I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to carry out a review of the existing arrangements for the sharing of the surplus generated by the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee, under the excellent stewardship of my good and hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), for permitting this important debate. I also take this opportunity to apologise to those retired miners who made the long journey from the coalfield areas in anticipation that the debate would take place last week. Unfortunately, that was impossible owing to Government business.
In March I was honoured to accompany a group of retired mineworkers and MPs from coalfield areas to deliver a petition with more than 100,000 signatures to No. 10 Downing Street calling for a review of the surplus sharing arrangements for the mineworkers’ pension scheme. The petition is the basis on which this debate was called. I thank all those who have campaigned for pension justice for miners and their dependants.
I must declare an interest. Like many miners, my father and grandfather died prematurely in their 50s, their lives cut short by the industrial diseases prevalent in coalfield communities. While my father never collected his pension, my mother has been left with a reduced widow’s pension from the British Coal staff superannuation scheme. Every year, thousands of miners face premature death because of the dangerous conditions they toiled in underground many years ago.
My hon. Friend speaks movingly about his family, but he also points to another issue, which is that the Government need to act urgently, otherwise miners and their families, who are obviously getting older, will not benefit from any measures taken.
That is an incredibly important point. When I had to apologise to some of the miners from Wales and Yorkshire who travelled down last week, the point was made to me that even in the space of one week—the period by which this debate was delayed—thousands would die.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) and for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for their work. Does my hon. Friend agree that a key issue is that the widow’s pension is even smaller than many of the miners’ pensions, so we are asking for an uplift from very small figures? If the Government could show some compassion and bring forward these changes, many widows and miners’ children would benefit hugely.
Absolutely; that is a key point. I hope the Treasury Bench will listen intently to the points made in this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) made a point about the number of miners and their dependants who were dying. The mineworkers’ pension scheme annual report shows a dramatic fall in the number of pensions in payment. It has fallen from 175,000 in 2011 to just over 135,000 today. As this indicates, because of the age of the retired miners and their widows—many are now in their 80s or older—they are passing away and the number of beneficiaries is falling dramatically.
I am proud to represent the mining communities of east Durham. We owe a debt of gratitude to our miners. Easington’s pits produced the nation’s wealth and powered the industrial revolution, and the mining industry transformed our landscape. Without coal, many of the colliery villages in Durham would simply not exist. Where a pit was sunk, workers from all parts of the UK— from Wales, Cornwall, Ireland—would come to work in those collieries. Indeed, at the height of its production, the Durham coalfield alone employed 170,000 miners in the 1920s.
Coalmining remained our primary source of employment until the closure of our last pit in Durham in 1994. The colliery in my village, Murton, ceased production in November 1991. It was a proud industry until relatively recent times. In my opinion, the men who toiled in our pits are heroes—they worked in darkness so that we could live in light—and, in their retirement, they and their widows deserve respect and security.
There are points of agreement that I believe are accepted across the House, including, I hope, on the Treasury Bench and among Government Back Benchers. I think we can all agree that there is value and importance in the guarantee given to the mineworkers’ pension schemes. What is in dispute is the cost of the guarantee. There is no denying that the guarantee has given to those who administer the funds the freedom to make bold investment decisions, which has allowed them to target higher returns on investment. It follows that the guarantor—the Government—should be compensated for the guarantee fairly and proportionately.
This debate is about the cost of that guarantee and whether the £4.4 billion and the ongoing claim to half of all future surpluses can be considered reasonable recompense to the Government for the level of risk they shoulder. In my view, there should be some correlation between the level of compensation and the level of risk.
We should recognise that when the increase in the miners’ pension scheme was higher than that in the state benefit scheme, many people in my constituency, because they got more money, did not take the means-tested benefits they were entitled to, so it is not just about surpluses; it is about how much money the scheme saved the state.
That is an absolutely relevant point. Other colleagues have referred to the relative pension levels. Ministers often quote the percentage increases, but the average pension payable is £84 a week. That is a paltry sum. I also respectfully point out to the Minister that the Government have never been called upon to make a single payment into the scheme.
I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a deferred member of the mineworkers’ pension scheme. My hon. Friend mentions the fact that British Coal—the National Coal Board—never put a single penny in the scheme. Many people have called this the crime of the century. At the time of the discussions, the projections were that the agreement would raise £2 billion. The Government have taken £4 billion from the miners of this country without putting a single ha’penny back in. Is this not an absolute disgrace?
Absolutely. I could not put it any better myself. It is now time to review the surplus sharing arrangements and the level set in 1994 and consider whether the decisions taken then were taken with the best financial advice and in the best interests of miners.
To be fair, the Government have been consistent in their arguments against making changes to the scheme. These arguments are set out in various responses to parliamentary questions and were restated by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in her response on 14 May to a cross-party letter co-ordinated by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent. I want to summarise the Government’s response because it is important to consider their arguments. The first is that the sharing arrangements work well for beneficiaries; the second that the sharing arrangements provide fair compensation for the Government; and the third that there can be no unilateral action and that changes can be made only with the agreement of the trustees. I want to take each point in turn.
First, does the surplus-sharing scheme work for beneficiaries? The Government’s position is that the scheme has worked well. In her letter of 14 May to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent, the Chief Secretary said:
“The sharing arrangements has meant beneficiaries enjoy bonus payments worth more than 33% of their index-linked benefits”.
As highlighted in a previous debate by my good and hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), the average payment from the scheme is just £84 a week, and it is a great deal less for widows, many of whom have outlived their husbands by many decades. Our industrial legacy means that many miners, like my father, never reach retirement age. Those who do are often in ill health, and will draw their pensions for fewer years than those who retire from other industries and sectors.
We often talk about deferred wages. When miners made those contributions, week after week and year after year, the expectation was that they and their families would have security in their retirement. After we delivered the Downing Street petition, w Sullivan, a campaigner and former miner, spoke of some widows receiving pensions of
“as little as £8.50 a week”.
Emlyn Davies, another campaigner, receives just £57 a week in return for 26 years’ work in the pit: a poverty pension for years of working in damp, dark, dangerous conditions, sacrificing health and wellbeing. Let me say to Conservative Members, and to people watching this debate, that to me it seems offensive to argue that the scheme is working well for beneficiaries when miners and their widows are receiving such a pittance as £8.50, £57, or even £84 a week.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. He has given some alarming figures. Does he agree that this is not just about security in retirement, but about dignity, and that the Government are not giving dignity to pensioners in the mining industry and their widows?
Absolutely. We owe a debt to the miners, and the Government have an obligation to them— a moral obligation. They obviously have the financial resources to discharge that debt, and to give retired miners and their widows and dependants some dignity.
May I take up my hon. Friend’s point about the moral obligation? Does he remember that when the Prime Minister first stood on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street, she talked about dealing with injustices in our society? Would it not be appropriate if, during her last few weeks in office, she asked officials and Ministers to think again and look at the independent analysis conducted by the National Union of Mineworkers, which suggests that a 90-10 split would be much fairer?
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which has pre-empted my further remarks.
I am trying to deal systematically with the Government’s objections to changing the split. The second point made by the Chief Secretary in her letter concerned the question of whether the surplus-sharing arrangements represent fair recompense for the Government guarantee. In her letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent, she wrote:
“Thank you for also raising your views on the surplus sharing arrangements. I believe that these represent reasonable recompense to the taxpayer, both for the past investment in the Mineworkers Pension Scheme during the industry’s period of public ownership and for the risks they continue to bear through the government guarantee”.
There is no evidence that the current sharing arrangements can be considered fair or reasonable. Incredibly, the scheme was established, and the surplus-sharing arrangements agreed, without any actuarial advice, as confirmed in written answers given to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East.
We know a lot more about the mineworkers’ pension scheme and the associated risks that it faces than we did in 1994. If the 50-50 split represented the risk in 1994, 25 years later the risk to the Government is marginal. After a quarter of a century, they have never made a single contribution to the fund.
In the context of efforts to set a fair sharing arrangement, the Minister will be aware of two reports commissioned by the National Union of Mineworkers. I thank the NUM, and Chris Kitchen and his executive, for that. The two reports were produced by First Actuarial, and dealt with the Government guarantee and the surplus-sharing arrangement.
One of the reports suggested that a 90-10 split of future surpluses would be a fair return to the Government for the relatively low level of risk taken in providing the guarantee. The schemes have been tested, and I point out that they weathered the 2008 world financial crash without any need to fall back on the guarantee. I implore the Government to use that report as a basis for negotiation—or rather renegotiation—which can deliver for all interested parties.
The third point made by the Chief Secretary in her letter was this:
“Any changes to the surplus sharing arrangements could only be considered in the round with changes to the guarantee, but trustees have indicated that their members are happy with the guarantee as it stands”.
As previously stated, the benefit of the guarantee is not being questioned. We all accept that it has benefit and value. It has allowed the scheme to be ambitious in its investment strategy. However, we should not conflate support for the guarantee with support for the surplus-sharing arrangements. Members representing coalfield areas will have received emails from constituents referring to the MPS trustee for Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, Ken Capstick, in which he says:
“I know of not one Trustee that would agree with the statement made by…Chief Secretary to the Treasury and it is a complete misrepresentation of the position of the Trustees.”
That is what we expect from Tory Ministers.
The MPS winter newsletter states:
“Whilst the Trustees are and always have been supportive of any initiative that had the underlying aim of improving members outcomes, the Trustees do not have the power to make these changes without recourse to the Guarantor”
—in other words, the Government.
“We will of course continue to work in your interests across all aspects of running the scheme”.
Let me say this, earnestly, to the Minister. The trustees will be listening. They want to renegotiate the current sharing arrangements. If approached by the trustees, will the Government, as guarantor, negotiate those arrangements? If the Minister wishes to intervene now, I will take his intervention; otherwise I hope he will address that question when he sums up the debate.
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that there are those on this side of the House who not only have a great deal of sympathy with what is being said, but have a great deal of support for it and want to give a great deal of encouragement? Having come from Sheffield and worked with miners on the cricket field as well as the rugger field, I know the position exactly. I have seen all the pits and been down a lot of them. Let me simply say, I hope that you get what you want.
God bless you. I am grateful for that intervention,
What I am trying to do—with all due respect, and without denigrating anyone’s contribution—is set out the factual position. I think that the arguments that the existing arrangements are unfair are overwhelming.
There is one point that my hon. Friend has not mentioned at all. I worked in the pit for 20-odd years before I came to Parliament, and I must say at the outset that this is an easier job than working down a coalmine. I know a lot of people do not like me saying that, but it is a fact. There is no doubt whatsoever about that.
One of the things that I learnt about the pension scheme was this. I must tell my hon. Friend, who has not referred to this yet although he may do so later, that when I went down the pit just after the second world war there was a pension scheme in the coalmining industry for managers and people who ran the mine. There was also a scheme that paid deputies, who were like little sergeants in the pit. They were people with authority and their membership entailed that they could be paid as well. I think it was in the early 1960s, when I was still in the pit, when at last somebody decided that miners themselves, and there were 700,000 of them working in the coalmines in Britain at the time—
Order. I assume the hon. Gentleman thinks I am not listening to him, and that I have not noticed, but—
I will turn to address you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
No, I did not mind that, but the hon. Gentleman is making rather a long intervention; I know this is his expert subject but I was hoping it would be an intervention-sized intervention.
I did happen to work down a coalmine and I am using the bit of expertise that I had regarding the coalmines, as opposed to being a Member of Parliament. I am trying to demonstrate something to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) and to ask whether he will look at this. When I worked in the pit the miners themselves—700,000 of them—did not have a pension at all. In fact it was not until the early ’60s that it was decided that the management had a pension, the deputies had a pension and it was time that the miners had a pension as well. That is what I am trying to demonstrate and I am hoping that my hon. Friend will refer to it. Thank you very much.
It is a pleasure. I must say that we are not creating a precedent here for the Chair allowing a very long intervention. Given the hon. Gentleman’s very specific position and long experience on this matter I have stretched things a bit, but that does not mean that anyone else will get away with it.
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) for his knowledge, input and expertise. Of course the 700,000 miners, and the 170,000 miners in Durham, have built up a huge pension fund. I have asked various parliamentary questions to ascertain the size of that fund, but bear in mind that 50% of the surplus is taken by Government—£4.4 billion—and my understanding is that, when the last of those miners and widows dies, the Government will get everything; not just the surplus, but everything.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way on that point. As he knows, although Hartlepool never had any pits we certainly have mineworkers who served in pits in Durham. Does he agree that the Government are under an even greater obligation because of the sacrifices and industrial diseases that those mineworkers have suffered from, which have shortened their lives in many cases? That makes this an urgent issue for many.
Absolutely. This is a poignant time. Just a short while ago it was the anniversary of the disaster at Easington colliery in my constituency, where 81 men were killed in an explosion and two men from the rescue team. There is blood on the coal. A price was paid and men paid contributions into their pension funds in anticipation that, if their lives were cut short by accident or injury, their widows and dependants would be looked after. The Government are falling short on this. This is an historical debt that the Government must discharge.
Fred Smith died last week. He was a proud Scotsman and a miner in the Castleford collieries. He died of an industrial-related disease and he leaves a widow, Enid, and a family to care for. He wants justice.
Absolutely. A dear friend of mine, Myrtle McPherson, an absolute stalwart and a legend in Easington, died just a few days ago. These people should have justice. She was loved in that community and worked tirelessly. Her husband Gordon died prematurely of pneumoconiosis. There is a time pressure here and the Government and Ministers really must act.
I know lots of Members wish to speak in the debate but I will give way one more time and then conclude.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that, given that these surpluses are essentially a windfall to Government, at the very least, we should have greater transparency in knowing what that money is actually spent on? Does he also agree that it is rather odd that the Treasury budgets to spend this money but claims it is not a sound or firm amount of money that it can count on? Does he think that the Treasury has questions to answer on that front?
I am rather alarmed that the Treasury uses some of the surpluses from the mineworkers’ pension funds and says that money is being recycled into regeneration in coalmining areas. Surely the money that miners paid—miners such as my father, grandfather and uncles no longer with us—was deferred wages; it was for their benefit in their retirement, which they never got a chance to enjoy, or for their widows and other miners, not to be used as regeneration funds.
As a Member of Parliament whose paternal grandfather was a coalminer and whose major conurbation in my seat is called Coalville, I think the hon. Gentleman will know whose side I am on in this debate. Does he agree that, given that the vast majority of retired coalminers and their widows still reside in the coalmining communities in which they worked, and some of them died, any increase in their pension from this overfunded, well-endowed fund will only go back to enrich the communities in which they have lived and worked all their lives and it would be a good investment for the Government?
It is not often that I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but, absolutely, those people are certainly not going to be buying yachts and making investments in offshore tax havens. They are going to be spending that money in the local economy and supporting local businesses.
I shall now conclude, otherwise I will incur the wrath of Madam Deputy Speaker.
Our mineworkers have served our country. They have served it loyally. They have toiled in the most dangerous and challenging working conditions imaginable. The contributions that miners have made to the wealth of our country was captured by George Orwell in his essay “Down the Mine” and I just want to read some lines from it:
“Our civilization…is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, were all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal.”
The importance of coal may have declined, but our gratitude to the miners should never wane and we owe them a debt of honour. Miners and their widows deserve better than poverty pensions. I am asking the Minister to end the pension theft and allow miners and their widows a better quality of life in retirement in their remaining years. Renegotiate the existing pension sharing arrangements. Do the right thing, Minister, and give the miners the money back that they have already earned.
Order. We will have to start with a time limit of seven minutes.
It is good to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), who raised some important points and set out a measured and non-partisan case, which is exactly what is required in this discussion.
I am proud to represent Mansfield and Warsop in Parliament. For most of the 20th century, mining was the most important industry and my constituency still has a proud coalmining heritage. It still dominates many aspects of our area and I have been working on the mineworkers’ pension scheme since I was elected. I have regularly met with the mineworkers’ pension campaign team and constituents affected by this important issue. I have held meetings with Ministers and trustees to help to lobby for changes to the terms of the scheme. This has been a very frustrating process; we have been through so many Ministers now, explaining and making the case each time. In March, I was pleased that the former Minister met a delegation, including Les Moore and my constituent Mick Newton, who has been a brilliant local campaigner on this issue in Mansfield. Mick, alongside campaigners including Trevor Cooke and many others, has been lobbying on the issue for many years.
I recognise—as do the Ministers with whom I have had this discussion—that the Government have done far better out of this scheme than they ever imagined when it was first agreed. The arrangement that was settled back in the 1990s saw the UK Government acting to guarantee the scheme and all pensions in cash terms in return for a 50% share of future services. It is important to recognise the importance of the Government guarantee and the protection it has provided to former miners. It means that the trust has been able to invest with security, and it has done incredibly well with those investments. Some credit for the fantastic investment returns made by the scheme has to come back to the fact that the guarantee allows the trust to invest without risk. That being said, time has moved on. The risk has moved on—it is not the same as it was back then—and I believe there is a case for revisiting the sharing arrangements, that the balance should be tipped in favour of the miners, and that the recipients of the scheme should keep more than 50%.
I am curious to understand what the hon. Gentleman has just said. He thinks that now is the time for the scheme to be tipped in favour of the miners, but what about before?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, but I think it was a fairly pointless question. I am not in a position to go back and change the past. I am here in this Chamber talking about now.
The Government have had far more income from the scheme than they ever imagined. Many of the beneficiaries who are still with us are increasingly suffering with industry-related health conditions and are in need of support. It would be relatively simple for the Government to shift the balance, perhaps by offering a 70:30 split or going even further. The risk to the Government and the taxpayer is not what it was in 1994. We can split hairs about when the right time to do this might have been, and it was probably several years ago, but we are here now and we are talking about it.
Colleagues have gone into great detail about the costs and benefits of changing the balance. I have sought to do so previously with Ministers, but I feel that the best advocates for the change are the mineworkers themselves. That is why I have sought to get them together with campaigners, trustees and the Government to discuss this. I believe it is now time for the Government to undertake a formal review of the arrangements and consider the case for reform in proper detail.
Former coalfield communities are among the poorest in the country, and older people in particular struggle to make ends meet without savings and without much support beyond their pension arrangements. These coalfield communities are among the hardest working and longest suffering in our country, as the hon. Member for Easington said. The miners worked in darkness so that we could have light and, although much of that happened before I was born, I have every respect for those constituents in my community who worked incredibly hard to look after the rest of us and to ensure that we could have the quality of life that we expected.
Ensuring that miners can keep more of the surplus from these investments will have a life-changing effect. Many of them are on low incomes and it would help to boost their lives individually while they are still around to spend that money. It would also help to boost whole communities, such as mine in Mansfield and Warsop. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) said, more money in miners’ pockets in communities such as Mansfield is money that will be reinvested back into those deprived communities and help to boost them.
Some have suggested an increased guarantee as a compromise to cover the scheme’s bonuses, but although that sounds nice—and sounds like Government doing something—it will not put any extra money into the pockets of those miners. It would merely guarantee what they already get. We have already seen that the risk of needing that guarantee is very small, so I do not think that that is good enough. This is a chance for the Government to show that we are on the side of people who have worked hard and paid into the system, and that we will help them. To me, that is what the Conservative party should be about, so I hope that the new Minister and his Department will work alongside the Treasury and the trustees to review the scheme and to ensure that the hard-working miners who gave so much to their communities, including in Mansfield, will receive their fair share. I look forward to discussing this with him further.
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley); it is good that there is all-party support for this debate. I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on his brilliant speech and on setting out his case so eloquently. I am speaking in this debate because I want to see justice for the retired miners in my constituency of Doncaster, North and, indeed, across Doncaster and the whole country. Miners worked their backs off for this country at great cost to themselves, often causing themselves ill health and a shortened life expectancy. Their families watched their loved ones risk their lives for this country, and the least we owe them is fairness and justice, which is what this debate is about.
As my hon. Friend said, the average payment under the scheme is just £83.98 per week—around £4,000 a year—so we are talking about people for whom every pound will make a difference. It cannot be right that £4 billion—and counting—has gone to the Government and not to the miners. That does not seem fair or right, and I think that that is recognised across the House. My hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman have spoken eloquently to the current injustice, and the hon. Gentleman said that if we look at the scheme now, it just does not seem fair. The specific and relatively brief point I want to make is actually about the past, because if the scheme does not seem right now, I think we have strong grounds for thinking that it was not right in 1994 either, when the original decision was made. That might look like a matter of historical detail, but I do not think it is. We are where we are now because of that decision, which Governments of both parties have abided by.
I am particularly grateful for the conversations I have had with my constituent Les Moore, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and his organisation, the UK Miners Pension Scheme for Justice and Fair Play Association, which, along with the NUM, has toiled on this issue for years. The 50-50 split was decided and announced in April 1994, and we all know what happens when a decision like that is made: inertia sets in. The Treasury is getting billions of pounds as a result, and nobody wants to revisit the matter. No Chancellor, Conservative or Labour, wants to give up that amount of money. But what was the basis of that original decision? Remarkably, it is 25 years old and we still do not really know the basis for it.
I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), because she asked the most material question of all to the Minister last year. She asked the Government to publish the actuarial advice on which the surplus sharing arrangements were made. As my hon. Friend the Member for Easington said, the reply was, extraordinarily, that no such advice was obtained. If there was no actuarial advice behind a decision that had billions of pounds-worth of implications for hundreds of thousands of miners and their families, that really was negligence of the highest order.
The more closely we look at this decision, the more dubious it becomes. A document from September 1993 was released under a freedom of information request in 2016. It is a report carried out by the Government Actuary, and it is the closest document that anyone can find that is relevant to the time. It is not about the future arrangements, but it does talk about the current practice at the time and implies that at that point miners were enjoying not 50% of the surplus but 70%. So the question then arises: if 70% was the basis of the scheme then, why did it change to 50%? We just do not know the answer to that question.
My point about the history is that Governments of both parties have said that the decision was properly made in 1994, but the increasing evidence is that the decision was not properly made at the time. I have a simple request to the Minister, which is that he should publish the papers underlying the decision that was made in 1994. Then we could all see for ourselves to the first time how and why the decision was reached and what has changed since then. My simple belief is that the decision was not fair then and that it is not fair now. Miners gave so much to our country and we need to repay our debt to them. On that basis, and on the basis of the case set out by my hon. Friend, I believe that it is high time the Government launched a review so that there can be justice for my constituents and for tens of thousands of mineworkers and their families.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). My constituency covers what was formerly known as National Coal Board Scotland west area—a thriving mining community in its day—and this is one of a series of debates brought over the years in a bid to seek a fairer distribution of the surplus from the mineworkers’ pension scheme. The scheme was, in effect, divided into four sub funds—the guarantee fund, bonus augmentation, guarantors, and investment reserve—with it being possible to vire moneys between some sub-funds, as appropriate, but the bonus augmentation fund is an exception, because there is no provision by which to make up any shortfall. The mineworkers’ total pension payable is protected, rises in line with inflation, and does not fall in cash terms.
There has been a long history of reasonable and fair requests for changes from former mineworkers, their widows, the Coalfield Communities Campaign and many others, including myself, whose relatives were miners. In my case, my father, my father in law and many other family members were miners. We empathise with those who served in the pits and who are seeking a pension commensurate with the daily dangers that they encountered at the coalface.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about some of the dangers that coalminers faced at the coalface. In Clackmannanshire, which I represent, we still see not only the dangers that they faced back at the time, but the legacy and the long-term health impacts. Does he agree that it is time to review the fund and its distribution and that we should set regular reviews with actuarial advice to ensure that the distribution is fair and equitable in both good times and bad?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Those who were colliers or miners can become victims of silicosis and pneumoconiosis—common names in my household and my father’s—which affect the respiratory system. This group of people deserve a review that favours them. Many miners unfortunately go on to develop ill health later in life, which can often be attributed to the conditions in which they worked underground.
The men who wroughed hard, as we say in Scotland, in the bowels of the earth to put the “Great” in Great Britain fuelled the industrial revolution and kept the home fires burning through two world wars. It is worthy of note that the Labour party agreed to consider their concerns, but it found itself unable to do so as far back as 2003, due to a fall in world stock markets, so the original 50:50 share of the surplus prevailed. Even with the passage of time, it is clear that that unpredictability remains, given the immense dependency on the behaviour of money markets and the return from stock exchanges. It is essential to take a risk-based approach to ensuring that any Government, as the guarantor, are robust in securing and maintaining funding for the future.
The contingent pension liability for British Coal’s two pension schemes was valued at the modest sum of approximately £16 million. Some argue that recent surpluses need to be balanced against previous deficits, but I am unsure whether I would support such an approach. It was reported that there was a large surplus in the guarantee fund in 2017, with half being destined to provide bonuses to pensioners. The trustees announced new bonuses representing an increase equivalent to 4.2% of guaranteed pensions in the six years to 2023. In addition, there were to be improved benefits, and quite rightly so, for members under-60 who were not yet retired but who were experiencing serious ill health from spending decades underground. Such modest moves are to be welcomed, as is the coalfield communities fund that assists some of those communities.
In 2018, the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth instructed her officials to liaise with the pension fund’s trustees with a view to considering revising scheme for the benefit of all parties. Earlier this year, she advised that that was ongoing, so this evening I ask the Minister to endeavour to expedite the review, given the increasing age and ill health of many mineworkers, to achieve any necessary adjustments to meet the earlier stated principle of a fair and equitable sharing of risk and, more importantly, reward in the interests of both scheme members and the Government. Finally, I hope that the review will look kindly on the remaining miners and their widows and afford them the financial dignity that they so richly deserve.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) and to see cross-party consensus around the need for change. I also congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on selecting this extremely important subject for debate.
I have been campaigning on the mineworkers’ pension scheme for some years alongside my hon. Friends from other coalfield communities and with both the National Union of Mineworkers and, crucially, the trustees of the pension scheme. We are all united in and committed to our goal of achieving a fairer pension for the thousands of former mineworkers and their widows who have stood by in dismay as the Government’s coffers swelled with billions of pounds made on their pension investments.
In answer to parliamentary questions, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has admitted, in its role as guarantor of the mineworkers’ pension scheme, that the Government have received nearly £4.5 billion since 1994. They have never had to pay a penny into the scheme. Even now, they expect to receive around £142 million a year from the scheme surpluses—a truly eye-watering figure. No wonder there is a huge amount of anger and resentment in mining communities because of it. The phrase I hear from many ex-miners in Ashfield is, “The Government is taking our money.”
Some people think ex-miners have a fantastic pension that is the envy of those on pensions from other traditional industries, but the truth, as my hon. Friends have said, is that the MPS pension is worth not much more than £80 a week. The truth is that many ex-miners and their widows are on a very limited income and struggle to make ends meet. That is some thanks for the back-breaking work these men did literally to keep the country’s lights on.
The conditions in which miners worked were uncomfortable at best and downright dangerous at worst. Keith Stanley, whom I know well, worked at the coalface in Nottinghamshire for 35 years, and he describes what it was like for miners down the pit: digging in narrow tunnels, just four feet tall at most; coal raining in on them regularly; travelling for an hour underground just to reach the coal seam before doing a shift; and grafting in hot and dirty conditions that most of us could not imagine.
Men were transferred to neighbouring collieries when the pits began to close, but when places ran out as more and more mines shut down, too many of them were tossed aside, left to find work in local factories or as manual labourers if they were lucky. Now approaching old age, many of them do not have the pension they hoped for and watch in dismay while money made from their pension investments is pocketed by the Treasury.
Keith told me that this injustice has always grated on him and that the oft-repeated Government line that ex-miners have a good deal leaves him seething. On the contrary, it is the Government who seem to have the good deal. When the guarantee arrangements were first negotiated, it was never forecast that the Government would make so much money from the scheme. They have banked billions more than expected, which is why we are now debating the right thing to do.
I do not want to break the consensus that is building in the Chamber tonight, but the hon. Lady calls this an injustice and blames the Government. Why, then, did Ministers in the Labour Administration stand at the Dispatch Box in 2001, 2002 and 2003 and refuse to have that review? Why is it okay for Labour Members to call for it now? At least be honest about it.
I accept that and, actually, the negotiations began at the end of the last Labour Government’s term—representatives of the National Union of Mineworkers have told me about the meetings they had in No. 10—but we left office. Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge the millions that we spent on compensation for industrial injuries and industrial white finger?
We are talking about good deals and bad deals, but it is not just about the surplus. Is my hon. Friend aware—I am sure she is—that, when the Government acted as a guarantor in 2002, there was a deficit of £390 million? Then, in 2005, the Government took back that £390 million from the scheme’s funds, plus interest. That amounted to £540 million. Not only that, but they took a further £229 million, which was 50% of the fund’s surplus. Talk about good deals and bad deals. I am sure she totally agrees that this is a bonanza for the Government. It is daylight robbery.
“Bonanza” is right, “cash cow” is right and “injustice” is right when it comes to the mineworkers’ pension scheme.
In a recent letter on this issue, the Treasury referred to the 50-50 split of the surplus sharing arrangement as “reasonable recompense” for past investment in the MPS. Indeed, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has also stated that this arrangement is “in recognition of contributions” that the Government previously made to the scheme.
I ask for some clarity from the Government on this issue, as a recent answer to a written question I posed states that their involvement in the scheme began at privatisation, and we know from previous answers that the Government have not paid into the scheme since privatisation. What past investment or contributions can they still be being recompensed for? If there are none, surely this, along with the fact they have made far more money than expected from the scheme already, justifies the opening of negotiations into reviewing and reducing the surplus-sharing arrangement. With such a strong case on such an important issue, though I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us time to debate the MPS, it is high time that we had a debate in Government time, with engagement from Ministers, so that we can look at finally righting this historic wrong.
I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), who has been a long-standing campaigner on this issue. I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on his passionate speech in opening this debate, and I thank him for it. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to be here fighting for an issue that matters so much to the lives of many of my constituents in Barnsley East. This debate on the MPS follows my Adjournment debate on the same subject in February, where we discussed the contribution made to this country by miners who toiled for decades, and the money the Government have unfairly taken from their pension scheme. Although I am pleased that this debate has been granted—I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting it—what we need now is action, not more words.
Since the scheme was established, following the privatisation of British Coal in 1994, the Treasury has pocketed more than £4.4 billion, with nearly half a billion more over the next three years planned. Yet since 1987 the Government have not paid in a single penny, and instead claim their undertaking as guarantor makes this a fair price worth paying. In return, the average retired miner must get by on about £84 a week, while some are forced to settle for much less.
The hon. Lady is talking about returns. Does she recognise that a 40% return on an investment fund is extraordinary? One does not have to be a City hedge fund manager to understand that. A lot of that is down to the fact that the Government are a guarantor. Does she agree therefore that regular reviews should take place and that the percentage should be variable, based on the performance of the fund, as 50% or 90% of nothing will be nothing for the miners?
I will come on to talk about what split I think there should be, but I just ask the hon. Gentleman whether he could live on £84 a week. That is what a lot of retired miners in my constituency—
I have taken an intervention and I am going to make some progress.
As I was saying, these staggering sums are born out of the 50-50 surplus-sharing arrangement. Let us not forget that, as has already been pointed out in this debate, this agreement was made without any actuarial advice—it is simply staggering. This agreement simply must be reviewed and amended to give miners a greater share of what I believe is fundamentally their money. It is patently unfair that these miners, who powered our nation, are left to fight for crumbs off the table.
Leaving aside questions of fairness, the sharing-surplus arrangement no longer makes financial sense either. The Government claim the risk they undertake in underpinning the pensions in their role as guarantor justifies this huge price paid and they suggest that without their backing the current value of the pensions would be considerably less. That is certainly up for debate, but what is not is that the landscape has changed drastically since this original agreement was made. For instance, the risk they assumed in 1994 in acting as guarantor has decreased substantially since then. The membership of the scheme alone has fallen considerably, for example. In 2006, there were 280,000 members, whereas there are now fewer than 160,000—by 2026, there will be just 125,000. So the financial risk for the Government has decreased and will continue to do so, yet miners in the scheme are still essentially charged the same price for the guarantee as they were 25 years ago. From a financial perspective, the scheme is no longer proportionate or providing value for money, yet the Government are willing to ignore this in order to continue boosting the coffers of the Exchequer.
On that note, in my previous Adjournment debate the Minister further attempted to justify this income by stating the Government have spent about £1 billion in coalfield communities over the past two decades—but that still leaves billions taken from the miners unaccounted for. Surely, the Government should at least tell us where that money has been spent?
Rather than in the Treasury, money should be in the pockets of retired miners. Along with the scheme trustees, the Government have the authority to make that so, by amending the surplus sharing arrangement, providing genuine value for money and righting this injustice—so will they? Will they, like the Labour party, commit to an immediate review of the current scheme as it stands? As part of that review, will they consider the NUM-commissioned report that suggested a 90-10 split in favour of the miners? Will they meet me, other coalfield MPs and the NUM to discuss that recommendation further? Will they acknowledge that the benefits brought to miners’ pensions by the Government’s guarantee simply no longer provide value for money? These are good, hard-working people who toiled for decades for the good of our country. The Government should put right this wrong and give miners what is rightfully theirs: a decent pension that they have earned and paid for.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing this important debate about miners’ pensions, and I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), who made a cracking speech.
This is an important issue for the people of Blaenau Gwent and across the south Wales coalfield. I wish to focus on people I know—people in my family, like my uncle Dessie, and his comrades—and why they need a fairer deal. I need to declare an interest: my family worked in coal and steel, the two industries that drove our industrial revolution and built Great Britain. My great, great grandfather was an iron puddler from Merthyr. It says on my birth certificate that my dad was a labourer at the GKN steelworks in Cardiff. My great grandfather was killed down the pit. My grandfather got crushed under a coal fall at Markham colliery. The three uncles on my mum’s side were colliers. Their stories are important to explain why we need action. I will concentrate on just one of them.
My uncle Dessie Winter started work when he was 15 at the NCB brickyard in Tredegar. After that, he started working underground in the Oakdale colliery, further down the Sirhowy valley, where he spent the next 17 and a half years of his life. He worked there alongside his brother, his brother-in-law and his butties from Ashvale. Several generations of Tredegar families worked at this pit to keep the lights on, the fires burning and our country running. At work, they faced daily dangers: explosions from gas leaks, flooding and, of course, the dust.
Dessie’s generation saw the industry change, from prosperity to the miners strike. Oakdale closed in 1989. Marine colliery, where my uncle Jackie worked, closed the same year. The mines are pretty much all long gone now. The coal industry employed 400,000 people in the year that Dessie started; now, just 700 work in coal, and there are just 150,000 mining pensioners. The Government’s obligations to Dessie’s comrades and thousands like them have to be met.
When I speak to Dessie about the pension scheme, his first concern is making sure that widows get a fair share. They currently get around two thirds of the pension, but with colliers getting perhaps £84 a week, that fall of around £30 a week is really hard for widows. Dessie paid in for decades and thinks that his wife should get her fair share.
The second thing he talks about is just how much money the Government get from the scheme. The Government guarantee is critical—I do not think anyone will dispute that it is needed—but there is a real question about how much the Government receive in return for it. The current arrangements have netted the Government more than £4 billion since 1994. That is right: pensioners are subsidising the Government. Billions of pounds have been pocketed by the Chancellor without the Treasury making any direct payments into the scheme itself. Dessie feels that the Government are taking the cream off the top of the miners’ money, and who could disagree with him? When I spoke to him recently and asked what his friends from the pit thought about the pension deal, he said, “Nick, there are not so many here now.” Some 6,500 miners passed away last year alone.
The Government have a duty of care to those who are left and to their families for all that they have done. I call on the Minister to do two things to help set things right. First, will the Government implement the proposals that the trustees have made about protecting pension bonuses? That means that miners will have a larger guaranteed pension pot. Secondly, the Government must bring forward a review of the current sharing arrangements, which should consider the Government taking a reduced share, so that more money can go to retired miners and their widows.
Dessie and his generation just want fair play. They have put in decades of physically tough and dangerous work to dig coal and keep the economy going for all of our futures. The Government must repay that debt to them.
Order. Everyone has been very good at keeping to time, but I will have to reduce the official time to six minutes to make sure that everybody gets a fair chance.
I swear that, for the past few times that I have spoken, the time limit has been reduced just before me, but I do not blame you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It is truly an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) who just gave such an emotional and personal speech. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for his speech and for the debate as well.
I am honoured to represent a rich mining community, home to the Lady Victoria Colliery, which was Scotland’s first super-pit, with a workforce of almost 2,000 at its peak. It was nationalised in 1947 by a Labour Government who invested in working class communities. A thriving mining community grew up around this pit in Newtongrange and in other Midlothian towns which, like many other mining communities, have suffered since the closure of the pits.
The site of the colliery is now home to the National Mining Museum, which is a fantastic museum and events base. It ensures that the role and the national significance of the mining industry and the impact that it had on the lives of those who lived in mining communities are never forgotten, and yet mining communities are being forgotten by this Government. Their voices are being ignored and they are being unfairly and unjustly treated, as we have heard from all parties in this debate today.
We have heard about the average miner’s pension, but some retired miners and their widows are living on roughly £60 a week at the bottom, and that is just disgraceful—absolutely disgraceful. It has also been reported that at least 6,000 ex-miners have had their pensions cut, and that is despite the huge profits that are being made by the Government—an estimated £10 billion over the past 20 years under this current arrangement. At the time of the agreement, it was estimated that the scheme would generate a £2 billion surplus over 25 years, but, as we heard from some of my colleagues, that has been underestimated and there is actually more.
The amount given to ex-miners must be re-evaluated. The Government have been rewarded with huge undeserved sums and, as we have heard today, they are treating the mineworkers’ pension scheme as a cash cow. It was meant to be a safety net for miners, not a money earner for the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent used a phrase that I thought was particularly illuminating. He said that pensioners were subsidising the Government. Is that not disgraceful?
The work of miners in Midlothian and across the country was integral to the development of the wealth of our country. Britain developed in part on the backs of miners, and we have to show our gratitude to them, we absolutely do. The miners’ work was very physically demanding and, as we have heard, it has led to many retirees living with associated health conditions.
I would like to take the chance to pay tribute to the Lothian Miners’ convalescent home, Whatton Lodge, in East Lothian for all the work that it does looking after retired miners and their families. It celebrated its 70th anniversary recently. It does great work for miners in Midlothian and across the Lothian area.
I am glad to have been called to speak in this important debate. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) talked about not even having been born when some of the pits were closed. I think that I just pip him on being a little bit younger. It is so important to have young voices from across the Chamber speak in this debate, because we must ensure that the voices of miners are not lost.
My hon. Friend is talking about young people. This year in my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, the Auchengeich miners commemorate 60 years since 47 miners died in a fire—paying the real price of coal. Their children grew up fatherless, with no money, and people are still suffering today. That is the real price of coal. The Government should give the money back to the miners.
My hon. Friend is right that this has to be an intergenerational debate. We have to show solidarity with retired miners and their families.
I am so proud to be from a mining community, but also from a mining family. Both my grandfathers were miners. In fact, my granda Ron Curran celebrated his 92nd birthday with me on Saturday, and it was a great event. He always fought for justice for miners, and I continue to do so in his honour.
The hon. Lady talks about coalfield communities. Does she agree that they are gritty, proud, and among some of the hardest working and most honest communities in the country? These are not communities that expect something for nothing—they worked for everything they got—but what they do expect is what they are due and deserve from their pension fund, which they have worked so hard for.
It has been really good to see the solidarity shown from both sides of the House on this issue. Earlier, the hon. Gentleman mentioned investment in pit areas. Miners typically stay in those areas and invest in them, and not only do retired miners tend to stay in the areas where they worked; they also give so much back. There are some fantastic retired miners and widows of miners in my area, such as Alex Bennett and Margot Russell, who have done amazing work locally and have given so much back. I was going to say that these people should be rewarded, but this is not about giving them a reward; this is about giving them what they worked for, and that is so important.
We should not be pleading for the miners to get justice in this Chamber. These are deferred wages. The miners actually put the money in the pot in the first place. From 1987 to 1994, there was a contributions holiday for the National Coal Board that cost £1.2 billion. We are talking about deferred wages that the miners worked for; they paid the money into the bank account out of their own pockets, and here we are pleading for justice.
My hon. Friend is bang on. These are absolutely deferred wages. This is money that belongs to retired miners.
The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) has already committed to exploring options on a cross-party basis, but will he commit today to meeting ex-miners, the NUM, pension trustees and Members across the House from mining communities, and then review these arrangements urgently?
We all seem to agree that this arrangement is unfair and unjust, and it seems not to be based on facts or evidence. It cannot be right that the Government are making so much profit and the pensioners are being left with basic allowances. Miners created the wealth, and they should be able to access it for a dignified and well-supported retirement. I echo the calls of hon. Members across the House, and call for an end to this pension theft for retired miners and their families in Midlothian and across the country.
I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate and I thank the Benchbench Business Committee for bringing it forward.
I really hope that tonight’s debate will give the Government an opportunity to reflect on their position and put right the injustice felt by thousands of former miners in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney and across the country. We must consider what has been contributed over past decades. Thousands of miners, as we have heard, gave the best years of their lives and worked in dangerous conditions. In many cases they gave their health, and in some cases even their lives, for the coal industry. There can probably be no greater price paid for coal than the Aberfan disaster in my constituency in 1966 when 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives.
My paternal grandfather was killed in Ogilvie colliery in 1944 when he was just 32 and my own father was just one year old. On my mother’s side, my great-uncle was killed in 1962 at Elliot colliery in New Tredegar at just 19 years of age. Sadly, these losses were replicated all too often across the coalfields and over the decades. In addition, hundreds, if not thousands, of miners suffered poor health over many years, including my maternal grandfather, who suffered many years of ill-health due to his many years as a miner.
It would be very remiss of me not to mention my predecessor, Siân James, whose early life as a miner’s wife was immortalised on the big screen in the movie “Pride”. It was with Siân that I visited the Gleision mine in September 2011 and looked into the faces of the women who prayed that their men would be returned to them safely. Unfortunately, they were not. Miners have always risked—and, sadly, all too often given—their lives just for doing their job. Does my hon. Friend agree that those who did survive and reach pensionable age should not now be struggling on a paltry pension while the Government are rewarded with vast sums of money from a scheme that they have not paid a penny into—not a penny?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and agree with her. She talks about the injustice of this, which I will come on to later. I pay tribute to her for the campaigning work that she has done in Swansea East. I also pay tribute to her predecessor.
My hon. Friend mentioned some of the disasters that mining communities have faced. I cannot but mention the Gresford disaster in north Wales in which my paternal grandfather lost his life. Clearly, there is a moral case for why the Government need to act on this, but there is also a really good financial case, because we are not talking about that much money. It really is imperative that they act.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. The history of our coalfields is littered with examples of the sacrifices that our communities and miners made, and it is important that this is recognised.
In more recent years, conditions improved and so did the terms of employment. The Government acting as guarantors for the scheme in 1994 was the right thing to do to make sure that the value of the pension fund did not decrease. That is why it is now essential for the Government to address the injustice and unfairness felt by miners over the pension scheme and the way it has been handled over the past 25 years. As we have heard, the Government have benefited from huge payments over the years. However, we must ask them to reconsider their position and whether it is still appropriate for them to benefit from such huge payments. Miners in areas like mine, and across the country, did so much to support the generation of power for the nation. Indeed, the coal and iron works in my constituency helped to power the country for many years, going way back to the industrial revolution. Those former miners therefore deserve fairness and a guarantee that that they are looked after.
Miners have had to fight injustice before, for compensation for pneumoconiosis and other diseases. Many former miners feel that the way in which the pension fund is currently administered is certainly not fair and equitable. Too often, they have been let down. My first involvement in politics was as a 14-year-old during the miners strike in 1984 when communities like mine were supporting the miners in the year-long fight for jobs against an uncaring Tory Government.
In April, I was pleased to co-sign a letter co-ordinated by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), who has done so much on this issue over a number of years, calling on the Government to review their position on the sharing arrangements with the fund. It seems grossly unfair that miners are receiving an average pension of £84 per week—in some cases, a lot less. If we contrast this with the £4.4 billion the Government have received, it is hard—in fact, nigh-on impossible—to justify. It is indeed, as others have mentioned, a disgrace. It is certainly not fair, as the Government have not had to contribute anything to the scheme. They must have made far more money than was ever forecast to be the case. It is therefore time for a review.
The balance of risk was very different in 1994, when British Coal ended. People are much more informed all these years later. At the very least, the Government should conduct a review to ensure that they treat miners and their families with fairness. That does not appear to be the case at the moment.
The surplus share arrangements of the pension scheme were altered in 1994 from 70-30 to 50-50. Independent legal or financial advice to offer a due diligence approach does not appear to be evident. Was it ever sought or obtained? These were and are huge sums of money belonging to the miners. At the very least, in the apparent absence of such advice, it would be fair and transparent for the Government to undertake a review, so that the evidence and opinions of those affected or involved in the scheme could be taken into account.
Finally, membership of the scheme has decreased over the years and now stands at 160,000. The Government’s financial risk is therefore in decline, yet the 50% ratio is still the same as 25 years ago. There is a sense of urgency. The former miners are not getting any younger, and I am sure we all agree that they should get the benefit from the scheme while they are alive. We need action now, and I hope we will get some answers from the Minister this evening.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), and I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on securing this important debate.
As the MP for a former mining community, I want to begin by stating how proud I am to know and represent the ex-miners and their families in Leigh. They are the pride of our town, and their stories are legendary. The coalmines were the beating heart of our community, and we owe the miners an enormous debt of gratitude for their service to our towns. It is for that reason that their struggle is so heartbreaking. For decades they bravely worked to serve their towns, and now they feel we have let them down. Some feel they have been exploited, and many are angry that they have not been given the respect and support they feel they have earned.
To treat former miners and their communities in the way they have been treated in the past few years, while reaping more than £4.4 billion for the Government coffers, is the height of disrespect. The £4.4 billion that the Government have received should have been used to invest in the miners’ towns, give them a high standard of living and ensure that their health and finances were fit to give them the dignity in retirement that they deserve.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not, because I know that a few Members are waiting to speak, and we are short of time.
The sad reality is that the miners have faced real hardship and neglect. Their finances have not been protected, with hundreds of cases of miners and their families living in poverty after their retirement, and their health has been endangered. Communities like Leigh have not been given the investment they deserve to keep our economy and society strong after the pits closed.
Towns like Leigh were once the beating heart of the country, but after decades of neglect, Leigh is at the bottom of the social mobility rankings, without the resources to rebuild its economy. The truth is that our post-mining community are not asking for much. They are not asking for some lavish lifestyle—they just want what they deem to be rightly theirs, but every step of the way they have had to fight tooth and nail for the healthcare, pensions and respect that should have been granted.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am sorry, but I am not going to give way.
If it were not for brave and relentless fighters like Colin Rooney, who campaigns on behalf of the south Lancashire coalfield, we would never have the incredible campaigning force that we see today, which deserves enormous respect. Anyone who speaks to our ex-miners knows that they give it to you straight, and when they see injustice, they do not stop fighting. For this Government to ignore their plight and leave this injustice burning would be reprehensible. They have a duty to start setting right the wrongs that these men have suffered.
If we needed more evidence that this Government have no regard for our ex-miners, a few weeks ago, in response to my question, the Prime Minister said that she was proud to be raising safety standards in mines—forgetting that her predecessors closed them all. Raising safety standards in closed mines is perhaps the only achievement that the former Prime Minister can safely claim.
This debate goes further than just miners or the miners’ pensions that must be re-evaluated. This debate reaches to the way we as a society care for those we sent into dangerous conditions, those who lost their jobs when the pits were closed and those who have seen their communities neglected, so we must today send the message that the indignity will end. Our ex-miners are still the beating hearts of towns such as Leigh, and now we must all give them the respect they deserve for their service to their local communities.
It is a great privilege to speak in this debate. I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), who is almost my constituency neighbour, on introducing this debate. In Bishop Auckland, I obviously represent hundreds if not thousands of former Durham miners who are affected by this injustice. As other hon. Members have said, mineworkers did difficult and dangerous work. They built the wealth of this country for over 150 years, and we owe them a huge debt.
One of the things in the Chief Secretary’s letter that really jumped out at me was her claim that the scheme works for beneficiaries. It patently does not work for beneficiaries. She says that the guarantee of value for individuals is that there should be no reduction in cash terms in the overall value of the mineworkers’ pension. What that means is that people can and, in fact, do see reductions in the real values of these pensions. This is deeply unfair. The Treasury has had £4,438 million from the surpluses of the scheme.
Does the hon. Lady agree with me that in this debate, for once, the right hon. and hon. Members taking part in it are not asking the Government to put their hand into their pockets, but asking the Government to get their hand out of the pockets of the former miners and their widows?
Well, I think we will hear whether Treasury Ministers see it in quite that way at the end of the debate.
The other unfairness is that, as hon. Members have said, the 50-50 split is completely arbitrary. No reason has yet been given as to why the split should not be 70-30 or even 90-10. Another point worth bearing in mind is not just that the mineworkers contributed to the scheme, but that for many years miners were not well-paid industrial workers. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) is not going to correct me, but my recollection is that, in 1972, the average wage of a miner was £26 a week. By no stretch of the imagination were people having a high standard of living, and the very least they can expect is that they and their families have a decent and dignified retirement.
Not only is this unfair, but it is also urgent. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) spoke beautifully about the impact on his family of the accidents and ill health that came with being a miner. In my constituency, the wards where the former miners live have a healthy life expectancy fully 10 years less than in other parts of the constituency. These are not one-off anecdotes; this is a whole systematic impact on communities.
My final point is that this is completely affordable. I think we have heard that the value of the pension to individual miners is now about £4,000 a year. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) said, the Treasury has grabbed the £4 billion, and having done this deal it is trying to hold on to it. I would like to set this in context. This is a Government whose Members are seriously considering electing as the next Prime Minister of this country somebody promising tax cuts worth £4,500 to everybody with an income over £50,000 a year. Surely if there is any commitment to justice in this country, before there are any more tax cuts for any wealthy people, the mineworkers should get their money.
Order. I am sorry, but we have to reduce the time limit to five minutes.
I thank the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing this important debate. I agreed with every single word of his speech. He made an unimpeachable case and the motion should be supported this evening by the Government.
It has been four months since our last debate on this issue. Despite calls from several hon. Members and a petition signed by more than 100,000 people, which I was proud to present to the Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing Street in March with the hon. Gentleman, there has been little progress. I presented the petition alongside campaigners Ken Sullivan, Gareth Hughes, Emlyn Davies and Neville Warren, who have worked tirelessly for justice. I pay tribute to them for their work.
Coalmining shaped the Wales that we know today. Our landscape was reshaped by massive slag heaps and our population shifted en masse from rural Wales to the coalfields, creating vibrant communities, only for them to be ripped apart by the brutality of Thatcherism. The miners strike of 1984 remains vivid in my memory. I was only eight at the time and clearly oblivious to the forces at work. However, the events of that year and their aftermath left a lasting impression on my political thinking. I do not come from a mining family. However, many of my school mates did and I remember to this day the impact of that strike on their wellbeing as that year-long struggle developed.
My father, however, was a trade union shop steward with the electricians union and it was clear to me what side of the fight we were on as a family. This year my father told me, out of the blue, that his grandfather was killed in a mining disaster underground at a pit near Llanelli, which just goes to show that for Wales the coal industry is deeply personal for the entire nation, which is why today’s debate has added significance. I became acutely aware of the power of the British state to destroy Welsh communities and became convinced that the best way to protect my country was the creation of a Welsh state, as opposed to leaving economic powers in the hands of Westminster.
In many respects I come from a frontier community, which borders post-industrial and rural Wales. The Amman valley sits on the anthracite coalfield, which produces the best coal in the world. To our west lies rural Wales, to the north the beautiful wilderness of the Brecon Beacons, to the south the coast and the great industrial urban centres of Swansea and Llanelli, and to the east the Welsh coalfield valleys, which stretch the whole way, more or less, to the English border. The people of the Welsh coalfields are extremely proud people. Community bonds continue to be strong. Our communities continue to be vibrant. What we lack in comparative economic wealth we make up for in social vitality. That is the legacy of the mining industry and mineworkers.
One obvious example for me is the continued importance that the communities I serve place on sports clubs. I am deeply humbled to serve as the honorary vice-president of Ammanford rugby club and Penygroes rugby club. It is a tradition for me to wear the ties of local sporting clubs in this House. Today I am wearing the tie of Ystradgynlais rugby club. Although that is outside my constituency, in Powys, the eagle-eyed will have noticed that the Ystradgynlais crest features a miner’s lamp.
Our debt today for the incredible communities that we are lucky to live in in my part of the world lies with the mineworkers of the past. The conditions that they worked in were terrible, causing long-term health damage for thousands. The least that they deserve for their contribution is dignity, but successive Westminster Governments, both blue and red, have let them down. Twenty-five years of injustice have been inflicted on them, while the miners—the people who produced the wealth in the first place—are receiving as little as £10 a week from the scheme. As we have heard in today’s debate, the average pay-out is only £84. As we know too, at least £4.4 billion has been siphoned off by the Treasury.
The time that the Fife miners spent working in the pits has obviously had a greatly detrimental effect on their health. Is it not time that we had an immediate review? Time is of the essence and this is a wrong that we need to put right now.
My hon. Friend makes a vital point. I suppose my question for the British Government this evening is this. If they are so confident of their case, what do they have to lose by agreeing to an independent review?
The 50:50 surplus arrangement has served the British Government extremely well. As we have heard, it was negotiated during the privatisation of the industry in 1994 by the then Conservative UK Government. There was a review by the Labour Government in 2003, but they decided against any adjustments. The Treasury argued that the guarantee arrangement enables the trustees of the scheme to authorise riskier investment strategies, enabling greater returns for the mineworkers’ pension scheme which are then passed on to pensioners, as well as, of course, to the Treasury. Nobody is disputing the importance of the guarantee or the logic of that argument. The question at hand is whether the British Government should be receiving such enormous sums for their role as the guarantor. Considering the secure nature of the MPS, it seems clear to me that the British Government cannot justify their current claim on the generated surpluses.
I have to tell those on the Treasury Front Bench that the general feeling out there in mining communities is that this is the latest in a long line of injustices perpetrated by the British Government on the miners, their families and the coalfield communities. About 22,000 people in Wales are affected by this scandal. I was so proud to present the petition calling for an urgent review to Downing Street in March. If the Minister values the hard work of the miners who endured in terrible conditions and their invaluable role in shaping the coalfield communities we live in today, and considering the length of time since the last review, the British Government should accept the motion.
I come from a mining family. Both of my grandfathers were coalminers. One worked in the Garw and Llynfi valleys and the so-called south crop, and the other worked in coalmines close by. Today, I represent a former mining constituency. My constituency contains the village of Senghenydd, which in 1913 saw the worst mining disaster in the whole of the British coalfield: 439 men and boys lost their lives in an absolutely horrific explosion. More recently, the collieries of Bedwas and Penallta closed immediately after the miners strike of 1984-85. They were two of the largest collieries in the whole of south Wales and the effect on the local area was devastating. What is more, no real attempt was made to provide alternative employment.
The legacy of coalmining in my area left two deep scars. The first is the issue of miners’ compensation for dust. That issue loomed large during my first years in the House. After a long campaign and a hard fight, many former miners did receive the compensation they needed. Not all of them. There were surface workers who did not get any compensation, even though they suffered from dust. Nevertheless, it was a hard fight.
The second big issue is the mineworkers’ pension scheme. As we have heard this evening, this has not been resolved. The essence of the problem is that the Government and the scheme’s trustees came to an agreement to share the surplus of the scheme 50:50. Essentially, that was an arbitrary division. By 2000, it was clear that the scheme was not working as many people intended it to work. The Coalfield Communities Campaign argued at that time that it was too generous a split for the Government. It queried the actuarial advice, saying it was too cautious. Perhaps we have to cast doubt on the advice itself and whether proper advice of any kind was provided. It would be good, as has been called for, if we saw from the Government the advice received at the time.
A review did take place, but because of market instability it came to the conclusion that there should be no change. The result has been that the surplus has become a real surplus. It has escalated hugely, so that from 1994 to November 2018 we have seen a surplus going to the Government of £4.5 billion. That is a heck of a lot of money by any standards—a real windfall.
The Government have used the justification that much of the money is used to help former coalfield communities. I would make the point that that should not be the case, because money should be provided from other resources. I also have to question whether that money has in fact been used to help those former communities. What is absolutely certain in my view is that that money should also be going to help former miners and their widows. That is where, morally, it ought to go, in total. That is why we need a commitment to a fundamental review, the objective of which should be that the full benefit of the pension scheme should go to the miners and their widows. In short, we are asking this evening that the miners should, at long last, have justice.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and there have been some excellent contributions tonight. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for bringing forward this important issue and I commend the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for leading the debate. He gave an excellent speech, which illustrated the key issues at the outset, detailing his family mining history and giving the personal example that, sadly, his dad died before reaching pension age. He was correct to highlight the dramatic death rate: an average of 10,000 miners in receipt of their pension are dying a year. The death rate is rising, which means that the longer that this Government do not take any action, the more of a windfall that generates for the Treasury. That is why action is needed soon. He also highlighted the generally low pension rates that miners in the miners’ pension scheme receive. As we heard, these are not huge sums of money. That money is still difficult to live on, and the example of somebody getting just £8.50 a week was really illustrative. Overall, his contribution was measured and well delivered.
We had 12 other contributions from Back Benchers, with cross-party agreement, which is really good. I pay testament to the work by and contribution from the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), who unearthed the lack of actuarial advice back in 1994 and the unfairness in the fact that £1 billion spent in coalfield communities is well dwarfed by the £4.5 billion that the Government have taken out of the fund. As others have said, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) made an emotional contribution about the effect on his family. I have signed early-day motion 235 in support of changes to the 50:50 split and of the cross-party letter organised by the hon. Gentleman. Frankly, the Government response was really poor and it is good that that has been widely rebutted tonight. I come from a wider coalfield and coalmining area and I was proud as an MP to witness the unveiling of a new memorial to all the miners that were killed in Muirkirk and the surrounding villages. It is right that that goes down in lasting memory.
It has been a real disappointment that Governments of all colours have benefited from the 50:50 arrangement and that, to date, sadly, none have been willing to make any changes. In fact, if we look at the ministerial responses over the years, we see that they are actually all the same. It does not matter if it is a new Minister, a Tory Minister or a Labour Minister; they have all trotted out the same arguments, which appear to be the fact that the guarantee was welcomed at the time, that it reduces the risk on the miners’ pension scheme, that it provides an RPI uplift on pensions and that it generates higher investment return. Those are moot points. Of course, the guarantee’s existence is a good thing. However, given that the UK Government received a surplus of nearly £4.5 billion by 2018, the argument that a 50:50 split is still a fair risk and reward for the Government providing that guarantee has less and less credibility. That is further highlighted by the fact that the long-term success of the fund has not changed, despite recessions and stock market crashes along the way. As others have said, 25 years on, the risk has diminished greatly. It really does take a special type of blinkers from this Government to ignore any moral arguments on change. It is a fact that mining communities have suffered badly with the loss of coalmines, with guys left unemployed or seeking employment in poorer paid jobs. Others who have worked hard all their lives are now in poor health and widows are struggling to get by. No wonder it rankles that the UK Government are effectively still making money at their expense.
What Governments have also overlooked are the contributions holidays that were undertaken in the 1980s—money that otherwise could have been allocated for the benefit of mineworkers. Moreover, the reduced risk to the MPS resulting from the guarantee is welcome, but it is often overlooked that in 1994, during privatisation, adopting that model not only reduced the risk in the private sector but allowed the Government to get a higher return from the privatisation. Those are further things that need to be considered in the bigger picture.
Labour and Tory Ministers have long argued that the guarantee has allowed higher-risk, higher-value investments to be made and thereby resulted in returns higher than they would otherwise have been. This is correct, but the Government bandying around figures about a 33% increase is not helpful because they are based on assumptions that suit them. In addition, it is not just the fund that has grown; the UK Government’s investment reserve also benefits from the success of the performance of the MPS. That has increased in value from £1.1 billion in 2014 to £1.5 billion in 2017, which has allowed the release of £475 million to the Government in the last financial year. These are huge sums of money the Government are benefitting from. Clearly, even if we change the 50:50 split, they will still make large sums of money.
Another Government line that has been attempted over the years is that MPS trustees are happy with the current arrangements, but that is patently untrue, as the hon. Member for Easington highlighted. The trustees have written to Governments in the past, but they say that they still will not engage and make the changes, so that is another dead duck from the Government.
We need clarity about what the UK Government hope to achieve. The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth has asked her officials to explore the trustees’ options for revising the scheme, so what are the Government’s aims and ideas? What progress has been made in the year since she asked that this happen? Critically, what does she mean by her comment that the revisions have to be to the “benefit of all parties”? It is clearly impossible to do the right thing by changing the share percentages without there being a financial detriment to the Treasury. That sting in the tail looks like an inbuilt wrecking mechanism. We need to know what she means.
I pay tribute to the Coalfield Communities Campaign for lobbing the Government and for calling this the miners’ money. In 1999, it highlighted that the average pension was then just £38 per week; today, it is about £65 per week, although some figures say it is £85. This is critical considering the benefits that would accrue if we altered the split percentages. It also shows that, although the pensions have grown with the higher investment return, the miners are not exactly living in the lap of luxury, so that is another false start in talking about percentage increases.
In 2002-03, the campaign by the Coalfield Communities Campaign led to a proposal that the split change to an 85:15 split, but the then Minister, Brian Wilson, dismissed this as
“off the radar screen in current circumstances”—[Official Report, 10 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 186WH.]
When will someone in government be brave enough to suggest what could be considered and what they would consider fair?
As I have said, the Government have benefited to the tune of £4.5 billion to date. They have not been slow to reduce tax thresholds for those earning the most money or to introduce corporation tax reductions for the largest multinational companies. These measures, along with those on inheritance tax and other things, are projected to cost the Treasury £80 billion, according to figures from the Library based on previous Red Book projections by the UK Government. Surely, then, now is the time to do the right thing for the benefit of the remaining 158,000 members of the MPS, carry out the review and get a fair and equitable split, rather than this 50:50 split.
We have had a tremendous debate, which has combined passion, eloquence and reasonableness. Most importantly, not a single Member has put forward an iota of defence for the situation in which we currently find ourselves; indeed, support for the idea that that there must be justice has come from some of the most unlikely sources in the House. However, the subject of the debate saddens me considerably.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing the debate. No doubt, he shares my sadness about the fact that—as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman)—the Government have taken £4,438,000,000 out of the miners’ pension fund since 1994, while miners and their wives and families are receiving an average of just £84 a week. The juxtaposition of those two figures takes the breath away. It simply cannot be right.
As we were reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), the pension fund did not come about until fairly late in the day. For many years, miners had no pensions. A scheme was set up to give them some reward, albeit not an enormous reward, for their life of service. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Easington, they worked throughout their lives in the dark so that we could have light, and sacrificed their health and their futures to keep this country going through the worst of times so that we could all continue to have light, health and wellbeing—and this is their reward for their life of service to this country: to have pensions as small as those. I cannot imagine the hurt that must be caused to the miners who see their meagre pensions coming in while the Government walk away, for nothing, with huge sums year after year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) spoke of a bonanza and a cash cow. I would add the word “plunder”. The Government are simply plundering the money that should be there for the miners and their families in the future. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) said in his eloquent contribution, there was no actuarial basis for the original split, and there was an arbitrary change in the split that was there before the fund was closed and came into being as it is today. It turned out that the Government had not contributed any money to the fund up to the time of privatisation, and they have continued not to contribute any money to this day.
The Government say, “The pensions are better than they might have been had the fund not worked well.” However, the only changes that have come about are bonuses as a result of the 50% on the miners’ side, not the 50% coming to the Government. The Government have sat back and taken the money year after year, and continue to do so. That plunder goes on. The investment reserve that was set up at the same time as the fund obtaining the 50:50 from the surplus has paid out £475 million in the last year alone, again on the basis of no risk. We should ask ourselves whether this should continue. Because of an original risk that was said to have been taken in relation to a guarantee in 1994, regardless of circumstances that arose subsequently, the plunder continues unabated. That is an injustice, and it needs to be dealt with urgently, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington said and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) reminded us, the membership of this fund is declining rapidly year by year: 280,000 members in 2008, but 158,000 members now, with 138,000 being paid and a small number having deferred.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent pointed out, 6,500 miners passed away last year, and it is estimated that over the next 10 years that fund will be down by another 50,000 members. That means hundreds of thousands of miners will have lived their lives with pensions grossly inadequate for the service they provided, watching the plunder go on before their eyes and passing away before anything can be done about it. We in this House surely cannot accept that we are going to stand by and allow another 50,000—another 80,000, another 100,000—miners and their families see that injustice continue. It is imperative that we do something urgently.
In response to a written parliamentary question, the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth stated in July 2018 that she had
“asked BEIS officials to work with the Trustees to explore options for revising the scheme to”,
as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) pointed out,
“the benefit of all parties.”
I cannot conceive what further benefit it would be possibly justifiable to give to the Government after all this money has gone out over these years.
I have done a quick calculation: if it is correct that there are currently 158,000 beneficiaries and the surplus taken of the Government share of the fund is about £4.45 billion, that is over £28,000 for every surviving beneficiary that the Government have already taken from that fund.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point—possibly with the aid of his calculator—that I had not put forward this evening, and it shows the scale of this injustice. He is right to state that on the Floor of the House for us all to hear.
The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth stated that she had
“asked BEIS officials to work with the Trustees to explore options for revising the scheme to the benefit of all parties.”
I think not; it needs to be to the benefit of one particular party to the scheme. If she was correct in stating that she had asked BEIS officials to work with trustees to explore options for revising the scheme, where are the changes? What has happened? My understanding is that nothing has happened—there have been no talks and there has been no action—and that all this is actually a few warm, or lukewarm, words about possible changes to the scheme when nothing is under way.
My expectation this evening is that the Minister will stand up and tell us two things. First, I want him to say that talks are going on to revise the scheme for the benefit not of all parties but of the mineworkers and that in fact I am wrong in saying that nothing has happened. I want him to say that something is happening. Secondly, I want him to agree that there should be not only talks to revise the scheme but a promise this evening that fundamental action will be taken now to change the amount of split that there is in the scheme and an acknowledgement that the risk to the Government is effectively nil and that they have effectively ridden freely on the backs of the miners for many years. I want the Minister to say, “This has to stop now and we are committed to making sure there will be justice for the miners in the future.”
I am confident, on the basis of this evening’s contribution, that that is what the Minister will say now, even if he was not thinking of saying it before, but I do hope that he had that in his mind before the debate began, because, given the eloquence, passion and support from all in the House this evening, that is the least he should do at the end of this debate.
I would like to start by paying tribute to all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate, and to the many emotional and passionate speeches reflecting the importance of this issue. This is a question about real people and their incomes. It is about real people who have done some of the hardest work in our country, and about the respect and loyalty owed to them by their Government.
This subject is really important to me because, like many of those who have spoken today, I have a strong family connection. My family worked in the pits in the north-east for generations. My grandfather, George Stephenson worked at the Windlestone colliery in County Durham, following in the footsteps of his father, John. My uncle Bert worked at the Dean and Chapter colliery and then at the Mainsforth colliery. My great aunt Daisy and great uncle Tom spent most of their working lives at the National Coal Board in Team Valley in Gateshead. I grew up with stories of hard work, tough times, soot black baths and three pints after a hard day’s work because you could not taste the first through all the coal dust.
The Whips are rarely mentioned in this place, but the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Whip, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), is on the Front Bench this evening. Her grandfather worked in the mines and her great-grandfather was in charge of the pit ponies at Boldon colliery in County Durham, so we both have strong links with the mining industry. I know that the same goes for one of my predecessors in this role, the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry). Her connections to mining communities were so strong that she had to pass responsibility for their pensions over to me.
The Minister refers to his predecessor. In my Adjournment debate back in February, she agreed to a meeting with me, coalfield MPs and the trustees, but unfortunately, despite several emails, that meeting never happened. Will the Minister commit today to a meeting with us?
I am always happy to meet anybody, and I am more than happy to meet people who have asked for meetings today. I believe that my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who took on responsibility from my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, did have a meeting, but I am always happy to have further meetings on this topic or any other.
I was just going to clarify that the connections of my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes were so strong that she had to pass over her responsibility for this topic. Her mother-in-law is a beneficiary of the scheme that we are discussing today. Her mother-in-law’s late husband, Bill O’Neill, was a leader of the coke workers union and I understand that he died very young as a result of his years of service underground. At the age of 16, my right hon. Friend’s husband turned down a job in the Keresley pit, but that did not stop him helping to organise port blockades to prevent Polish imports while he was a student, and getting into trouble with his university to protect—in his view—British coal. It is because we appreciate the importance of fairness to mining communities that my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, when she was in post, dedicated a considerable amount of time to this issue and instructed officials to do the same. She spent time understanding the arguments and concerns of all sides, thinking and talking through alternative proposals and weighing up the merits of the cases presented.
It has been four months since the last Adjournment debate on this matter. Since then, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth has met the scheme’s trustees, and my predecessor as business and industry Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, has met campaigners and coalfield MPs. Officials have also met the scheme’s trustees. For my part, even though I have been in post for only two months, I have taken an interest in this debate not just because of my family background, but because a number of the right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken today have collared me in the corridors since my appointment.
I have reviewed the trustees’ proposals, which my officials have been considering for some time, and I wrote to Her Majesty’s Treasury last week giving them my full support. I will be meeting the chair of the trustees, Chris Cheetham, on 24 June. Central to the trustees’ proposals is protecting existing bonuses. Under that option, if there is a deficit in the future, members will still see their guaranteed pensions continue to rise in line with RPI, and their current bonuses will not be eroded. Without that additional guarantee, members may not be able to get any increase in payment, possibly for many years. The proposals put to my predecessor by the trustees offer benefits to all pensioners, who will see their pensions secured into the future, even if the scheme was to go into deficit, by protecting the bonuses that have accrued to date. The trustees, who include former miners, believe that that is an important way of protecting future revenues for scheme members in the event of a future scheme deficit, because bonuses accrued at past evaluations could be eroded.
The trustees’ proposals would mean a significant additional liability for the Government. In turn, that creates an additional risk of a sizeable call on the public purse. However, I support the trustees’ aim to protect the revenues of individual pensioners. My officials have provided an analysis of the proposals, which I have now shared with Treasury colleagues. As I have said, I am dedicated to the best for miners across the country, which is why I am immensely proud of the scheme and of the investments that we are making to transform mining communities across the country.
I agree that this has been a fantastic debate, with everyone who participated believing that justice should be done for the mineworkers. Will the Minister say whether the trustees’ proposals include a review of the 50:50 split?
They do not. There are six proposals, which I have written to the Treasury about, and the trustees felt that protecting existing bonuses earned is more important than a review of the 50:50 split at this time.
The motion states:
“That this House calls on the Government to carry out a review of the existing arrangements for the sharing of the surplus generated by the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme.”
As I understand it, the Government will not vote against the motion, so will the Minister tell us what he is going to do after the motion passes, because it calls for precisely such a review?
As I just said, I will be meeting the trustees, and their proposals relate to six points, about which I have written to the Treasury to share my analysis.
But this House is about to pass a motion agreeing to a review, so the Government are going to have to do something about that. That is the point, and I think we would all be interested to know what the Minister intends to do.
I am setting out my Department’s position. Whether a review is undertaken is a matter for the Treasury, and the Treasury’s position was set out in a letter from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to MPs on 14 May. That position has not changed. I am sure that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and other colleagues in that Department will want to reflect on any motion passed by this House, but I am trying to update the House in response to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, who asked what the Government were doing about the proposals that had previously been under discussion—the proposals that have been brought forward by the scheme’s trustees.
The proposals have been considered for several months. They are balanced, and I support them. With the support of my Department, I have formally written to the Treasury to say that we support the proposals, because the trustees have identified that protecting already accrued bonuses is more important than the 50:50 split.
The Minister seems to be saying that the proposals being considered are from the trustees and they have not proposed any changes to the 50:50 split. Is it not the case that the trustees have said today that the Government are not willing to discuss a change to the 50:50 split? Is he saying that he thinks it is fair to maintain that 50:50 ratio?
The trustees have made it clear that protecting bonuses already accrued is their priority, rather than renegotiating a greater share of future surpluses. I have not met the trustees, and I have already given the House the date when I will be meeting them. I have seen the six proposals from the trustees, which have been considered by my predecessor and his predecessor, and I acted swiftly in my first two months in office to ensure that my Department supports those proposals and will write to the Treasury encouraging their adoption.
The trustees’ proposals are important. However, speaking to that is a red herring and does not answer what this debate is about. Every single person who has spoken in this debate has talked about the 50:50 split. Will the Minister please get up and answer that point?
I certainly will. I think I have only two minutes left, and I was going to come on to exactly that point. I was addressing the question of what has been done to date.
I began by saying that we owe the miners loyalty and respect, which includes being honest. In this case, the honest answer is that the current position, whereby the Government guarantee arrangements and split the surpluses, is a fair settlement. It is reflected in the fact that successive Governments of all political persuasions have retained the split currently in place.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Surely the Government cannot ignore a motion passed by the whole House following a Backbench Business Committee debate.
The short answer is that that is not a point of order, but it is open to the Government to do that. Whether it is politically wise is another matter. In the event that Members are disappointed, I feel sure they will trouble the Backbench Business Committee for further debates, which may continue ad infinitum. I am sure the Minister would not want to countenance such an unfortunate, even grizzly, scenario.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The guarantee gives recipients security because, of course, they know future outcomes can never be known. As referenced earlier, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has responded to the letter from the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), sent on behalf of a cross-party group, by saying that she will not be reviewing the current arrangements.
I believe that all of us here today are united by our commitment to fairness for our miners and mining communities. Although we may be divided on the best way to deliver that, I can assure the House that I will seek to agree changes to the scheme that benefit scheme members and protect taxpayers.
We were doing so well in this debate, and I am heartened by the many contributions, especially from Conservative Members. I say that not to be mean-spirited but to acknowledge the contributions and the sympathy shown for the arguments that have been made, which I appreciate. I had hoped the Minister would be rather more positive in his approach to those contributions.
We have had brilliant contributions from the hon. Members for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), from my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and from my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), for Leigh (Jo Platt) and for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman).
We have also had notable interventions—too many to list—including from the youngest working miner to come into Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), and from my inimitable hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner). We have had some terrific interventions, including from the hon. Members for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) and a number of others.
Justice knows no age and, irrespective of the ages of the Members of Parliament debating this issue, I think we can recognise the injustice that the miners, their widows and beneficiaries are suffering. The Treasury forecast was that it would receive, at best, £2 billion, but it has received more than £4.4 billion and there is an ongoing commitment.
The resolution, which I hope the House will agree, instructs the Government to conduct a review of the existing surplus sharing arrangements. My understanding is that the trustees want to do that, too.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House calls on the Government to carry out a review of the existing arrangements for the sharing of the surplus generated by the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) having secured this debate, the House has now passed a motion stating:
“That this House calls on the Government to carry out a review of the existing arrangements for the sharing of the surplus generated by the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme.”
I wonder whether you could give us some guidance, Mr Speaker. With the House having passed, without opposition and for the first time in 25 years of this scheme’s operation, this very important motion, can we use your good offices to persuade the Government to carry out the will of the House? It was very open to the Government to divide the House on this motion, but they choose not to do so, which must mean that they agree with it. Presumably, that means they are going to do something about it, if this House’s deliberations and possible votes are to be meaningful.
The right hon. Gentleman is a natural optimist, and I say that in no pejorative spirit. I am sad to have to advise him and the House of the correct procedural position. I am not making any evaluative judgment; I am simply making a statement of what is. The situation is that the only votes that bind in this place are votes on legislation and votes on taxation. This vote does not bind. It is an expression of the will of the House. I am sorry to say that there have been many occasions on which Backbench Business Committee debate motions have been passed but have not been implemented subsequently by the Government. I rather fancy that this matter will be returned to again and again and again if Members feel that the settled will of the House has not been honoured in practice. I will also add that a situation in which the settled will of the House is not then honoured in practice is bad for Parliament—period.