Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:29 pm on 26th March 1979.

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Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner , Bolsover 11:29 pm, 26th March 1979

I notice that the debate has widened slightly as a result of the speech of the hon. Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester) and that of the Minister. Perhaps the most important thing when we are talking about redundancy schemes, concessionary coal schemes, pensions, and so on, is to try to avert many of these payments in future. The hon. Member for Beeston wanted figures for prospective pit closures in 1981. I am not searching for that information; I want the Minister to make it clear that he will resist any closures and that he will tell the National Coal Board that what we need now, in the new situation developing over oil, is to keep open as many pits as possible, except where the coal has absolutely run out.

I want to emphasise those words. The NCB is capable of suggesting that coal has run out when it has not. There are variations on the question whether it has or not. Teversall was a good example. The men in Nottinghamshire, particularly in Teversall, were saying that there was a good deal of coal still left in that pit, yet the NCB was insisting that it was not workable.

Therefore, we must ensure that up to 1981 and well beyond as much coal as possible is obtained from some of these so-called uneconomic pits to which the NCB constantly refers.

We are getting back to the situation that applied in the 1950s and 1960s, when the oil companies were intruding on the traditional coal markets and pits were consequently being closed at a tremendous rate.

I can foresee the situation in which unwise heads may decide that it is not a bad idea to have another bout of pit closures. People might think that they will get sufficient coal from the Vale of Belvoir or Selby, and so on. Naturally I want coal to be produced effectively and efficiently in such places, but I am more concerned that the pits in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire—Scotland and South Wales also spring immediately to mind—are kept open for as long as possible. More attention should be paid to the union's demands and less to what the National Coal Board says on these matters.

With the new Iranian crisis in oil supplies, we are running into another dangerous period. If some pits are running at less than the economic rate, so be it. We have only to hark back to the period in the 1960s, when the pits were being shut by the Coal Board with, sadly, successive Governments turning a blind eye to the closures, to realise that the result was that there were hardly any coal stocks on the ground. If anything caused the 1972 miners' strike, it was that the miners suddenly realised that they were in a tremendously powerful bargaining position. I worked for 21 years underground and we were never in such a strong position. We realised the strength of our position long before the oil crisis. It arose between 1970 and 1972 because the Coal Board unwisely shut too many pits.

The emphasis should be on keeping open for as long as possible all those pits where there are reserves and where it is possible to operate them. More attention should be paid to the NUM's assessment of the reserves than to the suggestions by the Coal Board. I know that the Board wants to seek efficiency where it can find it. But if pits are shut more payments have to be made to miners.

I do not take kindly to having to pass orders such as these in order that payments may be made. I would much prefer to have a coal mining industry employing about 400,000 miners. Even though on that basis the output per manshift might not be as great as it is now, at least we would know that in this labour-intensive industry we were providing work for more people.

That brings me to the important point partly touched on by the hon. Member for Beeston when he spoke of the shutting of pits. Most of the men are employed underground. In some terms it is relatively easy to employ 700 or 800 men in a hole in the ground. But if the pit shuts—perhaps in Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire—it is a hell of a job to find that many jobs in factories on the pit top.

We have seen many examples of where marshmallow factories, and so on, have been erected. Courtaulds and Dunlop have put up factories in the North-East and in Lancashire, picking up the grants—more public expenditure—and when it suits their convenience they leave. That means that the ex-miners who went into the factories and learned to do the work are once again on the scrap heap. A lot more attention must be paid to keeping pits open for as long as possible.

There has been reference to the number of fatalities in the industry. I simply advise hon. Members not to get too hung up on the idea of the productivity scheme. I put on the record again that, irrespective of how the individual or collective accidents occur, there were 63 fatalities in 1978 as against 40 in 1977, the former being the first full year of the productivity scheme. That must be borne in mind, too.

Demand is the most important single question. I do not share the Opposition view that we are not selling coal in the Common Market because of the activities of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or any of the Ministers concerned with the Department of Energy. Many long-term contracts were made in the Common Market years ago, involving markets in the East and the West. Although this country is taking EEC butter and is storing and caring for much of the produce of the Common Market and having to buy EEC goods, there is no quid pro quo on the other side.

A lot more attention has to be paid to finding more demand for our coal. It means that the Department of the Environment must instruct local authorities to ensure that houses are built with chimneys. In Sheffield, the local council has been talking about switching from oil back to coal; it should never have switched to oil in the first place. The same is true of countless local authorities throughout the country. I should like to see a directive from the Department of Energy to all the various areas where demand can be created in order to mop up some of the 29 million tons of coal currently at the pit top. It means that we have to take up the 5½ million extra tons of coalburn in this country, and more besides.

The emphasis must lie in ensuring that we are safeguarded through this period of oil crisis. Notwithstanding North Sea oil and gas, the fact is that the coal is there to be got. We also know that when a pit is closed the chances of its being reopened are slight, although I am told that there is a possiblity at Thorne, and things are looking up there. But that is a startling example that runs against the usual grain. Few pits are reopened once they have been closed, and in any case Thorne was shut for special reasons.

The emphasis must be on keeping the pits open and ensuring that a massive attack is made on all the various markets where we can create demand. When that is done, we shall not be coming here to pass orders for extra amounts of money on the basis of throwing more and more people out of work; instead, we shall be passing orders for extra amounts of money in the context of wage rises in order to ensure that pit wages equate with current wage rates. The emphasis for successive Governments, of whatever colour, is to ensure that the mining industry is not only stabilised at its current state in terms of manpower and pits but is expanded massively over the next few years.

I want to make one specific point about concessionary coal. I have long argued in this House and before I came here that some miners who worked in the pits for 40 and more years never got any concessionary coal because they did not come into the category prior to the first order being brought in in 1967–68. I can give examples of the Blackwell pit and various others shut at the south end of Derbyshire, and I suppose there are others in Lancashire, Durham and elsewhere.

It is high time that the Department and the NCB got together to provide a scheme to pick up all these cases. Many of these miners or their widows have passed on now, but thousands like them are left and are somewhat aggrieved because they have not had many of the benefits which have been given since 1967 in many directions. They are not able to get even three or perhaps four or five tons of coal a year to heat their homes. These cases ought to be picked up by the Minister, and I hope that he will pay some attention to this matter when we form the next Government.