I accept what my hon. Friend has said and agree with him entirely.
Do we really want electricity supplies to be in the hands of foreigners or do we support British coal and our miners, who have served the electricity industry and the customer well? Over the past four years they have reduced their prices to the CEGB in real terms by £650 million a year. In the current year there has been no price increase at all despite the high rate of inflation. Should all this be squandered for the illusory benefits of foreign coal?
Compared with a year ago, when the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill was introduced, there are clear signs that overseas coal producers are determined to increase their prices to ensure the future viability of their operations. Low heavy fuel oil prices, which had a significant bearing on the coal price freeze agreed with the CEGB last November, have sinced moved upwards by over 50 per cent. Also, sterling has shown a downward trend against the dollar, in which international coal is traded, despite heavy Government intervention which amounts to a further £7 a tonne on imported coal. This shows beyond any doubt why the new power generating companies cannot rely on spot or short-term international coal contracts. The ESI must give both domestic and industrial users some price guarantee indication and can do so only if raw materials are predictable at cost. Only British coal can offer this. Its unique selling point, which cannot be paralleled by any importer, is that it can offer long-term contracts, up to 10 years if need be, with prices based on the retail price index for secured, established coal supplies. It now has a proven record of quality of supply and performance, backed by the example set by the Union of Democratic Mineworkers offering real stability of supply.
In their evidence to the Committee the port developers have gone to great lengths to demonstrate that they are not basing their project on handling any significant tonnage of coal. Frankly, I do not believe them. However, that is what they have said. If that is the case and this Bill receives a Third Reading, they cannot claim that the project will be imperilled if a new clause is moved in another place excluding them from handling coal for the first three years or so after the port has been completed in 1992. This will eliminate the severe risk that many deep mines which could compete with imported coal in 1995 will be closed by 1990 if the Government encourage an early free-for-all on imports.
My hon. Friends should remember that British Coal already--
Mr. Lofthouse : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Could you give us some guidance? Do you think it right that the hon. Member who gave the casting vote to put this Bill through to the Third Reading should be discussing with the--
Mr. Redmond : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will the hon. Gentleman, having made several statements, now tell the House that he is willing to discuss the Third Reading with the people who are seeking to promote this Bill. Is that correct?
Mr. Ashton : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark) is supposed to be the impartial Chairman of the Committee. Is it right for him to be consistently holding discussions with the sponsors of the Bill?
Mr. Deputy Speaker : It is quite customary for Ministers and others to seek advice outside the Chamber, but I am sure that all hon. Members will respond at all times to the mood of the House. Mr. Stewart rose-- [Interruption.]
Mr. McCartney : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Before the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark) became Chairman of the Committee, the House was given a categorical assurance by him that he had no connection whatsoever with the sponsors. We accepted that assurance from him as an hon. Gentleman. Only minutes later, however, we found that that was not the case. There should be a ruling about his conduct. He has broken the categorical assurance that he gave to us.
Mr. Stewart : British Coal already sells 25 million tonnes of coal to the CEGB at world prices, so no further price advantage would accrue until the 26 million tonnes of imported coal arrive. While seeking that advantage, the cost in pit closures, job losses and destroyed coalfield communities would be tenfold. For me, the risks to my constituents, 30 per cent. of whom work directly for the coal industry, are too great. Therefore I beg my hon. Friends to listen to the argument and to stand full square behind Nottingham miners and vote against the Third Reading of the Bill.
Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) : On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Yet again we are debating the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill. It has been debated on many previous occasions. About 25 minutes of the debate have been taken up by hon. Members who represent coalfield community areas. That is all the time that they have had to participate in the debate. The Chairman of the Committee that considered the Bill spent a considerable amount of time trying to explain how much effort he had put into considering the Bill over many weeks. Hon. Members with constituencies in the north-west have spoken in the debate. There are no coal mines in their area. An hon. Member with a Humberside constituency is
Column 884promoting the Bill. Now the Opposition Front Bench spokesman is called. Is this debate to be concluded at 10 o'clock? If that is so, hon. Members from coal mining areas will not have had an opportunity to participate in the debate.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : I well understand that the hon. Gentleman, and many other hon. Members on both sides of the House, are seeking to catch my eye. However, I remind the House that, when spokesmen from the Front Benches rise, it is customary for them to be called. That is why I called the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). Mr. Prescott : As the Chairman of the Committee has sought advice or instructions from the sponsors of the Bill, I think that at least he should have listened to what hon. Members have had to say in the debate, particularly as he has played such an important role in having the casting vote. We have heard that his casting vote was used to decide all the matters that were in front of the Committee. However, you have ruled, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that is not in breach of the procedures of the House.
One appreciates that the sponsor of the Bill--in this case the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown)--would naturally seek advice from the sponsors, but it is a bit much for that role to be taken on by the Chairman of the Committee, whose own independence has been constantly questioned by the Opposition. I can only hope that he will return to the Chamber after discussing with the promoters of the Bill the information that he wants to impart to the House. We should welcome the Chairman back to the Chamber.
The real issue, however, is not what the Chairman of the Committee may have to tell us. The real issue is the Government's view of the matter. That is what we have asked for in every debate on the Bill at each stage. Now we are at Third Reading. Certain recommendations have been made by the Committee. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) has made it absolutely clear that there is no argument between the NUM and the UDM, or between him and Opposition Members, as will be shown in the Division Lobby. I do not know what has motivated him to embark upon such a course. However, the point that concerns me is why the Government do not note that all those hon. Members who represent mining constituencies are expressing the same grave fears and doubts about the consequences of the Bill. If anyone doubts that, one can point to the fact that the Committee published a special report because it was extremely concerned about the consequences of the Bill. Cheap coal and the consequences for the coal industry of privatisation are significant matters that lie at the heart of the debate. They are matters of national interest and concern. Those who ought to speak for the national interest are the Government.
I have read the reports of the debates that have taken place at the various stages of the Bill, including the Government's position at each stage. I draw that to the attention of the House, bearing in mind that the Committee's report calls on the Government to take whatever steps are necessary in the overall national interest to protect our indigenous coal mining industry. Perhaps the industry and the Government are doing that, but they have not yet convinced me.
Column 885I should be glad if the Minister for Roads and Traffic would say whether he intends to give the Government's point of view. I look with interest at the man who is never afraid to get up to lecture us about all sorts of things. Is it the Minister's intention to speak on behalf of the Government in this debate, in view of the Committee's special report? I will gladly give way to him--The Minister obviously does not intend to get up. He has obviously got his seat belt on for this ride.
I remind the Minister what other Ministers have said at various stages. I presume that he has read the report of the debates. Obviously he is the fall guy ; he has been sent here to say nothing in this debate.
The Minister of State at that time told the House :
"It is conventional on a private Bill for the Government to take a neutral stance, but in doing so to advise the House that the Bill should be allowed a Second Reading. This does not imply that the Government support the Bill. It is for the promoters to persuade Parliament that the powers they are seeking are necessary and justified."--[ Official Report, 22 June 1988 ; Vol. 135, c. 122.] That is the view of various Governments on all private Bills. The Government were also asked to state their position when the House was considering whether the Bill could be transferred from one Session to another--a procedure that is now all too common. The Minister of State said :
"The hon. Gentleman is right to ask about the Government's views on the carry-over motion. The Government believe that the motion should be supported. That will provide the opportunity for this important Bill to continue to be discussed."--[ Official Report, 8 November 1988 ; Vol. 140, c. 257.]
That was the extent of the Minister's contribution.
The Bill has been in Committee and we have before us certain recommendations, on which we are entitled to ask for the Government's view. If one is led to believe that the Government were indifferent and did not want to be identified with the Bill, a quick look at the voting record will soon make it clear that not only did ordinary Government Back Benchers vote, but Cabinet Ministers were involved, with 26 members of the Cabinet voting. The hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), who is known to operate in the Government's interest, is hardly the sort of fellow who is likely to vote against the Government's interest. He spends all his time defending it.
Mr. Brandon-Bravo : The hon. Gentleman is making great play about which Members on the Government side voted for or against the Second Reading of these Bills. I have only the Hansard of Thursday 23 June. Among the Members voting against the Bill were 11 or 12 Conservatives, but I do not see the hon. Gentleman's name in either Division list on that day. In view of the synthetic indignation that he is generating now, I wonder if he voted against the Second Reading of any of the Bills.
Mr. Prescott : The hon. Gentleman said that he had not read the whole record. If he looks at the record, he will find that I voted on them all, with the exception of that one. I can give the reasons why I did not vote on that occasion, if the hon. Gentleman wants them, but I do not think we need go into them.
The real point is, what is the position of the Government? We are talking about the Secretary of State for Employment, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Social Security. One could argue that each of those
Column 886Departments, apart from the Northern Ireland Office, will be directly affected by the consequences of the Bill. The Department of Social Security will be affected by the payment of benefit to those who become unemployed because of the Bill, and the Treasury may be concerned with the balance of payments deficit. Perhaps those Ministers took the view that all they were doing was enabling the debate to take place ; perhaps they just happened to be about that evening and voted for the Bill. We will accept that argument, if that is the case.
What will be the position tonight? What is the Government's position on the Bill, since the Committee was unanimous in its recommendations? My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) asked the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark) whether he had received any assurances from the Government. He was at pains to make it clear that he had had no discussions with the Government. I am glad that he was not asked about discussions with Associated British Ports. If we leave that aside, the Government have not approached him.
I want to ask only one question, because many hon. Members still want to speak. What is the Government's position on an energy policy, a coal policy, jobs and employment, the balance of payments and social security benefits? All those matters are directly involved. Is the Minister prepared to get up and tell us what the Government's position is? Has he been briefed on the Government's position, or will he be voting tonight on a Bill on which he does not have a view? Has he been told to vote in a certain way? Is that the kind of order that Ministers get from on high?
I shall give the Minister another chance. Will he now get up and give us an indication of the Government's view on the matter--or, more so, on the recommendations of the Select Committee? I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.--He does not wish to intervene. It is clear that the Government- -
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) : Clearly the Minister does not intend to get to his feet because it is all part of a big fix. It is the height of hypocrisy. Some Nottingham Tory Members will vote with Labour tonight against the Bill, yet next week they will vote against the Nottinghamshire mining industry by voting for privatisation, by supporting a cut in the CEGB coal target and by voting for West Burton B not to go ahead. Those Tory Members are being allowed a night off tonight
Mr. Allen --when some other Back Benchers on the Conservative side
Mr. Prescott : It is clear from what my hon. Friend has said that views on the matter are strongly held. They will be even stronger if the Minister refuses to intervene. It seems that the Government do not intend to give any opinion about the Bill, despite all the recommendations of the Private Bill Committee and despite the statements made by the Chairman and members of the Committee. We are witnessing a shabby use of Parliament in the private Bill procedures. More and more, the Department of Transport uses the private Bill procedure to avoid accountability. It has been argued that this is the place
Column 887where the Government will be held to account, but here we have a Government entirely silent on a major issue that will affect thousands of miners, that will close pits, that will have a massive effect on our balance of payments, and that will affect the economy, but there is not one word from the Government.
The country will register precisely what is happening. The Government are working behind the scenes, sending in their troops to secure victory for this Bill. The country will register disgust at these private procedures and at the cowardice of the Minister, who could not answer our case.
Mr. Barron : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It appears from the Minister's inaction of the past few seconds that he is refusing to give the House an interpretation of the Committee's report on this Bill. You will be well aware of that report. It said that the procedure was
"stretched to its limits by the various arguments advanced before the Committee."
Now the Minister appears to be refusing to tell us the Government's opinion of the report. Is that in order? Surely, before Third Reading, the House should know the Government's attitude to the Bill.
Mr. Pat Wall (Bradford, North) : On the face of it, this is an unexceptionable Bill promoted by Associated British Ports, which runs 21 docks, whose holding company made £38 million profit in 1987--more than half of it from its docks operation--and which requested permission to build a deep water jetty that could take Panamax boats of up to 80,000 tonnes and Cape-sized boats of up to 120,000 tonnes, in competition with the ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp, and possibly provide a number of jobs on Humberside and help to develop the Humber area. However, this supposedly unexceptionable Bill spent five and a half months in Committee, with sittings held three days a week, morning and afternoon, except during parliamentary recesses--the longest period in Committee of any Private Bill for many years.
As my hon. Friends have said, senior Ministers and the Prime Minister were seen marching into the Lobbies to cast their votes on Second Reading. That is unusual for a private Bill. Having attended every sitting of the Committee, apart from the first, and having been responsible in part for the report, which was unanimous, I observe that the Committee reached its decision only on the casting vote of the Chairman, that it rejected amendments only on the Chairman's casting vote, and that the Bill is controversial and deeply political.
The Bill is inextricably concerned with major political, social and economic issues of the deepest regional and national impact. It has to do with the massive importation of foreign coal and the effect that that would have on the already horrendous balance of trade figures. It deals with possible sanctions busting in connection with importing
Column 888South African coal, and possibly with importing coal from the semi-slave coalfield of Colombia. It is concerned with the future of British Coal as a viable national organisation and with the future of at least 15,000 miner's jobs in some of the most productive pits in Britain. The Bill concerns those miners' futures and those of their families, and the knock-on effect on other jobs in Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
The Bill is about the future of the electricity generating industry--about supplies of steam coal, which is the basic fuel for the generating industry, and will be for the privatised generating industry if the legislation goes through. It means putting the basic raw material of the industry in the hands of foreign suppliers in half the major coal-burning power stations in Britain. It means enormous costs in redundancy payments, unemployment benefits, social security payments and the considerable social costs that to with a further massive wave of redundancies in areas already suffering large-scale unemployment and social deprivation.
"Before the Committee came to make a formal decision on, first, the amendment proposed by the British Coal Corporation, and, secondly, the Preamble itself, we agreed that if the Bill were allowed to proceed, this would be subject to conditions set out in paragraphs 25 and 26 below."
As far as I am aware, the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark), has not given us any assurance that those conditions will be fulfilled. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Committee said that the Bill should go through only if those conditions were agreed?
I was speaking of the deeply political effects of the Bill. It will lower the purchasing powers of those areas--Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire--affected by the redundancies and it will deeply affect the work that local authorities have done in trying to counter the effects of the redundancies which have already hit mining communities so severely in the post-war period. It would also have a serious affect on the already overcrowded road system and consequential effects on the environment if the coal is carried from Immingham to the Aire and Trent valley power stations by a vast fleet of lorries. All these issues were raised and discussed in Committee. The Bill makes political decisions, and that is not the role of Members of the House under the private Bill procedure. For three of the four of us, this was our first private Bill. We are all Back Benchers, and three of us were Members of less than two years' standing.
We do not say that in any modesty. All three of us feel that we have the ability to proceed on the Bill, but we did not have the experience of private Bill procedure, and are still learning the general procedure of the House. This private Bill was concerned also with issues of deep and national significance.
On Second Reading, the promoter made no case for the Bill whatever. No case has ever been made out for the Bill in the House. Only in the 26 sittings of the Committee were
Column 889these issues debated. However, because of the Chairman's casting vote, there is no Report stage, with the result that the House has no opportunity to debate amendments, even the important ones suggested by British Coal and the Union of Democratic Mineworkers to the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill, which would have placed a restriction on the import of coal for three years after the passing of that Bill. I feel sorry for the Chairman.
Mr. McCartney : As a member of the Committee who served with the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark), will my hon. Friend ask the hon. Gentleman a question? When the hon. Gentleman spoke to the sponsors of the Bill a minute ago, did he say, "I am totally in your pocket and I had better come across to you"?
Mr. Wall : What is wrong with this Bill is that the Chairman of the Committee was placed in an impossible position. When we debated private Bill procedure in the House, the Chairman of Ways and Means, in a shrewd intervention, said that hon. Members are supposed to sit on a private Bill Committee to exercise independent and fair judgment. He did not use exactly those words, but that was what he meant. Normally, private Bills concern planning decisions which can be controversial. If they involve proposals to build a railway through Kent or a road through the Shipley constituency next to mine, or to build a tunnel under certain areas, they are controversial, but not politically controversial in the way that the future of the coal industry or the electricity generating industry in Britain is controversial.
Such Bills are not controversial in the way that this Bill affects social services and local communities. The Chairman of the Committee has had to try to justify what happened to the Bill in Committee because the promoter of the Bill has not had the guts to explain the Bill to the House ; nor has the Minister been prepared to explain the issues to the House.
Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd) : Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason why Ministers might be scared to come to the Dispatch Box is that the Conservative Members enjoy wrapping themselves in the Union Jack and calling themselves the party of patriotism? While they stand at the front door defending this country, they are kicking the back door open with their heels and allowing our competitors to ransack our industries.
Mr. Eadie : I want to raise an extremely important point with my hon. Friend because he was present when a whole series of points of order were raised about amendments which were not selected. The occupant of the Chair promised me that the special report would be debated in the House and would be perfectly in order. This is our only opportunity to find out about the special report while my hon. Friend is making his speech. Will he explain to the House why the special report talks about energy policy, the Government being concerned and the free market when the Committee must have been well aware that the
Column 890privatisation of the electricity supply industry was passing through the House and one of the Government's main points was that there would be a free market in the coal industry? Will he explain to the House how the Committee reached that decision?
Mr. Wall : That is the crux of the debate and the reason why the report was produced. A reasonable and modest amendment was proposed by British Coal, calling for a time limit, or a free period, of three years in which coal could not be imported in excess of current figures into the Humber ports, given the exceptionally and unusually low stock prices for steam coal on the world market, and to allow the modernisation programme, which in the past was largely financed by Government money, to go ahead to allow steam coal to be produced more competitively and to allow British Coal to plan ahead. No private or state-owned coal industry can possibly plan ahead and invest hundreds of millions of pounds in the Selby coalfield and other new coalfields on the basis of a fanciful and theoretical market in the future. For those reasons, we moved our simple, modest amendment, which was not accepted by the Committee. We then made a statement. The fact that we had to make a statement shows that this is not a normal--
Mr. Wall : I am sorry for the hon. Gentleman. He came in late-- [Hon. Members :-- "No."] The Committee sat for five and a half months. We took the trouble to bring our report to the House and it is worth discussing. We said :
"The petitioners' arguments put the Committee in a position of great difficulty. In effect we were invited to make a strategic decision affecting UK energy policy, and one which affects also Britain's general policy on trade, because it relates to whether protectionist measures are justifiable to safeguard the interests of an important sector of British industry. We do not consider that this is an appropriate decision to be taken by a small committee consisting of four backbench MPs, three of whom are serving in their first Parliament. It is a great burden of responsibility to place upon a private bill committee.
There has been no technical breach of private Bill procedure, but we do consider that that procedure has been stretched to its limits by the various arguments advanced before the Committee. The decisions on energy and trade policy we have been invited to take are, in our opinion, national decisions which are the ultimate responsibility of the national government."
Mr. Ashton : Is my hon. Friend aware that he should, perhaps, give way to the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham), who may have something to tell us? In October 1988, according the Register of Members' Interests, he paid a visit to South Africa financed by the South African Government. We should know what has been going on in the background.
Column 891Members have visited coal interests in South Africa. We should know who paid for those trips, what the connections were and what happened on the trips.
Mr. Wall : I want to draw a contrast now. The Bill concerns the Humber ports. One of the interesting things about the Bill is that Conservative Members have been pushing the idea that Associated British Ports is wonderful. We have been told that it is a company whose total tonnage has risen since it was privatised from 77 million tonnes in 1972 to 90 million tonnes in 1987, with profits of £28 million. The total investment in new ports by the company is £80 million. Yet we are told that scheme ports are not viable, cannot operate, cannot attract investment and are not successful. On the one hand, we are told that Associated British Ports is a company that really needs and can really develop Immingham jetty ; on the other hand we are told that we must abolish the dock labour scheme because scheme ports cannot provide such work. That argument is nonsense. Mr. Bellingham rose --
Mr. Bellingham : I seek your advice and guidance, Mr. Speaker, because the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall) has given way on several occasions to his hon. Friends, but not to any Conservative Member, including myself. I wish to tell him that my support for the Bill