I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I should like to make sure that all the matters raised in the wide-ranging and valuable discussions in Committee on this Bill are cleared up.
I undertook to give further consideration to an amendment proposed by the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and his hon. Friends, inserting in Clause 2(4)(c), after "statement" the words
reporting on the overall financial position of the Board".
I wrote to the hon. Gentleman on this matter and I would like merely to put on record why such an amendment is, in my view, superfluous.
I fully agree that it is only right that the House should be given all the information it needs for proper consideration of any order that may be laid to increase the Government's contribution to the Mineworkers' Pension Scheme. The state of the Board's finances at that time would naturally be an important part of such consideration. That is why the Bill specifically provides in Clause 2(4)(b) that the Secretary of State should review the
overall financial position of the Board
before laying a draft Order. Subsection (4)(c) further requires the Secretary of State to explain in the statement accompanying the Order the considerations which had led him to conclude that the Order should be made, including
references to the result of his review"—
that is, the review of the overall financial position of the Board that has been carried out under subsection (4)(b).
It is quite clear, therefore, that the object desired by hon. Members will be achieved by the wording of the Bill as it stands. It was a source of encouragement to me to see hon. Members on both sides welcoming this Bill in Committee. I should like to remind hon. Members briefly of the purpose of the three clauses of the Bill.
Clause I increases the Board's borrowing powers. I explained in Committee the reason why progress with the plan for coal investment made this necessary. The coal industry examination only just over a year ago recommended 42 million tons of new capacity. The Board has already approved schemes which will provide for 12 million tons.
The Board's new deep-boring programme, now over two years old, is up to schedule and currently adding to workable reserves at a rate of 500 million tons a year or four times the current output. The fact that the Board has this much proven work ahead of it will justify its long-term investment. It is only right that new discoveries of coal are given as much publicity as important finds of other indigeneous energy resources such as oil and gas.
I will not dwell on the provisions of Clause 2 except to say that I think it has been generally agreed that in the present economic climate the contribution of £18 million a year towards the deficiency in the mineworkers' pension scheme is a handsome one and is another proof of the Government honouring their undertakings in the coal industry examination.
Clause 3 provides a sensible extension of power to assist the National Coal Board with stocks. It was said in Committee that the right place for the CEGB coal stocks was as close as possible to its own boilers. This is the sensible stocking strategy that this clause encourages. By keeping the stocks moving away from the pit head, double handling is avoided and miners have the encouragement of seeing the coal move to the main customers.
More eminent spokesmen than I have recently been talking of an end to recession. When this happens it is essential for the coal industry that it is not caught unprepared for increased demand.
We are anxious to establish market possibilities both at home and abroad. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has now arranged for 20th February the meeting of which he spoke in the Second Reading debate—that is a meeting where the Electricity Council, the CEGB, the NCB and the unions of both industries can discuss the relationship of coal production and demand to electricity generation.
I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving the assurance he promised in Committee as far as Clause 2 is concerned, when we explained the problem of reporting the overall financial position of the pension fund.
I would also like to congratulate him and, indeed, the NCB on the fact that the negotiations regarding the possible closure of the Langwith Colliery are still taking place and that the overtime ban has been postponed for further negotiations to take place.
The Under-Secretary pointed out that this was an important Bill. He is right. It is a short Bill but an important one. It is over six weeks since the Committee stage. While I do not wish to detain the House at this very late hour, I must mention the fact that a number of matters have arisen in that six-week period which are entirely germane to the Bill and the clauses that we discussed.
As recently as today we have had a Report from the Price Commission about the coal trade. Obviously this would not be a moment to discuss that in detail, but the Under-Secretary will recall that in that Report it was suggested, as reported in today's edition of the Financial Times, that
The Commission also points out that the allocation system used by the National Coal Board at the time of that inquiry tended to discourage competition. In any new system of allocation, the needs of consumers and the effect on prices should be taken into account.
Perhaps the Under-Secretary will give us the Governments view on that Report, as Clause 3, as he pointed out, deals with stocks, and the very high level of stocks is to some extent determined by the falling consumption to which he referred. While the domestic market may be small, it is a significant market. Obviously one
would hope that the Board is able to sell competitively against other fuels in this market.
Another point which has arisen since the Committee stage concerns the leaks in the Press relating to what I think the Under-Secretary was telling us a moment ago—namely, the decisions which are being taken by the Government and the Board relating to oil substitution in power stations. In a reply to a Question earlier this week, the Under-Secretary told the House that the switch from oil to coal was continuing at a rapid pace. My hon. Friends and I do not quarrel with that at all. However, reports are circulating in the Press at present which lead us to believe that the NCB is to have total control over all import policy concerning the generating boards—that is, that it is intended to remove from the generating boards the powers which they now enjoy and which have led to contracts—long-term contracts in many cases—and to put that power into the hands of the NCB.
I want to ask the Under-Secretary a question which is entirely relevant to Clause 3. What effect will that have upon the long-term contracts which the generating boards have entered into, many of which will go far beyond this year? Is it the Government's intention now to direct the generating boards to burn some indigenous coal even though there may be contracts for importation which go on into the future? What action does the Under-Secretary intend to take about that? Again related to this point, there is also the rumour that the Government intend, by coal substitution for oil, to save about £250 million on the balance of payments. The Opposition would welcome such a plan. Indeed, in the reports which have been circulated individual power stations have been named. Will the Under-Secretary tell us whether these reports are fact?
It would be far better tonight when dealing with this important Bill, which we shall not see again, to be able to confirm to everyone present and those outside the House that these discussions are taking place and that the actions to which I have referred are in the Government's mind.
The Bill provides the industry with a borrowing limit of £1,400 million. I am delighted to know that there are now 21 drilling rigs looking for new coal in Britain. That is only a dozen or so fewer than those looking for oil in the North Sea. I am delighted to think that major new discoveries of coal are being announced so frequently. We are now moving into an era unlike anything which most of those who have been in the House for 10 or 15 years have ever seen, an era in which we find coal being discovered in seams which are thick and easily worked. This will be a contribution to the economy every bit as important as anything that will ever be found in the North Sea.
However, I sound one note of caution. At the moment coal enjoys a 10 per cent. price advantage over oil, but during the recess, when I and some of my colleagues visited oil-producing countries in the Middle East as guests of OPEC, we saw in Kuwait the largest oilfield in the world. The Burgan oilfield has a potential as great as that of the whole of the North Sea put together—namely, about 6 million or 7 million barrels a day. That oil comes out of the ground at a cost of 28 cents a barrel. North Sea oil is coming out of the North Sea at approximately six dollars a barrel.
It is no secret that the National Union of Mineworkers and the coal industry as a whole keep a careful watch on the OPEC price, but what would worry me—and it should worry us all—is a situation in which the oil-producing cartel slashed its price. Such action would maroon on a rock the North Sea operations and the coal industry. When we consider investment and the other matters which we have discussed in detail in Committee it is essential to recognise that there is that risk. I welcome the suggestion to build a floor price under these investments, be they our oil in the North Sea or the coal industry. The fact is that the risk exists.
Against that risk we must always realise that coal offers us security of supply, strategic security and a great advantage as regards our balance of payments. I want, as do my right hon. and hon. Friends, to see a well-paid, thoroughly efficient and modern industry. It is only by having such an industry that we shall be able to provide the right career prospects for those in it and those joining it. It is only by achieving that standard that we shall be able to recruit the sort of manpower that will be needed to exploit the resources to which I have referred.
We welcome the Bill if, as part of the continuing story of development, it provides a basis for a modern and efficient industry. We recognise that the coal industry will always have its critics, but we realise the problems which now face Britain and the nation's need to be as independent as possible of imported energy. We recognise that the Bill represents an important step, and for that reason we support it.
Any hon. Member who rises at this hour of the night must do so with hesitation. When that Member has been unable to contribute to the earlier stages of a Bill for various parliamentary reasons he approaches the task with temerity.
It is with temerity that I raise certain matters which I know will receive a great deal of sympathy from the Minister. I draw attention to the financial obligations which I think the Government should assume and which through them the National Coal Board should assume, obligations which have been widely discussed in earlier debates but for which, regrettably, there appears to be no acceptable provision in the Bill. I refer to compensation for sufferers from pneumoconiosis and silicosis and for the dependants—whether the sufferers are still alive or whether they had the great misfortune to die before 26th January 1970.
I do not wish to rehearse old arguments in discussing this Bill, but the matters which I am seeking to raise must be considered when we are dealing with mining communities and their representatives.
In 1973—one of the best ever years for the coal industry—there were 367 deaths—
Obviously at this time of the morning I do not want to enter into a procedural wrangle about what is or is not in the Bill, but if we are to give it a Third Reading it has to be judged on its merits in terms of the provision made in the Board's finances, which have a direct link with the Title of the Bill. It is of great consequence that inadequate provision is being made in the respect of the matters with which I am seeking to deal. I hope that on that basis I shall be allowed to make a brief contribution to this Third Reading debate.
As I was saying, 1973 was a "good" year in terms of accidents but there were 367 deaths from pneumoconiosis—more than one a day. There were shortcomings in the provision made for those affected. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Hamilton (Mr. Wilson) and Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—as well as thousands of people connected with the coal industry—believe that there should be more generous provision and more attention paid to this problem.
Excluded from the present provision are those commuted cases who were blackmailed up to the late 1940s into accepting abysmally low sums as compensation for contracting the diseases. Those sums do not match the sums awarded under the tripartite agreement in 1974. A simple arithmetical calculation could be made to show the large difference in the sums paid to those many tragic cases and the sums paid under the 1974 agreement, and those sums subtracted from the amounts now paid and the residue paid to sufferers and their dependants, many of whom have spent years nursing close relatives through painful and tragic diseases. A further anomaly relates to the travesty of natural justice suffered by women who were unfortunate enough to become widowed before 26th January 1974 and who are treated differently from others. The warrant of indemnity that these women—and they are not simple women but politically sophisticated women—were asked to sign was an act of discrimination because it precluded them from any further claims. This was perpetrated on women who, having lost their loved ones, had just come through the valley of deepest tragedy. Much more attention should be paid to those cases to enable the qualifying period under the 1974 scheme to be shifted back to take in the period of qualification for compensation for pneumoconiosis.
I hope that my hon. Friend realises that, on behalf of those who have commuted, we do not expect to receive any sympathy or practical help from the Opposition. As secretary of the miners group I have said before, and I repeat, that our Government will realise that we are serious. It is time that extra provision was made for the National Coal Board to do something about those commuted and other cases, particularly the pre-26th January 1970 widows. I emphasise that our opponents are not necessarily the Opposition. We are pleading and demanding justice for those people from our own Government.
My hon. Friend is right. The "pre-1970 widows," as they are becoming classified, are a tough group of ladies who will not be put off by the provisions in the 1974 agreement, the platitudes of lawyers or the sympathy of myself, my hon. Friends and the Government. In Wales and elsewhere—certainly in South Wales—they are forming themselves into a flint-tipped wedge of protest which will make a considerable difference to the way in which we consider the right to compensation under the 1974 agreement. But, not to get out of order—
I want to dig myself back into order in the context of the Bill and to restrict my remarks to its financial provisions.
In Clause 2 justifiable provision is made for the extension of pension schemes. Many people who live in coal mining communities have an imagination and generosity which goes far beyond what they will receive week by week from the National Coal Board. Anyone with experience of a mining constituency or community knows this to be a self-evident truth. Consideration extends not only to the commuted claims and to those of the pre-1970 widows but to those who are excluded from the provisions because they worked in the industry for less than 10 years. They need the closest possible examination—particularly those who worked in the anthracite fields and contracted pneumoconiosis whilst working in the industry for a relatively short time. Many sufferers from bronchitis and emphysema, who are still working in the industry or who retired before these provisions were brought in, should, by any definition of justice or logic, be in receipt of the more advanced compensation which is available not only for working in the industry but for contracting a killing disease. I make an additional plea for those 10-year men, and we shall return to the demands of emphysemics and bronchitics.
I know there is a great deal of sympathy for these people, but it now boils down to a matter of cash. We ask for a major advance from the money already made available to the sufferers of the inevitable consequences of coal mining. Full and proper compensation should be paid to all sufferers—those who have the disease and those who have nursed them through it and lost normal marital relations, earning capacity and all other rights and privileges which comfortable people like us take for granted.
There are many other issues, including stockpiling, imports and pensions, which every hon. Member from a mining constituency would like to raise, but the burning issue in the industry since the 1974 agreement, especially in the South Wales valleys, is how we are to treat the people whose lives have been blighted by pneumoconiosis and silicosis, like my own family, in jobs they had to do because there was no other way they could earn a living. In the many coal mining homes and especially in widowed homes the Government will be judged on the way in which they treat the victims of the most treacherous and dangerous of industries.
I should like to associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) in relation to the diseases he mentioned and to pay tribute to those who have worked and suffered in the coal industry. In dealing with the problem of the medical conditions these men have sustained, no Government can be too generous and I am disappointed that we have not been able to discuss the new clause that was ruled out of order.
Generally, I welcome the purposes of the Bill. I agree with what has been said about the price of coal, oil and other surces of energy being interlocked. The action of the OPEC countries in increasing the price of oil may have done much to give the coal industry a new lease of life. If the expenditure envisaged in the Bill is used to find new sources of coal, everybody will be pleased, regardless of where it is found.
I want to be brief because of the lateness of the hour. My party has always maintained that the coal industry in Scotland has a future, and we included a production target of 12 million tons in our election manifesto. The Under-Secretary recently made a speech in which he suggested that we had dropped that target. I can assure him that we have not.
Does the hon. Member not realise that no Scottish colliery is economically viable? If his party achieves its aim of separation from the United Kingdom, how would the jobs in the Scottish coal industry be maintained?
I hope to deal with these matters in my speech. If, as the hon. Member maintains, the Scottish industry is not viable—and I do not necessarily agree with him—then when cheaper sources of coal are found, for example at Selby, the NCB, on a British basis, would be under a great temptation to accept the hon. Member's con- tention and to rationalise the Scottish industry out of existence.
If one looks at the figures of how the Scottish industry has been dealt with over the years and the effect of NCB policies, one is shaken. In 1965, there were 48,000 wage earners in Scottish collieries. By June 1974, the number had fallen to 24,400.
Would it not be fair also to compare the Scottish coal industry as it exists in the nationalised British context with the Scottish coal industry as it was under the capitalist coal owners? Would the hon. Gentleman care to give the comparable figures for wages, productivity and so on?
Since these owners have disappeared, to be replaced by the National Coal Board, it is proper to consider the actions of the Board in reducing the work force in Scotland over that period. It may have done the same in other areas, but that does not mean that if the industry is run on a British basis it will automatically guarantee the jobs of Scottish miners.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the reduction in manpower for the Scottish coalfields where there was a fall from about 48,000 to about 24,000. The output per manshift for the Scottish fields, mainly due to geological conditions, has been much lower than in the North Derbyshire coalfield where I worked for 21 years. Under Lord Robens the NCB ravaged the manpower levels in the coalfields generally in the United Kingdom. However, thanks to the efforts of the National Union of Mineworkers, it did not savage the Scottish coalfields to the same extent that it savaged the profitable North Derbyshire field. There the reduction in manpower was from 38,000 to 12,500. In other words, in spite of the difference in productivity, Scotland did not fare as badly in this respect. That was because of the efforts of the miners in North Derbyshire, North Nottinghamshire and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. But for their action the Scottish coalfields might have been obliterated.
The NCB pulverised the North Derbyshire miners and it has done the same, to a lesser extent, to the Scottish miners. That shows that it is a vain hope to expect the NCB, on a British basis, to have a human heart.
The increasing oil prices have improved the outlook for coal in all parts of Britain. One of the primary purposes of the Bill concerns the stocking of coal. In 1972 in Scotland coal had about 35 per cent. of the energy market, oil had 50 per cent., natural gas 5 per cent. and nuclear-generated electricity 5 per cent.
The South of Scotland Electricity Board is jointly financed and planned with the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, even though they each maintain autonomous control. The SSEB's plans for extending nuclear generation lead to the assumption that if consumption does not rise—and it has in some instances fallen over the last year—the nuclear expansion could be at the expense of other fuels.
I do not think that anyone would object to oil, which is a relatively expensive form of energy, not being consumed in power stations. It is the worst possible use of oil. Therefore, oil consumption in power stations will be hit by the increased production of electricity by nuclear generation, particularly if consumption does not keep pace with the increased production. I fear that the market for coal, which I consider has to play an important role in the Scottish scene, would be hit.
If the coal-burning stations of the SSEB are eliminated in favour of nuclear generating stations, the stocking provisions in the Bill will be made valueless. Has the Minister given consideration to the impact of the SSEB's nuclear generating policies on the future of the coal industry? I know that there are negotiations currently on that matter.
I understand that there is a danger that the number of Scottish collieries might be reduced to about six or so hard-core pits during the next few years. There is a rumour—I ask for an assurance from the Minister that it is incorrect—that the Ayrshire pits will be taken out. According to reports, the Fallin pit in the constituency of the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) is due for closure. I hope that the Minister will repudiate that rumour.
Has consideration been given by the National Coal Board in Scotland to the deposits of 70 million tons of high quality coking coal in Ayrshire? I understand that a shaft has been sunk, but the NCB does not wish to develop the seams because of the intended rundown of the steel industry.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is customary in the House that when an hon. Member refers to another hon. Member and raises a matter concerning his constituency, as a matter of courtesy he gives way to the hon. Member who represents that constituency when he seeks to intervene. The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) refuses to give way. Surely that is a breach of etiquette, if not a breach of order.
As a certain amount of the finance authorised by the Bill will be directly or indirectly used in developing Selby coalfield, I should like to use the occasion to get from the Under-Secretary of State a progress report on that project. It is the only project on which I should care to dilate in the presence of so many expert mining Members of Parliament.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us when we can expect the results of the public inquiry? It met in early spring last year. I gave evidence in April. It seems to me that it should have reported by now. Since the inquiry ended, all information has dried up. In answer to questions from my constituents about the future of the area, we have been told, quite naturally, to await the outcome of the inquiry. That is not unreasonable, but it is worrying to a community waiting to hear about the considerable changes which are to take place there.
When the findings are published, I hope that the Government will be in a position to give the maximum information, for information is what we lack. I give notice of one or two questions which will be put to the Government as soon as the report is published. The Chief Executive of the Selby District Council today put this question to me:
Will the Goverment set up a Joint Consultative Committee for the area of the new Selby Coalfield upon which would be represented the North Yorkshire County Council, the Selby District Council, and other bodies who have a direct interest in all aspects of this new development, in view of the good work done by similar bodies in other parts of the country following the construction of major projects such as power stations?
I think that is an admirable idea. We need a focus for information, for ideas and for questions.
At the moment, no one knows whom to ask about anything. If it is about roads, it is the county council; if it is about housing, it is the district council; if it is about compensation, it is the NCB; if it is about flooding, it is the water board. Altogether, we are in a fairly confused situation there. When there is a special situation which concerns not just an ordinary mine but one which will dominate an entire area and add a tremendous population, special treatment is needed of the sort I have mentioned. I commend that idea to the Minister.
Another problem which still worries people very much, and will continue to do so, is housing. Up to 2,000 new houses will be needed to house miners and their families in the new coalfield. Some miners will buy their own houses but most of them will be renting them.
Perhaps I might comment that the hon. Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) is getting a little wide of the substance of the Bill. I am sure that he will now bring himself back to the main theme.
I am doing so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The reason I am bringing up the whole question of housing is that we fear that the Selby District Council, which is very small, will be required to finance this enormous housing effort, which is quite out of keeping with its size. We are saying that the project should be financed by the NCB. Whether it is or not, some special arrangement, such as that applied to a new town, simply must be made. It is not possible for the present ratepayers to pay for the burden of this vast new housing effort through the rates.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman whether the landlords and landowners in the Selby area are scared stiff that they will not get enough compensation when we start mining coal? Secondly, is the hon. Gentleman's party scared stiff that, when we start to develop Selby for the benefit of the British economy, with the introduction of miners and their wives into that area, there will be fewer Tory votes and more Labour votes?
Order. The Chair must ensure that we keep on the right rails. Probably "tramways" would be more appropriate in this case. The Bill is narrowly drawn. Hon. Members must not stray away from what is written into the Bill.
I shall leave the Under-Secretary to answer the point about compensation. He will no doubt tell us what has happened to the Government's committee which has been meeting for four years now to decide the basis of compensation. Naturally we are interested to hear its findings. I understand that they are due at any moment.
Finally, there is the question of subsidence and flooding at Selby. At this moment my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison), in whose constituency the Selby coalfield also lies, is waiting for a reply to a letter to the Under-Secretary regarding the recent flooding. This constitutes entirely new evidence on the danger of flooding, on a scale not seen since 1947. The question is whether the pillar which is at the moment to be under the cathedral, should be extended to cover the whole of the town, because of the flooding danger.
A reply may or may not have been received. I have brought this up as a result of a conversation I had this morning with the chief executive, so I assume that he has not had a satisfactory reply.
That is all I have to say on this subject at the moment, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to deal with those points in his reply.
Those of us who are concerned with the coal pits in Scotland and in Wales realise what a great benefit the Selby coalfield will be to the finances of the National Coal Board. That is why it is utter nonsense for the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) to be talking, by implication, of a separate coal board for Scotland. I hope that colleagues from Wales will not think in terms of a separate coal board for Wales, because it is not wanted by the miners.
A great development in Britain has been that, instead of the miners organising themselves on the basis of their area pits, they are now organised on an all-British basis. If there had not been public ownership of the coal industry, I doubt whether private enterprise would have kept one pit open in Wales today, especially when we know the geology of the mines. It is important, therefore, that we should organise this industry on an all-British basis.
There has been a transformation in the coal industry in the last two years, and we can look forward throughout Britain to a coal industry with greater harmony, security and prosperity in the years ahead, after the unhappy chapter of events that preceded the General Election in February 1974. This Government might not have been elected had it not been for the foolish way in which the Conservative Government tried to deal with the problems in the coalmines.
This is the second Bill which we have had on this subject in this Parliament. The previous Bill which became an Act endorsed the anticipated compensation scheme for sufferers of pneumoconiosis and their widows. I do not want to dwell on it for too long, but this is an opportunity for Back Benchers from Welsh and Scottish constituencies to deal with this matter which is causing grave concern among the mining community.
The Government previously backed the scheme to the extent of £100 million. The scheme is well under way. I understand that over 50,000 claims have been received and that many thousands of applications have been dealt with. The Government's action in this regard is deeply appreciated by the coalmining community.
However, the fact that benefits have been paid has made many people in the mining community more aware of certain anomalies. I know that my colleagues who have worked in the coalfields are familiar with the problems. We have a great mining group in this House and I should like to pay tribute to it. Some of my hon. Friends have raised this matter on a number of occasions and I realise that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has also worked at the coalface and therefore looks at the problem sympathetically.
Although, as a nation, we are going through a period where there is great demand for restraint in public spending and a mounting campaign for cuts in public expenditure, I hope that the Government, when considering the financial provision they will make for the National Coal Board, will look seriously at the anomalies which arise in the Act.
I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Pedwellty (Mr. Kinnock). There are two main categories. The first category concerns pneumoconiosis sufferers employed in the coal industry before 5th July 1948 who, because of the workmen's compensation payments, had their benefit commuted. I am in possession of a mass of correspondence, and I shall quote one or two examples. Mrs. Neale is organising a committee in South Wales and I was privileged to arrange for a lobby of the widows of pneumoconiosis sufferers to come here. They met my colleagues from the mining group and many of my hon. Friends. I have a shoal of correspondence.
One lady wrote to Mrs. Neale saying,
I received £300 in December, 1943. The gentleman who brought the cash told me that if I didn't take the money then maybe we would never have the offer again.
That illustrates the arm-twisting which took place before the industry was brought into public ownership.
I shall not mention names, but the letter goes on to say,
Mr. W … died on 8th March, 1974 (after a terrible illness).
I am not making a complaint on behalf of those who are receiving benefit. The Government have given £100 million. Indeed, they have done a tremendous job. However, this widow can see someone living near her whose husband has not suffered to anything like the extent that she and her husband suffered and yet she has to be content with £300 whereas the person who lives near her may be getting £6,000 or more.
I shall quote from a letter from a person in Abercynon which is in my constituency. The letter reads,
I was certified as suffering from pneumoconiosis on 4th June, 1948"—
that was before the National Coal Board really got going—
and because of that I had to finish in the colliery. After being unemployed for a while I was issued with a green disabled person card, which I still have today, for light work out in the open. I then had a job in a factory. After I had been there a while I had my compensation stopped because I earned three shillings and three pence too much over my rate.
That is the type of case with which we have to deal.
I share the feelings that my hon. Friend expresses. Would he allow me to put on record our appreciation of what the Labour Government have done? In all their years in power, the Tories did nothing like it. If the Scottish nationalists have their way, there will be no chance of doing anything for the people for whom we feel compassion.
I agree entirely. My hon. Friend, who is secretary of the miners' group in the House, has spoken about this matter in Committee, and I know that he and the rest of my hon. Friends feel deeply about it. I pay tribute to the Labour Government. The widows and those receiving commuted claims do not begrudge what these beneficiaries get, but they wonder whether that magnanimity could be extended to them. As with any social benefits, a line has to be drawn and those the wrong side of it want the same treatment as the others.
Another letter from the shoal I have received says:
My dad died four years ago. He worked nearly 50 years underground. He had 75 per cent. dust, but years ago took £350. My mother does not get a weekly pension after my father.
The mother is 88. There are many such letters. A big campaign is building up. Perhaps we have strayed a little from the strict subject matter of the Bill, but I hope that the Minister will realise the depth of feeling which exists on this issue.
The miners' group has raised this matter many times. The original scheme was drawn up by the NCB and the NUM and they have done a good job for those who have received the benefit. But I hope that we shall also consider those who feel a sense of injustice because they have been left out. That would create a better spirit in the mining industry and ensure that the industry, which is going from strength to strength, partly because of international conditions, can be rid of this sense of injustice.
A decade ago the coal industry was considered almost expendable and the oil and nuclear lobbies were euphoric. Until about 1970, more and more cheap energy was pouring into our countries, while coal was rapidly being run down. In Wales, between 1964 and 1970, one pit was closed every seven weeks.
But that euphoria has now been blown away by the bitter winds of reality and we realise how grossly over-optimistic were the estimates in the United Kingdom and the EEC about the future supplies of cheap oil, nuclear power and natural gas. The EEC strategy based on those estimates is seen to be quite unrealistic. Some major gas fields, such as that at Groningen near Holland, have already passed their peak.
The EEC expected nuclear power to supply 50 per cent. of energy needs by the year 2000. By 1972 it was supplying only 6 per cent. and that proportion has increased little since then. Because of the technical difficulties and dangers associated with the production of nuclear power, it is not likely to increase to a figure anywhere near the target set by the EEC.
In the devolution debate it was said that the oil in Scottish waters could be near exhaustion in a quarter of a century. Therefore coal certainly has a future. Coal is cheaper to produce than oil. In fact The Times said on 25th January 1974:
Oil with the thermal equivalent of that of the coal an average miner produces in a week costs nearly £250 to get. Including the miner's average earnings of £41 a week, it costs the NCB about £83 to produce one miner's average weekly output.
Obviously coal has a great future, but it can be ensured only by most careful planning of coalfields and adequate investment. NEDO's estimate is that if we are to maintain the present output, investment should be doubled. But more than that is needed, and miners and their dependants must be treated quite justly in all respects.
The Bill adjusts the situation of the pension scheme on which a great burden was laid by massive mine closures in the recent past, which caused the number of pensioners to leap in relation to the con- tributing miners. It is right that the Government should top up the fund.
It is shameful that the Government have not taken this opportunity to redress what is a great scandal in the coal fields, to do justice to all retired miners and their dependants, particularly those who were forced to retire through pneumoconiosis, which has played such havoc with the lives of thousands of miners and their dependants.
I also refer with appreciation to the scheme drawn up by the NCB and the NUM, to which the Government contributed £100 million. There are many anomalies in that scheme, and I refer to some of them in the new clause which was not selected. I shall not go over that ground now or I would risk censure.
I want to reinforce the appeal made on behalf of the dependants of those victims of pneumoconiosis who died before 26th January 1970. In my district—within 20 miles of my home—there are hundreds of women, mainly widows but also some daughters suffering grievously because of the present situation. No one has struggled more gallantly for their husbands in adversity than have these women. I hope that I can make an appeal on their behalf, as other Members have been allowed to do. In some cases the husbands were totally incapacitated by pneumoconiosis for decades before death. The cause of death is stated starkly on the death certificate as pneumoconiosis, yet the widows are dismissed from the mind and conscience of society, if the husband died before 26th January 1970, with a pittance of £300.
Some hon. Members may have seen a television programme early last year in which the central personality was a man who died of pneumoconiosis incurred as far back as 1942. This was a progressive case, and it is one of the horrors of pneumoconiosis that it is progressive. People in the late stages can walk only a few steps with difficulty, and then they become entirely bedridden, kept alive because they have an oxygen tube alongside the bed.
The central character in that television programme had accepted a lump sum of £300. That did not increase, but his disease did. His widow, who had had to go out to work to maintain the home, was no longer able to do that but had to stay at home to nurse him. When the man died, the day after the film was shown, the widow found that she was not entitled to any money because he had contracted the disease so early and had accepted the lump sum.
That case is typical of many in my constituency. When I appealed to the Government in Committee to do something for such people the Under-Secretary listened with great sympathy, but he wanted us to understand that in the present economic circumstances it would not be possible to extend the scheme to cover them.
I hope that the Government will listen tonight to an appeal made on behalf of many people in many parts of the southern coalfield in Wales, particularly the anthracite coalfield. I hope that their conscience will be touched and they will act in the way which I think their heart dictates.
I did not intend to take part in the debate, because it was said that Third Reading was likely to go through on the nod.
Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have been wanting to embrace the miners in the best possible fashion. I should have liked to see some of them embracing the miners at the time of the 1972 strike. It can be argued that, notwithstanding the generosity of the Labour Government, many improvements for the industry, including the pneumoconiosis scheme, emanated from that struggle. The miners were able to show then for the first time, even before the quadrupling of oil prices, that they had got back a little of the muscle with which they had always been credited. They had been unable to use it for some time because during the Robens era, when stocks were mounting, they did not have the bargaining power to elevate themselves to what many people would regard as their rightful position in respect of wages, conditions and many of the other matters discussed to-night, including those in the Bill.
We welcome the new friends, and hope that they will remain friends for a long time, but my guess is that if the situation gets tough—certainly north of the border, with the North Sea oil that will eventually arrive—there will be politicians with the inane idea that it would be a good thing to start running down the mining industry again and to use the oil supposedly to benefit the national interest.
The miners' group, of which I am chairman, has discussed the matter at length. I believe that the Government are sympathetic to our view that that should not happen again. The Bill is an indication that they at least recognise the problem. But we cannot discuss the Bill, with the extension of borrowing powers and all the other matters in it, without taking account of the present situation in the economy generally.
One of the most disastrous things which occur when we are in recession in this country—and I suppose it could be argued about any Western capitalist country—is that we are not able to sell coal to the extent that we used to do. Instead of shutting down factories to be reopened 12 or 18 months later when the boom arrives, if there is no planned energy policy it means that certain pits will be shut and it is very difficult to reopen them.
This Bill must be argued and debated in the knowledge that we are going through the most severe capitalist recession we have had since the end of the war, and it has reflected upon the National Coal Board's position financially. Indeed, it is remarkable that the situation in respect of the surplus or deficit has not been greatly different from that which occurred last year and is likely to occur at the end of this financial year.
Quite apart from the extension of borrowing powers, the Government must take account of the need to plan an energy policy which results in using coal to the fullest extent not merely on a short-term basis but for a considerable length of time.
That brings us to the need for secure markets. I hope that my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend are taking the necessary steps to secure those markets. We do not want to be placed in the situation whereby we have another 40 million tons of coal on the ground. The National Coal Board yesterday told the National Executive Committee that it was likely to reach 35 million tons on the ground by the end of this year. Somehow or other the economists on the Board seem to take the view that the up-turn in the economy will not come in 1976 or, if it does, that it will be extremely late. Their figures suggest, on the most optimistic basis, that there is likely to be an increase of 7 million tons in stocking capacity even on present trends. We have to secure markets in our economy and that can be done only by complete cooperation between essentially the gas industry, but, more importantly, the CEGB and the Scottish Electricity Generating Board.
If that is not done, we shall go on that same old merry-go-round that we have been on before, and hon. Members who have been making their points tonight will be running away from the struggles which will then lie ahead. We must avoid that. I hope that my hon. Friend is taking account of the need to change the fuel used in some of the power stations which we were discussing at the joint meeting yesterday. He knows which they are. There are about six under discussion at present, and that will result in an additional 4 million tom of coal during the course of the next 12 months or two years. That would result in less stocking during this very severe recession.
I hope that my hon. Friend will take account of the remarks I made with regard to the importing of coal, especially in regard to those imports which are replacing our coal in power stations. I take full account that there are imports coming into this country which it would be difficult to replace on the basis that these are types of coal which we currently cannot produce in Scotland, Wales or the rest of the coalfields. But there are some which are replacing indigenous steam coal which could be provided by the British colliers, such as the 40,000 tons per annum contract which is currently going to Didcot. That ought to be stopped as soon as possible. If necessary, some compensation may have to be paid, but I am told that even on that basis it would be a better bargain than continuing current imports of that kind.
I hope, too, that those in the House, there are not many, who were fervent admirers of the Common Market will pay some attention to the fact that the idea that we would export large amounts of coal to the rest of the EEC should be brought to fruition as soon as possible. Frankly, I cannot see it coming about. However, they have a duty to explain why we have not been able to sell coal— from the largest coal-producing country—to the Common Market population of 250 million, which they repeatedly promised. That is another area of the market that we need to secure if the Bill is to represent a real advance.
I come finally to the question of closures. I think that I have said enough to indicate that if we do not do some of the things I have mentioned tonight in securing a market for our product, the result will be closures both north and south of the border. I am speaking on behalf of the whole of the miners' group. I take account of the political considerations that have weighed heavily in the past. Long before the Scottish National Party was capable of capturing even one seat in Scotland, those considerations weighed heavily. I hope that SNP Members understand that if we do not have this kind of policy, the same events will occur and the result will be closures throughout the British coalfields. We must prevent that from happening at all costs.
That is why I mention particularly the pit in my constituency which is now producing coal very profitably—and much more profitably than any in Scotland. I do not say that disparagingly, because the Scottish miners work in difficult seams and need to be propped up by the Midlands miners and others in the rest of the United Kingdom who are able to produce coal at a profit, such as the Langwith miners.
I know that it is not within the remit of my hon. Friend the Minister to see that development work continues at Langwith within the next fortnight, but he could put pressure on the NCB and indicate that this matter involves not merely one colliery. This is a question that has alerted all the miners in the United Kingdom. They can appreciate that if a colliery that is currently making about £400,000 profit can be closed, it is a danger signal for many more throughout the coalfields. I hope that my hon. Friend will use his best endeavours to indicate to the NCB, in the fortnight's grace that he has, that the Langwith development must continue, in order to allow that pit to carry on for possibly as long as seven or eight years.
If we do some of these things, consistent with the Bill, and if we have a proper energy policy, one of co-ordination between the various fuels that I have mentioned, matters such as payment for pneumoconiosis and early retirement for miners, and many other things, will follow in train. That is the answer. Most of the things that we have failed to get in the past—although we have had a few benefits recently—will be obtained if we adopt this kind of policy.
The present recession will be a difficult period. It is not for me in a debate on coal to argue about some of the ways in which we may get out of that recession much more quickly. That matter will be debated tomorrow. We are talking now about the coal industry. That industry can escape the serious hazards that the rest of British industry is facing if the proper steps are taken now, notwithstanding the deep recession.
I appeal to my hon. Friends to take that matter on board and see to it that the representations being made by the miners' group, well in advance of any holocaust that might come are dealt with as speedily as possible.
As usual, I wish to be brief. However, I make a contribution on Third Reading because I believe that this is an important Bill. It is a short Bill, but it is of tremendous importance. It is of especial importance to my constituents, many of whom are members of the mining community.
I am interested in any Bill which means more investment in the coal industry. I take that interest not merely because it means more investment in jobs, but because it means more investment in the production of energy. Coal is a vital source of energy, and despite the new source of energy in North Sea oil, we shall need coal for many years to come. It is important that we ensure that investment in the coal industry continues at a viable level.
I think that my hon. Friend knows what I am about to say, but at the moment we have 800 years of available viable coal at present production levels. All this stupid talk about oil off the so-called Scottish waters must be set against the fact that it will last for only two or three decades.
Although in principle I welcome more investment I should like the Department of Energy to ensure through the NCB that investment takes place on an equitable basis. It is obvious that throughout the British Isles there are coal seams which are easy to work and which require little capital investment and seams which are difficult to work and which require proportionately more capital investment.
For example, the Selby field has seams which are easy to work. I suppose that in general the majority of the Scottish coalfield is composed of seams which are narrow and more difficult to work because of geological faults. I hope that the Minister will ensure through his colleagues in the NCB that appropriate investment goes to Scotland to ensure the continuing and thriving existence of the Scottish coalfield. But it is clear that unless we work coal in an integrated manner throughout Britain, the Scottish coalfield will die.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for pointing that out recently in a reply to a Question, which corroborates a speech which I made in my constituency at Fallin, the home of the last pit that is left in the whole of Stirlingshire. I pointed out in my speech that if the separatists—namely, the SNP—have their way and establish a separate Scottish coal board, we shall see the decline and possibly the death of the Scottish coalmining industry.
Does the hon. Gentleman concede that what went wrong with the Scottish coalfield was that the capitalists who controlled the Fife Coal Company were given jobs when the NCB took over? Secondly, does he not share my deep suspicion that the coalfields in Ayrshire, and similarly Fallin, are shortly to be shut down? Thirdly, does he not concede that at Airth there are approximately 70 million tons of coking coal, but that there is little chance of its being used, because we do not have an integrated energy policy in Scotland and because there are no iron works at the far end of the line? Fourthly, does he concede that most of the investment within the NCB will go to Selby in Yorkshire? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is right that the chief executive of the NCB in Scotland should have the same—
It was interesting to hear a renegade Socialist on the SNP Bench giving an analysis of the faults of Scottish capitalists who ran the Scottish coal industry. Let us not forget and let him not forget that the real argument in Scottish politics and Scottish industry is not Scotland versus England, but work-people versus exploiting capitalists. Fortunately, the coal industry is no longer run by capitalists. At one time the Scottish coal industry was run by capitalists who exploited fellow Scotsmen and worked them to the bone, making them hew coal to produce huge profits for the owners. That day has now passed thanks to a Labour Government. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would extend his analysis of the Scottish coal industry to other Scottish industries and whether the SNP industry spokesman, who happens to be one of the most Right-wing industrial economists in Scotland, would agree with him.
I have tabled Questions on the Airth coalfield in my area because it is impor- tant that we have a reserve field in which constituents can find work. The Department of Energy's view is that if and when it becomes economic to extract coking coal from Airth coalfield, appropriate investment may be forthcoming.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which shows that even the dumb can nod.
Coal must be worked in an integrated manner. If we were to split up the National Coal Board, as the SNP would like, that would be the surest way of closing pits such as Fallin and making sure that the coal seams of Airth are never opened up.
It is interesting to see SNP Members taking part in a coal debate—
I was just getting round to the Third Reading.
It is interesting to see the SNP taking part in any stage of a coal Bill. On Second Reading they went home to their beds. The SNP has no sense of priorities and the Scottish mining industry certainly comes nowhere near the top of its priorities or policies. Indeed, its policies would be disastrous to the Scottish mining industry.
I also welcome the references to increased investment in people rather than merely to increased extraction of coal. The men who hew that coal are the lifeblood of the industry. They are the most valuable resource in the industry and it is appropriate that they should be given special consideration. I welcome the provision of increased finances for pensions.
Several hon. Members have mentioned pneumoconiosis, and I particularly agreed with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Evans).
I should like to refer to the problem of drawing lines in regulations regarding pensions, redundancies, or whatever. Last week I had a case reported to me by a constituent. I shall be sending full details to the Under-Secretary of State later. The Department of Energy is reported to have
agreed that an ex gratia lump sum may be paid to miner workers who were redundant (a) within 30 days of attaining their fifty-fifth birthday; (b) in the period 17th July 1967 to 10th December 1972; and (c) qualified for payment under the Redundancy Payments Act".
This letter from the NCB states that my constituent cannot qualify as he was made redundant prior to 17th July 1967. He missed it by two days. He finished work on 15th July 1967 but the notice of redundancy is dated 17th July. It is most unfortunate that he, along with many others who have given 40 to 50 years' service in the industry, does not qualify for this ex gratia lump sum payment. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind and see whether anything can be done to help such cases.
It is all very well being wise in retrospect, but I think that it can be said that some miners' leaders in previous generations thought more about the wages at the end of the week than the long-term benefit of pensions. There are still grave risks of physical injury and disease in coal mining. It is therefore important that miners should have adequate pensions at the end of their working lives. In cases of fatal injury or disease, it is important that widows and dependants should receive compensation.
I should like to put the record straight. My hon. Friend said that miners' leaders in the past were concerned mainly with wages, quite rightly. However, there was a man called Keir Hardy who, when the people of Merthyr were deciding that he was the best Socialist to represent that constituency against the Welsh nationalists, said that what he wanted for miners was early retirement and compensation for pneumoconiosis and illness.
My hon. Friend has made a valid point. I cannot emphasise too much the importance of pensions, but nevertheless wages are also very important for the working man.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that it is almost hypocritical of some hon. Gentlemen opposite to suggest that miners deserve higher wages because coal is important and mining is demanding, dangerous, and so on. But where were they during the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974? I do not recall their sticking out for the fundamental principle that miners should get more money. Indeed, I do not recall any Member of the SNP, particularly not the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid), going round constituencies and saying, "We support the miners in their strike because they deserve more money." The attitude of the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire to the miners was similar to that of his predecessor. Perhaps his fate will be the same.
I welcome the Bill. It will mean more investment and opportunities in an industry essential to our future energy requirements. It must be worked in an integrated manner, not just geographically but as part of an integrated policy which makes use of all our fuel resources. I believe that in this way and with the help of this Bill the mining industry will continue in Scotland, England and Wales long after North Sea oil has become merely a legend.
I did not take part in the Second Reading or Committee stage of the Bill. I come to it therefore with almost virgin innocence.
I have listened with great interest to the Third Reading debate and I do not think that I should be representing it unfairly if I suggested that it was in part about coal and in part about Scottish politics. I hope that I can draw together these two themes, within the elasticity provided by the substantial borrowing facilities given to the NCB in Clause 1, by asking the Under-Secretary to indicate to what extent the operations of the NCB in Scotland are on a profitable or loss-making basis.
When discussion of the industry proceeds along the lines largely determined by the course of the debate tonight, it is clearly the will of the House that we should know a little more about the financial structure of the Board as between its Scottish operations and the other component parts in the United Kingdom. That is my one, simple, brief request to the Under-Secretary.
It is difficult for a Minister to reply to a coal debate, especially when matters concerning roads, housing and sewerage have been raised. Hon. Members who referred to these subjects know that they are not within the ambit of the Department of Energy.
This has been a wide-ranging debate and, despite the late hour, there are a number of important issues which deserve an answer in order to clarify matters and to educate and inform hon. Members about the role of the industry and the Bill. The House will welcome the fact that the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) stressed the importance of the Bill for miners and their families who depend on the coal industry for their sustenance. The Bill is also important in the interests of the nation. We must do everything possible to ensure that we retain a large mining industry in this country as a defence in order to make sure that we have sufficient indigenous sources of energy.
I therefore listened with interest to what the hon. Member said, because I think that he expressed the feeling of the House. He asked about the Price Commission's report on coal merchants. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection announced in a statement today that the Government welcomed the report. She said that the NCB had recently revised its contractual arrangements for the sale of solid fuel. It will be reviewing the working of the arrangements in the spring and will then report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy.
The hon. Member referred to what he described as leaks in the Press on the subject of oil substitution, and he mentioned coal imports. It is unnecessary to conceal from the House the fact that coal
A series of joint meetings by my right hon. Friend with the unions and the industry, which will start on 20th February, will provide an opportunity for discussion of these important issues, including coal imports. Such questions of concern to the coal and electricity industries should be discussed jointly before final decisions are taken. The CEGB has already undertaken to consult the NCB about future coal imports.
The hon. Member for New Forest referred to OPEC. He must forgive me for not attempting to widen the scope of the debate to include whether there should be a floor price for oil. No one can predict what will happen in June when the oil price comes up for review by OPEC. I am no prophet, and I cannot forecast what will happen. The last agreement with OPEC was not for a year but for nine months. The issue will come up again in June. I am sorry that I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman any more about that matter.
My hon. Friends the Members for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock), Aberdare (Mr. Evans), West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) and Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley)—to whom I am grateful for the way he raised the matter—all spoke about pneumoconiosis. We debated pneumoconiosis at length in Committee, and the hon. Member for Caernarvon appreciated the problem that faced the Government. The Committee conceded that the Government had put their money where their mouth was in providing sustenance for pneumoconiotic miners. Such a scheme was never thought of before the Government came to power.
When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry was Secretary of State for Energy, he went to the Cabinet at a time of great economic stringency, when there was great pressure on the allocation of public resources, and he was able to get £100 million to back up the pneumoconiosis scheme. I have never pretended that the Government would not have liked to provide more than the £100 million. Although the Government provided £100 million, the scheme is not a Government scheme. It was negotiated between the NCB and the NUM.
In Committee I was accused of being over-emotional. I said that the Government, in association with the employers and the union, at the time of the tripartite agreement, wanted to give money to people while they were alive rather than when they were dead. There is no need to describe to me the suffering caused by pneumoconiosis. I spent more than 25 years in the mining industry, nearly all the time at the coalface. Anyone who spends that amount of time in the mining industry is bound to have dust in his lungs. I have seen many of my mining friends suffer terribly from pneumoconiosis. I do not need to be reminded of that suffering.
The hon. Member for Caernarvon accepted the arguments on the scheme which I advanced in Committee. One of the lessons I learnt as a trade union negotiator was first to get the principle of a scheme accepted and then to build on the principle. I have no authority on behalf of the Government to say that tomorrow we shall build on the principle by making provision, for which hon. Members have so eloquently pleaded, for those who have been left out of the scheme. But I say to the hon. Gentleman that I welcome the fact that hon. Members have once again expressed the difficulties of the scheme. As I have said before, I hope that people will listen to what is said and to what hon. Members have described. The principle has been established and in future it can be built upon. But I stress that this is not a Government scheme but one drawn up and negotiated between the NCB and the NUM.
While I do not wish to deny credit to the Government for the grant of £100 million for this scheme, does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it was forced upon the Gov- ernment by the result of two court cases? As the Government had to make this grant—they might have had to pay out more—will he bring pressure on them to extend the scheme to include the people we have heard about in the debate?
I have tried to respond to the hon. Gentleman's view with the same courtesy as he has extended to me, but I must say to him now that he is less than fair in trying to diminish the contribution that the Government have made, in full compassion, to the people involved. To suggest that the Government were compelled to do so is a travesty of the facts. Hon. Members with legal experience know that the Government could have let the matter drag on through the courts; it would have been a long and laborious battle. When in Committee I made the speech for which I was accused of being emotional, I said that the Government were determined that these men would get some financial help while they were alive rather than when they were dead. The wheels of justice can grind slowly. There was no compulsion on the Government to act as they did. There was a genuine, compassionate appraisal arising out of the tripartite inquiry by the NUM, the NCB and the Government.
But, acknowledging his experience and compassion and the absence of compulsion on the Government and their compassion, I say flatly to my hon. Friend, as I would expect him to say to me if our positions were reversed, that not enough has been made available and that we shall be coming back for a great deal more for those cases which have not been justly dealt with, despite the compassion, generosity and consideration of the Government.
If my hon. Friend reflects on what he has just said, I am sure that he will realise that his intervention was unnecessary. I have said that the principle of the scheme has been conceded and that people will listen to the debate. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept what I am saying in the spirit in which I am saying it.
I hope that hon. Members will now allow me to answer the rest of the points raised in the debate. Interruptions make a reply much longer.
I sincerely welcome the fact that at last the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) has made a speech in a coal debate. I have longed for the day when he would because it is important to have on record the views and opinions of other parties in the House. I only wish the hon. Gentleman had taken part in the Second Reading debate. I wish, too, that he had taken part in the last debate on coal legislation, an occasion when all members of his party were absent.
I said that the SNP had entirely ignored Second Reading, Committee and Report stages. I was told that the SNP Members were too busy doing other things. I say in all sincerity that I hope that they will not be too busy in future to take part in coal debates, because coal is an important part of the Scottish economy and deserves full discussion, argument and debate in the House.
I am aware of some of the things the hon. Gentleman said, for example, about pneumoconiosis. It was rather late in the day for the hon. Gentleman to say them, because we have had very many speeches on the subject in the past. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire put it, it is difficult to listen to the SNP talking about solving this problem when we regularly hear from SNP Members nothing but anti-nationalisation speeches. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is absolutely ludicrous, if not hypocritical, for the SNP to suggest that this problem could be solved by going back to Scottish coal owners.
Will the Under-Secretary say where he got the idea that it was the policy of the SNP to pass the Scottish coalfields back to Scottish coal owners? Our policy is for a Scottish coal board—a different thing altogether.
It is very difficult to understand the policy of the SNP. That is why I sincerely appeal to the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends to take part in energy debates, so that we can discuss these matters with them.
The hon. Gentleman and his friends are stomping Scotland attacking nationalisation, and they have already recruited into their organisation some of the biggest apostles of private enterprise. When the SNP Members talk of their targets, they ought to tell the House how they will maintain them. One of them spoke of doing so by reducing the consumption of oil in Scotland. The consequence would be to lose current jobs in the oil industry, so that is not a satisfactory answer. The hon. Gentleman's party ought to be clear in its thinking on this issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire said, the idea of a Scottish NCB is ridiculous, because the problems of the coal industry in Scotland can be solved only in a British context.
There were references by SNP Members to pits in Scotland being closed very shortly. It is deplorable that hon. Members should make such a statement for political advantage without attempting to substantiate it. To play with people's livelihoods for political advantage is the height of irresponsibility. If SNP Members have evidence that pits are about to close, they should produce that evidence to the House. I deny it flatly and I say that, in the absence of their putting forward that evidence, hon. Gentlemen are telling untruths in the House.
If SNP Members are to participa1e in energy debates, they must say where they stand in relation to nuclear power. I have listened to what they have had to say on that subject and they have been anything but positive. They will have to make up their minds and say whether they are for or against the development of nuclear power. The whole House will look forward with interest to any comments which they may make on this topic.
No, I shall not.
I turn to the capacity of coal burning power stations in Scotland. I want to make it perfectly clear that there is at present sufficient capacity to burn all the power station coal likely to be produced in Scotland. The South of Scotland Electricity Board's consumption of coal and slurry has risen from 5·4 million tons in 1970–71 to an estimated 8·9 million tons in the current financial year. However, of course, the prospect of a large amount of oil and nuclear generating capacity coming on stream in the next few years when electricity demand will be below previous expectations naturally raises questions about the future level of coal consumption.
The National Coal Board and the South of Scotland Electricity Board have referred this question to the Government, and my Department and the Scottish Office are currently examining it. In fact, I had a discussion with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Scottish Office yesterday. This matter is one of those to be pursued in the forum of the coal and electricity discussions that my right hon. Friend has arranged. In their approach to this problem the Government will have in mind the contribution that the Scottish coalfields can make to the long-term energy needs of the country.
No, I shall not.
The hon. Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) has discussed Selby before. I know that he has a constituency interest. He knows that many of those issues are the responsibility of the Department of the Environment.
However, I can say briefly and succinctly that there may be further delays in a planning decision on the Selby project. The Department of the Environment has circulated the interests concerned to establish whether the flooding that took place in the area at the beginning of January, due to the storms and high tide, has any implication for the subsidence problem, which bulked large at the public inquiry. It will inevitably take a few weeks to clarify this issue, but I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is fully aware of the desirability of an early decision consistent with the need for proper consideration of the very important issues involved. I hope that at this late hour the hon. Gentleman will accept that explanation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover rather characteristically described to the House the reasons why one must have an energy policy and he said that the understanding and agreement among the NUM, the Government and the National Coal Board must be fully implemented. We agreed to a target of 150 million tons a year. My hon. Friend said that it was necessary to secure markets to implement this policy, and I have already described our approach to coal imports. Conversion will be appraised by the Department in conjunction with those concerned. We are seized of his point that pits are not like factories, that once a pit is closed, in all probability it is closed for all time.
The policy that we are implementing is that outlined in the examination of the industry, a policy of new investment. Of course exhausted pits will be closed, but if we pursue a policy of new investment, new sinkings and a resarch for new resources, both production and manpower will be sustained.
No, of course I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman has not been here for most of the debate. It is unfair of him to come in half way through and expect to take part.
We are now looking forward to consolidating the industry's future. This short but important Bill will help to provide the basis for that future in line with the commitments undertaken in the coal industry examination. As I said on Second Reading, the Bill must be seen in the perspective of an overall strategy on which the industry and the Government have agreed.
I said on Second Reading that there were four main planks in our policy: first, coal as the foundation of a British energy policy; second, a refusal to allow short-term difficulties to blow the industry off course; third, a desire to see that the miner is accorded his rightful place in society; fourth, ensuring that the industry starts this new era without the dead weight of financial millstones from the past.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) on his appointment as Opposition spokesman on energy. He asked me about the financial position of the Scottish coalfield. That is a very important question, to which the people of Scotland and Britain are entitled to know the answer. I shall write to him giving details of production and finance in the Scottish coalfield. No doubt he will wish to study them carefully and comment on them later.
I do not wish to prolong the Under-Secretary's peroration, but may I take it that that correspondence will be passed to me with the prospect of its receiving the widest possible publicity?
No, I shall not give way.
This short Bill is a further stage in implementing the Government's share in the policy that I have described. I thank hon. Members opposite for their constructive remarks and relevant questions during the debate. The Government are grateful to all who have contributed to this discussion.
It is encouraging to see that the coal industry has the support of both sides of the House and that both sides welcome the fact that the industry is beginning again to play a proper role in the country's fuel policy. In the light of that encouragement, I ask the House to give the Bill a Third Reading.