Coal Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:04 pm on 26th June 1989.

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Photo of Mr Andrew Stewart Mr Andrew Stewart , Sherwood 8:04 pm, 26th June 1989

It seems that every Opposition Member wants to intervene, but I am not giving way again. I have done so once, and that is enough.

A further £18 million will be spent on heavy duty coal face equipment in the coming year. Some of that machinery will be fitted with British Coal's new automatic steering systems, which reduce the amount of dirt mined by up to 40 per cent. and give better roof control, enabling productivity to increase by a further 30 per cent. Such improvements will make the industry highly competitive by 1992. However, before then, many collieries will be vulnerable to subsidised imports. It would be tragic to threaten their progress for the very short-term gains to be made from importing coal. By 1995, any savings made by an all-out import policy in 1990 would have disappeared and the electricity supply industry will be paying millions of pounds more for imported coal than if it had bought British.

There is a risk that many deep mines that could compete with imported coal in 1995 will be closed by 1990 if the Government encourage an early free-for-all on imports. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will dispel rumours that British Coal can compete for only 60 million tonnes of the new companies' total requirements of about 75 million tonnes, even if it agrees to meet the last tranche of 15 million tonnes at world prices.

The Union of Democratic Mineworkers has always accepted fair and unfettered competition, but the threat posed to Nottinghamshire by imported coal is potentially catastrophic. Restructuring has already seen 15,000 men leave the industry. Recently, the UDM president proposed a five-year honeymoon period after electricity privatisation, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will seriously consider that suggestion. It is not a case of special pleading. As the Nottingham Evening Post commented, the UDM's attitude is the stuff of realism. The union is forward-looking, prepared to modernise agreements and to adopt working practices that relate to the reality of highly capitalised mining technology—without which the coal industry would be hopelessly ill prepared for the 1990s.

Decisions affecting the next decade will be governed by the environmental debate on the greenhouse effect. Misleadingly, that is being equated with the operation of coal-fired power stations. Although coal burning is responsible for 15 per cent. of the global greenhouse effect, coal-fired power generating contributes only 7 per cent.