Below is the text of the speech made by David Hunt, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy, in the House of Commons on 10 December 1985.
First, I must begin by commending the diligence and concern of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) for his constituency and his skill in securing, albeit at this late hour, a further Adjournment debate on a pit closure in his area. He knows that, whenever a possible pit closure is announced, it must be of serious concern to everybody who cares about the coal industry’s future, but in particular to the local community. If that community is in an area of high unemployment, as is the case with Garw colliery, I recognise that there are special problems. The Government and the National Coal Board recognise the nature of those problems and have gone to enormous lengths to ease any difficulties with which the men or the community may find themselves faced when a pit closes.
The hon. Gentleman faced me across the floor of the Chamber on a similar occasion on 23 April. The issue that he raised then was St. John’s colliery. Much of what I said on that occasion holds true now, and I make no apologies to the hon. Gentleman for repeating myself.
Perhaps the House will consider for a moment the general question of pit closures. I have pointed out to the House many times that the closure of individual pits is a matter for the NCB, in consultation with the mining unions. Opposition Members repeatedly and incorrectly allege that the Government are shutting pits in their constituencies. The Government employ no mining engineers and no coal specialists who can take a view on the prospects for a particular pit. That is the role of the NCB, and in the hon. Gentleman’s area it is the role of the director and staff of the south Wales area of the NCB.
Pits have always closed —330 under Labour Governments in recent years —and in all cases it has been the result of consultation within the industry, not with Government. I admit that, when a pit has been the main employer in a community, as Garw has been for over 100 years, it makes no difference to the people who live there what the complexion is of the Government in power.
They are concerned for their future, and rightly so. The Government, too, are concerned for their future, but, more than that, we are concerned for the future of the whole coal industry and for the health of the nation’s economy.
Opposition Members continue to suggest that keeping open uneconomic pits is an answer to unemployment, but it is not. Today’s uneconomic pit is often the exhausted pit of two or three years’ from now, and by keeping open grossly uneconomic capacity the industry harms itself and drains the nation’s resources. What the Government want to see is a healthy coal industry. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the commitment that we have shown to achieving that objective —the massive and record support that we have given the industry in the past six years.
Despite the longest and most damaging industrial dispute that this country has seen, that support has enabled miners to remain at the top of the industrial pay league. It has ensured that, during a massive and long overdue restructuring, there have been no compulsory redundancies. No man has been forced to leave the industry and those who have chosen to leave have done so on extraordinarily generous terms. That support has led to the creation of National Coal Board (Enterprise) Ltd, which is not only bringing new industries into mining areas but giving men who have worked in the coal industry the chance to make a fresh start, often using their redundancy money in creative and imaginative ways.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Ogmore referred to the modifications to the colliery review procedure which have been introduced. I am aware that, in the case of Garw, the men have voted to agree to the closure of the pit and to transfer to other pits or accept voluntary redundancy. Nevertheless, had they chosen to oppose the board’s proposals, there is now available a review procedure which, by the inclusion of an independent review body, allows for a completely impartial recommendation to be made on the future of any pit referred to it. Hon. Members will have read in the past few days of the case of Darfield main colliery, itself the subject of an Adjournment debate a few weeks ago. Following a national appeal meeting, a rescue plan put forward by the British Association of Colliery Management was accepted by the board and the pit is to remain open. That stresses and underlines the value of the procedure.
The hon. Member for Ogmore has asked me to look at the feasibility of preserving Garw colliery and the cost of mothballing. That must be, and is, a matter for the area director and his staff. I do not know whether the hon. Member has raised this matter with the area director but, if he has not, he should do so at the earliest opportunity, because it is for the area director to decide. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that a survival plan was put forward at Garw by the NUM but that the investment envisaged by the plan was said by the area director not to have provided a sufficient return. The NCB has announced investment plans for the south Wales coalfield which show the extent of its commitment to the area. Betws, Abercynon, Penallta, Abernant, Taff Merthyr, Merthyr Vale and Oakdale will benefit this year from investment in high technology. They are pits with extensive reserves, sound geology and good prospects. No doubt men who have voted to accept closure at St. John’s and Garw will transfer to those pits and will have a long career ahead of them producing coal. The area director has confirmed to me today that the men at St. John’s and Garw have been offered any pit of their choice on the south Wales coalfield. Whatever their decision, I wish them well.
The hon. Member for Ogmore suggested that the area director and the NCB have been devious in the way in which they approached this closure, because they pointed out to the work force that, as a result of paying insufficient national insurance contributions during the strike, some men would not qualify for unemployment benefit if they chose to take redundancy during the next benefit year. That is an incredible accusation, because surely it is the duty of an employer to point out to his employees any factor that might affect their well-being. No pressure has been put on miners to take redundancy, because they can equally choose to transfer to another pit.
I wish that the hon. Gentleman would put the other side of what is happening in the Welsh coalfield. There has been more investment in this financial year in south Wales than in any previous year, and there is still more investment in the pipeline. There is now record productivity. In the first three months of this year, production losses were £15 a tonne, but now the area director is talking of the coalfield moving to a break-even position in the first quarter of next year. Last week, the highest ever productivity of 2.1 tonnes per man shift was achieved. In addition, in this financial year, averages should be higher than in either of the two years before the strike. This is a marvellous success story for south Wales, and if the trend should continue, therein lies the greatest hope for the future.
The hon. Gentleman is right to stress the vital role that will be played by the National Coal Board (Enterprise) Ltd. in his area, and the many other areas that are faced with the serious problems caused by pit closures. He will appreciate that many of the issues that he has raised are matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, but I shall ensure that the points that he has raised with me —both those that are my responsibility those that are the responsibility and of my right hon. Friend —are dealt with, and he shall receive replies on the points to which I have not had time to reply tonight.