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Coal Imports and Exports: Statistics

2.55 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie): My Lords, firm figures for 1995 are not yet available. Provisional figures for the first 11 months of 1995 show imports of coal as 13.2 million tonnes and coal exports as 698,000 tonnes. The future prospects for coal imports and exports are matters for coal consumers and coal producers respectively.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, is the Minister aware that about half the tonnage of imports to which he referred,

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and an additional 2 million tonnes of exports, could have been provided from coal, of which ample reserves exist in this country but for which the capacity is lacking? Is he aware that had that capacity been available and had those actions been taken, it would have benefited the balance of payments by some £220 million last year, and have provided employment for an extra 2,500 mine workers? In those circumstances, is it not regrettable that in the run-up to privatisation the capacity of the coal industry between 1993 and 1994 was run down to such an extent? Had an extra 10 million tonnes of capacity been retained, the benefits to which I have referred would have been achieved.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, no, I cannot accept that, unless what was to be provided within the UK was going to be achieved at an unacceptable level of subsidy. What is important in the UK is coal which, as the noble Lord well knows, is particularly important in the production or generation of electricity. If that were to be the case and prices were to go up or there was subsidy, there would be, directly or indirectly, a significant effect on consumers. What I do welcome is that, while clearly a number of adjustments have had to be made, the provisional figures for deep-mined production for 1995 show that there has been a 10 per cent. increase compared to 1994. Total coal production is expected to have increased by over some 7 per cent. in the same period.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is considerable concern, particularly among old people, at the statement made today by the National Grid that it could not guarantee to meet maximum demand this evening and in future cold weather? Is he further aware that one of the reasons for that is the closing down of coal-powered stations and their replacement with gas-fired stations which have interruptible supply contracts? Will the Government do something about that? Will they insist that the regulator ensures that the electricity authorities do the job which the Government said they would do when they were privatised, instead of doing a far worse job than was done when the industry was nationalised?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his ingenuity in moving from a Question on the import and export of coal to the generation of electricity. Neither the regulator nor the Government can do anything about the present particularly cold weather. It is reasonable for those who are responsible to give some indication of the levels of difficulty that might be experienced were the cold snap to continue. It is worthy of note that there has been no cut off of power in this recent cold snap, or the previous one, attributable to the lack of generating capacity.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I was not asking him to play God. I know that God decrees what the weather will be. I ask the Minister to ensure that the electricity authorities

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have sufficient supplies to guarantee production when the weather is cold. That is all I am asking him to do--to meet demand.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, it did seem that the noble Lord was asking the Government to play God. Difficult issues of balance between the total amount of generating capacity that is required and demand have to be set in the context of the weather, which is unpredictable. As I have said, there are difficult questions of balance to be achieved unless consumers, both domestic and industrial, pay for a large amount of generating capacity against an eventuality that may occur only infrequently. It is for those responsible to determine whether they have achieved the right balance. Notwithstanding the present exceptionally cold weather, it would appear that they have achieved the right balance.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, bearing in mind that those who import coal as opposed to using indigenous coal receive a cost benefit, and bearing in mind that the mineworkers who would otherwise produce the coal fall as a charge on the public revenue as a result of unemployment benefits and loss of tax receipts, will the Government provide us with figures for the savings to the private companies on importing coal and the cost to the Exchequer of paying people to be unemployed?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, no. In a roundabout way the noble Lord says that he wishes to see the reintroduction of massive subsidies. I venture to suggest that he stands somewhat alone in that position. If coal imports were revealed to be massively subsidised, there might be cause for concern. So far as we are aware, there is no convincing evidence that the imports from the main exporting market economies--that is the United States, Australia and parts of South America--are heavily subsidised.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, is not the problem that the decline in the British coal industry has meant that British electricity generation has become increasingly dependent on gas? Will the Minister confirm that Transco, the distribution company of British Gas, has announced that it may not be able to meet all the needs of the power stations, which has led to concerns that there might be power cuts in parts of the country today? Have we not reached the situation in which our energy policy is in a bit of a mess?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, no. The noble Lord is at risk of getting cause and effect tangled up. There has been a move to gas because it is an extremely efficient fuel; it is environmentally friendly; and it allows for electricity to be generated at a lower price to the consumer. I would have thought that that was to be welcomed. I have already indicated my view on the balance that must be struck by those responsible for generating during these exceptionally cold snaps.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the Minister accept that we have had more than 30 years' experience of seeking to change the market for coal by keeping pits

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open with massive subsidies and that the net result has been no recognisable economic or social benefit whatever?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, the noble Lord made the point better than I could.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, the Minister misconstrued the purpose of my Question. It is implied that, had extra capacity been retained in 1993-94, that would have had to be subsidised. Is the Minister aware that I have had detailed discussions with the Confederation of United Kingdom Coal Producers? Is he further aware that they are confident that prices of world coal have risen while the price of UK coal has come down and that, had there been more capacity, they could have bitten deeply into the imports? That was the point that I was making. I was in no way suggesting the reintroduction of subsidy.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, the noble Lord includes in his further supplementary question the assumption that world coal prices will increase. He will be aware of the independent report that was provided in 1993 at the time of our coal review. It indicated that if world prices for coal increased there might be a greater opportunity for greater production in the United Kingdom. As the noble Lord is well aware, since 1993, sadly, that has not been the case.

HGV Drivers: Vision Tests

3.4 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether British drivers of heavy goods vehicles will, after 1st July, have to take vision tests, without their spectacles or contact lenses, when applying to renew their driving licences.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, drivers of large goods and passenger-carrying vehicles are already required to pass a vision test in one eye, without corrective lenses, before obtaining or renewing their licence. From 1st July they will have to meet the standard in both eyes.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. It seems that the press report on 19th January overstated the likely effects of the EC directive and his reply should help to dispel misapprehensions. While safety must be paramount, would not a preferable regulation require reliable reserve spectacles to be instantly to hand in drivers' cabs since the danger foreseen arises from a sudden collapse of the spectacle or contact lenses being worn? Can we afford to lose the services of drivers with long and good records who can see perfectly with glasses?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, my noble friend makes the point that important road safety issues are

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involved. The real question is what happens in the event of an accident if a driver's glasses are dislodged? It might not always be possible to reach for the second pair in time. The directive is designed so that in the event of glasses being knocked off during an accident, or whatever, the driver will be able to bring the vehicle satisfactorily to a halt. That is the important consideration and I believe that these new requirements are the best way to achieve that.

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