Coal Mining

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th December 1973.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Urwin Mr Thomas Urwin , Houghton-le-Spring 12:00 am, 7th December 1973

I should like first to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) on having tabled this motion for debate today and on the excellent manner in which he presented his case.

I represent a constituency which, despite cut-backs in the mining industry in the last few years, contains six pits. I have lived in a mining area all my life and my constituency lies in the Durham coalfield. I must at the outset of my remarks, sound a warning note to the Minister and to the rest of his colleagues about the mood of the Durham miners. Durham is a county whose trade unions have always been noted for their moderation in approaching difficult problems. However, I am alarmed at the changing situation which I observe in my constituency, especially among many of my friends who work in the coal industry. I now observe, not a mood of moderation, of which they have been proud for many years, but a growing mood of militancy. This change in attitude has arisen because of the frustrations resulting from the Government's obduracy in approaching the miners' pay claim.

The Minister for Industry took advantage of his position this morning—and this was a most inopportune moment to make those remarks—to use the most abrasive language in approaching this question. I suggest that he has done nothing to alleviate the serious problems of morale which face mine workers. The note set by the Minister in this debate today may have the gravest possible effect on any prospect of reaching a satisfactory settlement to this long-drawn-out dispute.

We must ask ourselves a rhetorical question. Why is it that there has been such a change in the attitude of moderate people? Let there be no mistake. Like every other section of industry, the mining industry is well aware that it is dealing with what can only be described as a profligate Government who have dissipated a huge balance of payments surplus and run into one of the biggest deficits of all time. The miners know that this is true. They live in a situation where inflation abounds, where prices are escalating to astronomical levels, and where they have no redress in terms of wage increases because the Government refuse their claims.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) dealt at some length with land and property speculators. Your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, ruled my hon. Friend out of order when he began a dissertation about the financial dealings of the Leader of the Liberal Party. Unfortunately the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) is not here, and I do not want to incur your wrath by continuing that argument. But it is a fact that there are quick fortunes and very large ones being made out of activities of this kind.

As a matter of interest, I was speaking to an ex-miner in this building on Tuesday night. He had been sensible enough to leave his dirty, difficult job in the South Wales coalfield to seek fame and fortune in London. He had struggled along for a few years and acquired enough to invest in property. He now owns several properties, including a block of flats. A year ago he bought for £6,000 a detached house sitting in two acres of land in Wales. Last week, just a year later, he sold the property and the land, in respect of which he had successfully obtained planning permission, for the huge sum of £60,000. That is 10 times the amount that he had invested just one year ago. I do not know what that makes him. It may be a case of, "If you cannot beat them, join them." However, his fortune pales into insignificance when it is compared with some of the fortunes from land speculation being made by a number of hon. Members on the Government benches which have been brought to light in recent months.

It is against that background that the mining industry is highly suspicious of the restrictive and repressive legislation that this Government have introduced in the form of the Industrial Relations Act and of their incomes policy as it is carried out by the Pay Board. It is interesting to recall that it took Mussolini, as the head of a corporate State, two years to introduce a pay code. It has taken this Government only a few short months to achieve what a dictator did in two years. It is often suggested by the Conservative Party that the Labour Party is on the way, especially when in government, to the creation of a corporate State. Government supporters should take note of the fact that they have taken some fairly massive strides themselves along the road towards a corporate State.

The miners are also very suspicious of the Government's present attitude to the emergency in fuel supplies. People working in the coal industry are deeply suspicious when the Government try to make the coal miners the whipping-boys for the present fuel shortages.

There have always been perennial problems over the supply of oil to this country. The Middle East is a seething cauldron of political unrest which frequently boils over into military action, and it is understandable that the Arab nations should have decided that they can best achieve their political ends by the use of a crude form of blackmail. Inevitably there is a threat to the continuing flow of oil to this country, and it is materialising fully as a result of the present conflict.

There is another developing situation of which the Government must have been aware for a long time, and I refer to the international energy crisis. I read in The Times of 3rd December a report of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, in the course of which it was said : Even if the Arabs restore full oil supplies in the near future, industrial countries will face a deepening energy crisis up to and beyond the year 2000. We should be planning to meet this contingency. Indeed, it is with us already. It underlines the outstanding requirement for a fully co-ordinated fuel policy. Many hon. Members have talked for a long time about the desirability of, indeed the necessity for, a properly co-ordinated national energy policy. But there is a shift of emphasis present. We need not only a co-ordinated national energy policy but one of a multinational nature as well, having regard to the rapid developments in different parts of the world.

It also means that we must have increasing development of our indigenous resources, and in such a development coal must continue to play an increasingly important part. I suggest to the Minister that it is not enough to tell miners that the future of the coal industry is assured. They know that. They also know that there are very deep problems involved in assuring themselves that their future lies in the coal industry.

Despite all that the Minister said, I am sure that he and his colleagues do not overlook the filthy nature of the job that the miner has to do. Those of us who have worked in the mines for many years, as I have, have experience of the real difficulties which confront the miner when he goes down the cage and of the inconveniences that he has to put up with resulting from weird hours when he is working shifts, especially overnight shifts. Such inconveniences cannot be rewarded too highly.

It must not be forgotten that there is dignity among miners. The dignity of the job must be recognised by all who have responsibility for those who daily burrow deep down under the earth and, in my constituency, several miles under the sea. They are entitled to the highest rewards which can be bestowed upon them.

In view of the developments internationally in the energy situation, I suggest that the present Pay Code operated by the Government has been rendered virtually irrelevant. There are so many developments occurring in the world today which demand a different look and a fresh approach to the Government's policy.

When the Minister was speaking, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) asked repeatedly what the hon. Gentleman proposed to do. In his remarks the Minister made it quite clear that the Government intended to do nothing and that from their point of view the confrontation was ended. In the best interests of the miners and of everyone else in the country, the Prime Minister must meet the miners again quickly and listen to what they have to say.