Previous Section Index Home Page

23 May 2007 : Column 472WH—continued

We could go through the other solicitors, such as Rayleys, with more than £50 million, and Graysons, with more than £25 million, or Beresfords, whom I suspect will be more reluctant than others to fund anything, with more than £200 million. Those people have done rather well, and, frankly, will do rather well again if a knee litigation case is won. It is a supreme irony that they refuse to fund something from which they will benefit, and that they make up excuses to suggest that elderly miners and widows should fund it. That is the true scandal and the scale of the disgrace of the legal profession—including those who purport to
23 May 2007 : Column 473WH
be on the side of the labour movement. Let them put their money where their mouth is.

I have only one point to make to the Minister about surface workers. He is clawing back £100 million from the solicitors, thanks to the fast-track money from the court action that he has won. That is a significant sum, and a tiny proportion of it would sort out the surface workers issue, which, as he knows, is not going away. One of my constituents has, through me, put the Minister on notice, and we have offered mediation, which has unfortunately been rejected. However, my surface worker constituents will have their day in court to argue their case, one way or another, even if we must do it case by case—even if we lose every one. The case, and the justice, is indeed more important than the money, although to someone seriously ill with a chest disease the money is important as well. There is no avoiding the issue.

I have a question about industrial deafness. Why were 11,000 cases given to a claims handler, Vendside, without solicitors, in the knowledge that there were no consumer rights and that for that reason, the individuals concerned could not use the Law Society regulations, which are not voluntary but statutory, to obtain their files and see whether their cases had been properly dealt with? No challenge can be made in the Vendside deafness cases, or in the vibration white finger and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease cases that went only through UDM/Vendside and not through solicitors, because those concerned cannot even see the files. The Minister is legally entitled to give access to those files as the defendant employer. Will he allow access for those individuals who want to see whether, among other things, the medical reports were properly analysed, the services claim was dealt with properly and the group three issue was properly dealt with?

That seems to me to be a basic consumer right for that group of claimants, and the absurd decision to allow a claims handler to enter into its own agreement and to take cases separately from solicitors has led to a loss of consumer rights. The Minister could be very helpful by giving further details about his officials’ meetings and dinners at the Rubens hotel and elsewhere, during the past eight years, with representatives of UDM/Vendside. Were minutes taken at those dinners? If not, why did officials go to such dinners and not produce minutes? If there were minutes, can they be produced for Members of the House to see?

The issues of probate that come before all solicitors are vexed and complex, and almost by definition more and more issues are beginning to emerge out of that complexity. Will the Minister issue a clear and coherent advice note on probate, both for solicitors and, more crucially, for Members of the House and our constituents, to enable understanding of the principles of and issues behind probate? It is an aggravating factor, causing splits in families in my area, and, I suspect, elsewhere, because of disputes about who owns the minuscule amounts of money from a deceased miner’s claim.

Will the Minister investigate the scale of speculative claims? They are claims for deceased miners, whereby a claim is put in, but, strangely, no one seems to own it. I shall cite one that the Minister could examine
23 May 2007 : Column 474WH
specifically. It is the case of a John Mann, from Nottinghamshire. I was contacted by Avalon solicitors, who rang me up about my claim, which they then treated as my deceased father’s claim. Neither I nor my father has a claim. We did not work in the industry. The firm was happy to tell me what had happened. There was a claim owing, which it had put in, and it was trying to find the family. The family had not put in a claim; the solicitors had done it, and they were seeking the family—and obviously would be getting significant costs for it if they could find the family. This is a wide area of activity that needs investigating, and which is possibly beyond the remit of the Department of Trade and Industry. However, will the Minister specifically study the case that came from the firm of Avalon, of John Mann of Nottinghamshire, to examine in detail whether it was a speculative claim?

My final question to the Minister is about double charging and has been raised before. I shall give one example, concerning Union and General Services and Frank Allen Pennington of Doncaster. About £3,000 is deducted per case. Many of the relevant cases are outside my area—in fact, the vast majority are. I am certain that there are people who do not realise that £3,000 has been wrongly deducted in their case. Will the Minister ensure, in the case of those claims handlers, that everyone concerned is written to as a matter of urgency explaining the consumer rights that they have through the Law Society, so that those vital sums—large amounts of money—can be put back in the pockets of the people who deserve them?

3.27 pm

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I am conscious of the time, Mr. O’Hara, and will try to keep my contribution to a minimum. It goes without saying what a difference is being made by compensation money to the lives of miners and their families in my constituency, which has the highest number of individual claims; there is talk now of compensation for former miners there being well over £100 million.

There are two issues that I want to raise, which have not yet been covered. I raised the first in my Adjournment debate in February 2004 and in the consequential Adjournment debate in the House in September 2004. I think that my early-day motion 666, tabled on 22 February 2004, puts my point in perspective:

At that time we had a large number of claims. In fact 21,500 former miners had then already accepted full and final settlements of less than £1,000. Indeed, 9,500 miners accepted less than £500 and 3,400 accepted £200, at the same time as solicitors were claiming an average of £2,140. Since then, substantially more
23 May 2007 : Column 475WH
miners have settled for less than £500. In fact, between 2004 and 2006, another 17,500 miners have settled for less than £500.

In response to my Adjournment debate of September 2004, the Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), said that the claimants’ solicitors were trying to set up a scheme to pay a minimum of £500 back to their clients. I am pleased to say that the scheme got off the ground in February 2007. It is a bit disappointing that it has taken so long for that to happen, but I am pleased that the scheme is now up and running. The obvious question to which I would like the Minister to respond is this. We have already talked about the global figures for the fees that the solicitors have received—which, incidentally, amount to nearly £1 billion—but, given that 20,000-odd miners have already accepted less than £500, does the Minister agree that we should consider paying out for them, too, now that the scheme is off the ground?

The other issue that I want to raise briefly—I promised Mrs. Riley from Grimethorpe that I would raise it with the Minister—is compensation for former canteen workers and cleaners under the Equal Pay Act 1970. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that some 2,500 former canteen workers and cleaners have still not received compensation, because they unfortunately did not get their claims in on time under that Act. That was very much the fault of certain union officials at certain pits. I wonder whether the Minister can offer any advice that I can pass on to Mrs. Riley, because the issue is one of social justice and fairness. The situation is that some canteen workers and cleaners have received up to £20,000 in compensation, while other canteen workers and cleaners, who put in exactly the same amount of time working at the other pit, have not received anything.

3.32 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara. It is useful to have these debates regularly, because they give us a chance to be updated on the progress of the scheme. Indeed, I found the regular meetings that we used to have with the Minister helpful in that regard, too. I am not sure whether they take place now—perhaps I have been left off the invitation list or otherwise been unable to attend.

It is good to reflect on a scheme that has brought compensation to people who worked in terrible conditions and suffered as a result, and on whose backs the nation thrived for many years. It is a great shame and a pity when I see former miners in my constituency who have had difficulties establishing their claims and who have not been paid becoming more ill and more dependent on their wives and families, yet still not receiving the benefit of compensation. Many of them tell me that they would be satisfied to know that even if they died before receiving compensation, at least their widows would receive it. They could then be confident that their widows would have no difficulties after their days.

The scheme has basically worked reasonably well. A great amount of compensation—well, the right
23 May 2007 : Column 476WH
amount—has gone out to communities that have been devastated by illness. However, there have been difficulties, some of which have been mentioned today. I commend the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on pursuing the issue. As far as I am concerned, the legal profession has been well rewarded for the work it has done in connection with the scheme. To then take extra money out of the compensation was entirely wrong. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has campaigned on the issue as well.

I might be corrected by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) if I am wrong about this, but we do not seem to have had so many of those complaints in south Wales, although complaints about the efficiency with which the solicitors have dealt with claims have certainly been quite common. Indeed, I had a case where just threatening the solicitors with a complaint to the Law Society led them to pay compensation immediately, because they had bungled the application so much. I am sure that the contributions that the hon. Member for North Durham and other hon. Members have made today will bring some recompense to those former miners who have had their compensation reduced.

There are a number of miners suffering from diseases other than COPD or vibration white finger whose cases have been raised today. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) raised the case of those with osteoarthritis in the knee. I am sure that we would all like to work together to ensure that progress is made on that issue.

The other outstanding issue concerns the cases of the surface workers, which the right hon. Gentleman has been prominent in pursuing. There are cases in my constituency of surface workers who have undoubtedly suffered as a result of their working conditions. I met the Minister recently and he suggested that I write to some of the legal firms that have been involved in pursuing such claims, to see whether they could use the money that they have received—obviously the sums have been quite substantial—to pursue the cases of surface workers through the courts. It would be better if we could come up with a scheme for what would not be a huge number of claimants. If the £100 million that is to be returned to the DTI as a result of payments to legal firms on the fast-track scheme could be used for that, that would be very helpful indeed.

The other group of mineworkers that has not been mentioned, but which certainly causes me considerable anxiety and work, is workers in small mines. Such cases are difficult to sort out, because it is sometimes difficult to track down the exact employment history of some of those former miners, because it can go back over a very long period. Even if those miners have good memories, it can be very difficult indeed to establish evidence to substantiate their claims. If a miner has finished work early in a small mine, compensation for loss of wages and loss of pension can also be a difficulty. However, we should introduce a system to make some payment as soon as possible and thereby bring some consolation to that class of workers, even if it is difficult to work out the exact balance of compensation between those in small mines and those who worked for British Coal. I know that the situation is very difficult indeed. The Minister advised me to write to some of the insurers for
23 May 2007 : Column 477WH
the small mines, such as AGF. I have done that and hope to meet its representatives.

This has been a worthwhile debate. We look forward to the Minister coming forward with some solutions, tearing up his advice—he is being handed another piece at this very moment—as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, and bringing some happiness to those miners and their families who have suffered so sorely with such injuries.

3.38 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I begin by expressing our support for those miners still seeking compensation and congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this important debate. I also acknowledge the local expertise that many hon. Members have shown this afternoon and welcome their input.

In disclosing any interests that I may have as a solicitor—albeit not one who practises in the personal injury or litigation sectors—I feel that the situation, involving relatively small numbers of solicitors, has left a black mark against the standing of the legal profession. As Peter Williamson of the Solicitors Regulation Authority on 25 April said:

and thus public confidence in both the profession and the legal system itself. He has urged the partners of 515 firms that dealt with miners’ compensation to return to all clients any additional charges that they made in those cases. That was a key point made by the hon. Member for North Durham, and I should be interested to know which firms have refused that plea. Perhaps the Minister could advise us of the position.

One sad aspect of the situation is undoubtedly the length of time that it has taken for individual miners to receive compensation for the harm that they suffered. It has, after all, been some 10 years since the High Court found British Coal negligent in respect of miners suffering from vibration white finger. As has been mentioned, some 225,000 claimants given money for chronic chest conditions were paid less than £2,000—less than the scheme allows in legal fees for each claim handled—and 13,000 received less than £200. In fact, two thirds of claimants have received less than it cost the Government to handle their claim. By contrast, more than £800 million of public money has been paid in legal costs to the 30 highest earning solicitors’ firms involved in registering and settling claims.

The Government, and specifically the Department of Trade and Industry, have spent too much time debating claimants’ legal costs and not enough time examining their failings in controlling their own legal costs. According to an estimate in The Lawyer, the DTI’s legal costs are expected to reach £2.4 billion once the compensation scheme ends, over £1 billion more than has been paid out to claimants’ solicitors.

Finally, there is the issue of clawbacks against solicitors, claims handlers and trade unions. We are glad to hear that some money may yet be clawed back. The SRA has gained refunds of £2.5 million from some of the law firms involved, and the Government have stated that they will reclaim almost £100 million in
23 May 2007 : Column 478WH
legal costs. I should be grateful if the Minister clarified how much has been reclaimed from solicitors so far, how much has yet to come and how much will be written off. Of those totals, how much will be allocated to those miners or miners’ families who lost out because their compensation was reduced by so-called administrative deductions?

What can we learn for the future? We are all keen to learn from the mistakes made and see that compensation schemes for miners and their families are completed successfully. We are also eager to ensure that future complaints handling schemes, particularly those relating to personal injury claims, are handled more fairly and without excessive charges or pressure being brought to bear on claimants.

The Trade and Industry Committee in its 14th report concluded:

In light of that statement, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), said:

The Minister promised in a written ministerial statement on 15 December 2005 to follow up with the Law Society the extent to which claimants would be made fully aware in future that they were free to use solicitors who do not make deductions. I hope that he will confirm that those discussions have resulted in specific Law Society recommendations and let us know what they are. Judging from the comments of the hon. Member for North Durham, the Government have clearly failed in that regard.

The conduct of a few solicitors has negatively impacted on the legal profession’s reputation, but the smell of inefficiency, waste and mismanagement permeates much further than to a handful of solicitors. It goes to the top—to the DTI and its Ministers, who must now account for their mismanagement. Other parties must be reviewed as well—one union has pocketed millions through just one firm of solicitors, another has been subject to a Serious Fraud Office investigation and new revelations about union activities were made earlier today.

The Conservatives agree that there should be firm regulation, but we think that it should apply to everybody involved in the business of claims management and to unions, not just to lawyers, and that it should include accountability to the regulators. At the start of this debate, I sat back, somewhat bemused, as Labour Members debated among themselves solicitors’ practices versus Durham NUM practices versus Northumberland NUM practices, and then the north-eastern NUM practices versus DTI oversight. Frankly, rats in a barrel come to mind, falling over each other in what the hon. Member for North Durham called a feeding frenzy. Very few come out of this cleanly. The Legal Services Bill will come before the House shortly, and we hope that it will address the concerns raised by hon. Members about the regulation of the legal profession in the future.

23 May 2007 : Column 479WH

Mr. Denis Murphy: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for all the faults pointed out this afternoon, had it been left to his Government, no miner would have been paid any compensation whatever? It was an absolute disgrace—not just the Conservative party’s position on the closure of the industry, but how it treated sick miners.

Mr. Djanogly: Considering the nature of this debate, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman does himself much credit in making an overtly political point.

Having heard today’s evidence, we need to reconsider the position of unions acting as claims handlers. As for the DTI, the National Audit Office will report in late summer on the planning, implementation and run-down of the two schemes. I do not wish to pre-empt the NAO’s findings, but we shall review them carefully once they are published. A huge amount of public money is being spent, and the Conservative party remains to be convinced that it is being spent appropriately.

Next Section Index Home Page