Pit Closures

Oral Answers to Questions — Trade and Industry – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd December 1992.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr John Evans Mr John Evans , St Helens North 12:00 am, 2nd December 1992

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what plans he has to meet the chairman of British Coal to discuss the review of the 10 collieries threatened with closure.

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

My right hon. Friend and I have meetings with the chairman of British Coal, as necessary, to discuss a range of coal industry matters.

Photo of Mr John Evans Mr John Evans , St Helens North

Before the President of the Board of Trade next meets the chairman, will he publish the Boyd report and then demand of the chairman why he included among the 10 pits for closure five collieries, including Parkside in my constituency, which that report identified as profitable pits with a viable future in Britain's deep-mine industry? Will he also use the meeting to condemn the chairman of British Coal for his niggardly and Scrooge-like attitude in stopping the attendance payments to the miners at the 10 collieries?

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows, as part of the review that is being carried out, Boyd has been engaged to give a full review of each of the collieries, both the 19 and the 21, and, as has already been made clear, that will be published as part of the review.

Photo of Mrs Elizabeth Peacock Mrs Elizabeth Peacock , Batley and Spen

Is my hon. Friend aware that some of the 10 collieries have specialised markets for their coal—I think that it is called niche marketing in anybody else's industry—and that there is great interest from the private sector in purchasing some of the mines? Is he also aware that British Coal is refusing to give any information about the collieries and is therefore making it difficult for people to put in bids?

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

I am very much aware of a point made by my hon. Friend, which has been made by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. This is a matter for British Coal, but it would not be appropriate for British Coal to be considering the sale or the licensing of pits in advance of either the statutory consultation period or the end of the review. Once that consultation period and the review have been completed, then, in the light of the review and the interest in the private sector, British Coal will have to consider how to respond. I dare say that, as a result of the review, the Government will make clear their position.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping , Sherwood

When the Minister meets the chairman of British Coal to talk about the 10 pits, will he remind him of the commitment given in the House that the review will be open and honest? Given that commitment, why will not the Minister instruct British Coal to share with the work force the financial statements—the F23s—for those pits? If the work force are to be able to put up a case for keeping those pits open, they need the figures. If the Minister is open and honest, he should give them.

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the matters to which he refers are the subject of a judicial review, so I must be careful about what I say. However, both my right hon. Friend and I have stressed that there must be full and proper consultation. It is our understanding that that is exactly what British Coal has pledged to do.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash , Stafford

When can I have a reply to the letter that I delivered to the President of the Board of Trade on the day of the pit closure debate, in which I asked a number of questions that, as yet, remain unanswered? Will my hon. Friend let me know whether any Minister has signed a public interest immunity certificate to prevent the disclosure of information that is relevant not only to that matter but to both the Select Committee review and the Government's review?

Will my hon. Friend make certain that the response that I had from the Secretary of State for Wales in an intervention during that debate, that British Coal must prove its case, will be carried out to the letter, and that those completely failed consultation procedures will be sorted out so that we know that the people who work in those pits are being properly looked after?

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

A reply to my hon. Friend's letter is on its way. [Laughter]. I may tell him and other hon. Friends that it may literally be in the post. A number of the issues that my hon. Friend raised, particularly with regard to Trentham, will be covered in the statutory consultation that is under way between British Coal and the unions. As to public interest immunity certificates, there has been a considerable degree of misreporting by the press in respect of the current judicial hearing, and I assure my hon. Friend that no such certificate has been signed by Ministers.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

Does the Minister accept that many of the pits threatened with closure have substantial reserves? Does he agree that the cost of mothballing the pits would be between £3 million and £6 million a year, whereas the cost of reopening them would be about £400 million? Will the Minister ensure that an independent review of reserves will be undertaken and published before any pit is closed—and that if British Coal is not prepared to operate those pits, they should be offered to others who may be able to do so?

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

I note the hon. Gentleman's remarks about mothballing, but the figures may be rather lower and rather higher, depending on the particular pit. Mothballing will be considered in the review, and I presume that the Select Committee on Trade and Industry also will examine that aspect.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss , North East Cambridgeshire

Given that the electricity inter connector with France, through which we import huge amounts of subsidised French nuclear electricity, displaces the equivalent production of coal from the 10 pits in question, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be highly popular in coalfield communities and the country as a whole if that contract were renegotiated?

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

That undertaking, which was entered into by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), has potential consequences for the amount of coal burn in this country and is bound to be considered as part of the review. I dare say that it will also be taken into account by the Trade and Industry Select Committee.

Mr. O'Neill:

Does the Minister appreciate that there is widespread cynicism about the manner in which the 10 collieries appeared on the list? We know that negotiations about which collieries were to be included went on until 10 o'clock in the evening, or certainly until 4 o'clock in the afternoon—[Laughter.] I am sorry, Madam Speaker—I was thinking of another debate. Obviously the price was not high enough for a number of hon. Members who took part in the coal debate, as it was in the other debate. Seventy per cent. of Grimethorpe colliery's output does not go to the electricity industry, and that is true of 90 per cent. of Houghton Main's output. Betws produces anthracite and has no need to take account of the electricity generating industry. At least three of the 10 mines are completely independent of the electricity supply industry, so there is no reason why they should be considered in any way uneconomic. They should immediately be reconsidered for inclusion among the 20 pits that are considered possible contenders for a long life in the coal industry.

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

I do not know the source of the hon. Gentleman's information, but given the accuracy with which he put it across at the Dispatch Box, I am sure that it is inaccurate. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Betws is an anthracite mine, and he will have noted the exchange between the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) and myself during the debate on pit closures. As to the two other mines, the hon. Gentleman may be correct in claiming that some of their output potentially goes to domestic and industrial markets rather than to generators, but a significant amount goes into the generating market. None the less, I can categorically tell the hon. Gentleman that when the statutory consultation period ends—I am sure that he accepts that it would not be right for British Coal actively to consider the sale of either the 10 or 21 pits in advance of the consultation period for the 10 or the review of the 21 mines—British Coal will remain responsible for licensing coal mines and must consider applications from responsible organisations seeking licences. That must of course be subject to the current statutory limitations. It is a complicated subject, but I note the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , South Staffordshire

Does my hon. Friend realise that the answer that he has just given and that the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) begs a central question: will those 10 pits be in a state to be taken over? We do not want to leave it until too late. Will he please assure the House that if at the end of the review the 10 pits are still up for closure, there will be an opportunity for them to be taken over in a working condition by private owners?

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

I have heard what my hon. Friend said. British Coal has given a quite categorical assurance that the decision as to reopening will not in any way be influenced by any deterioration that may or may not have happened during the closure period.

Photo of Mr John Evans Mr John Evans , St Helens North

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Due to the highly unsatisfactory nature of the Minister's reply, it is my intention to seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment of the House at the earliest possible opportunity.