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Clause 10

Volume 933: debated on Friday 24 June 1977

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Activities Relating To Minerals Other Than Coal Or Petroleum

1.15 p.m.

I beg to move Amendment No. 8, in page 8, line 12, at end insert—

'Provided that the power to work and get minerals under this subsection shall not be exercised by means of opencast operations otherwise than in association with working and getting coal.'

With this we are taking Amendment No. 9, in page 8, line 21, at end insert:

'and the Opencast Coal Act 1958'.

These amendments seek to make a very small but important adjustment to Clause 10. It is intended to ensure that the bulk mineral extractive industry-which, as we pointed out in Committee, facing severe over-capacity difficulties-will not be further threatened by an extension of the powers of a State monopoly coal industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) illustrated these difficulties in the previous debate.

Despite strong and overwhelming evidence presented by the trade associations, it is very disappointing that the proposed power has been given to the National Coal Board by the clause. This will seriously damage job prospects and investment in about 250 companies which supply minerals, aggregates and materials for our building construction industry. Despite the case advanced in Committee, the Government refused to make the smallest concession and we had to vote against the whole clause.

I am pleased to say that since then the Under-Secretary has initiated meetings at Hobart House between the trade associations, the National Coal Board and the Department of Energy. The fact of the industry representatives having been given this opportunity shows that the Under-Secretary has at least recognised the validities of the fears they expressed. Unfortunately, however, as is usually the case, he has yet to do something about it. These amendments result from the meetings between the trade associations, the Coal Board and the Department of Energy. They are not intended to curtail the opportunities of the Coal Board for the exploitation of minerals discovered during the working for coal.

The letter to the Under-Secretary of State of 10th June from the British Quarrying and Slag Federation and the Sand and Gravel Association proves the readiness of the industry to meet the requirements of the National Coal Board on minerals related to coal extraction. In that letter Mr. Cleal, the assistant secretary general, said
"Within the private sector, capacity is more than adequate to deal with all foreseeable demand and no question of the national interest can arise. However, we accept that there may be a case for powers to exploit rarer and more valuable minerals accessible by mining, as was mentioned by you, in Committee. We also believe it is reasonable that the Board should be able to exploit any minerals which can be worked in association with the winning of coal.
We are aware of the Board's existing powers to exploit other minerals in certain land already vested in the Board and also of the wish to develop resources that might otherwise not be worked. In this regard we understand from our conversations that the Board's concern arose not in connection with the bulk minerals but with anhydride and copper. Set against this background we were surprised and disappointed to find a general unwillingness to consider any compromise."
We have argued and lost the debate over commerciality for Clauses 9 and 10. Now we are asking for a small concession on opencast mineral mining. The bulk minerals industry is not convinced that it will be protected by the intentions of the National Coal Board to make no substantial venture into any competitive and possibly unprofitable field.

The words in Clause 10 contain no protection, although the quarrying industry maintains that this can be done without denying the Board its main objective. Powers are being given in the clause for a wide breadth of new activities totally dissociated from the actual mining of coal. Ready-mixed concrete and coated road surfacings are two examples.

Clause 9 does not go as far in its petroleum powers. In Committee I explained in detail the worries and fears of the mineral extractive industry. Over the years a good and successful working relationship has been built up between these firms and the Board. Now, the failure to write into the clause some essential safeguards for an industry which has suffered a 30 per cent. drop in capacity and a 20 per cent. drop in employment because of the recession in building and construction represents a grave threat to existing jobs and investment. It threatens the relationship which has existed between the Board and the private extractive firms.

The Chairman of the Amey Roadstone Corporation Limited said on 15th April:
"The entry of the NCB into this industry, adding product into an already over-supplied situation, could cause commercial chaos, particularly as the NCB would be operating without the financial constraints and requirements of private enterprise and the efficiency and skills that have been created over the post-war years in surface extraction as opposed to underground extraction."
Our amendments then sought to limit NCB mineral extraction activities to minerals discovered in the process of winning coal, not during searches for coal. The Committee did not vote on those amendments, which were of a probing nature. I hope that the small alteration proposed in these amendments, which would prevent wholesale opencast mineral mining, will be accepted by the Government.

The amendment is prompted by the fears which have been expressed by the bulk mineral industry. At its request I met representatives of the Sand and Gravel Association and the British Quarrying and Slag Federation. That meeting gave me at first hand the reasons for their concern.

I can understand that because of the decline of business in the construction industry they are apprehensive about the possible entry of the NCB into the bulk surface mineral industry. I understand that the Board has no plans at present to use the powers in Clause 10 in that way. I therefore advised the two organisations to discuss their worries with the NCB. They had not had a formal contact with the NCB, so I arranged a meeting between the two sides.

I understand that the Board confirmed that it had no present plans to expand into the aggregates business and that it was extremely unlikely that the powers in Clause 10 would be used in this way to any significant extent. However, the Board said that it does not wish to be precluded from using the powers if circumstances were right.

The Sand and Gravel Association has written to me to say that, despite the assurances given by the Board, its members remain concerned. They suggest that the uncertainty about the scope of future NCB activities would seriously affect confidence in the industry and affect investment and employment in it.

It is strange that the Sand and Gravel Association and the British Quarrying and Slag Federation should continue to have misgivings after they have been assured that the Board has no present plans for expanding into the bulk mineral business and that it is extremely unlikely that the powers under Clause 10 would be used to a significant extent. It would be better to take these assurances at face value. The NCB is a responsible body and would not lightly give such assurances.

I do not believe that confidence in the industry will be diminished merely because the NCB may wish to use the powers to work surface minerals in individual cases. I fail to understand the worries of the industry. Just as the Nationalisation Act legislated for the long term, so also does this measure. We are legislating for an indefinite period ahead to a time when demand for bulk minerals will perhaps be revived and when it might be commercially justifiable and in the national interest for the NCB to engage in such extraction on a bigger scale. It is sensible that power to work other minerals found in the course of searching or working for coal should not be hedged around with restrictions.

I do not believe that the bulk minerals industry is justified in continuing to have misgivings about Clause 10. However, since receiving the letter which the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) quoted, I have had further consultation with the NCB. I hope that the House will consider it helpful if I say that the Board has agreed that if, during the five years following the enactment of the Bill, it plans, using the powers under Clause 10, to embark on a project for extraction of bulk minerals by opencast operations other than in association with the working and getting of coal, it will notify the association and the federation of its intentions so that discussions can take place. I hope that hon. Members will be reassured by this and that the amendment will be withdrawn.

I am grateful to the Minister for taking the initiative and arranging the meeting. It is a step towards satisfying the fears of the extractive mineral industries. In view of his statement, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.