Protection of National Energy Resources (Coal)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 19th February 1985.

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Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron , Rother Valley 3:32 pm, 19th February 1985

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that mines with workable reserves of coal are exploited until exhaustion. One of the reasons why I wish to introduce the Bill is an answer given to me by the Secretary of State for Energy on 22 October 1984. He said of the National Coal Board: The board has never moved from the basic suggestion that it is crazy to continue to invest money in something that is totally uneconomic when one can invest money in other collieries and coal faces, with good results for the industry." — [Official Report, 22 October 1984; Vol. 65, c. 452.] That statement does not take account of all the considerations that it should do. The long-term effects of different Governments closing coal mines has and will have a major effect on our energy for years to come. To close collieries with workable reserves means that we shall lose that coal for ever. What is uneconomic today may be economic in 20 years. With the country's present energy resources, the House fails to realise that coal is and will be for the foreseeable future the major element of energy not just in this country, but in the world energy market.

Coal production cannot be easily stopped and restarted. The coal industry is an extractive industry. It is working a non-renewable asset for which at present there is little substitute for most major coal users. It is undoubtedly the fuel of the future.

I should like to read a small passage from a book called "Small is Beautiful" — words are often used by Conservative right hon. and hon. Members. Small shopkeepers in my constituency, however, have believed over the past 11 months that Conservative Members who use the theme "small is beautiful" are rather hypocritical. Shopkeepers and others in my area feel that they have been let down over the past 11 months.

The book's author, E. F. Schumacher, was economic adviser to the National Coal Board for more than 20 years. He is a well-read man and he has been quoted on many occasions on different issues by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The book starts with a statement from the working party report on the control of pollution that was given to the Secretary of State for the Environment in February 1972, when the Conservative party was in office.

It states: There is a deep-seated unease revealed by the evidence sent to us about the future energy resources, both for this country and for the world as a whole. Assessments vary about the length of time that will elapse before fossil fuels are exhausted, but it is increasingly recognised that their life is limited and satisfactory alternatives must be found. The huge incipient needs of developing countries, the increases in population, the rate at which some sources of energy are being used up without much apparent thought of the consequences, the belief that future resources will be available only at ever-increasing cost and the hazards which nuclear power may bring in its train are all factors which contribute to the growing concern. That passage was included in the document given to the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Underneath, Schumacher wrote: It is a pity that the 'growing concern' did not show itself in the 1960s, during which nearly half the British coal industry was abandoned as 'uneconomic' — and, once abandoned, it is virtually lost for ever — and it is astonishing that, despite `growing concern', there is continuing pressure from highly influential quarters to go on with pit closures for 'economic' reasons. There is the same pressure for pit closures today. What we read in that chapter written in 1972 can be read in Britain in 1985. It was Schumacher's warning. It was wrong for Labour and Conservative Governments in the 1960s to run down the coal industry. The 1974 oil crisis showed everyone how wrong it was.

It is as wrong to run down the coal industry in the 1980s as it was in the 1960s. Great store is being laid by Conservative Members on the present prospects for coal development in fields such as Selby and Vale of Belvoir. Everyone knows that there is sufficient coal under Britain to last for about 300 years. Hon. Members do not accept, however, that the Vale of Belvoir and Selby are limited to about 50 years of mining. Those coalfields do not have the life of the collieries in which I worked whose shafts were sunk in 1908. The lifespan of the new coalfields is limited. We are not taking into account the likely demand for coal in this country and elsewhere in 50 years' time.

Conservative Members would like to see some of the new coalfields further developed. The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) might like to see the Witham valley project developed so that he could have some miners in his constituency. The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) might like to see some new coalfields developed in Oxfordshire because there is coal there. The Home Secretary might like to have some miners in his constituency of Richmond, Yorkshire, which has substantial coal reserves. I am sure that some miners would like to go to his surgery to discuss some aspects of his speeches during the past 11 months.

In a paper delivered to a study conference on Britain's coal in 1960 Schumacher said: I suggest that the only principle that is defensible on grounds of long-term expediency as well as morality would be the principle that (within reasonable limits) all existing collieries will be worked until the coal is gone. I am, however, bound to add at once that this principle, derived from considerations of national interest, cannot be implemented by the coal industry without national support. To put it differently: I suggest that what is needed is a clear recognition of the principle of conservation. This principle, however, is not always compatible with the most profitable operation in free competition; it therefore needs to be supported by national policy. Under my Bill, the coal industry would be examined rationally and we would seek reasonable limits for the contraction of the coal mining industry, taking account of all economic considerations — not just the short-term considerations of this Government or, for that matter, any other Government.

The House has not given serious thought to the potential for job losses in the coal mining industry. I intend in this Bill to do exactly that. This measure will protect the national interest, and rightly so. Subsidies are needed to protect the national interest. During the last year for which we have figures, £1·3 million of subsidies went into the coal industry. Not all that money was designed to keep open what are called "uneconomic" pits. The money went towards developing collieries that already existed and new coalfields that would be needed in the future. I believe that the same type of subsidy that applies to agriculture should be given to a major industry such as energy.

The Bill has major implications for the coal mining industry, but its prime aim is to make the Government more responsive to energy conservation and the sensible use of our national energy resources. I commend it to the House.