The economy in crisis: Major stands by 'painful decision' to close mines

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

JOHN MAJOR said last night that he had not taken the decision to close 31 pits because he had woken up one morning 'and decided to do something beastly to the miners'.

Defending his controversial decision after the Birmingham European Community summit, he told a specially staged press conference on domestic matters: 'I knew it was a painful decision. If it could have been avoided, we would have avoided it.

He went on: 'At the very last moment, before the decision to go ahead was announced by British Coal, we reviewed the whole matter entirely.'

A special group of ministers had been called together to re-examine the strategic implications of severly cutting back the domestic fuel supply and to ensure that all of the target pits were unviable, he said. But the Prime Minister insisted that the economic facts brooked no contradiction.

British Coal was producing 88 million tonnes of coal a year, against sales of 40 million tonnes, at a cost to the Exchequer of 100m a month. 'Shift after shift, miners have been coming up to see piles of unwanted coal growing day by day,' Mr Major said. Stocks had been mounting by one million tonnes a month.

Sooner, rather than later, those facts had to be faced and difficult decisions were not made easier by vacillation, the Prime Minister added. He echoed the view of Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, that it had been the most difficult decision he had ever made. But reality could not be ignored.

Mr Major, who said he had yet to meet a miner who wanted his son to go into the pits, also recalled a recent visit to Shotton, in north Wales, the site of a former steelworks that had been closed down in the early 1980s with the loss of 10,000 jobs in a single day.

There had been 'misery and despair' when the steelworks had been shut down. Since then, however, there had been a concerted programme of regeneration. 'There is now a modern industrial estate there, providing secure, permanent employment for the people who once worked in those Shotton steelworks,' he said.

The Prime Minister then pledged that the Government would now seek to secure the same prospects for the mining areas. But he stressed: 'It isn't possible to continue to produce something for which there is no market and will be no market.'

On yesterday's cut in interest rates, Mr Major said that the Government had brought them down from 15 per cent to 8 per cent in just over two years, saving industry about pounds 9bn a year on its borrowing bills, with pounds 100 a month off the typical mortgage over the same period.

He also revealed that Norman Lamont, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, would be following up yesterday's decision to see if more could be done to help recovery.

'The Chancellor will be consulting industry in the coming weeks about what the Government can do to help industry further and he'll be doing that in the context of our continuing commitment to control public expenditure and contain inflation,' Mr Major said.