Axe raised for death blow to more pits: Tory rebels feel betrayed after winning stay of execution

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BRITAIN'S coal industry was braced for a further round of pit closures after British Coal's announcement yesterday that it would review the prospects for all of its 30 remaining deep mines.

The Labour Party and industry sources expect at least 10 to be closed as soon as possible and say that some of British Coal's core of 19 mines - which were supposed to be safe - could also be under threat.

The Government was facing the threat of a renewed backbench rebellion last night after Labour's Shadow Cabinet decided to force a vote in the Commons next week.

Robin Cook, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, led Labour MPs in condemning last March's White Paper, which reprieved 12 pits threatened with closure, as a 'total fraud'. By next spring the workforce could fall to 10,000 from the 40,000 employed 12 months ago. He said: 'It is quite clear that there is another big round of pit closures coming.'

The Opposition will devote a full day of debate in the Commons to the issue, putting the Government under pressure and testing the backbone of Tory backbenchers, who forced the Cabinet to retreat a year ago with the threat of a revolt.

Tory rebels, who won a stay of execution 12 months ago, clearly felt betrayed, but their anger was directed at British Coal for failing to find new markets.

Kevan Hunt, British Coal's employee relations director, said that meetings with unions on the future of all 30 mines will take place 'against the background of an increasingly serious imbalance between coal demand and supply and unfavourable market prospects'.

Tim Eggar, the coal minister, announced in the Commons that legislation introduced 85 years ago to governing working practices and hours spent underground by miners was to be repealed.

He said the Government was also extending funding for current redundancy terms until the end of next April and added that British Coal was considering 12 tenders for seven pits offered for licence by private operators.

Severance terms allow maximum redundancy payments of pounds 37,000. Since last October, more than 20,000 miners have left the industry with an average redundancy payment of pounds 26,000.

The Government has put British Coal on a fast track to privatisation but it is widely believed that it will have as few as 12 to 15 deep mines to sell. Neil Clarke, British Coal's chairman, said this week: 'There may be those who take the view that privatisation will liberate the UK mining industry from the shackles of the past. Whatever the merits of that argument, I am afraid the market realities will not be altered by privatisation.'

The 30 pits include 11 which were earmarked for closure a year ago but were 'reprieved' after the Government's White Paper on the coal industry this year. The reprieve was to give British Coal time to negotiate extra sales with National Power and PowerGen. It has failed to gain any extra sales and the generators are unlikely to want extra coal this financial year.

Next week's Commons vote will present John Major with the first test of party unity since his appeal for backbench support at the Conservative conference. The debate may also face Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, with his most severe test since returning to his desk after a heart attack. He was on the front bench yesterday but left the Commons statement to Mr Eggar.

Tory unrest was more muted than last October, when the crisis began a year of attacks on the Prime Minister's authority. One Conservative MP said: 'We have been let down, but there is little we can do now. Don't expect Tory ladies in flowery hats to march with Arthur Scargill again.'

Tory rebels plan to meet next week to discuss tactics. Some expect to be under renewed pressure in their constituencies to vote against the Government, but Labour leaders privately do not believe there will be enough Tory rebels to defeat the Government and stop the closures. There will be a second vote by Labour against the lifting of safety procedures, in spite of assurances by Mr Eggar that safety would not be compromised.

Mr Eggar made it clear to Tory MPs that no pits would be closed without being offered to the private sector. Some Tory MPs who opposed the closures said they believed the privatisation of the coal industry was the only hope now of rescuing some pits - a view shared by ministers who are ready with the privatisation legislation after the Queen's Speech on 18 November.