HL Deb 17 February 1986 vol 471 cc403-5

2.41 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether output and productivity in the coal industry are fulfilling expectations.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the coal industry is making a magnificent recovery following the miners' strike, with output and productivity levels exceeding expectations for the year.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that excellent news. Will he say how much has been ploughed in by the Government and taxpayers in capital investment since 1979; how this compares with the amount provided by the Labour Government during their five years of rule prior to that; and how the productivity increase at that time matches the productivity increase that has now occurred?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, this Government have invested nearly £4.9 billion at September 1983 prices in the coal industry since 1979. That is 60 per cent. higher in real terms than in the preceding five years under the Labour Government. As to productivity, the latest figures available for December 1985 show record levels of over 3 tonnes per shift, higher than has ever been achieved before. I understand that in the previous years to which my noble friend referred productivity actually fell marginally.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, in view of the excellent news which the Minister has given us about progress in the coal industry at the present time, can he assure the House that care will be taken in the substitution of oil for coal in power stations due to the present perturbations in the oil market?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, that is primarily a matter for negotiation between the National Coal Board and the Central Electricity Generating Board in the first instance. It is too early to be certain how long these low oil prices will remain, and until we have a clearer idea of that I think that we shall have to wait and see.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that, with the voluntary departure from the industry in the past 18 months of some 35,000 men who have taken voluntary redundancy, over-manning is now at an end and the Coal Board is now aiming at a coal price which would work out at about 18p per therm, comparable with other sources of energy in the country?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, with regard to the latter part of my noble friend's question, I do not have with me a figure of the coal price per therm. However, in answer to the first part of my noble friend's question, I can say that the output now is very nearly the same as it was in 1983–84, with a reduction in the workforce of some 40,000 people.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Minister accept that I am not one of those who think that this was simply an inspired Question? In fact, we all welcome the good news that the Minister has been able to announce this afternoon. But is the Minister in a position to put a breakdown of the figures, district by district, in Hansard? Should we not all be pleased that the normal negotiating procedures for payments and conditions have now been restored between management and unions, as opposed to the policy of confrontation that was initiated at Cortonwood?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, yes, indeed; we should be pleased by that. I should be happy to put down a summary of the output by region. Perhaps if the noble Lord would put that down in the form of a Written Question I could provide him with those figures.

Lord Morris

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the East Kent coalfields of Betteshanger and Tilmanstone the output has increased by some 60 per cent? Both those coalfields were threatened with closure some months ago. Would my noble friend care to comment as to why this might be so?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, yes, indeed. I congratulate the two pits in Kent for having achieved this 60 per cent. output improvement between September and November. The area still faces problems in achieving profitability, but as my noble friend reminds us they have been reprieved from closure at any rate for the time being.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I and the Opposition Front Bench also welcome the improvement in productivity to 3.2 tonnes per man shift? But is he aware that Mr. MacGregor has now upped the target figure to five tonnes per man shift and is threatening, if that figure is not reached, to close more collieries? Does the noble Lord agree that that is hardly the best way to get improved productivity and good industrial relations within the coal industry?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord, I think I said earlier that with the fall in oil prices, although it was too early to tell what the impact of those would be, it is obviously essential that productivity should continue to increase in the coal industry if coal is to remain competitive with other forms of energy. I am sure that the noble Lord would agree that lower energy prices for our industry would be a most valuable contribution to the economic performance of this country.

As regards Mr. MacGregor's "threats"—as the noble Lord puts them—I did indeed read the article in the paper last week. I think that it would be best if I said no more about that at the moment.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, in the light of the interesting results of the National Freight Corporation, which were in the paper this morning, does the noble Lord think that greater employee participation in the coal industry might increase productivity even more?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I think that goes a little wide of the Question. Of course the salaries or wages of coalminers include quite a reasonable element of productivity bonus in them.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, can my noble friend say how the 3.2 tonnes per man shift compares with other deep-mined coal in other countries? Are we now up to the standard or are we still rather below the standard of our competitors in this field?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend, I am afraid that I do not have comparative figures for overseas countries. I shall endeavour to find out if such figures exist and perhaps write to my noble friend if those figures are comparable at all.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in view of the figures he has announced, two things will now follow: the substantial import of coal from many other foreign countries will now be reduced and pits which are threatened will now be reprieved?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, yes, indeed. I hope that the import of coal will be able to be reduced if our own mining industry is mining very much more. Regarding the future closure of pits, it is inevitable that pits cannot go on for ever. At the same time that we are closing pits we are also investing large amounts of money in opening new ones.