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Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme

Volume 632: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I applied for the debate for one reason: because miners and their families deserve a fair deal from their pension pots. In the time I have, I will talk a bit about the scheme—what it is, what the issues are and what could be done going forward—but first, I want to talk about why it matters.

I have a very personal stake in this because of where I am from and my family. Like much of south Wales, coalmining is a big part of Blaenau Gwent’s history. We were the crucible of the industrial revolution in Wales. Steel and coal propelled the Welsh economy, shaping our landscape and employing hundreds of thousands of people. There were tragedies as well, such as at Senghenydd and Six Bells in my constituency—I could go on.

Like many people in Blaenau Gwent, mining also played a big part in my family. I was named after three colliers—my three uncles on my mum’s side—Nicholas, Desmond and John. I still remember the 1974 coal strike: I went with my Uncle Dessie to pick coal off the patches high above Tredegar to help keep our homes warm. They were all members of this scheme. Working deep underground, miners like my uncles helped keep our country running for decades. It was dangerous work, but they just got on with it. Oakdale colliery, where a lot of my family worked, shut 28 years ago. The British mining industry is almost gone, but what is left is former mining communities such as Blaenau Gwent and pensioners like my uncles.

In 2006, there were 280,000 total members of the scheme. By 2016, there were just over 177,000 members. The scheme projects that that number will fall by about 50,000 in the next 10 years, which would take total membership down to about 127,000—a drop of 55% over 20 years. Those members who are left deserve a duty of financial care from our Government.

I have hundreds of constituents who have paid into the scheme and deserve the money, in contrast to the Government, who have not made a contribution since 1994. In discussions, the Government have said that they do not intend to agree to changes that are not in their interests. This is simply not fair. They need to think again.

My hon. Friend makes a really good point that gets to the nub of the question we are considering.

I called for the debate following the productive meeting that Labour colleagues and I had with the scheme trustees recently. At the meeting, we looked at ways of improving outcomes for the scheme’s members, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) for organising it.

On the scheme itself, in 1994, there was an agreement between British Coal pension trustees and the Government. The Government made a guarantee that any pensions earned up until privatisation were safe and would not fall in cash terms. In return, if the schemes were in surplus and doing well, that surplus would be split 50:50, with half going to scheme members and the other half to the Government. The sharing of the surplus is at the heart of our discussion.

Since 1994, the Government have taken £3.5 billion out of the scheme, without making any payments into it. It could be argued that £830 million of that was British Coal’s original share of the surplus being paid back to the Government—I sort of get that and it is a fair point.

I am glad that my hon. Friend mentions British Coal. He will know that British Coal made no employer contributions between 1987 and 1995, when a Conservative Government were in power. Does he agree that that was an error by that Government that clearly proves that, in their time in government, they did not care about ex-mineworkers?

As my hon. Friend has said, the surplus gets to the heart of the issue. Does he accept that the surplus the Government have received is far in excess of their own expectations for what could have happened?

My hon. Friend and neighbour, like my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), gets right to the bone. Nearly £2.7 billion has come from the scheme to the Government as their share of the subsequent surpluses. That means that the Government have taken the same share as the people who earned the pensions in the first place.

Instead of paying in, the Government act as a guarantor in case things go wrong. That is a good thing and has been helpful—the trustees say that. The Government say that they take the money because they will step in and protect the value of pensions if the fund encounters difficulties. The trustees accept that this protection has enabled them to pursue more lucrative investments than might otherwise have been the case. I would like to be clear: we are glad that the Government guarantee is there. It has made a difference and helped to lead to better returns.

I have also met the trustees. Does the hon. Gentleman accept what they have said—that the guarantee is the most important part of the agreement, and that they would not wish to give any movement on that guarantee within the scheme for any price?

The hon. Gentleman is right. When we met the trustees, they told us that the guarantee was important, and I accept that. It has been helpful in terms of pursuing lucrative investments, which have aided scheme improvements and its funding. It has also given miners the peace of mind that the pension they earned will not go down in value, no matter what happens in the markets. It is a good thing. The basic nature of the guarantee is not in dispute. The concern is about how much money is being taken out of the surplus in return for it. That is the question we have to try to tease out.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting this important debate. The miners feel deceived and that they have been led down the garden path. As he and many colleagues know, there is anger in mining communities because they feel they have been duped. Waiting and waiting for some kind of resolution is not good enough. May we have an inquiry by the Treasury Committee into the scheme? Would he agree with that?

I agree. More parliamentary consideration of this important initiative and where it goes next would be valuable.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, the tone of his remarks to date and the manner in which he and colleagues are campaigning. Will he explain why during 13 years of Labour Government the deal with the trustees was not renegotiated at all?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but this is not about looking backwards but about looking forwards and looking after the hundreds of thousands of people I mentioned in my introduction.

The Government have provided the guarantee, which is an important commitment, but I would like to ask the Minister three things and I would like three answers today, please. How many other pension schemes that the Government guarantee have delivered them a windfall of billions similar to that in this instance? Do the Government still think that the 50:50 share of the surplus is fair? Importantly, will the Government consider taking a reduced share in the future?

It has been estimated that the Government will receive windfalls of £51 million each year between 2016 and 2019—another £200 million. Lots of people feel that that belongs to the retired miners, not the Government, and I agree with them. Today, I call on the Government to revisit the surplus sharing arrangements, and in particular I urge them to meet the trustees of the scheme to chart a way forward. I am sure that I speak for many colleagues in saying that there is support for change in our constituencies, and that we should do the right thing by retired mineworkers and their families. The time has come for a better way to help the trustees support our communities. This is the miners’ money. They earned it through years of hard work at the coalface, and they deserve a better and fairer share of it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing this debate on an issue that we feel passionately about.

The Government profiting from the pensions of ex-miners over all these years is nothing short of a national scandal, and billions have been pocketed by the Treasury since 1994 because, as colleagues have said, of the unjust 50:50 surplus-sharing arrangement. That sum was agreed at the outset, with little analysis or justification, and the split has weighed far too favourably in the Government’s favour. It would never have been forecast, or expected, that the Treasury would make so much money without ever having to pay a penny into the fund. We cannot rest until we put that right, and I will continue to raise this issue in Parliament.

I have met the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and I have organised meetings between colleagues and the trustees of the pension scheme. I and colleagues have been told by Ministers that the surplus-sharing agreement is working well, that only the trustees could change it, and that no objections have been raised. However, I have met the trustees, and they want the arrangement to be changed so that miners can benefit from the scheme’s success to a greater and fairer extent. The ball is in the Government’s court. They are forecast to pocket many millions more over the next three years. That is wrong, and it is time to say that enough is enough. It is time for justice for ex-miners and their widows. They have waited long enough.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing this important debate. I ask hon. Members to bear with me, because while I will probably reach the same conclusion as others, my rhetoric might be slightly different.

Like many hon. Members, a number of my constituents who are beneficiaries of the mineworkers’ pension scheme have contacted me with concerns about its arrangement. I, too, recently met the scheme’s trustees, and had a long and productive discussion with them. The closure of the mines was obviously a major blow to people in my constituency. The mines represented their livelihoods and communities, so I understand why this is such an emotive issue.

I am not here to retread history. Successive Governments have undoubtedly ignored this issue, but the existing scheme also has a number of benefits. The guarantee that the Government provided for this scheme, and careful investment, has meant that the pensions of ex-mineworkers are a third higher than they would have been had the guarantee not been made. We should be clear that, at that time, the profit-sharing arrangement corresponded with the risk assumed by the Government in underwriting the fund. However, times have moved on, and thanks to the scheme’s excellent financial management, investments have thrived and the Government and pension holders have done well. With that in mind, I would like more of the profits from the scheme to go to the people whose hard work and dedication paid into it, and I ask the Government to consider changing the profit-sharing model in line with the fund’s success.

Mansfield has long felt ignored and alienated from Westminster, and it has never believed that this place has its best interests at heart. As the constituency’s new Conservative MP, I want that attitude to change, and I urge the Government to revise their share of profits from the scheme down to a fairer but sustainable level, without compromising that guarantee. It is now time to have that discussion directly with trustees, and to show that a Conservative Government have a commitment to supporting coalfield communities in the future.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mr Paisley—I hope it will not be the last—and I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing this debate, and other hon. Members for their contributions.

Pensions are complex, and I asked to respond to this debate on behalf of the Government because I was previously the Pensions Minister. Although I was not involved specifically with this case, that role gave me—I hope—an understanding of all aspects of pension funds. The Philip Green case received a lot of publicity, and there are lots of other cases, but this is the first time that I have come across a pension fund in such a situation of surplus, compared with the usual story these days of low interest rates and low returns for investors.

In his eloquent speech, the hon. Gentleman asked whether there were other schemes of a similar nature, and the only one that I have come across—again, this was in my previous role—is the rail workers’ pension scheme, which, as I remember, was significantly in deficit all the time. I have not previously come across this type of circumstance, but if by chance I find other examples, I will meet or write to the hon. Gentleman.

I know that time is limited and the hon. Gentleman may want to respond to the debate, so I will do my best to keep within the time allowed. The mineworkers’ pension scheme is big—it has 177,000 members, pays pensions at an annual cost of more than £800 million, and has assets in excess of £11 billion. It is managed by the trustees. The Government’s role is as guarantor. Officials in the Department meet the trustees regularly to discuss the operation of the scheme. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), have also met those trustees—they seem rather more open to meeting than other trustees I have known, which is good. I have not had the chance to meet them, but if I had had, I certainly would have done.

When the scheme was set up in 1952, members contributed no more than 20p a week, and benefits were small. From 1975, contributions and benefits were linked to members’ salaries, with British Coal making up the difference. At privatisation, the Government took on the role of British Coal, and the scheme had a surplus in 1994, half of which was used to enhance members’ pensions immediately, with the other 50% payable to the guarantor. The Government of the day agreed to leave their share of the surplus in the scheme as an investment return. Those arrangements were agreed between the trustees and the Government in their role as guarantor—hence the mineworkers’ pension scheme of 1994. At that time, all parties believed the equal sharing to be a fair settlement—this arrangement did not come about in conflict or anything like that; it was agreed to be a fair way of proceeding. The Government receive their share not because of their guarantor status—that is a big issue in the financial world, because it allows a much greater risk profile than a normal pension fund could have—but also because of the contributions that they have made to the scheme to make up the pool of money. Again, neither of those points are particularly controversial in themselves.

The guarantee means, of course, that however bad the work of the trustees—it is not bad; please do not think I am saying that, but in theory the trustees could be really poor investors who did not do their job—the Government would have to stand by and underwrite the money to pay the pensions. That is what a guarantee would do. We see adverts all the time in which people are lent money with someone else guaranteeing it, but they do not quite say that the guarantor will pick up the bill if the person concerned does not pay. That principle is true in this case. It ensures that guaranteed pensions, including inflation increases, will always be paid, as long as the Government can pay—and hopefully that will be so for the rest of our lifetimes and many more to come.

It is indeed the case that early projections underestimated how well the scheme would perform. It was not expected to perform as well as it has.

How many times since the 1994 deal was struck have the Government had to step in with any cash to bankroll the scheme?

I think the implication of the hon. Gentleman’s question is that he knows the answer, which I do not, and that it is zero, but I should like to write to him formally, because I do not want to inadvertently mislead anyone. I do not have the information to hand, but if he will bear with me until later today, I shall make sure he gets a letter or email straight away. It is a reasonable question, but, if I may put words into his mouth—although one never should—I think he really means to say that the Government have never been called on to put money in. I think that is a reasonable assumption; the scheme is unlike others, in that respect. However, Governments get a reward, as anyone would, for risk, and just because things are working one way, that does not mean that they always have or always will. I think that most people would accept that. By the way, I heard nothing unreasonable in the speeches that hon. Members made during the debate. There is realism here; it is a question of judgment about what to do with the surplus.

Some hon. Members have argued that the Government are taking money from scheme members. I think the word “robbery” was used, which is a bit inflamed, but I know what it means—that it is something improper. Others say that the pensions would be higher if the Government did not take their share of the surplus. Both those views might be true, but they do not present the full picture, because pensions are paid according to the scheme rules, so that the sums due to scheme members would not change. They could potentially benefit from bigger bonuses if they had a greater share of surpluses, but in that environment the trustees’ investment strategy would be more risk-averse, and returns could be less than they currently are. In any event, would it be fair to ask taxpayers to take all the risk with none of the benefits?

The scheme has been a success, and at least the money is there.

I just have a simple question: what is the cost to the guarantor, compared with the cost of the surplus? How much do the Government need in the pension fund to provide a guarantee on the pensions? Do we know the figure?

The cost to the guarantor is a contingent cost. It could, in theory, be all the money—the billions in the pension fund. That is the only answer I can give, because, of course, that is what a guarantee is. If one guarantees a loan to a bank, to use the analogy I gave before, it is the whole thing. If the person who has borrowed the money pays back 25% of it, the guarantor pays 75% of it. The principle is exactly the same. However, the scheme in question has been a success, and I would argue, and I think the trustees would agree, that it is the guarantee that made that possible. All the other pension funds—I dealt with quite a few in my previous job—buy very low-risk Government bonds, all the time. They do it because of fear; obviously, they have got to pay money out. With their fiduciary duty they cannot risk it. That is one of the reasons that British pension funds do not invest in infrastructure and similar things as much as we would like. They cannot risk the pensioners’ money, because of the need for returns. A guarantee on all pension funds would transform the whole pensions industry, but of course the Government would then have a contingent liability of I do not know how many billions.

I do not think anyone is arguing that the scheme has not been successful. I am a coalfield MP and have many constituents with long-term health conditions that are the effect of their jobs. My hon. Friends and I are saying that if the scheme has been successful, the success should be shared by the people who benefit from the scheme, and not necessarily by the Government, who have been involved in a technical role, as opposed to being an actual part of the scheme.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that the role is more than technical. First, the Government have also contributed a lot to the scheme. Secondly, the guarantee is more than just technical; it is a golden guarantee. That is a good thing—I ask the House please not to think that I am saying it is not, but it is more than just technical. The fact that the guarantee has not been called on may make it look far less important than it is. I want hon. Members and others who listen to the debate to know that a lot of successful investments were made because the trustees have had the security of the knowledge that the Government are standing by.

Surpluses are calculated during scheme valuations, which happen every three years, by the Government actuary. That is not controversial. The trustees are invited to give their views before conclusions are reached. There have been eight such valuations. I have set out the benefits of the guarantee during good times, but we must bear in mind the fact that future outcomes are not known. There may be very bad times ahead in the pension world. I do not know, and I hope not. If things turn out to be disastrous, and if investments turn bad—Members may have been listening to debates in the House about the European Union, and who knows what will happen?—it is for the trustees to consider the situation. It is for that very reason that a lot of general pensions will hold surpluses. Any volatility going forward would certainly affect the amount of money in the scheme. Taxpayers would then bear that burden.

There was a valuation in 2013, and pensioners were paid a bonus—a new bonus of 4% was given in March 2014. The trustees have subsequently been able to award those bonuses, so it is not as if the surpluses just stay where they are. However, I accept that it is the trustees’ job to be prudent. They have a fiduciary duty to consider the position. I have not met the trustees, but I imagine that for that reason some of them would err on the side of caution and say, “We can’t distribute the money,” because that is their fiduciary duty. However, the bonuses that are paid are very important. It is one of those things. Current arrangements have certainly allowed the trustees to implement a high-risk investment strategy, but I want hon. Members to know that because of that strategy the typical pensioner receives a pension that is 33% higher in real terms than they would have with a normal Government bond-type of strategy. It is not as if they do not benefit from it. The strategy is backed up by the Government guarantee, which can be called on at any time, on demand, based on the ages of scheme members. We expect it to run for about another 60 years.

I accept the points that hon. Members have brought up, and am happy to meet and go into further detail or discuss new stuff. I am very open to representations. However, I have looked at the matter in the limited time I have had since I have been in the job, compared the scheme with others, tried to assess whether the risk element, the guarantee and compensation are fair in all ways—the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent mentioned that quite a lot of aspects are fair—and I have reached the conclusion that the existing arrangements in this case remain fair to all parties.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.