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10.21 am

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) was able to put coalfield regeneration on the agenda.

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The idea of regenerating the coalfield communities was proposed three years ago, after the Government's closure of the 31 collieries--it was mainly talk on their part. The initial statement was made in October 1992, when the former President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry--now the Deputy Prime Minister--was keen to tell everybody, including hon. Members, not to worry about the 31 closed pits because the Government were to institute schemes to enable people to find work, and that everything in the garden would be rosy.

Three years later, we are participating in a debate in which my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has listed the lack of achievement. He comes from an area that most people in Britain--certainly those in the coalfields-- recognise as one of the most prosperous among those represented by the National Union of Mineworkers. Nottingham has always had not only the attraction of the pits, but several large firms such as Boots, Plessey, Players and Raleigh. People moved out of the pits and into some of those industries when the money in the pits was bad. Now they do not even have that chance.

The Government do not properly understand that the situation has changed. When the pits were closed in the 1950s and 1960s, people in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood were able either to transfer to another pit or to go to one of the large firms in and around that coalfield. The situation is much bleaker now because they can no longer move into expanding firms and there are hardly any pits to work in.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right when he talks about the unemployment figures being understated. The Government have never taken into account the fact that those over 55 who received the make-up money from the Department of Energy are not included in the unemployment statistics. We can reckon that about 100,000 ex-miners have not been included in the unemployment statistics for the very reason that they took part in that compensation scheme when their collieries were closed. That is why male unemployment in many pit villages, certainly in my constituency, is as high as 50 per cent. Counts have been made in Shirebrook and surrounding areas to prove that.

One would have thought that, in the aftermath of the massive pit closures, there being no employment prospects, the first thing that the Government would have done would have been to tell the Department of the Environment, which made up the budgets for local authorities, that a little extra should be put in for the coalfield areas, especially given what their spokesmen said from time to time about giving those areas a lift. They have never done that. By and large, the standard spending assessment of councils in coalfield areas, including the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood spoke about, has not improved--in many cases it has gone down.

My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is almost certainly to be in government shortly--in view of all the Conservatives who are transferring to the Opposition Benches, that might happen sooner rather than later--so I am not just speaking to the Minister. When my right hon. and hon. Friends form their Government, I want them to accept that the

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SSA and the grant paid to local authorities in deprived areas that have been hit massively by unemployment must be adjusted so that we can regenerate them much more speedily.

Why have the Government not tried some sort of pilot scheme for housing redevelopment in the coalfield communities when that idea has been foremost in our minds? We know that, according to their policy, they allow local authorities to build hardly any houses--at the last count, 1,750 were built in a full year. The Government could have encouraged local authorities to build housing in those areas where unemployment is high. That matter should also be addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras.

It is important to have this debate because my hon. Friend can then go back to the leader of the Labour party, soon to be the Prime Minister, and tell him that the people in the coalfields want a stake in society and they want it to be sirloin. That is what we are asking for. We want to readdress the local problems.

I am not making a case for preferential treatment; I just recall what happened in the 1960s when we had a Labour Government. I remember as a local authority councillor when my own colliery, Parkhouse, near Clay Cross, closed down. I went down to see the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), along with Tom Swain, my Member of Parliament. We wanted some additional help to redress the balance that had been upset by the pit closure. Many miners simply transferred to other pits, but for those who did not, we wanted to set up a scheme to assist the Erewash valley, which included several local authorities running between the borders of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

My right hon. Friend granted special assistance to the area with the result that, when Parkhouse colliery was closed, the Clay Cross councillors were able to announce that we had managed to obtain discretionary grants. As a result, 700 people walked down the same pit lane that used to lead to Parkhouse colliery and went instead into a factory, Ashton Containers, and several other new factories on that site. That is how it was done in the 1960s. I want to impress on the Government and my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras that it is not impossible to overcome the problems of the coalfields with regional assistance. We did just that in the 1960s to offset the effects of pit closures.

My next point was not raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, because he reduced what he might have said so that others could speak. We have heard a lot of talk about cleaning up the rivers in coalfield areas-- in Durham, in Scotland and in every other part of the coalfields. For the past two years, we have heard people talk about rivers being filthy as a result of pit closures, as polluted water finally finds its way into the water courses.

Why is there not a big programme for cleaning up rivers, which would create some work? If the Government were bright enough, they would realise that, politically, it would be a smart thing to spend some money on, and would get rid of some of the unemployment problems at the same time. Much could be done in all the coalfield areas, but not enough has been done.

One thing is certain--I do not want the Minister or anybody else to tell me that opencast is a substitute for deep mines. We all know that opencast has a peripatetic

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work force. Firms do not usually recruit locally because they bring most of their people with them. We do not want to hear any of those barmy suggestions about opencast creating employment in local areas.

That is not all. Opencast operators dig a big hole--they dig very deep holes now--take out the coal and leave the hole behind to be stuffed with all sorts of waste, possibly including nuclear waste if they can get away with it. There will certainly be lots of toxic waste. We do not want that "solution" to the problem. That is why, in Derbyshire, we have opposed opencast wherever possible. Not only can opencast not provide work but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood and others said, as a result of all the toxic waste being dumped in the holes, it might be counter-productive in terms of employment possibilities.

In my opinion, there is another reason why opencast must be opposed. We shall soon be in government. As I said earlier, people want a stake in society. We might want to reopen some of the 31 pits that were closed, but we shall never be able to do that if opencasting has taken place. We all know that opencast working creates instability in the surrounding ground, so we shall never be able to sink a mine where opencasting has taken place 300 ft down.

It is important that my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras understands that, as soon as Labour is returned to power, we must take the collieries back into public ownership and stop any proposed opencasting in those areas.

It is possible to reopen some of the pits. I do not claim that that would be easy where opencast mining has taken place--it would be almost impossible--but where there has been no opencast mining, many of the pits could be reopened. In the past, we did not think that that was possible, but after the miners' strike of 1984-85, when the pits had been closed for 12 months, although many of us had said that they would never be reopened, they were reopened. We found that it was possible to mine in the same places again. It is important to bear that in mind when we get back into government.

My remarks are addressed not only to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who will be on his bike at the next election, but to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. I apologise for the fact that I shall not be able to be here to listen to my hon. Friend's speech, but he knows that, in a few minutes, I am going to meet my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to discuss such matters, and other things.

My hon. Friend must bear in mind the fact that we are talking about intervention in the economy. We cannot afford to let market forces operate any longer. In the 1960s we proved that it was possible to minimise the devastation caused by pit closures. We created work by intervening and directing firms here, there and everywhere. We shall need a growing economy, because we cannot direct firms if there is no movement. That must be at the top of the agenda.

I tell my hon. Friend and others that, when we get into power, we must remember that we are talking about jobs. The new Labour Government must understand that jobs are at the top of the agenda. When we have found that creating jobs is possible in some of the devastated coalfield communities, that will become the practice for everybody else too.

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If the new Labour Government are searching for a big idea, they need look no further than to say that, if we get rid of the problems in the mining communities, that could set the pattern for all the other areas of high unemployment in Britain. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras will measure up to that task; in a few minutes, we shall ask the Leader of the Opposition to measure up to it, too.


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