Orders of the Day — Coal Industry Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th February 1975.

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Photo of Mr John Hannam Mr John Hannam , Exeter 12:00 am, 19th February 1975

Since my arrival in the House nearly five years ago—sometimes it seems a much longer period—I have attended most of the debates on the coal industry. I have always been deeply impressed by the depth of knowledge and the understanding shown by hon. Members on both sides.

Although many Government supporters who represent coal mining constituencies speak with deep authority about the coal industry—as this short but excellent debate has shown—the House has a deep understanding of the nature of this vital industry. The speeches from both sides have contributed valuable objectivity to a debate on a Bill which is essentially non-controversial and which at first sight is of a technical rather than of an emotional nature. The speeches pointing out the horrors of the dreaded dust disease, from which some miners suffer, have introduced an element of emotion, which has just added stark reality to what on the face of it appears to be just another piece of Government legislation. Despite the uncontentious nature of the Bill, the House has seized the opportunity to hold a worthwhile discussion about our coal industry, especially in the light of the recent pay award and its effect on coal prices.

Some very important questions have been raised relating to coal supplies in different parts of the country following the new types of development which will take place. Questions have been raised about our general energy problems. Many specific queries have been raised about the effect of the various clauses of the Bill, with which I hope the Under-Secretary will be able to deal. I am sure that he will be able to remove some of the doubts and worries that would otherwise have been raised in Committee.

We welcome the general objectives of the Bill, although in Committee we shall wish to examine in detail the implications of the new powers which are accorded to the National Coal Board by the clauses dealing with the withdrawal of support, copyhold rights and opencast mining. My hon. Friends the Members for Bosworth (Mr. Butler), Howden (Sir P. Bryan) and Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) have raised important points about their constituents' fears and worries about the effects of some aspects of the Bill.

Regarding the proposals for compensating pneumoconiosis victims, from a personal point of view, as an officer of our all-party disablement group, and as someone who has endeavoured to help ex-miners suffering from this dreadful affliction. I wholeheartedly welcome the Government's intention to provide £100 million in grants to enable compensation to be paid without the need for long legal processes to establish liability. Wearing another hat, I can only wish that the same expediency could be applied in other cases such as vaccine-damaged children. However, that is another issue for another day.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and many others referred to those original pneumoconiotics who commuted their pensions before 1948 under the Workmen's Compensation Act. The figure ranges between 8,000 and 10,000 who did this and who lost their common law rights to further compensation. As the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Wilson) illustrated so graphically, there is a moral obligation to give some further assistance to those mainly over 70-year-olds, and I want to press the Under-Secretary about this. Can he say how much would be required to meet this moral obligation? He knows that the whole House would like to press for this further assistance, and the inclusion of the pre-1970 widows is another extension of the grant which this House would want to see examined fully in Committee.

The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) spoke of the effect of just a two day's difference in timing and of the hundreds, indeed thousands, of pounds which could be involved in compensation. It may prove to be necessary to increase the grant figure, and we have heard suggestions of an increase from £100 million to £150 million. At some stage in the tripartite discussions, obviously it was considered that a larger amount would be required to consider these cases.

Apart from those reservations, we welcome the agreement which has been reached between the National Coal Board and the unions concerned. It is a great step forward.

Clause 2 deals with a matter which was not foreshadowed by the tripartite agreement—the "withdrawal of support" to enable coal to be worked. Here we enter an area which needs careful study and understanding if the wrong conclusions are not to be drawn by the general public.

The fear of subsidence—the caving in of roads and the collapse of buildings and homes—is a real one for residents in mining areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash referred to the need for pillar support to be created under living communities. I consider this to be of vital importance, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will deal with the point. It is vital that every possible action be taken by the National Coal Board to avoid subsidence.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest used the analogy of the sponge cake. He illustrated graphically the effect of taking out the middle layer, causing a downward movement of the upper layer. I remember being extremely partial when I was a child to the jam in the middle of a sponge cake. I soon learned the trick of squeezing the two parts together in order to get at it before anyone else. However, the jam here is that vital commodity, coal. As a nation, we have to have coal.

The new fields being prospected and developed are needed to produce the extra 10 million to 20 million tons of coal a year for which the country hopes. But the existing rights to mine coal and thereby withdraw its natural support at 500 or 1,000 yards below the surface date back to the 1938 Act and do not cover all the new areas now being prospected. They are now before us for up-dating and alteration.

From my observation of the NCB's modern procedures and planning, I know that a great deal is done to avoid subsidence in these new areas. I have been impressed by the consultations taking place with the inhabitants of the Selby area. Local residents are being somewhat reassured by the details given to them of the environmental protection plans instituted by the NCB. Nevertheless, there are aspects of drainage and other geological factors which we shall need to examine carefully in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Howden and my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash raised the important matter of advance warning notices. The present rules will need to be extended. Perhaps the Minister can say what length of advance notice will be given under present agreements. A notice in the London Gazette and others in one or two local newspapers are not enough. Will the hon. Gentleman consider putting notices in all local newspapers plus, possibly, a national daily newspaper circulating in the area, and the posting of public notices covering the whole area? It is vitally important in environmental matters to ensure that people are given the fullest possible notice of proposed changes.

The interesting feature about the copyhold clause is that most people to whom I have spoken who live in mining areas have never heard of copyhold rights. They date back to feudal times, so probably that is understandable. But, after some of these discussions, the people to whom I have talked have rushed off to check their own deeds in order to see whether they have been missing out on 1p per ton on the coal extracted beneath them. I hope that the Board will not be submerged in copyhold claims as a result of this debate.

The speeding up of the legal processes to enable the working of coal to take place in our new coalfields, with a compensation period of 12 years, seems a reasonable improvement. But there are technical points which we shall have to discuss in Committee, especially with regard to the length of time and whether it should not be extended to 30 years rather than just a period of 12 years.

Clauses 4 and 5 result from the tripartite report and relate to open-cast sites. Here we move into the difficult area of environmental factors. It is only in the context of our energy crisis and the national need for 15 million tons of open-cast coal by 1985 that the compulsory powers proposed are acceptable. It is a question of need versus amenity, and hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised their constituency problems.

The area in which the major Selby development will take place is mainly a rural area, and the development represents a tremendous change in the environment. The previous 10-year provisions of the Act will be superseded by a 20-year compulsory acquisition period. This includes a five-year period for the agricultural use of land. As a result of the matters raised in this debate, the Committee will obviously consider the possibility of reducing the period from 20 to 15 years.

Of all the forecasts and targets being set by the Secretary of State, the one which is attainable is the open-cast coal target of 15 million tons by 1985. But the environmental implications and the effect on agriculture of a total of 14,000 acres of land being used on the 70 sites proposed are of great significance and need to be considered carefully.

The closure of footpaths and bridle ways has always caused many problems. It will have to be handled carefully by the NCB. It has a great deal of experience in these matters already, but I hope that it will ensure that the acquisition of routes, bridle paths and footpaths during the process of mining will not result in the loss of any which may not have been proved and registered by constant usage. Clause 6 and those preceding it will no doubt be examined carefully by all the responsible national organisations, and I trust that any representations which they wish to make will be received by the Minister.

The Bill represents a continuing process of rehabilitation of the coal industry. It started well before the oil crisis of 1973. When I served on the Standing Committee which considered the last Coal Industry Bill in February 1973, I recall the then Minister for Industry, Mr. Tom Boardman, introducing his £1,100 million aid for the coal industry which was welcomed by the industry and by all the members of the Committee. He provided for a doubling of the existing pensions, for redundancy payments, for increased stocks, and for £210 million to keep open uneconomic pits.

Long years of decline had ended. The decline had been caused by a basic un-competitiveness of coal during the 1950s and 1960s when cheap oil was the order of the day. A Conservative Government halted that decline and began the process of revitalising the coal industry. Since then the industry has rarely been out of the headlines. It is relevant to the Bill to consider the situation now facing coal and to project a little way into the future. All hon. Members have shown that they have the interests of the coal industry at heart. I am sure that they will agree that all the tripartite plans in the world, all the production targets and all the investment programmes involving thousands of millions of pounds will be to no avail if the industry prices itself out of the market.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth stressed the importance of linking productivity with wage increases. We all regretted the failure last November to agree on the productivity scheme put forward by the Board. It was a blow to the Government as well. We ask now for a link to be established between wage increases and productivity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet), in his usual detailed and excellent speech, dealt in detail with the likely production figures and the shortfall on the targets laid down by the Government. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will give us some idea of the latest coal production figures for the current year and confirm what the shortfall will be below the original target of £120 million tons.

Sir Derek Ezra the Chairman of the National Coal Board, in one of his appraisals of the coal industry given at the NUM Conference last year, said: If we are to remain competitive and go on providing real improvements in earnings, we must do so out of increased productivity. The Secretary of State in his interim report to Parliament on the tripartite examination said: It is now quite clear that there is a secure and indeed prosperous future for coal, providing it can retain its new-found competitive position. He later said: However, we recognise and accept—as I am sure does everybody in the industry—that the future prospects of the industry should be determined by its long-term competitiveness."—[Official Report, 18th June 1974; Vol. 875, c. 226.] I asked the right hon. Gentleman then for an assurance that any investment in future would be related to increased productivity and output.

I now ask whether the coal industry itself can survive the pressure which is building up as a result of large wage increases. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State will tell the House what the price per therm of coal-generated power will be as compared with oil after current increases in costs are included. The gap widened considerably last year to approximately 30 per cent. It is now narrowing again. With oil prices remaining fairly stable—and there is a possibility that they could even marginally drop—the crossover point when coal becomes more costly than oil becomes ever nearer as one wage claim follows another. By the end of the year there will possiby be a difference of only a penny or so per therm.