Heseltine wins pits vote with new retreat

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MICHAEL HESELTINE yesterday completed a full government U-turn on a review of the pit closures, calling in consultants to advise on the viability of 21 pits under threat, and accepting that there could even be changes to the legislation surrounding electricity privatisation if it was shown to be unfair to coal.

The concessions - amounting to a full review of energy strategy - still left deep malaise on the Conservative back benches as the Government's 21-seat majority was cut to 13 on Labour's motion for no closures before a review. The Government won by only 320 to 307, despite the nine Ulster Unionist MPs abstaining.

Six Tory MPs voted against the Government - Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen) being sacked as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Nicholas Scott, Minister for Social Security, as she joined Dr Michael Clark (Rochford) the former Energy Select Committee chairman, Richard Alexander (Newark), Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield), Ann Winterton (Congleton) and Richard Shepherd (Aldridge Brownhills) in the Labour lobby. Other Conservatives abstained, amid warnings they will vote against the Government if Mr Heseltine fails to deliver significant changes to the pit closure programme in the new year. The Government achieved a 15-vote majority, 320 to 305, on its own amendment.

As tens of thousands demonstrated with miners in London against the closure programme, ministers, in promise after promise, gave virtually everything their backbenchers demanded. The trading descended to pork-barrel politics as the Ulster Unionists finally abstained on a pledge 'without qualification' from David Hunt, Secretary of State for Wales, just before the vote, that Northern Ireland's need for lignite mining and a gas pipeline would be included in the review.

The only concession ministers refused was to put into the review the 10 pits whose closure is definitely to go ahead.

The vote leaves Mr Heseltine still facing a severe test when he returns to the Commons in January with a White Paper finally detailing which pits will go.

John Major last night described the vote as 'a satisfactory win, and a win by a clear margin' as Labour claimed a moral victory, arguing that only the Ulster abstensions had stopped the majority dropping to four.

In a Commons debate disfigured by party wrangling and uproar, Mr Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, pledged 'no pre-ordained outcome' to the 'genuine' review that will culminate in the White Paper.

The review will include a study by Boyds, the international mining consultants, of the viability of the 21 pits under moratorium, British Coal's competitiveness and possible alternative markets for coal.

The generators' obligation to buy nuclear power will be examined along with the consequences of the switch to gas, the run-down of coal stocks, a fresh assessment of whether the generators have judged the market for coal properly, a review of the consent procedures for gas-fired stations and a report on coal imports and their wider economic implications.

Asked by Mr Winterton for an assurance that he would legislate if it emerged that the electricity privatisation regime was 'flawed', prejudicing coal, Mr Heseltine promised to do so 'without reservation'. He added: 'There would be no point in a review if I was not prepared to consider those options.'

Robin Cook, Labour's industry spokesman, said Mr Heseltine would be held to that. At the least, he said, the regulator had to examine whether companies were failing to buy the cheapest electricity at the time contracts were let - not, as now, retrospectively after pits had closed.

Miners' rally, page 3

Parliamentary debate, page 4

Reggie Nadelson, page 18

Letters, page 26

(Photograph omitted)