The mining industry was firmly at the heart of working-class communities like mine. For over a century, mining powered our community and our community powered the nation. In Barnsley, it sustained more than 30,000 jobs.
In dangerous, dirty conditions, miners risked their lives and health every day to keep the lights on in our homes, our shops, and our workplaces. Tens of thousands were killed in pit disasters, and many thousands more have been left with serious health issues and disabilities.
However, these courageous workers, their unions, and their communities were not valued according to their contribution. Instead, they were branded “the enemy within” by their government and their livelihoods were destroyed for a political project.
Nothing has replaced those jobs. Today, our coalfield communities are amongst the most deprived areas in the country – and they have been victim of some of the worst cuts in the country. These are the communities that have been promised change. Communities that most need ‘levelling-up’ to mean something.
These devastated communities received a “categorical” promise from the Prime Minister at the last general election. He pledged to end the theft of miners’ pensions, saying: “we will make sure that all their cash is fully protected and returned, I have looked into it and we will ensure that’s done”.
This is long overdue. Ever since an agreement that the government forced through at privatisation in 1994, the government has received 50% of the pension fund’s surplus. In exchange, the government guarantees the scheme, in case it falls into deficit. But the government has not contributed a single penny.
For a contribution of nothing, they have extracted £4.4bn. They are now due to take another near £2bn in the coming years. Meanwhile, the average former mineworker receives just £84 a week. A majority receive even less.
The government has been given chance after chance to rectify this historic injustice. Alongside the National Union of Mineworkers, I have been campaigning for justice for retired miners for many years. I have written to, met with and lobbied minister after minister. I have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my colleagues and miners and raised their fight with the Prime Minister himself.
This year, following our letter to the business, energy and industrial strategy select committee signed by 50 MPs, we finally secured a cross-party inquiry. The inquiry simply concluded that “government should not be in the business of profiting from miners’ pensions” – and that any future surplus and reserves should go directly to the miners whose have paid into the scheme, not the Treasury’s coffers.
This was unanimously supported by the committee, which has a majority of Conservative members. But this government has refused to deliver on its pledge. They are even now refusing to respond to correspondence. A letter from the Barnsley Chronicle, sent almost two months ago, has been ignored. This month, I delivered a copy of the letter directly to Number 11 Downing Street again.
We will not allow this injustice to be ignored. Keir Starmer has always stood by the miners’ side, representing them in court during the strike and fighting the government when the Tories closed the pits. In contrast, Boris Johnson laughed at the destruction of livelihoods in Barnsley – falsely claiming that the pits were closed for climate action – whilst breaking his promise and continuing to steal from their pensions.
This tells us everything we need to know about the character of these men. The mask has slipped and we have once again seen what the Conservatives truly think of communities like mine. The Prime Minister may claim to care about ‘levelling up’, but all of the bluff and bluster means nothing whilst he continues to remorselessly take money from the pockets of pensioners in post-industrial towns.
Where the Conservatives have failed, Labour would do the right thing. I was proud to speak at conference this week in favour of our motion to end this scandal, which received unanimous support.
The next Labour government will immediately overhaul the sharing arrangements and return the £1.2bn investment reserve to miners. We will put this money back where it belongs. In the pockets of retired miners in communities like mine. To the homes, families, and local economies of our coalfield communities.
The fight for justice and for a fairer society is not over. It is only just beginning – and we will not stop until the fight is won.