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The Minister for Employment and the Regions (Alan Johnson): The Department is working closely with the industry's own textile and clothing strategy group to help to improve the industry's productivity and competitiveness. The Government have invested more than £80 million in the industry since 1997, and in the last
Mr. Reed: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. He knows that, over the years, I and other members of the all-party group on clothing and textiles have asked for more help and more money. It is welcome that, at last, some efforts are being put in which are making a real difference on the ground.
Does my hon. Friend agree with me and James McAdam, who is the chairman of the textile and clothing strategy group, that we cannot afford to be complacent, and that much more needs to be done to ensure a vibrant future for our textile industry in this country?
Alan Johnson: I agree with my hon. Friend that there is no cause for complacency. The industry has drawn up 55 recommendations which are being actioned; indeed, a report is due to be published shortly by the industry-led group on how Government can help the industry further. However, the textile industry realisesas does my hon. Friend, who has been its doughty championthat it will need to make itself more globally competitive in order to ensure its success.
Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): What action are the Government taking to allow high-energy users in sectors such as knitting, spinning and weaving, which are not using IPPCinternational pollution prevention controlprocesses, to enter the sectoral agreement and thereby claim a rebate from the climate change levy? They will otherwise be at a serious disadvantage. If the Minister is unable to give a detailed reply now, will he write to me with such a reply?
Alan Johnson: I am always delighted to write to the hon. Gentleman. However, he should know that, since the pre-Budget report, representations have been made on behalf of those specific sectors as regards the climate change levy. Those representations are under consideration ahead of the Budget.
The Minister for Industry and Energy (Mr. Brian Wilson): May I also take this opportunity to respond to the interest expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who recently raised the issue with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House?
In total, more than £700 million has been paid for both respiratory disease and vibration white finger schemes. The number of final offers on respiratory disease claims has risen sharply in recent monthsnearly 7,000 full and final offers in the last quarter. I am committed to 50,000 by the end of this year. We are working with the solicitors
Vernon Coaker: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. He will have seen the report in today's Financial Times about the amount that the compensation scheme will cost and the number of claims that are still outstanding. He will know that, in former mining constituencies such as mine and many others throughout the country, large numbers of ex-miners and their families are still waiting for compensation. Many of those people are dying, waiting for that compensation. I know that my hon. Friend has tried to speed up the system, but there is still an awful lot of work to be done to ensure that those claims are speeded up and dealt with quickly. Will he look at the matter again, to see what more could be done to speed up those claims?
Mr. Wilson: I can assure my hon. Friend that I am looking at it on a day and daily basis; hopefully, that has contributed to the speeding up that he acknowledges. Claims are still coming in at the rate of about 1,000 a week, so by definition many claims will not be settled for a significant further length of time.
The difficulty, but also the strength, of the scheme is that each and every case is individually assessed according to the work record and medical history of the individual. It would be very easy and convenient to make blanket payments, which in many cases would undervalue what the applicant is entitled to, but every claim will be met in full. There is no capping of this scheme, as was pointed out in the Financial Times today, and that is why justice will ultimately be done to every miner, or every widow or every family of every miner.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): Can the Minister explain how his Department and the Treasury got these figures so completely wrong? Will he confirm that in 1998 the estimate was that the scheme would cost £2 billion, and that today's figures say that it will be £6 billion; and that that is a complete underestimate of the bill that the Treasury is facing?
Mr. Wilson: I find that a very odd question, but the hon. Gentleman might acknowledge two things. First, he could acknowledge that the reason why people are dying before these claims are met is that for 20 years the Tories did nothing to meet these legitimate claims; hence people who retired from mining 20 to 25 years ago and who suffer from these serious diseases are, by definition, very elderly. Even the Tories can do the arithmetic; if one adds 20 or 25 to a retirement age, it becomes obvious that many of those people are very elderly.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman could acknowledge that we cannot estimate how much a scheme will cost when we do not know how many applications there will be. To the credit of the Labour Government, we have kept the scheme open so that everyone has a right to apply, and ultimately justice will be done to every miner. That is the justice that history will record the Tories denied those miners for decade after decade.
We should bear in mind the fact that we now have the problem of fly-by-night solicitors running round the Coal Board estates, trying to whip up support, not for anyone else's benefit but simply to line their own pockets.
Mr. Wilson: I am grateful that the Opposition energy spokesman has the good sense to nod his head in agreement with me. It is immensely important that people understand that no claim dies with the individual. Opponents, particularly in Wales, are putting around the untruth that the Government have some vested interest in delay. It is the opposite of the truth, because the claim passes from the miner to the widow, to the estate of the miner or the widow, and eventually that money is paid. It costs the Treasury more to pay out on a claim if the miner is deceased. We have a vested interest on the grounds of justice, of ethics and, marginally, of finance in ensuring that every claim is met as justly and speedily as possible.
I am delighted that an additional 4,500 full and final offers were paid in January and that £25 million more was paid out for respiratory diseases alone. Let us keep the figures going and continue to work together to bring justice to every person who has served the energy needs of the country by working in the mining industry.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Can the Minister confirm whether the Government are serious about reclaiming moneys from the National Union of Mineworkers as joint tortfeasors? It is a bizarre notion to those people who understand and practise that law.
Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend mentions the breakaway union, the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, which is the only union to take a commission from the payments. I have no idea why a union with a membership in two digits needs that money from the claims of ex-miners.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): Although I welcome the figures that the Minister gave, will he also consider the pneumoconiosis compensation scheme? Will he ask his officials to carry out an inquiry to ascertain whether the state benefits that