HL Deb 22 October 1984 vol 456 cc31-9

4.27 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy on the coal dispute. The Statement reads as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a Statement about developments in the coal dispute during the Recess.

"Between 9th September and 14th September the NCB held negotiations with the NUM in an attempt to reach agreement that would settle this dispute.

"During these negotiations the National Union of Mineworkers refused any formula which would have permitted any pit closures on any economic grounds.

"In September the pit deputies' union, NACODS, decided to ballot their members on three questions. But their members were not asked to give their approval or disapproval on these questions separately but were asked to give their approval or disapproval on all three together with a single, 'Yes' or 'No'.

"Since the ballot the Coal Board have resolved with NACODS two of the issues which had led the union to hold a strike ballot of its members. The third issue, dealing with the reduction in the industry's capacity, resulted in NACODS requesting the National Coal Board to hold meetings with the National Union of Mineworkers under the auspices of the Advisory and Conciliation Service. These talks took place between 11th and 15th October.

"At the start of these talks it was agreed that ACAS would distill the NUM's position and circulate it to the other parties. After the NCB had commented, ACAS, having heard the views of all the parties, undertook to put foward its own text. As the chairman of ACAS, Mr. Lowry, has confirmed, this was the only paper carrying the title of 'ACAS Proposal'. The NCB accepted this ACAS compromise proposal, but the NUM rejected it—circulating instead a further text of their own.

"Subsequent to the talks, Mr. Scargill confirmed publicly that on the key position of pit closures he had not moved his position since the dispute started in March.

"The Government regret the failure to accept the ACAS compromise proposal, which would have enabled the damage being done to the coal industry to cease and the widespread violence that has occurred throughout this dispute to come to an end.

"Over 70,000 men were at work in the mining industry last week, a third of the industry. Most of these men had the chance of a ballot as required by normal NUM procedures. They had decided to work.

"There are substantial stocks of coal at the power stations and I am pleased to inform the House that power station stocks at the end of last week were higher than they were at the end of August. The Government will continue to take all actions which are necessary to protect the life of the nation and to preserve jobs.

"Following the negotiations that have taken place throughout the summer I wish to remind the House of the package that is now on offer to the miners: A wage increase from last November providing earnings way above average industrial earnings and greater than that gained by many groups of workers: An undertaking that any miner who wishes to continue working in the industry will be able to do so: Exceptionally generous provisions for those who choose a course of early retirement when a pit needs to close: A capital investment programme more than double that of the rest of the European Community put together, a programme to secure an industry capable of obtaining expanding markets in the future: An amended colliery review procedure which includes all the provisions that have operated under Labour and Conservative Governments for many years past but adds to it provision for an independent review body, whose advice will be given full weight before any decision is made: The creation of the new enterprise company whereby for the first time the Coal Board will be active in financing, advising and providing accommodation to new enterprises and businesses to benefit the mining communities.

"In order that there should be no doubt on the Benches opposite, I repeat that the board not only remains committed to the operation of the colliery review procedure, but is prepared to enhance that procedure. Furthermore, any pit proposed for closure by the board can be examined through the amended procedure.

"This is a package of proposals which is good for the miner, good for the mining industry and I am confident would be accepted by miners had they the opportunity of a ballot on these issues.

"Strife and industrial action can only intensify the damage being done to pits and to markets for coal and therefore to the future of the miner and his family. I hope, therefore, that the miners' union can be persuaded of the good sense of accepting the proposals made by ACAS earlier this month."

My Lords, that concludes the statement.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement made in another place, but I have to say that, so far as we are concerned, the Statement is a recitation of events which have taken place and which have been widely reported in the newspapers and the rest of the media, and there seems to be nothing new at all.

Does the noble Earl not agree that in the opening paragraphs of the Statement all the blame is a bit one-sided? In fact, all the blame for the present problems is put firmly on the shoulders of the NUM. Does he not agree that under all the circumstances that is rather unfair? Is it not a fact that Mr. MacGregor and the National Coal Board were also being intransigent at that point in time in issuing, or at least appearing to issue, a hit list of coal mines that were to be closed, quite outside the procedures which were agreed in 1973 and 1975 wherein all proposed pit closures went through a proper procedure and there was no list? Therefore, is it not true that this argument is not quite as one-sided as the Minister made out and that there are certainly faults on the part of the NCB?

Coming to the NACODS dispute, does the noble Earl also not agree that it was sheer incompetence for the NCB to seek to alter arrangements in the middle of the miners' dispute in such a way as so to anger the NACODS members as to lead them to vote by a majority of over 80 per cent. to strike? What are we to hear about ballots under those circumstances? That was overwhelming enough. Indeed, the ballot itself was brought about by the intransigence of the NCB and its failure to understand that it was dealing with an extremely able, dedicated and responsible body of people who, to my knowledge, have never before been on strike. Was that not sheer incompetence? What do the Government intend to do about that situation?

On the question of ACAS, is it not true that there were three proposals—one which was acceptable to the NCB, one to the NUM, and another which was acceptable to the NCB only? We have been given only one side of the argument. The general president of the National Union of Mineworkers has put forward another view of what happened at ACAS. It seems to me that we need more clarification as to exactly what went on there.

The noble Earl said that there are substantial stocks of coal at the power stations and that he was pleased to inform the House that power station stocks at the end of last week were higher than they were at the end of August and that the Government will continue to take all actions which are necessary to see that the power stations continue to provide the energy necessary to protect the life of the nation and to preserve jobs. May I first ask the noble Earl to state what is the level of coal stocks at present? Just exactly what is that level? Will he also inform the House, because we are entitled to know, just exactly how the Government intend to keep the power stations going if the NACODS men go out on strike and all coal production ceases in this country? Having a certain amount of knowledge of the electricity supply industry, I take the view that if the coal industry comes to a standstill, there will be only six weeks' stocks of coal in the power stations. That means that there will be power cuts by the beginning of December; that is, unless the Government are prepared to take action to move coal stocks on the ground outside the power stations. Will the noble Earl say whether the Government are contemplating that possibility and, if so, what that will do to the political and social life of our country?

I am coming to a close, but this is an important matter and we need answers. With regard to the pit closures themselves—and we really must move forward—I must say to noble Lords that we are in a most terrible crisis; we must make no mistake about that. The strike has now been going on for nearly eight months. Our coal stocks are run right down. As regard the pits for closure, would it not be right for the NCB to say that in the light of all the circumstances of having no coal production and virtually no coal stocks, or very low coal stocks, there will be no pit closures until those stocks have been built up; in other words, that all proposals are suspended for the time being and for a considerable period forward? Is that not a way forward?

There is no doubt that it is necessary to bring this strike to a speedy end. We concur with the Government on that. That is why we have been imploring them over a long period of time to accept their responsibilities and to intervene in this dispute. I urge them now to accept those responsibilities and to build on what has already been achieved—and there have been some achievements—to ensure that the two sides are brought together, that realistic negotiations take place, and that the strike is brought to a speedy conclusion to the benefit of the miners, the miners' families, and the nation as a whole.

4.41 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, in thanking the noble Earl for repeating the Statement made in another place. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, made clear, the Statement simply summarises what occurred in the mining industry during the recess. What it does not do is indicate what other steps the Government may now have in mind to try to accelerate the conclusion of this unfortunate dispute. It would be useful to hear from the noble Earl what thoughts the Government have in that connection, however difficult it may be.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, referred to the added misfortune of the troubles with NACODS. This came right out of the blue. Apparently steps have now been taken to try to satisfy them and prevent them from taking the ultimate step of joining the strike. Let us hope that they will be deterred from doing that.

We on this side of the House welcome the recently announced appointment of Mr. Michael Eaton, the area director of North Yorkshire. I can say from my personal knowledge of Mr. Eaton over many years that he is a very experienced man in the mining industry and he handles his union relations with extreme skill, in difficult situations. I should like to ask for an assurance that in his present post he will be given every encouragement to use his undoubted ability to advantage.

There has been a lot of talk of winners and losers in this dispute. I should like to put it to the noble Earl that there will be no winners. There will, unfortunately, be one loser, and that will, alas, be the coal industry. The coal industry will lose due to the bitterness which has grown up among personal relationships during the course of the strike and because of the damage which is increasingly being done on a number of faces. That is all the more reason why the dispute should be brought to an end quickly.

In conclusion, what we on this side of the House should like to hear from the Minister is what further initiatives the Government have in mind. For example, the Secretary of State for Energy has repeatedly made known in public statements the positive measures which the Government have in mind for the future of the coal industry. Would it not be helpful if he were now to convene a meeting of the tripartite committee—a procedure which has existed since 1974—and tell the parties concerned in detail what the Government have in mind? Would this not be regarded as a step towards resolving this longstanding dispute?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their reception of the Statement as a résumé of what has been going on during the recess. I would just say to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that that is what the Statement was meant to be, and I do not believe it should be criticised for it.

A number of questions were raised. With regard to the idea of all the blame being on one side, I think one should look at the last decade, when the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, had much to do with the coal industry, and say that both the Labour Party and this party have agreed on how the coal industry should be carried on. We have agreed that the Plan for Coal should be pursued. The party which is not doing this is the National Union of Mineworkers. Therefore it is not surprising that all the blame may seem to be on its shoulders.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, mentioned a hit list. There is no hit list of pits to be closed. Now under the ACAS proposals all the pits which have been talked about can come up with this added safeguard in the review procedure.

The noble Lord mentioned the NACODS ballot paper. The ballot paper asks three questions and has only one place for "Yes" and "No". Therefore, presumably, unless one would answer the same way to all three questions it would be a difficult ballot to fill in. I should also add that Question No. 3, the dominant question at the bottom of the paper, just before the "Yes" refers to the complete rejection of the board's guidelines in terms of 15th August. The board has already withdrawn these guidelines; so there is no point there. Question No. 2 refers to the board's attitude to the implementation of concilliation procedures. As we know, ACAS has put forward a formula to which the Coal Board agrees.

I think that in paragraph 5 of the Statement it is made extremely clear that there was only one paper put forward by ACAS. This has been supported by the chairman of ACAS, Mr. Lowry. This is the paper which the NCB were prepared to accept and which contained the review procedure.

The noble Lord asked about stocks. I can assure him that there are adequate stocks at power stations. The amount on 29th July was 15.93 million tonnes; at NCB sites it was 22.17 million tonnes. As I told the noble Lord, there has been virtually no change in this figure in the intervening period.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, in some helpful remarks, mentioned Mr. Michael Eaton. I should like to add to what the noble Lord said, and to say that we wish Mr. Eaton well. This is an appointment by Mr. MacGregor. It is an internal appointment, and we believe that it is an initiative which should go well.

The noble Lord asked about Government policies and was kind enough to say that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy has put forward his initiative and spelled it out in clear terms. I believe that that is the Government's problem. I should like to say also that my right honourable friend is open to any talks—tripartite or any other form. There is no closed door here.

Lord Taylor of Mansfield

My Lords, while joining the other speakers in welcoming the Statement repeated by the noble Earl, may I say, first of all, that I do not think that it is as up-to-date as it might be and as I personally expected it to be. There was no mention at all, as far as I can recall, of the changed situation in the industry in regard to public relations.

May I now ask the noble Earl this. Is the recent appointment of this gentleman from Yorkshire, whose name eludes me for the moment——

Noble Lords

Mr. Eaton.

Lord Taylor of Mansfield

Everybody in the country knows, through the press this morning and the rest of the media, that there has been something of a change so far as the operations of the NCB are concerned. I am not clear about this point from the information contained in the press and the rest of the media. The question that I should like to ask is this. First of all, with regard to this new appointment, will the Minister tell us whether this gentleman is or is not a member of the board?

Secondly, will the Minister inform your Lordships whether this gentleman is to take part in any negotiations that might—and we all hope very shortly will—take place with a view to a speedy ending of this tragic dispute, or is this newly appointed gentleman merely a personal assistant to Mr. MacGregor, the existing chairman of the Coal Board, or is he just a public relations officer?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I actually mentioned Mr. Eaton in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, who is not in alliance with the Scargill-McGahey axis would deny. Instead the Government have left it to the Coal Board by Mr. MacGregor himself. I gather that he has until recently been the regional representative in Yorkshire and he has come down to strengthen the London team. He is not at the moment a member of the board.

Lord Wilson of Langside

My Lords, is the noble Earl the Minister aware that there is quite a widespread, and I think well-founded, feeling in the country, which is this? In the role which the Government have adopted throughout this dispute and in the contribution—or lack of it—which they have made to its solution, they have failed the nation. This lies in the fact that their sole overt contribution—and I stress the word "overt"—has been repeated Ministerial rhetorical denunciations of violence at the picket lines, which no sensible person who is not in alliance with the Scargill-McGahey axis would deny. Instead the Government have left it to the police, who do not want the problem, and to Mr. MacGregor, whose talents appear to lie in other directions, to slog it out from week to week and month to month with the National Union of Mineworkers, dominated by Scargill and McGahey.

Do the Government not appreciate that what is needed in an essentially political situation is a positive, political initiative? Are the Government further aware that there is a strong feeling, particularly on these Benches, that what is, in all essentials, I think it is agreed on all sides, a political dispute, should have been discussed in Parliament by both Houses where it properly belongs? Speaking solely for myself, I feel that the Government's attitude towards Parliament in this dispute in refusing to recall it in time is somewhat contemptuous.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I really cannot accept most of what the noble and learned Lord said. So far as I am concerned, there has been no lack of discussion. I do not believe that in any way the Government have failed the nation. I believe, quite to the contrary, that they have followed a path of considerable understanding. This is not a simple dispute. I would remind the noble Lord that there are 70,000 people in the mining industry working at the moment, that this is a dispute called without a ballot, and, finally, as I said earlier, that the NUM has not moved one inch in any negotiations.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend if he would not agree that to call for public political initiatives is quite easy; to define them is rather harder? I should like to ask if he would not agree that initiatives that consist of compromising the position on the closure of pits that have become uneconomic and initiatives that give some kind of covert approval to violence of an intolerable kind would not be very valuable or useful contributions in the long run?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, my noble friend is indeed right to underline the difficulties of this particular position.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl to clarify one important part of the Statement which says that the board not only remains committed to the operation of the colliery review procedure but is prepared to enhance that procedure. Would the noble Earl say exactly what that means? Is it the case that both the NCB and the NUM were prepared to accept the independent recommendation of a body set up to conduct that procedure? Will he confirm indeed that the Government have in mind to set up a body that would be independent and that would look at any recommendations for pit closures? Is the NCB in particular prepared to accept the recommendation of an independent body to that effect? Secondly, will the noble Earl answer the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, about the possibility of the Government's convening the tripartite committee, which seems to me a very sensible proposal?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I think that I followed the noble Lord's question. It might be easier if I read out the sentence from the ACAS proposal and took it from there: The colliery review procedure would be amended to include as a final stage an independent review body whose function would be to consider a reference from any one of the parties to the procedure on any closure matter arising under Clauses A, B and C above about which there is a disagreement". This has been accepted by the NCB, but unfortunately not by the NUM which put forward another paper after this. This is the quotation from the ACAS proposals. The Government, as well as the NCB, will stand by it. As to the tripartite agreement, I did say to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that the door was open in this sphere.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords——

Lord Denham

No, no.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Oh yes, yes. Briefly, there are a couple of points that arise out of the answer that the Minister has given. Would he not agree that the whole question of the NACODS dispute does not arise from what was on the ballot paper but that it was the board's stupid actions that caused a ballot to be called? Had the board been properly managing the industry, does he not agree that there would have been no ballot among NACODS members and that we should not have had the present problems?

Secondly, the Minister confirms my own estimate of power station stocks at 15.93 million tonnes. He also mentioned 22 million tonnes at CEGB sites. Would he not agree that that coal is not immediately available at power stations for burning and has to be transported? Would he agree that? If he does agree, how does he think that it is going to be transported under present conditions? Would he confirm that, if I am right that that coal cannot be transported and that there are only 15.93 million tonnes of coal at power stations, there are only between six and seven weeks' stocks of coal left? Would he confirm that? Finally, can I ask him whether Mr. Eaton's appointment does not mean and confirm that Mr. MacGregor's appointment was, first of all, provocative and was in fact putting the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, the answer to the first supplementary question is a categorical, No. In answer to the second, the noble Lord does seem to be a harbinger of doom on this particular subject——

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

No; I just want information.

The Earl of Avon

I have told him the amount at the power stations. He has tried to turn my figures around and push them back again. As someone who knows all about power stations, I am not prepared to argue with him across the Floor of the House but to rest on the figures I gave him initially.

So far as Mr. Eaton's appointment is concerned, I have bent over backwards to show that this is an internal appointment of the National Coal Board. I should like to say of Mr. MacGregor that already in his term of office—before the strike happened—he has done a great deal for the coal industry. He offered guarantees; he set up an enterprise board. He was even having success in overseas markets. I wish that the coal industry could get back to a working condition so that he can continue.