HL Deb 04 March 1985 vol 460 cc1105-9

3.37 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 shall now repeat a Statement on the coal dispute which is being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy in another place. The Statement reads as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about recent developments in the coal dispute.

"Yesterday, at a delegate conference of the National Union of Mineworkers, a decision was made to end the industrial action which has been conducted by some sections of the NUM over the past year. The conference decided that there should be a return to work tomorrow.

"The Government regret that this unjustified dispute, which has taken place without a ballot, has done so much damage to miners, to mining communities and to the coal industry. Without this dispute, the industry would have received £800 million of captal investment during the past year; miners' pay would have been substantially above average industrial earnings; 1,000 firms would have been persuaded to convert to coal; export orders would have been obtained; and any miner in a pit facing closure would have been given the opportunity of continuing to work in the industry or of taking advantage of early retirement provisions more generous than those available in any other industry.

"The dispute has inflicted heavy damage on the coal industry, and on those companies which supply that industry with plant and machinery.

"However, I am pleased to tell the House that during the period of this dispute, industry at large was able to obtain the energy supplies it required. There were no power cuts due to the dispute, and there are still nearly 12 million tonnes of coal stocks at Britain's power stations.

"I would like to express the Government's appreciation to all those people whose efforts have ensured that Britain's energy supplies have continued to be available.

"I believe the country would also like to thank the police who, throughout this dispute, have ensured that organised mob picketing did not deprive people of their freedom to go to their place of work. Sadly, during the dispute, 1,391 police officers have been injured.

"It is now vital that the coal industry swiftly returns to normal working and recovers from the damage of the past 12 months.

"The National Coal Board have stated that obtaining full safety in all pits is their first priority, so that production can be restored.

"Both the National Coal Board and the Government hope that the coal industry will now take full advantage of the considerable opportunities available both at home and abroad".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement which was made in the other place. While there will be a sense of relief that there is to be a return to work tomorrow, does he not agree that a negotiated settlement would have been the best way to end this dispute, both for the miners and for the industry? If the noble Earl does so agree, why did the Government not accept the proposal from the National Union of Mineworkers that it was prepared to sign and implement in full the NACODS agreement when the Secretary of State himself stated on 4th February that if the NUM wished to accept it, it could have a settlement "today or tomorrow"? Is it not a fact that until the modified colliery review procedure is in operation, all pits will remain open? Is he aware that only today the general secretary of NACODS stated that the new procedure cannot be put in place until the NUM is party to the agreement?

Can the noble Earl assure us that there will be no victimisation of miners who have remained on strike throughout the dispute? Will the Government urge on the NCB magnanimity in its dealings with the miners who have been convicted of minor, or relatively minor, offences during the dispute? Is the noble Earl further aware that there is widespread concern over the future of mining communities and that people living in those communities view their future with despair? In the light of that, will the noble Earl impress upon the Secretary of State the need to take urgent and exceptional measures to increase substantially the finance available to NCB enterprises and to intervene directly to bring new industries to the blighted areas?

Finally, can the noble Earl impress upon the NCB that a strong coal industry is vital to our country's future and to achieve this will require the wholehearted co-operation of the total workforce? Will he and his right honourable friend the Secretary of State therefore urge upon the NCB the use of the velvet glove in a hand of friendship rather than the strong arm and an iron fist?

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I should like on behalf of these Benches to express satisfaction that this sad dispute is due to end tomorrow. The main objective for the coal industry must now be to rebuild its fences, get the industry moving again and repair the physical and human damage that might have been created by this long-running strike.

There are, in fact, some short-term market opportunities facing the British coal industry at the moment. Due to the change in the value of the dollar, at which imported coal is quoted, British coal is now very much more competitive. It is very important that this short-term market opportunity is seized on behalf of all in the mining industry and the rest of Britain. If this short-term opportunity is seized successfully the long-term prospects will look all the brighter. Therefore, I propose that there should be an approach to the affairs of the coal industry now that the strike is being brought to an end which will lead to a sympathetic attitude on the part of all within it to try to recover the lost ground, seize the benefits of the short term and build for the future—which will involve substantial, continued investment and on which I hope the noble Earl will reassure us.

However, in those cases where mines, for whatever reason, might have to be closed, redoubled efforts must be made to bring alternative employment in the area. Here I join with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, in saying that the amount of money so far made available for this purpose seems inadequate. I hope that we can obtain an assurance from the Government that this money will be substantially increased in order for this transition in those areas where mining has to cease and other activities take their place to be adequately financed.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords. On the agreements, I think that over the past year we have had enough talk from Mr. Scargill to last us for a very long time. With regard to the amnesty, no one can in any way condone the acts of serious violence, intimidation or vandalism. However, men may have been dismissed for offences of a very much less serious nature: for example, unruly but not violent or intimidatory behaviour, or trivial theft. In such cases it will be up to the NCB to show what moderation it wishes by either reinstating or re-engaging such men. The conciliation machinery is there and therefore can be used.

I should like to remind the House of the question which the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, put last week. Personally, I endorse every word of it, and having read it in Hansard I go along with it. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, made three points. On marketing the National Coal Board was becoming quite successful when the strike started. I assure the noble Lord that we shall get cracking as quickly as we can. As regards investment the Government will undertake the new investment. To turn to the enterprise board, the NCB have given some money towards this which at the moment looks like being adequate; but we shall of course ask the board to keep a close eye on the situation. I shall close by saying to both noble Lords that we should like to see a very strong coal industry, and that surely is the aim of the National Coal Board, too.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Avon, has been generous enough to refer to an observation in which I indulged recently. I would not wish to withdraw a single word that I uttered on that occasion. I venture to suggest—and I can do no more than make a suggestion as I have no authority or power in the matter—that there should be no discrimination as between one section of the industry and another now that there has been a partial closing down of this very unseemly and, in my judgment, unnecessary dispute. This is a matter for questions and not debate, and I ask the noble Earl whether he is aware that this is history repeating itself. A great many people have taken part in the debates in this matter in one way or another—some rightly, and many wrongly because they are not aware of the overtones and undertones of this very difficult subject.

Many people may think that the dispute has been settled, but of course nothing of the sort has happened.

Pretty much the same thing happened rather more than 30 years ago when we had Mr. Arthur Cook—the forerunner of Mr. Arthur Scargill and, indeed, much more venomous, if that is possible, than Mr. Scargill. Very few noble Lords were around then. I doubt whether even the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, was. I cannot remember him being in the other place at that time. But I was, and I was closely associated with it because I was Secretary for Mines and I had to deal with the subject. On that occasion, when there was a dispute the Government intervened—and I happened to be working on behalf of the Government—in order to prevent the dispute continuing and developing, as a result of which we did not see many of the unseemly incidents which have occurred in this recent trouble.

Is the Minister aware that I express a view which I am sure is accepted by every Member of your Lordships' House when I say that many of the things that happened during the dispute were intolerable in a civilised society? The police undertook their duties as they were rightly entitled to do. Therefore, there should be no criticism against them if sometimes they acted in an unseemly and difficult fashion. One can understand it, and there should be no criticism of that kind.

I ask the noble Earl to note this. There has been a partial closing down of the dispute. But look at the newspapers—at the glorification in the Telegraph this morning, and at the leading articles in the Sunday papers! How delighted they are! And they point out how delighted Mrs. Thatcher, our Prime Minister, must he because she has gained what she set out to gain—if not to destroy the miners' union, to weaken it and the trade union movement generally to such an extent that they will offer no trouble for a long time to come. This is not a question, but my advice to the Government is that they be very careful indeed. They should consider what happened on the last occasion. The Cook development led to the General Strike, and after the General Strike the miners stayed on strike for eight or nine months. There has been any amount of bitterness since—and there will be a great deal of bitterness for some years to come, unfortunately.

If anybody thinks that everything in the garden will now be lovely and that the members of the Coal Board are anxious to help the miners to have a negotiated settlement and to have no trouble, he is mistaken. They will use this advantage in a way that I and many of your Lordships will dislike. I beg the Government now to use all the influence that they possess, even at this late stage—it is a late stage, but it is better late than never, if I may use a cliché—to ensure that there is no victimisation whatever and that miners who are unemployed or are likely to be unemployed will gain other employment of some kind, or, if not, will not be reduced to a condition of semi-starvation and poverty. I hope that the Government will do that. If they do, it will be of some advantage. But if anyone in your Lordships' House imagines that this is the end of the story, he simple does not know the miners as I know them; he does not know the history of the mining industry that I and many other noble Lords have read about.

We beg the Government to be very cautious indeed, and less discriminatory, less venomous and less glorying in what they regard as a victory for them. It is no victory, and it is certainly not a victory for the nation.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I join with the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, in describing it as an intolerable situation—an intolerable strike, an intolerable dispute—and I also join with him in praising the police. I think his mathematics have gone a trifle awry. When he said "30 years ago," I think perhaps it was a mistake for 60 years ago. However, that is as may be. There has been no victory. The Prime Minister herself said yesterday—and I quote now off the top of my head—words to the effect that it is all over, and nobody has won.

What can I add to what the noble Lord has said? He went on for a little while. I should like to say that there will be no victimisation, either, and there will be no question of the people being re-employed—I am sorry, that is wrong. There will be no question of those who have done wrong things—

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, the noble Earl has not got it quite right.

The Earl of Avon

No, I have not, my Lords; the noble and learned Lord is quite correct. What I am trying to say is that those people who have been charged with offences will have the opportunity to—

Lord Elwyn-Jones

The noble Earl has done very well so far.

The Earl of Avon

—will have the ability to go to conciliation.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl whether he agrees that, while no one in the House would want to see the present situation followed by any attitude of vindictiveness to those people who have been out on strike in this long, sad and stupid dispute, one is entitled to ask the Government for an unqualified undertaking that those very brave men who have braved organised thuggery on an unprecedented scale for the past year will also be entitled to the protection of the Coal Board and the Government?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I can say that without hesitation.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the large-minded magnanimity which his Statement and that in another place have shown will be widely accepted, respected and welcomed throughout the country? Can he tell us whether there is yet any tally of the number of coal faces that have been lost, of the number of mining jobs lost in consequence, and of the value of capital equipment which has been irretrievably lost?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, as far as concerns the number of colliery faces lost, I understand it to be in the region of 60. As far as concerns the number of jobs that will be lost, there has been no evaluation there. I also think it is a little too early to give the other figure for which my noble friend asked.