Is the Minister aware of the adverse effect that large coal stocks are having on productivity in our mines, especially compared with other countries? Will he adopt two measures to try to deal with this long-term problem? First, will he ensure the provision of better and longer-lasting equipment for the extraction of coal, and, second, will he bring into effect a steady reduction in the retirement age of miners from the present unacceptable level?
We are certainly anxious to get back into the coal exporting business. This matter was discussed at the Council of Energy Ministers meeting last week. I would not exaggerate the amount of our coal stocks. After all, we may face a tough winter, with stocks run down substantially. As for importing coal, there are certain inhibitions on us, inasmuch as long-term contracts have been signed which must be honoured, but we are keeping the matter under close review.
Since the previous Under-Secretary of State—the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes)—told me in an official letter only three months ago that the Government were in no way committed, either in principle or in detail, to the Vale of Belvoir coal mine, will the Minister withdraw the suggestion that he made earlier in answer to the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) that the Government are in some way committed to this project?
I cannot withdraw the answer that I gave, because what my hon. Friend said and what I said is true. As to the desirability of mining in that area, that is a matter for planning, for the Department of the Environment in the first instance, and for a public hearing. But if the decision is that we shall go ahead with this, subject to certain safeguards, it will be a welcome addition to our resources.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the difficulty with the electricity supply industry is that there is not enough load and there is too much coal? Would not matters be helped if the Department gave some attention to a rational pricing policy for all energy resources?
Certainly, most of our coal is electricity coal and not suitable for burning in domestic fires or boilers. Therefore, the suggestion that we should sell the coal to old-age pensioners at reduced prices and similar suggestions are not realistic. However, my hon. Friend makes a fundamental point, which we shall consider.
No matter, Mr. Speaker—"a rose by any other name". Does the Minister agree that the large stocks of coal have a depressing effect on those working in the industry? He said just now that he hoped that we would get back into the export business. Does he realise that that will be not at all well received by those in the industry who hope that if there is any silver lining from the fall in the value of our currency it is that our goods will be cheaper abroad? Is not the export position of Britsh coal depressing in the extreme, since the whole market seems to have evaporated? Will someone get off his bottom and go out and sell British coal now, when its price advantage has never been better?
I am not certain about the hon. Gentleman's being a rose, but there were certainly many thorns in that question. I do not accept his depressing view of the industry. The subject of productivity will come up on a later Question. It is important for the industry to get back into exporting. Our European partners hope that we can contribute in that area, and I am certain that the National Union of Mineworkers wants to see us back as we used to be—one of the best exporters in the world.