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Coal Mines (Ownership)

Volume 81: debated on Monday 24 June 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Energy what is his policy towards the sale of deep mines surplus to National Coal Board requirements to other operators; and if he will make a statement.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what recent representations he has received regarding the future ownership and structure of the coalmining industry; and if he will make a statement.

The Government have no plans to privatise the mining activities of the National Coal Board.

Just as launching other nationalised industries on the road to profitability was a precursor to privatisation, will the defeat of the Luddites in the NUM, and turning back the Coal Board from everlasting reliance on state subsidies, be a precursor to the gradual privatisation of pits? If not, why not?

The present losses and deficits in the industry are a great disadvantage to the country, to those who work in the industry and to its prospects. However, I hope that we shall find ways of giving NCB employees much more direct participation in the industry than they enjoy under nationalisation.

Is the Minister aware that the NUM and others in the mining communities will welcome his statement that neither he nor the Government have any intention of privatising the coal industry? However, since it is an important part of the work of the industry to improve industrial relations, does he accept that until he gets rid of Mr. MacGregor as the chairman of the NCB industrial relations will not improve to the point that we require?

At present, there are plenty of examples of co-operation and of pits going well. I gave the figures for the production and distribution of coal this week, and there are some encouraging signs. I do not wish to become involved in making judgments on any personalities. Mr. MacGregor's definition that the best future for the industry would be to have an expanding market with highly effective coal production as a result of high investment is the only sensible analysis of the future of the industry. I should have liked to give the hon. Gentleman a more helpful reply in his birthday week, but I regret that I cannot do so.

Does my right hon. Friend at least have plans to liberate opencast operations from the restrictive patronage of the NCB?

It is important that we take advantage of the opencast opportunities that exist. In some parts of the country, especially Scotland and Wales, such a step would be important for jobs.

Although I do not agree with the privatisation of the coal mining industry, does the Minister believe that selling surpluses will do any good? Presumably, the reason for closing collieries now is that the coal is surplus to requirements. What is the sense of selling them?

The sense is to produce coal in the future at a price at which the world wishes to buy it.

If approaches were made by other operators or by miners currently employed by the NCB to purchase NCB assets or to become involved in joint ventures with the NCB, would the Government stand in the way of an NCB decision to sell its assets?

The NCB is considering several such applications from miners. However, the matter is more complicated than it sounds, because I fear that the miners who have made applications in respect of the pits at which they work have not taken into their calculations the enormous investment that is required to maintain safety standards in pits. That is not a simple process. Any approach by miners will be considered by the National Coal Board and be regarded sympathetically by the Government.