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5.25 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I rise to support strongly this important and long overdue Bill. In particular, I want to direct my remarks to part 2, which will regulate claim farmers. In my constituency, they are preying on the vulnerable and weak.

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I also put on record my thanks to the Minister and her civil service team for engaging with me and other constituency Members who are dealing with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease claims and have experience of claim farmers in relation to the framing of the Bill.

I want to concentrate on three points. The first is the need to regulate claim farmers, and the second is who should be the regulator. The final point relates to the legislation covering, in particular, the reference to trade unions and solicitors.

Claim farmers are simple middle men and nothing more. In my constituency—my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has already referred to this—firms have been created simply for the purpose of raping the COPD scheme. People have been forced to sign agreements they do not understand, and claim farmers have also made bogus claims in advertisements. Also, when they have been talking to people, they have given the impression that they are solicitors or legally qualified when clearly they are not.

Some of the most disgraceful individuals are former National Union of Mineworkers activists, who are working for these claim farmers. They have tried to blur the edges with the implication that they are somehow still connected with legitimate trade unions. I deplore those former activists, who have thrown their lot in with greedy claim farmers and clearly have prostituted any principles that they had, simply to make a quick buck for themselves and their new employers.

I want to refer to two cases in my brief contribution. My hon. Friend has already referred to IDC, or FreeClaim IDC, as it is now called, which is a claim handling firm that was set up in the last 10 years and is based in Ashington, Northumberland. I want to refer to a case that involves Mr. Jobes, my constituent, who was approached by the firm and filled in an agreement with it. It did what all claim handling firms did, and passed his case on. It went to a Liverpool-based firm called Silverbeck Rymer.

At the conclusion of the case, Silverbeck Rymer deducted £3,600 of the compensation given to Mr. Jobes and passed it on to IDC to cover “IDC’s costs”. As my hon. Friend has already said, no costs were involved in the case because the Government paid them all. IDC and Silverbeck Rymer knew that at the time. My problem was how to address that.

I could not go for IDC because it is not regulated, so I went after Silverbeck Rymer through the Law Society. I pay tribute to the case officer who dealt with this. In a highly critical judgment, the adjudicator said of the case:

that is, Silverbeck Rymer—

The key point, which my hon. Friend also made, is that those claim farmers could not have operated without collusion with solicitors. Mr. Jobes could not have been defrauded or robbed without the collusion of Silverbeck Rymer with a claims handler.

I challenge the Law Society to examine Silverbeck Rymer’s books, as well as those of every single solicitor who has had dealings with IDC, to see how much they
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have deducted and force them to pay it back. That is the only way to ensure that those people get justice. I will follow up that challenge and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can assist.

Firms are not being honest with people about the courses of action open to them, such as help from legitimate trade unions that do not charge anything or home insurance policies. Under the scheme, there is no reason why any legitimate law firm should charge clients a single penny.

I also welcome the removal of the regulation of claims from the industry. The Claims Standards Council was a joke, although it tried to claim that it was an independent adjudicator. FreeClaim IDC was on the council—the same company that defrauded and robbed my constituent, Mr. Jobes.

It has been argued that trade unions should be excluded from regulation by the Bill, but I do not agree. Most trade unions, which are ethical and well run, should not be constrained by burdensome regulation. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw has already pointed out that the UDM, which has been running a claims farm operation, would not be covered if we excluded all trade unions.

It saddens me to say that Thompson’s, a trade union solicitor, is doing the same thing, in league with the Durham NUM. The firm sent all MPs a briefing note this week asking us to argue for trade unions to be excluded, which states:

But in Durham Thompson’s has been involved in a con. Individuals with COPD claims, many of whom have never been members of the NUM—such as widows or other relatives—have been asked to join as associate members for £20 a year. That money—and some cases go on for five or more years—does not give them many rights and they are not covered by the certification officer rules. People pay the £20, fill the form in and it is then passed to Thompson’s solicitors, so it appears to be a joining fee to access the scheme. Some people have been threatened that if they stop paying the £20, the action will be stopped.

In addition, and even more scandalously, people have been asked to sign a form allowing 7.5 per cent. to be deducted from the final settlement. That money is not kept by Thompson’s, because of course its costs are paid by the Government, but passed to the NUM. The agreement states that that is done to “indemnify” the individual against any costs, but we all know that there are no costs for the trade union or the lawyers, because the Government pay them. As in the Silverbeck Rymer case, the NUM is acting as a claims handler.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his tenacious work on the Raleys case. The judgment a few weeks ago stated clearly that Raleys was acting as a claims handler and could not justify the deductions that it had made and passed on to the NUM in Yorkshire, and I think that that also applies to Thompson’s in Durham. I challenge Thompson’s to pay back every penny that it has deducted from my constituents.

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One of the reasons given for deducting the money is that the NUM needs the money to pursue further claims and continue its activities. But under the scheme Thompson’s alone has received £92 million in fees, £2.5 million of which was for constituents of mine. If further test claims are necessary or the NUM in Durham needs money to keep going, Thompson’s should pay, instead of poor claimants, such as some of my constituents, who have struggled to understand the complexities of the scheme and been bemused by some of the sharp practices involved.

I expect better from a company such as Thompson’s. I dealt with it in my time as a trade union officer, and have the highest regard for it, but its actions in Durham are nothing short of a disgrace. The TUC should take steps immediately to ensure that the money is paid back.

I welcome the claims handling regulations, as anyone who does not conform to the code of conduct will be classed as a claims handler. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) asked whether trade unions should be covered by the Bill if they act as claims handlers. I believe wholeheartedly that they should be.

5.35 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I strongly support the Bill, because I believe that an increasingly litigious culture is destroying voluntary and community activities in this country. In particular, I want to speak in favour of part 1 of the Bill.

I worked in the voluntary sector before I came to the House. My experience there, and with the community initiatives that my constituents in Bishop Auckland have tried to take, demonstrates to me that the fear of litigation and punitive levels of insurance deter small-scale but worthwhile activities.

Many hon. Members will know that the annual miners’ gala—the “Big Meeting”—has been going for 121 years. Indeed, many will have taken part in that wonderful cultural festival, which is rooted in the history and traditions of mining in Durham and across the north. It begins early in the morning, when people in villages across the county march behind their own banner and band and listen to the miners’ hymn. Then they get on the bus and go into Durham for the Big Meeting.

This year, there will be a parade of 100 banners and bands. It will end at the race course, where people will listen to speeches and enjoy the fairground. The whole day is an affirmation of the human spirit. Life and leisure are not about shopping—they are about history, music and the values of solidarity and community.

The event is highly valued. In my constituency, the people of Spennymoor this year raised money for a new banner, which will be taken to the cathedral and blessed by the bishop. I am sure that the House will join me in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), whose portrait is on the banner.

However, local village events are threatened by the dreaded compensation culture. A so-called health and safety expert belonging either to the county council or the police—I do not know which, because both organisations blame each other—has said that,
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although the village parades last only 20 minutes, they must fulfil the appropriate requirements. That means that they must put up notices of road closures two or even three weeks before the event. Moreover, the notices must be made to a particular specification by a traffic management company, and they must be put up by trained operatives because of the alleged risks that crossing the road poses to ordinary citizens.

The cost is proving to be astronomical. After last year’s gala, I received a list of complaints from people throughout the county. The County Durham Association of Local Councils carried out a survey, which found that the costs sometimes amounted to hundreds of pounds. For example, they came to £294 in Shildon, and to a staggering £1,580—plus value-added tax!—in Peterlee. As a result, 10 per cent. of villages have said that they have cancelled events already because of the problem, and 70 per cent. have said that the costs involved might dissuade them from holding an event in the future.

There are many rural villages in the west of my constituency. They hold carnivals along traditional lines, and are facing the same problem. For example, at last year’s remembrance service in Middleton in Teesdale, a veteran was told that she could not carry the Union Jack because she was over 60 and would not be safe in the traffic.

The Bill will be helpful because the present situation is unbalanced. Costs, problems and risks are taken into account, but not benefits. We are destroying not only enjoyable days, but communities. Communities are like families: they need to do things together—they need to meet to maintain social cohesion. We are in a crazy situation where we are paying people to set up community development offices and to run initiatives, while we are destroying the home-grown ones with that ridiculous culture.

Given that other hon. Members want to speak, I will not talk about my other experiences—I will write to the Minister—but I hope that, despite the blandishments of my colleagues, she will hold fast to the content of clauses 1 and 2.

5.40 pm

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): It is a long time since we came in here. I was going to mention part 1, but I will not now, except to say that the phrase “desirable activity” could well include playing croquet, so a lot of issues need to clarified there. Indeed, it is a thriving sport in my area. I will focus very much on part 2 and want to say up front that I am proud and pleased to be standing here as someone who has been a member of the National Union of Mineworkers for 20 years . [ Interruption. ] Yes, hon. Members can cheer—I do not mind. I am also an honorary life member of Unison.

I welcome the fact that the Minister recognises that there is a serious difference between genuine trade unions doing their jobs for their members and claim farmers. To treat them the same would be little short of an insult, because the work done by trade unions in supporting their members in legal cases is in many ways the best example of voluntary work in this country.

The vast majority of cases—believe you me, I have been involved in literally hundreds of individual cases and thousands on a collective basis—are begun by
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shop stewards or other local officials who carry out their roles professionally, without payment or reward, and they do so by being properly trained and accredited. Without their knowledge and skills, they could not do that job. Their work is part and parcel of the day in, day out work of representing their colleagues at work to the best of their ability. Most of them would be over the moon if they did not have to do that work, because that would mean that their members were not getting killed, maimed, injured or stressed out. Their members would not face a life of penury, illness and injustice Those people would not have to worry about how they will provide for their partners and children, about how they will pay their mortgages or about what the future would bring.

As was said earlier, more than 64,000 new claims were laid through trade unions—that is 64,000 men and women who face an uncertain future, and 64,000 cases that may not have been taken up, for the reasons given earlier by my hon. and good Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), if local trade unions had not supported those people through those very traumatic times.

I am certainly not suggesting that those claims should go through a system with no control—I would never suggest that. Indeed, I believe that the present trade union legislation strictly controls the behaviour of trade unions in many ways. That is exactly what we are trying to do today. In those claim cases it is clearly necessary to use the legal profession. Those legal people are controlled by their professional society. If their society is not doing its business, as has been said today, perhaps that is the real issue that we should be debating in the House, not what trade unions are doing.

There is a fundamental difference between people whose job in life is to rip people off and other people whose job in life is to represent people. Trade unions do not want to be involved in rip-off work; they do not want their members to be treated negligently or their lives to be ruined. Genuine trade unions do not want to play any part in the get-rich-quick operations that some of the rip-off merchants engage in. That is why trade unions put so much emphasis on health and safety legislation—red tape as it is often disparagingly called in the House—and why they campaign long and hard to get proper protection for their members at work.

Trade unions do not want to do such work on behalf of their members—to be honest, they do not really need it—but they will keep on doing it to defend their members as long as they are being abused at work. Legal cases are time-consuming, usually costly and drain resources, and they are in many ways a sign of failure—the failure of the employer to look after the worker properly, the failure of the unions to negotiate proper health and safety legislation and the failure of hon. Members to ensure that we provide a safe working environment for people.

Union reps could spend their time and effort on much more productive and rewarding work, but they accept their responsibility and they do whatever it takes to help their members. There is no pleasure in winning compensation cases for members, except the knowledge that those members should be financially secure for the rest of their lives. But all the money in the world will not give workers their lives back.

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People who have lost limbs, people who have suffered from asbestos-related diseases or people burnt out with stress and workers with back problems or any of the multitude of problems that are dealt with day in, day out by trade union reps cannot turn back the clock just because a cheque drops through their letterbox.

Unions are representatives acting for the collective good. They are a world away from get-rich-quick cowboys who are little better than ambulance chasers. They have experience in the workplace where their members work that lawyers will never be able to replicate. They know first hand what life in the workplace is like. They do not have to be drawn a map or told what is going on: they know. If we insist on lumping trade unions into the legislation, that knowledge will be lost. It will give greater clarity if the clear exemption for trade unions is built into the Bill as laid out. They are not claims farmers in any way.

The Barker ruling is a disgrace to the House. Trade unions and their legal services teams should be able to work through us in this House to overturn that disgraceful decision taken in the other place. It is about real people. I support our work with the asbestos mesothelioma support groups. It is a disease that lies dormant for 30 years and then sparks off. People suffer horribly and then die—nothing else, that is the story. Okay, drugs like Alimta may help and let us hope that we can make progress with that, but if we do not overturn the Barker decision, the reality will be that of a man facing a firing squad armed with five guns. A bullet pierces his heart. Nobody knows which gun fired the bullet, so nobody is found guilty, but the truth is that they should all be found guilty.

5.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): This has been an interesting debate. We have covered a range of issues, not necessarily all directly connected with the Bill before us. It has been a good debate for that. Several hon. Members have raised points related to the Bill, to which I shall shortly respond, but first I shall reiterate the benefits that it will have.

I should declare an interest, as everyone else seems to have done. From 1978 until 1992 I was a branch secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, and in 1986 I received £1,500 in compensation for an industrial injury, which was negotiated for me by the union.

The provisions on negligence and statutory duty will provide much-needed reassurance for the voluntary sector and for others who are concerned about possible litigation. They will ensure that all courts, including the lower courts, are aware of the guidance given by the higher courts. They will serve a valuable purpose in improving awareness of this aspect of the law and ensuring that normal activities are not prevented by the fear of litigation and excessively risk-averse behaviour.

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