Britain in Crisis: Vortex of debt and despair

Martin Whitfield on the problems faced by miners made redundant
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The Independent Online
THE money soon goes. Two years after receiving large redundancy cheques up to three-quarters of former miners are still out of work. Those lucky enough to have found jobs are often back in the pits as private contractors in what can be insecure, poorly paid work.

Wives and girlfriends have to live with bitter men whose pride has been punctured. Domestic tensions are high and the level of stress double that of non-miners in the same towns.

According to a study of 500 former miners in the Doncaster area by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University, banks, once eager to offer advice on the investment of large severance cheques, shy away from lending to those without a regular salary. Loan sharks increase their business while the community 'trades down' to lower quality shops. Communal amenities, supported directly or indirectly by British Coal, fall into disuse.

'There is a feeling among people that it won't happen to me. Then there is a honeymoon period when they believe they can take their time. Finally, their true predicament sinks in,' said David Waddington, co-director of the two-year research project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Rowntree Foundation.

The researchers found that very few miners had 'blown' their redundancy on expensive cars or luxury holidays, although most families had succumbed to a treat of some form or another. By far the majority opted to pay off their mortgages on former pit and council houses. 'The closures were in the late 1980s,' said Bella Dicks, a research assistant. 'Miners with redundancy payments were advised to pay off their mortages and quite a lot did just that or improved the value of their home in other ways. They have got a secure roof over their head but it is a trap, an unsaleable asset that prevents them from moving away.'

Typical prices paid by sitting tenants for former council or British Coal houses were about pounds 12,000 for a three-bedroom terrace or semi against a high market value of pounds 28,000. Hundreds are now for sale at about pounds 16,000.

A typical example from the researchers' casebook demonstrates the problem. One former miner was going to work in the Selby coalfield but changed his mind after looking at the travelling involved. He did not want to move or commute. For a few months he looked very casually for a job but then became desperate. He began an ice-cream round but was paid on commission and found he was earning only pounds 100 a week. After two weeks, he switched to working as a taxi driver.

His dream had been to sell up and use his redundancy to open a boarding house in Whitby. But he cannot sell his prime asset and is forced to eke out a living working 12 hours a day.

Ms Dicks said that families who had invested their redundancy money fell foul of social security rules that prohibit claiming benefit while having more than pounds 8,000 in savings. 'Comfortable' working class families slip into poverty with no family holidays and few luxuries.

Women often find themselves as the sole breadwinner. Sixty per cent of wives work, but their earnings are small compared with the average of more than pounds 300 a week in the pits. This also leads to disputes over who does what in the home. The division of domestic labour was examined closely by the researchers in follow-up interviews with men and women.

'Women still do more than three-quarters of all domestic chores. Men may do a bit of washing up and, if their wives are lucky, a bit of Hoovering. It causes many rows as wives believe their husbands should do more,' Ms Dicks said.

Frayed tempers result not only from fights over making the beds. Miners thrown out of work feel a strong sense of victimisation by the Government. Anger can be sparked off by everyday events, such as the television interview of a politician. 'If they have seen something they disagree with they are up in arms. The woman has to agree, to placate him, or the shouting just goes on,' Mr Waddington said.

The bitterness is fuelled by events following redundancy. Another miner, unable to find a job, accepted a place as a trainee welder on a government scheme for unemployed adults. He completed the year-long course merely to find that jobs for welders were as scarce as those for ex- miners. Buying a van and equipment, he launched a mobile key- cutting service.

The business is running at a loss. The miner refuses to accept further 'failure' and works ever longer hours; now he hardly sees his wife.

All is now at risk - his family, his capital and the one thing that has kept him going since he lost his job - his energy and reluctance to give up.

(Photograph omitted)