NUM takes action to recover pounds 800m for pension fund

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THE NATIONAL Union of Mineworkers is to take British Coal to the High Court in an attempt to force the corporation to repay pounds 800m it withheld from the miners' pension fund by taking contribution holidays.

British Coal withheld pounds 450m in 1991 and pounds 350m in 1992 after the Mineworkers' Pension Scheme built up a surplus of pounds 1.4bn above liabilities. Although a majority of trustees approved the contribution holiday the NUM trustees did not. Arthur Scargill, the NUM president, previously threatened to take British Coal to the European Court.

Mr Scargill said yesterday the union had instructed solicitors and writs for breach of trust would be issued shortly. The case would be fought in the High Court in London later this year and if they lost the fight would go to the European Court. The union argues, on the basis of a previous European Court ruling, that surpluses should be treated as deferred pensions and be used only for the benefit of members.

Mr Scargill also warned that the NUM would take the Government to court if the Treasury attempted to take over miners' pension fund assets before privatisation in the same way as it has proposed for British Rail pensioners.

Trade unions and trustees of pension funds of state-owned industries which are to be privatised - including British Rail, British Coal, the Post Office and London Transport buses - have realised that the future of billions of pounds worth of pension fund assets could be at risk. Following an announcement in January that the Government may take over half of British Rail's pension fund assets, estimated to be worth pounds 8.5bn, unions, employees and trustees fear the Government has similar plans for their funds.

On Friday the board of British Coal is to discuss proposals for ways of using an estimated pounds 1bn surplus in the staff superannuation scheme, which handles white collar workers' pensions. A similar surplus has built up in the mineworkers' pension scheme. The total assets of both funds are estimated to be worth pounds 14bn, more than any other UK pension fund.

The proposals, put forward by the trustees of the superannuation scheme, are believed to include allowing British Coal to fund early retirement schemes and paying a 5 per cent increase in benefits to existing pensioners.

The secretaries of the trustees of both the staff and miners pension funds said they would fight any government proposals to take over the pension fund assets and have sought legal advice.

The miners' fund trustees say they have been promised a meeting with Tim Eggar, the energy minister, after the coal privatisation White Paper is published later this month, to discuss the future of the pension fund.

Mr Scargill said: 'If the Government attempts to take the pension fund we will take them to the High Court and the European Court as well. I think it's a crime, what's taking place with pension schemes. I can't see what's the difference between a crook like (the late Robert) Maxwell taking millions from Mirror pension funds and British Coal or the Government taking millions from British Coal pensioners.'