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Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab) rose—

David Taylor: I will happily give way to my hon. Friend, who advised me in advance that he wished to participate in the debate.

Colin Burgon: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Today I spoke with Steve Kemp, the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, who believes that the Mines Rescue Service should be treated in much the same way as the ambulance and fire service. He also believes, as I do, that it should be taken back into public ownership, along with what is left of our deep mine coal industry. Will my hon. Friend deal with these matters?
 
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David Taylor: I hope the Minister will do so too. My hon. Friend knows from previous conversations that I fully agree with such an outcome. We shall see whether the Minister announces it in his response.

The other income that the MRS has tried to develop has been earned by the provision of health and safety services to industry in general, and it has so far successfully enabled funding gaps to be covered. The strategy has enabled the MRS to retain its highly trained personnel during a time when confidence in the future of the coal industry has been very low. The past 12 months, however, has seen a sudden and marked decline in output from the deep mines—13.1 million tonnes falling to 9.5 million tonnes—at a time when the industry itself has been in some financial difficulty. An anticipated fee income of £2.3 million has declined to £1.5 million, leaving a shortfall of £800,000.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): My hon. Friend probably knows that I still have a deep coal mine in my constituency. I am one of the few people who believe that there is a future for deep mining in this country because we have access to millions of tonnes of reserves, but without the MRS on standby I do not know how the ordinary services could do the special job that it does if they were ever needed—God forbid—to go underground to rescue people at Maltby colliery.

David Taylor: That is a topic for a separate debate. There are 800 million tonnes of coal left in north-east Leicestershire, and I agree that we need to work those reserves in the future. The need for the MRS will be acute at that time.

Every effort is being made by the MRS to increase other income and reorganise services to the remaining underground mines without reducing standards. It is anticipated that the shortfall of £800,000 can be reduced by some £500,000, leaving an actual shortfall of £300,000, which can be carried this financial year, but losses cannot be sustained for next year. Action must be taken now to stop the decline.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): I have a mines rescue station at Houghton-le-Spring in my constituency, which has a proud and brave history. As we have lost the last deep coal mine in the northern region, the service has diversified into other areas, particularly specialist training in the fire service. Does my hon. Friend believe it would be a good idea for the Government to consider some seed-corn resources, as such diversification can be very expensive to develop? That would give the MRS the support that it needs to develop such training.

David Taylor: I am pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned that and I thank him for it. I shall deal with the point at the end of my speech.

The MRS is in discussion with the Health and Safety Executive, mine owners, trade unions and its own employees about a more efficient use of the mines rescue resource. Operational personnel cover 24/7 and they will, within the constraints of the legislation, provide an overall framework of emergency cover to the mines as efficiently and effectively as they can. These changes will not reduce numbers overall, but will release operational personnel for income-generating work elsewhere.
 
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The expertise of the MRS is unique and its advice and training is much sought after by industry, fire brigades and the civil resilience directorate. I know that it will continue to work with these as long as it is financially able. The UK coal industry has an enviable record for safety worldwide and the MRS will hopefully continue to play a major role in ensuring that that continues as long as underground mines exist in the UK.

May I instance just one example of how the MRS has diversified in recent times? On 11 May 2004, a huge explosion at the ICL Stockline plastics factory in Maryhill, Glasgow caused a four-storey building to collapse, killing nine people and injuring 40. In the three days of intense rescue and stabilisation activity that followed the collapse of the factory building, more than 200 firefighters were involved in freeing trapped workers from the wreckage. Time is, of course, the crucial factor in such search and rescue operations, and the work of the Strathclyde fire and rescue service was greatly assisted by the presence at the scene of staff from the MRS office in Fife.

The chief officer of the Strathclyde fire and rescue service, Brian Sweeney, has praised the role that the 14 members of the MRS staff played at Stockline over that tense three-day period, which has subsequently led to training and development links of the sort that my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) mentioned being forged between Strathclyde fire and rescue service and the   MRS. When my office contacted Mr. Sweeney, he said:

That endorsement of the specialist skills and professionalism of MRS staff clearly illustrates the enduring importance of such skills in reacting to disasters of a potentially bewildering diversity, particularly in urban areas.

In discussing with the MRS its experiences at Stockline, I have been struck by the impact on search times that its expertise brought to the situation. Minor details suddenly become extremely significant when the clock is ticking on a search and rescue operation in such a hazardous environment as a collapsed building. The fact that the breathing apparatus that the MRS carries as standard has a minimum of four hours air supply increases in importance when one realises that the standard air supply carried by a firefighter is 20 minutes. That is not a criticism of firefighters or the fire and rescue service—far from it—it merely provides further demonstration of the flexibility, adaptability and specialised nature of the skills and equipment possessed by MRS staff.

In my county, Leicestershire, the MRS has supported and assisted the fire and rescue service in a number of ways, most significantly in the development of Leicestershire fire and rescue technical rescue team. As a result of that partnership, Leicestershire is one of the leading fire and rescue services in the new dimension
 
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urban search and rescue roll-out programme. Ian Holden, the manager of Leicestershire's technical rescue team, has commented:

I appreciate that the fire service comes under the remit of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but I am sure that the Minister agrees that that is powerful testimony.

The continued decline of the domestic coal industry is an obvious challenge for the MRS, and UK Coal's sudden and unexpected closure of the last working coal mine in the north-east of England, Ellington, was an unwelcome shock for all concerned. However, the MRS has been able to mitigate the impact of the loss of working mines in the UK by planning for it. The sale of land assets, not least the former headquarters at the Selby complex, and a 29 per cent. increase in income from non-traditional streams in the past year, have enabled the MRS to address its pension fund deficit, invest in its national network of rescue stations and training centres and upgrade vital search, escape and rescue equipment.

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate. He has mentioned other income streams: the MRS headquarters in Mansfield has recently been used as an estate agents to sell holidays and holiday cottages and flats abroad. A recent case involved land and property in northern Cyprus owned by refugee Greek Cypriots, one of whom resided in my constituency. Such practices do not suit the operation of the MRS, and I urge my hon. Friend to urge his friends to desist from such activities.


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