HC Deb 25 July 1984 vol 64 cc1084-101 10.56 pm
Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

After that little knockabout, we come to an equally serious matter.

Last Thursday evening, the Prime Minister had a hard job to do. After a disastrous 12 months since the 1983 election, she had to make a speech to her fearful Back Benchers that would send them on their holidays in reasonably good spirits. From the report and leaks that we have had of that meeting, it is interesting to see how she tackled the challenge. She chose to use that occasion to initiate a hymn of hatred and personal abuse against the National Union of Mineworkers' president and the leader of the Labour party. Her attempt to equate the miners with the enemy in the Falkland islands showed the depths to which she is prepared to descend, not to serve the national interest but to save her own political skin. Her vapourings inevitably were echoed by her pathetic puppets last weekend—the Secretary of State for Employment, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, of course, the poodle, the Home Secretary, and, not least, the chump, the chairman of the Tory party.

On that occasion, the Prime Minister reportedly said that the pit strikers posed as great a threat to democracy as General Galtieri of Argentina, although in the House on Monday the Secretary of State for Energy denied that she hurled that insult at the miners. She apparently also shrieked about the danger to liberty, the attempts to circumvent democracy and the danger of tyranny.

All those charges can be hurled back in her teeth. For instance, her determination to leave this great city of London as the only capital city in our western democracies without its own democratically elected council, and to abolish elections in London and the other metropolitan boroughs throughout the country, all of them under Labour control, and to put in their place unelected Tory placemen, shows what a double-faced twister she is.

Equally, for the right hon. Lady to talk about the miners' threat to liberty and the dangers of tyranny as a result of their activities is brazen effrontery from one who seeks to deny basic human rights to the workers in GCHQ. That is tyranny at home, perpetrated by the Prime Minister herself. A High Court judgment against her states that her action was a denial of natural justice. It is no wonder that The Economist—a Tory magazine—on 5 July described her Government as the most inept since the war. Those remarks are an introduction to the debate. I am anxious to get all my notes on the record in the time at my disposal.

I shall now deal directly with the miners' strike. The Prime Minister's appointment of Mr. Ian MacGregor as the septuagenarian chairman of the National Coal Board is, and was recognised to be, an open declaration of war against the National Union of Mineworkers. With his appointment three immovable objects came together—the chairman of the NCB, the president of the NUM and the Prime Minister. That is the seedbed on which the present dispute has grown and festered. If the three could be exiled on a desert island, incommunicado, for 12 months or more, the interests of both the coal industry and the nation would be well served.

The Prime Minister has a pathological hatred of trade unions in general, and the NUM in particular. She was determined from the outset to teach the miners some severe lessons, while pretending to be above the struggle —one of the many examples of her deviousness over the years. Mr. MacGregor can see no further than a balance sheet. He has about as much warmth as the Prime Minister or an arctic iceberg.

As for the NUM president, I remind the Prime Minister and the Government that he was democratically elected by a huge majority far greater than that obtained by the Prime Minister at either of her two general elections. The Prime Minister's appointment of Mr. MacGregor played into Mr. Scargill's hands. It made his confrontation policies that much easier to put into effect.

The sudden decision to close the Cortonwood colliery in Yorkshire was, for sheer ineptitude and provocation, hard to beat. It was a deliberate incitement to the NUM. It gave some credibility to Mr. Scargill's charge that Mr. MacGregor, acting on the Prime Minister's instructions, was out to butcher the coal industry. It therefore gave him the excuse, which he had long sought, to engage in a full-blown national strike. That aim had been thwarted on two or three earlier occasions by the democratic will of his own members.

Mr. Scargill therefore sought to surmount that impediment by changing the rules which forbade a national strike without a national ballot. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said that, unless and until there is a national ballot, the deep divisions within the NUM, among trade unions within the coalmining industry and between the NUM and other unions outside the mining industry will continue.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hamilton

I am sorry, but I shall not give way. I have much to say, and I want to say it in my own way.

Unless and until every Opposition Member asserts the right of every miner to have a democratic say in how his national union works, divisions are bound to continue. We should not be afraid to say time and time again—it has been said this morning in the executive committee of the Labour party—that every man should have a right to vote in matters concerning him.

Mr. Rogers

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hamilton

No. I want to say what I want to say. My hon. Friend had a chance to put his name down for this ballot. He might have a chance later in this debate to say what he wants.

Without a national ballot, the NUM is divided within itself and from other trade unions inside and outside the industry. Mining villages and communities all over the country, and even families within them, are divided. The political, economic and social wounds inflicted on mining communities will take generations to heal.

As the weeks have passed, so too attitudes on all sides have hardened. Recriminations are becoming more fierce and bitter. Mr. Scargill repeats his inflexible demands—there has been no change in them in the past 26 weeks —for a complete withdrawal of all plans for pit closures except where no coal reserves remain, the full implementation of "Plan for Coal" agreed in 1974 and no redundancies.

Mr. Rogers

It was a conference decision.

Mr. Hamilton

I hope that my hon. Friend will not provoke me too much, or I shall take the whole one and a half hours.

For their part, the Government have been increasingly determined to impose their will by the deliberate and calculated starvation of miners' wives and children. Never in our history—not even in war time, not even by any previous Tory Government — have the wives and children of workers on strike been treated worse by the state than the families of murderers, rapists and other criminals. Whatever the merits or demerits of the strike, that treatment of innocent wives and children is indefensible and callous cruelty, which is so typical of the Prime Minister and her view of Government in relation to trade unions.

Recently, I visited the NUM soup kitchens in my constituency, where I was presented with a letter by a young striking miner from Glenrothes. He showed me a letter that he had received from the DHSS in Kirkcaldy demanding answers to these questions: Had he had any payments from the social work department of the regional council? If so, how much? To whom were the payments payable? To its credit, Fife regional council—a Labour-controlled council — refused to give that kind of information to the DHSS. If the DHSS wishes to obtain that information from the miner, that is up to the miner; but the DHSS will get no help from Labour-controlled councils in that type of nefarious activity. That young man is a deeply worried, decent guy anxious about his future. That applies to the vast majority of miners up and down the country.

Miners have the undeniable right to try to protect their jobs by whatever legitimate means lie at their disposal. In the light of the present Government's record of deliberately created mass unemployment, miners have every justification for being deeply apprehensive about their future employment prospects. So have other workers, however. While a miner has the right to protect his own job, so too have steel workers, workers in the paper mills in my constituency, railway workers, dockers and everybody else. No man has the right to threaten another man's job the better to protect his own. That is happening.

Nor has any man the right to assume that his job will be available to his son or sons, still less his grandsons. That claim is made by some NUM leaders. It is an absurd and unrealistic defence of the hereditary principle. It was repeated in the House of Commons only on Monday by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). In this rapidly evolving technological era — nowhere more so than in an extractive industry such as coal—such a claim is utter nonsense. Pit closures are bound to take place, and have occurred ever since there was a coal industry hundreds of years ago. It is in the nature of an extractive industry that that should be so.

I have figures from the House of Commons Library and the Official Report that show that, in the five financial years when the Labour Government were in power—1974–75 to 1978–79—there were 32 closures and in the succeeding five years there were 46 closures. That process will go on under any Government, and nobody can pretend that it will not or that we can avoid it in any way. There is no purpose in trying to make political capital out of an inevitable geological fact.

Mr. Allan Rogers

My hon. Friend does not know what he is talking about.

Mr. Hamilton

I wish that my hon. Friend would shut up.

Mr. Rogers

I wish you would.

Mr. Hamilton

I know more about it than my hon. Friend.

The purpose of a publicly owned industry is to humanise that process, mitigate any hardship, and reduce as far as possible any feelings of insecurity and fear of the future. Successive Governments have gone a long way towards achieving that purpose — perhaps not far enough, but "Plan for Coal", agreed in 1974 on a tripartite basis, was an attempt to implement as far as practicable those human concepts.

What is needed now is for "Plan for Coal" to be updated and possibly renamed "The National Plan for Energy Resources up to the year 2000". That initiative must come from the Government now; certainly before the House goes into recess. That is the imaginative response that I hope will help to resolve the dispute.

The strike has gone on for far too long to do anybody any good. Nobody should be so foolish now as to engage in silly talk about winning or losing, or teaching lessons to anybody. Eventually the long-term and short-term problems of the coal industry, and all other energy problems, will have to be resolved by the interested parties getting together in a civilised and common-sense manner, with no preconditions laid down by either side.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) for his continuing and continuous effort to that end. That should have been the Government's response. However eloquent an Opposition Member may be, it is no substitute for a Minister taking on that role. There has been little response from the Government on these matters. The editorial in The Observer last Sunday stated: Mrs. Thatcher appeared to declare war on the miners last Thursday night … she was only trying to rally her dispirited troops … in doing so she heightened the stakes wantonly. The Prime Minister's hysterics came when, despite the hot public rhetoric of Mr. Scargill, the chairman of the NCB is reported by The Observer as believing that the NUM negotiators are genuinely trying to find a formula for a deal over pit closures. The Prime Minister is rightly accused of being a bad listener. She refuses to listen to any views or opinions other than those that conform to her own instincts and prejudices. She despises and rejects any ideas of conciliation and consensus. She likes total victory and unconditional surrender by her opponents, so the strike goes on and will continue to go on unless and until she bends and realises that she cannot win in the sense that she wants to win, and nor can any other section of the community. The longer the strike lasts, the greater will be the social tensions and the threats to the rule of law and to the prospects of compromise and conciliation.

I was a young schoolboy and the son of a Durham miner at the time of the 1926 strike—not many hon. Members can claim that. At that time, the miners were starved into surrender. The bitterness and scars caused then are still felt to this day—more than 50 years on. Neither the Prime Minister nor any member of her Government can even begin to understand that.

I have represented a mining constituency for 34 years, so I know what I am talking about. My father was a collier in Durham and taught me a lot about it, so I am entitled to say my say on these matters. It is time that some of these things were said. I beg the Prime Minister to make a superhuman effort. I ask her to try, just for once, to be human and magnanimous and to act as the Prime Minister of the whole United Kingdom and not just the posher part of it. I ask Mr. Scargill to reconsider his position as calmly as his excitable personality will allow.

The miners and their families are among the most patriotic and reasonable folk in the United Kingdom. I am reckoned to be one of them. To insult them as the "enemy within", as the Prime Minister has done, says more about her than it does about them. I beg the Minister to reply in the spirit in which I have made my speech. In the past few weeks we have seen hundreds, indeed thousands, not all of them miners, on the so-called picket lines. Many thousands more have stayed at home. It is to them that we should appeal. I believe that they are desperate for an honourable and fair settlement. They are suffering harshly.

Let me give two examples from my constituency. In my surgery a fortnight ago a striking miner, with no bitterness in his voice, said, "Willie, I want you to try and get me a council house to rent," because, he said, "I have bought my house and now I am threatened with eviction because I have no income and cannot make the payments.' I wrote to the local authority. It will house him. He is back to square one. He feels no bitterness, but there is no future for him unless and until the strike is solved honourably and satisfactorily.

I give one further example, of an electrician at the Seafield colliery. He and his wife are good citizens. They do noble voluntary work of various kinds in Leven. They have a daughter who is just coming out of university in Dundee as an interior designer. They wanted to give that girl a few hundred pounds to set her up in her own little business. They cried to me, "What are we going to do? We have got rid of our savings." I said, "I wish that I could tell you." There is no future for that girl either, unless and until this is solved.

The Government have a hell of a responsibility. They should use some imagination and magnanimity to bring this foul and, I believe, unnecessary strike to an end as quickly as possible.

11.22 pm
Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) has done the House a service by introducing, albeit at this late hour, this important subject. I also hope that I am not ruining his future political career by saying that I found many of his arguments convincing and courageously put.

Those of us on this side of the House who represent mining constituencies are aware of the truth that he spoke when he said that many of the miners are patriotic and honourable men. I do not believe that those epithets can be so fairly applied to some of the leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers at present, but that is a point on which we differ.

I agree with hon. Gentleman when he says that the strike has gone on for far too long. Efforts must be made to solve it. Let us in this debate try to examine one or two of the points that the hon. Gentleman put forward. I believe that he opened by attacking two wrong targets I believe that his attack on my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was unjustified. For a start, I heard the Prime Minister's speech to the 1922 Committee which the hon. Gentleman described as a "hymn of hate". Those of us who had the opportunity of listening to that speech know that that is a completely unfair and inaccurate description.

Let there be no doubt in the House or the country that every Conservative Member supports wholeheartedly the stand that the Prime Minister is taking, because there can be no other, faced with a challenge from a union leader who says that the strike is not about pay or jobs but is about his political wish to bring down the elected Government.

Opposition Members should be equally opposed to a union leader whose aim and ambitions are revolutionary and extra-parliamentary and not in the best interests of union members.

The criticisms which the hon. Gentleman made of Mr. Scargill were restrained, but correct. It is a disgrace to the NUM that this massive strike, this massive injury to our nation, should have been launched on the undemocratic basis of no ballot. In insisting on a strike without a ballot, Mr. Scargill sowed the real seeds of hate and destruction in our society. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for spelling out his criticisms so clearly.

The second wrong target which the hon. Member for Fife, Central attacked was Mr. Ian MacGregor, whom he accused of having made an open declaration of war on the NUM. That is not true. It is the same Mr. MacGregor who proposed a pay increase of 5.2 per cent. for the NUM, a pay increase which the right hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) said was not in dispute, and which keeps the pay of the miners at the highest level for industrialised workers. It is Mr. MacGregor who proposed to the Government—a proposal which was accepted—to go on investing £2 million a day of the taxpayers' money in the coal industry. It was Mr. MacGregor who persuaded the Government to support the new £450 million pit at Ashfordby. It was he who introduced the extremely generous redundancy terms which make the redundancy terms offered by the former Secretary of State for Energy, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) look mean. Above all, it is Mr. MacGregor who is trying to introduce into the debate the economics of the real world outside the introspective arguments of the NUM.

There is a price for coal in the world. Mr. Scargill keeps on telling everyone, in another of his misrepresentations, that Britain produces the cheapest deep-mined coal in the world. This is not so. The average pithead price for deep-mined coal in the United Kingdom is £46 a tonne. The equivalent figure in the United States, a high wage country, is £23 a tonne. In Australia it is £16 a tonne. Some 52 per cent. of the coal that is mined in this country is produced at above the average world prices. We are producing far too much coal which cannot be sold at competitive prices.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

The hon. Gentleman is comparing the cost of coal production in this country with the cost in other countries. Does he not realise that the vast majority of coal in America and Australia is taken from the surface and not deep mined? We are talking about deep-mined coal, and it is misleading the House to use those figures as they are an unfair comparison, and the hon. Gentleman should be fair.

Mr. Aitken

I am sorry to contradict the hon. Gentleman, but it is his facts that are wrong. I have here a release from the Department of Energy, which gives the precise figures. They show that the pithead price for deep-mined coal in the United States is £23 a tonne, in Australia £16 a tonne, and in the United Kingdom £46 a tonne. There is no avoiding the fact that the United Kingdom industry is uncompetitive for much of its production. This is the nettle which sooner or later has to be realistically grasped in the key negotiations on the future of the coal mining industry.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the hon. Gentleman admit that there are many industries which are uneconomic from time to time, but then after a while become economic? Does he appreciate that in the coal mining industry pits can be uneconomic for one, two or three years and then suddenly run into a good seam and become extremely economic? As he knows all about running an uneconomic industry—TV-am—would not his argument apply down the line to it? It was losing money heavily and was not able to compete with the BBC, and that resulted in the biggest industrial relations fiasco that we have known on television. Would not that station have been closed if MacGregor had been anywhere near it?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. I remind the House that the debate finishes at 12.26, and I wish to call as many as possible of the hon. Members who are anxious to speak. Interventions make speeches longer.

Mr. Aitken

I shall resist the temptation to debate TV-am, except to say that if the management of the coal industry were able to cut its costs as fast and efficiently as TV-am has done, the coal industry might stand as sound a chance of survival as TV-am has done and will do.

The challenge for the future of the coal industry is to shift more of its coal production into low-cost production. A greater percentage of our coal production could be competitive and low-cost, if only certain reforms were introduced, which is what Mr. MacGregor has been trying to do.

I represent about a quarter of the 2,400 Kent miners. When I spoke last in the House on this subject, on 19 May, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) loudly predicted that the country's coal stocks would run out in eight weeks, so backing up Mr. Scargill's figures.

Mr. Skinner

I said nothing of the sort.

Mr. Aitken

The record speaks for itself.

Mr. Skinner

The hon. Gentleman can read in Hansard what I said.

Mr. Aitken

I have the relevant copy of the Official Report with me and I read it before coming into the debate. The hon. Gentleman roundly supported Mr. Scargill's claim that coal stocks would run out in eight weeks. They have not run out.

I said at that time that in Kent, as everywhere, the strike was unfolding with the impending doom of a Greek tragedy. In Kent, due to the unthinking intransigence of the miners' leaders there, who are to the left of Arthur Scargill— indeed, they are probably to the left of the man in the moon—are building a funeral pyre on which they, by their stupidity, may sacrifice virtually all the jobs of their members.

The Kent pits are something of a peninsula in the mining industry. They are losing £22 million a year, with totally uneconomic production. Coal in Kent is produced at about four times the cost of Australian deep-mined coal and two and a half time the cost of American deep-mined coal. Two of the pits in Kent are geologically and economically very doubtful. One face has recently been lost for ever at Tilmanstone, there are growing doubts about Snowdown, and it is doubtful whether Betteshanger could survive on its own.

My message to the Kent miners is that every day the strike goes on it becomes more and more possible that the entire Kent coalfield will never reopen. I appeal to them to get democracy back into their union and to try to have a ballot. I believe that the majority of Kent miners are going along with the strike in sullen acquiescence, not liking one bit the way in which their Left-wing leaders are dealing with matters.

In the country as a whole, 60,000 miners, one third of the work force, are now back at work. That figure is probably artificially low because this is the holiday season. When that is over, even more will be at work. I believe that we shall see in this strike what happened in 1926, that gradually more and more men will return to work and that, in the course of doing so, a great deal of bitterness will be created.

It is to be hoped that realism in relation to the economic facts will soon dawn and that intimidation will end. Silver Birch, whoever he is, is achieving great support, along with support from the wives. The sooner the voice of sanity—such as we heard tonight from the hon. Member for Fife, Central—is heard loud and clear, the sooner the men will return to work without bitterness.

11.34 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

We should, at the outset, identify the reason for the strike. It will be agreed that the position is deadlocked and that nobody seems to have an answer which will avoid somebody losing face, and it is natural and human that nobody wants to lose face. This is now a contest between the miners and the Government. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, has always denied that the Government had any involvement in it. But the House and the country know from a Daily Mirror article a few weeks ago that that is untrue. The Prime Minister and other Ministers continued to mislead the House by insisting that they were taking no part in the strike. They said that it was purely a matter for the miners and the National Coal Board.

The Government are now involved in the strike. Whatever the Government may have done, the Prime Minister has never believed in "Plan for Coal". Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), I believe that the Prime Minister did not declare war on the miners last Thursday night; she declared war on them in 1979. We must recollect, after the winter of strife before the 1979 election, the Prime Minister on television and in meetings round the country with her fist in the air saying, "By God, I will take on the trade union movement." She tried to do that, and with some unions she has had some success. But her big goal was the National Union of Mineworkers—the union which gave her the leadership of the Conservative party after the miners' strike of 1974 and put paid to the prime ministerial career of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). She had made up her mind that she would not allow the mining industry to do that to her. She believed that she could reduce the miners' muscle by reducing their numbers.

So keen was the Prime Minister on pit closures that she was almost tempted in 1981 to carry out an exercise similar to this one of 1984. A large pit closure programme was intended at the time. There were denials of the existence of a list, but whether there was a specific list, there was an intention in 1981 to run down the mining industry. But the Prime Minister pulled back from doing that, because she was not ready to take on the mining industry. Stocks were insufficient, police strategy was incomplete. and no one could do the job that MacGregor is now doing. She had to appoint someone to control a major industry for 12 months because the man she wanted for the hatchet job was unavailable.

We all knew from an item in The Observer that the Prime Minister had every intention of appointing the man who had caused all the chaos in the steel industry. She went a long way in the House to duck the question whether she intended to appoint him, but she was warned by me and others before the appointment about what might happen in the mining industry if the appointment were made. As always, she refused to listen to sincere advice. After appointing MacGregor, she stockpiled coal and prepared the police so that MacGregor could go about his work of butchering the mining industry.

Someone must be big enough to move. I do not know whether hon. Members who do not represent mining areas appreciate the conditions in those areas and the poverty that miners are suffering. A few weeks ago, I thought that the miners would not continue their battle. In the early days, I thought that the strike would not last long. But the miners in my area are now more determined to stick this out than they have been over the past 20 weeks.

I believe — as do our hard-working, responsible miners—that the Prime Minister has created the present situation in an attempt to cut the miners down to size. She has an obligation to intervene to bring about an honourable, reasonable and sensible settlement.


Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

The House has witnessed a remarkable event in the speech of the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) and it is with a little humility that I seek to comment on it. However, the hon. Member was unwise to comment on the Prime Minister's speech to the Conservative Back Benchers on Thursday, because, like myself, he did not hear it; he was not invited and I was unable to be there. Neither of us has seen a text of the speech, because there is not one, and the hon. Gentleman might have done better to omit those comments from his speech.

However, I hope that Labour Members noted the rest of what the hon. Gentleman said. Judging by the sick looks on their faces, I suspect that that they did note it and wish they had the courage to make such a speech. I hope that the speech gets all the notice that it deserves in the national press. The hon. Member has shown by his courage that the honour and decency of many Labour Members are not dead. I honour him for that.

I represent many of the 3,500 miners in the south Derbyshire field. Three of the pits are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) and one is in my constituency, but most of the miners live in my area.

At the beginning of the dispute, those miners decided to take a vote. The 90 per cent. turnout justified the confidence shown yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment in the efficacy of pithead ballots. Everyone who wished to vote was able to do so.

In that ballot, 83.5 per cent. of the miners voted to stay at work, and that is what they have done—despite the picketing and the advice and so-called mandate of the NUM executive in Sheffield, and despite the efforts made to bounce them out of the union of which they are loyal and rule-abiding members.

Not only have the miners stuck to their decision, but the handful who voted to strike have stayed in work. We have only about 20 strikers. The men had to take another decision last week. Many attended a mass meeting on Sunday and they reaffirmed their decision to stay at work and to keep our pits open. I honour them for that. They are not scabs, although that is what they are called by the constituents of one or two Labour Members. I quote in their defence the comments of a former famous trade union leader in The Guardian of 16 April, who wrote: In my lifetime a miners' strike was always solid. Once a vote was taken, the ranks closed, and were dignified with a self-discipline. Comradeship characterised the campaign. It was marvellous to behold. Pickets were not necessary at the pits. They were deployed elsewhere, outside the coalfields, seeking support from others. Today, it's different. Miner is picketing miner. Men are being assailed as scabs when, by no definition of the word, do they qualify. A scab is someone who refuses to accept the majority decision of his workmates for strike action, and continues to work while his mates are on the street. Workers denied the right to vote, or who have participated in a vote when the majority decided not to strike, cannot by going to work be described as scabs. Those are the words of someone with whom I would probably not agree on anything else. They were written by Jimmy Reid, who led the Upper Clyde shipbuilders' work-in in 1971. On that basis we should recognise that the scabs are those who are ignoring the majority decision and failing to go to work with their workmates.

Life under the pickets and the threat of picketing in constituencies like mine is no joke and I would not wish it on anyone. We have heard about miners' wives, and they have been quoted already this evening. We have heard of miners' wives who support their families and husbands. I shall quote briefly from a letter written by a miner's wife in my constituency, who wrote as follows: I never thought that I would feel such a desperate need to defend the NCB. I do have admiration for the police and speak for many wives who are grateful for the protection that they are trying to give our men. Please use your influence to have the actions of the bully boys (most of them under 25 years of age) more accurately reported … Words cannot explain the fear, anger and frustration so many of us feel that the men are being prevented from going to work in peace by louts who are portrayed on television as angels defending jobs and democracy. I have had many letters like that from miners' wives, including some from other constituencies where the wives who wish to see their men return to work feel that their Members are not as sympathetic as I am.

It is worth remembering that many of my constituents, as they go to work and show the courage so to do, are feeling the pinch. They have not had a pay rise since November 1982 and most of them are owed large sums. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that in many instances they are owed £400 or £500. Because of the overtime dispute, and because some of the local pits require continual maintenance throughout weekends, they are also losing bonuses. I suspect that many of them would be better off on the dole. However, they are determined to continue to go to work.

We have had more than this, for we have had violence of the most despicable and miserable kind. We have had attempts to enforce mob rule night after night and day after day at pitheads, steel works and docks throughout the country. I shall read into the record the information given on 4 July by Mr. Anthony Leonard, the assistant chief constable of Derbyshire, who referred only to incidents in Derbyshire during June. He told us: Since the beginning of last month there had been 62 instances of physical intimidation of working miners and their wives and families, 56 reported cases of their homes being attacked and damaged, 95 of damage to cars belonging to working miners, 47 of damage to lorries belonging to the National Coal Board and private hauliers while moving coal, and 33 attacks on NCB property. During the same period there were only 25 arrests. It was his view that that was only the tip of the iceberg. He quoted north Derbyshire NUM leaders and said that they could no longer control their own members. We have come to a pretty pass when that is the case.

I agree with the words of north Staffordshire's coroner, Mr. John Wain, who dealt recently with the inquest on a miner who had been on strike and had then returned to work. He committed suicide while under pressure. Mr. Wain said: Are the scabs not the two cowards who were in that public phone box—the two men who had the job of threatening this woman —that is the wife of the working miner and even then it needed two of them? Maybe certain members of the community would refer to them as 'scum'. The whole of the mining industry must, and I am sure does, dissociate itself from such actions. The two men phoned the man and talked to him and his wife. In one of the phone calls the caller said that he knew where their 12-year-old daughter went to school and what a lovely uniform she had. Then the caller said that by the time they had finished with the daughter she would not have any uniform at all. It is not surprising that a man under such pressure took his own life. Yet, with the sole exception of the hon. Member for Fife, Central, no Opposition Member has yet condemned such activity, which is taking place in the name of the miners and of the NUM and is happening right now in our constituencies.

If, right from the start, the Labour party had taken a stand against violence and intimidation, I do not believe that it would have happened in the way that it has. But —right from the beginning—no attempt whatever was made by those Labour Members whose voices are listened to in mining constituencies—[Interruption.] There are 17,000 Labour voters in my constituency. Had the Labour party stood up as, at last, the hon. Member for Fife, Central has stood up, and said, "We will not condone violence—violence is no part of this dispute", I firmly believe that a great deal of it would not have happened.

Nothing justifies the phone call that that man in Staffordshire received, or the cutting of the brake pipes on the cars of Derbyshire miners, which put their lives at risk. Nothing justifies 50 men picketing the home of a miner who wants to go to work, whatever our politics may be. It is disgraceful that the Labour party has never managed — except on one brief occasion — to condemn such activities.

We are witnessing three things. First, there is a dramatic improvement in police efficiency. That is the result of the many reforms introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, and of the increased expenditure. We must pay tribute to the police and to our colleagues in the Home Office for those successes. Secondly, we are witnessing the bankruptcy of the Labour party—the disappearance of decency from honourable men, not only on the Labour Benches, but all over the country. Thirdly, we are witnessing the courage, determination and common sense of men all over the country—including my constituents—who have voted to go to work and who will go to work, and whom I am honoured to represent.

11.53 pm
Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

I participate in this debate with much sadness, after hearing the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). I am sad because I would have hoped that at this time of crisis within the coal-mining industry, we could have shown a reasonable amount of solidarity on the issues involved. It is important to remember that every speech made by hon. Gentlemen on the Government Benches has applauded everything that my hon. Friend said, with one exception. Conservative Members do not accept my hon. Friend's criticisms of the Prime Minister. That is the thought that my hon. Friend must sleep with tonight.

I have a reasonable pedigree, but I do not intend to tout it around tonight. I represent a mining constituency which had 60 collieries not so long ago. A short while ago it had two collieries. At present there is one, and it is proposed that even that colliery should close.

But mine is not a constituency without miners. As in the 1920s and 1930s, the miners of the Rhondda have had to become gipsies and travel to collieries all over south Wales in order to earn a living. That is what has happened to my community. Those who talk about redundancy payments, and about how generous the State and the industry will be if the jobs are given away, are asking people to give up their jobs and not to work again for the rest of their natural days.

That might be the predisposition of people who have gone to public school and university, but it is not the predisposition of coal miners and others who have worked hard all their lives. They believe that there is some dignity in their work and do not want to spend the next 25 years living on state subsidies and the dole. They are fighting to protect their jobs and jobs for their children in areas where youth unemployment is 80 per cent. and adult unemployment is about 27 per cent.

We should get the record straight on the chronology of the dispute. The strike was not sought by Arthur Scargill or the National Union of Mineworkers. When the miners of south Yorkshire spontaneously came out as a sign of solidarity with their colleagues at Cortonwood, who were to be thrown on to the dole, the NUM told them to take decisions in local areas. [HON. MEMBERS: "Address the Chair."] No. I would rather address the person within——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he should address the Chair at all times.

Mr. Skinner

He does not have to address Tories, so let us drop that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Rogers

I do not think that the rules of the House say that I must look at Conservative Members when I speak. I think it is my prerogative as an hon. Member to look around when I speak.

Although we have heard petty and stupid recriminations tonight, the real issue is about bringing the country and the mining industry back to work. We need a sensible plan, not one that is based on prejudice because someone is trying to recall what happened in 1973–74 or on short-term expediency in view of the present price of coal on the world market.

In 1979, it was predicted that, with depletion of North sea oil reserves and natural gas, we would be severely short of energy by 1990. It was agreed that the coal industry should be developed and that there should be effective control of our indigenous resources. That was sensible. I do not think that any hon. Member could argue against the proper conservation and development of a natural resource. However, in 1979, oil prices were hiked and there was an enormous crisis in the capitalist world. The capitalists who sit on the other side of the House, and others, could not cope with it. With the enormous shortage of demand, they decided to go out on to world market to buy as cheaply as possible. They are guilty of throwing away one of our most valuable natural resources.

The fact that people are involved does not bother the Conservative party. Conservative Members are not worried about people. Although North sea oil and gas is extremely expensive to exploit, they would not suggest that we switch the supply off—but they are happy to close coal mines because mining is a state-owned industry. The private industries in the North sea cannot, they think, be treated like that. We should develop a plan for all our indigenous energy resources.

Previous Governments have closed pits with millions of tonnes of coal in them. Who can plan our energy resources? The Government and the Prime Minister can, but we have a Government and a Prime Minister who are standing away from the battle. They do not want to know about the crisis. If the Government are elected to govern, let them govern and come up with some sensible alternatives to the present situation instead of standing apart from it. The country needs an answer. It needs leadership. The Prime Minister cannot just wash her hands and back away.

I do not think that any miner wants to stay on strike. That is a stupid position to be in. On the other hand, it has been shown in Yorkshire, Wales and every other part of the country—with one awful exception—that the miners are not prepared to be bought off, to spend 20 or 30 years on the dole, and then to have their children prevented from working for their natural lives.

12 midnight

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said that it was important to get the industry back to work. Everyone would heartily endorse that. It is clear that the longer the strike goes on the less likely there is to be victory for anyone, and the more likely is defeat, at some cost to the country, the National Coal Board, the National Union of Mineworkers and the Government.

The difficulty is how to break the deadlock. The hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) said that one of the problems causing the deadlock was that some participants, particularly the leaders of the respective sides, are in danger of losing face. If the two major contenders were to step aside and allow some of their deputies who are used to tough negotiating to get on with it, they could build on some of the consensus which, apparently, has been present at the talks so far.

Another way of breaking the deadlock has been consistently argued for by my hon. Friends and the Labour party. The Secretary of State for Energy should make a more positive contribution to bring the parties together around the table. "Plan for Coal" was a tripartite plan involving the coal board, the unions and the Government. It is odd that up to now the Government seem to have shirked the responsibility of being a party to the talks.

In a dispute where there has been little credit around, credit must be given to the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) who has taken some initiative. But that is an initiative that we on these Benches feel should first and foremost come from the Government.

What could the Government do? The mining industry is afraid because the Government have no clear energy strategy for the next century. If the Government were to come forward with such a strategy, showing clearly the importance of coal in our energy needs, that would go a long way towards taking some of the heat out of the dispute. Many miners which whom I have spoken express great fears about the increasing role that the Government seem to give to nuclear power. Certainly, a decision to cancel the Sizewell project might be another factor which would contribute to taking some of the sting out of the dispute.

We are constantly told by Ministers that the Government have been generous to individuals in the redundancy payments offered. We should like to see the same generosity being offered to the communities. It is clear that many communities in Scotland, south Wales, Kent and the north-east of England would suffer badly from pit closures, even if one takes the extreme argument that pits can be closed only on grounds of the total exhaustion of reserves.

We should like to see measures such as those introduced in the steel industry to promote new industry in such areas. We should like to see some form of enterprise zone or trust which would attract new industries to the areas. It is all very well the Government offering large sums of money to people made redundant, but one constantly finds that money is no substitute for economic activity. Hand in hand with redundancy payments should be a commitment to retrain workers who find themselves redundant.

Those are some initiatives which the Government could take to help break the deadlock. I hope that we shall have a more positive response from the Minister tonight than has been the case up to now.

12.4 am

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

As I, too, wish to be brief and to give the Minister time to reply, perhaps I may take a leaf out of other Members' books and convey to the House the sense and feelings of one who represents one of the most traditional of all mining communities. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) may care to note that I have the second largest majority in the House, so I feel that I can speak on behalf of the communities that I represent.

Despite all the ploys and manoeuvres of the chairman of the NCB and the Government, every attempt to appeal to the membership of the NUM in my area over the heads of its leadership has failed. The members have treated the MacGregor letters with the contempt that they felt that they deserved. The free phone system of ringing in about one's redundancy does not seem to have achieved much either. The tempting offers put out by the media of back pay for going back to work much earlier have also not worked.

All else having failed, in the last week or so there has been the attempt at vilification. It is interesting to note that Conservative Members have not been prepared to defend the Prime Minister's speech. They now suggest that the entire press interpretation was inaccurate and that she never referred to the enemy within and without or drew any analogy between the Argentine invasion of the Falkland islands and the miners' strike. But that is what was reported, so unless the Prime Minister issues a statement that all the press reports were wrong, that is what the people of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney will believe.

As I tried to explain to the Minister on Monday, the reaction to that kind of nonsense is strong and bitter resentment, especially in communities which sent more youngsters than Worcester or Finchley to fight the war in the Falklands for the right of the islanders to remain in their communities, just as we are now fighting to save our own communities in this dispute. Conservative Members should hear what is said about the Prime Minister in the shopping precincts of Merthyr Tydfil. People there regard her as the enemy within, threatening their future and their community. This dispute is not a matter of a few personalities. It reaches deep down into the communities that we represent. Until that strength of feeling is recognised, neither the Government nor the NCB will fully appreciate the arguments.

Mr. Neale

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rowlands

I have always been happy to give way in any debate, but I understand that the Minister wishes to begin his winding-up speech at 12.15, so I have very little time to make these few basic points.

First, if Conservative Members believe that resistance to premature pit closures has been concocted by a handful of revolutionaries, they are hopelessly wrong. It is deeply and determinedly felt in all our communities—in the Garreg valley, in Ogmore, in the Rhondda and in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. There is no need for any gibes from the Conservatives about this. We have been through the same thing under Labour Governments. We know that pits were closed in the past on the basis of wrong assessments of the need for coal and wrong attitudes to the future of the industry. We accept that we made mistakes. That is why we want to ensure that the same mistakes are not made again. We do not want any programme of premature pit closures. Our view is based on historic experience. That is why we feel so strongly about it.

Secondly, everyone talks as though the NUM and the miners have opposed all closures. There were pit closures between 1974 and 1979. What sparked the present strike was the unilateral decision by the NCB to close certain pits without proper procedures and then unilaterally to announce cuts in capacity. I speak for my own communities.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

The hon. Gentleman should speak for his party.

Mr. Rowlands

I speak for my own communities and for my party. The miners will not drift back to work. They will not be cajoled or bribed into going back to work. Despite the highly publicised numbers of people at work, 120,000 are out on strike, and have been out on strike since day one. Every one of my miners has been in that category. The miners will not go back until there is an honourable and fair settlement.

I want to get the message across that there is a grim determination in our communities to hold out. We have organised ourselves. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South talked about miners' wives. Our miners' wives are organising themselves to ensure that we are not driven back to work. We are not willing to surrender to the Government or to the coal board. Any beliefs held by Conservative Members that many of our communities will drift back to work are not true. We will not go back to work. I want to tell Conservative Members the nature and character of my communities and their attitudes.

What is needed now, as many of my hon. Friends have said, is for patient people to get to work. Let us have a moratorium on the vilification and the ploys that have been adopted by the coal board and by the Government. Let the Government examine their own role in this whole process. Let the Government start to try to do something. As my hon. Friends have said, the shadow Secretary of State for Energy has done more to try to bring the parties together than the Secretary of State for Energy or any Government Minister.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Is the Labour party against a ballot?

Mr. Rowlands

The Labour party is in favour of an honourable settlement negotiated between the National Union of Mineworkers and the NCB, with the support of the Government. It is for that that we should now be working. An honourable settlement is essential. The hour for argument is past. What we now need is an honourable settlement derived from the negotiations that we have been trying to get going, but to which the Government and the Secretary of State for Energy have steadfastly refused to make a contribution.

I hope that when the Minister replies he will tell us that what the Government now plan to do is to assist the achievement of an honourable settlement, so that we can all go back to work. All our communities want to go back to work, but they will not go back to work on any surrender terms. They will go back only on the basis of an honourable settlement. It is on that basis that we ask the Government to assist positively.

12. 11 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Giles Shaw)

The House will rightly give credit, I think, to the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) for introducing the debate in the manner in which he did and for the courageous and clear way in which he laid out at least his conspicuous beliefs. However, one or two aspects which have clearly gone wrong in the dispute should be put right, such as his conviction that a national ballot is essential, his conviction that no man has the right to threaten another man's job the better to protect his own and his conviction that closures are inevitable in this extractive industry. How right he was.

If the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) wishes to have a moratorium, perhaps we might have a moratorium on intimidation and on massive picketing, and perhaps we might have some comment on the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) of the miner who was led to commit suicide by the activities of certain gentlemen in the NUM.

There is no question but that in this dispute— and here I agree with the hon. Gentleman—the point has been reached where we can no longer accept the rule of the mob or the bully, and can accept only the rule of national negotiation. We are challenged to make a rational contribution to rational negotiation. I accept the challenge. For some time the Government have provided the National Coal Board with the means to continue to operate as a viable industry, despite horrendous losses. The NCB's results for 1983–84 will be published tomorrow. No one should have the effrontery to suggest that the Government have not supported the industry with every pound available.

Opposition Members must ask whether it is rational to offer a guarantee that every miner who wishes to remain in the industry has the right to do so. Is that a right which hon. Members would take away? Would hon. Members reduce by negotiation the £2 million a day put into the industry? For 35 hours and more the NCB and the NUM negotiated. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney for saying that a solution could be found through negotiation between those bodies, because they must negotiate the settlement of the dispute. The Government have allowed the NCB to make offers of no compulsory redundancies, voluntary redundancy terms which are better than in any other British industry and a guaranteed investment programme of another £3 billion over four years, which is greater than the investment in any other coal industry in western Europe.

What the Opposition are saying is that somebody has to give in. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney and his hon. and Loquacious Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said that some face had to be saved. They would not dispute that there is a steady deterioration in the industry's capacity to survive. For geological reasons alone we are losing a number of coal faces and job opportunities.

The NCB has made a series of offers to the NUM. It has offered to re-examine the board's proposals of 6 March to remove 4 million tonnes of capacity and to revise the objectives for individual areas. That is possible because at this late stage in the year, with the output losses and the dispute, there should be changes. The NCB has also offered to continue operating the five collieries —including Cortonwood about which the dispute originated —provided that there is agreement by the NUM on the guidelines for future decisions on colliery closures. It has offered to establish guidelines more clearly.

The NCB has also offered the guarantee that men who wish to stay with the industry will be offered other jobs. It offered a scheme with no compulsory redundancies and generous voluntary redundancy terms.

Frankly, there can be no doubt about the generous nature of the NCB's offers. There can be no doubt about the board's genuine attempt to negotiate. Why were the offers not acceptable to the NUM? The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) asked about setting up an enterprise company to provide jobs in mining communities. I accept that in Scotland, Wales and areas where mining communities are separate efforts should be made to provide investment, training and job opportunities. The NCB has agreed to do that. Will the Liberal spokesman take note of that?

The NCB has complied with every requirement demanded in tonight's debate by Opposition Members. However, the NUM fails to understand that its total membership is not on strike, but is just as committed to the union's future as any individual member of the union, whether or not he is on strike. It is wrong for people to suggest that union members in Nottinghamshire who happen to be at work, having taken a ballot, are in some way second-rate members of the NUM. They have taken their loyalty from the union movement and from the fine tradition of a union which was the first, as the hon. Member for Rhondda would recognise if he cared to listen, to establish in its rule book that a ballot should be taken before strike action. Of course, the members of the NUM in Nottinghamshire are not alone. They have colleagues in Derbyshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire, Lancashire, north Wales and Cumbria. They represent a strong, loyal part of the NUM.

As my hon. Friends will recognise, the big difference in this dispute is not the fact that it has lasted 20 weeks or the fact that, despite the jibes of the Opposition, for some reason the Government have not intervened — my goodness me, the Government have intervened. The difference arises because the union is substantially and significantly divided, because the NUM is the only one of the main unions in the coal industry on strike—the other two are not on strike—and because the NUM has been led in a way which means that it receives no significant support outside the industry. Twenty weeks on, not a single battle has been won by Mr. Scargill —not the battles for Ravenscraig, Orgreave, Llanwern or Scunthorpe. Not a single colliery which was brought in to work at the beginning of the stoppage has stopped producing coal. Not a single colliery which has elected to vote has been picketed out of existence.

Despite intimidation, threats, pressures and vilification —not from the Government or the National Coal Board, but from other members of the NUM — more than 60,000 people have persisted in working in that industry. That is eloquent testimony of the real feelings in this dispute. I accept that there must be a rational, negotiated solution and that that solution must be acceptable to the National Coal Board and the NUM. I accept also, however, that rational solutions must, in the end, prevail over the rule of the mob, intimidation, violent picketing and vilification so that the industry once again shows, by producing coal at an economic price, that it can be the backbone of this nation's energy needs.

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