|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 292total operating costs rise because of the increase in pension contributions for a new pension scheme and the increased insurance premiums which are necessary from a private owner. Boyds concludes :
"Overall operating cash costs actually increase under private ownership from £1.32 per gigajoule to £1.34 per gigajoule." That is occurring at a pit which, over the past decade of public ownership, has dramatically reduced those costs. For the first time in 10 years, it is faced with an increase in its operating costs because of privatisation. How can Ministers possibly continue to defend the privatisation proposal when they have been told that it will put up the price of coal ?
There is another problem for the Ministers--how can they sell the pits ? Boyds concludes its assessment with the following observation :
"This cost assessment will be a major disincentive to buyers, who will point out cost increases despite aggressive improvements in performance."
The question that Ministers must answer is, how can they square their wish to privatise coal with the fact that, plainly, they will have difficulty selling that idea to the market ? In a sane House of Commons, they would find it impossible to sell those figures to hon. Members. I suspect that when they answer they will not try. The Ministers know that any figures are irrelevant to the Bill. Privatisation has nothing to do with whether it pushes up the price of coal or cuts off access to our coal reserves. There was no economic case for the closure programme. That programme shuts down access to fuel which provides us with the cheapest electricity. There was no financial case for privatisation. The Government will never get much money for the pits and will receive even less when the word gets out that it will be more expensive to operate the pits. There is no social case for privatisation. As my hon. Friends forcefully expressed yesterday, no private coal company can boast the safety record of British Coal. Why put that safety record at risk with privatisation ? The reason is that the Bill is not motivated by finance or by economics or by social argument, but by the vindictive prejudice of the Government against the coal industry.
That is what the Bill is about. That is why I suspect that the Minister will refuse to accept the amendment and give even a temporary reprieve to the coal industry. That is why the Bill will be remembered as the low tide of privatisation. It is a measure which we always knew was strategically inept and politically vindictive, and we now know--thanks to Boyds--that it is also financially bankrupt.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : I shall be brief. There are three enormities about the Bill : the enormity of the cost to the public purse, the enormity of the challenge to the communities that are affected and the enormity of the Government's idiocy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) said, the Government have produced a Bill which is bred from dogma and out of malice. With breeding of that sort, what sort of colt will be produced ? The national interest is not being served. We will generate dependency within a relatively short time. The Government have connived with Hobart house to have a small number of profitable pits which will not be able to meet Britain's requirements for coal within a short time. Given the Government's responsibilities to the nation as well as to mining areas, the least they could do is ensure that a sufficient number of collieries remain to meet
Column 293Britain's needs, which may well become acute if the Government's calculations are wrong and the price of gas rises faster than they feared.
Indeed, as we reach the late 1990s, the Government will be extremely fearful in case the world gas price rises. I know that the Minister does not pay any attention to us. The Under-Secretary of State for Technology and the Minister for Energy are sitting there chatting while they care not at all about the national interest. A short while ago, I was in Germany meeting a German local authority in the Ruhr coalfield. When I talked to the miners there, they grumbled a little because they got only three years' notice of a colliery being closed. Some of us had less than three weeks. Some of us have seen profitable collieries such as Silverwood in my constituency doomed soon after the brilliant men of Hobart house approved millions of pounds of expenditure, which simply stopped before Christmas and before the coal face that was being developed could begin to turn coal.
We have had enough stupidity, we have had enough dogma and we have had enough malice. It is time that the Government reconsidered the matter and accepted the amendment--in the national interest.
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) : Miners in Nottinghamshire and throughout the country will see the amendment as a touchstone of the Government's commitment to the coal industry in Nottinghamshire. If the Government accept the amendment, at least it will give Nottinghamshire miners some hope. They need it, because they believe that the promises made to them first by Lady Thatcher's Government and then by this Government only last March have been betrayed. They believe that the Government have turned their back on them and simply walked away.
If the amendment is carried, mines could stay open a little longer. People in Nottinghamshire want that commitment. They remember that, on Second Reading, Ollerton and Manton were still open ; both are closed now. The way in which those pits were closed was despicable. British Coal, backed by the Government, filled the miners' mouths with gold. It behaved in an ignorant and arrogant way ; it showed no sense and no sensibility ; and it showed contempt for the miners and their families. It put an extra £10,000 in redundancy money on the table and told the miners at Ollerton and Manton to take the money by Friday, or they would lose it.
I was interested to see that, when the pit ponies came out of Ellington colliery only a few weeks ago, British Coal said that they would be looked after for the rest of their lives. Would it not be fine if miners who are thrown out of employment in Nottinghamshire daily received that sort of assurance from the Government ? As well as filling miners' mouths with gold, they have now filled the pit shafts at Ollerton and Manton, and there is no prospect of those collieries reopening. Those profitable pits have closed, and the jobs have gone for ever. Perhaps the Minister will come clean this afternoon and confirm that further closures are imminent. Perhaps he will say that British Coal has already decided which pits are to close before 30 April. Perhaps he will say whether he has been consulted on that point.
Column 294I am told, and I know it to be the case, that decisions have been made about a further round of closures, and that all we are waiting for is ministerial consent.
Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck) : I suspect that my hon. Friend believes, as I do, that there is something behind this in terms of the board of British Coal. To my knowledge, only one member of the board has said that he is neither involved nor interested in management buy-outs.
I feel that the management will try to get involved in the little group of collieries which will be left after privatisation. They will have a virtual monopoly in providing coal to the electrical generating industry, for instance. If that is the case, it is an example of absolute corruption.
Mr. Tipping : It is clear that there has been collusion between the Government and their supporters to define the market for coal. The level of that market will be 30 million tonnes, and it is clear that the British Coal managers have moved the number of collieries down to a level which will produce that amount. The pits currently in operation are producing 30 million tonnes of coal.
It is also clear that managers, senior managers and maybe board members within British Coal are looking at the prospects for a buy-out. It is no wonder that men who have worked in and given everything to the industry view those managers with suspicion and hostility. They know that those managers are backed by the Government, and that there is a master plan at Hobart house and at the Department of Trade and Industry for pits that are to be closed during the next few weeks.
It would be surprising--or perhaps not--if those announcements were made while Parliament was in recess for Easter. It would not be the first time that that has happened. Christmas holidays have been disasters for miners and for their families, and Easter holidays for many of them look dim and hostile.
The Government ought to come clean, and say whether they know which pits are to close before 30 April, when the present redundancy scheme ends. I suspect that there will be more bribery and corruption. Money will be put on the table to miners and they will be told to take or leave the extra £10,000, or they will have lost not just their jobs, but the extra money.
That is a fine way to treat miners at Bilsthorpe colliery, where there was a disaster last year. That disaster put the colliery's production back, but the miners worked hard and are now achieving their targets. They are on the rack. They believe that they have done everything that has been asked of them, and more. They want a clear commitment about whether they will survive the next round of closures.
The Government ought to show some faith with the miners. They ought to say clearly today that there are to be no more closures, or, if closures are conceived, that they be left in the distance until the new Coal Authority is in place.
The Government owe the mining industry. The miners in Nottinghamshire and throughout the country have done everything that has been been asked of them and more. They have increased productivity by 150 per cent. in recent years, and are producing coal at half the cost of coal from Germany. People all over Europe believe that we are crazy to close our mining industry.
Even at this late stage, the Government should show some compassion and sense, and accept the amendment. It
Column 295is a small amendment, and a small step forward. It is at least a touchstone of faith for the miners of Nottinghamshire and throughout the country, who feel that they have been betrayed.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : My hon. Friends and I entirely support the amendment. As the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) knows, we have added our names to it to show that. The amendment makes two key points. The first is that, in any event and whatever the long -term plan might be, there is no excuse for not undertaking care and maintenance, even if mining is to stop, or for not holding the position pending the Coal Authority coming into operation and people bidding for licences and coming along to say that they are willing to take over a pit. It would be unacceptable to allow pits that are operating today to be lost between now and the end of the life of British Coal and the creation of the Coal Authority.
The second point is that we do not trust the Government. The point has been made on behalf of the industry over and over again. The industry does not trust the Government to look after its interests. It has already been made clear in speeches from these Benches that the industry does not trust British Coal to look after its interests, because it believes that British Coal is thinking about something else. It believes that British Coal is thinking about its own interests and the future interests of the people who work for British Coal, following the enactment of the legislation. That is a classic conflict of interest.
The amendment seeks to protect the industry and the current workers against the conflict of interest in the management of British Coal. Certain examples suggest how right we are to be suspicious. It is not accidental that pits which stopped operation last year are being reopened by British Coal this year. In the past few weeks, British Coal has announced that it will put £9 million into restarting production at Maltby. Maltby happens to be near Rotherham. I do not think that it is coincidental that the announcement has been made in the past few weeks, given that a by- election is coming up in Rotherham.
Mr. Hughes : Of course the Government will not win. Not only will they not win, but they will be lucky to save their deposit. I did not mean that there was any great political benefit in reopening Maltby.
Mr. Simon Hughes : The hon. Member says that we too may beat the Conservatives. Indeed, we have good prospects of beating them in Rotherham and in all the other Labour-held seats where by-elections are to be held. So there will be no political gain for the Government.
Mr. Hughes : No, it does not. The Government are standing by while British Coal plays games with the industry in the very shortest of short terms. It is self-evident that some of the pits that are currently closed
Column 296have been the subject of interest from operators and are potentially perfectly viable. We know that people can make a go of those pits.
Mr. Hardy : My hon. Friends will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and me make relevant comments about the matter. British Coal intends to de-mothball Maltby but close Silverwood in my constituency. It will transfer men from Silverwood to Maltby, having got rid of most of the Maltby men first.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the one thing that Hobart house should have been worried about was to keep Maltby going immediately after completing £190 million of capital investment ? The price that British Coal would have had to pay for taking Maltby into the core group it wants to set up might well have been rather higher than it wished to pay.
Mr. Hughes : I agree. That touches on exactly the debate that we had last night, on mine water. Many unspecified liabilities have not yet been sorted out. As we have seen many times, the Government are forcing through the rush to sell off not the family silver or the Government's silver, but the nation's black silver, because they know that that is the only way in which they will be able to persuade buyers to make bids for some of the pits without knowing what the potential liability will be. That action is highly irresponsible, because it does not give any protection either to the people who are working in the pits at present or to the public at large.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Technology (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin) : At the beginning of his speech, did the hon. Gentleman say that, of the closures which are deemed necessary, if a closure does take place that colliery should be kept on a care and maintenance basis until such time as privatisation has taken place in full ?
Mr. Hughes : I simply repeated the points of view that are formally expressed in this amendment. It makes two points very clearly--the Minister must have been briefed on how to respond to them. First, the third paragraph of the amendment says that, where coal production is no longer possible, the corporation should operate on a care and maintenance basis. Secondly, it says that the Secretary of State should direct the corporation to ensure that no production in any of the pits ceases until the new authority is up and running. It is a twin argument, and we argue in this way because we do not trust management to make decisions about the pits operating currently which are not compromised by the interests of the current managers. The risk is that pits will be closed, with a subsequent loss of jobs.We know about the potential unemployment, and we know how that will damage communities. We have rehearsed those arguments, and the Minister knows about the devastation that pit closures cause in communities where the mine is often the only major employer. In almost every case, the consequence of decisions to close pits means either that pits will never reopen--which means the loss indefinitely of what could be a perfectly good pit--or that pits will be closed, with the risk that licences will be taken out by people who have not addressed or picked up full responsibility for health and safety, environmental liabilities and other matters dealt with by other amendments on Report.
Column 297The United Kingdom has some of the best coal in Europe, if not the world. The nation cannot afford to allow British Coal to make further announcements after the Bill has gone through the Parliament, and say, "Right, now that we know we are not going to run into political flak, we are basically free to make unaccountable decisions without having to justify them."
Seventeen is a small number of pits. If British Coal were determined not only to try to secure sales to the electricity generating industry, but to do what Mr. Neil Clarke said in a press release a couple of weeks ago and maximise sales in all other areas of life where there is a prospective market for coal, there is absolutely no reason why the amount of coal currently being produced from 17 pits cannot be sustained until this legislation passes through both Houses of Parliament.
Mr. Jack Thompson : Returning to the question of care and maintenance, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and I have had meetings with British Coal about Ellington colliery, and we still cannot get clarification about care and maintenance. By definition, that suggests keeping up the roof in the mine, making regulations work properly in the mine, and making sure water is contained within the mine--the safety aspects.
But I want clarification about the maintenance and care of production machinery. If the mine is to operate and produce coal, the production machinery must be maintained. It is my experience in the industry that there is a problem in a mine after three weeks' holiday, never mind after three months' closure.
Mr. Hughes : The hon. Gentleman speaks from great experience in the industry, and I bow to that experience. Even people like me, who have only been down pits, as opposed to those who work in them, understand very clearly that, once the coal mining operation is stopped, there is a huge capital cost, even if it is possible to get the pit working again.
I know for a fact that the right hon. Member and the hon. Gentleman were led to believe that the Ellington pit would survive, and then, about one month ago, learned, with two days' notice, that it was going to close. I think my recollection is correct--the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon- Tweed may correct me. The decision changed in a very short time.
There was no long lead time or any indication that Ellington was going to be closed. It was said to be secure, as were many of the pits which have closed since Second Reading. In October last year, we were told by the President of the Board of Trade that these were guaranteed core pits, but they have been closed.
The political reality is that we have two options left : we can protect the industry, rundown though it is and producing minimal amounts of coal with maximum efficiency and productivity but with the best possible performance indicators, or we effectively sign up to a minimalist coal industry with 13, 14 or 15 pits, which is what the Rothschild report promised us.
This issue does not affect only the mining communities, although it may affect them principally. Let the House and the Government be in no doubt that the fact that there is no demonstration of 100,000 people on the streets of
Column 298Westminster today does not mean that all the communities of Britain--from places as different as Cheltenham and Chelsea, which are unlikely supporters of the coal industry but which were forced to oppose the Government, and urban areas such as mine, which has not had a pit within 60 miles of it since there were pits in the Kent coalfield--do not feel just as strongly as the mining communities. The country is telling the Government that they have one last chance to exercise some authority.
It was the Government's idea to sell the coal industry, and it is they who are forcing the pace. If they wanted to do so, the Government could freeze the position to ensure that we have a coal industry able to compete in the international markets in future. If the Minister says that he is sorry, but that the Government are going to leave it to Neil Clarke and British Coal, he will be allowing a conflict of interest to determine the national interest. That is entirely irresponsible and unhelpful to all those who have worked for decades and generations to earn our coal industry its reputation as one of the greatest in the world. Yes, the Government can sell the Tory party silver, but not the remainder of the nation's silver.
I hope that the Minister will accept that the amendment is not merely a token gesture on behalf of Opposition Members but a reflection of the opinions of people outside. We cannot afford to run down our coal industry any further. It is no good the Government saying that they are washing their hands of it and it is going into the private sector--it is not in the private sector today. It is still a national responsibility, and the Government must accept that responsibility and the duty to protect the coal industry to the utmost for the future.
Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen) : The amendment reflects the great lack of confidence in British Coal felt by many of those who work down the mines. I believe that the whole of the work force lack confidence in what British Coal is going to do. They are incensed that viable mines could be closed in the next few weeks. The lessons that we learned last year provide us with good examples in that some of the mines that were closed because British Coal said that they were not viable are now coaling again. They are open again only because they are in the private sector, but they have markets for their coal. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will think about that.
It is fairly obvious to those of us who have perhaps studied the industry only in the past 18 months that, although British Coal said repeatedly that it had only two customers, the rest of the United Kingdom knew that there were far more than two customers, in this country and even beyond, who were willing to buy British coal.
Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw) : My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) referred to the speed with which the pits have been closed. He should perhaps compare it with what happened a few months ago, when he and I were talking about constituency boundaries being changed.
It is marvellous that, when the jobs of Members of Parliament are at stake, we hold an inquiry lasting several months. Everyone is allowed to state his views, which go before an independent assessor. This all takes several months, another solution is suggested and hon. Members can use a Queen's counsel to make their case. That is quite
Column 299right ; I am not condemning the process, because such changes are important and should be handled properly. However, when it comes to miners' jobs, it is a finger-snapping exercise.
When an industry, factory, firm or shop is in trouble, a liquidator or receiver is called in. The first thing he does is try to keep the business going. He asks people who have not received their money or whose debts have not been paid, "Will you hold off ? Will you not make the factory or the industry or the shop bankrupt ? Please don't demand your money just now. Let's try to keep it going as a going concern and try to find a buyer." That has happened in the case of football clubs that are in terrible trouble, big stores that are involved in a merger or amalgamated, supermarkets that have joined up, or big companies such as Rover and BMW.
Surely it is the Conservative attitude that a business should be kept alive until a buyer is found, as any business man in the country would say. That has happened time and again with engineering companies, and with practically everything in the commercial market, but not with pits.
For some reason, there is underhand deception. A few months ago, the Government promised, as they did with regard to my constituency, that certain coal mines were core pits which would be there virtually for ever-- places such as Manton, Welbeck and Harworth. They promised that, even if the number of pits got down to single figures, those pits would still operate. The men were assured of that. Suddenly, one night, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said, usually in the recess, when we cannot raise the matter in Parliament, the rug is pulled away from under them.
If ever a body of men have been deceived by the Government, it has to be the miners, with their promise of productivity. For years they were told, "Increase production ; increase your productivity ; turn out more ; work faster ; work harder ; adopt all the new methods ; adopt every piece of modern machinery ; work shifts ; work overtime and get the prices down." What was the result ? The sack. Yet they wonder why, in all the years when I was a lad on the shop floor, miners used to say to me, "Go slow, lad ; there is a whole day tomorrow not started on. You'll be working yourself out of a job." Shop stewards advocated restrictive practices, about which the Conservatives screamed blue murder every time that the trade unions dug in their heels and said, "We're protecting our jobs." The people who shouted the loudest said, "You're destroying British industry." After the miners' strike, what happened ? The miners did everything the Government told them to do--work harder, accept new practices, not stand in the way of modern investment and machinery. They did everything.
The Minister knows, because he is an ex-miner. That is the tragedy--an ex- miner shutting down his own industry. He ought to consider asking for another job. He understands what has happened. The reward of those miners has been the sack, in an underhand, indecent way. To prevent the miners from striking, to prevent them from protesting, to prevent them from saying, "Hold on a bit ; there's a buyer for the pit," they were told, "If you sign the docket by next Friday, you will get £10,000 extra redundancy pay." Who could resist a bribe such as that ?
Some of those miners think that they are getting something. They are getting nothing. I will tell the Minister what redundancy pay is. It is advance unemployment benefit ; advance social security ; advance supplementary
Column 300benefit--call it what you like. That lump sum of 25,000 quid, or whatever, means that ex-miners cannot qualify for rent rebate, or for anything else that unemployed people get, until they have dwindled down and dwindled down their redundancy pay.
They have taken their benefits in advance and saved the Government a great many of the pay-outs that they would have had to make on income support and other benefits. They know it. Accountants have carefully worked out the costs of 10 years' unemployment with redundancy pay, compared with 10 years' weekly benefit.
There are people in my constituency who took redundancy, unwillingly--they were perhaps 48 or 50 years old--after the miners' strike. They thought that, as they had £90 a week--which was not inflation-proof--they would be able to exist for the rest of their life. Now they find that they cannot, because things wear out. Their car has worn out, and it is gone. The television is worn out. They are trying to make do with the clothes they wore 10 years ago. They tried to exist by scratching and scraping.
When interest rates fall, all Conservative Members cheer, but lower interest rates mean a smaller return on money in the bank, so redundancy compensation becomes worth less and less. Many people are now living in a state of deep poverty, having followed the advice of the Tory Government. Is it any wonder that the general election results in Nottinghamshire amounted to such a landslide ? After the miners' strike, the Conservative party promised the Union of Democratic Miners everything. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood won his seat from a UDM supporter, and two more seats in Nottingham came to Labour. In fact, my party secured the biggest swing to have been seen in very many years. People know how they have been betrayed.
My constituency has three big power stations. There is no doubt that the steam they produce results in acid rain over Europe. After all, they are 30 -odd years old. But they could be modernised. Thousands of people could be provided with work at High Marnham, Cottam and West Burton, and, even with continued coal burning, the acid rain could be stopped.
That course would be much cheaper than the provision of gas-fired power stations, the payment of unemployment and other benefits and the decimation of areas. However, the Government's hatred of the mining industry is such that they refuse to take such action. They would sooner introduce gas-fired power stations employing 35 people and using the resources of the North sea for the sake of their own dogma. How often have they criticised us for dogma ? They used to accuse us of being doctrinaire, of never being prepared to bend. In respect of this matter, their hatred of mining areas, and of working-class people in particular, is clear.
Ministers are still engaging in deception. They repeatedly denied that they intended to close two of the three faces in Harworth. Two weeks later, 300 people were made redundant. A hard-hitting, high-powered, high-production, low-cost pit has been swallowed despite the Government's promises.
We have heard that Manton produces coal at just over £1 a gigajoule. It is probably second or third in the league table of the eight or nine pits in the midlands, on practically every ground--productivity, cost of production, and so on. With the snap of a finger, it was announced that it was to
Column 301be not closed but merged with Welbeck, which is seven miles away. Now that it has been merged, everything is shut.
Despite the padlocks and the blocking of the top, this is described as a merger. How can it be described as a merger ? The mine with which it has been merged is in the Mansfield travel-to-work area, which is a development area, whereas my area has only assisted area status. But juggling the statistics makes the figures look better. And that is all that miners are-- statistics. They are statistics in a table set out by people who have the cheek to try to tell us what is best for the industry.
There is no reason why the amendment should not be accepted. It simply says that final closure should not take place until the British Coal Authority has been set up. What is wrong with that ? No other industry going through major upheaval--mergers, takeover bids, amalgamations--would dream of shutting down a branch in these circumstances. If Marks and Spencer decided to build a bigger store at Meadowhall in Sheffield, one would expect some discussion or consultation. In fact, Marks and Spencer has not behaved as badly as the pit owners.
But no one else would act like British Coal. Anyone else would talk. Let the Government accept the amendment, and let British Coal talk to the men for a change, instead of being told by the Government exactly what to do.
Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley) : I have listened to Ministers' attempts to argue the case for the privatisation of coal, but I have heard no logic or common sense and no economic grounds. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) that, even with a scrubbing brush, one could not get Ministers to come clean. To close pits is, in effect, to sterilise areas. The amendment seeks to ensure that there will at least be a moratorium until such time as privatisation takes place--in other words, a pit will be a working pit or a pit in mothballs. British Coal does not come clean in relation to the future of the industry. It has not done so in the past, and I cannot see it doing so in the future.
Yorkshire has lost approximately 47,000 jobs, excluding those not in but associated with the industry. It is important that the taxpayer be given some consideration. After all, it is he who has to meet this enormous cost. At the Rossington pit, British Coal attempted to remove machinery to make the operation non-viable for any future purchaser.
In 1993 approximately 18.5 million tonnes of coal was imported into Britain. The Minister for Energy has refused to tell us who imports this coal, saying that it is a confidential matter. British Coal imports the coal ; why the hell does not the Minister come clean ? In terms of the balance of trade, what is happening is costing the country £687 million.
Neil Clarke was appointed chairman of British Coal to look after the industry. I have yet to see Neil Clarke do a day's work to earn his salary. It is the easiest thing in the world to stand back, do nothing and watch an industry collapse. But the Minister seems to be quite content with the situation. According to this week's "Westminster Brief", Neil Clarke intends to pursue every possible tonne of coal. Is that a reference to the 18.5 million tonnes of coal
Column 302being imported ? I am at a loss to understand how Budge and Edwards can take over pits and proceed to make profits. If Budge and Edwards can do it, why cannot Neil Clarke--this captain of industry whom the Government appointed and who has created so much misery throughout the coalfields of the country ?
It is regrettable that the Minister is prepared to proceed and, possibly, connive with the chairman of British Coal. They are using collusion and secrecy to con Conservative Members into supporting pit closures. They take the heat out of the situation in the hope that, in three months' time, other issues will occupy people's minds. I hope that, at this late stage, the Minister will support our reasonable amendment, which is an attempt to inject some sanity into the action that is being taken against the coal mining industry.
Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian) : We find ourselves in a pitiful position. We are asking for a moratorium--a reasonable moratorium, based on common sense. I keep using that phrase, because when we debate the coal industry logic goes out of the window.
One of the Government's arguments is, "We are depending on British Coal officials." That is like the police asking for guidance from the mafia : it is nonsense. Those officials have got incompetence down to a fine art. They are hatchet men, determined to carry out the Government's wishes. The Government say that they are depending on them. Depending on them to do what ? I could give example after example of the incompetence that they have shown over many years. We are becoming a bit cynical. There have been closures in several areas, and various proposals have been advanced. We have seen a number of slogans : "We are streamlining the industry" was a good one, which hon. Members may remember. Headlines above so-called articles refer to "concentrating our assets", "concentrating on the main coalfields, not the peripheral ones", "transferring miners to a long-term future", and "an amalgamation of production units." The "peripheral" coalfields were in Scotland, Kent, the north-east and north-west, Durham, Northumberland and Wales. In those areas, the shock is over ; despair and cynicism have set in.
The Government have promised to help. They have promised alternative employment, and they have promised RECHAR money. We have had some of that money, but some was not brought in because it was "additionality money". The Government were supposed to match the European Community pound for pound. The Irish Government seem to be very good in that respect, as are other EC Governments, but our Government are not. Money that could be spent on environmental and other coalfield improvements is going begging because the Government are not putting their money where their mouth is.
The Government speak of retaining assets. Retaining them for what ? That is what is causing the cynicism. We had a boom and bust situation. I do not only blame the current Government ; over the years, I have frequently lobbied other Governments of all persuasions who had fallen for this Coal Board nonsense of running down the industry while other countries expand theirs.
Assets should not be sold at the last minute because people are feathering their nests. Those people have a vested interest in the outcome of privatisation, and many of them are currently in charge of British Coal. I do not think
Column 303it helps to remove plant and machinery in which investment--capital or otherwise--has been made. These are the finest collieries in Europe ; indeed, they are the finest production units in the world. Yet, for some reason, deep mines are being destroyed. I think that those people's motivation is reluctance to allow a large industry to compete with the coal industry that they expect to inherit and run in the future.
I issue a plea on behalf of those in coalfield communities. We in Scotland have a mothballed colliery, Francis ; we do not want it to be closed, and we do not want any of the other mines--Longannet, for instance--to be cut or otherwise affected.
I speak with some emotion, because people in my area, and in other mining communities, are at a low ebb as they try to work out what is happening to their industry. I plead with the Government to try to retain at least our existing assets, even at this eleventh hour before privatisation.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) : Ellington colliery, in my constituency, is experiencing precisely the circumstances to which the amendment refers. It provides something of an object lesson. First, we must ask, "Why the timing ?" Just when Ellington was being actively considered for purchase, or licensing, by a number of outside interests--and British Coal had suggested a basis on which it would continue to operate for many years--we were suddenly confronted with a closure announcement. What possible justification or explanation can there be for that timing ? Such action is completely alien to what would be done in the case of any other industry with an asset in which outside purchasers were interested : the aim, surely, would be to promote that asset, rather than destroying it and rendering it unusable in the future.
While that was going on, men were being told to go on to contract, because that would help to keep the pit lean and fit while safeguarding their jobs. In the end, it meant that they received less redundancy money than they would have received if they had remained in British Coal's work force. No concession is being made to those men now ; they are being treated as if they had walked into the manager's office and said, "I have a bright idea : I want to be put on to contract." None of them had done that. They were all asked to go on to contract, for reasons connected with the future of the pit or their own jobs.
Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth) : The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Grimethorpe colliery has closed ; the Minister assured us that it had to close, because it could not make a profit. Grimethorpe supplied industrial coal. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the industries that it supplied are now supplied with foreign coal, which is much more expensive ? Those industries are complaining ; meanwhile, Grimethorpe is being turned into a depot to mix Polish and South American coal. Is that not a good example of the nonsense that the right hon. Gentleman describes ?
Mr. Beith : The hon. Gentleman has given another example of the unfathomable decisions made by British Coal in recent months. Here was a pit with a market for at least a significant part of its product, which went directly into a power station--providing power for a smelter--and also into the national grid. It was in an exceptional position, which made it more readily marketable than other pits as part of the privatisation process.
Column 304What happens now ? Coaling stops, the pit is put on to a care and maintenance basis and, of course, it deteriorates. As the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) pointed out earlier--having worked in the pit for many years--in such circumstances a pit is bound to deteriorate, even if some active care and maintenance is in progress. While it deteriorates, potential licensees or buyers are presented not with a working pit to examine but with a deteriorating pit. There is a further element of mystery. The day before the closure of the pit, a very expensive coal-cutting machine was put down it. There it was, in place, as though coaling was to continue. Wholly mystifying decisions have been made, leading to all sorts of rumours and suspicions among the work force. It is suspected that what is actually being planned is an internal management buy -sut, contradicting all the possibilities of outside firms coming in to take over. On top of everything else, there is now wild rumour and speculation based largely on facts that seem capable of no other interpretation. Why on earth was the machine put there ?
In response to requests from a number of us, the Minister anoounced that equipment must not be taken away from pits--that, of course, must include the machine to which I have referred--unless there is an overwhelming safety reason for doing so. We expect that to be abided by strictly, but it adds to the air of puzzlement. What is going on ? Here is an asset which, even when viewed on the Government's own privatisation terms, is potentially usable ; from the community's point of view, it is an asset that can be worked in the future and in which there is genuine commercial interest, but one whose future is impaired by an apparently needless cessation of coaling which has left it open to deterioration and uncertainty about its future. That does not make sense.
I welcome the opportunity provided by the amendment to remind the House of the facts.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Two Liberal Members have taken part in the debate. We had one or two yesterday, but it was mostly the same one. It is just worth putting on record that although we welcome Johnny-come- latelies, we are talking about privatising what remains of the coal industry.
Before the last election in 1992, I remember going up and down the coalfields reminding people that in its manifesto, the Liberal party was in favour of privatisation. As a matter of fact, the Liberals have been in favour of most privatisation. When they go up those long, winding drives with pampas grass in the garden, they are in favour of privatisation, but when they go to Tower Hamlets and other places they talk another language-- that is, when they are not talking racist language. It is worth noting that they have changed their tune. 5 pm
Although you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are now beginning to shuffle uneasily in the Chair, it is worth noting that we welcome Liberal Members--not that we are about to engage in any coalitions or pacts when Labour takes control. I hope that they do not think that they are jumping on some clever bandwagon. However, we welcome them in the Lobby. It is a pity they did not think about it in 1992. After those great demonstrations in Hyde park in October 1992, that would have been a nice little gesture by the Liberal party, and the man who leads them, Captain