Will the Minister confirm that he has seen research from independent experts showing that British Coal Enterprise has created thousands of jobs in coalfield communities? Will he talk to the chairman of British Coal to ensure that BCE is not necessarily sold to the highest bidder but goes to the bidder offering value for money—that is, the bidder who promises to retain and create much needed jobs in coalfield communities?
I pay tribute to the work that BCE has done over the years. It estimates that it has created about 123,000 job opportunities in the coalfield areas. British Coal has pre-qualified 14 organisations to bid for all of BCE or its individual activities. These include nine organisations for business funding, six for work space and four for Grosvenor. The deadline for receipt of firm offers will be the end of the month and BCE remains on course for sale by the end of March. British Coal will regard as a priority those bids which seek to continue BCE's work.
As a result of the Government presiding over wholesale pit closures, entire communities are facing a generation of unemployment. Does the Minister agree that some mining communities still face unemployment levels between 30 and 50 per cent. above the national average? Has not the promise made by Ministers two years ago to mining communities suffering dislocation proved entirely inadequate? Selling off British Coal Enterprise will not help. Where are the Government's detailed action plans for investing in desperately needed economic restructuring to ensure that mining communities get some work and some hope? Or will the Government walk away again, leaving behind a shambles with everyone but themselves expected to pick up the tab?
As I have said, the sale of BCE is a matter for British Coal. I must reject what the hon. Gentleman says. The Government continue to provide support for economic regeneration activities through regional selective assistance and the single regeneration budget, in addition to support available for European structural funds. The coal industry to which the hon. Gentleman seems to be harking back—and which I believe, indeed, that Arthur Scargill wishes to recreate—was losing the country and the taxpayer £1.3 billion a year. The hon. Gentleman seems conveniently to forget that sort of figure. I know, however, that he will gain comfort from the fact that unemployment rates in all of the 27 coal communities have fallen since 1992 as well as from the fact that coal production in 1995 was up on that in 1994 and imports were down in that period. That is a success story of which we should all be proud.