Orders of the Day — Coal Industry Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st December 1972.

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Photo of Mr Alan Fitch Mr Alan Fitch , Wigan 12:00 am, 21st December 1972

I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Dover (Mr. Peter Rees) will forgive me if I do not follow the line of his interesting remarks.

I hope that I am right in thinking that the Bill means the realisation by the Government, after much prodding by the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board, that it is in the national interest that the industry should not be allowed to contract any more. I hope, too, that it is not just a matter of maintaining the stains quo, but that the industry will expand and that the Bill is the first step towards that end.

There is a growing realisation in both Russia and America, and we hope in the EEC, that if a fuel crisis is to be avoided the production of coal must be increased. Those of us with experience in the industry have been pressing for a long time that coal production should be increased to avoid the probable shortage of this fuel in the 1980s. I make no apology for repeating the statement that we are precariously dependent on oil from abroad to meet half our energy needs. There is no need for that when we have more than a century's reserves of coal at the present rate of production. Why rely so heavily on imported oil, a burden on our balance of payments, which may be under pressure again very soon, when there is no balance of payments problem in the mining of coal?

An interesting document, one of the best on the subject of energy, was published recently by the NUM. In the document, entitled "National Energy Policy", the union gives a grave warning of a potential energy crisis by 1980 and calls for a radical reshaping of the Government's energy policy to avoid the crisis. It says: What is not profitable now may be profitable in 1985. In other words, it is right that the industry should be subsidised now in the interests of the country in the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley) drew attention to a report in last Sunday's Observer by its American correspondent, who wrote: America is approaching Christmas, uneasy about whether she has gathered enough winter fuel. We are not particularly interested in the short-term lack of fuel of the American economy, but the writer said something very important. He quoted a statement by President Nixon's fuel adviser that the shortage of fuel was likely to take priority even over the cold war. That suggests that the American Government are treating very seriously the possibility of a fuel shortage in the next decade, and in particular a coal shortage. We must do the same.

Of particular interest in the Bill is the reduction of the NCB's outstanding liabilities, as outlined in Clause I. This is long overdue. The burden of debt and the interest thereon which is resting on the shoulders of the NCB is grossly out of proportion to its assets. This has been particularly so since 1965, when the pit closure programme was accelerated and became very considerable. It led to a reduction of assets without a relatively corresponding decrease in debt. One thing that the clause does is to redress the balance.

The industry deserves Government help for many reasons, if for no other than that it has made great and successful efforts to improve itself. Figures have been given by both the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield. We have had new productivity records, the highest for 20 months. Coal sales arc rising, for the first time for two years. Stocks have been built up to a pre-strike position. As the Chairman of the Board, Mr. Derek Ezra, has said: These major achievements in productivity and sales are real proof of the determination, co-operation and involvement of the industry's team of 300,000 people to ensure that coal remains a competitive fuel and a big business in Britain. Another promising aspect of the industry is the recent development of even closer co-operation between the union and the Board, resulting in a newly-formed Joint Policy Advisory Committee. I hope that the Press, which all too often gives false impressions of the negative attitude of the trade union movement in general, will this time highlight what is going on in the coal industry, and particularly the contribution being made by the NUM.

The Advisory Committee has recently sponsored a joint sales drive. In the past few weeks 3,500 sales leads for heating installations passed on by employees—members of the NUM, among others—have resulted in an increase in business. Of those sales leads, 500 have come from my own area of Lancashire.

I hope that I shall be forgiven if I become parochial now and say something about the North-West coalfield, where we have difficult geological conditions. There are difficult geological conditions in many other coalfields, but in the North-West they are particularly difficult. However, we also have some great assets. First, we are very close to the consumer. Secondly, the coal is generally of very good quality. Thirdly, we have a tradition of good coal preparation, so that customers have an assurance of quality and efficiency.

The Minister gave some indication that talks were proceeding with the National Union of Mineworkers over an improved redundancy payment scheme. This is overdue. At present there are 12,000 men in the industry over the age of 55 who are in receipt of redundancy pay. The present scheme provides payments of 90 per cent. of a man's average earnings for up to three years. At the time it was negotiated it was accepted as a good arrangement. Since then more attractive schemes have been brought into being, for instance for the dockers and the railwaymen. I hope that in these negotiations the Government will take such factors into account.

One thing that pleases me about the Bill is that there are to be regional grants. This is important for an area such as Lancashire which is in an intermediate area. As the coalmining industry is labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive it is important that employment in areas such as Lancashire should be maintained.

Clause 10 deals with an increase in membership of the Board. It would be interesting to know why the Board is to be increased and what sort of people the Government have in mind. I hope that the additional two or three members will be drawn from people with trade union experience. It is rather difficult to know what is behind the Government's thinking in increasing the membership.

I turn to the European Coal and Steel Community. We obviously cannot discuss a Bill such as this and ignore the Community. It is right that in producing such a Bill as this the Government should have borne the Community in mind. The President of the NUM, Mr. Gormley, in his presidential address to our annual conference last July, pointed out that the British steel and coal industries would automatically become members of the Community as from 1st January 1973. They were the only two industries to be directly affected from that date. It was therefore in the interests of miners that they should be represented and I welcome the fact that both of our leading officials, the President and the Secretary, have been asked by the union to sit on the powerful European Coal and Steel Community Consultative Committee. By doing so they will be able to act in a way that will be of benefit to members of the union.

We should consider to what extent the Common Market countries subsidise their coal industries. I want to go into a little more detail on this than some other hon. Members have done. On a per ton basis, the German coal industry received a subsidy of 65p for each ton produced in 1971 and about 80 p per ton this year. By comparison the French industry obtained £2·55 per ton in 1971 and £2·35 per ton this year while the Belgian industry received £3 a ton in 1971 and £2·72 this year. The Dutch received just over £2 last year and £2·35 in 1972.