Commons suspended in row over Michael Gove’s Cumbria coal mine statement

Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle suspended action in the Commons after a bust-up over cabinet minister Michael Gove’s statement on the approval of the coal mine in Cumbria.

Mr Gove said approving the controversial coal mine was “the right thing to do” and insisted he was satisfied that it would be “net zero-compliant”.

But the speaker suspended a debate on the issue over the government’s failure to provide Mr Gove’s full statement to Labour’s shadow ministers and opposition MPs.

Visibly angry, he said: “That is not according to the ministerial code – we don’t work like that. I am going to suspend the house ... This is not the way we do good government.”

Sir Lindsay and Commons clerks argued with Mr Gove about the matter outside the chamber, The Independent understands – telling the minister that the failure to provide the statement he had read to Labour was a breach of the ministerial code.

Mr Gove was asked to photocopy what he had read out in the Commons so it could be shared with opposition MPs, sources said – but Mr Gove argued that wasn’t possible because had ad-libbed some of what was said.

Sir Lindsay later thanked Hansard for typing up Mr Gove’s remarks – but said he was “dismayed” that the government had “failed to follow” the ministerial code. He said a copy of the text should be shown to the opposition at least 45 minutes before it is made.

Mr Gove told Sir Lindsay he was sorry. “I apologise to you and to the house. No discourtesy was intended, and I do appreciate the importance of maintaining the courtesies of the house, particularly with ministerial statements.”

Prior to the row, Mr Gove claimed that a coking coal mine for use by the steel industry would be “net-zero compliant” and the plan to create 500 jobs would be a “significant contribution to local economy”.

The levelling-up secretary pointed to the planning inspector’s judgement that the amount of coal used in UK steel making would be “broadly the same” with or without the mine – and so would have a “broadly neutral” effect on global emissions.

Mr Gove added: “Our net-zero strategy makes it clear that coal has no part to play in future power generation, which is why we’re phasing it out of our electricity supply by 2024.”

But opposition politicians, scientists, environment campaigners and even the government’s own adviser have condemned the decision to give the Woodhouse Colliery the go-ahead.

The mine is projected to increase UK greenhouse gas emissions by 0.4 million tonnes a year, the equivalent of around 200,000 cars.

Responding to Mr Gove, Labour’s shadow levelling-up secretary Lisa Nandy said: “What on earth is he thinking? The decision … is bad. It’s bad policy and it’s bad politics. It’s the latest in a string of absurd decisions from a government in chaos.”

The shadow minister said Mr Gove’s claim that it was safeguarding energy security “is a nonsense” – saying steel producers were already phasing out of use of coal in favour of lower carbon production.

Ms Nandy accused the Tories of “environment vandalism” and said people in Cumbria deserved “lasting, well-paid jobs that power us through the next century”.

Demonstrators protest against coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria (PA)
Demonstrators protest against coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria (PA)

Mr Gove claimed that the coal mine in Cumbria would “to some extent, support the transition to a low-carbon future” – saying the project aspires to be net zero.

But the Liberal Democrats’ climate spokesperson Wera Hobhouse said the decision was “a travesty of the word transition – it is a full-blown backwards step to more fossil fuel use in the UK”.

Cumbrian Lib Dem MP Tim Farron said it was “like celebrating the opening of a Betamax factory” – comparing it to obsolete video tapes. He said the decision was “daft” since British Steel and Tata had not committed to buying coal.

The approved plans for the project near Whitehaven is expected to extract nearly 2.8 million tones of coal per year for the steel industry.

But some of the coal will also be exported to Europe. The government letter outlining the decision said Mr Gove was “satisfied” that there was a UK and European market for the coal.

But Mr Gove would not say if 85 per cent of the coal from the Cumbrian mine would be exported, as former Tory minister Alok Sharma – the Cop26 president – claimed at the weekend.

Earlier, Tory MP Lee Anderson suggested the coal mine was a win for the working- class because it would “pour millions” into the local economy. “Listen, these Friends of Earth people … they’re not friends of the working-class people in places like Cumbria.”

But Tony Bosworth of Friends of the Earth said investing in cheap renewables and energy efficiency would create “thousands of green jobs and opportunities locally”.

The campaigner told The Independent that his organisation’s analysis showed that if the government invested in a street-by-street home insulation programme, it could create “as many jobs in Cumbria as the coal mine” and cut residents’ energy bills.