Saturday, 28 January 2017


House of Commons Hansard Debates for 21 Oct 1992

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Entirely lacking from the Conservative party has been any awareness of the sense of public outrage that people could be treated as the President of the Board of Trade did when he announced the closure of 31 pits. Of course, individual Members may take a different view, but I say that it was callous and brutal. 

That treatment came from a party that prides itself upon a citizens charter and a classless society. 

That is why hundreds of thousands are marching in London today.

 The little seminar on gas prices does not get near what the real argument is all about. All my right hon. and hon. Friends know that these events are part of a sustained attack upon the mining industry. 

It is taking place because the previous Prime Minister regarded the National Union of Mineworkers as The Enemy Within. The term was coined for that reason. 

It gives me huge pleasure that the Tory party threw out Thatcher and the miners re-elected Scargill.

Because that man told The Truth! 

And truth still has value in the politics of our society when all the lies, half truths and half promises about independent reviews are dismissed. 

The President of the Board of Trade said that he agonised over the decision that was before him. He is not the one who will suffer agony if pits are closed. If he agonised, why did he not have a review during that process? If there had been a review, others could have submitted other views while his discussions took place. 

I have a letter that came from the office of Cecil Parkinson when he was Energy Secretary. It is a response to someone who wrote from Derbyshire, and states that the privatisation of the electricity industry will have no effect on pit closures. 

Ministers have lied, lied and lied again about the mining industry. 

That is why people are so incensed. 

Do not tell us that this is all about market forces. 

If those forces applied to the farming industry, half the farms in Britain would have closed years ago, because we get cheaper food from New Zealand and Australia. 

Of course, the Tory party depends on the farmers and so it supports them. 
I am not in favour of applying market forces to farms. 

It is not possible to close a farm one year and open it the following year.

But the miners have not received set-aside grants, where they get given money not to produce coal. 

That is the reality of the debate.

There was a preparedness to pay a great deal of money to the gamblers two weeks ago when so-called market forces were working on the currency. 

That, I think, has played a part in these matters. 

I am intensely proud that I had a role to play in the energy policy of the Labour Government. 

That Government authorised the Selby project, as we authorised the Drax B coal-fired power station. 

We encouraged 42 million tonnes of extra capacity to be found. 

Selby was opened and there was an assisted burn scheme. 

We recognised that the then Central Electricity Generating Board needed a small grant to change the merit order of the power stations so that more coal could be burnt. 

We introduced earlier retirement for miners, something for which they had pressed for a long time. We then-- [Interruption.] 

Closures took place after negotiation and agreement. They concentrated mainly on pit exhaustion and dangerous working. 

As the then Secretary of State, I offered the NUM a veto on all closures. I discovered that Australian coal had been imported on the instruction of the now Lord Walker when he was Secretary of State for Energy. When it arrived it was so expensive that the generating board sold it to France at a loss.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr) : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Benn : I shall not give way for one moment.

We require a re-examination of energy policy that brings fuel suppliers, fuel industries, customers and unions together. There was such a re-examination from 1976 onwards ; the papers were published and the discussions were serious. When that process takes place it will be necessary to determine the objectives of the energy policy, and one of the objectives of the Labour Government was extremely simple. It was that everyone should have heat and light at home. That was not a bad energy policy objective. It was a recognition of the fact that in the end an energy policy is judged by whether people can get hold of energy.

It has been said, "If there is surplus coal, why not give it to pensioners?" 

That is a sensible argument. 

Coal could be supplied free of charge to the generators to pump it down the wire, as it were, in the form of cheap electricity. 

There are those who shake their heads in dissent, but that is an energy policy, but it is one in which Conservative Members don't believe, because they do believe in profit and not in people. 

That is what the argument is about.

We must think about imports and opencast mining.

Mr. Richards : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : I hope that it is a point of order.

Mr. Richards : It certainly is, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) to rewrite history?

Mr. Benn rose --

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. That is clearly not a point of order. I take strong exception to such a use of points of order.

Mr. Benn :  I hope that the time taken by that point of order is taken into account, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am advancing a serious argument that has more in common with what those outside this place are thinking than with the little arguments that we have heard from Conservative Members.

It is necessary, of course, to consider opencast mining. The environment of a village is destroyed by stripping it, as it were, for opencast mining. We must have regard also to desulphurisation, assisted burn and winter fuel concessions. As many have said, how can we justify subsidy by way of the nuclear levy, a fuel that is three times as expensive as coal?

The House should not think that that for which I am arguing cannot be done. In 1945, Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, a distinguished predecessor, presented the Fuel and Power Act--I operated under it and so does the President of the Board of Trade--which, when enacted, charged the Secretary of State with the general duty of securing the effective and co-ordinated development of coal, petroleum and other mineral resources--fuel and power- -in Great Britain. 

That is the statutory responsibility of the President of the Board of Trade. 

He is not merely a spectator of market forces. Indeed, in 1973 he was a member of a Government who introduced the Fuel and Electricity Control Act which bore on every fuel transaction in the country. 

When the right hon. Gentleman was a junior Minister he controlled the supply of fuel to the aircraft industry. 

The result of tonight's Division will not determine the issue that is before us. If anyone thinks that it will, he or she is making a great mistake. 

In fact, the British public have been awakened to the realities of the mining industry and to the rotten philosophy of the 1980s. 

We were told that everything was about cash and that chartered accountants had to be brought in to tell us what to do. 

That is not what it is all about. 

The issue is whether our society puts people in a place of dignity and serves them or whether we hand over money to gamblers who create no wealth. Arthur Scargill has been rehabilitated more quickly than any man I have known. Within 24 hours, everyone knew that he was right. 

The miners certainly did.

What has happened--I warn the Government about this--is that after 10 years during which people took things that they should never have taken, there is a return of self confidence and hope. It was that sort of self confidence and hope that got Mandela out of prison and got the Berlin wall down. Next it will get the President of the Board of Trade out of his office in favour of a better society. 

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