HL Deb 21 February 1985 vol 460 cc681-4

3.43 p.m.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State of Energy in another place. The Statement reads as follows:

"Mr. Norman Willis, on behalf of the TUC, held a series of discussions with the Chairman of the National Coal Board. As a result of these discussions proposals were prepared by the board which expressed the basis upon which an agreement could be reached on the main issues of the dispute. These proposals took account of the views Mr. Willis had expressed to the board.

"Over the weekend the TUC showed this paper to the NUM executive, who asked for amendments to be made. The coal board confirmed to the TUC that this was their final paper. The TUC then requested a meeting with the Prime Minister.

"The TUC confirmed to the Prime Minister that the proposals under discussion would, if agreed to, constitute the final agreement on all of the matters which they dealt with, and that they were not a document which would be an agenda or form the basis of any further negotiations on these issues.

"The TUC explained to the Prime Minister that they had a number of difficulties with the document, and my right honourable friend undertook that I would convey their views to the National Coal Board. This was done, and subsequently the seven TUC leaders asked to have further talks with me before they met the National Coal Board. During these talks I clarified the Government's desire to see that the new NACODS procedures were brought into operation as speedily as possible, and that it was the coal board's intention that they would be in place by the time they were needed. I explained that neither the board nor the Government could accept a position where if the NUM refused to agree to the detail of the independent body, no review procedure would exist. For this might have the effect of the NUM being able to frustrate any reasonable plans for closure. The document was therefore amended to express the desire of all parties to see that the new procedures were in operation by 1st June, which would be well in time for any disputed closure to be referred to the independent body.

"The document was further re-ordered to meet the NUM's anxiety that its sequence as originally drafted could have implied that disputed closures would take place prior to going through the proper procedures. A re-ordering of the document made it perfectly clear that a disputed closure will only take place at the end of the agreed procedures.

"I share the TUC's disappointment that the NUM executive has rejected the proposals which had been made. The NUM executive have now rejected proposals in seven rounds of talks, the compromise proposal put forward by ACAS and the proposals prepared following discussions between the TUC and the National Coal Board.

"I deplore that the generous and reasonable offers now available to miners continue to be rejected by the NUM executive. Those coalfields which originally balloted voted overwhelmingly against strike action. I can only urge those miners still on strike, though deprived of a ballot, to return swiftly to normal working, so that the damage being done to their industry, to their families and to their communities can come to an end."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating in the form of a Statement the Answer given by his right honourable friend to the Private Notice Question which was asked in another place. I should also like to express appreciation of the tireless efforts of the TUC and, in particular, of Norman Willis to bring about an early settlement of this tragic (and that is all that it can be called) coal industry issue.

First, will the noble Lord confirm that the National Coal Board has accepted the new document in its entirety? Will he also tell us whether the National Union of Mineworkers have, in fact, made substantial concessions and have, indeed, now accepted the NACODS settlement as being applicable to them? Furthermore, is it possible that the rejection of the latest document by the National Union of Mineworkers has arisen from a simple misunderstanding? If that is so, would not the best way forward be through immediate, direct negotiations between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers? Will the noble Lord, in the interests of harmony, take this opportunity to refute suggestions that his right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the National Coal Board have now adopted a hard line—a "take it or leave it" attitude?

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I, too, should like to express appreciation for the Statement which has just been made by the noble Lord to keep us informed of the latest developments in this important and distressing situation. I, too, should like to join in the tribute which has been paid on both sides to the tireless efforts of Mr. Norman Willis and the TUC in seeking to find a solution. I think that it already marks some progress in this tragic dispute that the intervention of the trade union organisation has been of such a positive nature. Let us hope that it will not be put off by the rebuff that it seems to have suffered on this occasion.

Would the noble Lord not agree that, in spite of the length of time that this unfortunate strike has lasted, the coal industry of Britain still has good prospects, but that those prospects will undoubtedly be further damaged the longer this strike goes on? What is now important is that there should be a quick return to work, a major effort to get production moving again and, as there appears to be general agreement for the revised colliery review procedure, a determined effort to get that procedure working satisfactorily. Therefore, will the noble Lord not agree that these are the objectives to which all those who are keen to see this dispute resolved, both outside and inside the industry, should be setting their minds?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for the comments they have made. I think we are all agreed that this is a disastrous strike and that all those who have the best interests of the mining industry at heart are doing their utmost to try to ensure that it is resolved very quickly indeed.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, first asked whether the National Coal Board accepted the new document. The answer to the noble Lord's question is, Yes. The noble Lord also asked me whether the National Union of Mineworkers had accepted the NACOD's agreement. There is no indication that they have accepted the NACOD's agreement. Up until now the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers has prefaced all its comments, despite its request for talks without preconditions, by the one condition which is totally unacceptable to all other interested parties, and that is that no pit can be closed for economic reasons. That of course is at variance even with Plan for Coal, which recognises that under certain circumstances that cannot be achieved.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, asked me one straightforward question which I wish I could answer in the affirmative. He asked, did I consider that the rejection of the present proposals was simply due to a straightforward misunderstanding? I do not think that that is the case. I do not think that there is any misunderstanding whatever. Indeed, after the meeting with the Prime Minister and after the subsequent meetings with the Secretary of State for Energy, no doubt whatever was left in the minds of those who were present as to the conditions which were on offer. Perhaps I may quote from the letter from the Chairman of the National Coal Board to Mr. Norman Willis on 20th February, in which he stated: The Secretary of State confirmed and this is very important— that it was the view of the TUC that the document that we had prepared subsequent to discussions with you was a document that, if agreed to, would for all of the matters dealt with in this document be the final agreement and was in no way a document which would be an agenda or form the basis of any further negotiations". That was made absolutely clear. When one considers that the seven TUC representatives who took part in this discussion were of the stature of Norman Willis, Jack Eccles, David Basnett, Ray Buckton, Moss Evans, Bill Keyes and Gerry Russell, it seems very hard to believe that a team of that calibre would take back to the National Union of Mineworkers a document which they describe as being less favourable than that which had originally been offered.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, asked me to confirm that there were good prospects within the industry. As a former Minister of State at the Department of Energy when the noble Lord was Chairman of the National Coal Board, I would certainly confirm that there are excellent prospects in the industry, and the Government's commitment to the Plan for Coal and the amount of money which has been pumped into the industry by the present Government since 1979 fully confirm the Government's commitment to the Plan for Coal. However, I am afraid that a great deal of that money will be wasted unless we can get a quick return to work.

When we consider that already during the present dispute no fewer than 38 producing faces have been lost, it is a tragic situation that we cannot persuade people to accept the best offer which has been on offer to the industry since nationalisation. I can only reiterate what my right honourable friend in another place has already said—that there is only one action left to those who want to see the mining industry continue and to thrive in the future, and that is to return to work and register their approval of what is on offer.