It is a pleasure to follow 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.