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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:19 pm on 18th May 1992.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth 6:19 pm, 18th May 1992

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth). I suspect that not a few Conservative Members, let alone Labour Members, are pleased to see him here. He fulfilled the conventions while also making an interesting speech. As I make my relatively short speech, I hope that Conservative Members will hear a slight echo of one or two of the demands that he made. It is interesting to listen to a Conservative Member who has at least a little knowledge of the mining industry and a significant and welcome concern for it. We look forward to hearing him in future. His speech this afternoon was certainly memorable.

The House will be aware of my dominant interest in the mining industry, so I shall not say much about the railway industry. However, it is a bit much for Conservative Members to talk about privatisation resulting in a timely, cheap, comfortable and efficient rail service. We do not have to go far to find wise central Governments who recognise the benefits of efficient, publicly owned railways. France, Germany and Switzerland are models for that. Their Governments have had their supportive arms around the shoulders of their rail industries while the British Government have had our industry by the throat. That is one reason why Conservative Members come up with successive complaints, when in fact they have not perceived who bears the responsibility for the inadequate investment in and the costly fares charged by British Rail.

My main concern is with the coal industry and I want to repeat some of the points raised in the debate. Above all, when the Minister for Energy replies to the debate, I want him to assure us that the Government will ensure that there is a long-term future for the coal industry. I want him also to assure us that the contracts that are about to be signed will sustain the industry rather than plunge Britain into a state of energy dependency that results in extensive and ever-rising balance of payments deficits and further bitter blows to mining areas.

We need a guarantee that, even if the industry is to be privatised, and even if the Government wash their hands of it, a viable deep-mine industry will remain in Britain. We need that not only because of the interests of the industry but because, as the Minister should recognise, the mining engineering industry and its related activities face a growing world demand as man scratches ever more deeply into the surface of this planet for mineral resources. If we do not have an adequate home base for the development and sustenance of mining technology, we will throw away important economic opportunities for this country.

We need a substantial and continuing coal industry. It is little use Conservative Members suggesting that miners invest in their pits when, given the precedents of recent years, they would have grounds for real anxiety about that investment. With the Government's encouragement, British Coal invested substantial sums in collieries that were closed only weeks or months later. That has brought a sense of bewilderment and horror to the people in mining constituencies who have witnessed that thwarted intention.

The hon. Member for Finchley referred to mine safety. He may not be aware of this, but I am sponsored by the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers. Because of his previous experience, he will be aware that that association now has only a small number of members, but they are the men charged not only with the supervision of production underground but with the basic and statutory responsibility for safety. They have made a marked contribution to ensuring that the British mining industry is the safest in the world.

There are those on the Conservative Benches—there may still be some in Hobart house—who were happy with the prospect of the statutory base upon which that safety was built being squandered and turned into a reliance upon a voluntary code with a great deal less force and meaning. Before any further steps are taken on the road to privatisation, the Government must make it clear that that statutory base will not be removed. It must be retained, if only because if it is not, the Government will be seen to be running a coach and horses through the requirements of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974.

I do not have time to go into detail on that matter, as others have done in the past, but I trust that the Minister will not lose sight of it. It is of fundamental importance because precedents show that without such a statutory authority and without proper concern, privatisation will mean that more lives are lost and more blood is spilt. That is the price of privatisation that may be placed on the coalfields of Britain.

I want to stress a few other points. First, we need assurances about the concessionary fuel scheme. Secondly, we need assurances about the pension funds. It is a fact that the pension funds in the British mining industry today may be worth more than the industry itself. Although we may get assurances and fine words from Ministers, the fact remains that there are more greedy people around than the Government care to admit. Robert Maxwell was not the only one to take an interest in pension funds. There will be greedy people who will recognise the vast size of the pension funds in the mining industry. Maxwell's actions have given rise to genuine anxiety and we need to be sure that there are absolute and clear structures of protection to prevent greedy people—who are more likely to support the Minister and his hon. Friends than Labour Members—from running riot through the pension funds of the mining industry.

There has already been a passing reference to the fact that, if the mining industry is sold for the sort of figure that the Treasury perceives to be likely under the estimates of public income and expenditure, unless there is a system that separates the ownership of the coal from the ownership of the industry, the Government may adopt the most prodigal and profligate attitude witnessed in modern times. On the basis of the Treasury calculations, if the coal is sold together with the mining industry, it would mean that the Government would be disposing of the country's coal reserves for 2p or 3p a tonne. Even in these days when people seem to believe that nuclear power, gas and oil should have priority, it would be scandalous for the country's coal reserves to be treated so flagrantly and irresponsibly.

Adequate attention must be paid to those matters and also to the needs of the country. People need to be shown that the Government are taking the privatisation of the mining industry rather more seriously than they did some of the previous privatisations, when the people were softened by skilled television presentations. The prices were increased in advance to falsify the prosperity and the profitability of those industries.

We need evidence and information. As I said to the Secretary of State in an intervention, perhaps this is not the time to expect the Government to give detailed information about their plans. I trust that the House will be given an ample opportunity to consider seriously and properly all the matters that I mentioned before any final decisions are made. As matters stand, and bearing in mind the Government's record, the decisions that we fear are likely to come from the Department of Trade and Industry will not be welcome on this side of the House.

Although the Government claim to have a mandate, the Minister for Energy must confess that it has not been provided by the constituencies that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I represent.