South Crofty Tin Mine

– in the House of Commons at 10:34 pm on 5 February 1998.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

Photo of Ms Candy Atherton Ms Candy Atherton Labour, Falmouth and Camborne 10:35, 5 February 1998

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak about the difficulties at South Crofty tin mine. The mine is to close in March, bringing to an end 4,000 years of tin mining in Cornwall. That plain fact disguises the importance of tin in the Cornish identity. Generation after generation has owned or mined tin in Cornwall, and that famous and unsurpassable feast the true Cornish pasty emerged from the depths of tin miners' lunch boxes. Today, it is difficult to find a tin or copper mine anywhere in the world where a Cornish miner cannot be found, and a glance at any world atlas shows Redruths and Cambornes from Australia to South Africa.

Tin and copper brought wealth and prosperity to my constituents' forebears. Not so many years ago, my constituents boasted the richest square mile in the world. Before the Great Reform Bill, Cornwall dispatched 36 Members of Parliament—the largest number of any county in England—whereas, today, we now send five. That shows the power of King Tin—oh, that it were so today. Sadly, we are in the exactly opposite position.

Camborne and Falmouth suffer some of the highest levels of poverty and unemployment, some of the poorest housing, some of the worst health and some of the lowest wages in the United Kingdom. If I had more time, I would go into those problems in greater detail—as I have done in the House in the past and as I shall do again. Today, however, we are talking specifically about South Crofty—which stands, proud, between Redruth and Camborne, adjacent to the Camborne school of mines. With Carn Brea towering above, South Crofty determines the Pool landscape.

It would be fair to say that the tin industry has been in decline for many years. Year after year, mines have closed. Cornwall now has more mine museums than working mines. In the early 1990s, a rescue operation resulted in Cornish men and women buying shares in South Crofty and in the Canada-based Crew Group purchasing and taking control of the mine. I should say that, in some ways, the Crew Group has assisted in our campaign to save the mine. I could wish, however, that many of the proposals that we have come up with during the past few months had been thought about and implemented. Perhaps then we would not be in the position in which we find ourselves today due to the international price of tin and the high rate of sterling.

At the end of July last year, South Crofty announced that it was to close. It is difficult to describe the dismay that greeted the news—not just among miners and their families, but throughout the wider community and the whole of Cornwall. Cornwall without a tin mine would be like Newcastle without coals, Dover without the white cliffs or Edinburgh without Arthur's Seat. Tin mines are Cornwall.

The closure announcement hit hard in a number of ways: economically, culturally, historically and emotionally. Economically, the closure is devastating as it involves the loss of some 280 jobs at the mine and an estimated 1,000 in the wider community. Many of those 280 were highly paid development miners. The announcement comes just months after St. Ivel and English China Clay shed 300 jobs each. The jobs that replaced them are generally lower paid.

Unemployment is stubbornly high in my constituency—far higher than the national average. In December, male unemployment in Redruth and Camborne stood at 16.2 per cent. Dismay cannot begin to describe the reaction to the announcement. There is grief, fear for the future, anger, demonstrations and depression—the list goes on.

The closure was also culturally devastating because of the history of mining in Cornwall. Hon. Members whose only view of Cornwall is from holidays enjoyed or television programmes such as "Wish you were here" may not understand the importance of the closure. They may imagine that we survive on the beauty alone, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our traditional industries are in terminal decline. Fishing, farming, quarrying and even tourism face structural problems as does the whole county of Cornwall. The announcement hit the county like a tornado. It was rocked to its core and I fear that it has been rocked again by today's announcement.

Last July, Ministers—including the my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry, whom I immediately sought to meet—felt that further assistance for the mine was inappropriate. Management was saying that the game was up and I directed my energies to bringing new opportunities to west Cornwall. At the request of the trade union, however, I met senior shop stewards at the mine on the Saturday after the Thursday morning closure announcement.

At that stage, I felt that we should not attempt to save the mine as that would offer false hopes, but the miners persuaded me that there were possibilities to be explored and, despite today's news, it was right to pursue that objective. The following Monday, I met the management and the Transport and General Workers Union with their local organiser, Tony Phillips. It would be fair to say that the first hour was tense. At one stage, I feared that no moves could be made to take us forward, but eventually all agreed that a rescue could and should be pursued. In my view, what followed was extraordinary.

The following week, a task force was formed comprising two groups working in parallel—one developing a rescue package for South Crofty and the other working to develop new jobs in west Cornwall. The second group, including the TEC now known as Prosper, local authorities, English Partnerships, the Government office for the south west and many others, continued their search to tackle the unemployment problems.

The result of that work is the west Cornwall employment programme, which proposes 1,000 new jobs and which I very much hope the Government will view with great sympathy. I hope that Ministers will consider fast-tracking the programme as it would enable employers to take on ex-Crofty men with a subsidy. It is also vital that we have major redundancy status.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Transport)

The hon. Lady has described well the problems that face Cornwall and the shock and dismay at the decision. She knows that I do not agree with the decision. Tonight, the key issue is what can be done for those 300-odd families who are losing jobs at the mine, as well as the others in her constituency and in mine—at the Wheal Jane processing plant—who will lose jobs as a result of the closure. I hope that the Minister understands that and can announce—ideally tonight, or at least in the next few days—the go-ahead for the initiative programme, on which there has been much hard work. It deserves support and it will give hope to those families in this week of such a disastrous announcement for Cornwall.

Photo of Ms Candy Atherton Ms Candy Atherton Labour, Falmouth and Camborne

The hon. Gentleman is right. I hope and believe that the Government are more than willing to consider assisting us in every way possible.

In the early stages, those of us who were attempting to save the mine explored various possibilities: we considered wind energy to reduce the £1.5 million electricity cost; we considered a smelter in Cornwall to save our exporting tin only to reimport it from Malaysia; and we launched a medallion, which raised £40,000 in the local community. We decided to explore ways to combat the difference between the ever-declining price of tin and the cost of mining Crofty tin. We decided to examine ways to reduce mining costs and to bring new developments and enterprises to the site. It sounds easy, but in practice it is difficult.

Some early ideas were soon rejected. South Crofty management, led by David Giddings, pursued the options tirelessly. Wind energy was not economical. A smelter came out of the equation in the short term. The work force took a 10 per cent. pay cut, causing great hardship in many households, and more than redoubled their efforts to extract ever more ore from the mine. The unions started working with the management to tackle long-standing and—in their words—archaic methods of working. South Crofty management, supported by the Crew Group, started to look for buyers to forward sell Crofty tin. That was a long, drawn-out business and it was not resolved until the new year. I am running away with the story again.

The Crew Group agreed to continue searching for a route out of the closure. I began battering Ministers with letters and meetings about our case. Many Ministers had their summer holidays disrupted because of our plight. I make no apology for that.

In September, I led a group from Cornwall to meet my hon. Friend the Minister. Interest in the meeting was unrivalled. A small media armada followed us. There was general euphoria when my hon. Friend said that if we came up with a viable package, the Government, like Barkis, would be willing. The key point was viability.

Since September, management and others have been pursuing a range of possibilities. A linchpin was the environmentally friendly energy plan to convert waste oil and household waste into electricity to power an engine. That engine could provide Crofty with free electricity and enable it to sell electricity to the national grid. It would also create precious new jobs. I hope that the proposal will still be considered in spite of today's announcement.

Another proposal now sadly on hold was headed by Geoscience—a company with which many hon. Members will be familiar. It led the hot rocks project that was sadly and short-sightedly stopped by the previous Administration. Geoscience proposed an underground laboratory facility for the international nuclear industry. I stress that there were and are no plans to store nuclear waste at South Crofty. The geology is unsuitable. However, the industry needs to conduct experiments on how shattered rocks behave. The project is on hold because the Government have yet to decide whether the country will store nuclear waste underground. In another place, a Select Committee is exploring that.

The Geoscience proposal, though, was a key element in short-term funding. If, as seems likely, South Crofty is closed, and later floods, it may cost the Government many millions of pounds to locate such a laboratory elsewhere. Our failure to get the project off the ground has had severe effects on cash flow in the total package.

A deal was struck with a leading metals commodities company, which at least guaranteed a tin price the company would receive for two years, but the deal was for far less than we had all hoped for. The Crew Group has agreed a further £1 million cash injection, and recently we used the money raised from the medallions to re-employ development miners. Since the new year, however, events have taken a downward turn. The loss of Geoscience left a hole in the budget. I cannot describe my dismay that the final package was for more than was originally planned.

I have an image of a dusty office in the Department of Trade and Industry where a jam jar on the shelf is marked "South Crofty". In that jam jar is £4.7 million which, with the rest of the £11.8 million, would have made up the rescue package that we were putting forward. The request to the Government was for £6 million. I recognise that that did not add up to a viable package, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and her right hon. Friends will look at the regional case for Cornwall.

The county, particularly west Cornwall, is crying out for help. Surrounded by water, we cannot look elsewhere for jobs. The people of Cornwall fear that they have been forgotten. I am determined that they will not be forgotten and I shall fight for both traditional and new industries in west Cornwall.

It is clear that many environmental issues have financial implications for the Government. Keeping the mine dry would make environmental and economic sense. If, in a few months' time, sterling has fallen and the price of tin has risen, it will be a tragedy if the mine is dead through flooding. Similarly, if the Government decided to pursue the underground route for storage of nuclear waste, South Crofty would be unusable—at a possible cost of many millions of pounds.

In relation to these and others matters, I shall be seeking urgent meetings with Ministers, particularly those in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. We must keep our options open. I cannot stress enough my personal disappointment, along with that of the people of Cornwall, that we have failed in our objective, and that families across my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) will be facing difficult times ahead.

This is a bleak day for the people of Cornwall, but I am determined that we will pick ourselves up and march onward. We will create new jobs, building on our economy. The people of the county are resilient and we will move forward from this with, 1 am sure, the Government's help.

Photo of Mrs Barbara Roche Mrs Barbara Roche Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Small Firms, Trade and Industry), Department of Trade and Industry 10:52, 5 February 1998

We have just heard a very wonderful and fine speech. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on her eloquence, passion and commitment. She has led a tremendous campaign. and it would be fair to say that she has earned the admiration of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Let there be absolutely no doubt that the Government share my hon. Friend's concern about the impact that the closure of the South Crofty tin mine will have on the economy of Cornwall, particularly west Cornwall, which already suffers high unemployment. Not only have people lost their jobs, but valuable job opportunities for young people coming on to the job market have been lost.

The Government of course recognise, too, that the closure will mark the end of a long and proud history of tin mining in Cornwall. It stretches back hundreds of years and will therefore have a very special meaning to many people. All of us in the House recognise the great contribution that tin mining has made to the history of our country.

South Crofty has made a significant contribution to both the Cornish and the national economy. It is a tribute to the productivity and ingenuity of the South Crofty work force and management that they have been able to continue production in the face of significant disadvantages to their competitiveness. I know, for example, that, despite the problems of investment at South Crofty, the processing plant is regarded by many as the most efficient in the world. The miners can take some comfort in the fact that that is recognised.

With regard to the financial position of the company, I must say that very early on it was made clear to me that the owners—the Canadian-based Crew Group—had reached a point beyond which they were not prepared to go in terms of further investment in what they saw as a loss-making operation. The £1 million cash injection mentioned is not directly for South Crofty, but for a separate and ring-fenced project to provide power.

When I met a delegation from South Crofty in September last year, I warmly welcomed the tremendous efforts that were being made by the company, its employees and the trade union—as well as the local community and my hon. Friend—to find ways to secure the future of mining operations at South Crofty. I said that my Department would deal as a priority with an application for regional selective assistance. That would be assessed against the normal criteria. Crucially, those include demonstrating the viability of the project.

The company has, since that meeting, worked hard in developing its case for RSA, with help from its local partners, the local community, the Government office for the south west and my Department. No stone has been left unturned. No group could have worked harder. No Member of Parliament could have done more for her constituents. Local people can truly feel proud of the efforts that they have made.

Despite all those efforts to develop the best possible case, it is clear that the fundamental problem of the competitiveness of the mine cannot be overcome. The South Crofty project does not meet the viability criterion. Against that background, I have reluctantly had no choice but to reject the case. I explored all the other opportunities provided by the legislation, so seriously did and I and my officials take the matter.

As to the possible environmental impact resulting from closure, I can assure the House that the Environment Agency has over the past several months been assessing, with South Crofty, the implications of the ending of commercial operations. The agency, which is answerable to the Minister for the Environment, will take decisions shortly on the most appropriate action to secure protection of the local area.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

On the matter of the assessment for RSA, does the Minister accept that tin mining is different from the production of ball bearings or bed springs and cannot be assessed in quite the same way? Assessing the project under these criteria is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Will she have another look at the matter, in view of the fact that the company has made it clear that that support would keep the company in balance for three years, giving it the chance to look at other options over those three years to help preserve the future of tin mining in Cornwall?

Photo of Mrs Barbara Roche Mrs Barbara Roche Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Small Firms, Trade and Industry), Department of Trade and Industry

I must contradict the hon. Gentleman, who I hope accepts that I have sought to keep him very much informed of the discussions on this matter. The criteria that we have are exactly the same. The project has been assessed, and every detail has been thoroughly looked at. The company itself does not think that it is viable.

I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, and he and I have agreed that we shall keep in close touch and take a personal interest in the situation as it develops, and as the agency discusses the most appropriate action to secure the protection of the local area.

The Government are ready to respond to the closure of South Crofty. The Government office for the south west and all the local agencies will continue to work closely with the local authorities, through the West Cornwall task force, to consider what can be done to alleviate the impact. Additionally, I shall work with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, to consider how to assist the task force.

The immediate priority is to help those who will lose their jobs. The Employment Service has already granted the company major redundancy status, which provides immediate access to the full range of Employment Service jobseeking programmes, and we shall ensure that a great deal of effort and commitment is put in. Cornwall is a pathfinder area for the new deal, ahead of the national implementation in April. That is an extremely important programme.

Substantial help is available to Cornwall, in recognition of the extent of its economic problems, through Government and European programmes to encourage suitable employment-creating projects in the area, and through training and support from organisations such as business link and the training and enterprise councils.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, we are currently considering a bid for £700,000 of funding in single regeneration budget round 4, towards a £6.5 million total cost; that is designed to create additional employment opportunities for those most affected by the decline of traditional industries. The signs look extremely encouraging for the bid. I have asked officials to keep me fully informed of its progress. We will do all that we possibly can to progress the bid, which has been made by several partners and is being considered extremely seriously.

This is undoubtedly a very sad day for Cornwall, but it is important to look to the future. The county has many advantages and opportunities for modern businesses. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to talk about her commitment to building businesses today and in the future. Cornwall's advantages include a wonderful environment, an excellent and skilled work force and much improved communications.

I am aware that excellent work is being done, for example, by the "Cornwall in pursuit of excellence" initiative, to promote the county as a place where business can compete and win in world markets. Cornwall has successfully attracted inward investment by companies such as USA-owned Harman International, Contico Europe and Pall Corporation, all based in the Redruth and Camborne area.

We need, at this time of great sadness and tragedy, to trumpet the good news as well as to reflect on the past. I wonder, for example, how many hon. Members are aware that Stralfors, the printers in Falmouth, has secured a £6 million-a-year contract to produce all the national lottery pay slips and receipts; that Allen and Heath, of Penryn, exports 90 per cent. of its state-of-the-art audio mixing consoles; that Radiocode Clocks in Helston has secured major contracts to supply the United States navy with precision time frequency equipment; and that Pendennis Shipyards, of Falmouth, exports up to 80 per cent. of its luxury yachts, including to the middle east, USA and Australia. Cornwall can build on such successes, and we must talk about them, because they involve skilled and resourceful people.

I am confident that there is a determination in the county to overcome the current economic problems. The Government will play their part in helping that to happen.

My hon. Friend was right to talk of the resilience of the people of Cornwall. Her constituents and those of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) have shown their resilience in the past few weeks. Now we need to build on the future, to find out how we can go forward. That is important.

In the campaign that has been waged, we have seen a determined effort by local people working together. I want to build on that local effort, which was led by the local Member of Parliament, to ensure the future of that community. I am confident that there is a determination in the county to overcome the present economic problems. I want to assure the House and Cornwall that the Government will play their part in helping that to happen. We will continue to do all we can. I will continue to take a great interest in the area, as will all my colleagues. Together, we will work and ensure that we build on the best—the strength—of Cornwall, and we will look towards the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Eleven o'clock.