Coal Industry Dispute

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:17 pm on 7th June 1984.

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Photo of Mr Alexander Eadie Mr Alexander Eadie , Midlothian 9:17 pm, 7th June 1984

The House would wish me to compliment the two maiden speakers. I should probably refer to the Conservative Member first. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) paid a right and generous tribute to his predecessor. The hon. Member showed that he will be articulate enough to espouse his party's case, and no doubt we shall hear more from him. It is, of course, another pleasure for me to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) on her maiden speech. Coming from the Rhondda valley, in south Wales, she made it clear that the miners and the people of that area have found a champion to espouse their cause. I am sure that we shall hear more from her. We were pleased that she was so articulate, and I compliment her on behalf of the House.

I have had the great privilege and pleasure of occupying these Benches now for about 12 years, and to speak on behalf of my party from the Front Bench. During those 12 years I have never listened to a debate of such major importance and significance in which senior Members were so noticeable by their absence. I think it is rather strange that that should happen. One wonders what is happening on the Government Benches for this to be so.

In response to the debate, I think it has to be recorded that it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) who got the present talks going between the National Union of Mineworkers and the NCB with a view to settling the coal dispute. It is unpredecented that the initiative in such a major crisis affecting our country should have to come from the Opposition.

My right hon. Friend talked to both sides in the dispute. In the debate, Opposition Members—and any other hon. Members can join us—are entitled to ask the Secretary of State for Energy whether he talked to both sides involved in the dispute. Indeed, we are entitled to ask what initiatives, if any, he has helped, or tried to help, to resolve the dispute. I hope that we are not going to be told that the Government's policy is one of non-intervention. How is it possible to compromise apparent neutrality by talking to both sides involved in the dispute in this serious crisis that affects the nation? I say this "apparent neutrality", for that cover has already been blown for the Government, because they have been in contact throughout the dispute with the National Coal Board, and, I know, with Mr. Ian MacGregor.

It is essential tonight that the House be told what the Government strategy has amounted to. I submit that it can be described in two aspects. First, it has been a response for public presentation or public consumption. The policy of non-intervention has been trailered in the House, and trailered across the media. That is the word that has tripped gaily from the lips of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. Anyone who has some knowledge of the machinery of Government knows that the meaning of non-intervention is to conspire to bring about the defeat of the miners. I suggest that the word non-intervention is now a bit word-soiled. I know that my old mother of 85 years, who was secretary of the Spanish civil war relief fund, remembers the policy of Tory Government non-intervention.

The second aspect of this so-called strategy by the Government is allied to the first. It is a political strategy to starve the miners and their families into submission.

I have news for the Government. They will not succeed in starving the miners and their families into submission. As a strategy, it is bound to fail because in this debate we are appealing to the fair-mindedness of the British people, and they will not allow any Government to starve any section of industrial workers into submission. If that is Government strategy, they will succeed only in escalating the dispute because the trade union movement will not allow the miners to be starved into submission.

Every Government and every Head of Government has a responsibility to bear in an industrial dispute of this magnitude, and it is clear that the Prime Minister can be identified with the origins of this one. I refer to the appointment of Mr. Ian MacGregor as chairman of the NCB. The Prime Minister cannot wriggle out of that responsibility, for he was her appointment. It was the single most provocative political act of 1984.

It was made clear by the press corps at 10 Downing street that the right hon. Lady was full of admiration for Mr. MacGregor and was proud of what he had done to the steel industry, in which he was detested by management and workers alike. Based on that, there can be little doubt that his terms of reference were seen by the people working in the coal industry as an instruction that he should do to coal what he had done to steel.

It added insult to injury when we were informed at the time of the appointment of Mr. MacGregor that a fee of £1·5 million had to be paid to his firm in America for his secondment. It was a disgrace when the present Chancellor of the Exchequer appeared on television and said that it was cheap at the price. Later in my remarks I shall show how cheap it has been.

We are entitled tonight to question the advice that must have been given by Mr. MacGregor at the outset of this dispute, which was to the effect that it would have little effect on the economy of the country because of the high stocks of coal. A servile and captive media also played the tune that the high stocks of coal would cause little or insignificant damage to the economy. In view of some of the speeches that have been made in this debate about the economic damage that the dispute has caused, that takes the biscuit.

It reeked of complacency when the chairman of the NCB a few weeks ago, from the cosy comfort of NCB headquarters in Hobart house, described the miners' dispute as a little temporary difficulty outside of town". I do not know whether it will be, or will be considered to have been, temporary, but it is certainly not a little difficulty. It is a whopper of an industrial dispute.

There is a growing realisation among the electors as a result of the dispute how much they have been diddled by the Conservatives, who campaigned on the basis that they would safeguard the public purse. Your money is safe in our hands was the slogan of every Tory politican at two general elections.

Unemployment and the Falklands war have been debated at great length because of their enormous expense, which is still growing. The miners' dispute looks like becoming a strong competitor in the expenditure of the nation. No wonder that the dispute is being captioned in every mining and industrial area as the Prime Minister's folly. There is good reason for it being named as such. If one adds it to the expenditure in the Falklands and the colossal cost of sustaining unemployment, we undoubtedly have the most irresponsible and extravagantly expensive Government ever in peacetime.

The miners' dispute is probably costing twice as much as the Falklands war. I restrain myself with great difficulty from going into details about — [Laughter.] —Conservative Members should not laugh, because there is nothing to laugh about—the misery and suffering that miners and their families are undergoing. That is nothing to laugh about. The dispute must be costing nearly £2·5 billion. That is why I refer to it as one of the most serious crises that we are undergoing. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East said, we have the largest trade deficit ever in our balance of trade. The value of stocks and shares has been chopped since the start of the dispute, although not many miners will suffer from that.'

There is another factor, which is again no joke—it is serious. I calculate that about 700 places are standing idle all over the British coal fields. If this dispute lasts much longer, I estimate that about £1·75 billion worth of equipment underground will be at risk, but in Mr. MacGregor's words, this is a "little temporary difficulty".

I put it to the House in all seriousness that, because of his monumental incompetence, Mr. MacGregor should be sacked immediately. [AN HON. MEMBER: "And the Prime Minister."] Yes. There will be a little more difficulty about that, but it will come.

As Mr. MacGregoror has withdrawn from the negotiations, he may wish to do the honourable thing and resign. The Minister's cover has been blown, and he must reply, as must the Minister of State, Department of Employment, to the statement in the Daily Mirror, which was somewhat echoed in The Observer last Sunday, that the Government are insisting that there have to be no agreed terms that could be interpreted as a victory for the NUM president. We are entitled to know whether those are the terms of negotiation given to the negotiators of the NCB. If that is so, that is the road to hell and disaster, and we will not bring this dispute to an end.

The miners' case in this dispute is overwhelming. The speeches of some Conservative Members illustrate that the miners' case has not been presented fairly. It has been polluted by picket line scenes on television and in the media. Never in living memory in an industrial dispute have the police been used as they have been today.

The second betrayal has been conservative talk of the gladiatorial battle between Mr. Ian MacGregor and Mr. Arthur Scargill. That certainly pollutes the argument. The issue is simple. The NCB made a unilateral declaration to get rid of 20 pits and 20,000 men this year. Mr. MacGregor said that it was based on an over-production of 4 million tonnes of coal. If there is any doubt about "Plan for Coal", that unilateral declaration was the first shot fired in the betrayal of that plan. The way that it has been presented to the public—as though the NCB had to take action to slim down the manpower and close the pits—ignores the fact that during the past three financial years, through pit closures, exhaustion and other factors, the coal industry has shed 43,000 men.

In my native land of Scotland, there have been six pit closures during the past 15 to 16 months, and two of them are the subject of dispute. We have lost 3,000 jobs, yet our unemployment rate is an absolute scandal. In some areas it is 70 or 80 per cent. among the youth.

The case for development of coal is overwhelming. It is the only fossil fuel that we have in abundance. There is sufficient coal to last us throughout the next century. As, has been pointed out by some of my hon. Friends, oil and gas are wasted assets. Some sources of energy will. disappear before the century is out. We know that by 1988 oil from the North sea will begin to dwindle. We also know that when we talk about coal and its future, we are talking about the industrial strategic importance of the nation. It is strategically important that we have a strong, thriving coal industry because of the problems in the Middle East, which is a cauldron of political uncertainty. If we contract our coal industry, we shall place the nation in industrial peril. We will need to make oil from coal.

The Secretary of State spoke of investment in coal. The House must be aware that the Government have not sunk one pit since they were elected in 1979. That is a betrayal of "Plan for Coal". As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley said, if we look at global investment we see that the Government are operating a policy of contracting the coal fields in Durham, Scotland, Northumberland and south Wales. The right hon. Gentleman cannot deny that 81 per cent. of investment goes into Nottingham, the Midlands and Yorkshire. The other areas are left with 19 per cent. If that is not a policy of contraction, I do not know what is. We need new pits. Unless we sink new pits, the industry will contract. The country is rich in coal, and we know the areas with potential for new pits—Wales, Scotland and so on.

It is not the miners who are on the rack tonight—it is the Government. That is why we will go into the Division Lobby and vote against the Government. Their policy is not just industrial suicide for the mining industry; it is industrial suicide for the nation as a whole.