Coal Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:10 pm on 25th May 1995.

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Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell , Middlesbrough 4:10 pm, 25th May 1995

I am grateful for the opportunity of responding to the Minister on this matter.

It is perhaps fitting that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are in the Chair. I should like briefly to refer to the death yesterday of Harold Wilson, because I have here a book that he wrote in 1945, entitled "A Plan for Coal". This book was sent by him to Will Lawther, who was president of the National Union of Mineworkers and who was kind enough to pass it on to me.

With your mining background, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will appreciate that Harold Wilson was a great friend of the industry and the miners. He regularly attended the big meeting days, and made major speeches before them. I remember how in 1965, when he came to the Durham miners' gala, it poured down all day, and the crowds could not assemble. He nevertheless passed out his speech to the press as if he had read it, and enjoyed the festivities as best he could.

It is fitting that, in discussing this mining industry order, he should be remembered today as he was yesterday, and that the work that he carried out half a century ago in "A Plan for Coal" is remembered and placed on the record.

I am grateful to the Minister for taking us through the order. It may be the last day before the recess, and the day of a by-election, and it may be eighth or ninth order which the Minister and Government have brought to the House, but nevertheless it would have been helpful if the Minister had taken a little longer to go through it. We on this side of the House will seek to rectify that for him.

As the Minister said in his brief introduction, under section 3 of the Coal Industry Act 1987, the Secretary of State can, and does, make grants to British Coal to cover some of the costs incurred as a result of the restructuring of the coal industry. In October 1992, the Government announced what they described as a substantial and wide-ranging package of new measures to assist the coalfield communities. They included extra help for inward investment, promotion and additional activity in British Coal Enterprise.

We fully recognise the role that BCE has played in helping to create over 120,000 job opportunities in coalfield areas across the country—a role which covers business funding, the workplace and outplacement. We also recognise that the £93 million that BCE has committed to job creation projects has attracted from other funders a further £670 million of inward investment into the coalfields. The future existence of BCE, however, remains uncertain, notwithstanding the commitments in the Government's White Paper.

I am glad to see that I am in very good company today, with my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington), for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson), to name but a few.

We want to debate the order and to consider the future of British Coal Enterprise and its work force, who did not know, for example, until February of this year that the grants given for 1995–96 by this statutory instrument would be forthcoming. Consultation is never a high priority in the Government's mind. To this day, the staff of British Coal Enterprise do not know whether they will be in a job this time next year.

The staff of British Coal Enterprise are not alone in the uncertainty they feel about their jobs. Many of us meet constituents who tell us that they are on short-term contracts. We meet constituents who are casual workers and whose jobs do not provide holiday pay or sickness benefit. Those people cannot feel the so-called feel-good factor, because they do not know whether they will be in a job in a year's time, and they do not know whether they will have a roof over their heads. Low morale afflicts the country, so it is not surprising that morale at British Coal Enterprise is extremely low.

Low morale can affect not only the individual concerned, but the services that that individual renders. From all the information we are getting, it is clear that many ex-mining staff still need long-term assistance. A report produced by the Coalfield Communities Campaign, after surveying almost 900 ex-miners from five pits that ceased production in October 1992—the figures are supported by an independent CBI survey and by a survey conducted by Derbyshire county council—showed that only 44 per cent. were in employment. Some 46 per cent. were unemployed, and 9 per cent. were in training or education.

Of those who were unemployed, 80 per cent. had had no work since leaving the industry. Those who were in employment earned much less than they had as miners. On average, they earned £70 a week less than they had in the mining industry. Overall, 89 per cent. were worse off at the time of the survey than they had been when they worked in the pits.

We submit to the House that there is much hidden unemployment among ex-miners. Some 30 per cent. were claiming sickness benefit which did not show up on the unemployment register. That is a higher proportion than one would expect, as a result of the unhealthy effects of working down a pit, especially as the average age of those surveyed was 38. Those surveyed were in the prime of their working lives.

The survey shows that morale is low among redundant miners, and that low morale can lead to illness. It shows that the hope of getting a job is so small that it is not surprising that morale is low. With low morale and so few job prospects, as in all such circumstances, it is the small, niggling things in life which attain greater importance.

If we take an overview of the economy based on the survey and assume similar levels of unemployment and low pay throughout mining areas, we can see that spending power of more than £300 million a year has been lost to coalfield communities as a result of the job losses since October 1992.

As my hon. Friends know, I come from a mining area. I have written a book about colliery life, which is not as famous as other books that I have written in my time. My father spent 51 years in the pits, and I began my working life in the colliery office.

I can testify to the House that there is a keen sense of community spirit in the mining areas, as you know well, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The former pitmen have a great desire to be independent and to pay their own way through life. With that background, that desire, a sense of independence and a sense of community spirit, how fertile is the prospect for regeneration. Even under this Government, it would not take a great deal, if they brought all the assistance together, for the former miners to be able to help themselves.

We shall not let the Government forget their 1992 White Paper, in which they declared that they would increase the amount available for regeneration measures up to £200 million. It announced that the funds would allow important new major projects to go ahead, which would promote new employment opportunities.

The Opposition are entitled to ask where the money has gone. It has gone into training and enterprise councils, and industrial estates. We have seen, somewhat tardily, two enterprise zones, and a third has only just opened. But that is not new money, and it is not conditional. How often have we sat in the House and heard the President of the Board of Trade tell us that he is putting new money into the economy? It turns out to be the same money as he announced in last year's White Paper, and the same money that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Budget.

The £200 million which the Government talked about was already allocated to training and enterprise councils, English Estates and even the Welsh Development Agency. Among the Government's other great attributes, they are able to launder money. They have used the same money time and again, but they say in their White Papers that it is new money.

Apart from laundering money, what else have the Government been doing in terms of energy policy? What other nefarious activities have they been up to? As Opposition Members know, and as the mining communities know better than anyone, the Government have no energy policy other than a dash for gas. They have set miners and mining communities aside, as tools to be disposed of at will. The Government's higgledy-piggledy approach to energy created those circumstances in the first place. Miners who have not found work and who are on the dole must look askance at the so-called "fat cats" in the energy industry, who line not only their own pockets with monumental fees and share options but the pockets of their wives.

Those of us who watched the extraordinary exchange between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition will have noticed that the one thing which the Prime Minister has not learnt is Lord Healey's adage: "When you are in a hole, you should stop digging." The Prime Minister kept digging throughout the exchanges. He talked about independent taxation and gifts inter vivos. Obviously, that was over the heads of all those who listened and watched it on television.

I remember as a child learning a poem about the mining industry, which told of how the pitman was wakened in the early morning and made his way to the coalface.