Heseltine widens the scope of review

Click to follow
Indy Politics
MICHAEL HESELTINE yesterday promised there was 'no pre- ordained outcome' to his review of the threatened pit closures, as he further widened its scope and announced that international mining consultants are to assess the viability of the 21 pits granted a temporary reprieve.

With the House of Commons at its rowdiest for the Labour-initiated debate, Mr Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, sought to placate Tory critics of the closure programme with a string of extensions to his review. He would even consider changing the electricity privatisation legislation to improve the prospects for coal.

Only six Tories carried their opposition into the lobbies at the end of the debate. Labour's motion demanding that no pit be closed until the Select Committee on Trade and Industry concluded a review of the costs and benefits of closing pits or keeping them in production was rejected by 320 to 307. The Government's amendment, endorsing Mr Heseltine's policy, was then carried by 320 votes to 305.

The official Ulster Unionists abstained after securing a promise in the closing minutes that the energy needs of Northern Ireland would be included in the review. Labour MPs jeered as David Hunt, Secretary of State for Wales, served up the assurance 'without qualification'.

Mr Heseltine was barracked constantly by Labour MPs, many wearing 'Coal not Dole' stickers. There were repeated calls for order from the chair, but in a dramatic flourish Mr Heseltine used the din to cut short his speech.

Enraging the Opposition benches with an attack on Labour- controlled Leeds City Council for buying cheap coal from Colombia, Mr Heseltine told his tormentors they were not prepared to indulge in a proper examination.

'They are more interested in shouting down the arguments that I have. They are, in my view, letting down the miners that they have come here to represent and therefore I will rely on the right honourable and honourable friends to give me the three months I require to set this in proper order,' he said, and with that sat down to cheers from Conservative backbenchers.

But he faced close questioning from some Tories over the 10 allegedly uneconomic pits not included in the moratorium. His assertion that under the statutory consultation procedures British Coal had to carry out appropriate care and maintenance in order to keep the option of continuing production seemed to create more confusion.

He promised to look separately at each of the 21 pits and decide whether the case for closure had been fully made. International mining consultants, Boyds, had been asked to report to him on the viability of the 21 pits, he said.

'I also intend to appoint consultants to examine the prospects for British Coal, including any alternative markets that may exist and to comment generally on the competitiveness of British Coal as an organisation.

'I shall be having discussions with the generators and the 12 regional electricity companies to satisfy myself that the market prospects for coal have been correctly assessed and that no company is abusing its position in the market place.'

Later, as Mr Heseltine was about to sit down, Nicholas Winterton (C, Macclesfield) intervened to ask for an assurance that if, during his review, it became apparent the rules and regulations of electricity privatisation were flawed - 'as many of us believe they are' - prejudicing the position of coal, Mr Heseltine would introduce amendments to the privatisation legislation.

'Without reservation,' Mr Heseltine replied. 'There would be no point in the review if I was not prepared to consider those options. I have given the clearest undertaking that I could give to this House that this is a genuine review.'

The president said he would publish a White Paper early in the new year setting out the results of his inquiries. He would report on the level of coal stocks and consider whether plans to run them down were phased sensibly.

He would set out the consequences of the switch to gas and whether it was cheaper, and produce the latest estimate of the likely reserves of gas. 'I will report to the House on the present scale of gas-generated power stations in production, in build, and in the planning process, and will review the use of the consent powers as foreshadowed by my predecessor (Peter Lilley) in his statement of

9 March.'

Asked by Robin Cook, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, to explain why he had not considered all these things before last week's announcement, Mr Heseltine said he had, 'but the House wants further and better details'.

He would consider whether it was sensible to mothball some of the 21 pits, explore the opportunities for the private sector in the production of coal and report on the existing and anticipated level of imports and their wider implications. BC had been instructed that development work at the 21 pits must continue so as not to prejudice the review's outcome.

But Mr Heseltine rejected a suggestion that he agree to accept the findings of any coal inquiry by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. 'No minister could give a blank cheque to a select committee,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)