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Coal

Volume 649: debated on Monday 20 November 1961

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National Coal Board (Finance)

9.

asked the Minister of Power whether he will now make a statement upon pending legislation to deal with deficit financing of the National Coal Board; what increase in the deficit of £75½ million at 30th June, 1961, he anticipates at 31st December, 1961; and what further borrowing by the Board from his Department is taking place in the current half-year.

A Bill has been introduced to deal with finance for the Board's deficit, and I cannot at present say anything further about this. The present rate of the Board's net borrowings accords with the estimate of £12 million for the financial year 1961–62, given in the White Paper published last April on Government Expenditure Below the Line.

Is it not a fact that the Coal Industry Bill at present before the House is a further palliative involving merely an extension of the Board's borrowing powers and dealing only with an immediate situation, and cannot my right hon. Friend assure the House that he proposes to proceed in the present Session of Parliament with a major reform of the disastrous consequences of the existing coal industry Statutes, and proceed with such a reform within twelve months?

My hon. Friend's judgment of the Bill as it stands is perfectly correct. It is to deal with an immediate situation. There is, as he knows only too well, a fundamental situation which I am now examining. I cannot promise when proposals will be made to take account of that, but I am very much aware of it and of the urgency to deal with it.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give an assurance that he will resist all forms of pressure from behind him.

Secondly, will he give an undertaking not to take notice of the suggestion made to review the National Coal Board, and particularly that he will not introduce legislation this Session?

I note the hon. Gentleman's point, but I resist pressure from all quarters.

When the right hon. Gentleman makes his calculations about the future economy of the coal industry, will he take into account the theoretical saving that might have been achieved by the coal industry if there were taken into account the savings on the balance of payments that have been lost due to the Government's oil import policy?

That is a consideration that must be taken into account in the future, but it does not make sense to ban imports of oil if the alternative fuel is not being produced economically.

Smokeless Fuels (Scotland)

11.

asked the Minister of Power if he is aware that certain local authorities in Scotland have had to delay the application of certain provisions of the Clean Air Act, 1956, because of the shortage of smokeless fuels; and if he will make a statement.

No application for a smoke control area has been rejected because of shortage of smokeless fuel. Supplies in Scotland are at present adequate, and I understand that the Gas Board can increase its output of Gloco to accommodate a considerable expansion of smoke control areas.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that certain local authorities, without making application to higher bodies, are themselves, because of the local shortages, taking these decisions, which I am sure he will agree are rather unfortunate? Can he give us any information at this stage about the proposal made two or three years ago to have a manufacturing plant located in Scotland which would be sufficient to meet many of these shortages?

I cannot have any knowledge of what local authorities have not done. I can hold out no prospect that the new premium fuel to be manufactured by the National Coal Board will be available in Scotland before 1965 or 1966. I would also point out that the plant will be built only if the demand at that time justifies it. Therefore, it is very unwise for local authorities to do nothing but merely await the arrival of the new premium fuel.

New Borings

12.

asked the Minister of Power how many experienced mining engineers are on his staff; and what technical consultations take place between his department and the National Coal Board before new borings and reorganisation are undertaken.

13.

asked the Minister of Power what technical consultations have taken place between his Department and the National Coal Board about new borings for coal seams; and whether he will make a statement.

Except for the Mines Inspectorate, there are no mining engineers on my staff. Responsibility for new borings and other individual projects rests with the National Coal Board and there is no technical consultation with my Department about them.

In view of recent events, including the decision to abandon the major part of the production in some Scottish pits, is it not unwise not to have previous technical consultations between the right hon. Gentleman's Department and the National Coal Board before embarking on these adventures? Does the right hon. Gentleman's answer mean that the National Coal Board has to be relied upon exclusively in matters of this sort in spite of the extraordinary expenditure involved?

My appraisal of new projects suggested to me by the National Coal Board or other nationalised industries must be essentially an economic one. If I were going to attempt a technical appraisal of the project, I should have to duplicate the whole staff of the National Coal Board. In fact, the Select Committee on the Nationalised Industries endorsed this view with the following words:

"Your Committee are in no doubt that the Ministry are right in their refusal to attempt any kind of technical reconsideration."
I would just like to add that this lack of technical staff, right as I think it is, flows essentially from the organisation set up by the right hon. Gentleman when he held my present office.

Can my right hon. Friend say what success the Board has had in boring new coal seams on the edge of my constituency in recent weeks? Will he bear in mind that I have the highest unemployment figure in the North-East and treat the matter as very urgent?

I will certainly take note of what my hon. and gallant Friend says. I do not know offhand what is the answer to his question, but I will find out and let him know.

How does the right hon. Gentleman arrive at an economic assessment—by himself, apparently—without paying some regard to the technical considerations involved?

I manage to do it in the same way as the right hon. Gentleman managed to do it when he was in my office. I do it by taking the advice of the technical experts advising the National Coal Board, and making my own economic assessment of whether the technical appraisal is correct.

Pit Closures

16.

asked the Minister of Power to what extent the Plan for Coal, visualising more than 200 pit closures in the next five years, will affect production and reduce manpower; in particular, what estimate has been made by his Department of the resulting unemployment, with a view to informing the Board of Trade; and if he will make a statement.

The Revised Plan for Coal envisaged a higher level of output and manpower in 1965, than at present. The Board is able to absorb elsewhere most of the men from the closed pits. Because of this and the close liaison between the Government Departments concerned, the closures do not, and should not in future, give rise to widespread unemployment.

"Should not"—does that not imply that the Government have no plan and that it is just a "wait and see" attitude which they are adopting? Secondly, bearing in mind that some of the areas will suffer unemployment and all the social consequences that flow from it, is it not about time the Minister tried to create a fresh image in the minds of the miners instead of the existing one—that of an octopus extending its tentacles throughout the coalfields and squeezing them to death?

The image that exists in the minds of miners whose pits may or may not be closed is that very few miners who have been displaced by closures have remained unemployed.

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that every pit closed means so many more jobs disappearing—in Scotland, not just out of the area but out of the country—and that it means that job opportunities for younger people are disappearing? What are the Board of Trade and the Government doing to help?

I agree with the hon. Lady that the closing of pits means a reduction in jobs, but they may be replaced in other ways. That is what the Board of Trade is trying to do. I suggest that the hon. Lady puts Questions to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade about the activities of that Department, which, in my opinion, have been extremely successful.