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27 Nov 2001 : Column 242WH

Retired Miners (Compensation)

1.30 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): I am grateful to have obtained a debate on the important subject of compensation for retired miners and, by implication, widows. The subject was raised in the House, and in Westminster Hall on 13 March when we last debated the matter at my request.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy will be aware that the matter is on-going, but important. I welcome him to his comparatively new responsibilities, but as he comes from Ayrshire with all its mining influences, I am sure that he understands all the issues and how those of us in Lanarkshire feel. We recognise that he also has responsibilities for such matters in the United Kingdom.

Compensation for miners is of great concern to my constituents. I am grateful to my local branch of the Retired Miners Association, which meets frequently, and especially to the branch secretary, Eddie Hendry, and the chairman, Peter Downie, who ensure that I am kept fully informed on the matter and who invite me to meetings. At the last meeting on 26 October, I undertook to seek the debate and am pleased to have been able to obtain it so quickly.

I am also grateful to the National Union of Mineworkers in Scotland. The Minister will understand that my thoughts are with the union today when it struggles with the problem of Longannet. We trust that it can save as many jobs as possible in that difficult situation.

I sought the debate because, despite the progress made since we last discussed the matter in Westminster Hall, there are still great problems with regard to compensation, prioritisation and ensuring that if tests are necessary they are carried out with the maximum sensitivity. When decisions are taken, they should be implemented as speedily as possible.

I am aware of the backdrop to the issue of compensation for retired miners. There was inactivity and indolence for 18 years, and the new Labour Government took on the responsibility and accepted that there were problems. The Minister is aware of the Government's sensitivity in recognising the suffering, pain and hardship of people with lung disease, such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema, the consequences of which we have both seen in our constituencies and elsewhere. The Minister is also aware of the suffering of those who have experienced the problems of vibration white finger.

We are debating again today the biggest industrial compensation scheme in history, perhaps in the world. Unfortunately, there are still many people who recognise the concept but feel that it simply has not yet applied to them in their homes and villages. In March this year, the estimated costs were £2.4 billion for the lung scheme and £2.1 billion for vibration white finger—£4.5 billion in total. The Minister will have the up-to-date figures, but I understand that the total has gone up to £5 billion. Of course, that money is welcome, but the concern is—as it has been since the scheme was announced—to ensure that compensation is delivered.

I am revisiting the debate that I was able to obtain on 13 March 2001 because there are outstanding issues in Scotland and in other important mining areas of the

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United Kingdom. When the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Peter Hain), replied to the previous debate, he acknowledged those problems. Concerns remain about implementation and administration to ensure that the compensation reaches the miners and the widows, many of whom have waited for far too long.

A few days after the then Minister replied to that debate, he was kind enough to come to Scotland and visit my constituency. He visited the Miners Institute of Auchengeich, which was appropriate because in 1959 Auchengeich experienced the ultimate sacrifice when 47 men were killed in a dreadful disaster. To many people, that remains the price of coal. I pay tribute to him and to all my colleagues who have held that post, including my hon. Friend who will reply to the debate today.

On his visit to Scotland, the then Minister met Lawrence Lumsden, the solicitor who advises the National Union of Mineworkers in Scotland, as well as retired miners and their families. That visit was very welcome, and Mr. Lumsden acknowledges that much progress has been made. Given Mr. Lumsden's standing on these issues—he is mentioned a good deal in the Library notes—I would like to draw my hon. Friend's attention to some of the points that he made in a paper that he provided me with only yesterday. I make these points for the record, as I am sure my hon. Friend will understand that, with the greatest respect to him and to his predecessors in that post, it is only fair that Mr. Lumsden's views are noted in this debate.

Mr. Lumsden said:

He went on to say that

I am sure that my hon. Friend can give us more up-to-date figures.

The previous Minister, on a visit to Scotland on 16 March 2001, forecast that the rate of payment would increase dramatically over the following six months to the end of September, rising across the United Kingdom to a total of £360 million. The actual amount paid out to miners by the end of September was £210 million, which is about £150 million short of the forecast.

In Scotland, the forecast was for £26.1 million to be paid out by the end of September. The actual amount paid was £16.7 million. My hon. Friend will understand that we are keen to distribute the other £10 million to those in Scotland who qualify for it and who very much need it.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is too experienced to take this personally, but Mr. Lumsden states:

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I accept that that is pessimistic and extremely worrying, but my hon. Friend will recognise that it is what many people think, not least in my own constituency. Although the situation has improved for many people since the spring, frustrations remain for those who are still looking forward to settlements, and have been for a long time.

At the meeting in Auchengeich on 26 October, I had a brief discussion with a man named Alex Anderson, who was 75 years old and had a 75 per cent. loss of lung function. He was a widower living with his son Brian. I have a poignant recollection of his comment to me: "Tom, by the time these payments are fully made, some of us won't be around." Sadly, he died the following week. Another constituent, Arthur Stewart, died last week in Muirhead. He was 69 and had a 40 per cent. loss of lung function. Again, the final settlement that people are desperate about had not been received.

I know that my hon. Friend agrees on the need to prioritise claims, and I welcome everything that he has said and done since taking up his post. However, it is because of our interest in prioritising claims that we are still calling for improved procedures, extra resources where necessary and more urgent payments to needy groups, including widows. Is the Minister satisfied that medical assessments are completed as quickly as they should be, and is he constantly reviewing Healthcall's performance?

My right hon. Friend, the then Minister, said in the debate on 13 March:

He went on:

Has my hon. Friend the Minister obtained the views of the Scottish sub-group of the monitoring group on the progress of this and other matters? I am sure that he welcomes, as do I, the appointment to that monitoring group of our hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire). She replaces Eric Clarke, who did an absolutely first-class job. Has my hon. Friend had discussions with them about the input of IRISC Claims Management's Edinburgh office? I am sure that it would argue that older, sicker miners need to be dealt with first.

There is evidence that, because of the way in which respiratory tests work and because the process moves on to the second stage, the vast majority of offers have been made not to men with the most severe disabilities but to men suffering from lesser complaints. I cannot believe that it is fair for compensation of hundreds of pounds to be given precedence over compensation that runs to thousands of pounds and is obviously vital in cases of chronic bronchitis or emphysema.

I should like to ask a few quick technical questions. Will my hon. Friend comment on the implementation of schedule 10 as a calculating model? There is much

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concern in England and Wales about the many lawyers involved, but in Scotland there is only one. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) had an answer to that on the Floor of the House. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend could comment on that. Would he also ensure that up-to-date Compensation Recovery Unit certificates are on file when full and final offers are made? Will he afford appropriate authority to the Department's claim-handling contractors, IRISC Claims Management, to negotiate full and final settlement amounts with solicitors without referring back to the Department of Trade and Industry civil servants in London, sometimes on relatively minor matters?

I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend for what he is about to say, and by inviting him to visit my constituency where he will be made very welcome. He should tell it straight and let my constituents, the people of Scotland and the former miners of Britain know that he is on their side and is determined to ensure that this scheme works with the utmost urgency.

1.46 pm

The Minister for Industry and Energy (Mr. Brian Wilson): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) for giving me this opportunity to update hon. Members on our progress on the compensation schemes for vibration white finger and respiratory disease. I shall deal with as many points as I can, and I shall write to him about those that I do not reach.

I am in no doubt of the importance and the emotive nature of this issue and the strength of feeling to which it gives rise in the mining communities. My right hon. Friend made an important point that should be reinforced: whatever the problems with administering the scheme and putting a system in place that will deal with claims more effectively, the Government have accepted the legal and moral obligation to meet all the claims of miners, former miners, and their widows and families. It took so long to reach that point, and there is an ever increasing sense of urgency. A large number of claims are being pressed, many of them relating to events that took place many years ago. If that responsibility had been accepted long ago, we would not be faced with such a compressed timetable, which is the source of many of our difficulties.

Although I have done a great deal to solve these problems since I became the Energy Minister, this is the first time that I have replied to a debate on the coal health issue. I welcome the opportunity, and should also like to reinforce the point that, with over 300,000 claims registered, this is the biggest personal injury scheme in the UK, and indeed in the world. It is absolutely enormous. More than 1,200 new claims continue to be received each week, so it is impossible to say when the final claims will be settled. Therefore, even the figures that my right hon. Friend quoted are speculative. No one can say that the final figure will be £4.5 billion or £6 billion, as is being predicted, because we do not have all the claims yet. It is important to emphasise that there is no cap in the scheme; each case will be judged on its merits and payment will be made in full. There is not a certain size of cake that must be divided between a finite number of claimants.

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In letters to my hon. Friends that they pass to me, the feeling is often expressed—it has been encouraged in some quarters—that there is a clandestine benefit to the Government in delaying payment, because the claims will go away. I stress that none of the claims will go away. There is no Government vested interest in delaying settlement, because ultimately the Government will pay more if the ex-miner has died than they will if a claim is settled while the miner is still alive. It is in our interest to deal with claims as promptly and fairly as possible.

It is important to stress that we are not acting unilaterally. It is fair for my right hon. Friend to quote the views of solicitors, and it is fair for me to say that we cannot do anything without agreeing with solicitors. Structures were in place long before I was around for agreeing how to proceed through consensus with solicitors. The solicitors have to answer for the positions that they take in reaching that consensus. The Government cannot, with a stroke of the pen, make everything work more efficiently. Solicitors, rightly, represent their clients' interests, and they are cautious about any changes to or refinements of the scheme. They have to judge the likely impact on their clients.

The structure is working well, but it is worth bearing in mind the fact that, when solicitors complain about delay, at least part of the problem is due to the structure, which I am sure they would not sacrifice.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): Why cannot the letter saying that the claim has been finalised be written to the claimant rather than to the solicitor? There are delays in solicitors' offices; solicitors get the cheque, which goes into their account where it might stay for a couple of months before the client knows that he has his final settlement.

Mr. Wilson : My hon. Friend is right. At a recent meeting of the Welsh monitoring group, our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) mentioned six cases in which there had been inordinate delays. In three of those cases, payment had been made, but it was lying in the solicitors' office. Such things happen, and I have discussed with solicitors ways in which they could deal more efficiently with large numbers of claims. Solicitors are paid; they do not act out of philanthropy, so there is no reason why they should not have people to answer the phones and to deal expeditiously with the business. I am willing to listen to criticisms of solicitors, but I must point out that we work with them in everything we do.

Another constraint on our ability to act unilaterally is the fact that we can act only within the terms of the judgment, which is complex. It insists that each case should be settled individually according to the particular circumstances of the individual ex-miner, which is in the interests of the claimant. Any talk about blanket payments is outwith the terms of the scheme, because it would disadvantage many claimants, as some would end up getting much more money than they would do if there were an across-the-board settlement.

My right hon. Friend referred to a constituent to whom he had spoken a week before he died. That is the ultimate tragedy, but it is in the nature of the scheme. The long delay between the men retiring from the pits and lodging claims means that many of them will be very

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old and very sick. Therefore, the challenge is to minimise the number of people who die before their claims are met. Given the chronology, that will sometimes happen, but our highest priority is to minimise the number of such cases.

I had a productive meeting recently with solicitors representing claimants. I also met mining union representatives, coalfield campaigners and the Department's contractors under the auspices of the ministerial monitoring groups. I went to coalfield areas, including Cumnock, where I met claimants and heard their views. Their overwhelming message, which I took on board, was that we need to do more to deliver the benefits of the scheme.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough): I thank the Minister for giving way, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) on securing this important debate. The Minister met some former miners from Barnsley a fortnight ago to discuss the issue, and I thank him on their behalf. They really appreciated his attendance. MPs from the mining areas appreciate the enormous number of claims before the Minister and the problems that he faces. He is sincere in wanting to clear the claims as quickly as possible.

Will my hon. Friend say something about the bereavement awards, which are based entirely on paper evidence, such as the death certificate and the former miner's work record? Such claims should be dealt with in a much shorter time than they are at present; they should be on a fast track.

Mr. Wilson : I agree with my hon. Friend in principle. A bereavement is a bereavement; I do not know why there should be any delay in confirming it. Part of my approach, on which we have made progress with the solicitors, is to try to stop the paper chase—the exchange of correspondence about work records.

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Sometimes there are letters about what people were doing 30 or 40 years ago, which go into the finest points of detail, before an offer is made. Agreeing with the solicitors that their client will have the right to accept a full and final offer based on our information is one of the factors that will speed up the number of such offers.

I am aware that time is moving on and, as I said earlier, I shall write to my right hon. Friend and to hon. Members who raised matters that have not been dealt with in the debate. I want to correct the impression that nothing is happening, because a lot is happening and a lot of money is being paid out. In order to give hon. Members better information, as from today constituency breakdowns of payment figures will be available on the website.

I have today written to all hon. Members who are dealing with registered claims. For example, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), £16.28 million has been paid to claimants for vibration white finger and £5.5 million to claimants for respiratory disease. Roughly £22 million has gone into that mining community, as of absolute right. I believe that the figures will ultimately be eight or 10 times that. That gives me no satisfaction, but it is important that people know that progress is being made and money is being paid. For the most obvious and natural reasons, people who do not receive money sometimes talk about it more loudly than those who do, but it is important that my hon. Friends have that information. In the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston, the problem is not of Barnsley proportions, but £500,000 has been paid out for vibration white finger and £358,000 for respiratory disease.

I never turn down an invitation to visit Coatbridge, although I have not received many.

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