Government is accused of buying off Tory pit rebels: Miners with lung disease to get industrial injury benefits

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The Government was accused of trying to buy off its rebels before the Commons voted on the closure of 19 mines last night, when it was announced that after more than 20 years of campaigning, miners with chronic bronchitis and emphysema are to be given industrial injuries benefit.

Although some Tories abstained, the Goverment won a majority after Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, had defended the closure programme amid some of the rowdiest scenes of this parliament.

Four Conservative MPs voted against the Government and at least three abstained, but with the support of the Ulster Unionists, the Government had a majority of 22 - 319 votes to 297 - at the end of the debate to approve the White Paper on the pit closure programme.

It is estimated that as many as 10,000 miners could qualify for the benefits of almost pounds 200 a week in the most severe cases, at a cost of up to pounds 100m. Successive governments have resisted the campaign for the coal dust-related illnesses to be classified as industrial diseases, and officials expect up to 80,000 claims.

The decision, announced in a written answer by Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, was recommended to the Government by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, which reported on new medical advice in November.

Miners meeting the full disability criteria will be able to replace invalidity benefit of pounds 56.10 per week with disablement benefit of pounds 91.60 per week, attendance allowance for a carer of pounds 73.40 per week and exceptionally severe disablement allowance of pounds 36.70. The benefits are payable from 13


Mr Heseltine also announced that enterprise zones were to be established in three coal mining areas hit by the closures - Easington, Dearne Valley and Mansfield. He gave no assurances to Tory doubters that the 12 pits to be reprieved would stay open for more than two years.

The announcements were made as thousands of miners and their supporters marched through Westminster to a rally organised by the TUC.

A number of Tory MPs said privately that they still felt uncomfortable about the closures, although they voted with the Government. They also felt Mr Heseltine's performance had been 'shaky'. He was attacked by Robin Cook, his Labour shadow, for 'a ranting, pantomime performance'.

However, Mr Heseltine and other ministers believe greater importance should be attached to the privatisation of the pits, foreshadowed in the White Paper. He made it clear that it would be carried out urgently, and privatised pits would qualify for coal subsidy, provided it was coal for new markets and did not undercut contracts with the electricity generators.

Those long-awaited contracts between the coal and electricity industries were announced yesterday. The contracts, for 40 million tonnes this year and 30 million tonnes in each of four subsequent years, provide a market for British Coal's 19 core mines but not for the 12 mines now offered a reprieve while the company seeks more sales.

(Photograph omitted)