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What we propose today is for a limited number of people. We are talking about justice for a handful of people at each colliery who worked on the surface at a certain time, on the screens and in the preparation plants. The Government did a good job in allowing the scheme to provide money for more than 500,000 people, including miners' widows and, where the widow is no longer living, their families. I say that to the Minister because when we proposed to include families, so that they did not have to make a separate claim but could use the original claim, the Government acceded to our
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request. We have met different Ministers at different times to discuss many other subjects, and the Government have agreed to this and that. This is the last bastion. This rounds it all off. It is for between 3,500 and 5,000 people.
I do not think that this Minister wants to let us down. He does not want to spoil the ship for an ha'p'orth of tar. We will come and meet him any time in the next few months, but we do not want further delay. We want justice so that when my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) goes to those clubs in Scotland, he doesn't think, "I've got to say something about the surface workers," but can go in and say, "I've got it at last." That is what we are after.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing this debate and on the clarity with which he made his case. This debate is well timed, because the Lord Chancellor and others are producing papers about access to justice. On Monday, I went to a TUC meeting on the unions' approach to access to justice. The Minister should view the problem as one of access to justice for a small number of people.
In my constituency, more than £60 million has already been paid out, and we are talking about a tiny number of people30 to 40 surface workerswho qualify for the scheme. They have submitted an application and would like the chance to receive justice. Some of them might receive a good settlement, but others, such as some people who worked underground, might receive a small settlement. Some might not receive anythingif there is nothing wrong with their chest they are not entitled to anything. That would only be fair, but they have not had the chance to access justice. It is not only hon. Members who are baffledeveryone in my community is baffled, and they all say, "Hang on a minute: there was more dust on the surface than underground." That small number of men should have access to justice, given that the Government are introducing proposals in the next few weeks under the banner of access to justice. We must ensure that that group of workers is not let down by the Government in their capacity both as a national Administration and as a responsible employer. As such, the Government can offer a flexible remedy to that injustice.
Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that some of those people face a double injustice? As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) said, many people who had surface jobs and worked, for example, in the screens, did so after being maimed in accidents down the pit. Their health was doubly ruined by accidents and by exposure to high levels of dust.
My hon. Friend is quite right and, like me, he will know people who are in precisely that situation and have a significant grievance. They all say exactly the same thing. Of course, they would like the money, and some are so sick with industrial disease that they need it. Even so, the principle is the important thing. They have given their life building this country, but they worked in health and safety conditions that
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were not good enough. The employer is liable, and they want justice as much as they want money to maintain a decent quality of life.
There has been a worrying development in the past three weeks, as 7,000 men received a letter from Vendside, a claims handling company that is owned by the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, about the condition of beat knee. Their cases were lodged in 2002 but, disgracefully, the organisation is withdrawing the action. The Minister may be able to help by clarifying definitions of time and the expiry of claims. Some of those 7,000 men went willingly to that company, but others were hoodwinked by an advertising campaign that did not say that it was owned by the UDM. Some of those men had been on strike for a year and some widows say that their husbands would be turning in their grave if they knew they had been hoodwinked. As has become clear in the past three weeks, those with beat knee have been left high and dry because the claims were lodged by the union with the Government three years ago. Has that organisation lodged any surface claims in that way? If there is any danger of time expiry for those with beat knee or for surface workers, will the Minister confirm this evening that that will not debar people from continuing to get justice in future?
Mr. Llwyd: I have no truck with the UDM, nor would I ever have. With regard to that litigation, I understand that there was again the threat from the Government that claimants who lost would pay adverse costs, which brought the matter to a head.
John Mann: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but he is wrong about what was in the letter from Vendside Ltd. I have plenty of copies of it. The company is withdrawing because of the cloud that hangs over that organisation. It is a separate matter. However, on the issue of time expiry, if the company or anyone else has lodged a claim, it is not necessarily a separate matter. I ask the Minister to confirm that for both categoriesthose with beat knee and surface workersif anyone has lodged a claim in that way, time expiry will not apply. Even if we get justice for a majority of that tiny number, there will be a subset who do not get justice. That cannot be right.
Weeight Members in all parts of the Houseare appealing not for a good-will gesture, but for a gesture of justice to show that the compensation scheme is the best and the most generous in the world, because it recognises the scale of the industrial disease and the employer's liability for past failures. That applies equally to the small group under discussion. Let us get this small matter out of the way and continue the good work.
The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks):
Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing the debate. Thanks to time availability, we have had a longer debate than we anticipated, which is useful. I do not think that I will satisfy my colleagues this evening, but I have learned a great deal about the issue from the debate. All I can do is promise to reflect on
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what I have heard. If I am not able to respond to all the points tonight, such as the one that we have just heard, I shall write to colleagues.
Settling compensation claims for lung diseases suffered by former miners as a result of their employment with British Coal is a priority for my Department. As we have heard, the chronic obstructive pulmonary diseaseCOPDscheme is possibly the largest personal injury compensation scheme in the world, with about 580,000 claims registered. Together with its sister scheme, which compensates for the debilitating effects of vibration white finger, it represents a massive undertaking. Altogether, the Department expects to pay out up to £7.5 billion across both schemes. That shows the scale of the project.
To date, my Department has settled about 270,000 lung disease claims and paid out around £1.6 billion in compensation for COPD, chronic bronchitis and temporary exacerbation of asthma to former miners and their families. However, I am aware that the rate of progress has not been fast enough. That is why my Department introduced new fast-track payments to surviving mineworkers earlier this year. To date, about 50,000 claims have been settled under the new procedures since February, at a rate of nearly 2,000 per week, compared with 70,000 offers for both live and deceased claimants in 2004 across the whole of the scheme. However, I am well aware that more needs to be done, and my Department will continue to work with its claims handlers to increase efficiency and speed up the issuing of offers to mineworkers and their families. I know that that was not an issue raised tonight, but as background it might be helpful.
Let us now consider the contentious issue of surface dust. As regards former mineworkers whose employment was exclusively on the surface of British Coal's mines, there have been exhaustive efforts by both parties to resolve the issue. However, the Department has real concerns about the extent of its liability in that area, as I shall set out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone noted that a minute was placed before Parliament in July 2000 that indicated a willingness by the Department to accept liability for men who worked on the surface. However, that minute did not state the extent of any liability. Indeed, it made it clear that the precise extent of the liability was still to be negotiated. I remind hon. Members that the Department agreed to payand does paycompensation to men who worked both under ground and on the surface. That is because the Department accepts that where a miner has had exposure under ground that pushes him over the threshold of disability, even a small amount of further exposure on the surface could cause further damage. So I believe that the Department is meeting its obligations to men who worked in that area.
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