Orders of the Day — Coal Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:58 pm on 29th March 1993.

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Photo of Mr Kevin Hughes Mr Kevin Hughes , Doncaster North 8:58 pm, 29th March 1993

Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I represent a constituency containing two of the pits that are threatened with closure and an area where four are under threat. I was beginning to wonder whether I had become invisible, as I was not called in the last debate and have only just managed to get in in this one.

On two occasions I have sat through the rantings and ravings of the President of the Board of Trade. I have heard nothing new—he has just got louder and louder. Since the announcement of the Government's pit closures on 13 October last year, endless technical issues have been fought over. Reports have been made and plans have been drawn up. Today, we are debating what amounts to a sham introduced to buy off the Tory Back-Bench rebels. Since last Thursday, we have seen them fall one by one, save for a few hard liners, who may even vote with the Opposition tonight.

We have debated the future of the gas, coal and nuclear electricity industries and yet we still seem to be no further on than we were five months ago. In spite of the Government's grudging and temporary concessions over the future of some of the threatened pits, they have yet to address the concerns that lie at the heart of the problem or recognise that cost has more meaning than a profit and loss account. The cost of their programme of closures goes far beyond the industry and affects the wider local and national economy and society as a whole. They have yet to recognise that the cost of throwing 30,000 miners on the dole will be greater than keeping open the pits, many of which are profitable, and many more of which could be viable if only the Government would show a little common sense.

The Government have failed to recognise the true economics of the situation. The Select Committee on Trade and Industry has said that closure of the pits will cost £1·3 billion in 1993–94 and over £500 million in 1994–95. The TUC has estimated that the cost of closing the pits will put £10 million per pit on the public sector borrowing requirement.

The future of Hatfield and Bentley collieries in my constituency still hangs in the balance and Doncaster as a whole will lose Rossington and Markham Main, which lie in the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Sir H. Walker) and my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond). The overall cost to the region and to the Exchequer will be massive. Unemployment in Yorkshire and on Humberside is already costing £2·3 billion a year.

The President of the Board of Trade has told us that the case for closure is unanswerable. I believe, as do many right-thinking people and Members of Parliament, that the only unanswerable case is the one that argues for a strong and productive mining industry, with the 31 pits being kept open, mining coal for Britain's power. Let us take the examples of Hatfield and Bentley collieries in my constituency. Between them, they employ more than 1,200 people. Last year, they both proved profitable. Bentley made £6 million and Hatfield made £2 million. In an area where unemployment is well above the national average of 10·7 per cent., at 13·8 per cent., any news of further job cuts is devastating.

The Government clearly do not understand how difficult it is to create jobs in coalfield communities such as Doncaster. The industrial base of the area is narrow, which means that mining is central to the local economy, being one of the most important employers as well as an important buyer of services in local firms. The existing service jobs generally depend on the mining and manufacturing industries, both of which have been decimated in the past 14 years. The economy has remained substantially tied to the coal mining industry, in spite of heavy redundancies in the 1980s.

Businesses locally will be affected by the economic squeeze that the closures will undoubtedly bring. A survey conducted by the Doncaster chamber of commerce has suggested that the knock-on effect to local companies could be 4:1 and that 220 local businesses could be affected. I have already been contacted by the local market traders association and federations representing small businesses. Many of them can remember the difficulties that they faced during the 1984 strike and the debts and hardships that they experienced. They do not want to return to those lean times. They know that that would be a disaster for them and for the Doncaster economy.

Almost 3,000 jobs will be lost at the four collieries in the Doncaster area. In the past, miners have had the option of taking jobs outside that area, but that is no longer the position. Many miners will be made compulsorily redundant. Many other members of the British Coal staff will lose their jobs. There will be job losses in Doncaster, where several administrative functions have been centred.

Jobs may also be lost at the Thorpe Marsh power station, which is in my constituency. It takes coal from local pits. When those pits have been closed, how long will it be before the power station is closed?

Unemployment problems in the area will be especially difficult because all four local collieries that are under threat are in self-contained communities. In each of those communities the colliery is the principal employer. That makes retraining even more difficult, but it is necessary to give people the chance of a new career. Every effort must be made to create new jobs. There are fewer firms in new industries that are capable of absorbing those who have been made redundant.

Since 1984, nearly 10,000 men have lost their mining jobs in Doncaster. The measures that the Government have proposed to ease the impact of closures in Doncaster were much needed even before the new job cuts were announced. Doncaster has been attempting to gain development area status for some time. I hope that the Department of Trade and Industry will now see its way clear to implementing the pledge that was made on 13 October, and again today by the President of the Board of Trade, to upgrade Doncaster so that it secures development area status.

Estimates of the potential consequences of the closures on employment are worrying. Between 5,000 and 10,000 people are expected to lose their jobs if all the pits close. Even more people will be pushed into poverty. Unemployment in the Doncaster travel-to-work area now stands at about 14 per cent. It is expected to rise to 20 per cent. if the pits close. In some parts of Doncaster the unemployment figure is even higher.

The closure of collieries is already ripping the heart out of many local communities. Unemployment, financial hardship, poverty and disadvantage are putting a strain on welfare, housing, and social and health services. Lack of opportunity will turn young people away from their homes and community vitality will be hit. Youth unemployment in Doncaster is already about 3 per cent. higher than the national average.

Unemployment causes stress, social isolation and the loss of a sense of purpose and dignity. The cost can be measured in concrete financial terms as well as in social terms. The costs of closures have been massive, and the costs of the proposed closures will be devastating. People feel undervalued as decisions are taken above their head. There is a callous writing-off of their skills, resources and investment. Human costs are immense.

The President of the Board of Trade likes to suggest that there is no alternative to the closures. He takes the view that if an undertaking does not make a profit, it must go. However, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry proved in its report that options exist. We need a Government who are far-sighted enough to examine the options, act on them and keep the pits open. In the long run, that will save money. Such an approach will also save hardship, suffering and an unnecessary waste and decline in both human and material terms. There are options and we must address them rather than dismiss them as the Government have chosen to do.

Many of the threatened pits do make money; many more could be viable if the Government had a sensible and economical energy policy that looked to the future rather than just to the next balance sheet. If the Government really cared about the communities that will be affected, they would have to invest only a part of those millions in making the coal industry a more viable prospect for the future, thus ensuring the future of the industry, the jobs of its workers, the integrity of the coal communities and the future of all those within them.

The Government had a chance to be positive in the White Paper; instead, they have remained negative. They had a chance to do something, but they chose to do nothing.