Go-ahead for pit closures review: Decision taken over 31 threatened mines

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR and Cabinet colleagues finally hammered out conclusions last night on the fate of the 31 threatened coal mines, so enabling publication of the long- awaited White Paper tomorrow.

The open-ended nature of the upshot of the six-month Government review - which concentrates on the 21 pits that have not yet ceased production - is expected to be underlined by the paper's failure to spell out the level of subsidy that will be forthcoming to enable British Coal to save pits by competing effectively with cheap imports.

The entire paper is expected to be a masterpiece of ingenious drafting offering the prospect of pit reprieves over the next two years that could reach double figures, but proferring no guarantees. There were also reports that the paper will suggest the mothballing of half a dozen pits.

What ministers hope will be sufficient to stave off a second Commons rebellion over the issue was decided at a two-and-a-half hour meeting last night of the Prime Minister, David Heathcoat-Amory, the deputy chief whip, and virtually the entire Cabinet.

Approval by the full Cabinet tomorrow morning will be little more than a rubber stamping exercise. A Commons debate on the paper is expected next week, before MPs rise for the Easter recess.

The package could be enough to quell the threatened backlash by Tory backbenchers by splitting them into two camps.

But there were still signs of possible difficulty as an Ulster Unionist party source warned that the Government should not take support from its MPs for granted.

In last October's revolt, the nine Unionist MPs abstained. The Government has ensured the building of an underwater electricity link connecting Northern Ireland to Scotland. But the source said: 'Why should we be grateful for something that should have happened years ago? We will examine what is in the paper.' Members of the Tory coal group of MPs are also due to meet today to discuss their stand.

To meet the publication deadline it has set itself, the Government may be faced with going ahead without 'core' contracts between British Coal and the generators being signed, in spite of earlier indications to the contrary. But with assurances that the deals will soon be signed, that is no longer viewed as an obstacle to publication.

Some of the regional electricity companies are also still reluctant to sign contracts to buy electricity generated from the coal.

There was growing cynicism over the contents of the paper yesterday. One industry source said: 'We all await with interest just how wishy- washy it will be.'

It emerged that the Government is considering a package to allow large companies to buy cut-price electricity. Representatives of large electricity customers have met Mr Heseltine. Peter Rost, chairman of the Major Energy Users Council, said that in a free market, larger users were entitled to bulk discounts.