Coal miners facing unemployment are owed a “special duty of care” for putting themselves at risk to power the country, Ed Miliband has said.
The former Labour leader urged ministers to consider boosting redundancy payments for workers at Hatfield Colliery, amid heated Commons exchanges which saw Business Minister Anna Soubry suggest Labour MP Angela Rayner had made “sexist comments” about her.
He also warned the Government’s “mixed messages” on the importance of the environment to the economy has resulted in fewer jobs, adding some of these could have been taken by Hatfield workers.
MPs heard bosses at Hatfield, based in Mr Miliband’s Doncaster North constituency and one of Britain’s last remaining deep pit coal mines, have halted production ahead of the planned closure date of summer 2016 due to a lack of demand for coal.
Speaking in an adjournment debate, Mr Miliband said: “Historically we’ve asked the miners throughout our country to put themselves at some risk in dangerous conditions to help the rest of us power our country.
“We therefore owe them a special duty of care. The miners at Hatfield were led to believe that they would have another 12 months of work and could therefore plan their futures.
“However, that situation changed in large part due to a Government decision.
“Now, inevitably this chain of events leads to a deep sense of grievance against the Government and this grievance is compounded by the fact the Treasury has benefited to the tune of £300 million from the higher carbon tax.
“So our ask therefore is that the Government accepts its share of responsibility and uses a small part of the Treasury’s windfall gain to help the miners and their families.”
Mr Miliband said one option is to extend the life of the mine but he added redundancy payments could be increased.
He explained the miners would get the minimum legal redundancy pay of around £475 for every year worked rather than the £900, which was the “norm” in the industry.
The maximum service any miner can claim for is nine years due to Hatfield Colliery reopening in 2006 after a period of closure, said Mr Miliband.
He said: “We’re talking about very small sums of money that the men will be receiving. It means they have a very small margin to support them as they seek to find other employment.
“In these circumstances, and as a gesture of goodwill to miners at Hatfield as well as Kellingley and Thoresby that are due to close in the coming months, the last two remaining deep mines, I hope (Ms Soubry) will seriously consider - and she’ll want to take this away - the possibility of enhanced redundancy.”
Mr Miliband said the miners also deserved the support and training to help them find new jobs.
Replying for the Government, Ms Soubry insisted the Government “did not pull the plug” on Hatfield and had offered to provide up to £20 million to allow its operators to carry out a managed closure.
She said: “We did not pull the plug out on it, absolutely we didn’t. We’ve said we would give £20 million, we will continue to give up to £20 million.
“The decision was taken by the directors because they failed to secure the contracts.”
As she explained the site’s recent closure history, Ms Soubry told Ms Rayner (Ashton-under-Lyne): “If the honourable lady mutters in the way that she does I will take great exception, especially if she makes sexist comments and no I will not give way, I’ve already heard what she’s had to say.”
Ms Soubry and Mr Miliband also repeatedly disagreed about potential coal production at the Hatfield site and the viability of an offer.
Ms Soubry also said: “It’s been suggested that the Government could have provided Hatfield with additional support in light of possible offers to buy Hatfield coal which might have kept the mine open until August 2016.
“The directors’ managed closure plan had assumed that replacement contracts from June this year onwards would be secured for all Hatfield’s coal output at pricing similar to what had been achieved before.
“I’m aware there was a possible offer - and I’ve seen the email - from one company for close to about 50% of Hatfield’s coal output, in addition to other possible commitments and bridging loans.
“These offers were at a significantly lower price than the previous contracts that were being replaced.
“This level of interest was deemed insufficient by the directors. It was they who made this decision to support the planned closure plan through to August 2016 and, as we know, no contract was even drafted, even less was it signed.”