Orders of the Day — Economic and Energy Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th December 1973.

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Photo of Mr Roy Mason Mr Roy Mason , Barnsley 12:00 am, 19th December 1973

We have carried out a great deal of research, but I do not know the extent to which the Government are giving it the impetus and urgency that is required.

Secondly, I remind the House that we have done the major research into the fluidised-bed technique of power generation. We had experiments at Leather-head run by the National Coal Board. However, because of the lack of funds, we embarked upon a joint venture with the United States. I suggest that we ought also to urge on research and development into the fluidised-bed technique.

Many hon. Members may not be aware of what I am talking about. It is a method of using powdered coal in a floating bed within a power station. The cost of generation is much cheaper than in a conventional power station. There is higher efficiency from the plant. Environmentally it is the cleanest of all stations. That is why the United States came in on the joint venture. Above all, it uses powdered coal, and that is precisely what we produce from our highly mechanised mines.

Thirdly, I suggest that we ought to stop procrastinating about our future nuclear programme. We led the world with our Magnox reactors. We have supplied more energy to the national grid from our nuclear power stations than the rest of the world put together, including the United States. Then we embarked upon our advanced gas-cooled reactors, the next generation, and this is where there is concern. But it is for the Government now to apply more expertise, designers and engineers to overcome the troubles which are causing them to be built late. There is bound to be another energy gap in 1979–1980 if they are not built on time.

In my view we should not buy the American light-water reactors. The hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) spelt this out yesterday. It would be a shattering blow to our nuclear power industry. We should find ourselves fastened to American technology for a generation ahead, and at any time they could hold the nation to ransom over the supply of necessary equipment, spare parts and know how in respect of light-water reactors. In my view we must press ahead with the advanced gas-cooled reactors and get them built quicker than the present time scale.

Fourthly, we must quickly develop the Irish and Celtic Sea resources. It has staggered the nation that we have been able to find untold wealth already in the North Sea in terms of gas and oil, and undoubtedly there is a lot more to come. I know from my own ministerial experience that we were rather more excited about what the Irish and Celtic Seas could give up. There is much wealth there and there is no reason why we should not begin exploration and exploitation in those seas.

Given developments such as these, within 10 years all the methods of fuel and power resources could be feeding the nation and there could be more than enough for our own requirements.

What of the interim period, given the shortfall of oil and its increased price? We all know that only coal can fill the gap. But the problem in the coal industry is the drain of manpower and the lack of recruitment. According to the National Coal Board, it is estimated that by 1985 the industry will need 178,000 men to mine the coal in the tonnages that we shall require by that time. The National Coal Board has just released figures showing that only 122,000 will be available by that time, and we are already facing a shortfall of 56,000 men.

Prior to the overtime ban, men were drifting away from the mines at the rate of 550 per week. The rate is now 800 per week. Taking into consideration recruitment, as some men are coming back to the pits, we are still losing men at an annual rate of 15,000 in addition to the shortfall of 56,000 which I mentioned earlier. That is the seriousness of the manpower situation.

I wonder whether the House appreciates that so far this year coal production is down by 2 million tons compared with a similar period last year. Why? Because the coal industry is beginning to eat its own seed corn. We are so short of men that development work necessary to drive roads and prepare new coal faces is being left in order that men can be put on production to get the tonnages that we require. But in recent weeks mechanised coalface mining, which operates on a 24-hour three-shift system, has had to stop operating one shift, stop coal turning, and put men back on to development because it is lagging behind. So coalfield activity is slowing down.

Because of the overtime ban the NCB is now losing 750,000 tons of coal production per week. It is incurring heavy losses. It will break through its statutory deficit quite soon and will have to ask for further borrowing powers because it is losing at least £5 million per week.

Stocks of coal in this country will soon be critically low. The national executive of the NUM met on 13th December and it is due to meet again on 10th January—a four weeks' gap. In that time we shall have only 12 days' production of coal, and they will not be full days because some will be Mondays when coal cannot be turned as the faces will not be ready.

If the overtime ban continues, without the Government acting, by mid-February we shall have the gravest industrial crisis of all time. Power station coal is running out. There will be only a trickle from the mines. Most industry will have stopped as there will be no power available. Millions will be laid off. Industry in general will be paralysed. The national grid will be operating at between 20 per cent. and 30 per cent. of its full capacity. The nation would be blacked out There would be millions of depressed people. The economy would be in ruins and industry would be flat on its back. It would take years to recover. It is frightening to think of the hundreds of small firms which may face bankruptcy.

Should this happen? What are the obstacles? The first is the dogmatism and stubbornness of the Prime Minister who is boxing himself in every time he opens his mouth. The second is the refusal by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Employment to talk to the miners and to be prepared to pay the rate for the job. It will be a small price to pay when we think of the millions of pounds that will soon be lost and the general depression that will occur.

Stage 3 is already shattered. The circumstances in which it was conceived have vastly changed. The economic strategy of the Government is already in ruins. So I ask, why force upon our people unprecedented industrial strife if it can be averted? Why stick doggedly and rigidly to an out-dated philosophy, laudable as it was to try, when external forces alone have shattered the Prime Minister's dreams? We know that he is fighting for his political life and that back-bench Tory MPs have said, "Give in to the miners and you are politically dead." We are witnessing the Prime Minister struggling to save his political neck whilst all around him the nation despairs and we rapidly sink into a quagmire of industrial and economic depression from which it will take years to recover.

At this stage we need a conciliator, not a bully.