HC Deb 14 January 1985 vol 71 cc161-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

2.17 am
Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

I am grateful, even at this late hour, to have the opportunity to bring to the notice of the Minister and the House the injustice that many unemployed ex-miners are experiencing, even though the problem has been pointed out to Ministers in the Departments of Energy and of Health and Social Security.

This problem applies to 400 or 500 ex-miners. I shall give an example of one man, which will show the problems for all such men. My constituent, Mr. A. J. Robinson, on 13 February 1984, along with 20 other miners at the Kellingley colliery, was interviewed by a representative of the National Coal Board. The men were offered terms, and encouraged to take redundancy. It was explained exactly what it would mean for them if they were to accept the NCB's offer. The terms included unemployment benefit, sickness benefit, mineworkers pension schemes, and so on. It also included a weekly income. They were issued with small pieces of paper, which I have with me, telling them what day they would be put on notice, what day their notice would expire, and much more information. They were also issued with a document showing what their lump sum payments and weekly incomes would be if they accepted the redundancy terms.

Arising from that information, those men, in good faith, accepted the redundancy terms. They were told on what date their notice would expire and on what date they would be expected to sign on at the unemployment office. When they attended the unemployment office, they were told that they did not qualify for unemployment benefit, because, since they had been put on notice, there had been a strike in parts of the coalfield.

When the men were interviewed, it was not pointed out to them that, if there was a strike, they would lose their entitlements. After receiving representations from Mr. Robinson, I wrote to the Minister then responsible for coalmining, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw), now the Minister of State, Home Office, who replied to me in a letter that he was aware of the matter, recognised the injustice, and had decided to act to change the rules. He assured me that the Government and the National Coal Board were determined that men who took redundancy, and therefore helped the industry towards a better future, should receive generous redundancy pay. He said that neither had any desire to see such men penalised as a result of the strike. A similar assurance was given by the Secretary of State for Energy on 25 May in answer to a written question.

On 26 November, the Secretary of State, through the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, acknowledged the injustice and presented on to the House the draft Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) Order 1984, which ended the link between the qualification for redundancy payments and unemployment benefit. Previously, if a man wished to qualify for redundancy payments, he had to qualify for unemployment benefit. As the order ended the linkage, the Department of Energy conceded that those men were no longer employed in the mining industry and were unemployed. The fact that they received weekly redundancy payments meant that they were unemployed.

In the debate on 26 November anxiety was expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House— none more forcibly than the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), who had received similar complaints from his constituents. That order went some way to redress the injustice, but it did not go all the way, because these men are still not receiving unemployment benefit. I understand that the adjudicator who dealt with their cases believes that the men are in some way involved in the strike. That is not the case. After Mr. Robinson had appealed against the Department of Employment's decision to disallow unemployment pay, the Department wrote to him on form UB 123 on 7 June 1984: The claimant is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit … because he has lost employment owing to stoppage of work which was due to a trade dispute at his place of employment. But Mr. Robinson has no place of employment. He was not on the colliery books. The Department of Energy has conceded that. Mr. Robinson received form RP 3 from the NCB informing him of his entitlements. That form stated that his employment had ended on 14 April 1984.

I understand that the Department of Employment has used section 19 of the Social Security Act 1975 to deny those people their entitlement. Section 19 (1) states: A person who has lost employment as an employed earner by reason of a stoppage of work which was due to a trade dispute at his place of employment shall be disqualified for receiving unemployment benefit so long as the stoppage continues, except in a case where, during the stoppage, he has become bona fide employed elsewhere in the occupation which he usually follows or has become regularly engaged in some other occupation; but this subsection does not apply in the case of a person who proves—

  1. (a) that he is not participating in or financing or directly interested in the trade dispute which caused the stoppage of work; and
  2. (b) that he does not belong to a grade or class of workers of which, immediately before the commencement of the stoppage, there were members employed at his place of employment any of whom are participating in or financing or directly interested in the dispute."
Mr. Robinson is certainly not participating in the dispute. He is off the books. Even if he had wished to do so, he could not have returned to work. He is unemployed. He is unemployed not because of the stoppage, but because the NCB offered him redundancy pay.

It appears that the Department of Employment is hanging its cap on the provision that, to qualify for benefit, a claimant must prove that he has not participated in, financed, or been directly interested in the dispute. If that is the case, those men feel that they were deceived in their interviews, and I share that view.

Section 19 of the 1975 Act has been the subject of much case law. In the past couple of days, I have been looking at "Neligan's Social Security Case Law" and some commissioners' decisions. My researches have not uncovered any identical decisions. The closest involves a 60-year-old claimant who was given notice by the NCB that his employment as a salvage worker would end on 20 January. Meanwhile, a national coal strike had begun on 9 January and the claimant withdrew his labour, along with other members of the NUM.

There is not a national coal strike. Nearly one third of the miners have been working throughout. Many of the miners at the colliery where my constituent worked are working. Who is to say that if he had not been taken off the books and made redundant he would not be working now? But he is not working because he cannot do so— he is unemployed.

I think that I can anticipate some of the Minister's answers, but the Department of Energy has acknowledged the injustice and produced regulations to put right its side of things. I suggest that the Department of Employment or the DHSS has an obligation to those men not to stick rigidly to the regulations, as the adjudicator seems to be doing. I hope that the Minister will consider the issue carefully and will apply pressure in the right quarters.

There is great concern in the areas involved. My local newspaper, the Pontefract and Castleford Express, ran a big headline on the subject: Row over Pitmen's Loss of £2,000. Thus, the local newspapers have also expressed concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) received a letter from the Secretary of State dated 10 January 1985, in which he refers to a letter sent by my hon. Friend involving a similar case. In his last paragraph the Secretary of State writes: I understand that the National Coal Board have appealed against the Social Security Appeal Tribunal's decision to disallow Mr. Weatherill's claims to the Social Security Commission. I am afraid that I am unable to predict the outcome or intervene for the reason that I have already given. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what the case is. Are those involved NUM members, part of management, or do they belong to some other category? I should be interested to know.

However, I hope that the Minister will give serious consideration to those men who have served the industry for 40 years or more and who took their redundancy terms in good faith, which I believe were offered to them in good faith by National Coal Board officers. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use his powers to bring an end to this injustice.

Mr. Alec Woodall (Hemsworth)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) for giving me permission to contribute briefly to the debate. I wish to draw an entirely different case to the attention of the House, which involves miners who have been dismissed by the NCB for some minor misdemeanour. As hon. Members with mining interests will know, once an NCB employee has been dismissed for any reason—even for petty pilfering, and before he has appeared in court—he will never again be employed by the NCB. He is taken off the books and stays off the books.

During the current dispute many men have been accused of, and sometimes charged with, minor misdemeanours such as petty pilfering, the stealing of little bits of coal with which to warm their houses or even firewood. They have been dismissed and are off the colliery books, yet they are classed as striking miners and are not allowed to sign the register as unemployed. They are doubly punished for their misdemeanours. They lose their jobs and are then taken to court where a sentence is imposed for pilfering.

Another dimension to this issue was brought to my attention only a few days ago by a probation officer employed in the Wakefield district service. It involved a young apprentice miner who had committed an act of petty pilfering and who was immediately sacked by the NCB. When he heard of it, the colliery manager was very dismayed, because he knew the lad had a good intellect and was a good prospect for the NCB. He was of exemplary character and would have made quite a career for himself in the NCB. The manager was so upset that he wrote to the young man saying "Not to worry. When the strike's over, you come and see me and I shall see that you get your job with the National Coal Board back." That was his mistake. That letter got into the wrong hands. The colliery manager's superiors got hold of it and the colliery manager received a letter saying in no uncertain terms that if, when the strike is over, he re-employs this young fellow, he, the manager, will be sacked— and no two ways about it.

What is the NCB trying to do? The young man was guilty only of petty pilfering. He has lost his job with the Coal Board and lost his career. The probation officer drew the case to my attention because the young man has been before the court, is out of a job and wants to take part in a youth training scheme. He cannot, because he is not unemployed. He is not allowed to sign the register. Because he is not unemployed he cannot take part in a youth training scheme to try to build another career for himself. He is being doubly punished for his small misdemeanour. I appeal to the Minister to state that if a man commits a crime, whatever it is, and is dismissed by the Coal Board, he has been sacked, he is no longer employed by the board and never will be.

In many areas the local colliery is the only place of employment for men. This young fellow lives in an area of high unemployment and he cannot even take advantage of the Government's youth training scheme because he is not unemployed although he is off the board's books and has no chance of getting a job. I beg the Minister to examine the matter.

2.36 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Ray Whitney)

I recognise that of the many social security issues that have arisen during the current coal mining dispute, one of the most difficult is that which has been raised tonight by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse)— the problem of the payment of benefit to those miners who have left the industry and are now unemployed. I am grateful to the hon. Member and the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) for allowing me to explain the position.

I shall deal first with unemployment benefit. I remind the House that the relevant legislation is an Act introduced by the last Labour Government. Section 19 of the Social Security Act 1975 provides that a person who has lost employment as a result of a stoppage of work due to a trade dispute at his place of employment is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit unless he can show that he is not participating in or directly interested in the trade dispute which caused the stoppage of work.

A rule of this kind has been part of the national insurance scheme since 1948—also of course a year of Labour Government—and before that it was a feature of unemployment insurance in a slightly different form from 1911, which was a year of a Liberal Government. Once a person has lost employment as a result of a trade dispute he remains disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit for as long as the stoppage of work resulting from the dispute continues. He can escape disqualification only by becoming bona fide employed elsewhere in his normal occupation or regularly employed in another occupation. Of course, decisions on whether a person is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit are for the independent adjudicating authorities and Ministers have no power to intervene in this process.

The hon. Member for Hemsworth referred to a number of matters which fall within the responsibility of the NCB and to some extent of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. However, individual benefit claims arising from the loss of work relating to the trade dispute do fall within the realm of adjudicating authorities.

I should like to emphasise that there is no question of any special harsh or invidious treatment of miners or their dependants. Indeed, I remind the House that about £29 million has already been paid in supplementary benefit to miners' families. In the case of redundant mineworkers, far more claims to unemployment benefit have been allowed than disallowed over the past nine months or so. Therefore, there is no question of our seeking to use the social security system to penalise miners or ex-miners.

Nevertheless, there can be complications for someone, not just a miner, who becomes redundant during the course of a trade dispute. For example, a person whose redundancy comes into effect while he is on strike, whether he was given notice before or after the strike started, is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit until the dispute ends. A striking miner who returns to his job and later becomes redundant is still disqualified when the redundancy takes effect until such time as the dispute ends. That is the effect of section 19(1) of the Social Security Act 1975 and the interpretation put upon it in the past by the social security commissioners whose decisions form case law, which is binding upon both adjudication officers and appeal tribunals.

I am aware that the way in which the law works can seem unfair in some cases, such as those referred to tonight, and I have particularly in mind those miners who were absent for only one or two days at the start of the dispute and, in some cases, where they had done everything possible to get to work but were physically prevented from doing so. A number of such cases are now awaiting hearing by the social security commissioner.

If a claim for supplementary benefit is made by a miner in the circumstances that I have described, the supplementary benefit adjudicating officer has to take account of any decision concerning the trade dispute which has been made for unemployment benefit purposes. If a decision about the unemployment benefit position has not yet been taken, or an appeal is pending, any supplementary benefit claim has to be dealt with meanwhile on the assumption that the decision will be adverse.

One other issue has arisen regarding redundant mineworkers which I ought to mention and which highlights the fact that mineworkers who are made redundant are normally in a far better position than workers in other industries. That is because, as the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford recognised, they are entitled to redundancy payments under the redundant mineworkers payments scheme.

Those weekly payments could be made only if the individual satisfied the conditions for receiving unemployment benefit. The effect of those rules and social security legislation together was that miners who had been involved in the strike were not entitled to unemployment benefit, and therefore were not entitled to weekly redundancy payments. Department of Energy Ministers, as has been acknowledged, introduced an amending order which took effect on 7 December to rectify that situation.

The result is that redundant mineworkers now receive their weekly payments from the National Coal Board despite the trade dispute disqualification from receiving unemployment benefit. By the same order my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy was given powers to make discretionary payments to miners who had not been able to receive such payments before the amendment order came into operation.

However, the position regarding unemployment benefit remains as I explained earlier, and the disqualification from receiving benefit continues to apply until the stoppage of work at the claimant's place of employment comes to an end or until the claimant obtains bona fide employment elsewhere in his occupation or he becomes regularly employed in another occupation.

I fully appreciate that the situation that I have described has been a source of serious concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. To a large extent, though, that is because the adjudication authorities have had to apply the statute law in situations not met before and they have had to follow case law which was decided in different circumstances, although close enough to make it binding now.

After all, we are dealing with a dispute of unprecedented length, involving violence and intimidation on a scale not previously witnessed in this country. We would not, therefore, want to undertake hastily or lightly any revision of section 19 of the Social Security Act 1975, which, I remind the House, was passed by a Labour Government.

We shall, of course, look very closely at the outcome of the social security commissioners' decisions on the cases now going to them, and in the end we may well have to amend the law, or certain aspects of it, but I should remind the House once again that we are talking about legislation which is based on principles which go back to 1911, and which have been recognised as sound by previous Administrations of all political colours.

I hope that both hon. Gentlemen who have spoken will recognise the force of the case. I recognise the problems caused by individuals, but we must accept at the end of the day that this situation has arisen because of the extraordinary length of the strike and the pressure brought on these men by other members of the National Union of Mineworkers. I also remind the House that special arrangements have been made by the Government, as witnessed by the changes to the operation of the miners' redundancy scheme.

Question put and agree to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Three o'clock am.