Churchill presses case for instant rescue of 25 pits

WINSTON CHURCHILL, the Conservative backbencher, has called on the Government to save at least 25 closure-threatened pits immediately, and 20 in the long term.

Mr Churchill, MP for Davyhulme, yesterday warned Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, that defeat on the issue on the floor of the House would be 'almost certainly fatal' for his political prospects.

Speaking at a lunch hosted by the Coal Industry Society, Mr Churchill said last Friday's proposals by the Commons Select Committee for Trade and Industry made it clear that 25 pits could be saved by government intervention. He said that the move was strongly endorsed by the 30 MPs in the Conservative Coal Group.

He warned: 'Select committees can be ridden over roughshod by a government with a majority of 100. They have to be heeded and treated with the greatest of respect by a government with a majority of 21.'

Mr Churchill said that the select committee's proposals for a coal subsidy of pounds 500m over five years should be viewed alongside savings of pounds 2bn in redundancy payments over the next two years if most of the 31 threatened pits are saved. There is a view that the 30,000 job losses announced by British Coal last October would be followed by a further 50,000 in related industries.

Mr Churchill also described as 'madness' any move to abandon one valuable energy source and to burn another instead - natural gas - twice as fast as would otherwise be the case. 'Within a generation we will risk running low on natural gas and what do we do at that point?'

Michael Clapham, MP for Barnsley West and Penistone, and a Labour member of the Commons committee, said yesterday that Friday's report provided a clear structure in which all pits could survive, including the 10 that are currently not being worked.

The closures issue will not be on the agenda for Thursday's Cabinet meeting, in spite of the urgency of the debate. The Government had hoped to publish a White Paper on energy policy and the future of coal by the middle of this month.

In spite of the growing pressure to save most of the 31 mines on the hit-list, British Coal is believed to be sceptical as to what can be done in practice. The select committee's rescue plan depends on National Power and PowerGen taking at least 16 million tons of extra fuel from British Coal and on the sale of 3 million tons to other industries.

Before the generators will take extra coal, they will want contracts guaranteeing that the electricity it generates can be sold to the 12 regional supply companies.

The select committee also assumes that imports of electricity from France can be reduced. Besides facing embarrassment in Europe by meddling with the French electricity link, the Government could also find itself liable for millions of pounds in compensation to the French.

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