Coal Industry Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions – in the House of Commons at 8:10 pm on 24th July 1980.

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Photo of Mr Roger Thomas Mr Roger Thomas , Carmarthen 8:10 pm, 24th July 1980

It is a great privilege to follow the oration by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) who, with his expertise, made some telling contributions in Committee. His case tonight, proposed with conviction, was irresistible.

In the wake of the double blow of the recession of 1973 and the oil prices of 1974, the Government and the country turned back to coal after the unhappy record of the 1960s. Even though British mines could provide adequate supplies for our own basic needs, both the Central Electricity Generating Board and, in particular, the British Steel Corporation, have been allowed to import coal. Even during the early years of "Plan for Coal" which saw a major turnaround in investment in our indigenous industry, oil-fired power stations actually increased their proportion and contribution for pre-1973–74 decisions to be carried out. There was, about that time, a hesitancy in the Government's commitment to coal. I gather daily the impression that this hesitancy is fast returning. There is daily evidence coming to light to support this view.

The greater the output and commitment to coal, the less will be the demand upon our far from limitless supplies of oil and natural gas. It is natural and rational to insist that future power stations could be run on coal—and on indigenous coal at that. Plans to convert oil-fired power stations to coal should be expedited. This would mean that the depletion rate of offshore oil and gas could be handled far more effectively. The great boon to our economy would not be frittered away too hastily. This can be achieved only by a commitment to coal that is above the figure envisaged by the Government over the coming decade.

The Government have also deliberately loosened their grip and control over North Sea oil instead of extending their interests into allied oil processing industries, the result being a far more curtailed advantage for the British people. It is now clear that the Government are determined to streamline the coal industry so that it all falls within the category of well-designed, well-equipped, highly mechanised, high-productivity mining capacity. If that is the case, further contraction is bound to occur.

The Prime Minister, in her famous speech at Swansea last week, more or less told the Welsh workers—the Welsh miners were not excluded—that, if they wish to play a vital part in the industry, they will have to be prepared to be mobile. That mobility would not be confined to moving from pit to pit within South Wales but would mean being prepared to move to the geologically lucrative mines that extract coal east of the Pennines. This amounts, unfortunately, to a further piece of evidence that the Government do not really care for Wales. Neither do they appear to care very much more for the other long standing, less prosperous regions that contain the more perilous parts of the peripheral coalfields of the United Kingdom.

The slump of 1973 followed by the oil crisis of 1974 marked a turning point for our energy policy as much as for our economic policy in general. Nuclear power is said to be cheaper than power from coal-fired stations, but the CEGB is not fully forthcoming with the essential statistics on relative costs. Further comparison is difficult when the former is technically a continuous process and the latter are used for the variable part of the required load. A statement such as that from the chairman of the CEGB to the effect that up to the end of March 1978 the electricity consumer will have saved, through present nuclear capacity, up to £ 100 million, compared with the costs of alternative coal-fired stations, is hardly calculated to help the coal mining industry to assist this country to use its reserves of fossilised fuels to the full.

Yet, in a parliamentary reply on 23 April, the Department of Energy stated: Current research should enable disposal routes to be developed before the end of the century."— [Official Report, 23 April 1980; Vol. 984, c. 173]. The operative word is "should". There is no element of certainty in the Minister's reply. It has to be taken on trust that the safe management and disposal of nuclear waste to which both the Government and the nuclear industry are giving their highest priority will provide that degree of total safety that our people deserve and demand.

In 1979–80, the domestic market apparently became the coal industry's second largest after many years of decline. Sales of domestic solid fuel appliances are certainly increasing as oil becomes prohibitively expensive. We have an advisory service second to none. Yet there is a mounting fear that coal supplies for these families, who have now been convinced that their homes should be heated by coal, will come from outside the British Isles. This is a distressing and despicable situation if it is allowed to develop.

In the anthracite areas of the South Wales coalfield, where geological unpredictabilities are gathering momentum, supplying new domestic and, to a lesser extent, industrial consumers will result either in importation or resorting to opencast methods of coal extraction, a method that is wholly unacceptable unless more concessions are forthcoming both in regard to the relative disturbances between blasting and occupied dwellings, the desecration of the countryside to resemble parts of distant planets, and we have the long overdue improvement of transportation, with more reliance upon rail and far less upon inadequate roads, both in quality and upkeep.

For the domestic consumer, energy is now a very costly item. The recent price increases have hit the low-paid and the pensioners very badly. Their fuel bills form over 12 per cent. of their living costs compared with a third of that percentage for those with higher incomes.

I remind the Under-Secretary, whose placatory tones and conciliatory nature we witnessed during the Committee stage, of his final contribution to that Committee stage, in which he said: I see no reason why I should not initiate a form of tripartite debate immediately"— [Official Report, Standing Committee B, 15 July 1980; c. 327.] This is something that we wish the Secretary of State to carry out.