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House of Lords

Thursday, 23rd May 1996.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.

British Coal Enterprise: Dispersal of Functions

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Following the sale of the functions of British Coal Enterprise, what action they are taking to meet the needs of former mining communities.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie): My Lords, government support for job creation and economic regeneration in the coalfields will continue to be available through regional selective assistance and the single regeneration budget, in addition to support available from European structural funds.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that everyone who has worked with BCE has high praise for the work that it has done? The main reason for the success has been that it is a very effective co-ordinator. The decision to split the functions which BCE has been carrying out so well will be a disaster. Is the Minister aware that there are still thousands of unemployed miners, through closure of pits, who are in their 30s and 40s? Unless there is an effective, well resourced, co-ordinating body there will be great difficulty finding employment for those miners. Will the Government look again at the issue?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I recognise that BCE has made a valuable contribution in recent years to the regeneration of the coalfields. However, it has always been made clear, as it was during the passage of the Coal Industry Bill before it became an Act, that BCE would be retained through the transitional and immediate post-privatisation period. That commitment has now been honoured. There is a proposal--offers have been made--to divide BCE into three parts, two of which would be management buy-outs. While such change necessarily follows, given the changes that there have been to British Coal, nevertheless I would be confident that it will continue to offer considerable assistance in the coalfields. I understand that one of the constituent parts has made public its commitment to continue to look for employment opportunities and work space in the coalfields.

In addition, I shall go to County Durham tomorrow afternoon, for example, at which time, through the schemes indicated in my original Answer, I hope that we shall be able to provide something like £1 million through regional selective assistance which is directly related to job creation.

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Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, following the sale, the House was promised that miners' welfare, recreational grounds and allotments were to be retained and protected? First, will the Minister say whether that has been done? Secondly, is he aware that about 80 British Coal sites are essential to the economic regeneration of the coalfield communities? Why cannot the Government finalise a deal transferring those sites to English Partnerships?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I have been invited to have regard to the three constituent parts of British Coal Enterprise. I believe that both parts of the noble Lord's question go beyond that. However, I shall look into the detail that he invited me to supply and write to the noble Lord.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware how welcome was the last part of his Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Dormand? He will be aware that radical change of the kind that has swept the British coalfield leaves behind some pretty painful problems which need urgent attention.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I certainly recognise that. As I indicated in my original Answer, BCE has played a valuable role. It is readily acknowledged that BCE has provided, in one form or another, employment opportunities possibly to as many as 100,000 people. That is clearly desirable.

Undoubtedly there have been problems in places such as the North East. But it has to be recognised that remarkable changes have been undertaken. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments on the last part of my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Dormand. In places like County Durham, it is extremely encouraging that there has been such an impressive revitalisation and change in the local economy.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, I acknowledge the useful initial reply from the Minister. Is the noble and learned Lord aware that those of us born and bred in coal mining areas would welcome consideration by the department of a conference with the coal owners' representatives and the National Union of Mineworkers. Following his statement today, it would indicate that this House is endeavouring bravely to reduce the possible, although not improbable, difficulties which British coal miners could face.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, it is questionable whether it would be appropriate for me to indicate that there should be such a conference. The underlying theme of the noble Lord's question is that there should be a continuing effort to ensure that employment and opportunities are provided in the former coalfields. It is a policy to which we are committed. In recent years, through the efforts of local authorities, BCE and government, enormous strides have been made. It would be a mistake to underestimate what has been achieved. It is not a matter of those areas

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suffering a lingering economic death. There has been a remarkable recovery. In their own interest that ought to be acknowledged.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the strictly mining communities in the hinterland of the country the devastation that has been caused is not partial but total? The social consequences are absolutely appalling. Bearing in mind that there has been some progress, will the Government give the matter the same urgent treatment and priority that they appear to be according once again to the farmers?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I shall not follow the noble Lord down that particular path. I recognise that there have been difficulties but emphasise what remarkable changes there have been. For example, I recently visited what were the workshops for British Coal in the north east. They have done a quite remarkable job in redirecting themselves. While I was there I was delighted, for example, to see that a contract has recently been secured worth millions of pounds to refurbish pumps for use on North Sea oil platforms. The opportunities to redeploy the skills and expertise of those who formerly worked in the coal mining industry should be appreciated. There are real prospects for them to be yet more successful in the future.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that in South Lanarkshire, which I used to represent in the other place, there has been a great improvement in the situation since the coalfields were worked out and industrial estates were established to replace them?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I cannot recall the detail of those particular closures, but certainly within the Lanarkshire partnership, as it is now described, there have been some very significant and encouraging changes. The base for the local economy has been broadened remarkably. I have no doubt that that is the way forward in the future.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, given the success of BCE, does the Minister agree with the phrase, "If it's working, don't fix it"? Is there not a danger that the dismantling of BCE will detract from the successes of the past? Will the Minister say a little more about the single regeneration budget in this context? He mentioned it as being helpful to the coalfield communities. Is there not a danger that they may get very little out of this as it is a bit of a lottery?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, to describe the deployment of challenge funding under the single regeneration budget as a lottery is something of a misnomer. There may have been that suspicion at the outset, but I thought that there was now a clear appreciation that it is working very valuably in identifying the best projects to provide the best results.

Turning to his more general question about BCE, things have changed. Compared to the number of people British Coal once employed, it now has a remarkably

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small number of employees. So, at least in one particular, there was bound to be a change once the privatisation had been completed. It would seem, then, that in the discharge of statutory duties the sale of the three component parts should now take place.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I am delighted that the Minister is to visit County Durham and that £1 million will be available. Will he say exactly where that sum is coming from? Will he also deal with the main point I made in my supplementary question about the need for co-ordination between all the bodies concerned? It looks to me as though he is not dealing with that at all.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, the £1 million will come from regional selective assistance and will go to some 24 companies. There is no reason to believe that what co-ordination there has been in the past will break up. Local authorities, particularly in the part of the world from which the noble Lord comes, work very well in partnership. There is no reason why that should not continue.


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