§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Michael Spicer)
I beg to move,That the draft Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 5th July 1988, be approved.This is a technical, amending order. Its purpose is to make amendments to certain of the redundant mineworkers payments schemes arising from the inter-relationship between the schemes and social security legislation. The redundant mineworkers payments schemes provide for lump sum and weekly payments to mineworkers who became redundant on or before 28 March 1987, when the latest scheme closed to new entrants. Since then British Coal has been responsible for its own redundancy terms.
There are four RMPS schemes still in operation. They are set out in orders made in 1978, 1983, 1984, and 1986, to which amendments are proposed in the present order. The proposed amendments have three purposes. The first concerns the 1986 scheme only and would be brought into effect by article 5(b) and (c) of the present order. It is designed to protect some of the beneficiaries of the 1986 scheme from having their benefit withdrawn in consequence of certain provisions of the Social Security Act 1988.
In drafting the 1986 scheme as part of the restructuring of the coal industry, the Government decided that, to maintain the value of the RMPS terms to potential beneficiaries, those who had made insufficient national insurance contributions in 1984–85 should not be disqualified from or given reduced rates of RMPS benefit. The 1986 scheme provided full RMPS benefits for men who left the industry in the 1986 benefit year ending 3 January 1987. For those men the relevant tax year for assessing their eligibility for social security benefits, and so for RMPS, was 1984-–85. Without the provisions of the 1986 scheme, many of them would not have qualified for RMPS benefits as their 1984–85 national insurance contributions would have been insufficient to satisfy the conditions for social security benefits.
The reason for the proposed amendment is that section 6 of the Social Security Act 1988, which comes into effect on 2 October, changes the contribution conditions for social security benefits. One of its effects is that 1984–85 also becomes a relevant tax year for men who left the industry in the 1987 benefit year—that is, between 4 January 1987 and 28 March 1987, when the RMPS scheme closed to new entrants and British Coal took up the new scheme.
Several thousand men took redundancy in that period. Without the amendment now proposed, many of them could lose their entitlement to RMPS. Such a change in the terms on which those men left the industry would clearly be unfair. The amendment will have the effect of maintaining those terms.
The other amendments contained in the order are to the 1978, 1983, 1984 and 1986 schemes. They have two purposes. The first is to eliminate possible overpayments to RMPS beneficiaries who are also in receipt of invalid care allowance. The weekly payments under the RMPS schemes are made to former mineworkers who took redundancy when over 50, or 55 in some schemes. Those payments normally continue up to the age of 65.
657 To qualify for weekly RMPS payments a person must normally meet the conditions for receipt of unemployment benefit, sickness benefit, invalidity pension or severe disablement allowance. Entitlement to unemployment benefit is normally exhausted after 12 months. An RMPS beneficiary then receives a weekly payment equal to the amount of unemployment benefit he would have received if his entitlement had not been exhausted. That is known as unemployment benefit equivalent, or UBE.
RMPS rules were drafted so that the schemes were integrated with the social security system as far as possible. Where an RMPS beneficiary also receives a social security benefit that affects entitlement to unemployment benefit, UBE is adjusted accordingly, just as unemployment benefit would be if he were still receiving it.
Last year some cases came to light where an RMPS beneficiary was receiving invalid care allowance as well as UBE. There are provisions under social security regulations for dealing with overlapping benefits. Under them, payment of unemployment benefit would extinguish payment of invalid care allowance. That is done by ensuring that when a claimant is eligible for more than one income maintenance benefit at the same time, only an amount equivalent to the higher benefit is paid. Social security legislation, which is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, does not provide for that to be done in the case of UBE, which is unique to the RMPS scheme. The amendments in the present order are intended to remedy that.
The final purpose of the amendments in this rather technical order—for which I apologise—is to remove a technical defect that has recently come to light in the drafting of the RMPS schemes.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
I understood it quite well until the Minister started to describe it.
§ Mr. Spicer
This debate may not give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity for the rhetoric that we usually hear from the Opposition, but it is important to those who receive these benefits.
The schemes provide that, if any pension received by a beneficiary is in excess of £35 a week, that excess shall be deducted from RMPS weekly payments. But a similar requirement applying to men over the age of 60 is laid down in social security legislation.
It was never intended that such deductions should be made twice from RMPS benefit; nor has that ever been done. Our legal advice is that double deductions are strictly required unless the relevant RMPS regulations are amended, as in the present order. The change is a purely technical one to ensure against double deductions.
I hope that the House will agree that these proposed amendments—which are technical, and perhaps boring to some, but which are important to those affected—are both fair and necessary. I invite the House to approve the order.
§ Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)
The Minister has frankly admitted that the order is technical, although he has tried to inform the House as best he can. According to what he has told us, we are still living in the wake of the great strike of 1984–85 and still trying to tidy up its consequences for some miners.
British Coal had to introduce its own redundancy scheme when the Government abandoned theirs. There 658 was some debate when the Government did that, but we live with the present position. The Minister was right to draw the attention of the House to the fact that several thousand men will be affected by the order, and I believe that the House will welcome any amendments that affect them.
The Minister spoke about double deductions, and that made me think about double jeopardy. I am sure that some of my hon. Friends will wish to question the Minister further, given that he has admitted that the order is complicated.
I notice that licensed mines are not covered by the order. The Minister will recall that hon. Friends and I have raised this matter with him in previous debates. If my memory serves me right, I asked about the Blinkbonny miners, who come from my constituency. The Minister told us that those miners were covered only by the state redundancy scheme.
Those who are campaigning for an extension of licensed mines should note that, in this context, such miners are disadvantaged and that the accident rate in those mines is three or four times higher than that in British Coal mines. That is a sobering thought. Although we did not receive any promises from the Minister in the previous debates, I had hoped that the order would provide an opportunity to consider licensed mines.
The Minister has admitted that this is a tidying up order and that some of it is complicated and difficult to understand. How will the new job scheme to which he referred affect the RMPS? I believe that the scheme will begin around the end of September. Miners who opt for retraining in their make up for RMPS may find themselves disfranchised. The Minister is aware that under the RMPS one has to be deemed to be unemployed. Will that act as a deterrent to retraining? Will the Minister lean on such people?
The Minister spoke about being deemed to be unemployed and the UBE after a year's unemployment It would be of interest to miners if he could clarify what will happen at the end of September or October to miners who opt for retraining. Will they be punished or leant on by the Minister? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) does not understand what I am talking about, but I know that the Minister does. I hope that when the Minister replies he will give some thought to that.
The Minister must be aware, if only as a constituency Member, of the turmoil created by the Government when they changed the social security regulations. I doubt whether any hon. Member has not had a substantial postbag about that. The Minister knows that I am referring to how people have been punished severely by having their housing benefit reduced. This order has a direct link with that.
To some extent the position is anomalous. A concessionaire receives money in lieu of concessionary coal because he or she cannot burn solid fuel at home for various reasons. I do not wish to detain the House by elaborating on those reasons, and I know that the Minister is aware of them. We are dealing mostly with elderly people who served, or whose husbands served, the mining industry well. Because people receive money in lieu of concessionary coal, they are further ensnared by the housing benefit regulation changes.
The House must understand that most of those people have already lost severely under the new regulations. They 659 now find that because they receive money in lieu of concessionary coal it is deemed to be income and they lose further. Our bureaucracy could be described as having gone mad, because if people can burn concessionary coal in their homes it is disregarded for housing benefit purposes. I see the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) nodding in agreement.
Before the debate some people told me that if I raised this matter tonight the Government, known for their unfeeling attitude, would quickly solve the anomaly by ensnaring both for housing benefit purposes. If the Government were to adopt that cynical solution, it would be a national scandal. In some quarters it would be described as spiteful malevolence towards the elderly. This is important to many elderly people, and I invite the Minister to comment.
The Minister told us how complicated the last aspect—invalid care allowances—was. References to them are strewn all over the instrument. The order seeks to amend 660 section 37 of the Social Security Act 1975. My hon. Friends, if not all hon. Members, would agree that we need further explanation of this. I draw the Minister's attention to paragraph 5(b)(iii), which says:the existing paragraph (3) shall be renumbered (4) and in that paragraph for the words from 'shall be reduced' to the end shall be substituted the following words—we are coming to the guts of the order—'shall, if it has not been reduced by virtue of section (5)1 of the Social Security (No. 2) Act 1980, be reduced, further reduced or extinguished, as the case may be, by the amount by which the weekly total of such benefit exceeds £35.'That can hardly be described as a neutral change. The figure of £35 can probably be traced to the Social Security (No. 2) Act 1980. The 1975 Act is being amended. I notice that the Minister is becoming as confused as were the people who helped me to understand the order. However, they helped me to come to grips with it, and we have come to the conclusion that this provision is a minus, not a plus. Will the Minister explain or clarify it?
As the Minister said, several thousand people will benefit from the order, and we certainly do not intend to divide the House on it.
§ Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)
When I telephoned the Department of Energy earlier this week, I was told that one of the reasons for the order was that certain entitlements and benefits were to be extended to men who were on strike in 1984 and who would not otherwise have been entitled to them for that period. Earlier today I had a rather hassled and worried phone call from the Department to say that the order had nothing to do with concessionary coal, knowing, as the caller did, of my interest in that.
The order is known as the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1988, and I shall speak on concessionary coal unless, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you rule me out of order. I have no personal objection to the fact that men who were on strike in 1984 should have certain benefits extended to them. I know a number of men in my constituency who were on strike. They came to see me during the strike and told me frankly why they were on strike. Some were on strike because they felt loyalty to their workmates, some because they felt loyalty to their union and some because they were afraid that they would be in trouble if they were not. Some were on strike because they genuinely felt that that was the best way of preserving jobs in their industry. I have to point out that a number of those who fell into the latter category have rather changed their minds.
The fact is that the strike brought no benefits to anyone. We all ended up as losers. I do not think that it would help the situation, or lessen the bitterness that remains, to try to deprive those who were on strike of a certain number of benefits. I am surprised, however, that the Government want to extend benefits to men who were on strike—with which I have no particular quarrel—while not extending them to the group I have described as the forgotten miners. Those men contributed to coal pools in the 1960s, but were made redundant in 1968, during the massive cuts in the industry that were instituted by the Wilson Government when some 10,000 miners in my constituency lost their jobs. We should remember that not only Conservative Governments close mines: more mines and more jobs have been lost under Labour Governments.
When the men were made redundant, they were specifically told by the Government and their union that they would qualify for concessionary coal. They deserved to qualify. Under the localised schemes that were in operation in the 1960s, they had contributed to coal pools out of their own coal allowances, on the basis that they were building up a stock of coal that would benefit them in the future. But, having received those assurances, after being made redundant they were told that they did not qualify after all.
I consider it fundamentally unjust that, when people have contributed to a fund on the basis that they will benefit from it in their old age, they should be told when they have been made redundant or have retired that they do not qualify after all. The reason that those men did not qualify was that the system was changed in the late 1960s so that only certain people benefited from concessionary coal. The localised coal pools were ended, and it was all merged into a massive National Coal Board pool. Unfortunately, during that structural changeover the beneficiaries were also changed, and many of the men who were made redundant lost out.
662 Over the past three or four years, I have pressed the matter with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Energy. I have been told that, although the Government are very sympathetic to the plight of the forgotten miners, they are not allowed to do anything because Governments do not act retrospectively. The trouble is that in 1971 the Government did decide to act retrospectively. They extended concessionary coal benefits to certain classes, but unfortunately left out the mass of miners who were made redundant in the 1960s.
This is a glaring injustice. I do not blame the current Government for it; it is largely the responsibility of the Government who were in power in the 1960s, and of the National Union of Mineworkers, which I do not think looked after its people very well in this instance. I feel, however, that subsequent Governments have had a responsibility——
§ Mr. Oppenheim
I am about to finish. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make his points later.
Governments of all hues should have examined the matter and made the relatively small provision that would have been needed to allow the forgotten miners to draw on the concessionary coal benefit to which, after all, they had contributed during their working days. I mean this as a criticism not of the present Government, but of all Governments since the 1960s who have not taken the plight of those forgotten miners into account.
§ Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)
My hon. Friend and I have worked together over the past three or four years trying to persuade the Government to deal with the plight of the forgotten miners. Their plight is historical; for most of them the problem arose under the Labour Government. Does my right hon. Friend feel that if the time is right to act—perhaps together with a union such as the Union of Democratic Mineworkers—the matter should be incorporated in the next round of wage negotiations?
§ Mr. Oppenheim
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I pay tribute to the work that he has done and the support that he has given to the cause over the past three years. I am also grateful for the fact that he has promoted me to being a right hon. Gentleman. I may eventually have the privilege of being a member of the Privy Council, but I urge my hon. Friend not to hold his breath in waiting for that event.
§ Mr. Oppenheim
I gave way to my hon. Friend because I know that he does not intend to speak later whereas many Opposition Members intend to do so.
I have spoken to the UDM and I have urged it to make provision for the forgotten miners when it has its wage negotiation rounds and it has been sympathetic to that. I ask the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), who does not appear to be able to keep his mouth shut from his sedentary position and who has consistently said that the Government have done nothing, what the Labour Government did in the 1970s when his hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) wrote copious letters to the Department of Energy, urging it to do something. 663 Let us remember that it is not only this Government who have refused to help the forgotten miners. His Government were more directly involved in the closing of mines in the 1960s and consistently refused to listen to the hon. Member for Bolsover when he urged the Department to make concessionary coal available to those men in the 1970s.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is well aware of the problem. I have made several representations to the Department and have always been listened to courteously and sympathetically, so I shall not detain the House any longer. I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend will carefully consider the plight of the few remaining forgotten miners of the 1960s, who still suffer from the injustice and the anomaly. I hope that, during the substantial shake-up that the coal industry will experience over the next few years, my hon. Friend will take the opportunity to make restitution to the forgotten miners.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask you to ensure that we have successive speeches by Labour Members, in view of the fact that the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim), although he presented a just case, strayed widely and made some irrelevant comments, particularly in respect of privatisation, and in view of the lengthy intervention by his hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), although the hon. Gentleman refused to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley).
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
I do not intend to speak for very long. I welcome the fact that the order protects those people who did not pay the full benefits during 1984–85. I understand that the Minister has brought forward the order because of the recent changes in social security legislation and agrees that the position needs to be made clear in that regard. I hope that he will consider one particular problem in the new social security legislation as it affects those in receipt of benefits under the redundant mineworkers' pension scheme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) mentioned the problem, which is not to be found in all coal mining areas, regarding unemployment benefit credits and whether people are qualified to receive them. In April, an ex-miner, who has been retired for some years under the present scheme, was stopped 12 months' payment of unemployment benefit because he had not qualified for the benefit under the new Act. Under the availability for work test, claimants have to answer several questions that are posed by the Department. If they fail satisfactorily to answer any one of them, their unemployment benefit is stopped.
In April, the ex-miner to whom I have referred was 59 years of age. The letter from the Department explained why his unemployment benefit credit had been stopped, and part of the letter stated:You have placed restrictions on the nature and conditions of employment which you are prepared to accept.The availability for work test does not seem to be relevant to ex-miners who have retired under the redundancy scheme. I understand that there are quite a few cases of this 664 sort in Leicestershire, and perhaps the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) will draw attention to them.
The Department allows a claimant a reasonable time, following his unemployment, to find the type of work that he wants, but he is expected to "broaden his horizons." The man in question began work in the mines when he was 15 years of age. In effect, he was retired from work. We all know that there are no vacancies in the industry for miners. Under the new restart scheme, he was told in February that he must apply for work elsewhere and "broaden his horizons." I believe that he was 57 years of age when he left the industry under the terms of the redundancy scheme. He thought that he was finished for ever, as it were. His horizons were probably no broader than the jobs that he had had during all his years in the industry. He then found that his benefit was stopped.
In June, the Department wrote to him, saying that, as he had reached the age of 60, he would no longer have to sign on as unemployed or to pass the availability for work test. It was deemed that he was no longer available for work under the regulations, which have been changed since the scheme was introduced. He was told that he had no longer to sign on although his benefit had been stopped. I understand that his case is being examined sympathetically.
This procedure is causing problems in certain areas. I ask the Minister to urge his counterpart in the Department of Employment to send guidelines to those regional offices where there are those who come within the redundancy scheme who are likely to fall foul of the availability for work test. Many of them were retired when they were over 50 years of age, and they are now approaching 60. It is unfair that those men should encounter problems because they fail to respond to a questionnaire or to a question asked by a local official. Those who finished their working life under the 1977 Act, who are recognised as being special, are not likely to be looking for work or broadening their horizons at 59 years of age.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) said about the Minister. He asked him to take into account that he is a Member of Parliament with his own constituency problems. I realise that the Minister has not been in his post all that long, but he constantly reminds us that he visited a. pit in Easington where he stood as a candidate about 10 years ago. That is the kind of coal mining experience that he has.
Bearing in mind what the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) said, there is one point that I must take up immediately. I notice that the hon. Gentleman has gone.
§ Mr. Haynes
I am not asking the hon. Gentleman to tell me where the hon. Member for Amber Valley is.
§ Mr. Haynes
I am not asking the hon. Gentleman at all. If I were to ask such a question, I would ask Mr. Deputy 665 Speaker. What I am saying is that the hon. Member for Amber Valley is not present now. He is as two-faced as hell——
§ Mr. Haynes
I am only referring to the fact that the hon. Member for Amber Valley is not here, so that that appears in Hansard, otherwise it would appear as though he attended throughout the debate. That is all I am doing, and I have done it.
§ Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is a serious debate. Will you bring the House to order so that we can hear the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes)?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his assistance, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) is perfectly capable of looking after himself.
§ Mr. Haynes
I respect you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Mr. Deputy Speaker is there to protect a Member when he gets in difficulties from a barracker. The hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) thinks that he is in a flaming court. He is in the Chamber and he should listen to what is being said.
The young fellow from Amber Valley was talking about my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) not long ago. I remember a press report in the hon. Gentleman's locality. He had seriously condemned my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. Yet tonight he is talking the other way. That is what I mean when I say that he is two-faced. The same problem arises on concessionary fuel, so I have proven my point that the hon. Gentleman is two-faced. I felt that I had to make the point in the interests of my hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Haynes
No. If the hon. Gentleman is lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he can make his own speech. I want the Minister to hear what I have to say, so if the hon. Gentleman will sit down I can get on with my speech.
666 The young chappie, the hon. Member for Amber Valley, has not lived for very long on this planet. He does not know a great deal about the mining industry and the National Coal Board scheme. Beneficiaries who should be receiving coal have been seriously affected, as my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian said, because of the cutbacks in housing benefits. My hon. Friend said that some people are losing out because of cash in lieu and the change in the social security benefits. Widows in my constituency are seriously disabled and are entitled to concessionary fuel, but because they applied for cash in lieu, and received that cash from British Coal, they are now being told that they will lose more than that amount from their housing benefits.
I should like the Minister to examine this matter because I have seen at the Dispatch Box the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Social Services and other Ministers responsible for social security full of compassion when speaking about disabled people, yet those widows are being treated in that way.
That little lad, who is not here now, should have a lesson on the National Coal Board scheme, because it really started with the question of private ownership of the mining industry and the allocation of concessionary fuel. After nationalisation, NCB schemes were introduced in the various areas, and some areas were better off than others.
§ Mr. Haynes
Let me finish my point. The amount received depended upon the amount of coal produced in the area. As Nottinghamshire was a high production area, it had a decent return. There was unfairness right across the coalfields—even Derbyshire was having a rough deal—and the men——
§ Mr. Haynes
No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He spends more time in court than in the House and he now wants me to give way.
§ Mr. Haynes
The membership in the industry decided, on a vote—a democratic method—to have a National Coal Board scheme. It was not as though the board or the union decided; the men decided to have the scheme. At the time that they took on the scheme they thought that everyone would have a fair deal.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
My hon. Friend is educating Conservative Members; I will educate them a little more. I worked on the national scheme for British Coal—or the National Coal Board as it was then—and negotiated with the National Union of Mineworkers.
§ Mr. Haynes
No. I will educate the hon. Gentleman further. At the time that the board introduced that scheme, its aim was for 250 million tonnes a year. The board and the coal industry were expanding.
§ Mr. Haynes
I am satisfied with what my hon. Friend said, because he has had experience on the administration side of the concessionary coal scheme.
§ Mr. Haynes
I wish that the hon. Gentleman would close his mouth. I happen to have had 35 years' experience underground and was a recipient of concessionary fuel, and, like every other man in the industry, I made my contribution when we had a National Coal Board scheme.
The Government are conning the mining industry about redundancy. The people who have left the industry have had a raw deal, and the people who leave the industry through redundancy in the future will be even worse off. We have an organisation called British Coal Enterprise, whose chairman is Merrick Spanton. He used to be the director of the north Nottinghamshire area of the NCB. The east midlands group of mining Members summoned him upstairs to a Committee Room to discuss redundancies and redundancy pay. British Coal Enterprise was set up to provide work.
I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover challenging the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box on the subject, because the Secretary of State said that British Coal Enterprise had created 40,000 jobs. When we summoned Merrick Spanton, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover chaired the meeting, and he gave Merrick Spanton a rough ride. As a result, it became clear that his organisation had not created 40,000 jobs. He said upstairs that there was potential for 40,000 jobs. We got an untruth from the Dispatch Box and the truth upstairs.
People who are made redundant are encouraged to go to exhibitions and seminars with a view to getting a job outside the industry. Retraining, they call it. The Government are all for it. After they have read all the literature and gone to the seminars, however, when they apply to go on a training scheme, they are told, "Sorry. You have to be assured of a job somewhere before you can go on the training scheme." These people are being conned into taking redundancy. The Government are preparing the way for privatisation. That means further pit closures. They are encouraging people to take redundancy and leave their jobs.
I know chappies in my constituency who have accepted redundancy at 30—and they cannot get another job. They are being conned. They are told that they can get another job outside mining after retraining, but the Government have moved the goalposts and when they apply to go on a training scheme they are told that they must have a guaranteed job to go to.
I have had people come to me in my constituency because the scheme is a fraud. It is the Government's way of reducing manpower and closing pits. They will keep open only those which are making a profit—some make substantial profits—so that the pockets of a few rich people can be filled, once again. That is the Government's policy with other industries as well. I felt that I had to make the point that the scheme is a con trick. I hope that the Minister will give us some sensible answers.
§ 11.3 pm
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)
I do not intend to delay the House as I know others wish to speak on behalf of their constituents.
668 Nobody would want to oppose the order—the Minister said that he hoped it was fair—but I wish that we had similar schemes to help tin miners in my part of the country. They have suffered similar problems. Coal miners have had a better deal from the Government.
I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the apparent contradictions and problems with retraining and the difficulties for those who have taken cash in lieu of concessionary fuel.
I hope that the Minister will also remember the words of the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) who, in 1984, as Under-Secretary of State for Energy, described the change in orders at that time as being designed to create in a humane and civilised way an effective and viable industry that is capable of offering secure employment in the longer term. Most of that does not seem to have happened. There have been too many job losses, and too many people hit by the Government's policies.
I hope that the House will bear in mind that schemes such as this are no substitute for real jobs for people in the industry. They offer nothing to up and coming generations who will have to search for work in areas where unemployment at present is 30 per cent. higher than elsewhere in the country.
We note that for those who are unemployed and those who have accepted redundancy the various schemes to help them to get back to work are not always quite what they appear to be. The contradictions between RMPS and retraining have been highlighted. Perhaps the Minister will forgive me if I raise another particular case in this connection.
At the moment an exhibition, organised by British Coal, is taking place at Carcroft colliery, Doncaster. Ex-mineworkers are to be offered jobs, but there are two apparent catches. The first is that only ex-mineworkers who were made redundant in the last year are eligible. The second is that the jobs being offered have not been created, which was the original brief. I understand that the agency involved has phoned all the local companies and got the pick of vacancies for ex-mineworkers, leaving other unemployed members of the local community and those mineworkers who have been unemployed for over a year no opportunity to apply.
If that is the case—I hope that the Minister, if he cannot comment tonight, will let me have his comments on another occasion—it would seem that this is simply trading jobs: offering them to some at the expense of others, and excluding some to the benefit of others. Again, that does not seem to be an adequate response to the difficulties of people in those communities. I know it is not strictly on the point being debated, but this is an opportunity to raise it and I hope that the Minister will respond.
Nobody will divide the House on the order. I am sure that there will be no difficulty in getting it agreed to. But I say again to the House that this is not the answer to the problems; it is simply a way of mitigating the worst of the problems for a relatively small number.
§ 11.7 pm
§ Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)
I welcome the order brought in this evening. I only wish that the Government had gone slightly further in the changes.
My constituency was a coal-mining constituency until all the pits were closed. However, I still have many 669 constituents who travel out of the area to the east coast pits. But, more important, many ex-miners, either retired or made redundant, live in my constituency. Even more important, perhaps, there are many miners' widows residing in the constituency.
A major problem has arisen in Durham, and I think throughout the rest of the country where there are redundant or retired miners, because of the major change in the housing benefit system regarding concessionary coal payments. Local authorities can no longer ignore the payment of cash coal allowances for housing benefit purposes in order to create an equitable situation between tenants who receive coal and those who receive a cash payment in lieu of coal. In the past this decision had been left to the discretion of each local authority, but after April this year it changed.
Durham, I am proud to say, is a caring Labour local authority, and it has exercised this discretion in favour of its ex-miner tenants. But Durham city council can no longer ignore this payment, because of the new regulations, and reluctantly it has to assess the cash payment in lieu of coal for housing benefit purposes.
Cash payments in lieu of coal allowances are paid in different amounts, depending upon the size of the property, and invariably they are made only to those people who, through no fault of their own, must live in houses that have not got solid fuel heating. For example, people may move into bungalows with gas-fired heating because they can no longer cope with a solid fuel open or closed fire.
There is an obvious unfairness in the system of assessment for housing benefit because tenants, regardless of whether they receive fuel or cash, must heat their homes. The dogged insistence that all cash received must be assessed for housing benefit purposes means that while the present taper operates, people receiving coal allowances in cash have their rents increased by about 85 per cent. of the cash payment in lieu of coal.
Consider what has happened in my constituency. I am sure that these examples hold good in many areas where there are miners or widows of miners. I know of two widows, one aged 76 and the other 86, who, prior to the changes in April, were paying £9 a week rent. Now their rent is £16. Another widow aged 81 has seen her rent increase from £11.90 pre-April to £19.99 today. These people have no savings, and their income is basically £44 a week pension, £36 a month NCB pension and a coal allowance in cash of £4.50 a week. 'Therefore, they have about £57 a week on which to live. The Government are asking them to pay, on average, £8 a week more in rent because they receive cash to the value of £4.50 a week. That is unfair, unjust and uncaring. How on earth can one try to explain to anybody, let alone an 80-year-old widow, the unfairness of that? The husbands of these widows spent a lifetime in the pits. The least we should do is to recognise their sacrifice.
The Minister, in a letter some months ago, told me:The disregard of concessionary coal recognises the strength of the tradition in coal working areas that coal be given to colliery staff".Be it coal or cash, the payment is made for exactly the same reason—to recognisethe strength of the tradition in coal working areas".670 If local authorities wish to exercise discretion in this matter by continuing to ignore the cash in lieu of coal in assessing housing benefit, they should be allowed to do that, remembering that they do so at their own cost.
The Government will say that transitional help is on the way. Indeed, we have been assured that in some cases this will occur within the coming three months. But that is not good enough. Old people affected by these changes are worried to death and are finding it difficult to survive the huge increases in rent that 'they are having to pay. For those living on £57 a week, paying an extra £8 a week makes life unbearable. Many old folk in my constituency—I am sure the same applies in many other areas—are becoming desperate.
I appeal to the Minister to make representations to his colleagues in Government to examine this anomaly and to return to the pre-April situation of cash in lieu of the coal allowance.
§ Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)
I wish to clarify a few points that were made by the hon. Members for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) and for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby). Had the hon. Member for Amber Valley heeded the remarks that were being made by some of my hon. Friends while he was speaking, he might have discovered that there was considerable sympathy on these Benches for his argument. We, too, have constituents who were made redundant between 1968 and 1971 and who receive very small sums of cash and no concessionary fuel. The hon. Member for Amber Valley did not realise that the National Union of Mineworkers, neither then nor since, had any input into any redundant mineworkers payment scheme brought in by the Government. There have never been negotiations with the NUM on any schemes. The schemes have simply been implemented.
The hon. Member should also remember that between 1968 and 1971 the NUM included as a constituent organisation the Nottinghamshire branch. He said that perhaps the Union of Democratic Mineworkers could negotiate retrospective coal allowances for the men who were made redundant then. He should realise that they were part of the union that he is accusing of having failed them. It would be good if the Minister were to announce that retrospective coal allowances could be given to the men who were made redundant between 1968 and 1971. At that time most of them were aged at least 60, so there are few of them still around and the cost to British Coal or to the Government would be small.
Another fact that the hon. Member for Amber Valley should know is that over the last few years British Coal has been attempting to buy out concessionary fuel allowances for mineworkers. Even since the strike British Coal has been considering ways in which it could give cash payments to redundant mineworkers to relieve itself of the responsibility of giving concessionary fuel.
The hon. Member for Amber Valley should note the point made by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart). In 1968 the NUM tried to persuade men being made redundant not to accept the terms on offer because they did not include concessionary fuel. Since then we have always canvassed strongly against any mineworker accepting redundancy terms which did not protect his fuel rights. But, as has been pointed out, even then the scheme was voluntary and the men accepted it.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Some of the issues which have been raised have been cleared up by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), who has been employed by the NUM to look after some of the areas. He made the point that there was no national agreement at the time these people were made redundant between 1968 and 1971. There were local schemes based mainly on the private ownership before nationalisation. When nationalisation took place, the coal schemes were carried over under the legislation. It meant that there were large variations between coalfields.
Neither Lancashire nor Durham had the kind of coal schemes that we had in Nottinghamshire. In the area of Derbyshire which was affected by the closure programme in the middle 1960s a significant number of men were involved. Michael McGuire, who was the Member for Ince, used to raise these matters in the early 1970s, as I did. We pleaded with successive Governments to do something. We are not making a party political point. There is only a handful of men left in each of the coalfields. It is time justice was done.
§ Mr. Eadie
It is a question of trying to put the record straight on the general evolution of concessionary coal. It is more than 50 years ago that I started as a boy in the mining industry. I can remember when we got public ownership and formed the one national union. We never had a National Union of Mineworkers before. Some areas did not have concessionary coal at all and the only concession that the miners had was that they were allowed to go to the bins in the pit and pick what they could from the pit. There was no concessionary coal.
Incidentally, compared with other areas Nottingham did not have a good record on concessionary coal, although arrangements varied from pit to pit. I simply wanted to set concessionary coal in its historical context. It was born as a consequence of the creation of the National Union of Mineworkers and of the negotiations between the NUM and the National Coal Board. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will agree that the NUM negotiated very successfully; the miners did not have an industrial strike between 1926 and 1972.
§ Mr. Skinner
My hon. Friend is right. As I said earlier, the arrangements were based on those under private ownership and prior to nationalisation; they were carried over. It was not until we got a national agreement that we were able to sort out the matter. I remember how in Derbyshire the miners could allocate only about two or three tonnes per annum to the widows because with the number of people out of work there were many more beneficiaries than miners contributing.
As hon. Members on both sides have said, we are talking about only a few hundred people in the whole British coalfield; it is no more than that. Many of them are widows and all of them are more than 80 years of age. It is high time that somebody did something about the problem. If the Minister could take that message back to the Government, he would be doing a service, and it would not cost a great deal. People leaving the mining industry, having worked in it for only 20 years and sometimes less, get concessionary coal. It is a justified complaint, which could be dealt with at very little cost.
I want to amplify the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) about money 672 in lieu of concessionary coal. I hope that the Minister will pass on to his hon. Friends in the appropriate Department our view that it is unjust that, while some miners' widows burn coal and thereby receive payment in kind, others living in the same street, who have had to move to bungalows with gas-fired heating because they can no longer lift buckets of coal, end up losing £7 a week. It cannot be fair that those people should be penalised in their rent. The transitional payment will not help. The transitional payment agreed in the House and arising from the housing benefit and income support changes will not affect those who have lost roughly £7 a week—those who get money in lieu of concessionary coal. It is wrong that those getting the coal should not be penalised whereas those who get the money are affected in the amount of rent that they pay. That matter wants looking into.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) talked about British Coal Enterprise. I have said before —it ought to be said over and over again—that British Coal Enterprise is claiming credit for jobs that it has not created. It is claiming jobs that have been created by the special development agencies in Scotland and elsewhere and by local authorities. It claims to have created jobs whereas workshops have simply been transferred from the public sector, the National Coal Board, straight to private enterprise. It says that that is a part of the many thousands of jobs that it has created. There are no two ways about it: £30 million has been expended by British Coal Enterprise and if local authorities spent £30 million in junketing they would certainly be surcharged for the money that they had spent without creating the jobs that they claimed to have created.
I hope that the Minister will deal with the two questions that we have raised about elderly people and concessionary coal. It will not be before time.
§ Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)
I wish to say a few words about cash in lieu of coal affecting housing benefit. I still have in my constituency a caring local authority—Newark and Sherwood —which, like that mentioned by the hon. Member for the City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), disregarded cash in lieu of coal until the law was changed. I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that Labour-controlled Ashfield district council stopped that practice two years ago. That ought to be known, bearing in mind that the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) said that it was stopped on 11 April, which is not true.
It is unfair to include cash in lieu of coal in calculating a claimant's income. During the war, one was drafted either into the Army or into the coal industry. The only income that is disregarded today is the war widow's pension. If one member of a family went into the coal industry, his widow's cash in lieu is not disregarded, whereas the widow's pension of another member who joined the services and was subsequently killed is disregarded. That is grossly unfair, given that both were effectively drafted.
I know that my hon. Friend cannot do anything, but hon. Members representing mining constituencies raised that anomaly in the House two years ago, pointing out how it would affect their constituents. In view of what has been said, perhaps my hon. Friend will convey our views to the appropriate Department.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
I add my voice to those of hon. Members who have spoken about cash in lieu of coal. It is disgraceful when—as may have been the case in the example given earlier—auditors tell councillors, "If you don't start treating coal as an emolument, you will be surcharged." That is what happened to my authority. They kept the scheme going right up to the hilt until they were threatened by a surcharge and other fearful consequences. It is time that the Government recognised that that situation exists and put it right. Cash in lieu of coal is just that, and it should not be taken into the calculation for housing benefit.
I shall refer briefly to the coal agreement. It is true that some received coal and some did not. At first, I received 15 tonnes a year whereas somebody down the road received only 12 tonnes. Some widows received coal and some did not, as did miners who were injured in the pits. In the 1960s, the National Union of Mineworkers, quite rightly, recognised that there should be a levelling off. My allowance of 15 tonnes fell to 12 tonnes, then to 10 tonnes and after that to 8 tonnes. That was a voluntary scheme by members of the union and those who worked in the coal industry, under which there was equalisation across the board.
At the time of that agreement, nobody worried about redundancies, because they were unheard of. The only concern at that time was the demand for an increase from 200 million tonnes of coal a year to 250 million tonnes. That was the era of Lord Robens. When men were made redundant, the agreement under which that was done did not take into account what was really happening.
In some cases, the men were misled. I could never prove that. If that could have been proved, matters would have been different. However, from my own investigations my belief is that those men were misled. They would not have left the industry had they known that they were going to lose their coal. There are very few of them left. It would not hurt British Coal to establish how many of them would come back into benefit and how much that would cost. British Coal has a moral obligation to put right something that went seriously wrong.
§ Mr. Michael Spicer
This has been a thoughtful and thought-provoking debate. The temperature rose a bit when the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) spoke, but that is not unusual.
It has been recognised that the RMPS, which the order puts on a fairer basis, is a generous one. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), who kindly informed me that he would be unable to stay for the entire debate, said that he would give his right arm, or his shirt, if the mining interests that he represents could benefit from such a scheme. I am sure that those representing other industries would like similar arrangements. The House has given welcome recognition to the fact that the RMPS is generous. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) said that some might consider that the RMPS and the order were excessively generous, and spoke about back payment for the 1960s.
The major element of the order ensures that the terms on which people left the industry, as part of the restructuring process, are honoured. There is nothing particularly generous about that. Some time ago it was 674 agreed that there should be generous redundancy terms in the interests of making the coal industry efficient. The order ensures that those obligations are honoured.
The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) asked why licensed mines do not fall under the terms of the RMPS. The RMPS was available to licensed mines under the statute, but the RMPS finished in March 1987. Current redundancies in British Coal are eligible for restructuring grant, which is not available for licensed mines. The restructuring grant which the Government are generously giving to British Coal is part of our strategy of making British Coal more efficient and better able to pay its way than in the past. That policy is paying off and this year. as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, British Coal is planning to break even. The restructuring grant will have played a part in that success.
The hon. Member for Midlothian also asked about section 37 of the Social Security Act 1985. It is a complicated issue, and he asked a complicated question, but I believe he thought that section 37 and article 5(6)(iii) of the order were a minus, not a plus. The main thing that we are trying to avoid is double deductions. We have social legislation and RMPS-related legislation, and unless the amending order is passed double deductions will be made. I trust that I have understood the hon. Gentleman, but if not, I shall write to him.
The main theme of Opposition speeches— my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) also mentioned it— has been that of concessionary coal and cash in lieu. I accept the request of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and others, and will raise the matter again with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I listened to the strong feelings expressed on both sides about the inequity, but I cannot give any further assurances, because this is not ultimately my responsibility. I shall, however, convey the ably put coherent points on that.
Retraining affects younger people on the whole, although the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) mentioned an older person. I should like to hear of specific cases where retraining has been deterred.
§ Mr. Barron
It was not retraining, but the restart scheme, under which people unemployed for more than six months have to go to a local office to fill in a questionnaire, that I was talking about.
§ Mr. Spicer
I shall certainly make that point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, as that matter comes under employment legislation and is not for my Department.
§ Mr. Spicer
The RMPS and redundancy schemes now relate to younger people than they did originally. I am interested to hear of specific cases, which I shall look into if the hon. Gentleman will send them to me. I should like to see the details of the problem and see whether anything can be done.
My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley has been assiduous and persistent about the various schemes not applying to those who left in the 1960s. Several hon. Members have said that there were numerous local 675 schemes and agreements at that time, and many anomalies. The purpose of bringing everything together in the 1970s was to deal with those anomalies.
Whenever new benefits are introduced, no matter what the legislation, the problem is always where to draw the line. We had to ask ourselves whether we could, at an acceptable cost, delve into history and track down the few people who had been made redundant under these terms, whether it would be equitable if we missed some out, and whether the exercise was feasible. Despite the great efforts of my hon. Friend and others, our conclusion is that the line has been drawn for some time now and ——
§ Mr. Spicer
I shall look again at the argument, but it would be administratively costly and there would be the difficulty of tracking people down. I suspect that that will be difficult, but I shall consider the argument again. Sometimes such an argument can be stated too blandly, but I shall re-examine this one to see whether it stands the test of analysis. I am advised, however, that it would be extremely difficult to ensure fairness, given the great complexity and diversity of the previous arrangements.
I think that I have covered most of the points that have been raised. If not, I shall be happy to write to hon. Members. The Government believe that the RMPS is fair. Indeed, some might think it over-fair. I hope the House will agree that the matter needed to be put on a sound footing to enable people being made redundant from the industry to receive the benefits to which they were told they were entitled. That is what the order does. I am grateful for the support expressed for it on both sides of the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 5th July 1988, be approved.