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10.35 am

Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North): It is always a great pleasure to be involved in any debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Unfortunately, today I have to follow him, which until now I have always managed to avoid by speaking before him.

I shall be relatively brief, as I wish to raise only one problem--a problem that will not go away, because it is becoming a war of attrition. I am talking about mine water pollution. At one time it seemed that that was mentioned almost every other day in the Chamber, but over recent months the front has gone relatively quiet. However, the problem has not gone away.

We have had vague promises from Ministers, but we need some firm commitments and a definite programme laid down. We need not platitudes but a proper framework to deal with the problem. A long-term problem requires a long-term strategy, and I am afraid that at the moment we do not have that.

I declare an interest in that I am sponsored by the National Union of Mineworkers. I also spent many hours in the Committee on the Coal Industry Act 1994, so I have quite a bit of knowledge about mine water pollution, which the Committee spent several days discussing. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be much further forward now, so I have some suggestions for the Minister.

The role of the Coal Authority should be clearly defined and put on to a statutory footing. There should be a commitment to and a preparation of a phased and effective programme of remedial work to prevent pollution from getting into our rivers and water supplies. In conjunction with that, the Coal Authority's funding should be maintained at the current level until such time as the problem has been fully evaluated and solved.

We would also like the water regulator to be required to carry out on a regular or rolling basis an audit of existing and potential incidents of pollution from abandoned mines. I do not like having to repeat myself, but sometimes one has to: the problem will not go away. Our beliefs were stated in the amendments that the Opposition tabled both to the Coal Industry Act 1994 and to the Environment Act 1995 when they were being considered by the House.

The Minister will be well aware that there have been many problems with the water supply in Yorkshire. I shall not go into those now, but he will also know that in the north-east we have recently had the twin problems of flooding and water shortage. So all is not well in the water industry. There are many problems ahead, and I hope that they will not be exacerbated by a lack of action to deal with potential pollution.

The issue is fairly simple when we get right down to it; the coalfield communities have suffered for many centuries in order to create wealth not only for themselves

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but for the nation as a whole. But the nation as a whole did not suffer the problems caused by that creation of wealth. It would be totally immoral and utterly wrong if the coalfield communities had to pay for the pollution, through either council tax or water charges. The pollution was caused by work undertaken for the benefit of the nation as a whole. It should be paid for by the nation as a whole through the Government.

10.39 am

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): At the previous general election--particularly in the Nottinghamshire coalfield--Ministers promised that there would be a great future for the coal industry. That was in April 1992. But like a lot of other Tory promises, it proved to be worth not a light because, in October 1992, the present Deputy Prime Minister--the great one-nation Tory--announced 31 pit closures and the expected loss of 30,000 jobs. When he made that announcement, the right hon. Gentleman could not even be bothered to suggest any other way of employing the people who might lose their jobs.

The revulsion that the announcement caused throughout the country forced the Government to phase the closure programme, although they did not stop it. The Government promised help for the mining areas, but that help has been insufficient and slow in coming. As with much else that the Government do, they give with one hand in a publicised way while seeking to take things away with another. That has been their general approach to the coalfield communities.

When European money under the RECHAR programme was promised before the election, the Government tried to snaffle it from the coalfield communities to put into the general rate fund to reduce the poll tax and council tax liability in Tory places such as Westminster and Wandsworth, until the EC rightly insisted that the money was spent in the areas for which it was intended. Since then, the Government have kept up their approach. They have provided some help, but it has been inadequate and late and its benefits have been more than offset by the harm caused by coal privatisation.

As my hon. Friends have pointed out, there are high levels of unemployment, with between 30 per cent. and 50 per cent. male unemployment in some small communities. There have been massive reductions in the take-home pay of people who have other jobs--again, the figure is between 30 per cent. and 50 per cent. There has been a massive reduction in the number of people in the active population, and therefore there is economic decline as people have no money to pay out. Pubs are closing in mining areas.

There is an increasing threat to the environment, and there have been delays in the clearing up of dereliction. There has been pressure to increase opencasting and-- as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) said--there has been a big increase in mine water pollution. There has also been a massive increase in crime--a 300 per cent. increase in three years in some of the areas affected by the closures. The Government must take some responsibility for that because, while there is no excuse for any young person turning to crime, a young person who sees the

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Government stealing his dad's job might think that stealing is the order of the day. Poor job prospects have undermined social cohesion. Parents who are out of work lose their authority over the rest of the family, leading to social break-up.

It is believed that the Government saved £200 million by the pit closures, and they got another £1 billion from the sale of the coal industry. The coalfield communities think that they ought to have that money, and why not? Their jobs and their work built up the assets which were sold. But they are not getting a prompt or sympathetic response from the Government, whose response has been characterised by incompetence, delay and a lack of interest.

One example of that is the establishment of enterprise zones. The Government's record in that area has shown that they have acted slower than a two-toed sloth. We were promised enterprise zones by the present Deputy Prime Minister more than three years ago when he announced the pit closure programme. The impression created was that there would be dozens of them, but we have ended up with three--one in the Derne valley, one in Mansfield and one in Easington.

The closures were announced in October 1992, but the Easington enterprise zone was designated in December last year--more than three years later. The Government have tried, as usual, to blame the European Commission, but the real cause of the delay was the coal industry privatisation. There was internal rowing between the Department of Trade and Industry, the Treasury and the Department of the Environment, because most enterprise zones had been based on publicly owned land. The Government were proposing to stop the land being publicly owned and to sell it off as part of privatisation. That has led to the delays, which have been described in The Sunday Telegraph as an "absolute shambles".

The Government's top priority was coal privatisation, rather than the needs of the coalfield communities. That has had the effect--as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) pointed out--of deferring useful investment developments in coalfield areas. Companies that may have been thinking of investing have deferred that investment, because they thought that if they waited until an enterprise zone was established, they might be able to invest on better terms. That is another example of the way in which the Government's incompetence and slovenly approach is damaging the coalfield communities.

Another thing which must be borne in mind is that it is not just in terms of special provision that the coalfield areas are not getting the help that they deserve. They are being robbed on a day-to-day basis in terms of the grant which the Government pay out to every local authority in the country. The coalfield communities are not getting the grants that they deserve. Everybody accepts that if ex-coalfield areas are to survive and prosper, they need better standards of education and training. But in every single one of them, what is currently threatened is not an expansion or improvement in education and training but a cut because the Government are cutting the funding. That is being done for the benefit of Westminster.

The funding that Westminster city council receives per pupil to help pay for education in Westminster should be applied as generously in some of the coalfield areas. If that were so, Nottinghamshire would not be

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contemplating having to reduce the number of teachers-- it would be able to increase the number of teachers by 4,000. County Durham would be able to increase its number of teachers by 2,400, while the figure for Derbyshire would be 4,100. But that is not happening, because the rotten stinking Government are shifting the money into the pockets of their friends in Westminster and are taking it away from everyone else.

As I have explained time and again, all of this springs from the fact that the Government regard Westminster as the fourth most deprived place in Britain, although nobody in their right mind believes that. The House heard my hon. Friend the Member for Easington movingly describe the extent of deprivation in his constituency and in his district, which is the third poorest in Britain in terms of average income. On the index of deprivation that the Government have drawn up which states that Westminster is the fourth most deprived place, Easington is 338th. I do not know whether that is a tragedy or a farce, but it is certainly unfair, rotten and entirely typical of the Government.

After all of the pit closures, Newark and Sherwood-- represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping)--is 156th on the index of deprivation. Barnsley is 319th, while Bolsover--represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)-- is 331st. If Bolsover received the same help from the Government towards its council spending per head of population as Westminster, the council in Bolsover would not collect any council tax at all--it could pay out a rebate of £1,015 to every council tax payer. That shows the extent to which the Government are fiddling the grant system.

It is not just a question of the special help being insufficient, as the Government short-change the coalfield communities day in, day out. There are the problems of derelict land, and it has been pointed out that the takeover by English Partnerships may result in English Partnerships putting money only into the sites that it has taken over from British Coal.

In the Environment Act 1995, the Government emphasised the concept of the polluter pays, but we must make sure that that concept is not used to the disadvantage of people living in the coalfield communities. If English Partnerships or the Government said to a local council that they would not give the council derelict land grants until it received money from the polluters, that would cause a great deal of delay. It would not be the polluter who was paying, but the polluted. We have to make sure that measures which are basically steps forward are not used to damage coalfield communities.

The Government continue to encourage opencasting. One third of all the coal that is produced in the country is opencast. Opencasting is ugly, noisy, dirty and unhealthy and it deters other investment in coalfield areas. None of the Ministers present would want, I certainly would not want and I do not think that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would want an opencast mine in our area or at the end of our back garden, but the Government wish it on tens of thousands of people in the coalfield areas.

There is also the problem of mine water pollution, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood described earlier. In proceedings on both the Coal Industry Bill and the Environment Bill the Labour party made sensible proposals to ensure that the Coal Authority

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took full statutory responsibility for dealing with mine water pollution, which can be so damaging. It damages the environment and, like opencasting, it is a threat to councils which seek to encourage investment in their area.

All the dangers and problems that we have described are building up for the coalfield communities. Many of them are inherited from the days of absentee thieving coal owners. What we have now is an absentee Government who do not give a damn about the people who live in mining areas.

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