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2.22 am

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mr. Peter Hain): May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams) on securing this debate? He is an excellent Member of Parliament and I hope that he will be rewarded at the next election with re-election with a good vote from his constituents. He has carried the torch of justice for miners and is now shining a bright light on what we both believe is an indefensible irregularity.

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I agree that we should all acknowledge the part that south Wales area National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers played in achieving justice for miners in winning compensation for respiratory disease through the courts. It was a long battle against the previous Conservative Government and British Coal, and south Wales area NACODS deserves credit for spearheading it. The association certainly incurred legal costs in that fight, but they have been and are being met in full by the Government.

I want to see all the compensation due to miners going to them. The elderly, the seriously ill and the widows should get their money in full. That is their right; justice for all of their suffering demands nothing less. I must make it clear to the House that the Department of Trade and Industry, since we assumed the liabilities of British Coal, has been responsible for meeting all the trial costs not only for respiratory disease litigation, but for vibration white finger as well. The House may not be aware that, to date, the Department has paid out over £14 million in trial costs alone to the six firms of solicitors that brought proceedings against British Coal, one of which was funded by NACODS. That firm alone received a significant proportion of the £14 million paid out in costs. Discussions are continuing with the solicitors and we anticipate making further post-trial costs payments shortly. There should be no significant on-going risk to NACODS of having to meet costs in individual claims. The Department has agreed with the miners' solicitors fixed rates of payments for all successful claims, which are intended to cover all solicitors costs.

The agreed costs for most successful vibration white finger claims will be in the region of £600 plus VAT and reasonable disbursements, although in some cases the costs are dealt with on the merits of each case. For respiratory disease, the agreed costs per successful claim range from £500 for chronic bronchitis-only claims to more than £2,000 for chronic bronchitis and emphysema claims that have gone through the full medical assessment procedure.

The level of costs will also depend on the complexity of the case. For example, where the disputes procedures have been invoked or where complex special damages are being claimed, extra solicitors fees have been agreed. A full breakdown of the costs paid to solicitors is available in the handling agreements for both diseases, copies of which are in the Library.

So far, £31.8 million has been paid to solicitors handling these claims. The total bill could be in excess of £250 million. Nobody has suggested that solicitors are short-changed. No one has complained to me about the level of the fees. We have also agreed to pay costs towards the care and maintenance of all claims that were registered before June 1999, regardless of whether they are ultimately successful. In addition, the Department is meeting all the costs of the medical assessment process, including spirometry testing, records collection and the respiratory specialists' time.

We have made it clear that we do not intend to recover any of these costs where the claimant is unsuccessful. Recovery of such costs by defendants is usual in personal injury litigation. The risks to the costs of solicitors and other legal representatives in handling claims under the

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claims handling agreements is therefore low, and covers only the administrative work that they need to complete for claims that are ultimately unsuccessful.

I know that claims handlers will charge a success fee--a fixed percentage of the total compensation--much as NACODS does, for handling claims. The Department has been keen to ensure that claimants know that they can pursue their case through a solicitor without such a success fee being taken from them. Solicitors are not able to do that, as the cases are still proceedings before the court. Claimants should not have to pay success fees to anybody.

I firmly believe that the compensation paid by the Department should go to the claimants, without any third party taking a slice of the compensation. Of course, if claimants want to give some of their compensation as a donation to their union in recognition of the support that they have received in pursuing their claim, that is up to them.

The south Wales region of NACODS needs to examine its conscience if it is taking what could be substantial sums intended as compensation for the suffering miners. I understand that no other British region of NACODS takes such a slice of the compensation. The south Wales National Union of Mineworkers certainly does not, and I pay tribute to its general secretary, Wayne Thomas, for the work that he has done in securing justice for retired miners and their widows.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 provides powers for the certification officer to investigate the financial affairs of unions. However, the certification officer is an independent statutory authority and it would be wrong for the Government to interfere in his handling of individual cases. I cannot therefore write to the certification officer on this matter.

However, if any claimant wishes to make a complaint about a union financial matter, the certification officer is required to consider whether to appoint an inspector. I would therefore encourage any claimants who are experiencing difficulties to contact their solicitor or, if they do not wish to do so, their local citizens advice bureau in the first instance.

I have spent the past six weeks questioning and re-examining previous decisions and proposals, and I was delighted on 2 March when the Prime Minister announced in Swansea that we were extending fast-track and interim offers to more than 6,000 claimants. That will mean that £30 million of compensation for widows and asthma victims will be brought forward and offered quickly. That is, of course, on top of the 33,000 payments already made, totalling more than £125 million. In fact, we have now paid out more than £360 million in vibration white finger compensation throughout Britain. In Wales, £60 million has been paid. Those figures are significantly greater than the recent coal subsidy and the regeneration money paid by the previous Conservative Government at the time of the 1992 pit closures. Some £1 million is already being paid out each day on those two major schemes, but it does not stop there. I am continuing to explore ways in which we can extend interim payments even further.

Progress is being made, but it is not good enough and not quick enough for those who have suffered the tragic loss of loved ones. In the past two weeks, we have agreed with miners' solicitors on the handling of compensation

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for pension loss. That was one of the first matters that Bleddyn Hancock of south Wales NACODS raised with me, and £400 million in funding is available for that purpose. That is the last piece in the jigsaw, which means that full and final offers of compensation will be made in the next few months.

Of course, compensation can never be released quickly enough when people are suffering as many miners are. We need to bear in mind the fact that, with fresh claims coming all the time, there could be significantly more than 150,000 claims to settle. About 1,000 claims a week are still being received. We will continue to seek every means we can of reducing further delays, but that will require the co-operation of all parties. For my part, I shall ensure that the elderly and most injured are seen first. We are also prioritising widows who are claiming on behalf of their late husbands.

On vibration white finger, progress continues to be good. To date, we have settled nearly 21,500 claims and made a further 25,350 interim payments. In total, we have paid more than £235 million in compensation on vibration white finger. In Carmarthenshire, almost £2 million has been paid to 500 people. That is increasing week by week. I am delighted that claimants will see further progress in the next few months. They have a right to expect it.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, it is the Labour Government who are delivering, while others--I refer especially to Plaid Cymru--try to exploit the suffering of miners' families, widows and communities. We are delivering the programme and we expect all parties, including Plaid Cymru, to co-operate, to provide constructive criticism where it is appropriate and to make positive suggestions, which will be taken on board, as they have been previously. What matters is justice to miners and their families, widows and communities,

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which is why the Government have made available more than £2 billion to fund justice for miners who have suffered long years of ill health.

I have seen the need for such help. My constituent, Mr. Ken Herdman of Seven Sisters in the Dulais valley, Neath, is trapped at home. He is stuck in his front room, his bathroom, his living room and where he sleeps. He cannot go outside for walks like the rest of us. When he walks the few yards from his front room to his bathroom--something that we would do without even thinking about it--he has to stop to catch his breath. After he has returned from the bathroom, he takes up to half an hour to recover. All the time, his wife cares for him and is hovering in the background. It is to such long-suffering miners that the Government owe a debt. We are repaying that debt and will continue to do so.

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