§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State For Energy (Mr. David Hunt)
I beg to move,That the draft Coal Industry (Limit on Deficit Grants) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 12th November, be approved.Following the decision of the House on Friday to allow three hours to debate this order and the draft Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1984, it might be helpful if at this stage I briefly describe the effect of both.
The purpose of the draft Coal Industry (Limit on Deficit Grants) Order is to increase the maximum amount of deficit grant which the Government may pay to the National Coal Board. The Coal Industry Act 1983, which was considered by the House last year, provided in section 2 that the aggregate of deficit grant paid in the finacial years 1983–4, 1984–5 and 1985–6 should not exceed £1,200 million. Provision was made, however, for this limit to be raised in one or more stages to £2,000 million by order, subject to affirmative resolution of the House. The order before the House in draft would increase the limit to £2,000 million, the maximum amount permitted under the 1983 Act.
It is important that I should explain why, less than a year after the 1983 Act became law, and only half way through the period which the Act was intended to cover, the Government are seeking the agreement of the House to this extension of the power to pay deficit grant.
As the House will be aware, the NCB made a very much larger loss in 1983–4—a loss of £875 million, in fact—than had originally been anticipated.
The circumstances in which this loss arose were investigated by the Energy Select Committee of the House in February this year, and were explained in the answer which my right hon. Friend gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) on 4 June.
The strike and overtime ban in the industry increased the NCB's loss by £197 million. A further £143 million resulted from additional provisions which the the board was obliged to make to cover the costs of putting right subsidence damage, following the emergence during the year of a serious under-provision in the north Notts area of the board. The remaining £535 million of the board's loss in 1983–4 reflected underlying imbalance in its trading position—the twin problems of overproduction in relation to market demand and of the tail of high cost pits whose operating losses represent a heavy burden on the industry as a whole.
The Government concluded that, because the reserves on the board's balance sheet were already negative at the start of the 1983–4 financial year, there was no alternative but to meet the board's deficit in full. If the Government had not done this, the extent of the board's insolvency would have increased, which might in turn have cast doubts on the propriety of continued lending to the board from the national loans fund.
The Government have also sought provision, in the main Estimates for this year, for £526 million to cover the board's loss in 1984–5. The projection of the board's loss for this year was made in March. It took no account of the 718 strike, which at that time had only just begun, or of the immense damage which we now know it has done to the NCB's finances and prospects.
Payments of deficit grant are made monthly by my Department to the National Coal Board. The total payment of deficit grant made since the beginning of 1983–84 is £1,077 million. Therefore, there is little room within the ceiling of £1,200 million under the 1983 Act for payments to continue. That is why the Government are seeking the agreement of the House to an increase in the ceiling. A note to the summer Supplementary Estimate drew the attention of the House to the fact that an order would be made to increase the ceiling on the amount of deficit grant which could be paid to the board.
Although the order is not a direct consequence of the strike and was foreshadowed by the Government some months ago, it will at the same time make it possible for the Government to meet part of the additional losses which the NCB will incur, and has incurred, in 1984–85 because of the strike. As hon. Members may be aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State informed the House on 12 November, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), that it was the Government's intention to present a winter Supplementary Estimate for an additional £607 million in deficit grant to the NCB for consideration by the House. The House will have a later opportunity to consider that Supplementary Estimate. I would wish only to draw the attention of the House to the fact that this Supplementary Estimate would take the aggregate amount of deficit grant payable to the board since the beginning of 1983–84 to the full amount of £2,000 million permitted by the order that we are considering today.
I cannot at present estimate with any precision how large the NCB's loss for this year will be. It depends upon factors such as when the strike will end and how quickly production can be restored, but present signs are that the whole of the £607 million, which the Government have said that they will seek in a winter Supplementary Estimate, will be needed. During the two years 1983–84 and 1984–85, the NCB is likely to require at least £2 billion simply to meet its losses on revenue account. That is the extent of the seriousness of the position of the coal industry today.
§ Mr. Ralph Howell (Norfolk, North)
Why are the Government rewarding the appalling irresponsibility of the National Union of Mineworkers during the past nine months by suggesting that we pay this money?
§ Mr. Hunt
The order underlines once again, as we have always sought to underline, how desperately serious the position is. It must be unprecedented for an industrial concern in Britain to lose £2 billion in two years. If the National Coal Board were a private sector company, such losses would have forced it out of business years ago.
The underlying reasons for the industry's plight have been plain for many years and were examined by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission 1983. The facts are, as no doubt my hon. Friends will point out during the debate, that the industry is producing far more coal than it can sell profitably. It is producing coal from a tail of high-cost capacity whose losses are a heavy burden to the rest of the industry, and that is a major factor in the present dispute.
§ Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
Does my hon. Friend understand that some of us have a great sense of frustration at the fact that we are now cutting £39 million from student grants, and that we have cut £350 million from necessary housing improvements—many sacrifices are being made by people who have no right to expect to make those sacrifices—to keep a strike going and, as my hon. Friend says, to keep going an industry which is over-producing, over-priced and over-manned? How do we explain that to our constituents?
§ Mr. Hunt
I acknowledge that this order will enable the industry to keep going. However, it will not enable the strike to keep going. The Government must support the working miners and seek to point out to the country that we cannot possibly carry on with the level of losses which the Coal Board is suffering. Fundamental to this strike, and to the reason for its perpetuation, is the insistence of the president of the NUM on an unprecedented demand which no president of the NUM has made before, which no NCB has ever conceded and which no Government could possibly concede. It is that uneconomic pits, no matter how uneconomic, should be allowed to carry on and to extract coal until the last ounce has been taken out of the pit. I hope that tonight the cry from my hon. Friends the Members for Norfolk, North (Mr. Howell) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) that enough is enough will be heard by striking members of the NUM so that they speedily join the 35 per cent. of the NUM who are at present working because they believe in the future of the industry.
§ Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)
What is the total outstanding debt of the Coal Board? So far, the Minister has mentioned only the debt outstanding for the past two years.
§ Mr. Jack Dormand (Easington)
The hon. Gentleman appears to be leaving the figures. Do they include the £5 million that is being set aside for the enterprise company in the coalfields? Labour Members place great emphasis on that, because in coalfields we want alternative employment, which we do not have. That is the basis of our argument. The hon. Gentleman is making great play, as are his hon. Friends, of the spending of vast amounts of money. Is not £5 million for such a purpose absolute peanuts? Should not that figure be greatly increased, and should it not be done tonight?
§ Mr. Hunt
The figures include the £5 million that has been set aside. That is a proper range of expenditure, and I should like to see the resources of the NCB enterprise company increased. I hope that the 150 inquiries that have been made so far by various people seeking to gain the support of the enterprise company will be responded to speedily and that we shall be able to see the company working to restore job opportunities to those communities. Lack of job prospects lies at the heart of some of the problems of the industry.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
Why did the NCB go in for this strike four or five months before setting the company up? The company had its first meeting only on 30 October. Is this not like closing the stable door once the horse has bolted?
§ Mr. Hunt
This action has responded to the concerns expressed by communities faced with the problems of closure. Rather than decry the notion, I should like hon. Members on both sides of the House to respond to the setting up of the new company. These things take time and must be done carefully. The chief executive must command the respect not only of hon. Members but of those involved in the industry.
By some curious coincidence, I now have the figures at my finger tips. The limit on National Coal Board borrowing at present, established by the Coal Industry Act 1983, is £5,500 million. Borrowing at present amounts to a total of £4,600 million.
§ Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)
Will the Minister confirm that some £450 million of what he describes as the "losses" of the National Coal Board represent interest payments on the loans to which he has just referred and therefore are not attributable to the miners in pits which perhaps are difficult geologically or perhaps have been starved of investment? The hon. Gentleman's political master, the Secretary of State for Energy, has tried to explain that each of the miners in what he calls uneconomic pits is costing £130 a week to the Coal Board, but does that not include those interest payments? The hon. Gentleman also gave a figure for subsidence in such areas as Nottingham. Does that include pits which have closed down in the past? Is not his figure for uneconomic pits made up of factors over which miners have no control?
§ Mr. Hunt
It is very difficult to bridge the commonsense gap between the majority of right hon. and hon. Members and the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist). Every business which functions efficiently borrows to invest in new machinery and new possibilities and has to pay interest on that debt. Of course it forms part of the figures. It may be an indication of why it is so difficult to overcome the distortions of the president of the NUM when he constantly reiterates the absurdity that we have the cheapest deep-mined coal in the world. We may have the best deep-mined coal, but we do not have the cheapest. The calculation that is done by the NUM president is very similar to the one that the hon. Gentleman has just made. It is to leave out depreciation, to leave out subsidence, to leave out interest charges, to exclude a range of normal businesslike charges and to reach a figure which purports to be the cheapest deep-mined coal in the world. But he leaves included in the Australian and American figures depreciation, interest charges and subsidence. Faced with that sort of logic, it is small wonder that we cannot bridge the gap between us. I hope that the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East will be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to try to explain the nonsense that he has just uttered.
The second order under consideration is the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1984. The reason for its introduction has been highlighted by the strike which is inflicting so much damage both on the industry and on striking miners themselves.
721 One effect has been to cause men who agreed to take redundancy, in many cases before the dispute began, but who failed for whatever reason to work normally through to their redundancy date, to lose out on redundancy benefits under the redundant mineworkers payments scheme. This has come about because of the link, which has existed since the scheme's introduction, between entitlement to RMPS weekly benefits and eligibility for unemployment benefit. Men who found themselves disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit for the duration of the dispute by virtue of section 19(1) of the Social Security Act 1975 also found themselves, as a result of the linkage, ineligible for RMPS weekly benefits.
My Department is aware of about 400 men who have lost entitlement to RMPS through having been disqualified or suspended from receiving unemployment benefit. Many of these unemployment benefit cases are subject to appeal, and obviously therefore I cannot tell how many men will ultimately be affected.
The rules governing unemployment benefit, as interpreted by the independent social security commissioners, apply to everyone, and the miners can be no exception. However, the Government have no desire to see miners who take redundancy penalised as a result of the strike. My right hon. Friend therefore announced on 25 May 1984 that amendments would be introduced into the redundant mineworkers payment scheme to enable men whose scheme benefits are affected during the period of the dispute to receive additional payments designed to compensate for RMPS basic benefit or pension supplement which, at the moment, they have lost. That is the main purpose of the modest amendment order.
The addition of a new subparagraph (g) to article 10 in the existing order will sever the link with section 19(1) of the Social Security Act 1975 for the future, and the new paragraph 10(6) will enable an additional lump sum to be paid to men who lost basic benefit or pension supplement before the coming into operation of this order. If the House approves the draft order, those sums will be paid as soon as possible after the new order comes into effect on 7 December. Consequential changes are made in article 5(2) of the existing scheme to ensure that the uprating of benefits for inflation is unaffected.
Finally, the meaning of "coking plant operator" in the 1984 scheme is clarified. Some hon. Members may recall that when the scheme was extended in 1980 to cover certain employees made redundant in the coke industry, the background was the desire to rectify the anomalous position whereby men made redundant at coking plants within the steel industry were included in that industry's redundancy scheme, while those employed at similar plants operated by the NCB were not covered by the RMPS. The purpose of the present clarification, in line with that original intention, is to eliminate any residual uncertainty regarding the meaning of "coking plant operator" and hence where exactly the limits on eligibility for the scheme fall.
I hope that the House will agree that the amendments which the draft order seeks to introduce are sensible in themselves and further evidence of the Government's continuing support for the coal industry. They are modest amendments affecting a relatively small number of people 722 at a relatively small cost, but they should remove what I know to be a considerable source of grievance among those affected.
I hope that by explaining the two orders briefly I have now given the House an opportunity to participate in the debate. I hope that I shall be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, at its conclusion.
§ Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)
Again, it falls to me to welcome another Under-Secretary of State to the Front Bench. I had the pleasure during the previous Parliament of welcoming the hon. Gentlemen's two predecessors. We did not always agree, but we respected the courtesy that they always showed and their readiness to consider the problems and anomalies that arose from orders dealing with the coal industry. It is my wish and I am sure it is the wish of my hon. Friends in welcoming the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench, that he will see fit to endorse the approach which I have tried to outline in my introduction.
I think, Mr. Walker—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. The hon. Gentleman should address me as Mr. Deputy Speaker.
§ Mr. Eadie
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
If the House appproves the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order, it will come into operation on 7 December, and the Under-Secretary claims that the amendments will make it easier for miners to qualify for benefits under the redundancy scheme.
I can confirm the Under-Secretary's explanation, because my understanding of the issue is the same as his. Indeed, we raised the matter in the previous coal order debate in the Chamber. History has prompted the order, because, before the commencement of the mining dispute, about 500 men had been given notice of redundancy. That figure is agreed by the Under-Secretary and by the union. However, because the period of notice given to those men extended into the strike, they were disqualified from receiving state unemployment benefit and denied weekly make-up benefit under the redundant mineworkers scheme. In some cases, the men were paid lump sum benefits on reaching their termination dates.
I wish to put on record a timely example of the difficulties that have been caused. Last weekend, I saw at my surgery a constituent who is a former employee of the NCB and was made redundant before the dispute commenced. As his notice ran into the strike and because he was a skilled worker, he was called to do safety work during the dispute, with, I understand, the agreement of the union.
My constituent's notice has now expired and he finds that he cannot get unemployment benefit and has problems getting other money that he believes is due to him. That is a little different from what the Under-Secretary told us. Perhaps it is an anomalous case, but can the Under-Secretary tell me the implications of the order for my constituent? I do not expect the hon. Gentleman to give an off-the-cuff answer, but perhaps he will do me the courtesy of writing to me.
723 The NUM initially tried to resolve the problems facing the 500 or so men to whom I referred earlier by making appeals to local tribunals against those men being refused unemployment benefit, but the appeals were unsuccessful.
I want the House to note that appproaches were made to the Government by, among others, some members of the miners' parliamentary group. Those approaches resulted in a written answer from the Secretary of State for Energy:The Government have no desire to see miners who take redundancy penalised as a result of the strike. They therefore intend to introduce amendments to the redundant mineworkers' payments scheme to enable men whose scheme benefits are affected during the the period of the dispute to receive additional payments designed broadly to compensate for RMPS basic benefit and pension supplement lost. Such amendments are necessary because under the existing order entitlement to weekly RMPS benefit is linked to eligibility for unemployment benefit so that a man who is ineligible for the latter also generally loses entitlement to the former. A man's entitlement to lump sum benefit is not affected."—[Official Report, 25 May 1984; Vol. 60, c. 580.]I do not want to sound ungrateful, niggardly or even petty, but it is a long time since 25 May. We welcomed that approach.
The order makes provision for those NUM members who have been denied basic scheme benefit. They will be compensated by the payment of a lump sum.
I hope that I shall receive a favourable response from the Minister to my questions which seek clarification. The Minister was vague about when the compensation will be paid. When will the payments be made? People are due moneys. Under the terms of the order, the compensation does not appear to cover loss of unemployment benefit. In his reply of 25 May the Secretary of State considered that to be an anomaly which he wanted to put right. We think that the order should be extended to cover the unemployment aspect.
Another way to deal with the problem would be in unemployment benefit regulations, which could remove the exclusion for persons serving notice of termination prior to the commencement of an industrial dispute. My request is reasonable. The Government have already conceded that the estimated 500 men are the subject of an anomaly. In justice and equity our proposition is reasonable. These men should not suffer the loss of unemployment benefit as a consequence of an industrial dispute. We are talking of men who have served the industry for 30 or 40 years. In another place a former Prime Minister, the Earl of Stockton, said—I paraphrase—that miners are some of the best people on earth. He observed that the country needed them and that they were responsible for beating the Kaiser in the first world war. In the second world war they played their part.
§ Mr. Eadie
Yes, I accept that. However, I am paraphrasing what the Earl of Stockton said. If the hon. Gentleman wants to challenge the statement, let him challenge his right hon. and noble Friend. It was the Earl of Stockton who passed the compliment. He said that the country needed the miners then and that it would need them again. We are saying that unemployment benefit should be paid to those who are caught up in an industrial dispute.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
There is talk of patriotism, and in another place reference was made to the miners beating the Kaiser. What the Earl of Stockton did not say was that in 1940 some of the miners were engaged in the second world war or in their industry, which was essential.
§ Mr. Skinner
Ian MacGregor, the chairman of the National Coal Board, seemed to miss the boat when it came to the second world war. He did not join the Army or the Air Force and he did not go down the pits. Instead of wrapping himself in the flag, he took a boat to the other side of the world. Some would say that he was dodging the column. He did not beat the Kaiser; nor did he beat Hitler. He looked after number one.
§ Mr. Eadie
Surely the House does not want to get heated on this issue. I was advancing an argument based on justice and equity. I am sure that the House will want to remedy the injustice that we are discussing. The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) suggested that all that the miners did during the second world war was to go on strike. That comment was unworthy of him and he should consider withdrawing it.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) has made it clear that he is not giving way.
§ Mr. Eadie
I move on to the limit on deficit grants order, which will come into operation a week later than the payments schemes order on 14 December. There will be an increase in provision from £1,200 million to £2,000 million, and the House will want to know the Government's plans for the coal industry. The miners' dispute is most costly and damaging. It is probably the most costly and damaging dispute that we have had in our history. The Minister referred to the cost, and that can probably best be illustrated by saying that it will equal about a quarter of the defence budget or about half the education budget. It is a scandal that the chairman of the Coal Board remains in office when at one time he described the dispute as a little local difficulty outside town. The Chancellor made the biggest guff when he talked about it being a worthwhile investment. Some little local difficulty; some worthwhile investment.
The Library figures on investment at 1983–84 prices confirm what I have stated for a long time in the House — that since 1979, during the Conservative 725 Government's term of office, not one new pit has been sunk. In an extractive industry like coal mining, that means inevitable contraction. The National Coal Board has acted on investment. I have cited approximate figures before. About 81 per cent. of investment in the coal industry occurs in the Yorkshire-Midlands Nottinghamshire area. That leaves 19 per cent. to be distributed between south Wales, Kent, parts of Derbyshire, Lancashire, Durham, Northumberland, Scotland and Cumberland, where mining has practically disappeared. Those areas have to fight for 19 per cent. of the investment.
I shall cite the investment figures in 1979–80 prices. Some of my hon. Friends may seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on this matter. Investment in 1979–80 —I must take some responsibility as a former Under-Secretary of State for Energy — was £32 million. In 1983–84 it was £31 million. That means a reduction of £1 million in investment.
§ Mr. Eadie
Is it not? The hon. Gentleman should listen to some more figures. Some of my hon. Friends from the north-east are listening to this. In 1979–80 there was £67 million investment in the north-east. It is now £39 million. There was also a reduction in investment in Nottinghamshire. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) is receiving small thanks for the part that his miners are playing while working, as the hon. Gentleman describes it, during this dispute. In 1979–80 there was £78 million investment in north Nottinghamshire, which has now been reduced to £55 million. In south Nottinghamshire there was £55 million investment, which has been reduced to £27 million. That is the thanks the miners in Nottinghamshire are getting from the Government. There is a policy of less investment. If there is less investment, there will be a contraction of industry.
§ Mr. Nellist
Is my hon. Friend aware of the NCB report covering north and south Nottinghamshire, which states that the introduction of new technology will mean the removal of 44 per cent. of all miners' jobs in those two areas by the end of 1987?
§ Mr. Eadie
We in the trade union movement are always in favour of new technology. My quarrel with the Government is that they have not been sinking new pits to give us the advantage of that new technology. Other jobs, not necessarily associated with the mining industry, arise from that new technology.
§ Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)
With this lack of investment, why is the north Nottinghamshire coalfield the only profitable part of the NCB's coalfields in the whole of the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Eadie
I am not talking rubbish. I am giving the facts, and they are not my facts; they come from the Library.
726 I wish to finish by giving the investment figures for south Wales. In 1979–80 the figure was £52 million. Today, I am sorry to say that the figure is £24 million. That represents a massive contraction of the coal industry.
§ Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)
There are still one or two Labour Members in Nottinghamshire. I should like to say to my hon. Friend that during 1979–80 we were thankful for the amount that he was responsible for investing in north Nottinghamshire because it allowed a number of big schemes to take place. However, I did not get to my feet to say that. I want to kill some of the rumours that come from hon. Members who do not know what the hell is taking place in Nottinghamshire. I wish that sometimes they would keep their mouths shut about what is happening in Nottinghamshire and leave it to those of us who know something about it.
§ Mr. Eadie
When my right hon. Friend speaks about the coal industry, Conservative Members should not giggle, because he knows what he is talking about. That is why he understood the point that I was making. If there is less investment in Nottinghamshire, or elsewhere, the coal industry will inevitably contract. That is why my right hon. Friend got to his feet. He more or less underlined the point that I was trying to make. [Interruption.] We shall not be sidetracked by the guffaws of Conservative Members.
During Energy Question Time today the Secretary of State talked about a ballot. I know the subject will be discussed during the debate. Those hon. Gentleman who managed to attend Question Time today will recall what the Secretary of State said. He claimed that the national executive of the NUM could order a ballot any time that it wanted. I want to put the record right. That is not true. The only body that can decide on a ballot is the NUM annual conference. It has decided at three separate conferences that it will not have a ballot. That is so, whether the hon. Gentlemen agree or disagree. It is not in the gift of the national executive of the NUM or of Mr. Arthur Scargill to decide on a ballot. The annual conference, or a special conference of the NUM, will decide that.
The Secretary of State has made some blunders during the dispute. I have a great respect for the Secretary of State, but he has been making statements that were unworthy of him. When we were talking about whether pits should be closed he said that the NUM wanted to keep pits open even if it meant mining mud. That statement was unworthy of him.
The Secretary of State must be aware, because it is on record, that in the negotiations that took place between the NCB and the NUM three areas of closure were agreed to. The first was geological; the second was safety; and the third was that, where a pit had limited reserves and it was expedient to close it, if it could be done by means of transfer to an adjacent pit, that would be done.
How can anyone talk about the mining of mud when already in the negotiations three reasons for pit closures have been agreed? To say that the NUM has not moved in the negotiations is a travesty of the facts. The NUM has moved, and it is a matter of public record. [Interruption.] If Conservative Members are so keen and enthusiastic about the details, they can find all the references in the Library of the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Beaumont-Dark
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not a custom of the House that the Minister and the Opposition Front Bench spokesman speak for the same length of time? The Minister spoke for 22 minutes in putting forward a very complicated case. We have heard 28 minutes of waffle so far from the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) and not one minute of case.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I have no power to impose a time limit in a debate such as this.
§ Mr. Eadie
It is clear that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) does not like what I have been saying.
I think that the Minister, at Question Time today, was guilty of trying to massage the facts in regard to strikers and non-strikers. To some extent he may regret having done so, because there are great areas of doubt about the figures that he mentioned.
The Government's policy of starvation and the NCB's policy of bribery are doomed to failure. There should be a clarion call from all parts of the House to the Government and the NCB. We know that there will be no mass return of men to work, so we should call for an end to this costly and damaging industrial dispute. We should call for it to be ended in the only way that it will end—round the negotiating table—and the sooner the better. We should urge the parties to get back to the negotiating table before Christmas, in the interests not only of the deprived miners and their wives and families but of the British nation.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)
I am tempted to follow the last remarks of the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) by saying that, if one person would cross the Urals and the other would cross the Atlantic, perhaps the dispute would soon be ended.
I shall confine my remarks to the second of the two orders that the Minister introduced. Very real hardship is being done to a small but important group of people who have for many decades been the backbone of the mining industry. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the order before the House, because it is a real but belated recognition of a genuine problem. But I hope that he will agree that it does not solve the problem.
Many Conservative Members have the privilege of representing mining constituencies. Quite a lot of Conservative Members perhaps do not fully understand that a striking miner is not necessarily a violent miner. It is equally true that there is not sufficient understanding of the very real hardship that I wish to talk about.
A constituent came to me about 10 days ago in real distress. He is typical of several constituents of mine and of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth). Littleton colliery is in my constituency, but the workers come almost equally from his and my constituencies. The south Staffordshire coalfield voted 73 per cent. against a strike. However, for the first three weeks of the strike, however much the mineworkers wanted to get into Littleton colliery and Lea Hall, they could not do so. There were scenes of almost indescribable violence and nastiness on the picket lines. Miners on those picket lines—not, I hasten to add, from Staffordshire—were filling polythene bags with urine 728 and throwing them at the police. There were many similar incidents that were utterly distasteful and nauseating, some very violent.
The police urged miners not to attempt to go into the collieries. In fact, during those first three or four weeks, about 12 people managed to get through the gates. However, as soon as the NCB was able to organise an adequate programme of bussing, a flood back to work—it was no drift back—occurred. Within a matter of weeks, the vast majority of miners were back, and now between 80 per cent. and 85 per cent. of those employed at those two collieries are working.
Many miners are nearing the end of their working lives, and of them a considerable number accepted voluntary redundancy. This problem is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and several other colleagues who represent mining constituencies. Those men took their voluntary redundancy and believed that they were accepting a package that included a lump sum, an entitlement to the redundant mineworkers concessionary payment scheme and unemployment benefit. It is important for hon. Members in all parts of the House to underline the fact that the lump sum payments that many of those people received were very modest. Indeed, one of my constituents had a sum of much less than £2,000.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that not only did those miners believe that they had a certain entitlement but that when they were interviewed by a representative of the NCB and persuaded to take the redundancy terms, they were told categorically the amount of payment that they would receive when they were made redundant?
§ Mr. Cormack
Indeed, they were. They were told in good faith, and they accepted the information in good faith.
However, the fact is, as the hon. Gentleman knows as well as me, that my constituents and others, although they received the lump sum, have not received any other money since. That is an anomaly which the second of the two orders introduced by my hon. Friend the Minister goes some way to redress—but only some way. He cannot this evening—we accept this—with a stroke of his pen or by introducing an order from his Department make them entitled to receive unemployment benefit. Therefore, although the constituent to whom I referred and many like him will receive some benefit from the orders, they will not receive enough—and there is very real hardship.
I was approached by one constituent who had had to go to his bank for a loan because he had nothing to live on. I am sure that he will be given a loan, but he will have to pay interest on it. That is a total contradiction of what such men thought they were to get and what they are entitled to have. It flies in the face of logic and natural justice.
I am prepared to accept that the majority of striking miners, although I believe them to be wrong, are perfectly honourable and are standing by what they consider to be their principles. But whatever views are taken of striking miners, the men about whom I am talking were not striking miners. As soon as they could get through the colliery gates, they went in. They subsequently accepted their redundancy. They expected to receive a package, but that package has not been delivered.
I do not hold my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State responsible. He has gone some way 729 towards redressing the problem, and hon. Members in all parts of the House should be thankful to him. Nor do I in any sense accuse my hon. Friends at the Department of Employment or the Department of Health and Social Security of bad faith. However, I urge that something be done about the matter. If the rules are being applied correctly, the law in this case is indeed an ass, and it is Parliament's duty to change that law so that these men shall have what they fully believed they were entitled to and what, in justice and equity, they are entitled to.
§ Mr. Beaumont-Dark
I well understand the human side of the case that my hon. Friend is making, but he is putting the case for men who, because they have worked in the mining industry, are suffering because of what is going on in the industry. What about people in other industries, who are losing their jobs and will get no compensation at all? The miners will get their compensation in due course. Why should they not have to wait?
§ Mr. Cormack
Not for the first time, my hon. Friend has got it wrong. He is thoroughly confused. Two wrongs do not make a right. I am glad to see my hon. Friend nodding. These people are the victims of an anomaly. Unless what I urge is done, they will never get the unemployment pay under the current rules.
§ Mr. Allen Mckay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
Let us consider two men who are interviewed and given their notice at the same time. One accepts three months' wages in lieu of notice. He then becomes unemployed and receives unemployment pay and redundancy benefits. The other, if he serves out his notice and that notice terminates during a strike, is not unemployed, even though he was interviewed at exactly the same time. As yet, he does not receive unemployment pay or redundancy payment. He will now receive redundancy payment, but there is still the question of the unemployment pay.
§ Mr. Cormack
Indeed. I am talking about the deficiency that will remain after the order has been passed. There will still be the problem of unemployment pay. The situation is riddled with anomalies. Section 19 of the 1975 Act, to which my hon. Friend referred in his opening remarks, states that unemployment benefit is not payable to those who have been involved in a trade dispute. However, these men have not been involved in a trade dispute. The adjudicating officers will say that they will be beneficiaries in the long term of the results of a trade dispute, but they will not necessarily be beneficiaries, because there is no formal agreement between the NCB and the NUM to backdate any subsequent wage increase to those who have left the industry. However one looks at the problem, the men are in real danger of being thoroughly penalised. I am delighted that my hon. Friend readily understands the anomaly.
I do not believe that there is any disagreement among those who know anything about the mining industry. I am delighted to have the support of my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood, who has more coal mines in his constituency than any other hon. Member, and for Cannock and Burntwood. We have worked together on these matters and have seen the men and those who have been trying to help them. We are anxious to help them and 730 believe that a manifest injustice is being done. I have today written to several of my colleagues in the Cabinet and to the Prime Minister about this matter. I intend to carry on pleading the cause until something is done.
The people of whom I am speaking are the backbone of the mining industry. In some cases they have given 40 years' service, many of them underground. They have picked up a derisory sum at the end of that time and are being denied their unemployment benefit. Although their Christmas will be made a little brighter as a result of the proper initiative taken by my hon. Friend tonight, there will still be gloom, real worry and real hardship among people who, by any definition, do not deserve it. I urge my hon. Friend to use his best endeavours. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security here. I urge him also to use his best endeavours to ensure that this great wrong is righted and that justice is done to this deserving section of the mining community.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)
I hope that the Government will listen to the case that the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), has just put. I am sure that the House agrees that he advanced a very persuasive argument. I hope that we get a proper response from the Minister.
I should like to refer to what the Minister said about the enterprise company that is to be established to assist in mining areas. He asked for a friendly response to the Government's measures. He will get a friendly response from us, but the whole thing should be on a much more ambitious scale. It is absurd to talk of £5 million to be spread all over the country. We could use the £5 million in my constituency and still have plenty more to do. The Government must think on an entirely different scale. I say that having had some experience in these matters.
My constituency was much involved with the establishment of British Steel Enterprise Ltd. We strongly favoured it, as it was a means of adding fresh investment and finance to what we could get from other quarters. We wanted to develop it to the maximum. We still want to sustain it, but one of our battles in the past five years has been to keep the very pattern which the Government have adopted and intend to apply to the coal industry. I am sorry to say that we fought a losing battle against the Government and the gentleman who was at that time the head of the British Steel Corporation — his name happened to be Mr. MacGregor. When we went on deputations to Mr. MacGregor or responsible Ministers, we were told that they could not be concerned with such matters, that they were concerned only with producing steel or coal. They were not concerned with what would happen to employment.
I cannot take Mr. MacGregor—or the Government, although they are a bit better than he is—as a name that will establish confidence, because it was Mr. MacGregor who wanted to run down the experiment in the steel industry. If it had not been for our objections he would have succeeded in abolishing it. Even so, what now prevails in the steel industry is a shadow of that which prevailed during the previous Labour Government. We want a full scheme for the coal industry. It should be on a far larger scale that £5 million. It will have to be if it is really to provide jobs in mining communities. The scheme in the steel industry should also be restored, as we are still 731 suffering from its rundown. Under Mr. MacGregor the rundown there was considerable. Instead of a peanut £5 million scheme which is apparently covered by the order, we want a full scale scheme for the coal and steel industries to provide the alternative jobs which will be necessary whatever happens in the coal industry.
The main issue in this debate is the coal dispute, yet apparently the Government will do nothing about it. As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary's speech illustrated, the cost of this dispute has been astronomical, and it has had national and international implications on society. The Government should be bending all their energies, imagination and efforts to trying to reach a sensible solution, yet apparently they are doing nothing of the kind.
As far as I can see, they have now come to the conclusion that nothing can be done at the negotiating table. It was not Arthur Scargill who left the negotiating table and said that he would not return. It was Mr. MacGregor. It certainly was not the mining representatives who broke off the last negotiations.
In my view, the Government have adopted this position at this moment because they believe that that is the way to end the strike. However, in many other debates the Government have come forward with their authoritative, sensitive understanding of the situation in the coal industry and told us that they know best how to deal with it. Each time they have said "Here it will end if only we take these measures", they have been proved wrong. They will be proved wrong again.
Even the combination of measures taken against the NUM — the measures taken on the picket lines, the money and the ministerial statements over the last few weeks that there will be no more negotiations—will not succeed in breaking the will of the NUM. I say that because, like most hon. Members, I judge by what is happening in my own constituency. My constituency has three or four pits, and there the strike is pretty well 100 per cent. solid, as it is in most of Wales.
The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South showed some appreciation of these matters. I urge the Government to think again. Despite what Ministers often reiterate, the strike is not broken because of intimidation. I am all against that, and I do not believe that it should be practised at the homes of miners. I am absolutely opposed to that. But, if the Government believe that the strike is kept going only because of intimidation, they have not attempted to discover the facts.
Such a belief is absolutely false in relation to my constituency. My experience and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) and hon. Members throughout Wales is that when a few weeks ago a huge effort was made to get miners back into the pits, only a few did so. Out of the five miners who went to the main pit in my constituency three weeks ago, two are now on the picket line. They made that decision after they had been approached by striking miners who went to their homes to discuss the matter. They are now supporting the strike.
Those men went back to work chiefly because of the appalling distress which they and their families faced. No one wishes to minimise the great distress being felt. That is why the Archbishop of Cardiff spoke in such terms a few days ago, and what nonsense it is for the Government to try to brush aside those remarks as though they did not count.
732 The strike continues not because of intimidation or threats. There are three reasons why it continues: first, the solidarity of miners and the mining communities. That is the patriotism of the miners. That is what the Earl of Stockton was talking about in the House of Lords the other day. If anyone shows disrespect for that feeling of comradeship, I must tell him that, first, he does not understand this country, secondly, he does not understand the mining communities, and, thirdly, he is not fit to govern in these matters.
The second reason why the strike continues is that the miners believe what they are told by their leaders. They do so partly because their leaders were saying it for many months before the strike, and partly because of what happened at the beginning of the strike. That is what convinced them that what their leaders had been telling them for months past had much more validity than they had previously supposed.
What convinces them further is the Coal Board and the way in which it has been operated, and the utter failure of Mr. MacGregor to conduct his affairs properly. When it results in a man such as Geoffrey Kirk—a man who has served faithfully many bosses in the Coal Board and in the Government, and a man who has given his life, like so many miners, to the industry—finding it impossible to continue to work for the Coal. Board, or when, even worse, the Coal Board manager says that he will not need Mr. Kirk's services any more, what effect does the Minister think that that has? The conduct of the dispute by Mr. MacGregor and those associated with him—I am sorry to say with the backing of the Government—has been an outrage. The Minister probably knows it. At least he was not responsible for appointing him to the job.
During the past few days we have had a direct conflict of testimony between what was said at the Dispatch Box by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Energy about guaranteeing redundancies and what Mr. MacGregor said. How do the Government imagine that they can leave MacGregor in charge of matters? Perhaps they are thinking of edging him out. They should take charge now and put an end to the lie—I know that. I should not use the word in exactly those connotations—or to the gross attempt to mislead the country that there has been no intervention by the Minister or by the Prime Minister. There has been intervention by the Government all the time; in my opinion, there should have been.
Our charge against the Government is that they should have intervened before the strike started. If they had done so, and the Secretary of State for Employment had been doing his job, they could have prevented the strike. After it had started, and they could calculate the huge costs on which the House must vote tonight, they should have come to their senses and used their mediating powers to end the dispute. They alone have those mediating powers. The only person who has been to talk to both sides is my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme). The Government should have been following the route that he has, and, if that had been done, we could have, if not avoided this strike, stopped it: after a few weeks. We could even have avoided it long ago.
I say to the Government as strongly as I can that, if their idea is that this strike will be fought to a finish, there will be a bitter and costly finish. It is already costly enough. Huge costs will have to be paid to the areas concerned, particularly as the communities will have to be rebuilt. There will be huge costs for our nation as a whole, and in 733 trying to repair the damage in those communities. Some of us urge and argue for what we have asked from the beginning. We have said it to Arthur Scargill and everybody else. There must be a fresh, new, attempt at a proper, honourable and negotiated settlement, with neither one side nor the other winning, but only the nation. It is of that that the Government should be thinking tonight.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
I understand the Government's position. I know that they need and must have this measure. I know that the Government have made statements during the current dispute, and I know that there are bills to be paid. However, I shall take the luxury of looking at the measure from the point of view not of the Government but of an individual Back Bencher committed to the truth and to the interests of his constituents.
This is the last in a long line of extravagant measures. This progression has gone on for too long. The time must come when someone, even a humble Back Bencher such as myself, must stick his thumb in the dike. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is concerned that an action, such as voting against this measure, could be misrepresented and misunderstood in the country. However, it is because I have faith in the courage of the work force and in the future of the industry that I seek to raise tonight, perhaps mistakenly, the flag of future financial sanity in the industry.
§ Mr. Marlow
The debate is about the amount of taxpayers' money that is to be spent not on covering all the needs of the coal industry but its losses.
We are—at least I hope we are—at the terminal stages of a rollicking, rip-roaring rake's progress. It started in earnest with the Coal Industry Act 1980, although it had started even before that. In 1980, we imposed a limit of £525 million on the grants payable for paying off the Coal Board losses, for providing cheap coal to power stations and for subsidising coal stocks and coking coal. In case that was not going to be enough, there were provisions for an order to increase that amount to £590 million. It will not be an overwhelming surprise that on 10 August 1981, that limit was duly raised. Sadly, that, was too modest. We had a new Act in 1982, which raised the limit for these purposes to £1,000 million, which again could, by order, be increased to £1,750 million. As is the way with these things, the House will not be surprised to know that on 10 August 1982 the limit was duly raised to £1,750 million.
The situation became difficult. After all, £1,750 million is quite a lot of money, and it is not easy to finesse such sums even late at night. Some people were beginning to smell a rat. A new strategy was required, so we had a brand new Coal Industry Act in 1983 which, instead of amending the overall limit, amended the individual limits within that overall limit — a whiff of parliamentary smoke and fog. In that way, the limit to pay off the annual loss alone, not for worthy causes such as cheap electricity or redundancy payments, was increased to £1,200 million, with the ability by order to increase it to £2,000 million. Surprise, surprise, tonight we have the order.
734 As Sherlock Holmes might have said, it is the case of the vanishing billions—the only true-life case of money being poured into holes in the ground. It is the syndrome of the bottomless pit. One of the reasons why I intend to vote against the measure is that I believe that this syndrome is the greatest single cause of the tragic dispute in our coalfields. It is why we have got where we have got. Anyone would go to sea for a luxury cruise on the otherwise doomed Titanic if he believed that there was an Almighty hand ready to bail it out every time that it hit an iceberg. No industry can prosper, develop or hold up its head if it is to be the permanent pensioner of the public purse. The mining industry is no exception.
How much money do the Government seek? The increase alone is £800 million. It is a massive sum compared with the small change over which blood and sweat were spilt in the Chamber last week during the debate on overseas aid. I invite the House to compare it with the £24 million by which we intend to restrict student grants this year—a factor of 33 for the massive amount of damage that that one measure will do. We are asked to approve the expenditure of £800 million almost on the nod late at night when the country is asleep and representatives of the press have gone home. It represents £15 a head for every man, woman and child in the country.
In the constituency which I am proud to represent I have 70,000 electors, perhaps 100,000 souls. If I am to walk through the Aye Lobby in favour of the measure, I am frisking my constituency of £1.5 million. I will not do it.
The total sum is even more dramatic. It is £2,000 million. That represents 2p off the rate of income tax, dearly beloved by my brethren on the Government Benches. It represents 40p off a gallon of petrol. Think of the smiles that that would bring to the faces of those in rural communities. I can also tell Opposition Members that it would almost double the existing housing programme. It is greater than the total Foreign Office budget, including aid, and how well that sum would have gone down last week. It is also more than three times our net contribution to the European Community. For those with a proper social conscience, with this amount of money we could increase child benefit by some 50 per cent. Think of the magic spells that we could weave with £2,000 million.
Who will pay this vast amount of money? I know that Opposition Members realise that it will not be the City bankers who expect to make a killing out of the sale of British Telecom. As always in such cases, it will be Mr. Average, the poor bloody infantryman of the taxpaying community. It will be people such as the footwear workers in Northamptonshire who, three or four years ago, lost their jobs as a result of the recession and international competition without massive redundancy pay. They have now found their way back into other work, although that work is not highly paid. It is their taxes that will be used to pay the bill. It will be people such as those from the Northampton welfare rights support unit who came to see me today to complain about changes in social security and about cuts in the heating allowance. Strangely and paradoxically, they were wearing "Coal not Dole" badges, supporting Arthur Scargill's strike. If they had this £2,000 million, they would have heating allowances beyond the dreams of avarice, sufficient warmth and heat to bask in tropical temperatures for the rest of their lifetime.
What about the coal industry, hooked as it now is on the insidious drug of perpetual, carefree, subvented overdraft? In February 1974 I had the honour to be the 735 candidate for Normanton, a mining constituency, during the miners' — not Arthur Scargill's—strike. Like my noble Friend Lord Stockton, I believe that the miners, who defeated the Kaiser's army and who are now poised to defeat Arthur Scargill's army, are among the finest and best of men.
I cannot begin to claim the understanding of many right hon. and hon. Members of the mining communities, but I have a loyalty, drawn from those days, to the miners and their cause. For them there has to be another way. I do not want to embarrass anybody by talking about privatisation, although that did not embarrass the workers of the National Freight Corporation and it does not seem to be embarrassing the workers of British Telecom who are jamming our pillar boxes with their applications for shares. But why not co-operativisation, with loans, with support and with eventual prospects of freedom?
This measure is not about money for jobs. It is probably destroying jobs in other areas from where the money is taken. It is not about money for investment or machinery. It is about money to cover losses. How debilitating and depressing. Surely we all believe that the mining industry is justly too proud to be for ever in the public financial sick room. Surely we owe it to that hard-working and courageous community to find a different solution. We are floating on a sea of coal. When the ghastly dispute is over, let us enrich rather than inpoverish ourselves. I believe—perhaps mistakenly—that by signalling that the long progression has been in the wrong direction, we can at last begin to embark on a different direction.
§ 12.8 am
§ Mr. Alec Woodall (Hemsworth)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) and the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), I shall confine my remarks to the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1984.
Welcome as the Minister's announcement this evening may he to those who were made redundant just before the strike commenced inasmuch as they will receive increased redundancy payments in lieu of unemployment benefit, it will be of no joy to some of my constituents. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian, I too had a surgery last Saturday, when I met four of my constituents who will not be happy about this announcement in one particular respect. I refer to these gentlemen by name because I said that I would raise the matter this evening. They are deeply concerned because they are experienced mineworkers who have worked in the industry all their lives, but at the moment they are not employed by the NCB.
Mr. J. Milnes, Mr. P. O'Neil, Mr. H. Taylor and Mr. P. Williams are all employed by Amco. When the strike started on 9 March they reported for work, but were told that there was no work for them and that they would have to sign the unemployment register. They did that and continued to receive unemployment benefit until October, when someone at the Department of Employment decided that any result of the strike that benefited the NUM would benefit those men. That argument is based on the fact that the men are members of the NUM, but they are obliged to be members of the union because they work on NCB contracts. They are wound into and out of the pits by NUM colliery winding enginemen, they work alongside NUM members down the mines and, because of the closed shop 736 agreement in the industry, they are obliged to become associate members of the NUM. They are not on strike; they are locked out.
Those four men were employed by Amco during the 1972 and 1974 disputes and they received their full entitlement of unemployment benefit. Suddenly, some bright boy at the Department of Employment says, "These guys are going to benefit." I do not know how the hell he made that out. Excuse my language, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The four men are on social security and, because they are associate members of the NUM, they have to suffer the injutice of having £15, shortly to be £16, deducted from their social security payments.
When I was first approached about the problem I telephoned the Department of Employment office in Leeds to get the facts. I was told exactly what I have told the House—that because the four men were members of the NUM they stood to benefit. I asked how they would benefit and, to my amazement, the officer said, "If there is any increase in wages as a result of the dispute, these men will benefit.' I had to point out that it was a dispute, not about wages, but about jobs and keeping pits open, but the Department still insisted that the men, who were employed by an outside contractor and not by the NCB, would benefit and that their case had to go to an adjudication officer.
I raised the matter with the Secretary of State for Employment during Question Time on Tuesday. On Friday I received a reply to my letter of 21 October. I find that hon. Members usually get a result if they prod Ministers at Question Time. The letter said:When claims were first made by the sub-contract employees in Yorkshire they were referred to the independent Regional Adjudication Officer in Leeds for a decision … different Adjudication Officers will come to different decisions on what seem similar cases.That is true, because I am told that five men employed by Cementation in south Wales were refused unemployment benefit and their appeals were upheld. Mr. Tony McCann, who lives in Chesterfield and was also employed by Cementation, was working in the Bentley colliery in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond). Mr. McCann was denied unemployed benefit and the adjudication officer upheld his appeal. The precedent is there, but the Yorkshire regional adjudication officer reached the conclusionthat such sub-contract employees should not be disqualified from receiving benefit.Earlier today the Minister said that several judgments in favour and several against had been made and that there was no balance. The most telling part of the letter states thatthe Leeds Adjudication Officer became aware that his decisions were at variance with those elsewhere (and he was advised accordingly by the Chief Adjudication Officer)".That is remarkable, because he had to reconsider his first decision and decided, lo and behold, that employees do fall within the disqualification rules. What a cock-up. That is terrible language, and I apologise, but this is a load of sago pudding. It is all nonsense. You know what I am talking about, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister is saying that any adjudication officer can make a decision which is out of step with that of other adjudication officers. What sort of ruling is that? The Department of Employment stopped the benefits, but cannot interfere to reinstate them.
We are talking about men who have worked in the industry all their lives. They are the most experienced 737 mineworkers that we have. They have experienced every ambit of the work. When they work for a private contract, a clause in each contract states that if a dispute occurs at the colliery at which they are working they will stop work and the contract will be withdrawn. That applies even to a local dispute. Those men should receive unemployment benefit. They will gain no joy from tonight's announcement, because they are being denied their right to unemployment benefit and their full rights under the social security legislation. They are associate members of the NUM and they should not forfeit the £15 which is being deducted from mineworkers.
In 1972 and 1974 these men received not only their full unemployment benefit but all the other benefits, including milk tokens. The Minister will say that the decision has nothing to do with him and that it is a matter for the Department of Employment. I hope that he will tell his colleagues in that Department to get moving and pay the men.
§ Mr. Michael Welsh (Doncaster, North)
The argument about outside contractors has been taken to Wales and a commissioner has ruled that such workers should receive unemployment pay. As a general rule, that is accepted. Is it not strange that some people do not accept that ruling?
§ Mr. Woodall
That is right. I have a copy of the decision by the social security commissioner who ruled on the south Wales issue. The five men are named and the commissioner gives his ruling in favour of them. He rules that they should receive their benefit. At the end of his report—I suppose that a copy went to the Secretary of State—he stated that should be donebecause the dispute related to pay as well as pit closures—that was the case made by the social security benefits officer.
The commissioner continued:However, in view of the conclusion to which I have come, these points are irrelevant and I do not find it necessary to deal with them in any detail.There was a ruling by an adjudication officer and by a social security appeals tribunal. What is good enough for south Wales is good enough for Yorkshire. I ask the Minister to take this on board, refer it to the Department of Employment and tell it to get the matter sorted out.
§ Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)
I endorse entirely the words of the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall), who used rather more colourful language than my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) in taking up his remarks on the Redundant Mineworkers Concessionary Coal (Payments Scheme) (Amendment) Order. I served under my hon. Friend the Minister when he was a Whip, and I know him to be a reasonable and persuasive gentleman. I am sure that he will use his talents to ensure that the just request of those currently adversely affected are met.
In his reasonable way, my hon. Friend gave way frequently during his opening remarks to allow hon. Members to intervene. That is one of our complaints about his Department. It gives way too often to financial claims that are put upon it. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) referred to the frustration that is felt by some Conservative Members 738 at the continual demands put upon us to vote hundreds of millions of pounds to support the coal industry. I go further than that. I feel a sense of outrage rather than frustration at being asked once again—this is the third, fourth or even fifth occasion since I came to this place—to vote more subsidies to the coal industry.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) said, over the past few weeks there has been a painful search for small economies in an attempt to constrain the uncontrollable engine of public expenditure. That search led us to overseas aid, students' grants and even the £1 note. I think that the note's replacement by a coin is designed to save £3 million. My hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak talked about the battles that we had last year on housing benefit.
All these painful battles will be rendered entirely negative by the sums that will be poured away this evening as on other occasions. The old proverb tells us that if we look after the pennies the pounds will look after themselves. We seem to spend a great deal of time searching for pennies, but when it comes to spending pounds it is all too easy for the savings to disappear into the great maw of public expenditure.
Since the general election, we have discussed the coal industry's affairs on numerous occasions. We have put the Coal Industry Act on the statute book, which authorises borrowing to the tune of £6,000 million on the part of the NCB. There was a Supplementary Estimate of £290 million in March. There was another Supplementary Estimate of £393 million in July. The Minister has warned us that if the order is passed this evening he will be coming before us again for another £600 million in the winter Estimates. Where will it all end?
Since 1979–80, when the Government took office, we have paid out in deficit grant to the Coal Board £2,747 million. Beyond that, we have added £3,850 million by way of investment in the industry. I draw that to the attention of the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), who went through the catalogue of changes in investment area by area in the NCB. Nearly £4,000 million has been invested in the industry in the past five years. The return on that investment, far from being positive, does not even break even. It is minus 5.9 per cent. We are having to pay for the privilege of investing in the coal industry.
§ Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck)
Has the hon. Gentleman given any thought to the reasons for the deficit and to the breakdown of the figures? It may be difficult to break down the figures. As one employed for 39 years in the industry, my experience is that a substantial part of the deficit arises from bad management decisions, not bad work by employees or miners. In 1983 a mine closed in the area in which I live and where I worked. A bad management decision in 1966 caused that closure. About 1,500 employees would otherwise now work in that mine. A fire in the mine was caused by bad management decisions. The mine was flooded and was closed in 1983. A large part of the responsibility for the deficit in the mining industry rests on the shoulders of management, not miners.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am not seeking to apportion blame between the miners' leaders and the NUM for the losses that have been incurred. As my father was a manager employed by the NCB for 30 years, I am unlikely to agree with the hon. Gentleman's generalised statement. No one 739 is infallible. Mistakes will be made by management, and I do not deny that. The ultimate causes of the losses experienced for many years are the geological difficulties faced in many deep mines which make them unpleasant places in which to work and expensive places from which to extract coal. I in no way say that it is the miners fault that the NCB is in its present plight. I endorse the good things that have been said about the miners as a breed of men. When there are pits that are inherently uneconomic because of the high cost of extracting coal, one is bound to produce figures such as those I have cited.
The total amount paid out to the NCB during the past five years is £6.5 billion. We are talking about enormous sums of money. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already pointed out that the subsidy presently enjoyed by the industry amounts to £131 per man per week. That is £5,381 per man per annum which is accounted for by the operating deficits. On top of that, there is another £2,917 per man per annum for investment. The total amount of subsidy per man employed by the NCB is £8,298 per annum. That is an average. In areas that are suffering losses, the average subsidy is many times that figure. In areas such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) the profitable pits are disguising the amount of subsidy enjoyed by those who are working in the uneconomic pits. It must make sense in the interests of the coal miners, the NCB and the economy generally to close uneconomic pits and to open up new capacity. That is being done, in spite of what was said by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie).
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am not challenging that. We know that investment has gone on apace in the pits that are already in existence. Selby and Asfordby are new pits even though they may not have been sunk during the period of office of the Conservative party. That fact should not disguise the amount of money spent on equipping them and ensuring that they have the best machinery and so on to make them profitable in the years to come. For the hon. Gentleman's benefit I repeat that total amount of investment incurred during the past five years amounts to nearly £4 billion. That is a significant amount of taxpayers money. When we talk about the enormous sums of money that we have constantly to vote to keep these uneconomic pits going, we should see it in the context in which the Labour Government placed the NCB when it was created in 1946.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend has taken hold of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 in the short period during which he has held his post. He will find that under section 1(4) an obligation was placed on the board, taking one year with another, to break even.
§ Mr. Hamilton
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North has already said, and it is worth repeating, that the losses being incurred this year by the NCB — taking the investment in the industry into account — would be sufficient to be able to reduce income tax by 2p in the pound, to take 2 per cent. off VAT or 28p off a gallon of petrol or add £2.70 a week to the old-age pension.
740 Those who live in areas where uneconomic pits are found are justifiably apprehensive that if the pit closes there will be considerable unemployment. I understand that. I represent a constituency which, although it does not have coal mines, has many energy-intensive industries, and as 83 per cent. of the country's electricity is produced from coal, the cost of coal vitally affects employment in those industries which are dependent upon it.
Sir Walter Marshall, the chairman of the CEGB, has said that if he were free to buy coal in the cheapest markets he could cut his costs by 25 per cent. and reduce the price of electricity to the domestic and industrial consumer by 10 to 15 per cent.
The chemical industry in mid-Cheshire is highly energy intensive. It has been spending money as a result of the Government's boiler conversion scheme and re-equipping with coal-fired rather than oil-fired boilers, and it will face enormous costs if we do not introduce some sanity into the coal board's accounts.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I cannot give way again. On the Press Association tape this evening I saw that British Steel says that at Ravenscraig it is costing £10 per tonne more to produce steel as a result of the strike, thus placing the jobs of people in steel-making areas at risk as well.
It is a cost that is faced not just by those who are immediately dependent upon the cost of coal but one that is being faced by the whole country. Professor Patrick Minford, professor of economics at the university of Liverpool, has calculated—I realise that this will be unpleasant for Opposition Members to hear, but I am sure that it will be good for their souls to listen—that for every £100 million of job-creation expenditure in coal mining, we destroy 900 jobs because of the costs which are distributed throughout the rest of the economy and which make us less competitive, less efficient and less able to sell our goods in the world markets upon which the majority of our people depend for employment.
The unreality which pervades these debates, and which has pervaded the dispute, is due entirely to the belief of those who remain on strike that, whatever the cost, the taxpayer will pick up the bill; and that, however long the strike and whatever the costs, no jobs will be lost in the industry. It is time for the Government to say to those who remain on strike that there will come a time when we shall be unable to guarantee jobs for all those who wish to stay in the industry. The problem from which we ran away in 1972, from which the country ran away in 1974, and from which the present Government ran away in 1982, faces us again tonight and will face us yet again before the end of this year. It will no doubt face us again next year unless we bite the bullet, for there will come a time when the taxpayers' patience will be exhausted. Indeed, I believe that that time has already come.
§ Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)
I shall not immediately follow the speech of the hon. Member for Talton (Mr. Hamilton) but will return to it.
I refer, first, to the draft Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Scheme) (Amendment) Order. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) mentioned the anomalies which will still exist, notwithstanding the terms of that order. I agree with the 741 hon. Member that there is still something that can be done in terms of unemployment benefit to relieve even more the burdens faced by many people who have sought redundancy.
I should like some clarification from the Minister about the status of payments under the order. I understand its purpose to be to enable the weekly benefits under the scheme to be made payable, breaking the link with unemployment benefit, where a trade dispute is in operation. I understand that in other respects the scheme is still related to the uplift part of the benefit and to other regulations akin to unemployment benefit.
My attention was drawn to the case of a miner who visited a son who was ill in the armed forces in Germany, and who lost his entitlement to the uplift benefit because he was not able to seek work. Although there are no age limits, I understand that the scheme is still largely taken up by people who would otherwise be seeking early retirement. When the Government have given people every encouragement to give up their work, I question whether it is wise to put them into competition for jobs with 4 million people who are already desperately searching for employment.
Is there any reason why the redundancy payments scheme should not also apply to those who are engaged in opencast mining? My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is particularly concerned about this matter. I understand that in the European Community regulations concerning similar schemes no distinction is made between those who work in deep coal mining and those who are engaged in opencast mining. Have the Government any reason for making a distinction? The problem could become increasingly more acute as the redundancies arise in opencast mines which are nearing exhaustion.
With regard to the points made by the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), my right hon. and hon. Friends, from the early stages of the dispute, have keenly pushed the argument for an enterprise company, and we are still not satisfied that the Government have provided sufficient funding for it. We welcome the small amount that has been done, but we think that £5 million is wholly inadequate to meet the challenge that would face such an enterprise company if it were to do its task well. We look forward to hearing from the Minister what proposals the Government have to increase the sums spent.
I listened to the remarks of the hon. Member for Tatton and the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) about deficit grants. Although I understand the theory that makes them question the spending of public money, they never seem to ask themselves what sort of energy policy they want. They always talk in terms of money being spent. It is obvious that the demand for coal has dropped significantly in recent years, in many respects because of the Government's economic policies. What would happen to the coal industry if the sums were to be cut off, as the hon. Members suggest? My right hon. and hon. Friends believe that there is a long-term future for the coal industry in supplying the country's energy needs. One is entitled to ask those who criticise the amount that is being put into the coal industry what future they would see for it if they withdrew those sums so harshly by voting against the orders.
742 Those people ask whether all that money is going into a bottomless pit and whether it goes down a hole. If one examines the accounts of the NCB, one finds that there is often much talk of uneconomic pits and that the deficit grant in some years has matched the amount of interest repayments made by the NCB to the Department of Energy. In 1983 the deficit grant amounted to £374 million, but the interest paid back to the Secretary of State for Energy was £364 million. Admittedly last year the gap was bigger, but, none the less, of the £875 million of deficit grant, over half could be said to have been taken back by the Department —£467 million in interest payments.
§ Mr. Wallace
The hon. Gentleman has had a good opportunity to speak, and others wish to take part in the debate.
While the Government continue this conjuring trick, one might well ask whether the time has come to take a positive initiative to try to restructure the NCB's finances and to write off, or significantly write off, a large part of that debt. That matter was raised in another place in February this year when the Earl of Avon, who was then the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, said that the board enjoyed what amounted to a year-by-year capital reconstruction because of the deficit grants. He said that the Government would consider writing off the debt when the industry became more viable. My appeal is that the Government should consider something like that now. They have been willing to put together a package to restructure other nationalised industries, such as British Airways, when they want to present the industry in a more acceptable form for privatisation. Why do they not take such an initiative to break the stalemate in the dispute?
All that we see are the Government pinning their hopes on a drift back to work. That is the only method that they have to end the strike. I am not denying those who have gone back to work, but I do not think that that can be a complete answer. At the end of the day there will still be a hard core—it may be a substantial hard core—who have not gone back to work. One believes that the dispute can be solved only by a negotiated settlement. It cannot be solved by hoping that the drift back to work will carry on until the strikers are down to a small number.
At Question Time today, and in this debate, Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), have called for the Coal Board to go back to the negotiating table. One might well ask them what they wish the Coal Board further to concede. That is a fair question. Perhaps they will enlighten us on that matter.
My right hon. and hon. Friends believe that the figures in the "Plan for Coal" are no longer relevant to the present circumstances. The time has come for its renegotiation. "Plan for Coal" was a tripartite agreement. It involves the Government, and they cannot abdicate that responsibility. They could show their long-term confidence in the mining industry and could go a long way towards taking much of the heat and bitterness out of the dispute if there were a fresh start, with a proper reconstruction of the board's finances, rather than the Minister coming back to the House time and again to put more money into the industry. We ask the Minister to reply to that and to give the Government's view of what they would do towards achieving a proper reconstruction of the board's finances.
§ Mr. Eric Cockeram (Ludlow)
I intend to keep my remarks brief as time is running short and to confine them to the Coal Industry (Limit on Deficit Grants) Order.
The circumstances of the tabling of the order are quite extraordinary. Here we are, at nearly 1 am, debating the sum of £800 million. Over the past three months or so, the Government have made repeated attempts to contain the public sector borrowing requirement. That has been one of their prime preoccupations. Expenditure estimates have been examined with a toothcomb down to the smallest items. Department by Department. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury has been bargaining with Cabinet Ministers over £1 million here and £5 million there. The whole exercise was concerned to save only £300 million, in an attempt of keep Government expenditure next year within the total of £136 billion.
After all that, what happened? There was what is called the star chamber procedure, with the Deputy Leader chairing a Cabinet Committee which went through all the estimates once again, seeking to pare down the excess over the original target to the smallest possible amount. What was the outcome? There have been cuts in the BBC's overseas services and in the British Council. The cuts may have amounted to only £1 million or £5 million, but they have been significant as a proportion of the expenditure on those items. There have been cuts in our diplomatic representation abroad, with the closure of 10 consulates. Parental contributions to students' fees have been increased.
However, we are asked to agree to the spending of £800 million. On what is it to be spent? My hon. Friend the Minister says that the money is needed to support the working miners. That is partially true. But what about the two-thirds who are not working? The money is to support them, too.
The strike has cost the taxpayer a great deal of money already in policing, social security payments and loss of production. Some of my hon. Friends may think that that money has been well spent. But what has caused so many miners to return to work in the past few weeks? After six months of negotiating, the NCB has made it clear that there is nothing further to negotiate. Everything that can be offered has already been offered. In the face of that firmness, the miners recognise that it is no good waiting for something else to come along; this is the end of the road. They can take the offer or condemn their industry to decay. In consequence of that firmness, miners have been returning to work day after day. Today, 975 returned to work. The trend will continue.
What are we doing about the money? Are we to continue to give miners the illusion that a tap can be turned on, from which endlessly, more and more money will flow? We must not do that. That would be unfair to all our constituents who have had to face cuts in many other spheres—many more that I have mentioned. It is time for the Government to make it clear that the taxpayer does not have a bottomless purse, that there is no endless flow, and that £800 million cannot be voted through on the nod at I o'clock in the morning. It is time that the miners were told that they cannot expect endless subsidies from working people earning less than they earn—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) pointed out, at an astronomical cost per miner. If the money were spent in other spheres, it would go much 744 further and create jobs for more people than are employed in the mining industry. It is time that the tap was turned off. I cannot support the Government in their request for this large sum of money.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
I thought for a minute that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Cockeram) was about to go on to the cost to the Exchequer of the common agricultural policy or the Trident programme, although, as he said, the Government seem to be scraping round for other orders.
I am pleased that the order concerning the redundant mineworkers payments scheme is going through. It is a pity that it did not go through in the previous Session. Since the end of March, we have known about the anomaly by which hundreds of retired miners have not received weekly benefit from that scheme. The debate has centred around the cost of the strike. I refer the House to an article which appeared in The Times on 25 August 1983. The then chairman of the NCB, Sir Norman Siddall, warned the Government and that section of the British people who bought The Times about the consequences of appointing Ian MacGregor as chairman of the NCB. He also issued a grave warning about the running of the British coal mining industry and said:I would say that to return the industry to profitability within three years is a fairly massive task".Indeed it is a massive task and it has not been helped by the appointment of Mr. Ian MacGregor. With the strike, that return to profitability will cost the money being granted in the Limit of Deficit Grants order and perhaps more in the winter Estimates. But a cost is attached to the appointment of Ian MacGregor and to the Government changing and ripping up "Flan for Coal". That is what is causing the dispute in the British coal mining industry. I refer Conservative Members to the debate of 22 November 1983 on the Coal Industry Bill. It was said that:the National Coal Board should aim to maximise its long-term profitability by securing those sales which are profitable on a continuing basis, its competition with other fuels. It should plan its marketing, production and capital investment accordingly and bring productive capacity into line with its continuing share of the market."—[Official Report, Standing Committee H, 22 November 1983; c. 38.]That statement was made by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw), who is now the Minister of State for police. His statement effectively ripped up "Plan for Coal" which had been agreed by the Government, unions and the NCB in 1974. That plan enabled the NCB, for the first time, to plan investment and production. The appointment of Mr. Ian MacGregor in 1983 put an entirely different complexion on the matter.
It is important for people to realise why Mr. MacGregor was brought into the coal industry and who is responsible for the dispute. On Thursday 16 February, just a few weeks before Mr. MacGregor caused the strike on 6 March, the Financial Times wrote:The National Coal Board is set to present its plan for the future of the coal industry to the Government without union agreement. This would mark a break with the past decade, when plans have been agreed between government, board and unions.Indeed, it is a break with the past decade. It was a ripping up of "Plan for Coal" as had been said by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy in 1983. Mr. MacGregor continued:It has proved impossible to get any basis for agreement. I can't wait for the union. I work for the Government not the unions.745 That was what he said in February, just prior to the strike. No one should be surprised that it has developed in the way it has, nor should anyone be surprised that Ian MacGregor became an expensive transferee to the coal industry to do exactly what he did with steel—to instigate a massive run down in jobs and coal production based on what could then be sold in the market.
The Government have not convinced me, or anyone else in the NCB, that in the last five years they have looked for further markets in which to sell British coal. They talk about overproduction. Only last year the House debated the reissuing of conversion grants, yet up to December the Government withheld the decision to continue for another 12 months grants payable to industrialists who transferred to coal burn for industrial boilers.
Never have the Government looked for an expansion of markets for the British coal industry, but that does not surprise me in view of what I have read. I have in my hand an article published in The Economist in 1978 by the Conservative party's policy group of the nationalised industries. It was drafted by the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), now Secretary of State for Transport. That article mirrored exactly what has gone on in the coal mining industry in the last 12 months. It states:Behind the scenes, they would like a five-part strategy for countering this threat".It speaks of a threat to Government from a strike in certain industries. It continued:Return on capital figures should be rigged so that an above-average wage claim can be paid to the 'vulnerable' industries".One of these was obviously the coal industry, because that is exactly what has happened. Although last year's wage increase has still not been settled by the Coal Board, it was 5.2 per cent., just a little more than what was offered to those in the public sector such as nurses. The article added:The eventual battle should be on ground chosen by the Tories".We have already been told that the Government were not hard enough in 1982 when they supposedly did a U-turn. Of course not, because they were waiting for the ground to be right before taking on the miners. That is exactly what was written by the Conservative party's policy group on nationalised industries in 1978.
The article went on:Every precaution should be taken against a challenge in electricity or gas. Anyway, redundancies in those industries are unlikely to be required. The group believes that the most likely battleground will be the coal industry. They would like a Thatcher government to: (a) build up maximum coal stocks, particularly at the power stations; (b) make contingency plans for the import of coal; (c) encourage the recruitment of non-union lorry drivers by haulage companies to help move coal where necessary; (d) introduce dual coal/oil firing in all power stations as quickly as possible.The group believes that the greatest deterrent to any strike would be 'to cut off the money supply to the strikers, and make the union finance them' …There should be a large, mobile squad of police equipped and prepared to uphold the law against violent picketing. 'Good non-union drivers' should be recruited to cross picket lines with police protection.
§ Mr. Barron
It is strange that all this "sensible" action, which has now gone on for nine months, was written by the Conservative party's policy group in 1978. Yet they 746 have the gall to stand in this Chamber and say that the NUM is intransigent and has forced the strike upon the Coal Board. If Conservative Members believe that, I feel sorry for them, because it is far from the truth.
The Government are instructing the Coal Board to have nothing to do with trying to find a rational settlement of the strike. The Coal Board has not moved one iota since 6 March. If it has, I would like the Minister to tell me about it. This afternoon, the Secretary of State for Energy told the House that the Government would have to qualify the terms for compulsory redundancy. That is not what they said two months ago.
The cost of the strike is between £3 billion and £4 billion. Conservative Members talk about public expenditure, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that it was money well spent. The cost of generating electricity by oil is about £35 million a week; the cost of bringing electricity from the Scottish grid is about £3 million a week. The Government will not say how much it costs to move coal by lorry rather than by rail. Millions of pounds are being spent, but that is easy to cost. What is not easy to cost is the threat to the mining communities. The policing in mining communities will affect all members of the public for years to come. It is not a cost in pounds, but a cost for which every hon. Member is responsible.
I do not accept the Government's claim that they want the dispute to be settled. The dispute is born out of Conservative party dogma. It was born in 1978 out of the policy document written by the Secretary of State for Transport. If they were honest with the British public and with themselves, they would tell the National Coal Board to sit round the table and come to a settlement that gives a guarantee to the communities that I and many other right hon. and hon. Members represent.
§ 1.3 am
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) should realise that the dispute was not of the Government's making. It was born in Saltley in 1972, when the present leader of the National Union of Mineworkers made his first endeavour to bring down the Government, and succeeded. But he shall not be allowed to succeed this time. It is thanks to the determination of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government that democracy in Britain will be upheld and the will of the people will be preserved against the intimidators and the men of violence.
I share the sentiments of my hon. Friends the Members for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), for Ludlow (Mr. Cockeram) and for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) about the order that will increase funding for the Coal Board. Many of my constituents are miners; others are not. The latter believe that they have lost their jobs and do not have all the benefits which are available to the mineworkers. Therefore, it is not true to say that, even in strong mining communities, all the people are sympathetic to the pouring of money into the mining industry. Those of my mining constituents who are still working deeply appreciate what the Government have done, not only in protecting their right to work, but in investing in the industry.
I wholeheartedly welcome the redundant mineworkers payments schemes order. I support the words of my hon. Friend and neighbour, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), in whose constituency Littleton colliery is situated. Some of the employees there are constituents of mine. In many respects, this is a long 747 overdue measure, as there has been an injustice. Many of my constituents, and those of my hon. Friend, have received not a penny since they left the pit, apart from a lump sum payment which in some cases was very small. At least those men who are on strike have been receiving social security payments for their families. Those who have chosen to go on strike can also choose to go back to work as well. My constituents, and those who will be affected beneficially by the order, have in some cases received nothing, apart from the lump sum payment.
The NCB locally has a policy of releasing men who have given many years to the mines but are not in the best of health and often were not aware of the implications of what was on offer. Both parties agreed in good faith that those who were long serving and not in the best of health could be released and would be provided for.
§ Mr. Howarth
Labour Members make a grave mistake when they assume that there is no compassion on the Conservative Benches. It is our compassion that enables us to take some of the tough decisions that may not be in the short-term political interest, but are in the interests of the country.
I shall quote from a letter from one of my constituents who has been affected. He writes to me:I started work in the mining industry in 1946 and spent my last 23 years at Littleton Colliery. Due to manpower savings scheme at the colliery the personnel manager asked me if I wanted to be considered for redundancy. Due to my age nd service at the colliery, I thought that this would be a good opportunity to finish so that my wife and myself could spend the rest of our lives together. At my interview, I was informed by the personnel manager of the benefits that I would be entitled to receive. He gave me this information in all good faith and in all good faith I accepted it.That is why I strongly welcome this order. Many men who have not been on strike had been made an offer by their local NCB management, and they accepted that offer in good faith and on the understanding that they would receive the money.
§ Mr. Howarth
No, I shall not give way. The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) spoke for a long time, and refused to give way to me.
My constituent continues:The DHSS are wrong in saying that I have been on strike. The fact is that our colliery voted to work, and I tried to get in to work each day but on 4 days they mentioned it was physcially impossible for me to get into work.Many men, like this constituent, are being penalised for losing only a few shifts. Why is that? It is because they have been subjected to the worst intimidation in Britain since the war.
§ Mr. Rogers
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the attractive redundancy terms which are now available have only been made available since the strike started, and that it was at least six weeks into the strike before the present redundancy arrangements were offered? Is it not only as a result of the actions of the people who have gone out on strike that those who are scabbing and working will now have the benefits?
§ Mr. Howarth
As in most things, the hon. Gentleman is wrong, because the redundant mineworkers payments 748 scheme was in operation. Since the strike, a new scheme has been introduced for men under the age of 49. My constituent is under 55.
These men have been subjected to the worst intimidation on the picket line since the war. It is not reasonable for the House to expect of these men the heroism one would expect of the SAS. These are ordinary working men, and they are entitled to feel that they can go to their place of work free from interference. South Wales miners—probably from the constituency of the right hon. appeaser, the Member for Blaenau Gwent—have been to my constituency and thrown bags of urine at my constituents to intimidate them. That, in my view, is quite disgraceful. Some of them have intimidated. Others have not gone to work because the police have said that they cannot. Until the buses were organised and the NCB and the police managed to set up a system, these men were physically unable to go to work, despite their willingness to do so.
Another constituent of mine, a fellow named Walter Janson, to whom I have spoken today, has lost only one day. He has worked in the pit for 30 years. On the first day of the strike he made two attempts to get to work. He was unsuccessful and was forced to go home. The next day, being due to report for work at 7 o'clock in the morning, he made his way to work through the woods so that he would not be seen by the pickets from south Wales. He left home at 5 o'clock in the morning, and he continued to do that so that he could represent that he was going in to work. That shows a kind of determination which these tribunals ought to recognise.
This measure will help such men, who are not entitled to unemployment benefit. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security in his place. He has been very sympathetic to the cases that I have put to him, and I hope that his Department will consider this point with equal sympathy. It was part of the deal that these men were offered when they accepted voluntary redundancy.
Another category of men affected has not been mentioned so far. Two of my constituents, both of whom were employed in the pit and both of whom were good employees, had not voted to strike. They had sought to go to work. But, like so many others, they lost a few days because of intimidation. These two constituents, one a Mr. Pearson and the other whom I shall not name, left for other jobs. Both found that their new jobs fell through. One of them went to the United States, but the job fell through, so he came back. Neither of these two gentlemen can claim unemployment benefit. They have received nothing. Yet there is no way that they can benefit financially from the outcome of the strike. I hope that my hon. Friend will hear what I and others of my hon. Friends are saying and see whether anything can be done to assist them.
I welcome wholeheartedly my hon. Friend's endeavours. They are most timely. He has been in the Department but a few days, and we see this measure before us. I congratulate him on his alacrity. I prefer to have him as a Minister than as a Whip, though as a Whip he was equally charming to me. However, I share the grave misgivings already expressed by my hon. Friends about the bottomless pit of public expenditure. We have been through an awful time lately, with tiny amounts of public money to be saved. Great anxiety has been caused to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. Yet, at a stroke, late at night, we are about to put a lot of public money into the mining industry.
§ Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)
I rise to speak, sick at heart about the dispute. It is an unnecessary strike, brought about in an industry which has an enormous future and potential. I think that all hon. Members agree on that. The Under-Secretary of State and some of his hon. Friends have used the analogy of a private company. Although that analogy is not completely true, because we are talking about a public corporation, if we pursue it we, in essence, are representatives of the shareholders.
The Minister's hon. Friends are sore that he should ask for £2 billion in grants. They are right, but they should ask themselves why the Secretary of State can ask for £2 billion in grants when he has not been able to spend 10p in eight months on a telephone call to the NUM. On no occasion has he sought the views of the NUM.
This strike will not end easily. It will not end in a whimper. I can only speak knowing the posture of the people in my area. That is one reason why I am sick at heart. We in the comfort of the House of Commons do not know the enormous and severe privation which some families, such as those in my constituency, are suffering.
Do not howl at me the name "Arthur Scargill". Arthur Scargill did not bring the strike on. He did not harden the view of my constituents. I regret that we have not had a proper opportunity in the House to discuss the strike. In the interests of the nation the Government should provide not one, but perhaps several, days, and not at 1.30 in the morning, when we can ventilate the issues.
I want to refer to the Bogside closure in my area. I have accused Mr. MacGregor to his face and the board of industrial vandalism. If the NCB had been a private company, the management would have been sacked for what went on in that pit. That is what my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) referred to. In my area the men have seen the board's behaviour. They have seen the board use tactics which I, with my background under the old shipbuilders, where we experienced hard and difficult management, could not believe when I read about them in the report. I could not believe that management would behave in such a way. The Minister knows that I have met his predecessor on this issue, and we have not been able to get to the root of the problem and its issues.
I have been on the picket lines and have told the men from my constituency and those of other hon. Members that the people going through the picket lines are not worth getting arrested for. I realise that the only secure weapon that my folk have is their unity. The NCB has sacked men because of their behaviour on the picket lines. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) is helpful, but I am capable of making my own points. I know whose side I am on.
I have told my constituents that they must remain united, because if they do not the NCB will pick off their colleagues. That is an essential ingredient in the NUM and in any other decent trade union, and Conservative Members had better realise that. As a responsible hon. Member, I will not say to my folk, "Crawl back and be disunited." The Government, in their stupidity, might desire that, but I am trying to raise the Government from their stupidity. On occasions the Secretary of State for Energy raises himself from the stupidity. In his excellent speech to the Young Conservatives last week the right hon. Gentleman quoted John F. Kennedy: 750Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.The right hon. Gentleman is not negotiating. He has a responsibility, representing the national interest, to negotiate.
Do not let the Secretary of State come back and ask for any more millions. Let him spend 10p on a telephone call and get people round the table. One of the magic things about the dispute is the way in which the women have stood behind and beside the men. If this nation has any sense, it will not humiliate and degrade such people.
I plead with sensible people inside and outside the House—the bishops, the Church of Scotland and others—to lean on the Government and to say, "This is no way to run a modern industrial nation." The damage to the nation is great in financial terms, but the damage to the self-respect of communities also has to be considered. That is a vital ingredient in enhancing industrial relations and the prestige of communities. Ministers should not be too proud to do what I have suggested.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Many hon. Members have serious problems in their constituencies. Is it reasonable that the Front Benches should take up one hour and 20 minutes of the three hours allowed for this debate?
§ Mr. Nellist
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have had two debates on the coal industry today and there has been a geographical imbalance in the selection of speakers. One coalfield in particular—the Warwickshire area — has not been represented. Can you give an assurance that there will be a better geographical distribution of speakers in future debates, so that the imbalance is put right?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I know that the hon. Gentleman was not called to speak but a number of other hon. Members were also not called. Unfortunately, it is impossible to get a quart into a pint pot.
§ Mr. David Hunt
We have had a wide-ranging debate with contributions from hon. Members in all parts of the House who obviously care very deeply about our great coal industry. It is not just because this is the first debate that I have been privileged to wind up that I say that I found all the contributions to be of a high standard.
I much appreciated the kind remarks of the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) at the start of his speech, and I will endeavour to carry on the tradition of my predecessors. I should tell the hon. Members for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) and for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) that I endeavoured to be as brief as possible in opening the debate and I have only 11 minutes to answer a considerable number of points. I do not think that I shall have time to cover them all, but I shall write to any hon. Members who are missed out.
The hon. Members for Midlothian and for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) asked me about the implications of the redundant mineworkers payments scheme order for some 751 of their constituents. The hon. Member for Midlothian kindly said that he did not require an immediate response. I will carefully consider those cases and write to both hon. Members.
I was asked when the payments would be made. If approved, the amendment order on redundancy payments will come into operation on 7 December. Payments under the new rules will commence as quickly as possible. I have already been in touch with the agency office which administers the scheme on the Department's behalf. I have asked whether it can identify all the cases so that waiting for applications is not necessary and a direct response can be made to those who have suffered. I am assured that the agency office will move speedily and contact direct those entitled to back payments. The payments will be made before Christmas, if that is possible.
I was pressed to extend the scheme to unemployment benefit. There is no anomaly, because the rules apply to all who fall within them.
A serious accusation was made about investment. Most of the investment in Selby has been under the present Government. I have read speeches about Selby by the hon. Member for Midlothian who played a major role in the start of the project. I hope that he will acknowledge that most of the investment has come under the present Government. It is particularly unfortunate that the strike is damaging the investment programme by holding up the Selby project, for example, by cutting capital expenditure this year from about £800 million to under £500 million.
In January the Government gave approval for a major new mine at Asfordby. I do not want hon. Members to gain a wrong impression from what the hon. Member for Midlothian said. The investment level has been much higher under this Government and we have a record of which we can be proud.
The hon. Gentleman said that the NUM executive could not call a ballot at any time. I defer to the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of the rule book and I feel a slight sense of foreboding when I quote from it in his presence. The rule book states:A national strike shall only be entered upon as a result of a ballot vote of the members taken in pursuance of a resolution of conference.That did not happen at the start of the dispute, but, under the same rule No. 43, there is provision for a ballot vote to be takenduring the course of a dispute.Rule No. 23 in the NUM rule book states:A special conference may be called at any time by the national executive committee.That committee could call a conference straight away, and hold another at any time. We say that it should call another conference to discuss whether a ballot should be held at this time.
The hon. Member said that to state that the NUM had not moved an inch was a travesty of the truth. But that goes against my recollection of the "Today" programme when I heard the president of the NUM say that he agreed that he had not "budged an inch" since 6 March. That is what we heard.
The hon. Member for Midlothian accused me of massaging the figures and said that I would regret that. I listened to the NUM president on BBC Radio 4 on 12 November when he said that about 80 per cent. of his members were on strike—that is, 140,000. On "The World This Weekend" yesterday I heard him say that without question or fear of hesitation or contradiction there 752 are 144,275 miners on strike. According to the president of the NUM, the number on strike has increased by over 4,000. When he quoted those figures on 12 November, there were 133,000 on strike. Yesterday, when he referred to over 144,000 being on strike, there were only 123,000. I think that everyone throughout the country realises that there has been a significant return to work over the past two weeks except, apparently, the president of the NUM.
§ Mr. Nellist
Does the Minister still support the Secretary of State for Energy, who said in the House on 2 July that more than 60,000 miners were working? The same Secretary of State says that 20,000 miners, according to NCB figures, have gone back in the past three weeks. Yet today the NCB says that only just over 60,000 miners are working. The hon. Gentleman is talking about those who cannot add up and it seems that the Secretary of State for Energy cannot. Does he still support him?
§ Mr. Hunt
In the NCB and other activities. There are 222,000 employees in the NCB and in other activities of the board. Of those, over 98,000 are no longer on strike. Those are the correct figures. Out of the 189,000 members of the NUM, over 65,000 are no longer on strike.
My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) was a strong and effective advocate on behalf of his constituents. He, together with my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) and for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), has been the leader of the lobby which has fought for the concessions that I have introduced. His comments and those of others about unemployment benefit will be carefully considered by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney), the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, and myself.
My hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) and for Ludlow (Mr. Cockeram) made a plea for financial sanity. I have especial respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow because of his expertise in the business and commercial world. He had made it clear that he is not willing to support a bottomless pit. I remind my hon. Friend that these are difficult times. There is a strike and the Government are determined that the industry should be supported until it is able to return to viability. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that there is no security in permanent dependence on subsidy from the taxpayer, and the Government are determined to end that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood gave us some important information on what was promised in advance to men taking early retirement. I shall consider that carefully.
The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) made some good points about NCB (Enterprise) Ltd. and the comparison with steel. I benefited from that for my constituents who worked at Shotton. I recognise the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) to the effect that the perspective should be more ambitious, but let us take one step at a time. The hon. Gentleman told the House that one of his 753 constituents suffered loss through being abroad at the relevant time. However, the scheme was changed in April and it may be that that is no longer the position.
I do not have time to cover all the other matters that were raised in the debate, but I shall write to those involved. One feature that has greatly impressed me since I took over responsibility for our great coal industry is the sense of pride that is felt by everyone connected with it. I share that sense of pride and I am impatient to see the rebuilding process start as quickly as possible. First, the sad, damaging and unnecessary dispute must end. The one honourable way to proceed would be for the NUM to observe its great deomocratic tradition and put the offer to a ballot. That offer is described as having been the most generous ever made to miners since nationalisation. Those who say that the NCB has not conceded ignore the facts—a guaranteed job for every mine worker who wants to stay in the industry, no compulsory redundancies and the highest redundancy benefits in western Europe, a pay increase to keep miners well ahead of average industrial wages, continuing investment in the industry's future, and an undertaking to examine the 4 million tonnes reduction proposed in March and to consider the future of those five pits under the industry's review procedures to which is now added an enterprise scheme to help bring new jobs to mining communities. That is a very generous offer.
§ It being three hours after the first motion had been entered upon, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to the order [23 November], to put the Questions necessary to dispose of the motions relating to the coal industry.
§ The House divided: Ayes 105, Noes 2.754
|Division No. 20]||[1.35 am|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Hargreaves, Kenneth|
|Ashby, David||Harvey, Robert|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Hawksley, Warren|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Hayes, J.|
|Budgen, Nick||Hind, Kenneth|
|Carttiss, Michael||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Cope, John||Holt, Richard|
|Cormack, Patrick||Hooson, Tom|
|Couchman, James||Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.||Hunt, David (Wirral)|
|Durant, Tony||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)|
|Dykes, Hugh||Jones, Robert (W Herts)|
|Fenner, Mrs Peggy||King, Roger (B'ham N'field)|
|Freeman, Roger||Knight, Gregory (Derby N)|
|Gale, Roger||Lawler, Geoffrey|
|Galley, Roy||Lester, Jim|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Lightbown, David|
|Gow, Ian||Lilley, Peter|
|Gregory, Conal||Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)||Lord, Michael|
|Ground, Patrick||Macfarlane, Neil|
|Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)||MacGregor, John|
|Maclean, David John||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Major, John||Stern, Michael|
|Malins, Humfrey||Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)|
|Marshall, Michael (Arundel)||Stevens, Martin (Fulham)|
|Mather, Carol||Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)|
|Maude, Hon Francis||Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)|
|Merchant, Piers||Stradling Thomas, J.|
|Meyer, Sir Anthony||Sumberg, David|
|Miller, Hal (B'grove)||Taylor, Rt Hon John David|
|Mills, Iain (Meriden)||Thompson, Donald (Calder V)|
|Mitchell, David (NW Hants)||Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)|
|Moynihan, Hon C.||Thurnham, Peter|
|Nelson, Anthony||Tracey, Richard|
|Neubert, Michael||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Walden, George|
|Page, Richard (Herts SW)||Wallace, James|
|Pawsey, James||Waller, Gary|
|Rathbone, Tim||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Rhodes James, Robert||Warren, Kenneth|
|Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon||Watson, John|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)||Watts, John|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Whitney, Raymond|
|Ryder, Richard||Wolfson, Mark|
|Sackville, Hon Thomas||Wood, Timothy|
|Sainsbury, Hon Timothy||Woodcock, Michael|
|Sayeed, Jonathan||Yeo, Tim|
|Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Mr. Ian Lang and|
|Soames, Hon Nicholas||Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd.|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Mr. Tony Marlow and|
|Mr. Eric Cockeram.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
That the draft Coal Industry (Limit on Deficit Grants) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 12th November, be approved.