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Retired Miners' Compensation (Scotland)

1 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): I am pleased to have the chance to debate what is an important subject in my constituency and elsewhere in Scotland. My constituency has a great mining tradition and was well known for its pits, including Cardowan, Bedley and Auchengeich. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister is visiting Scotland on Friday to meet retired miners, their families and friends, particularly at the Auchengeich miners club.

It is poignant that the Minister will visit Auchengeich, where, in 1959, there was a tragic accident in which 47 men died. My father had worked there and, having died at the comparatively early age of 53 from pneumoconiosis, he was buried two days before the disaster. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be touched by the memorial in front of the miners club.

I know that my constituents are looking forward to the Minister's visit. Like me, they will want to congratulate him on his new job and on the proactive way in which he has conducted himself since the appointment was made. We welcome the energy that he is investing in the serious matter of compensation for retired miners.

We realise that there are two important distinctions to make in the debate. Payments are generally made to those suffering from respiratory problems such as emphysema and bronchitis. However, we must also remember those suffering with vibration white finger, although if my constituency is a reflection of the wider picture, that is less of a problem than the other illnesses. Many of the problems in Scotland are common to the rest of the United Kingdom, and I understand that the Minister will reply to another debate concerning Wales either today or tomorrow, depending on parliamentary progress.

On 23 January 1998, Mr. Justice Turner decided at the High Court that British Coal, formerly the National Coal Board, was negligent and that miners were eligible to claim compensation for industrial injuries. To their great credit, the Labour Government fully accepted the judge's decision without contest, and declared that between £2 billion and £3 billion would be immediately available to compensate miners as early as possible.

That declaration represented a complete change of approach. By contrast with 18 years of non-action, the principle of fair compensation was accepted quickly and honourably. Ministers made it known that the money was available. The only issue was the implementation and administration of that decision to ensure that compensation reaches those who deserve it. That remains a priority, and our urgent task is to ensure that formers miners, who have given their lives to the industry and deserve that compensation, have their entitlement recognised as quickly as possible.

In Scotland, a total of 9,665 people with respiratory diseases have made claims: 5,963 are still alive, and 3,972 are deceased. In fairness, it must be said that some of those claims go back as far as the 1940s. It is worrying that of the 9,665 claimants, only 649 have received full and final payments, which is only a 6 per cent. success rate. More sadly, 656 people have died since making

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claims. I know that the Minister is impatient about that. Like me, he knows that we are not simply talking about statistics, but about people. I sense his feeling of urgency about getting these matters right, and I welcome that. He is aware from his own constituency of the continuing concerns that people have expressed.

Many very ill people have sought to persuade me, without much difficulty, of their right to obtain that compensation to ameliorate their life style, which obviously left a great deal to be desired. The representations that they have made at my surgeries over the years have been compelling. I have been at meetings of my local branch of retired miners. The Minister's predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell), met my local branch in the Auchengeich club early last year. Officials from the Department were also present and were able to make their own assessment of the problems that are still unresolved. I share people's frustration, because the Government's policy on these important matters has not yet been implemented.

I called another meeting in Auchengeich on 9 February. One of the most telling contributions was made by a woman from the nearby village of Auchenloch. Her father, William Robertson, had worked in Lamloch pit for 27 years, all of the time underground. He died the week before the meeting at the age of 73. This was to be her parents' golden wedding year. Three years ago he was considered 100 per cent. disabled as a result of industrial disease, and after that he underwent several medical assessments. Obviously, he did not get any better and Mrs. Robertson and others, myself included, asked whether those additional assessments were necessary. We want to avoid that in future. Mr. Roberston was on oxygen for the last seven or eight years of his life--both day and night for the last three years. The meeting was told that the offer that had been made to Mr. Robertson just before he died had been withdrawn. His daughter explained her mother's fears that she will have to start from scratch and perhaps wait for another three or four years.

I sponsored that meeting jointly with the National Union of Mineworkers Scotland. We heard from the secretary Nicky Wilson. I should like to put on record my thanks for the work of the NUM Scotland, and Mr. Wilson in particular, in bringing these issues to the public's attention, and for their remarkable efforts to ensure that every case is given the attention that it deserves.

I was also grateful to hear the representatives from Healthcall, Richard Castle, Alastair Sutherland and Dick Palmer. I thank them not just for their contribution to the meeting, but for their patience in dealing with individual cases. They stayed long after the meeting had finished to interview different people, and to make it clear to my constituents that they were committed to making progress. I thank them for taking the trouble to come and explain the urgency of what they are trying to do.

Mr. Lawrence Lumsden is a solicitor from Thompsons, which advises the NUM and individual miners in Scotland. The Scottish system of using the services of only one firm of solicitors is different from the procedure used in England and Wales, and I find it

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helpful. Lawrence Lumsden made a valuable contribution to the meeting. He stressed that DSS benefit recovery was

He was concerned that even when people had been through the assessments, had had medical examinations and had had their cases confirmed, they lost out on benefits. That has been a traumatic experience for some people, and I hope that due time and reasonable discussion will resolve the problem.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's suggestions on how best to make progress. I offer a few thoughts and ideas, and invite his response. Does he intend to promote wider opportunities and special incentives? Recent initiatives have been taken as part of an urgent recruitment drive for teachers. It is clear from the evidence of Healthcall and others that there are not enough specialists to address these problems.

Would the Minister consider making payments to men whose conditions have been confirmed as the result of working in the pits and who are already receiving industrial injuries benefit? Would that not remove the need for further medical examinations? Would he consider prioritising payments to the oldest claimants, those who are most ill and widows? That would ease the considerable backlog, which we all want to attack.

I recognise that this could be a legal minefield, but perhaps the problem should not be resolved solely through recourse to the law: it should also be based on assessment of human needs and requirements. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would share that view.

I was encouraged to raise this matter today by my constituents who are genuinely concerned about getting these problems sorted out as soon as possible. There are so many people suffering, and we are genuinely seeking practical solutions to clearly identified problems. People should not be playing politics with these issues. My hon. Friend has experience of Plaid Cymru in Wales, but I would not say the same of Scottish Nationalist party activities. However, we also have the Scottish Socialist party. During the long period in which we were putting forward case after case and fighting for the principle to be accepted--as it eventually was by this Government--I do not recall any participation by the Scottish Socialist party. Because we live in a pluralist society, I welcome its support, but suspect that the Minister and I and others will still be fighting for the cause long after that particular fringe political interest has disappeared.

Labour in government has established the principle of compensation, and I welcome that ungrudgingly. I do not wish to dilute what is an extremely important and welcome decision. I believe that the Government will continue to get it right. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will give us further examples of the Government's practical achievements, such as the new medical centre at Stirling, which I also welcome. I thank the Minister in advance of his speech and his visit. I know of his concern and compassion. He believes, as I do, that in this case, as in so many others, justice delayed is justice denied.

1.15 pm

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mr. Peter Hain ): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr.

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Clarke) for securing the debate and for his kind remarks. It gives me the opportunity to acknowledge his diligence and energy in securing justice for many of the former miners in his constituency. We are all sorry and disturbed about the tragic case of Mr. Robinson. It is part of my job to ensure that such a case does not happen again. If my right hon. Friend wishes to draw to my attention specific aspects of the case, I will happily take them up.

We will look into the other positive and constructive suggestions that my right hon. Friend made, based on his experience. We are trying to recruit, partly by advertising more widely, a large number of additional respiratory consultants because there is a national shortage. I undertake to look at his other proposals, although I am bound by a court judgment, which has been both an opportunity and a frustration. We would not have started from this position. When the Labour Government of the 1970s granted compensation for pneumoconiosis, they were not constrained and straitjacketed, as they are now.

I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend for his invitation to visit his constituency later this week. I look forward to learning at first hand the views of his constituents on this important issue in Auchengeich on Friday, not least because of the close ties of solidarity between former mining communities such as mine in Neath in south Wales and his in Scotland.

I have been in post for some six weeks. I acknowledge fully the work of our Scottish colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell), my predecessor. When I took over from her this mammoth task--we must not forget that it is the biggest personal injury claim ever made in the UK and possibly the world--I committed myself to ensuring that every claimant received his full entitlement as quickly and fairly as possible. Miners are a special case and that is why the issue is a top priority for my Department and for me. I welcome the opportunity to tackle it. Bringing justice to miners and to their widows is my mission and I shall do everything I can in that aim, working with all those who, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts, share it. I have met the solicitors representing the claimants, the mining union representatives and the Department's own contractors but, most importantly, I have also travelled throughout the country meeting the claimants themselves. They gave me the message that things have started to improve, but that much more needs to be done. I agree.

I stress again that we would not have started from this position, but we are committed to the legal process that we inherited from the previous Government and to a scheme bound by complex legal proceedings. I have spent the past six weeks questioning and re-examining previous decisions and proposals and I was delighted when on 2 March my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that we were extending fast-track and interim offers to more than 6,000 claimants. That means that £30 million of compensation will be offered quickly to widows and to claimants likely to develop asthma; indeed, more than £2.5 million was offered to the asthma group yesterday. That is in addition to the 33,000 payments that have already been made, the cost of which has been more than £125 million. More than £360 million has been paid in compensation for vibration white finger, which is significantly more than

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the recent coal subsidy and the regeneration money provided by the previous Conservative Government in response to the 1992 pit closures.

The two major schemes are already receiving £1 million a day, but that is not all. I am continuing to explore how to extend interim payments still further.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) on securing this excellent debate and on ably expressing the views of people in his constituency, in my constituency and throughout the country.

I welcome the Minister's recent announcement and the news that he will visit Fife on Friday. Will he be able to assure his and my constituents, and those of my right hon. Friend, that the majority of cases will have been fully and finally settled in a year's time?

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair ): That was verging on a speech, but I will allow it on this occasion.

Mr. Hain : The Government and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) are pursuing the same course of justice. I acknowledge her close pursuit of it. We are making massive progress and we will be accelerating rapidly over the coming months, so that tens of thousands of cases will have been settled by this time next year and the claimants will have received the justice that they deserve.

In the past two weeks, the Government and the miners' solicitors have agreed how compensation for loss of pension will be handled. We have made £400 million available for compensation for loss of pensions. That is the last piece of the jigsaw. Over the next few months, full and final offers of compensation will be made in tens of thousands of cases. That will answer, at least in part, the significant concern expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston about the importance of final settlements and claimants who are still in the system.

On 24 September 1999, the Government and the solicitors acting for miners in England and Wales finalised and signed the handling agreement, which set out the procedures for settling respiratory disease claims. Prior to the signing, the Government commenced discussions with Scottish solicitors representing the 9,700 Scottish claimants to adapt the agreement to take into consideration the differences between English and Welsh law and Scottish law.

The Scottish agreement was signed in June last year. There are about 5,700 live claimants in Scotland. Healthcall, which is carrying out the spirometry programme for my Department, has contacted almost all of them and more than 4,500 of them have already undergone tests.

In October 1999, Healthcall was awarded the contract to deliver the full medical assessment process, which is, for many claimants, the next stage after the screening spirometry. Since full medical assessments commenced in Scotland in February last year, more than 1,500 claimants have been assessed at centres in Ayr, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lochore and Stirling, and a further 150 appointments have been booked. In addition, 1,470 Scottish estate claims have been

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assessed, or referred to respiratory consultants. So far, 30 per cent. of Scottish claimants have been assessed. They will soon be returned to the claims handlers for compensation to be calculated and settled, so that the cheques can be rolled out.

It is vital to get the compensation offers right, so that a thorough quality check is built into the system. However, as the process has speeded up and more medicals have been completed, that check has started to slow the system down. That bottleneck was identified as a priority by a regular review of progress and the contractor has now engaged extra resources. That will result in twice as many claims being processed to clear up the backlog, which amounts to 1,000 a week for the next 12 weeks. It means that more victims and their families will receive their money sooner.

Once the backlog has been dealt with, the Government should be in a position to process an average of about 600 medical assessment procedures per week, but I want to aim higher. Subject to the availability of lung specialists, with all the other resources that we have put in place, we will be able to handle up to 1,000 cases each week. As previously promised, wherever I find problems in the process, I will work with all those involved to implement speedy solutions.

I give just one example. Because of the special nature of claims in Scotland, IRISC, the Department's claims handling agents, opened an Edinburgh-based office, which has allowed Scottish solicitors to have more direct contact with the settlement process. In addition, the Scottish sub-group of the monitoring group, established by my predecessor to assess progress on the claims, meets monthly. Miners' interests are represented by the Scottish National Union of Mineworkers, solicitors and my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), to whom I pay tribute for his work.

From the spirometry results, we have so far identified more than 1,200 potential offers of full and final payments in Scotland. Of those, 650 have been accepted and paid, totalling more than £2.8 million. We have continued to make interim payments to ex-Scottish miners and their families wherever possible, which in Scotland have totalled more than £6.8 million. A total of £9.6 million has so far been paid in Scotland for lung disease alone. Compensation can, of course, never be released quickly enough when people are suffering, as so many miners are. We also need to bear in mind the fact that, with fresh claims coming in all the time, there could be well over 150,000 claims to settle. About 1,000 a week are still being received. We shall continue to seek every means that we can of reducing further delays. That will

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require the co-operation of all parties. For my part, I shall ensure that the elderly and most injured are seen first, which had not been happening. We are also prioritising widows who are claiming on behalf of their late husbands.

Progress on vibration white finger continues to be good. To date, we have settled almost 21,500 claims, 2,000 of which were in Scotland, and made a further 25,350 interim payments, 1,680 of which were in Scotland. In total, we have paid more than £235 million in compensation for vibration white finger, of which £15 million has been paid in Scotland. I am delighted that claimants will see further progress in the next few months, which they have a right to expect.

It has been a long and difficult road to get this far after years of obstruction and an abject failure to honour the justice of the miners' case for compensation by the previous Conservative Government. We can now see the light of justice burning at the end of the tunnel. Claimants have so far shown exceptional patience, far beyond what could reasonably have been expected of them. I pledge the Government's commitment to deliver for them. We have the machinery in place to do the work that would have taken the courts more than 15 years to clear, and significant sums of money are starting to flow.

As I said, a particular anxiety of mine is that younger, fitter men have been seen ahead of older, sicker men, because both the solicitors and the contractors, Healthcall, were simply booking people in on a first come, first served basis. Frankly, that is unacceptable. I have now insisted that Healthcall and the solicitors reprioritise those still in the system with appointments over the coming months. Even if that means younger, fitter miners having their appointments put back a little--which is less of a problem in Scotland than in areas such as south Wales and the north-east--I am sure that they will understand that the cases of older, sicker miners need to be dealt with first. Tragically, some have died, because of their illness in part, before they received justice and compensation will now go to their widows.

I, too, have visited many retired miners in their homes and seen the tragic circumstances in which they live. They are frequently trapped on the ground floor, unable to climb the stairs and almost unable to make the short journey from living room to bathroom without having to pause to catch their breath and to recover from a walk that the rest of us would not even notice. For them, it is a journey of miles. I pay tribute to those miners. We shall deliver justice. I also pay tribute to their wives, who care for them in the most difficult circumstances. This is about justice and dignity. It is about redeeming the debt that we owe to miners--and to their families--who sacrificed their most precious asset, their health, to work underground, so that we can live in comfort.

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