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.