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12 July 2006 : Column 502WH—continued

The Government have demonstrated their support for the coal industry by making more than £200,000 available in coal aid since 2000. Some £18 million of that was paid to surface mine operators under the UK coal operating aid scheme to cover production losses during 2001 and 2002. No surface mine has benefited from coal investment aid. Despite that support, the total UK output fell by 18 per cent. in 2005 to 20 million tonnes of coal. That
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included deep mine production of 9.5 million tonnes, of which 9 million tonnes were produced at English mines, and surface mine production of 10.4 million tonnes, of which only 1.5 million tonnes were produced in England. Leicestershire’s contribution was a little under 95,000 tonnes of surface-mined coal, down from 412,000 tonnes in 2004 and almost 600,000 tonnes in 2003. Some 50 direct mining jobs have already been lost in the county as a result of that decline. The 2005 output was from a site which is due to close in October this year with the potential loss of a further 22 jobs.

The main customers for all UK coal production are the coal-fired generators. They consistently stress the importance of reliability of supplies in contract negotiations, but deep mining is inherently higher risk, because of the potential geological and technological problems, and the assurance of steady production from surface sites is vital to give the generators confidence that UK production can continue to help to meet their needs. That is why it is important for everyone with the best interests of the UK coal industry at heart to recognise that the deep and surface mine sectors are not in competition and that they need each other to maintain the critical mass of the industry and to secure its future.

David Taylor: Will the Minister give way?

Malcolm Wicks: I will let my hon. Friend tell me in a moment why I have it wrong, if he will let me continue for a while.

I have already reiterated the Government’s belief that there will be a continuing role for coal in meeting our energy needs, particularly as cleaner generating technologies come on stream, and that UK-produced coal—deep and surface mined—can continue to play a part in meeting national coal demand, provided that it can be worked in an acceptable manner.

I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration, but I have been trying to set out something of a national context to balance the arguments and to try to reflect the views of those who hope for a future for British indigenous coal, as the energy review reiterated yesterday. I can understand, too, why he would be frustrated, but given that the planning controversy is now subject to judicial review in the High Court it would not be right for me to comment on the rights or wrongs of the case or of any other planning controversy. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that.

David Taylor: I understand perfectly well that the Minister will not be able to comment on the planning merits or otherwise of the Long Moor application. However, when he says that open-casting is an important economic contributor to employment, does he recognise that the presence of an open-cast site in the vicinity of an area that is being restored environmentally and rebuilt economically can be a hurdle and a weight around the neck when it comes to trying to attract new firms with high-tech, highly skilled and highly waged jobs? They will look at a despoiled area that has been wasted by minerals working. Open-cast mining has a net negative effect on the local economy.

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Malcolm Wicks: I recognise that there have been job losses in the county as a result of closures, which will be of concern to my hon. Friend. I also recognise, of course—it is plain common sense—that with any plans for any community or area, the pros and cons of different industries can be argued in terms of the impact on the labour market and job opportunities. I hear what he has said, and it is his constituency and not mine. There can be different uses for any area, and one use might help or hinder other job opportunities and economic development. I understand that.

I reiterate the point that it would not be right for me to comment on the particular proposal. It is actually a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government and not my Department, the Department of Trade and Industry—I think that I am answering this debate because of the coal mining issues. I am at pains to say that if we are serious about British indigenous coal having a future, there has to be some balance between deep mining and surface mining, but that it is not for me to make a judgment about whether it is appropriate in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency or not.

Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): I am aware after reading Coal UK that the Department has scheduled a meeting with open-cast coaling companies later this month. Will the Minister assure us, as this might cause wider reverberation on the Labour Benches, that there will be no slipping away of support from MPG3? Many of us are engaged in a struggle to implement it and if we see any backsliding by our Government on the issue, we will be—how shall I put this?—severely disappointed.

Malcolm Wicks: I assure my hon. Friend that we are trying to strike the proper balances. I am not quite sure exactly what that meeting will entail, but we meet a wide variety of energy interests and hear a variety of views about surface mining, its future and its non-future. That is as far as I can go. There are no plans to change the policy and the practice.

David Taylor: The Minister is being most generous in giving way, and he knows that I genuinely hold him in the highest regard in his departmental role. On the Floor of the House yesterday, I acknowledged the welcome role for coal that the Secretary of State spelled out in his statement, but I said that, in the long time frame for the investment needed for carbon-capturing clean coal, a greater role for coal in generation is likely to be dealt with only through the expansion of imports and of open-cast mining, the second of which is unacceptable to local communities.

Malcolm Wicks: That, of course, has been the burden of my hon. Friend’s remarks. The question is whether it is unacceptable in the wider economy and among all local communities. The figures that I have given, not least for Scotland, show that surface mining now plays a significant part. We have to get the balance right. I am not talking about Leicestershire, as I have been at pains to stress, but we have to get the balance right if we are serious—I think we want to be serious—about British indigenous coal having a future.
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The other challenge with the energy infrastructure, whether it is onshore or offshore wind farms, future power stations, or even the infrastructure that we might need for carbon capture and storage, is to have a body of Members of Parliament who will agree to things and not simply object to them. My role in such debates is often to hear objections to wind farms or whatever it might be, but if we are to have the necessary energy supplies we must think through the investment needed in Great Britain as a whole. That is not a comment about surface mining or about Leicestershire, it is a general comment.

David Taylor rose—

Malcolm Wicks: Does my hon. Friend want to have another go?

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I take it that this is an intervention and not another go.

David Taylor: It is an intervention.

I said earlier that this is not a matter of nimbyism. North-West Leicestershire has produced hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal over a lengthy period. In north-east Leicestershire, there remain 800 million tonnes of coal, which I hope will be extracted by a technology that we do not yet fully comprehend. No one is trying to avoid making a contribution towards the national need for energy, but open-cast mining in greenfield locations,
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unless it is to do with the restoration of previously despoiled sites, is unacceptable, particularly for places such as Long Moor.

Malcolm Wicks: I do not know why I should have confused an intervention with having a go.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): You invited him to do so.

Malcolm Wicks: Quite so. It was a mistake, Mr. Hancock, and I apologise.

We have had a reasonable debate. I understand my hon. Friend’s strength of feeling and that of his colleagues. I hope that they appreciate my difficulty, but I cannot comment directly on the case.

Judy Mallaber: Do I take it from what the Minister said earlier that at the meeting that he is to have with the open-cast companies he will reassert that MPG3 remains the Government’s policy?

Malcolm Wicks: I do not quite know what that meeting is about. I shall probably attend. Perhaps I can write to colleagues about that meeting. As for the matter before the House, no changes have been planned. I hope that with that reassurance we can draw the debate to a conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Five o’clock.

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