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

Can it be done? I believe that it can be done. There are numerous ways in which it can be done. First—every day that goes by will make the situation more difficult—I suggest that the conciliator should meet the union and the National Coal Board and consider what latitude there is for rejigging the award so that those who are paid increases of between £8 and £9 on the unsocial hours aspect for night-shift working may forgo 22p per night shift or £1·10 per week of their total increase to the lower paid. That is one possibility. But as each day passes and as every miner realises what his take will be, and as attitudes harden, a settlement will be more difficult. The Government have stood back for so long that it will be difficult for the NUM to accept such a settlement.

Secondly, the Prime Minister in his haste—because he wants a confrontation—refused the clocking-on suggestion. With more mines closing miners have to travel many miles from their mining villages to the nearest available mines. The mines are not located within or near their villages now. Miners are having to get up at 4.15 in the morning, start an hour's journey at about 4.30, and get to the pithead at about 5.30. They have then to be prepared for work. They have to put on their safety clothing, boots, tin hats, cap lamps and other safety equipment and be prepared to descend the mine, for which they do not receive a penny. Factory workers get paid from the moment they clock on and start to put on their safety clothing. The Government should think seriously about that possibility.

Thirdly, why not use the European Coal and Steel Community funds? Our coal and steel industries are members of the ECSC. Before the end of this month the Treasury will have to make its first contribution of £7·9 million to the budget of the ECSC and that has to be made up to £25 million within three years. The German and French coal industries have received millions of dollars from that budget over the past year for resettlement and retraining of coalminers. We do not have that problem. Our problem is recruitment and the stabilisation of personnel.

Why cannot the Department of Trade and Industry, which is preparing its bid now, which must be in before 31st December, claw back part of the funds which have jointly gone into the ECSC budget? I understand that it is proposing to claw back money for research purposes and for the education of the sons and daughters of miners who have been killed in the pits. Why not consider clawing back some of that money for recruitment and the stabilisation of personnel, thereby using that money for the coal industry? The attraction of the idea is that only one other industry can follow suit—the steel industry—but it has no claim pending and no other union can make a similar claim. It would not open the floodgates.

Fourthly, there is the 3½ per cent. productivity deal in the offing, but not in the take. The miners have been offered a total of 13 per cent. on their basic pay, with fringe benefits. The 3½ per cent. is for productivity. The NUM and the NCB have been trying to negotiate a productivity deal for 20 months. Wilberforce recommended it. They have 20 months in the bag already. Therefore, why should not the conciliator "ask the board and the union to agree on productivity and bring some of that 3½ per cent. forward from the offing into the take? That would increase the basic wage.

Finally, irrespective of those four ideas, the Government will have to set up a coal commission for the good of the nation and the industry, because we cannot allow this drainage of manpower and lack of recruitment to continue. We must have the coal and the manpower. A coal commission will have to be established with terms of reference that allow recommendations to be made on how best to halt the drain and to recruit. It will obviously involve recommendations on pay and other incentives in order that we can get the men for the coal that we require.

Therefore, we are thinking about a package, about items 1, 2 and 3. There is no reason why the new Secretary of State should not be able to find an answer. If he negotiates, if he is a real conciliator and is given latitude by the Prime Minister, there is no reason why he should not be able to find a solution.

Finally, I introduce a personal note. I went underground at 14 years of age. I worked for 14 years in the pits. I was carried out three times. I have seen men killed by my side. My father, a miner, was crippled for life. My mother died at the age of 46 after nursing him back to health. There was no National Health Service then. So I have awful memories of the coal mining industry.

I estimate that I spent four years of my life underground; four years of loss of fresh air and the sky and the beauties of the earth. Men who are retiring today at the age of 65, who went underground at 14, have lost 12 years of their lives in the bowels of the earth. That is why at the age of 65 they look so much older. That is why they rarely live long to enjoy their retirement.

Last year 64 men died in the pits, 454 were seriously maimed, and 58,000 received injuries necessitating more than three days off work. Another 626 men contracted that dreaded dust disease, pneumoconiosis. That is one year's toll of death and injuries in the coal mines. This year we have had three disasters, Lofthouse, Seafield and Markham Main. Thirty men were killed in three mining accidents.

The miners are paying their price for coal with their lives. What do we as a nation propose to pay them in the up-to-date revised offer? For a man who is married, with two children, going down a mine on five days a week, for 7· hours a day, the offer is £29·80. It is not the starting rate for a learner guard on the London tube trains. For the man who braves the coal face, who is skilled, operating power-loading machines, which is a highly dangerous occupation, in dust-ridden seams, we are offering less than £40 a week—£39·60. We are giving him a straight 7 per cent. increase. That is why the men are leaving the pits. That is why we cannot recruit them.

When I was Minister of Power I had the unpleasant job of shunting out of the Coal Division a civil servant who dealt with miners as if they were units. He acted like a computer-minded statistician. I wanted at the head of the Coal Division a man with feeling and understanding. We were then making redundant between 20,000 and 30,000 miners a year. They were being treated like dots on a chart. I therefore convened the Sunningdale conference in October 1968, and we stopped the rapid rundown of the miners from that date.

The inhumanity of it all depressed me. The inhumanity of man rang in my ears all that time. Working underground in a coal mine is not a life for any man. It is not fair on his wife. It is not fair on his family. It is a pity that we cannot close all the mines tomorrow—but we cannot. The nation depends upon them. That is why we must pay the miners, and pay them well, until that day of the final closure gloriously arrives.