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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am seeking your ruling on the procedure used by Health Ministers yesterday to announce a record increase in prescription charges without an oral statement on which they could be questioned. The written details purported to be "pursuant to" a written answer to the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) on 16 February, although the original question did not mention prescription charge rates or prescription charge increases, and it was answered in full.

That practice was condemned by the Select Committee on Procedure in its third report, Session 1990-91, paragraph 129, in which it said : "It is hard to see how a matter can be of such urgency that an announcement must be made without prior notice on a particular day, and yet not be of sufficient importance to justify an oral statement to the House."

Would you agree, Madam Speaker, that such practice is

"inherently undesirable and an abuse of the procedures of this House"?

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Further to the point of order, Madam Speaker, I am a Member of the Procedure Committee, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) has taken the opportunity to emphasise from the Front Bench the points which the Committee made.

You, like your predecessors, have rightly deprecated the custom whereby journalists--indeed, the world at large--are given information by the Government before the House. This is an important announcement, which undoubtedly penalises the sick in our society. It is controversial. What possible justification can there be to give the announcement to the Lobby and the rest of the country and not make an oral statement in the House on which the Secretary of State for Health can be questioned while you are presiding?

If it is too late now, would you make it clear that such statements should be made to the House in future? We should be given the first opportunity ; otherwise, the remarks which you and your predecessors made are simply made a mockery of by Ministers--

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker : Order. I can deal with the point of order. The written answer given yesterday, which is in columns 95 and 96 of Hansard, is concerned almost entirely with the proposed level of prescription charges for the year 1993-94, and is described as "pursuant to" an answer of 15 February to the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), which is at column 162 . I have noted that the Select Committee on Procedure, in its third report of Session 1990-91, stated its belief that

"the use by Ministers of pursuant' answers is inherently undesirable".

The report goes on to say :

"The offence is compounded when an answer is given which claims to be pursuant' to an earlier reply but which in fact has only the most tenuous link with it."

As we well know, the House has not yet had the opportunity to debate the Procedure Committee's recommendations on how the practice should be dealt with. But I wish to make it clear that I deprecate the use

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of the "pursuant" device by Ministers to make written statements such as this without giving proper notice to the House. I hope that that clears up the points of order, and that we can now get on with our business.

Mrs. Ewing, on a separate point of order.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : On a separate point of order arising out of Scottish questions, Madam Speaker. You will know that considerable interest in civil legal aid was expressed during questions. On at least two occasions, the Secretary of State for Scotland said that he believed that the cost of civil legal aid in Scotland had doubled in the past five years. That is in direct contradiction of written answers which were provided to me on 12 February.

It is important that such inaccuracies should not be written into our records. Is there something that you can do to ensure that, within the Scottish Office, answers communicated by junior Ministers are relayed to the Secretary of State so that information is accurately recorded in all our records?

Madam Speaker : I am sure that the hon. Lady is wily enough and has sufficient imagination to put her point across. It is a matter of policy, not one for me.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) : Further to the point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : Order. There can be no further points of order on that matter. I have dealt with it.

Mr. Griffiths : On a different point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : Is it a separate point of order?

Mr. Griffiths : Yes.

Madam Speaker : I will hear it, provided that it is a separate point of order.

Mr. Griffiths : On the procedures of the House, I fully accept your ruling on the previous point of order--

Madam Speaker : Order. I have dealt with that. There can be no further point of order on that matter. I have dealt with it adequately. We must now move on.

Mr. Griffiths rose --

Madam Speaker : Order. Is the hon. Gentleman challenging that ruling? He told me that it was a separate point of order before he got to his feet. I accepted his word as an hon. Gentleman. Is it a separate point of order now?

Mr. Griffiths : The Procedure Committee two years ago made a recommendation which the House has not yet had chance to debate. Is it not an indictment of the Government's handling of business that it takes two years for such matters to come before the House? Is that not a way for Ministers to gag the House of Commons on embarrassing statements such as the one on prescription charges?

Madam Speaker : I have no doubt that what I said earlier will have been noted. Now perhaps we can--

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : Order. It seems that Members in the last moment or two have ideas in their mind which they

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can raise as a point of order. Some of them are bogus points of order. I have no intention of letting the House be delayed by bogus points of order. I shall now proceed.

Dr. Godman : On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : Well, I must hear a bit of it to start with.

Dr. Godman : I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker. May I remind you that, on 26 January, I raised with you in a point of order the advisability of documents which are the basis of ministerial statements being placed in the Vote Office for Members some 30 minutes before the statement is due to be made? You advised me to raise it with the Leader of the House, which I did on 27 January. I have heard no more. Has the Leader of the House been in touch with you on this legitimate point of order?

Madam Speaker : It is within my recollection, but it has nothing to do with me.

Mr . Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Would it be in order for the Opposition to use an Opposition day debate to discuss prescription charges so that Conservative Members can point out that a Labour Government first proposed prescription charges--

Madam Speaker : Order. We must get on with the 10-minute rule motion.

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Coal Industry (Abolition of Statutory Manpower Limits) 3.39 pm

Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen) : I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section 36(2)(a) of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 ; and for connected purposes.

The present furore in the coal industry and in the country, following British Coal's and the Government's October announcement of their intention to close 31 pits, has brought into focus many aspects of the coal and energy market, which are the subject of on-going reports and debate.

The future of those 31 pits remains in the balance, with 21 working and 10 closed but subject to a review procedure. My view of the way in which the announcement was made in October is well known, and I do not intend to go over that ground again today. All I shall say is that I look to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to produce a balanced energy programme which will allow a substantial number of those pits to remain open under British Coal management.

I continue to press that view, on the basis that we must save not only the jobs of the majority of the 30,000 miners involved, but also the livelihoods of the estimated 50,000 additional people employed in associated industries or small local businesses, and those involved in this country's wider manufacturing base.

For some mines, there is an alternative to remaining under British Coal management : they could be leased or sold for private licensed operation. I have positive information that a consortium could be interested in operating Markham Main colliery in Yorkshire, and that the well-known mining company, Ryan, would be interested in operating Betws colliery in Wales ; and I am sure that there could well be others.

The chairman of British Coal has publicly said that he would not be opposed to pits within the 10 under review being transferred to licensed status and operated privately. I and others intend to keep him to that offer, to maximise the number of mining jobs retained and to enable the removal of the so-called easily mined coal from these pits. That is where the problem arises--hence the need for my Bill. Present legislation limits to 150 the number of workers employed underground in licensed mines at any one time. For many mines to operate efficiently and safely--I stress the word safely- -that number is inadequate. Without becoming involved in a discussion about the number of men needed to run a privately operated mine compared with the existing number, a limit of 150 underground workers at any time in a licensed mine is too restrictive.

There is a stronger case than ever for removing the restriction. If it remains in place, the pits that British Coal plans to close will have no future, because virtually all of them employ many more miners than the licensing limit. Some of the pits that British Coal may not want to work remain viable, with good short-term coal reserves and good industrial relations. They could operate profitably. I cite as an example Grimethorpe colliery in South Yorkshire, which the international mining consultants Boyd have recently shown to be viable.

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If the restriction is removed, there is a chance that at least some of the pits, and therefore some of the miners, could find a future in the private sector. I am sure that the House is well aware that the Coal Act 1938 and the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 provide the basic legal framework for the coal industry. The 1938 Act removed the freehold ownership of coal from the private sector and vested it in the Coal Commission. The 1946 Act created the National Coal Board, which acquired all the interests of the Coal Commission and was given the exclusive duty of working and searching for coal. Section 36(2) of the 1946 Act, however, empowered the NCB to license coal mining or, as an ancillary, the mining of other materials. Until 1990, the size of licensed deep mines was severely curtailed by the statutory manpower limit of 30 men employed to work underground. The Government went some way towards liberalising the regime for the licensed sector by section 4 of the Coal Industry Act 1990, which increased the limit to 150 men.

The scope of my Bill is totally to remove the restriction, by amending section 36(2)(a) of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946. I hope that the House will support me in my endeavour. I am convinced that there is no shortage of individuals and companies interested in creating a future for some of the pits. There is certainly no shortage of energy and commitment among the people at the pits, who believe that there is potential there. Some of them may prove to be over-optimistic.

There should be no pretence that the amending legislation would save as many jobs as some of us would like. However, the new operators would want to run the pits as efficiently as possible--as I am sure British Coal do-- which might mean fewer jobs. There should be no illusions that the measure would be a cure-all for the coal industry. At least the operators would provide the opportunity--a second chance--for the operations to succeed and for some jobs to be saved. It would be wrong to allow an anomalous restriction to prevent that second chance.

On behalf of miners, their families and the wider energy needs of the country I ask the House for leave to bring in the amendment to the outdated and unnecessary legislation.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : I wish to oppose. 3.46 pm

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : I was first.

I wish to oppose the Bill, as I want to place on record the fact that the Opposition do not want to go back to the era of privatisation in the coal mines. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) wants to increase the numbers that are allowed to work in a private mine. Just before the last election, legislation was passed which increased the numbers from 30 to 150, and every Labour Member voted against that proposal. I hope that they will do the same again today. If we as a Labour party were against increasing the number of people working in a pit from 30 to 150 it should follow that we are against any further increase.

The reason that we are against the privatisation of mines is fairly simple. The Mines and Quarries Acts, which form the backbone of the legislation on the supervision

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and extraction of coal, have been etched in blood--miners' blood. Over the years--in fact, decades--several disasters have taken place. Following each disaster, well-meaning people have told the House of Commons that we needed another regulation to ensure that such a disaster never happened again.

That is how many of the Mines and Quarries Acts have been built up over the years. They have grown up as a result of 80 miners losing their lives in one place and another 200 losing their lives somewhere else. The Opposition are not prepared to cast away provisions that exist to ensure the limited safety of miners when they are engaged underground and at the pit top.

None of us would claim for one minute that it is totally safe in a pit--of course it is not. But we must preserve the Mines and Quarries Acts, and the present health and safety provisions. We all know that the main reason for the coal industry being nationalised was that, at the end of, and during, the war, privatisation was seen to be failing the nation, as it would again.

We cannot provide the necessary energy through coal on the basis of private enterprise. During the run-up to the second world war and beyond, the Government had to intervene. Many of the Tories who were then involved were private coal owners, and they collaborated over the idea of public ownership.

The Opposition would be the first to admit that public ownership has not been the bees' knees in the mining industry. But why? Not because of the philosophy of public ownership, but because of the Tory people running it. There is one running it now who is called Neil Clarke. His salary increased from £98,000 to more than £200,000 when he took the job. Why did this rotten Government increase his salary? Because they knew that he would be a patsy for privatisation and running down the pits.

It is interesting that both the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Neil Clarke went on television on 13 October and said the same things. They talked about having a tiny industry. Why, one might ask, would British Coal want a small coal mining industry? Simple--because Neil Clarke and his acolytes at Hobart house wanted to run the privatised industry, and they did not want competition. They did not want 30, 40 or 50 pits ; they wanted a small number of the most productive pits so that they could make a big fat profit running the industry. That is why we are opposed to this Bill.

If the hon. Lady or any other Tory Members who have spouted about supporting the miners in the past want to support the Opposition--they have been good talkers, but they have been no good in the ring, with the exception of the hon. Lady and, I think, two others on the day in question- -to save the 31 pits, they will not do it by back-door privatisation. They must have the guts to tell the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that they support the millions of people out there in the country who believe that the mines should stay open. If the Government really believe in cutting unemployment, they have an opportunity to save 100,000 jobs in the course of the next few weeks--the 30,000 miners' jobs that would be lost and the 70,000 others. If they do not do that, those Ministers, including the Minister for Energy, who are smirking away on the Front Bench, will be adding to that enormous unemployment total in Britain which is now more than 4 million in real terms.

What will that unemployment cost? It is already costing £30 billion to finance that pile of human misery known as

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the dole queue. It is economic madness. We should not be adding to it, and nor should the Government. Anyone who wants to help the coal industry should be calling for a cut in imports--20 million tonnes this year coming from slave labour economies, some of it much dearer than the coal that is mined in Britain.

Bolsover pit in my constituency was producing coal the other week at 67p per gigajoule, yet the Government talk about pits not being competitive. Now that the pound has been devalued by between 15 and 20 per cent., we should not be importing coal but exporting it to every country in the world.

If the Government want to save some more pits, they can cut down on opencast mining, which produced 18.5 million tonnes last year. We can do without it. Let us reduce it to the level it was when the Labour Government left office. Let us reduce the imports to the 5 million tonnes when the Labour Government left office. If we did that, we would save another 12 or 13 pits. Let us close the Magnox nuclear stations and save six more pits. Let us cut the French nuclear link and save another half a dozen pits.

If the Government or any Tory Member had the will or the guts to save the pits, it would be relatively easy to do so. The result would be that, instead of spending £900 million to finance 100,000 people out of work, with a subsidy only half that which Nuclear Power gets for 22 per cent. of the energy market, we would be saving the British taxpayer several hundred million pounds. It would not be a subsidy ; it would be a saving. Those who want to help us to save the pits have plenty of opportunities to do so.

I finish on this note. My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) knows a little bit about private mines, because the north-east has one or two. He told me about one incident fairly recently when the haulage rope in a private mine snapped. Because the mine was trying to save money, a knot was tied in the rope. That would not be allowed under the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. How will private mines cope with pumping out water from the adjoining collieries that have been closed? Have the Government ever stopped to think about that? If Silverhill colliery were sold to a group of entrepreneurs, they would have to pay £250,000 for every pump to pump the water out of another pit five miles up the road. Would they do it? Of course they would not. They would go running to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry asking for a subsidy to pump out the water from somebody else's pit. How will they pump out the methane from an adjoining colliery? That would have to be done. It sounds all right to have a little private mine, but mines are not little and they are not private, if you want to compete in the energy market. The environmental problems of the water and methane would have to be dealt with. The whole thing is a load of nonsense. That is why those who took part in a private mine in Scotland are, despite their sterling efforts, realising that they are having to carry the costs that belong to somebody else. So do not let us talk nonsense. The mines have always been a case of battling against mother nature. It is not like working in a factory. The strong mines help the weak, and sometimes the strong mines become weak and the weak mines become strong as they find a better coal seam. Let us have some common sense.

People think that they can come up with tinpot answers and solve the problem. The problem is staring the

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Government in the face. Save the 31 pits, and if we start exporting coal, the balance of payments problem will be solved

Madam Speaker : Order. Time's up.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business) :

The House divided : Ayes 55, Noes 180.

Division No. 167] [3.55 pm


Adley, Robert

Ashby, David

Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)

Banks, Matthew (Southport)

Blackburn, Dr John G.

Bonsor, Sir Nicholas

Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)

Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes

Butler, Peter

Carlisle, John (Luton North)

Carttiss, Michael

Cash, William

Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Congdon, David

Cormack, Patrick

Couchman, James

Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)

Day, Stephen

Deva, Nirj Joseph

Dickens, Geoffrey

Dunn, Bob

Dykes, Hugh

Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)

Fabricant, Michael

Fry, Peter

Gallie, Phil

Gorst, John

Grant, Sir Anthony (Cambs SW)

Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)

Harris, David

Hill, James (Southampton Test)

Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter

Hunter, Andrew

Jenkin, Bernard

Jessel, Toby

Kilfedder, Sir James

Lidington, David

Nicholson, David (Taunton)

Pawsey, James

Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth

Porter, David (Waveney)

Shaw, David (Dover)

Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)

Spink, Dr Robert

Sweeney, Walter

Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)

Townend, John (Bridlington)

Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)

Tracey, Richard

Viggers, Peter

Walker, Bill (N Tayside)

Waterson, Nigel

Whittingdale, John

Willetts, David

Tellers for the Ayes :

Mr. James Cran and

Mrs. Angela Knight.


Adams, Mrs Irene

Ainger, Nick

Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)

Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)

Armstrong, Hilary

Ashton, Joe

Austin-Walker, John

Barnes, Harry

Battle, John

Bayley, Hugh

Bell, Stuart

Bennett, Andrew F.

Berry, Dr. Roger

Betts, Clive

Blunkett, David

Boyce, Jimmy

Boyes, Roland

Bradley, Keith

Burden, Richard

Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)

Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)

Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)

Campbell-Savours, D. N.

Cann, Jamie

Chisholm, Malcolm

Clark, Dr David (South Shields)

Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)

Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)

Clelland, David

Cohen, Harry

Connarty, Michael

Corbyn, Jeremy

Cousins, Jim

Cunliffe, Lawrence

Dafis, Cynog

Darling, Alistair

Davidson, Ian

Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)

Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)

Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)

Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)

Denham, John

Dewar, Donald

Dixon, Don

Dobson, Frank

Donohoe, Brian H.

Dunnachie, Jimmy

Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth

Eagle, Ms Angela

Enright, Derek

Etherington, Bill

Evans, John (St Helens N)

Fatchett, Derek

Field, Frank (Birkenhead)

Fisher, Mark

Flynn, Paul

Foster, Rt Hon Derek

Foster, Don (Bath)

Foulkes, George

Fyfe, Maria

Garrett, John

Gerrard, Neil

Godman, Dr Norman A.

Golding, Mrs Llin

Graham, Thomas

Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)

Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)

Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)

Grocott, Bruce

Gunnell, John

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