|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 752everything that we asked them from the 1980s onwards, they have, ultimately, been their own worst enemy. But the cost of production is falling and the industry is becoming more competitive. We must ensure that our coal is competitive with imports because we have an ideal situation for substantial import substitution.
We have four basic markets for solid fuel : electricity generation ; coking coal for the steel industry ; and the domestic and industrial sectors. Obviously, generating demands have fallen because of competition from gas.
The steel industry still consumes 7 million to 8 million tonnes of coking coal a year and the domestic sector uses more than 5 million tonnes of solid fuel a year in nearly 3 million homes. If the Queen wants sensible coal in Buckingham palace, it can be supplied by British industry and our coal merchants, who are good at supplying what their customers demand.
By the end of this year, the market for coal is likely to be some 60 million tonnes. Imports now cover the shortfall of indigenous coal, with major imports coming from Poland, Colombia and South Africa where production costs are low. However, there is a market out there and the demand for coal exists. It is ironic that British Coal, while saying that there was no market for coal, doubled the imports for domestic and industrial coal and, the following week, closed down the very mines that could have supplied that coal. We should look at that carefully.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Minister and other hon. Members about opencast mining. It adds insult to injury to close pits in Yorkshire and then allow planning applications for the small amount of green field that is left. There will be huge opposition to any such proposals. Planning applications should be granted for derelict land but not for green field sites.
There is never enough time to say everything that one wishes to say in 10 minutes. But all is not lost for the coal industry. Costs are falling and coal is becoming more competitive in the marketplace. Private companies already want to license mines because they know that there is a market, whereas British Coal said that there was none. It is interesting to note that managers of British Coal now feel that they may wish to put in bids for the very coal market which they said did not exist. That suggests that there may be a market in the future.
Some 3,000 merchants sell coal products in this country and they engage in commercial activity through the Solid Fuel Association, selling the "real fire" image. Although many people like to see a real fire in the local pub and elsewhere, not all of us have the time to clean the grates every morning. However, we should try to ensure that coal consumers can consume British coal, mined in British mines by British people, rather than imported coal that is not always of the same quality.
Although I support the privatisation of the coal industry, because the industry has no future if it is left in the hands of British Coal, issues within the Bill will need to be discussed and considered carefully. One of those issues is CISWO--the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation--which has a role to play. Another is pensions--
Madam Speaker : Order. Mr. Michael Clapham.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : Privatisation of the industry makes no sense whatever, except in so far as it represents the
Column 753Government's hostility to the deep coal mining industry in the United Kingdom, the mining unions and mining communities. The real issues concerns not ownership as such, but markets. The Government have failed to deal with that point. It is evident from the way in which the energy market was privatised in 1990 that the architects of that privatisation, Lord Parkinson and Lord Wakeham, rigged the market against the coal industry to cause its demise. Privatisation is the final part of that agenda.
The format for privatisation has not come about simply in the past couple of months. The Rothschild report has been in the public domain for the past four years. It suggested that the deep mined coal industry could be viable with 10 to 14 pits, which is the agenda towards which the Government have been working. Following the report, the industry was rapidly run down. In 1990 there were 73 collieries and 65,400 men. Within two years, that number was down to 50 collieries and just 42,000 men.
The White Paper, "Prospects for Coal", and the administration package are part of the agenda. The President of the Board of Trade gave the impression to the House when presenting his paper that he would save 12 of the 31 collieries earmarked for closure. The House should be aware that, of the 31 collieries, only four are now in operation. Of the 12 that were to be reprieved, only four are producing coal, and on 23 December The Independent reported that British Coal was considering closing the last four of those 12 collieries early in the new year. The work force has been cut dramatically since October 1992. By December 1993 it had been reduced from 42,000 to 14,700 men. If the other collieries are closed, that will add a further 3,000 to the 27,000 already lost.
The ripple has gone well beyond traditional mining communities. For example, giving evidence to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, Mr. Andrew Glyn, an economist from Corpus Christi college Oxford, said that the knock-on effect of 23,300 redundancies in the industry would be a total of 78,900 jobs. That estimate was supported by Yamaichi, which estimated in evidence to the Select Committee that, for every job lost in the industry, three were lost elsewhere. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who is not in his place, spoke of world prices and the competitiveness of British coal. He and the House should be aware that world prices do not result from the interaction of the normal forces of supply and demand. Price follows the lowest common denominator, which at present tends to be South African coal which is cheap because it is produced involuntarily by cheap labour. All the other producers tend to follow that price. Columbia uses child labour. On Wednesday I was privy to a screening arranged by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) of a BBC documentary which showed clearly that child labour is used in Colombian mines. It showed children under the age of 10 working in the most awful conditions. When the Minister replies to the debate he should make it plain that Britain will not import coal from countries that use child labour.
Some United Kingdom mines have been producing coal at below world market prices. In September, Bentley colliery was producing coal at 88p per gigajoule, but that colliery has been closed. Similarly Silverdale colliery,
Column 754which was in deficit at the beginning of the year, turned the loss into a profit by September, the beginning of the second half of the financial year. Like the miners at Bentley colliery, however, those at Silverdale were treated to a colliery closure.
If it was used properly, the modified colliery review procedure would scrutinise some of those facts, but will that procedure continue? Will the current procedures for monitoring a colliery's performance be continued if the Bill becomes law and the industry has a private sector? Would the Minister be prepared to add a consultation clause to the Bill so that current consultation procedures will continue in the private sector?
The 27 collieries that have already closed have resulted in the sterilisation of 500 million tonnes of coal. That extremely valuable resource could be lost for ever, at massive cost to future generations. Britain has half western Europe's coal reserves--enough for 230 years at current extraction rates. Will the Minister ensure that no colliery is permanently closed, but that all are placed on a care and maintenance basis until he has at least had an opportunity to explore with the European Community whether funds can be made available to pay for keeping the pits on that basis so that, should the need arise, the pits can be reopened quickly?
The Bill contains no provision for continuing Government investment in research and development. In other nations the industry enjoys significant state support. The Australian coal industry gets a 150 per cent. tax rebate for all research and development, and last year the Federal Government of the United States spent $700 million on research and development. The Dutch electricity generating board has just opened a £600 million clean coal project, and is talking in terms of opening perhaps another six projects using such technology to generate electricity for about the next 20 years. Will investment in research and technology, and especially in clean coal technology, continue?
It has been said that privatisation is likely to lead to a bigger industry. I think that the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) genuinely believes that under private ownership the industry will become larger. How could that be when companies will be operating a handful of pits which will be vulnerable to failure, particularly that caused by bad geology? Of course, when cost targets are not reached, collieries will close.
Secondly, privatisation will be accompanied by a rundown in research and development, and that by the coal research establishment will no longer be carried out. Therefore, developments that would be good for coal are unlikely to be forthcoming.
Thirdly, we must bear in mind the volume of coal that will be sold to the electricity supply industry--
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) : It is a rather happy coincidence that I should follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) because, as he well knows, I was the hapless young Conservative who contested that seat in the 1987 general election. I stood against the hon. Gentleman's predecessor, Allen McKay, and when the results were announced on the night of the election I found that I had run him a distant second.
Column 755In the course of working in that area I got to know it very well and I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's passion for the interests of miners and former miners in the constituency. Those passions are shared by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who made an impassioned speech earlier in the debate, and by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), who is seated on the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone will not impugn the motives of Conservative Members who welcome the Bill, because we greatly share the concerns that he so well expressed.
The Bill is long overdue and it is the only hope for securing the long-term interests of the coal industry which are so important to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, to mine and to those of his colleagues and mine.
It has been a wretched year for coal. The industry has faced closures which simply cannot fail to provoke the sympathies of every hon. Member. Productivity increases since the 1984 strike have been staggering, and every person in the industry deserves recognition for that success. However, the tragedy of the industry's decline must be recognised and we must try to contend with it in as practical a way as we can. The decline in volume has been going on for ages--for decades. It has been inevitable, and it is our duty to face the realities of that decline.
Labour Members would argue forcefully that that inevitability has been exacerbated by what they would describe as a rigged market. I do not share that view. Competitive purchasing by competing generators is not a rigged market. What lies behind the charge that the market is rigged is a request for the generators to pay an inflated price for coal which would otherwise be above world markets.
In the face of its historic decline, the Bill is designed to provide the best possible prospects for the future development and success of the coal industry. Conservative Members will agree that nationalisation is not and never has been the solution. Any study of all the nationalised industries since the war suggests that it is simply not the answer. In 1979, 10.5 per cent. of our entire gross domestic product was in the hands of nationalised industries. About one seventh of all fixed investment was poured into nationalised industries. Nationalised industry employed 2 million people, but it was going backwards and costing the Treasury billions of pounds. One of the arguments in favour of nationalisation was that certain commercial concerns simply could not survive in the private sector and required to remain in the public sector, but if the last 14 years have proved anything, they have surely proved the fallacy of that view. All privatised industries have fared better than when they were in the public sector. Privatisation is not the product of blind ideology. It is indeed the product of our conviction that any industry will perform better in private hands, but it is also the product of clear evidence that that conviction is borne out by experience.
Other heavy industries have been privatised. We can cite examples of oil, gas and steel. They are all massive, heavy industries ; they require high investment and heavy infrastructure and they have to survive in vicious global markets. We started by selling BP shares in 1979. It is a perfect example of the success of privatisation. The oil industry, in which I have worked, does not need to be nationalised. Shell, BP and other massive private concerns
Column 756find oil, ship it, refine it, distribute it and finance it, all without help. British Gas does the same ; it is a triumph of United Kingdom industry.
British Steel was once a white elephant costing the Treasury hundreds of millions of pounds. It is now the fourth largest company in the western world, producing 78 per cent. of all the crude steel in the United Kingdom. It has a turnover of £5 billion pounds and a couple of years ago made profits of £500 million pounds. Those examples should convince us that, in as much as there are serious long-term prospects for the coal industry in the United Kingdom, those prospects are best served by placing the coal industry in private hands.
If it were just a matter of productivity, I would begin to see some of the reasons for which the Opposition have argued today for the continued public ownership of the coal industry. The productivity increases have been fantastic--almost unbelievable--but the principles which lie behind the Bill involve far more than productivity. The ownership of the industry, which the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone said was unimportant, is critical to the energy and principles which lie behind the purposes of the Bill.
If we change the ownership and place the industry in private hands, as we did for British Gas and other industries before it, we will change the whole climate of initiative, which could pervade the entire ethos of the workplace and the management. It will free the industry to take a more global outlook. It will free it from all the stop and go, the generosity and parsimony of Government finance. It will free the industry from Government interference.
I fervently believe that this is not the place to discuss the exact economics of any business, industry or competing commercial concern. The House can never know as much about the detail of running an industry as the people who are trying to run it. We should free those people to run the industry in the best interests of its profits and its employees.
Let me dwell on safety. Are oil and gas any less safe because they are in private hands? The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone nods his head, but I defy him to quote an example. In my experience of the oil and gas industry, I simply do not accept that. The Bill will offer the industry for sale in five regional businesses. The employees will have a stake in it and there are already interested parties. It will set up a coal authority which, I am pleased to say, will be based in Nottinghamshire near my constituency and it will involve proper consideration for subsidence, the environment, pensions and the future prospects of the industry. A number of hon. Members have mentioned the threat of opencast mining. They do not need to convince me of that. When the Duke of Rutland lay down in front of the bulldozers to stop opencast mining in the vale of Belvoir, he did the right thing. If he were to do the same thing again, I would be chained next to him to stop the bulldozers digging up the most beautiful part of my constituency.
Mr. Skinner : I will be driving it.
Mr. Duncan : I am delighted that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will be driving the bulldozer--we know what a careful driver he is.
Column 757Asfordby pit is in my constituency. I look forward to seeing it thrive and flourish. If oil and gas can survive and thrive in the private sector, so can coal. I welcome the Bill and look forward to supporting its Second Reading tonight.
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) : I was in Bilsthorpe the other week, where a miner's wife told me that she was fed up with living in the shadow of uncertainty and with the knowledge that the Bill cast a blight over her future. Unfortunately, she had been taken in by the promises in the White Paper "Prospects for Coal" in March, but now she knows the truth. She knows that six collieries in Nottinghamshire have closed since March--Silverhill, Cotgrave, Clipstone, Bevercotes, Rufford and Calverton. That is 4,769 jobs lost since last March. The miner's wife wants to know what will happen next. People in Nottinghamshire are practical and pragmatic. They can take the bad news, but they cannot take no news at all.
The Energy Minister ought to come clean tonight and confirm whether the coal industry in Nottinghamshire has a future and whether the rumours that Bilsthorpe and Annersley Bentinck are about to close are true. He should confirm whether there are plans to merge Ollerton with Thoresby and Welbeck with Manton.
When the review process begins in a few weeks' time when we move towards restructuring day, the woman in Bilsthorpe wants to know whether it is true that there will just be just three collieries left in Nottinghamshire, based on Welbeck, Thoresby and Harworth. She has a right to know, because her family, her community and her fathers before her have contributed to that industry.
She knows that, in 1980, there were 40,000 miners in
Nottinghamshire, and that, if the closures go ahead, in a few months' time there will be only about 3,000 mining jobs in the county. In 14 years, nine out of every 10 mining jobs in Nottinghamshire will have gone. At the same time, Nottinghamshire miners, and miners throughout the country, have increased their productivity by up to 150 per cent. over the past five years. They are producing coal at half the cost of that in Germany. No other sector in British industry can match that record.
Is it any wonder that people in Nottinghamshire and throughout the country feel that promises made to them have been broken, and that they have been betrayed? Does not the Minister realise that people believe that the Government's plan is now to put the coffin lid on British Coal, hammer it down and bury it deep, and quickly? Will the Minister say--he has been asked before--how many pits will remain on restructuring day, perhaps 1 January 1995, or will privatisation be on 1 April next year? Does he know? Will he say? Does he care? People in Nottinghamshire feel that the promises made last March and by Lady Thatcher's Government before that have been torn up. Perhaps he will tell us what his valuation of British Coal will be on privatisation. The value is clearly the remaining contract with the generators. Is it not true that that would give it a market price of perhaps £200 million? Perhaps he will confirm that. Perhaps the Minister will talk about the substantial private sector interest that has been talked about in the Chamber tonight. Pits have closed unremittingly over the
Column 758past year. Let me remind the House that not one colliery has opened under private ownership. Promises have been made, leases were about to be signed, but the pit wheel has yet to turn and produce one lump of private coal.
They have had their opportunities. I wish Richard Budge well in his chances to reopen Clipstone colliery. Hon. Members may recall that it closed last March, and that the north Nottinghamshire training and enterprise council was given £2.7 million to redeploy and retrain the miners there, and find new jobs for them.
Is it not a condemnation of the Government's energy policy that, in December, that same TEC voted Richard Budge £200,000 to open the pit again. Is that not a waste of money? It cost £2.7 million to close it down, yet now, as it is seen in the area, a grant of £200,000 has been given to reopen it.
That smacks of sharp practice. People want to know why British Coal is presently repairing the pit at Clipstone. Why is it spending £100, 000 on the shaft so that Richard Budge can open it up, perhaps in March? They want to know why he is not footing the bill himself. He will not do so, because he is going to make a profit out of the pit. That is what it is about. Richard Budge will make that profit off the backs of the miners, because it is clear that one of the ways that he intends to make a profit is to drive wages down. The rumours are loud. The papers seem quite clear-- he intends to pay new miners at Clipstone 20 to 30 per cent. less than they would get under British Coal.
While we are moving towards privatisation, perhaps the Minister can tell us how the Bill deals with coal stocks. There are currently 47 million tonnes of coal stocks on the ground. How will he handle that? How will British Coal and the generators handle that problem? In particular, how will the market handle it in the run up to privatisation?
What will he do if Professor Littlechild, the regulator for the electricity industry, decides to intervene and report the generators to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission? Does he not think that that will put a spoke in the wheel of privatisation? Is it not time that perhaps regulators stopped acting like Lone Rangers and became policemen, looking after the real interests of consumers? There are a great many issues in the Bill. My hon. Friends have talked about some that we shall pursue in Committee--for example, pensions. Miners know that there is a surplus. They want a share of it. They feel that they have contributed, and that it should not be ripped off by the Government.
The subsidence provisions can only be described as a minefield. The notion of areas of influence that the new private owners will take on board seem to me to be a recipe for disaster, because people who suffer mining subsidence want to know who is responsible. They want to go to one door. They do not want to go to the private owner and then to the Coal Authority. There should be one port of call on that issue--the Coal Authority.
I congratulate my colleague, Dennis Walker, the vice-chairman of Boughton parish council, for his work on subsidence in the Ollerton area. He would say that, although he has difficulties and arguments with British Coal staff, at the end of the day he gets a fair reception.
What will happen to those British Coal staff after privatisation? Who will be the experts? What about British Coal's property? It is perhaps the biggest property owner in the country. What will happen to the profits made marketing Babbington colliery? Who will own Hucknall golf course? What will happen to all those assets? Who
Column 759will raise the quality of the environment and look after the reclaimed tip heaps? Who will look at mine water discharge, about which the Bill says nothing?
British Coal Enterprise is hardly mentioned. Nottinghamshire and areas throughout the country face real difficulty. Those areas need help, new investment, new jobs and a new future. That is why it is important that British Coal Enterprise has a future. In Nottinghamshire at the moment there are just 22 vacancies for young people, with 212 youngsters chasing every vacancy. It is their future we are talking about. We need proper regeneration, and a new future for them and for coalfield areas.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (Cambridgeshire, North-East) : The debate is essentially about the mechanism for the privatisation of the coal industry. The essential question is, does the Bill set out the most effective and efficient structure to effect the transfer from a state-owned monopoly to a privatised industry, to produce maximum benefits together with necessary controls and assurances? The debate is not about the market for coal, the future of the deep-mined coal industry in this country, Government intervention in the energy market, or an overall energy policy, whatever that might mean. We have been through all that with the Select Committee report and the Government White Paper.
Opposition speakers are still putting yesterday's arguments. They are still going back over old ground. They are still fighting a rearguard action, on which many of their supporters cannot agree. On the one hand, the Labour party presses the Government to implement all the Select Committee's recommendations ; on the other, it appears that Labour members of the Committee do not agree with all its recommendations, to which they signed up only last autumn. The Labour party has repeatedly failed to secure a market for coal. The Labour Governments of 1964-70 and 1974-79 closed 313 pits--a loss of 205,700 jobs. More pits closed in those 11 years than in the 15 years of this Government. Not that they did not try to expand the market. Between 1974-77, they made a big commitment, but failed miserably. Output fell by 16 per cent., from 142 million tonnes to 119 million tonnes.
A former Labour Energy Minister accepts that Labour Governments misled themselves and the miners. The noble Lord Marsh said : "We genuinely believed that with a benevolent mixture of good intentions and massive subsidies we could reverse the market trend. My Lords, we completely misled ourselves and them Every time they were betrayed, not by individuals, not by Ministers, but by the realities of the situation."--[ Official Report, House of Lords , 20 October 1992 ; Vol. 539, c. 692.]
Despite being repeatedly challenged, Labour still avoids the key questions. Today, the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) avoided them again. Labour refuses to say how much money it is prepared to commit to continue subsidising British Coal, or in which of the independent commercial contracts between private companies it would interfere to secure additional coal sales.
What would be the cost in compensation? Does Labour realise that that would set a massive precedent that would send reverberations through British industry? How many jobs in other industries is Labour prepared to destroy-- in
Column 760regional electricity companies ; the two power generators ; the nuclear, offshore oil and gas industries ; and the construction industry?
The $64,000 question is, how many mines would Labour keep open? How many times must we keep asking the same question? How many pits would Labour retain, and for how long?
We heard again tonight the myth of coal reserves. Labour keeps saying that energy supplies that would keep us energy-sufficient for hundreds of years are being irrevocably lost. In the words of the Library research paper :
"Such a view is over-simplified."
That is charitable, for Labour's claim is certainly overstated, and definitely misleading. There are large reserves in theory, but new pits would not be sunk to exploit them, because of cost.
The Select Committee stated :
"In fact, the problem for British Coal is not the availability of reserves but the high investment costs of new pits which are much higher than opencast costs elsewhere in the world."
The Committee produced revised figures :
"Taking all mines together, the ratio of reserves to production at present levels of output and assuming present prices is 21 years. Whether or not the number of British Coal's deep mines falls to 15 by 1997, British Coal's output is likely to decline rapidly in the early years of the next century as reserves are exhausted."
That output decline is fact, and inevitable in the free market. Mining companies freed from state interference could perform much better, as the history of privatisation has repeatedly shown. Coal will join other energy industries privatised since 1979--North sea oil and gas, particularly BP and British Gas, and the electricity supply industry. All those privatisations were great successes, particularly for the consumer.
Since British Gas was privatised in 1986, domestic gas prices have fallen 20 per cent. and industrial prices 28 per cent. in real terms. There has been increased efficiency, and the customer-to-employee ratio has increased more than 30 per cent. Gas sales per employee have risen 18 per cent. All the regional electricity companies have announced domestic price freezes or cuts for this year. Real prices for domestic users have fallen 6.5 per cent. in the last two years. Competition will be further pursued in both industries by references to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, to ensure downward pressure on prices. Whichever way one looks at it, energy privatisation has been singularly successful, yet it was opposed by Opposition Members.
The Bill's key provisions must address certain critical issues and offer essential guarantees. The Bill must offer potential buyers a flexible system of purchase. I believe that that has been secured by the establishment of five regional businesses, with the option for potential purchasers to bid for one or all of them. The Bill must allow management and employee buy-outs. It must not just give clearance to bid but must offer active co-operation, support and Government funding to help in the preparation of bids. Some £200,000 is being allocated per team bid.
The Bill must place great emphasis on safety, and I believe that that is ensured by a full acceptance of recommendations in the Health and Safety Commission report, "The Framework for Health and Safety in Britain's
Column 761Coal Mines". Hon. Members on both sides of the House will widely welcome the fact that continuing responsibility for health and safety will remain with the commission.
It is essential that guarantees are given in respect of existing pension funds, to protect existing and future pensioners. It was said tonight that the Government or British Coal are preparing to rip off some surplus pension funds. Let us remember the deficits and underfunding that occurred a few years ago, and who made them up. If there is a surplus in future, it is only right and proper that some of it should be returned to the taxpayer.
The Bill should give the public full protection in cases of subsidence. It appears to contain the necessary provisions, including the general approach adopted by the Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991, which enjoyed wide support on both sides of the House.
Privatisation of the coal industry is not just about raising money, saving revenue for the Treasury or interfering in the energy market to secure a larger share for coal. It is about freeing up an industry that has for long been restrained by the heavy and intrusive hand of successive Governments. It is about setting management free to think more laterally and to introduce innovation and initiatives that will secure new markets.
This country has some of the best deep mining expertise in the world. The future of the privatised industry does not lie just in British mines, because that expertise--as in the case of British Gas--could become a key international export. British Gas has shown the way in developing overseas interests, and I have no doubt that the privatised coal industry could emulate its record. I wish it Godspeed on that journey.
Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck) : The hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) may be interested to know that I am a beneficiary of the mineworkers pension fund, as the recipient of 33p a week. I shall lose a lot of sleep tonight over the taxpayers' contribution to that 33p.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) is not in his place, after his reference to mining activities in the county in which I live and which I represent. I should like the hon. Gentleman to visit my constituency and talk to the miners there about the situation at Ellington and Wearmouth collieries in particular, which work coal reserves 10 km out under the North sea. My recollection is that west Virginia is somewhere in the centre of the United States of America.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned American machinery. I spent most of my life working as an engineer in the coal industry, converting and adapting American machines that did not meet British safety standards.
It is with great pride that I can claim membership of the National Union of Mineworkers for 51 years this month--although I assure my hon. Friends that that does not put me in the Zimmer brigade. I worked in the Northumberland coal industry 40 years before becoming a Member of Parliament. My constituency was once one of the largest coal mining communities in Britain, if not the world.
Earlier, the President of the Board of Trade referred to the mines closed under a Labour Government. There were
Column 76220 mines in my constituency at one time, but they have all closed--some recently--because their coal reserves were exhausted. The employment that they provided was replaced by work at companies attracted to the area by incentives offered at the time, such as Alcan Aluminium, Searle Pharmaceutical, Glaxo--renamed Synpac after being purchased by a Taiwanese company--and Robinson Chemicals. Others became established in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), including Merck Sharp and Dohme and Boots, taking up the employment slack when mines were closed. I may be unique in being the only Member of Parliament to have worked in the coal industry before its nationalisation. Believe it or not, I worked in the mines for three years before 1947. I see some astonished faces on the Conservative Benches, but I have worn well. Anyone who has worked in the industry will know that mining engineers do take the wear pretty well.
I cannot claim to have happy memories of those times, although it is fair to say that the Ashington coal company was probably one of the best of a bad lot, given the coal owners of the day. The arrangements in those pits were anything but ideal. Pay and conditions were poor, production was the god and safety was a secondary consideration. Miners' lives were completely dominated by the interests of the pit. Not only were miners hired and fired on the whim of management but if an employee lived in a company house as a tenant, any sons in the family were expected to work in one of the mines after leaving school. Some tenants were evicted for failing to comply with that requirement.
At that time, it was common practice to send for employees at any time of the day or night, seven days a week. Working conditions were often extremely unpleasant and dangerous. Dust, water and bad roof conditions had to be endured. Equipment--some of which miners had to purchase out of their wages--was primitive. Pithead baths, safety helmets, footwear, protective clothing and even the local hospital--now in the process of being closed-- were mainly financed by miners' contributions. As I have said, that was one of the better mining companies of the time. I shudder to think what conditions were like in other coalfields.
Nationalisation not only brought vastly improved conditions for miners but recognised the value of coal as a national resource, following the need to rebuild our economy after the war. Since then, coal has consistently made a significant contribution to our energy needs. I am sure that Conservative Members will claim that, when the Bill is enacted, the circumstances will be different. Forty years on, a vast expansion of mining technology will prevent the return of such conditions. Time will tell, of course, but there is some evidence of the attitudes that are likely to prevail under privatisation. I am in close touch with what is happening at Ellington colliery, in Northumberland. For some time, parts of its mining activity have been conducted on a contractual basis, involving the private sector. Initially, the private contractors were involved in the limited development that was taking place ; now, large sections of support services are included--for instance, transport and engineering maintenance. Many ex- British Coal employees are being blackmailed into accepting work with the contractors. They are doing exactly the same job as before, earning a basic wage and receiving no sick pay or pensions. They are
Column 763given minimal holidays and there is scant regard for many of the safety regulations. That is probably a foretaste of miners' conditions under privatisation in the 1990s.
The Bill is the final piece that the Government are putting into place to remove any co-ordinated national influence on the vital energy industries. Oil, gas and electricity all now respond to market forces ; coal will join them, and the withdrawal of Government influence from the critical role played by the energy industries in our economy will be complete.
Perhaps the Opposition should learn a lesson from the crafty way in which the Government began the whole process, especially in relation to the privatisation of the electricity industry--permitting, if not deliberately encouraging, the dash for gas, and appointing British Coal board members who felt little enthusiasm about working for a nationalised industry. That was followed by a policy of closing pits and writing off huge potential coal reserves, along with minimal investment in research and development relating not only to clean coal technology but to technology to produce oil and gas from coal--technology that is important for the future.
Let me give another example involving Ellington colliery. In the early 1980s, an area of coal reserves was identified to the north of the existing mine workings. To reach the coal, it was necessary to drive tunnels to, and then through, faulted strata. Tunnelling began in 1983, the year when I left the mine, and the work has still not been completed.
Almost throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the mine made substantial profits. Few of those profits went into this important development. Only after a meeting last year between the Minister, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and myself did things begin to move. The colliery restarted the development. The project is taking longer than the development of the Channel tunnel, and has made much less progress, but it is vital to the mine. Even under privatisation, those future coal reserves should have been opened up, so that someone interested in buying the mine could at least have seen them. The tunnellers, however, are still trying to get through the fault--not because the operation involved is difficult but because of the lack of investment. None the less, it should be noted that Ministers sometimes respond to representations. Too often, the miners have been blamed for the industry's problems when management has been the real culprit. Little criticism has been levelled at management. I do not support management buy-outs ; I see little advantage in having an industry run by those who created many of its problems in the first place. I shall oppose the Bill, in the interests of not only the miners but the nation and the future generations who will pay the price for the employment of political dogma against national interests.
The Minister will visit my constituency on Monday and will talk to representatives of Britich Alcan Aluminium. Its power station in the area has power lines on British Coal land, and the extraction of sea water for cooling purposes also takes place on that land. The company clearly wants to be granted a privileged position, and to be allowed to purchase the land to protect its power station and its interests generally.
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I call Mr. Charles Hendry.