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Coal Industry(Pit Closures)

Volume 959: debated on Monday 4 December 1978

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4.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what powers he has to delay or to prevent the closure of coal mines in areas of high unemployment.

30.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what action is proposed on threatened coal pit closures in South Wales.

The closure of collieries has been traditionally a matter for the National Coal Board after full consultation with the unions under the colliery review procedure. As I announced in a parliamentary answer on 8th May, I have suggested that closures should be mutually agreed between the National Coal Board and the unions, and some discussion on this proposal has taken place.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that at Telford New Town in my constituency, where the closure of the Granville colliery has been proposed, unemployment is running already at nearly 10 per cent. and that 392 further job losses have been announced in recent weeks? If the Granville colliery closes, the situation will be very serious indeed. What measures can he take to prevent or delay that?

I am aware of that case. I have had some informal discussions with my hon. Friend about it. The right course is that it should be done under the colliery review procedure agreement between the National Coal Board and the NUM. There are circumstances—this has happened in the past—in which the NUM may bring a case to me. It was rather in that context that I made my proposal.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the NCB is now producing the cheapest coal in the EEC? As the coal industry in Britain has been subsidised to a lesser extent than has the industry in any other EEC country, will he consider suggesting, in discussions with the NCB, that we should subsidise coal to ensure that those pits where there are known coal reserves, such as the Deep Duffryn colliery in my constituency, are kept open to get the coal to the surface?

On the wider question of the future of the British coal mining industry, as I have said before, our subsidies to the mining industry in 1977 amounted to£75 million, while subsidies in Germany amounted to£2,788 million in a single year. According to figures published by the Commission, our coal costs £22 a ton to mine, German and French coal costs £38 a ton to mine and Belgian coal costs £52 a ton. It would be absurd, with coal playing such an important role in the future of this country's industrial activity, if we were not to maintain the mining industry while the investment programme goes through, so that we can take advantage of it. That is why we have gone for the coalburn scheme. I think that there is a growing body of opinion all over the world that coal will be one of the key bases for industrial development when oil and gas run out.

When can we expect the long-awaited decision in respect of the closure of Teversal colliery in North Nottinghamshire?

I am reluctant to engage in the House in discussion of individual pits, for the reason that I have given, namely, that there is a proper procedure and that where necessary the NUM can come to me and I can raise the matter with the NCB. So perhaps the hon. Gentleman will excuse me from that. But the general arguments that I have just given about the need for the mining industry to develop its resources and utilise the skill of its people are, in my judgment, unanswerable. I have never found the NUM in any way unreasonable where closures are necessary because of exhaustion or because pits are out of line in economic terms.

Will the Minister confirm that all this talk about glowing optimism for the coal industry needs to be backed up by selling coal? Currently there are more than 35 million tonnes of coal on the ground. I suggest that one of the main tasks is to increase the demand for coal. To that end, why do not we ensure that we keep the solid fuel market in Northern Ireland, instead of making proposals to get rid of it?

As my hon. Friend knows, his latter point is not a matter for me, but I agree with him entirely that the most sensible thing to do is to provide an additional market for coal. It is for that reason that we have recently announced the £17 million scheme for an additional coalburn over the winter. That will not only burn some of the coal in stock but will reduce by about £60 million the imports of coal and oil, and reduce by about £50 million the public sector borrowing requirement needed to finance the stocks of coal which otherwise would not be burnt. I think my hon. Friend will find that Government policy is in line with what he is suggesting.

The Minister referred to his proposal that any closures should be subject to the joint agreement of unions and management. To that extent, he would appear to be giving the NUM a veto over any proposed pit closures. Although we fully support the arrangements for discussions and consultation on possible closures, is it not a fact that in the end it must be the management's responsibility to manage, and that any other course would be disastrous?

I take note of what the hon Gentleman says. The reality is that we cannot run the mining industry without the good will of the NUM and the National Coal Board. That good will should extend towards the widest area of mutual agreement. Closures, which have a sensitive history, are a part of an area of policy on which, now that we have a planning agreement and regular tripartite meetings, I hope that agreement will be reached. I think that that makes sense.