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Coal Surface Workers (Compensation)

10.58 am

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this important debate on behalf of those Members who have constituents affected by exposure to surface dust and underground dust. This is the third opportunity that the House has had in the past three years to discuss surface workers exposed to dust, and it is the second Adjournment debate that I have secured on this important issue. I know that it will affect many Members who have constituents with coal mining interests, or with former coal mining interests.

Hon. Members present will congratulate and applaud the Government for putting in place the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease handling agreement, which recognised for the first time that exposure to coal dust damaged people's health. It also meant that lengthy legal action, which would have had to be taken on behalf of individuals exposed to coal dust, could be avoided; it was estimated that that such legal action would have taken 15 to 20 years. That is obviously very welcome.

It is also welcome that the scheme has so far paid out £1.7 billion. In my constituency, some £26 million has been paid out, but that figure is dwarfed by the figure claimed by the constituents of some colleagues present, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). So I pay tribute to the Labour Government for putting the scheme in place, although I always add the rider that no amount of compensation can compensate the victims, who die slow and agonising deaths. There is also the effect on families who have watched their loved ones gasping for their last breath.

It is therefore with a sense of frustration that I stand here again in a debate on compensation for surface workers. The scheme does not cover those who worked only above ground but who were still often exposed to high levels of dust every day. The scheme also does not cover individuals such as blacksmiths—including my younger brother—whose main job was a surface occupation. My brother and others went underground, and were exposed to dust, daily.

One of my constituents—he is one of many cases, and other hon. Members have them, too—Mr. Jack Dobson of South Moor, County Durham, was a blacksmith for 30 years in the Morrison Busty pit at Annfield plain. He explained in letters to me that he worked in appalling conditions as a blacksmith, sometimes in 6 in of coal dust, or with the dust swirling around his workplace. I have heard the same from other constituents. Mr. Dobson is 83 and suffers from emphysema and chronic bronchitis. He can walk only 20 yds without getting short of breath, and he needs three separate inhalers just to get his breath. I challenge the Minister and the civil servants who administer the scheme to call in and see Mr. Dobson if they are ever in Durham, to see what effect his condition has on his daily life. It is an agonising death in which people slowly gasp for air, as he does daily. Other hon. Members could highlight similar cases.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As I represent a seat that straddled the former Leicestershire and south Derbyshire coalfields, I know
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that numbers of people are in the position that my hon. Friend describes. He is frustrated that, despite all the good things we have done, there has been reluctance to acknowledge that there can be serious health implications to working in surface-only occupations, such as on the bank or screening. It may be true that, in a general sense, in terms of medical evidence, it is more difficult to sustain a link to COPD, but will my hon. Friend urge the Minister to consider coal dust in specific pits? The conditions that I saw, as a visiting councillor and parliamentary candidate, seemed to be those that could lead to COPD in later life.

Mr. Jones : I agree, and I will expand on those points later. The worrying thing about the scheme is that although it is very welcome in many coalfields and former coalfield communities, and although, as I said, it has paid out billions of pounds already, it seems that for want of a small amount of extra money, we are ruining what should be a flagship policy for a Labour Government.

When I spoke in the previous Adjournment debate, I said that the problem could have been solved six years ago. The Department of Trade and Industry laid a minute before Parliament on 10 July 2000. It appeared from that minute—I am sure this is how other right hon. and hon. Members read it—that, for the first time, the Department for Trade and Industry accepted that there had been negligence on the part of the National Coal Board in respect of those people who worked only in surface occupations. Alas, we have now discovered that that does not seem to be the case after all.

I want to concentrate on that minute. It is important that the House hears what is in it, and that the Minister takes on board what it says. He has to realise that his own Department wrote it and gathered together the information to produce it. Paragraph 5 says:

That is backed up by the World Health Organisation, which in May 2000 stated that 18 per cent. of surface workers developed some form of lung disease. In my mind—and, I think, in everyone else's—that makes it quite clear that we are not dealing with different types of dust; we are dealing with the same type. The minute continues:

It goes on:

Paragraph 8, which considers which group of workers the acceptance of liability would encompass, is important. It says that

that is, people who worked underground but had a period of time on the surface. However, the next point is the most important one; the minute says:

the "only" is in bold type—

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So in my mind there is no query or difficulty; the minute states that men who worked only on the surface in dusty jobs could, for the first time, put in a claim—and to emphasise the point, "only" is in bold.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the minute states:

I have made extensive investigations, with the Speaker's office and the Journal Office, both of which I thank, and I can tell hon. Members that no objections were raised and there was no instruction from the DTI or any Minister to withdraw the minute from Parliament. I wonder where that leaves us, and whether the Department is now denying liability, although the minute has not been withdrawn or questioned in the House. May I assume that the minute is still in force? As I understand it, no one has taken any steps to withdraw it or question it, and certainly no right hon. or hon. Member has objected.

We need the answers to a few questions. First, I ask the Minister when the policy changed. Secondly, we need to know when the House was informed that the policy had changed. On what information did the DTI base the minute, in the first place? If the Department accepted liability in 2000 on information that it had clearly garnered from somewhere, what changed that information, or what new evidence meant that the minute no longer mattered? Several Ministers have had responsibility for the subject since the minute was published—they seem to change like the weather. But which Minister took the decision to change the policy, and on what date was it changed?

How did we get from the Government laying a minute before Parliament saying that

to a situation in which the then Minister—now the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons—told my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) the following in a written answer?

How did we get from a position in which the Government said, in the minute that the

to a situation in which my right hon. Friend now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said, in March 2001, that the minute was never intended to accept blanket liability? How is it that, in our last debate on the subject, the Minister with us today said that the minute was only a "willingness" to accept liability? I have to tell him to look at paragraph 10, which begins:

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I am quite a simple soul and do not have batteries of civil servants to advise me, so I referred to the "Oxford English Dictionary" for the definition of principle. It says that it is a fixed or predetermined policy or course of action. To my mind, and to those of a lot of lay people, that shows that the Government have accepted that, in principle, there was liability.

I do not know how we got from a situation in which the Government laid before the House a minute stating that unless an objection was made in 14 days they would proceed with accepting liability to one in which, despite none of those things happening, the DTI claims there is no liability on its part and that people should pursue claims through the civil courts. Litigation is exactly what the COPD scheme was set up to avoid. It is because of that course of action that the claims of many surface-only workers, made through disreputable claims handlers and solicitors, are being withdrawn or shelved. Those workers will never get justice, even if a scheme is put in place.

How can the Minister defend the Government's actions? In the last Adjournment debate on this issue he said that

Surely he does not mean to say that as long as an action is not legal, the decision cannot be morally bankrupt? Clearly, this situation is just that.

The minute was never withdrawn from Parliament, so does that mean that it is still in place? No Minister has explained in Parliament why the policy changed. My hon. Friends with coal-mining interests, and constituents such as Mr. Dobson, are not going to go away, so it is no good for civil servants or Ministers to hide behind the situation and the arguments that have been put forward. As a nation, we have a moral obligation to miners and former surface workers who, through no fault of their own, had their dying days and retirements ruined and, in many cases, their lives cut short. If we are to treat them with justice and dignity, we must compensate them.

11.12 am

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate. I share his exasperation; how many Adjournment debates about surface workers must we have before the Government finally resolve the matter? I urge the Minister to get on and resolve it, because, as the hon. Gentleman said, we are not going to go away. Members of all parties who represent mining constituencies are united. We demand justice for this relatively small number of people. I estimate that 30 to 40 people in my constituency are affected.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Trade and Industry Committee report on the COPD scheme, which states that solicitors estimate the number of people concerned to be between 3,500 and 5,000, which is a relatively small number.
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Adam Price : Indeed, and given the Government's vast resources, the money would not matter a great deal to the Treasury, which is why it agreed in principle five or six years ago. In contrast, the issue is of huge significance to the people concerned and their families. As miners tell us time and again, in many cases it is about not the money, but the principle and the need to secure justice for these men, as it was secured in the majority of cases through the COPD scheme.

I am sure that the Minister well tell us, although I hope that he will not, that the problem is the paucity of evidence. I seem to remember that a certain American politician said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There is a paucity of evidence, specifically in relation to surface workers, but that is not their fault. As the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) will tell us, it is the fault of inadequate monitoring of the surface areas of mines, not of those who worked in those areas.

Sadly, plenty of evidence points to a causal link between exposure to coal dust and COPD, but there is a lack of specific evidence regarding different components and different jobs, particularly for surface workers. However, some data are available. The Institute of Occupational Medicine has data on 3,930 dust concentration measurements in relation to 13 surface occupational groups at 10 collieries in the UK. Has the Department looked at those measurements?

As we have heard, there is also international evidence of the adverse effect of exposure to coal dust on the surface. A study of the health of anthracite workers in the United States in 1989 found that after adjusting for factors such as smoking, age and height, the modelling indicated that the predicted decrements for forced expiratory volume per second, which is the relevant measurement, were 120 ml for workers in coal surface jobs and for coal cleaning plant workers. That study is one of the few that have looked specifically at surface workers. Its finding is significant when one considers that a series of studies conducted in UK collieries in the early '70s estimated an average loss of FEV—forced expiratory volume per second—of 0.6 to 1 ml per unit of dust exposure. If that is extrapolated, it means that the loss of 120 ml of FEV found among the American anthracite workers is equivalent to a lifetime of exposure at the maximum permitted exposure limit. So the American study shows that surface workers had an average loss of lung capacity equal to exposure at the maximum limit in UK collieries at the time. Clearly that maximum exposure limit was inadequate. That suggests, at the very least, that there is an adverse effect which can be highly significant. I urge the Minister to consider the evidence, as there is evidence to suggest that some surface workers will have contracted COPD as a result of their exposure to coal dust when working on the surface.

There are other relevant factors. A number of studies have discussed the possible relevance of the chemical composition of coal dust in certain parts of the UK and at certain coalfields. Respirable crystalline silica might be a contributory factor for people working in surface areas. There is evidence to show that in a number of cases exposure to coal dust contributes to people contracting COPD.
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I am happy to be corrected on this point, but I understand that a miner must have worked underground for five years to qualify. There is evidence in both the US and the UK that loss of FEV is greater among younger miners than older ones and is greater in people who left the industry early than in those who stayed in the industry. One theory is that a certain proportion of people are super-susceptible. Hon. Members who have worked in the coal industry will know of some young miners, who, within a matter of a few months, showed a super-susceptibility to chest problems and were moved to the surface, precisely because they were susceptible to coal dust. Therefore, among that group of workers, there is a concentration of people with a susceptibility. There is evidence of genetic determinants that predispose people to developing COPD. A predisposition does not mean that it is a causal factor, but it does mean that if those people are put in an environment where there is a causal extrinsic factor, they are more likely to develop COPD.

On the basis of the substantial evidence showing the super-susceptibility factor among certain people, the five-year bar is morally wrong and goes contrary to the available scientific evidence. I urge the Minister, on the basis of the data as well as the moral case, to see that the Government do not change their position, as the hon. Member for North Durham said they are, but revert to the one that still exists in the parliamentary minute in the Library.

We have had Adjournment debates on a number of occasions, and in the previous one in the Chamber, the Minister said that he would consider the matter again. I hope that he has had an opportunity to do so. Last January, the Deputy Leader of the House—then the relevant Minister—said, after an intervention from the former Under-Secretary at the Wales Office that he would revisit this issue. How many times does the Department have to revisit this issue? How many times do we have to have Adjournment debates?

In the previous debate, the Minister undertook to write to a number of hon. Members on specific matters. I hope that he will be able to relay some of that information to us. May I ask particularly about the issue of a common law case? I understand that the Department's position in October was that it now refuses to accept liability, and it is apparently up to individual miners, many of whom are suffering from crippling lung disease in the latter years of their lives, to bring court cases that may last many years. Why do the Government say that they will enforce an adverse costs order? Such an order would mean that if the Government lost, they would expect the miner's side to pay the costs. That is an inhibiting factors and a reason why a test case is unlikely to be brought. The Government will presumably use the best Queen's counsel in the land.

Surely, if there is doubt on this matter—the evidence that we provided shows that there is at least a scintilla of doubt—and the Government are prepared to accede to our demands to change their position, the honourable thing would be to say that the case would be neutral in terms of costs. Solicitors have said that they will work for free on the miners' side. Surely, the Government should not impose an adverse costs order against a group of miners who are only asking for justice.
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11.24 am

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I shall attempt not to repeat anything that has been said, having anticipated what some colleagues have said and may wish to say. However, I should like to make a couple of points and ask a few questions.

On costs, there is something of an unvirtuous circle in   relation to how the schedule is operating for claims. It is different from the beat knee claims from 7,000 Nottinghamshire miners which were dropped scandalously by the Union of Democratic Mineworkers in the late autumn, because it was not part of the process and the initial litigation. The unvirtuous circle is based on the fact that common law claims have not been brought. Solicitors have often hidden some of their charging on the pretence that a common law case was proceeding and that funding, whether union funding or other people handling funding, was mentioned to the men at the time and they were sold the myth that there was some external funding of their cases. Therefore, they went with that system, whether or not they were surface workers. Now, for the Government to turn that around and say, "You'll need to bring a common law claim at this stage" to those people who had put in their claims under the scheme that the Government, on behalf of the Coal Board, had conceded and agreed with the claimants' solicitors, is flawed in logic and natural justice and leaves the surface workers totally exposed, because the Government could use a range of legal arguments to attempt to stop any claims coming forward on a common law basis.

There is, however, a sting in the tail for the Government. When the Compensation Bill works its way through the House, some hon. Members will have a number of things to say on the Floor of the House about the miners' compensation and what should be in the Bill. The question of industrial injury, litigation and small claims courts will create an interesting dilemma for the Government, because where there are working collieries with people working on the surface, it will be possible for an MP assisting an individual, as the litigant's friend, to start taking a plethora of small claims court cases to the £5,000 limit, if that is what is agreed, on the basis that the compensation will be up to a maximum of £5,000. The Government could find themselves defending such claims in a wide range of courts throughout the country. That is my intention with my constituents.

When I have held public meetings—I held some in November and December—many hundreds of people have attended each one. They have agreed unanimously that that is one of the actions that I, as their representative, should take forward, along with a range of other things. If we can get pro bono advice from solicitors, we will do so. That will create an organisational and possibly a political problem for the Government in defending each case that will have to be brought in common law exactly as they say we have to do.

Some of the arguments that will come into play—about what was said to the individuals when they first submitted their claims to the Government—will rebound on the Government. I am requesting today, on behalf of my constituents, the full file from each solicitor so we can see the paperwork for the surface workers in my area, who I am aware of and who have asked me to
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assist them, and what claims have gone in. I ask the Minister to ensure that the contents of this debate in Hansard are sent to the two presiding judges for their consideration.

There is a double hit on surface workers, in respect of both chest problems and vibration white finger, which particularly grates on people. For example, Mr. Bernard Martin, one of my constituents, used vibrating tools for 15 years and has the same white finger symptoms as someone who worked underground. Precisely what tools would he not be using that someone underground may be using? What is the difference in tools? Is there a difference? If he was working on maintenance, for example, over the weekend, what was he doing if he was not using vibrating tools for that period of time? Regarding those in the blacksmiths, such as Mr. Pat O'Sullivan or Mr. Edward Wesley, or many others, what environment and what tools were they working with? Did the Government concede some claims because their insurers did not realise that those people were working on the surface? The presumption was that they were working underground. The evidence was in the medical records. The Government did not have to concede the principle, but had to write off those cases. What was the process through which the Government insurers then said that this or that particular man had a justifiable claim? I put it to the Minister that the only difference was that someone suddenly spotted—or failed to spot, in some cases—the work history. The symptoms were identical, and given that the people had worked in the same industry, using the same tools and breathing in the same dust, that is not surprising.

Take the example of the coal preparation plant still operating at Harworth colliery in my constituency. Why have fans been put in there? Why are lung capacity tests taken of those working in that plant, which is an enclosed environment with what many would say is worse dust than people experienced when working underground, particularly in the past decade? For example, Mr. Melvin Fisher's recent test demonstrated that his lung capacity was down by 17 per cent. Nobody in his village was surprised at that, given the environment in which he works. That is just one example, but there are many more in which exactly the same issues resonate.

An extreme example is my constituent Ken Brown, who died of emphysema and who had worked in only the one job in the one industry. He got social security payments because of his problems with the disease, so why was he not eligible under this scheme? He self-evidently had an industrial disease caused exclusively by the failure of his employer to ensure safe working practices. Mr. Brown had one job at one colliery and one illness, yet there are other such examples all over the country. It seems to me that the Government are hiding behind weak arguments. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the situation.

I have one final question about the dust reference panel. How many surface workers sit on that panel and look at the evidence? The Government have an obligation to take employers' responsibilities properly, to examine the problem, and to say why people using the same tools, breathing in the same dust and working in
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dangerous environments in the one industry should not receive the same compensation as those who happen to work underground.

11.33 am

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this important debate. As he says, there have been a number of debates on the subject, but it is important that we keep them going until we persuade the Government to accept that surface workers should be included in the COPD scheme.

My hon. Friend referred to the moneys that we received in Barnsley, and the Government have greatly assisted mining communities. In my community of Barnsley, which comprises three constituencies, there is a great deal of disability. In 1997, when the local authority carried out a study across the area, it found that there was a disabled person in one in three households. Most of that disability resulted from work in heavy industries, such as mining and steel, and a great deal was due to the chest diseases contracted by miners or former miners.

After the Appeal Court case of February 1998, the Government accepted their responsibility and they have paid out an enormous amount of money so far. Indeed, at the last count in November, the number of claims stood at 581,495. The Government are paying compensation at the rate of £2 million a day, and we welcome that. However, the scheme is flawed in that it does not include surface workers. Arguments have been put by the claimants' group of solicitors to include such workers and we have heard about the minute laid before Parliament in 2000 that accepted liability for surface workers, but was never acted on.

My hon. Friend asked a number of questions about that minute. It may well be that when the minute was laid, the claimants' group of solicitors was pressing for all surface workers to be included. That may well have been why the liability was not processed from the time that it was put to Parliament that liability would be accepted. I ask the Minister to revisit the minute with the intention of correcting the injustice and including surface workers in the COPD claim.

I know that you have worked at a colliery, Mr. Cummings, as I have. We are both aware that in coal preparation plants, coal was often bunkered for a whole weekend. Quite often there would be delays during the week, but activity at the bunkers underground would continue so that production at the coal face could continue while the delay was sorted out.

The bunkering of the coal resulted in its being dried out, and dust suppression technology never kept up with the cutting technology introduced into the collieries. That is why British Coal was negligent and has accepted so many claims. The dried coal in the bunkers was released down badly designed chutes into the coal preparation plants, and that used to result in great clouds of dust covering the whole plant, particularly the screens where the coal was sifted by mechanical shakers. Men worked at those screens removing the dirt from the coal and were subjected to enormous amounts of dust.

As you well know, Mr. Cummings, the situation was recognised in the 1974 pneumoconiosis agreement, which accepted responsibility for surface workers, and
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there are records of men who worked only on the surface contracting pneumoconiosis. The evidence is clear that some men working in dusty areas on the surface would contract COPD. The evidence given by the claimants' group of solicitors to the Trade and Industry Committee last year indicated that the number of people affected was between 3,500 and 5,000, which is a comparatively small number next to the enormous amount of claims registered for underground workers.

I ask the Minister to consider bringing those 3,500 to 5,000 men into the scheme. As I suggested in our last debate, he could do that in four ways. However, in urging him to consider that, I remind him that those men could be included in a scheme without that being related to the present litigious scheme, which is based on the court case and overseen by judges from time to time. Under the current scheme, claims are registered through solicitors at a cost that the Minister may well want to avoid. If he does, there is a way of introducing a no-fault liability scheme for COPD sufferers—former miners on the colliery surface. It could be done in a way that is similar to the pneumoconiosis scheme, whereby the Department for Work and Pensions scheme becomes the basis in relation to the diagnosis, and based on that diagnosis a scheme could be drawn up related to a man's degree of disability at the age of onset. The package could be composed of the weekly payment of industrial injuries disablement benefit together with a lump sum. Such a measure would address the injustice and bring some equity to the current system of unfairness.

I urge the Minister to examine the problem, to include surface workers in the scheme, which could be done without enormous cost, and to end the injustice and inequality. It is now up to him.

11.41 am

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to take part in a debate that you are in control of, Mr Cummings. It is probably 20 years since I was last in that situation, but it is good to be back with you.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate, which is important for the people I represent and for the north-east in general. Like others in this room, I worked for a long time—20 years—in the coal industry. I mainly worked underground, but I spent a large part of my apprenticeship working on the surface, particularly in coal preparation plants.

A number of points need to be stressed about the real conditions in those workplaces, the first of which concerns the length of shifts. Many surface workers who had long experience of working in the coal industry had to work shifts lasting eight hours and 35 minutes. Over time, that was reduced to eight hours and 20 minutes and finally to eight hours. Whatever the length of shift, though, they were at the workplace and had only a 20-minute break from it.

A comparison can be made with the men who worked underground, who had a seven and a quarter hour shift. Given that many worked long distances underground, they may have been at their actual place of work for little more than five and a half hours a day. The length of exposure to dust was much greater for people who worked at the surface than for those working underground.
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Most coal preparation plants worked continuously throughout the week and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) mentioned, at the weekend, too. That led to a major demand for men to work weekends to maintain, repair and replace the machinery; I might add that many men had to work weekends to earn a living wage because of the ridiculously low wages paid in the coal industry in the 1960s and 1970s.

While no dust was being produced as part of the process, mountains of it were blown into the air as a result of stripping out worn-out, broken-down machinery that needed replacing, repairing or maintaining. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham said, his constituents—blacksmiths and other craftsmen—were exposed to massive amounts of coal dust.

Airborne dust is a real killer, a fact that has been recognised for years. Underground, men are totally exposed when the coal is cut as part of the production process and as it is being moved out of the pit to the surface. There seems to be a suggestion that the dust produced at the pick point is different from the dust that lies at the surface. That is nonsense: dust is dust. It is not a living thing; it is inert. It clogs people's lungs and airways, whether they are exposed to it underground or on the surface. It makes no difference whether people are half a mile underground operating a coal-cutting machine or 200 ft up on top of a 5,000 tonne coal bunker on the surface.

Most coal preparation plants had a multitude of transfer points where the dust would be blown around as coal was dropped from one conveyer on to another. As has been said, coal crushers exacerbated that, as did screens, whereby coal was moved through various holes to grade it into difference sizes and once again the dust was moved around.

Points have been made about the lack of ventilation and good dust suppression. When coal is cut it produces dust, which is effectively sucked away from the pick point as part and parcel of the process to reduce dangerous gases in the coal mine. That led to the dust being moved away quickly to avoid the men operating the machines being directly exposed to it. The dust was still dangerous, still in the air and still affecting people in its path, but at least it was moving. In coal preparation plants, there were few, if any, real ventilation processes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) mentioned what is happening at Harworth colliery, which is obviously one of the few left. People might finally have realised that there is a need to look after people a bit better than they did in the past.

In my experience, ventilation was almost unheard of in coal preparation plants, and the dust suppression equipment was little use, if any. There was no escape from dust. As we tried to do underground, we used dust suppression methods, but they were never anywhere near as good as we had hoped. They could not have been; it is impossible to keep dust totally under control. It was clear that the dust affected the people who worked in coal preparation plants: the many thousands of people dying a horrible, savage death, living out their lives wondering whether their next breath would be their last, and sometimes hoping that it would.
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One reason why the case and the compensation scheme were not pursued in 2000 was that there was not enough evidence. One of the main reasons for that was that the records that should have been kept by the National Coal Board, British Coal and the coal owners did not exist. We are saying that we could not compensate the men because the people responsible for taking care of them did not keep adequate records. If that is not negligence, what is?

A number of comments have been made during the past few years about a compensation culture developing in this country. I have personally, and collectively, as a trade union representative, been involved in claiming millions of pounds in compensation for working men and women in various industries and public services. I could wish for nothing better than never to have to do that again. I wish I had never had to do it in the first place, but I did. I may have to do it again, because people are not treated properly at work and because employers exploit workers and do not look after people properly. It is this Government's responsibility to put the situation right. I praise them—this has been said before—for the work they have done in the past decade to redress some of the problems. We must accept that the scandal can go on no longer.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham mentioned what happened in 2000. In that year, a minute was laid in this House that effectively said that we would wait 14 days and, if nobody complained, the compensation scheme would be in place. He might not be aware that seven days after it was laid the Department of Trade and Industry itself changed the rules. Some people say that a week is a long time in politics. That was a long time in politics, and it was a bad week for working people in this country.

11.48 am

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this important debate. Like him, I recognise that great progress has been made and commend the Government on the fact that some £1.7 billion has so far been paid out in COPD payments alone. I am also pleased that £35.4 million has been paid out in my constituency. That unquestionably represents great progress, but, as other hon. Members have said, there is still one huge injustice: the situation of surface workers.

I would like to cite two examples of blatant injustices. The first concerns a 95-year-old widow, Mrs. Baker, who lives in the town of Ystrad Mynach in my constituency. Her late husband worked on the screens. As we have heard, working on the screens for a number of years was particularly detrimental to health. He died because of dust—of that, there is no doubt. In fact, his death certificate states:

However, because he worked on the surface—on the screens—his widow is not entitled, as things stand, to a single penny. By any normal evaluation, that is blatantly unfair.
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Another example is the case of Mr. Victor Hawkins, also a constituent, who lives in Abertridwr near Caerphilly. He spent all his time at the Windsor colliery in Abertridwr as a surface worker. He retired to find an alternative occupation in 1997, but he spent 23 years, from the time the scheme became operable in 1954 until 1977, on the surface working on the screens. He should be compensated for that period. In his statement of claim, he explained clearly what his experience had been:

Mr. Kevan Jones : Does my hon. Friend agree that a double injustice has been done to some surface workers? I have come across some who suffered severe industrial injuries down the pits and could not work there any longer. They were transferred to other jobs such as the screen. Not only were they crippled in the mine through accidents but their health was ruined when they went on to jobs such as the one that he just described.

Mr. David : My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. All of us from mining constituencies can cite such examples. That was normally done—it was common practice—and it reinforces the argument still further.

I go back to the case of Mr. Victor Hawkins of Abertridwr. Not surprisingly, his medical assessment process test, which I have a copy of, was conclusive. It records his total respiratory disability at 20 per cent., and his total disability owing to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at 10 per cent. The results are clear, and the only way he could have contracted that kind of disability, and that kind of reduction in his lung capacity, was through coal dust, yet he worked exclusively on the surface on the screens. It is a straightforward, black and white situation, but Mr. Hawkins is not entitled to anything because of the way that the scheme has been drawn up and interpreted.

Mr Hawkins's solicitor took his case forward as one of the test cases with Thompsons, but, as we heard today, it collapsed. It was withdrawn by the solicitor. The reason was given to Mr. Hawkins in a letter from Thompsons:

Mr. Hawkins's case proves that that is nonsense.

I recognise that we must rely on evidence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) said, technically, there may not be evidence. I would ask the
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Government, for goodness' sake, whether evidence cannot be gathered from other sources—from other countries perhaps, not just the British situation. However, if that is also difficult, one thing that the Government clearly could do is make an ex gratia payment to the mine workers who have been affected in this way. They could make a one-off payment that recognises, without any question whatsoever, the moral case, and that also recognises that we are discussing a relatively small number of mine workers—no more than 5,000. That would be an effective way to recognise the moral position of those individuals, and, at the same time, given that the success of the scheme as a whole is undoubted, it would be a feather in the Government's cap to recognise the need to give a special one-off payment to the surface workers, as we come to the end of the compensation scheme. I sincerely hope that the Government will consider doing precisely that.

11.55 am

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): This has been an informative, persuasive debate. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate and on his persistence. He has had a long-standing commitment to addressing compensation for surface workers who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

We heard powerful speeches from many Members who represent coal-mining constituencies. We heard many tragic stories of human suffering. Thousands of miners and former miners, and their families, have been compensated for having health ruined because of exposure to coal dust, and I give the Government credit for the scheme. Of course, no amount of compensation can restore the health of those men, or make up for the heartache that many of their families went through, in many cases watching them die slowly and painfully. Nevertheless, as well as going some way to help overcome the problems of disability, compensation is a recognition of the suffering that the miners endured during their employment.

Despite prolonged pressure from monitoring groups and claimants' representatives, the Department of Trade and Industry has consistently refused to accept claims from workers whose duties were performed completely above ground, or who spent less than five years working underground. As I understand it, the Government appear to justify that rejection on the grounds that the National Coal Board and British Coal did not monitor dust levels on the surface because they were not required to do so by the legislation in force at the time. However, plenty of evidence is available that dust levels on the surface could be high. The hon.   Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) gave a graphic description of what the situation was like for many surface workers.

It seems that so far the evidence has not been enough to convince the Government. The Trade and Industry Committee was convinced in its investigation last year. It estimated that 3,500 to 5,000 former surface workers have been affected by exposure to coal dust and recommended that they should be included in the scheme, but group litigation on their behalf has been ruled out because the DTI refused to waive its legal costs if it won in court, thereby exposing litigants to being sued for significant costs. The Government have
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repeatedly suggested that individuals could take legal action on their own behalf, but the same problems would arise as with the group case. The risk of having to pay their own costs if they lose is, clearly, too great for elderly people on low incomes.

Hundreds of thousands of miners worked underground and many suffered appalling consequences to their health. The Government are right to compensate them. However, given the half million registered with the compensation scheme, it seems unfair to reject the claims of a small number—less than 5,000—on the grounds, apparently, that their employer did not keep adequate records.

The Government's refusal is also strange because it is inconsistent with the pneumoconiosis scheme, which does cover surface workers. I also find it puzzling—this has been referred to earlier—that in a minute placed before Parliament in July 2000, the DTI seemed to accept that surface workers had a case. The document was quoted from earlier, but I shall give some quotes from it for emphasis. Paragraph 5 states that

Later, the minute states that

As the hon. Member for North Durham said, that minute was laid before Parliament and has never been withdrawn. The DTI reached that decision in 2000, and it is puzzling that it changed its mind. Indeed, it did so only six days later in a document that it published. However, the minute has never been withdrawn.

As many hon. Members have said, surface workers breathe in the same coal dust as underground workers, and many suffer exactly the same illness—surely, there is a connection. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) told us of the American study that seemed to prove that surface workers suffered exactly the same illness from exactly the same causes as workers who went underground. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) made an important point when he said that miners who had worked on the surface had had their claims accepted. The DTI apparently did not realise that they had worked only on the surface, and the available evidence showed that they were suffering from exactly the same illness, so they were awarded compensation.

One possible way of resolving the situation would be for the Government to withdraw their threat to recover their legal costs by suing claimants who take their case to court. If the Government were willing to waive that right, such claims could be settled by an impartial court.

In conclusion, many surface workers and underground workers are suffering greatly in their later years. Today and in previous debates, hon. Members have made a powerful case for including surface workers in the compensation scheme, and I look forward to the Minister addressing those issues.

12.1 pm

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate and on the way in which he introduced it. It has been a moving debate, which has shown the House at its best—dealing with a serious issue
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in a serious and constructive way and trying to move matters forward. It has also clearly shown the human dimension. Hon. Members on both sides of the room have told of how constituents have been affected and of how their later years have been made years of considerable pain and discomfort. For those of us who do not represent coal-mining constituencies, that was extremely moving. The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) gave us a clear exposition of how activities carried out on the surface create a much higher level of dust than one might initially think. All that has led to an extremely thoughtful debate, and although the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) also spoke about vibration white finger, he will understand why the bulk of the debate has focused more on dust inhalation.

The core of the case rests on the conflicting views about whether there is evidence to support compensation claims. The claimants' solicitors group says that the dust reaches "quite high levels" in coal preparation plants, but the DTI medical advice, from the Institute of Occupational Medicine, says that that the levels are not high enough to cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, even if people are exposed to dust over the whole of their working lives. We need medical advice and input, and I would be grateful if the Minister could make it clear that COPD is not an illness, but a broad range of illnesses. It was said earlier that people were suffering from the same disease, but COPD covers a broad range of illnesses from bronchitis at one end through to chronic emphysema at the other. We need clarity about the severity of COPD that people are suffering.

Much has been made of the fact that the records from the time when the National Coal Board operated the mines are not available. Is that because records simply were not kept or because the records have been lost or perhaps destroyed over the years? Perhaps the Minister can clarify that.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): The trouble was that there were no records because no work was done on the issue. Ventilation and dust suppression were not monitored in the way that they should have been.

Charles Hendry : That indicates that this was not seen as such a problem at the time; there was not as much understanding of the consequences of dust inhalation. As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw made clear, subsequent changes, such as bans and health testing, demonstrate that there is now a much greater recognition of the risks. That shows that not enough was being done historically to address those issues.

Given that there is clearly not enough historical evidence from this country, can the Minister not commission more evidence from overseas? The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) gave a clear exposition of what has been happening in America and talked of the loss of forced expiratory volume. There is clearly substantial evidence in other parts of the world, and we can draw on it to identify exactly the longer-term health consequences for those who work on the surface. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is self-evident that some people will be more susceptible to illness than others as a result of dust
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inhalation. We should also take on board his point about people with a greater susceptibility to illness being transferred from working below ground to working above the surface. We cannot, therefore, make a simple black and white contrast between those who worked underground and those who worked on the surface; in many cases, people worked underground for some years and on the surface for some years.

Among the other issues that we need to consider is the suggestion that cases should be pursued through the courts so that we can recognise the rights and wrongs. We must, however, understand the prohibitive expense that that would involve. One problem of the legal system in this country is that it is accessible to those who have a lot of money and to those who have no money, but a tremendous number of people in the middle simply cannot afford to use it because they would be liable for their own costs. If they did get a significant award at the end, a large chunk would be taken away to pay for legal costs. We live in the real world, not in a John Grisham world or the Judge John Deed world on television, where the small guy can take on the big multinational corporations and win. We need to recognise that telling somebody who is perhaps elderly and extremely unwell, "You're going to be taking on the Government in a legal case for the next few years of your life and it will probably go to appeal if you win," will cause such fear that they will back away before they have even started. Will the Minister clarify, however, whether people who do decide to go down that route will be eligible for legal aid? That comes back to the fact that this is not a black and white issue. There are people who worked part of the time underground and part of the time on the surface. Every single case would have to be assessed, and it would be much more difficult to establish the rules of precedent. People considering going down the legal route therefore face a significant deterrent.

We also need a greater understanding of how many people will be affected. The claimants' solicitors group has suggested that somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000 people might be eligible. Does the Minister agree that that is the likely number? What proportion of the number of people who have worked on the surface in the mining industry does that represent? If 5,000 people—the highest figure—were found to be eligible, what would be the cost of compensation? My understanding of the compensation scheme as it has operated so far is that compensation works out at an average of about £10,000 per claimant. If we extrapolate from that and multiply 5,000 people by £10,000, we get a figure of £50 million. Does the Minister accept that figure or does he have a different one? It is important that we should have an understanding of the sums involved.

Several hon. Members have referred to the DTI minute, and it is at the core of the issue. What is the status of that minute? If it is still on the table, does the Minister agree with its contents? How does he plan to take forward what it says?

Finally, I hope that the issue can be quickly resolved once and for all. Exciting opportunities are opening up for the mining industry in this country. Clean coal offers a new future in a way that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

Mr. Clapham : The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. As we move into the energy review,
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those considering the coal mining industry will probably be sceptical about coal playing a part when they see a compensation scheme embracing more than 500,000 people. However, that has occurred because of British Coal's negligence, in failing to ensure that dust suppression technology kept pace with cutting technology. The result was enormous amounts of dust, with the judge distinguishing between litigious and non-litigious dust. The situation has changed and mining today is somewhat different: the major cutting machines are the same, but dust suppression equipment is very much different. The future of the coal mining industry and those who have worked in it would therefore also be rather different.

Charles Hendry : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman as that is exactly the point that I sought to make. If, as part of the energy review, we want to say that coal potentially has an exciting future in modern electricity generation, we must be able to say that those historical issues need to be consigned to the past, as we look to a modern industry operating in a modern way.

The problem has continued for a long time. We have had an impassioned debate, with a lot constructive ideas and questions, to which I am sure we are keen to hear the Minister respond.

12.11 pm

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks) : I agree that this has been an important debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). He and others set this still controversial matter against the fact that we have the largest scheme of its kind to compensate former coal miners and their relatives anywhere in the world. It is forecast eventually to pay out some £4 billion, and its total costs will be more than £5 billion. I listened to the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), but I am proud of the fact that this Government introduced that scheme, not a former Government.

Having said that, I recognise the nature of the controversy. I should like, albeit briefly, to review the issues presented and to suggest a way forward, although I should be happy to discuss that suggestion with colleagues informally after the debate. At the heart of the issue is whether British Coal—and now the Department—had liability for disability suffered by surface workers from exposure to dust. We have heard again this morning that the Department set out in a minute to Parliament that we would accept liability and seek to negotiate a way of dealing with surface workers within the major lung disease scheme. I know that the minute is controversial, but I am more concerned to move forward. The minute was clear that the extent of the liability and the terms of access to the lung disease scheme were to be negotiated—my hon. Friend quoted chapter and verse, but I refer to paragraph 6 of the now famous minute.

The minute was therefore not an open-ended admission of blanket liability—an automatic entry to the lung disease scheme for such workers—but the start of a process of negotiation. It accepted that British Coal did not fully meet its responsibilities towards certain categories of workers in dusty jobs on the surface, but left open the question of which categories of workers
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were to be included and the level of evidence that would necessary for a successful claim in individual cases. Indeed, it states that agreement would be needed on such issues.

Mr. Kevan Jones : I agree that the minute did not give an open-ended commitment, but it did accept liability. However, the situation now is that the Department do not accept any liability for such workers.

Malcolm Wicks : Let me continue. I am concerned that there is a feeling that the Department declined to negotiate on compensation for surface-only workers. The chain of events shows that the Department indeed sought a deal for surface-only workers on the basis of the minute to Parliament of July 2000, albeit taking into account the medical advice that we had received. We negotiated with the claimants' solicitors over several months and agreed how mixed workers, who had worked underground and on the surface—we have rightly heard about them today—would be covered in the lung disease scheme. Since then, 84,000 mixed workers have received compensation under the scheme of around £520 million.

The Department also made an offer to surface-only workers, as I set out in the October debate. However, the solicitors were not able to accept liability on that basis. They considered that every surface worker in dusty jobs should have the right to full medical assessment and the higher levels of compensation for COPD, and instead sought further studies. The House was informed of that in an answer to a parliamentary question in March 2001. Those further studies confirmed the Department's view that incidence of COPD disability was likely to be very small.

The minute was therefore the start of a process, not the end of one. In any event, it was overtaken in 2003 when the claimants group decided to start group litigation to test the issue in the courts. That continued to be the position until the end of 2004, when the claimants announced that they were dropping the litigation for what they described as financial reasons. They have since made it clear that they cannot sustain a legal case and have argued instead that the Government should allow surface workers into the full lung disease scheme on "political and moral" grounds, which my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) mentioned.

Our difficulty is that it is not easy for the Government to pay out compensation on "political and moral" grounds without any clear liability. Hon. Members would surely accept that there must be thousands and thousands of former workers in many different industries in this country who could argue a similar case on moral grounds, but where there is no evidence. Indeed, I often meet people in my constituency who have never been able to prove anything in court—they have probably never even been near a court—but who have real grievances on moral grounds about former occupations that, in different ways, have affected their health.

Mr. Clapham : On that issue, I refer the Minister to the working situation of many of the people who transferred from underground to the surface. He mentioned the figure of 84,000 men who had worked
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underground for five years or more, transferred to the surface, contracted COPD and were paid compensation. Many of those 84,000 will have worked in the large airways underground, where they were not exposed to large amounts of dust, but will then have been transferred to the surface, where they were exposed to dust and contracted COPD. However, someone who worked entirely on the surface, without any underground work, cannot make a claim. That is the anomaly and it must be corrected.

Malcolm Wicks : Let us come on to the suggestion that such workers cannot make the claim, because I would contend that they can. I do not doubt for a minute what I have heard today about the experience of dusty conditions among those involved in surface working. However, we are not talking about visible dust; we are talking about the invisible, respirable dust that causes COPD. I have listened to the discussion today about evidence. The Department's medical evidence—which is not challenged by the experts on the other side and is from the dust readings by the independent Institute of Occupational Medicine, which provided evidence in the main trial—is that levels of dust would be very unlikely to lead to COPD. We have heard about the inadequacy of data and research, and I know that there were not full series of dust readings on the surface at all pits. However, the readings that we have are sufficient to support that conclusion. Also, as offered by a former Minister, the solicitors were allowed access to the British Coal archives to seek out evidence.

The position now is that the solicitors informed the court that they were not able to pursue litigation. The Deputy Leader of the House, then the Minister involved, looked at further material that they supplied last March, and I wrote to them in May to confirm that there was nothing new there that could cause the Department to change its mind.

Adam Price : When did the Government inform the solicitors that they were going to insist on an adverse costs order if they lost?

Malcolm Wicks : I should have to write to the hon. Gentleman with chapter and verse on the specific time and date.

We do not deny all liability. Those listening to this debate might be confused about that. I have listened with great care and some concern to colleagues' testimony, but I cannot comment on individual cases. We are unable to deal with compensation on a schemed approach within the framework of the current scheme.
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We have, however, made it very clear that anybody can bring a common law claim for disability caused by surface work. We understand that some of the denied cases are likely to be put forward on that basis, although none has yet been received.

Following the last debate, I have considered all the issues. We have to move forward. The Government cannot pay out compensation, as I have argued, on political and moral grounds, and cannot revisit the negotiations that have taken place over a long period. Let me repeat that we are not denying liability; we are just saying that compensation cannot be handled within the lung disease scheme which has, anyway, moved on since the original negotiations with the introduction of the fast-track scheme.

The clear way forward is for those who feel that they have a good case to receive compensation now to put in claims on the usual common law basis. The Department will monitor how the cases that it receives are progressed, and their outcomes. We will address any generic issues that arise that affect how the cases might be handled. If that experience leads to a notion of a streamlined process, I will consider it. I undertake to report back to the House, when a reasonable number of cases has been dealt with, on the issues coming from them and the lessons that we take from them.

On the payment issue, none of us wants the miner or miner's widow to bear the cost should they lose, or to have to face the stresses of that. Some say that the Government should pay. I have another suggestion; it relates to some recent controversies on the coal health scheme. More than £1 billion of the £5 billion-plus has gone to solicitors in the coal health scheme. The solicitors withdrew from group litigation, apparently for financial reasons, but we know of firms of solicitors that have made a great deal of money from the coal schemes. For examples, Hugh James has received £68 million, Thompsons £92 million, Beresfords £65 million and Raleys £56 million. Also, some of the unions have received contributions to their funds from the compensation already paid out, on the understanding that the money was to be used to finance further injury claims.

With such huge amounts of money being paid through the scheme to solicitors and the unions having had extra money, surely it is possible for those bodies—for moral and political reasons, if nothing else—to support individual cases so that the individual claimants are not put at financial risk. I do not believe that the cost should be borne by the general taxpayer. The solicitors and, perhaps, the unions—after all, what is the purpose of a trade union?—have a moral duty to do so. When we assess experience, I shall look carefully to see whether a more streamlined process might be the way forward for the many people involved.
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