ON THE RECORD
RECORDED FROM TRANSMISSION: BBC-1 DATE: 18.10.92
JONATHAN DIMBLEBY: Good afternoon and welcome to On the
Record. Last weekend the fortunes of the Government were at rock-bottom
- or so it seemed. This weekend the Prime Minister and his colleagues are in
even deeper trouble. It comes to something when a headline in the SUN, yes,
the SUN, reads "IS MAJOR A GONER". That was yesterday. Today, the newspapers
are at it again with the firing squad aiming both at the Prime Minister and
especially at Michael Heseltine, witness the MAIL ON SUNDAY - "HESELTINE ON THE
RACK - MINISTERS JOIN CALLS FOR HIS SACKING IN PITS ROW".
The decision to close more than half the
coal mines in Britain, and to sack 30,000 miners in the process, has provoked
great public outrage. The Cabinet faces a humiliating defeat in Parliament at
the hands of its own backbenchers, and the political career of Michael
Heseltine is being called openly into question by party colleagues in the House
In this programme, in his only extended
interview since the crisis broke around him, the President of the Board of
Trade seeks to rebut his critics, to defend his handling of the announcement
and to justify a decision which has been widely denounced as brutal and
The revolt against the Government by
it's own backbenchers has grown so rapidly that it now faces the real prospect
of defeat in the debate next Wednesday. Unless the President of the Board of
Trade backs off at the last moment, when he addresses the House of Commons on
the crisis, when the new session starts tomorrow.
Before hearing from Mr. Heseltine
himself, a reminder now of how severe his predicament has become.
JONATHAN DIMBLEBY: Against that background and speculation
about his resignation from within his own party, I talked a little earlier
today to the President of the Board of Trade at his home in Oxfordshire about
his handling of the crisis and the decision which led to it.
Mr Heseltine, the Government was in
enough trouble already before this happened, now you have the nation up in
arms, you have the Party in revolt. In the manner and timing of your
announcement, you have made a spectacular error of political judgement and
really landed the Government in it, haven't you?
MICHAEL HESELTINE: If I am in that position, I accept
responsibility for that, I am the minister involved and I don't seek to share
the responsibility or run from it, but let's try and understand how that came
about. It's no secret, even your programmes, every newspaper has carried the
difficulties facing British Coal ever since I've had this job. Reports have
leaked, documents have appeared, letters have appeared and it's basically a
very agonising situation but one that is simply explained, that at the moment,
British Coal has contracts for sixty five million tons of coal which last until
next April. As from next April they have no equivalent contracts and they have
advised me that the best that they see is contracts for forty million tons. So
that would mean if we go on as now, we'll be producing twenty five million tons
of coal for which there's no market. The miners go down the pit and they come
up at the end of the shift and there is the coal that they've produced. They
go to the generators and there's more coal - no market, that's the dilemma that
DIMBLEBY: I want to explore that with you more
later. You say if I'm in the mess that I suggested you are in then so be it.
Do you accept you are in that mess?
HESELTINE: I have anguished personally with this
dreadful decision ever since I've had this job. I know what it's like because
I've had to live with it. Now everybody has to live with it and I'm not in the
least bit surprised, I have huge sympathy for people who feel as strongly as
DIMBLEBY: Did you expect people like the Chairman
of the 1922 Committee, to say this was unacceptable?
HESELTINE: I think that's where we all start but,
of course, you have to then say, well, what is acceptable? And when you follow
through the logic of all those questions as I've had to do, month after month,
I cannot see an acceptable way forward.
DIMBLEBY: But we're talking about the politics of
the timing of your announcement and the manner of it. Did you expect...
DIMBLEBY: .....did you expect the Chairman of the
Treasury Select Committee to say that this was on your part, "crass stupidity"?
HESELTINE: I understand the intensity of the
DIMBLEBY: Did you expect it?
HESELTINE: ...an announcement of this sort is bound
to produce that sort of reaction but it doesn't make the decision go away and
if they had had to share the dilemma that I shared, as all colleagues in
Government who are involved in this process had to share, there is no simple
way of avoiding what is a very unpleasant decision. And I have no advice to me
which says look you could have done it this way, you could do it that way.
British Coal have to manage the coal industry, they have come to me and they
have said this is what we have to recommend you to do and I would have had to
find alternative answers to their problems. Well, I haven't got any
alternative answers to their problems which I can superimpose on them and I
don't believe that Parliament would give me the powers - and I wouldn't ask for
them - in order to create a quite new regime in this country of the sort that
would have provided a more expensive but alternative way forward.
DIMBLEBY: You say you understand the mood, did you
expect the degree of revulsion that you have occasioned by this announcement,
did you expect people to say that this was a callous decision, a brutal
decision, that you are a callous and brutal politician in the manner in which
you've done it?
HESELTINE: People must make that judgement...
DIMBLEBY: I asked whether you expected it?
HESELTINE: I expected some very significant
reaction, the words, you never quite know. But as I said at the very
beginning, there is a history ever since I've done this job of this scale of
activity coming about, so nobody can realistically say that this was
unthinkable, unheard of, they may not have liked it, they might have wished it
wouldn't happen but the newspapers have been full of these stories about what
was going on. And one of the problems I faced with growing pressures, I was in
the North East the other day and there were all the local journalists saying,
look this is the hit list for our pits, you're going to close them, when you
going to do it? The Coal Board saying to me, how do you think we can go on
managing this industry when people know we've got to take these difficult
DIMBLEBY: You talked about the history, there is a
history of consulting the victims. Why did you fail to consult the victims,
was that not a spectacular error of judgement?
HESELTINE: Well it's not for me to do the job of
the Coal Board, I don't have a responsibility to consult the employees of the
Coal Board, that's for the Coal Board.
DIMBLEBY: Was it right not to consult them?
HESELTINE: That's a question you must put to the
DIMBLEBY: Well, I'm putting it to you, you're the
Secretary of State, you must have a judgement about whether it's right to
consult the thirty thousand men that have been put out of work.
HESELTINE: The Coal Board have responsibilities, it
is for them to discharge those responsibilities and as you know, these matters
are now before the courts.
DIMBLEBY: So when you say, when people say that it
is a shameful lack of honour and trust on the part of the Government not to
consult, for instance, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers who sustained the
Government during the strike, you wash your hands of that and say, oh, that's
a Coal Board's decision, nothing to do with me.
HESELTINE: Jonathan, I went to the annual
conference of the UDM and if you read the speech and if you'd had the
conservations that I've had with the UDM members and if you're aware of the
sort of speculation that has gone on, you would know that there has been a wide
awareness, not in precise details, not pit by pit but a very wide understanding
of the dilemmas that face their industry. And I spelt it out in my speech at
the UDM, I talked about the very difficult decisions...
DIMBLEBY: You didn't tell them they were going to
lose most of their pits, did you?
HESELTINE: I told them what they already knew about
the immense difficulties ahead and at the same time, I used language for which
I was critised at the time, to the generators and the distribution of
electricity companies. I said, look realise, you're not just dealing with an
economic situation, you're dealing with communities and get on with negotiating
the contracts. They still have not negotiated the contracts. At this moment,
I talk about an optimistic market for British Coal of forty million tons next
year, we haven't got a contract. And ministers - myself included, obviously -
have spent enormous amount of time waiting and listening to the generators and
the.....in order to try and get them to come to a conclusion so that we would
have certainties. One of the reasons why I have delayed these announcements
because I wanted a rock to be able to say to the mining industry, look, this is
the bedrock, we still haven't got that.
DIMBLEBY: Well, you made the announcement now.
Did you take into account that it would end up in the courts which on the face
of it is another pretty spectacular cock-up.
HESELTINE: You cannot take into account that
British Coal would deal with the matter in the way they did. That's for them
and they will make their case in the courts, it's not for me to double guess
the view of the courts or indeed, of my colleague Gillian Shephard, who is also
in a similar situation.
DIMBLEBY: Are you saying that you didn't allow it
to enter into your mind that the question of giving ninety days advance notice
might be relevant to an announcement?
HESELTINE: But the Coal Board make those decisions,
they are the people who are charged with managing the coal industry.
DIMBLEBY: Were you completely uninterested in the
statement they made?
HESELTINE: It isn't a question about being
uninterested, it is..
DIMBLEBY: Did you ask them about it?
HESELTINE: It is not a question about being
interested, it is a question of the Coal Board being responsible for carrying
out their duties under the law.
DIMBLEBY: But this is like Pontius Pilate, with
HESELTINE: Not at all, I...
DIMBLEBY: Because you made the decision, you are
in the dock along with the Coal Board, in the public mind you're in the dock.
HESELTINE: That will undoubtedly be the case but
you're asking me whether I have got a responsibility to do the job of the Coal
Board for them and I don't have and that's the short answer.
DIMBLEBY: And it's not your job to say, Michael,
it's not your job to say to the Coal Board, don't you think given the
extraordinary difficulty of this decision, it would be a good idea to consult,
a good idea to talk to the miners. You don't even bother to say that?
HESELTINE: No, I don't think you understand exactly
the scale on which this matter had been the subject of consultation. For
example, nine of the thirty one pits, they already knew they were going to be
closed. But the essence of my responsibility was to put the Coal Board in a
position where it had the funds necessary to produce a redundancy package of
very considerable generosity including the ability to pay three months notice
in lieu of notice. That was my responsibility and, of course, it had been a
great discussion within Government as to whether we could find that scale of
money that made it possible to help the miners in a very difficult situation.
DIMBLEBY: So you say, you say, you agonised about
all of this and have us believe that it caused you a great pain, I don't say
it didn't, but it's rather odd that it causes you so much pain that you can't
even decide that it's worth discovering from the Coal Board if you think and
they think, consultation might have been a good idea rather than the bombshell
in the way it came.
HESELTINE: No I just - the Coal Board have a
responsibility to manage their affairs within the law. That's their
responsibility. They come to me to deal with the issues for which I'm
responsible and there are a whole range of those which I have discharged and I
believe I have discharged them as properly as I could have done. It's for the
Coal Board then to deal with their employees.
DIMBLEBY: Which takes me to another aspect of the
way in which you personally have handled this. Did you seek in this matter at
all the advice of the Attorney-General to find out what the legal case might
HESELTINE: There was no question of me being
involved in a legal decision. If there are any legal decisions to be taken
they are for the Coal Board not for me.
DIMBLEBY: So he was one of those Ministers
who was excluded from these discussions?
HESELTINE: Not a question of being excluded. The
issu's for the Coal Board to deal with their legal responsibilities. It is not
for a Government department to try and run the Coal Industry.
DIMBLEBY: Haven't you made it exceptionally
difficult for your Cabinet colleagues by apparently excluding so many of them
from huge and horrendous decision, from the details of it?
HESELTINE: No, because, as I have explained, this -
the Cabinet colleagues involved in this were deeply involved and have been for
a very long period of time. They understood exactly what was going on and, as
I said at the beginning, this wasn't something that was hidden from sight.
There's been endless speculation about this issue, and I believe that in the
way in which modern Governments work it is inevitable that a great deal of the
detail and the work that's going to be done by groups of Ministers - anyone of
whom if they're worried about, or we're all worried - if anyone thinks that the
wrong decision's been taken, are fully entitled to have it aired in a wider
forum but there was, in the end, there was no disagreement among colleagues.
DIMBLEBY: In the way in which modern Government
works, is it normal that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be excluded
from the knowledge of the scale and timing in precise terms of this
HESELTINE: There is no way in which the Chancellor
of the Exchequer was excluded.
DIMBLEBY: He knew everything?
HESELTINE: The Treasury, of course, were deeply
involved, have to be deeply involved.
DIMBLEBY: Did the Chancellor of the Exchequer know
everything about the scale and timing because, as you have read - because you
read your papers, and you know about leaking - his friends are clearly (and we
saw and heard it on television last night), his friends are putting it about
that he didn't know the scale and the timing of this.
HESELTINE: Well, I disagree with that view.
DIMBLEBY: You know that he knew?
HESELTINE: I know that the Treasury knew and the
Chancellor would be briefed by the Treasury, and the Chancellor himself was
present at meetings in which this thing was thoroughly explored.
DIMBLEBY: Well, you put that very carefully and
you said the Treasury knew and he would have been fully briefed. Let me put
HESELTINE: And I went on to say "and he was present
at key meetings when these matters were discussed".
DIMBLEBY: At EVERY key meeting?
HESELTINE: Well, that doesn't follow, because if
you are going to deal with some subsidiary issue, but the key meetings, the
important issues, the scale of what was happening, certainly the Chancellor
DIMBLEBY: The Employment Secretary, Gillian
Shephard, is said to be incandescent with rage.
HESELTINE: I've read those stories, but the fact of
the matter is that at the key - where the scale of these matters were being
discussed an Employment Minister was present.
DIMBLEBY: AN Employment Minister was present.
HESELTINE: Yes, but that's very understandable if
the Employment Secretary cannot be present, it's very understandable that
somebody should come on her behalf and, I have to say, played a significant
role in the decision, so it is absolutely unthinkable to suggest that the
Department of the Employment - and for this purpose if the Junior Minister
comes on behalf of the Secretary of State to a meeting then, in fact, that is -
you cannot escape from the fact that means that the Employment above... were
DIMBLEBY: So if Gillian Shephard is incandescent
with rage because she feels that she wasn't given full knowledge about the
scale and timing and costs, that's her own fault?
HESELTINE: Well, I never used those words, and I
don't believe that she didn't know about the full scale of it all.
DIMBLEBY: So those people who say that she is
incandescent with rage are either not telling the truth or she is incandescent
for no good reason?
HESELTINE; No, I don't agree with any of that. I
think that there are always in these matters areas within the policy that cause
difficulties. There always are.
DIMBLEBY: Why didn't you tell David Hunt about the
pit that was going to be closed in North Wales about which he knew not until he
heard about it publicly?
HESELTINE: Well, the answer is a very clear one.
That the Coal Board only made that decision at the very last moment and so
Ministers - I didn't know about that decision until the very last moment.
DIMBLEBY: But you knew about it?
HESELTINE: Yes, at the very, very, very last
DIMBLEBY: You didn't have time to ring him up?
HESELTINE: I think that if I look back on this, an
area where I wish we had actually checked out that was in the course of about a
day, David Hunt should have been brought into that picture. I would accept
that as a legitimate area where the machinery didn't work as effectively as I
would have liked, but the fact is that David Hunt, again, was fully aware of
the nature of what was going on and the problems that were involved, but
certainly that last minute change of view, which came from the Coal Board, I
think didn't get to David as quickly as it should have done.
DIMBLEBY: Of course, you could have saved yourself
all this trouble if you had lived up to the very self same principles that you
deployed in the case of Westland. If you had said "I insist upon a full
Cabinet meeting for full collective responsibility". Why didn't you do that?
HESELTINE: Because the decision was not
disagreed. Westland, Mrs. Thatcher refused to have a Cabinet Committee after I
requested one. That was why I resigned. Here, nobody questioned the decision.
that's why it was not necessary for it to be the subject of a controversial
decision in Cabinet. The Cabinet Ministers involved in the decision were
agreed about what had to be done.
DIMBLEBY: Should it not have been the case under
the circumstances then that the Prime Minister, knowing the scale of this issue
- this dwarfs Westland. Westland frankly in comparison it pales...
HESELTINE: Because the issues are totally
DIMBLEBY: Well, let me suggest to you that under
the circumstances that an issue where the jobs - we're not talking about just
thirty thousand jobs are we? We're talking about forty/fifty thousand on top
of that in ancillary industries. This is mega-stuff in a deep recession and
you don't have a full Cabinet meeting?
HESELTINE: But, as I repeat, the Ministers who were
coming from all the departments involved in this process had been discussing
these matters for a very considerable period of time and there was no
disagreement in the end, but facing the advice of the Coal Board that they had
no market for something of the order of twenty-five million tons of coal from
April of next year, there was no way for the Government to go that was a
realistic option. That is the issue and whatever one can say about the
problems that arose, about who said what, whatever it be, you always get that
in these situations. You cannot escape, you cannot escape from the dilemma
that there is no market for that scale of coal.
DIMBLEBY: That may be the case, but you will have
solved a political problem of gargantuan proportions for yourself if you'd said
to the Prime Minister "Let's get the whole Cabinet in on this". Not just so
that at the end of a meeting I say "Sorry folks I've got to announce something
I've got to hurry off", but to discuss it and make sure around the table - this
has happened on other issues of not this scale - make sure around the table
that everyone is a hundred per cent on board, so that instead of having what
you now have, people drifting away from you leaving you like the Lone Ranger,
you have them actually right wityh you - in there fighting.
HESELTINE: Yes, well, the Ministers who are
involved in this issue they have defended the position that I took because they
were part of taking that decision, and the Ministers who were not deeply versed
(and I am the first to recognise that that is the case), they're not the
Minister, to the best of my knowledge, who are actually querying the decision.
I don't see any colleague of mine in
Government who's querying that this was the inevitable decision. We all know
the agony of it, but the thing that one has to constantly come back to is was
there a practical, realistic alternative and, if there isn't, then the scale of
it and the anguish of it would have provoked this public row whatever had
DIMBLEBY: You wouldn't now, with the benefit of
hindsight, now that you're in the trenches and under fire, have wished to have
had the full Cabinet meeting - it might not have been helpful?
HESELTINE: If I could write the background to this
I can tell you exactly what I would have wanted. I would have wanted to have
got the coal contracts in place; I wouldn't have wanted the leaks to take
place which caused some of the pressures; I would have liked to have done it
in a wholly orderly way within the privacy of Government in all of these
issues, but the fact of the matter is I haven't got the coal contracts and
there is, not within my power to insist that I do.
It is not - it's for me to deplore - but
I can't stop people leaking private Government documents with all the
uncertainties that flow and all the pressures that build up. I can't - I wish
I could. If I knew how to do it I would do it, but that is part of the
background, and the pressures that came on me I would have liked to have gone
to Parliament. Everybody knows I was trying to make this as a Parliamentary
statement, but actually the pressures have built up and the Coal Board were
saying their position was being considerably ..
DIMBLEBY: And you are so weak a Minister that you
are driven off course by leaks - Michael Heseltine?
HESELTINE: I didn't say I was driven off course.
You asked me whether looking back I would have liked to have seen it done a
different way. In politics you have to live with the art of the real world and
not the one you'd like to describe. But I answered your specific question. In
the end I had to deal with the circumstances as they were and I think I dealt
with them as I rightly should, in those circumstances, though not the ones I
would like to have seen.
DIMBLEBY: Now your colleagues of..over this, put
you on the rack. You have pointed out in the past that you were not in
Government when the original decisions were made - privatisation, role of coal,
role of nuclear power - that have some part to play in the critical situation
that you are now in. The Select Committee at the time said "the proposals for
privatisation were half baked". Do you think different decisions might have
been made, and would you have liked different decisions to have been made, had
you then been a player rather than an observer?
HESELTINE: Well I think it's the most irresponsible
way for me to behave now is to try to pretend that I would have changed
everything. That would have been easy, it would be an alibi, it would be to
try to shift responsibility and blame and I'm just not doing to do that. If
the responsibility's mine, which it is, let it rest on my shoulders. I will
defend the Government's position.
HESELTINE: And what I have to say is that in the
economic world, this is not a matter of privatisation, this is a matter of the
market for coal, and it is the logic of what has happened from the 1940's, when
we had seven hundred thousand people in the pits - it's now down to figures of
around forty eight thousand. And that is the scale of the change that has
DIMBLEBY: You talk about it being the market for
coal. The truth of the matter is, isn't it, if you look at the decision
itself, that you've made, is that the context in which you make it is a market
that is rigged, distorted against coal. That's your central problem.
HESELTINE: Well, that, that's what people of course
arguing the coal case say, but what they mean by rigged, is that gas-fired
electricity is cheaper and, therefore, they would like to see the coal industry
subsidised in some way, or a special levy put on the consumer in order to
protect the coal industry. But what that all means is either more subsidies,
or it means higher prices than we would otherwise see, and the consequence of
that would be to make British industry and British consumers pay higher prices.
DIMBLEBY: But you see, they don't say that. They
HESELTINE: The don't say it, but that would be the
DIMBLEBY: No, they don't say that gas is cheaper.
They say that actually gas is more expensive, but that the distribution
companies are driven by the framework of the market to go for gas, rather than
HESELTINE: Well, that's the choice which you'd
imagine a commercially orientated company wouldn't take, because they would go
where they could get the cheapest possible product with which to create the
electricity. That's what you'd think the market would do, and that is what the
market, in practice, has done in reverse, because it has gone for gas-fired
electricity because it is cheaper and it is, therefore, their responsibility to
achieve that. And if anyone has any doubts about that, then there is a
regulator sitting on top of this electricity industry, in order to be sure that
these companies are providing the most economic electricity for their
DIMBLEBY: If, in the face of evidence from
Powergen and from a host of other experts, there is a view that gas is not
cheaper, but more economical....hold on a second...
HESELTINE: Why is Powergen building their own
DIMBLEBY: Because they have to in order to...
HESELTINE: They don't have to, they could buy
coal - wby don't they come and enter into contracts with the coal industry, why
won't they sign up for this cheaper coal? Why won't they?
DIMBLEBY: You're saying that Powergen now is
failing to do what it ought to do, or that it is asserting that gas is cheaper?
HESELTINE: No, I'm saying that in the real
decisions that Powergen make they are building their own gas-fired stations and
they could ...
DIMBLEBY: It's called diversification.
HESELTINE: You call it what you like. It is a
failure to buy the coal, and if it was cheaper they would buy it.
DIMBLEBY: That's not necessarily the case,
Secretary of State.
HESELTINE: Well, why should they do it?
DIMBLEBY: Because if you have a market - and this
is the whole case of coal, of the coal industry, the Coal Board, Powergen as
well acknowledges this - that if you have a market which is only dependent upon
coal, and you are a distributing company, you have a real problem because you
have a monopoly, or a duopoly of these two huge companies, you have to go
elsewhere, because otherwise you're in shtook.
HESELTINE: But if you are in the business of
providing electricity, and you are under a regulator; if you were actually
buying more expensive gas-fired electricity, the regulator is going to squeeze
your profits, because he'd say you should have bought the coal, and they know
that, and these people would not have invested the sort of scale of money that
they are in privately financed gas-fired electricity stations, knowing that the
regulator would take all their profits away.
DIMBLEBY: You will know that the regulator has
just launched an enquiry. What happens if the reguloator comes up with
findings that suggest that the closure of all these pits is unnecessary and
wrong, because the price that gas is charged is inappropriate?
HESELTINE: But, the regulator - all these people
investing their money know that they're under this regulatory regime.
They wouldn't take those sort of risks. And it isn't just the generators.
There's all the distribution companies, they're going for gas-fired stations as
well. And so...
DIMBLEBY: For exactly the same reason.
HESELTINE: The reason they're going for it is
because it's cheaper, because we've got North Sea Gas and we've got reserves of
North Sea Gas stretching out into the future..
DIMBLEBY: For how long?
HESELTINE: For about fifty years, on the latest
DIMBLEBY: Fifty years. And after that?
HESELTINE: Well- what you're trying to
do? Are you trying to forecast the technology of coal extraction, or the cost
of energy generation in fifty years' time? You couldn't dream of investing
money on that basis.
DIMBLEBY: You don't think that under the
circumstances, given the enormity of the decision that you are making, that it
would be a good idea to say let's publish relative prices; let's have a
publicly available distinction between coal and gas and look at the real price
that each of them is?
HESELTINE: But this is going on all the time.
These calculations are being made, but in the end...
DIMBLEBY: Why don't you publish them?
HESELTINE: Because they're endlessly available
calculations of this sort. But that in the end. you have got private sector
companies, generators and distribution companies, who have got obligations to
provide fuel to their customers as cheaply as they can, and they're the people
who know where they can best buy the lowest priced electricity.
DIMBLEBY: You say the market isn't rigged. You
know I'm sure because you will know the figures, that if the subsidy given to
nuclear power was presently given to coal, coal could be delivered to the
powerstations for nothing and the Coal Board would still be in profit.
HESELTINE: Well, of course, the marginal cost of
nuclear, generated electricity, is very competitive. The levy is to pay for
the decommissioning of the old nuclear plants, a responsibility that has to be
discharged, you can't escape that. Nobody would forgive me if I tried to and I
wouldn't try to escape it. But then you imply that there is no subsidy to the
coal industry. We have put, under this Government, eighteen billion pounds
into the coal industry over the last twelve or so years, and that is getting on
for nearly half a million pounds a miner.
DIMBLEBY: Most of that's redundancy payments.
HESELTINE: Well..but a lot of it is investment,
about eight billion of it is investment if I remember correctly and so we have
put huge sums into the coal industry, huge sums and the fact of the matter is
that we now stare in the face of the fact that come next April there is no
contract, or likely contract, for twenty-five million tons of coal a year.
What am I supposed to do about that?
DIMBLEBY: Well, you could I suppose say that we
made an error in going for huge subsidies for the nuclear industry..
HESELTINE: .....you not decommission the nuclear
DIMBLEBY: And say that we should subsidise coal?
HESELTINE: ....we shouldn't decommission the
nuclear plants, is that what you're saying?
DIMBLEBY: I'm suggesting to you that you have put
the coal industry and the people who work in it - the most efficient coal
industry in Europe - into a relatively impossible position because it's not
subsidised like others are.
HESELTINE: Jonathan, well I've just explained to
you, eighteen billion pounds over tweleve years..
DIMBLEBY: At the moment no subsidy, for the last
two years no subsidy.
HESELTINE: But eighteen billion pounds of subsidy
over the course of the last twelve years and it's no use saying it's the most
efficient in Europe, the Europeans are closing down their coal industry, all of
them are closing it down, the Belgians are last to have gone, the Northern
French coalfields have gone, the Germans are coming down very significantly..
DIMBLEBY: The Germans are not closing their coal
HESELTINE: The Germans are closing their coal
fields, I'm sorry, they are closing their coal fields and they're bringing
DIMBLEBY: Slowly, Sir, slowly, that's the
HESELTINE: Because they have no North Sea Gas,
they've got no indigenous alternative fuel, that's why they're taking it more
slowly, there's no choice for them. But in our position, we have an element of
the imported coal which, of course, is another factor and you say, well we're
the most efficient in Europe. It's not a question of being the most efficient
in Europe, it's the most efficient in the world. We can import coal from
Australia, from America, Columbia, where, of course, a lot of it - certainly
Australia and in America - is open cast, scraped off the top of the surface,
much cheaper than we can get deep mined coal out of many of Britain's pits.
DIMBLEBY: Would it not be wise under the
circumstances, given the scale of debate over the issue of the decision itself,
let alone the way in which it was handled, to listen to those pleas from your
own Party and say, yes, we will have a moratorium, we won't press on
HESELTINE: What am I to do with the twenty five
million tons of coal?
DIMBLEBY: Presumably, the twenty five million tons
of coal can stay there for a little while longer.
HESELTINE: What on the pit heads and in generation
DIMBLEBY: Why not?
HESELTINE: Well, I mean that is going to cost
dramatic sums of money and that will come off what - hospitals, schools,
DIMBLEBY: Simply storing there..
HESELTINE: You're just mining it. That's twenty
five million tons of coal that we haven't got a market for. On the best
assumptions, it costs on average, forty pounds a ton. So it doesn't take very
long to multiply it up, it probably costs more at that level.
DIMBLEBY: So are you saying then because of the
cost there will be no review, there will be no moratorium, you stick exactly
with your position as you announced before?
HESELTINE: That is why I've had to accecpt the Coal
Board's agonisingly difficult decision and recommendation to me. I do not
believe that this country would solemnly argue or that my Party would stronly
argue that we should....we're already stacking a million...
DIMBLEBY: Well you're given all these figures
HESELTINE: We're already stacking a million tons of
coal now at the present contractural levels, the idea that we're going to turn
into twenty five million tons of coal, stacking up for which there is no market
and at a dramatic cost, with all the foregone opportunities for that money to
be spent in other ways. I don't believe.
DIMBLEBY: But you've said perfectly clearly,
you've said it before, you've still got growing ranks of backbenchers saying:
we want a moratorium, we know that. You've got apparently ninety nine per cent
of the British electorate saying: we want you to think again. And you're
saying, sorry, I'm not thinking again because I'm not prepared to have the coal
stacking up. Is that the position?
HESELTINE: I do not believe that people want me to
forgo all the alternative costs which will be measured in some cuts in public
expenditure somewhere else in order to produce coal for which there is no
market and the...there is one difference which I think I can legitimately
claim. I have sat and faced these agonising decisions since I became President
of the Board of Trade and so the shock of it and the enormity of it, I've had
to live with. The wider public and many of my colleagues have not had to face
up to these issues and have not had to try and find alternative answers to
them, they've not had to do what I've done with my ministerial colleagues and
with the Prime Minister to go over and over and over what alternatives there
DIMBLEBY: Now given this, you will..what you've
said very clearly, that you went through this agonising and you know about it
more than anyone else. Are you saying on the basis of that that you will
offer and can offer nothing, you will not slow down....just a second....
HESELTINE: It is already slowed down, it is
already slowed down, I mean I think a lot of people believe that actually the
announcement that was made was that the thirty one pits were going to be closed
tomorrow, that's not true.
DIMBLEBY: No, no, they know very well, nineteen by
Christmas and the rest afterwards. My question to you is this: are you
prepared or not prepared to postpone or delay the closures as you announce
HESELTINE: I do not think there is a case that I
can see for changing the recommendations that I have made. What there is a
case for doing and this I anticipated when I made my statement, is to refine
and expand and specify the nature of the help that we can give. When I made
the statement I said that we've got a redundancy package of up to a billion
pounds to provide individual redundancy terms for the miners, average of about
twenty three thousand pounds but rising up to about thirty seven thousand
pounds per miner. But there would be other measures and I gave a broad
indication of what will be.
DIMBLEBY: Why didn't you announce the whole
package at once, you could have saved yourself a lot of trouble, rather than it
looking now to people as if well, you've now been hit by the hurricane, you
want to buy off the opposition, let's scrabble around and find a bit more
HESELTINE: Inevitably when you come to these
decisions you have to negotiate with colleagues, you have to negotiate with
the Treasury, you have to take wider public expenditure issues into account.
DIMBLEBY: You've had all these months to do that,
by your own account.
HESELTINE: That is not the case because you've got
a public expenditure situation which is dealt with in the Autumn and that is
now well under way, we're looking at all these issues and I hope very much to
be able to say more about that tomorrow.
DIMBLEBY: Well, we know roughly what you're
alleged to be going to say, that you're going to find another hundred million
or so, that you're going to have a training programme run by the Techs, the
Prime Minister's indicated that. That's the jist of what you're saying I
HESELTINE: The Prime Minister has certainly
indicated the training aspects of what I have to say, that is very reasonable
extention of the announcement I made last week but I think I will wait until I
speak to the House of Commons tomorrow.
DIMBLEBY: Why this sudden coyness, you've been...
up to now, you make the announcement, you don't tell the House about that....
HESELTINE: As I told you, I wanted to make an
announcement to the House before the Summer...rising for the Summer recess. I
had intended to try and hold this announcement until Parliament came back now
in October but certainly the details of what I want to say tomorrow I shall
keep for the House of Commons.
DIMBLEBY: It's not very credible, is it? It
sounds terribly like blind panic, we've got to come up with something more
because otherwise we're going to go down.
HESELTINE: Well, if you read my statement, you'll
see I clearly indicated that we intended to come up with other things, it was
quite clearly in the statement. Indeed, I fleshed out in general headings
where those other things would be.
DIMBLEBY: Now a lot of backbenchers have made it
pretty clearly already that they're unlikely to be influenced by what you might
say in this matter. Can you afford to lose this vote?
HESELTINE: Well I don't think we will lose the
vote, I believe that when the backbenchers have heard what I have to say and
when we have completed the announcement that I hope to make tomorrow in the
House of Commons, then I think backbenchers will see that the Government is
taking very considerable notice of what people are saying and have presented a
range of proposals which meet the enormity of the difficulties we face.
DIMBLEBY: None the less, you are a very astute
politician and you know what you're up against. I ask you again, can the
government afford to plough on and lose the vote on Wednesday?
HESELTINE: I like the word 'afford'. I just wonder
whether people realise the scale of the economic difficulties that the world
recession is placing upon us and when you come to afford, the question is
whether we can afford to produce twenty five million tons of coal for which
there's no market.
DIMBLEBY: That's a perfectly acceptable answer but
not to the question that I put. Can the government get away with losing this
vote, politically, I'm talking about.
HESELTINE: You understandably press me on the day
by day politics of it and I understand that, it's not comfortable and I knew it
wouldn't be comfortable but as a member of the Cabinet, I have to take a view
about the overall affects on the economy and of the costs of this decision or
any alternative decision and I'm left with the fact there's no market for
twenty five million tons of coal.
DIMBLEBY: Now if, however, the Party doesn't buy
that line and you do lose the vote, your position becomes untenable then, does
HESELTINE: I am the Minister responsible and I have
no intention of trying to share that or to blame others, I will carry what
responsibility is necessary.
DIMBLEBY: Can you stay as President of the Board
of Trade if you lead from the front as you've done on this and you go in and
you lose the vote?
HESELTINE: I intend to try and help the Party win
DIMBLEBY: If you lose it, amonst others...
HESELTINE: I'm not dealing with hypothesis,
DIMBLEBY: Well, what's your answer then to Winston
Churchill, who this morning said, "if the vote is lost, then you must go".
HESELTINE: Well, that is a view he holds, the great
thing is therefore for him to help us win the vote.
DIMBLEBY: Resigning isn't much in fashion at the
moment, are you saying: I stick in, come what may?
HESELTINE: I'm saying that I want to help the Party
win the vote.
DIMBLEBY: It's rather hard luck isn't it for you,
there you were two weeks ago, blue eyed boy of the Party, now you're on the
rack, virtually on the cross.
HESELTINE: Well, you don't come into politics
expecting a sort of easy ride.
DIMBLEBY: Do you expect to survive this one?
HESELTINE: I will do my best to help the Party win
the vote on Wednesday. I believe the case - in economic terms - is
unanswerable and that the measures that we have provided socially are as
generous as we could reasonably afford and far, far more generous than the
other nearly three million people out of work have received in very similar
DIMBLEBY: Michael Heseltine, thank you.
HESELTINE: Thank you.