HC Deb 30 November 2000 vol 357 cc1130-3
8. Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

How many ex-miners and their families in the east midlands have received mining-related health compensation in the last 12 months. [139539]

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson)

In the past 12 months, the Department has made more than 252 individual payments, totalling over £1 million, in full, final and interim settlement to claimants living in the east midlands. Progress in settling claims has been too slow everywhere. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe announced in September a programme of improvements to the process, and said that we would be making more than 19,000 higher and additional expedited payments by Christmas, totalling £100 million.

Mr. Taylor

I commend the hard work of the Energy Minister. However, is it not the case that tens of thousands of sick, disabled elderly and dying colliers are trapped in a compensation maze populated by dilatory doctors, lethargic lawyers and middlemen on the make? Can the Minister reassure the House that claims handlers IRISC and medical assessors Healthcall are up to the job of clearing that sorry backlog? Do not the miners who sacrificed their health in winning the nation's coal deserve from the nation much, much better than this?

Mr. Johnson

I agree completely with my hon. Friend's final comment, and I realise how deeply important it is to communities across the country that we get that money to the people who need it as quickly as possible. As I know he appreciates, it is a very complex scheme. We are getting in records and claim packs much more quickly, but there is a bottleneck in medical assessments. We are clearing 400 medical assessments a week, but my right hon. Friend intends to get that up to 1,000 a week.

On the specific medical points that my hon. Friend mentioned, we are introducing nine new mobile scanning teams to collect medical records and, centrally, another four new teams. There is a major push to get more doctors involved, with considerable success so far, and 13 new recruits being added to the current 173. We are, therefore, very well aware of the points that my hon. Friend has made, and we shall be redoubling our efforts to ensure that that money reaches those who need it and deserve it as quickly as possible.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that 6,314 claimants have died after submitting a claim but before receiving settlement of it, would the hon. Gentleman be good enough to tell the House what proportion of those 6,314 cases is in the east midlands? Will he guarantee that in each and every case, without fail, the next of kin will receive the sum due, and that in no case will the money be allowed to remain sloshing around in Treasury coffers?

Mr. Johnson

That is a rather superficial question on an important topic. Of course the money will go to the next of kin of those claimants who have died. We have moved to get compensation to miners as quickly as we can—£1 million a day was being paid in compensation last week, and the total cost will be £2 billion. We will provide proper compensation for people who have suffered through all these years. People in the mining communities realise that if a Labour Government were not in power now, there would be no chance of receiving those moneys—that is a different matter from the delays that we face now.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Labour Government on their efforts to make sure that miners and their families get the compensation that they deserve. In the east midlands—including my constituency—there is continuing concern at the speed with which claims are being sorted. Will my hon. Friend make sure that any changes made to speed up the process will be monitored by the Government? Will the Government take speedy action if we do not process the claims from miners in my constituency, Nottinghamshire and beyond?

Mr. Johnson

My hon. Friend makes an important point. My right hon. Friend the Energy Minister is looking at these points carefully. It is true that in a little short of 18 months in office she has done more for the mining communities than the previous Government did in 18 years.

9. Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

What representations he has received on the progress of mineworkers compensation claims. [139540]

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson)

As I have said, there is wide frustration that progress has been so slow. We have received many representations about this from Members of Parliament and claimants and through the media. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe recently received three petitions, signed by 17,000 people, to which she has responded. The Department and all concerned are working urgently to improve throughput, but we should not forget that this is a part of a continuing legal process. Mr. Justice Turner, who is still handling these cases, noted at the hearing in Sheffield earlier this month that the scheme is of necessity complex in making sure claimants get all the compensation due to them. This inevitably means there have been delays in putting the process into effect.

Mr. Todd

My visit to the IRISC headquarters in Sheffield prompted me to write to our right hon. Friend the Energy Minister suggesting a range of ways in which the process could be speeded up. For instance, we could remove the wasted time of checking non-existent employment and pension records, which currently delays the payment of claims, and the wasteful process that Healthcall has followed in pursuing claims with GPs, whereby someone arrives, takes just one record and goes away when there are 10 or 12 miners' records in the GP's practice. Will my hon. Friend insist on a review of the entire process to stop time being wasted? I have seen some progress, which I welcome.

Will my hon. Friend work with Healthcall to secure a centre to examine ex-miners in the south Derbyshire coalfield? It could serve that area and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) I would suggest Swadlincote, Coalville or Burton as a location.

Mr. Johnson

My hon. Friend makes good points and my right hon. Friend the Energy Minister will consider them. We must clear the bottleneck quickly, but there are legal complexities. It is not just a matter of visiting a GP as though one were making a normal visit for a health check; it often requires a second visit. All our attention is centred on clearing the bottleneck and we will take up my hon. Friend's suggestion. We will keep in touch with him and all other Members of Parliament concerned with the developments.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

The Minister has referred to the issue of recruiting doctors who can perform the assessments required for the compensation claims. How would he respond to the case of a constituent of mine who is experienced in this area but is expressly banned from working on the scheme because she once worked for an agency which had some relationship with the Benefits Agency medical services? She was told that within the contractual arrangements from the DTI, any doctor who had ever worked for BAMS was prevented from working on the compensation processes now. Will the Minister consider looking again at this matter, given that many doctors who have expertise in compensation claims may have had some incidental relationship with the Benefits Agency in the past?

Mr. Johnson

The hon. Member raises a matter of which I am unaware and about which I suggest he writes to me. Something about it sounds wrong to me, and we need to look at it. The handling agreement was reached in early 1998, but I am sure that there is enough flexibility to deal with the sort of points that he has raised.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the judge monitoring progress in this matter has recently expressed the view that ex gratia payments would not be the way to deal fairly with compensation? He said that they would overcompensate some, and undercompensate others. Will my hon. Friend also take this opportunity to condemn Plaid Cymru, which has distributed literature in south Wales calling for ex gratia payments? The party has misled miners' families into believing that ex gratia payments represent a simple solution to the problem.

Mr. Johnson

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Mr. Justice Turner did indeed make those comments about ex gratia payments, and it is important to remember that there is a big difference between such payments and compensation payments. If we went down the route of ex gratia payments, we would not be benefiting the people whom we are seeking to assist.