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 Hon. Adam Butler Hon. Adam Butler , Bosworth 12:00 am, 7th December 1973

I beg to move, as an amendment to the motion, to insert after "mining industry" the words : 'within the provisions of the Pay Code approved by Parliament and'. I should like to express my gratitude to Mr. Speaker for selecting the amendment.

I shall inevitably have quite a lot to say about the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), so I hope that he will return to the Chamber. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman has the interests of the miners and of the coal industry very much at heart. He has described the situation and the mood in the pits at this time, but in a somewhat colourful way which is not exactly as I see the picture. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to speak to his motion as he thinks fit, but I am bound to say that he largely ignored it and spoke generally only about the coal industry.

The motion contains an assortment of ideas, many of which are acceptable. The point about the amendment is that it provides the necessary cohesion and sense of reality to make the amended motion palatable.

The first part of the motion, which was slightly borne out by some of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, shows some encouragement to selfishness on the part of the miners. But such unworthy thoughts were dispelled by the admirable sentiments in the second half of the motion concerning energy policy in general which pays full regard to the national interests.

My hon. Friends and I have introduced the amendment not to confront the miners with the Government's pay policy but because we believe that stage 3 is in the same national interest that the hon. Member for Bolsover appears to seek. Therefore, it is also very much in the interests of the miners.

The miners have a right to expect fair wages. They should be somewhere near the top of the wages ladder. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry has already pointed out that that is the situation. There are strong arguments for improving the pay of miners at a faster rate than the national average and, indeed, to improve their relative position still further. This would be a recognition of the conditions of work referred to by the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin). I do not think that miners' conditions are unique, but there are certain aspects about their conditions which make mining a very special occupation.

My hon. Friend has dealt with the question of relativity. I thought that one of the principal planks of the opposition to the National Coal Board's proposals was that the relativity of miners would fall. That is not the case.

I am not sure whether this document is an advertisement or a circular put out by the Yorkshire area over the signature of Mr. Scargill and others, but in it reference is made to having to fight to prevent a wage reduction". Clearly that is nonsense. The text goes on to point out that the Wilberforce award was fair and just and that it placed the miners in a position comparable with other manufacturing industries but that the present proposals will lower that position. That is not so. There will be an improvement in the relative position after Wilberforce when the proposals are accepted. It is reasonable to ask whether the rewards to miners which will come from acceptance of the proposals are fair and represent a recognition of the work that they carry out.

The hon. Member for Bolsover—I shall try to follow him in his style of presentation—referred to an advertisement he had seen which said, "Look to stage 4 and earn a four-figure salary." The four-figure salary was £2,500. I should like the miners to consider an advertisement which says, "Trust in stage 3, earn nearly £3,000 a year, and at this time of energy and fuel shortage have a good supply of free coal."

That is what has been offered by the National Coal Board to certain face workers on a shift system with normal overtime. There is a strong argument for saying that surface wokers are not being offered enough, but, as has been said—it should be repeated—if the union were prepared to negotiate with the National Coal Board and rejig the offer, some of the increase could be applied to surface workers.

The significance of the amendment is in its reference to the pay-code approved by Parliament. I want to make this point as clear as I possibly can. First, the pay code permits the miners to benefit more than any other group of people because of the unsocial work they do. Probably no other workers will be able to achieve as big an increase as the miners under stage 3. It follows—this must be stressed again and again—that under stage 3 other groups of workers will not be able to leapfrog the miners. My hon. Friend said that since Wilberforce the miners lost out due to the leapfrogging that inevitably takes places in a free bargaining system. Under phase 3, that leapfrogging is not possible and, therefore, their relative position will be improved and cannot be undermined.

Mr. Scargill goes on to say in this document : This union cannot tolerate a reduction in our members' living standards. Of course it cannot, but can a 13 per cent. or 16 per cent. increase set against a cost-of-living increase of 7 per cent., before the threshold agreement comes in, be regarded as a reduction in the living standards of the union's members? The offer represents a substantial increase, with the safeguard of a cost-of-living increase. That is part of the pay code, and that is why we have introduced this wording in the amendment.

The other question that has been asked is whether, in the context of today's energy crisis, wages are sufficient to attract or to hold enough men in the industry. It is said that every week hundreds of men are chucking in their jobs and pouring out of the pits. By implication, nobody is going into mining ; but the figures have been given. This year there has been a 35 per cent. increase in adult workers going into mining. There have been twice as many new entrants to the industry, which means that it cannot be as unattractive as all that. The number of re-entrants has increased, so their recollections of the industry cannot be as unattractive as all that.

Then we are led to believe that the 600 men who are leaving each week are doing so because they cannot tolerate the conditions in the industry and because wages are too low. The fact is that four out of every 10 who left this year did so because of redundancy, or because of some non-voluntary reason. I have no doubt that, of those who are leaving voluntarily, many are doing so because they are fed up with having their pay packets slashed due to industrial disputes. It is said that the men are voting with their feet. I believe that some of those to whom I have referred are doing just that. They are voting against the decision of their executive to turn down the National Coal Board's proposals.

What is the effect of the ban so far? The hon. Member for Bolsover referred to the minute part that the miners' ban is playing in our present fuel crisis. We have seen in electricity generation the reduction of coal stocks and the need for voltage reductions and power cuts. Most serious of all, however, is the switching of oil to electricity generation. Given the availability of coal, up to half the oil normally used in electricity generation could be diverted to industry. The capacity for burning more coal is there. That half of the oil consumed in electricity generation is equal to 10 per cent. of the nation's total oil consumption. Nobody can possibly say that the cutback in our total oil supplies is due to the miners' action—it would be stupid to say so—but one can fairly, rationally and quietly state that, if that coal were available for electricity generation, our industries would not be suffering as they are beginning to do now.

Fuel shortages in industry are being intensified by the overtime ban at a time when coal could be easing the situation, and these shortages threaten not only growth but jobs. If the activity on the Stock Exchange yesterday is anything to go by, it will be the ghost of the 1929 depression that will be hovering over every family dinner table this Christmas.

The hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring talked about the energy crisis being with us until the year 2000. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I believe that it will be short-lived, in the sense of lasting for between five and 10 years, but I shall not now argue with the hon. Gentleman.

The motion calls for an energy policy. It is impossible and would be wrong for the Government to produce a rigid and narrow policy. The experience of the last two months, if nothing else, shows that to be the case. But I add to the hon. Gentleman's admirable list of objectives for an energy policy the essential matter of availability and the certainty of a continuing supply of fuels. One part of any policy should be a deliberate intent to ensure an over-supply of fuel. Investment should be geared to produce a surplus, with the additional money being considered as an insurance premium against the kind of situation in which we find ourselves today. There are, of course other important considerations involved in such an approach, but I must leave those on one side.

In his motion the hon. Member for Bolsover calls for a short-term energy policy beneficial to full employment, the restraint of inflation and economic growth. Will he now, with his not inconsiderable energy, urge his miner friends to adopt such a policy and call upon them immediately to stop this overtime ban which, through its effect on electricity supplies and the diversion of oil from vital industries, already threatens growth, which if it were to continue would contribute to mass unemployment and which, if it broke phase 3, would help to bring about an inflationary flood that would drown the legitimate economic aspirations of all our people?