Outlook: The odds against the miners

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The Independent Online
The Government's new partnership with industry seems to be working rather well. Or is it? Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, proudly announced yesterday that a deal had been successfully brokered between the main electricity generators and Richard Budge's RJB that would keep the pits open for at least another six months. Splendid news, and clear evidence that New Labour can indeed stop market forces doing exactly as they please. Unfortunately, the generators were at a loss to know what on earth he was on about. One of them, National Power, said there had been no agreement at all. Others said what agreement there was didn't add up to a hill of beans. Not such good news after all.

What's going on here? The answer seems to be that the Government has stirred the pot and come up with a classic piece of meaningless Whitehall fudge. Yes, there is an agreement of sorts, but not one capable of the grandiose interpretation the Government put on it. Existing contracts between the generators and Mr Budge run until the end of March in any case, so even accepting the Government has persuaded the generators to extent these contracts, it isn't six months, but just three.

Even this seems to exaggerate the true position, however, for although some of the generators admit to agreeing to help if they can, by for instance increasing their stock piles of coal, all of them say there is no question of persisting with present levels of demand for British coal after existing contracts expire. Certainly, there has been no agreement on quantity or price other than those already announced.

The whole thing is eerily reminiscent of Michael Heseltine's famous "coal review". Faced with a public outcry over plans to close down most of British Coal, the then president of the Board of Trade backed off and ordered a government review of policy. The industry won a reprieve, but not for long. A year after the review, the original closure plans had been implemented in full.

There's to be a review this time round too, "to consider the place of coal in our long-term energy policy", whatever that policy is. However, it is hard to see how any of the eight initiatives outlined yesterday by John Battle, the Energy Minister, is going to help matters very much. In any case, you have to question whether the Government really has its heart in rescuing this industry, given that some of its environmental objectives can be satisfied by its closure. The betting must still overwhelmingly be that a year down the line, another 5,000 miners will be out of a job.