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Coal Industry

Volume 116: debated on Monday 11 May 1987

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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.


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.


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.