Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech so early in the debate on the Gracious Speech. Let me take the opportunity also to congratulate you on your election.
First, I pay tribute to my predecessor, Mr. Allen McKay, who has retired after 14 years in the House. He was first elected in 1978 as the Member for Penistone, and from 1983 onwards represented Barnsley, West and Penistone. During his time in the House, Allen was a tireless fighter for his constituents. He set a high standard of representation, a standard that I intend to continue. He is well respected in the constituency, and by his former colleagues in the House. I am sure, therefore, that the House will want to wish him and his wife a long and happy retirement.
In view of the contents of the Gracious Speech, I now wish to deal with the problems that face many of my constituents. Since the early 1980s, my constituency has witnessed the closure of five collieries and two major workshops. The knock-on effect on the local engineering industry and on small business generally has been devastating. With little in the way of industrial diversification in the three Barnsley constituencies, we have lost about 20,000 pit jobs over the past decade. That does not take into account the multiplier effect on other industries. In the circumstances, the local authority has done well to hold the community together and to start to attract new industry to the town, but more needs to be done. The authority's efforts over the past few years have been set back greatly by the poll tax and the reduced grant allocation, and we now learn from the Gracious Speech that the Government are to privatise the deep coal mining industry. That is a retrograde step for mining communities, and for miners and their families.
Britain's mines were transformed by the credit of state backing after being rescued from neglect and brought into public ownership in 1947. Since the "Plan for Coal" in 1974, more than £12 billion has been invested in the mining industry. The industry went through a second technological revolution in the 1980s, and the miners have increased productivity from 2·4 tonnes per man shift in the early 1980s to an astounding 6·14 tonnes. That, by any measure, is an enormous increase.
That astounding record has been achieved through a combination of investment, skill and hard work. Now, the miners are to be rewarded bitterly for their pains, and private owners will gain the benefit of the enormous investment in the deep coal mining industry.
The recently published Rothschild report on the commercial viability of a privatised coal industry suggested that only a dozen or so pits would survive privatisation. That forecast, however, may well be optimistic. Some experts now predict that British Coal's next contract with the generators may leave room for only five or six pits. If that happens—as seems likely—Britain will become dependent on imported coal; it will increase its balance of payments commitment by roughly £3 billion per annum; we shall face increased energy insecurity: there will be an expansion of opencast mining; and we shall witness a vigorous "dash for gas". That is not good for Britain. Moreover, privatisation will, in my view, threaten good mining practice and health and safety standards. We need only look at the trend in the 160 or so private pits which already operate in Britain to see that that contention is supported.
Another point in the Gracious Speech gives me cause for concern, because it further threatens industrial democracy. I refer to the proposal for more industrial relations legislation—a euphemism for a further shackling of the trade unions. Over the past 13 years, there have been seven major pieces of such legislation. The trade unions have become the most tightly regulated voluntary bodies in British society. The record of the trade unions in Britain shows that they have done more than any other institution to improve the quality of life of working people. More legislation to restrict their activities will encourage unscrupulous employers to fragment the work force and push down pay and conditions. That will undermine attempts to establish Britain's competitive position as a producer of high quality goods.
I feel sure that the agricultural sector in my constituency will welcome the reference in the Gracious Speech to the proposed introduction of legislation to promote improvements in agricultural marketing.
It was with great disappointment that I noted no mention in the Gracious Speech of the Government's intention, in keeping with the recommendation of the Select Committee, to introduce legislation to guarantee a pension to the pensioners robbed by Robert Maxwell. In addition to the guarantee for the Maxwell pensioners, all pensioners need legislation to protect them. The fact that the trust law is insufficient has been shown clearly. It is a serious omission and one that I hope that the Government will look at closely with a view to introducing such legislation. I know, from looking at the Gracious Speech, that many of my constituents will be severely disappointed.