Coal Industry Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions – in the House of Commons at 7:57 pm on 24th July 1980.

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Photo of Mr Lawrence Cunliffe Mr Lawrence Cunliffe , Leigh 7:57 pm, 24th July 1980

I regret that the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) is not in the Chamber. He attempted a statistical slug-out over increases in productivity reflecting unit costs. In Committee he consistently distorted beyond recognition the facts, figures and image of our mining industry. It is claimed that Labour Members are too pessimistic about the future of our mining industry, but the Government are seeking to tie the hands of the NCB and the mining industry in the name of monetarism. I should relish the opportunity to deal with many of the incorrect points made by the hon. Gentleman, but I shall deal with only two.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of falling demand for British coal consumption. The recession that has occurred through the Government's actions has affected demand for coal. The Government continually tell us that industry must stand on its own feet, but demand has decreased and investment has been cut back. Every day there are factory closures, especially in the North-East and the North-West. National and local investors, and those from abroad, lack confidence in the Government's attempt to stimulate the economy, as they promised in their manifesto, in order to increase our standard of living.

It is a myth to claim that the British workman is responsible for the problems and that he is lazy and indifferent to his task. That is certainly not true in the mining industry, as has been proved by a magnificent year of profits, increased productivity, decreased absenteeism and increased exports. There is a tremendous spin-off from the mining industry to the rest of British industry.

We constantly use the slogan "Buy British", and it is the proud achievement of the National Coal Board that 98 per cent. of all the goods and materials that it uses are British made. We must learn that investment in one industry has major consequences in helping others to become more viable and efficient.

The Secretary of State referred to the Venice summit. He stressed the reaffirmation by Britain of the energy requirements to be met by the year 2000. We challenged the Government at the second sitting of the Committee and claimed that the Bill should be reappraised in the light of the summit meeting. We said that the Government should step back from the financial obstinacy that they were sustaining by being inflexible over the phasing out of operating grants.

The House must realise that we cannot turn back the clock, as the Government are attempting to do with the NCB's balance sheets. They intend to mark back the books, so that a break-even result can show a loss of £190 million. That is political chicanery, trickery and deception.

I am sure that the Government and the Prime Minister have failed abysmally to understand the magnitude of the problem of world energy requirements. They show a degree of indifference when they have to put their money where their mouths are. It was pointless for them to pay lip-service to a commitment to double coal production when they were imposing on the British mining industry the financial impediments contained in the Bill.

If the Government want to restore the confidence of men and managers in the industry they should pump greater investment and aid into the industry instead of merely talking about the possibility of reappraising the situation in the autumn. With all the drive and determination in the world, the NCB could not break even by the dates laid down in the Bill.

It has been said that we should make ourselves more competitive by increasing production and reducing unit costs, but many of our pits are uneconomic because of natural geological conditions and not because of any lack of effort by miners. It is ridiculous for the hon. Member for Bedford to compare unit costs and production norms in areas like the rich coalfields of Nottingham, with their 6ft. and 7ft. seams, with my part of the country, where we have small collieries with only 18in. seams, and where the men still have to crawl on their bellies and the pits have no mechanisation. Even so, they meet their production targets and, since the new productivity deal, the men earn reasonable wages.

Those men come from mining stock and mining communities. The great danger, as my hon. Friend the Member for Merthy Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands) pointed out, is that if we are not careful there will be no mining stock left to go down the pits when we experience a resurgence of demand for coal. It is all very well to say that we need mobility of labour, but some miners in my part of the country have already moved four or five times from region to region. They have said "Enough is enough. We are not risking the education of our children and moving home again. We will go on the dole before we move." Passions and emotions of that sort are being generated in the region. Those men cannot be moved like industrial nomads whenever it suits some economic objective. It is an inhuman process at the best of times.

We acclaim the increase in the amount allocated to the pneumoconiosis compensation scheme, as do the miners. However, compensation cannot make up for the death of a miner whose family have seen the scourge of the disease and its effect on the body. Some of us believe that we should abolish the pneumoconiosis panels. The evidence of general practitioners, pathologists, and consultants who have kown and examined men for many years is rejected by the panels. One cannot convince the widow of a miner who was receiving a 60 or 70 per cent.—sometimes even a 100 per cent.—disability payment that a post mortem decision that her husband had chronic bronchitis is correct No rhetoric, persuasion or compassion can convince her that her husband did not suffer from the terrible disease of pneumoconosis.

I have had responsibility for rehabilitating many sufferers at NCB engineering services workshops. It is a thankless task to have to watch them deteriorate. It is a progressive disease that eats the lungs away, and even if we doubled the amount of compensation it would not ease the feelings of the widows and families who have seen their men suffer. I make a plea that at some time in the future we should consider a more human approach to some of the problems involved in this area.

British miners view the present situation with some anger and suspicion. The Under-Secretary satisfied the Opposition with his reasonable approach to some matters in Committee, but it was obvious that he did not have much leeway and was in a straitjacket. Unless confidence is restored to the mining industry, backed by hard financial investment, better conditions and better remuneration, we shall never reach the commitment that we have made to double production by the year 2000 within the EEC terms and the Venice summit.