§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Charlotte Atkins.]9.30 am
§ Anne Picking (East Lothian)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I remember that my first opportunity to speak in an Adjournment debate was in this Chamber under your chairmanship, and I called you by the wrong title; I shall make sure not to do that today.
I am pleased to have secured this long overdue debate on the miners pension surplus. I do not profess to be an expert on the intricacies and technicalities of the pension scheme, nor do I want to get sidetracked into a number-crunching exercise, which is a job for actuaries and a pastime for those anoraks who enjoy playing with calculators. I shall deliberately avoid quoting laborious statistics, because we must focus on the merit and morality of the case—a case that I feel is indisputable. I accept that the Government are acting lawfully in taking up to 50 per cent. of profits generated by the mineworkers pension scheme. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister feels quite passionately about it. However, I do not accept—and I hope that he does not accept—that the Government are acting in good faith or in the best interests of the scheme members.
I accept also that, after suffering the decimation of their industry and the near destruction of their communities by the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s, the miners' fear for their pensions was understandable. The deal struck in 1994 between the pension trustees and the Tory Government was probably the best that could be achieved at the time, but I do not accept that it is still the best deal. It has turned out to be costly for the miners, but very lucrative for the Government, who have siphoned off billions of pounds from the scheme—I am sure that Dick Turpin would be proud of them. That money could and should have been used to enhance the pensions, not to shore up other services. That anyone other than miners and their beneficiaries should benefit from those pension contributions is immoral. The modest risk of underwriting the pension scheme does not justify the massive amount of money that the Government are taking. It is a bit like paying to insure a Ferrari when one rides a moped.
I realise that tens of thousands of redundant miners were exploited by private sector pension companies who descended on them like a plague of locusts. I realise also that, since the election of the Labour Government in 1997, the Treasury's take from the surpluses has been reduced. I applaud the fact that millions of pounds have been redirected into mining communities via regeneration programs and compensation packages. The Government also honoured their pledge to those who were badly advised by private financial advisers to opt out of the miners scheme by allowing them to opt back in. That is all very laudable, but 273,000 retired 170WH miners and their dependents still rely on benefits from the scheme. Those men and women are not living on a king's ransom—they require the money in order to make ends meet—and those benefits were not handed over by benevolent employers or generous Governments, but were conceded only after hard-fought struggles for terms and conditions in the 1960s and 1970s. Many other workers, including MPs, take their terms and conditions for granted, but the mining unions engaged in their struggle not to fill Treasury coffers but to secure financial support and dignity for their members in retirement.
It is worth noting that miners' leaders had to argue hard to convince their members that the significant payments that they were making from low wages were a price worth paying. By being sensible and prudent and recognising that hard decisions had to be taken, they acted responsibly and opted for stability and security in retirement. Does that sound familiar? It is the same mantra that the Government chant now: "Be sensible and responsible. Save and make provision for your old age, for the state cannot ensure your standard of living in retirement." That call rings very hollow to those men and women when they see their pension fund being plundered in this way.
The scheme is now closed, and we know how many claims will be made in future, so it is a disgrace that anyone should deny these people the best deal possible. We all know that a downturn in world stock markets has affected most, but not all, pension funds and that the security of a Government guarantee has given the scheme some flexibility and security. However, even in these turbulent and troubled times for equity investment funds, the miners pension scheme has never needed to call on the Government to invoke the guarantee. Current estimates and calculations suggest that this may be a standstill year for increases to miners' pensions, with adjustments applied only for the retail prices index. The scheme is in good hands. It is robust and healthy and has a stable future. The trustees and advisers have the luxury of not having to look over their shoulder at how a company is performing, or at what dividends should be paid to shareholders. They are concerned only about securing the integrity of the scheme and maximising the amount of money that can be paid out to members in bonuses and pensions. That—not viewing the miners' money as some sort of cash cow for the Treasury—should also be the Government's guiding principle.
I see no difficulty in or barrier to the trustees and the Government coming together in common purpose to reach a fairer deal for all concerned. I understand that independent analysis has already done most of the spadework: it has indicated that a 50 per cent. take of surpluses to guarantee the scheme is excessive and that about 15 per cent. is closer to the going rate for the job. It is worth remembering, however, that this is the very same case that the Government conceded in January 2002, when they agreed to explore with the trustees how the 1994 guarantee arrangements might be altered in the interest of the members. I acknowledge that the unfortunate and ill advised legal action taken by the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies, and Shotfirers, South Wales, against the Department of Trade and Industry prevented the talks from going ahead, but NACODS has now withdrawn that legal 171WH action, so I hope the Minister will agree that there is now no impediment to the talks starting. However, indications are that the Government have moved the goalposts and are now pulling back from their previous commitment to examine the 1994 guarantee arrangements. That is wrong. Nothing should be ruled in or out at this stage.
The only thing underpinning any negotiations should be a fair and better deal for miners that secures the scheme for as long as required and maximises pensions and benefits to its members. I seek two assurances from the Minister who, I hasten to mention, was very keen to respond to the debate, for which I am grateful. First, will he without any preconditions enter into talks with representatives of the mineworkers pension scheme to explore how the 1994 guarantee arrangements can be altered in members' interests? Secondly, will he ensure that any future arrangements that the Government may put in place to protect the interests of pension fund members do not exclude members of closed schemes such as the mineworkers pension scheme?
I shall conclude my remarks shortly, because so many colleagues want to contribute to the debate, but before I do so, I must admit to a vested interest in this subject. My father and other members of my family will gain from any increases in miners' pensions. Like thousands of my constituents, they are proud people who never asked for or expected handouts from anyone, but they were prepared to fight long and hard—for most of their working lives, as it turned out—for what was deservedly and justly theirs. They knew that they had never been properly paid for the work that they undertook, and even now they feel that they have not been justly compensated for the injury and disease that blight the lives of many of them. What really rankles with them, however, is that they have been short-changed and that their money has, in effect, been stolen from them.
What makes the situation even worse is the fact that a Labour Government have chosen to carry on with this legalised but grossly immoral raid on the funds. The Government have taken about £400 million a year at the same time as some miners are being paid a pension of less than a fiver a week. As hon. Members know, there are taxi drivers in London who would look down their noses at a fiver tip, never mind a fiver pension. I therefore say to my hon. Friend the Minister that it is time to stop patronising these proud people and to give them back their money.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr. Deputy Speaker
I remind hon. Members that it is the normal custom to start the first of the three Front-Bench winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the end of the debate, which means that other hon. Members have only until 10.30 to make their speeches. I see that nine hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, so I counsel everyone to be brief and pertinent in their comments and to be circumspect about accepting, and indeed making, interventions.
§ Hywel Williams (Caernarfon)
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on securing the debate. Many hon. Members have pressed to have 172WH this issue debated, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price), who would have been here had he not been in Committee.
As we know, and as I am sure we will hear this morning, the Government are claiming billions of pounds from the pension fund surplus as their own. Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party believe that that is wrong and that the money is not the Government's. A substantial part of it should go towards improving benefits for former miners and their families, many of whom make do with low incomes. The miner's pension is not some extra benefit—it is not like a Treasury windfall. Some former miners, particularly those of the older generation, are in real need. The Government acknowledge that fact, as evidenced by the very welcome but modest bonuses targeted at that group.
Now that the stock market is down—it may be only for the short term—the Government are saying to miners, "We are the guarantors, but you will largely pay for any deficit before we touch our share." As Bleddyn Hancock of NACODS succinctly put it,Blair and Brown are plundering our tomorrows to prop up New Labour's today".It is a cruel irony that compensation payments for emphysema and chronic bronchitis had to be dragged out of the Government in the courts when we have a ready means of defraying the cost in the form of the miners' own money.
The 50:50 split is lawful, but it is historically unfair given the low level of risk that the Government have carried and the potential for further improving the benefits paid particularly to miners on the lowest incomes. As we know, the asset liability study says that the proper proportion should be 85:15.
§ The Minister for Energy and Construction (Mr. Brian Wilson)
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's reference to NACODS South Wales. The vast majority of people who deal with respiratory and vibration white finger claims deeply regret that it undertook its legal action, given the resulting complexity and the fact that claims cannot be dealt with as part of a scheme. Everyone present will regret the stunt that NACODS South Wales performed in going to judicial review, because it has put discussions on hold for the past year or more. As the hon. Gentleman seems to agree with the general thrust of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking), will he join her in condemning the sect known as NACODS South Wales for having undertaken its legal action?
§ Hywel Williams
As the hon. Member for East Lothian said, the action has now been withdrawn. The real issue is access to the moneys in the surplus. Whatever the technical arguments about the surplus—
§ Hywel Williams
No, I will not give way. I have been asked to be circumspect about interventions, and I certainly think that I should be, given that other hon. Members are waiting to speak.
173WH Notwithstanding the technical arguments about the surplus, the Government have a debt of honour. There is money available that could give retired miners and their families a better life. There is money that could revitalise coalfield communities. Money is being withheld—in the name of prudence, we are told, and because the surplus is the proper recompense to the Government for acting as a guarantor. It is being withheld as the Government's reward for carrying the risk, but it is not the Government who have carried the risks of the mining industry. The miners and their families carried the risks during the years of their employment, and they continue to carry those risks during the years of their retirement. They risked their lives to win the coal; they risked their health to win the coal; they risked early widowhood to win the coal; they risked a later life devoted to caring for men struck down by dust, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. They risked a later life disabled by vibration white finger and all the other hidden and not-so-hidden health inequalities of life in mining communities.
Miners and their families risked all that to win the coal, and they are now beset by unemployment, hidden unemployment, make-work schemes, out-migration and mass ill health. They faced all those risks, and now they are at risk of losing what should rightfully be theirs if justice has a home in this House. The Government's risk is nothing compared to those risks carried for so long by the miners, their families and their communities. The least that they deserve is for officials to lift their noses from their ledgers and honour the debt. The miners should benefit from the surplus, not the Government; not the players of the stock markets; not the prosperous men who praised and patronised the miners, then damned them when they went on strike. The new Labour Government should recognise their debt to the miners; they should renegotiate the proportion taken now. The Government should do their duty, and it will be to their eternal shame if they do not.
§ Diana Organ (Forest of Dean)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian for securing the debate, which has already been timetabled a couple of times. We wished to have the debate because it raises an issue of concern to many of us from mining or old mining constituencies. I wish to use the opportunity to raise again with the Minister cases that I raised with him in September and November 2002.
The Labour Government have given compensation to miners for ill health, for vibration white finger, and for respiratory diseases. The Government have given millions of pounds to those affected, and they were right to do so. The Government also examined miners pension schemes and on 17 January 2002 announced that compensation would be given to members of the miners pension scheme who had a small—in fact, paltry—pension. Compensation of between £200 and £2,000 was given to those ex-miners. The Treasury allocated a fund of £90 million for that scheme, to be used between 2002 and June 2003. The package was aimed at helping those members on the lowest pensions who left British Coal before or shortly after 1975. It was expected that about 66,000 members would benefit from that funding.
In the Forest of Dean, which once had a coalfield, 57 ex-miners have benefited from the compensation, to the tune of £75,000. As recent records of parliamentary 174WH questions have shown, £57,000 has been allocated only on the basis of those who have been identified by Paymaster as being eligible for compensation. The problem lies with the criteria that are set down in order to receive compensation. Miners had to have five years of retained benefits from 3 April 1961. Service before that date was not counted for the award because it was thought that most members had taken a refund of contribution with respect to that service, although service before 1961 is counted in the cases of those who chose not to exercise that option and get the contributory refund. Individuals also had to be in receipt of a low pension, or entitled to one, when they reached normal retirement age, that was not more than £5 a week after five years or £10 a week after 10 or more years' service. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian pointed out, that is not a big pension. Many people would describe that as loose change in their pocket.
I come now to the case of the 11 ex-miners in the Forest of Dean, which I have previously brought to the Minister's attention. The last deep coal pit in the Forest of Dean, which was Northern United, shut on 24 December 1965. Some 215 men were working there at that point, and when the scheme was announced, men were contacted to see whether they were eligible. As I said, 57 men in the Forest of Dean have received £75,000, but 11 men were not contacted. They visited me to ask why they were not receiving compensation while their neighbours and brothers were. I campaigned in the press to find out whether any more miners were not receiving compensation and then wrote to the Minister.
I found out that because the miners were made redundant in December 1965 or January 1966, they did not meet the five years' service criteria. They counted as having four years and nine months' service, even although some had service of nineteen years prior to that date. Paymaster, the agent for the Department of Trade and Industry, said that all of the miners had received contributions for their prior service. The miners may be old, but their memories are good, and they question that. They say that British Coal kept poor records that were often lost and sometimes burned. They do not believe that they received any compensation, and they are challenging Paymaster's records.
The miners have four years and nine months in the scheme, but they do not qualify. In a parliamentary answer, I was told that changing the criteria to four years and six months in the scheme would cost an extra £8 million to £10 million. However, of the £90 million that has been put aside for the compensation, I understand from recent parliamentary answers that only £60 million has so far been allocated to the miners. As we are coming to the end of the compensation scheme, we could use the £30 million surplus to reward the members of the scheme who do not quite meet the five years' service criteria.
At present, these old men are receiving between 58p and 65p extra in their pension. That is appalling, and I challenge anyone to think that that is proper compensation for the contribution that they made while they were miners. In the final months of the scheme, will the Minister take up their case and others like it? There cannot be more than a few thousand who would qualify, because we know that it is difficult to trace the men.
175WH We should do something for those whom we can trace and who are in hardship. We could alter the qualifying criteria to service of four years and nine or six months so that the few miners who are left receive some compensation from a Labour Government who have so far been generous in the compensation for ill health. We have tried to be right in compensation on pensions, so we should not be mean with the few miners that we can trace, especially as the Treasury has allocated money for the scheme that has not been used.
§ Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire)
I too congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on securing this debate, which is of great interest to my constituency as an old mining community. Mining no longer creates employment or generates wealth, but the community still suffers from the ravages of opencast mining, and there are historical effects in terms of poor health and a poor education system. The effects of mining continue for a long time.
I welcome the amount of money that has been invested in regeneration schemes, but it is not just the community but individuals who suffer the effects of mining. I am dealing with a number of miners' compensation claims for ill health, and they often tell me that their great sadness is that they may pass away before those claims are resolved. Their concern is that their widows and dependants should have a secure and enjoyable retirement and be taken care of as well. The pensions issue adds to the concern for those people.
Although I do not think that anyone here will query whether the Government are acting legally, the question is whether they are taking the best moral stance that they can with the resources that have been put into the miners pension fund by the miners themselves. Those were the miners' contributions. They made huge sacrifices while bringing up families and working underground.
Mention has been made of the scheme whereby miners who were on the flat-rate scheme before 1975 are given improved benefits. We all welcome that, but by gosh they are on very low pensions. One thing that astounded me when I became involved with these issues was that the pension that the average miner received from the fund was relatively small. Although such pensions make a big contribution to the quality of life that miners enjoy and give them added security in old age, they are not huge pensions by any means. I hope that the Government can look again at the actuarial advice that is being received; it should be updated regularly.
I shall really make only one point. The scheme is closed, and when it comes to an end and there are no liabilities for it to meet, it will be difficult to explain to the miners' families, as it will then be, that a large sum of money—greater than was prudent—was left in the scheme, because that money could have been used to ensure that miners and their widows had a reasonably secure and enjoyable retirement.
§ David Hamilton (Midlothian)
I congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on bringing this extremely important 176WH issue to the Chamber. I am just trying to think whether I have ever tipped a taxi driver a fiver. I cannot think that I would have done that, unless I was really drunk and a long distance was involved.
I want to bring a personal perspective to the debate. Many parties are involved: central and local government, Members of Parliament who represent the remaining miners in many areas, the unions and the board members, who administer the pension scheme and over whose activities there is a big question mark. Major companies have benefited from the miners scheme over many years. One example involves the St. James's centre in Edinburgh. I have always tried to work out how Edinburgh is part of a mining area, but millions of pounds have been invested there. In the same way, if we look at infrastructure throughout the United Kingdom, we find that it has received major investment from the miners pension scheme.
Finally, there is the most important group—the men and women who contributed to the scheme. I started in the mines in 1965. I went down the pit on my 16th birthday—24 October 1966. At that time, we paid pennies to the pension fund. Indeed, it was not until 1975 that we started to pay about 6 per cent. It was only with great difficulty that the unions were able to convince our men, many of whose wages were extremely low, that it was in their best interests to pay that extremely high superannuation percentage. I believe that, at that time, my wages were about £14 a week, and I had a wife and two kids then. The pension contribution was a daunting figure for a young man at that time.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian has said that we are now being asked by the Government to go into dual pensions because we must prepare ourselves for the future. If that is the case, the issue is coming back. I recall the two national strikes in the 1970s, following which we asked to pay contributions for the many weeks that we had been on strike. Many members did that over time.
I mentioned the massive investments in major infrastructure proposals, many of which are not in mining areas. Major investments were also made abroad. I seem to remember that substantial amounts of money were invested in South Africa, yet the miners at that time were at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement. However, we could not argue that our representatives opposed the investments, and we were told that the money had to go there because the law required us to get the best return on our investment. I remember long, drawn-out arguments about that. The union was told that we could only challenge the legality and that we had to accept the situation. I think that we went to court and were beaten.
I am well aware of the Minister's personal commitment to assisting the mining industry. Vibration white finger and chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two big issues at present. I must point out, as I have done on a number of other occasions, that the Labour party was the first party in government to recognise those industrial injuries. However, that does not mean that the miners should pay for their own compensation, which is effectively what is happening. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) tabled early-day motion 744, which referred to £3.5 billion being taken from the 177WH miners scheme surplus. It is important to recognise that there are ongoing campaigns on many issues to right wrongs that have been around for many years.
I want to make one observation. There are two sides to the argument about the miners pension scheme and the British Coal staff superannuation scheme. The people whom Plaid Cymru represented earlier are at the top end of that pension scheme, and their argument was about the maximum amount of the pension—there is a ceiling on that. There are people in the superannuation scheme, including NACODS management and white-collar workers, with an upper limit beyond which their pension cannot rise.
The National Audit Office reports that, since members' benefits cannot be enhanced beyond the limit set by the Inland Revenue rules, the schemes particular to BCSSS may be increasingly constrained in later years, which will affect further benefit improvements and future surpluses. That may increase the residual surpluses that are potentially available to the Government. In fact, that means that more money is being taken out—that is what that argument is about.
As I said, however, there are two sides to the argument. People on the bottom of the scale are not receiving enough money, while others are limited by the amount of pension that they can receive. I am particularly concerned by one part of the Audit Commission's assessment, which is that any residual surplus will eventually be available to the Government when the schemes are wound up. I hope that that will not be the case, and that when the schemes are wound up money will still be ploughed into the system for miners and their families.
Yesterday, I picked up from the Library a report called, "The Miners pension scheme surplus". It has headings about the arrangements at the time of privatisation, payments for surpluses, the Coalfield Communities Campaign report, which details the lack of investment in the coalfield areas, and the Government's response, which is in three parts: sacked miners, low pensions and the review of the guaranteed arrangements, and the progress of that review. One part of the report which people might expect me to raise in discussions with the Minister is that relating to victimised miners. That has been a long-running issue, and I hope that money will come out of the miners pension fund for the more than 300 miners who were wrongly dismissed during the unfortunate dispute in 1983–84. That would provide a remedy with which to go forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) mentioned her area. I accept her point, but we were paying only pennies into pensions at that time, and that is where the problem lies. Thousands of miners in Scotland are also affected, so I would appreciate it if the Minister reviewed the wider issue of people who were missed out because of the dates involved. Not all those people are old—some left the industry at a relatively young age. The industry had a fluid work force, and thousands of people did not finish their working life in mining but worked in mining for 10, 15 or 20 years before moving to other jobs.
I look forward to the Minister's response. I congratulate the Government on some of the work that has been done, but a wrong must be righted.
§ 10.4 am
§ Mr. John Grogan (Selby)
It gives me great pleasure to take part in this debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on presenting the case with such passion and commitment, which have been reflected in the rest of the debate. I could give a few figures, but I shall not in case my hon. Friend accuses me of being an anorak. Instead, I shall make three brief points.
First, the Coalfields Community Campaign has been mentioned only once. It is worth recording that it has campaigned on this issue for nearly a decade, and it has made a big contribution by briefing MPs who represent mining constituencies and allowing them to explore the issue.
My hon. Friend was right when she said that it is immoral for anybody other than miners and their dependants to benefit from their pension contributions. Those of us who argue for change must be clear about what we are arguing for. There has been a tendency not only to argue for justice for those who contribute to pension funds but to imply that the miners' contributions should be used to revitalise coalfield communities. People who contribute to the mineworkers pension scheme and the British Coal staff superannuation scheme feel that as much money as possible from their contributions should go towards their benefits. They do not like the idea of their pension fund money being used as a revitalisation tool for coalfield or any other communities.
The amount of money that should go towards coalfield regeneration is a separate matter from the distribution of the miners pension fund surpluses. That has been reflected latterly in the Coalfield Communities Campaign literature. It is an important change, because miners, their families and former contributors feel strongly that the money is for miners and their families and should not be used to revitalise the communities. The Government have a good record in funding work such as that of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust.
Secondly, it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The guarantee is important to miners and their families and to pensioners, and it needs to be maintained. We should look back to privatisation, when the trustees of the two pension schemesreached agreement with Her Majesty's Government whereby the Schemes were given HMG solvency guarantees that ensured that pension entitlements at privatisation would rise at least in line with inflation, and will never fall in cash terms regardless of investment performance.That is a guarantee worth having. I agree with all my hon. Friends that its terms favour the Government, but it must be maintained. It is the ambition of the trustees of the two pension schemes to extend that guarantee from the core pension to some of the additional benefits that the Government have agreed to. With falling stock markets and all the things that have happened to other pension schemes, we must not lose that guarantee to give inflationary increases and never to let pensions fall in cash terms.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian and I urge the Minister to review the split with greater urgency. I acknowledge that the legal action has delayed some of the discussions. A year ago the Government announced that while both the Department and the 179WH trustees continued to stand by the 50:50 sharing arrangements, they recognised that circumstances had changed since 1994, and agreed to explore options for reflecting the revisions to the 1994 arrangements. Since then, it has been suggested that the MPS and BCSSS make an annual payment to secure the guarantee, and do something other than split the surpluses 50:50. Such things need to be considered. Given that, after many years of complaints the Government have recognised that it is worth having discussions, those should take place urgently.
My third and final point concerns an anomaly that affects areas that still have working mines. At the time of privatisation, members of the BCSSS—the pit deputies—were guaranteed a pension at 50 if they were made redundant. The members of the MPS were not given that guarantee. That has created much resentment in the remaining coalfields.
As the remaining mines close—Selby is due to close next year so it is an immediate issue, but others will close in 10 to 20 years—MPS members will not get a full pension at 50 if they are made redundant, but the pit deputies who work alongside them will. That is a source of resentment and I have discussed with the Minister how the matter could be dealt with. The actuarial estimate is that it would cost £99 million to give MPS members the same rights as BCSSS members, which is perhaps one use of the surpluses. The Government could arrange that through British Coal, which still exists.
There was a contractual redundancy arrangement between British Coal and the two sets of trustees at the time of privatisation. I am not sure who at present is the chairman of British Coal; perhaps it is one of the gentlemen at the margins of the debate. It is usually handed round between different civil servants in the Department. There is also a mechanism to deal with British Coal's remaining liabilities, which could be used to put things right and give MPS members the same rights as BCSSS members.
We have heard tales today about people who have worked in the mines for a long time; at the age of 50, anyone who has been a miner for 30 or 35 years is ready for retirement. Indeed, in some European countries, miners are offered retirement at 50. I urge the Minister to make discussions on the split a priority in the next 12 months.
§ Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)
I pay tribute to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) to secure this important debate, and I congratulate her on her excellent contribution to it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) spoke about an earlier retirement age for MPS members and current miners as a way of using the funds. My constituents in Dunfermline and west Fife, especially former miners, regularly raise the issue with me. They may have different views on how the surplus could best be spent, but they are unanimous in believing that less should go to the Treasury and more should come to miners, pensioners and their families in coalfield communities.
180WH Like many of my constituents, I recognise the importance of the Government's guarantee on the benefits payable by the MPS and the BCSSS. In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ), I welcomed the Government's decision last year to use some of their share of the surplus to pay one-off lump sums to pensioners on low incomes from the MPS, at a cost of £90 million. I support what my hon. Friend said about the injustice still suffered by many of the poorest pensioners in the MPS scheme, and I listened with interest when she said that the allocated surplus had not yet all been used.
Current market conditions mean that this is not the best time to persuade the Government to reduce their share of the surplus, as the Minister indicated in March. However, this welcome debate gives Members representing coalfield communities an opportunity to put down markers for future action. I will concentrate on the call to look not only at the MPS and the BPSSS but at the schemes that replaced them in 1994. The industry-wide pension scheme is relevant to those who stayed in the industry after 1994 and did their utmost to secure a future for the industry.
The industry is shrinking and so are the employer contributions to those pension funds. The Minister knows that Longannet, the last deep mine in Scotland, finally closed last year, despite all the efforts to keep it open. The company, Deep Mining Scotland, went into liquidation. To my knowledge, Scottish Coal, the parent company, is in deficit with its pension contributions. That is of great concern to me, to the National Union of Mineworkers Scotland and to current and future pensioners, because people's pension entitlement is being put at risk, and because the closure of other coalfields is in the offing.
I therefore call on the DTI and the Treasury to consider the whole picture of current pension provision for miners who have already retired or who are looking to retire in the near future. I ask them to consider underwriting the guarantee, perhaps through a standstill for the IWPS, and to agree to look again at the issue of the miners pension fund surpluses. I urge them to take account of the conviction of my constituents and many thousands of others that a greater share should be given to the men, women and their families who worked so hard and endured so much, and who deserve a decent retirement income.
§ Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on securing the debate. It is particularly important to my area of south Yorkshire, which has a large population of former miners.
Before I make my two main points, I should declare an interest. I am a member of the MPS and the sponsor of early-day motion 744, which was tabled on 13 February 2003. I also work closely with the Coalfield Communities Campaign.
My first point relates to the guarantee and my second to the historical surpluses. In 1994, I was a member of the Committee that examined the coal industry privatisation Bill. I recall that there were robust exchanges about the MPS and about the Coal Industry 181WH Social Welfare Organisation. I realise that at the time the trustees of the MPS had to be guided by the actuarial evidence, and on the basis of that evidence they accepted the guarantee and the 50:50 split. However, I believe that the actuaries who gave the advice were overcautious, and that the split should have been different when the guarantee was introduced. As a result of the asset liability study, it has been suggested that that split should be reviewed downwards, perhaps to 15 per cent., so that there is a 15:85 split, with 85 per cent. of the surplus left in the scheme, and the Government taking 15 per cent. I believe that that is a much fairer split, and I hope that the Minister will consider it.
I know that the Minister has a great feeling for mining communities. I worked with him on the monitoring group that examined the compensation paid to miners, and I know that he endeavours to ensure that compensation payments are made speedily. He looks with compassion at some of the cases that come forward and I believe that he will consider the issue objectively. I hope that, given the asset liability study, he can be persuaded to move towards a 15:85 split.
However, that still leaves us with the historical liability. Historical surpluses are estimated by the CCC to stand at somewhere in the region of £3.5 billion. The Government could take that sum from the reserve fund, but I ask that they reconsider their position. In 1998, I wrote to the Treasury about the repatriation of the funds to the scheme, but the response suggested that the funds could not be repatriated. The CCC argued that if the moneys could not be repatriated, they should go to mining communities. There has been a change of view since then. I would say to the Minister that giving back the surplus of £3.5 billion to the miners would not be repatriation—they paid into the scheme and would be justified in receiving it. It would be in the nature of an amended payment for an over-cautious assessment by the actuaries in 1994. I hope that the Minister will take that on board, and that the £3.5 billion will be left in the scheme.
The Minister will be aware that the principal sum in the scheme has fallen considerably as a result of changes in the stock market. I understand that during the past two years it has fallen from roughly £14.5 billion to about £9.4 billion. However, over the same period the number of beneficiaries has fallen considerably. When the scheme was first introduced in 1994, it had about 380,000 beneficiaries. That number has been declining at about 1,000 a month, so there are now fewer beneficiaries and a considerable amount of money available to pay them a decent pension. It has already been made clear that, according to CCC research, the average pension is about £38 per week
First, I ask the Minister to accept that there should be a downward review of the Government take, along the lines of the asset liability study recommendation of a 15:85 split. Secondly, given that the average pension is small, he should consider treating the £3.5 billion not as repatriation but as an amended payment to the scheme.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
I would like to record my commendation and sincere thanks to all hon. Members participating in the debate for the positive and constructive way in which they responded to my opening appeal. I am sure that all Front Bench speakers, even though they may disagree on the detail, agree that 182WH the subject has been well covered without exposing the full range of problems with which we are faced. I am highly pleased.
§ Paul Holmes (Chesterfield)
I add my congratulations to those already expressed to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on securing this important and much delayed—and, in recent weeks, much rearranged—debate. It is important to some thousands of my constituents in Chesterfield, because the north Derbyshire coalfield no longer has working pits. The last pits were closed wholesale by the Conservative Government in the 1990s, which had a devastating effect not only on employment in the area, which still remains below the national average, but on the social infrastructure.
I was fortunate to be taken down Markham pit by Chesterfield miners a year before its closure. Even if they make only one visit, as I did, all those who experience the awful conditions in which miners had to work know what a debt we owe former mineworkers. That is all the more reason why we should not treat them shabbily in terms of pensions. One of the biggest workloads that I have to deal with in my weekly surgeries—matched only by Child Support Agency cases—is to do with compensation and pensions for miners.
At the risk of being considered an anorak, I will sum up some of the figures involved. We have heard some of them already. The 1994 guarantee for miners' pensions to members of the MPS and the BCSSS was that the Government would take 50 per cent. of all surpluses, but would guarantee the pension scheme in return. Currently, some £5 billion is due to the Treasury: it has already taken £1.5 billion, and £3.5 billion remains in the funds. At the current rate, the Treasury is taking almost £400 million a year in surpluses.
The Minister may well argue that the scheme is already very good and very generous, and the pension is guaranteed. As we debated on the Floor of the House only last week, many pensioners would give their right arm to be in a pension scheme that was guaranteed. Last week, we heard about some of my constituents from Chesterfield Cylinders who, after paying into their company pension scheme for 40 years lives to provide for their retirement, discovered in 2001 that as a result of failures in their scheme, they were to receive as little as 30 per cent. or even less of what they had saved. In 2002, the same thing happened to workers at Dema Glass in my constituency, and in recent weeks, Coalite Products Ltd has gone into receivership, and several more of my constituents are encountering the same problem. Hon. Members gave many other examples of that problem hitting firms throughout the country—Allied Steel and Wire in Cardiff is one example.
There was a well publicised protest march on Sunday. After a lifetime of saving, workers in companies throughout the country are receiving only 30 or 40 per cent., or even less, of what they believed they were saving for in their retirement. I am sure that they would envy the sort of guaranteed scheme that the Government are providing for mineworkers. However, I question any argument that the Minister might advance that the Government are acting as a responsible pensions provider in guaranteeing the MPS, and that therefore 183WH the Treasury is justified in plundering the very large fund surpluses to the tune of a massive £5 billion. As we already heard, the independent asset and liability study found that a more realistic price for the guarantee should be about 15 per cent. of the surpluses, not the 50 per cent. that the Treasury is taking. The remaining 85 per cent. should be returned to the mineworker pensioners.
As the hon. Member for East Lothian explained, the Government acted as a responsible pensions provider by allowing back into the Government scheme miners who had been misled by pensions mis-selling into transferring out of the miners' scheme into inferior private funds, but again I reject that as an argument for justifying the Treasury taking £5 billion of surpluses from the scheme. All the Government are doing in the two cases that we discussed is acting as a responsible pensions provider. They should expect all pensions providers to do the same.
We have heard much about the mis-selling of pensions in debates in the House. Mineworkers were especially prone to such mis-selling when sharks from some of the private sector pension schemes persuaded them to opt out of a very good scheme into much inferior ones. That also happened to many teachers 10 or more years ago. The Government must tackle such mis-selling if their current policy of encouraging workers to opt into private pension schemes to provide for their old age is not to be fatally undermined. That is a key issue, albeit not in today's debate.
The Government should renegotiate with the trustees, bearing in mind the independent asset and liability study that suggests a split of 85 per cent. and 15 per cent. That would improve miners' pensions. Several hon. Members—some favourably, but one with a note of caution—touched on what else should be done with the surpluses, however big they are in the end. We heard about the need to revitalise coalfield communities in a debate on the subject only a few days ago. Coalfield communities tended to be focused on single or dual industries—coal mines and the engineering works linked to them—as in the Chesterfield and north Derbyshire area. When the mines were closed wholesale, that had an enormous knock-on effect on the support industries in the engineering sector, and most coalfield communities, including Chesterfield, still tend to have above average levels of unemployment.
The Government have some good regeneration schemes, but there is still a crying need for capital investment into former coalfield communities to reinvigorate their economies and allow them to move into new areas and away from the dual industry culture of mining and engineering. One example of that investment is infrastructure, not so much in terms of roads, although many key roads need to be moved from old coalfields into population centres and industrial estates, but in terms of a simple measure such as broadband access. If we want to introduce the benefits of broadband and the new information technologies industries into former coal mining communities, we need to introduce broadband. There are some successful examples of that in Chesterfield.
184WH It was always said that the infrastructure of coal mining areas was locked up in the deep pits underground. Once the pits are closed, flooded and filled in, that infrastructure is gone. The extra Government investment that is needed to provide new infrastructure will obviously cost money. Even if the Government reduce the surpluses that they take from the miners' pension fund to benefit pensioners, remaining surpluses should be directed into extra regeneration funds for deprived coalfield community areas.
Finally, will the Minister comment on the £90 million made available by the DTI to pay lump sums to those on low pensions? I understand that, until recently, only £57 million of that £90 million had been allocated.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)
I will be brief because we obviously want to hear from the Minister. A lot of technical points have been raised, and many Members have a deep interest in the subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on securing the debate and on the great knowledge and passion that she showed in her speech. It has been an excellent short debate, with an impressive range of expertise and experience in evidence.
I was in the House in 1994 when the new arrangements were agreed. I was particularly interested to hear what the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) had to say, as he was on the Standing Committee that considered the legislation. On Second Reading, there was a feeling on both sides of the House that the arrangements were fair to everyone, and several hon. Members said that having a guarantee in place was an immensely valuable aspect of the new scheme.
§ Mr. Clapham
In hindsight, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the 50:50 split agreed in 1994 was overcautious?
§ Mr. Bellingham
Yes. The evidence bears that out, but given the possibility of difficult markets in the future, no one could have anticipated how strong the stock market would be, how well the fund would do or how the historical surpluses would build up. I did not sit on the Committee or speak in the Second Reading debate, but I listened to some of it and remember the then Minister listening to the argument on the 50:50 split and concluding that caution was needed. However, he said that future Governments could always re-examine the point. I have a few suggestions on how the current Government could be more flexible and go some of the way towards meeting the hon. Gentleman's demands.
The point that was made about the huge historical surplus of £3.5 billion is important. Will the Minister say how much extra income would be brought in and what impact it would have on the average pension if that money was repatriated to the scheme? That would seem a logical step to take.
There has been a lot of talk about the need for flexibility. The Government profit substantially from the split, although they have, of course, put several schemes in place, and extra money has gone into coalfield communities. As the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) noted, that money is welcome, 185WH although some miners and their families want it in their pockets and see a big difference between the money that goes to them, which has been saved for, and the money that goes towards helping the wider community. In addition, the Opposition congratulate the Government on what they have done to enable miners who opted out into private schemes to opt back in, and we welcome some of the other schemes that they have put in place. None the less, there needs to be as much flexibility as possible, given the amount of money that is around.
The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) clearly and succinctly noted that a small number of miners in her constituency are still arguing about one anomaly. It is extraordinary that those men, who are obviously very old now, are losing out because of a bureaucratic rule. Given that only £60 million of the £90 million made available to top up very small pensions has been spent, such problems could easily be solved. In the case of the hon. Lady's constituents, that would cost very little. Will the Minister say what the cost would be?
The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) explained that MPS members were disadvantaged vis-à-vis BCSSS members. That is obviously a substantial anomaly that will affect those working at the remaining large pits in the event of their being closed. Given that the Government are awash with money from the surplus that they are making, they could easily find the resources to deal with the problem. Perhaps the Minister can comment on that. If the Government show real flexibility in dealing with such anomalies, there will be less concern about how the scheme is being administered.
As several hon. Members have said, the scheme is finite. As the number of beneficiaries declines, the guarantee should become more solid, despite the fact that the size of the fund has decreased because of falling markets. The smaller the number of beneficiaries, the more solid the guarantee and the more secure the Government can be in the knowledge that they will never be called on to back it up. There must therefore be an argument for the Government to be a little more generous, as many hon. Members want them to be.
In the 1997 Budget, the Government took £5 billion extra from pension funds as a result of the removal of advance corporation tax relief. We have calculated that that costs the miners pension fund more than £30 million a year, and the cumulative total is now £180 million, which is a substantial amount. The Government should therefore consider changing the split by roughly 10 per cent., which is not a great deal. Perhaps the Minister could explain to colleagues in the Treasury that they have secured £5 billion a year from pension funds. The amount that they are getting from the mineworkers pension fund is only £30 million a year, although perhaps the Minister can say whether my figures are correct. I am sure that his officials have the exact figure, which may be slightly higher. None the less, we are still talking about a combined figure of £180 million.
One message that comes from this debate is that the Government should look urgently at addressing all the points that have been made. They should consider allowing much more flexibility. Instead of a change in the split, they could acknowledge their take resulting 186WH from the 1997 changes to pension fund taxation and ensure that money goes back into the hands of the families who need it so badly.
When the scheme comes to an end, the Government will have a very large surplus. Are they simply going to pocket that money, or will part of it go to the communities? Would it not be better to look at the state of the guarantee that the Government have given and the likelihood of that guarantee ever being called in? In the next five to 10 years, many families will be even more in need of help and of cash. There must be other ways to ensure that extra money from what we know will be a very substantial sum—relative to the number of potential beneficiaries—will benefit those in need. Particular consideration should be given to widows and families of miners who have given so much over the years and received so little. I hope that the Minister will answer all the points raised by hon. Members.
§ The Minister for Energy and Construction (Mr. Brian Wilson)
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on securing the debate. The number and quality of contributions have illustrated the knowledge about the subject and the concerns that it gives rise to. As some of the more sophisticated contributions to the debate have recognised, the issue is rather more complicated than a simple 50:50 split, with the Government cast as plunderers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) said that she often had constituents come to her to muse over what should be done with the surplus. At present, that would be a very brief conversation because there are no surpluses, only very substantial deficits. That is the other side of the coin, on which my hon. Friends have been understandably less anxious to concentrate.
I welcome the debate, which has raised many interesting issues to explore. Everything that has been said will be looked at very carefully, including contributions from the Opposition parties. It is an ironic time for the debate to take place, because at almost any other time since 1994 the case would have been more one-sided. At present, however, the guarantee is working very strongly to the advantage of members of the pension scheme. As the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), pointed out, all around us there is confusion and dismay about the security of pension funds, but the miners have a guarantee, for which they have paid through the 50:50 arrangement.
Before I embark on my formal text, I will deal with the point about an 85:15 split. Even three years ago, that was at the far end of the scale of estimates. Much has changed in the stock market and other investments in the course of those three years. The 85:15 proposal is off the radar screen in current circumstances.
The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), made the most magnanimous proposal towards the miners ever to come from a Tory spokesman. He suggested giving them £3.5 billion—a distribution of alms from the munificent Tories. The £3.5 billion does not have to be distributed because that figure is already reducing very substantially owing to the circumstances that I have described.
187WH I will respond as part of a general debate about the pension fund arrangements. We can all use the debate as a helpful starting point. What is really important is to get back into the discussions with the trustees of the fund, which were rudely interrupted by the sect that calls itself NACODS South Wales. If ever there was an example of why politically motivated people should not use the interests of trade union members as a front for their political ambitions, it was the action of those people, including what they did over the respiratory disease and VWF schemes. Never has an organisation with so few members caused so much mischief to so many. If the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) wants to take that message back to his party colleague in south Wales, he is welcome to do so.
The current pension arrangements in the coal sector were put in place at the time of privatisation of the industry in 1994. This is where the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) is useful. The figure was not plucked from the air, even by a Government of the political hue of the time; it was based on actuarial advice.
I come from a slightly different historical perspective, because I remember serving on the Committee that considered what became the Railways Act 1993, when the Tories proposed something much more outrageous than they did in the context of the coal industry. In fact, if I remember rightly, what we pleaded for and eventually secured in the Railways Bill was a deal comparable to what was done in the coal industry, rather than the much more extreme formula that the Tories proposed.
There was a different perspective on the matter in 1994, and even if the figure was based on small-c conservative actuarial advice, it was based on actuarial advice, to which everyone had to sign up. In return for a safeguard, the trustees freely entered into an arrangement whereby any future valuation surplus would be split 50:50 between beneficiaries and Government. In providing that guarantee to the two schemes, the Government accepted a pretty massive contingent pension liability, which has been valued at £16 billion. The other side of the coin was that, even if there was no return on investment or there was a deficit in the scheme, as at present, miners' pensions, as at privatisation, would always rise in line with inflation and would never fall in cash terms.
No one has mentioned today that that guarantee has not only been met but comfortably exceeded since 1994. The current arrangements have yielded bonus increases on guaranteed benefits totalling about 30 per cent. since 1994, which is a significant increase in such a relatively short time. Those bonus increases are separate from, and additional to, the inflation-linked increases that are applied to pensions each year to maintain their real values. By any objective analysis of what has happened, the guarantee has worked effectively for members of the scheme. I understand all the concerns about where the other 50 per cent. went, but it should be acknowledged that if the guarantee had not been in place, it would not have been possible for the trustees to make the high-risk, high-return investments that have led to the bonuses being paid.
188WH I return to my original point: the situation is much more complex and much less one-sided than some caricatures of how the Government have acted might suggest. Recent events in the financial world have further vindicated the conclusion that the decision taken in 1994 to give the two British Coal pension schemes Government guarantees represented a good deal for the scheme members.
At the same time—I return to the point about getting back into discussions with the trustees—I certainly agree that it is sensible to recognise that there have been changes since 1994. Indeed, it was for that reason that the trustees of the two schemes and I announced in January 2002 a wish to review how those changes might best be reflected in revisions to the 1994 arrangements, subject to ensuring an equitable sharing of risks and rewards and that any revisions were sufficiently robust to operate satisfactorily in a wide variety of conditions.
§ Mr. Clapham
The Minister may be aware that the administrators of the pension scheme and two trustees visited three weeks ago and informed us that they would be meeting, as NACODS South Wales had withdrawn the application for judicial review. Will the hon. Gentleman be the primary Minister who will meet the trustees to consider the future?
§ Mr. Wilson
I imagine that as Minister for Energy and Construction I would be the appropriate Minister to meet the trustees.
§ Mr. Wilson
We could go arm in arm to meet them. I will meet the trustees when I am asked to do so. They understand the interrelationship with the Treasury; it would make sense for the trustees to talk to both Departments.
As I said, everything that has happened in recent years has underlined the benefits of the scheme, but there have been changes since 1994. We want to return to the discussions, which, as my hon. Friend said, were so rudely interrupted. We agreed to have further discussions with the trustees to consider different methods of paying for the guarantee and to explore the scope to extend the guarantee to cover the bonuses already awarded to members that the current arrangements have generated. It was necessary to put the discussions on hold while the Government responded to a judicial review instigated by NACODS South Wales. I am pleased that it has been formally withdrawn and we will resume our discussions with the trustees.
In the meantime the Government and the trustees have agreed a package of improvements that offer real benefits to the schemes' members. They include making clear the rules on standstill—the total pension payable is protected in cash terms if the schemes go into deficit—which will apply to all members, including those not yet in receipt of their pension. We have agreed to the schemes purchasing guaranteed benefits on an ad hoc basis to purchase early retirement benefits. We have also agreed to discuss extending the lifetime of the investment reserve beyond the 25 years agreed in 1994. 189WH That is both an asset within each fund to generate future returns for pensioners and the first line of Government funding in times of deficit.
As part of the 1994 arrangements, a secondary guarantee was given, referred to as standstill. That arrangement ensures that total pensions—guaranteed benefits plus bonus—will never fall in cash terms even if there are not enough assets in the bonus augmentation fund to cover its liabilities. I understand that the trustees of the schemes may be able to protect members from the full effect of standstill if the deficit is not too large following the next valuation.
Several hon. Members referred to the low pension scheme. I find it astonishing that pension schemes of any worth in the mining industry date only from the 1970s. Before that, pensions were pitiful and derisory. It is stunning how badly people were treated. With that in mind, in January 2002 I announced the scheme for one-off lump sum payments to members of the mineworkers' pension scheme on the lowest pensions. That scheme has been a great success; to date almost £60 million has been paid to about 44,000 members. The figure is £60 million out of £90 million because many people have still to be traced before we can respond to their claims. We are actively searching for the addresses of members who are eligible under the schemes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) has again written to me and I am willing to consider what she says. However, if six months is knocked off the criterion it will include not only the 11 people in the Forest of Dean constituency to whom I would love to write a cheque but others throughout the country who are in the same position. If the line is changed, somebody else will be just on the other side of it. It is not simply a matter of changing the threshold from five years to four years six months, but I promise to evaluate the proposal and to respond to my hon. Friend as sympathetically as possible.
§ Diana Organ
The Minister rightly says that £60 million has been spent and that Paymaster and the Department are trying hard to trace the members who are eligible under the current criterion. Can he reassure me that when the endeavour to trace as many as possible of the eligible miners has been completed, he will look at what is left from the £90 million that has been set aside? The answer to my parliamentary question was that it would cost £8 million to £10 million to change the criterion to four years five months. If that much money was left, would he consider changing the criteria to include my 11 members from the Forest of Dean?
§ Mr. Wilson
I will do better than that. I undertake to consider the matters concurrently rather than consecutively, and to respond to my hon. Friend. I do not guarantee what the answer will be, but I promise to consider those points.
I wish to make a broader point relating to what my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) said about the miners paying for their own 190WH compensation scheme. I vigorously refute that allegation. The issues are separate, and there is no read-across from them. I have made a plausible case. We can disagree about the balance of the split of the pension fund, but nobody disagrees that there is a quid pro quo: the guarantee in return for the 50 per cent. that is paid. That is absolutely separate from the ethical and political responsibility of Government to deal with health claims and other issues. There is no comparison between the figures that we are talking about and the pension fund—
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I point out to the House that it is my responsibility to hear clearly what is said and to follow it in every detail. It might help if remarks were addressed toward me rather than away from me.
§ Mr. Wilson
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is a difficult place in which to observe both courtesies at the same time.
I reiterate my point strenuously: I am proud of what we have done about the legacy issues in the coal industry in the past year or two. None of the payments has been made out of the pension fund.
§ David Hamilton
I was referring to the impression that is being created in many people's eyes that, on the one hand, they receive compensation to which they are entitled, but on the other, the Government have taken money. I recognise the distinctions that have been made, but they are part of the explanation of a wider issue, as is the matter of Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation, on which the Minister is also working hard.
§ Mr. Wilson
I accept that the perception might exist, but all of us have a responsibility to rebut it rather than to reinforce it. My hon. Friend referred to both the dismissed miners issue and to CISWO. I am pleased to say, on the dismissed miner issue, that the letters have started to go out. That is real progress and I shall write to hon. Members later today with more details. It is another piece of unfinished business that has been dealt with. Equally, I undertook in the Adjournment debate in March to look again at the current year's funding of CISWO. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) is to have a meeting with the Treasury; I do not think that he will be disappointed with the outcome.
We have dealt with the legacy issues on their merits, according to what is right and to our political and ethical responsibility towards the coalfield communities, not as any kind of read-across from the pension issue. We have had a good debate and I promise that the issues will be considered carefully. I want to get back into discussions with the trustees of the miners pension funds. All that has been said will be taken on board. It is also worth recognising that the guarantee has been delivered in circumstances in which miners would otherwise face much more uncertainty about the fate of their pensions, as do many other people.