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Energy

Volume 116: debated on Monday 11 May 1987

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Coal Industry

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of British Coal to discuss changes in working practices in the coal industry.

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of British Coal; and what matters were discussed.

I have regular meetings with the chairman of British Coal to discuss all aspects of the coal industry.

In talking to the all-party minerals group and in recent public statements, the chairman of British Coal has spoken extensively about the changes in work practices in the Margam colliery and elsewhere in the British coalfields. Will the Secretary of State join me in asking the chairman of British Coal to meet the national executive committees of the mining unions so that any changes in national agreements can be negotiated in a proper manner instead of being handed down like a diktat from the British Coal board?

One has seen the reaction of Welsh miners and other people in the mining industry to the proposals that have been made. The hon. Gentleman knows that a great many people in the mining industry, including many of the staff of NACODS, work more than a five-day week. Most miners are interested in improving their productivity.

Did the Secretary of State discuss the problem of mining subsidence with the chairman of British Coal, bearing in mind the problem that I and other hon. Members who represent mining constituencies have experienced and the fact that many miners have had claims rejected because British Coal has moved the goal posts arid left people with a raw deal? I hope that the Secretary of State will discuss this problem with the chairman of British Coal and get it sorted out.

We have had discussions with the board and others on this subject and I hope that we can make some positive proposals in this sphere.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would welcome any developments in the coal industry that would make British coal competitive enough to burn in Fawley B power station in my constituency, if it is ever built. Can he yet reply to my constituents' request for a full public inquiry before he gives the go-ahead for that power station?

I am in a difficult position, as my hon. Friend will understand. I have had no application from the CEGB for such a power station, but I can assure my hon. Friend that I will bear in mind the local views, including the ones that he has just mentioned, if such an application takes place.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the interesting remarks that Mick McGahey made last week when he said that modern work practices must be introduced in Margam and elsewhere, and that the Labour movement should be a movement not a monument?

Yes, Sir. It is remarkable that at present Mr. Scargill seems unwilling to accept that large sections of this country work variable shifts. Nobody is asking any miner to work shifts that are in any way contrary to the present safety standards, and I find it quite staggering that this matter is not being looked at objectively. I am delighted that for once I have Mr. McGahey on my side.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the often expressed view of the chairman of British Coal that if the National Union of Mineworkers does not accept the proposed changes in working practices no new mines will be sunk or, alternatively, that he will call on the Union of Democratic Mineworkers to do the job? That is not conducive to good industrial relations. What does the Secretary of State think about it?

First, I hasten to say that I have heard no such remarks by the chairman of the Coal Board, who has sensibly pointed out to meetings which included members of the NUM and other mining unions that competition and productivity were the all-important elements and that it is in the interests of miners to do better in using the massive amount of capital that the Government have injected into the industry.

Does the Secretary of State accept that some of the changes in working practices may require legislation rather than meetings with the chairman of British Coal, and that it would therefore be highly desirable for him to meet the national executives of the mining unions to discuss the successful future of the industry, for which Labour Members wish perhaps more than do Conservatives?

I am not sure who the hon. Gentleman means by "him", but if he means me, I am always willing to meet the executives of any of the unions concerned to discuss any questions that they wish to discuss. I should be only too delighted to discuss with the executive of any mineworkers union the manner in which they can take advantage of the £5 billion investment that the Government have put into the industry.

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what has been the increase in labour productivity in the coal mining industry since March 1984.

For the week ending 2 May average deep-mined revenue output per man shift was 3·65 tonnes, an impressive increase of more than 50 per cent. on the average of 2·43 for 1983–84.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that substantial increase in productivity is a remarkable tribute to the miners and to the management of the National Coal Board, and does he expect further improvement in the forthcoming year?

Yes, I very much hope for further improvements, which I hope will be contrasted by those who are interested in the future of the industry with the fact that under the Labour Government productivity fell year after year.

As the Secretary of State continually congratulates the south Wales miners on their increased productivity, will he tell them whether an application has been made to Brussels for EC financial aid for the Margam development and, if not, why not?

I am not sure whether the application has been made, but I assure the hon. Lady that it is being made.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there has been a 43 per cent. improvement in productivity in the north-east coalfield in exactly the same period? Is he aware that that field will be profitable this year and for the first time in years is recruiting some 200 trainees? Does he agree that that gives the lie to the claim that the Government are not supporting the industry in the north-east?

Yes. In the five years of the Labour Government £3·5 billion at current prices was invested in the industry, compared with more than £5 billion in five years of Conservative Government. That proves the point. My hon. Friend is, however, slightly out of date. In the week ending 2 May the north east achieved an all-time record of 3·42 tonnes per man shift.

Bearing in mind all the successes that the Secretary of State has been talking about, does he agree that taking on private capital or privatising the industry would be an ideological and political decision rather than a business decision?

I have always told the House that I have examined no immediate plans for privatisation, because at present substantial volumes of aid and assistance have to go in to rationalise the industry, but I would never be against the management and employees of the coal industry having a direct participation in their industry.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that productivity in the south Derbyshire and south Leicestershire coalfields in my constituency is at its highest ever? Does he agree that that is a tribute to the reasonableness of the miners there, most of whom are members of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, and justifies the massive investment that the Government are to put into the area in the future?

There are few industries in the world in which during the period of a Government about £2 million per day has been invested in new machinery, new equipment and new capital. I am delighted that we have done that, and I am even more delighted that the miners have responded with the present marvellous productivity figures.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the increased productivity of British mines is due not only to the laudable efforts of the miners but to the machinery that has recently been introduced? Is he further aware that British mining machinery manufacturers are very critical of the Government's attitudes and policies towards the manufacture of that machinery?

It so happens that one of the most successful and biggest mining machinery manufacturers in the country is in my constituency. I might be accused of having put all this investment in the mining industry for that reason. It has no complaints about the Government.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents have been breaking records week in and week out for the past six months and that the western area is now, for the first time in 13 years, profitable? Is it not the case that under the Conservative Government the coal industry is increasingly becoming one in which the work force and management are proud to work?

Yes. When the Conservative Government came to power after five years of declining productivity under the last Labour Government, no one would have considered it possible to increase productivity by 50 per cent. during this period.

In the light of the satisfactory figures that the Secretary of State has announced, do the Government propose to do anything about cheap, subsidised coal imports?

The fact is that the coal industry will get a bigger share of the market due to its improved productivity, and I am delighted about that.

Foreign Nuclear Power Reactors

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what information he has as to how many foreign nuclear power reactors are at approximately the same distance as or nearer to the United Kingdom than, Chernobyl.

The publicly available figures on the siting of power reactors show that there are some 185 civil power reactors in operation or under construction at approximately the same or a nearer distance to the United Kingdom than Chernobyl.

Even if we did not have the highest standards of design, construction and safety in our British nuclear power stations, does not my hon. Friend's reply underline the absurdity of Britain having any policy either of standstill in nuclear power development or, even more absurd, of getting rid of such power stations? Is not the real lesson from Chernobyl that there must be the highest enforceable international standards of safety, inspection and exchange of information in all matters nuclear?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This country has welcomed and signed the two new conventions on early notification and mutual assistance. The International Atomic Energy Agency is considering a number of proposals for international co-operation, some of them put forward by my right hon. Friend. We are fully committed to that work.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the chief inspector for nuclear installations told the Energy Select Committee last week that he did not have sufficient staff to enable him to liaise with his European counterparts? He also informed the Committee that, because of that shortage, various serious situations have been created at Sellafield which could have led to serious accidents. What are the Minister's views on that?

With the greatest possible respect, the hon. Gentleman has not quite accurately recounted what the chief inspector of nuclear installations said. The NII has always been able to carry its essential statutory function. The Government are determined that the NII should be adequately staffed by suitably qualified people. The inspectors were awarded a special pay increase of £3,500 last September. Salaries have been increased further to achieve the Government's determination to have 120 inspectors by April next year.

Is my hon. Friend aware that I support the remarks of the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse)? I support nuclear power, but we can have it only if we are certain that there is adequate safety monitoring? Will my hon. Friend think again about his reply to the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford, because at the Energy Select Committee last week it was said that there was difficulty in recruiting people of the right calibre for the NII?

With respect, the remarks of the chief nuclear installations inspector to which my hon. Friend refers may have been made in ignorance of the further increases of pay that I have just announced.

Does the Minister agree that Mr. Ryder's comments to the Select Committee are important and that the Government should make a public response to Mr. Ryder's allegations?

I have no doubt that when the Select Committee's report appears a response will be forthcoming in the usual way.

Efficiency

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what is his latest assessment of the impact of his Department's measures to promote energy efficiency.

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what new proposals he has to increase measures for the conservation of energy.

The take-up of schemes and sales of energy efficiency products increased significantly during Energy Efficiency Year. My right hon. Friend and I are building upon the success of the year through the development of a 14-point programme of action which I outlined to my hon. Friend in January.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and the steps that he has taken to promote energy efficiency. Will he join me in welcoming the new initiative taken by Surrey county council whereby, for a nominal sum, firms can make use of an airborne survey, using infrared scanning, to detect heat loss from buildings, and can then take remedial action to save significantly on their heating bills?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Surrey county council on its mounting of the airborne thermographic survey. It is a worthwhile and forward-looking initiative. Thermographic surveys can pinpoint energy waste and are a vital weapon in the battle to ensure that we are a more energy-efficient nation.

How much are the Government proposing to spend in the next 12 months on energy conservation, and how much do they believe that such expenditure will save the country?

The Government propose to continue the clear emphasis that they have already placed on concentrating more help on those who are in the greatest need, as visualised in the announcement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that the home insultation scheme will be concentrated on low-income families. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has announced the furthering of the work of the vital community insulation projects.

Can my hon. Friend report any progress in his discussions with the Treasury to allow the public sector to take advantage of private sector energy management companies offering third-party financing on an energy-shared saving basis? Does he realise that the delay has held up a huge area of investment in the public sector that could have reduced public expenditure on energy bills?

The new Government guidelines on the use of contract energy management in the public sector have increased significantly the ways in which taxpayers and ratepayers can be saved hundreds of millions of pounds a year in energy bills. The guidelines are an important step forward in our campaign to increase energy efficiency in the public sector.

Will the Minister confirm one simple fact? Does he accept that where there are no MSC-sponsored community energy projects, individual poorer households will not now be able to obtain the equivalent of single payment for draughtproofing, as they were until recently?

The hon. Gentleman constantly decries the work of community insulation projects. When the Government came into power there were six such projects, and there are now 385. It is the Government's determination to ensure that there is a correct balance of groups throughout the country. The ultimate target is a total—[Interruption.]

I remind the hon. Gentleman that when the Government came to power there were six groups that had been set up by his Administration. We now have a target of 500 groups, and I hope that these will cover all the areas that need this support.

Union Of Democratic Mineworkers

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he has any plans to meet the Union of Democratic Mineworkers to discuss industrial relations in the mining industry; and if he will make a statement.

I am pleased to say that I shall be addressing the Union of Democratic Mineworkers' annual conference, when I expect to discuss many issues with it.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that excellent reply. Is it not stunning proof of one nation when representatives of working miners get round to inviting a Conservative Secretary of State to address their annual conference? Given the recent expressions of dissent from Mr. Scargill by even the National Union of Mineworkers in south Wales, does my right hon. Friend agree that only the Conservative party could have released miners from the bondage of the NUM?

Obviously, I welcome the opportunity to address the conference of those mineworkers who abided by the traditional position of mineworkers in this country of taking industrial action only after they had balloted. Those miners overwhelmingly balloted not to strike and with great courage continued to work during that period. I welcome the opportunity to discuss matters with the union, especially as its members, too, broke all-time production records last week.

In the discussions that the Secretary of State may have with members of the UDM, or any other mining unions, will he raise with them the arrears that are due to pensioners and widows as a result of their pensions increase? Will the Secretary of State accept from me that those pensioners have not received their increases, which were due last October? Will he assure the UDM and other mineworkers that that pension increase will be paid? Will he assure the UDM and other mineworkers that the devastating effect on retired miners as a result of not receiving that increase will be erased and that the despicable attitude of British Coal and the trustees of the pension scheme in not paying that increase will be changed? Does he agree that the pension should be increased?

I also agree that, as a result of this Government, more miners have retired on better pensions than ever before. The hon. Gentleman is well aware of that.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend will address the members of the UDM at its annual meeting. Is it not because of the present industrial relations attitude adopted by the UDM that we have these record productivity increases? Is not Nottinghamshire the cheapest producer of coal in the United Kingdom?

Obviously, I am delighted that the week I have just quoted represented an all-time record for the Nottinghamshire miners. Their achievements have been remarkable. The entire nation praises the UDM, not only for what it is achieving at the present time, but for the manner in which UDM members faced the mobs organised against them during the coal dispute.

Is the Secretary of State aware that last Thursday the UDM in Nottinghamshire had a secret ballot and voted overwhelmingly for the Labour party? In my constituency and in Mansfield they were the best results that we have had for many years. Is the Secretary of State aware that the Tories took the city of Nottingham—they won it by one seat, when Labour had previously held it by one seat? In one campaign the Tories won by three votes only and the alliance did not win a seat, although the Communists did?

I note the hon. Gentleman's neurosis about the impending election. Given the lack of support that the Labour party gave to the Nottinghamshire miners I expect some devastatingly bad results for the Labour party in the election.

Commercial Buildings

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement concerning the construction of more energy-efficient commercial buildings.

My energy efficiency office is concerned to encourage the construction of energy-efficient commercial buildings and supports a range of initiatives to improve the energy efficiency of new commercial buildings, in collaboration with professional groups and the industry.

I thank my hon. Friend for his constructive reply. Does he agree with me that if measures were taken along these lines there would be sufficient energy savings to produce a much more economical operation for the companies concerned? Does he agree also that it is necessary to involve architects and developers in the measures that he has outlined? Does he further agree that it is important to proceed along these lines to ensure a better working environment for those employed in such buildings?

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. All new buildings should incorporate the latest energy efficient designs. Consumer expectation has been raised by the development of low-energy buildings. However, it is calculated that industrial and commercial buildings waste £800 million a year, and that is why I recognised what my hon. Friend said, that we must work harder to gain the support of building professionals, through close collaboration.

Will the Minister tell the House exactly what measures his Department will take to promote energy efficiency, not only in commercial buildings, but in old-age pensioners homes, to prevent the high number of deaths from hypothermia every dreadful winter?

The Government have done more than any other Government, not just in providing heating allowances and heating support, but in ensuring that community insulation projects go from strength to strength. We are now aiming at such projects producing 8,000 jobs and insulating over 300,000 houses per year, particularly those belonging to people on low incomes.

Opencast Mining

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what is his estimate of the output from opencast mining in 1987.

Does the Minister accept that a substantial level of opencast production is secured at the cost of grave disadvantage to communities living in the vicinity of mining sites? Bearing in mind that there are gatherings of those who are poised to secure profit from the privatisation of the coal business, will the Minister assure hon. Members that the views of local communities will be given commanding influence when any proposals are considered to ensure that the local environment, rather than private profit, is preserved? Will the Minister also ensure that the people of Rawmarsh, Wath and Swinton in my constituency are safe from the development of an unwanted site?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman, with his background in and experience of the coal industry, is aware that British Coal is among the world leaders in the restoration of opencast sites. It is important to recognise that the right balance must be struck between developing opencast coal reserves and the need to protect the environment. British Coal's new booklet on opencast coal mining emphasises the opencast executive's positive commitment to the highest environmental standards.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the cost of production of opencast coal is way below that of deep-mined coal and that, particularly over the past 10 years, there has been a total transformation in the restoration of workings of opencast coal mines, to the extent that we lead the world?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I emphasise again that opencast coal is an important resource in the United Kingdom that can be produced cheaply and profitably. It is a vital part of British Coal's operations, particularly in deep-mine pits, such as Lea Hall and Littleton, where opencast coal is absolutely necessary to make the product burnable.

Is the Minister aware that it is widely forecast that opencast mine output is to be increased vastly by private enterprise? Is he further aware that only British Coal has detailed knowledge of the quantity, quality and so on of coal reserves? That knowledge has been gained at vast expense. Will he ensure that any information regarding coal reserves that is sought by private contractors will be made available at a substantial cost commensurate with the cost of obtaining such information?

The level of opencast output has to be determined by the market, subject to the acceptability of individual planning projects as determined through the existing planning system. As I said, British Coal takes its responsibilities as a good neighbour very seriously. Its record demonstrates that in the opencast sector.

Does my hon. Friend accept that opencast mining has a devastating effect on communities? Does he consider that the right policy to adopt is that there should be no more than one opencast mine at a time in an area, not two or three at a time?

The planning procedures ensure that applications to work opencast coal do not go ahead without all the arguments for and against being aired. That allows, in the best possible way, for a balanced judgment to be reached. I add that the opencast executive spends a great deal of time and effort in reducing the impact of its sites and restoring them once coaling has ceased.

Is the Minister aware that in our valley the opencast executive is proposing major schemes to tear up both sides of the valley? Is he aware also that the present Secretary of State for Wales overruled his own planning inspector on a scheme in his own constituency on environmental grounds? Is that not a good example for others to follow?

The hon. Gentleman is constantly trying to inject emotion into this afternoon's Question Time. A little reality would be helpful. I think he should recognise that British Coal is spending a considerable amount of time and effort to increase both public and local authority understanding of opencast mining. I commend to him the booklet that British Coal published last week.

Community Insulation Programme

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement concerning the expanded community insulation programme and its implications for jobs.

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received concerning plans to revise the home insulation programme; and if he will make a statement.

Neighbourhood energy action has welcomed my announcement about future arrangements to finance the work of the community insulation projects. By 1988 the number of people employed by projects and learning valuable skills will have increased from 6,000 to 8,000, and over 300,000 homes a year will be being insulated.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that encouraging reply and I welcome the good news about jobs. Does he agree that it is typical of the way that Conservative Governments take action to get on with the job and take a lead in matters concerning energy conservation, job creation and help for pensioners and others with their heating?

Yes. It has been a staggering achievement already. Half a million such homes have been insulated, at the same time helping people to obtain new jobs and new skills. But even more remarkable is that in the next couple of years that figure will rise to 300,000 a year. That will mean a great deal of comfort and warmth to elderly and low-income families, and also a great deal of work.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the problems in Leeds with the unions which inhibited work being done on council houses, have been overcome and that the work is now going ahead? The only thing that people are concerned about is that the new regulations will prevent the work being done for the benefit of many people, both in council and private houses. Therefore, will the Secretary of State look again at the regulations and ensure the development of a scheme for the benefit of all?

I am anxious to develop the scheme. We have succeeded in developing the scheme to a massive multiple of what existed under the Lib-Lab pact.

Leicester (Heat And Power)

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the latest position concerning the supply and purchase of gas by the Leicester Combined Heat and Power Consortium (Leicester Energy Ltd.).

The contractual negotiations are, of course, a commercial matter for the Leicester consortium and its fuel suppliers, but I understand that the consortium has not yet finalised arrangements for the purchase of fuel supplies.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the £80 million investment by the Leicester Combined Heat and Power Consortium (Leicester Energy Ltd.) is under threat because of the difficulty in negotiating a regular long-term supply from British Gas? Is he aware also that it is now considering purchasing a North sea gas field? Can my hon. Friend help in some way to bring prosperity to the area and reduce the cost of oil heating by getting British Gas to offer a more reasonable price for the power available?

I hope my hon. Friend will recognise that it is not for Ministers to intervene in negotiations between the Leicester consortium and its fuel suppliers, but he is right to highlight the importance of the scheme. The consortium is to be congratulated on producing a professional report. I hope that the scheme will go ahead if it can be proved to be economically viable. I repeat that if it had not been for my hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer), we would not have recognised the importance of the scheme in the first place.

British Coal Enterprise Ltd

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he next proposes to discuss with the chairman of British Coal the progress of British Coal Enterprise Ltd.

I discuss the progress of British Coal Enterprise Ltd. with the chairman of the British Coal Corporation whenever it seems appropriate to do so.

Will the Secretary of State make it clear to the chairman that no one really believes the stories about the so-called wild success of British Coal Enterprise Ltd.? Will he also take the opportunity to re-examine the whole scheme with a view to replacing the thousands of jobs that have been lost in mining areas? At the same time, will he stop the closure of pits until alternative employment is available? The situation is desperate in many areas, including my own.

Since British Coal Enterprise Ltd. started we have spent £28 million of the £40 million that was allocated, and we have created 16,641 new job opportunities in coal-mining communities. In the northeast, 2,386 new jobs have so far been created and by the time we get through the £40 million, some 25,000 will have been created. This is an outstanding record compared with anything that has happened previously.

When we have won the next election, will my right hon. Friend consider discussing with the chairman of British Coal the extension of real democratic control of the coal miners by working towards a management and work force buy-out?

As I said earlier, I am all in favour of those who work in this industry, and who are having such success in increased productivity, having the correct participation in their industry.