‘Free coal’ victory for former miners

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Hundreds of former miners will get their concessionary fuel allowance after the Government backed demands from local MPs.

Chancellor George Osborne guaranteed the concessionary fuel allowance which was taken away when UK Coal went into administration earlier this year during a visit to Thoresby Colliery, near Edwinstowe, on Friday.

The move comes following a Parliamentary debate triggered by Mansfield MP Sir Alan Meale and a protest organised by Bassetlaw MP John Mann outside UK Coal’s headquarters in Harworth.

Sherwood MP Mark Spencer had also called on the Government to support the fuel allowance for former miners and their widows.

Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Sherwood Leonie Mathers recently came to Ollerton with Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions Chris Bryant to speak to former miners about the impact of losing their ‘free coal’.

Mr Osborne revealed that the Government will now guarantee the allowance for around 400 mine workers who lost their jobs after UK Coal went into administration.

They will also guarantee the allowance for around 1,000 retired workers previously employed by the company.

Mr Osborne said: “A number of local MPs brought to my attention that former mine workers were losing their concessionary fuel allowance, through no fault of their own when UK Coal went into administration.

“It is right and fair that we make sure they continue to receive their allowance and that is why we are bringing them into the Government scheme.”

Mr Osborne, who toured the workings of the mine and met some of workers before a hastily-run question and answer session with local reporters, also spoke about the future of Thoresby - the area’s last working pit.

He added: “I have been talking to management here and the workforce. Obviously they are really committed to Thoresby and it is an incredible job they are doing. I have been down the pit and seen the good work they are doing.

“We have been talking to management about how the life of Thoresby can be extended and how there is potential for that to happen and if there are things we can do to help.”

In total, around 1,500 former mine workers will be entitled to continue to receive their allowance in the form of cash or coal, the Government said.

They will be entitled to choose up to £1,300 of free coal, or up to £600 cash in lieu of coal per year – in line with the current beneficiaries of the scheme.

The news comes following pressure on the Government from Mansfield MP Sir Alan Meale, who tabled a debate in Parliament last week on the issue.

Speaking at Westminster Hall, Sir Alan said: “I believe that the Government has a moral and financial responsibility to those who were promised concessionary fuel as part of their employment package, and who now find themselves at sea.

“Mineworkers die on the job, their lives are shortened by the work they do, and we should be proud of them and support them in their old age.

“We should not think of trying to remove any entitlement they have gained through their work.”

The National Concessionary Fuel Agreements were put in place between British Coal and mining unions in the 1980s.

When the British Coal Corporation was privatised in 1994, the Government retained the obligation to provide concessionary fuel to former British Coal workers entitled to it.

The concessionary fuel arrangements for UK Coal were funded by UK Coal as part of their inheritance as a successor company.

The announcement has been welcomed by local MPs.

Sir Alan said: “Its great news and a victory for common sense to honour commitments given.

“These people have devoted their lives in public service and have earned the right to free fuel, which actually they had earned themselves, paid for as part of previous employment in the industry in lieu of wages. Thankfully their decision has been made and will help them through the coming winter period and beyond.”

Mr Mann said: “I am delighted the Government and UK Coal bosses have caved in to pressure and have finally been forced to do the decent thing. The concessionary fuel allowance is a contractual obligation to be paid to former miners and in some cases their widows. It is not a benefit, but part of what these former miners are owed.”

Mr Spencer, who toured the works with Mr Osborne, talked less of a cave in and more about the Government stepping in to help, but also welcomed the news.

He said: “It was great to show the chancellor how deserving the local community is and how much concessionary coal means for retired miners and their families.”

Miss Mathers was less glowing in her remarks, describing the news as a ‘Tory U-turn, which follows a huge amount of local pressure’.

She added: “This will be a real relief for thousands of retired miners and their widows. They have been dreading the arrival of winter, with the double hit of soaring energy prices and the loss of the fuel allowance they were entitled to.

“We’ve been calling for the Government to put a stop to this worry for months. I hope they will now push through the necessary changes as a matter of urgency, so the fuel allowance is back in place quickly and no-one is forced to choose between heating and eating this winter.”

About 69,000 former mine workers or their families receive a fuel allowance from the Government each year under the National Concessionary Fuel Scheme.

The announcement means that a further 1,500 former mine workers who would otherwise have lost their benefits following the collapse of UK Coal will now be brought into the scheme, the Government said.