Five thousand coal miners are likely to lose their jobs over the next few months as contracts between RJB Mining and the electricity generators expire, and a further 40,000 are at risk in associated industries. But a leaked strategy paper from the Department of Trade and Industry makes clear that the Government will not intervene in coal's potentially terminal crisis, and is preparing to deny responsibility.
Tony Blair has refused to meet TUC and mining union leaders, but ministers will come under intense pressure this week to change direction. "Down the generations, we have given far more to the Labour Party than Bernie Ecclestone," said one union insider yesterday. "Why won't they listen to us now?"
The DTI paper, marked "Restricted" and finalised on 5 November, is clearly aimed at preventing a re-run of the presentational debacle that forced Michael Heseltine into a humiliating climbdown on pit closures when he was President of the Board of Trade in 1992. Entitled Coal Press Strategies, it is the most revelatory disclosure of how Labour manipulates the news since the Government took office.
The document says: "There is an expectation that deep-mined coal will effectively end within 10 years unless the Government intervenes to protect it by changing its environmental and energy policies." It adds ministers "must be able to spell out why direct government action is not feasible" because coal and electricity have been privatised.
Industry chiefs and the unions argue that the Government can intervene, by requiring the generators to stock more coal, and by giving a short- term subsidy of less than pounds 4 a tonne to RJB Mining (the successor to British Coal) to alleviate the impact of the high pound. This measure could save the six to 10 RJB collieries set to close soon. .
Not even the Selby "super-pit" complex is safe. The DTI paper recommends that Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, should declare Selby a Coal Closure area eligible for regional investment grants.
The document advises ministers to be ready for the worst. "Once closures are announced, we need to be able to deploy a strategy to be able to mitigate the impact ... A Stock Exchange announcement by RJB Ltd of six to eight closures would dominate media interest on the day."
It suggests that ministers should blame RJB Mining for failing to negotiate contracts with the generators when other "major producers" have been able to do so. In fact, there are no other major UK mining companies: RJB mines 90 per cent of domestic coal production. Failing that, ministers should blame the previous Tory government's "strategy or lack of it". Hiding behind the excuse of confidentiality is also recommended. The DTI has already found that talk of "commercial negotiations" has been "useful" in declining bids for ministerial interviews.
The strategy paper offers high - and low - profile options for ministers. The first involves a "blitz" on the broadcast media. "If ministers wish to close once and for all any possibility of public funds to rescue the Budge [RJB] mines, this would be the opportunity to say so," it suggests.
John Redwood, shadow President of the Board of Trade, "would no doubt figure as the broadcasters seek balance" and there would be "some advantage" in Mrs Beckett taking interviews.
The low-profile option proposes briefings to selected journalists from the national press. "The quicker we can do this, the more likely they are to write what we say," the paper admits.
The DTI's media managers urge the merits of taking the initiative if the story is about to break, either through a ministerial interview with a specialist magazine or through a "pre-prepared" ministerial article.
A new All-Party Mining Group in the Commons will this week ask ministers to change their minds. John Battle, the Minister for Coal, insisted on Radio 4 yesterday: "I see a future for deep-mined coal," but Roy Greatorex, leader of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, said that without government intervention, "we are looking at the demise of the coal industry".Reuse content