Government in Crisis: Heseltine fails to mollify Tory critics: Miners do not want charity, Churchill insists - Cook condemns 'closure by delayed action'

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The Independent Online
THE VERDICT of a succession Conservative backbenchers to Michael Heseltine's temporary reprieve of 21 collieries was that it was welcome but did not go far enough.

One Tory after another called on the President of the Board Trade to institute a full review of energy strategy and include all 31 threatened pits in the moratorium. Unless he did so, the Government would lose the vote when MPs debate the pit closures on Wednesday, Hugh Dykes (C, Harrow E) warned.

Mr Heseltine entered the Commons to make his statement to Labour jeers and shouts of 'resign'. Repeatedly challenged on whether any of the 31 pits might actually be saved, Mr Heseltine said he did not want to give the impression that the moratorium would fill the gap in the market needed by British Coal.

'I will not say now that at the margin there will be no change in policy', the president said. But he repeated that British Coal faced a reduction of 25 million tonnes a year in its contract with the electricity generators and at a lower price per tonne. 'On that basis one is led remorselessly to the inevitable consequences which I first announced.'

Winston Churchill (C, Davyhulme), a prominent critic of the closure plan, told Mr Heseltine that his statement was 'welcome as a far as it goes. But I have to say that I fear it does not go far enough'.

'The miners of this country are not asking for charity. They are asking for a level playing field for their product. Unless Mr Heseltine is able to assure the House that what he is suggesting is a thorough-going review of Britain's long-term strategic energy requirements . . . and that pending that there will be a moratorium on at least 90 per cent of the closures, I certainly would find it difficult to support his position in the division lobbies.'

Elizabeth Peacock (C, Batley and Spen) welcomed the statement in that it suggested the Prime Minister and the Cabinet were listening but she, too, wanted a review of Britain's long-term energy requirements. Other Conservatives protested at the treatment of the Union of the Democratic Mineworkers.

Bill Cash (C, Stafford), some of whose constituents work at the doomed Trentham pit, said: 'It was those miners who went through the picket lines and defied Arthur Scargill who have now been so badly let down by the decision Mr Heseltine has taken.'

Jim Lester (C, Broxtowe) said no words of his could give vent to the shock waves that had gone through Nottinghamshire.

Responding to a plea by Robert Adley (C, Christchurch), Mr Heseltine said he had looked at the possibility of giving himself the power to influence the purchasing policy of the electricity generators. But he went on: 'It is because my first duty is to ensure that British industry and British consumers get the most competitive energy they can, that I am not prepared to come to the House and ask them to reverse the decisions they have taken over the last half a decade.'

Mr Heseltine warned of the cost to the taxpayer of delaying closures. 'If we produce 25 million tonnes of coal next year for which there is no market, that is an additional pounds 1bn or more in a year and that has to be financed on public expenditure. It will be matched against a whole range of other investment or revenue consequences, hospitals, schools, roads, whatever it may be.'

Robin Cook, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, said the statement would be judged by whether it was a genuine attempt to save miners' jobs or 'a manoeuvre to save ministers' jobs'.

Calling for an independent review, he said the 'closure by delayed action' did not measure up to the nation's demands. 'The people of Britain who protested over the weekend from Chesterfield to Cheltenham, were not protesting at the timetable of the closure,' Mr Cook told the House.

'Does he not realise, they were protesting at the closures. They wanted the closures stopped, not phased in.'

Malcolm Bruce, for the Liberal Democrats, said a phased closure would do nothing to stem the anger of people outraged at the Government tearing the industrial heart out of the economy. 'The only phase-out that this country needs is the phase-out of Mr Heseltine and this Government,' he said.

Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, drew a parallel with the 1960s assumption of permanently cheap oil prices. 'This Government's whole attitude is now based on the historic error of depending upon cheap gas and cheap imported coal, which is an invitation to companies and countries that owe nothing to this country to hold our country to energy ransom in the future.'

Dennis Skinner, whose Bolsover colliery is included in the moratorium, told Mr Heseltine he cut 'a pathetic figure - him and Major Wimp'. Later, as he unsuccessfully sought an emergency debate, the NUM-sponsored MP threw a miners' suit across the chamber at Mr Heseltine. It was for working in a hot seam and had been sent by a woman constituent, Mr Skinner said.

'She says, 'Give 'em Heseltine. I hope he gets the other 30,999 and then he will have a valuable national asset'.'

(Photograph omitted)