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23 May 2007 : Column 467WH—continued

3.3 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I will keep my remarks brief because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on his tenacity in pursuing the case. He has not come to it lately; he has been working hard on it for months if not years, for which I pay tribute to him. I shall say something that will probably not endear me to the Chamber: I was a solicitor for 20 years. After that, I reformed, and became a barrister, which is probably even worse. I do not know where that puts me exactly.

In the few minutes that I have to speak, I wish to refer to knee injuries, as the hon. Members for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and for North Durham did. It is common knowledge that many miners suffer from cartilage damage, osteoarthritis and other complaints. Those are serious injuries, which often result in surgery or the need for surgery such as knee replacements and so on. They are crippling injuries, which onset at a relatively young age. Sufferers often have to have second knee replacements, which is frequently impossible because of the general health of miners. In my way of thinking, compensation is absolutely vital.

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As far as I am concerned, what the hon. Member for North Durham said about solicitors is absolutely right. Some of the behaviour that he described is in breach of practice rules, and I cannot for the life of me understand why those solicitors are not brought to book. The hon. Gentleman, and others in the Chamber, will pursue the matter until they are, and he is right to do so.

On the question of compensation, I hope that the Government have learned from the lengthy and expensive legal battle fought over miners with chest illnesses. The National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers is pursuing knee injury cases, and it had hoped that such cases would not have to go to the High Court. Some time ago, it seemed that the Government were in favour of avoiding a long trial and that they were committed to mediation, an approach with which all of us would agree. Echoing the hon. Gentleman, we should keep the solicitors out, which is fair enough. On 30 April, at a county court hearing in Leeds, the barrister leading for the Government, Robert Jay QC, said:

It seems that the last thing that will happen now is that the lawyers will be kept out of it. Worse still, even with the Woolf reforms, we are looking at a two or three-year wait—perhaps even longer with a class action—before any decision is reached.

In February, Bleddyn Hancock of NACODS wrote to the Minister to ask whether he would meet the claimants to see whether a scheme could be devised to avoid the expense and delay of a court action. The Minister replied that there was not enough evidence to convince him to do so. However, there was sufficient evidence to convince a judge to allow trial on the issues, which is absolutely right. I have tabled parliamentary questions asking the Minister to reconsider meeting NACODS and miners’ representatives to see whether we can come to a fair and reasonable arrangement.

I realise that there is not an endless amount of money. I realise also that in any legal case, there must be due deference to the question of liability; that is common sense. However, for the Minister to say that to date,

to quote him again, is I am afraid representative of something like a denial culture. I hope that we can all get around the table and talk about the issues without recourse to costly and time-consuming litigation.

I have written to the Secretary of State for Wales asking if he will consider contributing his efforts, because as late as November last year, he said about the miners:

Hear, hear. The case under discussion is one to which we should apply that rationale.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said last week that one of the highlights of the Prime Minister’s tenure was the introduction of
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compensation. Fine; I agree with that point. However, let us not forget that compensation came about after a lengthy court process, which I hope we can avoid this time around. It can be done. The money would not—in my respectful submission—amount to a king’s ransom, and there is the money that could be utilised for that purpose.

There will have to be proper medical reports and liability will have to be considered, but please, let us not drag the process out for two, three, four or five years, because even though we may reach the High Court and eventually find that there is liability, in the meantime, some people may be crippled, or even worse, they may pass away. In the best possible way, I ask the Minister to look at the issue urgently to see whether we can avoid a debacle.

3.9 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate, which is important for my constituents and many others who have worked in the pits and suffered great illnesses as a consequence. I join others in recognising the Government’s proud record in developing a compensation scheme that has paid millions of pounds to miners and their families. If anything demonstrates the Government’s commitment to those who gave their health, and in some cases their lives, to build the coal industry and this country’s prosperity, it is that compensation scheme.

However, no amount of compensation will restore the health of a miner or bring back a loved one who has died. My staff and I have helped more than 500 constituents with claims, and more than £49 million has been paid out in Islwyn to those suffering chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or vibration white finger. However, it is not only the money that is important, but securing justice and putting right a wrong.

I knew a miner called Bob James, whom I could visit only in the afternoons. He told me not to come round in the mornings, because he was on oxygen and had difficulty getting off his bed. One of the Minister’s predecessors, Helen Liddell, visited Bob with me; indeed, he charmed her, and they got on very well. When Bob finally got his compensation, he said, “You know, Don, when the grandchildren come now and say, ‘Granch, lend us a tenner,’ I’ll say no—I can give them one. When my own children were growing up, I didn’t have two ha’pennies to rub together. Now, my health has gone, and the money is no good to me. My pleasure in life is giving it to my children and grandchildren.” He added, “I did get justice in the end, didn’t I? They did recognise what I had gone through.”

Of course, too many miners never live to see justice. I work closely with an ex-miner by the name of Nat Thomas, who helps miners and their widows make compensation claims. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister met him when he met the NUM in Cardiff recently; indeed, he would not have been able to get away from Nat terribly easily. Only last week, however, Nat wrote to me about another chap whom we had been helping, but who had died without receiving compensation.

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My own father worked underground for 42 years. He developed a brain tumour, but, thank God, he lived for several more years. However, the last two years of his life were hell and he was suffering—gasping for breath and having to manage on gulps of oxygen from an oxygen cylinder. He worked for 42 years at Blaenserchan colliery, and when the National Coal Board finished him on health grounds, it wrote to him thanking him for his services. It gave him a pension of £1 a week, but told him that that would go down to six shillings and eightpence if he got another job.

For me, the campaign to compensate miners is not over, and it will not be over until we agree a compensation scheme for surface workers. As is the case with many colleagues, my pride in the Government’s commitment to the miners knows no bounds, but it is tinged with sadness. I share with them a sense of disappointment and frustration at the fact that the Government seem intent on diminishing their outstanding record on delivering justice to miners by refusing to recognise the legitimate claims of surface workers. There are men who worked on the surface, at the screens or at the coal preparation plants whose disabilities are as great as those of any miner who worked underground, and those surface workers suffer just as much.

My disappointment is all the greater given that we are having to debate this issue today. Had the Department of Trade and Industry followed through on a minute that it laid before Parliament on 10 July 2000, when it agreed to accept liability and to compensate surface workers, we would not be debating this issue today. Paragraph five of that minute clearly says:

Paragraph six states:

those are key words—

Unless anyone disagrees, I would say that that makes it clear—it is set out in plain English—that the Government accepted liability at that time for the illnesses caused by some surface jobs. Sadly, it seems that we were all mistaken, and not a penny has been paid out in compensation in nearly seven years.

In a parliamentary question on 8 January, I asked the Minister what proposals had been put to claimants’ solicitors regarding compensation for surface workers. I was told that the claimants group was

“It cannot scheme compensation” to surface workers—what a wonderful phrase. I wonder who sat up burning the midnight oil thinking up that answer.

On the same day, I also asked on what date Ministers were informed that medical advice had been sought about compensation for miners exposed to surface dust. I was told:

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That was one month before the DTI put the minute to Parliament accepting liability and agreeing to compensate surface workers.

In an Adjournment debate on 7 February 2006, my hon. Friend said that further studies, which had come about following negotiations,

I have to tell him that that felt like a slap in the face to all the surface workers and families whose hopes had been raised when the Department’s minute was laid before Parliament. The DTI raised hopes of compensation, but immediately dashed them. Does the DTI’s view now mean that the medical advice that it sought and brought forward was flawed in some way? I do not know. Such behaviour is not good enough for those living with respiratory diseases that have been caused by surface dust from their time in the mining industry.

Whatever grounds the DTI has for rejecting claims, one simple fact remains: dust—that killer dust—did not distinguish between a miner working underground and one working on the surface. Are we to tell the families of men who have become used to the sight of oxygen bottles in their living rooms that the dust that their fathers and grandfathers inhaled on the surface did not have the same terrible effect as the dust inhaled by men underground?

In that debate on 7 February, my hon. Friend said:

Is my hon. Friend seriously asking surface workers, some of whom are in their 70s or 80s, and some of whom are extremely ill, to put their homes and life savings at risk to hire a lawyer to go to court and challenge a Government whom they have helped to put in power not once but three times over the past 10 years? Asking claimants to take part in expensive and lengthy litigation will benefit only the lawyers, not benefit the taxpayer or the claimant.

Last year my hon. Friend said that he did not believe that

Does that mean that the DTI would prefer to spend millions on legal costs in the courts? Compensating the surface workers would cost far less than the millions of pounds that the lawyers will end up being paid. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I know that the National Audit Office is investigating the compensation scheme. I look forward to the occasion when the Committee assembles, and the permanent secretary at the DTI comes before us to justify, on value-for-money grounds, wasting money on lawyers, rather than introducing a scheme that could compensate miners.

The number of former surface workers who are affected is very small—it is 3,000 or perhaps 5,000. In a report on coal health compensation, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry said:

Of course it is not just, and nor is it defensible. Here we are three years on, and nothing has changed.

The Committee asked whether there was a solution, and there is a simple one: let the surface workers go through the medical assessment procedure test. If they do, the number of claims will be significantly reduced. Those who fail the test would have no claim; those shown to qualify for compensation should be compensated.

I know that my hon. Friend is an honourable and decent man and a good Minister. I say to him, “Ignore the siren voices behind you at the DTI, which are urging you to take these matters to court.” The best thing that he can do to those who say such things to him would be to arrange an exchange of jobs for them and send them down the pit for a year or two. I guarantee that they would give him different advice after that.

Delivering justice for surface workers is the right thing to do. In a month or so, we will have a new Prime Minister, and perhaps my hon. Friend will have a new job. While he still has this one, however, I hope that we can award him the accolade of being the Minister who finally delivered justice for miners, and surface workers in particular.

When he comes to reply to the debate, in all humility I urge him to tear up the notes that his officials have given him, to speak from the heart and to give the miners the justice that they deserve.

3.20 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I have a few quick questions for the Minister. First, some of the earlier discussions rather missed the point in dealing with the question of knees and who should pay for the litigation. The absurdity, aside from the issue of moneys being paid to the NUM and others, is that there should be any suggestion of miners funding future litigation out of their industrial injury compensation, when the solicitors have made £500 million—a sum which is going up. Thompsons is meant to be the great trade union solicitor. The firm has made more than £100 million—it looks likely to go up to £200 million—out of the scheme that we are discussing alone, so why does not Thompsons pay the Scottish NUM’s money, and more? Indeed, I wonder, on the basis of a rough calculation, why it does not donate £5 million to the Scottish NUM. That would be a pro rata kind of sum from its vast profits. This is the fundamental issue. We should not tie ourselves in knots about how the funding is handled.

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