asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he is satisfied with arrangements to safeguard pensioners and others from disconnections.
Safeguards are contained in the Code of Practice on Payment of Domestic Electricity and Gas Bills adopted and published by the gas and electricity industries after consultation with the Government last December. I am hopeful that they will prove effective in helping genuine cases of hardship to avoid disconnection.
I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said and applaud the endeavours of his Department, but will he, nevertheless, attempt to increase information to the deserving cases who can be helped in the light of what he has said? I feel that this is of paramount importance. Will my hon. Friend give the matter his earliest attention so that the information can be disseminated as widely as possible?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The code sets out to draw attention to the easy payment and other methods by which people can be helped to overcome the difficulty of large quarterly bills. It is clearly advantageous to the fuel industry to know in advance whether people are likely to want help. People should not, therefore, wait until the last moment with a bill that is difficult to pay but should seek help and advice as quickly as possible. The Department will do all it can to ensure that the information is passed on to them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that while a code of practice is helpful it is sometimes difficult to apply? For instance, it is difficult to secure supplies of slot meters, although the code recommends that these should be made available in certain circumstances.
The code says that prepayment meters will be made available, where safe and practicable. If my hon. Friend has a particular case in mind, I ask him to refer it to me and I shall look at it. Decisions on the installation of prepayment meters must be for the industries themselves, since only they are in a position to assess whether they can be installed safely and practicably.
Can the Minister do a little more to help people in difficulties with insulation, particularly those in electrically-heated homes who are forced to pay bills which they cannot afford?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have set aside £25 million to help those who are in receipt of supplementary benefit and family income supplement with their electricity bills this winter. On the question of insulation, the Government have made it clear that local authorities in particular are encouraged to go ahead with the insulation of houses. We know that there is a large area in which progress can be made, and funds have been made available through the job creation programme to do that. We want to see local authorities getting on with the insulation of housing.
asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will meet the Chairman of the British Gas Corporation to discuss increased charges.
Since the Government's request to British Gas was announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 15th December, I have been in touch with the chairman about its consequences on several occasions. The proposed increases will come into effect from 1st April.
In view of the collaboration that was asked for and given by the trade union movement to the Government's economic policies over the last few years, does not my right hon. Friend think that this decision is a slap in the face to the movement for the sacrifices that have been made? Will he confirm that it suggests that prices in the public sector are likely to increase for some time ahead? Has he tried to justify this decision to a trade union audience?
I think that any increase in prices is regrettable, but my hon. Friend will know that this increase derived from the necessity to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement in connection with the IMF loan.
As the increase is due to debt repayment, why is it that the gas industry is the only corporation that is asked to repay any debt? The Post Office, after all, has also made quite a substantial profit.
I appreciate that. The reason for the increase I have just announced—and the House knows it anyway in the context of the energy industries—is that if the choice was between a reduction of investment in coal, gas, electricity or nuclear power and increases in the prices, the comparable figures show that electricity has increased in price by 119 per cent. in the last three years, coal and coke by 92 per cent. and gas by 57 per cent.
There are another six Questions on this subject, so we shall move on.
asked the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received to date from consumer associations or others following the announcement of a rise in gas prices.
asked the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received about his decision to authorise a 10 per cent. increase in gas prices.
My right hon. Friend has received about 500 representations from consumers and their representatives up to 25th March.
The arbitrary manner in which the Government have increased gas prices without proper consultation has rightly angered the consumer. Does the Minister agree that it must be in the longer-term interests of the consumer that gas prices should not be artificially lower than other energy prices, in view of the need for huge investment in the longer term to provide alternative energy sources?
I agree at least with the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question, but he will recall that the Government had to make a decision quickly to get the fuel industries out of the deficit into which they had been forced by the previous Administration. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) laughs, but it is true. The Government also decided, because of conservation measures, to move towards the economic pricing of fuels.Having said that, I go on to say that I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the long term. It is a fact that, even taking the 10 per cent. increase into account, the cost of gas is lower in real terms than it was five years ago.
As has already been said by our right hon. Friend, does my hon. Friend accept that, as this price increase was agreed as part of the IMF loan package last year, and as we now know that that package was based partly on inaccurate public sector borrowing requirement forecasting, the Secretary of State should take back to the Cabinet at least proposals for a proportionate decrease in this price increase which has caused outrage among many of our own working supporters?
I can only emphasise that the cost of gas in real terms is still lower than it was five years ago. But, of course, I recognise what my hon. Friend says, namely, that any increase in price at this time is bound to cause concern among people on low incomes. However, my answer to the point put to me about a reconsideration of the matter is that, as this comes under the decisions associated with the IMF loan, my hon. Friend should put his question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and not to me.
Surely the Minister is not being frank with the House. This has nothing to do with the IMF. Is it not because of fears about the price of gas versus electricity—15p per therm for the former and the equivalent of 60p per therm for electricity—that the Government had to raise the price of gas in order to bring about some parity with electricity, otherwise the latter industry would have been destroyed?
Absolutely not. The hon. Gentleman says that I am not being frank with the House. He knows as well as I do that the decision was announced as part of the measures in December of last year. No one can gainsay that as a fact. As for the situation vis-à-vis the electricity industry—and, for that matter, other industries—my right hon. Friend has already given the comparable figures in an earlier answer. I have nothing to add to what he said then.
If this increase was a requirement of our obtaining the IMF loan, was this requirement imposed by the IMF or was it offered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
The decision was part of a package of measures that were considered by the Government, agreed by the Cabinet and subsequently agreed between the Government and the International Monetary Fund.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As these Questions were really aimed at a Cabinet Minister and as a Cabinet Minister obviously has responsibility for replying, should not all the Questions on this matter have been put together so that the Secretary of State could answer them?
The grouping of Questions is for Ministers, not for me.
asked the Secretary of State for Energy what discussions or correspondence he has had with the Gas Corporation about the prospective increase in the price of gas.
asked the Secretary of State for Energy what recent discussions he has had with the Chairman of the British Gas Corporation about price and the effects of a price increase and their effect on domestic consumers.
I would refer the hon. Members to the answer I have just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Moonman).
Is it not most misleading for the Secretary of State to blame the increase in gas prices on the IMF? Is he not aware that there was no commitment in the infamous letter of 15th December to Dr. Witteveen to increase gas prices? Ought not the Secretary of State admit that he has issued a directive to the British Gas Corporation to put up the price of gas, which the British Gas Corporation itself did not want?
If the hon. Gentleman had heard my earlier answer, he would have heard exactly the words I used. This derived from the necessity to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement. There was no suggestion of blame directly; it was a part of the package which involved a reduction of the PSBR. What flowed from that was the necessity to raise the price.
Is the Secretary of State aware that this will hit consumers very hard indeed, particularly consumers with below-average incomes, above-average-size families, and the elderly and old-age pensioners? Will the Secretary of State undertake at least, in order to mitigate the effects of the increase from 1st April, to authorise one of his senior officials to keep permanently in touch with DHSS Ministers lest there be any problems arising for consumers on below-average incomes who do not qualify for supplementary benefit?
I appreciate that, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the arrangements already exist for that and are not affected by the increase. I would say to Opposition Members who demanded very much larger cuts in public expenditure that, had they been implemented, the impact on poorer people would have been much greater.
In view of the fact that I requested my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection to ask the Cabinet to reconsider this matter, will my right hon. Friend indicate whether he has been back to the Cabinet and what decision it took on the matter, because there is a strong feeling that even now that decision should be reconsidered so that there is not an increase that can put additional burdens on those who cannot afford them?
Perhaps I may remind my hon. Friend that I answered Question No. 2 myself. He knows that these are Cabinet decisions.
What is the point of having meetings with the Chairman of the British Gas Corporation if the Secretary of State takes decisions, such as increasing the price of gas, without consulting the Corporation in the first place, and then volunteers it himself, independent of the Cabinet, as a potential saving? What is the point of a Price Code if it can be avoided unilaterally by one nationalised industry?
Perhaps I may take the two points separately. It was not an energy policy decision, because the House knows that there has been a demand for a tax on gas from the other industries for a long time.
I said there had been a demand and that it was not an energy policy decision. I think the hon. Gentleman will know that on budgetary matters—and the IMF package was thus regarded—preconsultation is not possible.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) that it was not for you to decide how Questions were dealt with. However, we have had an extra-ordinary procedure this afternoon of a sort that I have not seen before in that the grouping of Questions has been taken in three goes. If you, Mr. Speaker, are unable to give a judgment on this—I respect your position—is this a matter that we must take up in another place? What has happened this afternoon is extremely odd.
The hon. Gentleman knows the sort of places where he should pursue that matter, but it is not with me.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to give notice that, in view of the totally unsatisfactory nature of the replies, I should like to raise the matter on the Adjournment.
asked the Secretary of State for Energy what estimate he makes of the proportion of United Kingdom electricity requirements which could be met from the conversion of energy from sea waves.
The eventual estimate of exploitation will depend on the success of the national research and development programme and the relative economics of wave energy.
Is not the potential from wave energy very much larger than the potential from other sources of renewable energy, such as tide energy? As this could reduce our dependence nationally upon oil, coal and nuclear energy, how soon can energy from waves be produced, and can the Minister say what the cost would be?
On the last two parts of the question, I am afraid that I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman how soon, because this is experimental. With regard to cost, so far as we know it will certainly be expensive, but as we are still in the experimental period that may not in itself be the decisive factor. With regard to the first part of the question, wave energy certainly looks like a good bet compared with alternative sources of energy, although they are all important. We are still carrying on our studies, and we hope to report to the House as progress is made.
As regards tidal energy, is it not time that we had a reappraisal of the Severn Barrage scheme, particularly its viability in the 1990s, when oil resources will be reduced?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend that we should look at aspects of tidal energy. My right hon. Friend is considering the matter urgently and will make a statement to the House about it.
asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he is satisfied with his Department's approach toward the encouragement of benign and renewable sources of energy, especially solar energy.
Yes, Sir. The research and development programmes announced and planned by my Department are commensurate with the present early stage in the development of these technologies.
How can the hon. Gentleman be satisfied about his Department's efforts when, in the Press release on the new policy which was put out recently, no mention was made of the export potential of solar energy? Surely this is one of the matters that the Department of Energy should be considering as a good export earner for Britain.
This is a comparatively new technology. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there certainly could be export potential here. If he looks at the Press release to which he referred, he will see that we have increased the sums to be spent on research into solar energy. I do not dismiss what the hon. Gentleman has said.
Does the Minister accept that the best guess—it is nothing more—is that by the end of the century benign sources could account for as much as 10 per cent. of our energy needs? Does he accept that the amount currently spent on research on these sources is so small as to be insignificant compared with that spent on nuclear energy?
The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is that his figures are about right. Figures varying from 6 per cent. to 8 per cent. and 10 per cent. have been mentioned by about the year 2000. As for the allocation of finance to alternative sources of energy, as much is being spent as needs to be spent at the present time, because the whole technology is to some extent in its infancy. Of course, as the technology improves the Department will consider allocating more finance to alternative sources of energy.
Coal Production Targets
asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he expects the targets for productivity set out in "Plan for Coal" to be achieved.
asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he expects the targets for productivity set out in "Plan for Coal" to be achieved.
We can expect productivity to improve as the investment programme comes to fruition.
Does the Minister appreciate that the energy policy review indicates that by 1985 the target might fall short of requirements by 10 million tons? Is he also aware that the Tom Boardman settlement remains to be implemented by the miners' union and that if it were implemented he might be able to reach his target? Will he look into these matters?
We are debating these issues in the Standing Committee considering the Coal Industry Bill, and the hon. Gentleman has posed these questions there. As for the agreement on productivity with the miners' union, the hon. Gentleman knows—indeed, I have answered Questions about this—that a working party comprising the National Coal Board and the unions is looking at the question of productivity and incentives.As for progress with new investment, the hon. Gentleman is aware, of course, that Royston has come into production. The outlook is good—three times as much as the national average—so the new investment is beginning to pay off.
At the inauguration of the Selby coal complex, the President of the National Union of Mineworkers expressed concern about the performance of machinery underground. Can the Under-Secretary tell us whether he is satisfied that this lack of performance is sufficient to hold back the output per man-shift in the industry?
One can never be satisfied with the performance of machinery. Certainly there have been instances where one could expect a better performance from machinery. As the hon. Gentleman realises, however, sometimes this is in itself related to the techniques of mining, and if one could indulge in more retreat mining one could probably have better progress from mining machinery. No one is complacent about this, of course, and it is something to which we shall be addressing ourselves. Certainly the performance of machinery compared with other parts of the world is satisfactory, but we are not complacent about it.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that in the European coalfields, including West Germany, productivity has fallen during the past several years? Will he also agree that productivity is closely allied to mechanisation and geological conditions? Will he also confirm that after 1966, when the productivity system in the pits was abolished, there was one of the greatest spurts in productivity in British coalfields, from one end to the other?
My hon. Friend has put three questions. Yes, there have been disappointing performances in relation to productivity. Yes, the whole of the world is looking at the possibility of trying to increase productivity. On the third question, about the boost that we received in relation to productivity, I believe my hon. Friend will agree that that was as a result of the power supports coming more and more into being. Indeed, what we really had at that particular time was a new technological breakthrough.There is much discussion going on in the industry about whether we are on the verge of another technological breakthrough, but I do not think we can expect the same increases as those we expected in the 1960s, because that really was a massive technological breakthrough in productivity and mechanisation.
Does not the Minister understand that there is wide public concern that, leaving aside the question of improved productivity from miners, after what is already a very substantial investment programme, so far from there being an increase in output, output this year will fall against last year and his Department's own forecast is that output next year will be even lower than this year? One must ask exactly what is happening to the capital investment and the benefits that should flow from it.
The hon. Gentleman may say that there is a great deal of public concern. But there is no complacency in the Department of Energy, nor is there complacency amongst the miners. I explained earlier that the question of incentive and productivity had been occupying jointly the minds of the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers.
There is more to it.
Yes, there is more to it. For example, the stockpiling of coal may have had some effect on the morale of miners. The question of certain types of manpower in relation to development work in the mines may have had an effect on the morale of miners.I can back up with facts what I am trying to say to the hon. Gentleman. Where new investment has come into-being, such as at Royston, there have been substantial increases in productivity. As more and more of this new investment comes into being, we will get successes. The Government are trying to do in 10 years what should have been done in 25 years in the mining industry, and I wish that the Opposition would bear this in mind. The industry was starved of investment, and this Government are now putting investment into it.
National Coal Board
asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the Chairman of the National Coal Board.
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.
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.
Electricity Generation (Coal Supply)
asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he next expects to meet the Chairman of the National Coal Board to discuss coal-burn agreements for the generation of electricity.
My right hon. Friend and I meet the Chairman of the Coal Board regularly. When we next meet him we shall wish to discuss the arrangements to implement the Government's decision to make £7 million a year available to enable the National Coal Board and the South of Scotland Electricity Board to conclude a five-year coal supply agreement.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Scottish miners are very grateful to him for his part in negotiating the Government assistance of £35 million over five years to enable the South of Scotland Electricity Board to burn coal in its power stations? Will he ask the NCB to ensure that some of this money is used to benefit collieries such as those in the Longannet project and also Polmaise, in my constituency?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind comments. I think he will agree that the fact that the National Coal Board is about to conclude the agreement will be of advantage not only to people in the Longannet and the Polmaise area but to the whole of the mining industry in Scotland. With the market and the long-term five-year contract, it will mean that the National Coal Board will be able to carry out the new investment and the new sinkings which Scotland requires.
Will the Minister accept my thanks about that investment? Will he also say what kind of consultations his Department and the National Coal Board have with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, as the Secretary of State for Scotland is responsible for the electricity industry in Scotland?
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments, but I ask him to recall that the £35 million, for example, was the result of a joint working party chaired by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. Maximum consultation took place between the office of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Department of Energy. Consultation is taking place all the time, largely because, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has responsibility for the South of Scotland Electricity Board.
Does not my hon. Friend agree that with questions of this importance it is necessary to have discussions not only with the Chairman of the National Coal Board but with the chairmen of the generating boards and with the unions in mining and electricity supply?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, but when I answered the previous question I pointed out that the decision arose largely from the recommendations of a working party. All the generating unions were involved in that working party and they all said that there must be a commitment to coal in Scotland.
Will the Minister tell us under what statutory powers he is sanctioning the £35 million?
The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Standing Committee on the Coal Industry Bill. If he studies the legislation about to be passed through the House, he will find that under Clause 2 the statutory authority will be given to my right hon. Friend to earmark this capital sum.
Gas And Electricity Industries
asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he has any plans to meet the Chairmen of the British Gas Corporation and the Electricity Council, respectively.
I meet the chairmen as and when the occasion requires but have no immediate plans to do so.
Last time the Secretary of State met the Chairman of the Gas Corporation, did he not find that gentleman rather resentful of the fact that the prices of the product of his industry were to be increased as a result of Government policy while the prices of other fuels produced by nationalised industries were to remain static? Will the Secretary of State tell us, even now, why that distinction should have been made when the Government were forced to cut back on their expenditure?
I have answered that question several times today, but I will deal with it again. Given the requirement to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement, given the necessity to require a contribution from the nationalised industries to that end, and, in the energy field, given the choice between cutting investment, which would mean cutting back on the future or increasing prices, and making a change in the differential in prices for electricity, coal and coke, the Government decided that it would be right to require a contribution from the gas industry. The Chairman of the Gas Corporation did not particularly like it—that is obvious—but at the same time the capacity to finance more of the investment himself by increasing prices provided him with some security.
As my right hon. Friend has said, the public sector borrowing requirement is really a Treasury decision. We are expecting a statement from the Chancellor tomorrow. As the public sector borrowing requirement has improved greatly in recent months, could my right hon. Friend ask the Chancellor to look at the matter again and make a statement tomorrow on gas price increases?
I never thought that I should have to say that I cannot anticipate my right hon. Friend's Budget Statement, but I am dealing with a Question about gas prices falling directly within my responsibility.
As a Cabinet Minister, will the Secretary of State say why, if the public sector borrowing requirement is the object of the exercise, it was not applied to public corporations outside the energy industries? Secondly, in view of the great importance of these Questions and of some of the things said by Ministers today, may we be assured that all these views have been cleared with the Liberal Party? Does that explain the total absence of the Liberals from the Chamber during this important Question Time?
I am not responsible for the absence of the Liberal Party from the Chamber—at least, I assume that I am not responsible. But the hon. Gentleman must recognise—his memory will not be that short—that his colleagues have been demanding much more savage cuts in public expenditure, which would have hit people much more harshly. Cabinets have to make a judgment between alternative ways of reducing the public sector borrowing requirement.
Does not my right hon. Friend agree that different aspects of Government economic strategy contradict each other? Does he not accept that the increase in gas prices will stimulate inflation? How does he reconcile those two considerations?
I think it was right, and I hope that my hon. Friend thinks it was right, to safeguard investment and jobs. After all, one possible reduction in the PSBR might have come from cuts in, say, coal investment or might have affected the possibility of building Drax B power station. My hon. Friend will also recognise that the Gas Corporation, which has an indebtedness of £2·2 billion in this sense, hopes to finance more of it directly.
Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm the widely-circulated report that it was he himself who in Cabinet volunteered the idea of the increase?
Industrial Democracy (Coal Industry)
asked the Secretary of State for Energy what progress has been made in the discussions, referred to in his answer to the hon. Member for Consett on 2nd February, between the mining unions and the National Coal Board on industrial democracy.
I understand that the Board has put proposals to the mining unions for colliery policy committees at each pit. The unions and the Board have had detailed and fruitful discussions on the constitution and responsibilities of these committees, which are continuing.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Does he agree that the best way forward might be through the application of common ownership principles of management in the coal industry? Irrespective of whether he agrees with that view, will he draw it to the attention of the Board and of the unions?
I know what my hon. Friend is saying, but common ownership of the mining industry in a sense was achieved in 1946. What is now being considered is the possibility of committees at each pit, presided over by the manager, at which the unions—the colliery managers, NACODS and the NUM—would be represented. I strongly believe—and I think my hon. Friend accepts—that industrial democracy has to grow out of the experience and desires of those concerned.
Will the arrangement be on the lines of the majority Bullock Report? If so, will it be discussed with the Shadow Liberal Minister?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have not reached their final conclusion about the handling of the Bullock recommendations. In any case, industrial democracy in the public sector was being looked at in parallel with that. Since I have been Secretary of State, I have been engaged in the development of greater mechanisms of industrial democracy that do not require legislation.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are varying opinions about what should happen in industrial democracy? No matter what we believe, it is vital to have the good will of the trade union movement and of management to ensure that industrial democracy works. If the trade union movement does not agree wholeheartedly, proposals for industrial democracy cannot succeed.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.
If, as the Minister has said, common ownership of the coal industry was established in 1946, how is it that in the past 30 years no member of the public has had the slightest effect on the price of the product they are forced to buy?
There is an old phrase that the hon. and learned Gentleman may remember—there is not blood on the coal as there was in the years of private ownership.
Industrial Relations (Nuclear Power Industry)
asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he is satisfied that the recommendations of the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy will provide the best available method of improving industrial relations in the nuclear power industry; and if he will make a statement.
I have no doubt that the extension of industrial democracy will make a major contributon to improved industrial relations in all industries, including the nuclear industry. The Government are at present considering how to effect this extension in the various industrial and other sectors following publication of the Bullock Report.
Will the Secretary of State consider in the meantime having an urgent meeting with the Chairman of British Nuclear Fuels Limited to consider the lengthy dispute which took place recently at Windscale, bearing in mind the excellent joint council arrangements existing there and, in particular, special arrangements in connection with safety? An embarrassing situation has developed which I should have thought required urgent action.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter. I took the opportunity of having discussions with the chairman, the managing director and others, and there is no doubt whatever that here are some deep-seated problems which are on the agenda to correct. More generally, I am anxious to encourage discussions leading to greater industrial democracy, and I have told all the fuel industries of that intention.
Will my right hon. Friend tell his right hon. Friends in the Cabinet, when the Bullock Report and industrial democracy are discussed, that it is much better to discuss bullocks with "Heffers" than to discuss them with the Liberal Party?
European Community Development Ministers
asked the Minister for Overseas Development what recent consultations she has had with the Development Ministers of other member States of the European Economic Community.
Mr. Jan Pronk, Netherlands Minister for Development Co-operation, and I have had discussions in London. Last week I met Ministers from the other Community member States at the Council of Development Ministers in Brussels. I shall have discussions with my Italian colleague this week in Rome. I hope soon to accept an invitation to meet my French colleague in Paris.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Can she tell the House anything of the discussion in the Development Council about the pros and cons of various means of assistance by the EEC to the Third World, particularly the pros and cons of the STABEX scheme and other alternatives such as the Common Fund, which, I believe, was discussed at the Council of Ministers yesterday?
On the two latter points, the House will await with interest the statement of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in a few minutes. I can tell my hon. Friend that we made a certain amount of progress. For example, we agreed the criteria for the distribution of food aid, although there are more matters to be resolved there. On disaster relief, we took a further step forward on co-ordination and agreed that on a case-by-case basis we could cover both man-made and natural disasters. We made what I regarded as a significant degree of progress on aid to non-associated countries, but we have to return to that matter at the next Development Council.
Has the Minister—or her predecessor, bearing in mind that she has only fairly recently resumed office—taken any initiative regarding the proposals for the development of a fund for commodity stabilisation? Or has her Department, as I fear, merely hidden behind West Germany and the United States, following whichever way they led?
The hon. Gentleman would be wrong to suppose that. My Ministry is deeply concerned and involved in the interdepartmental discussions on these and other matters which affect the North-South dialogue and the current discussions in Geneva. I think that the hon. Gentleman will have observed that there has been an agreed Community position, particularly on the Common Fund, which took us a good way forward from Nairobi last April. But there may be something of interest in the statement of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
asked the Minister of Overseas Development when she now expects the Fay Committee dealing with the Crown Agents to make its report.
The committee is concerned to complete its investigation as soon as possible and hopes to report by the autumn, if not earlier.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Crown Agents, creditors in the ill-fated Stern empire as they had investments there, ought to be receiving the greatest possible return on the investments in the Stern empire that are currently being sold off? To that end, will she instruct the receivers, W. H. Cork Gully & Co., to ensure that there are no more private deals in the sell-off of the Stern properties, as was the recent case with the South Lodge block at St. John's Wood? Will she also ensure that residents in such blocks have proper representation when those blocks come up for sale?
I shall certainly look very carefully into the last point that my hon. Friend has made. I do not have the detail on that, I must confess. The Crown Agents, as I think my hon. Friend knows, have loans of £40 million outstanding to the Stern Group. What has happened so far is that, along with other creditors, the Crown Agents have agreed that the company should be run down under an arranged scheme.
It is a fiddle.
As my hon. Friend would expect, as soon as I returned to the Ministry I made it my business to look very closely into exactly what was happening in this matter. There is not a fiddle. I can assure him of that. Indeed, the agreement that has been reached would not preclude the Crown Agents from taking bankruptcy proceedings, should it be necessary, if that were thought to serve the best interests of the Crown Agents and the country. That is not precluded.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the Crown Agents are a unique organisation which is the envy of the world? Will she ensure that the value of the Crown Agents is recognised and that the baby is not thrown out with the bath water in which her hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is stirring up mud?
My hon. Friend has a good deal of grounds for the questions he is putting. But I can only repeat what I have said on past occasions a number of times from this Dispatch Box: that the Crown Agents have a great record of service in the developing countries and perform an extremely useful service here and overseas. In the past there have been all the matters which are now the subject of the Fay inquiry. To the extent that the Fay Committee has not already reported and may take until the autumn, I am absolutely convinced that that is because the investigation is thorough and that the whole of the truth will come out when the inquiry is published.
asked the Minister of Overseas Development what plans she has to assist the education of overseas students from underdeveloped countries.
asked the Minister of Overseas Development what steps she is taking to ensure that the number of students from developing countries is not greatly reduced by the increase in tuition fees announced for the academic year 1977–78.
My right hon. Friend will continue to pay the tuition fees of students who come to this country under our technical co-operation programmes. On 29th November her predecessor announced that we would make a substantial contribution towards the increase in fees for some 600 other students from developing countries who, having already enrolled for courses starting in the academic year 1977–78, would otherwise suffer hardship.
As education is one of the most valuable aids that we can give to underdeveloped countries, will my hon. Friend take into account the unfairness of the fact that overseas students have to pay additional tuition fees in order to study here? Will he also consider the possibility of using some of his Department's budget in order to encourage some overseas students to come here and to take up some of the vacant places which exist in colleges of education in Scotland and elsewhere?
We certainly bear all those points in mind, but we should also remember that our primary objective continues to be to assist the poorer countries to build up and use their own institutions for education and training. While advance training in the United Kingdom in disciplines of developmental relevance is important, we must not in any way lose sight of the main objective of trying to achieve greater self-sufficiency in education provision in the developing countries themselves.
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that the schemes which he has indicated, although welcome, affect predominantly only students already on courses? What about the deterrent effects of such high fees upon Third World countries and their Governments in sending students here? What will be done about that problem?
We obviously bear in mind all the serious repercussions of the decisions which have been made. I remind the House, however, that in the year 1975–76 some 8,000 overseas students were brought to the United Kingdom at a cost of some £12 million to the aid budget. No one would suggest that that is an insignificant contribution in terms of education and serving the educational needs of developing countries.
Is the Minister aware that concern on this matter is not confined to one side of the House? Will he undertake to be in touch with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to emphasise the fact that many Members are profoundly concerned about the future of the overseas student programme and wish to see it maintained?
I readily recognise that concern on this matter extends to all parts of the House. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Overseas Development is having discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science on the matters which he raised.
Is the Minister aware that many people in universities and elsewhere are gravely concerned about the present position? Has he made any estimate of the likely decline in the number of overseas students which may result from the Government's present policy?
I am aware of the grave concern which is felt. The question of an estimate of the decline is not a matter primarily for the Ministry of Overseas Development. Rather it is one for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. But I must remind the House that all kinds of unpalatable consequences stem from the restraints on public expenditure which the House has had to recognise over the past two or three years.
Would my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important ways in which we can help education vis-à-vis the underdeveloped countries is in the teaching of the English language, which for many people in those countries will be the main route to modern science and technology? Has his Ministry taken steps in the past year or so, since unsatisfactory answers were given to me, to speed up and to step up the programme of English language teaching in under-developed countries?
This is obviously a very important area of education policy in relation to developing countries. It does not stem directly from this Question, because the matter of English language teaching is related to the question of teaching people in the overseas countries themselves rather than to the problem of bringing students here. As I said earlier, our primary objective continues to be to assist the poorer countries to build up and use their own resources. In pursuit of that objective, the teaching of the English language in the developing countries is an important part of their programmes.
Developing Countries (Aid)
asked the Minister of Overseas Development what plans she has for increasing public understanding in the United Kingdom of the need to provide more aid more effectively for the benefit of developing countries.
We shall continue our programme of publications, films and assistance to development education projects and programmes carried out by voluntary organisations. I hope to persuade the public that an enlightened self-interest lies in assisting the Third World.
In seeking to do that, is the Minister aware that many of the Opposition would find it far easier to support the strong moral, trading and strategic arguments for continuing and increasing the aid budget if the Government for their part set their face against giving aid to so-called liberation movements—aid which often goes into the procurement of arms?
If the hon. Member has particular problems in relation to any aspect of the aid budget, I shall be happy to look at them, as will my right hon. Friend, if he writes to us. I am sure that the vast majority of hon. Members would agree that, in terms of cost effectiveness, the limited aid budget of this country is very well spent.
Will my hon. Friend disregard that sort of criticism from the Opposition side of the House but worry rather more that the principal difficulty about aid in the past has been that too much of it has not benefited the developing countries but has simply poured money back into the system of the countries which purport to give the aid? Will he include an understanding of the need genuinely to benefit the poor in the developing countries as one of the points in his education programme?
I am sure that the whole House will support the general direction of the new aid White Paper, which is to make sure that British aid is directed to helping the poorest people in the poorest countries. Of course, I shall not ignore any comment that is made in the House, but, as I said in reply to an earlier question, if hon. Members are concerned about any particular aspect of any sector of expenditure they should take it up with us and we shall certainly look at it. The general principle is that the whole aid programme is directed towards the poorest people in the poorest countries.
asked the Minister of Overseas Development whether she has received a request to meet Paraguayan Government officials now in London.
Should my right hon. Friend be asked to meet the Paraguayan Minister of Agriculture, who is presently in this country, will she make it clear to him that British aid to Paraguay cannot be extended except on an equal basis not merely for the Government but also for local co-operatives in that country? Will she also convey to him the detestation we have here of the present level of political repression under the Stroessner dictatorship?
Having made some inquiries following my hon. Friend's Question, I understand that Senor Bertoni is leaving today. The small technical co-operation programme which we have in Paraguay amounts to about £140,000 and is concentrated almost exclusively on help to small cultivators and livestock farmers. I certainly take my hon. Friend's point and shall bear it very much in mind.