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National Coal Board

Volume 929: debated on Monday 28 March 1977

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10.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the Chairman of the National Coal Board.

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he last had discussions with the Chairman of the National Coal Board on the future of the coal mining industry.

19.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when next he intends to meet the Chairman of the National Coal Board.

I have regular meetings with the Chairman of the National Coal Board and last met him on 22nd February.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we are encouraged that he has seen the Chairman of the National Coal Board within the past four or five weeks? Will he now seek another meeting with Sir Derek Ezra and convey to him some of the deep anxiety felt on both sides of the House of Commons about the continuing decline in productivity and the number of miners leaving the industry? Does not the Secretary of State genuinely consider that this continuing decline in coal productivity for the third year running could produce a whole series of long-range energy problems for the United Kingdom?

I think that the whole House understands the importance of productivity, but I take the view strongly that exhortations to the miners on productivity from Ministers, the Opposition Front Bench or Back Benchers are not effective. I have, therefore, never made a speech urging higher productivity, because the work in the pits has to be undertaken by those who work in them and know them best.

When next he meets the Chairman of the National Coal Board, will my right hon. Friend discuss with him the granting of a few more million pounds for claims for damages under the pneumoconiosis scheme? Is not my right hon. Friend aware that many widows and others, because of certain anomalies, have been harshly and unfairly dealt with because of lack of money?

Will my right hon. Friend also discuss Drax B power station with the Chairman of the National Coal Board? Why are we holding back on the building of Drax B? Are we waiting until the Selby coalfield comes on stream? I ask my right hon. Friend not to forget that we have a stockpile of coal that could be used for power stations.

My hon. Friend knows as well as I do the contribution that the Government have made both on miners' pensions and on the pneumoconiosis scheme. My hon. Friend also knows the position on Drax B, which has not changed since I last made a statement on that subject in the House. But we have tripartite meetings at which Ministers, including Treasury Ministers, the management and unions in the coal industry discuss all the matters that he raises. I hope that my hon. Friend will not overlook the substantial arrangement on earlier retirement, which the NUM itself puts as its top priority.

Will my right hon. Friend also tell the chairman that after 30 years of nationalisation retired miners and widows of retired miners still do not have enough fuel to keep them going through the whole year, especially in wintertime? Is he aware that the coal that is provided is provided out of the concessionary coal of those working, and that it is high time that the National Coal Board made a substantial contribution to the coal pool scheme in order that retired miners and their widows can have sufficient coal throughout the year, to ensure that they receive not less than five tons per annum and so that the NUM's current haggling over this scheme can be ended very quickly?

Matters of this kind are raised by the NUM first with the NCB and then at the tripartite meeting. I think it better that I should continue to preside where these matters arise and leave it to that machinery for consultation.

The Secretary of State says that he has made no appeal for higher productivity to the miners. Will he say who he thinks should do that, since the mines are now publicly owned and there are no shareholders? Is he aware of the very serious consequence of low productivity and all kinds of absenteeism in the mines? Finally, will he bear in mind that we were told that when the mines were nationalised there would be a complete change of attitude on the part of the miners? What has happened?

The hon. and learned Gentleman will recall that I began my answer by saying that everybody in the House recognised the importance of productivity, but, to be effective, it must be sponsored and stimulated from within the industry. I hope he will not think me offensive if I say that advice on how to handle the mining industry from his side of the House has not been altogether successful over the last few years.

Will my right hon. Friend please explain to Opposition Members that productivity in the pits is not something which can be obtained by simply making flowery speeches or turning taps on and off? A thousand and one things govern productivity in the mines. Will my right hon. Friend also point out that over the last few weeks productivity and global output in the Barnsley area have gone up tremendously?

My hon. Friend knows much better than I what the factors are, but any Member of this House who is not acquainted as closely as he is with the mining industry will know from visiting a pit that, among other things, the geological factors may make an absolutely dramatic difference to productivity. One cannot work one's way on overtime through a major geological fault.

Will the Secretary of State address himself to the question that his hon. Friend failed to answer? Accepting that exhortations from either side may not be particularly effective, there is still an area for which the right hon. Gentleman has direct responsibility, which is the effectiveness of the capital investment going into the industry. Is he satisfied that, in the light of the very substantial public investment going in, the output which is being generated as a result is satisfactory?

I absolutely agree with what the hon. Member says: that with a very heavy capital programme the House is entitled to be satisfied that the capital investment is producing the returns which it was intended to produce. Of course, the equipment is utilised by the people who work in the industry, and I would take very seriously indeed criticism of the capital equipment from those who are required to use it. But, apart from the one reference that the hon. Gentleman quoted, made by Joe Gormley at the Selby opening, it has not been represented to me that the capital investment is failing to achieve, in general, what it was intended to achieve.