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Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on bringing this issue to the Chamber for debate yet again. I will not cover a number of things because they were very accurately put forward by my hon. Friend—the detail with which he made the arguments was very good—but I want to reinforce one or two points.

Like others, I congratulate the Government. During the last election campaign, the first thing that I did when I went around the eight or so miners clubs in my constituency was to congratulate the Government on getting money to people who would otherwise never have received it. I did that purposely because there were complaints in those clubs—there were always people who worked on the surface who never got their money. I always had to pre-empt those issues. In their eyes, men were being deal with unfairly, and we must to try to deal with that real problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said something very important: we have won a fantastic deal for working-class people who needed that money, yet the sting in the tail is that some really important people are not getting it.

I started my working life at 15 years of age. I started at a colliery called Easthouses. There where 250 men at that colliery. The first job that I got was down on the hill—where the coal comes up the shaft and the young boys are down there on the tables taking all the coal that
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comes off—and it was really bad in those days, and that was a small pit. That is how everyone started in the colliery. No one ever went to a colliery and went under ground. They started on the surface and worked their way through. That was the nature of the business at that time. I went down the pit at 16 years of age—on my 16th birthday, indeed—and Monday coming will be the anniversary, but the pits changed after that. There was a drastic reduction in the number of collieries. Big, new mega-collieries were being built, and they overtook some of the small collieries. The complexity of the problem with coal dust changed dramatically over that period. There is an old saying in the collieries, "You start on the hill, and you finish on the hill" because the men were broken by the time that they had gone through their lives in the pit and they ended up back on the hill.

The major change that took place especially in the 1960s, 1970s, but even in the early part of the 1980s, was that big pits were built, the small pits were closed and men were being pulled into the centre. Along with that, major pit plant issues came forward, a major change took place in employment: people were employed to work on the surface. That was not the case in the 1950s and 1960s. What happened in the 1960s was that everyone who was employed went down the pit, by and large, unless they were clerks or bath attendants. Nearly everyone went down the pit and came back up again. So the changes that took place at that time relate to the people who we are talking about.

I worked at four collieries. I worked in Nottinghamshire for a period, with about 1,000 people at Rufford colliery. I was at Bilston Glen with 2,500 people, and I finished at Monktonhall with 2,000 people. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone talks about bunkers that held 800 tonnes of coal. The bunker at Monktonhall pit-bottom held 1,000 tonnes of coal. The bunker at the pit-top held 3,000 tonnes of coal, and the trains went under the bunker to take it out. There was no way that people could avoid the dust. I represented people who worked in those bunkers from the very first day that they started at the pit to the last day when they finished there. Those are the people who I am talking about, and we must rethink what we are trying to do for them.

I remember when pneumoconiosis cases began. I was a young new delegate at the time, and I can remember that my senior union officials also had to deal with problems then. When the pneumoconiosis scheme began, it covered all workers, irrespective of whether they worked down the pit or on top. The bad side to that was when a union official had to go to the widow to say, "He has to get a post mortem so we can prove he had it." We became much more human at that time.

We should not forget that the industry was a public industry—it was our industry—which is why any Government have a responsibility for this. Although the industry ended up in the private sector, during the time about which we are talking it was owned and worked in by members of the public.

I am glad that the debate has been held today, even though I have missed two flights to be here. We must deal with this important issue. I hope that the Minister will rethink things over the next year. I think that he has everyone's interests at heart. He could take a clear position and do something that would be seen as fair so
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that I and other hon. Members who represent mining areas could go to that small group of people and say, "Look, we've got a deal for you that's right."

May I make one point about the five proposals that have been put forward? If it is right that a man can go down the pit, work five years and then qualify, surely working in a prep plant for five years would be enough of a qualification for a person to suffer from dust. I leave it at that, and hope that the Minister can address some of the issues that have come up.

5.26 pm

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) has secured the debate. As everyone knows, whenever he speaks on subjects of this nature he does so with a great deal of authority. He represented the National Union of Mineworkers for a good number of years and dealt with social insurance cases—he covered the whole gamut.

Some of us saw what happened at first hand. I went to work at Parkhouse colliery in 1949. When we were told that we had to go on the screens because we were not allowed to go down the pit until we had done our six months' training, most of us dreaded it. Sometimes we could finish up in the timber yard and that was a lot better. The screens was the dustiest place in the whole environs of Parkhouse colliery because it was where the coal came tumbling down, with the result that there was loads of dust.

I hope that the Minister realises that we used to get what was known as dust money. There would be dust money for the miners under ground and additional dust money—these were local settlements—for people on the screens. No one ever stopped to think whether that was fair. It was obviously fair because sometimes when we went down the pit after we had done our training, there was a thing called, "You're in the market". We were like cattle. We would be leaning up against a wall and they would say to us, "You'll go on one, two, threes; you'll go down the Tupton seam; you'll go here; you'll go pony driving; you'll be taking timber; and you'll be clipping on." On occasions, they would say, "We want three people to go up on the surface to work on the screens." We used to get at the end of the queue hoping that we were not called. That was how bad it was and I just want people to understand that.

I rather suspect that when those two doctors—whoever they were—went to look at conditions, they were probably not those that prevailed at that time. The situation had changed dramatically by that time and there was a lot of technology. By the time we got to 2003, there were not many pits left anyway, and some were drift mines that went straight on to the surface. The conditions were not the same, so we are talking about a different thing altogether.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone talked about possible solutions. He has been looking at the problem for a long time, as have many of us in the NUM group. We are trying to say to the Government that we want a ring-fenced solution. We do not want a solution that the Government would be scared of and about which they would say, "If we do it for surface workers associated with the pits, all the other surface workers in other industries will say that they
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should qualify as well." Every single one of my hon. Friend's proposals is ring-fenced so that it applies only to people who worked on the surface at coal mines, and I hope that the Minister bears that in mind. We are not opening a great big door.

The attraction of the scheme proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone is that the settlement would be on a par with that for the pneumoconiosis cases settled by another Labour Government between 1974 and 1976. How did that work? We had a sliding scale of payments, and the matter did not go to court. One thing that has concerned me ever since the court case in 1998 is that it encouraged hundreds, if not thousands, of solicitors to get involved. The pneumoconiosis settlement, on which my hon. Friend based his proposal for the surface settlement, did not involve solicitors to the same extent. We could have a sliding scale of payments made across the board, without recourse to individual payments. I hope that the Minister understands that that was the beauty of the pneumoconiosis settlement; we did not have this long drawn-out process in which every case had to be dealt with individually because it had gone to court—that was the tragedy of the 1998 court case. Our proposal will make sure that we cut out the hundreds of solicitors who want their share.

The next thing to remember is that we talking about a ring-fenced figure of between 3,500 and 5,000 people. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone did not refer to that today, but he has done on previous occasions. We estimate that there cannot be more than about 5,000 people. Why? Because many of the surface workers have already been included because they worked under ground as well. We have eliminated all of those people; they are in the scheme that has now closed. We are talking about those who were only on the surface, which is why the number is very limited.

I confirm what my hon. Friends have said: the Government did a good job in taking over the scheme when Justice Turner made his ruling. It is sad that it had to be done in that way. I wish that the arrangements had been on a par with the pneumoconiosis settlement of 1974, but they were not. Somebody had to step in and provide the money, and the Government did so, albeit that the industry had been privatised and the National Coal Board no longer existed. Already, over £2 billion has been provided. Probably another £2 billion will be needed; it could even cost another £4 billion before we have finished, with some of that, a lot of it, going to solicitors.

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