Coal pits due for review suffer cuts and job losses: Colliery managers have been accused of running down some of the 31 mines earmarked for closure ahead of the reports on their viability. Jonathan Foster reports

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The Independent Online
PIT BUSES have been cancelled, stranding miners miles from work, valuable coal cutting machinery has been lost and coalfaces allowed to deteriorate.

These are some of the charges against British Coal, which has been accused of breaking its promise to Parliament not to prejudice reviews of the future for 31 collieries earmarked for closure.

About 4,800 miners have applied for voluntary redundancy since the closures disclosed on 13 October jeopardised 30,000 pit jobs. But investigations at six mines suggest many miners have 'volunteered' reluctantly and under duress. Other actions by pit managements have conflicted with statements in Parliament.

After public protest forced a Government moratorium on closures, Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, said nothing would prejudice the possible reprieve of the 31 mines. John Major said British Coal was 'compelled' to maintain the option of continued production.

Claims that British Coal has defied those pledges are understood this week to have led ministers angrily to remind Neil Clarke, chairman of British Coal, of his assurances to MPs that the 'fabric of mines' would be maintained.

The pitmen of Thorne and Balby are no longer part of the fabric of Hatfield Main colliery. They were given bus services from their South Yorkshire villages when transferred to Hatfield after their pits shut. The buses were withdrawn in October and the Independent has established that up to 20 men have taken redundancy because they were not able to keep their shift times.

About one-third of the 450-member workforce has gone, among them two men who said they accepted current redundancy terms because management advised them during personal interviews that they would otherwise be made redundant in January.

Pit deputies at Hatfield claim the mine is being downgraded from two workable coalfaces to one. The workforce remaining after redundancies has neither the numbers nor the range of skills required to continue mining two faces.

If Frickley colliery, near Doncaster, is reprieved, extra coal-cutting equipment will be needed. A shearing machine at Markham Main, also near Doncaster, was earmarked for Frickley. It has been abandoned, sealed off in an exhausted coalface.

British Coal said 'all Frickley's requirements will be met'. But observers claim that implies that a colliery with shearers suitable for Frickley will definitely close.

Markham Main had prospects as bright as any mine in Europe. It has reserves of up to 100 million tons and could be mined profitably. Its closure was first announced on 1 May because of failure to establish good industrial relations. The colliery was included on the list of 10 pits which were to close within a week of the 13 October decision.

Management immediately began seeking redundancies. British Coal said all volunteers were counselled and made to understand the terms of the offer. About 160 men went in the first week, before the Government and Commons announced respective reviews of the closure programme.

But many Markham Main miners say they were led to believe they were being made compulsorily redundant, making them eligible for payments under mortgage protection policies. Claims will not be accepted.

The National Union of Mineworkers has been hamstrung in attempts to help its 630 Markham Main members, 450 of whom have been so 'demoralised' by management that they have gone.

All four NUM officials have taken redundancy because disciplinary action, including warnings of the sack, was begun against them. They claim victimisation, citing alleged management attempts to prevent them participating in the campaign against pit closures. All four are considering legal action for constructive dismissal. British Coal will not comment on individual cases.

Fewer than 300 men remain on the books at Markham Main. Preparatory salvage work has begun on the mine's other coalface. The NUM claims the pit has been 'sabotaged by a redundancy recruitment campaign'.

It would be difficult to resume mining at Markham Main without expensive recruitment. Yet the pit has attracted private sector interest and potential operators, including British and Australian companies, have complained about British Coal's preparations for salvage.

Vane Tempest colliery, Sunderland, and Parkside pit, near Warrington, were included on the immediate closure list. Unions at both pits dispute British Coal's assessment of their viability.

More than 400 men have taken redundancy at the two collieries. A majority of more than 70 contacted by the Independent claimed 'demoralisation' and lack of faith in British Coal as the main reasons for leaving. No coal-cutting has taken place at either pit since October, but management has implemented a 1943 wages agreement that miners clock on for shifts at normal times. Some miners have to make 40- or 50-mile journeys to the colliery at night, only to be sent home 15 minutes later.

At Parkside, the union is worried that the W31s coalface is deteriorating under geological forces. Similar worries afflict Silverhill colliery, Nottinghamshire. Inadequate management of the faces prejudices the outcome of reviews, it is claimed. British Coal said it was not aware of any conflict with undertakings to maintain the fabric of the pits.

(Photograph omitted)