British Coal

Oral Answers to Questions — Energy – in the House of Commons at 2:38 pm on 13th November 1989.

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Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley , Barnsley Central 2:38 pm, 13th November 1989

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of British Coal; and what matters were discussed.

Photo of Mr John Wakeham Mr John Wakeham , Colchester South and Maldon

I meet the chairman of British Coal regularly to discuss all aspects of the coal industry.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley , Barnsley Central

Did the Secretary of State recently discuss the suggestion which appears to have been put to the Cabinet, that between 12,000 and 30,000 jobs will be lost in the coal industry over the next three or four years? Will he confirm that those job losses will have to be met by compulsory redundancies?

Photo of Mr John Wakeham Mr John Wakeham , Colchester South and Maldon

No, I did not discuss it in those terms. Coal contracts are a matter for commercial negotiations between the parties. Those are still in progress, and it will be for British Coal to decide what manpower it will require in the light of the tonnage that it can profitably produce and sell in competition with other fuels. I hope that it will get a large slice of the market.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell , Gedling

When my right hon. Friend next talks to the chairman of British Coal, will he point out that although his announcement last week may not have been very good news for the nuclear industry, it is potentially extremely good news for the coal industry and for the future of new coal technologies? Will he point out that the coal industry has everything to gain from increasing its competitiveness and further intensifying its productivity?

Photo of Mr John Wakeham Mr John Wakeham , Colchester South and Maldon

The chairman of British Coal is a wise and experienced person, and I am sure that he has already taken those points on board. I have no doubt that when I see him again shortly, I shall discuss these matters. My hon. Friend is right—there is a good future for British Coal if it can produce coal at prices that meet those of the competition. I have every reason to believe that it can produce a substantial part of our basic fuel requirements.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

Is the Minister aware that it would be disadvantageous for Britain if we became dependent on foreign coal supplies? Does he accept that a number of foreign coal suppliers are already prepared to sell coal to Britain at a price cheaper than that at which it is available in Europe? Is that not an extremely dangerous position, and one which he would do well to advise the country not to accept, as dependence on foreign coal is strategically unwise, and would become enconomically foolish?

Photo of Mr John Wakeham Mr John Wakeham , Colchester South and Maldon

Dependence upon any form of fuel would be unwise. We require a diversity of supply. As I said in a reply to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) on Thursday, British Coal must make itself competitive against not only imported coal but oil and natural gas. That is the challenge for it, and I am sure that it will rise to the occasion.

Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedfordshire North

As there is likely to be a shortage of electricity in the late 1990s, particularly with the elimination of the three nuclear stations in the programme, how does my right hon. Friend propose to take up the shortfall? Has he discussed this with the chairman of British Coal?

Photo of Mr John Wakeham Mr John Wakeham , Colchester South and Maldon

I have satisfied myself that there will not be a capacity shortfall. Already, a substantial number of independent projects are coming forward. There is potential for life extension of some plant, and I am wholly confident that our privatisation proposals will ensure that capacity demands are met.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Given that, last week, the Secretary of State announced that the Government would protect the nuclear industry via the British taxpayer, is it fair that the British coal industry, which over the past four years has cut costs by 30 per cent., improved productivity by over 90 per cent. and suffered job losses of 140,000, should lose jobs because of the importation of foreign coal?

Photo of Mr John Wakeham Mr John Wakeham , Colchester South and Maldon

We are not protecting the nuclear industry in the sense that it will be cash-positive from the day that it is set up. The hon. Gentleman, who knows a great deal about the industry, was less than fair in the way in which he put his supplementary question. He did not mention that the taxpayer has financed over £6·5 billion of investment and provided over £10 billion of grant since 1979. That shows an unrivalled commitment to the coal industry by the Government.

Photo of Mr Roger King Mr Roger King , Birmingham, Northfield

Did my right hon. Friend discuss with the chairman the environmental impact of fossil fuel power stations on our ecological system? Did he see "The Money Programme" on BBC2 last night, during which we were told that an American power station has been set up which is energy efficient and, as far as possible, emission proof? The cost of taking out the CO2 has been passed over to a South American country in the form of a grant to plant millions of trees to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a sensitive approach and one which should interest British Coal?

Photo of Mr John Wakeham Mr John Wakeham , Colchester South and Maldon

British Coal is well aware of the need to improve the environmental acceptability of coal as a fuel, as are the generating companies that will use the fuel. I have no doubt that British Coal will take note of what my hon. Friend said. I do not watch television very often. I feel like my right hon. and noble Friend Lord St. John of Fawsley: I seem to appear on television more than watch it these days.