Orders of the Day — Coal Industry (Dispute)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th February 1972.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Probert Mr Arthur Probert , Aberdare 12:00 am, 8th February 1972

In accordance with your injunction, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall attempt to be brief, partly because of what the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) has said. I agree with him on the last sentiment he expressed and certainly with his reference to my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason). No one who listened to that speech tonight could but feel as I am feeling now that anything I now say is quite irrelevant to what was said in one of the most excellent speeches I have heard from the Front Benches for a very long time. With many of my right hon. and hon. Friends I have sat through debate after debate on the mining industry. Representing a mining industry, although I am not myself a miner, it is perfectly natural that one's interests are with the miners whom one represents, in my case some 4,000 to 5,000 and their families at the present time and many more when I entered Parliament.

I should like to put forward some new points to show the background to the present crisis in the mining industry. In 1955 the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd) was Minister of Fuel and Power. I had just come into the House. He indicated to the country on behalf of the Government the fuel requirements as that Government saw them for the next few decades up to the 1980s. It is to that basis of that statement which was before the House in 1955 that many of the troubles now facing the coal industry are due because it was indicated in reports then presented to the House that the National Coal Board would be expected to produce, and that it would be incumbent on it to produce, 250 million tons of coal in 1970. That was the figure given by that Government.

There was also an indication of what should be done in the nuclear energy industry. Hundreds of millions of pounds were sunk in the nuclear energy industry, as anyone who has attended the Select Committees on Estimates and Public Accounts will know. The excuse given for that expenditure was that in the foreseeable future nuclear energy would be produced at the mythical cost of less than ·5d. per thermal unit. Year after year I and my hon. Friends have heard that the nuclear power stations are to produce energy at this mythical figure but they have never approached production at anything like that cost. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in the debate preceding the last one on the coal industry, made the same prognostication that within a short space of time we should get nuclear energy at a mythical unit cost, making it highly competitive. We have geared the country's fuel policy to those prognostications of so-called fuel experts.

Despite what the hon. and learned Member for Mongomery (Mr. Hooson) thinks I meant when referring to the last Labour Government, he will recall that time and time again when I was sitting on the other side of the House, I criticised the then Government for their fuel policy, on one occasion at one o'clock in the morning. But I did not criticise their treatment of the miners. I believe that the Labour Government's treatment of the miners, in redundancy payments and the writing-off of hundreds of millions of pounds of capital, was exceptional; and the miners are well aware of it.

Coming back to the figure of 250 million tons which the industry was geared to produce in 1970, hundreds of millions of pounds in capital investment was required to comply with the Government's intentions. If I may be facetious, on the question of fuel policy I and many of my hon. Friends on this side take the view—and this applies to both Governments—that so-called fuel experts have led Governments up the garden path time and time again. To refer to another bête noire of mine. I believe that town planning consultants are in the same category. If we were to consider exporting these so-called experts to some of our competitors I believe we could soon do very well.

The country is facing a very serious fuel crisis and it is not only the mining communities that will suffer. Let Ministers be under no illusion. I come from a militant area. When I was going to school I saw a hundred policemen protecting one blackleg going to a pit. That is a memory which is fixed indelibly in my mind. But these people are the most responsible trade unionists in the country.

I attended a meeting of a strike committee a week or two ago when the strike was starting. It was trying, in conjunction with the local medical officer of health and local authorities, to help old-age pensioners, knowing full well that many others would come in on all this and indulge in it for other purposes. The social costs which are now facing my constituency in South Wales are enormous. I spent last Friday from 9.30 in the morning telephoning London, to the Department for Social Services, the Welsh Office and other Departments, trying to rescue my medical officer of health from his predicament in trying to produce heating appliances for 24 old-age pensioners who might possibly die of lack of heat if they did not get them.

At the present time there are 70,000 schoolchildren not going to school in Wales. For many it does not matter—it is a holiday; but many thousands will soon be facing their O-levels and their A-levels. The solution is a simple one. The hon. Member for Cannock has indicated it to his Front Bench. I believe the Government's continued insistence on the danger of granting the miners a just wage because of its effect on inflation is absolute nonsense. They should realise what will happen to the country if they do not give the miners a just wage.

In my opinion the person who is responsible—and I have some regard for what my hon. Friends have said of the Minister for Employment, despite the million unemployed at the present time—and the chief culprit is the Prime Minister. He can say tonight to his Minister, "Get a settlement tomorrow. Give them the money", and it would be settled tomorrow and the country would be saved from the disaster that is facing it, and not just the miners, in a very short space of time.

I have dealt with the suicidal policy of previous Governments since 1955 and the last Labour Government in dealing with indigenous fuel, the wealth we have in the country. I believe the country is slowly coming to realise the way this great wealth we have has been neglected by Government after Government, including my own. Time and time again many hon. Members on this side, and perhaps some on the other side of the House, have asked responsible Ministers what is the cost to our balance of payments of importing oil. We have never had any figure, precise or rough, from the Government of this cost. The hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) talks of the economic cost of coal and of introducing oil into this country but this has never been assessed. Some years ago, I had a figure from a reputable oil company that in a short space of time the cost to this country to our balance of payments, for oil imports would be over £300 million. I do not want to stop the importation of oil, because we need it; but I do not want to destroy the wealth we have in our indigenous fuel.

I repeat that the Prime Minister can stop this nonsense tonight by instructing his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, when he goes to the meeting tomorrow, to do what his hon. Friend has asked him to do—that is, negotiate an increased offer to the miners and get a solution to this problem quickly.