MPs compromise on plan for pit closures

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THE COMMONS Trade and Industry Select Committee last night adopted a compromise formula for the rescue of about half of the 31 pits threatened with closure, after a marathon meeting to agree its final report.

The Tory MPs held out against Labour demands for more pits to be rescued. It is understood that the report, to be published on Friday, will recommend that subsidies should be used to increase the market for coal by about 16 million tonnes, the equivalent of about 16 pits, although no total for the pits will be given.

That would mark a climb-down by Labour MPs who supported the draft report which aimed at rescuing 18 to 20 pits. A compromise was also forced on the Tories, who had threatened to hold the line at 15 million tonnes.

After the meeting broke up at 11pm, Richard Caborn, the Labour chairman of the committee, said: 'It has been a difficult negotiation with all sides . . . I feel knackered.'

The report may disappoint die- hards who are demanding the reprieve for all 31 pits. Labour leaders stepped up their pressure during the day by warning that the party would campaign for the pits to be kept open after the White Paper by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade.

But by securing unanimity, Mr Caborn has ensured that his committee will carry more weight with the Government. The report is believed to recommend a transfer of subsidy from the nuclear levy over five years at a cost of about pounds 550m but the Tory MPs may have avoided a freeze on further gas- fired stations, which the Labour MPs wanted as part of the plan to create a wider market for coal.

The report will criticise the DTI for its handling of the closure programme, which is now certain to provide one of the biggest U-turns by the Major government.

But the stance of the Labour members was underpinned yesterday by Robin Cook, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, who said on BBC television: 'What we will now be trying to do is to force the Government to go further and to keep more of the pits open.' Remarks in the same programme by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, that British Coal was already subsidised to the tune of a billion pounds a year were also rejected by Labour. Mr Heseltine said that the subsidy contemplated by the Government would be 'smaller than that we are paying today'.

Accusing Mr Heseltine of 'sleight of hand,' Dennis Skinner, MP for Bolsover, said: 'Because the price of world coal has fallen since British Coal struck contracts he's trying to say that's a subsidy. That's a business arrangement. The truth is he was prepared to allocate pounds 1bn for redundancies.'