Government in crisis: Hearing on legality of closures is adjourned

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MINERS' representatives in the High Court yesterday expressed considerable scepticism about the 90-day consultation period granted by the Government over the closure of 10 pits.

The hearing, in which unions are alleging that British Coal infringed English and European employment law and ignored the colliery review procedure, was adjourned until next month.

Charles Falconer QC, for British Coal, told the High Court in London that management would embark on consultations 'in good faith and with a genuinely open mind'. BC's view was nevertheless that there was a very strong case for closure.

John Hendy QC, for the coal unions and seven individual miners, failed to win an assurance from BC that all miners at the pits would be kept in work pending the outcome of the consultation period. The 10 pits are Grimethorpe, Houghton Main and Markham Main, (Yorkshire); Trentham, Parkside, Betws and Taff Merthyr, (Midlands and Wales region); Vane Tempest (North-east); and Cotgrave and Silverhill (Notts).

Mr Falconer said mining at six of the pits would stop this week. While men would continue to be employed, a significant number would be sent home. 'But we give an assurance that what we do will not prejudice the outcome of the consultations,' Mr Falconer said.

A three-day hearing for the legal challenge to the proposed closures is scheduled for between 14 November and 28 November.

The unions' solicitor, Mark Stephens, said later that the miners would press at the November hearing for court orders reversing the closure decision on all 31 pits. This would be based on three grounds:

That the modified colliery review procedure - allowing for up to nine months' consultation - should be read into each miner's employment contract.

That it was still open to question whether BC would carry out its 90-day consultation obligations under the Employment Protection Act in a 'meaningful, open and frank' way.

That the pit closure decision was open to judicial review because it was unreasonable and unfair.