Government in Crisis: Tory rebels win stay of execution for pits: Commons vote in balance after Heseltine announces three-month moratorium for 21 collieries

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The Independent Online
THE FATE of 31 pits was in the balance last night after Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, bought off some Conservative backbench rebels with a stay of execution for all but 10 of the mines scheduled for shutdown by next March.

The result of tomorrow night's make-or-break Commons vote now hinges on the pressure that can be brought to bear on Tory waverers by public opinion - and the government whips.

Responding to the public demands of more than two dozen potential Conservative rebels, Labour last night put down a Commons motion calling for a freeze on all pit closures pending a fundamental and independent review of British Coal's plans by an all-party Commons select committee.

But there was confidence in the Heseltine camp last night that the Government would defeat that motion tomorrow, a view shared by one very senior opposition figure whose contempt for Tory backbench courage prompted a prediction that the government majority would at most be cut from 21 to 15.

After a specially convened Cabinet had agreed Mr Heseltine's Commons statement and a meeting between John Major and the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee had endorsed the government go-slow, many MPs felt that ministers had done enough to save Mr Heseltine from a Commons humiliation that could force his resignation.

Mr Heseltine's statement was carefully crafted to give the impression - but not the substance - of a review of last week's decision. Robin Cook, Labour's spokesman, said: 'The people of Britain, who were protesting over the weekend from Chesterfield to Cheltenham, were not protesting at the timetable of the closure . . . . They wanted the closures stopped, not phased in.'

But in spite of an extra pounds 165m assistance for the threatened coalfield areas in training, investment, and infrastructure measures, on top of the pounds 1bn redundancy offer, Mr Heseltine stood firm on his initial premise - that from next April the market for British coal would be dramatically reduced.

He told the House: 'At present, British Coal is producing 88 million tonnes, with 65 million tonnes going to the electricity generators. It is most unlikely that British Coal will be able to sell more than 40 million tonnes to the generators as from next April. The economic case for a substantial reduction in capacity therefore remains compelling.'

Mr Heseltine said he had agreed that the closure of 10 loss-making pits could proceed: Vane Tempest, Grimethorpe and Houghton Main, Markham Main, Trentham, Parkside, Cotgrave, Silverhill, Betws Drift and Taff Merthyr. But, he said, British Coal would have to go through a 90-day redundancy and pit-closure consultation process before compulsory redundancy notices could be issued.

The fate of the other 21 would be decided during a three-month moratorium during which the Government and British Coal would 'set out the full case for the closures which British Coal planned and to which I agreed'. There would be debate and consultation before conclusions were announced to Parliament in the new year.

It was a measure of the skill of the statement that MP after MP referred to the 'review'. While some potential Tory rebels said later that Mr Heseltine had given them three months in which to lobby for a change of mind, the minister held out little hope of a change of heart, beyond telling the House: 'I will not say now that at the margin, there will be no change of policy.' It was said later that, at most, that could cover one or two of the threatened pits.

During questions, a number of Tory MPs urged Mr Heseltine to include the 10 unreprieved pits in his moratorium. He said they were already uneconomic and, with coal price falls expected, 'there is no way they will be profitable tomorrow at the lower price'.

Replying to Conservative appeals for an independent review of energy policy, Mr Heseltine said there was no 'independent calculation which leads remorselessly to one conclusion . . . However many times you argue it, whatever figures you provide, you will never get agreement between the conflicting interests involved.'

He also rejected suggestions that there was an alternative market for the coal. 'It is because British Coal cannot find it and no one else is prepared to show me where it is, that I have had to reach this unpalatable decision.'

Mr Heseltine said he had even looked at the option of taking powers to force the electricity generators to buy more coal. But that would have forced up the price of electricity.

21 MINES REPRIEVED

North-east: Easington (1,394 miners), Westoe (1,230), Wearmouth (989).

Selby: Sharlston (749), Prince of Wales (701).

South Yorkshire: Bentley (654), Frickley (1,002), Kiveton (774), Rossington (873), Maltby (1,301), Hatfield (459).

Nottinghamshire: Bevercotes (807), Bilsthorpe (935), Calverton (752), Clipstone (967), Rufford (806).

Midlands and Wales: Bolsover (494), Markham (1,296), Point of Ayr (478), Shirebrook (1,005), Silverdale (701).

Total jobs: 18,367.

10 MINES TO CLOSE

North-east: Vane Tempest (936).

South Yorkshire: Grimethorpe (957), Houghton Main (441), Markham Main (730).

Nottinghamshire: Cotgrave (620), Silverhill (817).

Midlands and Wales: Betws Drift (113), Parkside (782), Taff Merthyr (410), Trentham (1,544).

Total jobs: 7,350.

Aid package, page 2

Confusion at pits, page 3

Parliament, page 4

Leading article, letters, page 18

Andrew Marr, page 19

Pound falls, page 20

View from City Road, page 23

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