HC Deb 04 July 1984 vol 63 cc303-6
8. Mr. Ron Davies

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will give an estimate of the effect on trade and current national industrial performance of the present coal industry dispute.

Mr. Tebbit

The whole House will be pleased to know that the dispute has had no effect on the output and performance of the vast majority of United Kingdom industries. Imports of oil, coal and coke have increased and there has been some reduction in steel exports.

Mr. Davies

Is it not a fact that last month, and in May, the balance of payments worsened by about £200 million as a result of additional oil imports? Is it not also a fact that industrial production is being hit by increased energy costs? Will the Secretary of State use all of his tact and diplomacy — [HON. MEMBERS: "And charm."] — to persuade the Secretary of State for Energy that it is in the national interest for him to intervene to bring the dispute in the coal mining industry to a speedy conclusion?

Mr. Tebbit

Although it is difficult to say how much influence the miners strike has had upon the import of oil and how much of the change in the balance of payments has been due to stockpiling, possibly because of concern about events in the Gulf, there is little doubt that Mr. Scargill—and it is presumably what he wanted to do—has had great success in converting much of Britain's industry and power generation from coal to oil. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use all his powers of tact and persuasion to get Mr. Scargill to come to the negotiating table without any preconditions——

Mr. Ron Davies

He has offered to.

Mr. Tebbit

Mr. Scargill has not yet offered to do so without preconditions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use all the tact and diplomacy at his command to support Mr. Bill Sirs and the steel workers, as well as the transport workers and the 60,000 Coal Board employees still at work, instead of just backing the minority clique of Scargill.

Sir Anthony Grant

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the most devastating effect on British trade and industry would be caused by the surrender to, or appeasement of, a violent minority of the mineworkers' union? Will he give an assurance that the Department and the Government as a whole will not encourage any surrender or intervention along those lines?

Mr. Tebbit

I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. Such a surrender would also put the miners who are at work—all told, about 60,000 Coal Board employees are working in the collieries—as well as the steel workers, at the mercy of a bunch of most ruthless and violent bullies.

Mr. Barron

If 60,000 miners are working and 120,000 miners are on strike and the latter, and particularly their families, are being penalised by the Government, how can the right hon. Gentleman say that those 60,000 at work are the majority?

Mr. Tebbit

I referred not merely to the mineworkers but to the 70,000 steel workers in the British Steel Corporation and the transport workers who are loyally carrying coal to help that industry to survive. Anyway, we do not know what the majority of coal miners think, because Mr. Scargill is scared to hold a ballot.

Mr. Silvester

Might it be valuable to make an assessment of the amount of coal substitution that has occurred as a result of this strike and the number of orders lost overseas, and to publish the results?

Mr. Tebbit

It would be prudent to wait until the end of the strike for a final assessment. However, we know that coal for the impressive contract for the supply of coke from Durham, negotiated by Mr. MacGregor, is currently being supplied from Europe. We also know that the ICI conversion scheme is being held in abeyance, that the flood of applications from industry for assistance with converting from oil to coal has virtually come to an end, and that many people are very gloomy about whether it would be right to rely in future on the Coal Board for the supply of coal. I believe that they are wrong and that at the end of the dispute it will be quite clear that the majority of moderate mineworkers who want to work will have won, and that in future miners will behave in the same way as the steel workers are behaving today, and will be determined to ensure that their industry survives by supplying good products reliably to their customers.

Mr. Benn

Does the Secretary of State think it helpful to describe what, even on his own figures, would be 120,000 miners, as "ruthless and violent bullies", when —[Interruption.] That is the phrase that the right hon. Gentleman used. Does he realise that the future of this country's trade and industry depends on the skill of miners, the overwhelming majority of whom will not accept the Government's policy? [Interruption.] How does he suppose that the co-operation of such people can be secured by such most violent, bitter and unprincipled abuse from the Secretary of State?

Mr. Tebbit

I have not referred to the 120,000 miners who are on strike in the terms that the right hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Benn

Yes the right hon. Gentleman did.

Mr. Tebbit

I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman tries listening instead of making up fairy tales, for a change. Not even in the worst of the scenes of violent picketing have we seen 120,000 miners. We have seen a tiny minority of violent bullies who are bullying the majority of miners and who want to bully 70,000 steel workers into losing their jobs as well. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not give some comradely support to Bill Sirs instead of forever licking the boots of Mr. Scargill?

Mr. Eggar

Does my right hon. Friend recollect that it was not so long ago that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) was complaining about high electricity costs for industry? As 80 per cent. of electricity is usually generated from coal, is he not, by opposing the closure of uneconomic pits, arguing for higher electricity prices?

Mr. Tebbit

Yes, of course he is doing so, but that is because he is the captive of one small union within the whole trade union movement. He refuses to speak up for the steel workers the transport workers and the car workers and all the others whose jobs are now being put at risk.

Mr. Lofthouse

Having conceded that the miners' strike is having an effect on the balance of payments, does the Secretary of State not think that the recent statement by the chairman of the NCB advising his senior management to continue the strike until the end of the year is completely irresponsible and the action of a mindless bully?

Mr. Tebbit

No. Mr. MacGregor did not advise his managers to continue the strike. He has advised his managers to seek to persuade the miners who are still on strike to join those who are back at work and he will continue so to do. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman, who has some influence in these matters, were to seek to arrive at a conclusion on whether the miners who are on strike want to be on strike, by pressing Mr. Scargill to risk his authority again on another ballot.

Mr. Cormack

How many colleagues of the right hon. and wrongly demagogic Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) have spoken up in support of the miners who are at work and that significant number among the 120,000 who are intimidated from going to work?

Mr. Tebbit

I think that my hon. Friend knows the answer to that question— scarcely one of them. They will not speak up for the steel workers, either. Why are they so silent on the steel workers? They always pretended to be their friends. They supported the steel workers' strike which prejudiced steel workers' jobs. Why do they not support the steel workers who are staying at work to save their jobs?

Mr. Hardy

With all his many faults, the Secretary of State tends to be rather more open in his approach to politics than many of his Cabinet colleagues. In view of his reference to Bill Sirs of the steel workers' union, may I invite him to meet Bill Sirs and his colleagues to consider the doubtful approach that has been adopted by the BSC to the supply of coke and coal to Scunthorpe, because many of us believe that there has been a determined and calculated effort to ensure that there has been as much upheaval in that supply as possible?

Mr. Tebbit

What the hon. Gentleman says is quite disgraceful. He knows full well that from top to bottom of the BSC — workers and management — everybody is united in the desire to keep the corporation going. They are united in their determination to use the coal, coke and iron ore which is getting into that steel works despite everything that the Scargill clique is doing to try to prevent it and to break British Steel.

Mr. Shore

May I take the Secretary of State from his natural habitat of insolence and abuse back to the facts? We noted that he said that the strike so far had had no effect upon Britain's visible non-oil trade. That being so, will he now address his mind to the reasons why the manufactured trade balance is running at the rate of minus £2,400 million this year so far? What on earth does he intend to do about it?

Mr. Tebbit

There is a question on that subject later on the Order Paper. If the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues could contain their rambling supplementary questions, we might even manage to reach it.