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Mr. Barron : The Secretary of State may shake his head. I was a teller when he walked through the Aye Lobby with the Prime Minister to vote in favour for the Bill for the ports on the Humber. I will send the Secretary of State a copy of Hansard if he has forgotten what he did that night.
Opposition Members and the whole of the British coal-mining industry will not be unaware of the kind of support that they have received from the Government over the past six months or so. No matter what words they utter or what they do, it is clear that the Government's policy towards the coal industry is determined by a mixture of their ideological idiocy and political prejudice. The prejudice between British coal miners and Tory Governments is well known. It has been evident in the 1980s, and it was evident in the 1970s in my generation. However, it was clear also in the 1920s when the arguments between Labour and capitalism were rehearsed in the mining communities between the coal owners and the mining unions. We know where Conservatism has stood for generations.
Column 790Nothing more could have been asked of the British coal industry over the past four years than that which it has delivered. For the industry to be confronted by a Government who are prepared to work against it in the winning of contracts so that foreign coal will come into this country is a stab in the back for the people who work so hard. That shows where the Government's loyalties really lie. There is nothing of flag waving in the Government's attitude. Now we can see who really wants to protect British interests and who does not. If British Coal does not win the contracts that it deserves, that will go down as one of the most tragic stabs in the back that the industry has ever suffered from the current Government.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Michael Spicer) : As my hon. Friends the Members for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) and for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) so shrewdly noted, there can be no doubt that the debate has been a terrible personal embarrassment for the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) who opened it. I noticed that he kept his head down throughout his speech like a Chinese news-reader. He hardly mentioned coal at all, except to say that the international coal market is so tight that logically we have nothing to worry about from imports.
My right hon. and hon. Friends and I do not go that far, but the hon. Gentleman is on the right lines. My advice is that he should talk occasionally to his hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who is petrified, like most of his right hon. and hon. Friends, at the prospect of coal imports. I shall return to that subject shortly.
The future of coal poses the hon. Member for Sedgefield a ghastly dilemma. On the one hand, he and his new-style Socialists see the coal industry as baggage that they would like to discard. It reminds them of Mr. Arthur Scargill, who for obvious reasons they are trying to put back under wraps, but not very successfully. Labour understand that coal pollutes the very atmosphere that they want to clear up, and generally it does not fit well with their adman's image of sweet-smelling roses and jolly music that is their particular manifestation of Socialism.
On the other hand, Labour have to contend with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and with other Opposition Members who have spoken tonight, telling them that coal lies at the very foundation of the Labour movement, and that for Labour to turn its back on it is to turn its back on years of struggle and disruption. So good is coal, say the hon. Member for Bolsover and his hon. Friends, that one day it must triumph again and replace most other sources of energy--notably nuclear power.
The important question in assessing the significance of the Opposition motion is who is winning the power struggle within the Labour party over the future of coal. If one looks at the Opposition's recent policy review, the answer is clear. Despite all the charm of the hon. Member for Sedgefield, the hon. Member for Bolsover and his hon. Friends have won the argument. That is why Labour is committed unequivocally to phasing out nuclear power, why it chooses motions such as that before the House tonight to debate in the Opposition's own time, and why the hon. Member for Sedgefield leaves coal matters to his hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley whenever he
Column 791can, hoping himself to be moved to other pastures as soon as the Electricity Bill has passed safely through Parliament.
[Interruption.] Opposition Members have made remarks about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I am returning the compliment.
That is also why the hon. Member for Sedgefield employs every diversion that he can muster to avoid addressing the essential question of how we are to meet the increased demand for electricity that everyone--probably even the hon. Gentleman in his heart of hearts--acknowledges will come about, even if we allow for measures to increase efficiency, while at the same time cutting carbon dioxide emissions and abolishing the nuclear industry.
One of the hon. Gentleman's recent diversions was to issue another of his famous press releases on 20 June. Its primary purpose was to attack our policy on the nuclear industry. At the bottom of the first page, in quotation marks, was an extract from a speech that I was alleged to have made to the House on 10 April this year. I am supposed to have said that the schedule in the Electricity Bill that provides for making grants to the nuclear industry would be activated
"only if there is a change in environmental policies that the industry could not have foreseen."
What I actually said--it is column 667 of Hansard --was : "We are clear about the policy. The industry, and therefore the consumer, will pay for decommissioning unless something happens that was not capable of being foreseen--suchas"--
"the regulations concerning the environment being changed--and proper provision could not therefore have been made in the accounts."--[ Official Report, 10 April 1989 ; Vol. 150, c. 667.] That is virtually the opposite of what was attributed to me by the hon. Member for Sedgefield.
I have laboured the point partly to illustrate the diversionary tactics employed by the hon. Gentlemen to disguise his embarrassment about his energy policies--particularly those concerned with coal--but partly because I think it scandalous behaviour on the part of Labour's official energy spokesman to distort totally what I said to the House of Commons and then to attack it.
Mr. Blair : I take it as an enormous compliment that nearly half the Minister's speech so far has been taken up by an attack on me. May I set the record straight? In column 677 of Hansard for 10 April 1989 appear the following words--the very words that the Minister has just denied using :
"Because we do not want that to persist"--
that is, the comments that would be made by Opposition Members-- "we are making it clear that the schedule will be activated only if there is a change in environmental policies that the industry could not have forseen." --[ Official Report, 10 April 1989 ; Vol. 150, c. 667.]
All that I did was quote those words.
Mr. Spicer : I assure the hon. Gentleman that he has completely distorted the position as given in the quotations that I have given him and the speeches that I have placed on the record, and he knows it.
Mr. Blair rose --
Column 792Some of his hon. Friends have tried to help the hon. Gentleman out of his embarrassment--it has happened again tonight- -by trying to focus the argument on clean coal technology. Of course we all agree that the methods of producing electricity with reduced carbon dioxide emissions are a good thing, but do not let us kid ourselves. The building of a nuclear power station results in a 100 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, while a coal-fired power station using the topping cycle --which is yet to be fully developed--is likely to produce a reduction of only about 20 per cent. The Labour party, in its attack on the nuclear industry, seems to be incapable of recognising that. Even a modern gas- fired station will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 40 per cent.
Perhaps it is because we do not have the cultural hang-up about the coal industry that is so deeply rooted in the Labour party that we have a clear policy on its future. It is precisely that policy which was spelt out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy at the beginning of the debate. Through the massive investment of capital in modern machinery, which is still running at £2 million every working day, we intend to exploit the nation's best reserves of coal in such a way as to allow the industry to stand on its own feet, to beat off foreign competition as the supplier of choice to the electricity industry and ultimately--to answer my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) and for Tatton and others who have raised the matter--to place it once more in the private sector.
Mr. Barron : The Minister said that he is prepared to see British Coal beat off foreign competition. Will he now answer the question that twice today the Secretary of State has refused to answer : whether British Coal will be able to negotiate to supply the generating industry with more than the 60 million tonnes of coal that is the sticking point at present? Will he answer yes or no?
Mr. Spicer : The hon. Gentleman has asked that question--[ Hon. Members-- : "Answer the question."]--and I shall answer it in my own way. The hon. Gentleman knows exactly what our position is--that it is not our policy to order any industry to do anything at the expense of another part of the community. My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton made that point when he said that we have to represent not exclusively the coal industry but the entire nation, including those who use electricity. They have the right to buy their electricity as cheaply as possible. Opposition Members are not concerned about that. We have never hidden our aim that there should be free trade in coal. I have said time and again to the House of Commons that there is no question of the Government preventing anyone from negotiating a price for the import of coal. The question, however, is which side of the House has the confidence to back the industry's ability to fight off coal imports.
The hon. Member for Sedgefield made the point, quite fairly, that the world market for steam coal is not particularly bright. British Coal is in an extraordinarily powerful position, partly because of the difficulties over importing coal, partly because of the problems in the world coal market and partly because--a point which the Opposition are never prepared to accept and concede--of the massive investment by the Government in the coal industry. The only question that Opposition Members who are sponsored by the National Union of Mineworkers
Column 793should answer is whether those who work in the mining industry are prepared to back the massive investment, largely by the taxpayer, in the industry by adopting the manning procedures and efficient mining methods that are required if the industry is to beat off competition, something which all hon. Members hope will take place.
Mr. Barron : If I accepted all the Minister's arguments about the cost of foreign coal and all his other arguments, would he answer the question whether British Coal is free to negotiate every tonne of coal--74 million or 75 million tonnes--that is currently being burnt in generating stations?
Mr. Spicer : Of course it is free to negotiate. What a stupid question, if I may be discourteous to the hon. Gentleman. That is precisely what we have been saying all along. Of course British Coal is allowed to negotiate whatever it thinks that it can sell. The question, however, is whether the coal industry will take advantage of the massive investment by the Government in the industry. It has responded in many respects. It has nearly doubled its rate of productivity. There are good things. The reason that the industry is in its present state--a potentially powerful position- -has everything to do with what this Government have done for the industry and nothing to do with the carping and griping which has come from the Opposition throughout the whole process. That is why I ask the House to discard the motion and treat it with the distain that it deserves.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question :
The House divided : Ayes 195, Noes 272.
Division No. 261] [10.00 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Duffy, A. E. P.
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John