Cabinet bickering after MPs insist on pit closures inquiry

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CABINET warfare broke out last night after a Commons select committee report said none of the 31 collieries on British Coal's closure list should be shut until there is a pit-by-pit inquiry into the social and financial costs.

A unanimous and highly critical report by the House of Commons Employment Committee found fundamental fault with the actions of both the Government and British Coal and warned that up to 100,000 people could lose their jobs with little hope of alternative employment.

The MPs said there was no consultation with workers and businesses who would be affected by the closures and the Department of Trade and Industry failed to brief the Department of Employment, the ministry charged with 'picking up the pieces'.

That provoked a response as friends of Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, denied that Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, had not been consulted. Ministerial sources disclosed details of Cabinet minutes, showing a total of six notes about the closures had been copied to Mrs Shephard between 24 July and 6 October.

Patrick McLoughlin, Under- Secretary for Employment, represented Mrs Shephard at one Cabinet committee meeting. 'It was to discuss the redundancy terms. You cannot do that unless there are closures,' said the source.

In effect, the report blames the mishandling of the affair on Mr Heseltine and Neil Clarke, chairman of British Coal. The Employment Secretary had little if any role in discussions, it says.

Mr Clarke was denounced by the Tory-dominated committee for staging a 'public relations exercise' yesterday as the report was being published.

The British Coal chairman invited the media to attend his visit to Whitemoor Colliery in North Yorkshire, which is to remain open, but banned the press from the threatened Silverdale pit, near Stoke-on-Trent, when the Employment Committee visited it. The MPs registered their concern that Mr Clarke remained 'unwilling to face the miners at any pit scheduled for closure'.

Meanwhile the National Union of Mineworkers and Nacods, the pit deputies' union, yesterday called off a High Court challenge over pit jobs after British Coal had agreed to keep an enhanced redundancy package open until all consultations over closures were complete.

The John T Boyd report into the 21 pits covered by the Government's review of the closure plans is to be published today. Mr Heseltine has written to Arthur Scargill, the miners' leader, telling him that he has also asked Boyds, the international mining consultants, to ensure that the NUM is invited to make written representations on the 10 further pits earmarked for early closure; that union representatives, and others, can accompany Boyds on their inspection; and that the unions and others can comment on the Boyds' draft report.

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