I have had frequent discussions with the chairman of the National Coal Board upon the many problems facing the industry as a result of the unnecessary industrial action taken by some sections of the NUM.
This morning, of the 174 pits, there were only 13 without men present. Coal production was substantially increased, particularly in Scotland, Yorkshire, the north-east and north Derbyshire.
During the 19 working days of 1985, more than 10,000 further miners have returned to work.
Coal stocks at the power stations have remained at a very high level. The CEGB has reiterated its assurance that with present coal stocks and supplies there will be no power cuts due to coal shortages during 1985.
Fifty-two coal faces, including 30 working faces, have been lost since the start of the dispute.
Tomorrow, officials of the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers will meet to establish whether talks can be restarted.
The Government hope that, with the National Coal Board having offered a substantial investment programme, good pay for miners, a closure procedure better from the miners' point of view than any previous closure procedures, generous early retirement provisions and substantial resources to bring new enterprises and business to mining communities, the damaging industrial action which has taken place without a ballot will swiftly be ended by a negotiated settlement.
As the dove in a Cabinet of hawks, will the Secretary of State ensure that the eagle does not get her claws on tomorrow's talks about talks? Will he also give serious consideration to the termination of the contract of Ian MacGregor as chairman of the National Coal Board? He has caused the most disruption in the industry for 11 of the 17 months since he was appointed chairman. The strike was initiated by him and the Government.
There have been seven rounds of talks, and we know the eagle that has done the damage to every one of those rounds. It certainly has not been Mr. MacGregor, who has made an offer to miners which is better than any offer since nationalisation. He has offered better closure procedures, a bigger capital investment programme and the first ever guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies. It is a great tragedy for the industry that, without a ballot, the dispute has taken place.
As it has been part of the Secretary of State's propaganda all along that no miner who wanted to remain in the industry would be forced out of his job, will the right hon. Gentleman repeat that guarantee and extend it to the 500 striking miners who have been sacked during the dispute? If the Thatcherite hawks are really looking for blood and for heads to roll, would it not be better to roll in the plastic bag the head of the person whose political appointment provoked the most damaging and longest strike in British industrial history, at a cost of more than £2·5 billion to the taxpayer?
A great deal of blood has been lost in this dispute by violent picketing of the worst sort. Judgments on whether people should be sacked are matters for the National Coal Board; but, with any employer in this country, people who commit criminal acts cannot expect to continue to be employed afterwards.
In what appear to be the closing stages of this dispute, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government's attitude will not be in any spirit of revenge or victimisation, but, rather, of looking to the future for the achievement of an efficient, productive and profitable coal industry as soon as possible?
Yes, Sir. The first objective should be to get an agreed settlement as swiftly as possible, and thereafter to concentrate on getting a united industry with united mining communities, and with the industry advancing so as to take advantage of the considerable prospects that lie before it.
Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that, for the first time in this dispute, the Government will play a positive role in trying to resolve it rather than take the negative approach, which they have taken all along and which was shown clearly in last week's statement by the Prime Minister, when she revealed that she was after not just victory but crushing the NUM? May we be assured that the Government's attitude will now be positive?
There cannot have been a more positive approach than the Government's willingness to put in thousands of millions of pounds for a capital investment programme, hundreds of millions of pounds to guarantee no compulsory unemployment, a good pay offer and, for the first time, a new enterprise company designed to bring new businesses to mining communities. Throughout, therefore, the Government have been totally positive.
As the right hon. Gentleman has given a resume of the history of the negotiations, will he bear in mind, on the eve of talks about talks, that this dispute could have been settled on three occasions had there not been Government intervention? May we be assured that there will not be Government intervention tomorrow? We have had enough of what one might call the fingerprints and riding boots involvement of the Government. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the way to end this dispute is for the NCB and NUM to reach agreement in principle for an honourable settlement without the involvement of a third party, by which I mean the Government?
The hon. Gentleman understates the number of times when there could have been a settlement of the dispute. There could have been a settlement on 6 March if a ballot had been taken by the NUM. On seven occasions since then it could have been settled, and it certainly could have been settled at ACAS when it put forward a compromise proposal. One man has always stopped a settlement being reached.
Further to the last point made by my right hon. Friend, has not one of the saddest features of this whole dispute been the cowardice shown by the Leader of the Opposition, who failed at the beginning of the strike to call for a ballot—[Interruption.]—bearing in mind that, if a ballot had taken place, that would have avoided the necessity for the Leader of the Opposition to hurl insults at the Prime Minister and would probably have avoided the strike?
It is true that when the dispute started one third of Britain's coalfields decided, in the normal tradition of the NUM, to have a ballot, and they balloted nearly 70 per cent. against strike action. It is also true that when Mr. Scargill changed the rules of the NUM on balloting the Leader of the Opposition said that it brought a ballot nearer. Never since then has he urged the NUM to have a ballot, and that has been a great pity.
Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect a little on what he said today in answer to supplementary questions, particularly about the unity of mining communities? Does he accept that those, like myself, who represent mining communities, particularly in Fife, realise that a vital factor in maintaining cohesion is the need to remember that if men come out together, they go back together? That means that any dismissal action on the part of the NCB must be a matter for discussion between the NCB and the NUM, and that the Government must keep their mouth shut about the dismissal of people or having them remain outside the industry because of activities on the picket line. In other words, is the Secretary of State aware that this is a matter between the union and the NCB and that it should be settled by discussion on that basis? May we be assured that on that issue there will be no interference by the Government?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is for the employer in any organisation, including a nationalised industry, to decide whether he does or does not sack an individual employee, and that employer has the same right as any other employer to consider criminal actions.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a large number of Opposition Members have had the greatest of reservations about Mr. Scargill's behaviour and tactics since the beginning of this operation? Do the Government understand that there is a bright future for the industry, but that the miners have deep fears about that future? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the Prime Minister to treat these problems and grievances with much greater generosity and understanding than she has hitherto shown?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the mining industry has a good and real future. It requires high investment and a sense of unity in the mining industry and communities. The Government over which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister presides have been willing to allocate enormous resources of public expenditure to ensure that that takes place. I regret the fact that during the last year that did not happen.
Since it has been necessary throughout this dispute to distinguish clearly between the mining community and the mining leadership, would it not be in the interests of the mining community and of getting the industry to work together again if the return to work were gentle, gradual and slow? That action would make the assimilation a little easier than it might otherwise be. Will my right hon. Friend therefore not necessarily be in too great a hurry to achieve a settlement?
I am in a hurry to achieve a sensible settlement because I believe that this dispute continues to cause tremendous hardship in mining communities, takes away potential markets and loses investment that could otherwise take place. One of the encouraging features of the past few months has been the fact that, in a number of areas in which a substantial proportion of the men have returned to work, fears of divisiveness and ill feeling in the pits did not occur to the degree expected. I hope, therefore, that if there is a speedy settlement there will be a quick sense of unity within this industry.
Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that, although some miners have returned to work, thousands are prepared to stay on strike for a long time yet and that that—this is the important point—shows their determination to protect their jobs? When will the Government, and the Secretary of State in particular, take seriously the provision of new jobs in mining areas? Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that the £5 million about which he keeps talking is piffling compared with the amount the miners would need if the Government's pit closure programme got under way?
I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety. We set up the enterprise company with a capital of £5 million. The number of applications and inquiries during the first few weeks were very encouraging. Therefore, I immediately agreed to double the capital to £10 million. I made it clear at that time that we were imposing a £10 million limit and would review the amount required, depending upon the type of action that we could take. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I place great importance on that company's activities. There is not a £5 million limit. I have now made £10 million available, and that is not the the limit.
I do not believe at this stage that there is any point in suggesting what might occur in certain circumstances. All I can say is that during this dispute the Nottinghamshire miners have never had a desire to split off from the NUM. Their recent attitude has been affected not by their actions but by the actions of Mr. Scargill and the executive. I notice that the delegate conference that was to be held has now been put off. There is no point in speculating about what might happen in certain events.
That is interesting. I have heard no criticism from the Labour party leadership, the TUC or any other bodies of the NACODS agreement, which provides procedures for closures better than those the NUM has enjoyed under any previous Government. It has provided, as ACAS pointed out, an honourable settlement of the dispute.
Will the Secretary of State make representations to the National Coal Board, on behalf of miners who have been arrested on the picket line but not charged, to ensure that their future will not be impaired by the board? He should express the hope that there will be no victim.
Secondly, did the Prime Minister make her views known to the chairman of the National Coal Board when she stated that she expected a written guarantee from the NUM leadership that uneconomic closures should be on the negotiating list before any real talks could take place?
On the last point, the NCB issued a statement to that effect because, during the dispute, there have been seven rounds of talks during which the leader of the NUM has boasted that he has not moved and inch since March. Understandably, it wanted to ensure that these talks would be held on a constructive basis, where progress could be made.
On the first point, I shall convey to the NCB the views expressed by the right hon. Gentleman.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the most significant part of his first answer was that he made no reference whatever to Government insistence that the NUM should agree in advance to the closure of uneconomic pits, despite the briefing from Bernard Ingham to all the press? Are not signs of the Secretary of State's recognition of the strength of the NUM that more than 140,000 employees are still on strike, that the pound is at its lowest level ever, that there is an increase in interest rates of 2 per cent., and that share values have fallen 30 points today? Have not the Government a strong interest in reaching agreement with the NUM? If not, NUM members on strike will not be prepared to return to work to see the butchery of their industry.
The right hon. Gentleman will not like the answer. During that period 17,000 miners took voluntary redundancy on terms much worse than those offered at the moment. In 1978, one pit that he closed had 1·5 million tonnes of reserves and another had three to four years' reserves. Throughout this dispute the right hon. Gentleman has made wrong predictions at the expense of miners.
Will my right hon. Friend take steps to preserve jobs in energy intensive industries by ensuring that such industries do not bear a disproportionate part of the costs of the dispute?
The cost of the dispute will depend on coal stocks and the need to restock at the end of the dispute. There are still substantial coal stocks at the collieries and the power stations. They are about three times what the Opposition predicted they would be. For those reasons, it is very difficult to calculate what the cost will be.
Whatever the terms on which the dispute is settled, there can be no victors. What is the right hon. Gentleman doing to inhibit his right hon. and hon. Friends from crowing over what they believe to be a victory—which is perhaps the most crass and insensitive behaviour of recent days?
I know of none of my hon. Friends who have crowed over a victory. I agree that considerable damage has been done to the industry, the miners and the economy by a totally unnecessary dispute. The important thing is to end the dispute as quickly as possible.
My right hon. Friend has graphically made clear the generosity of the NCB's offer, which is the envy of industries throughout the country. Would it not be a betrayal of the miners whom I represent and who have consistently gone to work if further concessions were to be made beyond those agreed with NACODS?
Yes. We should constantly remind the House that miners in my hon. Friend's constituency and in similar constituencies followed the normal traditions of the NUM by holding a ballot, and they balloted overwhelmingly, at the beginning of the dispute, not to strike. They did so because of the generosity of the offer then available. That has been the reality of the dispute from beginning to end.
The NACODS settlement has been much talked about this afternoon. Is it not true that NACODS, after hearing statements by the right hon. Gentleman and by the Prime Minister, is saying that its settlement has been put under tremendous pressure and that at present, because of what the NCB is doing, it is not prepared to sit down with Mr. MacGregor? Is not the NACODS settlement in some doubt?
Is it not true that very few people wish for an unconditional surrender by either side in the dispute? Is it not also true that, bearing in mind the cost to the country and the cost in other people's jobs lost because of the dispute, no agreement should be reached that does not accept the closure of pits that have outlived their useful economic life? Only the coal miners would gain by such an agreement. Everyone else would lose.
Throughout the history of British coal mining, uneconomic pits have always been closed. Throughout every coal mining industry in the world, such pits have been closed. It is not in the interests of miners that money should be poured into pits that have no long-term future of any description when it could be invested in the future of the industry. The issue that has kept this unfortunate conflict going has always been entirely bogus.
Does the Secretary of State not realise that the strike started because of a lack of trust in the chairman of the NCB, and that that trust must now be regained? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should not interfere in or comment on the present delicate stage of negotiations? Does he further agree that during the past 11 months the Government have failed to provide time to debate the whole issue? Should they not have given the House a chance to discuss the situation and to highlight some of the matters which the right hon. Gentleman believes to be beneficial?
The reason for the dispute was very clear. The conflict started on a wrong issue and without a ballot. Mr. MacGregor put forward terms, and if there had been a ballot there would not have been a strike. As a well-known wet on such matters, when I discovered that the Leader of the Opposition felt that a debate would be embarrassing for the Opposition, I naturally felt for him.
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that when this political strike is over—let us hope that it will be over sooner rather than later—all the miners who have worked and kept the industry going, despite intimidation and threats, will come to no harm?
Does the Secretary of State agree that if the NUM is now seeing the economic facts of life, a settlement of the dispute can bring about a long-term and successful future for the industry? In regard to political interference, what role has Mr. David Hart played in relationships between the Government and the Coal Board? Has he liaised between 10 Downing street and the Prime Minister and the NCB?
Does the Secretary of State agree that he knows nothing about industrial relation? Will he assure us that, in the next two weeks, he will find time to learn a little something about industrial relations and, having that little knowledge, will avoid any repetitions of the dispute?
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it could not possibly be in the interests of the maintenance of the rule of law in Britain if those who have been convicted of serious criminal offences during the dispute were to be reinstated?
When the Secretary of State next meets the chairman of the NCB, will he discuss the board's decision to discontinue its interest and investment in putting a drift mine down in my constituency, which would have coupled up Wheldale, Fryston and Glass Houghton collieries and given them a longer life? As 42 per cent. of all under-25s in my constituency are unemployed, and as they would normally have gone into the coal industry, if the Secretary of State fails to discuss that matter with the chairman of the NCB, will he advise them what employment prospects young men in mining communities can expect when pits are closed?
I shall convey the hon. Gentleman's views to the chairman of the NCB, but I cannot comment on any specific proposal. I am glad to say that, for any area where there are pit closures, for whatever reason, we have brought into operation an important company to assist in getting further businesses and enterprises into those areas.
Now that the inevitable bleating has started about allowing the NUM to cave in with dignity, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that there was no dignity for miners when they were defrauded of their right to a pre-strike ballot, that there was no dignity for policemen who were beaten up on the picket line and that there was no dignity for the families of working miners who were terrorised? Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that those factors will have to be reflected in any agreement that emerges?
The Secretary of State is aware that, since nationalisation, it has been the role of Ministers with responsibility for energy, and of other Ministers with responsibility for other nationalised industries, to hold the ring so that management and unions can discuss things and reach amicable agreements. In the past few months the Government and the NCB have been "two-oneing" the NUM. It is time that that finished. May we have an assurance that, if negotiations are entered into this week, the Secretary of State will go back to holding the ring and let the NCB and the NUM thrash it out and get an acceptable and amicable agreement?
In all previous arrangements Governments might well have been willing to produce the necessary finance to get a sensible agreement, but they have also always been dealing with someone who was willing to put up sensible proposals. In this dispute, seven times—on one occasion with ACAS holding the ring—the NUM leadership, against the wishes of all of the miners who voted, has gone on with this utterly unnecessary industrial action.
In the light of the fact that this morning many miners were clearly dissuaded from returning to work because of the pending negotiations, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that at an early stage in the talks about talks the NUM accepts that pits should be closed because they are uneconomic, lest Arthur Scargill is given a further opportunity to prolong negotiations indefinitely, thus stemming the return to work and prolonging the strike?
Today's return-to-work figures are interesting. On the morning shift alone 840 people returned to work, which is an extremely high figure and in sharp contrast to all previous figures when talks were pending. The message to Mr. Scargill must be that by far the biggest return was in Yorkshire.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the dispute is resulting in higher costs to consumers in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that if the dispute could be settled at an early date a decision could be made to convert Northern Ireland power stations from oil to coal, thereby securing future jobs for miners?
That is one of many examples of missed opportunities this year. In 1984 I had hoped that 1,000 firms would convert to coal. Alas, many firms which converted to coal are considering converting back to oil or gas. That is a great tragedy for the industry.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that when the dispute is over the Government will continue to invest in the coal industry to ensure that it is competitive, supplies energy at competitive prices and provides longterm jobs for miners?
With the quality of mining machinery and coal seams that we have, the coal industry has a good opportunity for years to come. It is the Government's great desire that the industry takes advantage of that opportunity.
Is the Secretary of State aware that 18 fewer miners returned to work in south Wales today? I am sure that he will want to join me in congratulating them on their solidarity and determination. Does he not recognise by now that those miners will not return to work until a proper, honourable and negotiated settlement takes place, which recognises the social and economic arguments for keeping pits open?
In the light of the comments this afternoon and the feelings throughout the country, does my right hon. Friend agree that if the 5,000 miners who have been found guilty of criminal offences were given the opportunity to go to industrial tribunals and claim unfair dismissal it would be time-consuming, a waste of public money and totally unnecessary?
Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to state how many power cuts or voltage reductions have taken place throughout England, Wales and Scotland because of the mining dispute? Will he ask the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board to give an accurate description of the cuts that have taken place as a result of the dispute, rather than always blame them on cable failures? Will the Secretary of State give the House an estimate of the increased cost of coal and oil imported to break the mining dispute? Will he comment on the story that appeared in The Guardian of today?
I read something in The Guardian last week that was totally wrong. Voltage reductions take place every year irrespective of power stocks, and there are normally about three a year. The last figure that I have shows that there has been one so far this year. We have plenty of stocks at power stations, and in 1985 there will not be any power cuts as a result of the present level of coal stocks.
Is the Secretary of State aware that we want to see a negotiated settlement that is acceptable both to the NUM and the NCB? In that regard, will he deplore the article in The Times of last Saturday, written by Mr. David Hart, who is an adviser at No. 10. He said:
The time for a negotiated settlement is past.
Does the Secretary of State agree with that?
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the courage and loyalty of those miners who have voted with their feet during the past 10 months? Is he aware that there would be widespread and fully justified outrage in the country if miners who were dismissed for engaging in criminal conduct were accepted back into the employment of the National Coal Board?
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the seven men taken back this morning by the Coal Board in the north-east have not been reinstated but re-employed? Does he agree that it would be wrong to expect working miners to work alongside those convicted of serious criminal offences?
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, no, it is not unfair. On his second point, the Government intervened at the start of the dispute by underwriting the best offer made to miners since nationalisation.
Does the Minister accept that the international competitiveness of coal has been transformed by the fact that although the pound-dollar rate was 1·48 when the strike started, it is now 1·11? Why does he not tell the Coal Board to press ahead and take advantage of the new export markets instead of trying to implement a closure programme for which there was never any economic justification and which is now completely outdated?
International markets depend upon the international competitiveness of British coal. That is why it was made clear at the beginning of the dispute to all those working in the industry that they had been offered the best possible deal for an expanding, competitive coal industry. Sadly, much of the momentum has been lost.