When asked by a journalist about the £4bn that the Government has pocketed from the scheme, he said: “We will make sure that all their cash is fully protected and returned. I have looked into it and we will ensure that’s done.”
Boris Johnson has broken that promise. His Minister has told me there are no changes coming. I have written to the Prime Minister in a last-ditch attempt to get to the bottom of what he meant when asked on that visit to Mansfield what he would say to ex-miners and widows who felt they had been “robbed” by the Government and left “out of pocket”.
Miners are angry about the MPS because its 50:50 surplus sharing arrangement sees the Government as guarantor get half the profits. The Government has had more than £4bn since the scheme was set up on privatisation in 1994, but in those 27 years has had to make no direct payments, demonstrating the risk is extremely low.
MPS members get an average of just £84 a week, in return for the very tough job they did underground to keep our country going. Many get much less.
I and other Labour MPs representing coalfield areas have been calling on the Government for years to review the MPS and bring in a fairer deal for aging former mineworkers. Labour’s 2019 manifesto included a commitment to reduce the Government’s share of the surplus, so that much more stays with scheme members.
A more generous scheme would make a big difference to the income of retired miners in our area. Of the 130,047 MPS members in the UK, one in five – 27,051 – live in and around South Yorkshire. There are 6,710 in and around the Wentworth & Dearne constituency alone. Some 15,455 members live in and around West Yorkshire.
So what did Boris Johnson mean when he gave a guarantee that none of these miners would be “out of pocket”? When I asked Kwasi Kwarteng, his then Energy Minister, last year he said he believed he was referring to the Government’s commitment “to ensure all scheme members receive their full entitlement. That includes the protection of their pensions, inflation-related increases and the additional protection of their bonus pensions.”
But work on the protection of bonuses was under way before the election campaign. Mr Kwarteng referred to all of these features of the scheme in a letter to me in September 2019 when he said “the current surplus sharing arrangements are fair and working well … Ministers have decided to retain those arrangements”.
So it can’t be what the Prime Minister was referring to when he said the returning of miners’ cash “will be done”. Moreover, his answer followed a question about the Government’s income from sharing the surplus.
It is certainly the case that many miners took his comments to mean a Conservative government would bring in changes to the surplus sharing arrangements. If there are no plans to change the scheme, Boris Johnson has broken the firm promise he gave to miners and their families.
It is time for the Government to do what is right and take a reduced share of the surplus to allow more pension support for the miners. If the Government is determined to keep the surplus, then at least it should be used to help the poorest pensioners and increase investment in coalfield communities, as the Labour government did.
For example, we spent £90m on one-off payments to MPS members on the lowest incomes and we increased mining pensions by 20 per cent over and above inflation. Also under Labour, miners were compensated for respiratory disease and vibration white finger. In Rotherham alone, more than 20,000 ex-miners and their families received £120m while over £250m went to 40,000 claimants in Barnsley.
We gave an average of £15m a year to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust (CRT), an organisation providing tailored support targeted at regenerating mining communities. After the 2010 election the CRT received a final tranche of funding of £52m, and has had no direct government funding since 2015.
Many MPS scheme members are now in their 80s and older. Urgent action is needed and Boris Johnson must not break his election pledge to miners and their families.
John Healey is Labour MP for Wentworth & Dearne. He is also the Shadow Defence Secretary.
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