In just a few days’ time, Kellingley colliery will close. It is Britain’s last working pit. A hundred years ago, over one million men worked in the coal industry, and now the last 450 men are set to work their final shift.
The coal that they cut powered the Industrial Revolution, stoked the trains, lit the furnaces, and kept the home fires burning. In our area alone, Fryston, Glasshoughton, Wheldale, Allerton Bywater, Sharlston, Prince of Wales and Selby were all once proud pits, now gone.
I represent Knottingley, the town that always supported Kellingley, and grew in the ’60s when Kellingley grew. Kellingley Club is still in the heart of the town.
In our area, most people have coal in their blood – family who worked in the local pits or further afield. I am the granddaughter of a miner, and my predecessors, Geoff Lofthouse, Bill O’Brien and Joe Harper, all worked in the pits. It is skilled and tough work, and some gave their lives and others their health. The solidarity that they forged underground has underpinned our communities too. That is why it is a sad day for us, because people who have worked together, lived together, marched together, been on strike together and stood together through thick or thin are now watching the last pit close.
We have fought for two years to try to keep Kellingley open. We sought alternative investors. We campaigned for the EU state aid that could have opened new faces and accessed new and rich reserves, and yet the Government deliberately dragged their feet, pushed costs up, and let us down.
Closing Kellingley will not cut Britain’s carbon emissions; all it will do is make us more dependent on imported coal. We campaigned too for clean coal technology – carbon capture and storage at Drax – that could have not just supported Kellingley but security of supply here in Britain.
It had the potential to cut carbon emissions, to be a great export all over the world and to cut energy bills here at home, and yet the Government has pulled the plug. Ferrybridge, just down the road, also in my constituency, is set to close in a few months, again years before it needs to, so we will lose more skilled jobs.
Experts are raising concern that that capacity has been cut so far that it is likely, in the short term, to be filled instead by smaller diesel energy plants, which are far dirtier than the big power stations that they replace.
However, my main purpose is to focus particularly on support for the Kellingley miners.
These are the men who have kept the coal industry going until the very end – younger men who started as apprentices just a few years ago, but also many older ones who worked in the coal industry for decades.
While every other pit closed, they kept going, kept working, kept digging deeper, kept cutting coal. When Kellingley nearly went under, they pulled out all the stops and increased production. When we were fighting to keep Kellingley open, they were ready and willing to do a deal whereby the workforce took over the pit, putting their own money at risk in order to keep it open. When UK Coal nearly went bust, they were ready to accept changes to their pensions and working arrangements just to keep the pit open.
Think what would have happened if the miners had not done that. If they had walked away, as many were tempted to do, UK Coal would have gone bust, the Government would have lost the millions in tax that UK Coal owed, and, more importantly, the Government would have been landed with the bill for closing Kellingley pit – tens of millions of pounds of extra money that they would have had to fork out.
Miners need more skills training, retraining courses and support to be able to get new jobs in an area where skilled work is still too scarce. I ask Ministers to look seriously at what more support can be given to the Kellingley miners.
They have worked so hard to save the Government money, to support UK Coal and Kellingley, and to keep the pit open, but they feel that all they are getting in return is a kick in the teeth.
When Margaret Thatcher closed the pits in the 1980s on a massive scale, even she made sure that the miners got full redundancy pay and pensions. When Michael Heseltine closed pits in the 1990s, he made sure that miners got full redundancy pay and pensions. When the Prince of Wales and Selby pits closed under the Labour government, we made sure that the miners got not just redundancy pay and pension support, but retraining, the coalfield regeneration taskforce and support for communities as well.
What miners are getting now under this Tory Government is the worse deal of all.
Yvette Cooper is the Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford who spoke in a Parliamentary debate on Kellingley Colliery. This is an edited version.