|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 245North (Mr. Evans), who in his customary courteous way is shouting from a sedentary position, drew attention to the fact that there were other forms of employment in his constituency.
Mr. Eggar : I hope that that made the hon. Gentleman feel better. The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) was careful in the way in which he moved the new clause. As the speeches from Opposition Members followed one upon another, I fully understood the difficulties that he had and the differing views on the Benches behind him. It is fair to say that, with one or two exceptions, Opposition Members recognise that British Coal Enterprise has made a significant contribution to the regeneration of the coalfield areas. It has done so, of course, with varying degrees of success. Schemes that have worked in one part of the country have not necessarily worked in another, but it is widely accepted that an initiative that started back in the mid-1980s has gone a long way to achieving its original objectives. The fact that the official Opposition feel able to move the new clause is a vindication of the work that BCE has done. I join in the tribute that Opposition Members have paid to the work of Mr. Andrew.
As for the substance of the new clause, we envisage that BCE should be retained in its current form--in other words funded as at present. It is fair to say that BCE does not argue that it is short of funds. It is fully funded for its programme of work at least into the near future. We intend that BCE should be retained for the present and for the immediate post- privatisation period.
Of course, we need to consider very carefully what will happen to BCE beyond that period. We have asked British Coal for its thoughts about BCE's future and we have recently received its views. I do not want to reach any conclusions before we have had a chance to consider all the options--and the new clause restricts the available options. But I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) and all hon. Members who have spoken that when we come to make up our minds about the matter I will take careful account of the words that have been spoken in the Chamber tonight.
Mr. O'Neill : In tonight's debate, representatives of virtually every area of the United Kingdom coalfields have had the opportunity to express their contempt for this Government's feeble efforts in trying to repair the damage that colliery closures have wreaked upon those communities. The Minister's response was as we expected it to be. We will not press the new clause to a vote. Even if we got what we wanted, we do not think that it would make the kind of difference to our communities that is needed. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
and to make arrangements to co-ordinate the separate management for the coal industry in England, Scotland and Wales'.
Mr. Simon Hughes : The amendments are intended to explore one issue : whether the Government have a commitment to ensuring that a mechanism is in place to guarantee a future, no matter how small, for the coal industry in Scotland and Wales, as well as in England. The way in which the Government are proposing to privatise the coal industry-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Hughes : I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Government are proposing to privatise the coal industry by passing everything to a Coal Authority, which will then license operation, but with five sales in five parts of the country. As the Minister will know, in that context the remaining British Coal pit in Wales is obviously grouped with pits in England, and there is only one remaining Scottish pit, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) will speak in a moment. The amendments seek simply to put on record the fact that if the interests of Scotland and Wales are to be looked after equally, there needs to be not only a recognition that there are three countries with three economies and three interests in the future of the coal industry, but a recognition that the management and administration of decisions also needs to reflect local communities in the three countries.
It is bad enough that people in Wales and Scotland are seeing the coal industry run down partly, if not preponderantly, by policies and decisions of a Government based in Westminster. It will be even worse if they see the new structure come into operation, with no opportunity for Scotland or Wales to influence it at all. I hope that at the end of this short debate the Minister will be able to tell us that there will be a recognition of the desirability and viability of keeping underground mining going--not opencast mining--in Scotland and Wales. There has been little sign in the past two years of the Government's commitment to keep the coal industry going, as has been evidenced in nearly every debate.
I hope that the Minister will say that the Government are prepared to consider the structures of the management of the authority and the industry in the future, to ensure that the case for Wales and the case for Scotland are made and made clearly, and that areas of some of the greatest unemployment in the country and the greatest traditional dependency on the coal industry are not neglected and carved up almost by accident or by default.
Column 24711.30 pm
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : I do not wish to detain the House too long. [Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] It is nice to say something popular. I do not wish to detain the House, not least when Members such as the hon. Members for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) and for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) are present ; they have first-hand constituency knowledge of the Scottish coalfield--far greater than mine.
I recall that when the hon. Member for Midlothian was still a senior National Union of Mineworkers official in Scotland and I visited him in his office, the Scottish coalfield boasted a considerable number of collieries. The only one that remains open and within the responsibility of British Coal is Longannet. That shows how the Scottish coalfield has shrunk in a relatively short period, when many people were urging us to have regard for environmental considerations. One of the qualities of Scottish coal has been its low sulphur content, so it was a product with an environmental selling point, yet that important factor did not seem to weigh with the powers that be who made the decisions.
Therefore, I endorse the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). The purpose of the amendment is to try to find out whether the Government envisage a continuation of the coal industry, not only in England, but in Scotland and in Wales. As the Bill stands, it would be possible for the authority to determine that there was an economically viable coal mining industry in one small part of England only, and that that sufficed for the whole of Great Britain.
Yet even the pits that remain in Scotland and Wales are an important source of employment in the communities that they serve. In addition to the British Coal pits, there is the Monktonhall pit in Scotland and, subject to correction from the hon. Member for Midlothian, I think that it would still be possible for one of the Scottish pits to be rescued if proper investment were put into it. We should be reassured to know that they have not been totally written off. The fact that British Coal recently won an order for the supply of coal to the Kilchenzie and Longannet power stations is something of a filler, but that, of its nature, is a contract of short term or limited term duration.
When the Government privatised the steel industry, they did not provide for a Scottish dimension, as a result of which the Scottish steel industry suffered grievously in later years. We wish to know whether, following the privatisation of coal, the Government will continue their commitment to the coal industry, however small it is compared with its size in its greater days.
Mr. McLoughlin : Amendment No. 52 would require the authority--I think that is important to remember that it will be the authority--to make separate arrangements for managing the industry in England, Scotland and Wales. The amendment misunderstands the role of the authority. It does not have the responsibility for managing the coal industry. The Government's objective is to facilitate the development of the largest economic industry in the longer term. Privatisation will stimulate commercial enterprise, release management talents and initiate an industry free from political and financial interference, which have had major distorting effects.
Column 248We are looking to the licensees to develop a viable industry that is economically capable of standing on its own feet and can compete with other energy resources.
If the thrust of the amendment is that Scotland, Wales and England should have an opportunity to develop their own coal mining industries, I agree with it. My right hon. Friend announced in September that British Coal would be offered for sale in five regional packages based on Scotland, Wales, the north-east and the central coalfield, which will be offered in two separate parts. There will, therefore, be every opportunity to develop separate regional businesses in Scotland, Wales and different parts of England, if that is how the industry can best develop.
The private sector will determine how, and on what regional basis, the industry is to be managed. That is how it should be, so I hope that the House will reject the amendment.
Mr. Simon Hughes : The House has shown that it wants to proceed quickly through the rest of today's business. I have heard what the Minister has said about his commitment to the industry in Wales and Scotland.
Mr. Hughes : I remain to be convinced, but I shall take the Minister at his word tonight. Together with my hon. Friends from Wales and Scotland, I shall seek to pursue this debate and get some guarantees from him. It is no good just leaving matters to the marketplace without a commitment to the coal industry in Wales and Scotland.
Mr. Hanson : Before the hon. Gentleman finishes his point, will he assure me, as I represent the only pit left in north Wales, that before the Coal Authority is established that pit has a viable future ? We are discussing the establishment of the Coal Authority. Before it is established, opportunities to close pits still exist.
Mr. Hughes : The hon. Gentleman rightly speaks for Point of Ayr, which still wants a future. Other pits in south Wales believe that they should have a future, such as Betwys and Taff Merthyr. The Minister has said that the Government want a coal industry in Wales. Before the Bill completes its passage through Parliament, I shall be happy if hon. Friends who represent relevant constituencies in Scotland and Wales put more pressure on the Government so that the commitments sought in the amendment are secured. It is not good enough to say that we can allow the pits to die, then set up the authority. It will be too late. We shall test the Minister, but, for tonight, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn .
, except where the land or property is capable of beneficial use in accordance with the local development plan in which cases the land or property shall be transferred to governmental development agencies.'.
This point is important but simple, so I can be brief. Until British Coal is dissolved and the Coal Authority comes into being, it is required to dispose of surplus land
Column 249on "the best terms". That phrase is not defined in the Bill, but it would be reasonable to assume that it means on the best financial return.
Such a criterion is reasonable in many instances, but gives rise to concern when it is applied to the sale of land and sites that have clear potential for development and job creation for the benefit of local communities. That would be the case when their location is favourable for development. It is therefore important that the establishment of alternative uses is carried out as quickly as possible in areas where coal mining activity has been run down. Economic revival must be the principal aim of Government development agencies--the Welsh Development Agency is a perfect example--but it is not within the remit of British Coal or the new Coal Authority as presently constituted. Transfer of developable sites to those bodies would ensure their most efficient and effective return to beneficial use and avoid perpetuating the failures of the current disposal mechanisms. To leave the Bill referring simply to "the best terms" would, I believe, perpetuate that unfortunate situation. Sites can lie derelict for many years while British Coal wrangles and argues with developers and planners in its attempt to maximise financial return. We have an example of this in my county of Nottinghamshire. I refer to the Babbington colliery--a prime site which is next to a motorway junction and has been a derelict eyesore for the past eight years.
My amendment would avoid such a situation, and I commend it to the House and to the Minister.
Mr. Tipping : We should always remember that, after the Church of England, British Coal is the biggest property owner in this country. We must ensure that the property is put to good use. Coalfield communities want new investment, new jobs and a new future. The way to provide those things is to concentrate on infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that British Coal's property can be developed for the creation of new jobs. And new jobs are badly needed if coalfield communities in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere are to be given a fair chance and a fair start.
The hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) talked, quite rightly, about the Babbington colliery, which is a prime site close to a motorway. It could be used for the creation of many hundreds of jobs, yet it has stood empty for eight years because British Coal and its partners wish to take whatever profit they can out of it. The amendment is about cutting the red tape and ensuring that the large property owner, British Coal, gives back to coalfield communities some of the many benefits that it derived from them over many years. We want new investment, new jobs and a new future for coalfield communities--things which can be secured through the amendment.
Mrs. Peacock : I reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) has said. Of course we recognise that British Coal is required to dispose of land on the best possible terms, but that may not always mean the best possible money in the short term. I emphasise that it should mean what is best in the longer term for communities that will rely, for jobs, on the land
Column 250when it has been disposed of. Short-term cash is not always best. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind as the Bill proceeds.
Mr. O'Neill : This debate comes hard on the heels of the debate on British Coal Enterprise. We know the nature of the problems with which we are confronted. We realise that one of the major obstacles to industrial development, apart from the absence of financial assistance, is the non- availability of property and sites when and where they are needed. As has been said already, British Coal is one of the biggest landowners in the United Kingdom. The disposal of its assets is one of the prizes that those who seek to take it over will wish to seize. We believe that these assets should be made available to public agencies so that they may be put to use as quickly as possible.
Yesterday's men at Hobart house have failed in their property dealings. If structural improvements of the kind that we want are to be secured, an amendment of this nature must provide a means of creating jobs on new sites as quickly as possible. As the amendment enjoys all-party support and has local government backing, it is one of the best ways of achieving what is needed. I therefore urge Conservative Members to join my hon. Friends in the Lobby at the earliest opportunity.
Mr. Ashton : Subsidence has not yet been mentioned. The land around a mine may look perfect for development, but the first thing any developer will want to know will always be : has there been any subsidence in the area, no matter how long ago ? If there has been any, that is often enough to put an interested developer off for good. Subsidence--not planning-- blight ensues.
If land has to stand empty for years because developers fear subsidence, it is crazy to leave it alone. It is much better if the council can turn it into a playing field or park, perhaps landscaping a canal or a disused railway line for leisure pursuits. A local need can thus be met even if the Coal Authority cannot sell the land.
Mr. Eggar : The amendment would require the Coal Authority to transfer land and property to general governmental development agencies when the land and property in question are capable of beneficial use in accordance with the local development plan. The amendment would have some curious effects, however. For instance, if the land has been farmed for several years but is owned by British Coal, it would make no sense to force its disposal to governmental agencies. The amendment is thus seriously flawed. The Bill is structured to ensure that there is a duty on the Coal Authority to dispose of such of its land and property as is not required, broadly speaking, for coal mining. That new duty will make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to hoard land--a tendency of the past, including in the north-east, which has come in for criticism. Under the Bill, there can be no question of hoarding land. The clear intention is that land and property should be released for beneficial use.
The authority has the power to develop land. It can do so together with the local authority, or with English Estates, or with a private sector operator. There is a great deal of flexibility, and the authority has the power to enter into any form of partnership that seems right. Planning permission--I hope that this will reassure my hon. Friend
Column 251--would be needed. Such permission is not readily granted if it does not fit in with the local authority's local development plan. The local authority would therefore have an influence on the use of the land, through the planning process.
In view of these assurances, I trust that my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Question put, That the amendment be made :
The House divided : Ayes 266, Noes 300.
Division No. 177] [11.49 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F.
Berry, Dr. Roger
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Corston, Ms Jean
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)
Donohoe, Brian H.
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Eagle, Ms Angela
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Golding, Mrs Llin
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Harman, Ms Harriet
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy