Colliery Closures

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th March 1969.

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Photo of Mr Alexander Eadie Mr Alexander Eadie , Midlothian 12:00 am, 14th March 1969

I should like to be associated with the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Fred Evans) on having initiated the debate. Miners everywhere will be very appreciative of his action.

I regard this as a debate for the attention of miners, the nation and the Government. Time and time again some of us, particularly from the Labour benches, have echoed the miners' point of view of the concept of the White Paper, the concept which accelerated pit closures, the concept of calculations of output and targets. As one who came practically straight from the coal-face to Parliament, two or three years ago, I can speak with some authority about how miners feel about the coal industry and pit closures.

We resent the argument, which is advanced in the White Paper and in the Press, that coal is too dear and that, therefore, the mining industry must inevitably contract. Alongside that argument we are told that pit work is dirty and unhealthy. It is a dishonest argument. Its logic is that if the pits were deemed to be profitable and the tests of profitability were applied, it would not matter if the pits were unhealthy and dirty, for miners would still be required to work in them. I hope that my right hon. Friend will confess that these calculations have been proved wrong in many important respects. We are entitled to be told how they have gone wrong and precisely where my right hon. Friend proposes to make changes.

The debate is of vital importance to the nation, which is entitled to be told that the country cannot do without coal. By rather slick advertising and propaganda, there has been created the impression that we do not need coal any longer, that other fuels will replace it and that the nation therefore need not worry very much about the contraction of the industry. The nation must be told that if we cannot get coal, or the miners to mine it, the country will be in a much more serious economic position, far worse than has resulted from the effects of devaluation and far worse than has resulted from the problem of the balance of payments, for the nation would be in economic peril.

As former miners and as Members representing mining constituencies we have to tell the nation that the present position has arisen because the policy of contraction has led to a crisis of confidence in the industry. Miners no longer encourage their sons to enter the industry, and nobody can blame them. Miners whose families were in the industry for generations, and who made great sacrifices, sometimes even losing members of their families, in order to mine the "black gold" which was so necessary to the country's economic prosperity, take the view that if the nation is now prepared to let them down, the sons of other people can have a go at the problem.

The commercial test of profitability has been applied to the industry. In a recent debate on industrial relations, my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire) recalled how patriotic the miners had been in days gone by when they refused to hold the nation to ransom although they could have demanded far greater rewards than they received if they had been so minded. The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) said that the miners made a great mistake by not demanding the market price for their labour. We therefore got kicked in the teeth because we were patriotic and considered the nation before individuals.

The miners have always been like this. The possibility of change and technological advances has always been realised. But we resent hon. Members opposite talking to us about profitability and commercial viability. Speaking on behalf of the miners, I am entitled to say that that the mining industry is heading for a manpower crisis. I believe that there will be one this year. We may not be able to get enough miners to mine the coal that we need. Although we talk about profitability, and may apply vast amounts of capital investment, the mining industry may well be faced with the dilemma of having to buy back the miners—and this will be a very expensive operation.

We were told that coal would be too dear, compared to nuclear power, although we warned the Government that mistakes had been made in the past about the cost of nuclear power. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly referred to the Magnox system. The arguments of the miners were backed up by the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which called for an independent investigation into the question of costs. In the arguments that went on about the nuclear power station in Dumfries, at Chapel Cross, we were told that coal was too dear and that we must go ahead with nuclear power.

I put down a Question to the Minister of Technology about the Chapel Cross reactor breakdown. I wanted to find out how much money was involved. Many of my friends in Scotland were staggered at the reply. I was told that it had cost about £200,000; it was not yet possible to forecast how long the No. 2 reactor would be out of commission, and that the loss in terms of electricity sales to date was about £1,700,000 and would increase by £90,000 per annum while the reactor was out of commission. We were: told that we were in for a bonanza—that coal was too dear and that nuclear power was the answer to our prayers. My hon. Friends and I never accepted that. We said that the Government should have learned from the mistakes of the past—from the Magnox experience—and should be careful how they planned their nuclear power programme.

We were also told sunshine stories about North Sea gas. I have made speeches before pointing out that, in my view, consumers have been conned into believing that there is to be very cheap gas for them. On the contrary, all the evidence seems to indicate that in spite of the tremendous capital investment by the Government, and all the modern innovations, there will not be any cheap North Sea gas for the consumer. This is important for those who represent mining areas, because the argument is put forward that not enough coal is being produced and that a policy of pit closures has been introduced because coal is too dear.

Last week I wrote to the Chairman of the Scottish Gas Board asking for an inquiry in my constituency about the costs of heating, because my constituents had told me that gas central heating was costing them between £2 10s. and £3 a week. I am aware of the steps taken by the Government to assist the coal mining industry and to ease conditions during its contraction. I am aware of the work done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I put down a Question to him this week, and he was able to demonstrate that, because of the Government's efforts in Scotland, in the 1970s Scotland will require about 8 million tons of coal for electric power generation. This is vitally important for the mining industry. When a mining group met my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister he made it clear to the delegation that he was amenable to change and open to argument. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power will adopt the same attitude.

The Government can do much more to promote the sale of coal in the domestic market. Help can still be given in this way to alleviate the problems of the mining industry while it is contracting. At a meeting last week I was flabbergasted when I heard an architect try to explain why several hundred houses had been badly troubled by condensation. They were almost uninhabitable because of the water running down the walls. He told the meeting, "What went wrong was that we failed to calculate what would happen when we took the solid fuel system and the chimney out of a house. Ventilation was cut down and the walls could no longer breathe. That was a miscalculation." He then put forward the proposition that false walls should be installed, with extractor fans, to make the houses habitable.

I want to make four specific suggestions for promoting the sale of coal on the domestic market. The Government can influence consumer demand. We have many new towns, including some in Scotland, and we are grateful to the Government for the boost that these new towns have given to the economy. There is a case for the Government's intervening and telling the new town authorities, "Because public money has been invested here you should be putting forward schemes for the use of solid fuel." I have demonstrated previously that if we cannot give people the creature comforts of solid fuel heating for less than £2 10s. or £3 a week there is something wrong.

Correspondence that I have received from my union leads me to believe that the Government do not stand in a very good light in Scotland. I have had correspondence concerning the St. James's Square development in Edinburgh, where the Government have agreed that the heating system should be oil-fired, although Edinburgh is on the fringe of a mining area. The situation is worse than that, because the inference is that the Coal Board did not give proper consideration to the possibility that the whole Government office building project should be heated by coal.

I hope that you will look into this. You do not inspire confidence in your own projects if you introduce oil——