Jon Trickett’s Speech on Coalfield Communities, Tuesday 28th October
This has been an extraordinary debate this afternoon. The wisdom, passion and experience of millions of people have been distilled by Labour Members.
Only three Government Back Benchers spoke, but they gave not a word of contrition. There was not even any body language, to show a sense of guilt, remorse or apology for what was done during those years of the miners’ strike. The passion expressed exemplifies the feelings that still exist in the mining communities.
From time to time, passion leads hon. Members to say things—I am referring to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Mr Hood). We recognise that there are ongoing investigations and it would be wrong to reference any particular individual. It would be wrong to prejudice those proceedings.
I was a plumber at the time of the strike. I was elected to the council in the middle of the strike in September 1984. I spent part of my time going round pro bono fixing the heating and plumbing systems of striking miners. I was repeatedly stopped by the police, both in the process of my election and going about my lawful business. That exemplifies the experience of many tens of thousands of people in the mining communities during that time.
There is a special dignity for those who work with their hands. The Tories simply do not share that belief. They have a different value system, one based on greed and hierarchy. They believe that the closed circle that runs our country—their spokespeople in the House—were born to rule, and that the rest of us were born to serve. That characterised their attitude during the strike. If hon. Members do not believe me, they can look at the Prime Minister’s comments in Glasgow in 2008, when he said, effectively, that the poor are responsible for their poverty. He should tell the mining communities that they were responsible for their poverty. Hon. Members should look at the next leader of the Conservative party, Boris Johnson, who only last year when talking about inequality said in The Daily Telegraph that some people are too thick to get ahead. He should tell that to the mining communities after their experience.
The miners had a totally different set of values from those of the Tories. The Tories despised their values. Their values were of community, and of mutual support and solidarity. To this very day, there is an elemental sense of equality in mining communities. The miners did not know and never would accept the meaning of the word “deference”, and rightly so. The age of deference should have died long ago, but the Tories hated the idea that working people—any working people, but in this case the miners—should organise themselves around those values of community and solidarity and create the most powerful trade union this country has seen.
The 1984 Cabinet papers reveal the truth, the underhand tactics and even the lies of the Government of that time, both out in the communities and in the House. People talk about miners who continued to work, but they were lied to about the Government’s intentions. That is what happened.
The Government launched a full-scale assault on the mining communities and, in doing so, destroyed the independence of the police force. There were trumped-up charges all over the coalfield communities. Criminal justice was reduced to a political instrument. There is even evidence that members of the armed forces were dressed in police uniforms by the then Government, all this to achieve Tory party political objectives.
But we are not simply speaking today about history. The Tory attitude to the miners and the former mining communities is symbolic of a wider view that they have of working people as a whole. We need only look at the explosion in the use of zero-hours contracts, temporary work and false self-employment to see that the Conservatives have not changed. They are still the same old nasty party.
Once again the Conservatives are turning their back on mining communities. In my constituency, and I guess elsewhere too, the same women who worked in the soup kitchens during the miners’ strike, and their daughters, are now working in the food banks. How can that happen in one of the richest countries of the world in 2014? Nobody would believe it was possible. The Government have failed to understand that if society asks people to work with their hands in the bowels of the earth to help to create the wealth of our country, that society—our country—owes those people a debt of gratitude, which we might describe as a social contract. When mines are closed or industries die, we have a moral duty to look after the people who created the wealth of our country in such difficult circumstances.
The previous Government did much to honour the idea of a social contract. We spent billions of pounds compensating tens of thousands of former miners for miners’ diseases, from which many are still suffering today. In my constituency 12,500 miners or their families went through my office during those Labour years and received damages of over £100 million—in one constituency alone. The Labour Government invested £1.5 billion in coalfield regeneration, creating employment or training for 150,000 people. It was Labour that set up the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, which assisted more than 400,000 people in finding jobs, accessing skills, getting education and improving their health.
Although much was done in those 15 years, the job is not finished. There are still high levels of ill health in my constituency and in all the coalfield areas, with 7.4% of people in the Yorkshire coalfield areas suffering ill health, compared with 5.6% nationally. Then, in mining areas with high levels of chronic diseases, we face the insult of GP cuts and hospital closures.
Unemployment is still 40% higher in coalfield areas than the national average.
Deprivation levels in coalfield areas remain at 43%.
Our society—our country—owes a debt to the miners and to all manual workers. Before I hand over to the Minister, I want to ask her four questions. First, will she on behalf of her party finally express some humility and apologise to the miners and the communities which it left devastated? Secondly, will she now authorise the release of all the papers held in the Government archives to find the truth about what happened in the mining communities, and will she authorise an independent inquiry into the events that surrounded the strike?
Thirdly, may we have a clear assurance that if the Government are still minded, even at this late stage, to find state aid to help the three remaining deep mine pits, that aid will not accelerate closure but will allow the pits to continue until the reserves are exhausted? Finally, will the Minister commit the Government to the full-scale ongoing process of regenerating the coalfield areas? Those people put themselves in harm’s way for the health and wealth of our country. Do we not have a responsibility to make sure that those communities are properly remunerated and regenerated in the future?
Jon Trickett MP is Shadow Minister without Portfolio and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party