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Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Will the Lord--I was going to call the right hon. Gentleman the "Lord President" ; we shall soon be putting his head on the stamps. Will the President of the Board of Trade comment on the fact that we have a Green Paper rather than a White Paper only because of the Euro-elections, and that all the safeguards that we have been given on sub-post offices and all the rest will fade away after 9 June ?
Mr. Heseltine : The hon. Gentleman is diametrically wrong. I had not intended to publish any sort of paper at this stage, because, as the House will see, there are questions that I am not yet in a position to answer. I am making the statement as a response to a leak, which I regard as a discourtesy to the House, and which I am trying to put right.
Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South) : As my right hon. Friend has been handed a Macclesfield black spot, may I offer him a Wirral green spot, and congratulate him on his proposal ? As a member of the Select Committee who has listened to all the arguments, I consider my right hon. Friend's idea a most sensible way of approaching the matter. We have reached no decisions, except that we cannot leave things as they are. All that I can do now is to offer my congratulations to the President, and I trust that
Column 980Macclesfield will go back to where it wants to go, sit in its own little village and think, perhaps, that this might be the best way in which to proceed.
Mr. Heseltine : I would not wish to intrude in any way in what sounds like something of an internecine war between my two parliamentary colleagues, so I simply welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) said. However, I regard what he described as a Macclesfield black spot as one of the most encouraging green spots that I have ever heard delivered by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton).
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : As the President praised the Royal Mail in his statement, and implied that we could not keep the status quo simply because of the inevitable rising tide of competition, can he tell us why the House itself should not, through some legislative form, ensure that the magnificent letter service remains broadly as it is today ?
Mr. Heseltine : Because the people charged with the responsibility of managing the service do not believe that that can happen, and because an all-party Select Committee, with a Chairman drawn from the hon. Gentleman's party, has advised the Government and the House that the status quo is not an option.
Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Chairman of the Select Committee first floated the idea of the BP solution--a part-privatisation--because the Committee could not see how any Treasury under any Government could provide the huge sums of investment necessary not only for the Post Office to compete abroad, but to stop the deterioration of services here at home ?
That is why the sort of solution that my right hon. Friend suggests, which would enable the Post Office to raise funds outside the public sector borrowing requirement--no Treasury would ever agree to that--seems to fit the bill.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government stake would be no more than 49 per cent., and that the workers' stake in the operation would be at least, say, 10 per cent ?
Mr. Heseltine : I have not given a figure for the Government stake today, although percentage figures can be considered in the Green Paper. Certainly one option that the House will want to have in mind, which I have mentioned before, is for the Government to have a large minority stake-- suppose it were 49 per cent. The work people and the sub-postmasters might have a significant stake in addition to that. That is not quite the BP solution--I recognise that at once--but it is a variant of that solution, and I believe that it would give much reassurance to a wide body of opinion outside as well as inside the House. The Government will parade that and other options.
Ms Estelle Morris (Birmingham, Yardley) : If the President is concerned about the Post Office's lack of freedom to compete, does he agree that that calls for immediate action, not for further delay ? He said that making the Post Office competitive in the public sector would cost the nation money, but does not he accept that privatisation of the Post Office would also lead to a loss to the nation's economy--for example, of the contribution of
Column 981£750 million that has been made over the past 10 years ? That has been the steady contribution of the Post Office to the economic health of the nation.
Mr. Heseltine : The hon. Lady takes a narrow view of the way in which one has to judge such matters. Nobody suggests moving the Post Office abroad. The issue is where the ownership lies, and to what disciplines it is to be subjected. The profit would be distributed within this country one way or another. The question is whether it should continue to go directly to the Treasury by way of a dividend, which means that the Post Office is denied the opportunity to invest in itself.
One of the Post Office's major complaints is that it is not allowed to keep back the amount of retained profit that it would control in the private sector, because the Treasury earns a larger receipt than would be paid in the private sector. If the House says that therefore we should not take so much from the Post Office, it is really saying that that would have an effect on the public sector borrowing requirement and the Government's finances. The money cannot go both ways.
There are issues that we have to face. However, I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to take decisions quickly.
Several hon. Members rose
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You asked me to leave with you overnight a written parliamentary reply informing me yesterday that on 20 April 1994 the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People authorised his officials to instruct parliamentary counsel to draft the 80 amendments to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill tabled by five hon. Members. I also gave you other and related papers, and I know that you have been considering them in the context of a ruling you gave in the House last week. Is there anything you can now tell me about the outcome of your consideration ?
Madam Speaker : I am aware, of course, of the answer given to the right hon. Gentleman yesterday, and I remind him and the House that I have no direct responsibility for ministerial answers. The answer that he mentioned appears to give a date relevant to a sequence of events described in the letter from the right hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott)--the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People--to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) on 9 May. It does not open up any new area for examination by me regarding an incident which I told the House on 11 May was closed so far as I was concerned. Hon. Members must find other ways of pursuing the matter that do not involve the Chair.
Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The statement to which the privilege complaint referred was that by the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People on 6 May that he had :
"No part whatever in the drafting of any of the amendments" to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill
Column 982"and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody in my Department had been involved in the drafting"--[ Official Report , 6 May 1994 ; Vol. 242, c. 991.]
Madam Speaker : Order. I understand the hon. Gentleman's intensity of feeling on the issue, but I have now dealt daily--indeed, several times a day--with it. Of course I must deal with points of order made to the Chair, but what are now being raised are matters of debate, for which I have no responsibility. If the hon. Gentleman has a point of order for the Chair, perhaps he will come to it and I shall try to deal with it.
Mr. Berry : Is it not in order for you to review your ruling, Madam Speaker, because the implication of the written answer received last night is that we are being asked to believe that the Minister forgot an instruction that he had given a mere 16 days
Madam Speaker : Order. I am on my feet. The hon. Gentleman appears to be challenging what I have said in the House on a number of occasions. I have just said that what has happened does not open up any new area for examination by me. I cannot make it clearer than that. Is the hon. Gentleman challenging my statement ? If he is, perhaps he is not aware of our procedures. I want to deal with him as gently as I can, but if he is challenging my statement he must put a substantive motion on the Order Paper so that it can be debated. I cannot speak any more clearly. We have a very precise language . I said that what has happened does not open up any new area of examination for me. I cannot take the matter further than that.
Mr. Berry : I am not challenging your statement, Madam Speaker, and I am most grateful for your tolerance towards me. I was asking whether, given the information that we now have, it is in order that we are being asked to believe that the Minister forgot an instruction that he gave only 16 days beforehand. Would it be in order for you to review your
Madam Speaker : Order. I have just told the hon. Gentleman that there is no reason for me to review my ruling. I saw last night the answer that was given, and I am giving the hon. Gentleman my ruling. I am very sympathetic to hon. Members who entered the House at the general election and are keen and anxious to get their Bills through. However, I have to carry out the procedures and Standing Orders given to me by the House. The hon. Gentleman understands that.
Mr. Berry indicated assent .
Madam Speaker : I have enormous sympathy with the work that the hon. Gentleman has put in, but I cannot bend the rules and procedures of the House to meet the demands of one Member, or even of a handful of Members.
Mr. Austin-Walker : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you any responsibility for the procedure for the guidance of Ministers ? In the light of the new information given in the written answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), is not there a case for the Prime Minister to come to the House to make a statement ?
Madam Speaker : I have nothing to do with guidance for Ministers. I have enough responsibility in the House without guiding Ministers. I have not had any information from any Minister, certainly not from No. 10, that the Prime Minister is seeking to make a statement. However, motion No. 1 very much concerns me.
That the Speaker have leave of absence tomorrow, Friday 20th May, to attend the funeral of the Right honourable John Smith, formerly Member for Monklands, East.--[ Mr. Newton. ]
The Minister for Energy (Mr. Tim Eggar) : I beg to move, That the draft Coal Industry (Restructuring Grants) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 21st April, be approved. The House will be aware that British Coal has on the table with the unions a package which includes a lump sum payment of £6,000, the contractualisation of British Coal's basic generous redundancy terms, existing pay rates and the introduction of flexible working arrangements. That is a generous offer to British Coal employees which helps to provide some certainty for the future. While the great bulk of redundancy payments are, of course, financed by restructuring grants, that package is a matter for British Coal and the unions. The draft order laid before the House is the eighth annual order under section 3 of the Coal Industry Act 1987 and has three main purposes. First, it specifies the kinds of expenditure in the present financial year for which grant may be paid. These are set out in the schedule to the order and are unchanged from those specified last year. Secondly, the order sets the maximum percentage of relevant expenditure which may be met by grant. The Government have decided that the maximum rate for 1994-95 should remain at 90 per cent. Thirdly, the order increases the cumulative ceiling for payments of restructuring grant from £2,500 million to £3,000 million, as permitted under the Coal Industry Act 1992.
I will explain the third purpose in more detail. The 1987 Act, as amended by the Coal Industry Act 1992, limits the cumulative provision for restructuring grant to £2,500 million, increasable by order up to £3,000 million. At the end of 1992-93, cumulative restructuring grant paid to British Coal was some £1,900 million. During 1993-94, British Coal made claims for restructuring grant amounting to more than £740 million. If all those claims had been met, the cumulative total paid since 1987 would have been £2,640 million. Due to the current ceiling of £2,500 million, grant claims of £140 million for 1993-94 remain unpaid, the expenditures involved having been funded temporarily by voted loans to the corporation. Further claims for some £110 to 120 million are expected in relation to 1993-94 costs. Those expenditures, already incurred in 1993-94, would imply the need for an increase in the cumulative ceiling to over £2, 750 million.
As hon. Members will be aware, the provision for restructuring grant in this year's supply estimates is £425 million. A major part of that provision will be taken up by the £250 million or more of expenditure incurred by British Coal last year, for which grant will be paid this year if the House approves the current order. It is too early to say what further eligible expenditure may be incurred in the current financial year, although we have already received a claim for £6 million in respect of job losses in April.
I hope that that explanation will assist the House and I look forward to listening to the debate. I commend the order to the House.
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Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan) : As you would imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not propose to divide the House on the order, although it would be wrong to assume that the Opposition necessarily give it an unalloyed welcome.
As ever these days, we speak about the coal industry against the background of a further decline in numbers to about 14 pits and 10, 000 men working in them. There are also prospects of further reductions, although we do not know how many or what form they will take. If there have to be further redundancies between now and any privatisation date, we would hope that those redundancies would be treated in a similar manner to those that have already occurred. However, we know that the redundancy proposals have been withdrawn in their present form.
One of the main concerns--to which the Minister referred--is the package currently being offered to miners. One of the hallmarks of industrial relations since the miners' strike has been the understandable reluctance of the National Union of Mineworkers to participate in talks with British Coal. For miners who are members of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, discussions have continued and a number of settlements have been reached, although in many instances those who did not participate felt that they could have done far better had they been given a proper opportunity.
The package to which the Minister alluded does not even satisfy the Union of Democratic Mineworkers : in a ballot of its members, the agreement was rejected by some 93 per cent. of those who participated in the negotiations. That ballot was significant because it showed that not even members of the UDM were prepared to accept that package which was designed, if I may use the euphemism, "to promote flexible working". What is on offer is a sum of £6,000, subject to taxation, if the men are prepared to sign undertakings that they will change the nature of the working arrangements, which will mean abandonment of agreed working hours and the possibility of having to work up to 13 hours a day as a consequence of accepting the agreement. There are grave misgivings on the part of a number of those involved in the mining industry. I need go no further than the opinion of the general secretary of the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, Peter McNestry, who has repeatedly made the point about the inherent dangers of additional working hours, not just in terms of the possibility of exhaustion causing mistakes and lack of care, but because of the very fast cutting equipment at the coal face and the greater exposure to industrial dust and other pollutants down there. Exposure is increased and the danger to men increases as a consequence. However, we are led to believe that if the £6,000 is accepted all those other considerations will be set aside.
Opposition Members feel that such a move is designed more to make the coal industry attractive to potential purchasers than to make it safe and healthy for the men currently employed in it. We therefore have grave misgivings about the proposal and we understand only too well why the men who have had the opportunity to vote on it have rejected it and why others are in no way sympathetic to it. It is perhaps a sign of the despair of British Coal in such matters that a recent edition of Coal News , the official
Column 986organ of British Coal, said that the colliery managers union had come out in favour of the proposal. The significant factor is that the colliery managers are not subject to any constraints on the number of hours that they work anyway, so it is almost academic to ask them. Anybody who is offered £6,000, even if he has to pay tax on it, will not turn it down if it involves no sacrifice on his part. However, the numbers concerned and the people concerned are not really relevant to discussion of the proposal today.
We are led to believe that there are some assurances in the package in relation to redundancy payments. However, as I understand it from legal advice received by some of the unions, there are grave misgivings about whether the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 provisions extend beyond 12 weeks after a change of ownership of an undertaking. We are conscious that within the financial provisions of the order there is money available to finance part of the package, but we find the package to be wanting in a number of respects and I am sure that some of my hon. Friends will return to the matter in due course.
It is worth putting on record that an agreement on pensions has been reached between the trustees and the Government, and that many of the problems that we debated during the passage of the Coal Industry Bill appear to have been resolved. What is at stake here is the funding of the interim arrangements for men who have had to leave the industry and whose pension payments are not yet covered by the pension fund proper. We express our relief that an agreement has been reached which is to the satisfaction of the pensioners, the prospective pensioners and the trustees of the pension scheme. Perhaps the Minister, who was helpful in his introduction, will spell out exactly how much of the sums involved will be accounted for this year. Perhaps he will tell us a little more about how much money will be made available to British Coal Enterprise. Although many of us have been somewhat less than fulsome in our praise for British Coal Enterprise, we recognise that when the coalfield communities are in a state of economic depression, any assistance available to communities and to individuals for retraining or for help in starting their own businesses will be welcomed.
We want to know two things : how much will the sums be, and will there be any new money ? We know that a fair amount of the funding of British Coal Enterprise is now accounted for by the repayment of loans and the recycling of moneys. How much will the retraining budget be ? If any area of British Coal Enterprise activities needs to be looked at, it is retraining. We are very conscious that some of the areas in which colliery closures have taken place are now denuded of virtually any economic activity. The important and valuable skills that were won at the coal face and underground are, sadly, not marketable in the changed environment. We hope that there will be sufficient funds to support retraining in those areas and we should like to know the sums involved.
We are concerned that there is great uncertainty about the future of British Coal Enterprise. The Minister was unable to give us assurances about that when we debated the Coal Industry Bill in Committee. I repeatedly have to tell councillors in my area, where there are a number of unemployed mineworkers, that British Coal Enterprise is still in business. During the passage of the Coal Industry Bill, there was a feeling that British Coal Enterprise would be finished shortly afterwards. We recognise that it may
Column 987not have a life in perpetuity, but we are very conscious of the need for information about how long it will continue, what its future funding is likely to be and the possibility of new money. There is considerable anxiety about those matters and a great need for more resources to be made available.
This is one of the last--perhaps the last--coal restructuring orders if privatisation goes through. In some respects, it is a reflection on the sad state of the industry that we have to talk in terms of the significance of measures to try to mop up unemployment and of softening up the labour force before privatisation with the removal of the struts that have supported the coal industry and industrial relations within it for so long.
It is a matter of considerable regret that British Coal is trying, apparently with Government support, to buy back from the men many of the important concessions that have been won over the years. Those concessions cannot be measured against the price that the board and the Government seem to place on them. It is not wise to encourage men to work longer hours underground ; that is a profoundly dangerous road to take. In other countries, it has resulted in a dramatic increase in industrial injuries. When those longer hours are combined with the change in the health and safety arrangements, and the change that is likely as a consequence of the ending of deputies and the ending of regular independent assessment of the safety provisions within colleries, one becomes extremely suspicious and worried about the future of the industry. Although it employs only 10,000 people, for many communities it is still one of the few sources of employment of a standard that we want to defend, not necessarily to the death, but certainly to the hilt.
We do not intend to vote against the order, although we have a number of misgivings about its contents, and we regret that it will be one of the last of its kind. We hope that the points that my hon. Friends will make, along with mine, will go some way towards persuading British Coal and the Government to think again about a package that we consider to be dangerous and unhelpful to the industry and more likely to poison the well in advance of privatisation. We have a number of misgivings about privatisation. We do not believe that it is necessary and we do not wish it well, but we do not want the hands of the workers to be tied in any way before privatisation. The order and the package to which the Minister has alluded are likely to result in a deterioration in conditions and in the protection that the workers currently enjoy. That deterioration is regrettable and objectionable ; as other financial provisions are contained in the order, however, we shall not oppose it. Nevertheless, I make it clear to the Minister that we do not offer our approval for what he is offering today.
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) : The order is called the Coal Industry (Restructuring Grants) Order, but many of us from coalfield communities in Nottinghamshire and across the country feel that the coal industry has had enough restructuring recently. I remind the Minister that in Nottinghamshire there were 40,000 miners in 1980 ; there are fewer than 4,000 now.
The morale in the coal industry and in the coalfield communities has never been lower, and the order reaffirms the problems. The Minister told the House that the package
Column 988on the table for discussion with the unions came specifically from British Coal. I wish to challenge him on two points.
First, the package is no longer on the table with the unions. British Coal is blackmailing individual miners to sign by this time tomorrow or lose any financial rights. Those are the tactics which are going on, and there are letters in Nottinghamshire pits today telling miners in clear terms that if they do not sign on the dotted line they will lose tremendous amounts of money. Miners have been told that this is a once and final offer, and that British Coal is not in a position to make a better offer because the real offer is coming from the Government.
Perhaps the Minister will tell us today whether he has had discussions about the redundancy package, and whether he received advice from British Coal. Perhaps he will tell us what specific advice he had from British Coal, because there is a strong view within the coal industry that the managers of British Coal want to do better for the work force than the offer that is on the table, but they have been denied the resources by the Government. Yet the order provides money to the Government to give to British Coal. Clearly, if there was a will, there would be a way to make more money available for miners.
The package on offer to miners is bad in many, many ways. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) said, it demands longer hours. The package demands 12 to 13-hour shifts, which cannot be right in a modern society with high unemployment and, in particular, immense unemployment among ex-miners. We ought to be reducing the hours worked underground. It is also unfair in the sense that miners have to give up their two years' pay claim. The £6,000 lump sum will be taxed and they will take home about £3,400. That is perhaps the equivalent of the two years' pay claim, but it is not the generous settlement to which the Minister referred today. We are told that the package will last beyond privatisation. Perhaps the Minister will be specific tonight and say what the situation will be for miners if a private company goes bankrupt. Will that offer still stand ? Will miners still get the money ? The answer seems to be no, but perhaps the Minister will tell us, because we need to know, and the men and their families need to know. What about the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations ? If the package is agreed, how long will the TUPE regulations and the force of law last beyond the privatisation of British Coal ? Will not the new mine owners in fact be able to renegotiate the package quickly, perhaps within a year of the privatisation of the pits ? Those are the difficulties involved in the package. The real difficulty is that it has taken the guts out of the mining industry, and it has taken the morale of the men away. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on that. In Nottinghamshire up to now, productivity in the pits has constantly gone up. However, the men feel that they are not getting a fair deal and are being treated like dogs and, because of that, productivity is now going down. Clearly, that will cast a blight on privatisation.
The package has been resoundingly thrown out by ordinary miners in Nottinghamshire. They say very strongly that they are not getting a fair deal. I will give the House the example of Stephen Tuck, who works at Bilsthorpe colliery. His father Bert worked there before him, and set up the National Union of Mineworkers at Bilsthorpe colliery. His sons have followed in the family tradition. Stephen Tuck does roof bolting at Bilsthorpe
Column 989colliery--something the Minister knows about. He works in a team with contractors and, in fact, is the supervisor of three contractors. He is a British Coal man, but the men he works with are contractors. They used to work for British Coal and received redundancy payments of £40,000, yet they are still working in the industry alongside Stephen Tuck. He says, quite rightly, that he wants to leave British Coal, and he has been asking for his redundancy for some time, but the corporation will not let him go. Yet the lads whom he is supervising have received £40,000. There are all kinds of stories like that from people who want to set up their own businesses. Adrian Button wants to come out of the industry. He has set up on a part-time basis a small business which is becoming successful drilling and looking after the roadway in Bilsthorpe colliery. He wants to come out, but the pit manager at British Coal will not let him. It is not surprising that people are saying that they have been locked into a new kind of slavery. The package currently on the table is a new, modern slavery, and it is keeping men in the industry who want to come out. It is unfair and inequitable because the miners' colleagues and comrades, who had a better chance just a few weeks ago, have had far better offers. The Minister really ought to think again, because the money contained in the order would allow other ways of dealing with the men. There has been a strong voice from Nottinghamshire, which I know that the Minister has heard, in the run-up to privatisation. In all decency, the Minister ought to treat all the men the same. The day before the industry becomes privatised, he ought to pay the men off under the old terms. There are currently 10,000 men in the industry.I do not know whether there will be 10,000 men in the industry at the point of privatisation, but I know that the average redundancy pay-out under the old scheme was £25,000. That would mean £25 million in total, so there is enough money in the order to meet the aspirations of people in the coalfields in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere.
The men and their families have had a tough time. Many of them have given their lives to British Coal, to their coalfield and to their community, and they are not getting a fair deal. I remind the Minister that promises were made, particularly to the miners in Nottinghamshire. There is a strong feeling that they have been betrayed, and that the Minister has turned his back on them and walked away. They want a new and fairer future. The Minister must think again about the redundancy package, give the men a fair chance and move towards bringing new industry, new employment and a new future to the coalfield communities.
That is why the questions that the Minister is being asked about the future of British Coal Enterprise are so important.Will the Minister tell the House today whether British Coal Enterprise will last, not just for a little time beyond the privatisation but into the future ? The devastation in the coalfield communities means that we need measures to tackle problems which could last for five, 10 or 15 years. The industry has been there for a long time, and men have given their lives to it for a long time : now is the time for the Minister to play fair with them.
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Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) : It gives me very little satisfaction that so many of my constituents should have to be the beneficiaries of the enhanced redundancy payments for which the order provides, but they are in that position because of the tragic closure of Ellington colliery. The closure came after those involved had been led to expect that, with a Government subsidy, they had a 15-month breathing space in which to prepare for privatisation.
The hope is still kept alive that the colliery will reopen following privatisation, and I expect the Minister to continue to mount every possible effort to see that that can be successfully carried through. I believe that the pit has a future, but tonight we must consider the position of those who are involved in the redundancy package. I must underline to the Minister that a number of people did not benefit from the enhanced redundancy package. When so much public money is involved, as there is in the order, it is incumbent on the Minister not to stand completely back from the way in which British Coal handles that public money.
I have had occasion to put to the Minister the position of some of those people who were put on to contract, in my view under a degree of duress, and who therefore became employees of contractors shortly before the closure of Ellington colliery. As a result, they did not get the enhanced redundancy package available to those employed at the colliery on the day of closure. The Minister wrote to me saying that the detailed arrangements were a matter for British Coal. However, when what appears to be a significant injustice involving public money has occurred, the Minister should take a closer interest than that shown in his letter.
Stories abound of people put under pressure to cease to be British Coal employees and to become contract employees. I want to quote a letter from someone who was affected in that way, but first I want to quote a letter from Mr. Neil Clarke, the chairman of British Coal. On 4 March he wrote to me saying :
"I cannot accept that any employee at Ellington was pressured or coerced to accept redundancy where their jobs were identified as surplus to requirements. All such employees were counselled in the usual way and, in every case, were offered either alternative employment at the mine or the opportunity to accept redundancy on the terms available at the time."
That is not what happened. Mr. Clarke persists in describing something very different from what is happening in the real world. He went on to say :
"Those accepting redundancy were certainly not transferred' to mining contracting companies by British Coal. I understand that a number applied to the companies concerned and were offered jobs following interviews."
That is not a fair description of the position when people who work for British Coal one day find themselves the next day doing the same job in the same location in the same pit as an employee of a contractor, in a number of cases very much against their will. One factor in the position of those workers was their belief that their pit had the future to which I referred earlier as a result of the Alcan contract and the subsidy for that contract. Once the men knew that the contract had 12 months to run and would be supplied with Ellington coal, there was a reasonable expectation that there would not be an immediate closure of the colliery. Everyone knows that
Column 991when a closure happens extra redundancy payments are made. No one with the knowledge that a pit would close within a few weeks would voluntarily transfer to contract.
Many people thought that the pit had at least another 12 months' future. They feel that the Minister's statement at the time was not only misleading but damaging because it led them to take a decision different from that which they would have otherwise have taken. Of course, they would have had considerable difficulty taking any other decision because of the pressure that they were put under. I want to quote from a letter sent to me on behalf of two men. It states :
"After initially saying we would be able to remain in our own jobs with British Coal, management then changed their minds and said we were required to sign over to the new contractor. The next 9 weeks were a catalogue of threats, pressure and coercion by British Coal, from our supervisor through to senior management. We were told to accept the conditions or be sent down the pit with a shovel . . . Men from a nearby, recently closed colliery were to be offered our jobs if we didn't quickly accept terms (or so we were told!) An ex-shaftman who left the industry over five years ago was approached by management to come back to work for the contractor (as our replacements). Two underground joiners who are good friends of ours refused an offer to take over our positions"
these were positions in a different trade.
"We were told by our supervisor that the contractor had been told to fulfil his obligation immediately. This was later found to be untrue".
The letter mentions a number of other points, but then goes on to say :
"We approached the personnel manager to let us know where we would be sent if we stayed with British Coal. This had not been fully explored', was his reply. We asked him to look into alternative jobs with British Coal for us and he agreed to do so. Two weeks later when we saw him again, he could not give us an alternative offer of work. However, he told us that if we didn't sign over, the contractors would be told to fulfil their contractual obligations immediately. We had no alternative at this stage, so very reluctantly, we signed over to contract . . To rub salt into our wounds, the announcement to close Ellington Colliery was made 2 weeks after we were forced out." A significant number of men were forced on to contracts by threats and duress. They were told that there would not be a job for them or that no job could be specified. I sent some details of that to the Minister and I must ask him to consider whether that was a reasonable way for British Coal to behave. It was not. It is not a reasonable way to dispose of public money to operate a scheme in so partial a way. The partiality arises because, far from men having voluntarily accepted transfer, they were coerced into that shortly before a closure was announced. Had they not transferred, they would have been significantly better provided for by the redundancy package. To add further insult to injury, many of those men have subsequently been made redundant by the contractors to whom they signed over. They now find that they are not eligible for unemployment insurance on their mortgage. People who took out mortgage insurance policies are now told that they are not eligible for payment because they changed their jobs. I know that that has been said to someone who worked in the same job in the same pit but was simply transferred by British Coal to contract employment. It is a further injustice that I ask the Minister to consider.
As has already been mentioned, there were those at Ellington, as there were at other pits, who wanted to take redundancy but could not do so because their position was in demand. They may have wanted to set up their own businesses, but could not get a date for redundancy. There
Column 992are many injustices. The redundancy payments are about the only thing that stand between the local economic conditions of having the pit open and the disaster of it being closed. For a short time there is still a good deal of money around in the community, going into the shops and so on, but once the redundancy money has gone the real deprivation starts.
That is why the reference to British Coal Enterprise is significant, although it plays only a small part in what needs to be done for those areas. Nevertheless, we want its role to be adequately fulfilled. The only recipe to deal with the concerns that I have expressed tonight is that particular injustices should be corrected--as, I understand, they have been at the Wearmouth colliery, for example. British Coal Enterprise should be given every encouragement to work in areas where there are closures.
Every effort should be made to secure the future of Ellington pit, even though it would have a reduced work force. Further steps should be taken by all the relevant Government agencies to bring work to the area. A very serious position now faces south-east Northumberland, as with other former coalfield areas. Once again, I draw that to the Minister's attention.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : Reference has already been made to the fact that this may be the last coal restructuring debate. That may be so, but the Minister must accept that it certainly will not be the last coal debate because the problems that will remain after the privatisation measure goes through, if it does, will be so enormous that the House will have to return to the subject with the same frequency with which it has turned to the subject of coal over the past 15 years.
I see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), all of whom have taken part in or diligently attended coal debates throughout the years. We have heard and seen the Government change their position quite dramatically. For example, in the mid-1970s it was customary for some Conservative Back Benchers to take part in coal debates. They used to castigate the Labour Government if a colliery closed. In those days, they drew attention to colliery closures, yet we lost only about 1.5 per cent. of the pits. In general, collieries were closed with the agreement and acceptance of the men who worked there. They were prepared to accept that a colliery should close when it was exhausted or if the men were working up to their waists or worse in water. If the circumstances in an individual pit were barbaric, the colliery closed. Now, we are not talking about men having to work up to their waists in water or about barbaric conditions. We are concerned about a system, which will govern our coal industry, which is in itself barbaric.
The Minister will probably say that the changes are an example of flexibility. Yet men have been compelled to accept a bribe to be enchained and to lose whatever capacity they had to decide for themselves the nature of their employment, whether they wished to work excessive hours, and whether they wished to question the erosion of the pattern and culture of safety which would be an inevitable consequence of the changes made by the Government.
Column 993The Minister has heard me make the point about safety before. He has refused to accept it throughout. The fact remains that the men responsible for safety underground believe that the changes that the Minister introduced are bound to erode the culture of safety, cause accidents and increase the proportion of men in the industry who are maimed or killed. The Minister has heard me say--I said it in his office as well as in the Chamber--that when, under the changes and the erosion of the safety culture, men are maimed and killed, he will have firmly on his conscience a substantial responsibility for those tragedies.
It is tragic that in the 1970s Conservative Members clamoured for the Labour Government to maintain the commitment to the Plan for Coal and investment in the industry. When we hear in coal debates about the astronomical sums that have been spent on the coal industry over the years, we have to understand that a substantial part of that expenditure was investment of historic importance. It meant that by the time we reached 1990, or the latter part of the 1980s, we had such a successful coal industry in Britain that it made other European coal industries look like incompetent failures. We had the highest rate of industrial success and increased productivity not merely in Britain or in the coal industry but in any industry in Britain or Europe in the past decade.
The consequence of that success has been record achievement, huge improvements in productivity and the provision for British industry of a significant base for industrial production and exports. The consequence has been the creation of a home market for engineering and all the other technological activities associated with successful deep mining. All that opportunity is being thrown away.
The taxpayers, or the politicians representing the taxpayers, were persuaded to approve the investment which secured the astonishing rates of improved productivity in the British mining industry. The Minister cannot deny that those rates of productivity were regarded as impossible at one time. The Minister nods his head, suggesting that he agrees with the point that I make. It is a pity that his superior, the President of the Board of Trade, still has not fully comprehended the scale of that achievement.
The fact remains that the thin-seam pits in the older part of our coalfields closed. There was investment in heavy duty equipment, which was put on to the coal face so that the coal could pour out on a scale and at a pace that could not have been imagined 20 years ago. Having achieved all that, we have now seen the industry virtually scrapped. Why ? It has been scrapped because of the strange and foolish perversion of the electricity privatisation. The structure that was established made it inevitable that the coal industry would be disfigured. The outrageous nuclear payment to the French electricity generating industry has been maintained. British money pours across the channel to sustain highly subsidised French nuclear generation. That money could well have been used here in Britain. The British industry has been cast aside while the German and Spanish industries have costs per tonne which are three times ours, but have Governments who are not so daft as to make the very short-sighted calculation that dominates the Minister's approach.