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House of Commons

Wednesday 8 December 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Miners Compensation Scheme

1. Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) (Lab): When the monitoring sub-committee for Wales on the miners compensation schemes for respiratory disease and vibration white finger last met; and what information was provided on payments made under the schemes for Wales and Bridgend.[201777]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): The Wales monitoring group met last Monday and reported progress for the whole of Wales showing that by mid-November a total of more than £451 million had been paid under both compensation schemes. Since then, the amount paid has increased by a further £3 million, bringing the total to more than £454 million.

Mr. Griffiths: I thank my hon. Friend for the great job that he is doing with the compensation claim scheme. Does he have any information for my constituency? As he has been at the forefront of dealing with the scourge of solicitors taking double payments, will he report on how successful he has been in that respect? What is being done to speed up smaller claims under the scheme?

Mr. Touhig: In my hon. Friend's constituency, £8.5 million has been paid under both schemes—£6.6 million under the respiratory disease scheme and £1.9 million under the vibration white finger scheme.

We have been working closely with the Law Society to ensure, in respect of solicitors who have taken payments from miners and their widows, that those payments, which belong not to the solicitors but to the miners and their widows, are returned. We are, however, having problems with claims farmers—people who are not solicitors but who act as intermediaries between claimants and solicitors—raking off very considerable amounts of money that do not belong to them. Unfortunately, several miners signed contracts, and it is very difficult to get that money back, although
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I believe that where solicitors have collaborated with claims farmers a liability should be pressed upon the solicitors.

As for my hon. Friend's other point, the Government have put to the judge a proposal for a fast-track payment scheme. The judge has approved the scheme, which will be voluntary and for live claimants only. It is hoped that it will start in the new year.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC): Is the Minister aware that ex-miners who qualify under the Department of Trade and Industry's vibration white finger scheme are currently ineligible to claim industrial injuries disablement benefit because different criteria are used? The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council has called for that anomaly to be rectified. Will the Minister take that up with colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions on behalf of the thousands of former miners in Wales who are affected?

Mr. Touhig: I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's point. I have written to colleagues as a constituency MP, and I know that it is a matter of concern to members of the monitoring group in Wales. I have no doubt that we will make representations, as he suggests.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Echoing the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), I, too, pay tribute to the work of the DTI and the Law Society in returning money that rightfully belonged to miners, their widows and their families but was taken in percentages by claims handlers and other bodies. Can anything further be done to deal with that issue?

Mr. Touhig: I personally have made it clear on several occasions that those who are involved in taking money in that way are parasites who are preying on vulnerable people—elderly miners and their widows—by taking slices of money that do not belong to them. My hon. Friend refers to claims handlers and others. In Wales, those others include the union NACODS—the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers—South Wales, which is led by a member of Plaid Cymru. That organisation has been taking 5 and 10 per cent. slices off the top of claimants' payments. That is not appropriate, in my view, and I hope that all Members will join me in urging NACODS South Wales to hand the money back to the miners and their widows, because that money belongs to them, not to the union.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Many of my ex-miner constituents, particularly those from the Ystradgynlais area, welcome the speeding up of the process. However, the latest figures show that it will not be completed until 2014. Will the fast-track system have any impact on the final settlement date; and will the Minister write to me to let me know what that date will be?

Mr. Touhig: The judge has accepted the Government's proposals to speed up payments for live claims, and it is hoped that the process will begin next year. It is a voluntary scheme that a miner can choose on the advice of his solicitors, and perhaps his union. There will be
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banding tariffs of £1,400, £3,700 and £12,900 depending on the degree of disability. The miner will be able to choose whether to take the fast-track route.

There is an issue about how long it will take to pay off all the claimants—there are 90,000 claims in Wales and it will therefore take a considerable time. However, I am worried that those who have criticised the Government for, they say, delaying the final payments, and claim that the scheme will take too long to pay out now criticise us for introducing a fast-track scheme. I do not suggest that the hon. Gentleman does that, but it has happened. My only comment to those people is to recall the late Aneurin Bevan's words on such matters:

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Does the Minister have the total figure that NACODS South Wales has creamed off from the miners compensation fund? Has he any evidence about where the money ends up?

Mr. Touhig: That remains a deep mystery. I have taken up individual cases from my constituency with NACODS South Wales. I said that I did not believe that my constituents needed to pay the money and I succeeded in getting NACODS South Wales to say that it will not try to gain that money. I cannot imagine what on earth it wants to do with it. At the last count, it had 30-odd members. I have no idea why it needs to claim a vast amount of money from vulnerable miners and miners' widows. I repeat: the money does not belong to NACODS South Wales but to miners and miners' widows. It should give it back now.

Trade Links

2. Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): What discussions he has had with Cabinet and National Assembly for Wales Government colleagues on developing better trade and cultural links with Australia and New Zealand. [201778]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): In November, I visited Australia and New Zealand, where I took the opportunity to strengthen business and trade links between Wales and a part of the world that has great opportunities.

Dr. Francis: Several successful small and medium-sized enterprises in my constituency and throughout Wales are developing effective international trade links. Will the Secretary of State outline some of the advantages that accrue to SMEs as a result of his visits and thus counter some of the unnecessary and unwarranted criticisms of them by Welsh nationalists? Will he also enter into discussions with the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government to arrange a trade mission specifically for SMEs to eastern Asia and Australasia to counter the "fortress Wales" mentality that is being encouraged in certain quarters in Wales?

Mr. Hain: I agree with my hon. Friend that there is great potential for small business investment from overseas countries including New Zealand and Australia, which I visited recently and met representatives of small
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and large businesses. As a result of a visit to China in April on behalf of Wales, a company has invested in Wales, and others are following.

It is typically small minded of the nationalist group in the National Assembly to attack such visits, especially given that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) has said that Ministers should talk up Wales when they go abroad and the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) has said that we should use the instruments of the British state to promote Wales abroad more effectively. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy nods. He should sort out his Assembly group in Cardiff—he nods at that, too. [Interruption.] We will all help him to do that.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): What estimate has the Secretary of State made of the cost of his visits to Australia, New Zealand and China? How does he quantify the benefit of those visits to Wales? What plans does he have to visit Patagonia, where the people still speak Welsh?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman knows that, as I found in China, ministerial visits gain a higher level of access. According to the Welsh Development Agency, which organised the trip to China, there was greater access than ever to business leaders in Beijing and Shanghai. One direct investment resulted from the trip. According to the WDA, the same happened with the contacts that I had in Australia and New Zealand. It is my job as Secretary of State for Wales to bat for Wales and get more jobs for Wales. I shall continue to do that, despite Tory opposition.

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