Courts threaten pit closure plan

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The Independent Online
PLANS by the Government and British Coal to cut a swathe through the mining industry were under serious threat from the courts on two fronts last night.

The most serious challenge came when a High Court judge decided the non-TUC Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM) had an 'arguable case' when it alleged that British Coal's action was 'unreasonable, irrational and disproportionate'.

British Coal will now have to await a full hearing, possibly next Thursday, before shutting six pits next week as part of a programme to close 31 collieries by next March with the loss of 30,000 jobs.

If the UDM is granted a judicial review over the closure of seven collieries in Nottinghamshire and one in Derbyshire, British Coal will have to postpone its plans for the whole industry for months. Such a ruling would place ministers' strategy in disarray.

Neil Greatrex, president of the UDM's Nottinghamshire section, said that if court action was successful, it would force British Coal and the Government into leaving all collieries open until review procedures have been exhausted, which could take nine months.

The decision came after the adjournment until Tuesday of a parallel case brought by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Nacods, the pit supervisors' union. The delay in the NUM hearing came after management representatives said pitmen would not be made redundant until next Friday. Originally the judge was to give his judgment at 2pm yesterday on the understanding that colliers were being dismissed yesterday.

John Hendy QC, for the NUM, is arguing that British Coal is breaking European and English law by shutting pits without proper consultation. The UDM case is calling for a judicial review under public law. The hearings come ahead of today's emergency meeting of the ruling general council of the TUC which will plan the Labour movement's response to the closures, including a march and rally in London on Wednesday.

The Prime Minister's office revealed yesterday that it was the Treasury that pulled the plug on the mining industry because ministers decided to draw the line on its pounds 100m-a-month losses.

The root cause of the problem was that foreign coal was significantly undercutting the price at which British Coal could offer supplies; there was a market for only 40 million tonnes of domestically produced coal; and it was going to cost the Exchequer pounds 100m a month to maintain the pits. 'Once you're faced with those facts, the decision must be to come to a decision early, and that was done,' the source said. That decision had been taken 'a long time' ago, leaving ministers only to finalise the terms of redundancy payments.

It also emerged that senior ministers were given little more than two hours' notice of the public statement. Because ministers had acceded to British Coal's request for an accelerated statement, Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, told one of the Cabinet's Overseas and Defence Policy sub-committees on Tuesday morning: 'I am going to make an announcement later today.' There was no opportunity for discussion.

The only Cabinet ministers absent were Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for


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