|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 790Industry Social Welfare Organisation? In 1921, following the report of the Sankey commission, the Government of the day introduced legislation that placed a levy on tonnage ; that levy was worth more than the Coal Board is paying now. Is it not almost beyond belief that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention such an important aspect of the matter?
Mr. O'Neill : Having been in the House for 15 years, I am no longer surprised by anything that the President of the Board of Trade says or does not say. It is significant, however, that in 1952 the incoming Conservative Government--on the back of coal
nationalisation--introduced the Miners' Welfare Bill, which created the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation as we know it today. It plays an invaluable part in the lives of communities associated with the mining industry. Apart from the welfare institutions and the clubs, its regional system of social workers complements the social services. [Interruption.] Conservative Members who think that this is amusing should remember that, when the House faces further public expenditure cuts, it will be to voluntary organisations such as CISWO that people will have to turn in increasing numbers for the support that the social services, deprived of funds, cannot provide. It has been suggested that in the next 25 years about half a million people will need the services of CISWO. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Minister to mention CISWO, even if the President of the Board of Trade does not consider it important enough to be included in his speech.
CISWO and British Coal Enterprise deserve a mention. Neither of them features anywhere in the Bill. Some of us have been sceptical about the contribution made by British Coal Enterprise, but we know that it has a loan fund of £50 million and a cumulative total of some £75 million in loans and grants. We do not want them to be jeopardised because we recognise that the level of unemployment in our areas is such that any help that we can get is welcome. The Bill does not affect only individuals and the economies of the coalfield communities. Repeated reference has been made to the environmental consequences of mining. There has been discussion of the implications of stopping pumping in the north-east and Wales. There has been discussion of the significance of opencast mining and its irrelevance when we consider the importance of securing markets for deep- mined coal.
The Bill leaves many questions unanswered. We have yet to know the size of the industry that the Government propose to privatise. We do not know how many collieries will remain. We do not know whether proper security will be provided for the pensions and working arrangements of the people who will be left in the industry. But we know that the Government want to get shot of the industry. Indeed, when Lord Parkinson spoke in 1992 in the wake of the pit closures announcement, he made it clear that the closures were more about marking off the scores of the 1974 strike, which brought down the then Tory Government, than about a proper energy policy for Britain. The Bill is not about a coal industry of the future. It is about a Conservative Government's revenge. The privatised remains of the coal industry, with contracts with the electricity generators of only three years, will not be attractive to the Peabodys or RTZs of this world. It could appeal only to companies such as Budge which operate rates of £3.50 an hour for a 10- hour day--a cut of 31 per
Column 791cent. in wages. That is what is being offered at the Clipstone mine. It could appeal only to those who operate under safety regulations which will be bereft of the contribution of the mining deputy and in which safety will be paramount only so long as it is practicable to make it so.
Following privatisation, at the end of the contract, when the bankers and the men from the City have walked away with their profits, all that will be left will be the coal miners of this country, the vast reserves of coal and, if we are lucky, supplies of over-priced gas. And there will be one more thing, Madam Speaker : there will be a Labour Government mindful of their responsibility to provide a national energy policy in which the public sector will once again play its part. Until then, we must oppose the Bill. If we are defeated tonight, we must fight for changes in the Bill to protect miners, their families, the environment and the energy supplies of this country. I urge all those who believe that there is a future for coal to join us in the Lobby tonight to keep the nation's resources in the hands of the people.
The Minister for Energy (Mr. Tim Eggar) : We have had a good debate, with 25 hon. Members speaking, and I shall do my best to answer as many of their questions as possible. Without wishing to offend my hon. Friends and Opposition Members, may I say that my image of the debate is of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). He was in fine form.
Mr. Eggar : He did not talk to the mining group of Labour Members of Parliament. No, he spoke directly to the Labour Front Bench and made an impassioned plea for the Labour party to prepare for government--but by doing what? By renationalising the British coal industry. The battle that he was fighting was not with his mining friends but with his Front Bench.
What was the best answer that the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) could come up with in response to that speech? He said, "Well, we might have a little bit of public sector involvement in the coal industry if we ever happen to get back into power." That was the best contribution that the Opposition spokesman could give the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Bolsover has a lot more work to do and I am delighted that he has some colleagues on his side, such as the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell). I am not sure about the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings)--I am not even sure about me--but I am looking forward to the battle developing on the Labour Benches in Committee.
I must begin by picking up on some of the comments about the safety regime.
Column 792have been a synthetic national strike by all those companies and businesses that had been denationalised and which now realise that the miners are coming in too late?
Mr. Eggar : I agree. One of the tragedies that has befallen the mining industry is the way in which labour relations and the attitude of the Opposition have meant that the safety regime has come later to the private sector than to other parts of the energy industry. I recognise that hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about safety issues. My right hon. Friend the President and I are absolutely determined that privatisation will not lead to a reduction in safety standards. Modern mining practice, new technology and a tough regulatory framework will ensure that the industry's safety record continues to be excellent.
I repeat that safety is, and will remain, the Government's paramount concern as we go through the privatisation process. No Conservative Member and no member of the Government will countenance any proposal that puts safety standards at risk. We therefore sought the advice of the Health and Safety Commission. That is why I announced in October that we would accept all the recommendations that the commission has made to us as we move towards privatisation.
"as far as may be practicable"
to be repeated in almost every page of the new regulations governing safety in mines? Does he accept that the repetition of that phrase causes enormous dismay and deepening anxiety in the mining industry because it obviously provides a let-out clause for every sharp practice that may occur ?
Mr. Eggar : I utterly reject the hon. Gentleman's assertion. He knows perfectly well that the document to which he refers, the management and administration of safety and health at mines package, was put together by the Health and Safety Commission, which is a tripartite organisation and which, although I know that it was opposed by the union by which the hon. Gentleman is sponsored and with which he is associated, has generally been welcomed by other entities involved in safety.
Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley) rose --
Several hon. Gentlemen, including the hon. Member for Clackmannan, have mentioned the mines rescue service. Having met some of the people who were associated with the work at the Bilsthorpe pit after the tragic accident there, I recognise that this is an important matter. The Health and Safety Commission has said that it intends to submit new regulations to the Secretary of State for Employment as soon as possible and extensive consultation will follow from that. That has already started.
The Health and Safety Commission's report states that a national rescue service, jointly operated by mine owners, appears to be the best way of meeting the fundamental rescue objectives after privatisation. I will take full account of that report when advancing our proposals for the industry.
A number of my hon. Friends and hon. Members have mentioned the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation.
Column 793I agree with the hon. Member for Bolsover and others that CISWO plays an important role. As I think has been recognised by the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes), I have been in discussion with CISWO's trustees and executives, as have my officials. I intend to carry forward those discussions. I recognise the importance of the areas of activity that were identified by the hon. Member for Bolsover, and I will make proposals in due course.
Mr. O'Neill rose --
Several hon. Gentlemen, including the hon. Members for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) and for Doncaster, North, mentioned the future of British Coal Enterprise Ltd. BCE's job creation activities will continue throughout the privatisation of British Coal and the Government will continue to support the funding of BCE's operations. Mr. O'Neill rose--
My hon. Friends the Members for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) and for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) and the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) mentioned the possibility of a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and, connected with that, the possibility of the disposal of power stations by the generators. As I think the House knows, the Director General of Electricity Supply is considering all those issues. It is for him to seek agreement with the generators or to recommend a reference to the MMC, and we await his
My hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme mentioned flue gas desulphurisation fitting, specifically at Ferrybridge power station. I think that he is aware that we have given section 36 consent for work on FGD fitting to take place and, as the company knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has the power to direct Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution to require the fitting of FGD in a specific case if he and the inspectorate consider it appropriate.
Mr. Eggar : My right hon. Friend will obviously need to consider the issue. The stance that the generator concerned will take is not yet clear. I was pointing out to my hon. Friend that the powers are there.
The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) mentioned Alcan and the ownership of land around the Alcan plant. I know that the company is concerned about that matter. As he knows, I will visit the plant and hold discussions with management, and I am sure that that subject will come up.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) and my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet mentioned compulsory rights orders. We fully intend that procedures for compulsory access should be matters of the last resort. We are conscious of the need to balance the
Column 794interest of the landowners and the need for compulsory access during what we recognise, under the terms of the Bill, is a temporary period of about five years.
The hon. Member for Clackmannan asked about the future of the coal research establishment and research and development funding. The Government are committed to expanding funding for clean coal technology. That was made clear in the White Paper, and the CRE is currently involved in many joint projects. We are aware of the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised about European funding, and we shall work closely with the CRE and with British Coal to find a way forward for that organisation.
Several of my hon. Friends, and Opposition Members too, asked about consultation on mineral planning guidance 3, and the relationship between that document and the compulsory rights orders. Of course, we are in consultation now on MPG3, and I shall ensure that the comments of my hon. Friends and of Opposition Members on opencast mining are conveyed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.
My hon. Friends the Members for Elmet and for Davyhulme asked about compensation claims for industrial diseases when employees transfer to private sector purchasers. I assure them that what they have said, both during the debate and previously, has been taken on board and that we are examining those matters closely.
Many hon. Members asked about pensions. The Government are determined to guarantee existing pension arrangements, and we also guarantee index linking. We have made it clear that beneficiaries should be able to benefit from any surplus on a 50 : 50 basis. We are taking part in discussions and shall shortly enter further discussions with the trustees about the balance between protecting the interests of taxpayers and protecting those of beneficiaries. I look forward to the discussion in Committee on concessionary fuel. As I said, we made an announcement following the consultations. Tonight we have heard the usual arguments from Labour Members. Yet again the Labour party seems to be bound to fail to recognise the realities that face the coal industry and the fact that the best hope for its future lies in the private sector. The hon. Members for Livingston and for Clackmannan both brought up the myth that the Conservative party supported the nationalisation of coal in 1946. I went back to the Hansard report of the debate, so let me tell the House what Mr. Eden said at the time :
"What this Bill proposes to do is to set up a State monopoly for the production of coal, and that is all. Are hon. Members opposite"--
"really certain that the bulk of their supporters are enthusiastic for such a monopoly ; and are they sure that the evils of monopoly disappear, once it comes under the aegis of the State?"--[ Official Report, 29 January 1946 ; Vol. 418, c. 718.]
Winding up for the Conservatives, Mr. Macmillan said-- [Interruption.] Labour Members should listen ; Mr. Macmillan said : "What about the relations between the National Union of Mineworkers and the Socialist machine? That is more than a friendship. It is a marriage which I am sure Transport House will be careful never to dissolve so long as the sums under the marriage settlement are regularly and punctually paid, whether they are voluntarily subscribed or compulsorily extorted."--[ Official Report, 30 January 1946 ; Vol. 418, c. 958.]
Mr. Macmillan and Mr. Eden got it right. The history of the British coal industry has been bedevilled by that incestuous relationship between the National Union of
Column 795Mineworkers and the Labour party. Even now Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen cannot shake off the shackles of that relationship. Over the past 18 months or so, there has been an intense debate in the House and elsewhere about the future of our energy industries in general, and of the coal industry in particular. Many organisations have put forward their views in a constructive way. Most noticeable was the thorough and helpful report from the Trade and Industry Select Committee. We are also grateful to those who responded on the issues of pensions and concessionary fuel.
Throughout that time, there has been one voice missing from the debate. We have not had a single constructive idea, not a single policy, not a single commitment from Labour party. We are told by the press that the Labour party is now being pulled, kicking and screaming, into the late 20th century. When will the Labour party have the guts to say anything positive at all on energy? There are those who say that it is fear that stops the Labour party from coming out with its views on energy. It is fear, some say, of the hon. Member for Bolsover. It is fear, others say, of a union leader whose union has not negotiated with management on a single issue since 1984.
Mr. Eggar : The union's, I suggest. Listen. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock), the ex-Leader of the Opposition, had it in for him. He summoned the courage in June to tell David Frost just what he thought of Mr. Scargill. The Independent headline heralded, "Kinnock says Scargill to blame over pit closures." The right hon. Gentleman said :
"The way in which his part in the leadership of the NUM conducted the argument did ensure, in my view, first of all that the prophecy of massive mine closures came true".
The question that the Labour party must answer is, if the Leader of the Opposition could say that in June 1993, where was such a statement during the strike of 1984-85? Why did not the Labour party make obvious then the position that was made obvious nine years later? Why did not it say something when it really mattered during that strike? The hon. Member for Bolsover may not have liked it, but perhaps the mining industry would have benefited from it. Perhaps I am being too harsh. perhaps it is not mere fear from which Opposition Front Benchers suffer, but stubbornness. Perhaps the Labour party and the hon. Member for Livingston recognise the overriding advantage of a market-based energy policy but are simply too stubborn to admit it, are too stubborn to own up to it and are too stubborn to acknowledge the success that privatisation and competition have brought to other industries. Perhaps they are too stuck in the past and too stubborn to concede that the private sector offers the best and the only chance for coal.
I must give the hon. Member for Livingston his due. He did once have a definite view. He published a policy called "No Nukes", which stated that nuclear power was unneeded and uneconomic. That was in 1981. He once had a policy back in those heady days of 1981--but not now. He has not answered any of the questions that we have put to him from the Government Front Bench.
Mr. Robin Cook rose--
Mr. Cook rose--
Mr. Cook rose--
Mr. Cook : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It may not be about a ruling of the Chair, but if it is the case that I should not rise when the Minister will not give way, the Minister should not ask questions and not be willing to face the answer to them.
Mr. Cook rose --
Mr. Eggar rose --
Mr. Eggar : I want answers to my questions. Is the Labour party going to pour taxpayers' money into keeping uneconomic pits open? Is it committed to renationalisation? Privatisation is the way forward. Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time : The House divided : Ayes 319, Noes 282.
Division No. 74] [9.59 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Beresford, Sir Paul
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Blackburn, Dr John G.