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The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): We are making real progress in speeding up medical assessments and compensation payments for retired miners. We are paying out about £1 million in compensation every day, and shortly we will have paid out £500 million across our country. I particularly thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Peter Hain) for all the work that they
Mr. O'Brien: What action does my right hon. Friend intend to take in response to representations about claims that have been outstanding for four or five years? Constituents of ours who are in their mid-80s are still waiting for compensation. Some people fear that they will not receive the benefit while they are living. It is unacceptable that claims made four or five years ago have still not been met. Will my right hon. Friend take action to ensure that those long-standing claims are met without further delay, so that our constituents receive what they are entitled to while they are alive?
Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with the points made by my hon. Friend. We have already put in place a system to prioritise the compensation claims of the oldest miners and the sickest miners, so that they go to the top of the queue for the medical assessment that has to be done before the compensation can be paid. We are determined to ensure that those assessments are made by spring next year. We are carrying them out as quickly as we can, because that is the right thing to do.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I entirely accept the right hon. Lady's good faith, but will she be a little more expeditious and try to ensure that all the claims are settled by spring next year? It is extremely important that they should be.
Ms Hewitt: The scheme is the largest personal injury compensation scheme that has ever been established in our country. No one has ever done that before. We have already received 150,000 claims. We do not know how many more will come inthey are still coming in every week. If those cases had been pursued individually
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is the Secretary of State aware that more than 300 lawyers are involved in the settlement of the claimsa lot more than would have been involved if the NUM areas had remained intact? They include a lot of fly-by-night lawyers. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how much they are likely to get out of the £4 billion that has been set aside for claims in respect of chronic bronchitis and emphysema and vibration white finger? Can she tell us whether some of them are dragging their feet deliberately? All of them receive a handling fee that is provided by the Government and comes from the taxpayers' pocket. When my right hon. Friend looks into ways of speeding up the claims, will she deal with those legal people who are holding up a lot of claims in order to line their own pockets?
Ms Hewitt: I think that the problem of having 300 lawyers involved in the claims has been very real. We are now dealing better with the solicitors' group and agreeing a faster way forward to get the cases resolved and money paid out. Mr. Justice Turner, the High Court judge who has been hearing the case, confirmed last November that we had to have a complex system in order to achieve fairness. That means, for instance, that we have to pay lawyers for up to one and a half hours' legal advice to help claimants to fill in the assessment forms, which are necessarily complex. Our objective is to get fair compensation to those miners as quickly as possible. We will pay the lawyers a fair fee, but we will not let them hold up the process.
Yesterday, along with colleagues on the Opposition Benches, I voted against the draft special educational needs code of practice because it was flawed and did not recognise the individual and specific needs of children. I am pleased to see that the Government withdrew the code later in the day. Will the Leader of the House outline how the Government will now proceed with the code, particularly as we are coming not only to the parliamentary recess but to the long summer holidays in the educational world? Parents, teachers and Members of Parliament would be anxious if the Government were to publish their changes to the code during the summer weeks when there is no proper opportunity to scrutinise them. How do the Government intend to proceed with this matter?
Earlier this week, the press reported that there are to be significant changes in the Cabinet Office in respect of the way in which the Government deal with national crises. Apparently, as a result of the way they handled the fuel crisis last year and the foot and mouth crisis this year, there are to be changes in the way COBRAthe Cabinet Committee that deals with crisesis run. When the Deputy Prime Minister returns to these shores, could he be asked to come to the House before we rise for the summer recess so that we might all be apprised of the Government's thinking on the way in which national crises are dealt with?
FinallyI am sure that I do not need to ask this questionwill the Leader of the House reassure us that the Prime Minister will be available in the coming week to make a statement to the House on the talks on Northern Ireland?