Cook attacks pits rescue plan: The coal White Paper: Four Tory MPs vote against and at least three abstain

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The Independent Online
ROBIN COOK, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, made a final appeal to Tory backbenchers not to fail threatened coal mining communities and claimed that the decision to reprieve 12 pits was based simply on a calculation by government whips of the number necessary 'to turn rebels into loyalists'.

But at the close of an often noisy debate, Michael Heseltine's White Paper on the prospects for coal was approved by 319 votes to 297. Only four Tories voted against the Government while at least another three abstained.

With miners watching the debate on their industry's future from the gallery, Mr Cook's central charge was that the package produced by Mr Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, had not secured a market for one single extra bag of coal.

The way to provide a long-term future for the pits was to tackle the 'rigged market' which had squeezed British Coal out of the chance to compete, Mr Cook said. He appealed to potential Tory rebels not to be 'taken in' by the subsidy. A year from now none of the 12 pits would be open.

Elizabeth Peacock, Tory MP for Batley and Spen and a rebel, said the White Paper had not addressed 'the problem of equality in the market'. Declaring herself 'a committed Conservative but an independent-minded Yorkshirewoman', she called for a halt to further gas-fired power stations and for pressure on the French to accept electricity exports. 'Or perhaps we should hold up the whole of the Maastricht treaty until we get some sense out of the French.'

Winston Churchill, leader of the 30-strong Coal Group of Tory MPs, abstained after urging the Government to look again at the 'rigged market'. He had 'grave doubts' that Mr Heseltine's measures would be sufficient to save the 12 'reprieved' pits.

Of the 31 pits threatened with closure last October, six are to be put on care and maintenance, one placed 'on development' as a low-cost mine, with a possibility of reopening, and two are due to be closed along with the 10 not included in the review.

Another rebel, Richard Alexander, whose Newark constituency includes the almost certainly doomed Bevercotes colliery, said the 'heartbreak and uncertainty' was too much. He could not support the plan when the market was rigged.

Opening the debate, Mr Heseltine said he had three aims: to create a wider market for coal; to provide British Coal with a tapering subsidy; and to privatise the corporation as early as possible.

He disputed suggestions that the subsidy on the difference between British Coal's costs and world prices would last for just two years. The policy was that the subsidy should reduce over the period to privatisation, which he 'very much' hoped would come in two years. 'If it does not come then, then the subsidies can continue, and if it does then negotiations about the financial terms become part of the sale process.'

Repeating his guarantee that no threatened pit would be closed without the private sector being given the chance to operate it, Mr Heseltine went on: 'In that context I am prepared to offer the private sector equivalent subsidy arrangements, subject to the relevant EC provisions, if they can demonstrate they can secure a genuinely additional market.'

Intervening, Tony Benn, MP for Chesterfield, said Mr Heseltine had given the game away: 'The subsidy is to encourage privatisation.' Mr Benn, as a former Labour energy minister, has been attacked by Mr Heseltine over his role in the interconnector contract with France.

Mr Benn pointed out that he had told the Commons at the time that the cross-Channel cable would provide an opportunity for the export of coal- fired electricity to France. But Mr Heseltine said the Labour government had been 'careless' with the national interest and left the critical detail of the contract to 'the generosity of the French negotiators'.

Much of Mr Heseltine's speech was what Kevin Barron, whose Rother Valley constituency includes Maltby colliery, called 'an hysterical diatribe', arraigning past Labour governments for their support for the nuclear and gas industries and for lack of investment in coal.

Mr Cook said the 30,000 men whose jobs were threatened deserved better than Mr Heseltine's 'rendition of a pantomime villain'. The reason Mr Heseltine had failed to come up with a solution that offered the 31 threatened pits a future was that 'he never thought he was wrong in wanting to close them in the first place'.

Challenged by Patrick Nicholls, Conservative MP for Teignbridge, to repudiate NUM strike action, Mr Cook said that if Tory backbenchers supported Labour in defeating the White Paper there would be no need for strike action next Friday.

'I can fully understand and fully share the anger of people who were led to believe there would be a solution and now find there was none, and I can understand why they then take that action.'

Richard Caborn, Labour chairman of the Trade and Industry Select Committee, said the only similarity between the White Paper and the committee's recommendations was that they were both published by HMSO. Proposals for expanding the market for coal had been rejected without exception.

The four Tories who voted against the Government were: Mr Alexander; Bill Cash, Stafford; Mrs Peacock; and Nicholas Winterton, Macclesfield. The three known to have abstained were Mr Churchill (Davyhulme); Patrick Cormack, South Staffordshire; and Stephen Day, Cheadle.