The Pit Closures: Select committee chooses Heseltine as first witness

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The Independent Online
THE TRADE and Industry Select Committee yesterday set itself a formidable programme of work over pit closures with comprehensive terms of reference that include examining alternative energy policies.

The committee is to meet twice a week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays until Christmas, with Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, as its first witness next week.

The committee is seeking absolute assurances from John Major and Mr Heseltine that it will see 'all the evidence and advice' received by the Government in its own review.

After an hour-long private meeting setting up the inquiry, Richard Caborn, the committee's Labour chairman, said it was crucial that both the Government's White Paper and the committee's report were based on the same facts when MPs receive them in January.

'If we come up with different conclusions, we want the argument to be based on principle, policy and substance,' the Sheffield Central MP said. 'We don't want to be told that there is something based on some source of information and advice that we haven't seen which MPs are then told alters the whole argument. It is important we get these ground rules set before we start.'

Committee members - and not just on the Labour side - already privately see room for manoeuvre in arguing that the scale of the switch to gas is not in the national interest, and in examining the sums coming from the nuclear levy for decommissioning nuclear stations.

Evidence that they are too high could provide cash for flue scrubbing technology to allow cleaner coal burning, helping British coal challenge low sulphur imports.

The Government faces in the 11-strong committee, despite its six to five Conservative majority, a well-equipped and hostile forum to tackle the issue. The Conservative members include Dr Michael Clark, chairman of the former energy committee, whose previous reports have been deeply critical of the impact of electricity privatisation on coal.

Dr Clark voted against the Government on Wednesday night. He said yesterday that some pits would have to close. But 'shutting down coal reserves when we don't have very long gas reserves is an act of vandalism or folly'.

Keith Hampson, the MP for Leeds North West, was a key lieutenant of Mr Heseltine during his years out of Cabinet and during the Tory leadership campaign. Colleagues argue, however, that he is a Yorkshire MP, and more open-minded than those links imply.

'We don't anyway yet know what Heseltine wants to come out of all this,' one committee member said. Mr Hampson was already suggesting yesterday that changing 'the rather discriminatory policy of licensing gas stations' could increase the coal market.

The other Conservative members are Barry Porter, the populist right-wing MP for Wirral South, Sir Anthony Grant, a former industry minister, Cranley Onslow, recently toppled as chairman of the 1922 backbench committee, and John Butterfill, the MP for Bournemouth West. Mr Butterfill, like Dr Clark, has deep knowledge of the issues. He was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Parkinson during the first stage of electricity privatisation, but is seen as far from an automatic defender of the present regime, which was completed by Lord Wakeham, not Lord Parkinson.

The Labour side includes Stan Orme, a former Labour minister and energy spokesman, and Adam Ingram, once a systems analyst with the Scottish electricity board.

The Transport Select Committee yesterday asked the Government to postpone the main rail privatisation Bill until the new year to allow it to report, given the potential effects on BR of mine closures.