HC Deb 25 March 1985 vol 76 cc175-86 12.27 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. David Hunt)

I beg to move, That the draft Mineworkers' Pension Scheme (Limit on Contributions) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 11th March, be approved. The order follows the standard form of earlier orders and concerns only those who left the coal industry before 6 April 1975. It continues the policy, established by the National Coal Board (Finance) Act 1976, whereby the costs of meeting a deficiency in the mineworkers' pension scheme fund resulting from the need to pay pensions to the many people who left the industry before 6 April 1975 is reimbursed through Government grant for the period up to 1995. Each year that the level of pensions is increased, higher deficiency contributions may be required by the fund. Under the Act, the Government may reimburse these to maintain the real level of those pensions if they are satisfied that the National Coal Board's finances do not permit it to take on the additional burden.

The long and damaging strike in the industry — happily now ended, but still casting its shadow—leaves the board in no position to do so. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has laid before the House a statement giving the reasons why he is satisfied that an increased contribution from the Government is justified. Therefore, I ask the House to approve the order.

12.29 am
Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)

The House must be aware that some of the origins of the order lie in the statement that Mr. MacGregor made at the beginning of the industrial dispute, when he said that it was a little local difficulty outside town. It has been rather an expensive local difficulty. The Chancellor has just wound up the important Budget debate. He is the Minister who said that the dispute was a worthwhile investment. The order shows the price of that local difficulty and worthwhile investment.

Many of my hon. Friends, particularly those associated with the mining industry, understand the history of the order, which concerns the mineworkers' pension scheme. The scheme started off on a voluntary basis. As a local trade union official, I remember extolling to my fellow miners the virtue of having a pension when they were due for retirement. It was perhaps a sad commentary on the times that many of the miners were of the view that they would not live long enough to draw the pension.

It was right that the unions and the National Coal Board decided to make the miners' pension scheme compulsory, but it is a miserable pittance of a pension for many of my fellow miners who have spent 50 years in the industry.

Perhaps I should declare an interest. I am a member of the mineworkers' pension scheme. Having spent 30 years in the industry, most of it at the coal face, I shall get about 50p a week when I retire. My wife and I have not yet decided, when the time comes, whether we shall take it weekly, monthly or quarterly.

I do not cite this example as a diversion from the issues that we are discussing. I am just taking the opportunity to recall that when the pension scheme was set up on a voluntary basis, it provided for a small fixed pension in return for a flat rate contribution. Eventually, that resulted in the introduction of the minimum pension level for men with 10 or more years' service, to which the Minister alluded, being uplifted to the current level of £11.81.

It was one of my more pleasurable moments, as the Minister responsible for the coal industry in 1975, to be associated with the introduction of an earnings-related scheme. I could not understand why miners, in every grade of the industry, should not have a superannuation scheme. I was there to assist in putting it right; and that meant that fortune was shining on me because of my association with the industry.

This point is not an aside, because it illustrates the miserable pittance of a pension provision that miners who retire under the miners' pension scheme have today, compared with what will happen with pension provision for those who retire with the superannuation scheme. That £11.81 after 50 years in the industry is a miserable recognition.

The Minister may be aware that it has been the policy of the NUM to seek the further uplifting of the minimum pension payable to men who retire between January 1952 and April 1975 who, in the majority of cases, have spent a lifetime in the service of the industry.

Last year the National Union of Mineworkers' conference called for the minimum pension to be increased to at least £20 instead of £11.81. I do not believe that that was an extravagant claim. The resolution also called for appropriate increases in widows' pensions. The basis for that claim was that the minimum pension now paid to the pioneers of the pension scheme is totally inadequate in relation to their loyal service to the industry. I ought to point out to the Government that this will not be a continuing financial burden. Some miners have already left us, and time will account for the rest.

The Opposition understand the purpose of the order and do not oppose it. However, I believe it is right to draw these points to the attention of the Government and I hope that they will receive favourable consideration.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Before my hon. Friend sits down, could he deal with the strange anomaly that a miner upon retirement will be able to get his pension but that for some vindictive reason the regional adjudication officers now say that he cannot get the unemployment benefit to which he is entitled for the first 12 months? This Government have apparently given instructions to those who deal with unemployment benefit that, although miners can receive their pension, they are not to be given unemployment benefit because, even though the strike is over, there is still a trade dispute. A thousand and one anomalies spring to mind. A retired miner in my constituency has ended up with a massive shortfall because of Government intervention and their contention that the trade dispute is still in progress.

Mr. Eadie

I take the point raised by my hon. Friend. My intention was to deal with it in more detail next Thursday, and I shall do so. However, my hon. Friend is quite correct. There appears to be a spirit of spite and vindictiveness abroad after the resolution of this dispute and an organised return to work. I understand that it was an adjudicator in Manchester, who perhaps does not have enough work to do or who is acting on behalf of the Government, who decided, despite what has been said in the newspapers and on television and radio, that the mining dispute had not ended. Because of a legal quirk and case law, he decided that he would not consider this industrial dispute ended until he received notification of its end from the National Coal Board. Last Friday I dealt with such cases. Many of my constituents who have given a lifetime of service to the industry discovered that they have been deprived of their unemployment benefit because this person in Manchester—with perhaps not enough to do, but perhaps in collusion with the Government and in a spirit of vindictiveness — has decided that miners cannot receive unemployment benefit until the National Coal Board reports by letter to him or to the appropriate quarter that the industrial dispute has ended.

There is another anomaly. I hope that the Minister can dispel the fears of Government collusion over the overtime ban. If that person in Manchester does not have enough to do and is seeking to argue that the industrial dispute in the mining industry is continuing because of the overtime ban, and if he thinks that it is possible in law to deprive miners who have sought and received redundancy pay of their unemployment benefit, he had better do his homework a little better.

The overtime ban was in force before the industrial dispute started. In scores of cases men who left the industry or were made redundant have received their unemployment benefit. I hope that the Government will not hang their hat on that peg. If they do, they will be made to look extremely foolish.

There needs to be reconciliation in the mining industry. I hope that the Government will be able to show that there is no spirit of vindictiveness and spite on their part and that this is the result of a foolish civil servant who does not have enough work to do. I hope that before Thursday the Minister will be able to dispel my anxieties and those of my hon. Friends.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

I, too, have constituents in a similar position to those of the hon. Members for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) who are concerned that they are not receiving unemployment benefit. But the hon. Member for Midlothian has not helped the House or the case by making such disparaging remarks about the tribunals which are looking into the matter. He should know that those are matters of law within the tribunal system and that they are trying to go through the process as expeditiously as possible. I understood that the case of one of my constituents had been decided in his favour. We are now awaiting a final decision, and I hope that that will come soon. Would it not be helpful if the president of the NUM, when he returns from Moscow — if he has a return ticket — having had his debriefing, were to say that the dispute is over and that the miners will get on with the business of returning the industry to profit?

Mr. Eadie

I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman because he has fallen flat on his face. He has sought to argue that what was done by a particular civil servant could be justified. He seeks to argue before the House that miners who retire after a period in the industry with redundancy benefit should be questioned and come under the strictures of law and be deprived of unemployment benefit, just because a civil servant decided that. If the hon. Gentleman wants properly to represent his constituents, he will have to do so in a more positive way than he has demonstrated to the House.

Perhaps he should have been a bit more condemnatory of a bureaucrat or of the Government depriving miners of their unemployment benefit.

Mr. Howarth


Mr. Eadie

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will contain himself. He asked a question, and I am giving him the answer as I see it. He will find it very difficult to justify to his constituents why they should be deprived of their unemployment benefit. Yet that is what he has sought to do tonight.

Mr. Howarth

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Eadie

I shall not give way.

Mr. Howarth


Mr. Eadie

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman is scared.

Mr. Eadie

Judging by the hon. Gentleman's face, he is trembling at the faux pas he has made in daring to intervene in something that he knows nothing about.

Mr. Alec Woodall (Hemsworth)

Does my hon. Friend remember the issue that we raised a short time ago regarding the adjudicating officer who denied unemployment benefit to miners who had been put out of work? When an adjudicating officer in Yorkshire examined the case and came down in favour of those men, the chief adjudicator pointed out that he was out of step with other adjudicating officers. Thus, the chief adjudicator made the Yorkshire adjudicator change his mind. Is not that Government intervention?

Mr. Eadie


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order Hon. Members are beginning to stray a little from the subject under debate, which is the mineworkers' pension scheme. It is in order to go a little wide, but hon. Members should not pursue the line of argument that is now being put forward.

Mr. Eadie

I suppose that I should accept some responsibility. I gave way quite a lot, but apparently not enough for some hon. Members.

Mr. Howarth

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Eadie

I have already given way once to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall not give way now.

We need more conciliation in the industry rather than obtuse legal tribunals, judgments, and so on. If the conciliation procedure was applied within the industry, we would not need to have recourse to such things. Miners should not be compelled to be subject to these independent tribunals. I make that point in all sincerity, because, if this is to be the future pattern for the industry, the industry will never see a period of reconciliation when the wounds can be healed. We want the industry to return as quickly as possible to producing, and we want the mining industry to expand rather than to contract. However, I fear that in some areas there may be announcements this week that there will be a contraction rather than an expansion of the industry. We would certainly slam the Government for that. I repeat that we should not be involved in legality and so on.

The opposition do not intend to oppose the order.

12.48 am
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

I rise to speak simply because I fear that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) has sought to misrepresent my position.

I may go slightly wide of the order, but I should like briefly to put the record straight. I too have constituents who are in the same position as those of the hon. Member for Midlothian. My hon. Friend the Minister will know, as others of my hon. Friends know, that I have argued strongly in support of my constituents who accepted in good faith voluntary redundancy and the benefits of the redundant mineworkers payments scheme. They and I are upset that they have not been able to obtain the deal that we thought due to them. Therefore, I have argued strongly in support of my constituents, and will continue to do so. The point that I sought to make to the hon. Member for Midlothian was that these matters are governed by a series of laws going back, I understand, to 1911. They are not something dreamed up to deal with the recent dispute.

The tribunals are established to resolve difficult questions of law relating to individual industrial disputes. It is important to understand the role of tribunals and their adjudicating officers.

I have argued with the Lord Chancellor that cases should be speeded up. I shall continue to press the Government to do all that is possible to ensure that these matters are concluded speedily.

The hon. Member for Midlothian has not done the House a service by misrepresenting another hon. Member's position. He can read the Official Report to see what I said. He would do the House a favour if he described my position as it is.

12.50 am
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) should look back two years to when there was no dispute in the mining industry. People who took voluntary early retirement collected unemployment benefit without any problems. Only in the last 12 months has a difficulty arisen. Tribunals should not make a negative decision in one case and a positive decision in another. That is unfair, but that has been happening since March 1984.

Three sentences in the second paragraph of the statement by the Secretary of State attached to the order could mislead right hon. and hon. Members. It states that for the majority of mineworkers pensions are now £11.81 a week. They went up by 5.1 per cent. last October. The statement says: It is estimated that an increase to £1l .77 per week would have been required to maintain the real value of these pensions as set in 1974. All those receiving those pensions retired before 6 April 1975. Many of them are now single ex-miners or miners' widows. Since 1975 state and industrial pensions have been regarded as income for tax purposes. Many miners' widows in my constituency cannot understand why, when they are said to receive £11 a week mineworkers' widow's allowance, they receive only £2 or £3 because of tax. It would be wrong to think that we are talking about a handout from the Conservative Government. It is hard to explain to someone who is 85 why their pension has almost disappeared.

The Secretary of State for Energy says in his statement: The strike did not in fact end until the beginning of March, and the outturn loss for the year is therefore likely to be rather higher. The Secretary of State for Energy should tell the Secretary of State for Employment that the strike ended at the beginning of March because some miners in my constituency have been dismissed without appearing before a court of law. Their families are still being treated as if they were on strike. They have been told to appeal, but in some cases it is months before a date is fixed for the hearing.

It is grossly unfair that people should be told that they must live on supplementary benefit, less £16 a week, when they have been dismissed from the NCB. Such dual standards are disgraceful. Those who have been dismissed are being victimised. For many of my constituents the strike did not end at the beginning of March. Money which is rightly theirs is not being paid to them.

12.55 am
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

The preface to the order states that

The Secretary of State …having reviewed the overall financial position of the National Coal Board … have led him to conclude that the following Order should be made. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said, the third paragraph refers to the continuing review of the Board's finances … and the uncertainties generated by the strike in the industry. Therefore, it is within the terms of the order to debate some of the wider issues of the financial position of the NCB—as we have done on previous orders.

The accounts include provisions for the payments mentioned, but also the general social costs of such matters as compensation for subsidence. I understand that that applies mainly to Mansfield.

Throughout the strike, the Secretary of State for Energy and his underlings have argued about the uneconomic nature of the NCB and the need to sack 20,000 miners and close 20 pits. The basis on which he calculated whether the NCB was profitable included costs that he has now admitted were incurred by people who retired 10 years ago. Social costs such as compensation for subsidence have nothing to do with the cost of producing coal—they are often the costs of not producing coal; of pits that closed 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

Does my hon. Friend agree that during a meeting Mr. Ian MacGregor of the NCB said that charges for subsidence would devolve upon the collieries or mines that incurred those costs? He said that the collieries in Nottinghamshire that had worked through the strike are those pits likely to close when the subsidence costs become too large.

Mr. Nellist

I fully accept that point.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am having some difficulty in discovering what the hon. Gentleman's speech has to do with section 2(3) of the National Coal Board (Finance) Act 1976. I should be grateful for some guidance.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The debate is primarily about mineworkers' pension schemes, but it is in order to refer to the general finances of the NCB.

Mr. Nellist

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) spoke about the costs of subsidence, and I agree with him. After the closure of pits, those left will bear a higher burden under the current method of organising the profit and loss accounts of the NCB an will become more uneconomic because of costs outside their control.

Even if the Government decided to close every pit in the country, there would still be social costs — early retirement, pensions, sudsidence and so on. That was spotted during the strike by accountancy professors including, ironically, a professor from Manchester university who is sponsored by Price Waterhouse, the firm the Government sent to chase the miners' money around Europe, and such people as Dr. Andrew Glyn from Oxford university.

Given those criticisms, and the fact that the order shows that such matters are included in the accounts, has the Department looked at the way that the NCB's finances are organised and which items are included? Has the Secretary of State any proposals to bring before the House ways in which the NCB accounts could more accurately reflect the cost of producing coal, not including the costs of not producing coal currently in the accounts?

If that was done, and if the social costs, interest charges and so on were taken out of the accounts for Cortonwood —which is perfectly possible under other parts of Tory legislation in regard to privatisation — rather than making a £6.20 per tonne loss that pit would make £5.20 per tonne profit. Does the NCB intend to re-do its accounts on that basis?

Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)

The hon. Gentleman has spoken about the timescale involved in identifying subsidence costs. Is it not a fact—the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) could confirm this—that that issue was discussed long before the strike and was considered by the Select Committee on Energy before the dispute began?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I said that it was in order to make some reference to general finances, but that such reference must be connected to the mineworkers' pension scheme.

Mr. Nellist

The finances of the NCB make it possible for pensions to be paid to miners. As I explained, the instrument gave the impression that the Department had considered the finances at various times in the last 12 months. I am questioning whether those finances have been considered sufficiently to justify what the Government are proposing.

The Chancellor said when introducing the Budget that the strike had cost about £2.5 billion. That was 10 times more than the Secretary of State for Energy hoped to save by the plan announced by MacGregor. We on the Labour Benches believe that the real cost was between £5 billion and £6 billion. Put in language of bricks and mortar, working people have paid for that dispute the equivalent of 60 large general hospitals, 360 comprehensive schools and over 100,000 new three-bedroom houses. That has been the cost of the 12-month dispute that the Government foisted on the National Union of Mineworkers, and last Tuesday the Chancellor described it as a worthwhile investment.

We should be told more about the financial implications of the companies that supply equipment and machinery to the NCB. An analysis of the profit and loss accounts of those firms in the last few years would show in mirror image terms that when the NCB declared a loss of £200 million to £400 million, those companies together declared profits of £200 million to £400 million. In the last 12 months, workers in the industry have learnt that lesson. They will be demanding of the next Labour Government that those companies be taken into public ownership so that proper planning can take place.

A final cost of the strike must be taken into account. That is the cost of there being no social peace in the mining communities. Apart from the 750 miners who were sacked during the dispute, 11 in my area, many have been downgraded—from, say, face to surface work—as part of the NCB's victimisation policies.

The dispute is not over. The emphasis has changed. The miners are back at work, but the guerrilla war goes on. The social tensions in the pits will have financial implications for the industry. Think of the cost to the NCB of no allowing those 750 men to return to the pits to work with their mates.

As the result of a decision that we on these Benches made last week, Labour Members will continue financially to support those sacked miners to the tune of at least £12 a week because we believe that they have been the victims of Tory policies in the past 12 months. It is all very well for Tories to moan and grumble but they should cast their minds back to the murders that took place under the Smith regime in Rhodesia. Amnesties were granted to those who were guilty of some of the most heinous crimes recorded in history. However, the Tories still refuse to grant an amnesty to those who defended and stood by trade union policy over the past 12 months.

The strike will continue — well, the dispute will continue. Over the past 12 months the miners' struggle has given heart to millions of workers who equally oppose the Government's actions. The Prime Minister thought that it would be a three or four-week dispute. It was thought that it would not cost the coal board or the Government much. The right hon. Lady treated it as an industrial Falklands. She sent in the police equivalent of 2 Para, who were sent in at Goose Green. She thought that it would be an equally short dispute but she was proved wrong, particularly by the youth and the women in the coalfield areas.

It is beholden on the House to re-examine the way in which the Government view the coal board's finances, including the items that they incorporate in the finances when they declare that the board has made a loss. I have described the way in which a new generation of Socialists have been created in the coalfield areas. Young men and women have been brought into industrial and political activity for the first time because of the Government's actions. They are starting to learn the lessons of Socialism. They know now what proper nationalisation and proper public ownership must mean under the next Labour Government. That will not be the sort of public ownership that we have seen under the Tories, and it will not embrace the way in which they have run the coal board's accounts.

1.7 am

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

After the contribution of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), I wish to return briefly to the subject matter of the debate.

In the weeks shortly before the commencement of the strike, many of my constituents, accepted terms for early retirement in good faith. They were given a clear definition of the package that they were being offered by the board. The strike intervened during the period of notice and as a consequence—I accept that the Department of Energy has taken all the necessary steps to deal with its involvement in the package—some of my constituents and the constituents of some of my hon. Friends have not received the money to which they believe themselves to be entitled.

I understand the complexities of the legal situation and the problems and the history of employment law, but it seems that we faced a simple issue. A group of people had promises made to them by the NCB about the package that they could reasonably expect if they accepted early retirement. Having accepted early retirement, however the legal problems may be resolved, we would surely expect them to receive their entitlement.

1.8 am

Mr. David Hunt

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) talked about entitlement to unemployment benefit and the hon. Members for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) added their comments. The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) asked about claims for unemployment benefit, I can tell him that they will be decided by independent adjudication. The adjudicators are specially appointed under the Social Security Act and the Government have no power to intervene.

As soon as the difficulty to which the hon. Member for Midlothian referred became apparent in the Department of Energy, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State moved swiftly to amend the redundant mineworkers payments scheme last November. There was a great deal of pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth), as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) and many other of my hon. Friends and Labour Members, to ensure that those who found themselves disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit for the duration of the dispute by virtue of section 19(1) of the Social Security Act 1975 would not in addition lose the RMPS basic weekly benefit or pension supplement. We responded to that pressure.

In direct response to my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet, I say clearly that I sympathise considerably with the men who took voluntary redundancy after being counselled in good faith, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood has said, that in addition to their statutory redundancy benefits and the benefit available under the RMPS they would receive unemployment benefit, and who now find themselves disqualified from that benefit. I understand that an appeal is due to be heard on 16 April by a tribunal of commissioners and that their decision will be binding in similar cases. I shall carefully monitor the position.

The task is made much more difficult by speeches such as the one from the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) who declared, "The strike will continue," but then said, "The dispute will continue." If only the hon. Gentleman would keep quiet—I shall not say "shut up", because it is not the time of night to be rude to him—it would be easier for the NUM to persuade the independent adjudication officers that the dispute is over.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has looked at the Act. If he has not, perhaps he will. If my memory serves me correctly, the word "dispute" is not mentioned. The word "stoppage" is mentioned, and the stoppage is over.

Mr. Hunt

I understand that, under section 19(1) of the Social Security Act 1975, entitlement cannot be established until normal working has resumed at the redundant miner's former place of employment. In certain collieries, there is no doubt that normal working is being hindered by the NUM prolonging the dispute through the imposition of the continuing overtime ban. This is a matter not for the Government but for the independent adjudication authorities. It is a matter that finds more relevance in the debate we shall have on Thursday, when I have no doubt we shall discuss it in more detail.

Mr. Barron

One of the five coal faces at a colliery in Maltby in my constituency is now ready for production, but work has been prevented by the management. Presumably, there would be earnings under the incentives scheme if that mine were in production and the other coal faces were not because they were getting over the problems of the past 12 months. The NCB is stopping normal work at that colliery. That has far-reaching consequences not only for redundant miners but for miners who have been dismissed by the coal board but can receive either unemployment benefit or full supplementary benefit for themselves and their families.

Mr. Hunt

This is the first time that I have heard that accusation, and I shall look into it most carefully.

Mr. Woodall

Is the hon. Gentleman aware, when warning my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) about keeping quite so that the dispute will end, that there was a stoppage and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) said, the stoppage has finished? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that two of my constituents have been dismissed by the colliery manager? Striking miners who went back to work before the strike ended have accused those men of using foul language about them. One of those men was dismissed today. It is all very well for the Under-Secretary of State to tell us to tread softly, softly; we want an amnesty. The hon. Gentleman should have a word with the coal board about its attitude towards the dispute.

Mr. Hunt

I said that it is difficult to persuade, and for members of the NUM to persuade, the independent adjudication officers that the dispute is over when the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East says that the dispute is not over. I shall, of course, investigate any case if the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) gives me details.

However, dismissals are a matter for the NCB and it is up to the NCB to look at each case—I understand that it is willing to do this—in a spirit of reconciliation and conciliation. The task is made more difficult by the NUM still refusing to re-enter normal conciliation procedures. This matter does not really come under this order.

The hon. Member for Midlothian referred to this pension as a "miserable pittance of a pension". I remind him that the Labour Government set the original pension at £3.60 a week. I cannot respond to the hon. Gentleman — not because I do not want to or because I am not sympathetic but because the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) made it impossible for me to respond by stating that the Government had no real power to increase the level of this pension beyond the limit necessary to bring it into line with its real value as originally set. If the hon. Gentleman will read section 2(2) of the National Coal Board (Finance) Act 1976, he will realise that I am specifically prevented by the actions of his right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield and the Labour Government at that time from doing what he was asking me to do.

Mr. Eadie

I am not disputing what the Minister says. I know that he has been advised from the Box. On reflection, I think that he will understand the origin of the mineworkers pension scheme in 1952, and what could and could not be done. It is a bit thick to tell us that measures inaugurated in 1976 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) prevent him from acting.

Mr. Hunt

Without taking that matter too far, what I am saying is that in April 1975—as the hon. Gentleman knows, because he introduced it — the mineworkers' pension scheme was revised and became an earnings-related, self-financing scheme covering men employed in the industry at that date, and also future employees. It was at that moment that the rate was set at £3.60 a week. I am explaining to the House that, under the existing legislation, I am prevented from doing anything other than uprating that pension in line with inflation. That is a fact. Of course, I shall bear in mind and consider carefully the points that he made.

I should like to conclude by referring to the points raised by the hon. Members for Midlothian and for Coventry, South-East about the cost of the strike. The sad fact is that the NCB's finances are so bad that it is necessary to introduce the order. That is a fact. I have no proposals to alter the present accountancy system. Once again we are seeing the inadequate finances of the coal board when faced with the tremendous on-cost of uneconomic pits. Until that tremendous burden is lifted from the industry, the coal board itself will not be able to finance the sort of money that I am talking about.

Mr. Nellist

The Minister says that the coal board's finances are so bad that that is the reason for the order. It is for only £2.14 million, so one can hardly blame the finances of the coal board. I asked the Minister specific questions about the social and other costs included in the coal board's accounts, which anyone can get from the Vote Office. The Secretary of State and other Ministers in the Department refer to the coal board itself being uneconomic. The figures are given for the loss that is made. Included within that are payments for such things as compensation for subsidence, early retirement and so on, which are all social costs, not costs of producing coal, and may apply to miners who left the industry 10 years ago. Those cannot be the responsibility of this generation of miners.

Mr. Hunt

I do not think that I can persuade the hon. Gentleman, other than by putting this fact to him. In the accounts to which he referred there is a loss of £1.3 billion in 1983–84. If the hon. Gentleman is trying to tell the House that that is not a sign that the coal board is unable, for instance, to meet the cost of the order, and, indeed, a whole range of other orders, he is missing the full point behind those accounts, which demonstrate time and again that, if the root cause of the dispute, which was the absurd demand that uneconomic pits should never be allowed to close, had been conceded, that would have meant a deficit increasing from £1.3 billion to many billions of pounds a year. That is just the prescription for financial inadequacy over the whole range of NCB activities that I should have thought hon. Members on both sides of the House would want to avoid.

Mr. Rogers

I do not object to the Minister putting the case for the order, but I wish that he would not try to rewrite the history of the strike in making his case. It would be much better if he confined himself to the order.

Mr. Hunt

I am now being criticised for responding to the debate. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will have a word with his hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East, who should not have raised these matters in the first place.

Scargill's strike has cost this great industry dear in human and financial terms. To have conceded that irresponsible demand would have cost the country more. However, this is a time for reconciliation, and I hope that Opposition Members will use their influence on all sides in this great industry to put the strike well behind all concerned, to return to proper procedures of conciliation and to start restoring the industry to the great level that existed at the start of this tragic dispute. The Government's commitment is to a viable and competitive coal industry. That commitment is as strong today as it ever has been.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Mineworkers' Pension Scheme (Limit on Contributions) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 11th March, be approved.