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Column 477concerns Wales, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is to wind up the debate. I hope very much that right hon. and hon. Members representing Welsh constituencies will be called.
Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North) : Last week's announcement of 31 pit closures certainly shook everyone in the country. There are no pits in Brent, North--at least, none has been discovered as yet--but the strength of feeling on the issue in my constituency is stronger than on any other in the past 10 years. Judging by the mailbags right hon. and hon. Members have received, whatever the closures may have done for miners--for whom I have full sympathy--they must have increased the number of postmen being employed.
The idea of putting 30,000 miners out of work in one fell swoop, some at three days' notice, and of jeopardising the jobs of 70,000 other workers has shaken the country--particularly at a time when we are moving from recession to depression, for we are almost in a depression now, and what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) gave us an idea of the desperateness of the measures that are required.
In the Lancashire town where I grew up, there was only one employer--the cotton industry. I grew up during the depression of the 1930s, when unemployment, especially male unemployment, was intense : the family earner, whose wife and children looked to him for their income, could expect to be out of work for a long time. Mass unemployment is evil. It destroys the family, and it destroys the sense of community.
Now, there is a new factor. In the 1930s, people could move more easily, because houses were generally rented. They could move from the north, which was experiencing a depression, to London, which was then experiencing prosperity--it no longer is : my constituency is currently in the depths of a depression that particularly affects middle-class workers who used to be employed in the City. Now, even people in the mining villages have bought their own houses--with the Government's agreement, and backed by my own enthusiasm--and many are trapped by negative equity.
In many ways, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers enabled the Conservative Government to defeat the miners in 1984-85. It is unduly felt that the union has now been stabbed in the back for what it did.
I am glad that the Government have retracted a good deal of what was in the original statement : the future of 21 pits is being reconsidered. I only wish that that applied to all 31. That, surely, would be a generous and sensible gesture, especially in the light of this afternoon's exchange in the House between the Secretary of State and others. I also welcome the review. Any such review must be both thorough and open. It must cover two areas--the existing situation, and the country's future energy policy.
I suspect that energy pricing has been rigged against the miners, and that some pits are being closed unfairly--that there has been no free market or level playing field. That should certainly be examined. There should be an investigation of the relative cost of production, and of how the mines compare with gas and nuclear fuel which is heavily subsidised by Government. Secondly, the review must consider the long term. It is said that the country has
Column 478250 years of coal supply ; we probably have only 10 or 20 years of gas. It would be suicidal to use up that gas, which represents a strategic reserve in the long term. The world is now a much more dangerous place than it was before the collapse of the communist empire in Russia. Years ago, I did not think that I would ever say that, but I have now seen what is happening in eastern Europe, north America and elsewhere. We should conserve our stocks of gas, coal and oil for the future.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford, I feel that any policy decision that the Government make at this time of high unemployment should take employment into account. I would welcome nil inflation, but I certainly do not want it if it would involve nil employment. Every Cabinet decision should relate to how many people it will employ. One thing that can be said of coal is that it is a labour-intensive industry. Similarly, I hope that the Government will help with the extension of the Jubilee line, which will employ 12,000 people. The first item on the Cabinet's agenda from now on should be the effect of its proposals on the employment market.
The points that I have made have also been made by my constituents. They feel that the miners have been let down. It is now up to us to make it clear that they have not been let down, and I am also glad that the Select Committee is doing its best to bring about a return of confidence. Many Conservative Members--although we may differ on economic policy--are one- nation Tories, and it strikes us as very serious to condemn to continued unemployment areas that have no employment alternative.
Although I represent a London constituency, I shall never forget what unemployment was like in the 1930s in the area were I grew up. I trust that the review, when it is published, will give the mining industry sustenance and hope for the future ; and I trust that we will have a distinctive policy for energy, covering 20 to 30 years, with which all hon. Members on both sides of the House can agree. 6.25 pm
Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli) : One of the 10 pits is in my constituency--Betws, near Ammanford. It should not be on the list, because- -as the Secretary of State and the Minister know very well--it is an anthracite pit, and anthracite is not dependent on any contracts between British Coal and the two power generators. The market relates to domestic heating, and possibly to industrial heating as well.
Even in west Wales, the demand for anthracite exceeds supply. We do not really have any problems with imports ; we can just about compete on price, and we can certainly compete on quality. Betws is a modern pit. British Coal has mined anthracite there for 15 years or slightly more ; at one time it employed nearly 500 people, but that is now down to 100. It is not an uneconomic pit : it is uneconomic only in the sense that British Coal-- having mined it traditionally for 15 years, using the equipment that it has used in other mines to extract soft rather than hard coal--does not wish to extract any more coal from the seams that it has been mining, and probably cannot do so. That does not mean that there is not a considerable amount of coal left in those seams--in the pillars, as they are called. British Coal, however, cannot extract it, because it is locked into a certain way of mining that does not lend itself to the process.
Column 479Under those seams lie other seams, but British Coal has decided that it does not wish to make the investment-- essential investment, perhaps--that would be required for it to start on those seams. It has decided to leave the anthracite coalfield. It still extracts anthracite by opencast mining, but it is no longer interested in the slant and drift methods.
It was announced that Betws was likely to be closed some time ago, before the list was published. Some of us decided, having talked to the magnificent leadership of the NUM--it is a magnificent leadership in the Betws colliery, and, indeed, throughout south Wales--that, if British Coal was bent on leaving the anthracite coalfield, the only alternative apart from closure was to see whether other operators were prepared to come in. After all, British Coal was to be privatised in any case. Would other operators--responsible and respectable companies--be prepared to extract the remaining coal, use the money from that extraction to boost cash flow and then decide whether it was possible to go for the other seams?
If a different mining method were used--I am not talking about pit ponies or pick and shovel ; I am talking about the under system that has been developed in the United States and, to some extent, in South Africa, a technique in which British Coal was not interested--a considerable amount of coal could probably be extracted from Betws. After there had been some publicity, three separate organisations contacted me and my office a few weeks later and said that they were interested. One of them is an international mining company. It has had no previous connection with Britain, so it is not Hanson or anybody like that. The second company is owned by a business man with high technology factories in the south of England, but he has local connections. The third company is Ryan Mining, which has now made its intentions public. It has shown tremendous commitment. I pay tribute to the chairman of Ryan Mining, Mr. Hodson, for his tremendous commitment and dedication to the coal industry in south Wales. These three companies would, I believe, be acceptable to the leadership and members of the National Union of Mineworkers. We are not talking about cowboys or fly-by-nighters coming in to flout the safety rules and everything else. That would be unacceptable. We are talking about responsible organisations that are interested in coming into the area.
I hope that British Coal decides not to close Betws. If, however, it decides to do so, the problem will be not the men, or the coal, or the shortage of bidders but British Coal. I have discovered that it is almost impossible to communicate with British Coal. Whenever one puts forward any ideas they are shot down. One cannot get through to the right people. The mining of anthracite coal in west Wales is governed from Nottingham, so one cannot get hold of anybody. Therefore, rumours are flying around.
A few weeks after the announcement of the closure, journalists rang up British Coal and were told that British Coal did not know what it wanted to do with Betws. A few weeks later, a business man rang me up and said that he wanted to go and have a look at the pit. I rang the office of the chairman of British Coal and asked him to get in touch with that gentleman. He was told by British Coal,
Column 480however, that on no account was he to go near the Betws pit. He was told one cannot buy a coal mine just as though one was going into a Kwik Save supermarket. That gentleman said to me, "British Coal should really have sent a car to fetch me. It should have laid out a red carpet for me. I was actually going to put money into that pit during a slump, during a recession. I wanted to invest money in that coal mine and save possibly 60 or 70 of the 100 jobs."
Rumours are still flying around. I was told by the lodge secretary the other night that bricklayers are now going down the mine and beginning to brick things up. I do not know why they are doing that. I see that the Minister for Energy shakes his head, but perhaps his writ no longer runs that far. In his speech the President of the Board of Trade used the word "instruction". He is a bit of a lame duck President these days. I do not know how far the Minister's instructions go, but I have been told that the bricklayers are going down the pit and bricking things up.
I was also told the other day--no doubt the Secretary of State for Wales can answer this question--that British Coal has approached the Welsh Development Agency and asked it to turn the site into a business park. The last time the Welsh Development Agency took over a mining site in Wales it turned it into a Tesco supermarket.
I hope that the Secretary of State for Wales, who is to wind up the debate, will say that on no account will anything be done to close down Betws, to cement it up, or whatever else British Coal wants to do.
Mr. Eggar : I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. I shall personally make sure that British Coal responds to indications of interest from the three parties he mentioned, or from any other parties. We shall not preclude that.
Mr. Davies : I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance. We are not romantics. We believe that the anthracite coalfield of west Wales can be developed for the economic good of the area, that value can be added to it by the creation of other jobs. The anthracite coalfield can contribute to the economic well-being of the area. It has also made a tremendous contribution to the Welsh language and to the cultural life of the whole of that community. We do not intend to let that go. We shall fight to preserve it. We shall regenerate the anthracite coalfield of Wales.
Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford) : We have heard a lot recently about the importance of Select Committees in reviewing the case for pit closures. May I begin, therefore, by reading from the final report of the Select Committee on Energy, submitted in the spring of this year. The final sentence in paragraph 19 says :
Column 481"we believe that the Energy Committee should remain in being even if the Department of Energy is abolished we firmly believe that this is not the time for the House to reduce its ability to scrutinise energy matters."
How right we were then and how right we are now. In our previous report dealing with the market for coal after 1993 when these contracts expire we said :
"if a significant portion of the UK's coal reserves were abandoned, which we hope will not happen, resulting in a major reduction of long-term energy security, the Government should understand that the country would see this not as a commercial decision, but a largely irreversible decision of historic significance to the United Kingdom."
We were right about that, too. Therefore, one wonders whether our reports were well used by the Government or whether the Select Committee on Energy wasted its time. One has to draw the conclusion that any other Select Committee that looks into the matter will be wasting its time, too, unless there is a positive pledge from the Secretary of State and the Minister for Energy that the Select Committee's report will be taken seriously.
We are told that there is no demand for coal. Yesterday, however, I chaired a conference in France, called Coal Trans, which was attended by 1,050 delegates. They talked about how they were going to trade coal on the world market. They are looking at a potential vacuum here, and there was the gleam of nice cash registers in their eyes. We are also told that our coal stocks are too large. Of course they are. We have carried strategic stocks of coal for a long time, in case there should be strikes. We are told, too, that it is expensive to stockpile coal. We are not told whether it is the space on the ground that is expensive or whether it is the capital cost of tying up the stocks that is expensive. If it is the capital cost that is expensive, British Coal and the Government should do the same as any other business has to do : sell the coal at a price at which it can be sold, even if it is a marginal cost price, rather than try to hold out for the full price.
We know that there are no contracts for coal beyond 1993. That seems to have come as a great surprise, but we have known that for a long time. In our report on the consequences of electricity privatisation we reported in paragraph 149 :
"The new evidence we have received has made brutally apparent how drastically and rapidly Britain's coal industry will contract if present policies continue."
We also referred to the fact that contracts should be in place. Other hon. Members have referred to the fact that the coal industry is suffering because it was privatised after the electricity supply industry. I believe that it should have been the other way round. If coal had been privatised first, there would have been safeguards for the electricity supply industry. The shame is that those same safeguards, which could have been devised then, were not devised for the coal industry.
As for contracts, as far back as 1988 we said in another Select Committee report that contracts should be put in place quickly for the benefit of the coal industry and for the benefit of all the generators. It is said that British coal is expensive. That may be so. We know that British Coal has a plan to bring down the price of British coal to the same price as world coal by 1994-95. Why, then, after 40 years of investment in the coal industry since the second world war and the spending of £17 billion since 1979 alone are we thinking of cutting out 60 per cent. of our coal industry when we are within two years of getting coal prices down to world market prices?
Column 482Since the 1984-85 strike--I do not wish to dwell upon that--new working methods have been introduced into the pits and there have been dramatic increases in productivity. One could argue that that was a year lost, and I regret that we lost that year. We could have been a year further down the road without that strike. But let us not forget that the Government were able to continue to run the country and businesses survived because of the new union in my native Nottinghamshire, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, headed by the remarkable Roy Lynk. I spoke to him last Saturday--he was down the bottom of Silverhill and I was in the comfort of my sitting room--for a long time and about many things. I asked, "Roy, is there anything I can do to help you?" He said, "I think in many ways you have tried to help already. There is just one thing that I would like from your side of the House--a smidgen of appreciation." My constituents, all those associated with him and all miners, whether they belong to his union or the other union, want to give him more than a smidgen of appreciation.
We have heard about the dash for gas and the consequences of it, on which the Select Committee reported. In paragraph 154 of our report on the consequences of electricity privatisation, we referred to the fact that it would be wrong to allow the dash for gas to cut out British Coal to such an extent that in due course electricity prices increased, and wrong to cut out coal, which might add about 6 per cent. to the electricity bills of those who do not have a franchise tariff, compared with an increase of 11 per cent. from nuclear fuels, despite its having the fossil fuel levy to subsidise it. That should not be forgotten.
The Government have decided to shut 31 pits, with 30,000 redundancies at a cost of £1,000 million in redundancy pay. The topping cycle--the forerunner of clean-coal technology, in which we lead the world--was being developed at Grimethorpe. Last year, £10 million was required to keep that pilot plant going. The Government and the Coal Board could not find £10 million, yet they can now find £1,000 million for redundancy, and last week another £150 million was found to try to allay distress in coal mining areas. Like many others, I am tired of so-called investment in failure and redundancy. I want more investment front-end in success and opportunity, not investment back-end on redun-dancy and failure. The £150 million extra that was offered to miners would have built a demonstration plant for clean-coal technology. Texaco has had one in America since 1984, Germany has had one since 1985, another one has been in America since 1987 and Shell is building one on the continent that will be ready later this year.
The Government, in offering these massive unemployment redundancy terms and concessions to miners, have misread the mood of the people, who do not want to see redundancies, and have misread the characters of miners, who do not want charity money. I say to the chairmen of the regional electricity companies that the £30,000 that is paid in redundancy to miners who have spent all their lives in the industry is equivalent to one quarter of the self-awarded pay rises that those chairmen are giving themselves each year, and it is those chairmen who largely will cause the demise of the coal industry.
If the Government want my support, they must have an open, public and published review of the coal industry. They must state their energy policy, which they have failed
Column 483to do for many a year. They must commit themselves to clean-burn technology and treat all 31 pits alike without putting 10 to one side.
I was disappointed to hear the statement in the other place yesterday that some reliance will be put on Select Committee reports. That statement was made by someone who had been presented with Select Committee report after Select Committee report when he was Secretary of State for Energy.
I cannot, as things stand, vote for the amendment unless all 31 pits are included. I do not welcome speedy action to give assistance to miners ; I want speedy action to save the pits. I do not see this as being a decision in the context of the Government's energy policy, although I might if I knew what it was. I do not think that it is adequate to say that the House will debate Select Committee reports ; we have debated all the Select Committee reports, and this is where we have arrived. If things do not change, I shall vote not against my Government but for the coal industry, even if it means voting for the coal industry in that Lobby--
Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale) : I have had the pleasure today of getting a bit of exercise, which I need, by walking a few miles around London with more than 200,000 people, who within seven days have responded by coming from all parts of the land to demonstrate against the disgraceful announcement that was made last week by the President of the Board of Trade.
It was an experience that I enjoyed in my younger years, when some said that such demonstrations would never happen again. I remind the Government and the hon. Member for Kensington (Mr. Fishburn) where that march went today. They must be worried and must think seriously what they are doing. The Government and the President--he wanted to be Prime Minister but now he likes to be called the President--have shown their lack of energy policy, of economic policy and their lack of concern for the hundreds of thousands of people who will be affected by that decision and whose lives will be made worse be their contempt for the British mining industry.
I am not convinced that the decision was made on economic grounds. I have been here for only five years, but I have never seen any evidence that the Government or Conservative Members believe in the British coal industry. Sadly, we have seen the politics of dogma, and in last week's decision we saw the politics of vengeance. I do not make that statement lightly ; I honestly believe that it was vengeance.
The former Secretary of State for Energy, Lord Parkinson, said, "Remember 1972 and 1974." What did he mean by that? He could only have meant that the Government have intended all along to get their own back on the miners, their families and their communities for the 1972 miners' strike, which few miners wanted, and the 1974 strike, which, equally, miners did not want but which was necessary to fight to maintain their living standards. The 1974 strike led to a general election. Some people like
Column 484to say that the miners brought down the Government, but it was a general election that brought down the Government, not the miners. The British people had a fair-sized delegation on the streets of London today. It was a delegation, but only a small proportion of the millions of people who were disgusted by last week's statement. The statement was bad enough, but its tenor made it far worse. They were saying to the miners, "Your jobs will be gone in two days. By the way, don't say anything. Don't you dare open your mouths, or you will lose that redundancy money that we are promising you."
Some of us are old enough to remember when people were screaming at the miners to have ballots, in 1984. Yet Terry Wheatley, who used to be a British Coal manager at Thoresby colliery in Nottinghamshire, and is now an area director in the midlands, told the unions, "If you seek to hold a ballot on pit premises I shall consider that destructive action and we shall withdraw all your redundancy benefits." That struck a chord with hundreds, thousands, even millions of people in our country, because that is the way they are treated in their workplaces today. When they hear about such treatment, they feel akin to the miners, and they say no. The Government had better listen. The British people are saying, "No ; we have had enough. It is our coal industry to keep, not yours to shut down and sell off." The President of the Board of Trade's display today was appalling. We are used to the politicking in the House--we are professionals--but today I saw a man of jelly. I am being as kind as I can, but I still have to say that I do not know how that man can stand up, because he has no backbone. It is nonsense for a man to turn round, somersault and twist as he has done in a matter of 24 or 48 hours.
I walked through this House at a quarter to 11 last night, not long after the House of Lords had considered the matter and, wisely, reflected the view of the British people. I saw a lonely man walking into the Chamber with a colleague. I shall not mention the colleague's name, but he is sitting on the Government Front Bench now. They walked into the Chamber all alone, clicking their heels and looking about them. Guess where they were standing. Here, by the Opposition Front Bench. May I never move from this spot if the President of the Board of Trade and the Minister for Energy, who is now in raptures of laughter, were standing here. I thought that they were showing a little foresight, and getting used to the new side of the House towards which they are quickly heading.
We should think carefully before we make our decision tonight. Let us make no bones about it--we shall be deciding whether there will be a British coal industry. Some people will be bought off. I saw one hon. Gentleman on television this morning saying, "Oh well, 10 pits have gone, but we have a review for 21 pits." What nonsense. If anybody believes for a minute that the Government will save the 21 and close only the 10, he is kidding himself.
Far be it from me to advise Conservative Members on their political and professional futures, but they must think little of their constituents if they believe that they will be conned by such behaviour. We have a saying in Scotland, "That will sort the weak from the chaff." Conservative Members have been chaffing all this week, and we shall see who is weak and who is determined to stand by what they have been saying.
Column 485The weak will be in the Lobby with the Prime Minister and the President of the Board of Trade, but those who really have the backbone that they have been telling everybody they have will be elsewhere. To be fair to the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark), he has made the same statement today, repeating that he will not necessarily vote for the Labour motion, but that he will vote for the coal industry. I take my hat off to him--and I do not do that often. He is standing by what he said seven days ago, and he is more of an honourable gentleman than those who said the same seven days ago but do not say a word now.
My time is running out, so I shall add only that what happens here tonight is important for the mining communities and for the broader community--with the hundred thousand jobs that will be lost in related industries. The mining communities will not win or lose the vote tonight. We shall not be impressed by those wishy-washy characters who go through the Lobbies to allow the Government off the hook--if that is what happens--to buy more time to save the job of the President of the Board of Trade, and in the hope of sacking 30,000 miners.
We shall come back. What happened in London today will happen again next week. There will be a massive rally on Sunday, and the campaign will go out to the British people until we save our British coal industry.
Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley) : I have more than a little sympathy with those who have opposed the closures--for two reasons. First, I represent a constituency which has suffered more than its fair share of closures over the past few decades. The second reason is the way in which the announcement was made. Not many Conservative hon. Members who have employed people in private industry would have given people only three days' notice that they were to lose their jobs, and I do not think it right for Governments or state-owned industries to act in that way either.
I also have more than a little sympathy with the complaints about the way in which some of the gas-fired power station contracts have been set up. It is never satisfactory when distributors act as producers too, and that may be a cause for complaint here. However, the regulators have the power to examine the contracts and the boards have a statutory duty to ensure that they are obtaining the lowest price. The regulator can penalise them severely if the gas contracts prove uneconomic.
However, it is often forgotten in the debate that we compete not only with British gas but with imported coal. There has been much concentration on German policy because the Germans subsidise their coal industry and their coal price is high. Many people have said that we should follow their example. Just because the Germans follow a mistaken policy it does not mean that we must do the same. Furthermore, the costs of the German policy are habitually underestimated, at £1 billion, whereas the true cost of all the direct and indirect aid more than quadruples that to £4.5 billion, because of the so-called "coal penny"--a levy on energy-consuming industries. Hon. Members who go to Germany will find that that policy is far from popular. It is highly controversial, especially in the steel industry, and is certainly not the subject of any cosy consensus.
Column 486Leaving Germany aside, we live not only in Europe but in the world economy, and we have to compete there. We currently pay £43 a tonne for British mined coal. The import price into the United Kingdom is £33, the OECD average is £26, and the price in Australia and the United States is as low as £15 to £18 a tonne.
In their heart of hearts, many Opposition Members know that the easier British coal seams were worked out long ago--[ Hon. Members :-- "No."] Anyone who goes down pits such as Bentinck, on the border of my constituency, and crawls along the narrow face will know how difficult it is to win such coal and how skilled the men are at winning it. None the less, it strikes me as a wrong economic policy to mine difficult coal regardless of the cost. Why turn what has traditionally been an asset to the British economy into a millstone around the neck of British industry by penalising it with high energy prices? Not to buy cheaper imported coal would be sheer protectionism. To put it simply, the Government would be putting the interests of one group and industry above others by placing a ban on cheap imports.
The history of coal since the war has been just that. For years, the National Coal Board had cosy guaranteed contracts with the Central Electricity Generating Board, and imports were virtually banned. As a result, consumers and industry paid over the odds for coal ; taxpayers paid a huge subsidy to the Coal Board and the economy as a whole was penalised. For every job preserved in the mines, jobs were lost elsewhere. That is, and always has been, the cost of protectionism.
It did not even really help the miners. They still lost their jobs by the tens of thousands. They were paid less than they are now in real terms because, being protected from foreign competition, there was no incentive to raise productivity. As a result of that, they could not be paid as much. The British coal industry is a classic example of the failure of Government policies of intervention in industry.
Meanwhile, other countries benefited from diversity of energy resources by opting for cheaper imports of energy. Japan closed down virtually all its mines. As a result, it buys as cheaply as it can on the world markets. In the EC, France, which has a socialist Government, has long since closed down the bulk of its capacity. It now has only 20,000 miners. France buys coal at £26 a tonne and Italy pays £33 a tonne. Those are far lower prices than we pay. It is often argued that we need domestic supplies for our energy security. However, even with the closures, 30 to 40 per cent. of our energy needs will be met by domestic coal, on top of which we have indigenous gas, oil and nuclear which will give us far greater security than most. I should have thought that simply to refuse to import energy and to use up our domestic supplies as soon as possible would guarantee our insecurity rather than our security in energy supplies.
We are, anyway, over-reliant on coal in comparison with our main competitors. Sixty-seven per cent. of Britain's electricity comes from coal. That is higher than the level in all the major EC countries. Even Germany, which is much quoted, gets only just over 50 per cent. of its electricity from coal. The figure in France is 8 per cent.
Column 487Even the United States, the land of cheap coal, gets only 55 per cent. of its electricity from coal. We are way out of line with out international competitors.
Opposition Members argue that foreign coal is unreliable. Very little of the so-called cheap foreign coal which is habitually sneered at comes from Russia, Poland and the third world. Opposition Members say that those countries are unstable and that we cannot rely on them. However, those countries will become even more unstable unless richer countries like ours trade with them and allow them to sell to us the goods that they can best produce.
I sometimes find it extraordinary that people who call themselves socialists urge us to refuse to buy products from poorer countries. That does not sound much like the brotherhood of man. The vast bulk of our coal imports do not anyway come from the third world, from Poland, Russia, eastern Europe or Colombia. They come from the United States and Australia. They supply the overwhelming bulk of our imported coal. They are long- standing allies of ours and they are stable democracies. There is a huge and diverse competitive international energy market and if we cut ourselves off from it, we will penalise our industry and our economy as a whole.
My experience in Amber Valley has shown me at first hand the problems caused to coal communities when there are pit closures and I understand those problems. However, I must point out to Opposition Members that most of the pits in my constituency--in fact, almost all--were closed down under Labour Governments. The miners received a pittance in redundancy and even their concessionary coal was taken from them. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) said, the redundancies were effectively compulsory. I suggest that he should not come to my constituency and tell the thousands of miners who were made redundant under Labour that they were not made compulsorily redundant.
Amber Valley is also an example of regeneration after coal. Notwithstanding the effects of the recession, it has built up a very successful, diverse industrial base since the coal mines were closed and I willingly pay tribute to councils of all parties that contributed to that regeneration.
So despite the perversity of the situation in which I find myself in supporting an avowedly interventionist Minister who, for once, is doing the right thing by the market, which I support, as I believe in open markets and a liberal open economy ; and despite my deep concern about the way in which the whole issue has been handled, I will oppose the Opposition motion.
Mr. Geoffrey Hoon (Ashfield) : When the collieries were closed in Amber Valley, there was full employment in this country--not like the situation facing the miners at Silverhill today. I want to speak for the miners at that colliery which, in case the constant references by Conservative Members leave anyone in doubt, is in my constituency. I want to speak for the staff at the colliery and for the families who depend for their livelihoods on the colliery continuing to produce coal.
Those miners want to work and they proved that on Monday morning when, despite the closure announcement, they turned up ready to work. However, they were
Column 488sent home. When the President of the Board of Trade was still in the Chamber, I wanted to ask him how any of the 10 pits will be able to prove that they are economic during the next 90 days when the miners are not allowed to work. If the Minister who is on the Front Bench answers any of the questions, he must address that issue. If he does not, the exercise in relation to those 10 collieries is cynical and cosmetic.
The debate is about whether the miners at Silverhill will ever work again in the colliery which they have worked to make economically competitive and whether they and their families will be condemned to unemployment and poverty by a callous, incompetent and short-sighted Government.
In effect, Silverhill has been condemned to closure by the President of the Board of Trade and the Prime Minister. On Monday, the President of the Board of Trade said that Silverhill was "currently loss making" and that it had
"no prospect of viability in the foreseeable future."--[ Official Report, 19 October 1992 ; Vol. 212, c. 205.]
The Prime Minister repeated the same charge yesterday and stated categorically :
"In our judgment, the 10 pits have no sustainable economic future."--[ Official Report, 20 October 1992 ; Vol. 212, c. 315.] On what did those two mining and energy experts base their judgments ? Where is the evidence that leads them to that conclusion ? It can be nothing in the recent history of Silverhill. The colliery has made a consistent profit in each of the past four financial years. In 1988-89 it made a profit of £3.6 million. In 1989-90 the profit was £620,000. In 1990-91 it was £1.1 million and in the last complete financial year--1991-92--it was £1.94 million.
The figures for 1991-92 are perhaps the most remarkable. Not only did the miners produce their biggest-ever output of 932,000 tonnes, but they did so in the face of considerable geological difficulties. By August 1991, Silverhill colliery was as much as £3 million in the red as the men struggled to cope with those geological difficulties. By sheer hard work, by April 1992, they turned a deficit of £3 million into a profit of £2 million. In seven months, they were able to add £5 million in profit in that colliery.
The miners in Silverhill are realistic, as are miners everywhere. They know that they work in conditions which are less easy and less attractive than some of the so-called super pits in which some miners can almost walk along a seam. Silverhill miners are forced to crawl along seams less than 3 ft high. That makes their achievements of last year all the more remarkable.
Since 1988, with a work force of between 750 and 800 men, the colliery has produced more than 850,000 tonnes of coal a year. Last year was a record. Therefore, how can the Prime Minister and the President of the Board of Trade tell us that those miners have no sustainable economic future?
The miners know the difficulties that they have to contend with. They know because they work in those difficulties every day. They know that coal does not jump on to the conveyor belt. They know that they have to struggle to mine that coal. They know that they can go for weeks without producing any useful coal, only to clear the way for substantial gains later. That is exactly what happened at Silverhill last year and that is exactly what can happen again if only the miners are allowed to work.
Column 489How can the Government conclude that there is no future for Silverhill and the other nine pits of the 10 when British Coal last year drew up a five-year plan for Silverhill? That plan looks forward from 1992 to 1997 ; it is based on the production of coal at economic prices over that five-year period. That plan picks out the best bits of the colliery and the best bits of the remaining reserves. On the basis of the record of that colliery, when it published that five-year plan, British Coal had every expectation that the colliery would survive and would develop along economic lines.
It is not only a five-year plan that British Coal was prepared to put forward on behalf of Silverhill colliery. There is also a new face ready and available for work. British Coal has spent £4 million on preparing that face and it could be mined today if only British Coal and the Government allowed the miners at Silverhill to take advantage of that opportunity.
Those are the economic facts of Silverhill. How can they be reconciled with the Government's present position? According to the Government last week, Silverhill and 30 other collieries were uneconomic. Today, Silverhill is not to benefit from the review, from a moratorium or from any other public consideration of its position. Its miners are not even allowed to work. Where was the Government's credibility when they said on Sunday that there was no turning back? How is it that the Government say, "Oh yes, for the 21 collieries there is a need for a review"? How can they tell us that for the other 10 that review cannot be available?
We need to consider those 10 collieries in the context of the review that is available for the other 21. If that does not happen, it will be difficult to give much credibility to the review that the Government are proposing in relation to the 21. How can those 10 collieries be condemned by the process that originally condemned all 31 without the 10 now being considered? Conservative Members who doubted over the weekend how they would vote tonight have to square their consciences in relation to the 10 collieries. How can they say that they were doubtful about supporting the Government over the weekend when they cannot still support those 10 collieries tonight? The miners of Silverhill want a real review. They want the opportunity of putting their case economically in the way that they do best--by cutting coal. That is what they must be allowed to do, even in the 90-day period. They must be given the opportunity to work. They must be given the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with the other energy resources that are available. 7.12 pm