asked the Secretary of State for Energy when the Government's reply to the report of the Commission on Energy and the Environment, "Coal and the Environment", is now expected to be published.
The Government are still considering the many recommendations in the CENE report on "Coal and the Environment" and our response, which is being prepared jointly with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment, Scotland and Wales, will be published as soon as possible.
What progress have the Government made in reaching a decision on the recommendation of the commission that applications for opencast coal mining should be determined by the general planning machinery for mineral development, rather than by the Secretary of State for Energy?
I am very concious of the hon. Gentleman's point. That, among the 120 other detailed recommendations, is legitimately taking a considerable amount of time to consider.
Since the environmental objections to opencast mining have been largely removed because the land is usually restored to a much better condition than it was in originally, and since, also, opencast production is cheaper and safer for the miners—they do not have to go underground and risk their lives—why do not the Government go forward with a positive policy of encouraging opencast production by every means possible?
My hon. Friend will know that there is a difference between increases in opencast production since the Government came to office and the particular question at issue in the CENE report concerning the method of controlling the ultimate decision on opencast licences,
Does the Minister recall that in that report it states that because of coal pollution the Durham beaches are the worst in the country? Is he aware that the National Coal Board has made strenuous efforts to improve the position, including spending a lot of money, but now it rightly says that it has reached the end of its resources? Will the Government urgently provide the little extra that is needed?
The hon. Gentleman will be conscious, because of his long and legitimate pursuit of the matter for a constituency interest, that the "little extra" is rather more substantial than he seemed to indicate. The financial implications of the CENE report are a factor in the joint Ministeries' discussions on the matter.
Will the Minister think again about his answer to my hon. Friend? Is he aware that in my constituency about 780 acres of opencast mining is proposed, which involves 15 to 20 years of working, far in excess of any time that any individual Secretary of State or Minister, on either side, will be in office? Therefore, it is essential that, for example, local government, which is permanent, should take this matter in hand and look after the planning permission for these matters.
All of us who participated in the 19 March debate on the subject will be aware of the consequences and difficulties that are involved in the question. Today we are being asked specifically about the changing of the inquiry process, which, to some extent, is under consideration.