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The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): The Small Business Service has been in place for seven months, and is making excellent progress. Largely as a result of its work, the Paymaster General and I can announce today that from April next year the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise will change the way in which they deal with companies in financial difficulty. They will use Crown preference to help viable companies through a difficult period by sympathetic consideration of company voluntary agreements. Given that 20 per cent. of all compulsory insolvency cases are currently initiated by the Revenue and by Customs and Excise, the new approach will potentially benefit thousands of small businesses, allowing them to overcome short-term difficulties.
Ms Keeble: I welcome that information. I also welcome the recent award of a franchise to the Small Business Service in Northamptonshire, as, I am sure, will the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell).
Mr. Byers: The new agreements that we are announcing today will be able to respond much more sympathetically to exactly those circumstances. As I have said, one in five actions in compulsory insolvency cases are currently initiated by Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue, but I think that that will change as a result of the new measures.
My hon. Friend mentioned the support that we can give to small business. I think that we shall be able to provide support through working families tax credit, and also through the new gateway that we hope will exist by Easter next year, which will offer practical sensible advice to the small business community.
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): Will the SBS report to the Secretary of State on the impact of IR35 on professional contractors? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that according to a recent poll, although 85 per cent. of those contractors may have voted Labour at the last election, only 3 per cent. intend to vote Labour again? Why have he and his Department characterised people who provide a vital service in our economy as tax dodgers, when all they want to do is accumulate money to enable their businesses to grow?
Mr. Sawford: I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he and his Department are doing to reduce the number of injuries caused by fireworks each year. I urge him to consider tighter regulations to restrict sales to organised events only, and thus end the annual ritual whereby hundreds of people suddenly go into their backyards and play with explosives. Every year hundreds of people are maimed and disfigured; sometimes there are fatalities. It is time to take tougher action to reduce those numbers.
Will my hon. Friend consider further restrictions on the availability of fireworks? [Interruption.] Just listen. Fireworks are currently let off indiscriminately for weeks before bonfire night and for weeks afterwards. That causes great anxiety, especially to elderly people, pet owners and pet lovers. It is perfectly reasonable for the Government to consider the matter.
Dr. Howells: Obviously fireworks provide a great deal of entertainment for people, because 100 million were sold last year. We would encourage people who are unhappy about buying and letting off fireworks to go to professionally organised displays, but we do not believe that there is a case for a total ban on the retail sale of fireworks. We have legislated to reduce the public's access to more powerful fireworks, but a complete ban could encourage a black market, or lead to people making devices or importing fireworks illegally.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that the 1997 regulations prohibit the supply of fireworks of erratic flight--mini rockets, aerial shells, aerial maroons, maroons in mortar and shells in mortar--does the Under-Secretary agree that before considering the extension of those regulations, which the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Sawford) favours, it would be preferable if he could first tell us what evidence he has adduced of compliance with them?
Dr. Howells: As the hon. Gentleman is such a jumping cracker, I am surprised that he forgot to mention squibs. As he knows, the rate of accidents has been decreasing since 1994. I believe that the regulations are working well and that we should keep them.
The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell): With £170 million spent on vibration white finger and £80 million on respiratory diseases, the total payment made by the Government in miners' compensation is more than £250 million. None the less, my hon. Friend is aware of the frustration that I have felt at the slow progress of payment for respiratory diseases. I am therefore happy to report considerable improvements in recent weeks.
More than 400 medical assessments a week are being made, and we should shortly see offers being made at a similar rate. In September, because of my frustration, I introduced a new scheme that provides higher and additional expedited payments. Nine thousand revised offers have been made to date, and we anticipate that in the next couple of weeks, the total will be 19,000 offers, which should amount to some £100 million. That money will be available for the mining communities between now and Christmas.
Mr. Williams: I thank my right hon. Friend for that detailed reply, and for the extra medical centres in Ystrad Mynach and Ammanford in south Wales, which we hope will be up and running before Christmas. Will she consider setting up a new office in south Wales for IRISC, the claims handling arm of the DTI, as there is considerable local demand for one? There are offices in Sheffield and Edinburgh, but a quarter of the claims are made in south Wales. Will she look carefully at the possibility of setting up an office there?
Mrs. Liddell: Certainly I have no problem with the idea of IRISC setting up an office in south Wales. We must do whatever it takes to get the claims processed. It may help my hon. Friend if I tell him that in Wales alone, £24.5 million has now been paid out in compensation, £18.8 million of that for respiratory diseases. However, for us to turn the offers that we are making into money in miners' pockets before Christmas will take co-operation between my Department and the lawyers. The Law Society has today written to solicitors throughout the country inviting them to seminars to encourage them to co-operate so that we can turn our offers into money in miners' pockets as quickly as possible.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I welcome the Minister's comments, and agree that the slow rate of progress on respiratory conditions has been frustrating. Will she particularly bear in mind the coalfields that were closed some time ago, such as those in my constituency in Somerset, where miners are older and suffer from exactly the same conditions, but may not have as easy access to the compensation mechanism?
Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point which also applies to my constituency, where the mines have been closed for a considerable time. If he requires additional assistance to enable him to keep his constituents informed, my officials stand ready to help. This is a complicated matter and I am anxious that
Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): My right hon. Friend is aware of the delays to compensation claims--many of which she has addressed, which is most welcome. Some of those delays have been caused by the requirements for evidence under the handling agreement. Much of the evidence dates back to the 1950s and is not immediately available. As a result, many claims have to go through the full medical assessment process rather than qualifying for expedited offers. Is there any way in which we can relax the requirements for evidence in an attempt to make it easier to deal with more claims under the expedited system?
Mrs. Liddell: I very much share my hon. Friend's view. The evidential trail is quite considerable, and I have talked to solicitors with a view to cutting down the requirement for medical records. It may help the House if I point out that many of the miners concerned were working in the coalfields as long ago as 1954, and that some of the medical records are 1,700 pages long. I discussed with the solicitors means of cutting the number of records required, but they made the sensible point that to identify special damages for men who have been seriously affected, there really is a need for access to medical records.
We are trying to move things along as quickly as possible. We are trying to access work histories, and if we cannot do so we will take a statement of truth, with a view to processing claims as fast as we possibly can. I ask everyone involved to co-operate at every level, and I deprecate those who are trying to spread fear about the process. We will pay the miners, but we need co-operation.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): The Minister may be trying, but she is not succeeding. Why has she not acceded to the request of her noble Friend Lord Islwyn that she resign because of her incompetent handling of this matter?
Mrs. Liddell: The House will note that there is posturing rather than penitence from the Opposition. The campaign to get compensation for miners started in 1991--[Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) laughs, but the Government whom he supported turned their back on the miners. We are acknowledging our responsibility to them--[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shouts from a sedentary position--
Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) wished for silence when he was asking questions, and I ask the same from him. He has a very bad habit of shouting across the Chamber and he will not do so.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): I know of my right hon. Friend's great endeavour in ensuring that a legal formula has been made operationally practicable. Prior to her work, that formula did not actually bring miners compensation. She has been an objective force in ensuring that the compensation scheme is extended to cover surface workers. Where do we stand now on the extension of compensation?
Mrs. Liddell: I thank my hon. Friend for his important question. In July the Government fully accepted liability for surface dust, and there is now a technical issue concerning how much respirable dust causes emphysema, and how much dust was breathed. In view of the technical issues involved, the matter should be put to the medical reference panel so that doctors for the Government and for the miners can come to an agreement on the level of surface dust to be taken into account. Acknowledging our liability for surface dust was a major move forward.