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Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak) : Like several of my hon. Friends, as a young politician I cut my teeth on an area known for its mining industry. As a 23-year-old, I had the privilege and pleasure of standing against the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), who won with a huge majority. I well remember visiting the mining villages of Cowie and Airth in the constituency. I was viewed with some shock--I understand that I was the first Conservative ever seen there.
Mr. Hendry : When the villagers got over the shock, they went out and re-elected the sitting Member of Parliament, giving him a vastly increased majority. The hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly right in saying that I was the last Conservative Member to visit the area. Undeterred by my experience, I contested Mansfield in the 1987 election, with somewhat more success--it was the most marginal result in the country. I have one abiding memory of the constituency and the campaign. The night before polling day, I went into the Mansfield miners' welfare club, where the steward on the door immediately took the rosette off my lapel because he wanted to wear it. We had to send out for extra "Vote Hendry" badges. When the Labour candidate turned up, he was asked to leave, because he had supported the National Union of Mineworkers during the strike.
Mr. Hendry : Inevitably, my interest in those constituencies means that I feel very sad about the way in which the mining industry has declined there. Both the pits based in Mansfield--Crown Farm and Sherwood-- have now closed, although there is a glimmer of hope. The closures were referred to by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), who is a doughty fighter for the mining industry--as, indeed was his predecessor, Mr. Andy Stewart, who was a great friend of the industry. The hon. Gentleman referred to the prospective purchase of Clipstone under licensing to Richard Budge and Company. I think that shows that, where the nationalised industry has failed to work, there is hope for pits in the private sector.
I believe that, in small communities that have grown up purely around the pits, those pits should be kept going wherever possible. It is difficult for such communities to attract new
investment--particularly large inward investment, which will inevitably be made in areas with a larger population. That is the key issue which is exemplified by Clipstone. Can the mines be run better, more efficiently and more in the interests of their customers and their workers in the public sector or in the private sector? I make no apology for being an absolute believer in the principle of privatisation. It means that people can plan ahead for the long term--I shall come back to that point in a moment. Privatisation stimulates enterprise and initiative. It gives managers the ability to do what they believe is right and frees them from the dead hand of Government. I say that with tremendous feeling, because a few years ago when, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff), I was a special adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry, I experienced the involvement of the Government in another nationalised industry, the Post Office. Even with a benevolent
Column 765Government who wished to interfere as little as possible, that interference made it more difficult for the industry to operate as it ought to.
I remember well a meeting between my Minister and the chairman of the Post Office to discuss a minor change in the pension plan arrangements for a director of the Post Office Board. As that change had a knock-on effect on public spending, it had to involve a Cabinet Minister and the chairman of that company. That is no way to run a company. It is no way for Ministers to spend their time. If we want industries to do their best, we need to ensure that they are taken away from that interference. Nationalised industries cannot compete effectively. They cannot provide the best service for their customers or the best and safest conditions for their workers.
I especially welcome two aspects of the Bill. The first is that management and employees will be encouraged to take part in buy-outs and the Government are making £200,000 available to help them to prepare their bids. I welcome that because I believe that it is right and essential that the expertise that exists in the industry should be retained and should not be passed over without employees having the chance to compete and bid for their pit against others from outside.
I welcome the interest that has been shown by the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. I pay tribute to the members of that union for their courage as miners--every miner deserves our respect for the conditions in which they are prepared to work and earn their living--and more particularly for the courage that they showed in standing up to some of the worst aggression that we have seen in this country. They have earned the right to have a greater say in their industry and they have the knowledge to contribute to it. I am glad that the legislation will give them the chance to do so. I hope that in time the National Union of Mineworkers will decide to do so, too. My second reason for welcoming the Bill is its commitment to safety. I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) talking about the family tragedy of the death of his father in the mining industry when he was a young boy. That was 50 years ago. Every industry that operated in bad conditions then has tightened up its working methods and improved its safety. That has happened through improvements in technology, greater safety requirements, more laws and public pressure. I am convinced that the commitment to safety enshrined in the Bill will ensure that levels of safety in the mining industry will continue to rise.
As the Member for High Peak, I have to say that the growth of safety standards owes much to the mines research establishment of the Health and Safety Executive in my constituency at Harpur Hill and the tremendous work that is done there to find out ever safer ways of mining. I am particularly encouraged by the fact that the Health and Safety Commission, which looks after the HSE, will be the sole regulatory body ensuring safety in the mines.
We must now free the mines so that they can compete effectively for the maximum market share. Tonight I have heard Labour Members say that they need to know now how many pits there will be. I am afraid that that simply shows how little they understand about the way industry works. If they had asked a few years ago how many cars Rover would produce in 1994, how many passengers
Column 766British Airways would carry, what percentage of British Telecom public telephone boxes would be operational or what dividend would be payable to people in the National Freight Consortium who had become owners of their own company, the answers given by Ministers would have underestimated those companies' potential. Every privatised company has performed beyond expectations.
Moreover, the move towards privatisation will enable the mining industry to make the long-term investment decisions that it believes are right. It will make them because they are economic and sound and can be justified in the long term. That includes not only the development of pits but the long-term commitment to desulphurisation. Again, I declare a constituency interest. The lime for the desulphurisation process will come mostly from my constituency and that will ensure that many jobs are protected in High Peak. That demonstrates the way in which a dynamic mining industry has a knock-on effect and creates and maintains jobs elsewhere. All Conservative Members seek to encourage that. We support the Bill tonight because we believe that it contributes to that process. The history of privatisation is one of remarkable and continuing success. Lossmakers of which we despaired which required ever more Government money have become world beaters. For too long, the mining industry in Britain has been deprived of the opportunity to be part of that success story. I welcome the Bill. I shall vote for it because at long last it gives the coal industry in Britain and the miners in that industry a chance to take part in that success story. 7.46 pm
Mr. David Hanson (Delyn) : The debate today has shown the chasm that exists between the Government and the Labour party. I enjoyed listening to my hon. Friends--in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for Livingston (Mr. Cook)--give a stout defence of the principle of public ownership.
The Bill tackles the wrong issues at the wrong time in the wrong way. It will come as no surprise to Conservative Members that the Labour party opposes the privatisation in the Coal Industry Bill. It is a folly. To privatise the coal industry is wrong, but to do so at this time is simply criminal because it will undoubtedly have a great knock-on effect on my constituency and others represented by my hon. Friends.
The Government have been strangling coal for the past two years. This is the death knell. The background to the privatisation is a deliberate policy on the part of the Government. All the actions of the Government have been damaging to the long-term prospects of the industry. Their actions have damaged the morale of my constituency and the safeguarding of communities such as north Delyn, which has been damaged so heavily in the past two years by Government policies and which faces no future if privatisation goes through.
Government policy is a failure. We debate the issue at a time when none of the problems created by the privatisations of gas and electricity have gone away. The nuclear power industry is still subsidised by more than £1 billion a year and has a protected market share. The regional electricity companies are still buying power from new gas-fired power stations, which they now own, rather than from cheaper coal-fired power stations. As my hon.
Column 767Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) said, coal is still being imported which is mined by cheap labour in Colombia and other countries. The French interconnector is still being used and is subsidised by the United Kingdom's nuclear levy. Privatisation at this point in time tackles the wrong issue. Who owns the industry is purely a dogmatic matter for members of the Government. They should be more worried about securing the future of the coal industry instead of settling old scores of 20 years ago, tilting at old windmills and putting forward dogmatic ideas for the future.
The generation of electricity will remain the main market of the coal industry whether it is in private or in public hands. The volume of coal has been fixed until 1999. If British Coal cannot survive and compete in that market, how on earth will private operators compete? British Coal is already making enormous strides to improve efficiency and productivity. At my own pit of Point of Ayr in north Wales much has been achieved in the past 18 months under the pressure of the need for a more efficient coal market. The colliery in my constituency now produces coal based on less than £1 per gigajoule. The miners in my constituency have bent over backwards to improve productivity. In 1987-88, they produced 3.1 tonnes of coal per man shift. Last year, when they were still threatened with closure and on the hit list, they produced 14.7 tonnes of coal per man shift. The pit in my constituency needs help. It needs a market share and investment, but what it does not need--and what I have not heard anybody in my constituency say that it needs--is a transfer to private ownership. None of the miners in my constituency want that. Throughout the debate on this issue, I have not had a single letter from anybody in my constituency who wants that. Nobody but the Conservatives, who were roundly defeated in my constituency at the previous general election, want privatisation.
Would a private operator have had the millions of pounds necessary to invest to bring productivity in my local pit up to the new levels? I doubt it. Even if an operator had managed to stump up the £2 million needed to purchase the capital equipment installed in the past two years at the Point of Ayr, could it have afforded the weeks of disruption and training necessitated when the equipment was installed and the changeover made? I doubt it. If, in the brave new world of the free market, production was disrupted for any period, the operator could wake up to see markets vanish and profits disappearing.
Should we be selling the pit now after public sector investment has been made to create an efficient, productive market? There are no guarantees in the Bill for the future of the coal industry and it is likely only to accelerate the pit closure programme.
This very week, in British Coal's "Westminster Brief", the Minister is reported as saying :
"The political straitjacket of nationalisation has no place in the industry of the 21st Century. Only by allowing real competition in coal, only by letting real business considerations decide the future, can we hope to maintain a viable British Coal industry".
What do "real business considerations" mean in practice for my constituents?
How could private operators provide a better service at the pit in my constituency than British Coal? They could do it in several ways : they could lower the wages of the staff who work in that pit, and they will do so. They could
Column 768provide less money for research and development, and they will do so. They could and will have the option of reducing safety measures. Nothing in the Bill will protect the pit's safety record.
Private operators could lower safety regulations and they will do so. They could employ fewer miners and they will do so. Private industry will go for a quick kill. Privatisation will not lead to greater efficiency because we have already had that over the past three years under British Coal, particularly in my region. The Bill is an admission of failure by the Government. Productivity could have been increased and any improvements could have been made while the coal industry was under public ownership. Their lack of responsibility and action should be condemned.
The Bill is full of contradictions that should be highlighted. The major one is that, instead of stabilising and strengthening the coal industry, the Bill will have the opposite effect. Some of its worst faults lie in the duties given to the coal authority to license private operators. Clause 2 establishes a general duty for the coal authority to promote the continuation of the coal industry in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, the coal authority is charged with promoting competition among private operators. The dichotomy of protecting an industry while allowing competition should not escape hon. Members.
Clause 2 states that the Coal Authority should seek an economically viable coal industry "so far as practicable". What the hell, Minister, does that mean ?
What would the Minister say is the meaning of "so far as practicable" ? The Coal Authority will be as much use as a chocolate fire guard. The coal industry will not in any shape or form be protected by a coal authority that seeks to protect both sides of the market.
Privatisation will be to the detriment of several other factors of key concern. We have already heard about mine safety. The Bill contains 20 lines on mine safety. Without a statutory duty on the coal authority and with no draft licences yet available, the ability of the coal authority to intervene is not sufficiently robust. I also remain unconvinced of the Government's reassurances on the mine rescue service.
We have heard about the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation, which is to be abolished at a time when the work force increasingly need additional welfare services and when more than 500,000 people in our communities benefit from such provisions. We have heard about environmental liabilities. The Bill's provisions for dealing properly with environmental concerns are poor. Coal is a messy business--water pollution can and does occur. Gas emissions are not unknown, yet the Bill contains no commitment to cleaning them up or making polluters accept their responsibilities.
If the Bill is passed unamended, private mine operators will have few environmental liabilities and no good
Column 769neighbour policy, as undertaken by British Coal. The public sector will, as always, pick up the bill for any environmental lapses by the private sector. British Coal Enterprise has not been mentioned, nor has subsidence. The question of pensions is skated over and massive powers are put in the hands of the Secretary of State. What happens to those constituents of mine who might face redundancy under privatisation ? That issue has not been considered.
The Bill should be opposed because it is a travesty of justice. I am proud to support a publicly owned industry, which is in the best interests of those I represent.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : It has been an interesting debate, because some of the Tories who have spoken in favour of the Government and privatisation have not been altogether with it. I got the impression that the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) was trying to explain that she supported hardly any aspect of the Bill, but that she would vote for the Government and privatisation even though her heart was not in it.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) told us frankly that he was in favour of privatisation. He is in favour of all sorts of privatisation, apart from that of his own houses. He is careful to keep them. I want to make it clear that, although I said that I would drive a bulldozer if he lay in front of it, I would not drive a bulldozer because I am in favour of opencast coal production.
I should like to put opencast mining in its proper perspective. Last year, there were 18 million tonnes of opencast coal production at a time when pits were shutting. That is equivalent to about 15 coal mines in Britain. Under privatisation, the chances are that there could be 20 million tonnes or even more. We should therefore consider the matter from the viewpoint of the miners who will be thrown on the scrap heap, not to mention the massive environmental damage that will accrue in my constituency.
Opencast mining is easy ; it is easy to rip off the turf. The Coal Board is shifting a village. About 200 houses are going to be moved from one village and put in another. That shows the money that can be made out of opencast mining. Everybody should understand that opencast mining means stripping the first 200 or 300 ft of ground, and the rest is sterilised for ever. A mine cannot be drifted once opencast has taken place. The reserves of coal that remain will have gone for good. That is why, apart from the environmental considerations, opencast mining is a dangerous practice.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens North (Mr. Evans) referred to the Lancashire coalfield. My guess is that there will be opencast production in all those coalfields if the operators can get away with it. The same will be true in Derbyshire. Not one pit is left in my constituency or in Chesterfield, although there is one combined operation, between north-east Derbyshire and south Yorkshire. When I was first elected president of the Derbyshire miners in
Column 7701964, there were more than 30 pits in the Derbyshire coalfield, even more in Nottingham and many more in Yorkshire.
I want to talk about shutting pits, because it needs to be put on the record. Yes, pits have been shut ever since Waleswood in 1949, two years after nationalisation, when there was a great outcry and the men stopped down the pit. Every single one was offered a job somewhere else. Do not get me wrong--I am not saying that it was a wonderful thing to shut those pits. I did not like the idea when Parkhouse colliery, where I worked, was shut in 1962 and 1963, but at least, when I asked about a job, I was offered six or seven at different collieries within a perimeter of about six miles. Contrast that with what happens today. In 1993--and now in 1994--hardly any of the miners at the pits that have been shut have had the chance of a job. The Government talk about Labour Governments shutting pits. I did not like it, and I voted against, but we should set that against a background in which people had the chance to work in a neighbouring colliery or sometimes in another region. It must also be set against the background that there were never more than 1.5 million people on the dole. We should always remember that, until 1979, there were never more than 1.5 million people without jobs in Britain. This Government have 4 million people out of work. It is not2.7 million--what about all the miners from Sheffield who are on payment schemes? They are not included in the unemployment figures, but they should all be added on.
We all know that, if we went down any street and counted, we would see thousands--there must be scores of thousands of unemployed people in south Wales, Yorkshire and Durham, who are all on the schemes. They do not add to the unemployment figures--and what about all their children, who are also on slave labour schemes?
We do not want any lectures from this Tory Government or the President of the Board of Trade and his sidekicks when they talk of shutting pits. There is a qualitative difference between shutting a pit but giving someone the chance of a job somewhere else and doing so against a background of 4 million people on the scrap heap. Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda) rose--
It has often been said before, but it needs stressing, that no other industry in Britain can claim that it has increased productivity by 35 per cent. during the past 12 months. What an idea--privatising an industry that has increased productivity by that amount. When I first went into the pit in 1949, output was 1 tonne per man shift throughout the industry, and it was hard work. Now, output is 10 tonnes for every miner in Britain, and in some coalfields it is as high as 40 tonnes per man, yet the Government have the gall to say that they need to privatise the mines. We all know why. It is a conspiracy between this lousy Government and British Coal executives-- the members of the board. The miners group met them in July 1992, when some of my hon. Friends were present. I confronted Clarke, the chairman, and asked if he would give us a guarantee that he would oppose privatisation, just as Ezra did before him. He said, "No, I can't give that guarantee." I asked them all, one by one, to stand up and be counted.
To his credit, Moses, with whom we had some great battles during the strike actually said, "Not me, Skinner. I
Column 771wouldn't join a privatised board. I was born and bred in this industry like thee, so don't say that to me." Then Clarke said, "Don't anyone else answer that question." He picked up his papers and told us, "We're not staying another minute."
From that moment, I knew that the idea of a privatised coal industry was linked to the board taking over when they had the chance. Of course the executives do not want 30 or 40 pits--Neil Clarke only wants a few. He wants to get hold of the 30 million tonnes for the power stations, and he does not want anyone else to compete with him.
When I heard that Tory, the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), talking about all the shenanigans at Wearmouth colliery and about shifting all that tackle--important engineering machinery--I knew why they were taking it away : because they did not want any private entrepreneur to run Wearmouth or any of the other collieries. They want that 30 million tonne captive market, and they do not want anyone to compete with them, so that they can make a massive killing.
By the end of the century, it could all be over. However, we must be optimistic. We socialists cannot afford to acknowledge that we will allow that to happen, because we clearly have an opportunity to win next time. This privatisation must be set against the background that the Tory Government will not last very long. We have a wimp of a Prime Minister and hardly any Tories were here to cheer on the President of the Board of Trade today. The fan club had gone. One of the most interesting features of this debate is that the right hon. Gentleman used to have phalanxes of Tories behind him, but they are no longer there. The game is up.
Tory Members are more concerned about returning to their constituencies to try to stem the tide that will surely engulf them in a Canadian-style obliteration at the next election. I can see it coming, and that is why we must prepare and know what we are going to do. We must therefore ensure that we do not allow this conspiracy to continue much longer.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North mentioned the women of Parkside, and I heard one or two sneers from the Tory benches. What were those women doing there, and why have they been sitting at the pithead? To try to stop British Coal filling in the shafts, because they are optimistic and, in all the gloom and despair, have been trying to stop British Coal pouring cement down the shafts, so that, when the Labour Government get in, we shall be able to start the process up again.
Make no mistake about it : the British coal industry is competitive. One cannot have a 350 per cent. increase since 1984 and not be in the frame for selling, which is why it is important that, when that political sea change takes place, we should take advantage of that competitiveness. We know why privatisation is on the cards--because Cecil Parkinson said so, and that must stick in the gullet of Tory wets. Is that not roughly the size of it? There was all the acclaim at the Tory conference, but it was symbolic, as their hearts are not really in it.
However, there is money involved. What are they going to do? They will get hold of the two pension funds, which have £14 billion in them. That is written into the Bill, although not precisely. They have written in that they will get hold of the surplus and use it--they might use it as bait to catch someone. Who knows, Neil Clarke might have
Column 772another crack at the pension fund, or this Tory Government might use it to offset all the other difficulties that they have been running into.
But it is a scandal. It is corruption and sleaze if they get their hands on that pension fund, when it should go to the miners, their widows and all those who have contributed. There should be no talk of a pension holiday ; the money should go to all those who have spilled their blood over the years.
The same is true of concessionary coal. There are no guarantees. The Government say that they will guarantee it to pensioners, but they are really saying that they will buy them out. As all my hon. Friends know, that is what is happening in the coalfields. There is no guarantee for the working miners. For the information of Nottinghamshire miners--if they are not already aware of it--the new contractors, such as Budge, are already telling miners when they recruit them that they will give them a job, but instead of £5.50 per hour it will be £3.50. What is more, there is no concessionary coal and one takes it or leaves it. When 4 million people are out of work, it is a seller's market. That is the background. So anyone who listens to Ministers saying that concessionary coal will be preserved should forget it. That is the real scene.
The same is true of subsidence. It is not spelt out in the Bill. Literally thousands of people will suffer. It is easy to imagine the arguments that will take place about whether the subsidence at Clipstone or any of the other mines belongs to British Coal, which has just left the scene, or to Budge. Many people will lose as a result of subsidence. British Coal has not been the softest touch of all time, and we have a massive landslip at Bolsolver that will cost about £1.5 million to put right, but it will be even worse in the forthcoming period, if and when the Bill goes through.
Another problem, which has been mentioned before, is the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation. If anyone thinks that it is all about football fields, they should forget it. CISWO is a bigger organisation than that. It is all about providing help for disabled miners and convalescent homes for disabled miners and their widows. Thousands of them go there every year. It is all about providing aids for the disabled which are not provided by the local authority. It is all about providing holidays for some of the disabled and mentally handicapped kids of miners.
So the CISWO operation is not simply about providing a cricket field and one or two other bits and bobs. It is a massive organisation. I hope that the Minister will tell us that CISWO will remain intact, because, once the Government start interfering with it, the whole thing will break down.
The same is true of Mines Rescue--what a wonderful organisation. Everyone has spoken about it over the years ; about the fact that, when there is a disaster in the pit, or even the threat of one, Mines Rescue is on the scene--the professionals. They were the paramedics long before anyone else thought about it--paramedics underground. Mines Rescue will be dismantled. There is no reference in the Bill to its being saved.
The Bill has been brought into being to carry through the revenge against the miners, as a result of the Tories' dogma from yesteryear. It has no relevance to the present day. Everyone knows that the best privatisations have been and gone--all the big money that was whittled away and handed over to the richer in our society. All that has gone. This privatisation and that of British Rail does not add up
Column 773to that type of money at all, like gas and electricity and rain. We are discussing a pettifogging privatisation that is based purely on dogma.
I have to say, in spite of all that, that we have to be ready for government. I say first--it has not been said yet today, but I had better put it on record--that we have to take coal back into public ownership. That is the view of all those in the miners group. It is the view of literally hundreds of Members of Parliament in every region of Britain. I do not say it with the idea that I am putting it in the manifesto, but I am trying to do so because I do not believe that we can resolve the key problems otherwise.
I do not believe that we can rescue the pensions unless we are in control of the industry. I do not believe that we can rescue CISWO unless we control it. I do not believe that we can sort out the problems of people who get concessionary coal unless we are in charge of the industry. What is more, we must curb those imports, and that can only be done by having a publicly owned industry, so that we can demand that those imports are curtailed ; so that we can stop the French interconnector link, which is equivalent to about five pits ; so that we can curb the opencasting. We need to be in control of our own affairs.
Some of my hon. Friends have mentioned that rail is on the agenda for the next Labour Government. I will run through the Lobbies to carry it through. I will go through the Lobby tonight--we all will--to vote against privatisation. It logically follows that we are not discussing a lot of money : we are discussing a minor privatisation that we could do without even paying them anything. I am not saying that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will go that far, but I just put it in their minds en passant.
We are discussing an important subject. It is about shaping the future. We have to be able to show people outside that we do not just vote against things here in the House of Commons, but that we are starting to formulate plans to mop up the massive unemployment figures that surround us every day. It is a prime example of having an energy policy which is co-ordinated among all the various sectors. In order to do so, we have to ensure that we take coal back into public ownership.
It has been a good debate. The Tories have packed up and run away. I will leave it now to my hon. Friends.
Mr. John Cummings (Easington) : It is perhaps the first time--at least in the past 150 years--that a Member for Easington has spoken in the Chamber without having a working colliery in his constituency. In the past 15 years, the massacre of an industry has taken place, for one reason and one reason alone, and that is to slim the industry down for privatisation. It is a disgrace that Tories, who have favoured the privatisation of the coal mining industry, the jewel in the crown, are so thin on the Benches this evening.
Tens of thousands of miners were working in the Easington constituency in 1951, thousands in the 1980s and nil in the 1990s. Perhaps in future we should consider employment trends in the region rather than unemployment trends, because recent European figures have shown that employment in Easington has dropped by more than one third in the past 25 years. Those are the figures from Europe, which cannot be massaged or changed by a
Column 774Government who have been so clever in changing the method of assessing unemployment figures more than 25 times in the past 15 years.
Having understood that the industry is to be slimmed down for privatisation, Ministers must be asked why, out of £20 billion-worth of investment into the industry, at the flick of a switch more than £20 million-worth of expensive coal mining equipment and machinery has been left to flood at Easington colliery.
Those questions are perhaps worthy of some national public inquiry, because they do not affect Easington only, but many other collieries throughout the country, especially Wearmouth colliery, where about £10 million-worth of equipment has been stripped out in the past few months, perhaps to deter potential investors from moving in to exploit the many tens of millions of tonnes of coal that still lie under the sea.
I should have thought that a responsible Government, bragging about an expenditure of £20 billion during the past 15 years, would try to underpin the taxpayers' investment by encouraging a market to exploit the many hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal that lie in and beyond the coastline of Durham, that will be sterilised for ever, ever more. As has been said before, one cannot opencast mine coal reserves that lie under the sea, so they are lost to our generation and future generations for ever.
Questions must also be asked, with £20 billion-worth of investment, about what happens to the highly skilled and motivated work force, basically born and bred to work in a mine--educated to work in a coal mine. Those people now find themselves on the scrap heap. Dignified workers, who have always earned reasonable wages, and at times excellent wages, are now working as security guards for £1.10 an hour--or £1.20 an hour if one provides one's own guard dog. That is not a joke ; that is what is happening in the north-east now. We must deal with the awful incestuous relationship between the suppliers and the generators of electricity. The suppliers are now the generators, and people are paying through the nose for that relationship.
What will the legacy be in Easington and other coal mining areas when the last collieries close? In Easington, we can immediately point the finger at colliery housing. There are hundreds of colliery houses in and around the colliery. All my life, I have lived within 400 yd of a working pit, and we have tolerated the dust, the noise and the clamour because that was our work, and the pits were where we earned our wages.
Now that the colliery will no longer be there, what are we to do with the legacy? What are we to do with the modernised colliery houses grouped together, which need tremendous sums spending on them to provide a decent environment for the former mineworkers who now occupy them? The need comes at a time when local government finances are being squeezed, and there is less money for grants. Will the new Coal Authority take the responsibility for what is left of colliery housing, and for providing a decent environment for former mineworkers?
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) talked about the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation, and said, "Don't mention parks." Fair enough ; I shall not mention parks, although they exist, as do football fields, tennis courts, swimming pools, welfare halls, brass bands and other cultural and leisure facilities.
Column 775There are tens of millions of pounds in the coal industry benevolent fund--a fund that was paid for by miners out of their pay packets every week for the past 15 years.
Has the Minister thought about what will happen to that money? There are social workers too, who provide a vital service for retired aged or disabled mineworkers. Once again, the question arises at a time when local authority social services departments are being cut to the bone. The money in the fund was all provided by ourselves out of our pay notes week by week and year by year--ha'pennies from our grandfathers, pennies from our fathers and shillings from ourselves. There are vast sums of money lying there, and they must be protected and used for retired mineworkers in the future.
What about the legacy of methane gas? That problem existed in Blyth because of the closure of Bates colliery, and 12 boreholes had to be sunk in and around the town. A tremendous debate took place between Blyth council and the National Coal Board. The board said, "That is not our responsibility, it is the local authority's responsibility." But in the end British Coal relented, and took the responsibility for sinking the shafts.
Will the residual Coal Authority be responsible for maintaining the integrity of collieries in future, in case someone wants to take out a licence and operate them, perhaps in 18 months' time? If it will, I should like to know where the money will come from to make such an operation successful.
There is also the problem of mine water pollution. The Government should be careful, because mine water pollution from a colliery that closed about 20 years ago is now percolating through the garden of the Bishop of Durham. There are seven pumping stations in the county of Durham, pumping billions of gallons of water every year, and if someone does not take responsibility for continuing those operations, within six months of the pumps being switched off, there will be pollution in the River Wear at Bishop Auckland. Within 18 months, there will be pollution at Lumley water treatment works, and if that becomes contaminated, someone will have to pick up a bill for about £25 million.
I want to know what will happen in Durham. The Minister will have to give a categorical assurance that someone will be responsible for the pumping operations ; otherwise, there will be orange polluted water in the river around the castle and the cathedral, at a world heritage site. There will be gross pollution in the River Wear. The people of Durham and Sunderland are sitting on an ecological time bomb, which could have an awful effect on the environment unless the Minister gives us categorical assurances tonight that the residual body will be given teeth and the money to tackle those problems. That is extremely important, because major Japanese factories with investments of hundreds of millions of pounds have located in that area of the county of Durham because of the quality of the groundwater. Detailed surveys carried out by Durham county council show that, if pumping operations cease at the seven pumping stations, pollution will occur within months.
I ask the Minister to recognise publicly that that is a major issue in Durham, and that the situation is so serious that it is crucial to deal with it properly. Nothing must fall down the cracks during the process of transferring the environmental liabilities from British Coal. I am confident
Column 776that anyone thinking about licensing or buying collieries in the north-east will not want to handle several million pounds' worth of pumping costs.
I also seek from the Minister a clear statement on the outcome of parallel work being undertaken by the Secretary of State for the Environment, especially in the context of the review of minerals planning guidance, in which the Government are apparently considering the framework of legal responsibility for pollution from abandoned mines. The scenario in Durham that I have painted must have parallels elsewhere in the country--although I believe that in Durham the position is more serious than elsewhere. I look forward to hearing some assurances when the Minister winds up the debate.
I shall vote against the Bill. I am sure that the relevant amendments will be tabled in Committee, and that the Bill will be opposed tooth and nail through all its stages.