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Coal Industry (Productivity)

Volume 21: debated on Monday 5 April 1982

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asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he next proposes to meet the chairman of the National Coal Board to discuss productivity in the coal industry.

My right hon. Friend meets the chairman of the board frequently to discuss this and other aspects of the board's business.

When the Minister next meets the chairman, will he congratulate the miners on the increase in productivity, not least on the 6 per cent. increase at the coalface in the past year? In view of the stocks that have arisen as a result of the increase in productivity, will he impress upon the chairman of the NCB that for that reason there should not be pit closures?

Secondly, will the Government do more than they are doing at present to increase the use of coal in industry, as their present efforts can only be described as feeble?

The hon. Gentleman is right to congratulate the miners on the overall increase in productivity of 3·4 per cent. output per man shift. It would be wrong, however, to encourage people to believe the simplistic notion that that is the only reason for the increase in stocks, which relates to the long-term supply and demand position. I am sure that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will wish to congratulate the Government on the improvement in the coal boiler conversion scheme announced in the Budget. I am sure that he appreciates the Government's attempts to produce real increases in the use of coal.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that if production is running well ahead of demand, there will have to be cutbacks in uneconomic pits?

My hon. Friend draws attention to the undeniable problem facing the industry and all who support its long-term needs—namely, over-supply relative to current demand. It is no use ignoring that aspect. All who wish the industry well in future must recognise that basic difficulty.

While congratulating the miners on the increase in productivity, may I ask whether the Minister accepts that the best way to increase productivity in the longer term is to sink new, modern pits which are up-to-date in every sense? In that respect, will he take what steps he can to speed up development in areas such as Cannock Chase, where there is the possibility of further coal development?

The hon. Gentleman is assiduous in pursuing his constituency interest in this matter, but I am sure that he and all who are interested in the future of coal will understand the dilemma that we face. We have to develop new economic capacity while recognising the problems of closing uneconomic capacity.

Does my hon. Friend accept the "Plan for Coal" production targets of 135 million tonnes and 170 million tonnes by the end of the century in the light of what has been said about the declining market and increasing subsidies from the State?

We and the industry are concerned to provide coal at competitive prices to meet the needs of the market place. I imagine that that will allow the industry to sell more coal to that market, but it must be competitive and offer security of supply.

How can the Government have any credible conversations or discussions with the NCB about productivity when their own policies are responsible for delaying replacement coal production capacity? Does the Minister recognise that that is the true meaning of the situation in the Vale of Belvoir and the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts)? Will the hon. Gentleman give a categorical assurance that in the Vale of Belvoir, for example, the pits will be sunk in the lifetime of this Government?

Quite the reverse of what the hon. Gentleman says has actually occurred. The Government have made it clear that the North-East Leicestershire prospect will be developed in an environmentally acceptable manner. That combination of policies will suit not just the coal industry but the wider interests that the Government have to bear in mind