Speech: Parliamentary debate on Coalfield Communities

On Tuesday 28th October the House of Commons held a debate on our Coalfield Communities and the legacy of the pit closure programme during the 1980s. Labour forced the debate as part of our Justice for the Coalfields campaign.

A great number of MPs applied to take part in the debate and regretfully I wasn't called in time to speak before the debate had to end. If I had been, this is the speech I would have made.

Thank you Mr Speaker.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, and in support of this important motion.

Like many of the places that my honourable friends have spoken of today, Barnsley is a community built on coal.

There was once a time when coal mining accounted for more than 30,000 jobs in our town.
Today the collieries have closed and the pits are no longer, but its proud history remains rooted in those pit villages and communities dotted around the South Yorkshire Coalfield.

Together they sustained an industry that powered the industrial revolution, that kept the lights on, and that brought tremendous wealth to the British economy.

In good times and bad, in war and in peace, places like Barnsley – the communities we are discussing today – they kept this country going.

As is said in Barnsley – when we remember the people who made it possible - "We dug the coal."

Unsurprisingly, coal has been woven into the character of many of the honourable members who the people of Barnsley have sent to speak for them in this place.

I am thinking particularly of one of my predecessors, Roy Mason.

Roy first went down a mine at just 14 years of age. That experience never left him when he later served the people of Barnsley in this place and in important roles around the Cabinet table.

Roy worked hard to support Barnsley’s miners and their loved ones,

Whether representing the families of miners who had lost their lives, securing compensation for those who had been injured, or looking out for those, like many in our coalfield communities, who had fallen on hard times.

It’s a legacy I am doing my upmost to continue today.

So it’s with that history in mind that I’m proud to support the campaign for Justice for the Coalfields, and I’d like to commend my honourable friend and neighbour, the honourable member for Barnsley East, for the way he and our frontbench colleagues have led this effort.

There are three brief points that I would like to make.

Let me begin with this thought

This debate is in many ways about the past, but it is also important for our present and offers big lessons for how we go into the future.

We live in age where the world is changing faster than we have ever known.

We’ve learnt how our livelihoods can now be thrown into crisis by property speculators on the other side of the world.

Our wages can be eroded by globalisation.

New technologies and new trends like online shopping are changing our retail sector, and hitting jobs on our high streets.

And as we look back now, thirty years on from the Miners’ Strike, there are parallels with those forces that were at work in the 1980s.

Then as now, our economy was changing.

Traditional industries were being hit by new pressures.

Global competition for energy resources was increasing.

And then as now, it’s when these big changes are happening, when society faces new and difficult challenges, that people need a government that is on their side.

If we look back to what happened in our coalfield communities thirty years ago, the real lesson for me is this:

This is what happens when government says: ‘You’re on your own.’

This is what happens when government leaves people to fend for themselves rather than protecting them against dangers we cannot face alone.

Because the way the Thatcher government responded to those changing times was effectively to unshackle the market, and leave the coalfields to fend for themselves in a game of ‘survival of the fittest’.

Pits were closed, nothing was put in their place, and communities like Barnsley were effectively written off.

Not only that – people were made to feel like enemies in their own country - for no reason other than the work they did for a living.

Nearly 200,000 mining jobs were lost across the country during the 1980s.

My constituency and coalfield communities across the country are still living with the consequences.

And this is my second point.

The way coalmining was brought to an end in my community has left massive structural challenges that remain to this day.

Some Barnsley miners never worked again.

Those that did get jobs found they were often less well paid and less satisfying.

One recent report concluded that more than 30,000 new jobs would be needed in Barnsley for our borough to reach the average job density in the rest of the country.

Weekly wages still lag £60 below the national average.

Our regional unemployment rate is 3% higher than the national average,

So we face big challenges in Barnsley today – and that’s true for many coalfield communities.

But this should not disguise that there is so much that is right with Barnsley today.

And this is the one thing I do know - that all mining communities are incredibly resilient.

The community spirit in the former minefield areas around Barnsley is among the strongest I have known.

It is borne out of the principle of people working and sticking together.

Out of the legacy of formidable groups like Women Against Pit Closures, – a group of inspirational women that began in Barnsley, and who supported all miners who were struggling during the Miners’ Strike.

And that same spirit and determination that we saw thirty years ago, is still so evident in our community today.

Barnsley is a town that has been re-inventing itself - as a place proud of its heritage, but also looking towards what should be a bright future.

Towards the new service industries,

Towards our future as a home for a modern marketplace, for new start-ups, hi-tech manufacturing, digital enterprise, and as a centre for culture.

And this is the point that I would like to end on.

And I say this with all sincerity and candour to the Minister who speaks for the government today.

Barnsley is a different town compared to thirty years ago,

Like many other coalfield communities, we have moved on.

But I know I speak for many of my constituents when I say: we have long memories.

Barnsley still bear the scars of what happened to our coalfields, and the way the Thatcher government went about it.

Some of them will linger for generations to come.

So if the Conservative successors to that government do want to help heal those wounds, and allow us all to walk into the future, then we need to resolve these issues from the past.

The Miners’ Strike saw some of the most shocking events ever witnessed on picket lines - we need to know if Ministers played any role at the time in influencing police tactics.

Some of my constituents were at Orgreave – we need an investigation into what happened there.

And we need to know why Ministers were planning to end our way of life in secret when they were denying it in public.

That is the least our coalfield communities expect – and it’s the very least they deserve.

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