HL Deb 16 June 1992 vol 538 cc116-8

3.4 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations they have made to British Coal about the possible closure of the remaining coal mines in County Durham.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

My Lords, decisions on closures affecting individual collieries are, as the noble Lord knows, a matter for British Coal. The Government do not seek to intervene.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that that is not only a very disappointing Answer; it is also an extremely complacent Answer? Is she aware that Seaham Vane Tempest and Easington collieries are facing imminent closure with a loss of 2,800 jobs, which will be added to the 2,000 which have been lost in the same area because of the recent closure of two other pits?

Is she aware further that both those pits had been meeting the objectives laid down by British Coal, even though the targets had been changed frequently—a classic case of moving the goalposts? Why is it that the German coal industry can receive a subsidy of £38 per tonne while the industry in this country is refused any subsidy at all? Such subsidies could be crucial in ensuring the survival of the Durham pits?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the Answer was not meant to be complacent. It was factual. The Government cannot be accused of not helping the coal industry when at present they continue to invest about £1 million per working day to make it competitive. There is no complacency as regards the Durham area where already British Coal enterprise has committed well over £7 million towards financing small and medium sized businesses. As a result, some 2,440 people are currently employed in businesses assisted by British Coal.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that the Durham and South Yorkshire coalfields have been waiting over 18 months for the RECHAR moneys allocated to them from the European Regional Development Fund but blocked by the DTI and the Treasury? Four weeks ago the Minister informed this House that the RECHAR moneys would be paid soon; indeed, she stressed that they would be paid very soon. The mining communities are waiting for that cash. Where is it?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, we were pleased that after considerable dispute and delay, the European Commission approved the 11 RECHAR programmes which are worth £124 million. It is a complex subject. Discussions on the transitional period continue: the matter will be resolved just as soon as possible. From lst April 1993, local authorities will receive supplementary credit approvals to match in full the RDF funded part of their expenditure.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Dormand mentioned subsidies for imported coal. Is the Minister aware that last year 14 million tonnes of coal were imported into this country, the equivalent, for the mining industry, of 14,000 jobs? Is it not grossly unfair that this country should have to subsidise, through the EC, German coal so that German miners instead of British miners may be employed? Will the Minister take up that matter as soon as possible with her Cabinet colleagues and put an end to the privileged position of the German miners at the expense of the miners in this country?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, we are aware of the issue of the subsidised coal industry in Germany. I assure the noble Lord that only 1 per cent. of imported coal comes from Germany. However, during our presidency we shall be concerned with that matter. I should point out that if British industry had to pay over the odds for electricity supplies arising from high cost coal, it would be less competitive and a greater number of jobs would be at risk.

The Earl of Shrewsbury

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the forthcoming privatisation of British Coal will not only improve the competitive edge of the British coal industry, but will also mean lower imports of foreign coal, cheaper prices and, therefore, a better deal for the consumer?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly and confirm that it will mean also a better deal for industry and the economy.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, will the noble Baroness indicate whether the Government accept or reject the advice of their own merchant bankers, Rothschild, who advised the Secretary of State to intervene directly in the negotiations between British Coal and the generators to ensure that British Coal obtains high take, long-term contracts which will enable it to invest in clean coal technologies?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the Government listen to advice but they make their own decisions. They will bear in mind the advice they receive.

Forward to