When we think of people who are disadvantaged, marginalised, discriminated against or persecuted, certain groups spring to mind; women, those from ethnic minority groups, or those with disabilities. We seldom, if ever, consider that such a group could exist based upon an industry. Issues predominantly affecting white, working class men and their families are often overlooked due to an emphasis on other causes, causes which, while worthy, just happen to be more en vogue or high profile than others. Sadly this is the case for our miners. They took risks for us, many had drastically shortened life spans and/or developed chronic health problems directly as a result of working in mines in order for the rest of us to have the energy we depend upon to live our lives. Not just a bit of coal for the fire, much of our electricity still comes from the 9 coal fired power stations still operating in the UK and in previous decades we were entirely dependent upon coal. Yes, there are environmental concerns about coal fired power stations and we are well on our way to embracing sustainable energy as our primary source of power. But the fact remains - when these men were working in mines our nation was, for better or worse, dependent upon coal at not just a household but an industrial level. Working conditions were tough, extraordinarily dangerous, and miners worked hard. Entire communities were built around mines and the work they provided.
Miners deserve our respect and gratitude, but instead they have been faced with 30 years of hostility and negative bias from the media and those of us who are not from mining communities are blissfully unaware of the issues they still face. The Miners' Pension Fund has effectively been robbed by the government - leaving people who often sacrificed their health and years off their lives to supply the energy the rest of us needed to live our lives in financial hardship. I spoke to Mick Newton, a former miner, to learn more about the situation and what former miners hope they can achieve with events like their rally this Tuesday (27th September).
"We're holding a rally in Derby square, to bring attention to a long standing scandal. Since 1987 the government and British Coal have taken nearly 9 billion from the Miners' Pension Scheme...The first act of deception was that from 1987 to 1994 there was a contributions holiday, this effectively took 4.7 billion from the fund. British coal justified this by saying it would allow them to keep some pits open. However, they used this money to close pits and pay redundancy. Effectively taking money from miners in order to pay them what they were due and facilitate a process which left many out of work."
This is a recurrent theme, from 1994 to today, 4.2 billion has been taken by successive governments. Under John Major a deal was struck whereby the government would underwrite the fund, ensuring miners would receive their pensions, but allowing them to take 50% of any surpluses. Mick believes the government at the time were able to use the actions of Robert Maxwell to scare monger people into giving the government control: "Maxwell was raiding The Mirror group's funds and the argument was 'you don't want someone like him having it so they can be irresponsible with it'".
Investment surpluses from miners pension funds have been used for compensation schemes which were due to miners for conditions such as vibration white finger and pneumoconiosis, a potentially fatal condition, caused by their work in mines. This compensation should have been entirely independent from pension funds. Miners were effectively paying their own compensation.
Mick told me that surpluses from the pension fund have also been used to subsidise the wealthy, subsidise bankers, bail out the banks and protect off shore bank accounts. It seems they have generally been plundered and used as a ready source of cash for the treasury, at no cost. He feels, as do many others, that there has been a long standing vendetta against the miners.
"First they took our jobs away, secondly they tried to destroy our communities, and now the only thing that we've got left to fight for which is our pensions, they are syphoning off 50% of our pension fund"
"From 1994 onwards the scheme has not been in deficit, all they've done is take surpluses, the scheme was the second biggest in Europe at one stage. A freedom of information request going back to 1997 shows nothing has been paid in since then, which is when the government took over the fund. Not a single penny has been contributed by the government."
As a result, former miners and their widows are receiving at best half of what they would have been. There are high rates of pensioner poverty in the former mining communities, so residents have less money to spend in shops, which then close down, compounding the level of deprivation these areas face.
Do you feel there has been a negative bias in the media over the last 30 years?
"Definitely. If this was happening to teachers there would be a national scandal, but the miners have been under attack for 30 years."
"If we take the issue on a patriotic level I worked on the coal face, my dad did and my grandad did, all in different pits, but the coal industry and generations of miners have brought us through the industrial revolution, two world wars and brought us into the digital age and that's all been forgotten as a contribution to the country. With that in mind it was deeply insulting when Thatcher called us 'The enemy within' and the media turned against us because most mining communities were quite patriotic and immensely proud of their contribution to the nation."
"I know a lot of former miners that, when the put was closed, when they finished working down the mines, the first thing that happened to them, was depression. They were constantly being bombarded by the media. They stripped us of all our pride, and dignity. You know, it's not just what they did but it's how they did it, the attacks were so cynical that a lot of miners felt 'what was all that for?'"
The local government pension scheme will soon be debated in parliament, Mick feels there is a risk that what has happened with the miners pensions will happen with local government pensions as there is talk of them taking control over where the investments go. "Soon local government workers will be facing this and fire fighters are already facing similar issues. Government knows there is very little left to privatise and to give to their friends, now they're looking at the pensions of working people and thinking this is an easy take. I don't think it's about the government saying it's because of austerity, it is an attempt by the government to take from working people their security in their senior years, which they've worked very hard for, sometimes become disabled for, and there's been blood sweat and tears. Now we have 42,000 widows in receipt of the mine workers' pension and they of course are living in poverty. They're talking about using finance from local government pension to pay for infrastructure projects, and they will of course award those infrastructure projects to their friends and once again they'll be taking the money and investing it in projects that may have very little return. But with pension schemes, if you're a trustee, you have a duty and a responsibility to invest that money to get the best possible returns. That's not going to happen if the government get control of those investments."
Do you think there's a lack of awareness about the miners' pensions scandal?
"Well I think a few are starting to wake up. The thing is in working class communities we don't start thinking about pensions until we need it, so the problem is, how can you mobilise a mass movement on an issue like pensions because nobody really thinks about that until later on down the line. We paid, I paid about £20 a week, but you always knew that was going to give you security in your senior years and that was going to be a good pension. Lo and behold, they've done various things through the back door to ensure that we haven't. It's not just about them taking the money, it's also about them saying to miners, former miners, you're not having this because we don't think you're worthy of it."
"It's about a redistribution of wealth. What's happening now with pensions is government philosophy. Redistributing that wealth away from the miners or the workers and upwards into the people who they (the government) represent. Another thing we're unhappy about is how undemocratic these schemes are. With the Miners' Pension Fund, there's no transparency or accountability, they don't have an AGM, you can't hold the trustees to account. They are not liable to freedom of information requests. There's 11 billion pounds in the fund, how can you have finance on that level going unquestioned?"
"One of the things I'm calling for is that pension funds are democratised, that there is more transparency and accountability for the actions taken by those in control. The thing is, private pension schemes have more transparency and accountability and hold AGMs but public sector pension schemes don't."
Whose support do you feel you would like to see? In my view Labour MPs SHOULD be behind this issue because they should be representing working people. Is that something you would agree with and do you think you have already got support from anyone in government?
"Well this is another atrocity, after 1997 we had successive Labour governments, we had an opportunity to address this issue and put it right, nothing was done. In 2002 the Labour government requested a report from Watson and Wyatt who are their own actuaries. Watson and Wyatt came back and said a fairer distribution would be 85% to the miners and 15% to the government because it was a very successful scheme and the level of risk is negligible plus formers miners were dying at a rate of 10,000 every year. So the chances of the government having to pay anything out in future were minimal. But the government did not act upon it. So Labour has been just as bad if not worse. Some MPs are coming forward now. There is more awareness of what's been taking place, but they're very slow in coming forward. I think a lot of them think oh what are the miners going on about again, they're always going on about something. But we only decide to fight and campaign if we think it's worthwhile and we have justification for that. Being surrounded by that level of pensioner poverty, more so for the widows, it's not on. We've been had, we've been stripped of everything we've ever held dear."
"At the rally we'll be calling for an independent public enquiry. Some MPs have been going down the route of trying to get our case heard by the DWP select committee. How can we go in front of a government select committee which is full of MPs when MPs are responsible for the problem? There's too much conflict of interest and that's why we're calling for an independent public enquiry because with that we get the transparency and the accountability and possibly some recommendations at the end of it. We feel this is an absolute necessity and the only way in which we are going to get a successful conclusion. Taking this to a select committee is undermining our case rather than helping it as it puts the decision in the hands of the very people who have caused the problem and let us down in the past."
This has been going on for a long time now and tragically a lot of former miners have already passed away, the sad thing is that even if you do get a positive result at this stage it will come too late for many people.
"Well this is it, this is the other difference between the DWP select committee and an independent public enquiry. If it goes in front of the DWP again it can get kicked into the long grass for years and years, and we saw how long it took for the Hillsborough 96 to get a result, and it was only through their dogged determination and integrity that they got anywhere. We can't afford to wait another 30 years because by that time the 200, 000 mine workers and their dependents will be dead. So we also need a timeframe. We need guidance and strict criteria so we can say you have 6 months to turn this around, we're losing 10,000 beneficiaries every year and their lives are affected now. So this has to be done correctly, be given a priority and be turned around as quickly as possible."
"The TUC need to get involved, we're going to see other sectors having their pensions looked at with the idea that the government can get control of those and do what they like with the investments and I think the TUC has a duty to see what's taking place in some of our communities and realise this isn't just an isolated issue. If they can get away with doing this to the miners they can do it to everyone else and the TUC need to recognize that and back these pension campaigns."
Depending upon their age miners receive on average between £10 and £40 per week. If you took risks and sacrificed your health and years from your lifespan would you feel grateful for £10 per week? Or would it leave you questioning your own self-worth and the value wider society places upon you? These men have watched friends who risked their lives alongside them succumb to illness and die too young.
Surely miners deserve our respect, our empathy and our gratitude for what they gave for us. Tragically, people who gave the best years of their lives in service of the nation feel like nobody cares about what they have been through, and are still going through. This has to stop.