Coal Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:17 pm on 26th June 1989.

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Photo of Mr Neil Hamilton Mr Neil Hamilton , Tatton 9:17 pm, 26th June 1989

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and to the other Opposition Members who trailed my speech so generously, although, unfortunately, they do not seem to have been very successful in attracting my hon. Friends into the Chamber.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has temporarily left his place. He imparted the most unusual flavour to the debate by introducing some literary references—for example, to Lord Byron. That suggests to me that his speech was vetted by the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), who is known to be one of the foremost experts on that great poet. The hon. Gentleman's speech certainly had all the characteristic vagueness of the speeches of the right hon. Gentleman, but without the romance.

In reflecting on the hon. Gentleman's speech I was reminded of Byron's description of Don Juan: He was the mildest manner'd manThat ever scuttled ship or cut a throat,With such true breeding of a gentleman, You never could divine his real thought. I thought that that was particularly relevant to the hon. Gentleman's speech. We heard nothing from him about the Opposition's ideas for the future of the industry. He had the gall to accuse the Conservative party of looking to ideology and vested interest in its policy on coal. If there is one charge that could not be laid at our feet, it is that we take an ideological view or seek to protect vested interests. That is precisely the Labour party's policy on coal.

The hon. Gentleman also had the gall to accuse us of seeking to put the industry in a position to grasp profit from captive consumers. But what happened in the 40 years of nationalisation? The legal structure of the industry, coupled with successive Governments who were unwilling to grapple with its problems have allowed it to extract huge sums from the taxpayers and consumers—unwillingly, and by way of taxation and higher prices than were necessary. In our privatisation policy, which I greatly welcome, we seek to restore to the coal industry the freedom of the market so that consumers, rather than vested interests, can rule the day.

Several Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), accused us of seeking to bash the coal industry. If we have been bashing the coal industry for the past 10 years, we have been using the most extraordinary weapon to do it. Our weapon has been the cheque book. Have we really damaged the coal industry by giving it £10 billion in grants and £6·5 billion in investment? It is the most massive investment programme for the industry during the post war period. If a crime has been committed by successive Governments, it has been to demand money with menaces from the taxpayer and the consumer. The end of that criminal activity, through privatisation, will massively benefit the people of this country.

The truth is that 40 years of nationalisation have proved a disastrous failure. It has not been in the interests of the miners, because the number of men employed in the industry is now a small fraction of what it was in the immediate post-war period. It has not protected the industry against the inevitability of contraction of output, because output is very much smaller than it was in the immediate post-war period.

I wish that Opposition Members would come to grips with the realities of the international energy market, because that is the only way in which the future of the industry and the jobs that go with it can be sustained. Coal is a fossil fuel—and, unfortunately, the industry and the country have been faced with a fossil union in the National Union of Mineworkers, which over the years has set its face against every beneficial change that would have been in the interests of both the miners and the industry. Even now, after the most disastrous strike—during which, because of its irresponsible activities, it virtually destroyed itself and many pits that might otherwise have survived —it is still opposing such forward-looking policies as flexible working and the six-day week, upon which the profitability of some pits and the opening of new pits depend.

There has been a fossil party in the form of the Opposition, who have danced to the tune piped by Arthur Scargill and, it seems, still do so—[Interruption.] Opposition Members sit here tonight trying to defend their vested interests. They are certainly not defending the vested interests of those who, over generations, have supported the Labour party in the belief that in so doing they were supporting the interests of the coal industry.

We are not here simply to debate what is in the best interests of a particular section of the population or a particular section of British industry. We should be debating the national interest, which depends on the cheapest possible source of energy consistent with strategic requirements. There has been a sense of unreality in the speeches of Opposition Members. They spoke about the freeing of the energy industry, especially electricity generation, as tolling the death knell of the industry, as though it will import all its coal requirements, regardless of the strategic and long-term implications. No sensible company, which is in business in the long term and must make a profit to survive, will base its decisions on such short-term considerations. The importance of the freedom to import is that, at the margin, it will exercise a considerable discipline on the British industry to ensure that its costs are as low as possible so that it can be competitive.

I rise to the bait put in front of me by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) about South African coal. There is nothing horrific in the fact that we may import some South African coal. If, by doing so, we reduce the energy costs of British industry and, in the process, provide jobs for black workers in South Africa, there is surely nothing wrong in that. I am not suggesting that those imports will amount to anything very much in comparison with the total coal burn in this country. They will always be marginal. However, if they amount to even 10 or 15 per cent. of our total coal burn, the beneficial effects will be widely felt.

Privatisation offers enormous scope to improve the position of the coal industry and to remove the constraints of political interference from which it has suffered so much during the past 40 years. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will agree that it is a shame that we have to wait until after the next general election, which we certainly intend to win, in order to implement our privatisation policy. Action can be taken in advance of privatisation without prejudicing the public sector.