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Pit Closures

Volume 649: debated on Monday 13 November 1961

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12.

asked the Minister of Power whether he has completed his revision of the general programme for coal mine closures; to what extent he anticipates a speeding up of closures of uneconomic mines; and if he will make a statement.

My Department is in close contact with the National Coal Board about colliery closures. Decisions on closures are a matter for the Board, which is trying to improve the efficiency of the industry by letting new and reconstructed collieries take the place of old capacity. The amount of old capacity to be replaced in 1962 is in line with what was anticipated in the Revised Plan for Coal.

Would it not be possible to interpret the words "in contact with the National Coal Board" as implying pressure on the Coal Board in view of the comments of his hon. Friend, during the National Coal Board debate a fortnight ago, when he referred to carrying dead weight of high cost areas? Why is the Minister being so ruthless with the National Coal Board—first allowing uncontrolled imports of oil and gas, and, secondly, proceeding to close far faster than is necessary many of these mines? It is like sending the coal mining industry to Coventry.

I cannot accept any of the hon. Gentleman's imputations. The Revised Plan for Coal, of which the hon. Gentleman has been aware for two years, talked about the closure of 205 to 240 collieries up to 1965. The closures, including concentrations, last year were 44 and this year 32. That is rather below the figure that appeared in the Revised Plan for Coal. Therefore, there has been no pressure by the Government on the Coal Board.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that every time he closes an uneconomic mine, as it is called, and transfers the men elsewhere, there is a loss of manpower of 10 to 20 per cent., and that this is becoming very serious? Is he also aware that this loss on transfer from old to new pits is likely to become much greater and very serious unless the Government revise their policy, particularly with regard to methane and the rest, because if the men think there is no future in the industry that will be very disastrous for the country?

I am aware of the problem brought about by closing pits and the loss of manpower concerned, but there does not seem any possible sense in keeping men underground in pits producing uneconomically and leaving under-manned other pits which could produce more economically.

I can understand that. The men and the Union have co-operated with the Coal Board, but if the prospects of the industry are felt generally to be bad, because of Government policy, the men will feel that this is the time when they wish to get out rather than be transferred to another pit.

I think that the prospects of the industry are in the industry's own hands, and if productivity increases in the industry then the prospects will be very bright.

Why does the right hon. Gentleman rely exclusively on the decision of the National Coal Board in respect of closing? What about the social consequences? Are the social consequences a matter for the National Coal Board, or ought the social consequences to be considered by the Government, and, if so, why does not the right hon. Gentleman issue directives to the National Coal Board in view of the possible consequences?

The right hon. Gentleman has great experience of these matters. I do not think that he will argue that it was really a sensible course to keep men underground in a pit where the economic reserves had been exhausted. It seems to me to be only sensible that any social consequences should be faced; in fact, in the past, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the National Coal Board has been extremely successful in re-employing displaced miners in other pits.

15.

asked the Minister of Power what additional plans he has for capital development in the gas and electricity industries, with a view to providing work for the men who will be unemployed as a result of pit closures.

None, Sir. The capital development programmes of the gas and electricity industries must be determined by the prospective demand for these fuels.

Does that mean that the Minister has absolutely no plans for dealing with a problem of probably 5,000 unemployed miners in Scotland? What is the position?

On the contrary, the National Coal Board has, as my right hon. Friend has just said, always been extremely careful to deal with the social consequences. It has always been very successful, and it will be none the less successful this time. In addition, prior to closures taking place and after they take place, continuous discussion goes on between my right hon. Friend and his colleague the Minister of Labour.

Is the Minister aware that, in spite of what the National Coal Board achieved, there have been serious detrimental social consequences as a result of previous closures in Scotland? Is he also aware that the Scottish National Union of Mineworkers and the Scottish Trades Union Congress, representing all the workers in Scotland, and hon. Members on this side of the House are asking for a public inquiry? Is he aware that we are asking for it because his right hon. Friend said that jobs will be found in new and reconstructed collieries, and that it is in some of those that we are running into difficulty? What is the Minister going to do about this position?

With regard to the last part of the hon. Member's supplementary question, I think that will be dealt with in answer to a later Question. It raises a matter quite different from the one raised in this Question. I can only repeat that the greatest possible care is taken to avoid hardship. Some hardship is inevitable when one closes collieries—isolated collieries in particular.

18.

asked the Minister of Power to what extent he was consulted by the National Coal Board about the closure of pits in Scotland; and if he will make a statement.

22.

asked the Minister of Power if he will make a statement on the recently announced pit closures in Scotland; and whether, in view of criticism of the management of the industry, he will institute an independent inquiry into these closures.

Exceptionally difficult geological conditions have led to disappointments in the results obtained from some of the Board's major capital development projects in Scotland and the output at a number of other collieries has been substantially less than was expected. I do not under-estimate the serious nature of these setbacks, but I do not consider that an inquiry would serve a useful purpose.

Nearly all closures planned in Scotland are of old capacity where reserves have been exhausted or where the output can be obtained more economically at neighbouring pits. The closures are being discussed in detail with the unions concerned and the Board has advised me that alternative work will be available within travelling distance of their homes for the great majority of the men affected.

Is the Minister aware that there is a growing opinion in Scotland that the Government and the National Coal Board regard Scotland as an expendable area? Will he give us an assurance that Scotland will not be wiped off as redundant but that every effort will be made to find alternative work for the 5,000 men who are likely to lose their jobs?

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. In fact, that has been the objective of my right hon. Friends the Minister of Labour and the President of the Board of Trade for quite a long time, and with considerable success. They will continue to do it. The National Coal Board is also actively concerned in trying to place in other mining employment those who have been displaced by these closures.

The Minister said that he did not think that there was any great point in holding an inquiry. Is he aware that he will find few people in Scotland who will agree with him? Will he reconsider his point of view, if only to reassure the people of Scotland that they have been dealt with fairly and also to reassure the miners in Scotland that they have been dealt with fairly in the extent of the closures announced?

I never see much point in an inquiry when there is nothing to find out. [Interruption.] If I may just be allowed to finish, there was a very careful inquiry by Lord Robens before he decided on these closures. Lord Robens has himself said on several occasions, and certainly would be happy for me to say, that he is perfectly prepared to discuss with any hon. Member the reasons for the closures which have just been announced. For that reason, I do not think that an inquiry could possibly disclose anything which has not been disclosed already.

Is it not remarkable that the closing of these two modern collieries, which were reconstructed at great expense, was advised by the Board? Does not that indicate that its technical advisers were at fault? Does it not begin to dawn on the Minister that his own technical advisers, as in the case of his predecessors, should be consulted before a decision of this kind is taken?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, with his experience not only of his constituency but of my office in the past, will be well aware of the highly speculative nature of mining and the complete impossibility of being absolutely certain when a shaft is sunk that conditions below will be exactly as they are expected to be before the shaft is sunk.

I do not see any point in holding an inquiry. The facts have been disclosed by the workings underground and an inquiry would serve no purpose of any kind.

Are we to understand from the Minister that the sole reason for the closing of these pits was geological and that no other reason entered into it?

Certainly. I think we are mainly talking about the pit at Glenochil, which was one of the closures discussed the other day. There the sole reason was the very disappointing geology and results since mining began there, which have led the Board to the inevitable conclusion that the pit must be closed.

Is it not important to realise that two of the pits concerned are Glenochil and Rothes? It also involves another mine in Ayrshire which was just at the point of reconstruction but where not one ton of coal had been produced. Does not the Minister realise that people in Scotland who will suffer as a result of these mistakes want a public inquiry? It would be for the good of the whole industry and for the Government if a public inquiry were held in order to give us all the facts of what seems to us to be a very great lack of judgment on the part of somebody in the National Coal Board. Has the Minister had consultation with the other Ministers concerned to ensure that something will be done about all these jobs which we in Scotland are losing, because we are indeed losing them?

I can assure the hon. Lady that I am in constant touch with my right hon. Friends the Minister of Labour and the President of the Board of Trade, because I know of their responsibilities in this matter. As regards an inquiry, I do not quite understand who it is particularly that the hon. Lady has in mind who will suffer. If it is the mineworkers, Lord Robens has already given the undertaking that he will explain either to any hon. Member or to the National Union of Mineworkers the exact reasons which led him and the Board to this decision. Therefore, I cannot see what other facts would be disclosed to the public or to the mineworkers by a public inquiry.

Due to the wholly unsatisfactory nature of these replies, I beg to give notice that I shall raise this matter on the Adjournment as soon as possible.

25.

asked the Minister of Power what information he has received from the National Coal Board regarding its intention to close down pits; how many it intends to close in the next five years; and what consideration is being given to the social consequences of any future plan.

The National Coal Board keeps me fully informed about prospective colliery closures and my Department co-operates closely with the Board of Trade and Ministry of Labour in trying to mitigate any adverse effects. The Revised Plan for Coal estimated that during the period 1960–65 between 205 and 240 collieries would be closed. The actual number will depend upon the circumstances of individual collieries and the fluctuations in the demand for different types of coal.

Is it not desirable, on the basis of its technical advice, that the National Coal Board should make a clear and definite declaration of the number of pits that are to be closed in the period, and where those pits are now situated, so as to remove the suspense that now exists among members of the mining community in various parts of the coalfield? Why cannot the Board undertake that task and inform not just the right hon. Gentleman but the miners also, through their organisation? Lastly, would the Minister reply to the latter part of my Question about the social consequences—who is to be responsible for dealing with that aspect?

The Revised Plan for Coal, which was published about two years ago, did give a general indication of the number of pits that would be closed over this period. It also, therefore, painted some picture of the social consequences that would result. My right hon. Friends the President of the Board of Trade and the Minister of Labour are aware of the kind of problems in the various areas in Britain with which they will have to deal over the next five years, but it really would be quite impossible to give any accurate specification quite so far ahead of exactly which pits will close, because that clearly depends on the working results and trading results that take place from day to day. It also depends on what the demand for certain coals is likely to be, and that is extremely difficult to foresee more than a very short time ahead.

Arising from that reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), is the Minister aware that what is happening is that an extension of hours is being imposed indirectly upon the miners who have been transferred from one district to another while still living in their former district? It means that in many instances they have to travel about two hours a day which, indirectly, is an increase in their time factor.

I think that the benefit conferred on those miners is in knowing that, although they have further to travel, they are working in a pit which is producing coal very economically instead of in one that is producing it uneconomically.

Is not the Minister aware that there is a danger of our reverting to the old days when the miner had to spend the greater part of his working life in darkness, either at the coal face or when he got back home at night? In those days he had little opportunity of seeing daylight. Is that where we are now drifting?

There is a choice in front of each miner: whether he wants to travel to new work in the coal mines, whether he wants other work, or whether he wants to be unemployed.