HL Deb 11 March 1981 vol 418 cc278-80

2.42 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

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 how many coal pits have been closed since 1970, how many were closed each year between March 1974 and May 1979 and whether they will publish the annual closures since nationalisation in 1946.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (The Earl of Gowrie)

My Lords, in December 1947 the National Coal Board operated 958 collieries. In March 1970 the board operated 299; in March 1974, 259; in March 1979, 223 and in March 1980, 219. Further details are given in the board's annual reports and accounts.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, if I have taken in those figures correctly, does that not mean that in the last 33 years some 600 pits have been closed and is this not a natural routine—a routine which has slowed down in more recent years, since it would appear from those figures that in the last six years only 40 have been closed? Is this not a procedure which happens in all mining operations in every country in the world and can my noble friend say why it is so exceptional that this should continue, particularly in South Wales at the present time, when the need to open up new and productive pits and to invest large sums in modernising profitable coal mines is so desperately essential for the well-being of our nation?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, on many occasions the Government have made our commitment to the coal industry and the Plan for Coal quite clear. As my noble friend indicates, closures are a part—and have always been a part—of the orderly management of the industry. They have been taking place at a rate of around 23 per year. One hopes that this will resume, because, as noble Lords know to their cost today, not closing uneconomic pits of course comes very expensive.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, while the coal industry has had a terrific beating over the years, we have never objected to the closure of pits where the reserves have gone and are nonexistent? But I want to emphasise this: a pit which is facing geological difficulties and is an uneconomic pit today can be a viable pit in, say, five or six months' time. That is why we as miners are opposing closure of economic pits, because uneconomic pits today can be made economic in a few months' time.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am, of course, very aware of the noble Lord's experience in this field. I am glad to say that normal and orderly relations and negotiations between the Coal Board and the mine workers have now resumed, and that underlines our own commitment to the Plan for Coal.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, can the noble Earl say how many new coal pits have been opened since 1970? Perhaps he has not that statistic immediately available.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I do not have it immediately available, but, of course, there have been the startling and extensive discoveries in the Midlands, at Belvoir.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, it is of course true that in any mining industry pits are closed periodically, but for the Government to suddenly start twisting the arm of the Coal Board and then to present a dozen closures together was a piece of tactless industrial idiocy which caused a great deal of trouble.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I do not think there was even an attempt at the interrogative form during the noble Lord's statement. I do not think the Government were twisting anybody's arm, least of all the coal industry's. It is arguable that the Government were subject to a little arm-twisting themselves.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the noble Lord's original Question asked how many coal pits have been closed, whereas the noble Earl who answered simply gave the figure of how many were being operated at each particular time. There is a gap, surely, between those two figures, which is the number opened in those particular years. Ought not this to be included if the Answer is to fit the Question?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I accept that correction, though I did say in a supplementary answer that they were being closed at an average of 23 a year. It seems to me somewhat beyond the bounds of an oral answer that one should present the House with so many figures, and I truncated my original Answer in order to try to make it more easily understood.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether in the majority of this very large number of routine closures alternative employment in nearby mines has been offered to the miners? And can he say whether the very rigid attitude in South Wales, which suggests that no further closures will ever be allowed, is influenced by the fact that the Executive of the National Union of Miners there is entirely dominated by people with communist affiliations?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I do not think that is the issue. Obviously there are problems in any industry, including the coal industry, where you get a concentration of employment in one industry in one given area. In fact in regard to the closures that have taken place continuously since the war I can confirm that in the majority of cases miners have received employment in alternative mines. But that has been more of a difficulty for the South Wales community, particularly in an area of high unemployment.