Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Like the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) I am trying to save a firm in my constituency. I also intend to discuss insurance matters; that is the second of three matters that I intend to raise, all of which have a common theme.

22 Jul 2002 : Column 754

It might be an exaggeration to say this—there are countervailing forces to be taken into account—but it often seems that people are trying to close down my constituency by various different devices, and we have to fight to ensure that firms remain viable and continue to exist. The first item in my speech is an issue that arose two years ago. It is well known to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), as I spoke about it at length in Committee and on the Floor of the House during proceedings on the Enterprise Bill, but it is also relevant to the points I shall make in this debate.

Two years ago, Biwater, a pipe manufacturer in my constituency, was taken over by a multinational company, Saint-Gobain. Biwater was profitable and had good export markets, and Saint-Gobain—to get rid of a competitor—quickly closed the firm, with the loss of 700 jobs. The area has suffered the loss of other manufacturing jobs. There has been a serious impact on Clay Cross in my constituency, where the Biwater works were centred. A once-thriving Saturday market is now much duller, and the pubs and shops are not as full as they once were, and several have closed.

The area is now in need of regeneration. There is plenty of effort and lots of plans, and the local councils and regeneration organisations work hard. A town centre development is in the offing, and a lot of work is being done by the East Midlands development agency and the Government office for the east midlands, but so far only bits and pieces have been put in place. There is an interesting development at Coney Green for small businesses, and some imaginative work has been done, but relatively few people have found employment in the small areas of growth. There is a large-scale plan for development at Markham, a former mining area, which will certainly bring employment and have a good knock-on impact in areas such as Clay Cross, but generally the area needs much more hands-on intervention by the Government, particularly the Department of Trade and Industry.

If there is a place that can be described as Labour's heartland, it is Clay Cross. Way back in 1931, when the Labour party was decimated in the general election, the Clay Cross constituency was held by Labour with a handsome majority. The area has always been a force in the Labour movement and it has produced many people who have been active in their communities and extended and developed their interests. It would be a pity if we did not repay their dedication over so many years. We must become more directly involved in ensuring better provision for the area.

The usual taskforce was sent in at the time of the closure, and various works were done. Some people have picked up jobs here and there, and some have started taxi firms and other operations in the area. However, the non-interventionist approach that is often adopted by the DTI led to the collapse of Biwater in the first place: the Department failed to ensure that the firm was defended, or that the matter was referred to the Competition Commission to try to stop the closure. Government must be more to the fore in the redevelopment programmes in the area.

Now, however, there are two fresh if smaller problems concerning employment in the northern end of the constituency in Eckington. One concerns Moorside Mining—the last underground coal mine in Derbyshire. It

22 Jul 2002 : Column 755

is a small mine; only 27 people work underground. It should have an assured future, as it has good order books and has over a period obtained two out of three tranches of state aid, which have helped to turn it round considerably. However, the mine faces immediate closure. Its problem is with obtaining a renewal of insurance for employer's liability, which it is statutorily obliged to hold.

I raised this matter in a debate last Monday under Standing Order No. 24. Shortly afterwards, a deal was done, drawing from the insurance of another company. It looked as if work would be able to continue, and for two shifts the pit went back into production. However, the firm with which the deal was made began to be worried about its renewal, and the deal collapsed. So, from 11 am on Friday, the pit has again been out of production. If it does not receive some cover, production will end entirely and in the end the pit will flood.

The problem with insurance companies is that they have been hiking the level of payments considerably. For instance, the insurance deal under which the firm had been operating temporarily is costing seven times more than just over a year ago. The mine cannot now get insurance through brokers contacting Lloyd's or through other areas at any price; no offer is being made.

The Minister for Energy and Construction is very much involved in these matters. There are arguments that there is a need for universal cover—perhaps for small mines, but perhaps for the whole of the coal industry—but if that cannot be achieved very quickly, a bond or a waiver operated through the Department of Trade and Industry will become increasingly important. We face a crisis, and that is why the matter needs to be dealt with and pressure applied before the summer recess.

The Treasury needs alerting to the matter—something that I have attempted to do. The problems concerning employer liability insurance do not just affect small mines. They may affect the whole mining industry, including quarrying, rail supplies and small-scale manufacturers. The question of the operation of an insurers' ramp needs to be investigated carefully, and appropriate action needs to be taken to overcome it, which may involve the Government playing a role or threatening to involve themselves in order to try to bring insurers into line.

The third point that I want to raise also relates to Eckington, where the Moorside mine is situated. We face the prospect that the Eckington jobcentre will close.

Four years ago, we were involved in a campaign to save it. At the time, there were rationalisation proposals to get rid of five jobcentres, two of which, unfortunately, were in neighbouring parts of north-east Derbyshire. We mobilised a campaign against the threatened closure of the Eckington and Dronfield job centres, including visits to the appropriate Minister.

We won one—we held on to Eckington; but we lost Dronfield. However, we are back to the same situation as regards Eckington, although the context is different. The current reorganisation is related to the proposals for the Jobcentre Plus programme for Derbyshire, which will involve the closure of the New Mills, Bakewell and Eckington jobcentres.

The Derbyshire unemployed workers centre is greatly involved in the campaign to save the job centre and has christened the proposals "Jobcentre Minus". Jobcentre

22 Jul 2002 : Column 756

Plus will amalgamate benefits—apart from pensions—and employment services; that synthesis will ensure that they work together.

In effect, the proposals put flesh on the 1997 new Labour slogan "Off benefits, into work". I always thought that was the wrong way around and it should have been "Into work, off benefits", to show that heavy pressure would not be put on people who were in receipt of benefits. They also fit in with the idea that people should be given a hand up rather than a hand-out.

Unfortunately, it will be difficult and costly for people to use jobcentres in Staveley and Chesterfield instead of Eckington owing to the poor quality of the local bus services. A campaign was launched in Eckington on Friday.

The centre also serves Killamarsh, the very place where Moorside is hoping to produce coal. Given the amount that the Government were able to take from miners pensions funds, it is appropriate that great attention should be paid to the current insurance problems in the mining industry. In the light of the unfortunate experiences at Selby, small mines, such as Moorside, should have assured markets in future. Like Biwaters at Clay Cross, it is a viable firm and should not be closed.

9.13 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): I do not want to delay the House for too long. Before we rise on Wednesday for the summer recess, I want to raise two very pressing issues of great importance to my constituents.

The first concerns the perennial problem faced by many Members—the erection of telecommunications masts in residential areas of our constituencies. During the past 14 months, there have been 29 applications in West Chelmsford, most of them in highly residential areas. Tomorrow, there will be an inquiry about an application in the village of Little Waltham, and on Wednesday an inquiry will be held about the decision relating to Linnet drive in a residential area of Chelmsford.

Many of us feared that the planning regime would be too antiquated to cope with the problems following the second wave of telecommunications and the resultant masts that would have to be erected all over the country, especially because—as hon. Members will be aware—masts of less than 15 m do not have to comply with the traditional planning rules that apply to many types of building. My own borough council has robustly reflected the wishes of local residents and has refused applications time and time again, although many of those refusals have been brushed aside on appeal. It is crucial that the Government do more to reform and update the planning regime to empower people so that they have more influence in their local community and more say on what they have, and do not have, to put up with.

The Government, and certainly the Under-Secretary of State for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), would say that they have undertaken reform, as they have revised PPG8. In a recent letter to me, the Under-Secretary said:

Most of my constituents would certainly agree that the Government's policy facilitates the growth of telecommunications systems but does little to protect the

22 Jul 2002 : Column 757

environment outside the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It does not do a great deal to protect the environment of people who live in residential areas in towns and villages.

The Under-Secretary said that on 22 August last year the Government significantly strengthened the planning arrangements for telecommunications development, and listed what had been done. The Government, he said, had

Frankly, many of my constituents would turn around and say "big deal", because nothing has changed. The local authority may refuse permission to erect a mast, but more often than not, permission is granted on appeal, so there do not seem many extra powers for local residents to express their views. The Under-Secretary said that the Government had

Big deal if, in the end, the company gets permission to erect a mast.

Another grave concern for my constituents is the question of whether or not there is a significant impact on individuals' health. The Government's Stewart report cleared the masts of having any impact on health, but other reports do not take such a rosy or cosy view of their health implications. I am not scientifically qualified to determine whether the conclusions of the Stewart report are correct or whether those of other reports are more accurate. However, the perception is that there is a knock-on effect on people's health. The jury is out until there is conclusive scientific evidence that there is not a problem. I urge the Government to err on the side of caution before allowing masts to go up.

Next Section

IndexHome Page