Heseltine hires US pit consultants

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT has defied the mining unions by asking Boyd, the US consultants, to study the viability of the 10 pits most under threat from the British Coal closure programme.

Mark Stephens, the lawyer acting on behalf of the unions, attacked the investigation, ordered by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade. He said it appeared to go against a ruling last month in the High Court that the decision to close the pits was unlawful.

'Mr Heseltine appears to be moving inexorably towards contempt of court,' he said. He attacked the terms given to Boyd for including an explicit reference to the announcement by British Coal last October that it would close the 10 mines on the basis that they were loss-making and had no prospect of viability in the foreseeable future.

'That decision has been squashed by the High Court and does not exist as matter of law,' Mr Stephens said.

The miners also believe that Boyd's appointment defies Lord Justice Glidewell's call in December for independent scrutiny of the mines through an agreement between British Coal and the unions. So far, unions have resisted attempts by British Coal to appoint Boyd, which they do not regard as independent. Separately Boyd is already studying 21 mines earmarked for closure for the Department of Trade and Industry, and in the past has carried out work for British Coal.

Mr Stephens accused the Government and British Coal of continuing to make decisions without proper consultation with the unions. 'We have no confidence that Boyd will give an independent report to Mr Heseltine,' he said.

He said that Boyd may not have enough experience in British deep mining, as much of the coal in the US comes from shallower mines.

In letters to Neil Clarke, the chairman of British Coal, and to the unions, Mr Heseltine acknowledged the opposition of the miners to Boyd. He said he had no intention of pre-empting the outcome of any talks on independent scrutiny between the company and the unions.

However, he added: 'I take the view that nevertheless it would be helpful for Boyd to be instructed and to be asked to report as quickly as possible.'

Mr Heseltine has asked the consultants to report by 15 March, or later if agreed by the DTI. He said that submissions would be invited from British Coal and from the unions and that they would be given a chance to comment on a draft report.

However, the timing of the exercise means that the 10 mines cannot be included in the Government's wider review of the future of the coal industry and energy policy in the UK, scheduled to result in a White Paper on energy in February.

Mr Stephens said that he was amazed that the 10 most threatened mines were still being treated separately in the light of the ruling in the High Court.

British Coal, which in October caused outrage by announcing the 31 pit closures with the loss of 30,000 jobs, said it would co-operate with the DTI's study of the 10 mines.

The company insisted that it would also continue to talk to unions about whether the ensuing report should constitute an independent study.

A spokesman for the company said: 'No decision on the future of those mines will be taken until all consultations are complete.' However, he acknowledged that British Coal was still considering an appeal against the High Court ruling.

Mr Heseltine's terms of reference for Boyd's study also include an examination of whether the 10 mines were being maintained so that they could resume production in future. The last of the 10, Betws in Wales, ceased production two days ago.

Unions have alleged that British Coal was allowing coal faces in some of the mines to deteriorate and that some vital equipment had been removed to other mines not on the closure list.