Ministers move to save coal jobs

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The Government is drawing up a rescue package to minimise job losses in the coal industry, after intervention by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.

Spurred by reports, confirmed yesterday, that 5,000 miners could lose their jobs soon, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have decided to act before pit closure decisions are irrevocable.

A senior minister has been given the task of drawing up a series of measures to alleviate the crisis, caused by a dramatic fall in demand for coal from the privatised electricity generating companies.

RJB Mining, the private sector successor to British Coal, admitted yesterday that "there is a serious threat to something like 5,000 jobs and possibly five to eight collieries".

The company's spokesman, Stuart Oliver, said contracts totalling around 16 million tonnes were in the pipeline for next year, compared with 27 million tonnes this year.

"There is no point in RJB or any other company continuing to produce coal for which there is no market," Mr Oliver added.

Ministers have already met the generating firms, and will hold talks with RJB Mining tomorrow, ahead of an emergency inquiry into the future of the industry by the Commons DTI select committee on Wednesday.

Yesterday, John Grogan, Labour MP for Selby, where the super-pit complex is under threat, called on ministers to take a "robust line" with the generators, as they had done with the privatised water companies. One of the measures under consideration is a requirement on the generators to stock more coal than they plan to do, on the grounds that Britain would be at risk of power cuts if stocks are run down to a bare minimum.

Other possible runners are a slowdown of the "dash for gas" - the switch from coal to gas-fired power stations - and a temporary subsidy for coal until production support is phased out right across the European Union.

Focus on Coal, page 24. Leading article, Section 2, page 4