Restructuring Schemes

Schedule 2 – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 23rd March 1994.

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Photo of Mr Martin O'Neill Mr Martin O'Neill , Clackmannan 5:45 pm, 23rd March 1994

I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 76, line 30, at end insert— '(3A) Any term of an employment contract or non-contractual condition of employment, including any entitlement to concessionary fuel, which is transferred under a restructuring scheme or modification agreement shall not be altered or withdrawn without the agreement of the employee or his trade union.(3B) An employee may only have terminated by notice an employment contract transferred by a restructuring scheme or modification agreement if the employer gives no less than 12 months notice after reasonable consultation with the employee's trade union.(3C) Paragraphs 3A and 3B above shall continue to apply when the employer changes as a result of a transfer of undertakings.'. A number of the debates that we have already had on the Bill have related to matters such as redundancies, and we have touched on certain areas of the organisation of the coal industry. We now come to an area which is of more than passing concern to the 17,000 miners who remain in the industry.

A number of beneficiaries—the current employees of British Coal—are in receipt of concessionary coal. As hon. Members are aware, concessionary coal is perceived by the work force to be not a concession but a right. It is perceived by them as an extra payment for the work they do. It has considerable significance in terms of their houses, and certainly it sustained the market for domestic coal in the past.

I understand that there are 4 million to 5 million domestic coal consumers in the United Kingdom. A large number of them live in mining communities. A large number of them are beneficiaries under schemes whereby retired miners and their dependents receive an allocation of coal every year. It has been estimated that the payment of coal is worth about £850 per annum; in real terms, it is more than £1,000 per annum for every household.

In the case of miners who have retired—if they die, their spouses receive the benefits—it is an important payment. Those who are unable to use the coal for one reason or another receive a smaller amount of cash in lieu; nevertheless, it is of some importance to them. We have been told—in Standing Committee, we discussed the matter at some length—that those benefits will not be affected by the change of ownership.

For those currently employed by British Coal, the concessionary coal provisions are in some doubt. Although the amendment focuses on concessionary coal, we are in fact examining the whole range of industrial relations provisions in the coal industry, which are the product of the attempts that were first identified as important in the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946.

That Act says that British Coal has a duty to enter into consultations with organisations which represent a substantial proportion of its employees to establish and maintain joint machinery for conciliation, with provision for arbitration. The Act also made provision for consultation on safety matters and general industrial matters.

It is our belief that, over the years, there has been undue focus on the significance of the national coal strikes during the 40 or so years of public ownership of the coal industry. Although there have been three important strikes, tremendous strides have been made in the creation of a system of industrial relations within the coal industry. When the Donovan commission reported in the 1960s, it looked in large measure to the coal industry for models for conciliation and arbitration systems.

The Opposition wish to ensure that the positive achievements in the coal industry of unions and management in establishing that system should be sustained. We have identified concessionary coal as one of the beneficial aspects for individual workers. We would like to think that due provision would be made when the transfer is made and when the restructuring takes place for the continuation of trade union activities within the coal industry beyond the minimalist approach normally provided by the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981.

The amendment asks that contractual and non-contractual conditions of employment be transferred, and that they will not be withdrawn without the agreement of the employee or of his trade union. The amendment goes on to say: An employee may only have terminated by notice an employment contract transferred by a restructuring scheme or modification agreement if the employer gives no less than 12 months notice after reasonable consultation with the employee's trade union. That point is significant, because an arrangement already exists whereby the terms and conditions of existing British Coal managers cannot be adjusted without 12 months' notice. If it is good enough for managers under public ownership, it should be an essential and basic condition for private coal employees at any rank under the new arrangements. We therefore want that enshrined within the legislation, because, as I have said, in a number of instances, undue attention has been paid to problems in the coal industry which have found expression in long and bitter national strikes.

Outside those industrial disputes, there has been a tremendous achievement of agreement, understanding and ultimately conciliation, in which difficult and fractious disputes have been avoided by the skill of the management and the unions in finding a way through the minefield. In many respects, the difficulties have been avoided because of the structures which have been in place.

If the Bill achieves a majority in the House and elsewhere, we want to ensure that arrangements can be set in place when the new owners take over. They would go a considerable way to improve industrial relations in the new set-up, and would protect the terms and conditions of the individuals who would continue to be employed by the new owners.

The Opposition also feel that the amendment would leave the new or potential owners in no doubt about what their responsibilities ought to be in respect of the provision of good industrial relations. We recognise that there will always be a process of negotiation on wages and general conditions, but we also want to underpin our commitment that, if retired miners have a right to concessionary coal, it ought to be a right also for miners who continue in employment.

It is important that that is placed in the legislation, and that the potential licensees are under no illusions about their responsibilities to the work force. It is realistic to assume that, in a climate of industrial relations rather different from that which prevailed in 1946 and 1979, certain things ought nevertheless to be laid down and made specific.

We feel that the provisions and conditions of employment for the mineworkers should continue for at least the first 12 months of the period of new ownership. Those terms and conditions should be enshrined in the legislation for the benefit of the industry. They would provide the work force with minimal guarantees about the continuation of their present terms and conditions.

The amendment would benefit the industry and industrial relations. I have no hesitation in commending it to the House, and I hope that hon. Members of all parties who look for good industrial relations and a healthy relationship between management and unions will be prepared to back it.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Legislation Committee, Chair, European Legislation Sub-Committee on Roads Safety Competence 6:15 pm, 23rd March 1994

Before the general election, the miners parliamentary group met the then Secretary of State for Energy, who is now the noble Lord Wakeham. [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) will listen, as I am sure that he is very interested.

The group and the Secretary of State discussed the threats of privatisation and the intentions of the Government, because we have all known for a considerable time what the Government's real intentions were with regard to the mining industry. The then Secretary of State referred to things which he saw as historical liabilities. Part of those liabilities were pensions, and another part was concessionary fuel.

I was a miner for 23 years. I worked in two coalfields; first, in the Scottish coalfield as a young apprentice engineer where I qualified as a mining engineer; and then for 19 years in the Nottinghamshire coalfield. The different areas had different concessionary fuel agreements. Nottinghamshire at that time had a better agreement than most areas. When the Scottish miners were getting 7 tonnes per annum, the Nottinghamshire miners were getting 19 tons 17 cwt—I am sorry for talking in the old language.

That difference was not because of a deliberate preference for one area against the other, but was to do with local agreements. The Nottinghamshire miners were certainly entitled to their larger allocation of the national agreement. They had an agreement whereby they filled 21 cwt of tubs.

That was in the hand-filled days, of which I am sure Conservative Members will have great memories, when miners lay on their sides in water and dust in spaces of anything from 22 in to 3 ft. They were filling tubs, and getting paid per tub. Miners who were filling 21 cwt of tubs were getting paid per tonne, and the 5 per cent. extra coal that they were digging with their own hands went into their own concessionary fuel agreement.

That agreement lasted until 1981, when there was a national concessionary fuel agreement. That has always been part and parcel of miners' rights, and that is understandable. Who among us—even among Government Members—would deny a miner who has worked up to 3,000 ft underground the right to concessionary fuel? There are perks in other industries, and it is my view that concessionary fuel for a miner who has worked in those conditions to produce the coal is not a perk, but a right. There has never been any disagreement about that.

According to the then Secretary of State, it was a historical liability, which was causing problems in making the industry attractive to the private sector. I also mentioned pensions; I may get an opportunity later, if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak on that point.

We now have a worrying situation in which the Government have taken on a part of our concerns by seeking to give assurances—I hope that they are copper-bottomed, but I have my suspicions—that coal will be provided for retired miners and for miners' widows and beneficiaries now. It is important that we write into the Bill the guarantee that mineworkers still in the industry—God knows, there are not that many of them—will have the same entitlement to coal as their predecessors.

The Government tell us in the Bill that miners' terms, employment contracts and so on will be the same under the Bill. That is not good enough. Even now, miners working down the pits in the British coal industry who are employed not by British Coal but by private companies contracted to British Coal have no entitlement to fuel. Even before the industry is privatised, men working down the pits have lost their entitlement to fuel.

The Minister would have to be very persuasive to persuade me and my colleagues that miners will not lose their entitlement to fuel when the private contractors who will be making bids to take over the industry after privatisation already do not provide a fuel entitlement. The Minister will have to be very persuasive to persuade me and others that the coal entitlement will remain. I suggest that it will not.

As some companies have already done, private sector companies will tell miners that, within three months, their terms and conditions will be changed. I can give an example. Pit closures have taken place recently in Nottinghamshire. Ollerton colliery was closed. I worked at Ollerton. When I went to that pit in 1968, it had 100 years proven coal. When Ollerton was closed, it was one of the most profitable pits in our coal industry; yet it has gone. It has been closed for reasons known only to those who have decided to bring the axe down on that pit.

I am told that salvage work is going on at Ollerton. British Coal is employing miners who have been given their redundancy notices to salvage stuff from the pit. They are employed on a week-to-week basis on lower money than they were paid by British Coal. They have no guarantees, such as fuel entitlements, protective clothing and so on. That is happening now, as we stand here discussing the Bill and listening to Ministers.

I see the Minister for Energy in his place. He usually comes in when I get the rare chance to speak on these matters. He has sought to assure us about the Bill, but his assurances do not hold water. We only have to reflect on what is happening in the industry today.

If the Minister is telling me that, as soon as this iniquitous Bill becomes an Act, everyone will be okay and miners will have protection and concessionary fuel, I do not believe it for a minute. I ask the Minister to accept what the amendment seeks to do. If he agrees with us that a miner who works 3,000 ft underground deserves a coal entitlement, he should give that guarantee in the Bill.

As we have heard in the courts of our land, statements and promises made by Ministers from the Dispatch Box which are not in the legislation do not mean anything. If the mineworkers are to be given the protection they need and deserve, the amendment must be written into the Bill. I hope that the Minister will consider it.

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain , Neath

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) on this point. In the process of transition to privatisation the conditions for which miners have fought through the unions over the decades are being stripped away one by one. The entitlement to concessionary coal is a supreme example of that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) said, the average entitlement of 4 tonnes of concessionary coal per annum is equivalent to about £1,000 before tax. That is a great deal of money in an area such as Neath, particularly to many retired miners and their widows.

In my constituency the private mine owners simply reneged on their commitment to provide concessionary fuel. For example, when Ryan Mining International took over some pits in the Neath valley, it abandoned its previous concessionary fuel entitlement and paid its workers £125 per year instead. That is about one eighth of the value of their entitlement if they had retained their previous concessionary fuel conditions. If one is lucky, £125 would buy 1 tonne of coal on the market in Neath. It would last no more than seven weeks in the winter months.

I cite an example to illustrate the point. An 81-year-old man who used to work in Rheola pit near my home village of Resolven suddenly received through the post a notice from Ryan Mining International, which had taken over the pit some two years before, that the company was dispensing with his discretionary fuel entitlement and would give him £125 a year as a substitute. That nowhere near met the needs for which he had depended on the entitlement that he had enjoyed for many years.

Another example is the private mining company Welsh Dragon, which has two mines in the upper Swansea valley. It simply terminated its concessionary fuel entitlement. The next week its workers and their dependants had their entitlement taken away from them. I emphasise the point made by some of my hon. Friends that concessionary fuel is not a perk. It is deferred wages. Many miners paid for the coal during their service in the mines. More than that, during their working lives, they contributed to the supply of house coal for widows of retired miners and miners who were not entitled to the full allocation. They contributed to a pool from which those widows and miners could draw.

Concessionary fuel is not an optional extra. It is a basic entitlement earned through deferred wages, in many cases through a long life of struggle working in the pits. It is a vital resource. The Government did not give us adequate assurances in Committee. Unfortunately, I do not expect the Minister to do so when he replies.

The threatened withdrawal of concessionary fuel is causing fear throughout south Wales and, I am sure, across the country. If the Government had any remnants of honour following their treatment of the coal industry in recent years, which has been enshrined in the privatisation Bill, they would give guarantees to those people who have been dependent on concessionary fuel for many years and expected to be so for many years to come. They now have hanging over them the sword of Damocles of the withdrawal of a vital entitlement on which they rely so extensively.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham , Barnsley West and Penistone

Amendment No. 16 is essential if we are to maintain a floor level of terms and conditions in the mining industry. In 1947 when the industry was nationalised, a carry-over agreement was made which transferred all the terms and conditions of the previous period into the era of nationalisation. It provided a ground level of terms and conditions on which the negotiations with the new nationalised industry could build.

Since that time, a set of terms and conditions has been achieved which, while perhaps not providing all the conditions that I would like to see in the mining industry, provides good remunerative opportunities and, as my hon. Friends have said, concessionary fuel for people who work in the industry as well as their families.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) mentioned that the concessionary fuel agreement differed from area to area and colliery to colliery until 1983 when, for the first time in the industry, a national concessionary fuel agreement was achieved. That came into being after 10 years of negotiation. I think that the Minister would accept that to reach a national agreement to span a whole industry when many different agreements applied from one colliery to another and one area to another, was an enormous achievement.

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The agreement provides, as of right, entitlements to employees and their widows and is the first time that widows have received an entitlement as of right, rather than one that is passed from their husbands. The national concessionary fuel agreement provides for the allocation of smokeless fuel and bituminous coal where coal can be burned.

At present the use of smokeless fuel is growing and it is becoming perhaps a more important part of the allocation than bituminous coal. The agreement also provides cash in lieu. When widows or former miners become too frail to handle solid fuel, they can apply for a cash-in-lieu payment which will go towards providing heating and lighting in their homes.

It is essential that we maintain the agreement, and the Minister gave assurances in Committee that it will be applicable to former workers and their widows. However, he did not extend similar assurances to those who continue to work in the industry. The amendment seeks to ensure that the men who continue to work in the industry receive their concessionary fuel. That is an important entitlement. Unless that right is written into the statute, there is no doubt that the new employers will seek to change the terms and conditions very quickly.

All of the agreements negotiated in the industry have been embraced in the contract of employment. If, shortly after taking over a colliery, a new employer were to give notice that he was going to change the terms and conditions of the contract, within a short period we would be likely to see the concessionary fuel agreement replaced in the case of men who continue to work in the industry. I think that that would be grossly unfair.

My hon. Friend has already pointed out that it is not a concession as such; it is a right which is part of the remuneration package. Former workers and their widows were originally given the entitlement because men who worked in the industry had part of their entitlements stopped and put into a pool from which former workers and widows could draw their coal. The entitlement is part of a remunerative package and, on that basis, the Minister should accept the amendment.

In Committee we tried to impress upon the Minister the fact that the protection of terms and conditions should be written into the licences of the new operators, but he rejected our view.

Many other terms and conditions have been negotiated since nationalisation. The industry has always operated a very sophisticated industrial relations procedure and currently about 49 volumes of memoranda of agreement have been negotiated which apply across the board to collieries and workshops and provide good standards of terms and conditions. Unless entitlements are written into the statute, it is likely that the new employers will withdraw them. They will do that by giving notice that they intend to change the contract of employment, or they may pass on colliery work to a subsidiary. If that occurs, the new terms and conditions offered by a subsidiary could replace the terms and conditions that the miner expects based on agreements that have been negotiated previously within the industry.

I hope that the Minister will confirm that he is prepared to ensure that conciliation procedures continue in the industry. Section 46 of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 set out conciliation and consultation procedures for the whole industry. British Coal terminated the consultation procedures in December 1985 and the conciliation procedures were terminated in May 1986 after notice was given of their termination in December 1985.

Since that time, new conciliation procedures have been agreed in the industry and British Coal agreed that it would meet the unions on a bilateral basis. Unfortunately, British Coal has not kept its word and, as a result, many of the meetings that should have taken place under the conciliation procedure have not occurred.

I hope that the Minister will ensure that conciliation procedures are adopted in the industry. I hope that he will accept consultation procedures for the industry and, in addition, that he will accept amendment No. 16. That is essential if we are to provide the floor level of terms and conditions required by miners who will be working for successor companies.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping , Sherwood

My colleagues have quite rightly stressed the importance of the concessionary coal entitlement. There are widespread concerns about that in coalfield communities. The Minister has given some assurances, but there is an area of weakness affecting those employees currently working in the pits who will enter the newly privatised industry. This amendment safeguards their position for 12 months.

However, an important principle lies behind the amendment. Mineworkers have struggled for years, both through action and negotiation, to achieve decent terms of conditions and contracts. All that could change under a privatised industry. The date for restructuring may be 1 January 1995, but I think that the Government face an enormous challenge in moving from the current situation to that restructuring point.

It was pointed out this afternoon that the redundancy scheme will end on 30 April this year—just a few weeks away. Men and their families are making decisions and thinking very carefully about their futures. First, they want to know whether their pits will remain in operation and, secondly, they are assessing the chances of, their pits surviving in a new, privatised world.

There are many unknowns in that assessment. The amendment provides the men with some security; it ensures that when employees transfer to a private employer they will not give away hard-won rights and conditions of employment.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham , Barnsley West and Penistone

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the Minister were to announce that he would allow the redundancy terms to operate for three years, that would engender confidence in the men who remain in the industry?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping , Sherwood

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point because it was one which I intended to develop. I commend this amendment for at least providing the possibility of employment under the old terms and conditions for 12 months after restructuring. I think that the correct way forward is for the Government to tell the people who work in the mining industry that they will maintain the present redundancy terms through to the point of privatisation and beyond. I find it difficult to see how the 10,000 men who now work for British Coal can continue to work in the industry through to privatisation. The amendment is a limited step in the right direction but the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) for a three-year commitment would give people a great deal of confidence.

I know that the Minister has been approached by representatives of some of the mining unions who say that there is yet another approach to that which we are advocating. We are advocating the TUPE long-term conditions approach, but they suggest loyalty bonuses to people who stay in the industry up to privatisation. It is then not a matter of principle but of practicality. The Government are going full steam ahead towards privatisation but, frankly, they have not given sufficient thought to the matter.

I know from conversations in coalfield communities that miners who want redundancy but who are not given it by 30 April will, after that date, act in a ca'canny way. If they do not feel that they have been given a fair chance of working under the same protected conditions or of receiving a bonus, they can create havoc. The Minister needs to think carefully about how he is going to keep the 10,000 men who are currently employed in the industry working when it is privatised. It is a dilemma not only for the men involved, although it affects them principally, but for the Government, who have to handle the practicalities.

It would perhaps be appropriate if the Minister reassured the men and their families who are going through a difficult time and having to make hard choices,. It is very easy for me to talk about those choices, but it is very hard for the men and their families to contemplate the future. The Government could help them by giving them the assurances that they seek and they could also protect their own position by spelling out clearly how they intend to tackle the problem.

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

Understandably, the debate has focused primarily on the issue of concessionary fuel, although the amendment in fact deals with the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 and suggests that there should be a right of 12 months' notice of any proposal by employers to change their terms and conditions. The House will recognise that the TUPE regulations operate because we have included them in the Bill.

The amendment appears to give British Coal employees unique rights which are enjoyed by no other British employee in any other industry. I find it rather difficult to follow the argument that, in some way, employees of British Coal are wholly different from those in any other sector or working for any other firm. That dispenses with the main thrust of the amendment but, as I said, the debate has concentrated on concessionary fuel.

I understand the concern felt by the recipients of concessionary fuel who are inevitably facing uncertainty in the run-up to privatisation. If I may, Madam Deputy Speaker, and if it is within what I call the bounds of our adversarial system, I pay tribute to Opposition Members. At one stage, I thought that they would deliberately start a scare story and there was indeed some evidence of it a few months ago when we debated the paving Bill.

It was suggested that, somehow, the Government were determined to do away with people's right to concessionary fuel but I pay tribute to Opposition Members because they have not played that card. Having received assurances from me, through parliamentary answers and in Committee, they have worked hard to reassure many elderly people who were getting genuinely worried, and I thank them for that.

I repeat the assurance about concessionary fuel. After privatisation, the Government take responsibility for bringing concessionary fuel to those who are entitled to it and have not transferred to the successor companies. The successor companies will take responsibility for the entitlements of continuing employees. That is a clear undertaking, and responsibility for meeting the entitlement of continuing employees will be transferred to successor companies.

The question was asked—quite reasonably—whether successor companies might seek to renegotiate those entitlements. Of course they might, just as they might seek to renegotiate the terms of employment as they are entitled to do under the TUPE regulations. Many Opposition Members recognise that that might be in the interests of not only employers but employees.

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There is a recognition that some of the working practices currently followed by British Coal are not as conducive to competitive coal mining as they might be. The evidence for that is that the system of working and shifts applied at Asfordby, having been negotiated freely between the union, on behalf of the membership, and the management, has generally been recognised by everyone involved at the mine as giving them significant advantages.

I throw that out as an example because it shows that sensible negotiations can benefit employees and employers. It is not in anyone's interests to freeze for ever, or even for a lengthy and abnormal period, the particular terms of employment. However, I stress that TUPE will have to be followed and, if negotiations are to take place, they will have to do so in the context of TUPE.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham , Barnsley West and Penistone

We are suggesting that there should be a ground level of terms and conditions, not that they be frozen for ever and a day. They should provide the level on which future negotiations would take place. In an industry which has varying degrees of technology, unless such protection is provided it is likely that high-technology pits will compete with low-technology pits and that the low-technology pits will survive because they are able to change the terms and conditions offered and pay low wages.

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

As my hon. Friend says, we want those pits to survive. I do not necessarily accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question. Mines that are mined less intensively might produce a return for the owner and benefit people working there. There are many examples in other parts of the world, most notably the United States, of different mining methods being used and providing competitively priced coal and safe, secure employment for the men involved.

Let us consider the practical examples in our own coalfields. The hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), whose constituency includes the Point of Ayr colliery, knows very well that an inspired management approach, the full co-operation of the work force and the use of what is by British standards an abnormal mining method to start with, followed by the use of continuous miners and their adaptation for United Kingdom conditions, has made the pit much more competitive than most people ever thought it would be.

I accept the hon. Member's argument that it has also meant a reduction in the employment level. I ask him whether it is better that there be significant numbers of men, but not as many as previously, using a different method of mining but still producing coal and providing employment, or a uniform system with a greater number of men, which probably would have led by now to the closure of that pit because it could not be competitive.

Those are the questions to which Opposition Members must be prepared to respond. They must recognise that, in the private sector, there will inevitably be different methods of mining—different approaches—but there must be protection for the work force, and that is what TUPE give,. That is what the undertaking under the transfer gives with regard to concessionary coal.

Photo of Mr Martin Redmond Mr Martin Redmond , Don Valley

If one follows the Minister's arguments to their logical conclusion, he obviously agrees with the mining production that operates in Colombia, where the children—

Photo of Mr Martin Redmond Mr Martin Redmond , Don Valley

It is cheaper coal—the Minister cannot have it both ways. If he is arguing that different methods would lower the costs, to follow his argument to its logical conclusion he agrees with children being used in Colombia to produce the coal that is being exported to this country.

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

Although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman volunteered for the Committee, I know that he was not able to be a member. We have had a sensible debate and that type of argument is not in tune with the way in which the matter has been approached. I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that.

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

I will give way, but we are trying to make progress.

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain , Neath

I am grateful. On concessionary coal, will the Minister tackle the problem experienced by existing private miners, who have, in south Wales at least, a separate agreement which dates back to 1953 but which is being unilaterally abandoned, as I have described, by successive mines? Those miners are offered no protection under the Bill. How will he reassure them and their dependants and so on, who rely on concessionary fuel?

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

As I said in Committee and have said frequently, the Government will take on responsibility for the concessionary help to those people who are entitled but are not transferring to successor companies. That is clear. The rights of those people who go to successor companies are protected under TUPE and they are also protected by means of transfer schemes under the legislation. I accept, and I make it absolutely clear to the House, that then there is an opportunity for a renegotiation which has to involve the work force; it cannot be arbitrarily imposed by the employer. There may very well be changes at that stage.

The objective of the amendment, which is to give unique rights to the miners as against any other group of employees, is inappropriate. I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Mr Martin O'Neill Mr Martin O'Neill , Clackmannan

It is not our intention to push the amendment to a vote tonight, but the fact that we are withdrawing it does not mean that we agree with the Minister in any way. We regard the mining industry as unique. No other industry in the United Kingdom requires people to work in the bowels of the earth in darkness, in very difficult conditions, to extract a product that is of great importance to the country. The people who do that in that industry are unionised. They are organised. They have agreements.

There are people who work in the North Sea—in boats, fishing, and in the oil rigs, extracting oil. Virtually none of those people enjoy the privileges and benefits that accrue from being members of a trade union. Men working in extremely difficult conditions have been able to secure for themselves basic rights. We feel that those rights are sufficiently important to be enshrined during a very difficult or uncertain transitional period.

The minimalist conditions that are afforded by TUPE, which at least extend for three months, could be far less than that if management took advantage of the sleight of hand which our lax industrial relations legislation currently affords them. That is why we want to make it specific.

We argue that the unique character of the mining industry is also reflected in the terms and conditions and conciliation arrangements that have been built up since nationalisation, and we do not wish to see that thrown out. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) put it, we want that established as part of the foundations of the next generation of coal ownership.

For those reasons, we feel that our argument is valid, and that it overrides the argument that we are assuming that mining should be treated as elitist because it is unique. We do not take that to be the case. We reject that argument. However, we recognise that there may well be other places where arguments such as those that we have made tonight can be advanced by people sympathetic to the cause of good industrial relations and to the benefits that all miners who work for British Coal currently enjoy—the entitlement to concessionary coal.

We believe that it is too important to have a guarantee for only three months, and we hope that it will be extended well beyond that. That is the minimum guarantee afforded by TUPE. With some regret, I will seek to withdraw the amendment, but not because we are satisfied by the Minister's assurances. As the Minister will be the first to admit, he is in no position to give assurances beyond the first three months. After that, the owners of the industry will not be responsible to the Government or to the House. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 34, in page 78, line 30, leave out from 'State' to 'that' in line 32 and insert `where it appears to him in the case of any restructuring scheme or modification agreement'.

No. 35, in page 78, line 34, leave out `of the effects of the scheme to every such person' and insert `under this paragraph to every such person.(1A) A notice to be given by the Secretary of State under this paragraph shall be given as soon as reasonably practicable after he makes the scheme or, as the case may be, gives his approval in relation to the agreement.'. No. 36, in page 78, line 35, leave out `in relation to any restructuring scheme'. No. 37, in page 78, line 36, after 'scheme', insert `or, as the case may be, of the agreement'.—[Mr. Eggar.]