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Column 229Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim
Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas
Shaw, David (Dover)
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Skeet, Sir Trevor
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Speed, Sir Keith
Spencer, Sir Derek
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Spink, Dr Robert
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Townend, John (Bridlington)
Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Derek Conway and
Mr. Michael Brown.
Question accordingly negatived .
It being after Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned .
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No.14 (Exempted Business) ,
That, at this day's sitting, the Coal Industry Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.--[ Mr. Wood .] Question agreed to .
As amended (in the Standing Committee), again considered.
.--(1) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that British Coal Enterprise is adequately funded in order that it may continue to assist the regeneration of coalfield areas. (2) The functions of British Coal Enterprise shall include : (a) providing counselling and job search facilities for current and former coal industry employees ;
(b) assisting current and former coal industry employees to obtain training which is likely to improve their chances of finding alternative employment ;
(c) providing assistance and advice for persons who wish to provide additional employment in areas affected by the closure of coal mines, including former coal industry employees who wish to become self-employed ; and
(d) providing business premises on concessionary leases to assist employment growth in areas affected by the closure of coal mines. (3) The Secretary of State may make payments by way of grants to British Coal Enterprise to fulfil his duty under subsection (1) of this section.'.-- [Mr. O'Neill.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
British Coal Enterprise has enjoyed something of a love-hate relationship with some Opposition Members. We
Column 230have on occasions viewed with some cynicism the somewhat extravagant claims that British Coal Enterprise has made for its success in placing people and creating jobs. Certainly, on occasions we have had to look carefully at the statistics and have found them, to say the least, unconvincing. If some of the employment was translated into full -time equivalents, the figures would not be anything like so high as those that British Coal Enterprise suggested.
Although I make all those qualifications, as one who represents a mining area I know that a number of businesses have benefited from, if not soft loans, loans that would otherwise have been difficult to obtain. The level of interest charged is not necessarily low, but the security required is not substantial.
On occasion, the training facilities provided by British Coal Enterprise have been of great use to the communities that have been so ravaged by unemployment. It has become evident during today's debate, and in past debates on the coal industry, that areas that have enjoyed reasonable standards of prosperity in the last 20 or 30 years have often been those where the future of the coal industry seemed assured. It is in those areas that the rapid contraction, and indeed collapse, of the coal industry has meant that those communities and economies have been well nigh destroyed.
Poverty is once again returning to coalfield areas. In South Yorkshire, the average income is only 75 per cent. of the European average. The only parts of the United Kingdom that are below that rate are Merseyside, Northern Ireland and the highlands and islands--all areas which are accorded special status and recognition by the European Union. Mid Glamorgan is the most impoverished county in Britain, with an average income lower than that in Taiwan. Rural Nottinghamshire is the most depressed rural area in Britain, with 39 per cent. of the population in poverty. I make that point because while the standards of living in some of these areas have never been particularly high, they are now at levels of catastrophic disadvantage.
Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North) : Merseyside lost its last pit when Parkside closed 16 or 17 months ago. A recent Coalfield Communities Campaign survey of those Parkside miners who had managed to get jobs found that they had suffered an average drop of £72 per week in their earnings. Is that not the kind of poverty that my hon. Friend is talking about ?
Mr. O'Neill : I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know that the level of income now being enjoyed by many former British Coal employees bears no comparison with that which they achieved previously, especially when they were working underground as face workers and the like. It is very difficult to obtain alternative employment, and where it is available it tends to be poorly paid. Often, employment is of a kind that requires very little training because it tends to be the stacking of supermarket shelves and the like.
If we are to have any chance of restoring those local economies, we need to sustain present resources over this period of uncertainty in the coal industry. I attended a meeting in my constituency last week in the former mining village of Cowie where the local enterprise group blithely told me that British Coal Enterprise had ceased and that no more money was available. That is not so--British Coal
Column 231Enterprise will carry on for some time--but we have had no satisfactory undertakings from the Minister on how long it will continue, the level of funding that it should have, and the functions that it will be able to perform as the coal industry falls further down the ranks of major employers in this country.
What we are asking for in the new clause is quite clear. We want it to be the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that British Coal Enterprise is adequately funded to carry on its existing duties and responsibilities, which should cover aspects such as counselling and job search for current and former coal industry employees. British Coal Enterprise should assist those employees to obtain training, where appropriate, and to enhance their chances of finding alternative employment. It should also provide assistance and advice to people who wish to provide additional employment in the areas affected by the closure of mines, including former coal industry employees who wish to become self-employed.
We recognise that in many instances British Coal Enterprise has played a critical role in affording people second or third chances when others have said that they were not the best bets for financial help. We know that on occasions British Coal Enterprise had imaginative plans for the development of industrial sites where other organisations were reluctant to put money. We believe that British Coal Enterprise has a contribution to make throughout the range of employment creation and employment stimulation activities, and that it should be enshrined in the legislation that creates a new coal industry in this country. We are not confident of the long-term future of that industry and we feel that it is essential that the Government be committed to providing whatever financial support is necessary in the event of further pit closures occurring after privatisation.
As I said at the outset, we are not in the least critical of British Coal Enterprise. Several of us have built up, of necessity, good relationships with the local officials and we like to think that we can get whatever is available. Although invariably it is not enough, we are thankful in many respects for the small mercies that we can get.
We are adamant that the climate of economic opportunity for people who are made redundant and who lose their jobs in the coal industry, and for the communities in which they live, will be bleaker if British Coal Enterprise does not exist. It is not the ideal answer, and it is not the only answer, but it is one which we have and one that we do not wish to lose.
I am sure that there are Conservative Members whose constituencies have benefited, albeit in small measure, from the activities of British Coal Enterprise. We urge them to come with us into the Lobby and support new clause 5.
Mr. John Evans : As a Member of Parliament who represents an ex-coal mining area, I strongly support the new clause, which calls for a strengthened British Coal Enterprise, properly funded to assist the regeneration of the ex-coalfield areas. I echo the closing remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) and expect--nay, demand--that the Government will also support the principles outlined in new clause 5.
The Government's policy has closed 33 pits since October 1992. There was no rationale for the closure of those collieries--there was no economic rationale and no energy case was made out. The closure of those collieries,