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Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [31 January],

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Line 40, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 50, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 52, at the end insert the words:--
'(4A) notwithstanding paragraphs (2) and (4) above, where more than two committees or sub-committees appointed under this order meet concurrently in accordance with paragraph (4)(e) above, the quorum of each such committee or sub-committee shall be two.'--[Mrs. McGuire.]

Hon. Members: Object.

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Miners' Compensation (South Wales)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mrs. McGuire.]

2.4 am

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for calling him to the House at this very late hour, but the circumstances were well beyond my control and that of other Labour Members.

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker and the authorities here for allowing me the opportunity of an Adjournment debate on the levy imposed on miners' compensation settlements by the south Wales area of the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers--NACODS. When the High Court found in favour of the miners in its historic decision of January 1998, I was delighted for the hundreds of thousands of former miners across Britain. I represent a coal mining area, so I am fully aware of the lung disease and ill health of former miners and I was delighted by the immediate acceptance of Government responsibility by our then Minister for Energy and Industry, who is now the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle).

The legal action had been brought by the south Wales area of NACODs and, over the succeeding weeks and months, I had every regard for Bleddyn Hancock, its general secretary, for his work and achievements despite his active support for Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party.

On 24 September 1999, a constituent, Mr. Tommy Williams of Glanamman, came to see my in my surgery. Now aged 70, he is a former miner and has been an active member of NACODs since 1958. He told me that, along with about 200 other members of the south Wales area, in the early 1990s, he had volunteered £800 to finance the legal action and to be screened to be one of the eventual test cases. Now that the legal action is over and costs have been reimbursed, he wants his £800 refunded as was originally promised.

Mr. Williams had attended a recent branch meeting about his own compensation claim and was asked to sign a form to pay a levy for his eventual settlement. The declaration concerned NACODS acting on his behalf in all matters involving the claim and the agreement concluded:

Mr. Williams refused to sign and felt that the union was wrong in imposing the levy. The legal action was over, and there was no new major cost in processing his claim.

Mr. Williams was also bitterly critical of Mr. Bleddyn Hancock. I had not met Mr. Williams previously, but he is a member of the Labour party and deeply resented Mr. Hancock's incessant attacks on the Labour Government, accusing them at every juncture of bad faith in processing the miners' claims. I raised these matters with NACODS nationally in a letter to Peter McNestry and I was very surprised to learn that the south Wales area had ceded from the national union in June 1998.

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NACODS nationally had no levy, but charged £50 administrative costs for successful claims in industrial injury actions.

I then took up Mr. Williams's case with Mr. Bleddyn Hancock. After three or four robust exchanges of correspondence, there was no progress. Mr. Hancock vigorously defended his union's right to impose a levy on every individual that it helped, despite the fact that it was a class action involving thousands of claimants.

In a conversation on 13 January 2000, Mr. Williams quoted a settlement just agreed for a fellow NACODS member. The award was for £150,000 less a clawback of £5,000, giving £145,000. The levy of 5 per cent. would then give the union £7,250.

On 29 March 2000, I wrote to the certification office for trade unions and employer associations, asking it to investigate the above matters and for copies of recent annual reports for the NACODS south Wales area. In those reports, the membership from 1994 to the present is listed as 45, 45, 45, 854, 45, 40 in 1999 and about 30 today. I was staggered to find that the south Wales area of NACODS is such a tiny trade union. Mr. Bleddyn Hancock is regularly described as a south Wales miners' leader, as if he were the equivalent of Dai Francis or Will Paynter. The army that he represents is a mere shell of a trade union, with just 30 working members. The anomalous figure of 854 members for 1997 may represent retired miners.

Over the next six months, the certification office conducted a detailed informal investigation under the powers of section 37A of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, as amended. As a result of its investigation, the £800 initially paid by Mr. Williams was reimbursed last May. On the more general question of the NACODS levy, the certification officer, Mr. Whybrew, took a fairly dispassionate view and decided not to appoint inspectors for a formal investigation. In his last letter to me, dated 19 October 2000, he said:

Sadly, that is the position of my constituent, Mr. Williams. On 16 May 2000, Mr. Hancock wrote to him, restating the arguments for the levy and inviting him to leave the association. After 40 years as a loyal and active member of NACODS, that is Mr. Williams's decision.

I turn now to a 25-minute television programme, "Dragon's Eye", shown on BBC 2 Wales on Thursday 8 February this year. I had discussions with one of the presenters, Mr. Guto Thomas, during preparation of the programme. It contained considerable new material on NACODS south Wales area and the role of Mr. Bleddyn Hancock. I have the programme on video and I have carefully studied a transcript. Most of the time is taken up with a searching interview with Mr. Hancock by the presenter, Mr. David Williams.

As regards the levy, the point is put repeatedly that all the legal costs are being reimbursed by the Government, so why should members have to pay a 5 or 10 per cent. levy from their settlements? Mr. Hancock concedes that

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the union could raise millions of pounds from the levy, argues that it has always been union policy and says that the money will be used to finance future legal actions.

The programme contained material, which was new to me, on the South Wales Occupational Health Project, a limited company set up by Mr. Hancock and others which involved the recruitment of thousands of miners from Yorkshire, Lancashire and south Wales for legal claims against the Government. A voluntary contribution of 7 per cent. of compensation settlements was involved, although Mr. Hancock says that the contributions were never collected, as the case was won before they were required.

The programme concluded with a lengthy cross-examination of Mr. Hancock's personal terms of employment and how decisions on his salary were reached. A study of the annual reports for 1998 and 1999 show that the general secretary's salary in 1997 was £12,158; in 1998, it was £26,950; and in 1999, it was £47,612. It doubled in 1998, increased by 80 per cent. in 1999 and increased fourfold over two years. That is for a part-time job, three days a week. I should add that Mr. Hancock receives £8,500 a year for one day a week as trustee of the miners' pension funds. In addition, form AR 21 on page 17 of the 1999 annual report gives a car allowance of £18,000. The programme also revealed an exceptional figure of a £70,000 salary for the general secretary in 1995. Those are highly eccentric salary changes, and the exchanges on those matters raised more questions than they answered.

Following transmission of the programme, the South Wales Argus, a vocal supporter of Mr. Hancock throughout the years, published an editorial on 9 February headed "End the levy, Mr. Hancock". It said:

It concluded:

I want the Department of Trade and Industry to consider the matters carefully and the Minister to ask the certification officer to appoint inspectors to conduct an investigation under powers in section 37(1)(b) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

Let me summarise my concerns. First, is it right that NACODS south Wales area charges a 5 or 10 per cent. levy on compensation settlements when NACODS nationally and the National Union of Mineworkers have no such levy? I understand that a levy may be reasonable at an individual level if there is an accident or injury at work, but this is a class action involving 100,000 claimants. The union is not involved in further litigation; it is merely helping solicitors to process individual claims, the costs of which are fully reimbursed. The levy is simply being used for a windfall gain. It is immoral to take money from miners' pockets.

Secondly, how were decisions reached on the 5 and 10 per cent. levy? Mr. Hancock claims that the levy has always been union policy, but south Wales area NACODS

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only ceded from the national union in June 1998. Why did the south Wales area split from the national union? The 5 or 10 per cent. formula was introduced for individual personal injury claims. There should have been fresh discussions on its application to something as uniquely large as the chest disease settlement.

I understand that only working members have a vote; retired members have no vote. Is it right that a small handful of people--just 30 working members--impose the 5 per cent. levy on 1,000 to 2,000 retired members who have no vote? Lapsed members also have no vote, but are asked to contribute 10 per cent. of their settlements. Should not the old maxim "no taxation without representation" apply?

Thirdly, what is the role of solicitors in the administration of the levy? At my surgery on 24 September 1999, my constituent, Mr. Williams, told me that he had received an interim payment of £2,000 from his solicitors, Hugh James and Co of Merthyr Tydfil. Before they made payment, he was required to send a cheque for £100--the 5 per cent. levy--to NACODS. It appears that Hugh James was acting in such a way as to enforce the levy. Is that the company's general practice? If so, it is effectively aiding and abetting the enforcement of the levy. Is that ethical? I thought that a solicitor was meant to act directly on someone's behalf, but it appears that there is an odd arrangement between that firm of solicitors and south Wales area NACODS in the collection of the levy. Is that legal and proper?

Fourthly, what is the money for? South Wales area NACODS has only 30 working members, but has about 2,000 retired and lapsed members. It is expected that compensation settlements may average £20,000 each. If there is a 5 or 10 per cent. levy, the total income will be a windfall of more than £1 million. Indeed, Mr. Hancock concedes that order of magnitude in the television programme. What is the money for when there are only 30 working members and two members of staff?

Fifthly, the salary arrangements for the general secretary have given eccentric results. Are there proper accountable procedures? If there is a windfall of revenue due to that tiny trade union, the certification officer must be satisfied that there is proper decision-making apparatus.

Finally, south Wales area NACODS and Mr. Bleddyn Hancock, its general secretary, have rendered a terrific service to all miners through their High Court action. That action is now behind us. The Government are delivering due and proper compensation to miners and their widows, and reimbursing solicitors and trade unions for all their legal costs. The levy is therefore improper and cannot be justified. As the South Wales Argus said on 9 February, "End the levy, Mr. Hancock".

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