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The Coal Industry

5.35 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath rose to call attention to the future of the coal industry and related coal engineering industries; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the position of the coal and coal engineering industries, not least because this debate takes place at an extremely critical time both for the industry and for the future arrangements for the energy requirements of our country.

I think that it is best if I begin by asking my noble friend a number of questions. I hope that they will receive relevant responses. I shall then say a few words about my anxiety with regard to the various issues to which those questions refer.

First, do the Government accept that much coal will continue to be required by the United Kingdom for rather a long time?

Secondly, do the Government accept that it would be wise for the United Kingdom to retain a coal engineering industry, not only to maintain its commendable export record but also because the world will continue to need coal and other minerals as people penetrate deeper into the earth's crust for those resources? At the same time, people may soon cry out for a clean coal combustion capacity, to which our industry could contribute provided it has the home base which it will need if it is to survive.

Thirdly--this is related to my previous point--even if our coal industry disappears there will still be a huge international "coal burn" for a long time. The destruction of our industry will have remarkably little effect on that total consumption.

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Fourthly, if we do not burn coal, how will it be replaced? Perhaps my noble friend can tell us the scale of our gas reserves. I understand that the current record suggests proven gas reserves of perhaps no more than eight years-worth. More will be discovered, but probably in smaller fields which will be difficult and expensive to harvest.

Fifthly, is it sensible for us to sustain a belief in cheap, subsidised exports when our industry could soon be on the verge of disappearing?

Sixthly, Poland now aspires to be a member of the EU. It is obliged to act as a responsible part of the EU. It is in principle not supposed to dump within the EU and yet Polish coal is being sold in Britain today at a price of £1.10 per gigajoule, which is way below the cost of production. When one adds the substantial cost of transporting that coal, one realises that that importation is almost indefensible.

Seventhly, has the Department of Trade and Industry considered the implications of the recent purchase of Ferrybridge, Fiddler's Ferry, Drax and Eggborough, for which a price of almost £1.5 billion has been paid? That suggests that people from abroad are quite prepared to import large quantities of coal into the United Kingdom while our industry disappears.

Eighthly, have the Government disregarded the fact that, excluding Russia, Europe has only some 3.6 per cent of the world's gas and one-eighth of the world's coal, and that we shall be increasingly dependent on gas and coal from areas of the world which are certainly not particularly stable or likely to be favourable in their attitude to the United Kingdom's needs?

Ninthly, is it reasonable to pursue a course which will see the end of British deep mining when it is currently demonstrating an enormous capacity in a successful and safe operation, providing that base which the engineering industry requires?

Tenthly, do the Government intend to maintain their present approach given that £14.5 billion was devoted to the subsidy of the coal industries of Germany, Spain and, to some extent, France, while our own industry not only is not subsidised but bears charges and costs which are not applicable to our European neighbours' industries?

Eleventhly, do the Government recognise that the United Kingdom has been successful? If one looks at the rates of productivity in Europe, one finds, for example, that, measured in kilogrammes per man hour, Spain produces 400, Germany 650 and the United Kingdom, on the latest figures, well in excess of 1,600. We are far, far more effective than our European competitors, whose industries are being retained.

Lastly, do the Government recall that they promised the coal industry no favours but fairness, wisdom and a level playing field? In that case, how can one defend the fact that our industry is facing a very adverse slope?

Those are the questions. I shall now express why I am concerned. When I became a Member of the House of Commons in 1970, I had 12 collieries in my

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constituency and more than 20 within five miles of its boundaries. Thousands of my constituents worked in the industry. In the village in which I lived, close to Wath upon Dearne, 57 per cent of the men worked in the pit. There are two or three industrial gypsies now, working for contractors at long distances.

Before that, I was a local councillor. In my ward was Manvers colliery, where my father was over man, and the headquarters of the South Yorkshire area, which then consisted of 19 collieries. Only one of those remains--Maltby, which has vast reserves--on which £200 million was invested. It should have a long life; it employs only 400 men. It was not even on the list that Mr Heseltine produced in the earlier Parliament.

Silverwood was on that list. I am pleased to see that the noble Lords, Lord Ezra and Lord Haslam, are in their places. I shall listen to their speeches with interest and respect. They may recall that Silverwood was one of the most profitable, record-breaking pits in the country over a long period. At this moment, vast sums of money are being expended in reclaiming the site of that very successful former colliery. I shall listen to other noble Lords' contributions with great interest. I hope that they will be helpful in assisting the Government's view.

It is all very well to say that there will be help for the areas affected, but most of the pits in the constituency that I represented closed in the 1980s, about 12 years ago. A lot of money has been spent since, but the gap between the problem and the remedy, or attempted remedy, has been a long one--12 years. There was enormous concern about the devastation of employment which then occurred. Many spoke about that. Some spoke also about the social corrosion of the changes which took place and which may have placed our areas at a particular disadvantage.

The debate comes at a critical time. Will the United Kingdom be able to withstand international forces which we may not at this stage be properly able to assess? Will we sacrifice energy security? We seem to be hell-bent along that road. Do the Government recognise that if the deep-mine industry, as successful as it is, is wiped out, that will inevitably destroy our mining engineering industry, which requires a home base, at least for demonstration purposes? We need to be very careful about that.

There is much talk about green issues. My noble friends who have known me for a long time will recognise that I have been a conservationist, a very green politician, for a long time. It is certainly well over 25 years since I first spoke about the need to burn coal cleanly and said that there is no need for the filth which pours into our atmosphere so remorselessly and unrelentingly, and which has been scarcely adequately challenged internationally. I support our commitments in Kyoto; I wish only that other advanced countries--particularly the United States--would take the same approach. We have to recognise that, although we have achieved much, a great part of that bill is borne by the mining communities.

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We should not be too glib when we talk about alternatives. We talk about solar power. Many parts of the world have greater access to that source of energy than we have in the United Kingdom, even with global warming. Wind power is not as attractive as many people imagine, although it may have a contribution to make--as have other renewables, although some of them will be frightfully expensive. I recall that in 1970 I had a briefing from the electricity industry. I can see now how we were presented with the nuclear future through very rose-tinted spectacles.

As this century ends, the newspapers are full of photographs providing images of the past 100 years. Some will stick in our minds for a very long time--the pictures of the closed collieries; of the pit wheels marking where the collieries stood--but, as I have said before, the one that will long linger in my mind is of standing beside the sarcophagus at Chernobyl. That may be some evidence that man's ingenuity is not quite matched by man's wisdom.

The world will continue to need coal for a long time. We ought to be contributing to a capacity to burn it cleanly.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. I appreciate his long-term interest in the mining industry, particularly in the welfare of miners. We have both contributed to debates about compensation and the delay in payment of compensation to miners who have been affected by breathing and chest diseases as a result of working for long periods in coal mines. There have been reports recently in the press that some of the compensation for these people will come from the miners' pension fund. I can tell my noble friend that in South Wales that has gone down like a lead balloon. Does he have any observations to make about that?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I remind your Lordships that this is a timed debate. It is undesirable that noble Lords should interrupt at any length during timed speeches.

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