Coal Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:07 pm on 25th May 1995.

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Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham , Barnsley West and Penistone 5:07 pm, 25th May 1995

The order gives the Department of Trade and Industry authority to fund 90 per cent. of British Coal's redundancy costs for 1995–96 and to meet the operating losses of British Coal Enterprise Ltd. for that year.

The first aim of meeting British Coal's redundancy, retraining and relocation costs that have been caused by closures is relatively unimportant because the corporation has already disposed of all its mining operations and the majority of its non-mining activities. It is welcome, however, that the order will provide for redundancy arrangements for the staff who are left with British Coal to dispose of the residual holdings.

The second aim of the order is much more important because it concerns the future of BCE. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) was right to concentrate on the need for secure funding for BCE as well as on a coherent approach to regional policy. We require a fair deal for the coalfields to ensure regeneration of the areas. It is clear that the coalfield areas have not had a fair deal when we set the order in the context of the 1993 DTI White Paper, "The Prospects for Coal", which set out the measures that would be taken in coalfield areas.

We were told, for example, that Barnsley and Doncaster, as well as Mansfield, would have assisted area status. The White Paper informed us that there would be assistance from the Economic Union. We were told that there would be a concentration on infrastructure aid from English Estates. It was said that there would be assistance from the jobs service and the training and enterprise councils. It appeared that there would be set up a coalfield areas fund of £244 million. We were to have new enterprise zones, extra help for inward investment and additional assistance for BCE.

The Government's record leaves much to be desired. Despite a substantial programme since 1985, they have yet to devise a framework for coalfield regeneration. When we talk about that closure programme, it must be borne in mind that we are talking about the closure of 140 collieries, with 160,000 men being made redundant. That has had an enormous impact.

The Government's approach contrasts starkly with that of our European partners. For example, Belgium, France and Germany have a strategy for phased closure of surplus coal capacity that is linked to a regeneration framework that empowers local communities. The French Government are contemplating the closure of the Lorraine coalfield and have set a date of 2005 for doing so. Since 1993, the French national Government, in partnership with the local region, departments and communities, have worked on a framework that will help to regenerate the community, so that as the coal mines are closed other jobs will be available.

That has not happened in any of our coalfields, and the Government introduced a package in 1993 only after a public outcry over colliery closures. One could question whether it could be described as a coherent approach. It certainly does not have the coherence that one would expect in the light of the enormous colliery closure programme since 1985.

Let us look at what we were promised, and it does relate to the grant, which is important, as it provides a little extra help. We were promised, for example, assisted area status. That has been granted, but it would have been granted to any area with unemployment that was created by the closures, so it is not as though it is extra help.

What about European Union assistance? The RECHAR programme, which has been of enormous help, was promoted not by the Government but by local authorities. Indeed, as we have seen many times, the programme has been obstructed by the Government, and only after arguments have they accepted additionality.

What about English Estates? It has made some improvement in the provision of business sites, the effect of which has been limited by the lack of a coherent strategy. The same is true of jobs and services from training and enterprise councils.

The record of the programmes supported by the coalfield fund, mainly through TECs and English Enterprise, does not support the argument that the fund was used to provide additional services. Those additional services have not been forthcoming. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what further assistance is likely to be available through the coalfield fund.

Enterprise zones were offered to the coalfields but they are still hot fully operational—they certainly were not at the beginning of this year. I understand that the enterprise zone for the Dearne valley in south Yorkshire still has not been designated, but perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us on that.

It is important to consider three main aspects in relation to British Coal Enterprise. The provision of start-up finance is important for coalfield communities, because if we are to create jobs we shall do so in small and medium-sized enterprises. We must therefore concentrate on that sector.

Secondly, we must consider the provision of workspace units. Jobs will be created in smaller, growing industries within coalfield communities, so we must concentrate on them. Thirdly, we must consider the outplacing and retraining of redundant coal staff.

Those three aspects are the major part of the second aim of the grant. It is important that the Minister realises that BCE has helped in creating jobs in coalfield communities, although there is some anxiety that it may not continue to do so. Is funding for BCE likely to continue after the order expires in 10 months' time? We do not know whether the grant will continue and, therefore, whether BCE will be able to continue.

Let us consider the situation that former mining communities face every day. My hon. Friends have already made the point that there are pockets of unemployment. In areas such as Worsbrough or Grimethorpe, as many as 40 per cent. of the male population of working age are unemployed. Poor infrastructure has resulted from a concentration on mining, with little diversification. The engineering industry that grew up around mining was very much allied to the mining industry. Consequently, as mines closed, the engineering industry also closed. Two city challenge bids have already been made to try to reverse that situation in the Dearne valley.

We need an appropriate skills base. There is a lower level of skills among some of our young people and we need to be able to lift that, which means concentrating on the appropriate skills to attract the industry that we require into coalfield communities. If we are able to offer the skills that our young people need, perhaps some of them will be able to move to work in areas such as Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester. It is important that we concentrate on the skills that are required for the future.

Environmental degradation has resulted from coal mining. The enormous problem that we face from mine water pollution has been mentioned. If I may, I shall refer to the Minister—within the context of the grant, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Not so long ago, he visited the Koyo factory at Dodworth in my constituency. If he had taken the time to travel one and a half miles beyond that, or if his schedule had allowed him to do so, he would have been in Silkstone, where, as he crossed the Silkstone beck, he would have noted just how polluted it is. The beck is orange. The local garden centre can no longer use the water from the beck for irrigation. Four rivers in my constituency are badly polluted—