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Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on an excellent speech and on the four or five options that he has proposed to the House. I know that he has been a valiant supporter of this cause for many years and has raised the matter constantly. I applaud him for doing so.
I shall confine my remarks to one or two aspects of the subject, as the hon. Gentleman said it all. As he rightly says, the Government allege that lawyers have concluded that there is no case to answer. I am a lawyer and I have spoken with a firm of solicitors in south Wales that was heavily involved in the original litigation in 1997 and is prepared to do the work for free. Those solicitors will undertake the pro bono work, but they will not risk their individual miner clients having to pay an adverse costs order, which is, I regret to say, the bully-boy tactic currently employed by the Department. If a person is threatened with an adverse costs order, even if his lawyers are working for free, he has to pay the bank of QCs employed by the DTI, and he pays heavily.
How many people in the industry have been injured through no fault of their own, but through the negligence of the DTI and the coal board? They were injured in the course of their duties, yet they are expected to put everything they have on the line to prove a point. That is not likely. At the very least, there is a moral case, whether or not the legal case is watertight.
There is a legal case. Where does the slate dust come from? As the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, it is all the same coal. Both he and the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone speak from experience. I do not, but I value the fact that they are experienced and saw things at first hand and can tell us about them today.
Surface mineworkers obviously have a case that should be met. The Government are saying, in effect, "Well, take us to court but if you fail we will cripple you in costs". That is not a proper way to deal with the matter.
In many cases, as has already been said, dust levels in coal preparation plants and washeries were even worse than under ground, although no tests were regularly carried out. Therefore it is clearly unjust that these employees of British Coal have not been awarded compensation under the scheme in place.
We have heard about the note from the senior civil servant who, allegedly, is still in post. She had committed herself, but mysteriously two so-called
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medical experts decided a week later that the case was not so, and suddenly everything was reversed. That is not good governance.
Miners who work part of their careers under ground and part on the surface may be included in the current scheme. The Department for Work and Pensions recognises pneumoconiosis as a prescribed disease for the purposes of disability benefits in the case of coal surface workers and dock workers who have had to deal with coal. So there is a clear contradiction in the manner in which the Government are dealing with surface mineworkers.
The most telling part of the argument is that the men have a case that should be answered. They should not be excluded. They are suffering from the self-same disease as their colleagues who worked underground. The Government might at some point level the argument that there will be people who pretend to be unwellI am not saying that the Minister will do so in this debatebut I fail to understand how any such argument could stand up. I return to the fact that it is the same dust and the same complaint. Any High Court judge would be bound to conclude that the slate dust came from somewherenot from riding a bicycle or watching a football match. The presence of the dust caused an industrial disease and was due to the activities of people above ground just as it was for those under ground. I have thrown away a good part of what I wanted to say because it has already been said very powerfully.
It is my understanding that the trade unions are prepared to instruct solicitors and that there are solicitors who are willing and able to perform their tasks for nothing, provided that the DTI drops what I referred to as a bully-boy stance and stops threatening people with an adverse costs order. That is the proper way forward. After all, many of those involved are getting on in years and deserve some comfort. They will still suffer from this awful disease, but will find some comfort in the recognition and acceptance of the complaint.
The original NACODS case in 1998 was won through funding partly from NACODS and partly from legal aid, which is now unavailable. That avenue has been closed. The Minister may say that those involved should take out a legal costs indemnity policy, but that does not stack up. I know of no insurer that would provide an indemnity against costs in an action against a Government Department. If the Minister knows differently, perhaps he will tell us of any company that might be prepared to run such a risk. I have researched the matter and I think that there is no such company. Therefore that avenue has been closed.
The four or five options suggested by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone should be commended and looked at very carefully. He has thoroughly researched the matter. There is support throughout the House for his viewsit is not exactly huge on the Tory Benches, but that is to be expectedand they should be dealt with appropriately and thoughtfully by the Government in the coming weeks and months.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab):
I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on
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securing this debate. I initiated a debate on the same subject on 16 October 2003. Sadly, we are sitting here two years later having seen very little progress. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) has said, many people are suffering through no fault of their own because of exposure to coal dust while working in terrible conditions. The Minister who replied at that timeit is like changing socks, as the job seems to change hands every other yearwas my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), and I think that the post had another incumbent before the current one. I want to raise the issue of the minute, which I raised then and which my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone raised earlier. What I cannot understand is that the Government accepted liability for this case, and it was withdrawn. I want to refresh the memories of Members, the Minister and his civil servantsif they are hereabout what was actually said. I want an answer to the question as I have never yet had a satisfactory one.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone said, the minute was placed before Parliament on 10 July 2000. I examined a copy of it earlier to refresh my memory. It is not ambiguous in any way in accepting liability. Paragraph 5 states that:
It is therefore clear that we are dealing with the same type of dust and problems as those who worked under ground experienced, and it not only accepts liability but clearly states who is involved, also referring to people who solely worked on the surface.
I did not get a reply from the hon. Member for East Ham. I would like to knowif the Minister cannot reply tonight, I would like to have it in writingwhat actual event meant that the acceptance of liability, by placing this minute before Parliament, was withdrawn. What changed in that period, and who took the decision? As I mentioned before, a certain person seems to appear at all these crimes, the author of the minute, Ann Taylor. It is important that coalmining MPs and MPs who represent former coalmining constituencies get some honest answers, as I do not understand what has changed in that period.
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The hon. Member for East Ham who replied to my Adjournment debate talked about taking potential cases through the courts. I am sorry, but all that that will do is stuff the pockets of lawyers yet again. The people affected are getting increasingly old, are suffering, and dying. I have one constituent who comes to my surgery who can hardly walk. It is clear that he is suffering from COPD, as his doctor confirms. He worked in a surface job, and never worked anywhere else. It is not therefore the case that he somehow got this disease from some other employment.
I have been proud of the Labour Government for introducing the COPD scheme, as it has helped many thousands of people who had their health wrecked through no fault of their own. By not closing the final chapter in the story, we are tarnishing what should be a very good news story. My constituency has benefited by more than £10 million, and I know that the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has received a lot more, which has helped a lot of people.
If we do not try to settle this issue, there will still be injustices. In my constituency and in a lot of other constituencies, those people live next door to people who have got a settlement. They meet them and talk to them. Such injustices simply cannot continue. It is difficult to explain to those people why they cannot get access to the compensation. I should like answers to those questions, and I make a plea to the Minister: let us just try to close this chapter in what is a very successful scheme that has helped a lot of people and is something that a Labour Government should be proud of.
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