Orders of the Day — Coal Industry Bill
Mr Tony Benn (Bristol South East)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As this debate is starting late, I shall try to be brief. The Bill implements the tripartite document "Coal for the Future", which was published recently and provides a framework for the future of the industry. Judging by the recent debate on nuclear fuel, I think the whole House recognises that the energy crisis continues to dominate the thinking of all Governments, world-wide. Not only in this country but in the Community, interest in coal is now much greater than it was a few years ago.
I have asked for figures to be prepared of EEC subsidies to the coal industry. I am naturally giving very rough figures, but these show that the subsidy per ton in the United Kingdom in 1975 was about 33p. In Germany the figure was about five times as high, in France about 12 times as high and in Belgium 20 times as high. Many other countries have thought it right to support their industries. Taking the figures of support for three of those countries, in 1975 subsidies to the coal industry in the United Kingdom totalled about £29 million, in France about £92 million and in Germany about £180 million.
Although we are very rich in resources of oil and gas and have a great deal of skill in nuclear energy, and although there is an enormous amount to be gained still from conservation and some from renewable resources, coal is without doubt our surest long-term energy resource.
The problem about all energy—it applies to coal as much as to other forms—is that it involves a high capital cost, a long lead time and a measure of uncertainty. We have tried to reduce that by the tripartite report recently published. Although that report deals with the industry up to 1985, the National Coal Board brought forward at the meeting its Plan 2000, which we shall process in due course.
I shall turn first to the provisions of the Bill. It increases the borrowing limits as is obviously necessary for an industry with such a big investment programme. Secondly, it renews legislative authority for grants to the coal industry to deal with short-term fluctuations. It is not possible to contemplate a long-term plan if it is undermined or destroyed by short-term fluctuations. Thirdly, it provides for social payments, of the kind with which the industry is all too familiar, to cope with problems of exhaustion in certain areas. Fourthly, it extends the statutory powers of the National Coal Board.
The difference between this legislation and earlier legislation, which hon. Members will recall, is that very often in the past legislation was to cushion the decline of the industry. This legislation is to stimulate the extended investment of the Board.
Mr Peter Rees (Dover and Deal)
May I raise a point of clarification? Apparently, under Clause 2 grants are to be made
for the purpose of promoting the sale of coal to the Central Electricity Generating Board".
Can the Secretary of State explain what exactly is envisaged in the way of promotion of sales to the CEGB?
Mr Tony Benn (Bristol South East)
Promotion does not mean public relations in that sense: it means making long-term contracts possible. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who will be replying to the debate, has been involved in negotiations over the past 12 months between the National Coal Board and the South of Scotland Electricity Board. They have been concerned with the question of what is necessary to provide long-term contracts for the coal industry in Scotland following the expiry of the Longannet contract. We have similar problems in Wales, and the Bill provides legislative power for this to be done.
The hon. and learned Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees) may appreciate that there is a parallel in the Community, where proposals are now before us not only for stocking, to cope with short-term problems, but also to provide some Community assistance to permit the conversion to coal of other fired power stations, in order to use the coal that is available. This is one of the instruments by which we hope to help the market for coal as the investment goes through. I should take this opportunity of the hon. and learned Gentleman's timely intervention to say that there is not much point in having a big investment programme for coal unless we are concerned to ensure that the markets for coal are also available. That applies to the export market and to the market that may develop for coal in petrochemicals. That also involves Clause 2.
Clause 1 of the Bill increases the limits under the 1976 Act from £1,100 million, rising to £1,400 million, to £2,200 million, rising to £2,600 million, subject to parliamentary approval. That should take us into the early 1980s. We have included the higher figure but we hope that the lower limit will be sufficient. This is necessary for the massive programme of investments of which perhaps the best known is Selby. The productivity increase that will flow from Selby is massive compared with that of older pits. That will certainly justify the investment. Selby alone will provide 10 million tons a year as it comes on stream. If the Vale of Belvoir—
Mr Tony Benn (Bristol South East)
I shall ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to see what figures can be provided. I do not carry the figures in my mind. All I can say is that nobody disputes that the return on the Selby investment will fully justify its taking place. It is in the development of new higher productivity pits that the National Coal Board hopes to achieve its long-term production for its energy needs.
Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that, although we cannot calculate precisely what productivity will be at the Selby complex, recent drift mines, including the most recent one, are running at about thre times the average productivity level and, therefore, we can assume that Selby would be of that ilk?
Mr Tony Benn (Bristol South East)
My hon. Friend is better qualified than I to give that view. It certainly confirms what I understand to be the case.
Perhaps I should say a word about Drax B, because I recall that as Minister of Technology in 1969 I arranged for a statement to be made to the House by the present Chancellor of the Duchy, who was then my Minister of State. The link between Drax and Selby is seen from the outside as a natural one. It bears on other matters, although those matters are more for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry.
There has been a great deal of public discussion about the Vale of Belvoir. There is thought to be 500 million tons of coal there and it is worth about £10 billion. Any coal industry which did not promote the recovery of that amount of national wealth would be totally failing in its national duty, although this, as other matters, will be subject to the normal planning procedures.
Mr Tony Benn (Bristol South East)
The hon. Gentleman is so attractive that he would tempt any Minister into making a silly statement. I cannot anticipate what the OMS will be for the Vale of Belvoir. I understand that it would be a very good coalfield to work. It will not be approved until detailed examinations have been made, and it would have to go through the normal planning stages and be cleared with me and the Treasury to establish that the investment justified it. I cannot specifically give a figure for a field which has not yet been opened up.
Mr Tony Benn (Bristol South East)
No, I am afraid I cannot give a figure for the Vale of Belvoir. In terms of the amounts of investment, I have already mentioned Selby and the Vale of Belvoir, but there are also extensions and improvements to about 100 other collieries. The rate of investment is now running at about £300 million to£400 million a year. The National Coal Board expects its own financial out- turn to rise towards 50 per cent. self-financing.
The costs are higher than in 1974. At that time the National Coal Board had no experience of investment programmes of this magnitude. There is also the general problem of inflation and the learning curve. But all projects are carefully appraised and, whereas in the past public money was provided to write off old debts, the new debts acquired as part of expansion will, to the extent to which I have referred, have to be paid off.
Clauses 2, 3, 4 and 8 of the Bill provide for various types of grants. These include grants for the promotion of the sale of coal to power stations and for stocking provisions. I have already referred to the relevance of Scotland in one context. Wales is particularly relevant to stocking, and my hon. Friend has been involved in the Welsh working party as well. There is also provision for assistance with coking capacity and regional grants. We recall that 70 per cent. of the work force in the mining industry work in assisted areas.
Clauses 6 and 7 provide for the redeployment of manpower resources scheme, which would not continue beyond 1978 for new cases, although existing cases would go through without renewal.
Clause 9 extends the powers of the National Coal Board, which has always been engaged in activities outside the strict business of digging and selling coal. The coke ovens, the briquette works, the tar works and the benzole works are now united into NCB (Coal Products), which includes National Smokeless Fuels. The Board has always had such activities and has had links with the British Steel Corporation and Staveley in, for example, the production of PVC. Now, however, coal must be seen as a substittue for oil, and it is necessary for the Board to gain experience of refinery work. NCB (Coal Products) and British Steel Corporation Chemicals were working on joint plans for petrochemical plant. The clause clarifies the legal position. I say "clarifies" because the Board believed itself to be empowered to engage in these activities, but in view of a statement made in the House by a Minister it was thought necessary to clarify the position by Clause 9.
Clause 10 extends the powers in another sense, allowing the Board to exploit other minerals, such as anhydrite, gypsum and aggregates which are discovered in the course of the Board's normal work. The clause gives the Board explicit power to exploit them.
Clause 11 allows the Board to do abroad what it does at home, subject to Treasury approval. In view of the reputation that the Board has acquired worldwide, and the dependence that the manufacturers of mining equipment have on the Board's success, there is much to be said for the extension of the powers in Clause 11.
Clause 12 is a technical provision harmonising the pension arrangements for subsidiaries as well as direct NCB employees. This will provide some administrative simplification.
I turn to some of the other issues of concern to the mining industry and hence to the House. My hon. Friend and I, after discussions with the NCB and the CEGB, have acted to check the flow of imports of coal when coal was already being stocked. We are also engaged, particularly in a Community context, in trying to promote the export of coal, because, despite the high subsidy on coal within the Community, a great deal of coal is coming in from Poland, South Africa and, I think, Australia. In so far as we are serious in trying to develop a sensible Community energy policy, reducing the dependence on imported energy, it would manifestly be sensible that the NCB should retain, restore and expand its existing export markets.
After much negotiation, the miners by a ballot approved a modest start to earlier retirement. I say modest "because I know that it did not go as far as some would like. But I very much welcome the fact that the negotiations took place. Here again, the Common Market parallels showed us to be at a great disadvantage.
I have referred to the discussions that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has been having about the coal burn in Scotland and Wales. He may say more about that later. I have also made a reference to the EEC dimension, because that is something we shall have to take into account. I think that the mining Indus- try will expect us to play an active part there, given that 33 per cent. of all the investment in coal in the Community is investment in the NCB.
People are perhaps not as aware as they might be that in all the energy fields Britain has a dominant position within the Community. Twenty-seven per cent. of all energy investment in the whole Community—in Germany, France, Italy and all the other countries—is British investment; 51 per cent. of the oil investment is British investment; and 33 per cent. of the coal investment is British investment. Therefore, I am fortunate when I go to the Energy Council—I am currently its President, during our general presidency—that the British voice counts for something in energy because of our contribution. We also have the International Energy Agency interests and the fluidised bed burning scheme at Grimethorpe is a product of that.
Before I finish, I should like to say something about the human resources in the mining industry. I shall not try to suggest that provisions for investment alone in an Act are sufficient to solve the problems of those who work in the industry. I do not relate this directly to the debate that has just concluded, but I must tell the House that, in my opinion, if we get this matter right it will be the most important contribution of all. The basis of the answer has been tripartism, a horrible word but one which reflects the fact that in 1974 a group of Ministers—my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Industry, then Secretary of State for Energy, and Ministers from the Treasury and the Department of Employment—and representatives of the NCB, the NUM, NACODS and the colliery managers met together to plan the revival of the mining industry.
That first tripartite meeting was a significant event, because it provided for those who worked in the industry a direct opportunity to contribute their knowledge and skill to the development of the industry in which they worked. I should like to read some evidence submitted to the Sankey Commission in 1919, evidence which nearly 60 years ago forecast the issue that was finally brought to fruition by the tripartite scheme:
Any administration of the mines under nationalisation must not leave the mine worker
in the position of a mere wage-earner, whose sole energies are directed by the will of another. He must have a share in the management of the industry in which he is engaged, and understand all about the purpose and destination of the product he is producing; he must know both the productive and the commercial side of the industry. He must feel that the industry is being run by him in order to produce coal for the use of the community, instead of profit for a few people. He would thus feel the responsibility which would rest on him as a citizen, and direct his energies for the common good …as that knowledge which has been denied him, grows, as it will do under nationalisation, he will take his rightful place as a man. Only then will labour unrest, which is the present hope of the world, disappear. The mere granting of the 30 per cent. and the shorter hours demanded will not prevent unrest, neither will nationalisation with bureaucratic administration. Just as we are making political democracy world-wide, so must we have industrial democracy, in order that men may be free.
That remarkable passage was part of the evidence submitted by William Straker, then Secretary of the Northumberland Miners Association. In tripartism we are moving towards the conception that he had many years ago.
I believe that as the tripartite structure develops it will be strong enough to cope with the serious problems remaining in the industry. I have never felt that a Minister could be very credible when speaking about, for example, productivity. Some of my hon. Friends have at least dug many tons of coal, but it has always seemed to me that a Secretary of State telling miners to dig more coal was a most improbable figure. I have never told them that, and I do not intend to do so. The problems of productivity and all that goes with them must be tackled by those in the industry. There is no one better than the members of the tripartite group and their colleagues at area level to deal with the problems of development, productivity, manpower forecasting, investment, marketing and research and development. It may ultimately be strong enough to provide a forum for discussion about pay structure.
Mr Peter Rost (Derbyshire South East)
The Secretary of State has just mentioned productivity. Without saying any more about the disappointing trend of productivity, which the right hon. Gentleman himself has described as disappointing in his introduction to the report "Coal for the Future", does he admit not only that the figures are disappointing but that he as a Minister has some responsibility to try to get the NUM and the NCB together to get on with this aspect of the problem?
Mr Tony Benn (Bristol South East)
I accept my responsibility so long as I am not required to follow that by exhortation. The NUM and the NCB are well aware of the problem. They have contact and there has been a proper examination of the problem. It is not entirely unconnected with the problems of pay policy. No doubt that is a matter that will arise. That hears back on some of the things that have been said earlier today. I believe that these problems can be resolved within the present framework I shall deal later with another level.
When we consider the different fuels within the Energy Commission, which is also intended to be tripartite in character, it is clear that coal will have to make its case against the other fuels and that success will not be unconnected with success in dealing with the problems that I have described. Anyone who knows anything at all about the industry will know that simple figures of productivity may conceal problems of geological structure, problems of morale arising from high stocking and all sorts of problems that do not lend themselves—I am not suggesting for a moment that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) was seeking to make this suggestion—to easy resolution by leading articles written in the comfort of an editor's chair in Fleet Street.
Mr Nigel Forman (Sutton Carshalton)
Will the right hon. Gentleman say something about the representation on that Commission? Many of my hon. Friends are concerned that it should be more than just a tripartite suppliers' club of the kind he has hinted at.
Mr Trevor Skeet (Bedford)
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a rather pointed question? I was rather interested in his observations. Does he propose to have 50 per cent. NUM representation on the National Coal Board and 50 per cent. of the directors appointed by the Secretary of State?
Mr Tony Benn (Bristol South East)
As a matter of fact, I was about to come to that passage. I always feel flattered if hon. Members intervene to hurry me on to the next part of my speech, because I then know that it is relevant.
It is my hope that this tripartite structure can work in other industries. I hope that the gas industry will come along later this year, and the electricity industry also.
I now come to the moment when I hope for general support—namely, the planning agreement concept involving the management, the unions and the Government in so far as the Government in this case are the body who provide the capital investment. The planning agreement concept is the basis. I am not authorised tonight to anticipate what action might follow in the public sector from the Bullock Report—
Mr Tony Benn (Bristol South East)
The hon. Gentleman need not make an interjection. In fact, "Bullock "is written in my notes. I shall show the passage to the hon. Gentleman later. This is not jumping into the two-tier board recommended by the NEDC. I am sure that it will be confirmed by those in the industry that in the tripartite structure, which is slow to build up and hard to establish, very many of the gains of industrial democracy, disclosure, joint discussion and joint strategy for the industry can be achieved if confidence can be won. I believe in it strongly without prejudice to other matters that would not fall to me to announce to the House on Second Reading.
I now turn to the Energy Commission. It is not possible to consider one industry in separation from another. I go further and say that the view of one industry of the development plans of another should be highly relevant. I have one more quotation to bear me out. I quote from a critique that was written 10 years ago of the then Labour Government's attitude to oil and coal. It states:
We believe that government policy of increasing dependence on oil is fraught with danger".
This is a criticism of the Government of which I was a member. It continues:
We think that the assumptions relating to oil prices in the future are based on completely
baseless and illogical reasoning, and certainly not related to the reality of the new developing situation in the Middle East …
Our privileged position in the Middle East has largely been obtained and retained by power, and unlike the government we think that situation is changing and will continue to change. We do not think it necessary to be political theoreticians to estimate that the people of the Middle East, who, like ourselves, are anxious to assure and improve standards of living, will in fact demand just that. This eventually can change the whole relationship of oil prices with other fuels, and long-term represents a critical economic factor in the costing of the nation's fuel.
That was written by the miners. Naturally, they have an interest in the mining industry. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that. In fact, it was written seven years before the OPEC price increase by Jack Dunn, area general secretary of the Kent area of the National Union of Mineworkers. He published that critique of energy policy under the authority of his area. It was based on a forecast that was much more accurate than that of the Government of the day.
It is important to recognise that in the planning of the whole fuel pattern we should hear, for example, what gas says about electricity, what coal says about oil and what both say about nuclear power. In the Energy Commission we hope to achieve that.
Mr Jo Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)
As I understand it, the confidence that the National Coal Board has in its investment programme, which I share, is based upon some estimate of what oil prices may reach in the 1980s. Is that so? If so, what estimate has it made of oil prices?
Mr Tony Benn (Bristol South East)
That is a difficult matter to forecast. Speaking very loosely—I cannot do more than that because no one really knows—people are talking in the world in which I move of a price of $25 a barrel in the mid–1980s. Even that estimate involves many uncertainties.
It would be a foolish Government that sought to base a long-term energy policy with a 10-year lead time on the assumption that they could forecast with any accuracy world demand, the rate of growth, the impact of conservation, the political factors in the Middle East, which could change, the time that gas will last and the acceptability of nuclear power. That sort of thing cannot be done. However, in so far as we can look forward, it is necessary to justify investment according to some criteria.
My argument is immensely simple. I contend that the best we can do is to bring all the fuel indutries together so that they may examine each other's investment programmes. The fuel industries, above all, will have an interest in seeing that another industry does not get away with too large a part of the cake. If we can get harmonious forecasting and joint examination of investment programmes, rolling that forward as the situation changes, which it often does, I submit that that is the best possible way of arriving at a reasonable energy policy.
I should like to be in the position of publishing an energy budget every year. I recognise that if I were in that position I should be in an unusual position in comparison with the Treasury and the Budget that is produced by the Chancellor, as I should have to look ahead to 10 years when producing each budget. As events have shown, 10 days is sometimes rather long for the durability of a Budget judgment.
I have been asked how we prevent the Energy Commission from becoming a producers' syndicate. That is the nub of the question. It is said that we must prevent it from becoming not only a producers' syndicate but a syndicate that leaves out of account the value of conservation and the possibilities for renewable reserves that do not have a powerful lobby behind them. These are extremely difficult matters. The reason why I have not been able to announce the membership of the tripartite group is, candidly, that I have not yet found a complete answer to the question. I do not think that we want a group of 50 people as that would make it a mini-energy conference and nothing would be done.
The chairmen of the main industries must be on the group. It must have a high level of TUC General Council membership in its representation. The CBI has a tremendous interest in it. Not only is 40 per cent. of our energy consumed by industry but the CBI consists of the major suppliers to the massive investment programme. Consumer representation must also be present.
Some fuels consume what other fuels produce. One of the major consumers of coal is electricity. The same is true of oil, which electricity consumes. There is a built-in balance. I am anxious to come to a speedy conclusion. It will be a sort of tripartite arrangement. It must include other elements but it may be that the answer today lies in ensuring that even the tripartite commission operates on public documents so that other interests can come in.
This morning I went to the NEDC. Energy was on the agenda but we did not reach it. I made available to the NEDC our current thinking on energy policy, and that is now going to its sector working parties. In effect, that document became declassified because a lot of interests, including the consumer interests and the TUC—
Mr Tony Benn (Bristol South East)
It is available. Publication is such a formal thing, and leakage is so illegal. I wonder whether the term "seepage" of information is more appropriate. Perhaps I should say that I hope that a process of progressive declassification of documents will take place. The term "seeping" or "declassified seepage" might ultimately get into a footnote in "Erskine May", which is the only route to immortality. Whichever it is, I am anxious that in the development of our energy policy everyone with an interest should be able to make his influence felt.
I am absolutely convinced that there is a firm and secure future for coal here and world-wide. We have the actual physical resources—the coal. If the House is kind enough to pass the Bill, we shall have the investment programme capable of winning a great deal of that coal for the nation. We also have the most highly-skilled labour force—managers, colliery overmen, deputies and miners—anywhere in the world. I invite the House, in giving the Bill a Second Reading, to express its confidence in the capacity of these people to contribute mightily to our long-term energy needs.
Mr Oscar Murton (Poole)
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I should explain that Mr. Speaker has asked me to inform the House that a considerable number of right hon. and hon. Members are anxious to take part in the debate and that short speeches will be very much in the interests of all.
Mr Tom King (Bridgwater)
Towards the end of the Secretary of State's speech I almost forgot that we were on the Coal Industry Bill. I do not complain about that, because the implications of coal and its interlinking with the whole spectrum of energy is a very important and complicated matter. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not think it offensive in any sense if I say that at stages of his speech I thought that he was positively communitaire. It was refreshing to hear him dealing at length with the importance of the European connection. I did not expect to hear it so soon, but the right hon. Gentleman has the presidency or chairmanship of his Council of Ministers and it is right as we in Britain have an important part to play in any European energy policy.
The right hon. Gentleman's dwelling on the tripartite approach was brave. This is the second debate today on that aspect, the first having been devoted to the virtual collapse, of the failure of the tripartite approach, of British Leyland.
The document "Coal for the Future" is an extremely useful publication for this debate, because it covers the subjects in which we are interested more usefully than "Plan for Coal" and "Coal 2000", and it is a useful summary of the current situation.
The Secretary of State was wise not to forecast anything about the price of oil. I was much impressed with Mr. Jack Dunn in the quotation that the right hon. Gentleman gave concerning the possible increase in the price of oil. I believe that it was Lord Balogh who in the 1960s said that there was the clearest possible evidence that the price of oil would never rise above $2 a barrel, and I notice that the noble Lord still holds some position of influence in the future policy on energy. I do not know whether his position is based on the quality of his previous judgments, but Mr. Dunn appears to have won that round over the noble Lord.
In referring to the alternative energy sources, and particularly to the question of conservation, which must be always put high on the list, the Secretary of State said that coal was the surest long-term energy resource for this country. We would certainly not dissent in any way from that.
It is interesting to note that today on the front page of The Times Business News there was an announcement of President Carter's proposals to set up his new Department of Energy with a substantial budget under Secretary Schlesinger. I was interested in one comment, which said
It is clear that the department will concentrate on greatly expanding domestic coal production".
This is to be President Carter's first initiative in energy matters. Against that background it is extremely interesting to note what is happening to coal production, and the importance that the world is attaching to coal, as demonstrated by the recent OECD figures for the expansion of coal production.
The increase for the United Kingdom—and here we must wonder whether we are doing all we can in this matter—is 6·5 per cent. over the period 1975–85. The other figures, however, are worth attention. The United States of America, not by any means a small coal producer, plans an increase of 58·3 per cent. in the next 10 years. Over this 10-year period Australia and New Zealand propose figures of 58·5 per cent., and Canada 86·2 per cent. The average increase for the whole of OECD in the next 10 years is 36·9 per cent. Our figure is 6·5 per cent. One is bound to conclude that this country and Europe—where, as the Secretary of State pointed out, we have nearly half the total coal output of the Community—are lagging some way behind the targets that have been set in a number of other countries.
"The Plan for Coal", from which this Bill is developed, was drawn up in 1973, at the time of the Conservative Government. It was endorsed in 1974. There is, therefore, a considerable element of bipartisanship in the belief in the future importance of the coal industry. That does not in any way imply blanket endorsement of the proposals in the Bill, and there are a number of points that I wish to make about them. However, the general approach in terms of the importance of the coal industry is not seriously challenged in any part of the House.
We must, however, recognise that this approach involves spending substantial sums. Under the Bill the increase in the ceiling is £1,200 million. This must not be seen as a blank cheque for random capital expenditure in any spendthrift way; it should be seen as expenditure that must be very closely monitored.
It is important to say that, because clearly all those concerned with the industry—the management of the NCB, the Secretary of State and the unions—have said that progress so far has been extremely disappointing. The nation is entitled to ask where are the benefits from the substantially increased expenditure on the coal industry. That is certainly a fair question to put.
The Secretary of State glided effortlessly, as he often does, over the question of the substantial increase in the sums involved. He said that increases of this nature—I noted his words—were obviously necessary in an industry with a major investment programme of this kind. He said that the increase resulted from the effects of inflation and the learning curve. I do not know what the learning curve has cost, but I know what inflation has cost. It is a sorry commentary on the economic policies of the Government that a programme that two years ago was expected to cost £1,400 million is now, purely on the grounds of inflation—according to the figures of the Government and the NCB—to be £2,440 million. An increase of 74 per cent. is a staggering rise for that period.
The damage that has been done to the prospects of the coal industry by the mismanagement of the economy by this Socialist Government can be most clearly seen in those figures. Obviously, if inflation increases, or continues at that level, it will seriously jeopardise the ongoing investment programme for the industry.
That is the situation that confronts us when we look at the programme for coal "Coal for the Future". The first is the appalling problem of forecasting demand. The bracket of the Coal Board's own figure for the year 2000, of between 135 million and 200 million tonnes, shows the extent of the variation and some might visualise a kind of thermostat, which one can switch up or down when one gets rather closer to the figure. Yet anyone with even the most superficial knowledge of the coal industry realises that it is not an industry in which demand can be turned up and down by ministerial edict; it is something that will have to be worked and planned for with the long lead times involved.
I have looked carefully at the market forecasts given in "Coal for the Future". I am concerned about them. A number of areas, which the Secretary of State did not touch on, are crucial to the requirements for coal. Things like the efficiency of power stations, the replacement of coal-fired stations to ensure that they are efficient and competitive, and the need for coal-burning capacity in electricity generating, are obviously very important matters.
In industry, the report refers to the possible withdrawal of gas from non-premium use towards the turn of the century. There is also the importance of fluidised bed, so that coal is efficiently used, and is competitive. Nothing was said about that. That seems crucial to the industrial market, for which a wide bracket is shown in the report.
A most disappointing aspect of the present coal market is the domestic situation. I have no knowledge of any initiative or discussions about this between the Secretary of State for Energy and his right hon. Friend at the Department of the Environment. A considerable number of council houses and public buildings are being constructed in a way that ensures that they will never burn coal.
Mr Tom King (Bridgwater)
I am delighted to hear that. I apologise if I suggested that no talking was going on. But houses are still being built in the way that I have suggested.
The words used by the Secretary of State for Energy are "Keep your options open". That seems to be the Secretary of State's cry, and I think he is right. Yet coal is the one option effectively closed to many in the domestic market at the moment. In my own constituency, as in many others, many constituents are almost imprisoned within their sophisticated twentieth-century all-electric heating systems, which they cannot afford to use. That is obviously a matter of concern to a considerable number of MPs.
Another area to which the Secretary of State referred, and which I think is very important, is the potential for exports in the future. Clearly the potential within the Community is very great. I hope that the Secretary of State will use the opportunity, as President, to discuss, not least with the French and Germans, the issue of COMECON coal, the fact that imports are clearly coming into the Community at dumped prices, and the possibilities that may exist for greater exports from this country.
We also have the problem about markets for coal. The markets for coal will be influenced by how competitive coal is. The report refers to the need to limit costs.
In terms of competitive supplies, we know that part of the problem lies in the fact that coal is not in such a strong position that it can ignore the need to remain competitive. I have checked the figures that the Under-Secretary of State recently gave in Hansard about what has happened to coal prices. I came to the energy scene only recently, but I must admit that I was staggered to see what the figures really were. Since November 1974 the price of domestic coal has increased by 83½per cent. Clearly, that rate of progress could imperil the future competitiveness of coal.
The Secretary of State referred to the modest early retirement scheme. It is not entirely modest in cost. I understand that, as yet, this has not been included in any of the calculations put before the House tonight. The implications for the future price of coal is obviously quite a serious matter. Another problem is whether we shall have the output even if we have the markets.
The next worrying feature in "Coal for the Future" is the confirmation that last year total manpower fell by 5,000. That is particularly serious at a time of rising unemployment elsewhere when one might have expected recruitment to have improved, or certainly to have become stabilised. It increased the year before but fell last year.
The report contains the statement that the coal industry will have to look increasingly to men and boys new to the industry. Whether we shall have the manpower and the ability, in terms of numbers available, to achieve the higher range of target figures must be of real concern. After all, it is the numbers employed and their productivity that will determine their output.
Productivity is perhaps the most disappointing single feature of the present situation in the coal industry. I appreciate that there are a number of factors, to which the Secretary of State referred, that may affect the situation, but the fact remains that productivity in the past year has been the lowest this decade, for a full year's working. The output per man shift has fallen this year against last, and last year fell against the year before. This has occurred at a time when we are looking for much greater output. Deep mined coal output fell by 7 million tonnes last year. Clearly that is a serious matter.
I entirely agree with the Secretary of State that we shall not get coal by exhortation. But the Secretary of State does have a responsibility to ensure that the terms and conditions under which people are working in the mines enable incentive to exist and productivity to be achieved. I am not suggesting that the right hon. Gentleman should interfere; ideally, one would like to see this as a matter between the NCB and NUM. But the fact remains that the Secretary of State has actively interfered, in a negative sense.
The document contains an interesting sentence about productivity. It is full of pious thoughts. I do not see how we shall get round this. It states that
We continue to believe that …a sound and effective incentive scheme could make a major contribution in raising the efficiency of production and matching performance to the industry's true potential.
No one would dissent from that.
Mr Tom King (Bridgwater)
The hon. Gentleman will no doubt have the opportunity to make his views known, but his is certainly not the opinion of the miners and the leaders of the NUM to whom I have spoken. I know there are certain members within the NUM to whom the hon. Gentleman is closer than I am, but this must be a matter for democratic decision within the NUM.
Another important sentence in the document states that
Such a scheme has not yet been introduced and it is not possible to initiate one within the current pay policy, but we are glad to know that the NUM has set up a study group to examine the various possibilities.
I thought that that last phrase was a little unnecessary. It seemed to me pure verbiage. It is a sop to the NUM, but it is saying "You cannot actually do anything about it, because the current pay policy will prevent it".
It is not the world's greatest secret that the NUM has not yet started phase 2—or, I think, it was due to start yesterday. That phase 2 should last for a year. The question of productivity does not emerge until after that phase has elapsed. If that is so, clearly the Government are facing a very difficult situation if a productivity scheme is thought essential for those in the industry and in the national interest. We shall clearly have a different situation under the current pay policy.
Mr Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)
The hon. Gentleman is making a responsible speech. However, it is not a fact that all those in the industry are in favour of a productivity scheme. It is being discussed. In the hon. Gentleman's quest for productivity, he should not let the price of that be a damaging fall in safety.
Mr Tom King (Bridgwater)
I am sorry. I thought that the hon. Gentleman said "savings". I entirely appreciate that point. No one who has even the most superficial contact with the NCB, the NUM or the mines could believe for a moment that those bodies would agree to a scheme that imperilled the standards of safety control and management within the mines, which are clearly of the highest order and to which all attach the greatest importance. I should have thought that that went without saying.
I am sorry if I misled the House, but I am not under any illusion that a productivity scheme is universally approved. However, my impression is that the majority are in favour.
Mr Tom King (Bridgwater)
I shall leave the hon. Gentleman to fight his own NUM battles elsewhere.
Having dealt with the very difficult question of productivity, I turn to the question of the new developments. The Secretary of State laid great stress on the potential of Selby. Obviously the whole House will hope that he is right. However, there have been some very disturbing stories. At Question Time last week, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) raised the question whether the water table problems will present difficulties. This is not something that must be kept under a D notice, or anything like that. I hope that the Under-Secretary will comment on the matter at the end of the debate.
However, we are moving into the new developments, and the Secretary of State fairly put on record the potential importance of the Vale of Belvoir—which is not likely to be the last such development. A massive exploration programme is taking place and it is possible that further coal reserves will be found in other very attractive parts of the country, where there may occur the sort of issues that will cause great local concern, as in the Vale of Belvoir. It will be necessary to find a mechanism for resolving this sort of problem democratically, so that people do not feel that they have been steamrollered by a producers' syndicate, but feel that they have an opportunity to have a say, but we must ensure that such a mechanism is not automatically a blocking mechanism that will prevent anything from happening, and that it does not become a total shackle on the reasonable development of the coal industry. The Government must turn their minds to that serious issue.
There is a very significant comment in "Coal for the Future", which I think is absolutely right, namely, that planning approval is taking longer than expected. My forecast is that that trend will continue. We must ensure that proper democratic rights are observed, while sensible developments are able to proceed if the case is well made.
Mr Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)
As the argument on coal is tied up so much with the national interest, is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there should be a reduction of the planning difficulties to further the development of coal?
Mr Tom King (Bridgwater)
I am not suggesting the opposite, because I am not suggesting increasing the difficulties. I am saying that in my view it is simply not adequate to present this as a matter that is merely to be dealt with by a county council planning committee, the members of which may be local people who are very concerned about the amenities and who reject it, the matter then going to the Secretary of State and then, perhaps after an inquiry, being overthrown. The difficult issue here is the question of proving a plan, of proving the need for coal as well as the amenity aspects of a particular development.
This is a very difficult issue. One cannot inject this into the beginning of every development, be it an opencast development or any other development.
The NCB is planning for the future, and there are now a number of issued plans. There is something here—a document that could form a basis and could get the wider endorsement against which individual planning applications could be considered. However, it is no good approaching these matters, on which very strong local feelings will arise, on the basis of relying entirely on what might have been satisfactory in the past.
I turn quickly to the central details of the Bill. The main clauses, as the Secretary of State said, raise the borrowing limits—this is a particularly important part of the Bill—and will make possible further developments in the "Plan for Coal". While supporting the principle, we shall want to examine very carefully the costs involved. The increases are of a staggering nature. It would be grossly irresponsible of us, as an Opposition, if, in Committee, we did not examine very carefully exactly how those costs have been arrived at. The grants to which the Secretary of State referred renew in certain cases earlier powers, some enacted by a previous Conservative Government. We shall want to examine whether they are in fact still appropriate in all cases, and we shall look at the matter very carefully.
The more controversial aspects of the Bill arise in Clauses 9, 10 and 11. Clause 9 deals with the expansion in the activities relating to petroleum. We accept that this is sensible. Coal has a rôle to play in the future and will be an important source of petrochemicals. A good argument can be made for this. However, we see no argument for the looseness of the drafting of the Bill.
The Secretary of State referred to research, and perhaps the operation of a refinery, but the Bill would allow the NCB to go into downstream activities and even permit NCB petrol stations. It would be an act of irresponsibility if we did not look extremely closely at these provisions. While not wishing unreasonably to shackle the sensible development of coal products, must say that anyone who reads the Bill will see how loosely it is drafted and will appreciate why we want to examine it very carefully.
Clause 10, likewise, contains the core of what seems a perfectly reasonable matter, which is, that in the course of its work of exploration and extraction, if the NCB comes across other minerals it should be empowered to extract them. On the face of it—and this is the way the Secretary of State presented it—that looks harmless enough. Of course, when one comes to the legal drafting, one finds that it is very loose. It appears from the Bill that the NCB could drill anywhere and could move into salt or potash mining with very little pretext at all.
Mr Tom King (Bridgwater)
I am not suggesting that what I have mentioned is the intention, but, again, the House has a responsibility to see that these matters have been properly drafted.
Clause 11 deals with overseas activities. I think that it was a bit of an anachronism that there was formerly a restraint. We know that British Rail and the Post Office have engaged quite successfully in consultancies overseas and in certain other activities. Clearly, the NCB, which it is claimed is the largest single coal producer in the Western world and is experienced in many different fields of activity, has a considerable expertise, and it would be in the national interest if that could be exploited for the benefit and to the financial advantage of this country. We shall want to check on this matter. Again, the clause is extremely widely drawn. If it can be correctly defined the general principle is unexceptional.
Mr Trevor Skeet (Bedford)
If my hon. Friend looks at Clause 11 he will see that the Board can "do anything outside Great Britain", which would include petrochemicals as well. I am sure that he would agree that the board should not be allowed into that sphere of activity abroad.
Mr Tom King (Bridgwater)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is exactly the sort of point that I made about the looseness of the drafting. I felt that this was a point that we should pursue in Committee. However, the wider exploitation of the NCB's expertise in its primary activities, where its skill is greatest, is obviously something that we would support.
We know that the development of coal mining has meant that production has increased overseas, not least in Australia. There is a possibility of the Coal Board's playing a part in that expansion. which amounts to about 58 per cent. in both Australia and New Zealand.
Coal is clearly an essential element in any energy policy. For us, with the coal reserves in this country, the strength of the coal industry and the prospects in front of it, it must play a crucial rôle. We must recognise that progress to date has been very disappointing.
Neither party has a very good record as far as the coal industry is concerned. The Labour Party presided over the biggest rundown of the industry in the disastrous years—[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish"]. Hon. Members may like to look at the figures for the rundown under the late Labour Government. As I was saying, neither party has a clean record. This is now changed, and both parties recognise the importance and future significance of the coal industry.
Under this Bill, if it proceeds as I expect it will, the coal industry will have available resources to enable it to make considerable progress. The Bill alone will not make anything happen. I was pleased to hear the comments of the Secretary of State at the end of his speech when he said that it is now up to the industry to decide what use it makes of the funds available. The challenge so far has not been met. We must recognise that fact, and it would be fairly admitted by all in the industry. The industry has had the opportunity to progress but so far that progress has been extremely disappointing.
We all recognise that it takes time to get new developments going, but at the same time it is vital to the country that the coal industry succeeds. The Bill opens new opportunities for both the Coal Board and the workers in the industry. This will be an opportunity to show the nation that, given the support, the industry can deliver the goods.
Mr Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)
I was rather surprised—but really not surprised at all—by the speech of the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). I was surprised at the way in which he criticised everything and the way in which he tried to slight everyone in the industry.
Mr Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)
Of course he did. He was criticising all the time. He even talked about output, and he compared the mining industry in this country with that in other countries. He compared it with Australia of all countries, which has mainly opencast mines with thick seams and big, modern machines. He also talked about the United States with its large seams and the much better geological ground in which the men work. He talked about Europe as well, but when we talk about other countries and their output and make comparisons we should not forget things like wages and we should compare them with such things in those countries.
Although I was in favour of joining the EEC, and basically am still in favour of the Community, I know full well that we promised the workers in the mining industry that their wages and conditions would be comparable with those of Continental workers. Of course they are not.
Of course the hon. Member for Bridg-water is right when he says that neither Party has a clean sheet as far as the mining industry is concerned. The miners are suspicious of Governments, even of this Government today. I remember the period when Jack Dunn made the statement that has been mentioned tonight. That kind of statement was made from these Benches time and time again, but neither my party nor the Conservatives when they were in Government took the slightest bit of notice. They were warned continuously of the dangers of oil from the Middle East, but they took no notice because oil was cheap. Their attitude was "Why do we need miners?"
What about our investments? Even though I welcome the Bill, it will not assure the mining industry of tremendous investment in the future. There is a lot to be done in the pits and at the coalface to make the industry in this country more modern. There is a lot to be done on the roadways. If we do not have the where-withal to get the coal out of the pits, it is no use developing the coalface. There is still a lot to be done. When the hon. Member for Bridgwater talks about the mining industry, he should make comparisons that are fair and just.
Mr Tom King (Bridgwater)
The hon. Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) might have done me the courtesy of listening to what I said. I made no comparison of the output performance of other countries such as Australia or New Zealand. I simply used the example of the increased production that they are planning to illustrate the importance they attach to coal production. I made no use of figures to make disparaging comparisons between British miners and miners in other countries. Bearing in mind the fact that many of the mines in countries abroad are opencast, it would have been a fatuous comparison.
Mr Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)
Of course it was.
Let us now ook at the Bill. Clause 1 makes it possible to increase the borrowing limit to a maximum of £2,600 million. Are we quite certain that that amount will be sufficient for developing the coal mining industry, taking account of when we are going to spend it and the developments that will take place? How long will it be before we can get the money? When the Secretary of State talks about a tripartite agreement, I aways think that he is talking about an agreement between his Department, the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mine-workers. Of course, there is another Department which has its hands on the money—the Treasury. That must be taken into account, and my right hon. Friend knows from experience that we cannot always drag money out of the Treasury when we would like to do so. We shall watch very keenly to make sure that the Treasury does not hold back.
Mr Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)
We would all welcome that.
Clause 3 refers to grants for the building up of stocks of coal and coke. I think that we must be very careful here. There is always a fear in the mines because often pits close when stocks of coal have been built up. We should talk about exporting coal when we have plenty of stocks, and I believe that more should be done in this respect.
We have had various objections from Chairmen of the Central Electricity Generating Board about being compelled to use coal. We hope that we shall be able to convince the chairman that in future we shall not be using oil as much as we use it today. We should make certain that coal will be used to supply the fuel for our power stations. We must not waste oil because it may be in short supply, despite the discoveries in the North Sea. I believe that there will be a greatly increased demand for oil in coming years throughout the world.
I turn to Clause 6, and I shall have a few words to say about pit closures. That very phrase frightens me to death. It certainly puts fears into the miners that the Government are talking about pit closures. It is not easy for us to convince the miners that the Government do not mean that there shall be unnecessary pit closures.
I recall what happened in the 1960s when there was great displeasure in the mining community at the situation at that time. It reminds me of what was once said by an ex-Cabinet Minister. He said "When I attended a debate on coal mining, I could not understand why the mining Members still wanted to have a debate at 2 o'clock in the morning" However, that ex-Cabinet Minister added "One could never doubt the support of those mining Members of Parliament. They always supported a Labour Government no matter what they were putting forward. Even on pit closures they still supported the Government" That politician certainly never doubted their loyalty, but he could not understand why they allowed the Government to take such a course.
Mr Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the loyalty of mining Members of Parliament to Labour Governments, but he will recall one occasion when a Labour Government published a White Paper forecasting energy needs, a forecast with which the mining industry violently disagreed. He will remember that meetings then took place and that that set of proposals never reached the Floor of the House.
Mr Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that situation. However, I remember occasions when pit closures took place time after time.
Clause 7 of the Bill deals with redundancy payments. A not too marvellous scheme was introduced not very many year ago, but at the age of 55 in many cases men were made redundant. A man of 55 who is made redundant is allowed three years' pay at nine-tenths of his wages but at the age of 58, if he was made redundant, he had to say goodbye to payments. He is told that he is now on the scrapheap and he loses almost everything. At the time the scheme was introduced, the National Coal Board and the Government were keen for it to come into operation and they would not listen to hon. Members who wanted to extend the period during which payments are given beyond three years. We even argued for the age of 60 so that the period should be five years. But nobody would listen, and the scheme was introduced. We still have the same redundancy scheme.
How can we expect to encourage young people to come into the mining industry when we treat in that way people who have been in the industry for 40 years or more? I hope that the Government will in future be more forthcoming and helpful and sometimes make offers to the NCB and the NUM that are greater than anything for which the industry has asked. That is the only way that we will be able to attract manpower into the pits. We must be certain that miners will not be thrown on the scrapheap at the age of 58. The Government should act in the same way over pensions.
Everybody to whom I speak to about this, no matter what industry he may work in, whether professional or labouring, says "I would not have that job at any price. I would not go down the pit" When we asked for pensions to be given at the age of 60, why had the Government to be parsimonious and mean? They said that it could not be afforded and that pensions would be given at 62. The Government do not even offer a bonus to those who continue to work until the age of 62. How can we expect the mining industry to have a great amount of faith in the Government when the Government at no time make any offers greater than what has been asked for by the NUM?
Mr Leslie Spriggs (St Helens)
On the matter of pensions for miners at an earlier age, is it not a disgrace that the Government should expect someone who works from boyhood to the age of 55 to continue to the normal retirement age? Surely my hon. Friend will agree that the time has come when every miner who has worked for 25 years should be retired at the age of 50 or 55.
Mr Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)
I did not expect anyone from the Opposition side to agree with me, but I thought that someone from this side might say that. I am trying to reduce the retirement age as much as I can, and 60 would be a good starting point, but I hope that it will be 55 in the future.
When we develop new coalfields, there will be an outflow of miners from the other collieries. That might result in collieries having to close due to lack of manpower. What will the Government do to make certain that other jobs will be provided in those areas, or are we going to allow such areas to run down? Have the Government given any thought to regional grants or something that would be available not just for developing new coalfields but for looking after the old areas as miners leave them? New jobs must be found for those who remain behind. Many of them will be men who have given 30 to 40 years of their lives to the industry and who have no hope of employment in any other area. We hope that the Government will do something about that.
I should like to say a few words about Clause 9. It gives powers to the National Coal Board to develop the manufacture and sale of petroleum, but not petrol stations. What a ridiculous suggestion by the hon. Member.
We ought to develop the chemical division of the National Coal Board. It is a profitable section and in the future it will be more so. There is an old chemical plant in my area—I am rather narrow-minded in this matter—that is to be replaced. I should like the Minister to take that into account because there is high unemployment in the Mexborough area and this chemical plant is polluting the district heavily. It has almost been condemned in a sense. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will do everything he can to ensure that the new chemical plant is built within the next few years. I should be most grateful for that.
I promised that I would not speak for long, but I want to make the point that we are still finding new coalfields. A new one has just come on stream in the Doncaster and Trent area. We are told that it is an extraordinarily good one. As new pits are brought into being, however, we shall want young people to come into the mines. Unfortunately, they are not coming in because we do not make facilities available for them and we do not encourage them. We do not give them any strong belief that they can make mining a career, and this must be done. Coal will be an important part of the energy of this country, and over the next two decades it will be more important than ever.
The matter of supplies of smokeless fuel has been raised with me. Although we have coal in stock, we have not the suitable coal that is required for grates and domestic heating. Anthracite is in short supply, and we are importing it. That is looked on by some of the work-force in the mining industry as something that we should not do because the men do not understand that anthracite is in short supply and that, therefore, smokeless fuel is badly needed Will the Minister say something about the supply of anthracite and other smokeless fuels? There has been a shortage in South Yorkshire and other parts of the country, and many people, particularly the elderly, have been going short of fuel.
The Bill can be readily welcomed. The advantage that will be taken of it will depend on how it is implemented. I hope that the NCB and the NUM will get together with the Government to make sure that this industry, which is so vital to our economy, gets the necessary increases in productivity, but not at the cost of safety. I worked in the mines when safety was not thought to matter so much, and I should not want to go back to that sort of system.
I hope that we can increase productivity and make the industry more viable so that we can give the men the better benefits to which they are due and make their conditions at least comparable to those of miners in other parts of the world.
Mr Michael Alison (Barkston Ash)
I cannot claim the direct expertise of the hon. Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) in coal mining, but I have a number of pits in my constituency, including two or three traditional pits, a large opencast operation, and a big chunk of the Selby coalfield.
I wish to draw attention to what I fear may be a blind spot in the attitude of the NCB and the Department towards the very large sums provided for in the Bill. It provides a borrowing power of almost £2,000 million. Clauses 7, 8 and 9 take powers for quite a lot of interesting diversification in other areas, including petroleum, exploring for other kinds of minerals, international activities, and so on. When the industry is concerned with the exploration of natural resources, particularly fuels, it is an easy, but inadequate, philosophy in coal mining for the management and the Minister to take the view that their business is simply to cut coal and nothing else.
We hear this attitude expressed in connection with the Selby field. The expert, likeable and impressive managerial personnel in the North Yorkshire division of the NCB are enthusiastic coal cutters. That is what they are in business for. However, in this philosophy it is fatally easy to overlook the fact that we cannot adopt the attitude that we need think about nothing more than the immediate industrial activity in which we are engaged.
Perhaps private business could have done this once, but it cannot do so any more. Vast private corporations no longer take the old-fashioned nineteeeth century view that business is business, and nothing else counts. If they are to survive, they must consider the environmental repercussions of the investment and industrial activities in which they engage.
Paradoxically, it is easier for public corporations to ignore the environmental and indirectly-connected spin-offs of their activities than it is for some private companies. Public corporations do not have a particularly good record in attending to the environmental consequences of what they do. We saw this in the disaster at Aberfan. Public corporations are not necessarily the leaders in worrying about the implications and repercussions of what they are engaged in.
Mr Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)
Surely the hon. Gentleman realises that environmental considerations did not matter much to the old mine owners? They made sure that they lived in a nice little spot while dirt and coal were raked out of the ground. The NCB has done a marvellous job and has spent a great deal to level the dirt tips.
The NCB is having consultations now on how to get the coal from Selby with the least possible environmental disturbance. I believe that it will do that. It is something of a red herring for the hon. Gentleman to talk about environmental disturbance.
Mr Michael Alison (Barkston Ash)
The hon. Gentleman and I both represent Yorkshire constituencies and as we drive up the Great North Road and the motorways we see that there has been a great deal of environmental improvement, including grassing, but in general the public corporations have not been a magic wand for environmental and industrial dereliction. Latterly, much more money has been spent on such projects, but they are largely an attempt to mop up pockets of unemployment and it is not a universal effort.
When starting a big new development such as Selby, let us ensure that we do not repeat the past mistakes of private business and public corporations. Let us have an environmental dimension to the planning from the outset.
Mr Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would wish to make it clear that Aberfan was the result of an inheritance of 100 years of private ownership of the mines in that area.
Mr Michael Alison (Barkston Ash)
No doubt the tip grew over many decades, but it was in public ownership for many years before the disaster occurred, and during that time little or nothing was done about the environmental problems. I do not blame any individual for the hidden flaws in that pit but it is surprising that it was not levelled off or landscaped before the disaster occurred. Public ownership is not necessarily a guarantee that the business that occurs immediately outside the direct business of an industry will attract a lot of attention.
Mr Harry Selby (Glasgow Govan)
Does the hon. Member know how many coal hills there are in Great Britain? There are hundreds that are left over from private ownership. They would cost millions of pounds to shift. When the coalfield at Selby is in operation I can assure the House that there will be no coal hills.
Mr Michael Alison (Barkston Ash)
That is a fair point. I am not saying that the Coal Board can be expected to wave a magic wand and clear the tips overnight. I was saying that it does not come naturally or automatically to a public corporation management, any more than it does to private management, to think beyond the business in which it is immediately engaged.
The management in North Yorkshire are enthusiasts, as is the Minister, for coal cutting. It must think seriously about the environmental responsibilities that it will have in the development of the Selby coalfield.
Mr Alec Woodall (Hemsworth)
The hon. Member knows that the National Coal Board has conducted the most massive public relations exercise that has ever been undertaken by any body in the country. A special officer, to whom the hon. Member has paid tribute, was appointed to deal with the public in the area after the inquiry and up to the day when the findings of that inquiry were made known. Pure coal will be extracted from the Selby coalfield. There will be no spoil on the surface. The only likely effect is a lowering of the land and possible flooding. The National Coal Board is taking steps to deal with those problems.
Mr Michael Alison (Barkston Ash)
I agree that a huge PR operation took place, but one must see that it is followed up by action. The test of the pudding is in what happens when the machinery starts to roll.
The housing situation in the Selby coalfield area will not be dramatic or problematical in terms of numbers. Even when the mine is working at its maximum, in about 1985, and producing about 10 million tons a year, only 4,000 miners will be involved. Compared with the scale of manpower that we are used to, that is a trifling number.
A three-quarter hour journey to work is not unreasonable, and many miners will want to continue to live in York, Leeds or Garforth. The NCB planning proposal mentions York as an area from which it wishes to recruit. York is within travelling distance of the new coalfield. The Selby coalfield planning application also mentioned York. Workers will travel to work from Leeds and Garforth.
In my pit communities many men to whom I have spoken have expressed opinions on this matter that at first sight seem to be contradictory. They say that if they have to be transferred to the Selby coalfield—and most of them would prefer to stay where they are—they would like to live in their present community. However, they say that if they have to move to another town they do not want to live in a pit village. It is understandable that they do not want to go into miners' ghettos.
I hope, therefore, that the Secretary of State will take on board the point that, for some at least of the 4,000 miners who will be required in the Selby coalfield by 1985, housing provision will be needed. I hope that he will think seriously about what the NCB could and should do about it, although it is not directly linked to the cutting of coal, and he will probably find local management and perhaps his own Department reluctant to get involved in the provision of housing, because that really is not the business of the Board. Nevertheless, housing represents a real local need.
The Selby District Council has decided in its wisdom that
they are not prepared to consider the provision of houses for the Board if by doing so any cost whatever would fall on the Selby ratepayers, either directly, or indirectly, through the operation of rent pooling, or that the situation of applicants on the Council's waiting list would thereby be prejudiced.
The council is reluctant to put on the shoulders of local ratepayers the extra cost arising from subsidised rents payable as a result of the Government's insisting upon the local authority providing houses for the miners. The NCB must help in the provision of housing in the Selby area.
One point made by a union representative at one pit is that miners would like the Board to help with mortgages to miners to buy their own houses. Why should it not do so? Most industrialists have taken steps to help provide housing for the workers that they have had to bring in to green field sites. There is no reason why the NCB should not think seriously about helping miners to buy their own houses if they do not want to go on living in the traditional kind of mining community. The Government should not put the whole burden on the local pool of subsidised council accommodation, which is very limited, which Selby District Council disposes of. It has not got a lot of houses, and there is a big waiting list.
The average earnings of the lower-paid manual workers in Selby range between £50 and £70 a week, which is well below what the miners will be getting. If they are to compete for cheap subsidised rented accommodation with highly-subsidised miners, it will not be fair to them. I hope, therefore, that the Secretary of State will think seriously about the proposition that the NCB should either provide houses itself or provide mortgages for incoming miners.
My mention of York produced guffaws from miners' representatives on the Government Benches. But one of the environmental features in the area is the A19 main trunk road from York to Selby. It straddles the whole of the coalfield and is one of the principal arteries of communication in that part of the country, but it has upon it the ludicrous and notorious Selby toll bridge. Many miners travelling to the new coalfield will use that road. I believe that some will be coming from York, since the NCB is trying to recruit in all areas within travel-to-work distance.
The Selby toll bridge is an eighteenth century wooden swing bridge, straddling one of the principal trunk roads of the country. It has room for only one large articulated wagon to get across at a time. As far as I know, the Government have no intention of providing extra resources to build a bypass round the bottleneck. The Minister should already be drafting a memorandum urging that if we are to spend £400 million on developing the Selby coalfield and provide borrowing powers for up to £1,800 million for the coal industry in future, we should also provide, in what will be the most modern coalfield in Europe, access that will not require the crossing of a privately-owned wooden toll swing bridge. The Minister should put that priority at the top of his list, so that the Selby coalfield will have its own communications. The NCB has a responsibility both for communications and housing in the context of this massive development, and I hope that the Secretary of State will think seriously about it.
Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I have been listening closely to the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison), whose constituency includes part of the Selby coalfield. I may be wrong, but I got the impression that what he was trying to say to the House, roughly, was "My majority is not all that big" and that if my hon. Friend the Minister could find ways, through all the various channels open to him, of ensuring that the miners did not go to Selby or Barkston Ash, he would be very pleased. But if the miners did get to Barkston Ash I think he was trying to say "If we turn them into owner-occupiers they may vote Tory". That just about sums up his attitude.
However, I agree with some of what the hon. Gentleman said about the problems of mining the Selby coalfield and the Vale of Belvoir, if that comes onstream. I do not think there is any doubt that with the drift of miners and others from manufacturing and wealth-producing industries over the past few decades, the Coal Board will have extreme difficulty in finding miners in that area or attracting miners from York, whether or not they are stewards of the local working-men's club, as one of my hon. Friends has put it.
If alternative occupations are available, younger people will not go willy-nilly into the coal mines, even though conditions are much better than they were several decades ago. One can argue that safety conditions are slightly better, but not that much better.
It all hinges on wages. The Opposition spokesman commented this evening that manpower had dropped by 5,000 in the last calendar year. We must reflect on the reason why this has happened. Those of my hon. Friends who know this industry extremely well could readily tell me that manpower went up, for the first time in many years, in the periods after the 1972 and 1974 strikes and the consequent wage increases.
Those strikes were not merely caused by the desire to get miners on top of the wages league; the miners were demonstrating to the nation that if we want coal—and it is clear that we need it—wages must be commensurate with the importance attached to getting that coal. That is precisely what happened in 1972 and 1974. For the first time in perhaps two decades manpower started to rise marginally, even taking into account the wastage of labour in those years.
Now, since market forces still play a prominent part in this jungle, manpower is beginning to fall. One of the reasons for this, but not the only one, is that miners' wages are less attractive when compared with other industries and—it must be said—not so attractive when compared with the floor level of some of those who receive Welfare State benefits.
I do not want to exaggerate this point. It happens only in extremely rare circumstances. I am not saying that those who receive welfare benefits get too much. What has happened is that because of successive incomes policies the gap has been narrowed. This is not because those people who have been mercilessly thrown on the dole are receiving less than they should; it is because the differences between the two groups have been narrowed, because of the effect of incomes policy on miners.
If we want coalfields at Selby and the Vale of Belvoir, and the massive coal-field that stretches right across Lincoln-shire, something really dramatic must be done about wages in the mining industry.
For the benefit of those who read Hansard and those who are not conversant with this subject, I should point out that the top wages in the industry are £67·50. Take-home pay, based on a man's family, but in many instances after other deductions, is about £40. Only those who manage to work excess over-time can take home a hefty wage packet.
There are many industries in which wages are much higher than in mining, even on the basic rates. This is the Catch 22 problem that not necessarily the Government, but, more importantly, the industry, must solve.
Can the problem be solved in the context of an incentive scheme? The idea that miners, as a result of this carrot-and-stick method, could suddenly get three strips off a coalface whereas previously they got only two, sounds beautiful, but it does not work like that. Many pits have, on average, been worked for 85 years. There are some pits, older than average, where geological conditions are crucial and men have to work in seams less than 2 ft. thick. Miners working in such conditions cannot work the faces for perhaps more than three days out of five in any given week. These fellows can be knocking themselves about physically day in, day out, for almost every hour of the day, yet never produce coal at a level commensurate with any productivity scheme that can be devised. The current idea is to have a pit-by-pit productivity scheme, but I warn that it will create serious divisions in the coalfields.
If hon. Members want to reflect upon industrial disputes, I suggest that they recall the days prior to 1966 and examine the industrial disputes which occurred at Hemsworth and in South Yorkshire—areas represented by my hon. Friends the Members for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) and Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright). Industrial disputes were continually taking place not only in the Yorkshire coalfields, but in other areas. They were based on arguments about wage levels at different pits. The blueprint looks good, but it will be extremely difficult to work, and I do not wish to be associated with it.
We have had a productivity scheme based on a national average and that has not worked. The House should consider why it has not worked. I can understand some hon. Members getting the impression that miners may not be working as hard as they used to work. But that is only in the context of mechanisation. Miners now have the ability to do the work in a different fashion. But it is not easy work. It is just as difficult in many ways, because the dust problem created by the machines is greater than it was previously.
The greatest increase and upsurge in productivity in mining between 1950 and 1970 was almost directly the result of two factors. One was the mechanisation that took place after the end of the war and following nationalisation, which went ahead on a scale that was great by any standards throughout the world. The other factor, unpleasant as it was, was the closing of uneconomic pits.
I do not know whether anyone believes that we can now re-mechanise on as great a scale as we did in the period between 1950 and 1965. I do not know what we should do with it. We have already cut down the numbers of surface workers through mechanisation. We have got rid of many of the outby jobs through mechanisation. We have mechanised coalfaces from beginning to end. We have even got mechanised gates, tailgates and main gates. There is a very small margin for this to be done. It can be done on a big scale only in the new coalfields, and, as I have tried to explain, there is a problem in manning them without high wages.
The Notts branch of the NUM, a moderate coalfield, passed a resolution calling for £135 a week for miners, and it was supported by 30 branches out of 33. They know that that is the only way to keep miners in the industry. Arthur Scargill—or, more accurately, the Yorkshire miners—have passed similar resolutions in the knowledge that this is the only way to reverse the rundown.
We should start from the premise that North Sea oil should be used only to offset Middle East imports and not to replace coal. I think that my right hon. Friend accepts that premise. Then we will be able to do something about retaining the manpower.
I think that hon. Members in the Miners Group agree with me that it must not be assumed that the "loyalty of the miners" will be available for all time to a Labour Government. Without a shadow of a doubt, they are on the side of the Labour Government, the Labour Party and the Labour movement. But this smaller number of men—there are now only 200,000 miners, compared with 700,000 only a couple of decades ago—know that security and a job for life depend on making the industry a sound one. That will not happen by their becoming collaborators, co-ordinators or industrial democratisers. It will come if they fight for what they believe in and if the Government to whom they are akin are loyal to them. I think that my right hon. Friend understands that.
Two points arise from our recent meeting. My right hon. Friend is dealing with one—the amount of money demanded from the National Coal Board for the rating of hereditaments on colliery premises. I am told that a paper going around the Departments suggests an increase from £5 million to £11 million. It is not too long ago that the NCB was relieved of £13 million through its Conoco involvement in the North Sea. That has now ended. It used to be in the NCB accounts and it used to be possible to base some arguments for money on it.
I want my right hon. Friend to tell the Department of the Environment two things. First, that Department should instruct local authorities to build houses with chimneys. Then we might sell more coal. I have raised the second matter several times before. It relates to the coke stocks referred to in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will say what that reference means in real terms.
I end on the question of what happens to North Sea oil. The mining industry could grow, but not to a great extent, during the next two decades. The figure of 6·5 per cent. is not one that people should get too concerned about. I cannot visualise our having sufficient miners to bring about a total increase in production of a greater amount than that.
The question of North Sea oil concerns me. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, by being at the helm of this industry, has been able to ensure, in verbal ways at least, that North Sea oil will be used in such a way that it will not replace coal in power stations, and so on. We must never allow the situation that occurred in the period when pit closures took place to develop on the scale to which my right hon. Friend referred, but it could. If North Sea oil is left to the free play of market forces—whatever we may think about the Government's economic policies—we need to ensure for our own narrow self-interest and the interest of the miners that those in charge of North Sea oil in the immediate and medium-term future are those who will insist on planning where that oil goes and what happens to it. We have to ensure that North Sea oil does not flood into the pits, as a result of which we not only throw away our indigenous resources but put thousands and thousands of miners' jobs at risk.
Mr Paul Bryan (Howden)
In view of the exhortations from the Chair to keep our speeches short, I shall leave the arguments about the Bill to experts and to my colleagues who know a good deal more about the industry than I do. I shall turn straight to the part of the Bill which interests me—the Selby coalfield half of which is in my constituency and half of which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison).
About £400 million of these many hundreds of millions of pounds which we are discussing in this debate will be spent on the Selby coalfield. I am satisfied that that coal mine will be a showpiece. It will be the pride of the NCB and of the men who work in the mine. The Secretary of State is perfectly justified in his optimism about its future. But I am less satisfied with the progress that is now being made to prepare for the reception of the incoming miners and their families.
We have been told far too little about the plans for housing, schools and all the other necessary amenities. When I say that, I sense a note of impatience from those in the industry. I am told that there is no need to worry and that the NCB has great experience of moving miners around the country—indeed it has —but we who come from or are concerned with the Selby area are not reassured, for the following reason.
The nearest example to us is the Kellingley pit, one of the newer pits, which is only a dozen miles away from Selby. An article in The Guardian in the autumn described what happened at Kellingley in the early stages, when hundreds of miners and their families were moved to the new pit from Scotland and other parts of the country. The article said:
The vicar of Knottingley, the Rev. Stuart Pearson, says bluntly: 'The local authority and the NCB made a mess of it. It was a shambolic exercise in twentieth-century planning. When the miners came, there were houses but the social work and welfare side of things just had not happened at all. On the estate where the miners live, there were no services, few shops, no clinics, no pubs. The age of the men had not been considered—they were all having children and yet there weren't enough schools.'
That is perhaps a layman's view.
Let me now quote what is probably a more professional view, that of Mr. Brian Callaghan, Head of Manpower for the North Yorkshire area. In the same article we read:
Brian Callaghan admits that other factors contributed to the dissatisfaction. 'We had modern houses, first-time tenanted, to offer, but that was the only plus we had. The housing estate was not imaginative or well planned: for example, some roads were not wide enough for buses. There were houses, but no amenities at all. They came later.
'What we have learned is that it is not enough to welcome a man, put coal in his bunker, and show him where his locker is at the pit. We've realised that his home life is our problem, too; the environment the miners go into is also our concern. There needs to be closer liaison with the local authority when building houses. A better quality of social life is necessary.'…He is determined to avoid Kellingley's snags when the new Selby coalfield is manned.
We very much hope that those lessons will be learned, but on the strength of that experience we can be forgiven for requiring strong evidence that they have been.
My area is rather different from that dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash. It is much more countrified, much more rural, than Barkston Ash. The miners and their families will be coming to a community which is settled, relatively prosperous, happy and reasonably well housed. We realise that there must be changes but we see no reason why they should be for the worse, either for the miner or for us.
The main worry is housing. The article in The Guardian said:
The key factor in moving miners is housing. The practice now is to give the local authorities incentives which take the form of cash and sometimes land. Discussions take place, if possible, long before the houses are needed. The NCB feels now that at Kellingley— opened in 1965—too many miners are concentrated on one estate. It hopes that there will be greater integration at Selby. And they are now thinking more in terms of owner-occupation.
Despite those good intentions, I see from a National Coal Board letter of 26th February that the first 100 houses will be required for renting in 1979, only two years hence, yet, unbelievably, it has not yet been decided how those houses will be paid for.
This is no fault of the Selby District Council, which has been absolutely exemplary in its eagerness to oblige and to co-operate with the Coal Board and the Department of the Environment. Finally, almost in despair, on 1st February the council's policy and resources committee passed the following resolution:
That this Committee supports the resolution of the Selby Coalfield Committee recommending a total suspension of all further negotiations with the National Coal Board and or the National Government until firm financial proposals are offered to the Council for consideration.
That is very much to be regretted. I believe that the council has made tremendous efforts to try to secure co-operation. It is a serious matter.
To underline the utterly reasonable attitude of the Selby District Council, let me tell the House that the committee had already passed a resolution which expresses my point:
That this Council accepts a duty to protect the interests of the residents of the Selby District and acknowledges that some expenses will be incurred in performance of such duty. In respect of such necessary expenditure:
(a) the Council reaffirms its existing policy and that the provision of housing required for employees of the National Coal Board arising from the working of the Selby Coal-field is the responsibility of the Coal Board and/or the National Government, but that this Council is prepared to co-operate in the provision of such housing if acceptable offers are made by the responsible party or or parties".
In other words, the council's attitude is entirely friendly to the incoming miners. But it is entirely responsible in its view that it must look after the existing population.
At this late stage we still do not know who is to pay for several thousand new houses or how they are to be paid for. This is a major worry. All the conversations so far seem to assume that 90 per cent. of the housing provided for the miners will be subsidised council housing. Surely that must be wrong. According to the tentative figures submitted to the National Coal Board by the treasurer, I see that the inclusive capital cost of a council house will be £11,200. Loan charges, repair contributions, supervision and management add up to another £1,522. The economic weekly rent of such a house is £31·70. From that sum can be deducted a Government subsidy of £19·74 and a further reduction of £5·92 under the pooling scheme, leaving a rent of £6 to be paid by the tenant.
Whatever figure I give will undoubtedly be queried, but I inquired of the National Coal Board about the wages at Kellingley and it appears that the highest wage paid to face workers two weeks ago was £83 net, so that the gross wage must be getting on for £100. I am not quarrelling about the rate of wages. I am all for miners getting well paid. I am merely bringing out the great contrast that there will be between miners' wages and the wages of others in an area such as my constituency.
All I wish to point out is that a miner will come into the area with a subsidy of £25 a week. If the community is to offer those who are earning a reasonable wage £25 a week to live in a council house, who will buy a house? It is only natural that there will be very few who choose to do so.
Mr Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has said, the hon. Gentleman misreads the position of the average miner. Some years ago a new pit was opened in my constituency. The local authority offered miners 100 per cent. mortgages but for financial reasons only a very small number were able to take up the offer. As long as the earnings of miners remain as they are, there can be only the type of housing that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
Mr Paul Bryan (Howden)
I do not want to go into that sort of detail. I shall argue the matter at some other time. The case I am putting forward is that the wages that will be earned in such a magnificent mine will be markedly higher than other wages in the area, which on the whole is a farming community.
In such a community it seems not only ludicrous but unjust that such provision should be made. Nearly £6 of the subsidy comes from the system of pooling the rents of all the houses, both old and new. That is acceptable when the new high rent additions to the housing stock are a small fraction of the total, but when, as in Selby, the miners' houses are likely to number about 2,000, which would be one-third of the total housing stock of the district, the arrangement would be unfair to those who already live in the area. I hope that the Minister will consider how disturbing this general situation will be to the general population.
I am serious about this matter. In the area of the Selby District Council four out of five of the population either own their own houses or rent them from private landlords. In other words they pay for their own housing, but in a country area such as this their average wage would certainly be below that of the miners. In spite of that, the miners will be housed in brand-new accommodation and will be paid a subsidy to live in it. How can this lead to harmony? This is happening in Kellingley. Perhaps I may quote an article which says that
the feeling of 'them and us' persists, aggravated by the resentment of some locals whose houses are delapidated while the newcomers received brand new accommodation.
Mr Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)
Does the hon. Member agree that the difficulties arising between newcomers and those already there were one of the problems referred to in respect of Maplin and Stansted, and that this applies to any situation in which a major industry comes into an area? He should not forget that the local council has the power to veto any proposed development. Over the last 10 years the National Coal Board has been trying to get rid of its housing stock to local authorities. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that, in addition, new industry coming in makes a substantial contribution to the local authority? It is not all give. It is give and take.
Mr Paul Bryan (Howden)
I agree with that. I hope the hon. Member will concede that I am trying to forestall aggravation of this sort. A major effort should be made to give the miners the chance to own their own houses, difficult though that may be. Attractive schemes could be prepared. I would have no objection to their being offered houses at less than the cost. It would be cheaper for the State to offer houses at two-thirds of their price than to pay subsidies of £25 a week for the next 60 years.
From the quotation which I gave earlier concerning the situation at Kellingley, it could be seen that one of the great complaints was the delay in establishing schools until the children were already in the area. It would be reassuring to my constituents to know that plans are being made now to enlarge our schools. It would be folly not to plan ahead. We must avoid the situation in which the children arrive there before the schools are ready. I believe that great efforts have been made in the public relations exercise, but we must see that people are more informed about vital issues such as housing and schools.
There is a strong feeling in the area that on the construction of the mine money will be no object. Whatever cuts there may be in public expenditure, the mine will certainly not suffer, and that is almost certainly right. In contrast, there seems to be no thought of spending money on what might be called the infrastructure of the mine.
I must refer again to the ludicrous bridge. Does the Minister realise that, as present plans stand, most of the work force at the mine will live south of the river, so that several thousand miners will have to cross the Selby toll bridge every day to get to work? It is a rickety old structure built in 1792. It is a period piece, not a bridge. We have been waiting for a bypass for 70 years. Now this bridge is to be the gateway to the most modern mine in the world. We are to spend £400 million on the mine, but we will not spend £1 million on the vital bridge.
The Minister will have his nose rubbed in this problem during the building of the mine; thousands of heavy lorries will have to cross the bridge during construction of the shafts, and many will be stuck on the bridge. The queue is often up to a mile long, and the lorries will be seriously hindered in their work.
Similar arguments may be advanced concerning the Riccall bypass. This was high on the list of priorities. It was about to be commissioned when we were told that because of the coalfield its priority had dropped and the whole situation had to be reconsidered. Of course, the opposite should have taken place.
Obviously, a matter of great interest is where the work force will be recruited from. I understand that there is an actual shortage of labour in the existing Yorkshire coalfield, which, presumably, will be accentuated by the early retirement plan. I hear from the Coal Board that, in conjunction with the Manpower Services Commission, a labour market survey on the area from Selby to Hull has been carried out and that the results show a potential maximum annual recruitment for the mining industry of 800. That figure includes potential recruits from the Hull area who could either travel daily to work or come and live near the mine. This, of course, is very good news, especially for Hull, which has a very high unemployment rate.
I am also concerned about compensation—not for subsidence, but for people's houses which may be damaged by the use of small country roads by hundreds of heavy lorries during the construction period. I speak from the experience that I had during the construction of the M62 motorway through my constituency. I can best illustrate my point by a single example. A constituent, Mr. C. W. Cottingham, has his house on a small country road called Sandhome Lane, Gilberdyke. This road, as its name implies, is a narrow country road quite unsuited to heavy traffic. Nevertheless, in the course of the construction of the M62 it became a highway for hundreds of very heavy lorries. Each passing vehicle administered a minor earthquake to Mr. Cottingham's house and, not surprisingly, it was seriously damaged.
No compensation was available from the contractors, and the answer to my letter of protest to the Minister on this subject reads as follows:
If the damage to the property had been caused by actual impact of vehicles, then
your constituent would have a clear legal remedy against the owner or the driver of the vehicle concerned. However I am advised that, if the damage is caused by vibration from traffic lawfully using the public highway, the Highway Authority is not responsible for any adverse effects on road side property. Much as I sympathise with your constituent it would not seem that there are grounds for a claim for compensation.
Whether or not my constituent had a claim under the law as it now stands, he most certainly had a very genuine grievance against a society in which a Minister is able to condone the violation of what one might call the natural rights of an individual. I should like to know that that sort of thing will not happen during the construction of the mine.
I foresee a repetition of incidents of that sort during the construction of the mine shafts at the villages of Riccall, North Duffield, Stillingfleet and Escrick. Each of these villages is served by minor country roads. All these roads have houses constructed sufficiently near the highway to be liable to damage by vibration. A continuous stream of heavy lorries is bound to use these roads during the construction period. I should like a reassurance from the Minister about this.
The public relations people at Selby have tried very hard indeed; but none of the lessons of Kellingley seems to have been learned. We still do not know the plans for housing, and we are therefore worried. We do not know the plans for schools, and we are therefore worried. We do not know what is going to happen about the roads, and we are therefore worried. It is time that we knew about these things.
Mr Robert Woof (Blaydon)
I am very glad indeed to be called to speak following the speech of the hon. Member for How-den (Sir P. Bryan), if only for one reason. This is one of the infrequent opportunities that we have to discuss some of the vital affairs of the National Coal Board and of the coal mining industry.
I wholeheartedly support the purpose of the Bill. It is imperative that we should do so in order to accomplish its usefulness by assisting the NCB to extract itself from its present trying position.
This is the sort of subject about which many of us have been anything but happy for a long time, especially in terms of how the coal industry has been allowed to deteriorate. But we are now a little more impressed to note some of the prospect of the industry that are now emerging.
It would be quite wrong to ignore that aspect, as it is in that sense that we regard the Bill as essential to step up the drive for industrial production. I also believe that the Bill should be seen against a background of unmitigated confusion and frustrations, which should never be allowed to be repeated.
I shall not recapitulate all the details of the circumstances when coal production was needed to meet an almost insatiable demand. We rightly believed it to be the foundation of the country's prosperity. But instead of the kind of security that we imagined would be a feature of the industry under State control and ownership—for anyone with so long an association with that industry—many times we were alarmed to think of its consequent uncertainty.
Even though sentiments have from time to time been expressed as to the contribution made by the Board and the miners to the economy of the country, and the risks that were taken to achieve it, the industry was nevertheless thrown into perplexity by the effects of the changing pattern of fuel consumption. It was well foreseen. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned all the fuel industries. But I think that it would be more accurate to say that as we have a nationalised coal mining industry, a nationalised gas industry and a nationalised electricity industry, all operating in the energy market, the fact of the matter is that the NCB has had to face a deliberate and calculated contraction of the industry.
However, that may be, it is an unquestioned fact that out of the past and throughout the last 12 years or so, it has been forced to swim against the current, and a very strong current indeed, in commercial warfare. That is the top and bottom of it. Therefore, it comes unbidden to my mind that the Bill before us, by reason of its intrinsic importance, should command general approval.
I also think that it is fair to say that it is not an absolute issue for the NCB to become virtually supreme in the energy field, crushing out all rivalry and opposition. Nevertheless, the measures proposed in the Bill should assist the Board in its major task of strengthening its economic fabric and enable it to play a more important rôle in the energy field, which must be won by efficient effort that will best serve the life and interests of the nation.
I cannot fail to welcome the Bill, because I believe that there is nothing that can offer any parallel to future energy requirements. Any unwarranted assumption would be an error, but one of the most critical questions facing the world is how are we to increase energy supplies? They can properly enough be termed worldly.
With that in mind the Secretary of State has given the House this afternoon a detailed explanation of what the Bill is about. He has demonstrated that he has a true grasp of the need for and the meaning of progress in the energy field as a necessity from which we cannot escape.
One of the most common reasons why I join forces with my right hon. Friend in showing a more graceful imagination in the broad wide-ranging responsibilities of the Coal Board is on account of what has happened in the past. We are entitled to defend our integrity, as throughout the years many of us on both sides of the House who participated in coal debates have tried to impress on Ministers responsible—both Labour and Tory—that a too rapid rundown of the coal industry would result in the slaughter of employment in a whirlwind of pit closures. Naturally we could never conceal our deep concern on that alone but also on the cutting back of valuable coal production.
I hope that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) is not laughing at that. If he is, I will tell him that on looking back on the conduct and standards that we have tried to set in this House, with great respect to you, Mr. Speaker, we might as well have got down on our bended knees and talked to the cows in the field, for what notice anyone took of our pleas. Many times we tried to reach a common agreement and understanding. I often approach other Members, both inside and outside the House, only to be told "Sorry, Robert, old chap; you must understand the trend of market forces" Of course we knew what was meant by the trend of market forces. We knew the claims of different kinds of fuel. We knew the pressures from the oil lobby and we knew what they were getting at, as to a considerable extent it was the effectiveness that cheap oil would be obtainable ad infinitum.
But it does not take a college education for anyone to realise that turbulent events since then have proved that that kind of speculation and image of an abiding monument of cheap fuel will never any longer carry a monopoly of such guarantee. The proof, as everyone knows, is that high-priced oil imports are an intolerable burden.
We never claimed to have a close-knit knowledge of all the economic mechanisms, but we tried conscientiously enough by studying the extraordinary state of affairs and by pursuing the objectives of proper exploitation and development of such a valuable mineral resource.
But having to cope with the present and to evaluate the future presupposes an understanding of the past. With that in mind, it is instructive to look on the premise that there will be a large market for coal within the next decade and that investment in that direction, in expansion, is required now.
The measures in the Bill are directed to that end—and, for the removal of any doubts, I wish to draw attention to the editorial in The Times of 9th February, which commented on this issue as follows:
Britain has technically recoverable reserves of coal amounting to some 45,000 million tons, enough for over 300 years at current rates of output. It is reasonable that this should be exploited in a more planned way after the post-war experience of decline, culminating in bitter and unprecedented industrial disputes, and the salutary reminders from OPEC of the economic vulnerability of industrialised nations with heavy dependence on imported oil.
The only thing that I would say in commenting on that judgment is that it has taken a long time to admit it. It seems that former opinions on such economic vitality are dissolving like a dream. But we have the right to say, having been furnished with internal political observation and experience, the intensity of which we were capable of comprehending, and notwithstanding any shortcomings, that it so happened that those in the higher seats
of learning—those who are possessed of dry-as-dust economic knowledge, with a fine old tradition in marshalling affairs— classified and predicted what was best for the country as the years were to roll on.
I never envy anyone who knows more than myself, but while it is reckoned to be interesting to go behind the scenes at a circus, it was through dealing with the principal factors and the practical affairs of the industry that I came to the conclusion that our brains must have been made of mutton fat compared with the doctrine propounded by eminent experts who have got us into such a mess.
As I understand the main purposes of the Bill, they seek to give the National Coal Board sufficient borrowing powers to implement the long-term development of the coal industry, as set out in the recent publication "Coal for the Future", mentioned earlier by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry.
Now that we have been presented with that report, we see that it envisages the need for primary fuel in the United Kingdom amounting to a figure between 500 million and 600 million tons of coal equivalent. Whatever public money is required to be spent should not be regarded as extravagant, because we cannot ignore the fuelling of the country's industrial recovery with as much home-produced energy as possible. That should be regarded as an important task in the Coal Board's requirements, aided by borrowing powers.
In view of the contents of the Bill and the report entitled "Coal for the Future", with all that it involves, we cannot refrain from thinking that they can afford endless time for discussion. I would not go so far as to describe all that as "the philosopher's stone" if it did not bring wealth, but they are involved in the interlaced which I have referred, is that it is well known that all the geological evidence suggests that the country is lavishly endowed with vast resources of coal for the production of wealth.
I should, however, agree that the production and consumption of energy involves a complex network of systems—but they are involved in the interlaced structure of the Coal Board in trying to secure its share in the energy market. The Coal Board's policies should have support and should be receptive to all ideas to meet the challenge of any energy crisis with the responsibility to do so.
I want to conclude on this note. The House may think it rather odd, in a debate of this character, when I say that it is many years since I read the life of the late right hon. Joseph Chamberlain, even though he was a hard-boiled Tory. I learned the motto that ruled his life, which he declared in his own words:
No work is ever worth doing badly and he who puts his best into every task that comes to him will surely outstrip the man who waits for an opportunity before he condescends to exert himself.
Having revealed that to the House for the benefit of the members of the "get rid of Tony Benn" brigade, the significance of that little pearl of epistemology is precisely what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is trying to live up to, with his penetration and distinctive application of knowledge on such a subject, in introducing the Bill.
It is by endeavouring to give shape to the Coal Board in accordance with the tidal wave of changes that surround us—and will continue to trouble us deeply—that the measures in the Bill should serve as a means of future confidence to the Coal Board and the industry. Fortified by all the mutual interests and responsibility, it should be geared to stand four-square against all the winds that blow rather than, just like a ball of clay in the potter's hand, be moulded and shaped into an insignificant industrial asset.
Mr George Thomas (Cardiff West)
Order. I make an appeal to the House. The debate is due to finish at about 1 o'clock. I fully realise the importance of the debate and the strength of feeling—I need not remind the House that I am a miner's son and therefore I am interested in the debate—but I shall not be able to call everybody in the time allowed unless hon. Members are able to discipline themselves a little more.
Mr Michael Latham (Melton)
I take heed of what you have said, Mr. Speaker. I shall just say this about the speech of the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Woof). It was sincere. Although I disagreed with much of what he said, he expressed a view that ought to be put in the House.
I want to relate my brief remarks about the borrowing powers of the NCB under Clause 1 to the future need for coal, obviously in the context of the Vale of Belvoir—although I shall not talk much about that. I will simply say this about it. We must first decide whether it is really necessary to mine that coal in the foreseeable future. The energy case must be made out. If an overwhelming national need were proved, which could not be met acceptably in any other way, my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) would reluctantly accept the project and would concentrate on minimising the environmental damage that it would inevitably cause to the beautiful and agriculturally-productive area involved.
The form of the inquiry into the scheme and how the energy case will be examined is crucial to the whole issue. As I have said to the Secretaries of State for Energy and Environment, the normal planning inquiry procedure will not be sufficient. I suspect that that is increasingly accepted on all sides. Both right hon. Gentlemen have always been most helpful and courteous to me, and I shall be writing to the Secretary of State who opened our debate when I have some reaction from the Council on Tribunals to questions that I have put to them about inquiries. I disagree with many of the right hon. Gentleman's policies, but his method of open government, with full publication of so much information, is greatly to his credit and has lifted the level of the energy debate and public discussion of it.
I turn to future need for coal and the financial resources for it. The "Plan for Coal" does not effect the Vale of Belvoir, because no one thinks that it will be on stream by 1985. "Coal for the Future" effectively admits that when it says that only 10 million tons of new capacity is expected by 1985. Eight million tons will come from Selby and the rest from Royston or Betwys, or both.
We must increasingly re-examine the "Plan for Coal" assumptions, let alone those in "Coal for the Future". "Plan for Coal" was drawn up following the Yom Kippur war and the coal strike, when the energy situation was very different. We must also take seriously an important article by the Reader in Geo-
graphy at University College, London, Mr. G. Manners, entitled
The Changing Energy Situation in Britain".
In the article, which, to my knowledge, has not been seriously disputed, Mr. Manners shows that because of the enormous potential wattage of the oil and nuclear power stations under construction, the electricity system will reduce its dependence on coal from 64 per cent. in 1974–75 to less than 53 per cent. of output capacity in 1979–80. He also argues that far from the 135 million tons target in "Plan for Coal" being realistic, the domestic market for coal in Britain in 1984–1986 is unlikely to exceed 125 million tons a year, and there is no serious export potential. How, then, is the 135 million tons to be marketed, to whom, and at what price?
There are two crucial assumptions about "Plan for Coal" that were reasonable in 1974 but that look much less good now. As "Coal for the Future" admits, the total energy scene "now looks somewhat different" and "smaller". The report says that the NCB considers it vital to maintain a market for coal of 125 million to 135 million tons a year. Of course it does: that is its job. It wants "temporary support"—that is a subsidy— to achieve this. We know the Board's view, but we do not know from the document whether the Government agree.
One aspect of this "somewhat different" energy scene is the assumption of "Plan for Coal" that it would become more competitive with oil because of price increases. The CEGB has made clear that recent price increases in coal and railway transport costs have eroded coal's advantage over oil and, as Mr. Manners put last year:
it is questionable whether coal in fact retains even in 1976 any real economic advantage over oil in many parts of the country.
That article was written in 1976, and even in 1975–76 the advantage was very narrow. In an answer to me on 6th August, the Secretary of State said that, expressed as pence per kilowatt hour, electricity generating costs for coal-fired power stations were 0·97, for oil 1·09, but for nuclear power 0·67.
The second assumption of "Plan for Coal" that has proved doubtful lies in its targets. The January edition of Energy Trends shows that the total production of coal fell by 3·8 per cent. in 1976 and by 6·1 per cent. for deep-mined output. Consumption was virtually unchanged, stocks at power stations and elsewhere remained higher than in any year since before 1971, the manpower in the mines fell by 4,000—I agree with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about the difficulty of recruiting miners in future—and electricity consumption increased only marginally.
Against that specific picture up to 1985, the NCB is asking us to look at the position in the year 2000. The basis for its case for further expansion in "Plan 2000"—sensibly the Government have not accepted it but have merely said that they will consider it—is that there will be an energy gap in the 1990s or, as it is discreetly put in " Coal for the Future ", there will be
Global pressure on energy resources ".
Since it is doubtful that the 135 million tons of coal target for 1985 is either marketable or likely to be achieved, I am even more sceptical about the "Plan 2000" range from 135 million tons to 200 million tons, of which 60 million tons from 30 new mines should be new capacity. I find those targets difficult to accept.
Let us consider the evidence for an energy gap. Both the Gas Corporation and Mr. Frank Chapple of the EEPTU have expressed scepticism—which I share—about whether it will happen at all. The Secretary of State in evidence to the steam generating heavy water reactor inquiry last August, before the General Sub-Committee, felt unable to say more than:
There has got to be agreement, at any rate about broad forecasts within certain parameters, so that we know exactly what the gap is, when it will come and how we might fill it.
Even the NCB in "Plan 2000" does not say more than
By the end of the century North Sea oil and gas could have passed their peak.
The House would do well to mark the wise words of the previous chairman of British Gas, Sir Arthur Hetherington, at the National Energy Conference last year, when he said:
Forecasting energy demand 25 years hence is a chancy business indeed. Many very eminent and wholly disinterested people have
tried their hand at this in the past and have proved dismally wrong. Only nine years ago the 1967 White Paper got the UK energy demand in 1975 wrong by an over-estimate of 9 per cent. … Any forecast which assumes a constant relationship between GNP and energy demand must be suspect.…Because we cannot speak with even reasonable certainty about energy demand in the year 2000, a rational procedure is to establish the lead times of the various projects which may he necessary and to take each decision as late as possible. It is vital not to take today, on the basis of a speculation, decisions which could cripple the country industrially over the next few years.
The "Plan 2000" figures are based on four main assumptions, which should be questioned in the House. One major assumption is that oil-fired plant would be converted to coal. The CEGB has specifically rejected this solution, which it has said will increase the price of electricity, reduce its consumption and depress coal production still further.
A second assumption in "Plan 2000" is that coal sales to industry, in preference to oil or gas, could be increased from the present 11 million tons to between 30 million and 50 million tons. The best that the NCB can say to justify that is that "there is no reason" why it should not happen. But there is no reason why it should happen either. Since no reason is seriously offered, we cannot plan on that basis.
The third assumption is that there is a predicted increase of up to 10 million tons in additional coal sales—including totally uncosted and unquantified SNG conversions—to the domestic and commercial market for central heating. Such a proposal is against all consumer preference and experience, and it is hard to believe.
"Plan 2000" talked of the possibility of coal exports to the EEC. It gave no figures, which was just as well, since it would be difficult to take them seriously. "Coal for the Future" does not try to predict any real export potential. If there is any export to the EEC, I suspect that it will come from Poland.
There is also the cost—the horrific cost. The original March 1974 "Plan for Coal" figures have risen to £2,440 million at March 1976 levels, or £3,150 million if the revisions are taken into account. That was March 1976. What are the figures now? What will they be in 1985? What about Selby, which will not start producing until the early 1980s and which was scheduled to cost £400 million at March 1976 prices? What will it cost in the 1980s? As for Belvoir, if it is even mined, I cannot see it costing less than £1,000 million in real money as opposed to "phoney" constant price forecasts. The House will be continually considering coal Bills every year if that is the reality.