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That formal farewell wave by British Coal to the embrace of Government is worth dwelling on for a moment. No industry in Britain has demonstrated so vividly and starkly that state ownership is no panacea and cannot inoculate an industry, however venerable, however widespread, against the pervasive realities of costs, competitiveness and market alternatives.
As all hon. Members who are present will know, the coal industry has been clasped to the breast of Government for nearly half a century in Britain, and by an almost perverse reversal of nature, instead of a suckling infant becoming progressively bigger and stronger over those
Column 728post-war decades, a viable adult hitched to the paps of Government in 1947 has become progressively weaker and more infantile. The figures of decline are simply astonishing : 718,400 National Coal Board employees in 1947 down to 250,000 by the time Mrs. Thatcher came into office in 1979, with output down from 200 million tonnes in 1947 to about 120 million tonnes today.
Ms Armstrong : I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman a specific question about the public responsibility arising from the consequences of coal mining, whoever owns the mines. It is about the responsibility to the land and to the environment, which will continue for generations and for many a long year beyond anything that we do today. Does he agree that that responsibility, for example, for ensuring that water continues to be pumped from the redundant mines, must lie with Government and that the Bill must address that fully so that in constituencies such as mine someone will accept responsibility for ensuring that the real danger of serious environmental damage is not allowed to arise?
Mr. Alison : The hon. Lady's intervention strikes an echo in my mind and, I am sure, in the minds of many of my hon. Friends. Indeed, that is why the Bill as drafted, postulating the existence and future of the Coal Authority with an indefinate lifespan and with many responsibilities already spelt out, which no doubt will be further spelt out in Committee. This is precisely the mechanism that will ensure that her misgivings are properly attended to.
Even at its lowest evaluation, privatisation could hardly preside over a more dismal decline in a state-owned industry than that which is now on record in the decline from the 718,400 employees in 1947 to the 31,700--a tiny fraction of the original body--that exists today. In my view, privatisation offers an attractive and reassuring prospect of future stability and profitability to the five mines, at least in the Selby complex, into which huge sums of capital have been poured by the Conservative Government.
Productivity at Selby is about four times the British Coal average--30 tonnes output per man shift compared with about the 5 to 8 tonnes national average. If it was run as an independent mining enterprise, Selby could produce and sell coal at prices per tonne that could comfortably beat off any foreign coal at present on offer at any British port, let alone inland. Selby sits cheek by jowl with three of the largest power stations in the kingdom--Drax, Eggborough and Ferrybridge. Furthermore, its productivity and output can only get better under privatisation. Hence, its prospects are brighter.
Mr. Etherington : The right hon. Gentleman made reference to the 50 years of close contact between the Government and the coal industry. He stated that he thought that privatisation would be much better. Would he care to refer to the 50 years prior to that, when we had a privatised coal industry which was a blight and disgrace on any civilised nation? Does he accept that we are likely to revert back to those standards when we go back to the same criteria for operating an industry, which will surely come when private enterprise takes over again?
Mr. Alison : The hon. Gentleman undermines his own argument. If he looks back over the span of nationalisation, going right back to vesting day in 1947, he will see that there was then, as I argued recently, a manpower
Column 729dimension of 718,400 employees in the coal industry and an output of 200 million tonnes a year. That did not come just by flicking the fingers at the moment of nationalisation. It represents a long evolution of 50 years, which the hon. Gentleman attempts to discredit.
That was the treasure and the prize that was placed on the plate of Parliament to nationalise. If it had been such a discreditable, unconstructive and useless period, why was it that the point of nationalisation was the high point of output, quantity and quality in the coal industry? Since then, it has gone steadily and consistently down. That heritage is not to be discredited.
I was saying that the prospects already for Selby are very bright because of its astonishing capacity in terms of output per man shift. Even as one of British Coal's star performers at present, there are shortcomings in efficiency in the Selby complex, particularly in relation to the waste of materials and the somewhat cavalier attitude sometimes taken towards stock control. That shortcoming will be familiar to those whose employment has straddled both public and private sector industrial activity.
Experience of the electricity generating industry is a familiar guidepost in that respect. I received briefings on inefficiency and waste from miners who have worked overground and underground at the Selby complex, and believe that a yet better prospect for output, productivity and profitable coal sales will loom under privatisation.
I hope that an experienced, perhaps international mining or extraction company will perceive the jewel that glitters in the Selby coalfield and seek to bid for it. The hon. Member for Livingston mentioned National Power and PowerGen in particular. Local generators should not overlook the marvellous asset that lies so close to hand. National Power has just invested millions of pounds in a flue gas desulphurisation plant at Drax and is thus committed to coal for many years. It should certainly consider a bid for the hand, so to speak, of the Selby complex.
The closeness of that profitable mining operation to huge power stations suggests that one third of British Coal's entire prospective output of 30 million tonnes a year within the next few years could be produced at the Selby complex alone. That is a profitable and attractive basis not only for maintaining Selby's existing output but for increasing it. I believe that privatisation offers that. I want my right hon. Friend the President to register one or two cautionary notes. The industry's effective restructuring will depend crucially on the skills and dedication of relatively few key miners and managers, whose services will be essential in putting privatisation in place.
In the worst scenario, one such miner or manager might deliberately forgo the option of early retirement or redundancy and suffer the loss of a huge redundancy payment out of his dedication to seeing the transition through to its conclusion--only to find that he had inadvertently done himself out of a subsequent long-term post in the new structure and had forgone his entitlement to the redundancy package to which he might have been eligible, had he chosen redundancy, and thus ends up with nothing.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will put such possibilities under a microscope. Without his action to
Column 730safeguard prospects and future employment, the maintenance of essential morale and motivation at all levels will
falter--particularly among those who will be responsible for seeing through the transition.
I am deeply concerned about one or two narrower but significant aspects, and echo points made to me this afternoon by representatives of the Country Landowners Association. A compulsory rights order is a form of compulsory purchase order that applies to leases, with reversions at the end. CROs are used by British Coal for the acquisition, for example, of temporary rights for opencast operations. CROs are a familiar phenomenon at present, but it seems inappropriate for the new private companies or licence holders to enjoy the almost absolute, draconian power that British Coal currently enjoys through the CRO machinery. In the new privatised environment, normal private treaty negotiations should be the order of the day between private licensed holders and private landowners and the CRO procedure made redundant.
I am concerned also about the future of working rights agreements, which are used and operated by British Coal but which are apparently destined for transfer intact and unmodified to the new private licence holders and owners. The unqualified transfer of WRAs would be inappropriate. Most were concluded by British Coal and private landowners under the somewhat coercive shadow of the possible use of compulsory rights orders, so WRAs were reached under modest duress. Most made only cursory provisions for current payments, terminal payments or indemnity payments to make good damage done when the agreements come to an end.
The cursory character of such agreements has not mattered much in the past because behind the National Coal Board or British Coal lay the vast resources of the Exchequer. Everyone knew that the various payments for which WRAs provided would ultimately be available. No such basic security will exist in respect of the private company heirs and successors to British Coal, which may find themselves in real financial difficulty at certain points in their operation. Current WRAs should be updated and revised, and any that apply to prospective operations should be surrendered. It would not be appropriate to carry through that mechanism into the new structure without modification and amendment. I hope that my right hon. Friend will give that some thought.
Landowners should have the right of notification when licence bidders apply to the authority, in the same way as they receive information when a local authority causes a planning application to be made public and drawn to the attention of all and sundry in the surrounding countryside. The same should apply with prospective licence holders, so that people on the ground know what is in prospect. Two thirds of the Country Landowners Association's members are owners of fewer than 100 acres--mostly farmers. It is essential that their modest inhibitions and doubts should come under close scrutiny by my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, probably in Committee, and that appropriate amendments be made.
Unlike the hon. Member for Livingston, and on behalf of the Selby complex-- which has a glittering future--I warmly welcome the provisions that my right hon. Friend has introduced today. I hope that the Bill will mark a new era for many miners and many mines throughout the United Kingdom.
Column 7315.8 pm
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North) : I want to raise several matters of concern. It is a pity that the President of the Board of Trade is leaving the Chamber, because I wanted to refer to his typical performance this afternoon, which was long on rhetoric and short on detail. No doubt most Opposition Members will endeavour to extract that detail. I hope that the Minister who replies will take note of the comments by Opposition Members with many years' experience of the industry.
I need hardly make clear my personal view of the principle of the Bill. I am firmly opposed to privatisation. The Government have spent many months preparing the ground for privatisation, beginning the process back in October 1992 with a mass closure programme. They were determined then--as they still are--to reduce the industry to what they consider a manageable size : between 10 and 15 pits. They have effectively undermined the industry's safety structure with measures that they introduced while Parliament was in recess, showing their complete contempt for parliamentary democracy.
Those of us who have spent many years of our lives in the industry were horrified by the proposal to deregulate the industry in preparation for privatisation. The Government's plans prove that they are fundamentally concerned with ideology and their continuing grudge against the coal industry, rather than with what is best for the industry and the country as a whole.
As Ministers well know, the industry's problem is not the question of ownership, but the question of market share. It has lost its market share as a direct result of the Government's energy policy--or, rather, their lack of an energy policy. The Government failed to redress the imbalance that they had created, because it was all part of their master plan. They allowed the electricity companies to move away from coal, encouraged the dash for gas and sat back while regional electricity companies made long- term deals to ensure that they could control the supply of gas that they bought. The privatised companies will profit ; the taxpayer and the consumer will lose. As a direct result of the faults in the Government's thinking, pits have been closed on a massive scale--and there are more closures to come. There are now only 22 working collieries in British Coal, compared with 50 in October 1992, and recent newspaper reports suggest that the Government's axe is dangling over a further seven. No doubt Ministers are pleased that they seem to be meeting their original target, and do not care about the misery that they have brought to thousands of miners and their families.
Interested parties are worried chiefly about the number of holes in the Bill. We are being asked to vote for a measure that is only half complete. Vital concerns--concerns of great importance to mining communities such as those in north Doncaster--have yet to be resolved fully, or even addressed. The number of job losses is immense : 180, 000 jobs have been lost since the strike of 1984-85. My area has just lost its last two pits, Bentley and Hatfield, which has meant the loss of more than 700 jobs. That does not include all the jobs lost through redundancy in previous months.
However, despite the appalling problems with which mining communities have been presented, the Bill is silent about the Government's plans for the future of British Coal Enterprise. Only passing mention is made of BCE, which
Column 732is a wholly owned subsidiary of British Coal. It is important for the Government to make clear what they intend to do with BCE. The services that it provides are needed more than ever, given the increased number of pit closures : the Government must ensure that that source of help for men who have lost their jobs, and for local businesses, is maintained in the months and years ahead. I hope that Ministers will be able to give us more details about their intentions--if not today, in the near future.
The Bill is also relatively silent about the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation, known as CISWO. Although it provides for the abolition of the Miners' Welfare Act 1952, it sets out no alternatives. I hope that the Minister will soon be able to dispel the uncertainty that still surrounds CISWO's future ; I know that he has been examining the position, and I believe that we would all have liked to hear concrete proposals today.
CISWO plays an important role in mining communities. It provides recreational facilities such as welfare halls, playing fields and social clubs, as well as providing important social services such as convalescent homes. Its social work helps disabled miners and their families. If the Bill makes no provision for them, those services could well be lost to local communities. That would be a huge loss, which would place additional burdens both on local authorities such as Doncaster metropolitan borough council and on the mining communities themselves.
Many people would be affected by the loss of CISWO's services. The whole mining community can use its recreational facilities, and it estimates that more than half a million people may require its assistance. Those people's needs must be recognised. I call on the Minister to ensure that full provision is made for the continuation of CISWO's work, so that local authorities are not left to carry the financial can.
So far, CISWO has been financed by proceeds from the coal industry and miners' contributions. Adequate provision must be made to ensure that its services are maintained and that help is available to keep them going ; otherwise, elderly and disabled people will suffer, and valuable facilities used by the whole community will be lost. There is also concern about the pension fund changes announced by the Minister in December--in a pretty diabolical way, by means of a parliamentary answer. I understand that discussions about the operation of the funds following privatisation are still taking place ; I hope, however, that the Minister will be able to respond to anxieties raised by the trustees of both pension schemes about the extent of the Secretary of State's powers over the funds. Pensioners are entitled to know that the money that they have worked hard to earn is safe, and that it will continue to pay them a decent pension in the years to come.
Pensioners are also entitled to know that the Government will guarantee to increase benefit levels if necessary. The Government's present proposals mean that, as a guarantor of the scheme, they should be able to cream off a large part of the surplus. Unless they can provide a cast-iron guarantee that pensions will be increased by more than the retail prices index, many pensioners will rightly feel that they are being ripped off.
The Bill is totally inadequate. It contains no plans for an overall energy policy, and no recognition of the fact that the private sector failed in the marketplace when it was last in control of the industry. The Government cannot even justify their proposals on the basis of their most popular
Column 733argument--that nationalised industries are overstaffed and inefficient. Not even the Tories can say that about the present coal industry.
Only last week British Coal boasted about the latest productivity records. Miners broke the record of 10 tonnes per man shift for the first time in the industry's history. So the legislation is not about dealing with an inefficient industry. It is purely and simply about the Tory dogma of privatisation. In pursuit of it, the Tories have wreaked havoc in our communities.
Only this Tory Government could be stupid enough to destroy an industry that should be supplying our base energy needs. Their theory is simple : if it is public, it is no good, and do not let the facts get in the way of a good privatisation. These people are manic about privatisation no matter the cost in money or human misery. From public funds, the Government will gladly take care of the billions of pounds of liabilities and let their friends in the public sector cream off the millions of pounds of profits.
I stress that there is absolutely no justification for the privatisation. The Government know it, we know it, the miners know it and the public know it. The only things that could possibly come out of coal privatisation are higher electricity bills, the sterilisation of a magnificent national asset, a return to unsafe practices underground and the destruction of our coalfield communities. 5.20 pm
Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet) : I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me so early in the debate. Perhaps at the outset I should declare an interest. I am a partner in a large firm of solicitors and among our clients we have had many people who are affected in many different ways by the coal industry and will have a strong interest in the outcome of the Bill.
I have always been a strong supporter of privatisation. Everything that I have seen of the privatisation process so far has confirmed that belief. Companies have outstandingly improved their performance in the private sector simply because the basic management decisions are left to those who run the industry instead of managers being always second-guessed by the Government. I can see no reason why the coal industry should not also be the beneficiary of that process. I believe that the coal industry has suffered considerably because it was so far down the queue of privatisation in an energy industry most other members of which have already been able to reap the benefits of freedom.
I wish to raise four specific points which I imagine will affect many of my colleagues in the House as well as myself and my constituency. The first point is about coal-fired power stations. It would have been far better, had it been possible, for the coal industry to be privatised in the 1980s as a package of power stations and the coalfields supplying them. The great weakness that the coal industry has suffered in a competitive environment is that it can sell coal only to a relatively small handful of customers whereas it ought to be able to sell electricity competitively.
In the past two or three years, groups of people have looked at the prospects for putting power stations and coalfields together, but the idea has always foundered on the rock of PowerGen and National Power insisting on unreasonable prices for redundant coal-fired power
Column 734stations. It should be put clearly on the record at this stage that that is unacceptable and uncompetitive. If it means a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, so be it.
The coal industry must have the opportunity of access to the provision of electricity so that we can expand and enhance the competitive energy environment in this country. If the course of privatisation had not been distorted by the miners' strike in the 1980s, such a system would already have been in place.
My second point is about the industrial health of individual miners. I understand that the Bill provides that those who have retired from the industry before privatisation and those who retire on privatisation will retain intact any claims directly or indirectly against the Government resulting from ill health perhaps derived from events early in their mining careers. Equally, I understand--the principle must be right, that those miners who transfer to the private sector will have their rights transferred with them primarily against the private sector company which employs them.
It is important that the Government give a clear undertaking that if, for example, a miner in his mid-40s who, in the early part of his career suffered the cause of an industrial injury which appears much later in his life, goes into the private sector and if that private company fails for some reason or another, perhaps in circumstances in which there are unsatisfactory insurance arrangements for the company's liability, his residual rights relating to his period of employment with British Coal will remain intact. It is vital in justice and equity that those rights should not be extinguished. Thirdly, I wish to deal with the powers of compulsory purchase. It is one thing for the public sector to exercise compulsory purchase powers ; it is another thing for those powers to be transferred to the private sector. My hon. Friend the Minister must make it clear that there will be no fundamental change in the way in which those powers are exercised as a consequence of the privatisation of the coal industry.
The whole issue of compulsory purchase for coal should be put on exactly the same footing as the gravel industry or any other opencasting or quarrying activity in the private sector. I know that my hon. Friend envisages a transition period, but I would require persuading that such a transition period, is necessary. If it is necessary, excessive use of compulsory purchase powers should not become a blight for many of our constituents during the interim period. In other words, I wish to see the public sector, through the coal authority, maintain tight control over the exercise of compulsory purchase powers and ensure that the exercise of those powers comes firmly within the general area of Government accountability.
The fourth point that I wish to raise is, for my constituency, the most important--the general issue of opencasting. It relates to part II of the Bill and its interaction with the consultation exercise now under way on mineral planning guidance 3. The interaction of the Bill with planning law will be of the gravest possible concern to many Members of Parliament and their constituents across areas where there have been coal workings in the past and which now face a huge rash of new opencast applications.
It must be clear that, in most circumstances, there is no longer any national priority to justify the extraction of opencast coal. It is the opposite. If we agree that there is a
Column 735need to maintain a strategic reserve of coal for the future for unforeseen circumstances, opencastable coal is the best way of preserving that strategic reserve while we use the already developed deep-mined coal.
I am not completely opposed to opencasting. Three separate issues have to be addressed which I should like to illustrate in the context of my constituency. Where there is dereliction, opencasting can be the best way of dealing with it. In my constituency we had a huge site at St. Aidan's which was flooded when the river wall between the River Aire and the Aire and Calder canal collapsed causing a massive problem in the constituency. There was widespread consultation on the methods of dealing with that problem, extensive involvement of the local community and the local authority granted planning consent for further opencasting with the support of all parties. A private Bill came before the House in the previous Session of Parliament. That seems an entirely appropriate way in which opencasting can provide for dealing with dereliction and the enhancement of the countryside and the environment when that opencasting has been completed. In the interim, it will often provide a substantial financial gain to local community groups as part of the exercise. It has certainly done so in my constituency.
I also accept that, when a major new road programme runs across existing or past mine workings, there is a strong case--within the confines of that programme, in terms of the time allowed and of restricting work to the most limited area necessary--for allowing coal to be taken ahead of road building, so that the land can be graded and the roal built more easily and expeditiously. The A1-M1 link road will go through my constituency and no doubt opencast coal mining applications will be made so that the route can be stabilised ; I accept that that will be necessary.
However, nowadays, when environmental issues are far more important, it is not acceptable for opencast applications to be made for green-field sites, where there is no dereliction. Such applications are being made for the most sensitive areas of green belt in my constituency. There are a variety of important and exceptionally sensitive green belt areas around Garforth in my constituency, separating the Garforth community from the Leeds conurbation on one side and from Kippax village on the other. That is the core of planning, and I want it clearly spelled out that local planning authorities can reject unsuitable applications on environmental and planning grounds.
I have considered carefully part II of the Bill and the MPG3 consultation document which has been published by the Department of the Environment. I recognise that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot provide me with answers today because a consultation process is under way, which will expire in a couple of months. Having looked at the consultation document, I submit my speech as part of that consultation process. When one is attracting high- quality world-class investment in manufacturing industry, as is the case in Garforth, where there is a good environment and the planning ethos of the area has long since moved from its roots in the coal industry, it must be clear that there will be good and satisfactory grounds for rejecting opencast applications.
The consultation document refers to the role of unitary development plans. In West Yorkshire, we already have the benefit of unitary authorities, and in the Leeds area we are engaged in a major consultation exercise, which will
Column 736shortly result in the commencement of public inquiries for our unitary development plan. I see that there is also scope within that plan for a minerals plan
From reading the documents, I do not know the extent to which the exercises can be put together. If the unitary development plan specifies that certain areas must be left as open land, to protect the separate identities of communities and the quality of the environment for developments in those communities, that should be honoured in the planning process and should not be overridden by opencast applications. That must be right, not merely from the point of view of people who live in the area but from that of the opencast industry, which does not want to incur the odium of public protest time and again and ought to focus clearly on those areas where opencast mining will be acceptable rather than those where it will not.
I am happy for the House to give the Bill a Second Reading and will watch with great interest how the debate develops in Committee and during the consultation process on MPG3. I hope that, by the time that the Bill returns to this Chamber on Report, the answers to those questions and to the three questions that I have asked earlier will be clearly answered. If my hon. Friend the Minister is to carry many of my colleagues with him on Report and Third Reading, we must be given clear answers on those issues.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : Tonight's debate is about the long-term future of our main non-renewable source of energy. The background to the debate--judging by what the President of the Board of Trade said, it is much delayed as far as the Tories are concerned--is that the coal industry has been in decline for 20 years. We all know that that is because of the decrease in sales to the electricity supply industry, which is its principal market. The way in which the Government dealt with that industry, especially in the past 10 years, and the fact that it has moved to using gas-fired power stations has caused the gradual dying of the coal industry. The domination of electricity generation by the two companies that the Government set up--National Power and PowerGen--and the monopoly in distribution, which has been given to one regional electricity company in each area, have had the coal industry by the neck.
We could have had, and still could have, an energy-efficient and cleaner coal industry. Coal is a natural mineral resource, which remains a crowning national asset. If the Government had wanted to liberalise the market, they could have done so without jeopardising efficiency or the security of supply. Instead, because of the way in which the Government tackled the electricity industry several years ago, they have made it impossible for the coal industry to survive at a size at which it could otherwise have done.
The President of the Board of Trade, like his colleague the Prime Minister, has obviously not read the documents produced by the Liberal Democrats. That is a common Government failing. Perhaps they are also failing to read the opinion polls. If they had read both, they might be doing better.
Column 737We have never opposed the privatisation of the coal industry. However, we have opposed and will oppose, which is why we will vote against the Bill tonight--
Mr. Hughes : Not at all. We have been consistent throughout and have always made it clear that we cannot expect the coal industry to survive as one of the sources of energy supply if we rig the market to its disadvantage in advance. Unless coal is allowed to compete fairly, it will be fighting with one hand tied behind its back. The central issue is not whether coal should be in the public or the private sector.
What opportunity is there for the coal industry to sell its product ? The market has not changed during the past 10 years from the perception of the Government. The President of the Board of Trade may tell us that one reason why coal has done badly is that it was not privatised several years ago, but that would be a bit rich from a Government who have privatised everything else and could have put coal on the agenda a decade ago.
What has happened ? During the past few years the industry has died the death of about 50 cuts--27 mines have already closed, four are out for market testing and there are only 18 to go. The former Secretary of State for Energy called it the "ultimate privatisation". None of us realised that "ultimate privatisation" meant privatisation when everything else had gone and there was nothing left to privatise. We have inherited as a race the black energy jewel of coal in our energy-diverse crown ; yet, years before the sale, the Government took away the glass case of any protection. They then, in the disguise of the electricity generators, sent in people to smash, and now they will put up the industry for others to grab. What the Tories destroy they later sell off.
It should not, and need not, have been like that. The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) said, correctly, that coal, without distorting subsidy to other sectors, is still cheaper than two of its main competitor industries. It is cheaper than nuclear power, which has had a persistent and consistent subsidy from the Government--the only reason why the Government did not privatise the nuclear industry was that they realised that no one would buy it--and it is cheaper than electricity derived from gas.
The figures were provided last week. The figures for electricity produced, as given by the bosses of National Power, are 2.7p per kWh in relation to gas and 2.1 per kWh in relation to coal. That difference in cost could have made up for the cost of fitting and running flue gas desulphurisation equipment at Drax. One could have used the differential money to do to the power stations what was necessary to improve them in environmental terms. Coal has never lost in terms of competitiveness, it has never lost in terms of its price advantage and it has never failed--the figures continue to improve--in its productivity. We have produced British coal increasingly effectively and efficiently.
The words used by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont), in his personal statement came to
Column 738mind when, in the past few days, I was thinking about the debate today. He said to the Prime Minister, in his first speech from the Back Benches :
"I now wish to say one thing to him ; it goes to the heart of the way in which the Government conduct themselves. There is something wrong with the way in which we make our decisions ... As a result, there is too much short -termism not enough shaping of events We are the trustees of the nation."-- [ Official Report, 9 June 1993 ; Vol. 226, c.282.]
Tonight, we are watching the final act of a policy that, above all, is a short-term policy. First, it was a short-term employment policy. Just when the country wanted, and needed as nothing else, more people to be employed, the Government stood by and allowed pit after pit to close and community after community effectively to be put out of work.
Secondly, it was a short-term economic policy because it was, and remains, in the economic interests of our nation that we produce cheap coal, not only so that we can buy it at home for the uses at home and do not have to import it and buy it from abroad, but so that we can sell it abroad too--we have some of the best coal in the world.
Thirdly, it was a short-term energy policy, because, if one cuts out of the alternatives that supply of which we have the largest reserves, if one takes away and closes pits that one then cannot reopen, one reduces the diversity and the security of supply that we may need when the dash for gas is no longer as economically advantageous as it is at the moment.
It is that neglect of long-termism--that adoption of
short-termism--for which we criticise the Government's energy policy and for which, sadly, we have had to criticise the Government on so many other issues over the years.
Coal offered, and still offers, security, diversity and competitiveness of supply. It offers good productivity, good quality and good competitiveness. It lacked only a chance to have a fair crack of the whip. All of us who have been down pits--even those of us who have not been employed in pits-- ought to pay tribute to those who have so well served the industry, fought for it and kept Britain served by the power from the industry. It is not their fault that there has been no national planning, no national strategy and no reconciliation of the interests of coal, gas, oil, potentially nuclear power--although my party opposes it--and renewable energy sources.
The issue has never been, "Who owns the pits?" The issue has always been, "Why rig the market?" The prospects for coal--the title of the Government's paper of a year ago--were determined when the Government fixed the structure for electricity at the very start of its term. Whatever our view about how we got here, some questions are not answered by the Bill. There is no clear sign that the Government are committed to keeping coal as a national asset indefinitely, as we believe that they should. Coal should be a Crown asset for all time and only licences to extract and to mine should be given. The rights to ownership of the coal should never be given away.
Questions about the historic liabilities are also left unanswered. The Minister knows well that through, for example, subsidence claims, there are significant and costly liabilities that will cross over the transition from the public sector to the private sector. I gather that the claims in 1992- 93 in relation to subsidence alone were about £46 million. Who will pay those claims? If the plan is for them to be transferred in part to the new owners, what is the prospect of the new owners buying if they have to inherit an unquantified amount of liability as part of the package?
Column 739There are worries--there have been interventions and contributions on the subject--about a range of environmental liabilities. The first of those worries is about contaminated mine water, the subject of an intervention by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) when the President opened the debate. The National Rivers Authority has told the Government that it has inadequate powers to deal with pollution from water from abandoned mines. There have been dramatic illustrations of that, and not only in coal mines--for example, Wheal Jane in Cornwall only a few months ago. The liability needs to be determined and, above all, the resources need to be put in. They need to be national resources and it is the responsibility of the Government to supply them.
There is no provision in the Bill for long-term liability for gas emissions, a common danger with our pits. The Minister for Energy said recently that the Government would ensure that all current responsibilities in respect of the physical legacy of historic mining would continue to be discharged, and that those that were not taken by successor bodies would fall to the public sector. Before the Bill can be approved, people need to know which fall where and which the Government will keep to themselves.
The most important environmental topic was the subject of the speech by the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste)--opencast mining. If we are not careful, we shall not have given up the need for coal, but we shall have substituted for using deep-mined coal in mines that are already there, opencast mining in the countryside, where it is far less acceptable and often far less advantageous. There have been few guarantees that there will be protection for our communities from opencast mining. Opencast mining can be as much of a blight on our communities as ever were pits and spoil from deep-mined coal, and not just immediately but for a considerable period afterwards. When he winds up, will the Minister be able to assure us that no approval will be given to the Government's mineral planning guidance as set out in MPG3 until the House has debated it after the present consultation period, and until there is cross-party assent in both Houses to a regime that will protect our green and pleasant land in Scotland, England and Wales from the ravages of opencast mining, and that will not allow exploitative applications? As the hon. Member for Elmet said, such applications are often approved only because local considerations are not allowed to apply, and the national interest, whatever it may be, is said to be overriding. That has been a blight on many of our communities. It is unacceptable, and needs to be changed. I hope that the Government will give specific guarantees. By the Government's own definition, the Bill has been long delayed. The danger is that there will now be a quick sell-off of the small part of the industry that is left. It is rather as if the Government, having stood by while the industry was run down, are now washing their hands of it as they try to sell it off. There is a suspicion that that was the intentional plan all the time, and that the Government knew that they would not be able to sell the coal industry until it had been run down, so, willingly and knowingly, they acted as accomplices in that process. That is a tragedy, because it need not have happened.
The new general secretary of the TUC has said :
"History will charge this Government with the murder of the British coal mining industry. Now, in the ultimate insult, they are seeking to sell off the dismembered body".
Column 740It is odd that the "ultimate privatisation" is perceived by the great British public to be the "ultimate insult" to that great industry of ours. The Government are trying to walk quickly away from responsibility ; they say that the marketplace can provide, but they have the responsibility for a national energy policy. For 14 years we have never seen it ; for 14 years we have paid the price, and all that we can do with the Bill now is to hope that the House and another place will make the best of a thoroughly bad job.
Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme) : I strongly agree with the part of the speech by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that echoed the earlier contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste), about the protection that needs to be provided and assured, in the Bill and in related legislation, in connection with opencast applications, especially in the countryside and in areas of outstanding natural beauty. It would be entirely unacceptable for the Government to be a party to closing down a large slice of such a major industry as the deep- mined coalfields of this country, only to spawn a mass of opencast workings on the surface. That is the last thing we need.
I warmly welcome the decision to privatise the coal industry. I believe it to be axiomatic that anything that the state can run, private industry could run better, more efficiently and more cheaply. However, I am bound to say that I regret the fact that once again we have too little, too late.
Privatisation should have been carried out sooner. Indeed, the President of the Board of Trade almost conceded as much in his opening speech. Certainly it should have been carried out before the industry was decimated in the wake of electricity privatisation. Now, there is little left to privatise ; two thirds of the pits have gone since we first debated the subject at the beginning of this Parliament 15 or 16 months ago. Three quarters of the jobs in the industry have gone in that time, or are on the point of disappearing--30,000 jobs all told. I count that an unnecessary tragedy.
I trust that the Government will be successful in finding buyers for the residue of the industry. Above all, I hope that they can find buyers intent on operating the mines on a long-term basis, who are prepared to invest in them. We do not need the industry to be delivered in to the hands of the rape and pillage merchants, who will take out as much coal as is readily accessible but will make no investment in the future of the industry or of its work force. The Government's determination to saddle new prospective owners with the responsibilty for past liabilities in respect of subsidence and of the health of the work force--no doubt one sees the hand of the Treasury there--appears to be a major disincentive, set against the relatively limited likely profits. On the face of it, it would appear unreasonable for the Government to seek to pass on to the new owners the responsibility for past damage done to the health of miners employed for many years, perhaps two decades or more, by British Coal. I should be grateful if the Minister for Energy, when he winds up, would deal with that matter.
For example, to take an extreme case, what would happen if, after a single year of working in the private sector, a miner or group of miners, having previously worked for 20 years for British Coal, developed