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Earlier this afternoon we had some remarkable self-justification from the President of the Board of Trade. First, he told us that he was right about privatising the Royal Mail but he was unable to deliver the goods. Secondly, and more astonishingly, he told us that in retrospect he was right about the privatisation of British Coal. No collieries had closed. Unemployment was not spiralling in coalfield communities. Those phrases will bring hollow laughter in coalfield communities across the country and in particular in Nottinghamshire.
Unemployment in Nottinghamshire and in the Mansfield travel-to-work area is higher now than it was at the last general election. The most worrying thing is that although unemployment is falling across the country, the gap between unemployment in the Mansfield travel-to-work area and the rest of the country is increasing. It has increased from 4 per cent. at the time of the general election to 7.5 per cent. now. The gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider. That should not surprise us because pits have closed in Nottinghamshire. At the general election there were 13 pits in Nottinghamshire; today there are just six. At the general election, 12,270 men were working in the coal industry in the county of Nottinghamshire. Today there are 2,440. In the space of 30 months 10,000 jobs have been lost.
The future of the coal industry has yet to run its course. The preferred bids are now on the table. It is up to the bidders to put the money on the table. There are doubts about whether that can be achieved. I hope that the Government will insist that the bid that was made is the bid that is finally achieved. I hope that there will be no talking down of the bid. I also hope that the Government will look carefully at some of the preferred bidders. Some of them have a history of directorship of companies that have gone into liquidation. There must be real probity among the people who buy the coal industry. The worst is yet to come, so it is clear to me that whoever buys the coal industry will immediately throw the contractors out of work. There is a real possibility that further pits will close.
The coal industry has been in chaos in the past two and a half years because there is no energy policy. The only policy that can be identified is one in which the market operates. The energy market does not operate on a level field. Nuclear power, for example, has real advantages because of the levy. One is tempted to ask what has happened to the nuclear review that the Government promised. When will it report? What are the timetables? What will the conclusion be? There is an air of silence about the great debate that we were promised.
In the Gracious Speech another part of the energy industry—British Gas—is to be opened up. The domestic market will be subject to competition. Clearly, there will be winners and losers. As competition occurs, there will be more transparency in the market. We saw that last week when we were told that people who had a bank account and could afford to pay by direct debit would in effect get cheaper gas. People who paid by standing order or had regularly paid promptly would not benefit. The average bill payer would pay an extra £10 a year for the privilege of paying on time but not by direct debit. Clearly, there will be winners and losers. People who had paid regularly were annoyed about that. They are angry today about the massive pay increases that the directors of British Gas are to receive.
Clearly, the gas market will have to be regulated. Regulation has to ensure that all suppliers operate on a level playing field—that they take the rewards and the responsibilities. It may well be that that cannot be achieved by regulation alone. I hope that, as they produce the Bill, the Government will look at the notion of a levy on all suppliers so that everyone can take their share not just of the rewards, but of the responsibilities, too.
The Gracious Speech talked about continued economic growth, rising employment and plans to promote enterprise. But what has happened to the notion of enterprise, as in the phrase "enterprise zone"? Two years ago we were promised that 16 enterprise zones would be up and running producing 16,000 new jobs. Not one enterprise zone has yet been established. It looks as though, at best, it will be another two years before enterprise zones are operating.
There is wide-scale unemployment in Nottinghamshire. We have a private and public sector partnership at the Sherwood business park which could create 3,000 new jobs. The Government should put people first: they should cut out the bureaucracy, get the enterprise working and get the people back to work.
We also need some enterprise in the Department of Transport. We have to plan for a flagship business park north of Ollerton. It would create 3,300 new jobs through a private and public sector partnership. But it cannot go forward because a lack of enterprise in the Department of Transport forbids the construction of an access to the trunk road. It argues that the Ollerton roundabout is too small. But it is the Department's responsibility to do something about it. Why does it not create enterprise and new jobs and put people back to work?
What about the great unresolved mystery in British Coal? What will happen to its property and landholdings? The company is a major landholder across the country. That land should be put to work to create new jobs. Local authorities and English Partnerships want to develop that land and put the nation back to work.
But there is a lack of clarity about what will happen. I suspect that the valuable land will be sold to the private sector, leaving the contaminated land to the public sector for it to pick up the liabilities.
Much has been said about the value of inward investment. But, given the scale of problems in Nottinghamshire and coalfield communities, it is important that there be a mechanism to make that happen. In the east midlands we have a fledgling development company. Two years ago its budget was £250,000, now it is £400,000. But there is talk about cutting the grant from the Department of Trade and Industry next year. The other partners want to keep the company going; they want to expand it. A real commitment to coalfield communities and to promoting economic growth would be to increase the grant and give new firms an opportunity to come to the east midlands for a new future.
For that to happen, we need to raise the landscape too. That is why I hope that the environmental protection agency and the new legislation when it is produced will contain a clause which makes it clear who is responsible for mine water discharge. At the moment, everyone denies responsibility.
The Gracious Speech gives us the opportunity to clear up this matter. It also gives us the opportunity to plan the landscape— new industry in a new landscape; a new community forest. If British Coal landholdings were sorted out, we could create that forest across Nottinghamshire. We could create a new Sherwood forest; a place in which to live and work.
In Nottinghamshire today 7,498 young people aged 16 to 19 years are looking for permanent work. There are just 121 available job vacancies— none in Hucknall and one in Newark. There are 62 youngsters chasing every vacancy. They are our future; we need to invest in them. Investing in them is investing in our future.