Coal Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:43 pm on 25th May 1995.

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Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping , Sherwood 4:43 pm, 25th May 1995

The Minister says that we are discussing the ninth such order. We do not know whether it will be the last, but it is important and significant as it votes money to British Coal Enterprise. The Minister will need no reminding that during the passage of the Coal Industry Act 1994 the Government gave a commitment that British Coal Enterprise would survive the privatisation of British Coal and continue for some time after that. I am dismayed by the ad hoc arrangements that appear to have been made for British Coal Enterprise.

The order votes money for British Coal Enterprise in the current year, but I am well aware that there has been a protracted struggle to agree its future. It is important as it is the only economic development agency that focuses primarily and principally on the coalfield. It brings venture capital to companies in coalfield areas, it attracts new business and £78.6 million has been invested in business in coalfield areas. It has brought workshops to the areas. We needed the £40 million that enabled us to create 1.3 million sq ft of factory space on 47 sites. Most importantly, it is a partner for economic development. It can work with others such as the local authorities, to bring new jobs, new investment and a new future to coalfield communities.

That partnership has been blighted, however, by the lack of clarity about the long-term future of British Coal Enterprise. One does not take a partner that could die at the end of the current financial year, and that is a real possibility for British Coal Enterprise.

I remind the Minister of the report that British Coal and the Department of Trade and Industry commissioned on the future of British Coal Enterprise entitled, Market Opportunities and Structural Options", that was produced in November 1994. I am disappointed that the report was never published. It sets out four options for the future of British Coal Enterprise, but as yet there is no clear way forward.

It is important that we agree a timetable. It is important that all of us who are actors in the coalfield and want to create a new future know what the platforms will be and who the actors are because there is still a need in coalfield areas. In 1980, there were 40,000 miners in Nottinghamshire; today there are fewer than 3,000. To put it another way, in 15 years, more than nine out of 10 mining jobs have gone.

Unemployment is reaching dangerously high peaks. The gap between unemployment in the United Kingdom and that in the coalfield communities is constantly increasing. Inequalities are being created. In April 1991, the gap between United Kingdom unemployment and the employment in the Mansfield travel-to-work area, which covers a large part of the Nottinghamshire coalfield was 2.1 per cent. By April 1995, that gap had grown to 6 per cent.

There is a clear divergence. Unemployment is worsening in pockets of the coalfield communities while nationally it is reducing. We have to take action on that and ensure that a clear timetable spelling out the future of British Coal Enterprise is discussed and agreed quickly. I understand that the Department and British Coal have Samuel Montagu and Co. Ltd. working on the issue now, but it is important that they come clean and that early decisions are made. People can live with decisions, but they cannot live with uncertainty.

Some former miners have found jobs. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough talked about the work of the Coalfield Communities Campaign, which found that half the miners have found work, but are paid one third less than when they worked for British Coal. This year, Derbyshire county council produced a report with similar findings, showing that miners earn half what they earned down the pit, so there are real and continuing problems.

There is a severe loss of income into the local economy. One has only to walk around coalfield communities to see the number of shops that have shut to see how difficult things are.

Some miners have been more fortunate. I have with me the minutes of a meeting held on 11 January 1993. It was agreed at the meeting that the former miner concerned was to receive good redundancy terms and excellent pension arrangements from British Coal, together with a car and a new house. He has gone on to be appointed by the Government to work on industrial tribunals at £80 a day, and has been appointed to the Coal Authority at £5,500 a year. He is also employed by the Prince's Youth Business Trust as a business advisor at £20,000 a year. That post is funded by British Coal Enterprises. As well as his redundancy package, this gentleman is now receiving nearly £30,000: he has been well looked after.

The man in question, Roy Lynk, is the former president of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. I find it astonishing that he should get his pension and a house and a car and yet be paid nearly £30,000 from Government funds. There are people in the coal industry who say that he is being well looked after. I wish that the Government were looking after the other miners who have lost their jobs and who feel betrayed as well as they look after Mr. Roy Lynk.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on this and give another group of people a fair chance for the future. He will perhaps know that the British Association of Colliery Management is holding its annual conference at the moment. He has received letters from the president of the BACM about a small group of people who are members of what is known as the triple-S scheme—the staff superannuation scheme. They worked for British Coal right to the end of its life and were then transferred to new employers. They, like their colleagues, can get their pensions at 50 if they leave their jobs in, or are made redundant by, the successor company. But if they move from the successor company to another firm and then lose their jobs, they cannot take their pensions at 50.

Fewer than 3,000 people make up this small group. I hope that the Minister will treat them with equity and examine ways of enabling them to take their pensions at 50, like their colleagues do. The money is already there—it is in the pension fund. I hope that the Minister will therefore consider my suggestion, and take this opportunity to respond to an invitation from the BACM and the pension fund trustees to discuss the issue. I am dismayed to learn that he has so far not met them. The conference meets tomorrow. I hope that the Minister will take a step forward and announce that he is prepared to discuss the future with the conference.

Tonight we are discussing that future. There is a strong feeling in the coalfield communities that the Government have buried the deep coal industry deep and then tried to walk away from it. We in the coalfield communities are pragmatic and hardworking. We want more for our children than we have had. We need to invest in jobs and infrastructure to create a better future for them.