Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC Committee [Coal Industry Bill]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [755/1397-1412]
Editorial comments: c0527-c0618. MT spoke at cc1409-10.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 5170
[column 1397]

Clause 7.

(Increase in Membership of the National Coal Board.)

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

I beg to move Amendment No. 34, in page 4, line 27, to leave out ‘sixteen’ and insert ‘thirteen.’

One again, my hon. Friends have allowed me to put forward their views. The hour is very late and I want to be very brief. Unless there are really compelling reasons for increasing the membership of the Board at a time when we are discussing voluntary wastage, moving men around, and a loss of thousands of men a year, to say nothing of what can be described as a savage rundown in pits, I must say something on this Amendment.

The rundown is being intensified and it would appear to be utter folly for the Minister to suggest at such a time that there should be a major increase in the membership of the Board. There have been substantial developments calling for the attention of management, I agree; such as the new area structure which, on page 30 of the Annual Report is described as being largely self-sufficient for each area. Staff members have risen in one year by no fewer than 1,200 so it would seem that the areas are becoming more self-sufficient. It appears that the number of pits is being considerably reduced, and, while the problems will pose enormous amounts of work for management, would it really not be possible to carry on with the same numbers on the Board?

Our Amendment is modest. All we ask is that, instead of 16, as the Bill recommends, there should be 13 as a compromise. The Minister must be aware that some of us on this side of the Committee are suspicious and a little worried about the increasing amount of patronage available to the Government. I do not suggest that any member of the present [column 1398]Board is not a gifted and enlightened man, but Ministers of the future might wish to take advantage of this enormous amount of patronage available for providing jobs for the boys. When we bear in mind the appointing of members to boards, committees, commissions, and so on which has been done by this Government, then I think we should be very careful before taking the proposed step.

Surely this is the worst possible time to increase the number of members of the Coal Board, but if the Minister will not accept our Amendment would he consider the very sensible proposal which we would make?

5.30 a.m.

Mr. Harold Neal (Bolsover)

I do not intend to delay the Committee for long at this hour, but I would be failing in my duty if I did not express my direct opposition to the proposal in the Clause to increase from 11 to 16 the membership of the Board. After long and unique experience of the industry, including Ministerial experience, I cannot imagine why this proposal has been foisted on the Minister in this way.

More and more over the years the Board has been passing into the hands of people who know little about the industry, who have no practical experience of it, and no knowledge of it at all except through a railway carriage window. If the Clause proposed to put on the Board five practical miners I would cheerfully follow the Minister into the Division Lobby to support it, but the opposite is the case.

Someone in the Ministry or the Coal Board must have resurrected the Fleck Report—the Report of the Advisory Committee on Organisation—published in 1955. That Committee recommended that the Coal Board should be increased to 12 members but, in an addendum, Dr. Fleck, as he then was, suggested that the number should be increased to 18. I think that someone at the Ministry or the Coal Board has found that Report and has thought that it would be a nice proposal to put in the Bill.

I learned over the grapevine, however, that the five additional members—and I am open here to correction by the Minister—are to be the area chairmen of the new areas. They will be given national status. If that is the case, it means that those area chairmen will be commuting [column 1399]between Glasgow and Cardiff, Edinburgh and Cardiff, and between Doncaster and Nottingham and London, attending Board meetings as well as carrying on their normal duties as area chairmen in the provinces. That is a derogatory proposal.

For years it has been the practice to call divisional chairmen to London to apprise them of national intentions, and that could easily continue without giving these men national status. We know that the Chairman of the Board has a private plane so that he can conduct his peregrinations over the coalfields. Will each of the new members have a plane as well, so that he can commute in the way I have indicated? It seems a fantastic proposal.

What added responsibility has arisen in this declining industry to merit five more members on the Board? What does the Minister think will be the psychological effect of this proposal on the men in the coal industry? What is a man rendered unemployed, and probably walking the streets to find a job, to think of this proposal to create fresh Board members? Inevitably, this proposal, that will inevitably outdo Parkinson in creating more jobs, means that the area chairmen when they are absent at London meetings will have to delegate responsibilities to someone else.

I have always been opposed to the inclusion of part-time members of the Board. Part-time membership has provided a repository for retired trade union members and indigent businessmen. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) spoke of nepotism and “jobs for the boys” . Part-time members of the Board attending six or eight meetings a year cannot be adequately apprised of what is going on to take a proper part in those meetings. A Board of 16 would be too unwieldly for control. I hope that even at this late stage the Minister will think again about this derogatory proposal to spend more money and to increase the personnel of the Board.

Mr. Marsh

I hope that it will be of assistance to the Committee if I were to intervene at this stage to explain my reasons for this proposal. I quite understand the arguments put forward against [column 1400]it. They are perfectly logical and are shared by many people. This idea was not “Fleck” , but “Marsh” . Despite the run down, this is still a very big industry—

Mr. Neal

It was before.

Mr. Marsh

Will my hon. Friend allow me to continue?

It is still very large by British and international standards. A Board of this size is not abnormal. The Steel Corporation has 16 members on the Board, the N.C.B. will have 16 if this proposal is agreed to. The Gas Council has 16 and the Electricity Council has 20. I.C.I. has a board of 24. A board of this size is not spectacularly large, although that is no reason for making a small board bigger.

The reason I came to this conclusion is that, unlike most of the nationalised industries, this industry has not a federal structure. The sole top management is contained in Hobart House and it has no regional autonomy as the more federalised industries have. Already, there are very serious problems which have a regional flavour about them in the industry. It is not possible to compare the problems of the central coalfields with those of Wales and Scotland. They are almost totally different mining industries with totally different problems.

We are trying to produce a system whereby we shall have closer contact and liaison with the chairmen of the regional councils. We have 17 area boards responsible directly with the divisional chairmen between and with no real status under the new set-up. It is very doubtful whether a regional chairman has any powers over the area chairmen. The 17 areas report direct to Hobart House to a Board which is a functional one. It has a member for industrial relations, one for production, one for science and so on. I do not think the production director, the marketing director or the science director can be properly cognisant of the 17 area reports received every month.

The purpose would, therefore, be to ensure that in addition to the functional members there were on the National Board, say, four regional members with direct responsibility, as a kind of oneman microcosm of the Board as a whole, to provide the link between the regions and the Board and to be present at Board [column 1401]meetings as members of it. There is a great difference between attending a meeting of the Board as an official invited to sit in and joining on equal batting terms with the other members.

With the very real difficulties that the industry faces—some of the biggest arising from regional problems, which differ from region to region—I thought there was an advantage in having regional directors who were full-time members of the Board and have full knowledge of its functional activities within their regions. We have this in the British Steel Corporation, which is proving very successful. For example, the impact of the policies of the production director at Hobart House differs according to the various regions in which they are implemented. Therefore, I thought it right to have regional representation at that level.

It may be felt that the proposal provides jobs for the boys, and that I was attracted to the idea of having patronage over the Coal Board which would enable me to control it. That is something which I sometimes think about in the early hours of the morning, but I do not think that any Minister of Power is likely to do that with these appointments.

Some people think that this produces new jobs, but if regional directors are appointed there is then no job for the existing divisional chairmen. They would be cut out, and the areas would be responsible to their own particular regional chairman. It would not be a question of appointing more people in total.

Perhaps one should not get into an argument on salaries, and I do not express a view one way or the other. Within the nationalised industries there is little difference between the salary of a divisional chairman and that of a Board member. It is open to argument whether that should be so. Therefore, there will be no increase in the total numbers employed, and extra cash received by individuals will be so minimal as to have no meaning.

The Committee must decide whether there is enough in the argument for having the funnelling of the 17 areas into the four regional directors, who will be central and on equal terms with the other functional members of the Board. I do not believe that functional directors can [column 1402]absorb 17 area reports in a meaningful way every month.

It is crucial for this exercise that the proposals of the 17 areas should make an impact on the Board at every level. It seems to me that having those four people on the Board and cutting out the divisional chairmen is the best way of achieving this. I do not propose to die in the last ditch on the proposal; it is a matter of opinion. But given the importance and the implications of the job, this is probably better than the existing method.

Mr. McGuire

One of the worst features of the proposal to increase the number of whole-time members of the Board to 13 and the part-time members to three will be its effect in the coalfields. One constantly meets the argument there that at local and divisional level—and now at national level, which has never previously been the case—the Board seems to be too keen on over-manning in what the chaps I used to work with in the pit call the white collar trade. I must not be too disparaging, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) is an eloquent spokesman for colliery managers and other white collar workers.

This will be a damaging indictment of the Board because at a time when the industry is contracting, we are increasing the number of people on the Board. It will have a very bad effect and what the Minister has said has not reassured me that there is any need to alter the position of the five divisional chairmen. It seems that one of the motives for it is to give them a sinecure against possible redundancy. In my time with the Board it has been altered several times. To argue that the divisional chairmen are sort of emasculated men who can do little to influence events and relay opinions to the Board is not sufficient. If they cannot, we need to alter the structure.

I want to direct the attention of the Committee to the position of the part-time members. We want to have men, either as part-time members, or as full-time members, who can contribute something to the efficiency of the Coal Board. We have only two part-time members at present, although I know that if we accept the Government's proposal we [column 1403]will have the chance to increase the number to three.

We have Cecil King. We all know that that lad knows all about coal. He owns the Daily Mirror, but he certainly knows all about getting coal. He has done some lashing on in his time in the pit and has got plenty of coal, the hard way. I do not know quite how he was selected. Obviously, it was not because of his detailed knowledge of the industry. I do not know whether he makes a telling contribution to the Board's activities.

Mr. Marsh

My hon. Friend should not be too disparaging about Mr. King. He was responsible for providing 11 million copies of an article in favour of a coal-power station at Seaton Carew.

Mr. McGuire

My right hon. Friend is clairvoyant. I was coming to that. I was about to ask if he was appointed because he is well known to be sympathetic towards conventional power stations. If anyone wants to advocate an argument through a daily newspaper his is the best newspaper, because it has the highest circulation. If Mr. Cecil King and the Daily Mirror advocate the building of conventional power stations—and they can do it more eruditely than I can—this is a good reason for keeping him on the Board, as long as he continues to advocate common-sense policies.

The other part-time member is a professor, Professor Kahn. There is a place in this society for professors, but I believe that this House has learnt to its cost that people place too much credence on what professors say. They all say at the same time very different things. If we laid economists, statisticians and professors end to end they would still not reach agreement. I do not know what branch of economics Professor Kahn specialises in. No doubt he brings a powerful intellect to the activities of the Board.

This proposal will be seen by the ordinary miner in the sense that, however erudite and however wide the activities Cecil King engages in, these are not the qualifications required of a part-time member of the Board. My right hon. Friend should seek to appoint as a part-time member someone recognised to have detailed knowledge of the day-to-day [column 1404]workings of the Board and who knows something of the fears and aspirations of the ordinary man in the coal fields. A person of such qualities on the Board would go a long way to reinforcing the argument that part-time members have a particular contribution to make.

I understand that these members will be in addition to the Chairman. We have a deputy chairman and Mr. Arthur John, Director of Finance. There is also Bill Webber, Director of Industrial Relations; Mr. Grainger, the Member for Science, and Mr. Sheppard, the Member for Production. I believe that two whole-time posts are vacant—those of the marketing and staff managers. I wonder whether the staff manager appointment could be dealt with by the spokesman for C.O.S.A. If the men in the industry are to be reassured that their interests will still be safeguarded by the Board, it would be better to see a man of the qualities I have described appointed to overall charge of staff policy.

I do not quite accept the argument that we should seek to put these five divisional chairmen on the Board—these poor souls who are not in a position, apparently, to be able to relay information, perhaps because no one takes any notice of them. Apparently, they do not know whether they have power over the area boards. That is a fantastic and ridiculous argument.

One may ask why the Board is being reconstituted in this way, why the old divisions have been carved up and why the title of divisional chairman is being retained. If it is asked, “What does the divisional chairman do and does anyone take notice of him when he is doing it?” the answer, apparently, is that the new idea is to make him a full-time member of the Board. To dispel any accusation that we are creating “jobs for the boys” while doing away with the men who produce the coal, we should not be consolidating and increasing the jobs of those who do not produce. The way to do that, if those divisional chairmen have no powers, is to give them the powers. I cannot accept that when they know the problems in the regions, to make them effective they have to be planted on to the N.C.B. as whole-time members to make a different cast. That does not make common sense. [column 1405]

I ask my right hon. Friend not to pursue the question of having the extra members, certainly not in this form. I have no objection to appointing, as we should have already, three part-time members. Let us appoint someone who is recognised as knowing something about the grass roots of the mining industry so that when men go to the rostrum at trade union conferences and ask what the Union is doing, the divisional secretaries and presidents of the National Union of Mineworkers can explain the policy and show that there have not been jobs for the boys. The object of the exercise is to make a stronger and better Board in the interest of everybody concerned and to dispel the argument that it is a case of jobs for the boys.

Mr. David Griffiths (Rother Valley)

I am astounded that whoever has advised my right hon. Friend the Minister has told him that after 20 years' experience the Board needs to be increased from 11 to 16 members. The industry is contracting with pits closing all over the country, and we are now adding more fuel to the fire. We already have a demoralised, disgruntled mining community. What will happen when the rank and file get to know that the Board is being increased to 16 members?

It is a question not only of the Board at Hobart House. It is a question of overloading from the area general managers down to the shot firers and deputies. My right hon. Friend should go to the mining areas to ascertain the feelings of the men. Those advising my right hon. Friend do not know much about the ramifications of the mining industry. Those with experience of the pits will realise the antagonism that will confront them. I implore you, Mr. Minister, to reconsider this—

The Temporary Chairman (Mr. Grant-Ferris)

Order. The hon. Member must address me, not the Minister.

Mr. Griffiths

I beg pardon, Mr. Grant-Ferris.

I ask my right hon. Friend to look again at the position. I visualise that immense difficulties will confront him. If we are to have an increase in the Board at Hobart House and to displace district chairmen, there will be difficulty in having power in negotiations. There will be a prolongation of negotiations, causing irrit[column 1406]ability and bad temper. I am sure that anyone who knows anything about the industry will deplore the increase in the membership of the Board from 11 to 16.

6.0 a.m.

Mr. Adam Hunter

I shall never cease to wonder how at this time it should be proposed that the numbers on the Board, part-time and full-time, should be increased. I have in mind the considerations already put by my hon. Friends prior to my taking my feet. First, of course, is the fact that the industry is contracting. I think that this is the nub of the question.

There is in the industry an institution corresponding with the Coal Board, and that is the National Union of Mine-workers. I will take my own area, with which I am best acquainted. In the Counties of Fife, Clackmannan and Stirling we had three full-time trade union members; we had an office at which everyone could call. Now, at this time, with the Scottish figure of employed manpower having gone down from 80,000 to 40,000, we find there is no need for any trade union office, no use for any trade union official, in the County of Fife, my own country, or Stirling County. People have now to go to Edinburgh, where the Coal Board's Scottish headquarters are.

Ten years ago the number of men employed in the coal-mining industry in the United Kingdom was about 700,000. Now we have only 390,000. In my area—I suppose this will be happening in many other areas of the United Kingdom—we have had complete rationalisation of our industry. Many pits have been closed; most of the administrative staff have moved from the counties I have mentioned to Edinburgh; we have workshops now completely rationalised; instead of two large workshops we have only one.

It is a very serious question that we could have 10 years ago a Divisional Chairman, along with a group of the National Union of Mineworkers, with complete control of the Scottish Division, and that now we find that, with this very much reduced manpower, we are to change the whole set-up. I think that there is something very seriously wrong with the Minister when this proposal is put forward at this time.

Mr. Lane

May I, briefly, support my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor), who [column 1407]moved this Amendment so persuasively on behalf of his absent hon. Friends? All through the night we have been discussing the problems of adjustment of a great national industry. I also have a personal problem of adjustment, if hon. Members will allow me to mention it, as this is the first time I have taken part in a coal debate. Only two years ago I was working for an international oil company. Obviously, whereas previously I looked at power questions through the eyes of an oil company employee, I have now to try to take a broader view as a member of this Committee, and I will do my best to do that with fairness and objectivity.

Although I have never lived in a mining community I do have some idea of the anxiety which is felt at the present time in the mining communities and by hon. Members who here represent them. In Cambridge, as hon. Members know, we have no coal mines. We have a good many consumers; we have a great many taxpayers. Of course, in this, as in all the other questions we have been discussing tonight, it is a matter of striking a balance between these interests, and I suggest that on this Clause and the question of the size of the Coal Board the Minister has to strike a balance.

I must say that I am not yet fully convinced by his argument, even by his fuller explanation he gave this morning, fuller than that he gave on Second Reading, of his proposal. Has he considered the bare statistics of this matter? We understand that, on the best estimates, coal output is likely to fall by about 15 per cent. by 1971, and, if my arithmetic is correct, he is envisaging that the Board's membership may go up even faster than that decline—by no less than 50 per cent. Would he have a short word, before he makes his mind up, with the Minister of Transport?

It is not often that we on this side of the Committee approve of something that the Minister of Transport proposes to do, but I understand that she is proposing to cut down the size of the British Railways Board. It would be well if the Minister of Power had a word with his right hon. Friend before finally making up his mind. I was surprised when in his speech a few minutes ago he did not deal with the point, put by his [column 1408]hon. Friends much more forcefully than I can put it, about the effect of this proposal on the morale in the coal fields.

Will the right hon. Gentleman think further about this subject? He and the Parliamentary Secretary have said “No” with varying degrees of charm to every Amendment moved tonight. Will the right hon. Gentleman now celebrate the nearness of the dawn by accepting this very modest Amendment?

Mr. Swain

I am interested in the Amendment and in the composition of the Coal Board in general. Since 1957, the industry has run down from 780,000 men to about 385,000 and that has been done with very little trouble for the labour relations within the industry. I must give the management at all levels and the National Union of Mineworkers at all levels credit for this magnificent exercise in industrial relations. But this Clause is the straw which will break the camel's back.

Last Saturday night I was in my local having a pint at somebody else's expense when I was told that at a pit in the area where I lived and where there used to be one under-manager and three overmen there were now two under-managers and nine overmen, although only 410 men were now employed in the pit. It appears that the Board has to increase the number of its staff in proportion to the decrease in the number of men employed in the industry.

During this week I have put 17 Questions to the Minister of Power to conduct an inquiry into this subject. I have found that the manpower in the industry is hopelessly out of balance, because there are far more administrative workers per 1,000 workers employed than there were only five years ago. I contend that the Coal Board does not require any more members.

I was under the impression that when the industry was reorganised into areas, divisional chairmen would be appointed to the areas to undertake functional jobs, and with that I entirely agree. But if people have been appointed to these functional jobs in the areas, then I recommend my right hon. Friend to have a redundancy scheme for these four divisional chairmen, because there does not appear to be any function in the divisions for them, and I cannot see any [column 1409]function for them at national level. We have managed with a Board of eight and part-time members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Neal) knows perfectly well that when the safety regulations were amended, the added responsibility of those regulations was used as a subterfuge to appoint certain part-time members. What is to be the subterfuge for the appointment of these five new members? I have heard some whispering on the Government Front Bench and I hope that it is repeated aloud so that we can all understand what is being said.

I hope and trust that the Minister will tell the House this. I hope that the Board will not be extended by one. I do not think it is needed. It will cause more trouble in the coalfields than my right hon. Friend or most hon. Members appreciate. We live in the mining villages of Derbyshire, Yorkshire and other mining areas and we know this. We want to help the Minister and the Coal Board in maintaining the excellent relations between the Coal Board and the men which have existed for years.

Not many weeks ago, I remind my right hon. Friend, we had a bitter experience at Hamilton, mainly because the mining community were suspicious of what our very proud Government were doing. We have to do everything in our power to prevent such tragedies to the community as nationalists taking over, as happened in Scotland and Wales. I am sure that the Minister will see the wisdom not only of accepting the Amendment, because the commonsense thing would have been to leave the figure at 8 per cent., but of giving a figure between 8 and 16 per cent.

Mrs. Thatcher

It seems that we are almost having a “Clause stand part” debate on the Amendment. I agree with a number of hon. Gentlemen that there should not be a single increase in the membership of the Coal Board. In the arguments he put forward for the Clause, the hon. Member said that so many problems of the Board had a regional flavour that they were quite distinct and that the regional flavour was not represented on the Board. If that is his argument, he should not be asking for an increase, but for devolution to regional level to deal with these problems. [column 1410]

In private industry, where there are quite large boards, one finds a regional structure with considerable powers operated at the regions. The answer to his argument for regional flavour is more power at regional level. In reading the Report, it seems to me that he has abolished the nearest thing to a region, the division. One cannot have it both ways, to abolish the division, put it forward as a great advance and then say that there is a need for more regional representation at Board level because problems have a regional flavour.

The Board operates on a functional basis and it is said that none of the members can be expected to read the reports from the regions each month. Even if regional members were put on, functional members would not be freed from the job, and it would be their job to read every report.

This argument appals me, because it would lead to a disaster of the kind we had when one director just plainly did not know his job. The Minister is trying to have a board operate functionally and regionally. He will have to make up his mind what he wants. I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman is admitting that the present Board does not know its job and cannot do the job allotted to it. This is not a reason for adding four or five more members; it is a reason for looking at the present structure and membership of the Board. Before the Committee agrees to the Clause standing part of the Bill, which I hope it will not do, I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will go back and think again along the lines of the advice which has been offered to him during the debate.

6.15 a.m.

Mr. Marsh

The problem which I have, apart from the hour of the morning, is an inability to withstand the pressure of my colleagues and that of hon. Gentlemen opposite on an issue about which they have strong feelings. As has happened so frequently in my experience, I do not seem to have any supporters. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary would support me were he here. This is clearly something which is not acceptable to either side of the Committee.

I take the hon. Lady's point. I am not happy with things as they are in this [column 1411]relationship. There is a missing link between the area and Board levels. I ask the Committee to accept that I am prepared to consider, in another place, accepting one of these Amendments. I undertake seriously to examine the matter, but I would like time to work out what the alternative is to the original suggestion which I put up. It might be necessary not to proceed with any further appointments, or to proceed with one of the Amendments. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) suggested three members instead of five.

It is clear that my original proposal is not acceptable to the Committee. I would like an opportunity to look at this in another place so that I have time in which to decide what to accept, and to see what sort of structure should be considered as an alternative.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

I am sure that the Committee is delighted to hear the Minister taking such a reasonable attitude. He sensed the feeling of the Committee. I wish that more Ministers would adopt his attitude in similar circumstances. [column 1412]

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman appreciates that there is an equally strong feeling about the high price of gas in Scotland.

In view of the Minister's statesmanlike and helpful comments I have much pleasure in begging leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 8 and 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 55 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.