Orders of the Day — Coal Operating Aid Scheme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:04 pm on 22nd November 2000.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Liberal Democrat, Berwick-upon-Tweed 9:04 pm, 22nd November 2000

Ellington colliery is in my constituency, and it employs quite a number of miners in the constituency and a significant number in the constituencies of the hon. Members for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) and for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell). All of us who represent those constituencies have been involved in the campaign to secure the operating subsidy. We are glad to see it brought before the House.

The link between Ellington and the subsidy is rather complex. It rests upon a pledge made by Richard Budge that if an operating subsidy was available to the industry and to the significant part of it that his company owns and operates, the colliery would remain in operation until 2004. We are having a curious discussion because all of us who represent the area are welcoming the subsidy on the basis that Richard Budge's pledge will be honoured. I have no reason to believe that it will not be, but the importance of the pledge must be put on record.

It was slightly more than a year ago that the closure announcement was made. It was not the first, because Ellington colliery was closed by British Coal in nationalised days and reopened by Budge. About a year ago a closure announcement was made, and I and others discussed the matter with the Minister, who was courteous in listening to us. However, the initial response of Ministers was that it would be impossible to get a legally watertight scheme that would go through the European Commission.

It took much discussion, considerable pressure and a lot of thinking—we are all grateful that the thinking took place—to take the Government to the point where they said that there was a basis on which there could be an operating subsidy. Members from other coalfield areas played a large part in helping to secure that outcome. I am grateful for the help that Ellington had from other areas in that respect. Of course, other areas will benefit significantly from the operating subsidy.

The story has been further complicated by the fact that in the meantime there have been all sorts of bids for RJB Mining and its assets. We have the extraordinary Mr. De Stefano, who had suspicious links with Milosevic, and who was taking a rather worrying interest in RJB Mining. Thank goodness that fell through. I believe that he was under arrest at one point as a result of charges being pursued by the British. In fact, he was arrested in Italy. There was the slightly less disreputable but still worrying Renco bid, which again raised anxieties about the fate of Ellington.

We have the operating subsidy in place and RJB Mining appearing to be continuing as a British-based company. That is a relief to a work force which, having achieved wonders in productivity, have been put through the mill in terms of anxiety about the future of their jobs and their industry. If the jobs of Ellington miners are taken out of the area, £10 million a year will be taken out of the area's economy. Given all the local regeneration measures of which we can think, it is extremely difficult to come up with something that would build up to that level, even over a reasonable period, let alone in the short term. The announcement of the subsidy is accompanied by a great sense of relief, given that it has been cleared at European level and is going ahead.

The Budge pledge runs to 2004, but what will happen after that? I share the view that there are potential reserves that could be accessed from Ellington colliery, the quality of which we do not entirely know. Budge's first experience in getting beyond the Causey Park dyke and operating from that part of the pit was not encouraging because of the sulphur level and the state of the coal found there. There may be significant reserves further on. I want to see some real development work taking place between now and 2004 in an attempt to give the pit a future thereafter.

The pit is associated with Alcan power station and smelter, which is next door to it. There has been an increase in employment recently at Alcan, and that is great news for the area. We want to see the future of that industry secure as well. However, we must take action to deal with the job losses that have already happened. At Ellington alone, the work force are a fraction of what they used to be. There were 2,000 men there at one time, as well as the thousands of men in other pits within the Northumberland coalfield.

We must deal with the general deprivation, which all the figures and indices show, of the former Northumberland coalfield, and we must prepare for the day when the Ellington pit is no more. Even if my ambitions and hopes, and those of other Members, for the future development of the pit are fulfilled, it must be understood that no pit lasts for ever. The history of the coal mining industry is one of considerable difficulty in replacing jobs lost. Sometimes they have been replaced, but mining villages were not always built in convenient places for other industries.

However, there has been success in some communities. It is time for us to see some success in Northumberland where, as for much of the northern region, we still fall way behind all the favourable and positive indices that Governments like to claim as marks of success. Work must therefore continue on regeneration in the area. Road and rail transport links, for example, could help the area, new industries must be brought into the area, small businesses must be strengthened, and there must be public investment in the infrastructure. The scheme is good news for us, but it must not deter us from the work that needs to be done and which the Government, in particular, must undertake to give the area a future.

I have a happy footnote on the Ellington colliery band, of which I am president. It has been told that it will get some subsidy from RJB Mining. I am rather pleased about that, as the band does a great job in the community, not least in attracting young people, of whom there are a considerable number in its junior band. The band has a happy link with the colliery, and we look forward to the colliery succeeding in future.