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Column 25510.30 pm
I shall be brief, as I do not intend to deal with the detail of the Bill, other than to note that there has been a general welcome for the proposed capital reconstruction of British Coal. We had good debates in Committee on the detailed clauses and, thanks to the Opposition, we have had three good debates today on the issues that concern them--subsidence, opencast mining and licensed mines. The Bill, together with the power stations' contracts for large tonnages over the next three years, gives British Coal an opportunity to build on the success that it has achieved over the past three years. Against that background, I have asked it to carry out a fundamental review of its business prospects, taking into account the prices achievable by each coalfield and the productivity improvements achievable by each colliery. As I emphasised on Second Reading, continuing strong productivity gains are essential if those opportunities are to be realised. The Bill provides further Government support for British Coal's restructuring programme. The core of the Bill, is how to deal with the deficiency in British Coal's accounts--which will probably be more than £5 billion and could range up to another £2 billion. I do not claim that our deficiency grant is simply an act of generosity ; it is essential if British Coal is to be re-established as a viable business. By valuing each colliery on the basis of its future earnings potential, the industry can establish more clearly than ever before where its future lies. Ultimately the size of the industry will depend upon the efforts of management and men together to maintain the trend of productivity growth and cost reduction.
As I said on Second Reading, given all that, I am confident that the capital reconstruction will provide the industry with the means to compete in the market place of the future, and I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. Dobson : I, too, will be brief. On publication of the Bill, and again on Second Reading, we welcomed the Government's proposal in effect to write off the debts of British Coal so that the industry could compete and run its business properly. However, we are suspicious that this write-off is the precursor to the ultimate sell-off of British Coal, which would harm those who work in the British coal industry and the people of Britain in general. We also welcome the increased provision for redundancy payments, but we regret that the contract that has recently been negotiated--if that is the right word--between British Coal and the electricity generating companies will involve further losses in coal burn, which will inevitably lead to redundancies for which these payments will be necessary.
We remain fundamentally opposed to the proposal for a fivefold increase in the number of people allowed to work below ground in private pits. In terms of safety, private pits are a disgrace. They are four to five times more dangerous than the British Coal collieries. It is preposterous for the Government to launch into that fivefold increase without any serious consultation with any of the people or bodies concerned with the safety of mines.
The National Association of Colliery Managers and the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers are utterly opposed to the proposal, as is the
Column 256National Union of Mineworkers. Even if the Government insist on the increase, because of the known poor safety record of private mines there should be a parallel development and stiffening of the safety provisions covering private mines. If they do not work for 30 people, they certainly will not work for 150.
We have presented proposals to improve safety provision, and the Government have rejected them. I should have thought that a Government who presided at the time of the King's Cross, Piper Alpha and Herald of Free Enterprise disasters, as well as innumerable others, would at least put safety first in the mining industry, but it appears that safety is not one of their priorities. I sincerely hope that Ministers will not be coming to the House within a few months to say, "We got it wrong : if we had taken a bit of notice of people who knew what they were talking about, this disaster would not have come about." Opposition Members do not look for such disasters, but we do fear them.
The Government also propose a tenfold increase in the size of private opencast workings. The new Minister's preposterous justification for that proposal was uncertainty about whether it was lawful for British Coal-- blatantly, deliberately and with the agreement of the Department of Energy- -to exceed the present limit of 25,000 tonnes and increase production to as much as 35,000 or 40,000 tonnes. To avoid the problem of a marginal increase over what was set down in the statute, he proposed an increase to 250,000 tonnes. Although, for the sake of argument, we accepted that barmy proposition, we demanded parallel protection for the communities and the environment in areas where opencasting was already in progress and was likely to continue. We have not been assured of such protection ; consequently, operators of ragshop, ruinous, rotten, awful opencast workings will be able to do so on 10 times the present scale.
We remain disappointed--and we are sure that the coalfield communities will be at least as disappointed as we are--that the Government have not taken the opportunity to improve the arrangements for compensation for mining subsidence. I understand that the Press Association has put it out on the tapes that the Secretary of State announced great improvements today, and said that all sorts of wondrous things would be done. No doubt all credit is due to the press officer sitting in the Box, but the PA seems to have omitted the fact that almost all the proposals concerned were put to the Government nearly six years ago, and the Government have done nothing about them. We feel that, if the Government are not prepared to introduce provisions to improve subsidence compensation when the House of Lords debates the Bill, they should find time to introduce such provisions in some other part of the threadbare legislative programme that they intend to push through this year.
For all those reasons, we are still opposed to the Bill as it stands. However, as it will provide the coal industry with substantial sums that are very necessary, and as we have already registered our opposition to the private mine proposals on Second Reading, we shall not vote against Third Reading.
Column 25710.39 pm
I wish to highlight a scandalous situation in my constituency, which used to be the heart of the anthracite coalfield. There is one drift mine, Carway Fawr, which, though mothballed, is almost ready to mine. It is being maintained by British Coal and has not been opened. I understand that £330 million has been spent on it.
I discovered a few days ago that some of the heavy electrical equipment in that mine has been removed to another mine. I appreciate the reasons for that, but there is fear in my constituency lest more heavy equipment is taken out. Once that happens, that mine will never re-open.
There is a shortage of anthracite in Britain, especially of good quality anthracite. Imports are coming in from China, and last week there were rumours of imports coming here from Vietnam. That imported coal is not cheap and the quality is not very good. Those imports are coming here because of a desperate shortage of anthracite, yet British Coal is sitting on this mine, which could employ 600 people and produce first-class, top quality anthracite for the British market. That is scandalous.
In his discussions with British Coal about the additional money that it will receive under the Bill--we welcome that--I hope that the Secretary of State will raise the anthracite issue again and ask British Coal to make a decision. Will it, or will it not, open this mine? If it does not, I shall regard it as my duty to have the matter investigated by the Public Accounts Committee or the Audit Commission, to find out why £30 million was spent and wasted. I hope that that will not be necessary. The coal and the jobs are needed. I urge the Secretary of State to intervene.
Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet) : Like other hon. Members, I welcome the Government's commitment to writing off the debt of British Coal as firm evidence of the Government's continuing and long-standing support for the coal industry and for putting it on to a firm and viable footing.
As for the remainder of the Bill--affecting British Coal and the private sector--I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware that for the communities affected, environmental issues are of the greatest importance. One of the most important measures that the Government undertook was to take planning issues away from the Department of Energy and to put them into the normal planning procedures under the Department of the Environment. I listened with interest to the comments of the Under- Secretary when he said clearly and categorically that nothing in the Bill would derogate from normal planning procedures or would remove existing protections from communities faced with planning applications for opencast, drift or deep mines. On the basis of those clear, categoric and unequivocal assurances, I welcome the Bill.
Column 25810.42 pm
Mr. Malcolm Bruce : The Bill is necessary--in some cases regrettably necessary--because British Coal needs a major financial injection. That is why my hon. Friends and I voted for the Bill on Second Reading and why we support it tonight. But certain issues which arose during the passage of the measure remain unresolved, and I fear that we shall have to return to some of those, probably in further legislation.
The two main points that have been debated are the increase in the numbers employed in private mines and the substantial increase in opencast mining. I remain convinced that we need firmer guidelines and a much clearer policy on the issue of opencast if we are to reassure communities affected by it not only that they will get the restoration that they need but that they will receive the sort of compensation that is justified for the devastating effect of a much bigger expansion of opencast mining, and we shall need new environmental practices to minimise that impact.
I hear the Labour party's clear opposition to the increase in the licensing of private pits from 30 miners to 150, but given that it will happen, there are causes for concern, in that who will be licensed will continue to be entirely a matter for British Coal and the criteria for licensing them will also remain a matter for British Coal.
The right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) made a plea on behalf of his constituency for a working that has been mothballed, which British Coal can choose to leave mothballed and about which nobody else can do anything. In Committee I raised the case of Betteshanger, which has been closed, and Monktonhall, which has been mothballed, and there may be other examples.
When resisting my amendments suggesting that the transfer of licensing from British Coal to the Department of Energy was the way forward, the Minister hinted--in Committee and to some extent informally--that such a step might be taken at a later date. For many of those enterprises, that later date may come too late and the opportunities, reserves, pits and jobs will be lost for ever. I remain dissatisfied that a genuine attempt to ensure that the issue was addressed was not just defeated in Committee--as was perhaps predictable--by 21 votes to one, but did not secure a recognition from the Government that, in the changing climate that they are creating, British Coal cannot be trusted to be the sole custodian of the nation's coal assets and the sole determiner of licensing conditions and applications and which pits should be closed, which pits should be mothballed and which pits should be operated.
I predict that, in future, communities will tell hon. Members that they are dissatisfied with the fact that their potential is being obstructed by British Coal and that the law does not allow any way around that, and not even a right of appeal to the Secretary of State. I hope that the Government will take those points seriously, because I am sure that they will reappear again and again. 10.45 pm
Dr. Woodcock : In general, the Bill is to be welcomed, but with reservations. Many hon. Members have expressed their concerns about subsidence, and we welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about that as a significant move forward.
Column 259Some of us also have reservations about private mining operations, licensing and royalties. I recently asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in a written question whether he would review the royalty paid by the private mine operators. My right hon. Friend replied :
"Royalties are a matter for the British Coal Corporation, as owner and licensee of coal reserves."--[ Official Report, 20 December 1989 ; Vol. 164, c. 307. ] :
Royalties should not be a matter for British Coal, and it should no longer own the coal reserves. We hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will do something about that in the
I remind my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the coal industry does not simply concern British Coal employees and private mining operators. Many other people are involved in the industry, including wholesalers, importers, exporters, producers of smokeless fuel, coal merchants and many others. Many of those people are concerned about some of the practices of British Coal that are allowed under the present law. They are particularly concerned about back-door nationalisation and anti- competitive practices. I want my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to bear those points in mind. Ultimately, I want to see the privatisation of the state sector of British Coal and not the nationalisation of what remains of its private sector. I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear that in mind when he considers other legislation.
Mr. Michael Welsh (Doncaster, North) : I will be brief and refer to two important issues in clause 4. Under that clause, the manpower in a private mine can be increased from 30 to 150. Clause 4 states : "to work below ground there is at no time likely to exceed, or greatly to exceed, 150".
An increase of 200 may be covered by the term "or greatly". The Bill would provide for such an increase unless the Secretary of State gives a different undertaking. The increase will be 150 only if the Secretary of State gives that undertaking. At the moment, that is not clear from the Bill.
I do not believe that the private mine operators will be able to use deep mines with 150 people below ground. However, is the Secretary of State aware that the miners' rescue team is run by the Coal Board? We can all hope that we never see another explosion in a mine, but they can occur. The Coal Board rescue teams will have to go underground if such an explosion occurs, because that is their job and they are a brave set of individuals. However, I cannot see why they should have to do that. The private mines are there to make a profit and the nationalised industry should not pay for the rescue teams. At the moment, equity does not prevail in that situation. On deep mining, especially in seams like the Barnsley seams, the only reason we have had no explosions is because we have been able to seal them solidly by stowing. It costs a lot of money and manpower. If people risk deep mining without stowing, as sure as God made little apples, a mine will go up, and our lads will have to go in and rescue the poor individuals who are underground.
Once, there was no stowing. I remind the Minister that there are still four men sealed in the pit that I worked. In 1940, when I had just started, I was pony driving, taking
Column 260sand down to seal it off, when it went up a second time. There are four still in there because it was too dangerous to go in for them. The consensus was that they were dead. Since stowing started, we have never had an explosion. At Bentley in the 1930s, I think that over 30 men were left in because stowing was not done then.
I am frightened that, if there is not investment in stowing in deep mines, our lads from the miners' rescue squads will have to rescue the poor sods who are down there. I hope that it never happens. I hope that the Minister will pass on to the chairman of British Coal, whom we saw this afternoon, that conditions should be laid down before licences are granted.
There is to be an increase in opencast operations. We all know what has been happening. Where there has been permission to take 50,000 tonnes, when that has been extracted, British Coal has agreed to the extraction of a few more tonnes just because the machinery was there. What will happen if the operators want a bit more when they are taking 250,000 tonnes? I remind the Minister that this is not America or Canada. It is a small island. The Government are raping it by allowing this to go ahead.
If it takes two years to get 25,000 tonnes, with lorries going through beautiful little villages, will it take 20 years to get 250, 000 tonnes? If Conservative Members vote for this, I remind them that permission will be granted about the time of the next election, and their electors will not like it. I would not like it if lorries were passing my house for 10 to 20 years. They could do it in five or six years by increasing the capacity of the lorries and having them going past people's front doors 24 hours a day. If that is the outlook of a Government who say that they have green policies, thank goodness they do not have the opposite to green policies, or they would double the amount again.
I ask the Minister to consider even at the eleventh hour keeping the quantity to 50,000 tonnes. He should give the kiddies and mothers who live round these developments a break. That is not asking a lot. Unless pressure has been put on the Minister--I do not know people who do such a thing--he should limit the amount to 50,000 tonnes. That should be enough in any area. I ask the Minister to consider that again when the Bill goes to another place.
Mr. Gerald Howarth : For the past two and a half years, as parliamentary private secretary to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), I have by convention been unable to participate in coal debates. Therefore, I seek the opportunity of a newly won liberation to support the Bill which has been brought to the House by my right hon. Friend. As he knows, I represent a number of miners in the Cannock Chase coalfield.
I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) said about the Bill showing the Government's commitment to the coal industry. To write off £5,000 million of accumulated debt represents a substantial commitment, and I challenge any hon. Member to suggest that the Government do not care about it. Those who work in it should understand that, as a result of the munificence of the taxpayer, the industry is being restructured. It will be put on a proper financial footing, which is only fair and proper after it has dramatically improved its productivity.
Column 261It must be recognised that the redundancy payments are more generous than those that have been offered by other industries. Those payments are the latest in a long line of investments that the Government have made in the industry. Hon. Members mentioned investment in private mines. There is no doubt that my constituents have benefited from the Government's investment in the coal industry.
I welcome the liberalisation measures in the Bill. It gives Conservative Members much pleasure to see the Labour party so vociferously opposing clause 4. Whether it will extend its opposition to other clauses is another matter, but I believe that the liberalisation measures are modest.
Conservative Members understand the sincerity of the views expressed by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) and other Labour Members. We recognise that they hold heartfelt opinions about the industry in which they worked and in which they saw their friends killed. I hope that they do not believe that Conservative Members give safety a lower priority than they do, because we believe passionately in it. I honestly believe that the Labour party cannot argue that it is in favour of giving safety the high priority that it alleges it does when it is prepared to countenance the continuation of private pits that employ only 30 men, which cannot be economically viable unless they operate old-fashioned and dangerous techniques. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done well in bringing the Bill before the House. It will greatly benefit the coal industry in the private and public sectors.
Labour Members welcome anything that will improve the industry's debts, but the Bill should be put in perspective. The industry has incurred most of its debts on redundancy payments and pension provision. When the Government talk about writing off its debts, they are talking about writing off its social costs.
No figure has been given for the amount of debt that will be written off. Some of the money that has been allocated will be spent on continuing to pay for the debt. It has not been said when and how the debt will be written off. That point must be answered. We have been asking for help for the nationalised coal industry for the past two or three years. It does not require much thought to realise that this is an enabling Bill for the privatisation of the coal industry in the next Parliament, should the Government be re-elected.
The Secretary of State did not fully answer the question about the managers of private mines. A manager does not merely to to university, gain a degree and have a class 1 mining certificate. He also has to go through a period of apprenticeship, and he must work in every facet of the colliery, before he can obtain the practical experience to go with his academic experience and his degree. Where will the managers come from for the expansion in private mining? They will not be plucked out of thin air. The managers who have been made redundant from British Coal and to whom I have spoken are adamant that they will not go into the privatised mines. Where will they come from, and how?
The Secretary of State also did not answer the question about electrical and mechanical engineers. He did not say
Column 262whether an electrical engineer or a mechanical engineer would be in charge, and whether one would be in charge for the whole 24 hours or whether one would be in charge for each shift.
I want to return to what my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said about the viability of the mechanisation of private mines. Who will pay the capital costs? The only reason why the industry was capitalised and mechanised was that it became a nationalised industry. In the old days, the private owners could not afford that mechanisation. What makes the Secretary of State think that the owners will be able to afford mechanisation? How will they obtain a return on the tremendous capital costs of mechanising even one coal face?
I want to see the legislation on opencasting tightened up now that the Government have increased the amount of coal that can be taken in that way. A mine in my area has gone through the usual stages and will hold up the industrial development of the area for the next eight to 10 years. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) believe that it will cause huge devastation to the locality. There is the prospect of opencasting in the valley, and the people on the periphery of the valley will not be able to ignore the noise and the dust, because there will be no baffles. In addition, the River Dearne will have to be redirected, which we certainly do not want. Following the huge opencast executive applications are a number of small private applications which will devastate the whole area. Some of the areas were opencast areas in the 1950s. As a result of new technology, opencasting can go deeper, so we shall have opencast applications time and time again, if we are not careful.
As for subsidence, we must debate the Waddilove report on the Floor of the House. That would be only justice. We should debate the recommendations, the form of compensation and the need for compensation. All my constituency is devastated because of mining subsidence, although the collieries that caused that subsidence are closed. Who is picking up the cheque for the repairs that need to be carried out?
Should this Government return to power and privatise the mines before the Waddilove report is debated, and before compensation arrangements are effectively tidied up, who will pay the costs of mining subsidence? The people in those areas want an answer to those questions. We have asked them time and time again, but we have never had an answer. It is time that all the cards were put on the table so that we can see what will happen to the mining districts, and especially to the mining communities.
Mr. Lofthouse : I want to point out to the Secretary of State that, although I welcome any financial assistance for the British coal industry, I regret the amount of finance that has been made available for redundancies, because I wish that it had not been necessary. Whatever the argument over the total numbers, it is a fact that thousands of men will lose their jobs. We should bear in mind that fact, and the fact that, as I have often said in the House, the average age of these young miners is 34. There is no cushion of weekly payments, as the redundancy
Column 263payments will be based on a lump sum. Many of those young men are burdened by large mortgages, and the present interest rates do not help.
In January 1987, the Select Committee on Energy said clearly that the industry should never again be run down so rapidly without a policy co- ordinated by the Departments of Energy, of Trade and Industry and of Employment to cushion the blow and limit the social consequences.
Since 1985, when the rundown began, some mining communities, including my own, have had not one farthing of Government assistance in attracting alternative employment. Only about three weeks ago, I accompanied a deputation to the Department of Trade and Industry and met the Minister for Industry, who was very sympathetic to our problems in the mining communities--certainly to those of my own constituency--but told us clearly that he could offer us no assistance whatever because our areas had not been zoned as having intermediate area status.
Thousands and thousands of jobs have gone, and we had no assistance at all. That cannot continue. One is forced to think--it is certainly what my constituents think--that the reason why the Government are not interested in helping our areas is purely political. The Government know full well that, even if they help us to attract industry, it will not win them any votes. It will certainly not win them Pontefract and Castleford. Nevertheless, the Government have a moral obligation to give some assistance to the communities that their policies have wiped out.
Has the Secretary of State any plans to help the thousands of young miners who will lost their jobs? Does he plan to have discussions with his colleagues to try to decide whether the areas can be helped to find jobs for these young men? If he has no such plans, the Government's policy is immoral and they have kicked the miners in the teeth. If there are no signs of help, my constituents' suspicions will be confirmed. I suggest that the Secretary of State and the Minister should give a lead--unlike their predecessors--and show that they have some feeling for the mining communities.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : I wish to present a petition from Cornish residents, to bring to the attention of the House our concerns about the National Health Service and the Government's proposed reforms. The Cornish people are overwhelmingly opposed to the Conservatives' plans.
This week, a Liberal Democrat survey of local doctors showed that 90 per cent. believe that the reforms will be detrimental to patients. My petition carries 82 signatures, each of which represents 100 signatures on the health petition organised by local Liberal Democrats that I have already presented to the Department of Health. That means that 8,200 of my constituents in all call on the Government to abandon their proposals, and a further 100,000 people have signed the Liberal Democrat petition nationwide.
I welcome this opportunity to bring our opposition to the attention of the House, and I hope that Ministers will begin to respond to the overwhelming concern felt by the people of Britain.
To lie upon the Table.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Durant.]
Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North) : I have sought this opportunity to raise the matter of compensation arrangements for patients damaged by radiation overdoses at the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital in Exeter. That hospital looks after the radiation side of treatment for people in my constituency of Devon, North and a further five constituencies in the south -west of England.
Since the problem arose, several questions have been asked in the House and several comments and statements made, of which the most apposite was that made by the then Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), two years ago. She said that Exeter health authority
"intends to deal with claims as expeditiously as possible in a way which will cause as little distress to patients and their families as the circumstances will allow. The Authority has instructed its solicitors to reflect this desire."--[ Official Report, 13 December 1988 ; Vol. 143, c. 753.]
That was two years ago, and time passes. It passes quickly in this place, but it passes slowly on a sick-bed. Recently, I asked my hon. Friend the Minister of State what had happened about claims for excessive dosages of radiation. I wanted to know how many had been settled, what ranges of payments had been made, and how many cases remained to be settled. I also asked whether the Minister would list how many settlements had been made. What was the highest? What was the lowest? Finally, I asked the Minister to list the number of payments that were made to staff who were sacked. Of course, two of the staff were actually sacked for negligence or professional misconduct.
Sadly, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, answering all those questions, which were of great importance to my constituents and to my colleagues in the area, said that all those matters were for Exeter health authority as far as they affected patients or their representatives. The two physicists who were dismissed received severance payments. Those details are confidential to the parties concerned.
The Minister of State told me, "Don't ask the Minister, ask the health authority." The health authority, which has been in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), keeps saying, "Everything is confidential." There comes a time when we must take confidentiality by the scruff of the neck and ask, "Is this merely a smokescreen? Is confidentiality merely the excuse for obscurity--the excuse for no action?"
The history of this sad case in Exeter is straightforward. In February two years ago--23 months ago from now, to be exact--a new radioactive cobalt source was fitted and calibrated to one of the machines used to treat patients who have problems or expected problems with cancer. The machine was calibrated with a 25 per cent. excess in the dosage. Every person who received treatment received 25 per cent. radioactivity over and above the basic dose.
There is no secret about that, except that it happened in February. Nobody checked that the equipment had been properly calibrated. It does not say very much for the physicists--they have gone with severance payments. It says very little, for the administration--quite a few of them have gone elsewhere without penalty. It says very little
Column 266frankly, for the consultants or the doctors who treated patients who had been damaged, and damaged over a period of five months. It came to pass that, in July 1988, after five months, the machine was rechecked. It should have been checked months before, but it was not. No one was penalised, except the poor patients. But then, of course, they trusted our Health Service, the consultant, the person who administered the treatment, and the nurses. Several of them spoke to the nurses and said, "I was told that it would not hurt, but it hurts. I was told that it would not burn, but it burns." One of my constituents was burnt through the breast into the back and was given, gratis, a bottle of calamine lotion and told to apply that. That does not reflect tremendously well on the quality of the care administered in that place.
Patients complained to the nurses, and some of the nurses mentioned it to the doctors, but their complaints never reached a consultant. According to the Thwaites report, not one consultant was aware of the damage done and not one consultant was aware of the complaints. I do not know why the medical hierarchy is so scared of consultants--one never speaks to them. My constituents and others were damaged for life, their life expectancy was shortened, and no one paid any attention to their complaints or queries. It is the old business--the expert knows best.
In July when the calibration was rechecked, the 25 per cent. mistake was not found, but thank God--I say that sincerely--on 12 July 1988, Exeter health authority agreed to enter into some form of national check on the equipment in use. That special check--not the routine checks, because there was none, and not a random check after five months--found the fault.
What happened then? The brief answer is, nothing. There was clearly a "fox in the henhouse" in that organisation, but the patients and the Members of Parliament knew nothing. No one was told anything for some time. Then a nurse--I do not know her name--got in touch with a national newspaper, asking whether it knew about what had happened. The paper did not know, but checked with a local reporter on the Exeter Express and Echo, who checked with me. I had not heard about it. The long and the short of it was that when the paper telephoned the hospital and said, "We're going to break this story," all of a sudden a press report was issued and a meeting held--all with such speed that all my constituents, and those of other hon. Members, also learned from local radio and television that they might have been terminally damaged.
But even then the matter was not taken as seriously as it should have been. It was a case of, "Oh well, it is an overdose, but don't worry. It'll be all right." One of my constituents was told, "Don't worry, my dear, your name isn't on the list," but she recognised on television the piece of apparatus on which she had been checked. She said, "That is the piece," and was told, "Oh yes, you are on the list." Just imagine--a young woman who is in the depths of despair is told, "You aren't on the list of those damaged,"--thank heavens, happiness--but she sees the very machine on television. What sheer inefficiency.
The then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South was very straight and said, "Yes, there has been a mistake. Yes, the Health Service- -us--is at
Column 267fault. Yes, we accept our responsibility and yes, restitution will be made." At that stage, all of us thought that something would happen swiftly.
In fact, two men were sacked. They were sacked because their machine had overdosed and because it had not been checked, but was found wanting after someone else had checked it. They were sacked, but they were paid in compensation sums that I cannot discover. The Minister says, "Ask the health authority," but the health authority says, "It's confidential." Although it is public money, the amounts are confidential. Rumour has it--I say no more than that--that one of the men received about £50,000 and the other about £40,000. They will not tell us, so I cannot prove it. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us, because those figures put into pretty shabby perspective some of the offers made to my constituents.
The employees were not prosecuted and as far as I know, they were not disciplined. They work elsewhere, but no restitution has been made to those affected, except good money to those two men as restitution for being sacked. In the businesses in which I have been involved, if one is sacked, one leaves, but not with a lot of money. Although I speak basically of my constituents, the picture is larger. The health authority identified 217 people who were treated during the period of overdosing, of whom, as at the end of last week, 121 are dead ; and 96 remain. I do not deny for a second that many of those people were terminally ill, and no one is suggesting for a moment that there has been some vast killing. That is not the case, but none the less, folk were damaged. Professor Joslin, the specialist brought in by the health authority, says that about 33 people are at no risk at all, so we are down to about 60 people. The problem is always that there is confusion. We cannot find the details. All that we can tell is that the health authority hopes to pay out what it calls PSA claims--which stands for pain and suffering allowances. It is now two years since that pain and suffering was inflicted, but the health authority only hopes to have the claims finalised by April. The pain and suffering is not finalised, but I repeat that the health authority hopes that the claims may be. The health authority admits liability. Indeed, in answer to a question in the House, I was told that insurance was not needed because the funds had been found from the authority's own resources.
Perhaps therein lies the core of the problem, because a pattern is apparent to me. There is a great dragging of feet in paying these poor people, although there is no doubt about liability. It is not like settling a claim for a car crash when, if one side has not filled in the form, its company will not pay out the loss. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton suggested way back in December last year that we should talk about some form of independent panel or assessor to put zip into the process. There is no zip whatever in the health authority.
It is not difficult to argue about why a claim cannot be paid. It is the old Catch 22. The health authority says, "Until you make a claim, we cannot pay you." The people who have been damaged and their lawyers say, "We cannot make a claim until we obtain the medical details that you hold. You who injured us hold the records that prove how much you injured us." The position changes as the weeks and months progress. The effects of radiation on