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27 Mar 2007 : Column 397WH—continued

Those are the issues that the Mines Rescue Service recognises as being the most challenging.

There are several key questions for the Minister to answer. We heard about the delegation that visited him last year. Following on from that meeting, can he tell us precisely what steps he is taking to ensure the long-term survival of the Mines Rescue Service? As we heard, three quarters of its work is now not connected with mining; for example, it now works in conjunction with the fire and rescue services. What discussions is the Minister having, or has he had, with the Home Office and other Departments in respect of encouraging and promoting that aspect of its work?

We also heard about issues connected to potential terrorist atrocities and incidents in this country. Conservatives happen to believe that they would be better approached through a department of homeland security, but, in the absence of such a department, is the Minister having discussions with other Government Departments about the role that the Mines Rescue Service can play in this area? It has expertise, but we have heard that it is not actually remunerated when that expertise is drawn on. We must ensure that such expertise is readily available when the country needs it most. That will take the role of the Mines Rescue Service beyond providing a service to the mining industry alone to being something that the nation needs and relies on.

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Has the Minister had discussions with the Mines Rescue Service about exporting its expertise? We have seen how the nuclear research establishment has rebranded itself as Nexia and is now selling its expertise around the world so that people who want to know how to build nuclear power stations, and who want to understand all the associated risks and issues, can come to a British company that is a world leader. A similar approach could be adopted by the Mines Rescue Service. What conversations is the Minister having with UK Trade and Investment about the support that it might be able to give in developing such lines of business?

Does the Minister have evidence about whether the coal that is imported into this country—an increasing proportion of the amount that is used—is produced to the same levels of safety protection that we have in this country? Many of us suspect that it probably is not. We can look around the world to countries such as China. It is estimated—there are no exact figures—that between 3,000 and 5,000 people die each year in its coal mining industry. We know that the safety standards in many countries are not nearly as high as they are in this country, and that the price of domestic coal is therefore higher. What efforts is the Minister taking with international partners to ensure that overall safety levels around the world are driven up? In that context, what is he doing with UKTI to increase the export potential for UK coal?

There has been a useful discussion during this debate about the scope for increasing fees. Has the Minister had direct discussions with the Mines Rescue Service board about that? Clearly, there is a dilemma. There is a potential conflict of interest when the board is made up of the people who are actually the users of the service. On the one hand, from the Mines Rescue Service perspective, board members want to charge a realistic price that will cover the cost of the service, but, on the other hand, they want to keep costs down so that they have fewer costs to pass on to their consumers. I believe that we all agree that there should be no compromising of safety, and that the costs must be realistic and reflected in the price of coal. What conversations has the Minister had with the board to ensure that it is truly charging realistic but affordable fees?

Clearly, one way to deal with the issue is to produce more coal in this country. The Minister is well aware of the problems that many of those who are involved in coal production face in respect of planning consents, especially in Scotland. Such problems are hampering many potential new developments that would enable British coal to compete more effectively against cheaper imports. What discussions is he having with Department for Communities and Local Government Ministers about that? Does he expect that the energy White Paper that will be produced soon will address this issue so that the potential for producing more coal can be developed and, therefore, the money available to the Mines Rescue Service can be increased?

I am sure that the Minister is also well aware of the Mines Rescue Service pension deficit. The pension liabilities that the company inherited from the Government following privatisation could threaten the future of the service. Does he have plans for support that might be given, or has he been involved in discussions with other Ministers about the matter?

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What came through in the contributions of everyone who spoke in this debate is the recognition that this issue is wider than the coal industry, and that other Government Departments should be involved as well. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance in that respect.

This is an extremely exciting time in terms of energy. The energy White Paper that came out four years ago dealt with extending the lifespan of existing sources of electricity supply. Now the debate is about how we can bring on stream entirely new sources of supply that had not been thought of just a short time ago. Those sources will have a fundamental impact on the coal industry. Last week, the Minister and I were discussing a statutory instrument on the use of biomass, and how it could increase the use of coal and give it a more viable future. There is a debate about carbon capture and storage, which also has the potential to give the coal industry in this country an extraordinarily exciting new lease of life. If those developments occur, the Mines Rescue Service will become more important than ever. What is needed is a vision that tides it over this current difficult period to a time when its prospects may be much greater.

There are other areas into which the service could move. Nuclear waste storage is something that Governments have consistently failed to address seriously enough. The approach being taken in other countries of deep disposal would require exactly the sort of service, and the knowledge of underground working and safety provisions that the Mines Rescue Service currently provides. We are approaching a situation in which the Government expect a major expansion of the nuclear programme. Should that come to fruition, it would yet again provide new opportunities for the Mines Rescue Service.

At present we do not know which developments are feasible. We do not know whether carbon capture and storage can be made to work, or whether there will be a new fleet of nuclear power stations. Such matters must be worked out on a cross-party basis.

The Mines Rescue Service was set up with one specific objective—mine safety—but the world has moved on greatly since that time. Opportunities will come from other areas where its expertise can be developed. The time has therefore come to decide whether the current structure of the Mines Rescue Service is right to meet the challenges, or whether its format needs to be restructured to allow it to compete in a new and exciting world. I hope that the Minister can answer some of those questions, and, once again, I commend the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife for raising this important subject.

11.48 am

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Malcolm Wicks): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Martlew. I, too, would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) on securing this debate. We have debated the issue on previous occasions, but the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) and the interventions by colleagues show the interest and concern in the House on this important matter.

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By way of background, after privatisation of the coal industry in 1994, two of the principal stated aims of the Health and Safety Executive were, first, that the high standard of mines rescue provision be maintained, and, secondly, that a national capability be preserved. I am glad to say that those aims have been fulfilled by Mines Rescue Service Ltd. With its origins as the in-house rescue operation of the British Coal Corporation, it has, as a private sector company, delivered the statutory mines rescue scheme for more than 10 years.

I met representatives of the company in the recent past in my former role as Energy Minister and was extremely impressed by the obvious professionalism and dedication that they bring to their work. I note and support the commendations of the Mines Rescue Service that we have heard from colleagues today. Clearly, it is hazardous work. Mining is by its very nature an industry that faces constant challenges involving the control and minimisation of risk. I have nothing but admiration for the workers who day in and day out face up to such risks to win the coal that continues to provide an important element of our energy needs. Members of the Mines Rescue Service and the MRS trained teams at individual mines take such risks a step further. They are the men who choose to make themselves available to enter the most hostile environments, where risk has crystallised into full-blown danger and lives, including their own, may be at immediate risk. Although, I sadly note that there have been recent fatalities at English mines, I am glad to say that such circumstances are rare.

Those who work for the Mines Rescue Service have invaluable, highly specialist skills. Local authority emergency services will in most cases attend fires, explosions and gas leaks that are mainly on the surface in normal residential, commercial and industrial premises, but they do not generally have the specialist knowledge, technical skills and practical experience necessary to cope with underground emergencies, which, as we have heard, require very particular skills in tunnelling, gas management and the use of specialist breathing apparatus. Mines rescuers are the people who do have such skills.

As well as physical risks, those involved in deep mining face considerable commercial risks. That issue has provided something of a backdrop to this debate. Clearly, as production contracts, whether through mine closures or otherwise disrupted production, the MRS levy income suffers. It is an open secret that deep-mine operators have a difficult set of challenges to meet if they are to compete successfully with internationally traded coal. Conscious of those pressures, I understand that MRS Ltd has taken the decision, thus far at least, not to increase the tonnage levy from its current level of 16p. Although I fully appreciate that any increase would be unwelcome from the operators’ perspective, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is within the MRS’s rights to set the levy at the rate required to cover its operating expenses. I carefully noted the comments of the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) on that matter and although I am sure that it is constantly under review by the board, it would be a useful outcome from this debate if, on hearing our words, the board revisited that issue as a matter of urgency.

David Taylor: The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) clearly made the point that for each penny extra on the levy, there would be £100,000 extra
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income accruing. The gap that we are trying to bridge is only hundreds of thousands of pounds and, although such a figure is a minuscule fraction of operating costs, the mine owners are resisting it. I wonder whether the Minister will also raise that point.

Malcolm Wicks: I will certainly draw my remarks and those of other colleagues to the attention of the board—although I may not need to because I am sure that members of the board are avid readers of Hansard.

There is, perhaps, reason for quiet optimism; there have been some positive developments elsewhere in the UK deep-mined sector. My Department announced the establishment of the coal forum in last year’s energy review, and over recent months we have worked with a wide range of interested parties to investigate the barriers to optimising exploitation of the UK’s remaining coal reserves and how we might overcome them. It is safe to say that it is the first time that such a broad cross-section of senior representatives of coal producers, consumers, plant manufacturers, rail hauliers, port authorities and the like have come together in an effort to find common cause. I understand that discussions are progressing well and that the parties involved consider the process to be constructive.

Any renewed confidence in deep mining obviously augurs well for prolonging and perhaps even boosting levy income for the Mines Rescue Service. However, as we have heard today, it is testament to the forward-thinking management of the company that they have fully appreciated the need to look beyond the immediate realm of their core business if they are to have a sustainable future. I was impressed by that when I met senior management some months ago and they have had some considerable success. For several years third-party income has exceeded deep mine levy income and valuable additional income has been generated elsewhere.

Paddy Tipping: The Minister mentioned the important role of the coal forum, which has discussed an indicative figure for British coal of 20 million tonnes, with a rough split of 10 million tonnes for the deep-mined industry and 10 million tonnes for open-casting. There is a view that it would be helpful not just for the coal industry itself but for the Mines Rescue Service to have those figures included in the energy review. Will the Minister give us any encouragement on that point?

Malcolm Wicks: I am mindful of the fact that I am no longer the Energy Minister and that I am now learning my science, but I think that the coal forum deliberations are proceeding well and that they will, of course, feed into the policy process leading to the publication of the White Paper. The area of greatest success and further potential for the MRS lies in its expertise in working in confined spaces with sophisticated breathing apparatus. That can provide inroads into assistance with training of the established emergency services and, in some cases, into working alongside them. Again, I am echoing the words of colleagues in making that point.

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When I met with MRS representatives last year, I noted with interest that two out of the company’s six operational bases were no longer involved in the core business of mines rescue at all and, indeed, had ceased to be required in the context of the statutory mines rescue scheme. However, Crossgates and Houghton stations, which serve the latterly isolated collieries of Longannet and Ellington respectively, have remained open despite the closures of the mines because, through training and other third-party services, a surplus has been generated that cross-subsidises the core rescue function.

MRS Ltd has already forged links with a number of regional fire services, the Fire Service College and committees concerned with the operational procedures that underpin the new urban search and rescue capability within the regional emergency services. It has also had recent discussions with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and is following up further avenues. Despite all those efforts, I understand that, as was the case last financial year, MRS Ltd anticipates posting an operational loss in the region of £300,000 as at the end of this month. Although my Department has provided the company with substantial funding in the past, I am afraid that, given our own budgetary pressures, it continues to be the case that the Department of Trade and Industry is no longer in a position to provide financial support. I continue to encourage the company to build on the excellent progress that it has made in broadening its client base and its range of activity. Therein, I believe, lies the key to a sustainable future.

I add two things. First, I shall explore with colleagues whether it would be useful—I suspect that it will be—to have a meeting between the relevant DTI Minister, my noble colleague Lord Truscott, and a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government. I am mindful also of the interest of the Department for Work and Pensions, through its ministerial responsibility for the Health and Safety Executive. I shall explore that with colleagues. I know that there have been meetings at official level between the DCLG and my Department on the matter. I think that it might now be useful to have a ministerial meeting.

Secondly, I note the comments of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife about the security that the MRS has to provide in relation to EU grant funding, which obviously ties up cash. Without making any commitments, I promise that we will consider that. We may not have the scope to do much, but I promise to look at the matter.

This has been a useful debate. It shows the deep regard that the House has for the coal mining industry and our warm affection for the valuable and hazardous work of the MRS. In the longer term, there will be solutions as the MRS expands its role. I acknowledge that there are some short-term difficulties; I and my colleagues will continue to discuss them and think them through.

12 noon

Sitting suspended.

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Ticket Touting

12.30 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): It is a privilege to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Conway. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about ticket touting, which each and every one of us has no doubt experienced at least once in our lifetimes.

I have been approached by a variety of radio stations and TV programmes, which have asked me exactly what the Government policy on ticket touting is, because they have been unable to find out. The fact is that there is no Government policy on ticket touting; if there is, the Government have done a great job of keeping it secret—it must be one of the few things not to have leaked out of the Government lately.

Ticket touting has been around for longer than I can remember. Whether the touts are on the streets, at concerts, at sporting events or on websites such as eBay or, everyone seems to be at it these days.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): My constituent Rachel More came to see me on Friday. She and her friends had tried to get tickets for T in the Park, but were unsuccessful. Within literally two hours, however, the same tickets were for sale on eBay at nearly three times the price.

John Robertson: I shall mention T in the Park later, but my hon. Friend is right that such things happen all too often.

Touting is rife at major sporting and cultural events throughout the UK. We host some of the world’s best events, be they football matches at Hampden and Wembley, rugby matches at Twickenham or music concerts at the Scottish exhibition and conference centre in Glasgow, the national exhibition centre in Birmingham, Old Trafford in Manchester or the Millennium stadium in Cardiff. Ticket touting affects fans all over the country, and the touting industry has grown rapidly with the growth of online purchasing. At the click of a button, people can purchase tickets for any concert at any venue worldwide. Online sites such as eBay and offer easy methods of buying and selling tickets at grossly inflated prices, but no laws deem that to be illegal. Our reputation as the host of some of the world’s best acts or sporting events is threatened by touts, and some acts are reluctant to perform in the UK because of them. The question is whether we would have been successful in our 2012 Olympic bid if we had not addressed the problem.

We recently saw the frenzy when Take That announced their Beautiful reunion tour. The tickets were sold out within 30 minutes; indeed, no sooner had the hotlines opened than fans were greeted with a telephone message saying that the tour was sold out. Then, however, they found that the precious tickets that they had been waiting for were on sale on eBay for about three times the original price. A search on eBay on 26 March found that 617 Take That tickets were available to buy or bid for, with the cheapest selling at £200 for two tickets, even though the original price had been £45. That is unacceptable and something must be done about it. It is daylight robbery, and those responsible should be punished for their actions.

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