HL Deb 24 January 1978 vol 388 cc269-72

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have been advised that output of coal has not reached the target set by the National Coal Board, what adjustments must in consequence be made in our energy estimates, and what action is being taken.


My Lords, there is no formal target set for coal output for the current financial year, ending March 1978, but production is expected to be some 117 million tons. The National Coal Board are aiming at the Plan for Coal target of 135 million tons by 1985.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the Govern ment are constantly and accurately being informed on what is happening about output? May I ask whether the incentive scheme which is now in operation—although some coalfields have refused to operate it—has proven successful, and to what extent? Further—in order to save me asking another supplementary question, unless the Minister's answer is unsatisfactory—perhaps I could ask when the Government will make up their mind about an energy policy, so that rather than just talking about energy, they telescope together coal, oil, nuclear energy and everything associated with energy and inform the public of the target and the estimate for the future.


My Lords, investment projects covering some two-thirds of new capacity under Plan for Coal have already been approved. Although these projects will take a number of years to yield full benefits, the National Coal Board consider that there is no technical reason why the target should not be reached. Furthermore, although it is too early to quantify the benefits that they will bring, it is expected that incentive schemes will make a significant contribution. On incentive schemes—as my noble friend asked—it is a little early to say, as the first payment for properly measured production will be made on 27th January. With regard to the general question, as my noble friend may know, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy set up a high-powered Energy Commission, and there is, of course, an important debate in your Lordships' House next Wednesday which will give us a further opportunity to explore these questions.


My Lords, although there may be no technical reason why the planned output for 1985 is not likely to be achieved, is the Minister at present advised that industrial relation; in the coal industry are such that only the 135 million ton target can be achieved? If not, what steps will the Government take to try to improve relationships with the unions in the mining industry?


My Lords, I think that relations with the miners are much better than they were in early 1974, All but one of the National Coal Board's areas have now accepted the principle of local productivity schemes, and in all cases agreements have either already been signed or are in the course of being negotiated. The exception is the South Wales area which is holding a ballot for the membership tomorrow.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that on average coalface workers have increased their output by 4 per cent. on each coal face throughout the country? Is he further aware that the target of 135 million tons could have been reached if we had not had the mad policy that we have had in the last 10 years of closing pits right, left and centre? In the face of the troubles—which are now being settled—that we have had with various coalfields, would it not be far better to allow them to fix the norm of output at the pits and the incentive schemes and to allow the men to reach agreement quietly, without raising any controversy over this matter?


My Lords, with his great experience of these matters, I believe that there is a great deal in what my noble friend says. He is, of course, perfectly right. One of the great difficulties was the low level of investment in the coal industry, which started in the 1950s, and also the present amount of effort being devoted to development of pits for future exploitation. I agree with my noble friend that the policy at that time to rely mainly on Arabian oil and atomic energy was mad.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether there is any technical reason why the target for 1985 and beyond should not be raised well above the 135 million tons now proposed? Will he not agree that that target is way below the kind of target that we shall need towards the end of the century? Will he not agree that this target, in turn, will call for far greater investment in research and development in extraction without undue use of manpower?


My Lords, there are, of course, many reasons; as I have said future increased output depends on incentive schemes, modern, new mines, a higher proportion of capital investment per coal face, investment on the surface in coal preparation plants, less labour intensive pits and investment in movement underground to save travelling time to the coal face. These are all factors which are being developed by the National Coal Board in partnership with the Government. I may say also that the target for the year 2000, which is 170 million tons, we believe will be met.


My Lords, if the target of 135 million tons a year is reached by the mid-1980s, can my noble friend say whether the coal can be sold? Is the Central Electricity Generating Board prepared to increase its consumption of coal by something like 40 per cent., which would be the amount required in order to use the coal that would be produced by the mid-1980s?


My Lords, coal will, of course, also be used to replace North Sea gas—natural gas—and North Sea oil.


My Lords, would my noble friend find it convenient to state the Government's present policy on underground gasification?


My Lords, the National Coal Board have reviewed progress in this field since publication of their report in 1976. They note that some progress has been made, but work is not at a stage where a decision can yet be made about underground gasification in the United Kingdom. The position will be clearer in two or three years when the results of certain experiments taking place in the United States and on the Continent are known, when a decision will be made.


My Lords, following on the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, about the quantity of coal, I am apprehensive that we shall have too much coal before very long. If we get to that position, will we produce coal at a price that will be competitive in the European area?


My Lords, I think that is a very speculative question to try to answer at this time. It is one we perhaps could return to next Wednesday.