03 January 2006

How Thatcher tried to dodge bill for policing the miners' strike


David Hencke and Rob Evans
Tuesday January 3, 2006
The Guardian

Margaret Thatcher tried to avoid paying the full £200m bill for the police officers she praised for holding back the mass pickets during the 1984-85 miners' strike, newly released government papers reveal.

They show that the former prime minister and her home secretary, Leon Brittan, were reluctant to pay the enormous costs of policing the strike out of Whitehall funds and wanted local ratepayers to foot the bill. Police spent 14m hours controlling miners' picketing and protests. About 10,000 miners and their supporters were arrested during violent clashes in which 1,300 police were injured.

Thatcher wanted individual police forces - and consequently local rate-payers - to pay for these operations. Papers released by the Home Office under the Freedom of Information Act show that the row went on for the first six months of the strike, despite pleas from Tory MPs, council leaders and chief constables.

During the arguments, the government appeared to be displaying generosity towards local authorities by promising not to penalise them for overspending caused by the strike. But behind the scenes, ministers were determined not to pay all the bills and to hold out against pleas for more funding.

At the start of the year-long strike, in March 1984, Michael Spungin, leader of the Tory group on Nottinghamshire county council, complained to Douglas Hurd, then a Home Office minister. He said: "It would be impossible for any Conservative in the county to defend a government decision to operate in that way on what is certainly a national problem which happens to be being fought out on the territory of Nottinghamshire by others."

In May, Jim Lester, then Conservative MP for Broxtowe, went to see Thatcher, telling her of the "strong feeling of disappointment" in Nottinghamshire because the government was not providing enough financial support.

He told her that the working Nottinghamshire miners were particularly dismayed because "they were in the forefront of democracy both in the country and in their union, but that they were having to pay a disproportionate share of the cost of this fight".

A Downing Street note shows that the prime minister acknowledged that Nottinghamshire's police force had the largest bill - estimated at £25m - in a crucial battleground of the dispute. The refusal by many Nottinghamshire miners to join the strike undermined the action.

Exchanges between Andrew Turnbull, then Thatcher's private secretary, and Sir Leon Brittan's aides show that Sir Leon thought "it would be wrong in principle for central government to pay the full costs: policing is essentially a local matter". "One of the advantages of leaving forces to pay ... gives them an incentive to economise."

By June, Sir Leon had changed his mind. In a letter to Peter Rees, chief secretary to the Treasury, he admitted that Nottinghamshire was in trouble because of the cost of policing the picketing. The chief constable had stopped recruiting staff, frozen computer projects and was considering withdrawing from the regional crime squad and the regional criminal intelligence unit.

Sir Leon finally announced extra funding at the Tory conference in October.

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