Thousands of miners face redundancy: Unions to decide on action as pit closures mark prelude to privatisation. Mary Fagan and Martin Whitfield report

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THOUSANDS of miners' jobs are expected to disappear before Christmas as British Coal begins the closure of about 30 pits. Some 30,000 colliers are to lose their jobs over the next two years.

A new redundancy scheme with payments of up to pounds 37,000 is to be offered by British Coal, following prolonged negotiations with the Treasury.

Union leaders yesterday feared that up to 20,000 jobs would be lost 'in a matter of weeks'.

The closures, which are expected to be announced by British Coal next Wednesday, are a prelude to privatisation next year and will devastate communities in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire.

Leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers will consider what action to take at a special delegate conference next Thursday. Arthur Scargill, the NUM president, is expected to propose industrial action as the union faces the prospect of being reduced to a rump of fewer than 20,000 members.

Previous resistance to pit closures has been blunted by the offer of redundancy payments. Continued uncertainty over the future of the industry has led to many miners taking the enhanced severance in the expectation that the offer of such large cash sums will be withdrawn.

The Union of Democratic Mineworkers, which is involved with East Midlands Electricity in a combined bid for all or parts of British Coal, said that the closures were economic suicide.

Roy Lynk, the union's president, said after an executive meeting yesterday: 'We are not recommending industrial action. That would close even more pits.

'We have increased productivity by 400 per cent. We are profitable for the first time in decades but haven't been given the chance to finish the job to become modern, efficient and competitive.'

Neil Greatrex, who is challenging Mr Lynk for his job, called for a general strike to defend the coal industry. 'It is not just miners' jobs at stake here. A concerted effort is needed from every worker in the country,' he said.

A spokeswoman for the Coalfields Community Campaign said the impact of job losses on mining communities would be horrific. 'There is very little else that people can do. There isn't a great deal of other industry where skills are transferable.'

Robin Cook, the Labour spokesman on trade and industry, yesterday condemned the Government for planning to time its announcement on the pit closures a week before the recall of Parliament. Mr Cook called it 'a cynical device to get this damaging decision out to the public at a time when Parliament cannot get ministers called to account'. He said the decision would deeply damage Britain's chances of recovery, worsen the balance of trade and waste much larger sums in redundancy than it would cost in subsidy to keep pits in production.

Since the mid-1980s, British Coal's workforce has dwindled from 220,000 to 51,000, of which 41,000 are employed at the coalface. The number of collieries has shrunk from 169 to 50.

British Coal's future has appeared bleak since the privatisation of the electricity industry. National Power and PowerGen, the two major generators, intend to switch more to natural gas and coal imports. Independent generators now entering the market will also rely on natural gas, in spite of the fact that the cost of gas has risen markedly since 1990.