To buck or not to buck the coal market

The end of mining in Britain may be just around the corner, but Blair's team has other things on its mind
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Indy Lifestyle Online
They come in every day to John Stones' "surgery" in an office building on the lane that used to lead to the colliery. Ex-miners made redundant in the last big round of pit closures complain of bronchitis, emphysema and stress, and as their former union representative he tries to sort out their problems. Many qualify for invalidity benefit, so they never appear on the unemployment register. Their children, who would have followed them down the pit, are increasingly turning to drugs.

The Government's Mining Communities Task Force visited the village - South Elmsall, in south Yorkshire - last Thursday and heard that there are now more than 500 registered heroin addicts in the area. Prior to the colliery closures there was no serious drug problem. Now girls are selling themselves for "a quick shot", and some get hooked into prostitution in Sheffield and Doncaster. The redundancy money has been spent and loan sharks find the ex-miners and their families easy prey. To stave off the money lenders, some of the men, who were until recently the aristocrats of the labour movement, are reduced to riddling and stealing fine-grained power-station coal from the colliery site to sell to their neighbours for a couple of quid a bag.

The human side of King Coal's crisis goes virtually unreported. South Elmsall was once a vibrant, active community. The mine, Frickley, was a big hitter, producing a million tonnes a year. Coal reserves extended well into the next century. The men talked with pride about being the "Second to None" because only four out of 2,500 men went back to work during the great strike of 1984-85. It was a solid Labour village. Now they are wondering why.

First, Labour railroaded the miners' chosen candidate out of the parliamentary seat - not once but twice. They still remained loyal. Then Michael Heseltine closed their colliery in 1993, amid Labour promises that things would be different when they returned to power.

Now the few men who got jobs in other Yorkshire mines, particularly the Selby complex a dozen miles away, fear that a Labour President of the Board of Trade, Margaret Beckett, will stand by and watch the privatised coal industry boss, Richard Budge, close that down, too, because he cannot sell his coal to the privatised electricity generators. Labour's message appears to be the neo-Thatcherite refrain that "We cannot buck the market". In the words of a secret DTI closure strategy document, "direct government action is not feasible".

Tony Blair and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, have finally grasped that there is a crisis in the making. They met on Thursday afternoon and decided, in the manner of the then Prince of Wales who divined a similar problem in South Wales in the Thirties, that "something must be done" for the miners. A senior minister was given the task of holding urgent talks with the power generators and Mr Budge, whose company mines 90 per cent of British coal, and then drawing up a rescue package for coal. This is not, of course, a rescue package for ministerial face, though it might be argued that it amounts to the same thing.

But this will come too late to stop mining communities asking what the point was of electing a Labour government. If direct action is "not feasible" with Mr Blair in Downing Street sitting on a parliamentary majority of 180, when will it ever be? Their anger spilled over in a packed committee room at Westminster last Tuesday as the Minister for Coal, John Battle, tried to talk his way out of trouble in front of furious coal producers, pit managers, church leaders and miners. Richard Courtney, of the colliery managers' association, asked: "Are you, or are you not, the Government?" John Roden, Anglican chaplain to the Selby coalfield, condemned the DTI's secret strategy for manipulating the media in the event of mass pit closures. "I find that very upsetting, particularly from a Labour government." Mr Battle lost his cool, retorting that the vicar had come "with cloth round his ears".

COAL mining still stirs deep emotions, though the Blair administration has understood this only belatedly. It is as though an unspoken understanding exists that we are in debt to the miners and their families, and that our politicians have let them down. Because they do their suffering in their own communities we don't see it, and therefore we ignore it. Yet there is a collective sense of guilt just below the surface that breaks out at times like the present, when the industry is convulsed by closures. If the current round of negotiations between RJB Mining and the generators goes as expected, around 11 million tonnes of capacity will have to be taken out of operation, and it could be worse still. That translates into at least 10 pits, or perhaps the whole of the four-pit Selby complex - the jewel in the crown which produces the cheapest deep-mined coal in Europe.

The Government says it cannot get involved. The DTI strategy is to manage the news impact of the closures, "blitzing" the media, on the grounds that "the quicker we can do this, the more likely they are to write what we say". This is how the civil servants talk to their ministers in the strategy document, "Coal Press Strategies", leaked to us last week. At least they are candid. Ministers fear that "the Government could be portrayed as driving the nails in the coal industry's coffin". Clearly, they were more worried about their image than about the future of 5,000 men who stand to lose their jobs by next March, and the thousands more whose livelihoods are at risk in support and related industries.

When the Commons debated the parlous future for coal last Wednesday attendance was decidedly sparse. On the Government front bench alongside the embattled Mr Battle - a decent man sent to do a dirty job - sat the Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, his feet on the desk and apparently oblivious to what was going on around him as he tweaked his speech for the parliamentary press gallery that lunchtime. Time was when a debate on coal would have filled the chamber. On this occasion only about two dozen Labour MPs bothered to attend (not including the celebrated miners' MP Dennis Skinner), and only four of them women. On the Opposition side, around ten Tories wept crocodile tears for the industry their colleagues who were formally ministers conspired to crush. They also served up Labour's heated promises of December 1992, when Robin Cook, then Shadow DTI Secretary, guaranteed coal a future, ending the "rigged market" for electricity generation with a ban on further licences for gas-fired power stations. In office Labour has licensed four new gas-fired stations within six months, and many more - 27 all told - are in the pipeline. Battle insists that "the damage of the dash to gas has already been done". Why add to it?

It is clear that Labour does not like Richard Budge. MPs and ministers alike perceive him as a capitalist who has done well out of the sell-off of coal, whowants to dig deep into taxpayers' pockets to stave off closures that might cost him a lot of money in redundancy payments. It may stick in the gullet, but doing something for the miners also means doing something for RJB Mining, a company that made profits before interest and tax of pounds 206m in 1996. Nobody else owns the pits.

THERE are now signs that the Government will act. Initially its performance on this issue was so inept that a repeat of the Formula One affair was on the cards. Alarm bells began ringing not just in the offices of the DTI, where civil servants calmly contemplate writing finis to the history of the coal industry, but in Downing Street as well. The Opposition decided to use its parliamentary time tomorrow to have a debate on Mrs Beckett's conduct of the DTI, including her refusal to help the coal industry.

This is publicity the image-conscious Blair administration can do without. An emergency inquiry into the state of the industry was sanctioned by the Commons DTI select committee. It will begin taking evidence on Wednesday. Among the first to speak will be the mining unions - with the exception of Arthur Scargill's NUM. The pounds 60,000-a-year-plus president of the mineworkers' union is sulking in his tent in Barnsley. His mulish disdain is predictable, and he may well be preoccupied with the annual conference of his Socialist Labour Party next week, but some of his members will be in London to demonstrate against the closures. This could be the last time their colourful banners are seen in the capital.

Despite ministerial breast-beating about intervention not being "feasible", there is plenty of room for the Government to manoeuvre. Mr Blair told the House last Monday, in response to a question from Mr Skinner: "In some areas the market will fail. One of the things that marks out the Government from its predecessor is that we recognise that, and are prepared to intervene where that is necessary."

Ministers could require the power generators to hold larger stocks of coal than the dangerously minimal figures they have in mind. They could argue that a mix of domestic energy sources is a matter of national strategic security, and requires public investment. They could finance a one-off production subsidy for British coal, to run at least until the German and Spanish governments abolish their subsidies. They could "persuade" the generators to extend their contracts with RJB Mining. They could look critically at the dash for gas, even if slowing it down costs money. There are rival costs: horrific social ones. This is not just a romance about the loss of a way of life in the mining communities. It will be seen as the barometer of what Labour - even New Labour - is all about.

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