Crisis in the mines: High Court to rule on speed of shut-downs

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The Independent Online
BOTH unions and employers are taking legal action in the wake of the British Coal announcement of 31 pit closures.

A High Court judge will today rule whether or not British Coal is acting lawfully in 'suspending' agreements and rushing through the closures.

And in a letter to the Prime Minister yesterday, Norman Willis, General Secretary of the TUC, pointed out that British Coal failed to observe its legal obligations to give 90 days' notice of redundancies to both the Department of Employment and unions.

At the High Court, Mr Justice Vinelott said British Coal should take no steps to implement closure plans until he gives judgment. British Coal was accused in court of breaking English and European law by failing to consult miners and their unions. The National Union of Mineworkers and the pit deputies' union, Nacods, sought an emergency injunction to stop today's scheduled closure of up to six pits, with the loss of 5,095 jobs.

John Hendy QC, for the unions, said the only remedy in English law was after a dismissal had taken place. That was a 'useless and ineffective remedy'.

Charles Falconer QC, for British Coal, said the continued operation of these six collieries alone was costing it about pounds 1m a day.

'We would be very concerned and unhappy if any false hope were given by the court regarding the position of these mineworkers,' Mr Falconer said.

The judge said the real issue he had to decide was whether there would be any real prospect of ultimate success for the unions.

'Because, if there is none, there is no real justification for granting a temporary injunction in the hope that something will turn up,' he said. He would hear further argument in the case this morning before giving his decision.

Potentially more interesting - but more long-term - is litigation being supported by the TUC and financed by unions and Major Energy Users Council, a group that includes some of the country's largest employers.

It alleges that the 12 regional electricity companies are in breach of their licences, which dictate that they buy electricity at the best possible prices. The companies can pass their costs through to customers. The subject of the litigation is Offer, the electricity watchdog. Professor Stephen Littlechild, its director general, has said he will look at the electricity companies' buying policies when he reviews the formulas that control their price increases.

This review has only just begun and will take many months to complete, by which time most of the mines will be shut.

Critics point out that the electricity companies have partly funded the establishment of gas- fired power stations which are cheaper to build than those that burn coal. Many of the power plants are expected to produce higher-priced energy than coal- fired plants because of a recent sharp increase in the price of gas for electricity generation.

Almost all the regional supply companies are locked into 15-year deals to buy from gas-fired plants and some have taken equity holdings in the new power stations.

The litigants contend that the companies should have looked at alternatives to gas and that they have a direct interest in the new stations charging high prices. An application for a judicial review was made 10 days ago and a decision is expected in two weeks.