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 Geoffrey Stewart-Smith Mr Geoffrey Stewart-Smith , Belper 12:00 am, 7th December 1973

I am unashamedly a Conservative dissident when it comes to the mining industry. I have been in this position before. On a previous occasion, I said to the Government "Unless you raise your offer to the miners, you will have a strike on your hands." My advice was turned down, they had a strike on their hands and in the end they settled for twice what I had recommended.

I should like to paint a scenario of what will happen over the next critical eight weeks. The Government will make it clear that there is no move whatever. Next week the national executive of the NUM will decide not to have a ballot immediately. After Christmas, as the bitterness builds up, it will decide to have a ballot in January. We shall not know the wording, but the miners might decide to strike. Then we will have a most serious situation—not only an oil crisis but, on top of that, a coal crisis. This nation could be brought to its knees, with millions unemployed. This is the seriousness of what we are discussing.

Of course we know that the National Coal Board's offer is limited by the Government's policy. I waited until the Government's consultative document on phase 3 came out, and on 11th October, nearly a month ago and within hours of publication, I wrote to the Minister : Locally, in the South Midlands area, the main continuing problem is the high and increasing rate of miners leaving the industry. Because the mining industry provides the power and light for the whole nation, my recommendations are that the basic rate should be increased still further. If this is not done, terrible damage will be done to the mining industry and the nation as a whole will suffer. Again, my advice was turned down flatly.

That advice was given before the draft Bill became law and the Government, if they had wanted to, could have made certain changes in those previous few weeks without breaking their own law. There was a slightly improved offer, but even if it is accepted now it will not keep men in the industry on the scale that J should like to see.

I then kept silent for several weeks, hoping that the Government would make further concessions, until the Prime Minister had met the national executive of the NUM. No change was permitted, no further concessions were made. Now, of course, we all have to decide whether or not the anti-inflationary level set by phase 3 should be broken.

What is good in the long term for the mining industry? We have a duty to the nation to create an efficient, contented and well-paid mining industry which can make the maximum possible contribution to our energy needs. If the basic rate is not raised somehow, there will be a strike. I am sorry to be gloomy, but I must speak the truth as I see it.

If the Government cause the miners to go out on strike, I hope they will think carefully about what they will have to do to get the miners to call off that strike. They will smash not only phase 3—and it is arguable whether it has been smashed already ; they will smash the entire counter-inflationary strategy from A to Z. The miners are a special breed of men. Last time the Government miscalculated the nature of the mining industry, the men and the life they lead. Every week one or two men die and the miners are faced with disasters like Markham and others. That being so, I do not regard phase 3 as sacrosanct.

If a strike is to be avoided, skilful and flexible negotiations must be carried out. The miners' tempers are frayed not only by what they have been through because of the overtime ban but by the concessionary coal arrangement which is creating great anger in my area.

In considering what rates we pay the miners, we must consider also the problem of manpower wastage. The scheme for apprentice training run by the National Coal Board is the best in the country. Men come in, they are trained by the NCB, they look at the wages in the industry and they rush out. That cannot be right for the nation.

We argue about the numbers who leave the industry. The men who leave are the most vital men of all, the skilled men, electricians, engineers and men who do the development work on the advanced road heading equipment. Those are the men who are leaving. It is an ageing industry.

To mention a point that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Peter Rees) may seek to make, if we do not raise miners' pay sufficiently and work starts on the Channel Tunnel, there will be no coalfields in Kent.