Pits closure plans suffer defeat in the Lords

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Indy Politics
THE Government last night suffered an embarrassing defeat on its pit closure plans when the House of Lords called by 125 to 100 votes for an independent inquiry into the future of the coal industry, before any shut-downs.

The surprise vote came at the end of a debate on an Opposition motion. Governmment whips had tried to ensure a strong turnout of Conservative backbench peers but were overwhelmed by the combined forces of Labour, Liberals and Independents.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, who proposed the Opposition motion, hailed the vote as a 'dramatic result' and urged Tory MPs to follow the example when they debate the issue today in the Commons.

Opening the debate, he said: 'We are passing through one of the most difficult and anxious periods of this century. The people of this country have for some months felt a sense of insecurity about the future. I don't recall a period when a Government has lost the peoples' confidence so swiftly and to such an extent.'

Lord Cledwyn, a former Secretary of State for Wales, claimed the 'best mines in the world' were going to be shut and the best miners 'thrown on the scrapheap'. He said: 'This is one of the most cruel and callous acts proposed by any government in this country for many a decade.'

Accusing the Government of 'cynical attempts to buy off their own backbenchers in the Commons', Lord Cledwyn said that Monday's statement by Michael Heseltine did not remove fears and could turn out to be no more than a postponement of the closures for two or three months.

Lord Ezra (Lib Dem), a former National Coal Board chairman, said that there was an 'overwhelming case' for an independent inquiry into pit closures and accused ministers of having no coherent long-term energy strategy.

He said Mr Heseltine had indicated that during the moratorium period there would be time for negotiations to continue between British Coal and the electricity generators and for these to hopefully be concluded on the new coal contracts. 'If those contracts are concluded before the inquiry is completed, we would really be wasting our time.'

Lord Callaghan, the former Labour prime minister, told peers that last week's 'absurd and incredible decision' was 'one of the most incompetent operations it has been my lot ever to see. It showed a lack of consideration that was almost inconceivable.'

The lack of Cabinet discussion before the announcement 'calls into question the judgement of the Prime Minister'. He called Mr Heseltine a man of 'fixed convictions and dogmatism'.

Lord Boardman, a former Conservative industry minister, warned against 'getting carried away in the great emotional wave' that followed the announcement. He conceded there were regrettable elements in the way the matter had been handled, but insisted: 'The closure of mines has been going on for generations.'

Lord Marsh (Ind), who was Labour minister of power at the time of pit closures in the 1960s, highlighted the 'inescapable logic' of declining demand for coal. He said colliery shut-downs were 'ghastly' but no government in the last 30 years had found a way of avoiding them.

Lord Haslam (C), British Coal chairman from 1986 to 1990, urged ministers to consider restraining further expansion of gas-fired power stations until comparative costs with coal were established and to consider sharing the nuclear levy with the coal industry for three years.

In a Commons written reply last night, David Hunt, Secretary of State for Wales, announced a multi-million pound programme to assist areas affected by pit closures. The programme includes a pounds 4.8m employment and training programme and Welsh Development Agency spending of pounds 33m.

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