News in brief: Westminster condemned over miners’ pension scandal
Successive UK Governments have siphoned up to £4.4 billion from the pensions of retired mineworkers over the last 26 years, while some former miners received as little as £10 a week, according to the findings of a Parliamentary inquiry.
The cross-party Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee has called for the “immediate transfer” of £1.2 billion to the mineworkers’ pension fund, and for the cancellation of the deal which has allowed the government to take 50 per cent of surpluses earned by the pension fund’s investments.
The committee ruled that the terms of the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme (MPS) were “no longer fair” and had failed to deliver “secure retirement” for many former miners, who in many cases developed “chronic health conditions”.
The scheme was originally agreed in the run-up to the privatisation of the coal industry in 1994, when the government said it would guarantee future pensions payments if the mineworkers’ pension scheme (MPS) suffered losses on its investments.
In return the government would take half of any surpluses generated.
The miners’ pension scheme surplus was also used by the Labour Government at Westminster to pay miners compensation for injuries that they sustained during their work.
National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) national secretary Chris Kitchen claimed the pension deal was “imposed” by the Tory government after the miners’ strike against pit closures in 1984-85.
“There were no negotiations,” he told the Morning Star.
“If the government fails to act on the select committee’s recommendations there can be no other rationale behind the decision other than that the original agreement was an act of vindictiveness against the mineworkers which the government is going to continue.
“If the government ignores the recommendations — which they can do — then they are just seeking vengeance for the strikes of 1974 and 1984-5.”
The late Plaid Cymru AM Steffan Lewis campaigned for years for justice for ex-miners in Wales and petitions with over 100,000 signatures were delivered to both the Senedd and Downing Street.
Campaigner Rhys Mills, Plaid Cymru’s Senedd Candidate for Islwyn said, “I welcome the findings of the scrutiny committee.
“I hope the miners get every penny back owed to them.”
Retired miner Ken Sullivan added: “We worked hard for over four years to collect the signatures needed to get us this far. I would like to thank the people of South Wales who signed our petition.
“We asked every MP in the south Wales coalfield to help. I was disappointed with Labour MPs who seemingly refused to help us just because Plaid Cymru had.”
Jane Dodds Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats also joined calls for an urgent review of the scheme: “It cannot be right that a miner who worked underground in dangerous conditions for 30 years receives so little while the government makes so much.
“This whole scheme needs to be reviewed urgently, to ensure those in receipt of these pensions get a decent and fair reward for their lifetime of work.”
Two new Covid deaths in Wales
Public Health Wales has confirmed two further deaths due to Covid and 69 new positive tests for the virus over the past 24 hours.
The newly reported deaths were in the Cwm Taf Morgannwg and Swansea Bay health board areas.
Newport (11) was the only area in Wales to report a double-digit increase in cases and has the highest weekly case rate in the country at 25.2 per 100,000 people – down from 27.2 in yesterday’s report. The positive test rate at 2.5% is also the highest but is down .1% per 100,000 tests since yesterday.
The national weekly case rate has increased from 10.9 to 11.3 since Wednesday’s update and the tests rate remains the same at 1.3%.
Liberty Steel owner faces Westminster probe
Westminster’s parliamentary business committee of MPs has launched a formal inquiry into Liberty Steel and the collapse of its largest lender, Greensill Capital.
Steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance owns Liberty Steel, and it is understood that he could be summoned in front of MPs to give evidence.
“The collapse of Greensill Capital and subsequent financing issues affecting the GFG Alliance has put thousands of jobs at Liberty Steel in jeopardy,” committee chairman, Darren Jones said.
“As a committee, we will want to examine whether reform is needed in these areas and, additionally, access to and use of taxpayers’ money, including Covid-related support, and whether adequate checks and balances were put in place in return for support from government.”
A Liberty Steel spokesperson said: “Liberty Steel will fully support the committee’s inquiry and looks forward to contributing to the committee’s work to secure a sustainable future for the UK steel industry and the skilled jobs, local communities and critical supply chains which depend on it.”
Liberty Steel is the third largest steel company in the UK and currently employs 3,000 people at 11 sites in the UK, including over 200 at its plants in Newport and Tredegar.
Last month the UK Government rejected a plea from the company for a £170 million emergency loan following the collapse into administration of Greensill Capital.
Mr Gupta has vowed not to close any of his UK plants and GFG Alliance claims it is close to agreeing a new funding package, however reports suggest three Liberty Steel group companies could face winding up orders over the coming weeks and Westminster sources suggest it is preparing to intervene only if Liberty Steel fails to refinance and becomes insolvent.
Volunteers sought for new Covid vaccine study
Swansea Bay University Health Board and Public Health Wales are looking for volunteers to participate in the latest clinical trial studying a vaccine against Covid-19.
The trail is the first to test a plant-derived vaccine candidate and will evaluate its effectiveness in combatting the virus.
The vaccine has already been through early phase human studies and now requires testing on a large scale and a study involving 1,500 people across the UK is starting. The aim is to recruit volunteers between 18 – 39 years old and who live in Swansea and the local areas. Interested individuals are invited to sign up to the trial website here.
Volunteers will be required to make up to 10 visits to the study site over approximately 26 months. Reasonable travel expenses will be reimbursed and volunteers will receive payment for participating in this study.
The Medicago vaccine study will run across fourteen sites in the United Kingdom, in addition to multiple sites in the United States, Canada, Europe and Latin America.
The study will enrol up to 30,000 volunteers worldwide.
Dr Brendan Healy, Principal Investigator for the Medicago trial and Consultant in Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at Public Health Wales, said: “We are all now starting to see the beneficial effects of Covid-19 vaccinations. Whilst it is encouraging that we already have access to three vaccines in the UK it is very important that we continue to develop vaccines so there is greater choice and an ability to select vaccines based on their individual benefits.
“Medicago’s plant-derived COVID-19 vaccine has already been through early phase human studies. I am delighted Swansea Bay will be recruiting in partnership with Public Health Wales into the next phase of this vaccine’s development. I would like to encourage people living in the Swansea Bay and the surrounding areas to consider taking part.”
Shapps says he will work with Welsh Government on transport fixes
Jez Hemming, local democracy reporter
UK Transport Minister Grant Shapps has admitted “administrations in Cardiff and possibly London” turned their back on improving the A55 “for far too long”.
On a flying visit to Rhyl on earlier this week, he also said he would work with a Welsh Labour Government on promised road and rail enhancements – if they retained power after 6 May.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service he plugged the UK Government’s £20m “report” into transport links called the “Union Connectivity Review”, in which he claimed North Wales plays a “key part”.
It’s part of a £2bn pledge to “create modern infrastructure for Wales”, which would include an upgraded A55 with 20,000 electric vehicle charging points and improved rail links with Liverpool and Manchester airports.
Mr Shapps, speaking outside Rhyl’s railway station with Vale of Clwyd MP James Davies and the Conservative party’s Senedd hopeful Gareth Davies, said it was vital to get more Tory “representation” in Cardiff to push through the changes.
However, he pledged to work with whatever government is in power after May 6, to enhance transport infrastructure in the North.
He said: “We’ll come forward with a report by next February which will look at if there can be an outline business case to upgrade it.
“The long and the short of it is we think there’s no reason why North Wales and the north-west (of England) shouldn’t deserve great links.
“If this was in the south-east or London I’m sure that road would have already been upgraded.
“We won’t turn our back on it as I think administrations have in Cardiff, and possibly in London, for far too long.”
Mr Shapps sidestepped questions about the Anglesey stretch of the A55 which is managed privately, after being funded by private finance initiative, and the fact sections of it were constructed using EU cash.
He said he couldn’t say why there had been a delay in UK Government involvement in upgrading infrastructure but said Prime Minister Boris Johnson and himself had made it clear since 2019 they wanted to “level up” the UK.
He added the actual policy announcement wasn’t new, having been floated several months ago.
The Minister said a North Wales Metro, integrated with public transport would make it “easier for people to go to work, do business and socialise”.
Asked whether a spur of HS2 rail link could be built as a freight route to the proposed Freeport in Holyhead, he claimed the new line would benefit North Wales by around £50m anyway.
He added: “The opportunity of Holyhead being a freeport and bringing that infrastructure together, I think gives a fantastic opportunity to North Wales.
“I don’t think it’s an either or. I don’t think you build HS2 or improve the infrastructure in the country, I think we have to do both of these things to link the country together.”
Asked if the UK Government would still push ahead with these plans if a Labour Government was in power, Mr Shapps said he has always worked very closely with whoever is in the devolved administrations, including the current Welsh Government.
He said: “Let me answer you absolutely straight – we will work with whoever is elected to whichever Assembly, Parliament or anything else.
“That’s what we do in Scotland, that’s what we do in Northern Ireland where none of the mainline parties have representation – of course we will.”