HL Deb 02 April 1984 vol 450 cc490-5

3.56 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy (The Earl of Avon)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to repeat, in the form of a Statement, a reply now being given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy to a Private Notice Question being asked in another place on energy supplies. His reply reads:

"I gather that last week there was a meeting of the national officers of six unions, who stated that they would recommend to their members actions they described as being in support of the National Union of Mineworkers.

"I gather that these recommendations will be discussed in some unions by their executive and in others at branch level.

"Naturally I hope that in considering these recommendations trade unionists will take into consideration that. I understand, 14 out of the 24 members of the National Union of Mineworkers' Executive are mandated to support a national ballot, that almost all of those areas of the National Union of Mineworkers who have been able to express their views in a ballot have demonstrated conclusively that they want to go to work, and that today 56 pits compared with 46 pits last Friday are either working normally or partially working.

"I hope also that consideration will be given to the fact that any disruption of supply to coal consumers is likely to prevent the trend that has been encouraged by the Government for firms to switch to coal. This is an industry in which the Government have authorised £2 million of capital investment per day and I hope therefore it will not be an industry whose future will be jeopardised by unnecessary industrial action."

That ends the reply.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I am most grateful and the House will be grateful to the noble Earl the Minister for repeating as a Statement the answer to a Private Notice Question which was asked in another place this afternoon. But is he aware that there is growing concern about the escalating impact of the dispute in industry and employment not only in the steel industry but in other industries as well? In those circumstances is not this dispute not a merely local dispute between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers but a national issue, since the effects on the total economy could be very grave indeed?

In the circumstances should not the Government now take an active role? They have been passive up to now. Would it not be better if they now took an active role to counter Mr. MacGregor's "take-it-or-leave-it" attitude to the miners and bring the parties to the dispute together to discuss, and hopefully to agree, an honourable settlement satisfactory to all sides and one which would be of benefit not only to the coal industry, which has a great future, but to our national economy and national industries as well?

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I am sure that all members of this House very much regret that this dispute should be taking place. It raises three questions at present. The first is: can the Government tell us, in view of the situation now developing, whether they can see any way in which this can be brought to a speedy end by action on the part of any of the parties concerned? It may be a difficult thing to say but clearly it is necessary, from industry's point of view and from the country's point of view, that this dispute should be ended as quickly as possible.

Secondly, if, unfortunately, the dispute should be continued for any length of time, are the Government safisfied that the essential energy requirements of the country can continue to be met? Thirdly, in spite of the fact that undoubtedly any dispute in the coal industry is bound to cause some harm to the future prospects of the industry, bearing in mind that the coal industry represents Britain's greatest and longest-lasting source of fossil fuel, does the noble Earl the Minister feel that its long-term future nevertheless can be safeguarded?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Lords for the concern that they have expressed over this issue—a concern with which, of course, the Government entirely agree. I think this House can only regret the actions of any unions which seek to inflict damage on industries not involved in the dispute and which put at risk the jobs of workers in these industries as well as the coal industry itself, whose markets for coal may be lost. We can all only regret this.

The noble Lords asked specific questions. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, asked about any action which could be taken. I think that the best thing we can do at the moment is to ask for the ballot to be taken. He asked about energy requirements. As far as energy requirements for the power stations are concerned, I am informed that the stocks are adequate for some months. As far as other supplies are concerned, of course they will be disrupted by action in some cases. So far as the long-term future of the coal industry is concerned we must of course be worried by the present action.

The Government have a coal conversion scheme, and this scheme has not been taken up over the last month I am informed, except by two people. Also we have heard today that ICI are thinking of not taking up their coal-conversion scheme. This is all bad news for the coal industry. As far as the future is concerned, the Government, as the House well knows, have invested a considerable sum in the coal industry. This, they believe, is an absolutely firm undertaking of their own wish that the coal industry should succeed in the future. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, asked about Government action. I believe that there is a case at the moment for the unions themselves putting their own union in order (if I may use those words) and for coming to a conclusion by a proper ballot.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that, while several periodicals, national newspapers and the like, and possibly some members of the Government—some members, not all—and some Members of Parliament, even including some Members of your Lordships' House, are deriving some pleasure (I use that term, an obnoxious term in these circumstances) from the dispute that is taking place among the miners as well as the dispute itself, there are many of us who are more concerned, primarily concerned, about economic recovery and the possibility of providing people with gainful employment, and who derive no pleasure whatever from what is happening?

Is the noble Earl aware that prescience about disputes in the mining industry provided some justification for the request made by my noble friend on the Front Bench that the Government might intervene, or seek to intervene, in order to prevent the dispute escalating? Is he aware that some of us have been engaged previously in such matters? Way back in 1924. I, myself—and I use the personal note, not that I desire to do so but as an illustration—as Secretary for Mines, was asked to intervene in a mining dispute. The task should have been undertaken by the Minister of Labour, but for some reason I was asked to do it. I met with some success, not because of my ability or any qualification I possessed but because at that time France was buying a little more coal from us and the employers were reluctant to continue the dispute with the mineworkers.

There were other occasions, after I became Minister of Fuel and Power, when it was necessary to intervene in various parts of the country, not in a general dispute but in many disputes which were taking place in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Scotland and elsewhere. We thought it our duty, our responsibility, to intervene: not that we were anxious to do so, but because it was a duty to devolve upon members of the Government in the interests of the country as a whole, irrespective of party, class, policies or anything of that sort. Is it not possible for the Government to do that?

May I ask the noble Earl one question? I do not want to talk too much about the content of, or the reason for, the dispute, or any justification for it. I do not want to talk about anything detrimental or any merit that may be involved. Are the Government aware that one of the difficulties that exist at the moment is that a large section of miners in the country—very decent people, respectable citizens of the country, anxious about our recovery and the like—are afraid about losing their jobs. When there is talk about a pit being closed down for economic reasons—and there may perhaps be some little justification for that—perhaps we might overlook it in the interests of the country as a whole. It is because those miners are afraid of their employment disappearing and because they realise what that means that this dispute is taking place.

In those circumstances, may I ask the noble Earl whether it would not be desirable, irrespective of how one feels about this matter, on one side or the other, for the Government to say, "It is about time we inquired into what is going on", and not leave it entirely to the steel workers or the transport workers, or to some section of the miners, to complain about what is happening, so that the dispute may be brought to and end as rapidly as possible? I ask that question all the more so because, if I may venture to put the point to the noble Earl, when I was engaged in the task of nationalising the mines I asked the mine workers' leaders to agree to a partnership with the coal board that I was setting up: not to regard themselves any longer as employees but as partners in the industry, concerned not only with wages, health and safety but with organisation and administration, and always to be consulted. They declined to accept it at the time. That was a great pity. If that had been accepted, we would not have disputes of this character at all.

My Lords, now is the opportunity. If there is any body which has the right to intervene, it is the Government. The Government are not going to be attacked for doing so. They will not be attacked by many trade union leaders; they will not be attacked by many on this side of your Lordships' House; and they will not be attacked by any mineworkers, who, I am quite certain, are anxious to get back to their work. I do not care two hoots about Mr. Scargill, on the one hand, and Mr. MacGregor, on the other. This is a matter for the Government: to undertake the task—not an onerous task but an honourable task—of intervening in order to bring this dispute to an end.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, may I first say to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, that it certainly gives no member of the Government any pleasure to see this strike and, indeed, from what noble Lords said on earlier questions, I do not believe that it gives anybody in this House any pleasure whatsoever. It is a matter of concern to us all that this strike should be going on at the moment. It is a bad moment for it to happen, because last year coal was an overall exporter. It is bad because at the moment the Government are trying to promote schemes of conversion to coal. A strike does not help at all.

The noble Lord made a specific plea for the Government to intervene. At the moment we look forward to having a ballot freely held by the National Union of Mineworkers, but in the meantime I will certainly bring to the notice of my right honourable friend the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can the noble Earl answer two questions which he may feel have some bearing on the suggestion made to him about governmental intervention? Can he remind the House of the size of the subsidy currently provided by the taxpayer for the mining industry and indicate how many pits have been kept in operation which would not be in operation if it were not for that subsidy? Secondly, can he say whether the Government have been given any reason for the failure so far of the National Union of Mineworkers to call the ballot required by their rules before a national strike is permitted?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend's first question, at the moment the figure is running in the neighbourhood of £800 million a year of investment in the coal industry. Approximately 12 per cent. of the mines are non-profitable and they cost the National Coal Board approximately £130 million a year. My answer so far as the last question is concerned is that I have no knowledge.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, could my noble friend confirm that the closures envisaged in fact conform to the Plan for Coal long since agreed between the Government, the unions and the Coal Board?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, as the House is aware, closures in the mines have been going on for a considerable number of years. If we look at the statistics, there is no particular graph showing them going up or coming down. This is a continual process which was planned in the Plan for Coal and we very much hope that it will go ahead as it was laid down then.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, if I may refer the noble Earl to some of his previous answers, can he confirm that the trade unions which are now taking action are all in fact doing so to preserve jobs? That is one of the main problems which faces the unions—particularly the NUM and the NUR—and the actions they are taking now are in support of jobs, nearly 3 million of which have been destroyed by the Government over the last four or five years.

Secondly, would he confirm that in this country the subsidy given to the coal industry is well below that given in countries like Germany, France and Belgium, and that Britain provides and produces the cheapest, deepest-mined coal in Europe?

Finally, bearing in mind that the noble Earl said he was looking forward to a national ballot, would he say whether, if 5 5 per cent. of the miners voted for a strike, the Government would change their attitude and come to the negotiating table, or at least ensure that Mr. MacGregor and the National Coal Board did?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord's final question, which of course is hypothetical, I would remind the noble Lord that this is a dispute between the NCB and the NUM; therefore the Government do not have to change an attitude. The Government want the coal industry to go forward to preserve jobs in the coal industry, and that will be done by getting coal prices competitive.

As to the subsidies referred to by the noble Lord in comparison with Europe, of course we use a different system; but it is our contention that the Government's £800 million, which we pay as a capital investment, bears out better per tonne of coal than do the actual subsidies given either in France or in the rest of Europe. It is our wish that the coal industry should be competitive and that it should get back to work so that it can produce at a reasonable price coal which we can sell.