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Coal Industry (State Aids)

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 11:42 pm on 5th February 1986.

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Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West 11:42 pm, 5th February 1986

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The debate has been comprehensive and has covered a range of issues. Hon. Members' points have been of great value in preparing for the detailed negotiations that stretch ahead of us in Brussels before we can sign the final decision. I hope that the hon. Members for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall), for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and my hon. Friends the Members for Elmet (Mr. Batiste), for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet), for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) and for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) will excuse me if I do not reply to all of the questions that have been posed, in view of the time restraint. I want to get in as many contributions as possible, so I shall write to all concerned if I am not able to cover their points.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) for dealing with these issues in his characteristically committed way, as he so ably stewarded much of the operation of the existing state aids regime in its early days. No one knows better than he the way with which these matters have to be dealt. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington must take account of the fact that the direction about which we are talking covers not only deficit but social grants. He will find the answer to his question among the social costs.

The hon. Member for Midlothian, and others, said how proud they were of the achievements of those who work in the coal industry, and there are many reasons why the future of our coal industry has every prospect of being the brightest in Europe. We have the greatest coal reserves in Europe, the best and finest mining engineers, the benefit of world-class British mining equipment and manufacturers, and, with new productivity records being set from Scotland to Kent and from south Wales to the midlands, British miners are demonstrating beyond all reasonable doubt that they are the best in the world. What a transformation we have seen. Output per man shift under the Labour Government, sadly, moved down from 2·29 tonnes in 1974–75 to 2·24 tonnes in 1978–79. The latest available figure is 3·02 tonnes. That means that all the improvement in productivity over the past 12 years has taken place since this Government came to power, and the figure is still rising.

Hon. Members should be in no doubt that at the Energy Council on 20 March, the United Kingdom will continue to resist any inappropriate intervention by Brussels in our coal industry, because the objective for the NCB is to develop an outstanding and economically viable industry that can compete in the world energy market. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North was right to point to the uncertainties that lie ahead, but the board is on target to reach its objective by 1987–88. To achieve that, aids will continue to be necessary. Therefore, it is essential that a realistic and sympathetic system of support should emerge from our negotiation in Brussels to allow progress to continue without any fear of violation of our treaty commitments. We shall continue to press for this. I commend the motion to the House.