Recently, as I do every year, I attended the 134th Durham Miners’ Gala. This event is a celebration of our heritage and community, as well as showing solidarity with those who are oppressed and marginalised around the world.
This year my friend and colleague Dennis Skinner, speaking to the 250 000-strong crowd, had a message for this Tory Government in relation to miners’ pensions when he demanded they ‘stop stealing the pensions’.
Dennis is right because that is exactly what is happening.
In 1994, the year the coal industry was privatised, a deal was made whereby any surplus from miners’ pensions would be split 50/50 between the pensioners and the Treasury.
Around that time it was estimated that over the next 25 years the funds would generate a £2billion surplus.
It has massively exceeded this estimate so far and approximately £3.4billion has been paid to the Treasury rather than to the miners.
This, at a time when many ex-miners are facing the effects of austerity Britain and struggling to get by.
While working, miners contributed 5.25% of their pay towards their pensions yet some are getting pay-outs now of as little as £10 a week or less to live on. This is a disgracefully insulting way to honour those who worked so hard.
This year marks 50 years since the closure of Whitburn Colliery and 25 years since the closure of Westoe Pit.
Their closures not only led to the loss of thousands of jobs but left an indelible scar on our community, Shields miners were proud and very few crossed the picket line during the 1984-85 strike. That pride still lives with us in our communities today.
It is not acceptable that the Treasury argues that its share reflects its contributions to the scheme and the risk it bears in guaranteeing it.
The Durham Miners’ Association rightly argue that a more accurate deal would see the Treasury receive 10% of the surplus, not 50%. The current deal is unjust and unfair.
Coal mining was the bedrock of many communities, including here in Shields and our former miners and their widows deserve better than this.
It seems that the Government is just trying to ignore the issue and waiting for the miners to die off so they can get away with this.
Whilst we can’t turn the clock back, I was proud to stand for election in 2017 on a Labour manifesto that commits to a review into this surplus split and it is something I will continue to fight for.