THE BLOG

It's Not Just The Tories

02/11/2016 18:37

Mining communities have been let down by Westminster time and time again. The Home Secretary's refusal to initiate an inquiry into the 'Battle of Orgreave' has reopened old wounds for former mining communities. The announcement reminds us, yet again, that people in these forgotten about communities are worth so little to politicians in Westminster.

We have just marked 50 years since the horrific Aberfan disaster. 116 children and 28 adults needlessly lost their lives when a coal tip slid down the mountain and buried a school and 20 terraced houses.

Though it happened before I was born, older people in our valley - the neighbouring Rhondda - had this tragedy burned into them and it has been passed down through the generations. It was something I was aware of from a very young age. Older people could not talk about it without tears. The emotion from the 50th anniversary commemorations was palpable.

The Labour Secretary of State for Wales at the time, George Thomas, was a working class man from the southern coalfields. He should have known better but, regardless, he coerced the people of Aberfan into using money donated by well-wishers and those who had been affected by the news from Aberfan, to pay for the removal of the tips. This was a kick in the guts to the community that had just seen an entire generation "buried alive by the national coal board," to quote one bereaved parent.

There were other disasters and other government failings, but Aberfan has to top the list in the Hall of Shame.

The actions of Margaret Thatcher's government during the 1984/5 miners' strike are yet another example of people in coalfield communities being dealt a blow by the Westminster government.

Mrs Thatcher wanted to break the unions and she took down a whole industry to do it. In the meantime, thousands of men were put out of work. Many were encouraged to "go on the sick" to mask the unemployment rates in towns and villages where no alternative industry was brought in to replace what had been lost. Some families in those communities have witnessed a slow rot ever since. The social problems in these communities today can be traced back to Thatcher's decision to get rid of the mining industry. All the statistics point to a deep, structural poverty that no government, Tory nor Labour, on either side of the M4 has seriously set about trying to tackle.

When Tony Blair came to power in 1997, he continued with the court case against retired miners or their widows fighting for compensation under the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) scheme. The Labour Government lost this battle in the courts against the NACODS union but not until they had put a lot of time and energy into a long-drawn out and costly legal battle. When the compensation scheme eventually went ahead, it was beset with delays. Back in 2010, my office found that 17,894 former miners in England, Scotland and Wales who lodged a claim while alive, died before their COPD claim was settled. In the Rhondda, the constituency I now represent, there was the highest number of miners in Wales of any constituency - 317 in all - who were alive to lodge a claim but died before they could make use of the compensation they were entitled to after years of ill-health. Before the scheme, many women lost their husbands young to the coal dust but widows were left to just get on with life with little support from the government. My grandmother was one such widow after my grandfather died from pneumoconiosis. He was just 47.

Both Tory and Labour Westminster governments raided the miners' pension fund. The Labour Government at the time actually raided the pension fund to finance the COPD compensation scheme they had been forced into after being dragged kicking and screaming through the courts. It was another cruel irony from another Labour Government.

And now there's the decision on Orgreave. People in former coal communities have their suspicions about the government being behind the events that day. People believe the Tories have something to hide here. The Home Secretary's decision not to hold an inquiry, for many, will confirm those suspicions. If they've nothing to hide, why not open the events up for examination?

Shining a light on Orgreave and learning from it enables people to see what it is like when the government takes on the people. We have to learn from history. If we don't, mistakes will be repeated. We need our eyes wide open.

And we need to remember that the absence of justice and lack of opportunity in our post-industrial communities in Wales has been deliberately caused by the establishment. Conservative policy has been consistent. It has been consistently unjust. The actions of Labour governments have left a sour taste in a different way, because the neglect of the Blair administration, or of George Thomas, was done on the back of a mandate which the Tories never had.

This deliberate de-industrialisation and the failure of the state to replace old industries with new ones has left a deep legacy. The human cost is still felt today. While most people in ex-mining communities work and are able access a variety of jobs, a layer of our population has been trapped in the system, overwhelmed by draconian UK Government 'welfare reforms' which have seen disabled and chronically ill people declared fit for work while there have been insufficient suitable work opportunities available.

Swapping the rule of one Westminster party for another is fraught with problems if the underlying nature of Westminster remains unchanged.

The Conservatives are unlikely to be defeated by a divided Labour party at the next UK election. Regardless, as long as the fate of our ex-mining communities relies on decisions made in Westminster - by whichever party - the chances are that we will be let down again.
There is a positive alternative to that.

In May, Plaid Cymru won two of the four Police Commissioner posts in Wales. The role of our Plaid Cymru commissioners is to work with police forces on crime prevention and reduction, but also they have a duty to create accountability. These posts were might have been originated by Westminster. They can and should, however, work for people who elected them and on occasion, that means they can and should be used against the establishment.

In the National Assembly this week, Plaid Cymru called for the Welsh Government to work with the four Welsh Police Commissioners to see whether there is any information held by Welsh forces that can be brought to light.

Plaid Cymru will continue to speak up for causes important to our people.

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