Orders of the Day — Coal Industry Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:42 pm on 15th January 1992.

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Photo of Mr Derek Enright Mr Derek Enright , Hemsworth 9:42 pm, 15th January 1992

There is much to say and too little time in which to say it. Suffice it to say to start with that the Bill clearly illustrates the Government's myopia. They are quite incapable of lateral thinking. It has rightly been said of the Government that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The problem is that they know only the price today and do not look at the cost tomorrow. They have not put the Bill in a world context.

Coal was king until 1960, at which time gas took over, but early in the next century coal will take over from gas. What preparations have the Government made for that? They have steadily reduced coal production, while in the rest of the world it is steadily increasing. That poses a tremendous threat to our economy, which has deliberately been put in peril by the Government's actions.

The Bill is based purely on short-term economics, and that is unfair to future generations. It does not look to future jobs in coal areas or to future customers for energy. We must bear in mind the fact that the more coal mines we keep open the more we substitute home-produced coal for imports and provide diverse energy resources. That will also mean that we will not be held hostage by one or two fuels or by foreign powers. At the time of the Gulf crisis, we saw how that could happen.

We can see that, unless we start to form European Community policies into a properly channelled energy policy, we shall be in trouble. Because of our regular reliance on outside energy resources, Japanese investment throughout the world will overtake us again, and sink us.

It has been calculated, not unreasonably, that, by the end of the revolution of which the Bill is part, the Government will have shoved down coal production in this country to what it was in 1700. If that is not a retrograde step, I do not know what is. How have they done it? The Government did a clever thing in getting Rothschild to prepare a special report for them, so that they could act upon it.

Why did they choose Rothschild? I asked my friends what skills Rothschild had in mining. Where is its long history in the mining of coal? Nowhere. Why did the Government not ask British Mining Consultants, for example, to write the report? British Mining Consultants knows about coal. Rothschild, perhaps, knows about money—although I would rather have asked William Hill to examine the coal industry than Rothschild, considering how the report turned out.

The Government have done no real research into the use of coal—into clean coal technology, clean coal extraction or coal preservation. I shall take that back, because a very little has been done, in conjunction with the European Community—but not enough has been done to make the research worth while.

Some of the money should hve been put into such research straight away. The Government should be looking for a 20-year profit, and commissioning research that will take us at least 20 years on. Instead, they are saying that they want instant thrills.

In my constituency, the result of that attitude is that they insist on opencast mining at Upton, where every last grubby piece of coal has to be taken away before we can restore the site and make it decent to live with, whereas Aketon, where there is 30 years' of coal left, was closed last year. That was profitable coal, and coal on which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) can confirm, huge sums of money had been spent buying machinery that is now rotting on the site because the Government closed the pit immediately after it was installed. That is a disgrace.

The Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908 is to be repealed. In 1908, Herbert Gladstone debated with that arch-Tory, F. E. Smith. Smith had a good deal more wit about him than some of the Tory speeches that we have heard today. Nevertheless, he spoke in exactly the same tone—money, money, money, and grubbing, grubbing, grubbing all the way. He never talked about people. Gladstone, who represented Yorkshire at that time, had values based more upon humanity.

It is a shame that the Government have told deliberate lies about directives in order to get us to agree to repeal the 1908 Act. I shall not quote, because of the shortage of time, but the Government statement says that we have to repeal the Act because of the directive. Surely at least one member of the Cabinet must know about directives, and therefore must know that that claim is false and that the directive cannot work in such a way. Indeed, the treaty of Rome explicitly states that directives must not lead to less safe legislation than that which already exists. As Gladstone showed in the original debate, the 1908 Act was about health and safety at work.

It is no good Conservative Members saying, as they have said, that, because the pits are mechanised, there are no longer the problems that used to exist when people used picks and shovels. When people are dog tired, there are worse accidents when there is mechanisation down the pit. Those accidents can be very serious indeed.

A good friend of mine, Steve Kemp, who is the NUM treasurer at Stillingfleet, tells me that they have had to get a new filing cabinet in especially for the compensation claims that are outstanding—some 450, which is a record in his experience—even though Stillingfleet is supposed to be one of the safest pits in the country. Steve Kemp tells me that there is a very simple reason for that, which is that people are not observing the provisions of the 1908 Act. They are doing 30 hours' overtime, and that is leading to tremendous accidents.

We must work, within Europe, towards achieving the ends outlined in the treaty of Rome. We must start to obey European legislation, which the Government are curiously loth to do. They keep telling us that they observe European legislation better than any other country in the Community—but it ain't true. We have been had up before the European Court at Luxembourg more often than any other country for offences under article 119, which deals with equal treatment for women.

The same is true of RECHAR—récharbonisation. We should have that money; it is quite clear. Let me tell the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) that we must demonstrate additionality. Because a number of countries were not demonstrating additionality, notice was given three years ago that it should be shown, and that it should be shown in the areas for which the money was intended. In the case of coal, that cannot possibly be. The money has simply gone into the national Exchequer and, as my hon. Friend said, to support the poll tax in Westminster, where people have never had sight of a coal tip. The Government must stop cheating. At least the Secretary of State for the Environment has admitted to the mistakes of the Cabinet, and it is now up to the Minister responsible for coal to fight his corner. He may not wish to do so publicly tonight, but I certainly expect him to do it in future.

I urge all my hon. Friends to join me in voting against the Bill, because it is a thoroughly bad Bill with thoroughly bad intentions.