Future of Coal in the UK

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:55 pm on 3rd December 2020.

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Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:55 pm, 3rd December 2020

It is a privilege to help to sum up this debate before the Minister speaks. I thank and pay tribute to Mr Holden for the way he secured and introduced the debate. Coal matters. This is what we have heard from all hon. Members today. It matters not just to our heritage and history but to our industry and identity. Coal is not just a fuel. It is a social seam that runs through our communities and right throughout Britain. It runs through our families as well. My great-grandfather, Albert, was a coal miner in Allerton Bywater, as was his father, and his father before him. The darkness, the dirty air, the risk of death through explosion, flood and collapse, and the camaraderie, the solidarity and the community were hallmarks of their time down the mine. Coalfield communities are proud of their past, and they are also ambitious for their future. If we fast-forward to today, we see that as a nation we are ending the use of coal, but we must do much more to be a beacon nation and help our friends abroad to do the same. That is especially important as we get closer to COP26.

This has been a good debate, with some excellent contributions. I want to pay tribute to a number of the points that have been raised. My hon. Friend Grahame Morris was right to highlight the need for justice for Orgreave and the continuing tragedy of the mineworkers’ pension scheme. My hon. Friend Conor McGinn was right to highlight the errors of the Government in supporting fossil fuel use abroad, and the illnesses of many miners. My hon. Friend Mary Kelly Foy put it very well when she said that we must learn the lessons of the past if we are to create a new energy economy.

The speeches from Conservative Members were also good. I thank the hon. Members for Workington (Mark Jenkinson), for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith), for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) and for Redcar (Jacob Young) in particular. Lee Rowley, despite chucking in a cheeky partisan point, which I forgive him for, offered the useful advice that we need to tread more lightly on the Earth. That has been a common theme throughout all the speeches that we have heard today.

On coal, Labour has led the way on many of the improvements that we have seen in our carbon reduction. In government, we started the closure of the coal-fired power stations and delivered much of the carbon savings that we are now seeing in the carbon budgets. Sadly, we have not seen the same heavy lifting since 2010 in decarbonising housing, transport, food production and wider energy generation. I am a 2030 kind of guy, rather than a 2050 kind of guy, but whatever date we choose, it is clear that we need to decarbonise faster, and the use of new technologies is a key part of that.

I am glad that so many hon. Members spoke about the opportunities not only around geothermal and hydrogen but around using the talent and skills of our coalfield communities that have been neglected for too long. The Government must not be lulled into a false sense of security by thinking that three-word soundbites and flashy oratory are a substitute for bold action to deliver net zero. It is clear that a yawning gap is emerging between the Government’s aspirations on net zero and their policy to deliver them. We have heard today that coalfield communities have a key part to play, and are keen to play their part, in helping the Government to meet that target.

There will be very little room for the continued mining and use of new coal in the world’s industries over the next 30 years. That has been made clear in speeches from both sides of the House.

COP26 must be a moment when, internationally, we drive down the use of coal right around the world if we are to achieve our target of keeping global warming below 1.5°. Countries abroad, though, are still largely dependent on coal for energy and they are clearly compounding a problem, but in making the case for that we must also recognise the historic legacy and responsibility that we have as a nation, because of the amount of coal and carbon that we have put into the atmosphere. We must also not be shy in bringing forward the technologies to create the green jobs of the future.

When I was a very small child at my primary school in Buckland Monachorum, just outside Plymouth, the teacher stopped our lesson and said, “Everyone look out the window now.” There was a coalman delivering coal, heaving huge bags of coal on his back. She said, “Remember that scene, because you won’t see those jobs in the future. You won’t be able to grow up and be one of those people.” That stuck with me. It is something about the just transition that we need to have. All hon. Members speaking in this debate have remarked on the need to create new jobs—good, decent, hard-working jobs—that are true to the values of those coalfield communities that we have seen.

I am pleased that, as a country, we are now driving down the use of coal in our energy production. It now accounts for around 2% of power, and between April and June this year that figure fell to just 0.6%, which is a huge and welcome achievement. We need to continue doing that. The carbon floor price of £18 per tonne for carbon gas emissions from plants and the restrictions on the emissions of CO2 per kilowatt hour that were introduced in recent energy legislation will help to achieve that and that is welcome.

When speaking about coal, we can talk about it as a fuel or as a community. Members on both sides of the House have spoken about it in terms of people, and not just of something in the ground. When it comes to coalfield regeneration, I hope that this Minister, and Ministers who follow him in this role, will stay true to their word about the long-term commitment that is necessary. The lesson from Labour’s investment in coalfield communities from our time in Government is that it is more than just a flashy headline. It needs to be sustained investment that gets to the very heart of that structural inequality that we need to look at.

The climate and ecological emergency will not go away and we need to make sure that we are handing a better world to our children than the one that we inherited from those before us. As a young man, I worked briefly in the coal health claims unit in the Department for Trade and Industry, which was many, many rebrands ago from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in which the Minister now operates. I helped to process some of the claims for vibration white finger and for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for those former miners. It was settling a debt that our nation owed to them, but in settling that debt over their health claims, we must also now make sure that we do the same over former miners’ pensions as well. That was raised by a number of hon. Members on the Labour Benches, and, indeed, on the Government Benches as well. We must also go further and recognise that the legacy of our coal industry is not just the health impacts on those former miners, but the spoil tips that remain. My hon. Friend Chris Bryant is fond of mentioning the unmapped coal tips. There are potentially 2,000 of them in south Wales alone. We do not have a map to identify where all of them are and we know that many of those spoil tips are unstable. We know that we have a responsibility to act and what we must all agree on in this House is that we must never ever have another Aberfan again. That is why action is so important.

As this chapter of Britain’s industrial history closes, we must make sure that the people and those communities that were so key to that industrial success—that engine that powered Britain—are not forgotten about. That means recognising their health, their pensions and the environmental responsibilities and remembering the people who went down the mines to power our country.