Inside Parliament: Rebels display little fight over new threat to mines: Tories accused of 'chicanery' over pit review - Back bench critics subdued - Protest at rush over EC Bill

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Indy Politics
Mining MPs reacted more with despair than anger to the announcement in the Commons that British Coal is to resume talks with trade unions under its formal colliery review procedure.

No pit proposed for closure under the arrangements had been kept open, Eric Illsley, a former NUM officer, said following a statement by Tim Eggar, the energy minister.

'Most of Mr Eggar's announcements are just going to make it easier for British Coal to close more collieries in advance of privatisation to leave a small rump industry to be sold off to people in the City,' Mr Illsley, MP for Barnsley Central, said.

Reopening the Modified Colliery Review Procedure could lead to the closure of all 31 pits which came under the axe a year ago. The ensuing furore led to Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, offering a partial reprieve to mollify angry Tories. Yesterday Mr Heseltine was on the front bench beside Mr Eggar for the exchanges, hearing his actions denounced by Labour MPs as a cynical ploy and 'political chicanery of the worst type'.

Robin Cook, Labour trade and industry spokesman, accused the Government of a 'total fraud. It is not the miners who should face the sack but the ministers who have betrayed them and betrayed Britain's coal industry.'

Britain, with the largest coal reserves in Europe, was on course next spring to have a mining workforce of barely 10,000, Mr Cook said. Predicting a second wave of pit closures, he said that despite its subsidy offer, the Government had failed to persuade the electricity generators to take a single extra bag of coal.

Shouts of 'shame' met Mr Eggar's disclosure that a 1908 Act limiting the time miners spend underground to 7.5 hours plus one hour 'winding time' is to be repealed from 20 November. Mr Cook accused him trying to 'turn the clock back to the working practices of the 19th century', but Mr Eggar insisted that no corners would be cut on safety. 'The preservation of safety in the mining industry is paramount.'

Labour's Joe Ashton painted a grim picture of the possible consequences of privatisation on three pits in his Bassetlaw constituency. The men had broken production records year in, year out 'by the sweat of their backs'.

'Will Mr Eggar guarantee to the local Conservative party that they will be open on the next election day? Or is their future to be one of being laid off by privatised industry, set back on again at half the pay in worse conditions and seven-day working? . . . Is Mr Eggar not just polishing the brass plate on the coffin instead of just putting the lid on?' Mr Ashton said.

Tory backbench critics of pit closures sounded disappointed rather than rebellious. Patrick Cormack, MP for Staffordshire South, focused on Mr Eggar's remark that BC's chairman, Neil Clarke, was 'pessimistic' about current market conditions and the prospects for additional sales.

'Pessimistic salesmen don't very often win markets,' Mr Cormack said. Was Mr Eggar entirely satisfied with Mr Clarke's performance? 'He is tackling a difficult task with gusto,' the minister replied.

Winston Churchill, MP for Davyhulme, asked how many of the 'reprieved' pits Mr Eggar expected to be in production by the end of March. Other MPs also wanted to know, but the minister was not saying. 'This, of course, is a matter for British Coal,' he repeated. The Government had provided a subsidy.

Nicholas Winterton, one of the few Tories who actually carried his objections to closures into the division lobbies, complained that an assurance by Mr Heseltine on removing any bias against coal in electricity generation had not been met. The Macclesfield MP went on: 'Can it be sound for the Government which is encountering severe economic difficulties . . . to allow this country to import coal, putting people out of work when we have some of the finest and most competitive deep-mined coal in the world to offer for sale?'

Mr Eggar and loyal Tory backbenchers see early privatisation as the surest way to secure a future for the coal industry - undeterred by continuing difficulties with the Railways Bill. Peers, led by the former Conservative transport minister, Lord Peyton, defeated the Government and forced a concession from the Government as they tightened up protection for British Rail pensioners.

After coal rebels and rail rebels came a reappearance of Sir Teddy Taylor and Bill Cash, rattling their chains on a piece of Euro-legislation intended to incorporate into UK law a deal between the EC and Efta countries extending the free movement of goods, people and capital.

Government and Labour business managers had privately agreed that the European Economic Area Bill should go through all its stages today but EC critics on both sides of the chamber protested at the rush. Sir Teddy, Conservative MP for Southend East, complained of a 'dirty, squalid deal', when in fact there was lots of parliamentary time and MPs had very little to do.

Nigel Spearing, Labour MP for Newham South, said that though there were only five clauses, the Bill was 'twice as obtuse' as the Maastricht legislation and the accompanying treaty was five times as long, running to 550 pages.

The Bill would add enormously to social security costs by opening the door to 'Euro- scroungers' from Efta countries, Sir Teddy claimed, recalling the party conference attack on 'benefit tourists' by the Secretary of State, Peter Lilley. And thanks to another piece of legislation completed by MPs last night, from the end of 1994 they will be able to use their scroungings for a flutter on the national lottery.

(Photograph omitted)