Orders of the Day — British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:10 pm on 18th May 1992.

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Photo of Mr Hartley Booth Mr Hartley Booth , Finchley 6:10 pm, 18th May 1992

I rise for the first time in the Chamber to welcome the Bill. The way in which privatisations took place during the 1980s gives us hope that the Bill will prove to be greatly popular with the public. I know, however, that it is exceedingly risky to start any parliamentary career by talking about coal. Disraeli nearly scuppered his chances of a fine career by early speculation in mines. However, anything that can be done to improve the rail service must be good news. I have been impressed by the fairness that has been shown by hon. Members on both sides of the House during the debate, and I have to say, in fairness, that my train was two minutes early this morning.

I come to the Chamber with some modesty. I was experienced as a barrister and I declare an interest—although I have not had briefs for many years from this source—because I represented the National Union of Mineworkers. I have great admiration for miners and I obtained compensation for them for going down pits and getting dust in their lungs as they worked. I have great admiration for the way in which they risked life and limb. Whatever else happens as a result of the Bill and the subsequent privatisation Bill—I shall ask my hon. Friend the Minister for certain assurances—I hope that the safety of miners will be assured. I used to sue that great colossus, the National Coal Board, and we now want to take its successor off its pedestal on behalf of miners and on behalf of the public generally. I wish the Bill a good start and a fair wind.

As the new Member for Finchley, it would be wrong of me not to pay a warm tribute to my predecessor. My seat has been kept well and truly warm, if not hot, for the past 33 years. Few could be called to follow greater. In her time, the world respect for Margaret Thatcher was a phenomenon. She gives the lie to those who call anti-federalists little Englanders. Margaret Thatcher was determined to raise the status of Great Britain and she pushed back the frontiers of socialism with her policies. She was determined to see the United Kingdom have a world role. She wanted to see horizons pushed back across the world for the people of this country.

Margaret Thatcher came to the House in 1959 and it might amaze some people that she was here for two years before making her maiden speech. Patience, however, was part of her demeanour. In 1989, she said: I am extraordinarily patient providing that I get my own way in the end. She had the will of an iron lady, but it was married with practicality. In 1986, she said: No one would remember the good Samaritan if he had only had good intentions; he had to have money as well.

Margaret Thatcher was deeply practical. She will be remembered by those who were close to her for her phenomenal energy and amazing hard work. Those who worked closest to her knew that come 1 o'clock in the morning she would be saying, "I get a new lease of life at this time of day." She will be remembered in Finchley for her assiduous hard work. She never turned aside a letter from a constituent, and constituents whom I have met in Finchley were devoted to her. Indeed, there was a feeling of love for Mrs. Thatcher.

Behind Margaret Thatcher was Finchley and the allied place of Friern Barnet, a place of mediaeval origin. Friern Barnet is known not for its culinary past but because of the riars who lived there. Finchley is a constituency which was known ultimately from Australia to Alaska because of its Member. It had the sort of fame that doubtless is now being earned by Huntingdon. The inhabitants of Finchley, whom I am proud to represent, valued their British independence, about which Margaret Thatcher spoke so eloquently in the Chamber. They do not want to be citizens of another country and they want to see our country strong. They certainly do not want orders from another country, but that presages a debate that will take place later in the week. They will value the benefits that will flow from the Bill that is before us if it leads to privatisation. They will value cheaper and better coal production, as they will value better services on the railway.

I seek assurances from my hon. Friend the Minister. First, I want to be assured that part of the programme that will be worked on during the progress of this paving Bill and beyond will permit shares to be owned by miners and others who work in the coal industry. Part of the success of the privatisation programme during the 1980s was that those who drove trucks for the National Freight Corporation, for example, were allowed to own part of their trucks as a result of share ownership. I want to see miners have a stake in the mines from which they bring coal.

Secondly, whatever else is done during the process leading towards privatisation, I ask for the assurance that thought will be given to ensuring that Britain has the necessary powers to stop international predatory dumping. Any private coal industry that has to suffer international dumping will be weakened and could be killed. The European Community has powers to stop such dumping and they are useful, but we must look to our national needs.

Thirdly, I ask for an assurance that the new environmental regime that must be considered alongside coal privatisation will not be so draconian that any private sector proposition is immediately snuffed out or killed off. It must not be forgotten, however, that the polluter must pay. We must have a balance, but that must be considered as a package. I hope that we shall be given an assurance that environmental considerations will continue behind the scenes.

The House would not be considering the Bill but for my predecessor in Finchley. I look forward to its safe passage and beyond that to the privatisation of the coal industry and British Rail. However, I have a warning for my colleagues on the Government Front Bench. If my hon. Friend the Minister gives the assurances for which I have asked, takes the necessary steps and moves on to privatisation, the process will be so popular that there will be a strong risk that he will have to bear office in a fifth term of Conservative government.