§ Mr, Michael Fallon (Darlington)
I beg to move, in page 2, line 16, leave out '600' and insert '400'.
§ Mr. Speaker
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 2, in page 2, line 20, leave out '800' and insert '600'.
No. 3, in page 2, line 20, at end insert—'(6A) No order shall be made under subsection (6) above unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that supply of, and demand for, coal have been brought into reasonable balance.'I remind the House that these are narrow amendments.
§ Mr. Fallon
At least one reason for moving amendment No. 1 and speaking to amendments Nos. 2 and 3 is that not only is the Bill reported from the Committee unamended but no amendments were even considered in Committee. Therefore, there was a danger that had no amendments been tabled for the Report stage the full implications of clause 1 might have passed unnoticed.
The power in subsection (1)(a) is not unreasonable, in that the group deficit of the board in the last financial year is known or is at least capable of being ascertained because the date is past and the money has been spent. Beyond noting its enormity — the ceiling of £1.2 billion established in subsection (4)—there is not much that the House can do about it, having supported the Board and the Government in the year of the miners’ strike.
Whereas that may be so, the power in subsection (1)(b) is of a different order, in that it is in effect a licence to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for deficit funding of the board in two forthcoming years, one of which has 246 barely started. Deficit funding in itself has long been recognised as a far from ideal way of financing a nationalised industry. In this case, it means that in each of the two forthcoming financial years the incentives are to a certain extent removed for prudent financial management by the Board, for cost saving and for improvements in the Board's financial and budgetary arrangements as proposed by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report.
Confronted with such proposals, if the House is concerned, as it should be, with the enormous sums that are to be handed over to the Secretary of State for him to forward to the board, it seems that the House can do only one of two things—either it can tighten the monitoring arrangements to make the Board's budgetary performance month by month and quarter by quarter more accountable and more transparent to the House, or it can tighten the ceilings that my right hon. Friend has proposed in the Bill.
I accept that the former course is difficult. Day to day management of the board's affairs is a matter for the board and not for the Department, let alone for the House. The extent of the Board's technical insolvency is now such that I believe the House is looking to the Department and to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to assure us that the monitoring arrangements which already operate will be conducted more rigorously and on a more regular basis than for some years. I hope that he can persuade me that the moneys being provided are being properly and necessarily spent. I am sure he will be able to reassure me on the scope and persistency of the monitoring arrangements. Nevertheless, the second course, that of tightening the financial ceilings proposed in the subsection, is obviously the course that should be preferred.
Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 merely provide that the ceilings in each case be lowered. It may be objected that the reduction proposed is as arbitrary as the ceiling. However, there is some merit in reducing the original sum which is to be lost in the next two years—some £600 million, which is nearly 10 times the amount that De Lorean lost in four years, is to be lost by the coal board in two—by one third or some £200 million because that represents the minimum improvement that could be achieved in the board's performance by a greater liberalisation of its activities, by the expansion of its profitable activities, for example, the open-cast operation and by the improvement of its marketing and sales arrangements.
Amendment No. 3 seeks to make the final increase of £800 million — £600 million if amendment No. 2 is accepted by the House—dependent upon my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State satisfying himself that demand and supply in the industry had been brought into reasonable balance. That might be thought to be a rather radical amendment to be tabled on Report for a Bill of this kind, but it is a Bill which prints public money for the board—this time to the tune of some £2 billion—but which yet again does not touch upon the duties of the board as laid down in the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946.
As I believe I pointed out on Second Reading, the Bill is deficient in that it does not address itself to that problem. The board is charged under that Act with the duty of securing the efficient development of the coal industry. However, a board which has come to the House virtually 247 every two years has failed in its principal and mandatory duty and is as insolvent on its statutory basis as it is financially insolvent.
Ample evidence has existed from the late 1970s, from the report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1983 and the events of the past 12 months to show that the duties imposed in the 1946 Act are not just out of date but are redundant and that a new statutory framework is required.
Amendment No. 3 seeks only to provide the minimum foundation for that framework.
§ Mr. Fallon
I shall not give way, because I am just finishing.
I should have thought that it was a condition which any extractive industry would welcome and could meet. I hope that such a condition might be a preliminary to a more general review of the legislation underpinning the board, might also serve as a sign of good faith to an increasingly sceptical taxpayer and might find favour not just with my right hon. Friends but with the House.
§ Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)
I intervene briefly for the sake of accuracy and for the information of the House. It is not true that no amendment was tabled in Committee. A new clause was tabled. The hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) might have studied the report of the Committee stage before he made that statement.
§ Mr. Hardy
I did not wish to speak, because I had hoped that the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) would have been gracious enough to allow me to intervene merely to ask him to tell us what he means by the word "reasonable". He talks about the demand for coal being "brought into reasonable balance". My hon. Friends and I are eminently reasonable people. We should have liked to hear the hon. Gentleman's definition of "reasonable", as it may not be the same as ours.
One important factor in the decline in the demand for coal to which the hon. Gentleman did not refer is that the level of industrial activity in Great Britain today is much lower than was anticipated when some of the costly investment schemes began. For example, the demand for engineering steel made by the electric arc process, which indirectly consumed enormous quantities of coal, has been slashed dramatically and, therefore, the demand for coal has decreased dramatically. If unemployment remains at the real level of 4 million and industrial levels of activity stay as they are, our coal production may be higher than was planned a few years ago when unemployment was markedly less and industrial activity was markedly higher than today. The hon. Gentleman gives counsels of despair, because if there is not some economic and industrial recovery, it will not be the coal industry alone but his party that will be in jeopardy. The electorate, not just people from the coalfields, are not prepared to tolerate the current levels of activity and, therefore, the current low levels of demand for energy.
We must have an element of forward vision. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State, even in this benighted Government, has more vision and hope than the hon. Member for Darlington displayed in his sad and sorry amendments.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. David Hunt)
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) will concede that the careful consideration that a Committee gives to an important Bill of this nature cannot be judged by the number of amendments that may or may not have been tabled, because I believe that the Bill has had the most careful scrutiny. The fact that it has been greeted with approval by both sides of the House demonstrates the good will that is attached to this great industry, especially at this crucial stage. I can readily understand that hon. Members feel impatient with successive requests for additional deficit grant for the NCB. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington that these requests must cease. I reiterate the Government's firm objective that the NCB, like any other commercial enterprise, should earn a satisfactory return on its assets in real terms after payment of social grants. Only by returning to profitable enterprise and operation can the NCB offer lasting jobs and good wages to those employed in the industry.
It is in the interests of no one, whatever his political views, for the NCB to be dependent upon continuing handouts from the taxpayer. There is a pressing need to put matters right, to regain markets and to recover lost ground. During this period of reconstruction, it is right that the Government should continue to support the coal industry in the manner that we propose in this legislation.
The figures proposed in the Bill give an upper limit of £600 million on deficit grant payments for 1985–86 and 1986–87. Although the Bill provides for that ceiling to be raised by up to £200 million, in the first instance we look to the NCB to live within the £600 million. Any increase beyond that level must be subject to debate in the House. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington recognises that it is still too soon for the NCB to assess with any precision how fast production can be restored and those important markets rewon. I very much hope that we shall soon see the end of all industrial action in the industry so that everyone can move together in the right direction. In the meantime, it will be difficult to arrive at precise estimates of the level of loss this year and next. The figures in the Bill are no more than a framework within which the board must operate. We believe that £600 million is, in the first instance, a sensible and realistic ceiling. I shall expect the NCB to do everything it can to remain within that figure.
I move to the other comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington. Clearly, balancing supply with demand is one essential part of the NCB's return to viability. It figures in the objectives given by my predecessor in this office and given to successive chairmen of the board. For the coal industry to be profitable and to be able to provide lasting jobs for its employees, it is essential that the key problems of excess capacity and the high cost of uneconomic pits be tackled.
However, it would be wrong to link that aim to the provisions for deficit grant, as amendment No. 3 does. As I have told the House several times, we have given the National Coal Board the objective of breaking even without the need for deficit grants by 1987–88. That must be our central goal. If we are to secure the future of the industry, bringing supplyand demand into balance is 249 clearly an important component of the task. But other factors must be included, such as productivity, efficiency, reducing costs and achieving a proper return on assets.
Moreover, I must tell my hon. Friend that it is not for the Secretary of State for Energy to judge the future demand for coal and to require the NCB to tailor its production accordingly. Those judgments are the responsibility of the NCB. The Government's role is to set the objectives, not to specify in detail the means of achieving them.
Officials from my Department and the National Coal Board meet regularly every month to review the year's figures and especially to compare performance against forecasts. All the figures supplied by the NCB to the Department of Energy, as the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) will know, are subject to thorough and critical scrutiny. Detailed financial planning and monitoring is, of course, a matter for the National Coal Board. However, I stress to the House that the public expenditure implications are such that we must be satisfied about the overall financial position.
I share the anxiety expressed on both sides of the House that the present state of the coal industry serves neither the taxpayer nor those who work in the industry. But the problems can be solved. We have given the NCB the firm objective of breaking even without deficit grant by 1987–88, and we expect it to meet that objective. But in the meantime it is right to make the deficit grant provisions set out in the Bill. I hope that, in the light of my comments, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington will withdraw the amendment.
§ Mr. Fallon
I am sure that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) will wish to check exactly what I said. I did not say that amendments were not tabled, but that amendments were not considered by the Committee, which is very different. I should tell the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) that I accept that measuring the reasonableness will be a difficult concept, but I did not rule out an increase in demand. What I wished to establish through amendment No. 3, which I notice he did not completely reject, was some relationship between supply and demand, whether supply increases or demand increases.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his assurances. I agree with him that the framework is there, although we might disagree about how tight it is. I especially welcome his expectation that the board's expenditure should remain within the lower figure in clause 1 for as long as possible, and the way in which he dealt with amendment No. 3. He did not seem to rule out the importance of the relationship between supply and demand, although I accept that the principal balance should not necessarily be linked with the deficit grant in the way that it must be to meet the technical requirements of the Bill.
Having said that, and with the assurances from my hon. Friend on the monitoring arrangements and the thorough scrutiny that he has promised, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. David Hunt.]
§ Mr. Eadie
The Opposition were conscious on Second Reading and in Committee that the industry badly needs 250 this money. Because of that, we have given the Bill a fair wind. Because of the Bill's financial implications, however, hon. Members were able to debate the coal industry.
The Minister has made little attempt to answer the points that have been raised. We asked about investment, new pit sinkings, power station generation from coal, the pit closure programme and the statement of the chairman of the National Coal Board which appeared in the: Sunday Telegraph of 10 March. We asked about manpower envisaged for the industry, about the output that is anticipated during the next five years, how many pits will be left and, of course, what the Government are doing about victimised miners.
I said on Second Reading that we could understand the Minister not being able to answer all of our questions in his winding-up speech but that he might like to write to me or deal with the issues that had been raised in Committee. Anyone who glances at the Minister's speech in the second sitting of the Committee will be struck by the poverty of his reply. I have had no letter from the Minister. We are therefore entitled to charge him with failing to give the information for which we asked and for allowing the chairman of the NCB to walk all over the Department of Energy.
As to the victimised miners, I quoted the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946, the consultation and the conciliation procedures; and all we got was the bald statement that they did not apply during the strike. There was no attempt to say why victimised miners cannot be represented and have their cases dealt with in accordance with natural justice. The Minister and the Secretary of State echo the line of the chairman of the NCB more than common sense. Their line has been that victimised miners had recourse to industrial tribunals.
Ministers seem to sit back with their arms folded, pleased that they have given the House the advantage of their worldly wisdom. I have news for them—they can start unfolding their arms right away. I attended the public sitting of the Select Committee on Employment to which Mr. MacGregor gave evidence, which makes it clear that, although an industrial tribunal found in favour of a victimised miner, the chairman was not prepared to give an assurance that he would reinstate the man.
I should add that Mr. MacGregor said to the Select Committee only what he told me personally at a meeting that I had with him. Industrial tribunals were further debased at that sitting of the Select Committee. I took down what the chairman of the NCB said in cross-examination. I hope I have it right. He said,I believe most of my employees are law abiding and therefore I do not need to go to industrial tribunals to find out what goes on. I would not want to insult them by thinking they are all criminals and would have to go through industrial tribunals.That is a disgraceful public statement.
§ Mr. Eadie
How long can the Minister support Mr. Ian MacGregor in his capacity as chairman of the NCB? I am asked why. Is the chairman of the NCB to be allowed to say that industrial tribunals, set up by the House of Commons, are the only bodies which can discuss criminals who have recourse to an industrial tribunal? That is disgraceful
251 The Minister said that he would take up individual cases of victimised miners. I questioned him yesterday at Question Time. I asked the Secretary of State for Energyfollowing representations to him for reinstatement of sacked miners arising from the miners' strike, how many have been reinstated as a consequence of inquiries to the National Coal Board.The Minister replied:I understand from the National Coal Board that of the 1,013 employees dismissed for offences related to the dispute, 373 have subsequently been re-employed." That was not an answer to the question which I asked.I came back and asked:Will the Minister tell us about the cases that have been referred to him?The Minister made specific promises at Second Reading and in Committee that he would take up the cases of victimised miners referred to him. I asked him how many cases he took up and in how many cases there was reinstatement. I said:In Scotland, he has failed abysmally, because no miner has been reinstated following a request by the Minister.The Minister replied:I have taken up every case that has been referred to me. I should tell the hon. Gentleman that all of us have been impressed by the responsibility of the vast majority of miners, who are now working together to repair the damage caused by the strike.—[Official Report, 3 June 1985; Vol. 80, c. 20.]
That is a classic example of doublethink. Even at the second attempt the Minister could not tell me how many victimised miners had been reinstated as a result of his request. That is deplorable.
We have been the rounds on the Scottish aspect of the problem. We have met the chairman of the board of Scotland, Mr. Wheeler. We have also met Mr. Ian MacGregor. We have met the Secretary of State for Energy and the Secretary of State for Scotland. Since the Department of Energy wishes to abdicate its responsibilities we are asking for a meeting with the Prime Minister.
I wish to put on record a letter sent to the Prime Minister by the Scottish group of Labour MPs. It reads:There is a great deal of disquiet about the high number of dismissals in the Scottish Area of the National Coal Board. There has not been a single re-instatement which is out of line with other areas, and there is a strong feeling that justice has not been seen to be done. It has been repeatedly said by NCB officials in Scotland that all dismissed miners were guilty of serious offences against working miners’ their families, or Board property. Recent written answers from the Solicitor-General for Scotland have established that in Scotland, of the first 603 people convicted as a result of the industrial dispute, only 38 involved offences of violence or vandalism. This does put a question mark against the circumstances in which many of the Scottish miners were dismissed. In the light of this, I ask if you would be prepared to meet a delegation from our Group to discuss the situation. Exchanges at Question Time give the impression that you too have been misinformed.The responsibility for misinforming the Prime Minister lies with the Department of Energy.
The letter continues:I am sure you appreciate that this is not an issue in which concern is confined to the Labour Movement, but it also shared by many Scottish Church Leaders and a call for re-consideration has come from three Chief Constables in Scotland. I hope, therefore, that you will agree to meet our delegation and look forward to your early reply.The letter is signed by the secretary of the Scottish Labour group. I am grateful for the tolerance of the House in listening to that quotation. It is deplorable that the sponsoring 252 Department is not able to inform the Prime Minister or do anything. It allows the chairman of the NCB to walk all over it, yet it is the sponsoring Department. A group in the House, having met every agency available in the House, has to go to the Prime Minister and tell her that she has been misinformed, and ask her for the opportunity to present her with the facts on victimised miners. That is an indictment of the Department.
The answers that we are getting are a classic example of what has been happening during the passage of the Bill. We suspect that the Minister cannot produce from anywhere in Britain a single case where his intervention has resulted in reinstatement for a victimised miner. When I referred to two cases, which I quoted on Second Reading, the Secretary of State told me that if I was dissatisfied I should take up the matter with the chairman of the NCB. If that is not an abdication of responsibility, I do not know what is.
The House is about to give the Bill its Third Reading in the knowledge that the industry is still gripped in an industrial dispute because NACODS feels that it has been betrayed by the NCB in relation to an agreement, described by the Government is sacrosanct, on a modified colliery procedure on pit closures. I mentioned yesterday at Question Time that the overtime ban, decided by a ballot vote of NACODS members, was costing the nation about £24 million every week. It is humiliating that the Secretary of State seems to be paralysed about taking any action to make the NCB keep its word, which was agreed in October 1984 under the aegis of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. The Government, with the NCB, claimed that conciliation and consultation were suspended during the strike. With the strike now over, they seem to be still buried. The Minister goes about the country speaking to miners in the language of conciliation and consultation, yet they are buried, and the Department stands back and allows the NCB to bury the spirit of conciliation and consultation.
This industry of ours—I say "of ours" because many of my hon. Friends, like myself, spent a lifetime in it before we were fortunate enough to be elected Members of this honourable House—is crying out to get back to normality. What are the Government doing about it? We do not know yet what output is expected of the industry. We do not know yet what manpower is expected to be retained. We do not know yet officially how much manpower will be shed, or in what areas, and we do not know how many pits will close, the numbers to be retained, or in what areas, despite the substantial sums of money involved in the Bill.
The Government's reluctance to give us information —I say this more with regret than with anything else— and the statement in the Bill about breaking even in two years lead us to believe that the Bill is designed to contract the coal industry. This is a pit closure Bill. It seeks to restrict coal production and cause job losses in many mining areas. The Minister is the third Minister responsible for the coal industry in the last six years. It is logical to assume—I say this without personal rancour —that he will not be in office to defend his handiwork when the Bill's life expectancy expires—[Interruption.] Conservative Members may giggle when I say that I make that remark without personal rancour, but I mean it. I speak to the Minister in his capacity not as an ordinary hon. Member, but as a member of the Government. Although the Minister may have left office in two years’ 253 time, many of my hon. Friends will still be here. We will be seeking to defend the industry because we believe that the nation needs a strong and powerful coal industry.
The Bill will involve the payment of large sums of money as a consequence of the miners’strike, yet the Government give little information to Parliament. I advise the Minister to read the analysis of the miners’ strike, by the Fraser of Allander Institute, which is not a predatory Left-wing organisation. The hon. Gentleman deceives himself and, more importantly, the House of Commons if he believes that there is now a proper industrial relations climate in the mining industry. Even at this late stage, we appeal to the Department of Energy, as the coal industry's sponsoring Ministry, to exert its authority, to deal with the problems of the NCB, and to get the industry back to normality.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
I shall detain the House for only a few minutes, but there are several points arising from the Bill that I wish to make.
As the House is aware, the Bill comes before us after 12 months of strife for miners and their families. That cannot be refuted by any hon. Member. In some coalfields, many members of management take the view that for the victor there should be the spoils. As a result, we now have the worst industrial relations in the mining industry since I joined it 46 years ago. If Conservative Members do not believe that, it is obvious that they do not understand what is happening in the mining communities.
There are several points to which we have a right to expect answers, even though the Minister failed to answer some of them in Committee. If it is the Government's policy that the mining industry should break even by 1986-87, they should tell us what that means. How many men will remain in the industry and how many pits will be closed? I cannot accept that the Minister is unable to give these figures, because I am sure that the chairman of the NCB has totted them up and knows full well how many pits will be closed by 1986–87. I believe that the figure is far in excess of any figures which have previously been given to the House.
The Government's policy is wiping out mining communities. In my own area — and some of these decisions have been taken since the strike ended—seven out of 10 pits are now on the closure list. I shall give the names of the pits, and if my information is wrong, I invite the Minister to refute it. The closure of the Ackton Hall pit, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall), has been announced. All that the small township of Featherstone has is that pit. In the late 1800s, miners in it fought for their jobs and some were shot and killed by soldiers for defending them.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)
So were the Luddites in the textile industry.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
I shall treat that remark with the scorn it deserves.
When the pit closes, that small town will have nothing left.
The other pits to be closed are the Savile colliery, the Glasshoughton colliery and the Ledston Luck colliery. Wheldale colliery and Fryston colliery are to go within four years. The Government are wiping out not only the 254 pits, but their communities. When the pits disappear the communities will be in a similar position to that which they faced during the strike. The local economy will be destroyed. During the strike the local chamber of commerce showed that if the pits closed, between 25 and 30 per cent. of all businesses would close. During the strike the local economy was denied the income of miners, and now it will be denied their income through pit closures, which are part of the Government's economic policy.
The House has a right to know what the Government intend to put in the place of those communities, which will face such devastating blows. Do not tell me that between £5 million and £10 million has been made available to the National Coal Board enterprise scheme. We need clarification of that. I was disappointed that the Minister would not accept new clause 1 in Committee, when my hon. Friends asked for that sum to be increased to £50 million. That is not a large sum, considering the great tasks that face the mining communities. It is not good enough to say, "We shall meet the demand when it comes."
What is the NCB enterprise board doing? Is it waiting for people to borrow a specified sum to set up a company? The areas involved are not attractive to other industries. Those areas receive no Government grants. The Government cannot deny that mining communities will be wiped out. They have a responsibility to put something else in their place.
I admit that for many of the older miners—men of 50 and upwards—the blow will be cushioned by the Bill and by the redundancy payments scheme, but what is to happen to the youngsters in mining communities who would usually have found their way into the mining industry, bearing in mind that, apart from a few odd pockets here and there, there are no other industries for them? What are we creating in the mining communities where youngsters can see no hope whatever of employment? They are not asking for attractive employment; they are asking for a chance to go into a hole in the ground to work, because there is nothing else in those areas. The Government's policy is denying them that chance.
The Government have an obligation towards the mining areas. If they fail them, they will be storing up trouble which it will not be possible to control. I hope that the Minister will do better then he did in Committee and answer some of the questions that I have put to him. It is not sufficient to say that we have Selby in the north Yorkshire area and that men who wish to go there can do so rather than be made redundant. That argument is wearing a bit thin, because I understand that we are talking of about 3,500 or 4,000 members in that coalfield, and there are about 16,000 men in the north Yorkshire airea.
If the jobs of 10,000 of those men are to be destroyed, something must be put in their place for the youngsters who are leaving school without any hope whatever. If the Government fail to consider those youngsters they will have failed miserably. Ian MacGregor was appointed to butcher the industry and the livelihood of men who have relied on the pits all their working lives. The Government are destroying something that no one should have the power to destroy.
§ 11.1 pm
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
We are addressing the question whether the Bill should be now 255 read the Third time. Although several criticisms have been made of it, I do not thank that any hon. Member will say that the Bill should not be read the Third time, or that anyone will vote against the motion. I think it is recognised that the money has to be expended in the industry. The one hon. Member that I thought might argue for the opposite course is the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon), but perhaps even he will not go so far as to resist the expenditure of the money.
For the expenditure of the money to be worth while, the working atmosphere in the industry has to be improved. Those who were critical of the strike strategy into which the National Union of Mineworkers locked itself might, I suppose, have expected that the factor that would militate against getting a better atmosphere in the industry after the strike would be the attitude of the majority in the NUM —those who resented the fact that others worked during the strike and disagreed totally with that strategy. It might have been expected that the real difficulty would come from that quarter, and that many problems would be faced in many pits, with some of the ghoulish threats uttered during the strike being carried out, and with men being prevented from working after the strike because they had worked during it. But I think we all know that that is not what has happened. Many of those threats proved to be as empty as they were foolish.
Unfortunately, there is now another problem, and it is being created by the NCB itself. In many areas of the industry, the board is in two ways preventing the establishment of the atmosphere that it needs to have in order to get the industry back on its feet. The first is the board's handling of the sacking of miners who were accused of vandalism or violence during the dispute. It is beyond argument that the board's handling of the matter has caused sufficient concern for criticism to extend far beyond those who supported the strike or who are associated with the coal industry. It includes church leaders, chief constables and others who express reservations and doubt about the board's attitude. The difference in attitude between different areas of the board illustrates that it is possible to handle the problem in better ways than has happened in some areas, notably in Scotland. Unless there is a pulling back from the collision course on which the NCB is involved in certain areas, the re-establishment of a decent working atmosphere in the industry will not be possible.
Secondly, the NCB has given the impression that it is seizing the opportunity provided by what for the board was a successful outcome of the strike, to bypass and avoid any procedures which will in any way slow down the process of closing collieries. I say that despite partly sharing the view of both the NCB and the Government that some parts of the industry's capacity are such a drain on it that they represent an obstacle to the future success of the industry.
There are pits which have to be closed, but in recent weeks the NCB has made it harder for the right atmosphere to be created in which the industry can be restructured and get going again. Various devices have been used. The excuse has been used of damage done during the strike. The claim has also been made that a colliery is not being closed but de-manned. For example, Bates colliery in Northumberland is not being closed, but voluntary 256 redundancy and the opportunity for miners to go elsewhere are bleeding the colliery of its labour force. It will reach the point where it has no future.
§ Mr. Beith
I was using the original decision of the National Coal Board about Bates colliery to illustrate that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Initially, it avoided announcing its decision to close Bates colliery by using the redundancy procedure to reduce the number of men working in the colliery so that closure would eventually become inevitable. That procedure was widely and understandably seen as bypassing the review procedure. The new NACODS dispute is precisely about that issue. A union which adopted a highly responsible attitude throughout the dispute is now involved in a separate dispute over colliery closures. It demonstrates clearly that the NCB has handled this aspect badly, too. Unless the NCB pulls back on both those matters, the opportunity to get the industry going again will have been lost.
There must be investment in the future of this industry. As I argued at question time on Monday, there is no sense in closing collieries with high production costs unless one creates capacity with low production costs. Therefore, it is essential to open collieries in areas which provide such an opportunity. I argued that coastal collieries in the north-east would provide that opportunity. The Minister has been to Ellington recently and has seen what has been achieved there. I have pointed out to him that, if another colliery were to be opened at Amble, more opportunities of that kind could be provided. Such collieries would provide employment in that area and they would also be within daily travelling distance for men in Blyth who have lost employment opportunities through the closure of Bates. They would also provide employment for men in other parts of the north-east. We must invest in new capacity in order to create a competitive future for the industry.
We must also invest in the communities which will suffer as a result of closures. That is why it was right for my right hon. Friends the leaders of the Social Democratic Party and of my own party and also for the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) to argue that the scale of investment in NCB (Enterprises) Ltd. must be much higher than the Government have conceded so far. The pace of development of that organisation must be sufficient to ensure that it can make effective use of much bigger financial investment.
The coalfield communities are ready to take up every opportunity and to explore every avenue in order to provide help where it is known that closures are to take place. Differences about the strike strategy have been set aside in the colliery communities. People who adopted different views during the strike are getting together on the principle that, whatever happens, they must work for new employment to be provided in those areas where closures are to take place. The NCB and the Government must match that determination by investment in communities whose future will not lie in coal mining. It is a tremendous task, but if it is not undertaken the social damage caused to a crucial part of our nation will be enormous.
§ 11.9 pm
§ Mr. Jack Thompson
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I should like to refer to a few of the points that he has made and follow them through. They relate to the expenditure of £1.2 billion that is provided for in the Bill. Having worked in the industry for many years, I believe that this considerable sum of money ought to be used in a slightly different way from that suggested by the National Coal Board. The NCB can be criticised for the way in which it has spent the money that was made available to it in the past.
I hope that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Ryman) will allow me to move into their constituencies, because my constituency is between the two. I have only one colliery left in my constituency, and in the whole of Northumberland, since 1947, we have gone from having 70 pits to five. I accept that some were closed under a Labour Government, but most of them were closed because of exhaustion. It is a very old coal field—the Romans took coal from it, and we have taken coal from it ever since.
Some of the collieries that were closed are now being open casted. The economic argument about that is fair and reasonable—one can argue the pros and cons of open casting certain coal or continuing to deep mine it. My constituency has the biggest open cast site in the whole of Britain but the coal that is being taken is the residue left when the collieries closed.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed spoke of the coastal pits, which are a different proposition. Some time ago, a colleague of mine was sitting on the same Committee of which I was a member. He was unaware of the facts of the coal industry. I spent 20 minutes trying to convince him that we took coal from under the sea, but I did not succeed. Many people are not aware that one can extract coal from the sea bed. It is common practice on the north-east coast.
In the constituency of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, Lynemouth colliery used a particular technique for working under the sea called a board and pillar system. In that, one uses coal pillars in the working to support the sea bed. The planners decided to carry out total extraction. Some of the coal fell behind the face workings and caused a spontaneous combustion. There was a fire, and the southern part of the mine was closed. Before the fire started, the chairman of the coal board said that the mine had 80 years’ worth of reserves left. The workings of the southern part had to be flooded to prevent the fire from spreading. The mine was closed in 1983, with the loss of 500 jobs, although some of the men were redeployed.
Those jobs were not lost because of the inefficiency of the miners, who at that time had the record for productivity, in a profitable pit. During the strike, the illusion was given that where mines were being closed because they were uneconomic, that was the fault of the miners. It was not. It was because of poor geological and dangerous conditions, bad management and planning and so on.
Another reason is the definition of uneconomic pits. Last week, the Minister visited a mine that in 1950 was not worked because it was held to be uneconomical. The coal was available to the private mine owners, but they did 258 not use it. However, the coal could be used for power stations, and after the second world war, the demand for that market began to build up, and the pit became economic. Now, the workings are six miles out under the North sea and about 1.25 million tonnes of coal a year comes out of the pit.
What will the future give us? The Bates colliery, in the other side of my constituency, in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley, has about 29 million tonnes of coal, again under the North sea. The NUM has not said that—the NCB has. Apparently, no consultation was made about the closure of that pit. That situation—and I refer again to open cast—is not a possibility. The coal reserves will be written off completely. The mine must be closed. It is six miles under the North sea. When that colliery closes, the working and the reserves that are left will be flooded and lost for ever unless at some time in the future another King Canute can push back the North sea. With those reserves having been written off and with new technology coming along and new developments almost daily in the coal industry, we have to look to new markets in the future.
I will be interested to hear the Minister's comments about how much of this £1.2 billion will be invested in experimentation and research into issues like gasification of coal, liquefaction of coal, the fluoride bed combustion systems and new techniques and ideas as to the ways of using coal. In my view, future generations will look rather askance upon that pit closure and the loss of those coal reserves, given the views and attitudes of the current intake. We cannot in future afford to write off the coal reserves that we are writing off these days in the old mining areas. It is too much to give away. It is a sheer waste.
I am somewhat sceptical about the proposals that are being put forward now in terms of opening new mining areas such as the Selby coalfield and areas in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire at the expense of the old coalfields. some of this coal can be economically worked. At the Bates colliery in February 1984, before the miners dispute, there were discussions about reducing the manpower and about the new equipment that was available. Experimentation had taken place in that colliery because of the bad roof conditions, and there was success in coping with the conditions. Just over one year later in May 1985, the divisional director of the coal board made an announcement that the colliery was going to close. What had intervened, of course, was the miners dispute. One wonders whether it is a question of revenge or victimisation in terms of the attack, as I would describe it, upon the miners who work in that colliery.
We have to consider carefully the value of the coal industry as a whole. I read in a recent report produced by an independent source that the demand for coal in the next 15 to 20 years will go up because the other resources are going down. The other facilities of oil and gas, but excluding nuclear energy, are going down, so there are two options, coal or nuclear energy. Massive resistance is building up in the country towards nuclear energy, so we are left with coal.
§ Mr. Fallon
The last two speeches reflect the widespread concern of all parties with regard not only to the resources that have been provided under the Bill but 259 to the way in which those resources have been allocated in the past and the way in which they are likely to be allocated by the board and by the Government in future.
I have to disappoint the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in that I never had any intention of voting against the Bill tonight, but I should certainly vote for it with greater confidence if I were clearer about the future of the industry for which these resources have been provided.
While the scale and scope of the industry—and this point has been made by Opposition Members—remain so uncertain, and while its ownership, structure, management and marketing remain more or less the same as they were when it was established nearly 40 years ago, I cannot see how we can offer those who work in the industry any longer-term guarantee of job security and satisfaction under the new arrangements than we were able to offer them under a loss-making nationalised industry in the past.
I fully understand why my hon. Friend has been unable to go into these matters during the long and tragic miners' dispute or, indeed, during the passage of the Bill, whose primary purpose obviously is to restore the finances of the board as a consequence of that dispute. However, I hope that when he sums up, or in some future debate, he will give us some inkling of the Department's longer term thinking. I should like to know, for example, what is happening to the sensible recommendations that were made by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in its report in 1983; when the review of the opencast operations is Likely to be completed, and what the implications are for the licensed operators and local authorities; when the small mines are likely to be further liberalised; and, above all, what steps can be taken to give the miners a much more genuine and realistic stake in the industry.
§ 11 pm
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
To a certain extent, I sympathise with the Minister. I believe him to be the piggy in the middle. I have heard the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister say from the Dispatch Box — not so much now, but in the past two years—that uneconomic pits must close.
I sympathise with the Minister because he is not really party to that decision—he must, as the Minister with responsibility for coal, just get on with it. I give him credit for having got around the industry. He has been to see what it is all about and how it works. Recently he said that he had visited a certain pit. Indeed, in Committee he said that he had made visits to other pits. He has even been to a school for Nottinghamshire miners, talking to them about the mining industry.
The Minister knows as well as I do that I and many of my colleagues worked for many years in the mining industry, and we experienced the bad old days and the good days. Many of us were responsible for setting up first-class industrial relations in the industry — and it worked. The miners participated in all decisions at local, area and national level. That has been destroyed by the Government's policy on the energy requirements of the nation.
The real problem is that bloke from America. The sooner that we return to proper discussion about where the mining industry is going, the better we will all be. But we 260 need to get rid of the shackles. Make no mistake: the men in the industry will not play ball with a deceitful chairman of the NCB dictating to the board, the area directors and the men. My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) was correct: the chairman is walking over everybody. The Secretary of State and the Department are allowing that to happen. That can go on for so long, but then it will blow up in his face. There is ill feeling in the mining industry at pit level.
I wonder who is in charge. I have listened to Ministers and I have read some of the things that the chairman of the NCB has said, and I am convinced that he is walking over everybody. It is time that he went. I am sure that the Minister believes that in his inner self. We must return to some normality.
The Government are living in cloud-cuckoo-land if they believe that the mining industry will break even in 1986–87. It will not work. I worked in a big hitter with a production of 1 million tonnes a year and big profits, but it had a bad year with low production and its profits disappeared. That can happen to any highly profitable pit at any time. I can remember that when we went back after our fortnight's holiday the pit was never normal. We lost strip after strip of the coal face before we got back to normal. Sometimes it took a month.
The hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) had the audacity to submit amendments to reduce the amounts proposed by the Government. He has not got a clue. He is talking about finances and not about pit production, pit communities or how the industry works. He does not know the facts. If he had had experience in the mining industry, he would not have submitted those amendments. He would have had a completely different point of view. My hon. Friends and I are expressing views gained from our experience in the mining industry over many years.
The break-even policy that is proposed is almost unachievable. Two or three years ago the Prime Minister withdrew a long list of proposed pit closures. The hon. Member for Darlington was not here then. More money was given to the National Coal Board to help it on its way. Those pit closures were not carried out. Many were withdrawn after argument from this side of the House and also from the Government side about what the Government wanted to do. If the Government intend to follow that policy now, they will achieve their figures, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) said, they will destroy mining communities and put more people on the dole.
It is all right to talk about the redundancy money that will be provided, but that is not the be all and end all of it. A pit in my constituency is to close within eight weeks. Just down the road in the Broxtowe constituency another pit is to close at about the same time. Those pits are not far apart. When they are both gone there will be no other employment in that area. In the past when the youngsters left school they went to those pits, but they will not be able to do that in future. Where will all those youngsters get jobs? What will we do with the youngsters who cannot get work in that area?
The Government may talk about £10 million enterprise money. When I heard that those pits were to close, I went immediately to the chief executive of the district council to get him to apply for enterprise money. I knew that the board had made up its mind, with the agreement of the trade union, to close the pits; I must admit that the union had agreed.
261 There will be no jobs for the kids leaving school unless additional or alternative industry is brought in.
There does not seem to be any reaction; I have not heard a word. This has been going on for weeks. I am waiting for the chief executive to tell me what will happen. The board representative has been in the area, but we are still waiting to hear what will happen. No action has been taken and the closure is only eight weeks away.
The Government and the board need speeding up. The £10 million will go nowhere. We need much more money. What worries me more than anything is from where we will get the coal when we need it if the Government and the board get away with the pit closures that they want. I can remember the days, which are not that long ago, when we could not produce enough coal to supply the nation's industry. What did we do? We imported it and affected the balance of payments. I believe that the extension of nuclear power is behind the Government's thinking. That is what I believe is wrapped up in the Government's policy.
I have a good memory and I remember the Prime Minister talking about 10 new nuclear power stations. Other people might have forgotten that, but I have not. I have remembered it because I believe in the mining industry and the country's energy requirements.
If the Government want to expand nuclear power, they had better have another think because people are reacting against such policies. The Sizewell proposal has been going for a long time and still has not been agreed. Inquiries go on and on. It is all right to accept a pressurised water reactor which people in the United States will not accept because of what happened at Three Mile Island. It is said, "Let them dump it on our shores because we will have it." We need only one mistake because we are a small island. We shall be in one hell of a mess with the problems involved with nuclear power.
I hope that I have spelt out my feelings about the Bill. I am not rejecting it; I am accepting it because it means more money for the industry to help it on its way. The Government must think again about the nation's future energy requirements. We shall need every cobble that we can produce in the future. If we do not have the pits to produce those cobbles, the future speaks for itself.
I am trying to look at the matter sensibly. I am not a Luddite. I have worked in the industry. I know how it works. I understand it from A to Z. I have worked on every job underground. I know what I am talking about. I have served on numerous committees to discuss progress with the National Coal Board and any face that we should stop. Before we stopped one face, we opened another to replace it so that the men could transfer.
The board guarantees a job elsewhere to any man who wants to stay in the industry when his pit closes. The Minister did not say at the Dispatch Box or in Committee that if a coal face worker on £200 a week transfers from a pit that is to close to another he will enjoy that £200 a week at the other pit. That man has a reduction in his standard of living. There is an agreement whereby he is protected for 12 months, but after that if he is in a lower paid job he is on lower earnings. People are thinking about that again. It is an encouragement for them to take redundancy. The manpower therefore decreases. That is what the board and the Government want. The result will be that we shall be short of the coal that we shall need desperately in the future.
262 I do not know how many times I have said that the Government have closed down industry. That is why they are not calling on coal for their energy requirements. The Minister says that slowly but surely industries are returning and they need coal. What will happen when industries clamour for coal, which is the cheapest fuel that we can provide? From where will the Government obtain that fuel? We shall import again. The Under-Secretary of State shakes his head. We have imported before and, if we are not careful, it will happen again.
I am putting over this message in the best way I can. I know what I am talking about, and that is why I felt that I had to make this speech. I played a part in Committee. Some answers were given, but some questions were not answered in the way hon. Members required. There were difficulties in some matters, and the Minister was not able to give the requested answers. I understand that, because we have been told that we cannot have the answers to questions that we have asked about welfare benefits. I understand what is going on in the Government's mind and why they are deceiving the workers in the industry and the nation generally about the mining industry.
I wanted to be brief, but I have not been. I am sorry about that. I wanted to get this off my chest. I wanted to remind certain Conservative Members—not the Under-secretary of State, because I do not think that he believes this — who believe that we are a load of rabble and Luddites who are just having a go at the Government that we have thought this matter through sincerely. The Government are going in the wrong direction. The NCB is also going in the wrong direction, but it is supposed to be under the direction of the Department of Energy. That is not true. It is the other way round—the NCB is running the Government. I hope that there will be a change. I hope that the Government will get the message that the NCB will have great difficulty in achieving the objectives that the Government want the industry to achieve. I hope that at some time the Government will accept what is said and will change their mind so that the coal mining industry will flourish and we shall produce every cobble of coal that is required. It is a matter not just of the United Kingdom's requirements but of winning overseas markets.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
I hope that the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) does not feel that Government Members have any doubt about his sincerity. Those of us who have listened to him in debates over a number of months recognise that he speaks with great sincerity. We certainly would not class him as in the rabble-rouser category. However, I preferred his style of delivery tonight to his previous style. The sotto voce approach is more compelling than the megaphone-type amplified argument that we have heard in the past.
I disagreed with much of what the hon. Member for Ashfield said. I hope that, as we accept his sincerity, he will accept the sincerity of Conservative Members which has been well articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon). My hon. Friend has spoken for a great many Conservative Members who, throughout the life of this Parliament, have felt great concern about the level of public expenditure. We have had great debates on a succession of issues. There were, for example, many outcries and great agonising about the savings of £39 million in the education budget. Tonight we are talking 263 about expenditure of £1,200 million in the current financial year and possibly £800 million in the next financial year. I know that Opposition Members accept that those are substantial sums. Therefore, I hope that they understand that Conservative Members who express views about the Bill are interested in the industry but are also interested in the wider issue of public expenditure and the need to curtail it, and the need to ensure that the industry gets back to financial equilibrium so that we can allocate resources to other areas. To spend this volume of money on one industry is to concentrate resources somewhat unhappily, when there are so many other claims on the public purse.
Although much anxiety has been expressed by Conservative Members, we welcome the commitment made by my hon. Friend the Minister tonight to ensure that the board makes every endeavour to meet the targets that have been set. I sympathise with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Ashfield that the target of reaching a balance by 1986–87 will be hard to achieve, but I wish my hon. Friend and the board every success. We shall give them every encouragement to do so.
There has been much rhetoric from Opposition Members about the destruction of the industry. However, the figures prove that the Government, far from being anxious to destroy the industry, have demonstrated their commitment to it by the sheer size of the grant that we are discussing. A comparison of this sum with the amount that was spent by the Labour Government makes it clear that the Government have committed themselves to the industry with a large slug of taxpayers’ money. In 1978–79, total grants were £172 million; in 1983–84, the figure was £1,146. Those figures demonstrate clearly the concern of the Government, especially when they are set against the Government's determined efforts to restrain public expenditure. It is not true that we are talking about the destruction of the industry.
I understand how Opposition Members and the mining communities feel about the destruction of communities where the one industry is the pit. Since the war, in my constituency, 10,000 jobs have gone from the coal industry, and not one day's strike has been undertaken over those losses. I accept that, in the past, in the west midlands there have been other jobs to go to, and that that is not true of localities where, if the one pit closes, there are no other jobs. However, in some areas, major employing industries have closed, and those affected have not had the same privileges as are available to miners who have been made redundant.
The £10 million that has been allocated to NCB (Enterprise) Ltd is a fairly modest amount when compared with the sums that we are discussing tonight. If the board can live within the £800 million target, the amount by which it can do so might go some way towards increasing the money that will be made available to the enterprise scheme to enable communities that are adversely affected to set up industries, a good example of which is Corby. I make that positive suggestion to my hon. Friend, which he will not be able to deal with now, but which I hope he will bear in mind.
We should all be glad if the industry could live within the proposed limits and thereby make funds available to the enterprise scheme.
264 In 1978–79, £17.6 million was spent in redundancy payments. That figure rose to £202.1 million in 1984.
§ Mr. Howarth
I accept that, but the sums have increased considerably. It is also important to note that the rates have also increased considerably. Many of my constituents look longingly at people in the coal industry who have been able to take voluntary redundancy and who have received large sums and continuing payments. Such facilities have not been made available to people in equally important industries. I hope that those who have been made redundant understand that they have been accorded something that has not been available to any other group of workers. That in itself is a tribute to what the Government have done for the industry. Opposition Members must recognise that the sums available to miners have increased. I hope that they accept that that is not a sign of destruction.
The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) mentioned victimised miners. There are working miners in my constituency who suffered victimisation and continue to suffer victimisation, even in pits which worked throughout the dispute. I hope that he shares my anxiety for those who have received pretty rough treatment from some of those who were not working. It would do his cause no end of good if he associated himself with that sympathy.
§ Mr. Hardy
The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) should recognise that, although there might have been redundancies and closures under Labour in the 1970's, they were uncomfortable and were like a bad cold which required medication. We now have amputation and provision for redundancy, however generous, can be described as an anaesthetic. When that anaesthetic wears off, the amputation remains. Our anxiety about extensive closures and redundancies concerns their crippling effect on our communities.
There is and must be a continuing obligation. In the 1950s, the 1960s and possibly before, those of us who felt that there should be economic diversification in the coalfields found obstacles because the NCB, which then paid much lower wages than it did after the 1972 and 1974 strikes, was fearful of losing manpower. The nation was therefore protected at the cost of inadequate diversification in the coalfields. That is why, when pits in our constituencies close today, there is little other work for our young people. It is right to treat their fathers, elder brothers and uncles decently, because they will never work again and we must be worried about the waste of men in their forties or early fifties, but our main concern is about the boys at school today. They will lack jobs and purchasing power. The lack of development of other industries and the creation of economic capacity will threaten the prospects of their sisters and brothers who would not work in the pits.
We shall not oppose the Bill, but I hope that the Minister has detected the latent optimism in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes). I share that optimism, despite my fears. The Minister will be optimistic about the prospects for the industry — about the 12.5 million tonnes capacity for Selby and the 12.5 million tonnes capacity from investment in and 265 reorganisation of existing collieries which will allow the board to produce coal more cheaply than it can from existing pits which are limited by their age.
If Selby and Belvoir go ahead and existing collieries are reorganised, coal will become much more competitive. If the Government pursue an intelligent energy policy they will seek to draw back into the coal market the 1,000 or more firms which could return to it. If that happened there could be a shortage of coal by the 1990s, despite the astonishing stocks which were built up before the dispute. Some Government Members are prepared to go to the world market to buy coal at its cheapest, but international coal prices might not always be lower and Britain might not always have the oil revenues to enable us to buy abroad. National strategic interest requires us to match our coal demand with home produced supplies.
I hope that the Minister will resist pressure from hon. Members such as the hon. Members for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) and for Cannock and Burntwood to ensure that we have the capacity to stand firm, meet our needs and save our overseas expenditure when the oil and gas have gone.
The lead time for the development of new power stations is long. I hope that the Government are not foolish enough to go along the PWR course, against which they have been warned, but we must be careful not to require the Minister to curtail support for the NCB if Government Members persist.
The basic reason for the large stocks of coal before the dispute was as much to do with Government economic policy in discouraging industrial activity and creating 4 million unemployed as through any fault of the NCB. Coal is a basic industry. If the economic infrastructure does not allow that industry to be profitable, it will feel the cold first and be relieved of it last.
I am delighted that the Government have recognised that the coal industry is important and must continue. I trust that the Government will ensure that the capacity of the industry is sufficient to serve the nation's needs when our oil and gas resources are diminished, and to provide the coal required for the basic chemical feedstock for industry.
Closing a steel works such as that at Corby to develop a funfair might be right in the short term, but we have to create wealth as well as spend it. If we are to retain a national capacity to create wealth, we have to retain a national coal industry of considerable size, although the hon. Member for Darlington, may not feel that to be a particularly reasonable proposition.
I am relieved that we have been discussing the Bill in recent weeks, because it has given many of my hon. Friends and I an opportunity to make public comment on matters that are exceedingly serious. Recent experience has probably given some reason for the Minister to accept that the views that we expounded in 1983 and the first weeks of 1984 were probably wiser than they were seen to be at the time. It is a pity that the 1984–85 coal dispute occurred and that that enormous cost was incurred—it could have been avoided. The experience since that strike ended has demonstrated the point that several hon. Members on both sides of the House have made in recent weeks, that the NCB's conduct since the strike has been unwise, there was an absence of magnanimity when it would have been entirely profitable, and there was a deceit, which was utterly contemptible, with regard to the agreement that was made with my association last autumn.
266 The Minister is aware of that, as are some other Conservative Members. In Committee, one of them described the coal board's behaviour as ham-handed and stupid. So it has been. It may have been worse than that. Conservative Members realise that last autumn my association was persuaded not to go into dispute with the board although it had secured an enormous majority for that purpose. The board came along and made an agreement that the Prime Minister described as sacrosanct. We have had some embroidery of the word, of its meanings and limitations, in the past few weeks. Repeatedly, Ministers, including the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, in all good faith at the Dispatch Box, gave absolute and categoric assurances that that agreement stood. As soon as the National Union of Mineworkers’ dispute appeared to end, the NCB decided, in my view deliberately, that it could ride a coach and horses through that agreement. That is no way for a public or even a private sector company to behave, to breach such agreements.
There have been further costs in the industry as a consequence of the industrial action taken by NACODS. It reached the view, as a result of a democratic exercise, that it could no longer trust the NCB, and was being treated with contempt. It believed that the agreement into which it had entered in all good faith and which I believe the Government had accepted with an element of integrity was treated with contempt by Hobart house.
The Minister may know as much as I do at this stage. I hope that the comments that have been made today will lead to a restoration of stability in the industry. I do not know whether that will happen. Much will depend on what happens next week. I do not know whether the Bill will come back to the House as their Lordships might not feel disposed to amend it. I hope that the Minister will use all the influence that he can bring to bear to ensure that when the NCB and the unions meet next week, the modified procedure will be established.
I know that the NCB does not particularly like that procedure. One reason was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson). As many of my hon. Friends who spent many years in the industry will know, miners have said repeatedly that sometimes in the past the NCB deliberately underinvested or misinvested to secure the failure and therefore the closure of a colliery that it wanted to get rid of. When they were in the pit, my hon. Friends knew a lot about the industry, and could have drawn attention to misinvestment or erroneous management by the NCB. The Minister may have formed the view over the past year or two that the coal board has its imperfections. It may be that there is some value for the community in the unions within the industry having that early warning capacity which is built into the agreement which the Prime Minister said was sacrosanct. I trust that that procedure will be rapidly established and that the NCB will be kept to the promise which it repeatedly made. Ministers have repeatedly referred to that procedure in the House and outside, but it now seems that by trickery and deceit the NCB is trying to find ways around the commitments which Ministers have properly and honourably made.
Our concern is that a coal industry must be retained. There are prospects for that industry of real size and importance, and we should not make short-term calculations which will bring long-term disadvantage.
267 At the same time, the fears that I and my hon. Friends have expressed about our communities are very real. Some Conservative Members sometimes imagine that the threat is merely to a few collieries in the peripheral coalfields. There is often talk about retaining capacity in the central area. The area of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), who made an important speech, is part of the central Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire area. So is my own constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield. I understand that later this week the south Yorkshire area will be told its fate.
If there are pit closures in my area, it will be at astonishing cost, because unemployment rates in parts of my constituency where such closures are possible are as high as anywhere in Britain, and whose closures could mean unemployment rates that are higher than in parts of Northern Ireland. If any Conservative Member thinks that the trouble in Northern Ireland is entirely religious in its basis, and that it has nothing to do with the appalling and obscene levels of unemployment there, he is guilty of extremely shallow and superficial consideration. Therefore, the need to invest in our areas to create the economic opportunity that is essential if we are to give hope to our young people is overridingly important.
I have looked at some of the documents provided by the coalfield campaign. This is a serious attempt to have a mature and sensible debate in order to escure economic steps that will give sustenance and succour to our areas. One of the studies carried out by Mr. John Winterton of Bradford university—I do not think he is any relation of Conservative Members of the same name—appears to recognise that 80 pits could be closed and 180,000 jobs lost within two or three years.
I calculate that if some people in the NCB have their way — those responsible for stimulating rumours to engender a new fear in the coalfield in recent weeks— my own area could see 5,000 coal jobs go within two or three years. One of the local newspapers has tried to telephone me because it cannot believe those figures, but I gather that it has looked at the possible pit closures in the locality and worked out that the total job losses would be slightly less than 5,000.
The Minister and my hon. Friends who represent mining communities are aware that redundancies do not occur only at collieries that are closed, because automation and change is taking place, and job contraction, even at successful collieries, is proceeding apace. I cannot set foot out of my home without encountering people in Wath upon Dearne where I live who are accepting redundancy.
On Saturday afternoon I got out of my car in the centre of Wath and the first man to whom I spoke and whom I have known all my life said that he had accepted redundancy and was leaving the following week. Another man for whom I have enormous respect, who is the sort of man that Conservative Members, who were slamming the mining communities last year, would not recognise as a miner, who is a devout member of the same church as me and who has run our scouts since he left the airborne forces after the war has also accepted redundancy. Neither of them are at pits or coal board establishments, which face imminent closure. Thousands of men have accepted redundancy or early retirement since the end of the strike.
§ Mr. Hardy
Nor do I. If a man has spent 40 years or more underground, he deserves the generous treatment that the constituents of Conservative Members may question or criticise. We do not object to our constituents who have worked for 40 years being treated decently at the end of their labours, but we are worried about our communities. We are not prepared to see our communities destroyed, young people who should be entering employment with verve and hope without any, or villages unable to offer even one young person an ordinary job. In Dalton Brook there is not a boy, girl or scarcely a teenager in normal employment—I checked recently.
If Conservative Members think that our society can survive that sort of experience for long, they are idiots. They may not think that it matters because we are in the Labour part of the country. They may think that they can maintain power by dominating the political representations of England, or the southern two thirds of England, but this island is far too small to suffer that for long. The Conservative party cannot run Britain without recognising that sooner or later it must command respect in Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Durham and the other areas which in the past have created the great wealth that the southern areas have cheerfully spent.
It is time that the Government understood that our communities will not allow their young people to face an utter and complete blight. I cannot accept that my constituents should be in that position, nor can hundreds of my hon. Friends. The Government must act with wisdom now. The Bill suggests that there is the possibility of wisdom. I deeply resent the fact that the modest display of wisdom in the Bill is being criticised and carped at by Conservative Members, who may be articulate, but who have not displayed a scrap of wisdom, which the country is entitled to expect from its Parliament. I hope that the Minister will reject his hon. Friends’ criticisms, and that he will ensure that the coal industry is sustained. I hope that he believes that the coal industry, is, has been, and must continue to be important in providing energy for the United Kingdom. For that reason the Bill is necessary.
It is necessary to provide adequate funds for the NCB to serve a proper energy policy and—no hon. Member should have to say this in the House now — for the industry and its chairman to recognise that the sooner we return to decent relationships in the industry and the sooner that the legacy of deceit and dishonesty, and the contempt for sacrosanct agreements of recent weeks is put behind us, the better.
If the chairman or deputy chairman of the NCB is not prepared to recognise that their conduct in recent weeks has been contemptible, I suggest that it is time that the Prime Minister was told very clearly by the responsible Ministers that her choice, Mr. MacGregor, has cost Britain billions of pounds and brought an industry which has an important future into a disorder that should not have been experienced. The sooner those two gentlemen change their ways, the better. If they are not prepared to change their ways, the sooner they go the better it will be for Britain and our coalfields.
§ Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)
I do not wish to detain the House any longer than is necessary, because it knows my commitment to the coal industry over the past two years.
269 I should like to reinforce some of the comments made by Opposition Members about the low morale in the coal industry today. It is lower than it has ever been in the past 40 years. I know that the Minister has taken a personal interest in going round the coalfields, and trying to reassure the miners in those coalfields that they have a viable and long-term future in the industry.
I should like to take issue with my hon. Friends who think that a deficit grant to the coal industry is a subsidy to those who work in the industry. The coal industry, like the agricultural industry, is given subsidies and deficit grants for the benefit of the customers and consumers of its products. We should not forget that.
I welcomed the Minister's commitment in Committee to NCB (Enterprise) Ltd., and I was delighted that the clause asking for £50 million was withdrawn, because the Minister said that, whatever was required to make new jobs available for the areas where pits were to be closed — whether it was £15 million, £50 million or £100 million—the money would be available if the case was made out. If, as the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) said, the chief executive of his district council has been in touch with the NCB with regard to the setting up of new enterprises and has had no reply, I agree that that delay should be ended at once.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
The hon. Members for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) and for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) talked about the money side of the Bill. The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood mentioned redundancies and the sheer cost of the Bill. I am pleased that they did not have to live through the 1940s and the 1960s in the coal industry, when many difficult problems arose. Had they lived then, they would have known that, in the 1940s, the coal industry suffered hundreds of losses, and willingly so, because the men in the industry, believing in nationalisation, which had been championed for many years by Members of this House, realised that they had to slim down the industry to make it viable after the owners had wrecked it.
When there was a market for coal, and when coal could have commanded any price in the market, the miners sold their product well below the market price because they were asked by Parliament to do so for the benefit of the country. Therefore, it is only justice that the money that should have been theirs at that time should now be returned by the grants to the industry. Had they been able to sell coal in the market in the way that Conservatives always like to advocate, the money from those sales could have been invested, and there would now be no need to provide money for the industry.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) referred to the importing of coal, he noted that the Minister was shaking his head. If the Minister shook his head about the importing of coal, that is a step forward. if the Minister knows that coal imports are not to be increased, he must also know what the ultimate size of the industry will be. The Bill gives every indication of a massive rundown of the industry. As the new capacity in Selby and Belvoir comes on stream, there will also be the advent of MINOS. This system has been brought to perfection in various coalfields and will result in completely automated pits. The restructuring of the coalfields in the Barnsley area will result in a 21 per cent. increase in output and a 20 per cent. reduction in 270 manpower. It means that we shall be facing not a manpower loss of 20,000 but the closure of 80 pits, and that 70,000 or 80,000 men will be made redundant.
The recent strike was all about the contraction of the industry and the resulting fight for jobs and the preservation of coalmining communities. About 54 local authorities, all with a common interest, have now got together. They represent 16 million men, women and children, 1.16 million unemployed and 254,000 businesses. That is the size of the coalfield community campaign. They are looking at ways and means not only to save the industry but to bring alternative employment to those areas. By creating 3,000 jobs, Barnsley took a step backwards. The recent review showed that the closure of the Darfield main colliery and the restructuring of the coalfields in the Barnsley area would mean the loss of exactly the 3,000 jobs which it had taken Barnsley five years to create.
The story does not end there. It is only the beginning of the closure programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) referred to a fuel policy. I wish that we had the co-ordinated fuel policy for which we have asked for many years. That is the only sensible way in which to deal with the use of energy. We were close to having such a policy when the British National Oil Corporation and British Gas belonged to the nation. The Government have decided that they will no longer belong to the nation. That is a backward step in the effort to create a co-ordinated energy policy. Only with such a policy will the energy resources of this country be used sensibly. Instead, we shall be producing as much oil and gas as we can as fast as we can, not only for home consumption but for sale overseas. This means, that unless new oil and gas fields are discovered our oil and gas reserves will have been depleted by the year 2010.
The closure of 80 collieries means that production will be limited to about 100 million tonnes and will lead to a crazy position. In that period coal should be at a premium, with the gas and the oil running out, and coal should be coming back into its own again. However, we shall no longer have an industry if the Government continue with their intention to decimate the coal industry.
Not long ago, I asked the gas board what it would take to replace the natural gas that customers are now using. It said that 100 million tonnes of coal would be needed, but we shall be producing only that amount. Therefore, where will the coal for industry, for chemicals, for liquefaction and the power stations come from? The energy can come only if we are to import coal on a vast scale, or if the Government have decided on a nuclear energy policy, with gas needs supplied from the 100 million tonnes of British coal and foreign imports.
It is time for a debate on our energy policy, and it is time that the Government came clean about what they are thinking will provide the energy resources for the future. If we run the coal industry down in the planned way, and if gas and oil are to be run independently, we shall leave a legacy for the next generation for which they will not thank us, unless we go flat out on a nuclear energy policy.
My feelings about the chairman of the NCB and his attitude are well known. I have great respect for him as a manager, but that is all. I have no respect for the way that he treated the steel industry, and even less for the way that he is treating the coal industry. When he was chairman of the steel industry, I went to see him about the process of making steel from powdered steel, a process that was 271 taking place in a steelworks in my constituency, which Ian MacGregor decided to close. He said that he was closing it because he could make steel more cheaply than by the powdered steel process, which was probably true at that time.
Lo and behold, our competitors from Japan and Europe are now making steel through the powdered steel process, which MacGregor decided was no good for Britain. It looks as though the liquefaction plan in the coal industry, and the fluidised bed experiments are in jeopardy if MacGregor brings to the coal industry the attitude that he had in the steel industry.
The 1939 war started from the Versailles agreement. The next war in the coal industry may start from the treatment of the dismissed miners. I attended two sittings of the Select Committee on Employment when it interviewed the chairman of the NCB in the afternoon and Arthur Scargill in the morning. There was a vast difference in the conciliatory approach to the problems of the NUM—the Minister shakes his head, but I was there for the whole day—and that of the NCB.
The attitude of the chairman of the NCB was belligerent —so much so that the attitude of the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst), who is no friend of the unions and certainly not a member of the NUM, changed as he questioned the chairman; the Minister can ask his hon. Friend about that. The chairman said deliberately that, as far as he was concerned, the dismissed miners would remain dismissed. His attitude was, "I am the chairman." His distaste for this place, his distaste for politicians, his distaste for being questioned was there to be seen, and he made no effort to hide that distaste.
I spent a period working at Hobart house, and I could not get away fast enough to go back into the coalfields. I do not think that I would like to work there now under the present chairman. Having said what I have about him, I do not suppose that I would get a chance anyway. After observing that attitude, I can understand why the late Geoff Kirk and Ned Smith and others decided to leave.
I want to turn next to the union officials at collieries who, following the central directive, have been sent underground, on which I have views for and against. After 20 years of encouragement by management not to go underground, but to be at their place on the surface to help the manager to quell disputes before they started, it was decided that they should go underground. It was the wrong move at the wrong time. Students who attended day release courses have now been told that day release will finish. That is a wrong move at the wrong time. Members of local authorities who have hitherto been allowed time off to attend council meetings or to change shifts to attend council meetings can no longer change shifts or have time off.
I wish to draw to the Minister's attention the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978, and I ask him to discuss this with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The Act is clear:The right, available to a relevant employee, is a right to claim time off work for specified public duties. There is no statutory right to pay during absence (though there may be a contractual right)… The employer does not comply with his statutory obligation to allow time off merely by allowing the employee to rearrange his duties so that the employee can make up for lost time elsewhere… They include the duties of a lay 272 magistrate, a local councillor, a member of a tribunal, a member of various National Health Service bodies, a school governor or managerand members of the health authorities, as they used to be.
An aggrieved employee may make a complaint to an industrial tribunal that his employer has refused to allow him time off… It may also award compensation for any loss suffered by the employee or any insult or injury occasioned to him by reason of the employer's default".I suggest that the chairman of the coal board is wrong in the central directive to say that councillors should no longer have time off.
From the chairman's attitude, it appears that conciliation and consultation will no longer exist within the ambit of the National Coal Board. He seems to be taking the view that that will be replaced by industrial relations tribunals, and that he will have nothing to do with it.
It appears that we are going to rely on imported coal or all-out nuclear power unless the Minister can alleviate those fears by what he has to say in winding up. Those fears would be alleviated if we could be told what is the policy of Government towards the coal board, what is their energy policy now and for the future, what the number of pits is to be and what is to be the output. Unless the Government intend that the economy will remain as stagnant as it now is, where will the extra coal come from when it is needed? Will the Minister also meet the communities campaign people to ascertain how investment will be made in the areas to meet the further closures that have to take place?
§ Mr. Dickens
I shall not detain the House long as I have the Adjournment debate and I am anxious to get home. I have listened patiently to the debate, which has been a good debate. Almost every Opposition Member has kicked Ian MacGregor and the Government around the Chamber, but there has been no mention of our Mr. Scargill.
I was one of the few Conservative Members who attended the coalfield community campaign meeting.• I want to tell Opposition Members a few home truths. represent an area dominated by the textile industry. In many villages and towns the textile mills were the sole employer. Villages built up around the mills and the towns grew from that, as did the outworkers to the mill and those who supplied it. Therefore when a mill closed it was equally as devasting as a pit closure. However, its workers did not get massive redundancy handouts; they did not have the guarantee of a certain job, even if at slightly reduced rates. The mills closed. I know that Opposition Members may say that that is different because the workers could do something else in the mill, but they could not because the mills had been felled to the ground.
I could not listen to Opposition Members kicking the NCB and the Government around the Chamber without their taking any of the blame. I mention the Luddites because Opposition Members said that soldiers had been at the pitheads. Of course, exactly the same happened at the mills, where the soldiers got the looms into the mills when they wanted mechanical means of producing cloth. It is almost a mirror image.
The mill workers did not receive the handouts that have been offered to the miners. I make no complaints because Opposition Members have always attended such debates, fighting their corner for their constituencies. That is right. 273 However, they must remember that the very people in my constituency who were put out of work with no handouts have mushroomed into small businesses that are growing and booming; they are paying taxes that are going towards the redundancy payments for miners and the money that we shall nod through this evening to support the miners. We make no complaint, but we feel rather sore when Opposition Members blame the Government for falling order books.
We cannot produce coal at a price that no one wishes to pay. It is futile to produce coal on that basis. Ian MacGregor was moved into the steel industry, but we must remember that he was No. 2 to Edwardes at British Leyland, which is now in good shape. There would have been no steel industry in Britain if MacGregor had not reduced the manning levels. We had to vote £75 million through this Chamber to buy off some of the workers with attractive redundancy payments. We had to buy a solution. The world was not impressed by the fact that the Japanese used only three men to produce a tonne of steel while we used seven men.
I ordered 5,000 tonnes of steel from BSC and it could not meet the price. I could not win overseas orders on that price and had to go overseas for my steel. If we had a steel industry that could not compete—not sharpen its pencils for competition—it would fail and there would be no steel industry. The Government are wholly committed to the coal industry, but the recent terrible strike was inflicted by the leader of the NUM. Hon. Members shouted at me during Prime Minister's Question Time when I said that he was a Marxist surrounded by Communists. Opposition Members went for me, but I was not far off the mark. They cannot just put the blame on the Government.
Let me give an example of how things slip up. In Northern Ireland they are putting a power station at a lignite mine in County Antrim. If it had not been for the coal strike, Kilroot power station might have converted from oil to coal. It has been delayed, and I hope that in the fullness of time it will be a coal-powered station. As a party we are committed to coal, but we want to see fair play.
Do not let us have tears about the Government and about the National Coal Board. Opposition Members should keep their tears for Arthur Scargill and the way he led them up the garden path. They should fight the corner for their constituencies, but they should fight fairly.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)
The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) is perhaps too honest for his own health or for his own party's good. He was trying to suggest that it is an invigorating and good experience for whole communities to be scrapped and put in the dole queue. If he will not take it from me, I wish he had had a rear view mirror when he was making his speech because he would have been able to see the expression on the face of his hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) who has a legitimate concern. Some of us wish that he had expressed that concern about the future of the people working in the coal industry during the past 12 months instead of waiting until now to recognise the mayhem caused in the industry by the chairman of the National Coal Board.
Of course the Bill must have a Third Reading. The industry needs the money. I suppose this is part of the payoff for what the Chancellor of the Exchequer saw fit 274 to describe as a good investment. Many of us feel that the money might have been better invested if the Government had reached a settlement a very long time ago. Perhaps not quite as much money would have been required if the Government had not been so obsessed with the need to obtain the kind of victory that they think they have achieved. We should consider the double-edged effort that that will turn out to be.
Several of my hon. Friends have referred to the broader needs of the coalfield communities. I join them in paying tribute to the local authorities who are waging such an effective campaign for the need to develop those coalfield communities which are being afflicted by the contraction of the industry afflicted on them by the Government.
My own constituency suffered from the contraction of the coal industry in recent years and I have some experience of how difficult it is to attract new industries and employment into areas which have suffered cutbacks in mining. Apart from the obvious economic difficulties and problems of remoteness, there is the physical problem of finding places to build factories in areas that have been undermined extensively because of the danger of subsidence.
To pick up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and others, what will happen to the future of Britain's energy industry? What future is there for the coal industry? How will the nation find the sources of energy that it will need in the long-term or, indeed, the medium-term future? Our oil reserves will not last for ever. We shall need to tap our coal reserves. I fear that the massive contraction of the coal industry that the Government have in mind could leave us with severe long-term problems. I should like to see developments in areas such as Musselburgh upon which my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) did so much preparatory work years ago. We shall need our coal reserves in the future. It is a tragedy that developments are not taking place now when they would be easy.
The Bill must have its Third Reading, but it will not have it until I have had an opportunity to express to the Minister how strongly I feel about the conduct of the National Coal Board and its chairman. If Conservative Members and the Minister are becoming fed up listening to Opposition Members complaining about that, I warn them that they will go on hearing about it over and over again until some fairness is shown towards the people who work in the coal industry.
Reconciliation in the industry is being hampered by the fact that we are dealing with an elderly man who suffers from paranoia. If there were any doubt about that we had only to listen to Mr. MacGregor giving evidence to the Select Committee on Employment two weeks ago when he said that he felt that it was his duty to do some of the things that he had been doing because he felt that he was facing an insurrection. It did not seem like an insurrection from where I was sitting or to the coal mining communities in East Lothian. It looked like the Dunkirk spirit where families and communities were trying to work together to protect their jobs and the jobs of people about whom they cared in similar communities elsewhere. However, other people evidently saw the matter differently.
We are now seeing stupid, vindictive repression by the coal board management in various areas of the country, and in particular in Scotland. We have seen petty vindictiveness about concessionary coal, the withholding 275 of holiday pay, taxation and other such matters. Above all, there is the unwarranted number of dismissals, especially in Scotland.
The Minister is aware, because I have written to him, the Prime Minister, the chairman of the coal board and almost everyone else who is supposed to be responsible, that 17 men in my constituency have been sacked for no good reason during the dispute. That problem will not go away. Those men cannot be written off. They are people. They have families, neighbours and communities that care about them. It is intolerable that they should continue to suffer from what any right-thinking person must recognise as being a gross and unreasonable injustice.
Those Opposition Members who are aware of such problems will go on about them until some fairness is shown to those people. It is about time that the Minister, who is supposed to be responsible for coal, addresses himself to that problem because there will be no reconciliation in the industry until something is done for people like the 17 men in my constituency.
§ Mr. David Hunt
This has been a good debate characterised by the sincerity and depth of experience of all Members who have contributed to it.
I hope that everyone shares the regret that all right-thinking Members should feel that it is necessary to make further provision for deficit grant. It is not healthy for the Government to have to support the coal industry in the way that they have had to do in recent years.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon), I do not believe that dependence upon state aid is in the best interests of those who work in the industry. Many of those who care about our great coal industry have been deeply saddened by the events of the past year, because without the damage caused by the strike the industry would have made considerable progress towards the healthy future that would have been in the interests of the miners and the nation. The sad fact is that last year was not a year of progress, as it could so well have been, but a year of lost opportunities and lost coal faces. Seventy-three faces were lost during the dispute—48 working faces, 24 salvage faces and one development face. Writing off those faces will cost the NCB many millions of pounds. Recovering faces is proving to be an expensive business.
The scale of the losses is difficult to comprehend—£2.2 billion is a massive sum. How much better could it have been spent but for the needless, futile strike? The Opposition must stop trying to rewrite the history of the dispute. Surely the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) recognises the damage that was done by Arthur Scargill. The Opposition's refusal to recognise that fact was responsible for sparking my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) into action. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the Kilroot conversion to coal has now been announced. He is right to recognise that coal will have a great future in this industry if it faces up to present realities.
The future is promising, provided that all those in the industry work together in a spirit of reconciliation, putting the divisions of the past behind them. We have enormous resources of coal that could be mined economically and efficiently. We have a skilled and able work force. We have the benefit of advanced technology. As my hon. 276 Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) keeps reminding us, there is so much going for the coal industry. The opportunities are there to be grasped.
The message from this debate must be that, to reap the benefits, we must produce coal at the right price. That means tackling the problems of the high-cost pits and excess capacity, improving productivity and cutting costs. That policy lies within a clear, coherent energy strategy. I say to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) that the fundamental objective of this country's energy policy is to ensure that the nation has adequate and secure supplies of energy at the lowest possible cost. We are lucky to have four options available—coal, oil, gas and nuclear fuel. It must be the effort of every Government to keep each of those options active and developing, maximising the contribution to the economy of the energy sector as a whole.
The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) explained the Opposition's position on the Bill and stressed the urgency of the NCB's financial position. The latter point has been echoed in all the speeches. The hon. Gentleman accused me in serious terms of not responding to various questions that he had raised, and proceeded to criticise the answers that I had given. There is a crucial paradox in that. It is the solution to the problem that he raises. The fact is that the hon. Gentleman does not like the replies that he has received.
§ Mr. Hunt
How then could the hon. Gentleman criticise my replies?
On Second Reading, I promised to bring to the NCB's attention individual cases of dismissals about which hon. Members provided details. Several hon. Members subsequently wrote to me, and I immediately forwarded copies of their letters to the NCB chairman with a request that the cases be looked into and a reply sent to them direct. I know, and I have checked again today, that those letters are all receiving careful consideration. The board will write in detail to all the hon. Members concerned.
The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) was particularly concerned that no appeal had been heard in the case of the five men dismissed from the Phurnacite plant at Abercwmboi who would soon run out of time to apply to an industrial tribunal. I made urgent investigations and was told that the internal inquiry procedure was completed on 24 May when the men's dismissals were confirmed. This was in time to enable those of the men who wished to do so to apply to an industrial tribunal.
I should tell the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) that the decision to dismiss a man is never taken lightly. There is no question of victimisation or vindictiveness in the board's actions. The proper course for anyone who believes that he has been unfairly dismissed is to take his case to an industrial tribunal. That is true of any industry. I understand that more than 450 dismissed miners have already taken such action.
§ Mr. Eadie
The Minister says that we do not like the answesrs he gives, but he has given no answers. I hope that he will read the evidence given by the chairman of the National Coal Board to the Select Committee on Employment. When he talks about industrial tribunals, he is deceiving the House, because the chairman of the NCB made it clear to the Select Committee that not only will 277 he not re-engage miners who are successful at the industrial tribunals, but that he has absolute contempt for such tribunals.
§ Mr. Hunt
I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not believe that I am trying to deceive the House. I was not present at the proceedings of the Select Committee, and I understand that the transcript of that evidence has not yet been published, but, as I understand the position, it was stated that, of the 944 men dismissed by the board during the strike, at that time just under 450 had appealed to industrial tribunals; nine cases had been heard; seven miners were held to have been fairly dismissed; one was held to have been unfairly dismissed with no recommendations for re-employment; and one was held to have been unfairly dismissed who has since been re-employed by the board following that recommendation.
The hon. Member for Midlothian asked about the operation of conciliation machinery under the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946. There is no question of the board failing to meet its obligations under the Act. It is unwilling to set up procedures to conciliate where a man alleges wrongful dismissal arising from incidents at his work place to be used in the different circumstances of strike-related dismissals for which the board believes they are inappropriate. The system of industrial tribunals ensures that miners who wish to appeal in those circumstances will be treated in exactly the same way as, and will have the same rights as employees in any other industry.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House asked about the enterprise company. In the early hours of the morning, I do not wish to respond in detail to the specific points made, because I wish to look into some of them further.
The hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) asked specific questions about some pits. With regard to his alarmist comments about the number of redundancies, for which there is no clear foundation, and to similar comments from the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, it is still too soon for the NCB to assess with precision how fast production can be restored and the markets re-won. Until that calculation can be made, no final decisions can be made on future capacity.
§ Mr. Hunt
Of course not, because the hon. Gentleman knows the position of those pits. He knows that a decision has been made on Ackton Hall, Glasshoughton and Savile pits. He speculated about the future of other pits, but it is not for me to respond about them. That is a matter for the management of the coal board, and its right to manage was clearly established during the dispute.
However, there are real anxieties about the effect of closures on communities, which is why the Government place so much emphasis on the enterprise company. I shall investigate carefully the comments of the hon. Member for Ashfield and some other comments. I keep in close touch with the executive director of the enterpise company, Mr. Hewitt—indeed, I spoke to him today—and I can say that the company has made an encouraging start in creating alternative employment in coal mining areas. It has already established links with enterprise companies throughout the British coalfield.
Loans totalling nearly £500,000 have already been approved, and that money will initially create 200 to 300 278 new jobs, and up to 400 or 500 later. The company is actively considering requests for funds in excess of £3 million, with the potential to generate more than 1,000 new jobs. As my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) and for Sherwood said, 1 have stressed to the House on every possible occasion that further funds will be available as necessary.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) spoke of the need for a better atmosphere. I share his welcome for the spirit of reconciliation in the pits, although I must disagree with his analysis of present circumstances. There were always bound to be exposed nerve ends in the aftermath of a dispute as tragic and bitter as the recent one. It was a strike that should never have been, and if there had been a ballot at the start it would never had taken place.
The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) is rightly proud of the board's operations under the North sea. I was deeply impressed by what I found at Ellington —the world's largest undersea coal mining operation— and was pleased to hear soon after my visit of further substantial investment at that pit. The hon. Gentleman made several other interesting observations which I was fascinated to hear.
My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report. He will know that it recognised that the two central problems of the industry are overcapacity and the tail of high-cost pits. The Government and the board agree with that analysis. We are committed to tackling these problems as quickly as possible and to returning the industry to viability.
I am aware that pit closures and redundancies are uppermost in some hon. Member's minds. The board is still assessing the damage done by the strike. The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) mentioned a forthcoming meeting in south Yorkshire. There are still some meetings to come. I hope that the assessment period will be over as quickly as possible. The meetings are setting out the options for the future. Tragically, many faces have been lost and there is no longer a prospect of a viable future at some pits, but the board has given the firm assurance that no pit will close until it has been through the proper colliery review procedure.
I hope that the hon. Member for Wenworth will understand if I do not go into detail about what he said about the NACODS dispute, except to say that I hope that it will end as soon as possible. At pits that close, generous redundancy terms are available to those who wish to leave the industry and there is a job for those who wish to stay.
Because of the deficit grant situation, the setting of the figures for the Bill could not await the outcome of the review. I hope that hon. Members understand that. I confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood that we have given the board the firm objective of breaking even without deficit grant by 1987–88 and we expect it to meet that objective. There has been and will continue to be substantial investment in new faces, new plant and new machinery that will provide lasting jobs.
Work on sinking the shaft at Asfordby will begin soon, and I recently visited Selby and was greatly impressed by what I saw. The Government have invested more than £4 billion in the coal industry. That is a massive vote of confidence in its future, but investment will in future depend on tackling the problems of the past. The hon. Member for Wansbeck acknowledged that, albeit in a different context.
279 The hon. Member for Wentworth said that, before the strike we expected 1,000 firms to convert to coal. We have continued the support for such conversion through the coal firing scheme, which has been kept open beyond the previous deadline at the end of last year. The industrial market is a clear growth area for coal and it is vital that the industry should take the opportunity to demonstrate that it is a competitive and reliable supplier.
It is also important that the coal supplied to the electricity industry is competitively priced, since the cost of coal represents half the cost of electricity generation. The competitiveness of our coal is vital to the industrial electricity users who face fierce competition from overseas.
I tell the hon. Members for Ashfield and for Wentworth, who talk about imports and exports, that when the Conservatives won the election in 1979 the United Kingdom was a net importer of 2 million tonnes of coal. By 1983 it had become a net exporter of 2 million tonnes. The strike has destroyed that and last year's imports were twice those of 1973. I must tell the hon. Member for Barnley, West and Penistone that we hope to increase our share of the European market for coal if the NCB becomes more competitive in relation to supplies from other countries.
Some Opposition Members have said that insufficient coal will be produced in Britain to meet our needs. Those fears are completely unfounded. With the new high volume pits such as Selby and Asfordby, and with the substantial investment in existing pits, we shall have ample coal, not only for our own needs, but, providing that costs can be kept to a minimum, for exports in competition with supplies from all round the world.
As the hon. Member for Midlothian said, this industry of ours has a long and honourable tradition which I admire and respect. But if it is to survive, it must be built on the tradition of looking forward, and not backwards. A great future lies ahead and I hope and expect all those who work in the industry to take advantage of the opportunity which the Bill offers to secure a firm and prosperous future. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.