Heseltine faces renewed revolt over pit closures

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The Independent Online
WINSTON CHURCHILL yesterday threatened a fresh rebellion over the Government's pit rescue package after British Coal admitted that some of the 12 reprieved mines could be closed within a year.

Mr Churchill, Conservative MP for Davyhulme, said he would vote against the Government in tomorrow night's Commons division on the package unless he received new and 'very precise and categorical assurances' from Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, over the future of the 12 pits.

He said British Coal's latest comments - on pits that MPs had assumed would be safe for two years - 'fly in the teeth' of past assurances he had been given privately by Mr Heseltine.

Mr Churchill, chairman of the 30-strong Conservative Coal Group, led last year's rebellion against the pit closures which forced ministers to agree to a review.

His intervention now will alarm ministers who had assumed that the energy package had been pitched effectively to win over the bulk of Tory backbenchers and thus avoid any repeat of last autumn's embarrassments. Mr Churchill had said, after last Thursday's announcement, that Mr Heseltine had 'gone a long way' towards meeting the rebels' demands and that he would vote for the package.

Some other backbenchers with coal interests backed Ministers in expressing irritation with British Coal's intervention on the eve of tomorrow's vote. Spencer Batiste, MP for Elmet, said the industry should be privatised as quickly as possible. 'I am not surprised at anything unhelpful that emerges from British Coal management.'

Government whips remained confident of victory tomorrow. But Elizabeth Peacock, MP for Batley and Spen - who refused to support the Government last autumn - said she was concerned about British Coal's comments. William Cash, MP for Stafford, undecided on how to vote, said the industry faced 'unmitigated disaster'.

British Coal's comments were issued in response to press reports. A spokesman said that 'one scenario may be that we may have to close down more capacity'. He added: 'It's a situation we are going to have to be meeting in nine to 12 months' time.'

Mr Churchill said: 'Unless the Government can convince the Conservative Coal Group of its intent on this point it is far from certain that it will get the White Paper through on Monday.'

He and other potential rebels were also alarmed by reports of a meeting between the Union of Democratic Mineworkers and British Coal's assistant group director for the Nottinghamshire area, David Crisp, who is reported to have predicted the survival only of pits which matched the productivity record of those certain to be saved. British Coal said Mr Crisp had pledged to go all out to meet those levels but had made no predictions.

Earlier, Mr Heseltine had refused to provide assurances of intervention if none of the pits had secured their future when subsidies are withdrawn in two years' time. He told journalists: 'I am going to intervene to set this industry free. That is my purpose and the experience of previous privatisations is that it is a liberating experience.'

Representatives of Ryan Group, Britain's biggest private mining firm, and two others, Caledonian and Budge, each spent about an hour with the Industry minister Tim Eggar yesterday. The DTI hopes that, with new working practices and lower overheads, small companies can run collieries profitably where British Coal has failed.

However, Mr Heseltine cautioned that he did not want to see 'local communities with substantial redundancy money, in an understandable and perhaps emotional reaction, investing that redundancy money in pits which in truth do not have a viable future.'

Yesterday, a miner working without pay at such a pit, Monktonhall, near Edinburgh, was killed when the coal face collapsed underground. A pounds 500m appeal was launched last month for Monktonhall, which has run into a cash crisis. The man who died was William Gorman, 35, of New Cumnock, Strathclyde.

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