HL Deb 23 April 1998 vol 588 cc1246-8

3.21 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the progress being made with the rehabilitation of the former coalfield areas.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the Government are committed to helping communities affected by pit closures. To that end, the Deputy Prime Minister set up a Coalfields Task Force last October to look at how we can improve the co-ordination and effectiveness of existing programmes and identify what more can be done to help coalfield communities in England. The task force will report in May. The Government will launch an action plan for the coalfields on 24th June.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of how warmly the Government's initiative in the matter has been welcomed in the former coalfields? That is particularly so as the proposals contain much more than the creating of jobs, which is of great importance. However, is he aware of some concern that the money involved may be dispersed, particularly in the regional agencies? To that extent, does he agree that there should be some ring-fencing of the resources which he announced today?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his words of welcome for the Government's efforts. As for his other point, some schemes specialise in the regeneration of coalfields only. For example, English Partnership's coalfield regeneration project is limited to coalfields and has a 10-year programme to reclaim 56 former collieries. RECHAR is a community initiative specifically for coalfield areas. There are eight eligible regions in England, Scotland and Wales. Again, it is an initiative specifically for coalfields.

The regional development agencies will of course play an important role in attracting new investment, but it is for the review committee to decide how the money will be divided up.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the task force will take full account of the high skills of all those who have worked underground, not only mineworkers but also craftsmen? I need only remind the noble Lord that an electrician who works underground has to have a much higher degree of skill than an electrician working on the surface. Will the task force ensure that those great skills are used to advantage?

Lord Haskel

Certainly, my Lords. I know that the task force is paying particular attention to that in its aim of trying to find new employment in the coalfield areas. Those skills are available for industries other than coalmining.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

My Lords, my diocese of Wakefield is an area which has known great pain over the past few years with the closing of coalfields. Many of my communities are grateful to the Government for the support being given to them. However, are the Government aware of the further pain that is frequently caused by the prospect of open-cast mining? In some of my areas where it is under consideration, it presents a dilemma to the local council. To the communities threatened by it, it merely adds insult to injury.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the Government are aware of the widespread concern about the impact of open-cast coal-mining. However, they are also aware of its importance to the coal industry. That is why the Government have undertaken a review of open-cast planning policy, which will allow the views of all those concerned to be heard. That review is being carried out by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that with the looming collision between the Government's environmental policy and their energy policy, all existing coalfields threaten to become former coalfields in as few as three to five years? Do the Minister and the Government recognise that if the Environment Agency's latest proposals on the reduction of emissions of sulphur dioxide were to be introduced, something like half the current production of coal in this country would cease and more than 20,000 people would lose their jobs?

Does the Minister recognise that it is all unnecessary because the existing levels of emissions in the United Kingdom are more than sufficient to meet our international obligations? Without breaching those international obligations, we could in fact increase coal production in the United Kingdom.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I am not aware of the facts given by the noble and learned Lord. As noble Lords know, the matter is being reviewed and of course the Government are aware that there are problems of emissions from coal. That is a matter of which the task force reviewing the coal industry is very much aware. When it reports, the Government will take the appropriate steps.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that an important element in the rehabilitation of coalfield areas is the rehabilitation of coalfield sites? Can he say whether, in the case of sites which have been transferred by British Coal to the Coal Authority, the liability for environmental pollution and contamination has also been transferred, or does that still remain with British Coal?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the question is a little outside the one on the Order Paper, but the noble Lord gave me notice of it so I have a reply ready. If I may say so, it is rather a lawyer's reply.

Where there is a statutory liability, liabilities have been transferred from British Coal to the Coal Authority, but where British Coal's responsibility represents an obligation rather than a liability, that obligation remains with British Coal.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Westminster woodland▀×in which every noble Lord and every member of staff is warmly invited to become involved▀×is to be created on an old colliery site? Does he agree that it is an excellent way of bringing the site back to life?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in South Yorkshire there has been enormous and extensive progress in regard to the environmental transformation of the former coalfield area? However, anxiety is particularly acute because economic need continues to be severe. Can my noble friend assure the House that the Government will rigorously maintain efforts and take every possible initiative to secure European funding to assist in the economic transformation of those areas?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the Government recognise that there is exceptional deprivation in South Yorkshire. Despite assistance under the previous administration, in South Yorkshire the gross domestic product is 73 per cent. of the European average. That is why the whole of the South Yorkshire area has assisted area status, making it eligible for regional selective assistance from the DTI. In addition, the European Commission's current proposals for structural funds after the year 2000 would include South Yorkshire among the areas eligible for objective one funding. The data are based on information currently available.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, as my noble friend is aware, I am slightly disappointed by the Answer he first gave to me. I am aware of the various agencies which he enunciated. However, to repeat what I said earlier, the whole purpose is that there should be ring-fencing of the resources to be allocated to this initiative. Will my noble friend reconsider that matter?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I know that the Coalfields Task Force has been considering this question. It will address it in its report next month. I have not seen a draft of the report and therefore am not in a position to say anything further.