Coal is a bright beacon of Commons power

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THIS WEEK, 11 white men, one short of an old-fashioned jury, are deciding the fate of much of British coal-mining. The Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee has found it hard, slow, slogging. We should not be surprised: the weight of responsibility on the committee's collective shoulders is heavy, and rare.

Something highly unusual and unremarked-upon has been happening. For the first time since the Thatcher revolution started, a parliamentary committee of backbench MPs is driving government policy. This politically disparate group, which contains Tory knights, a new-boy socialist from Yorkshire, a right-wing Conservative populist, Neil Kinnock's former Commons aide and a Liberal Democrat from the Scottish Highlands, can save, or condemn, thousands of jobs. They can make the rest of us pay, either as taxpayers or as electricity users; or they can desist from so doing.

Ultimately, of course, the Cabinet will take the decisions. After the committee publishes its final report on Friday, there will be tense meetings at Downing Street and in the government whips' office. New contracts need to be signed by British Coal by the end of March, so time is terribly short. But if the committee plays its cards right, it could virtually dictate the outcome. Leaks suggest it is doing just that.

The Government is weak because the Cabinet would not have reconsidered the coal closure programme except at the sharp point of a threatened Commons defeat. The rebels are still there, untamed, unreconciled, and waiting for the committee's report. The committee's members, including Sir Cranley Onslow, formerly leader of the Tory backbench committee, carry great weight. Reluctantly, and in a mood of recrimination, ministers are prisoners of whatever the committee decides.

Even now the committee could diminish its advantage by splitting, rowing in public, going too far in recommending all 31 threatened pits be saved, or evading the issue of how any rescues are to be paid for. But if the MPs recommend keeping up to 20 pits, funded by a new three-year subsidy, their report will provide a rallying point for the Tory rebels. A report along those lines looks likely, though last night's leaking of a draft version suggested that there are still bitter rows to come on the committee.

The Government will immediately want to know whom the MPs think should fund the new subsidy. Mr Heseltine is adamant that his original closure decision was the right one economically; he may very well decide that any subsidy to keep pits open should be spelt out in higher government spending, or passed on in electricity bills - and then pinned to dissident Tories, including committee members. The MPs will get the glory of saving collieries. But ministers will blame them for the price tag.

And there will be a price tag. The department insists that there is no easy way to expand the market for coal, as the committee suggests. Refusing to commission more gas-powered stations will not affect the demand for coal in the next five years. In the old days, Mr Heseltine could have ordered a handful of nationalised industry bosses to sort it out, but privatisation has created a complex network of obligations. These days, he could be taken to court if he tried to re-rig the market.

The dilemma is even trickier for Labour MPs on the committee. If they push too hard to save pits, they risk losing a unanimous report, so shooting themselves in the foot. But each pit that their report suggests might be closed will haunt them in its death agony. Behind all this lies the prospect of privatisation: Arthur Scargill will be quick to attack the four Labour members of the committee for perfidy. Such are the penalties of power.

Some will say that the MPs' power merely derives from the Government's attempt to shuffle off responsibility for whatever it decides (the committee is, after all, only an advisory body). Their argument is given added force by the Government's earlier attempt to blame pit closures on its new 'free market in energy'. In fact, there is no free market in energy: it is beset by environmental rules, the nuclear levy, the need to maintain some flexibility of supply, government deals with the French and other EC governments, and by the post-privatisation regulators.

Most of these restrictions are necessary and popular. But they give the lie to the idea that there is no government policy on energy, without taking us any further towards a government strategy for energy. There is a crucial distinction between privatising functions, such as power stations or coal mines, and privatising policy. Has the Government noticed?

Well, no. But in the meantime, the parliamentary arithmetic is real enough, and I think we can raise a modest, celebratory glass to the struggling committee. The 11 are wrestling with hard decisions from which, in normal circumstances, backbenchers are protected. Their power is temporary and limited; but if they produce a clear and honest report, they will shape the future of the coal industry, for a few years at least. They will provide a sort of energy policy by default.

That would give a real boost to the select committee system, and thus to our weary, much-maligned Parliament itself. By the same token, a report that fudged all the hard decisions would represent a severe setback for the Commons, and would be a victory for the executive. The jury is out.