HL Deb 21 February 1995 vol 561 cc1034-6

3 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take on the stocking of coal at closed collieries.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the stocking of coal at closed collieries is a matter for the site owner.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is it not scandalous that, having suffered dirt, dust, pollution and the eyesore of pitheaps for decades, mining communities, which have lost thousands of jobs in the mining industry due to pit closures, should have to put up with all that again? Is that not part of the price we have had to pay for coal privatisation? Will the Government not take much greater action than the rather timid response we have had from the Minister today?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am not quite certain what the noble Lord is getting at.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords—

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord need not bother to repeat his question. I heard what he said. I said that I did not understand what he was getting at, and that is not the same thing. When the coal industry was privatised, the new private users took over the coal stocks. It is up to them to dispose of them as they think appropriate. There were about 12.4 million tonnes in April 1994. It is now down to 11 million tonnes.

I thought that the noble Lord might be concerned about what happened at Easington, so I took the precaution of obtaining the figures. He might like to know that there 500,000 tonnes were stockpiled in September 1993. When the pit was sold in September 1994, that had decreased to 250,000 tonnes. I am informed that it is anticipated that that stock is likely to be sold completely by March of this year.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I am a bit lost. Is the industry now in private hands? I thought that the contracts had not yet been completed. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us. He will recall that when we debated the coal industry privatisation legislation, the Government, in rejecting all sorts of amendments, reassured noble Lords in all parts of the House that we did not have to be too exercised about the environmental question because everything was well looked after and we did not have to worry. The point that my noble friend has raised is that it looks at this stage, with this example—there are many others to come—and the news today about water pollution from closed pits, that we were right to worry about environmental problems with respect to the privatised coal industry. Many of us will be appalled if the Government always intend to answer that it is a matter for the site owner.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am not surprised that the noble Lord is lost if he does not know whether the coal industry is in private hands. British Coal was privatised on 30th December 1994 in England and Scotland and, mysteriously, one day later, on 31st December, in Wales. So the industry is in private hands. I have pleasure in telling the noble Lord that if he was not certain about it.

Pollution is always a matter of concern. It does not matter who owns the pits; it will always be a matter of concern. All mine owners are under a duty not to cause pollution to any river or stream. The regulatory bodies (the NRA and in Scotland the river purification boards) have appropriate powers to enforce those responsibilities.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I always like to be informed and educated by the Minister. Will he assure me that the Treasury now has the money from selling the whole of the coal industry to the private sector? Has some money now appeared in the Treasury corresponding to the value of the industry?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, British Coal has been sold. If the noble Lord wants to know the precise date upon which sums of money passed, I shall have to find out. British Coal is now in private hands.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, will the Minister explain the position with regard to the stocks at closed collieries, because some of the collieries were sold? They are in private hands, and so the stocks would clearly be the responsibility of the purchasers. But other pits were not sold and remain the responsibility of the Coal Authority. What will happen to the stocks at pits which were not sold?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, they will be disposed of as and when appropriate.

Lord Parry

My Lords, will the Minister accept that some of us rise in fear and trembling because of the pugnacious mood he appears to be in this afternoon? I try to remember that, although he is seven inches taller than I am, I am still not afraid of him.

This is a serious question, and it is asked in the context not merely of the tonnage left on the surface but of the history of the years of degradation suffered not just in the valleys of Wales but throughout the coal areas as a result of the neglect by private owners of responsibilities about which they had to be taught by various governments and public authorities. We have reached the stage in Wales where we can now call our valleys green again. Having shrugged off the responsibility, as has been done this afternoon, we are very concerned that the Government might continue to do that and that the rivers of Wales might be polluted.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I should be the first to apologise to the noble Lord, or indeed any other noble Lord, if he thought that I was being pugnacious. That is not my style at all, as it is not the style of the noble Lord to be alarmed or frightened.

Of course pollution is a matter of concern, but when the responsibility for owning mines passes to another, the responsibility for avoiding pollution passes to the new owners. Where those responsibilities have not passed to another, of course they remain the responsibilities of the previous owner. We are concerned to make sure that all the river authorities have adequate measures available to them to ensure that untoward pollution does not occur.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, the Minister need not have reminded me about Easington. I have lived in the shadow of the Easington pitheap for too many years.

With great respect, he is missing the whole point of the Question. We are talking about pits which have closed and which are now being used again for the stocking of coal. Unless he takes some notice of what my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, have said, there will be no progress. It is a serious matter for mining communities.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I can only tell the noble Lord that stocks at closed collieries were sold to the regional companies; in other words, all stocks in England were sold to RJB.(Mining) plc.

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