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Coal Industry Money

Volume 927: debated on Wednesday 2 March 1977

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Queen's Recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to increase the limit on the borrowing powers of the National Coal Board and to provide for grants by the Secretary of State to the Board and other persons it is expedient to authorise—

Increase of borrowing limit

1. Payments out of public funds due to increasing the limit on borrowing by the Board to £1,800 million, and to enabling that amount to be increased by order by two further amounts each of £400 million.

Sale, stocking and supply of fuel

2. Grants out of money provided by Parliament—
  • (a) for promoting the sale of coal to electricity bodies,
  • (b) for the cost of building up and maintaining stocks of coal and coke, or
  • (c) towards measures for securing supplies of coke for use by the iron and steel industry,
  • being grants to the Board and to any other person carrying on in Great Britain a business which consists of or includes the production of coal or coke—
  • (i) for or by reference to the years of the Board ending in March 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1982, and
  • (ii) subject in the aggregate to a limit of £100 million capable of being increased by order to not more than £175 million.
  • Pit closures

    3. Grants out of money provided by Parliament to assist in the re-deployment of the manpower resources of the Board and the elimination of uneconomic colliery capacity, being grants—
  • (a) towards expenditure for the years of the Board ending in March 1979, 1980 and 1981 subject to a limit of £60 million, or
  • (b) if so provided by order, towards expenditure for the years of the Board ending in March 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1982 subject to a limit of £80 million.
  • Redundant workers

    4.—(1) Payments out of money provided by Parliament to or in respect of persons who, at any time between 17th July 1967 and the final date—
  • (a) are employed at a coal mine, or at any place used for providing services or facilities ancillary to the working of one or more coal mines, and
  • (b) become redundant.
  • The final date is 29th March 1981 or if so provided by order 28th March 1982.
    (2) The payments shall be subject to the following limits:

    Payments in the period below


    1. Years ending in March 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1978£100 million.
    2. Years ending in March 1979, 1980 and 1981£90 million
    3. Years ending in March 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1982£120 million
    The payments covered by the first limit include payments in the specified period under section 3 of the Coal Industry Act 1967, the second limit applies if the final date is in 1981 and the third limit applies if it is 1982.

    Regional grants

    5.—(1) Grants out of money provided by Parliament to assist or enable the Board to pay due regard to the needs of the assisted areas as defined in the Industry Act 1972 when planning and carrying out colliery activities, being grants in the years of the Board ending in March 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1982.
    (2) The grants shall not exceed £75 million, but that limit may be increased by order, but not to a sum exceeding £100 million.

    Administrative expenses and receipts

    6. Defrayment of administrative expenses out of money provided by Parliament.
    7. Any payment into the Consolidated Fund or the National Loans Fund.
    In this resolution order' means an order by the Secretary of State approved by resolution of the Commons House of Parliament.—[Mr. Harper.]

    1.1 a.m.

    Warm though my personal regard is for the Under-Secretary of State, and compelling though his charm is, he never chooses to exercise that charm on the Opposition Benches during the course of debate. A number of very direct questions were put to the hon. Gentleman during the course of the debate. I fully appreciate that with enough time at his disposal—

    Order. We are now on the Money Resolution.

    I am coming to the points that I wish to make arising out of the Money Resolution. If permitted, I wish to make some points touching on the financial provisions of the Bill. With his habitual courtesy, the Under-Secretary of State said that he would write to hon. Members, but that was not a very satisfactory way of dealing with a very important Bill involving considerable sums of public money.

    I now come to the Money Resolution. It will not have escaped the attention of hon. Members that the National Coal Board is to be permitted to increase its borrowing to about £1,800 million. By any stretch of the imagination that cannot be regarded as a small sum. If we are to authorise this sum of money, I hope that I shall be within the rules of Order if I direct one or two sharp and pointed questions to the Under-Secretary or the Financial Secretary. I am not sure who is dealing with this Money Resolution. Perhaps the Secretary of State will wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

    The first question I should like to ask concerns paragraph 1 of the Money Resolution, which ties in with Clause 1 of the Bill. Clause 1 increases the borrowing of the NCB by Statutory Instrument while subsequent financial provisions are to be made by affirmative resolution.

    On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is a Treasury matter. Is there a Treasury Minister present to reply to the debate?

    The hon. Gentleman is well aware that that is not a matter for the Chair.

    None the less, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it always assists an experienced debater like myself to know exactly who will reply to the points that I am endeavouring to raise so maladroitly. The considerable increases in the NCB's borrowing powers are to be made by Statutory Instrument rather than affirmative resolution.

    The next point I wish to raise concerns the grant that may be made for promoting the sale of coal to the CEGB, the South of Scotland Electricity Board and the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. I addressed certain questions to the Under-Secretary earlier in my brief intervention which, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in an attempt to adhere to your predecessor's injunction, I compressed into eight minutes.

    On that occasion I asked what promotion the NCB had in mind. Does it mean that we are being asked to authorise considerable sums of money so that the coal may be sold at subsidised rates? "Promotion" is obviously a word of wide import, and before these considerable sums of public money are made available, we should know a little more about this.

    I asked a question—I am sure that you will agree that this is well within the rules of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—about sums of money, amounting to about £183 million, borrowed abroad during 1974 by the NCB. I wanted to know what the consequences of that borrowing would be, because we all appreciate that the pound has dropped heavily, from about $2·40 to about $1·70. I did not look at the closing figures today. Who will be picking up the check? Will it be the Treasury, or are the sums to be voted under the Money Resolution to be absorbed to meet these considerable sums that will have to be repaid over the next decade or so?

    Beyond that, as I have said, considerable sums of money are at stake. We should like to know a little more from the Under-Secretary as to his views about the accounts. This was one of the central points that I made in my Second Reading speech. Instead of devoting himself to question about the future of Mussel-burgh and Polmaise—constituency matters which I know agitate the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) and the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan), who is not now in the Chamber—the hon. Gentleman should have addressed himself to the question which should agitate the whole House, which is how any future increases in the costs of extracting coal are to be met.

    Let us assume that Mr. Scargill presses a claim that face workers should be paid £135 a week. I am not expressing any views on the merits of such a claim, but it must be within the knowledge of the House that that is the kind of figure that is being bandied about. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore), who represents that constituency a little inelegantly and who has great knowledge of financial affairs and contributes very directly, we understand, to Private Eye—whether he still does so in his present honorific position I do not know—should not intervene from a sedentary position, because he may expose his flanks to the maladroit remarks that Opposition Members can throw at him. I hope that he will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and make one of his notable contributions on his feet.

    I want to know, as I expect other hon. Members will want to know, whether, if the costs of extracting coal increase over the next year or two, those increases will be passed directly to the consumer by way of price increases, or whether the sums that we are being asked to vote tonight are to be absorbed for that purpose. These are matters on which neither the Secretary of State nor the Under-Secretary condescended to enlighten the House.

    If we are to have a meaningful debate on very important matters—and the one point on which the House was united was that this was a very important debate on a very important subject and a very important industry—we ought not to be fobbed off. I hate to say this, because I have a great personal regard for the Under-Secretary—although he is not, apparently taking in anything that I am saying at present. He does not condescend to address himself to this very important subject but is more concerned to turn his left shoulder towards the Chair to curry favour with his hon. Friends. We know that the favours of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) are well worth currying. However, if we are to have a meaningful debate, the Under-Secretary should take some account of the views of Opposition Members. After all, some of us have the privileges of representing mining constituencies, and all of us have the privilege of representing consumers and taxpayers.

    From some of the remarks of Labour Members it seems that the interests of taxpayers are apparently very rarely in their minds. I know that the hon. Member for Luton, West is deeply concerned about these matters. I have had the privilege of debating with him on Finance Bills, including such matters as the inquiry branch special offices, rates of tax, and so on. They are always in his mind.

    The Under-Secretary has signally failed to reassure me, or the taxpayers I represent, that he has really applied his mind to these important financial considerations. I hope that he will now attempt to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and deal with these matters.

    1.11 a.m.

    Each of the payments under the Act is subject to the approval of the Treasury. The foreign borrowing is authorised by existing practice. Any Statutory Instrument increasing the amount will be laid in draft before the House.

    Will the Secretary of State answer the question about foreign borrowings? Who actually pays the loss incurred by foreign borrowings resulting from the depreciation of the pound? Is it the National Coal Board or the Treasury?

    1.13 a.m.

    The Secretary of State may think that these are frivolous questions, but they are perfectly serious. If he does not know the answers, it would be courteous of him to say so. The sums of money involved could be of the order of £70 million. It is a measure of the inflation that we have in the Bill and of the scale of the activities that nobody on the Treasury Bench has the slightest idea what has happened to £70 million and that we get these facile answers.

    The reason why my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees) felt provoked to speak on the Money Resolution after an otherwise perfectly good-humoured debate was the total inadequacy of the Government reply. The Government think that they can get up and make extremely facile and abrupt replies and treat my hon. and learned Friend's remarks with contempt. But in his earlier contribution my hon. and learned Friend pointed out that the Secretary of State had introduced this Bill asking for a further £1,200 million without making a single comment on the current financial situation or performance of the National Coal Board.

    That is an incredible situation, and it is hardly surprising that my hon. and learned Friend feels that some slight element of financial discipline might have crept into the debate when such substantial sums were involved. He is entitled to ask a few pertinent questions, and even at this late hour he is entitled to a reply. The late hour is the Government's choosing, not ours, for the Government are in charge of the business. We are entitled to answers to our questions and the Government should provide them.

    I made no complaint about the questions and I answered each of them. I said that every order would be laid in draft and that the Bill does not alter the provisions for foreign borrowings. If the hon. and learned Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees) is asking about existing practice that is not affected by the Bill, I shall see that he gets a proper answer. But it would be out of order for me to deal with past practice under existing legislation on this Money Resolution.

    Question put and agreed to.