Eggar sidesteps energy conference

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The Independent Online
DELEGATES FROM 38 countries, government ministers from China, Canada and Tanzania among them, gathered yesterday for a conference on a subject the Government must dream of. It was all about coal, but nobody ever mentioned miners.

Even so, Tim Eggar, the energy minister, decided it would be imprudent to attend. At 10am, when he should have been speaking at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, up on the screen came that reliable standby, a promotional video. There were pictures of smiling Vietnamese peasants destroying the environment by burning sticks when they should have been using clean, safe, coal-generated electricity. There was a Japanese boy playing with Lego, and a gleaming coal truck, but not a miner in sight.

The host, the World Coal Institute, must have been increasingly and painfully aware over the past six months that for Britain to be hosting a conference on developing the coal industry was going to represent a public relations challenge, but for the two-day conference to come the same week as today's White Paper on pit closures was particularly hard.

Finally Bruce Thomson, the chairman, broke the news - Mr Eggar could not be with them after all. 'But we are privileged to welcome Neil Hamilton, minister for corporate affairs.' Mr Eggar was half a mile away, putting the finishing touches to his plans to close 18 collieries, and axe 20,000 jobs.

Mr Hamilton, it was explained in mitigation, did have a background in gold and opencast mining. (Opencast mining has always been more profitable than deep mining, because it hardly needs any miners).

He explained that Mr Eggar was elsewhere dealing with 'a little local difficulty'. He said: 'Unfortunately you have to listen to me and not to him,' then realising that might make him sound less than overjoyed to be called in as a replacement, added hastily: 'Unfortunately for you, that is.'

He explained that Britain's energy was in a state of transition, coal was being privatised. 'I've no doubt coal will continue to make a contribution to energy supply in the UK,' he said. He did not mention miners, and because it was a 'keynote speech', he left without having to answer questions from delegates.

Then, when he thought he was in the clear, he was caught by the media. Will the Government survive the local difficulties? He risked a joke which was the closest he came to mentioning coal miners: 'We are mining a rich seam of support in the backbenches,' he said.

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