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House of Lords

Thursday, 28th September 2000.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Guildford.

Mineworkers' Compensation

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What proposals they have to expedite the consideration of claims made by former miners under the scheme dealing with lung diseases.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, progress has been too slow on the medical assessment programme. Helen Liddell, the energy Minister, announced last week an increase in the number of centres and records scanning teams. The DTI is also working to streamline the programme and cut down on the number of records required. We also announced last week that increased amounts are being offered as expedited payments to thousands of miners. In addition, some claimants not previously eligible for expedited offers will now be entitled, without undergoing further tests.

We had a constructive meeting with the claimants' solicitors last week and reached broad agreement on the proposals. There are detailed points to be worked through, but the DTI hopes to make around 16,000 offers, totalling around £90 million, before Christmas. That is in addition to the nearly 25,000 individual payments made to claimants to date, which total over £73 million.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his detailed reply. However, he mentioned that progress in the matter has been slow. Is he aware of the widespread criticism and anger that have arisen in dealing with so many of the claims? Can he tell us the problems? After nearly two years have been spent dealing with the scheme, surely those problems ought by now to have been identified and dealt with. Can my noble friend also tell the House how many claims have been made and how many have now been completed? Before he replies, I should remind him that every month 200 former miners who submitted claims under the scheme are dying.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend referred to anger. We are also angry; indeed, Helen Liddell is angry, as am I, about the fact that it is taking so long. The problems that I identified when I answered a similar Question in March have, on the whole, been overcome. Claimants' solicitors are coming forward much more rapidly with claim forms. However, as we get deeper into the programme, we are finding difficulties with doctors who are worried about the Access to Health Records Act 1990 and about the

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burden on them of producing the records for scanning. That is why, as I indicated in my original Answer, we are simplifying that process. It is a fair comment that perhaps we should have done so before now.

As to my noble friend's last question regarding numbers, there have been something like 117,000 claims, and the number is rising every month. As I said in my first Answer, approximately 25,000 individual payments have so far been made.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, although I welcome the additional screening that Helen Liddell has arranged, can the Minister say whether that is specifically for lung diseases in miners or whether there will be additional facilities for women with the disease? As we know, recent figures have revealed that lung cancer is now more common among women than breast cancer.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No, my Lords. The programme that I described is a result of the judgment against British Coal in respect of miners suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease--that is, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. This is a class action and refers only to miners.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, referred to the current rate of mortality among miners. I live on the edge of a former Bristol coal field. Is it not the case that nearly all the claimants are now in their seventies and eighties? Therefore, does that not reinforce the need for speedy action? Would not payments on account be helpful where the claim has not yet been quantified?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right. That is why we are giving priority in this process to those who are old, to the widows of deceased miners and to those who are particularly ill. As to the issue of interim payments, I can tell the noble Lord that we have made a very large number of interim payments. We have offered such payments after spirometry tests. I am pleased to say that we have either made appointments for spirometry tests or have offered appointments to 91 per cent of those who are eligible, after which interim payments are available. However, not all miners wish to take up interim payments because they feel that they may receive more after further detailed consideration has been given to their cases. That is a legitimate point of view.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, the noble Lord has made it clear that Ministers share the concern of all of us who know something about the coal industry--and, indeed, of many others--as regards this prolonged delay in settling such a serious issue. Can he say, even at this late stage, whether the Government have considered proceeding along the lines of the settlement achieved in the pneumoconiosis crises that occurred some 20 or 30 years ago when I was involved with the Coal Board? I realise that legal problems may make that difficult. None the less, that matter was settled much more quickly and expeditiously, without the sort of personal problems that have now arisen in this case.

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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I should make it clear that the delays that have occurred are not due to the fact that nothing is being done. Those delays are occurring because new problems, such as those relating to medical records and employment history, are being uncovered as we make progress in processing the claims that have been made. I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, is right. We are restricted in the way in which we can handle the programme because it arises from a court judgment. However, the upside of that is that we have to report to the judge on progress. We did so as recently as mid-September.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I express the hope that the meeting to which my noble friend referred will lead to greater urgency in this matter. Does he agree that in the six months ending in May this year 1,298 claimants have died and that since then another 1,000 will have died? Urgency is justified.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend's figures are, of course, correct because they were obtained from a parliamentary Answer given by my noble friend Lord Sainsbury of Turville in May this year. I am afraid that my noble friend's prediction of what has happened since that Answer was given is also true. That is one of the most distressing aspects of this whole problem. However, I should not conceal from the House that we anticipate that the programme will take three years to complete.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, in reply to my first Question my noble friend said that some doctors complained of the difficulty in gaining access to records. What is the difficulty?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, many doctors thought that there would be data protection problems under the Access to Health Records Act because some of the records make reference also to third parties. They have now been reassured by the data protection registrar and by the BMA that that is no longer a problem. Health Call Services Limited, which is extracting the records, is now able to do so much more easily with the use of advanced scanning equipment than was the case initially now that GPs' fears have been allayed.

No Win/No Fee Litigation: Consequences

3.13 p.m.

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What assessment they have made of the impact of no win/no fee charging, its effect on the levels of litigation before courts, and the costs to businesses and other service providers of obtaining insurance cover against such litigation.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, two university research studies have shown that success fees are being set at fair levels and that clients are satisfied with them and with the damages they

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receive. The average mark-up was found to be about 47 per cent, recoverable from the unsuccessful defendant. There is some evidence that success fees are falling under competitive pressure.

Additional research is in progress conducted by three universities. There will be an interim report in December and the final report in September next year. There is no evidence of an increase in contested litigation since conditional fee agreements were introduced. On the contrary, there are more settlements due both to the civil justice reforms and conditional fee agreements.

Employer defendants have always insured against litigation and litigation is not increasing. Under legal aid, successful defendants did not recover their costs from legally aided plaintiffs. Where legal aid has been replaced by conditional fee agreements, they do. That therefore removes an injustice to successful defendants.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that Answer. Does he recall that I asked this Question some five months ago, prompted by the excessive television advertising of companies offering help for litigation? Since that time the number of companies advertising and the scale and intensity of that advertising has increased. That is expensive advertising paid for by someone--I wonder who. Has the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor had any talks with the Independent Television Commission about this kind of aggressive advertising and its effect on litigation? More broadly--I thought that the reply he gave last March was a tad complacent--does he have no concern that this kind of no win/no fee litigation will drive our professions (other than the lawyers, of course) and our service industries into the same state as in the United States where the first concern is fear of litigation rather than service to the consumer?

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