Lords place coal Bill back on rails

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CONSERVATIVE backwoodsmen turned out in force in the House of Lords yesterday to expunge the memory of last month's Government defeat over pit closures and get the Bill to pave the way for privatising the coal and rail industries back on the legislative rails, writes Stephen Goodwin.

Peers gave the British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Bill a Second Reading in July. But the Committee Stage was postponed amid fury at the proposed shutdown of 31 collieries, and the Government then suffered defeat by 125-100 on a Labour motion calling for a 'thorough independent inquiry' before any pits closed. Yesterday the Government reversed these embarrassments and began the Committee Stage.

A Labour motion to put the Bill on hold until the inquiry findings were published was rejected by 165 votes to 106. A Liberal Democrat-Labour move to remove coal from the Bill's scope was rejected by 150-99. Lord Richard, leader of the Labour peers, said starting the committee stage now was tactless and autocratic and cast doubt on the Government's commitment to the inquiry by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry - to report early next year.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, leader of the Liberal Democrat peers, warned against starting the Bill with 'ill feeling' and ridiculed the idea that the Government might be demonstrating the 'smack of firm government'. 'There are few sights less convincing, or indeed more pathetic, than that of a weak government, or weak men, trying to puff themselves up with a display of false strength,' he said.

Lord Wakeham, Leader of the Lords, emphasised that the Bill was a paving measure, needed so the two industries could formulate privatisation plans. It was not intended to pre-empt the review of the closures, and no privatisation Bill would be introduced in advance of the promised White Paper on the industry.