HL Deb 11 November 1999 vol 606 cc1441-4

3.14 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What support they have given to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust in its efforts to form partnerships with companies receiving investments from the miners' pension fund to assist in the regeneration of the former coalfield areas.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Coalfields Regeneration Trust is an independent grant-giving body which provides help, support and funding for all the coalfields communities. It is a matter for the trust to form any partnerships with companies to assist in the regeneration of the former coalfield areas, including those receiving investments from the miners' pension fund. However, the Government encourage the trust to build partnerships where appropriate and we shall welcome positive responses from the private sector, including in particular those linked to the miners' pension fund, to back their coalfields to the benefit of both themselves and local people.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful reply. Does he agree that the nation owes the miners a great debt not only for the contribution that they made to the economy of the country in the most dangerous and difficult of jobs, but also because of the butchery of their industry by the former government? Is he aware also that in spite of the great help being given by the Government to the former coalfield areas, they are still experiencing high unemployment and physical devastation? Can my noble friend say how many companies have been approached, and what has been the response?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The position for the mining communities over the last period has been devastating and it will take some time for them to recover physically, socially and psychologically to good health. However, that era has passed and we must move into a new era based on new industries for the mining communities. There is a responsibility on the Government. We have used a number of different instruments. We have help from the European Community. The trust, which will deal with small-scale projects, approached a range of companies, including 16 in which the miners' pension fund has significant investments. A number responded positively. Of course, the trust was finally set up only in September and we hope therefore to have more news to give my noble friend shortly.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I endorse the tribute paid to the miners by the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington. But is the Minister aware that many of the coalfields were in such remote places that there was no alternative employment? The miners' pension fund will go only a small way towards creating the alternative employment which is needed in those communities.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we are not reliant on the miners' pension fund to provide alternative prosperity for those areas which have been devastated by the closure of coalmines. I am saying that we are moving into a new era and that we must attract industry of all kinds into those areas. As noble Lords will know, the vast majority of mining areas are rural areas and on top of the more general problems experienced by rural areas, they suffer also from the closure of the mining industry. It is important, therefore, to have a concerted effort from all the agencies of government to help those areas and to attract private sector investment and jobs to them.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, my noble friend accepts that marked improvement in many areas is under way, but will he accept also that the brutal and rather abrupt devastation to which my noble friend Lord Dormand referred exercised an effective social corrosion which remains extremely serious? In order to encourage further support for the trust, will he publish the names of the 16 companies to which he referred and ensure that at all times the Government remain keen to promote involvement in the trust so that it can fulfil the valuable role it is designed to serve?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, again, I entirely agree with what has been said about the corrosive effects on the mining communities of developments during the 1980s and early 1990s. It is for the trust to decide what is put in the public arena in terms of the companies it has approached. However, I hope that we can indicate some strong support for initiatives taken by the trust. Indeed, the Government have put £50 million of pump-priming into the trust. It is now up to the trust to develop such partnerships. I believe that it is well on the way to doing so successfully.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, following on from the Question so ably put by the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, and the emphasis placed on the provision of alternative job opportunities in former coalfield areas, can the Minister in any way indicate the number of jobs which have so far been created in relation to the number of redundant mineworkers, and what progression in that respect can be expected in the years ahead?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I cannot specifically identify jobs which have been created as a result of government action. However, coalfield area by coalfield area, it is clear that there is a long way to go before the number of jobs is restored to the level that existed when the coalfields were operating, when the mining industry was employing large numbers of men and there were many dependent industries. We are talking about a very substantial programme of regeneration. The specific sum of money which has gone to the coalfields through coalfields activity by the Government was £350 million last year. The European Union designation of assisted area status for the coalfields, and, in some cases, of Objective 1 and Objective 2 status, together go towards providing a basis for new employment. However, there is a long way to go.

Lord Elton

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the Government recognise that the accelerating pace of technological and, consequently, economic and sociological change means that industry after industry will capitulate to that change? Further, in pursuing the policies that the noble Lord has just described, will the Government seek to develop economic skills and administrative methods which will enable them to nurse successive communities through change from one means of livelihood to another—probably starting with the agricultural industry in the near future?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we have had considerable discussion on the current problems of the agricultural industry in this House. However, in many ways the mining industry is a special case. I agree that we need these measures to ease people over change more generally. But the way in which the mining industry was closed down so brutally, with a contempt for the mining communities demonstrated by the previous administration, means that we have been left with a terrible problem in those areas. We want to put that behind us. I have no nostalgia for the mining industry; indeed, I have seen too many miners grow old before their time. We do not want to go backwards: we want to go forwards in those communities, but we must recognise that the previous administration's activities in the 1980s greatly aggravated the problem.