HL Deb 16 July 1997 vol 581 cc1001-2

2.56 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reconsider the position relating to the surplus payment they received from the Mineworkers' Pension Scheme.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Clinton-Davis)

No, my Lords. The arrangements whereby the Government receive a share of any surplus in the Mineworkers' Pension Scheme are part of a wider agreement reached with the schemes' trustees in 1994. Under this agreement, the Government guarantee that pension entitlements at privatisation will rise at least in line with inflation; and in return for this the Government share equally with the beneficiaries in any surplus. The trustees supported this agreement in 1994 and we believe that they still support it.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I accept the general principles of the scheme as stated by my noble friend, but does he agree that with £1.5 billion now in the fund there is room for improvement in the pensions for those thousands of miners who lost their jobs because of the destruction of the mining industry by the previous government, and who are still unemployed? Secondly, does my noble friend remember that the 100 miners who were sacked—it was a case of victimisation—during the dispute in 1984–85 were deprived of their pension rights? Does he agree that it would take just a tiny part of the funds that now exist to restore those rights?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I am well aware of my noble friend's concern for the welfare of the mining community and those who were deprived of their jobs as a result of events in the past. As regards victimised miners, the case has been considered, and he will be glad to know that it is for the trustees, of course, to consider the possibility of their reinstatement. It remains an open issue. However, it is not a matter for me as a Minister, however sympathetic I might be, to revisit the fund's purposes. It is outside my legal competence so to do.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, as the Minister is probably aware, there are two pension funds relating to the coal industry. One is for mineworkers, and is the one to which the Question relates, and the other is for the staff members, of which I happen to be a beneficiary, so I declare that interest. Is the Minister aware that as a result of the latest valuation of those two schemes the Government will be paid £150 million per annum for 10 years? That is a substantial amount of money. If a further valuation should lead to an even larger amount of money, is there not something to be said for a review of the situation in the light of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dormand?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the difficulty is that there is a risk of fluctuations, which no one realises more than the noble Lord. Although benefits have been accruing in the way he described in recent years, in previous years the Government were required to enlarge the possibilities of support for at least one of the funds. I am not sure about both. It is not possible for me at the Dispatch Box to take over the trustees' responsibilities. This was an agreement which was approved by Parliament and by the trustees. For that reason, as I say, it is extremely difficult to revisit the issue.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, will my noble friend consider discussing this very important issue with the National Coal Board?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, no, because the matter falls within the remit of the trustees.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, at the risk of embarrassing the Minister, perhaps I may say that I agree with his original Answer that a bargain was made in 1994 to the effect that the Government would pick up any deficit in the fund and honour the commitment and that any surplus would be shared between the pensioners and the Government. Is that not a far better bargain for the pensioners and potential pensioners than the decision made by his right honourable friend the Chancellor to remove £5.4 billion in a Maxwellian grab in the form of the abolition of advance corporation tax?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the noble Lord has had a go on this issue on several fronts. His appetite seems to be insatiable. However, I believe that he ought to table a specific Question on this matter rather than try to enlarge on a Question that has nothing to do with it.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I appreciate the general principles of the fund which my noble friend has enunciated. However, that is not to say that the situation should remain as it is, in particular as the amount of money in the fund is much greater than was expected. I appreciate the difficulties, but will he agree to assist the National Union of Mineworkers in any discussions it might have with the Government or the trustees?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the National Union of Mineworkers and the trustees will enter into a dialogue about the matters if they wish to do so. However, it is not helpful for me to seek to intervene when I have no legal competence so to do.