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10 Oct 2006 : Column 67WH—continued

There are cases in which the Department believes that solicitors have failed to satisfy the requirements of the Conditional Fee Agreements Regulations. That has led to continued challenges to the right to costs. However, I am pleased to report that the number of such challenges
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is reducing. I should make it clear that in cases in which the Department disputes the level of costs claimed, compensation is still paid up front. The Department is also making interim payment of those elements of costs that are not disputed. I understand that, in some cases, the claimant’s representative is withholding part of the compensation due in order to cover interest payments that accrue while the costs element is in dispute. That is, to put it mildly, disappointing, but it is for the Law Society to consider whether solicitors are acting appropriately in those circumstances.

My hon. Friend raised valid concerns both about claimants not receiving their compensation in full and about the manner in which some parties have handled claims. I stress that those are matters for the Law Society, not the Department. I am also deeply concerned that moneys are being deducted from claimants’ compensation; indeed, I am disgusted to learn of that practice. I assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to raise my concerns with the Law Society’s investigation and enforcement directorate and will maintain a close interest in the consideration of the issue. Indeed, I plan to meet its representatives again in early November to discuss progress.

The Department shares many of my hon. Friend’s concerns. In particular, I am concerned that some of the contractual arrangements entered into by some claimant representatives may breach either the Conditional Fee Agreements Regulations or the professional code of conduct for solicitors. Were that to be the case, I would expect that liability for costs could be struck down. I am also concerned by the level of some insurance premiums claimed. Those do not always appear to be good value for the claimant. A cheaper and more effective policy could and should have been obtained.

The level of the success fee uplift is invariably 90 to 100 per cent., leading to a potential doubling of the Department’s costs liability. I believe such claims to be excessive, given the nature of the cases that have been brought.

The Department considers some of the medical arrangements in these cases and the use of medical agencies excessive if not unnecessary. Courts have previously ruled that medical agency fees are recoverable provided that they are reasonable. Consequently, the Department continues to challenge charges that appear unreasonably high.

I cannot answer all the detailed points today. Some are very specific and some involve significant allegations, but I promise to respond fully to my hon. Friend in writing. On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), that the Department should write to all claimants, we have considered that in the past. However, for various reasons that I could explain, we felt that it might lead to unnecessary anxiety and confusion. Some of the people involved are now very old and we must be sensitive about this issue. However, the Law Society has stepped up its advertising campaign to raise awareness of the issue of deductions, and in the light of my hon. Friend’s point, I will raise the issue again with the Law Society when I meet its representatives in a few weeks’ time.

On the question about the responsibilities of the energy liabilities committee, I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw has asked me a
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parliamentary question about that. Although obviously I know the answer now, I think that it might be best to put it in writing as soon as I can.

On the levying of VAT on costs by the UDM, again I will have to write to my hon. Friend, but in view of what he has said, I will consider whether I need to take further action in terms of a possible need to alert the relevant Department or to direct Customs and Excise if that seems sensible, given what I think my hon. Friend was driving at.

John Mann: There is one point that the Minister could confirm today if he was so minded. I am referring to access to files where there is a consumer complaint against the UDM and there is no ability to use the Law Society to force that organisation even to release the file to see, for example, whether the case has been handled properly in terms of the amount of compensation obtained.

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Malcolm Wicks: In principle, it is always important to let people have access to as many data as possible. I cannot give my hon. Friend a full answer now. Because he does occasionally ask questions about this subject—100 or so a week—I will respond to him on the matter in writing so that I can get my answer right.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and colleagues on raising a series of matters relating to coal health compensation. We should remember that this has, in general, been a very successful scheme that has given many millions of pounds of proper compensation to decent former miners or their relatives. None of the concerns should hide that fact, but there are concerns, which is why we set up the official inquiry. I reported in parliamentary statements the outcome of that. My hon. Friend has now raised other matters, which I will take most seriously.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Two o’clock.

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