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Volume 76: debated on Monday 1 April 1985

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Coal Industry


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.

National Energy Policy


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will now initiate discussions on the formulation of a national energy policy.

I shall continue to discuss all aspects of national energy policy as appropriate.

As there is now the possibility of an expedited pit closure programme, will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the £10 million currently assigned for the economic and social consequences of such a programme will be almost immediately vastly increased? That money could be spent in Fife alone, let alone in coalfields throughout the United Kingdom.

I repeat that I am anxious for NCB (Enterprise) Limited to have considerable success. I realise that if it is successful it will need considerably more finance that has been made available so far. I have always made it clear that it is absurd to allocate to that organisation money that it has not yet spent. However, I am pleased to say that 10 allocations of funds have, I think, already been approved. There are many more applicants, and I certainly wish to see that body adequately financed.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the last attempt to have a national energy policy was in 1978? Does he agree that flexibility is the most important thing, and that it would therefore be unwise to lay down clear objectives now?

I think that there is something more positive than that. This country is fortunate enough to have considerable offshore oil and gas industries. We also have a considerable ability in mining machinery, coal mining and nuclear power.

All of those factors have a substantial international application. I am anxious to ensure that in all those areas the options are kept open and active, and that they are applied internationally to the maximum.

Cannot those options be kept open and the uncertainty faced while still publishing some objectives and priorities? Do not most well organised big businesses have corporate plans which run for, say, a five-year period and which can be revised every year or so, taking into account the differing circumstances?

I can only unfairly and unreasonably remind the hon. Gentleman that the Labour party, which he used to support, had such a corporate plan and that every one of its projections proved to be wrong.

Before we go for a new policy, we need to clarify the present situation. The Secretary of State did not answer my question. Mr. McNestry went to the High Court—

Order. I should be obliged if the right hon. Gentleman would stick to the subject of question No. 2 and not return to question No. 1.

Order. I think that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the same rule must apply to both Front Benchers and Back Benchers. Will he please relate his question to question No. 2?

The point is that in order to obtain the sort of new energy policy that the question mentions, we must clarify the present position. The Secretary of State did not answer the question about the modified review procedure or about what Mr. McNestry told me concerning the present procedure not being carried out. When will the Government carry it out?

I repeat that the NCB wishes to get down to negotiating and talking about the modified procedure, if possible, next week. Earlier, there was a lot of shouting and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman did not hear me. However, I repeat that, with regard to the Bedwas pit, an interim arrangement has been made at the request of the NUM. If, as a result of its continuing assessment, the board judges that the pit must remain closed, the procedures and agreements relating to closures will be fully operative.

Energy Audit Schemes


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what action is being taken by his Department to promote energy audit schemes.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy how much grant-aid was provided by his Department to the home energy advice and treatment scheme.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy how many customers took up survey offers under the home energy advice and treatment pilot scheme in the east midlands.

There are 50 per cent. grants available for energy efficiency surveys of non-domestic premises. We have also supported the initial commercial development of the home energy audit, carried out by professionals — surveyors and valuers — a do-it-yourself audit and a semi-personalised audit relating to house type and fuel in conjunction with a commercial promotion. My Department provided a 49 per cent. grant for the home energy audit scheme to enable the company to prepare for and conduct a commercial pilot of the scheme in the east midlands.

There have been 500 inquiries about the scheme, which have resulted in 56 audits and labels to date. The company is evaluating the market research on the pilot and I now await a report.

Are the operation and value for money of the home energy advice and treatment scheme being reviewed? Is the Secretary of State willing to learn from the successful experience of many local authorities, but especially from Newcastle upon Tyne, on this matter?

Yes, Sir. Home energy audit is a relatively new, but important, area for this country. The Government believe that these systems should be developed on a commercial basis, and have been prepared to provide grants towards testing the commercial viability of what are novel developments. The pilot scheme was important and we have much to learn from it.

Will the Minister be a little more definite about contact with the public sector? Has his Department been in touch with the Greater London council, which is advising local authorities on this matter, or with the Newcastle city council, which is advising tenants about audits on energy efficiency? What contact has his Department had with the public sector and what does he think should follow from that?

My right hon. Friend and I have had considerable contact with local authorities, which are developing a number of interesting systems, some of which I have been able to see for myself.

Is the Minister proud of what he has done under the scheme, bearing in mind that it was introduced last October? The Government continue to tell us that they must spend money wisely. As they spent £50,000 advertising the scheme, is the Minister proud of the fact that only a small number of people have taken up the offer? When will he get off his backside and really do something?

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, looking back on what has happened, it appears that the pilot scheme was not successful in itself, but it has been a very valuable experiment from which we must learn as much as possible.

Is my hon. Friend aware that one reason why the pilot scheme was not successful in the east midlands was that the motivation did not appear to be only of cost benefit but of domestic convenience? Will he look at the experience in the United States, where the gas, electricity and coal undertakings handle those inquiries, rather than surveyors?

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that most complaints relate to high fuel bills and that energy audits lead directly to lower bills, lower fuel consumption and ultimately the need for fewer new power stations and capacity, all of which are eminently desirable?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. Several thousand consumers have applied for the do-it-yourself home audit, which we have supported with the Open University and Channel 4. Several thousand more have applied for our semi-personalised audit on offer in a commercial promotion. Therefore, a major campaign of publicity and information does help the home owner to an awareness of what he can achieve.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Secretary of State for the Environment has cut home insulation grant expenditure by 15 per cent.? Is he further aware that the Secretary of State for Wales has cut home insulation expenditure by 25 per cent., therefore depriving almost 13,000 households in Wales of the possibility of home insulation? How does he square all the fine words, breakfasts, and audits with the action of other Ministers who are cutting back on the most effective and simple form of energy insulation and saving — home insulation grants?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been no cut. We have the same amount to spend this year as we had last year.

Coal Industry

asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he has had any discussions with the chairman of the National Coal Board or others with regard to the possible privatisation or development of cooperatives of the coal industry or part or parts of the coal industry.

Is there any fundamental reason why the United Kingdom-based oil industry should not be nationalised, but the coal industry should be nationalised? Will my right hon. Friend tell us what changes he would like to see in ownership and organisation in this monolithic nationalised monopoly, vital as it is, in 10 years' time on 1 April 1995 in the sixteenth year of our right hon. Friend's premiership?

There were few things on which I agreed with Lord Wilson of Rievaulx when he was Prime Minister, but I cherish his statement about a week in politics being a long time. To give my views about happenings in 10 years from now would not be a sensible step for me to take.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give a categorical assurance that the report issued by the Conservative party, emanating from a committee under the chairmanship of the present Secretary of State for Transport in 1978, is now repudiated by the Government and that there will not be any suggestion of privatising the coal industry? Will he say clearly, therefore, that from now on the miners, NACODS and all others involved in the industry can rest assured that public ownership of the industry will continue and that that report is dead and buried?

I did not read that report because, during the period concerned, I was in that charming place, which the hon. Gentleman knows well, called the wilderness. I have always made it clear that I would be willing to consider ways in which there could be greater participation on the part of those employed in the industry.

Fast Breeder Reactors


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a further statement about progress on the European collaborative project for the development of fast breeder reactors.

We are continuing to make good progress.

In view of the expectation that both France and Germany will build commercial fast breeder reactors before this country does, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that we have a fair share of the research and development work on this collaborative programme and that we build on the expertise accumulated over the years at Dounreay? In particular, are the Government pressing for the location at Dounreay of a fuel reprocessing plant?

The participating organisations have already signed several of the agreements setting the detailed framework of the collaboration, and other agreements are being negotiated. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the United Kingdom is already in the forefront of fast reactor technology and has made a major contribution to the collaboration, in particular through the work at Dounreay. No decisions have yet been taken on the timing or siting of a commercial demonstration fast reactor for the collaboration. My right hon. Friend will make an announcement on reprocessing in due course.

Does the discussion with the Europeans include collaboration on the decommissioning of nuclear power stations, which is a most expensive business? It might be helpful to reduce costs if there were such collaboration with other countries.

Community Heating Programmes


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what resources his Department is devoting to studies of community heating programmes.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced his willingness to make grants towards studies of the prospects for combined heat and power and district heating schemes in Belfast, Edinburgh and Leicester. Grants are available under the energy efficiency survey scheme towards the cost of energy efficiency surveys of central boiler plants serving community heated dwellings.

Will the Minister confirm that, for technical and cost reasons, the most likely form of fuel for CHP schemes will be coal and that that is a further good reason why the future of the industry should be safeguarded? Will he also confirm that in planning future CHP schemes there will be a presumption in favour of the use of coal?

I readily agree that where coal is involved it is indeed an economic scheme, and the Government want combined heat and power schemes to go ahead where they are economically viable. We believe that that is best achieved by the involvement of the private sector. The Government are prepared to assist in the initial development of these schemes.

Where CHP feasibility studies show a higher rate of return than alternative supply investment by the nationalised industries, should they not be allowed to go ahead in the interests of providing cheaper energy to consumers?

I shall consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said. We are at an early stage in all these schemes, but I shall be monitoring the results carefully.

Energy Efficiency


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what further initiatives he proposes to take to encourage energy efficiency.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he has decided to make 1986 the year of energy efficiency.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he is considering designating 1986 as energy conservation year.

I am delighted at the progress that we have made during this past year. More than 14,000 senior executives have attended our early morning briefing meetings, there has been a 50 per cent. increase in extended survey scheme applications and a 300 per cent. increase in voluntary insulation projects for low-income households.

There is however, very much more progress to be made. I have decided to make 1986 an energy efficiency year in which I hope the Government, major energy utilities and industry will combine together to make a further considerable impact towards obtaining far higher standards of energy efficiency in this country.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision, which will underline in the most effective way the need to improve energy use and conservation. Will he confirm that we are talking about the possibility of saving thousands of millions of pounds through the more effective use of energy? For example, in offices and shops it would be possible to save energy to the value of £500 million.

The energy bill is about £35 billion. If we operated to the best standards that are being implemented in other countries, there would be a saving of £7 billion a year. There is enormous potential for improving our economic efficiency and it is an area in which every effort should be made.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept my congratulations on the progress that has been made in industrial sectors during the year. In the forthcoming year of energy saving, will he concentrate on an area in which probably the greatest potential for energy saving exists—the public sector? Will he make a special endeavour to co-ordinate the activities of local authorities and health authorities so as to make their officials more energy-conscious?

Yes. The local authorities' advisory organisation on efficiency, LAMSAC, has said that sensible energy efficient management services would reduce the rate bill by about £100 million a year. There is enormous potential within the NHS to improve energy saving. We shall do everything possible to co-ordinate the public sector to make the most progress that we can.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that local authorities are given sufficient funds by the Department of the Environment to enable them to fund worthwhile local installations in energy-efficient schemes?

Yes. This is an area in which substantial progress has been made by the better local authorities. There is much to be done by the rest of the country and we shall be giving every possible encouragement to achieve further progress.

Is it not a fact that many organisations are confronted with an asbestos problem? Will the right hon. Gentleman say what research is being undertaken and what advice is being given so that alternatives can be found that offer a degree of efficiency that is equal to that of asbestos?

I cannot be specific, because I must confess that I have not examined this issue in any detail. However, I shall do so and thereafter I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Is the Secretary of State aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends will welcome the introduction of the year of energy efficiency in 1986? How much additional new money will be forthcoming from the Government to promote energy efficiency projects? Will the real value of home insulation grants be maintained in 1986?

The range covered by Government grants is quite considerable, including energy surveys, development programmes and research programmes. The majority of the savings to be made do not need Government support, in the sense that they are remunerative in themselves. About £300 million-worth of capital investment could be made by industry, which would bring a return of more than 100 per cent.

What about home insulation? Surely that is one of the most simple and understandable means of achieving greater energy efficiency. Britain lags behind most other Western countries on energy efficiency. Why does the Secretary of State not co-operate with other Departments on these issues?

We are collaborating with other Departments. As I said in my answer to the main question, there has been a 300 per cent. increase in one year in voluntary insulation projects for low-income households. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will rejoice in that.

Substitute Natural Gas Project


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if, when he next meets the chairman of British Gas, he proposes to discuss the substitute natural gas project.

My right hon. Friend and I regularly discuss with the chairman a variety of matters concerning the gas industry.

Does the Minister accept that there is a great future for substitute natural gas made from coal? To make the best use of our energy resources, and to achieve our potential in export markets, should we not be giving the green light to British Gas, saying, "Go ahead with the home market," so that we can obtain advantages from exporting?

British Gas research into substitution is of an extremely high standard. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point. There is considerable export potential. In looking towards the end of the century, Britain is fortunate in having adequate supplies of natural gas and access to liquefied natural gas. That means that we shall not need substitute natural gas for some time, but I agree that the research that has been done so far has been well worth while.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that coal priced at £48 a tonne and rising would make it totally uneconomic to go ahead with this proposition? It will become economic at the beginning of the next century, rather than at the end of this century.

I, too, shall not look towards the end of this century. At the moment, substitute natural gas is uneconomic compared with other fuels. None the less, the work that is being done can benefit Britain, not least in terms of export potential.

Why is the right hon. Gentleman so shy about saying to the nation, "We do not have to invent the technology of synthetic North sea gas"? We already have the technology. Should not the right hon. Gentleman be telling the House that, since we have already invented that technology, at Westfield, the nation should be considering ways and means of using it—through coal?

Taking account of current NCB prices for substitute natural gas, present costs are running at about 45p a therm. If that is the price that the hon. Gentleman wants to charge industry and commerce, let him say so.

British Gas Corporation


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he has any plans to denationalise the British Gas Corporation.

During the past year the sale of the British Gas interest in Wytch Farm and the flotation of Enterprise Oil have been successfully carried through. The possibilities for further introduction of private capital into the gas industry will continue to be examined.

In view of the Government's clear commitment to continue examinations along these lines, how soon will my right hon. Friend be able to come forward with concrete proposals?

We hope that they are not taken during the lifetime of this Parliament. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government do not propose during this Parliament to go ahead with any sale of gas showrooms and do intend to introduce the safety legislation that is required? Will the right hon. Gentleman give us one piece of information about the existing privatisation Act? How many consents has the right hon. Gentleman approved under the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Act, which was passed three years ago to provide for private transmission lines for gas?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that as soon as any decisions on inclusions are reached they will be announced to the House. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman regarding his second question. I understand that there are plans for an onshore field to supply gas to two industrial users.

Alternative Energy Sources


asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he proposes to have further discussions with the European Community Council of Ministers about alternative sources of energy.

Discussions are expected on alternative energy sources at a Council of Energy Ministers on 10 June.

Does my hon. Friend agree that research into alternative energy sources should increasingly be undertaken on a Community basis?

Yes. We are continuing to give positive and substantial support to those renewables that are the most promising for the United Kingdom. Our views broadly coincide with those of our Community partners. I had the opportunity to discuss these matters with Dr. H. Eliasmöller, the head of the division on alternative sources in the European Commission, when I met him at the opening of the wind turbine generator in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller).

Ncb (Investment)


asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he is next planning to discuss investment with the chairman of the National Coal Board.

I meet the chairman of the National Coal Board regularly to discuss many issues, including the very substantial investment that the Government are making in the coal industry.

Will my right hon. Friend consider with the NCB chairman the desirability of proceeding swiftly to investment in the south Warkwickshire coalfield, as this offers one prospect of providing the lowest cost coal in the United Kingdom, which would go a long way towards reducing the overall cost of coal and do a great deal to regenerate the industry?

I shall convey my hon. Friend's views to the NCB chairman. The NCB is looking on a regional basis to all the prospects and priorities for investment throughout the coalfields.

When the Secretary of State next meets the chairman of the National Coal Board to discuss investment, will he raise the topic of the National Coal Board's asinine policy of lack of investment in the north-east of England? In particular, will he point out to the chairman that two years ago the north-east director of the NCB invested £2 million for new pit props for Bates's colliery, Blyth in respect of a seam which he now proposes to close, creating 800 redundancies?

I know that the chairman of the National Coal Board is anxious to retain the capacity for production in the north-east, where there is a strong demand for coal. He has made the appropriate surveys to see how much new investment will be needed to achieve that objective.