HL Deb 29 June 1993 vol 547 cc710-3

2.47 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they have taken, with British Coal and the miners' unions, in dealing with the pit closures announced by the President of the Board of Trade.

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

My Lords, pit closure decisions and their implementation are a matter for British Coal after consultation with the unions. The Government are making available a generous regeneration package of £200 million to assist English mining areas.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that when the whole country revolted against the Government's pit closure proposals last October, the Government offered a subsidy—presumably that is included in the figures which the noble Baroness has just given—to bridge the gap between British-produced coal and world import prices? What has happened about that? It appears that nothing has been done about it. Is British Coal to blame; are the generators to blame, or are the Government to blame for not pushing this matter harder? Is not the real reason for the delay that the Government want pits to close? That is what is happening now.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the noble Lord asked many questions. First I assure him that, as recently stated by the chairman of British Coal, we, too, wish to sustain and secure the largest economically viable UK coal industry. The financial package I mentioned seeks to create regeneration and new opportunities in English mining areas. My right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade offered a subsidy, the aim of which is to create market opportunities. Its aim is to enable British Coal and private mining operators to be competitive where there are opportunities for extra sales. If the noble Lord wishes to apportion blame, I fear that it must be the customer who is responsible because if there is no customer there is no market.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in addition to the special aid which the Government are providing, the miners enjoy the best pension, redundancy and early retirement scheme of any industry? Does she also agree that, in addition, they have the advantage of having skills and a work ethic which should make them attractive to other industries coming to those areas?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Boardman that every effort has been made to ensure that the miners have been offered an extremely satisfactory voluntary redundancy package. The figures of miners taking voluntary redundancy are evidence of that. In addition, there is evidence that British Coal Enterprise, which works excellently in this area, has managed, even in a difficult economic climate, to place some 75 per cent. of those miners made redundant.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, in the last debate on the coal industry, on 31st March, the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, stated: British Coal has announced that 12 of the 21 pits included in the review will continue to produce coal… no pit will close without first being offered to the private sector"—[Official Report, 31/3/93; cols. 896-897.] How true is that today? Have those promises been kept? Have any applications been made to the coal privatisation unit?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, British Coal has so far offered 14 pits to the private sector with others to come in the next few weeks. I understand that numerous expressions of interest have so far been received.

Lord Howell

My Lords, have the Government yet considered the future of the miners' welfare scheme, which provides all the sports, recreation and leisure facilities not just for the mines but for whole communities where the pits are situated? If those close it will be a substantial setback in providing proper sporting and recreational facilities. Have the Government considered that aspect and can the noble Baroness make any statement?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that we share his concern for the communities in which the mines operate. We shall certainly be taking into consideration the effect on the community and the needs of the community. That is why I am delighted to confirm this £200 million regeneration fund.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, perhaps we may take the opportunity of this Question to wish the President of the Board of Trade a quick and happy recovery.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I am sure that the Government will welcome the return of a little style.

Is the Minister aware that when the President of the Board of Trade introduced the White Paper on 25th March and referred to the 12 pits which we were told were to be rescued, he said—and with the permission of the House I shall quote his words: Twelve of the 13 remaining pits will continue to produce while British Coal, with Government financial backing, looks for additional sales at world-related prices"?—[Official Report, Commons, 25/3/93; col. 1230.] Will the Minister confirm that already three of the 12 pits have been closed or their closure has been announced? Will she tell us how much of those subsidies have been committed or spent? Is it true that the answer is nil?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, first I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for his best wishes to my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade. As he may imagine, those of us at the DTI will welcome his return more than anyone.

The noble Lord questioned whether three pits from the list of market testing pits are to be closed. I can assure him that Silverdale, which is one that he may have in mind, ceased production for a period, but production has now resumed and British Coal does not envisage closure at present. There are two pits—Rufford and Markham—where the workforce has decided to accept closure as the mines have hit geological problems. I confirm that British Coal is continuing to test the market for supplementary sales. The subsidy continues to be available, but it is difficult for us to pay it until it is requested as a result of the existence of additional sales.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, will the noble Baroness inform her noble friend Lord Boardman that miners do not receive the biggest redundancy payments? The highest figures are obtained by retired company directors, bank managers and a whole range of others.

I stand again to deal with the question of redundancy payments in connection with pit closures. Will the Government further extend the enhanced redundancy arrangements, because they have already extended them, so that no more pits will be closed before 31st December?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, as I suspect the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, well knows, that is a matter for British Coal. However, perhaps I may take the opportunity to say that that is why we thought that the miners well deserved generous voluntary redundancy deals.