government during the past 18 years. What he had to say about a moratorium was rather facing both ways, which is a polite way of putting it in view of the Conservative Government's failure to protect the coal industry when they had the opportunity.

That said, I have much sympathy with what the Minister is trying to do. On the one hand he is trying to square a circle and ensure that the Government can comply with the carbon dioxide reduction targets that they have set themselves; on the other, he is trying to protect jobs and a very important British industry. That is a difficult job to do.

We on the Liberal Democrat Benches are quite clear that the most important factor is to achieve the reduction targets and protect the atmosphere and the world climate, and hence the environment of all of us, including those who currently work in the mining industry. However, that does not mean that we have to throw away the mining industry completely.

The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) mentioned clean coal. It is very clear that, whatever the future energy prospects in this country and western Europe—it seems likely that they will be based on gas and renewables, as economic and generally carbon-free fuels of the future—in other parts of the world, particularly India and China, there will be a continued and expanding market for coal well into the next century. Indeed, it is extremely likely that, in the next 40 to 50 years, the growth in coal consumption in China will substantially exceed any reduction in coal output in the United Kingdom in the past 40 or 50 years.

Perhaps understandably, the associated industries—the mining engineering and the technology and machinery sectors—have not featured highly in the debate so far. There are very clear opportunities for British expertise to be used in the developing markets for coal overseas. I hope that the Minister will pick up that issue and give some consolation, support and help to that part of the mining industry, which is involved not in extraction but in the supply and support of the industry. A significant export market is available to Britain provided that the right investment and support are given to its continuation in this country. For years, Britain led the world in mining engineering and technology. It would be a great shame if the current difficulties in extraction resulted in the destruction of our technological lead and led to a failure to exploit it on the world export markets.

Although there is no doubt that if we pursue the targets for carbon reduction in this country, it will have an adverse effect on the mining industry, we should also remember that, taken as a whole, it can very positive for jobs and employment in this country. That may not be much consolation to some hon. Members who rightly speak very spiritedly on behalf of their constituents and the mining industry, but it would be a mistake for the House to conclude the debate without understanding that the changes that are coming can be positive for this country, not just in environmental terms but in employment and export terms.

11.49 am
Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) on initiating this debate and I declare an interest as an adviser to Scottish Coal. I want to put the record straight about the Minister. I want to thank him and the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), publicly for their efforts to try to keep Monktonhall open. They were not successful, but access to Ministers was second to none for the trade unions, the local authority and myself.

I should like to appeal to the Minister. The current threat of redundancy means that we are in a critical period. I heard the statement made in another place yesterday, but I hope that the Minister and his Department will adjudicate during discussions with those involved in getting contracts for the generating units and with the company concerned. I believe that they could do that behind the scenes and that his Department could bring common sense to bear so that the people involved can have a happy Christmas, a happy new year and a future. The problem facing the coal industry now is the immediate future. It is difficult for the Minister to get involved with private companies and so on, but I hope that he will do so.

As an ex-miner, an ex-miners' leader and now as a Member of Parliament for an ex-mining area I have spoken on many occasions and in many places about a genuine integrated fuel policy for the United Kingdom. We have been arguing about that for a long time. We have the finest deep mines in the world. They are the best technically, productively and in terms of safety. We are second to none. We have people who are the envy of other countries. Japan would give its right arm for an indigenous coal industry such as ours. I believe that we may be suffering from an abundance of indigenous fuel. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood that we shall be at the mercy of foreign imports in the future. Our children and our children's children will not thank us if we do not deal with the problems now.

It is not possible to switch a colliery on and off. It cannot be mothballed and returned to later—a colliery is not like a tap—because it deteriorates. Public money was spent at Asfordby, but its potential closure is criminal for this country's assets.

It was said that there would be a crawl for gas, but we have a dash for gas and something should be done about that. A moratorium must be set up. We must think about the strategic future and potential of gas. A gas-fired station eats up millions of therms of gas whereas, domestically, the same amount would last for months or even years.

There is an application for a gas-fired station in Scotland, but Scotland already has an overcapacity of generating units. We want to export electricity, not set up another competitor which is not really needed. The knock-on effect would be the closure of coal-fired stations. We have made our representations to the Secretary of State for Scotland through the trade unions and so on, but common sense must prevail. We should stop this before it starts.

We cannot help repeating ourselves in debates such as this and I make no apology for doing so. Renewables such as wave power, thermal energy and wind power are important. It is a new and important idea. However, we would like the same amount of grant to be given to clean-coal technology. We should not apologise for giving grants because private industry receives many grants, particularly farmers and others. Fossil fuel subsidy savings could be part and parcel of the money used for grants to upgrade the coal-fired generating units. If we do not deal with the levels of CO2 and SO2, there will be premature closure of coal-fired stations. We do not want that to happen because it will have a knock-on effect on the coal industry.

I make no apology for saying that the coal industry pays into the Exchequer millions of pounds each year in taxes, PAYE, VAT and a host of other ways. More than that, there is a massive saving on the balance of payments. Every time we buy fuel from abroad, no matter what type of fuel, it is paid for in yankee dollars which have to be bought in the marketplace or earned through exports. The coal industry is the most efficient and competent industry that ever was. If British industry had been as efficient as the coal miners, we would be leading the world in productivity and economics.

I am emotional about this because I am talking about my colleagues, including those in other coalfields. There is no barrier between miners, geographical or otherwise. We must think about what is good for UK incorporated. I am appealing to my hon. Friend the Minister to do that.

We must protect our indigenous supplies. Competition between inert mixtures is nil. Competition is a man-made philosophy. According to the diktats of some Opposition Members, it is the be-all and end-all, but it is not always what is best for the United Kingdom. It is not always good for the future. It may be short-termism and may lead to us doing something that we regret later.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to sit down with everyone involved in the energy industry to talk about an integrated fuel policy. I would then be happy to see the future of those in the coal industry alongside the future of those in other industries. We do not want closures in other industries—there must be life for all. Our decisions must be based on common sense and what is best for the people of this country.

11.57 am
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

A few moments ago an ill-informed Government Whip shouted across the Chamber asking me what I know about energy. He should do some reading. I have spent 15 years trading oil and, given that energy is interdependent, one begins to learn about coal as well.

My interest began 10 years ago when I stood, unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate in Barnsley, West and Penistone just after the miners' strike, where I gloriously increased the Labour majority from 10,000 to 14,000. Little did I expect that, when I was selected for a rather more satisfactory part of the country, I would have in my part of rural Britain one of the largest deep mines in Britain. That mine is—or sadly was—Asfordby. Over £400 million had been invested in that mine and there were high hopes for the production of high-quality deep-mined coal. The investment was made entirely under a Conservative Government. Sadly, severe geological faults have been encountered and the mine has had to close.

That is causing local economic problems and 400 men have been laid off during the past year. Melton borough council and those who help in the area are doing all that they can to ensure that the community does not suffer as much as it might. Contrary to the jibes of Government Whips, I am interested in coal and have taken as deep an interest as I can.

Mr. David Taylor

I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman is interested in coal. Can he tell us why, when the campaign to save Asfordby wrote to him, he said that he was unable to help in any way and told those involved to direct their concerns to the Minister?

Mr. Duncan

In replying to my constituents, I pointed out what I believed to be the truth—which is that the Minister is prepared to do nothing. That intervention and the entire debate has illustrated that the Government will do nothing and have always intended to do nothing. They are trying to live a double life. They say that they are not in favour of subsidies but are now in favour of the real world of free markets. At the same time, they pretend to interest groups that they are defending and helping those groups in ways that the Conservative Government could not. I want to dwell on the Government's hypocrisy.

I may be less generous than my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry). I recognise that the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) has consistently defended coal mining interests cogently, fairly, reasonably and without hypocrisy or double standards, but I fear that the same cannot be said of the Minister. The hon. Member for Sherwood is a parliamentary private secretary and I am sure that even he would admit, as he smiles at me across the Chamber, that the debate has an element of window dressing. He knows that he cannot push this issue too far or it would be inconsistent with his remaining a PPS. He also knows that the Minister will do nothing about the matter. Securing this debate is good for headlines and for his reputation as an hon. Member who defends mining interests, but nothing will be done as a consequence.

Mr. Tipping

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's generous remarks, although I am sorry that he gave them with one hand and took them away with the other. I have high expectations. It is not window dressing: I have a shopping list of things that I expect my hon. Friend the Minister to do for the coal mining industry.

Mr. Duncan

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has a shopping list, but I am not sure whether, even as Christmas comes, he will get any of the things on it. Calls have been made for something to be done about conserving coal reserves, but no specific suggestions have been made about how that can be achieved. I think that something most definitely has to be done about overseas subsidies, but no progress whatever is being made.

The Labour party in government is unable to reconcile its campaigning and its claims to be able to help people, with its espousal of the free market and its intention to work within it. The debate should primarily dwell on the Minister's conduct. Before 1 May, when he usually sat at the back of the Opposition Benches, he would lambast the Conservative Government in his charming way and call on them to do something about the coal industry. Now that he sits on the Government Front Bench with his Red Box and his ministerial car, he is prepared to do absolutely nothing. What he said when in opposition in no way marries with what he is pretending or, in my view, failing to do as a Minister of the Crown.

Mr. Battle

Quote me.

Mr. Duncan

We can look in Hansard, which will show that the hon. Gentleman called for much to be done. Will he write into the record what specific action he proposes to take, what money he intends to spend, whom he has seen, what he has promised them, and what the Minister without Portfolio has told him to do to prevent what would otherwise happen to Britain's coal mining industry, given the forces of the free market? The Minister did nothing for the miners in Asfordby. He says that he wrote me a letter, but I did not see it. His private office has just been phoned, but it seems that it does not know when the letter was sent.

Spokesmen from the Maltby colliery do not think that the Minister for nothing is doing anything. They say in today's Yorkshire Post: The feeling was that the Government are trying to get rid of the lot of us. The Minister should have the courtesy to look at me when I address him across the Chamber to point out how little he is doing to help coal miners. He is still chatting to the Minister without Portfolio, who masterminded so many of the campaigns before the election, which perhaps explains why he is a little more barefaced than the Minister.

The representative from Maltby said: We have had discussions with the Labour Party, and they have been promising us for months: You'll be all right, we'll sort it. He added: They have lied to us—what they promised to do was set the market straight. They have not. That's all we ask for, we're not asking for money or subsidies. We are just getting stuffed out of the window and we don't know why. Is the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who used to work in the Maltby colliery, proud of the Government?

Mr. Barron

I cannot understand the hon. Gentleman's position. Before 1 May, he said the opposite of what he is now saying. You are one of the people who voted in 1992 to put the industry under pressure.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman should address the Chair.

Mr. Duncan

I am happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman's taunt. The Conservative Government did what they said they would do. The Labour Government said one thing when they were in opposition, and are now doing the opposite. I despise their hypocrisy: it labels the Minister as the Minister for nothing rather than the Minister for energy. What does he intend to do? Absolutely nothing. At last, he is meeting the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, but he is merely going through the motions and is still doing nothing.

Mr. Battle

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was away when we debated the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill, which stopped the subsidy for imported French nuclear energy, and levelled the playing field on nuclear subsidies in Britain to give coal a fairer crack of the whip. If that is doing nothing, where was the hon. Gentleman when it was done?

Mr. Duncan

That is the area on which I now want to dwell. I agree that, if there is to be a proper free market, there should not be unfair subsidies for one country, which enable it to export its coal to Britain and undermine our freely working market. I shall ask the Minister one more time to explain in great detail how German and Spanish subsidies are to be removed. What are he and the Prime Minister doing with their chums in Brussels to ensure that those subsidies are removed?

Mr. Battle

Unlike the Conservative Government, who did absolutely nothing, we protested and raised the matter with the European Commission within weeks of coming into government to try to stop German and Spanish subsidies. That is why the German Minister will be in my office tomorrow asking me why we took that action. The Conservative Government did nothing.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When a Minister of the Crown comes to the Chamber and says something that is untrue, what action can a former Minister take to rebut such damaging allegations?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member knows that what is said in the House is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Duncan

My hon. Friend the Member for Southwest Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) was the Minister responsible for energy before 1 May. It is clear that something was done. Will the Minister tell us when German and Spanish subsidies will end? Yippee, hallelujah, the Minister has made a protest, but how will he ensure that there is fair play between the coal that is produced and exported by Germany and Spain, and coal that is produced in and exported by Britain? We want to know the specific detail. Until we do, the hon. Gentleman will be labelled the Minister for nothing—or worse, as the Minister for the betrayal of the coal mines that he pretended to defend.

12.7 pm

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) and other hon. Members who have spoken out in this debate. Those of us who were in the House before and during the miners' strike recall the passion and eloquence with which the miners' cause was championed. It is the Labour Government, not Labour Members, who are on trial today. These Ministers have been in charge for the past six months. The plain fact is that the Government do not have a coal policy; they do not even have an energy policy. They have an environment policy and are undertaking a series of energy reviews. They have asked the regulator to review the electricity pool, the Department is reviewing the utilities, the Minister is supposed to be reviewing renewables and clean-coal technology, the Deputy Prime Minister is reviewing combined heat and power and the Chancellor has been reviewing the impact of the reduction of VAT on energy-saving materials. The Minister has reviews; he does not have a policy.

Far from helping the coal industry since he took up his post six months ago, the Minister has made the situation very much worse. Just when the coal contracts have come up for review, he has licensed more and more gas. He has licensed a huge gas-fired station for his friends in British Petroleum.

Yvette Cooper (Pontefract and Castleford)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fallon

I will not because time is short.

The Government have adopted a series of emission targets and will do so again at Kyoto, all of which will make the position of the coal industry more difficult. The Minister's actions could be described as driving the nails in the coal industry's coffin". Those are not my words or the words of the press. They are the words of the Minister's own press office in the spin doctors' memorandum that his officials have prepared. The memorandum uses the phrase: Since the Government could be portrayed as driving the nails in the coal industry's coffin".

The only thing that the Minister seems concerned about is public relations. All he is bothered about is the spin doctoring that will cover the closure of the collieries. Indeed, he is happy to see 5,000 jobs disappear before the end of the financial year provided that it is done in an orderly way. His own document says that it is important now that RJB makes the necessary adjustments to their capacity in an orderly way. The Minister is presiding over the rundown of the collieries. I must tell the Minister that it is not a question of 5,000 jobs being at stake. The miners' leaders have made it clear to us that more than 50,000 jobs are at stake in the industry. It is high time that the Minister stopped blaming everyone else and stopped saying that there is nothing that he can do. I shall tell the Minister what to do.

First, the Minister can talk to the miners' leaders; he has not yet met them. In the debate on the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill, we were challenged to talk to the miners' leaders in Nottinghamshire. We have done that; the miners' leaders came to see us because they could not get to see the Minister. They told us that they had not agreed with the policy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), but that they had respected him because he had the guts to meet them and to explain his policy face to face. Why has the Minister not met the miners' leaders? Why has he not talked to Mr. Budge?

Mr. Budge is the single most important figure in the industry. I would have thought that, with 50,000 jobs at stake, the Minister would have given some time to Mr. Budge. Of course, Mr. Budge has not given £1 million to the Labour party. If he had, he would not be bothered with this feather of a junior Minister. He would see the Prime Minister and the matter would be sorted out at No. 10. The Minister should meet the miners' leaders and Mr. Budge.

Secondly, the Minister should get to grips with what is happening in the coal industry. It is no use him saying, as he has said so often, that the industry is in private hands. The electricity companies were in private hands in 1992, but that did not prevent the Conservative Government from intervening. That did not prevent us from imposing a moratorium on pit closures or from leaning on the electricity companies to burn more coal. If the Minister does not believe that, he should talk to Yorkshire Electricity, which will tell him exactly what pressure was put on the company in 1992 by Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry.

Yvette Cooper

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fallon

I will not.

It is nonsense to say that, because the industry is private, nothing can be done. Conservative Ministers intervened; this Minister can intervene.

Thirdly, given the state of the negotiations, the Minister was extremely unwise to accentuate the dash for gas. He said twice in my hearing yesterday that he had implemented all of the six-point plan for coal which Labour produced in 1992. That is not true. The six-point plan for coal was issued by the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) in December 1992. The first point was: No more licences should be issued for gas-fired power stations. That was Labour's promise in 1992 and the Government have broken it. They have licensed gas-fired power stations and they have made the situation more difficult for the coal industry.

Fourthly, and perhaps most important of all given that the Minister has asked the regulator to review the pool arrangements and to review the true costs of baseload electricity—that review, which has not even started yet, will take most of next year—there is certainly a good case for extending the rest of the current contracts. I remind the Minister, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) reminded him, of what the right hon. Member for Livingston said: Letting the pits close now in a dispute over a one-year contract with the electricity companies would be short-termism on a criminal scale. If that was true in 1992, it is true today.

If the Minister really cared about the coal industry, those are the four simple steps he would be taking now. If he does not take those steps, he and the President of the Board of Trade will stand condemned as the coal industry's silent butchers. They say nothing, they do nothing and they care nothing.

I looked back to see what the Minister had done for coal over the past few weeks; I may have done him an injustice. I found a press notice issued by him on 13 November which says: Lifeline for national mining museum". The Minister announced that there would be talks and that £100,000 would be given to keep the national mining museum going. He is happy to get involved with the national mining museum. He will be dealing with a genuinely national mining museum if he does not get cracking and start caring for coal. Perhaps he is happy to turn our entire coal industry into a branch of the heritage industry.

It is now late in the day. There are four months left before the remaining coal contracts expire. There is still time for the Government to wake up to what is happening in the coalfields. There is still time for the Government to keep their promises to the coalfield communities and to the miners' unions. If, however, we do not get some action soon, today's debate will be the first in a series on closure after closure.

The Minister may want to spread out the closures "in an orderly way"; Conservative Members do not. We want to see a competitive coal industry—a coal industry with a future. We want to see an energy policy that relies on diversity. We are not prepared to see our coal industry closed down "in an orderly way" in the first half of this Parliament so that it is off the Minister's desk and so that another problem has been sorted before the next election.

If the Minister has any credibility left, it is time for him to announce to the House that he does have a coal policy. It is time for him to send out a signal to the coalfield communities and to the collieries that he does care about their future.

12.18 pm
The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

I welcome the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping). My biggest regret is the shortness of time. I know that many other. hon. Members want to take part in the debate and I would have welcomed an airing of all the issues. It is vital to have a proper discussion on the matter in the House. I am accused of not saying anything; I would not mind a bit of time in which to say something in response because I believe that the Government are doing something. In the short time left to me in the debate, I shall try to get across again what the Government have been doing in the past few weeks.

I have listened closely to what has been said this morning. No one can now be unaware of the intensity of feeling about the future of the United Kingdom coal industry and about jobs in the deep mining industry. I share the concern about pending unemployment and job losses that has been spelt out by—

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

May I add to what my hon. Friend the Minister has said on the concern about the loss of jobs in the mining industry? I live in the shadow of the Ferrybridge power station, with the Eggborough power station down the road. If the mines close, those power stations will also close. Jobs will be lost not just in the mining industry but in the electricity generating industry.

Mr. Battle

My hon. Friend has made a good point. There will be an impact throughout the energy sector.

Today's sense of crisis is informed by the current negotiations between RJB Mining and the electricity generators on their coal contracts for after April 1998. We have all agreed in the debate that the negotiations are a matter for the companies. I am not party to them. I understand that an agreement has been reached with Eastern Electricity and that an announcement was made this morning of an agreement with National Power. I do not know what stage conversations with PowerGen have reached because the company does not know and neither does PowerGen. It is up to the parties to those contracts to negotiate. No doubt, we shall be informed of the deal when they reach one.

We opposed the ravaging of the coal industry under the Conservatives. That happened when the pits, the power generators and the grid system were in the public sector, and the energy buying system now known as the pool— now also in the private sector—did not exist. That is the difference between now and 1992. We resisted that Tory privatisation when they were out to kill the coal industry. No one claimed that the situation was easy. We picked up that horrendous legacy, which, I accept, is not easy to deal with.

There is no quick fix that will solve the problems simply. Hon. Members have repeated the comments of those throughout the industry, including trade union leaders, whom I have met regularly, that they want fairness, not favours. Our objective is to deliver that fairness. One or two siren voices—not least RJB—have called for subsidy, but I noticed my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood ruling it out and expressing surprise that anyone should ask for it. RJB has written to me demanding a subsidy. I find it hard to give a direct cash subsidy to a company that made profits before interest and tax of £207 million in 1996.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I visited Rossington colliery in my constituency recently. The managers and miners of that colliery, which is owned by RJB Mining, said that they did not want subsidy. They wanted a level playing field. They have worked hard to make the pit competitive. Whatever is being said at a senior level, they want a decent chance to continue to work.

Mr. Battle

I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says on behalf of her constituents, but I have a letter from RJB, signed by the man himself, with the word, "Subsidy" at the head. The message of what the company is asking for may not have been communicated to all the coalfields. I accept that difference.

I do not believe that a subsidy is the way forward. It would be incompatible with arguing for a level playing field for the industry and making fair space in the market for the deep coal industry. We should not give a cash subsidy to a profitable private company, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said in the Chamber a few weeks ago.

At the end of last month, I explained to the House in detail the actions that we had taken against subsidies paid by the Spanish and German Governments to their coal industries. We have lodged a formal complaint against that state aid. I do not remember the Conservatives laying a formal complaint about state aid to overseas coal industries in all their years in office. We made that complaint within six months of coming into office. We are working hard to ensure a fair market, so that British coal can win markets in Europe, where subsidies have been keeping it out.

I am glad that hon. Members have recognised that we have set up a review of the pool. That was one of our six points. We said that we would examine the ways in which the mechanism for buying and selling electricity worked to ensure that it was not stacked against the coal industry.

Two or three of my hon. Friends have focused particularly on gas contracts and ending the rigged market for gas. I accept that we must take immediate action on that important point. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) referred to the utility buyers' letter and the body of opinion that is forming to challenge what are called the contracts for differences. Those contracts for differences will be considered in the review of the electricity pool system, but we have already asked the regulator to examine long-term take-or-pay gas contracts for the supply of gas to the early gas-fired power stations to prevent those high costs being passed on in full to domestic consumers.

That will not prevent gas-fired power stations being forced to run under the terms of their contracts. A key part of the coal industry's complaint to the European Commission was that at least some contracts may have prohibited gas-fired power stations from re-selling gas to the gas market even when it was uneconomic to run it through power stations. That may have forced the generators to use gas in power stations when they might have preferred to sell it to other gas customers and have bought coal-fired electricity in from the pool instead. We want to ensure that there is coal-fired, not all gas-fired, electricity in the pool.

There is an argument that our competition authorities should immediately consider, without prejudice to any investigation that the Commission may mount, whether the prohibition on the re-sale of gas is anti-competitive and, if so, what remedies and amendments are appropriate. If there is a distortion of competition to price out coal, I want it put right now. The Director General of Gas Supply will consider the matter urgently. A press notice about that new action will be available from the Vote Office after the debate. We shall take action on that now.

We have approved some gas-fired power stations and I understand that there are 27 more applications waiting. However, those that have already been approved could take three to four years to get into commission. A moratorium on new gas-fired stations now would not benefit the coal industry until well after 2000. It would slow down the move towards combined heat and power. The damage of the dash to gas has already been done, creating the short-term problems that the industry faces.

Mr. Fallon

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Battle

No, I cannot. I have only two minutes left.

We have no intention of waving through new applications for gas-fired power stations. We shall consider them on a case-by-case basis, looking in particular at combined heat and power proposals.

We are backing clean-coal technology. We are investing money in investigating the possibilities of it. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) that we need to consider its potential internationally, so that the ancillary industries in mining also have a future.

We are told that we are doing nothing, but we have taken action to challenge subsidies in Europe, we have set up a review of the pool to ensure that coal is not priced out, we have challenged the gas contracts to ensure that the markets are not weighted against coal and we have put the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill through the House to challenge the energy coming through the interconnector from France, so that French nuclear power does not have an advantage. We have also challenged the advantage given to the nuclear industry in Britain to ensure that the playing field is level, not tilted against the coal industry. We are backing clean-coal technology as well because, without that, the coal industry will remain under pressure from environmental concerns in the next century.

Yes, our primary aim is to ensure that the mining industry and coal can play an important part in our energy supplies as we move into the next century. It can contribute to UK and European fuel and energy security. Our job is to create a level playing field for coal. We are working hard to ensure that the market is not stacked against coal either in Europe or here at home.

I do not believe that it is time to write off the coal industry. There is a still a long-term future for the deep mining industry in Britain. Our positive actions to that effect will go some way to assisting it. Rather than mongering a crisis, it is up to others to get on with negotiating contracts and access to markets for the coal that is mined, ensuring that pits that do not need to be shut are not shut.