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Mining Industry (New Entrants)

Volume 974: debated on Monday 26 November 1979

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14.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what is his estimate of the number of new entrants into the mining industry over the next 10 years which will be needed under the requirements of EEC Document 7855/9.

This is a matter for the National Coal Board and I am asking the chairman to write to the hon. Gentleman. However, it is encouraging to note that recruitment so far this year has more than made up for wastage, despite the extra outflow arising from the last stage in the progressive introduction of the early retirement scheme.

May I thank the Minister for that reply? May I ask him for another answer, as we discussed the documents at some length but no miners' Member of Parliament was called? Therefore, as I think that it is the duty of the Minister to reply, will he answer this question? Is the Minister aware—as I respectfully suggest—that Britain is the most efficient coal-producing country in the EEC if not in all Europe? Is the Minister aware that West Germany will not now be able to fulfil its obligations under the 7855/9 EEC document, as it cannot recruit miners into the West German pits?

Will the Minister give a reply to the House with regard to his letter on 4 October to Commissioner Brunner on his request that 250 million European units of account per year should be spent on coal-producing industries within the EEC? Will he say how much Britain will receive?

The hon. Gentleman is aware of the serious nature of the coal industry and the way in which it is regarded by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am sure that he will be happy to know that I am very much aware of the comments he made in the first part of his question. It is exciting for our country to know—looking specifically at the recruitment question that was raised—that in the first 31 weeks of our fiscal year, in terms of the coal industry, we have seen an increase in recruitment of 42 per cent. Within that we have seen an increase in new adult recruitment of 77½ per cent.

Of course at this stage I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's final question about the initiative of my right hon. Friend with Commissioner Brunner. When he receives a response he will be happy to come to the House with it.

If at the end of the day there are not enough entrants forthcoming, will my hon. Friend say what the position will be over the importation of coal into this country?

I thought that I drew the attention of the House to the excellent pattern of recruitment. To some extent that pattern has been going on for some years. It has been masked somewhat by the heavy wastage caused by the early retirement scheme. To that extent we now have a series of years when excellent recruitment happily continues.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that to run down the coking coal industry would have grave implications and be against the policy of the EEC? Will he confirm that there are considerable subsidies for coking coal within the EEC? Will he give an assurance that he is not opposed in principle to such a subsidy? Will he confirm that if the present 2 million tonnes of coking-coal contracts were to be let either to North America or Australia, that would put at risk thousands of jobs in the industry and be a grave step, for it would undermine confidence in the coalmining industry?

I do not think that this is an appropriate time to go into considerable details on this point other than by accepting the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes on the importance, for our long-term energy and coal future, of the coking industry of this country. To the extent that there are current debates going on between two of our nationalised industries—the NCB and British Steel—it would be inappropriate at this time to make any further comment.

Is it not a fact that increased productivity recently in the mines has coincided with the reduction in the level of direct taxation? Will my hon. Friend welcome this evidence that the coal miners know what is good for them? Will he seek confirmation that my right hon, and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer intends to continue this process?

I am delighted that my hon. Friend drew attention to the increase in productivity in our coal areas. There has been a substantial increase of over 3 per cent, in the past few months. Obviously those of us who understand that initiative is rewarded, especially through reductions in taxation, are delighted to see such increased productivity.

The Minister did not answer on the question of principle. Will he give an assurance that the Government are not opposed in principle to granting a subsidy for coking coal, either through BSC, with a revision of its financial targets, or to the NCB?

The Government obviously have their minds open at all times to such matters. It would be completely improper, at a time when negotiations are going on between the National Coal Board and British Steel, for the Government to say any more on the matter.