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Coal Industry

Volume 76: debated on Monday 1 April 1985

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1.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the extent of the resumption in normal working in National Coal Board mines and other installations.

I understand from the NCB that the return to normal working within the industry is well under way. Production and deliveries of coal have substantially increased.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he entirely satisfied that the way in which the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers misunderstood the short-term procedural adjustment last week has now been clarified by the NCB and that there is no ground for any industrial action?

If, following tomorrow's delegate conference, the NUM decides to resume its involvement in the normal consultative procedures between the NCB and the unions, the NCB would suggest that a meeting of the coal industry national consultative council should take place next week to discuss, among other matters, steps leading to the introduction of the modified colliery review procedure as soon as possible. Certainly the objective of the Government and of the NCB is that that modified procedure should come into effect as quickly as possible.

Has the right hon. Gentleman had his attention drawn to the headline in The Guardian today, which says:

"Local management 'instructed to give union a hard time'. NCB 'launches closures drive against Nacods'"?
Even if those reports are one tenth true, are they not appalling? Cannot the right hon. Gentleman do something about the chairman of the board? He is not fit to be in charge of industrial relations in the coal industry in Britain. We know that in his notorious interview he boasted that he had no conversations with the Secretary of State. Cannot the right hon. Gentleman stop this madness from going on?

I had a meeting this morning on other matters with the chairman of the NCB. He has no knowledge of the items mentioned in The Guardian or the sources from which they came. It may be that there are those who are involved in stirring up mishief around this subject. The chairman of the NCB is anxious that the modified procedure that he agreed with NACODS should come into operation as swiftly as possible.

Will the Secretary of State reconsider the whole matter? I spoke to the general secretary of NACODS a little while ago, and the situation is grave. Will the Secretary of State not merely rely on the comments offered by the NCB, but have a further meeting with NACODS? He will recognise that I am not particularly interested in seeing strife in the coalfield. We have seen enough of that. A grave situation is developing, and it requires urgent attention.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have always been willing to see any trade union connected with my Department at any time and have always done so. That applies to NACODS, the NUM or any other union. With regard to the present dispute, the pronouncements coming out of NACODS and the pit closure in south Wales, I can only say that two weeks ago the south Wales area director met all the unions to discuss the prospects for that pit. The unions called for a technical inspection, which was made two days later. In the light of that inspection the board expressed the view that there were no prospects for the pit. The NUM's response was that the rundown should be dealt with quickly and that voluntary redundancies should be initiated immediately as that would benefit the miners concerned. A majority of NUM members at the pit voted in support of that. If the Coal Board had rejected that request and taken no notice of it, we should have been strongly criticised by the NUM.

Has my right hon. Friend noted reports in the Daily Mail at the end of last week which suggested that those miners who had applied for transfers to areas where they would not be victimised were having their applications processed slowly? Can he assure us that that matter will be looked at and that those who have applied to move to other areas to ensure that they will not be victimised will be dealt with speedily?

I assure my hon. Friend that the NCB is looking into all individual cases. It has set up a Freefone system and is looking into every possible case. If any form of intimidation is taking place, the important thing is to stop the intimidation. The NCB is taking a great deal of action — it has set up a special unit — and I hope that it will succeed.

Will the Secretary of State reconsider his previous answers? He referred to Bedwas colliery in my constituency and to the fact that an underground inspection took place a fortnight ago last Wednesday. Is he aware that while that inspection was taking place the pit manager was interviewing members of the NUM on the surface and that offers of transfer or redundancy were made before any firm decision had been taken or discussions had taken place on a review procedure? Is he further aware that the NCB's actions in south Wales are regarded as being deliberately precipitate and provocative? Will he tell us whether either the modified review procedure or the existing review procedure with NACODS will be used before there are further pit closures?

The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) referred earlier to The Guardian, and I see from that paper today that the president of the NUM in south Wales has made it clear that the NUM was in favour of the closure taking place there. He said that he would not support any NACODS strike that stopped that taking place. In the case of Bedwas, a considerable majority of the miners recognise that prospects for that pit are poor. By agreement between the NUM and the board, transfers to other pits and voluntary redundancies are already being arranged. That seems much more acceptable than simply laying men off because there is no work for them to do. By its nature, this is an interim arrangement. If, as a result of its continuing assessment, the board judges that the pit must remain closed, the procedures and agreements that relate to closure will, of course, be fully operative.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is still great concern in the Scottish coalfields, where there has not been what could be called a normal resumption of work because of what appears to be the intransigence of the Coal Board management and, in particular, its unwillingness to discuss individual cases of dismissed men, many of whom seem to have been dismissed for trivial reasons? Will the right hon. Gentleman use his good offices to urge common sense on the management of the NCB in Scotland and, particularly, to urge the management to use the conciliation procedures to examine individual cases of sacked miners?

When normal working resumes, as I hope that it will later this week, all the procedures available within the Coal Board will be available to any person involved in dismissal.

Knowing the concern throughout the Conservative party about employment, does my right hon. Friend agree that reduced energy costs would have a direct benefit on employment costs, and does he also agree that a campaign of sabotage or non-cooperation underground would do great damage to the coal industry and to the nation generally?

I certainly agree that it is in the interests of every miner and everybody connected with the mining industry to see that it succeeds.

Does what the Secretary of State has said today about the NACODS agreement mean that there will be no more closures before the modified review procedure is in place? We want a categorical answer to that question. The answer is not clear from what has been said, certainly by the NCB. For example, will the 10 pits in south Wales for which closure is forecast go through the modified review procedure? The Secretary of State's views are before the House. He said that the agreement was sacrosanct. Is it still sacrosanct?

Yes, certainly. The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that when the NCB put its proposals to the TUC it made it clear that, in the event of a failure to agree on those procedures by, I think, 1 June, the normal procedures, as exist at the moment, would have to go on. Obviously we will not agree to the NUM having a right to veto all future pit closures if it rejects the details of any NACODS procedures. I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree that that is a valid and fair point. The proposal put to the TUC is still the basis of the NCB's view. I said earlier that we wish to get down to discussing the details of that agreement next week.

I have been asked about pit closures between then and now. The only two closures involved are at pits where there is no possibility of men working because the coal faces have been destroyed as a result of the strike. If the right hon. Gentleman disagrees with the south Wales NUM and is against those men being given voluntary redundancies, he should say so.