HC Deb 22 March 2001 vol 365 cc470-2
5. Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

What action he is taking to deliver coal health payments in the south Yorkshire area. [153634]

10. Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)

What action he is taking to deliver coal miners' illness compensation payments in the Yorkshire and Humberside region. [153640]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mr. Peter Hain)

Some 2,100 claims in the Yorkshire area have been settled in full, with the highest full settlement to date being £61,004. A further 6,200 claimants have received interim payments, the highest being £30,000. In Yorkshire alone, we have paid out £100 million in coal mining compensation. In total, the Department has paid out more than £360 million in compensation for respiratory disease and vibration white finger, and we continue to pay out about £1 million per working day.

Mr. Michie

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and for the work that he is doing to increase the speed with which compensation is paid out. He will be aware that 139,000 cases are still waiting to be dealt with, and that more cases are still coming in than are being completed. He will also know that it will be a long time before those claims are completed. We had another meeting with IRISC this week and were given further suggestions on how to speed things up. Will he again visit IRISC to see what help he can provide in that respect?

Mr. Hain

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for visiting IRISC and I know about his close engagement with its headquarters in Sheffield. We have put in place a series of steps that are resulting in huge improvements in the speed of compensation delivery. Although my hon. Friend is right that there are about 140,000 claimants in the system, many of them have received payments and 1,000 are joining every year, which makes this the biggest compensation claim in Britain's history. He will be encouraged to learn that we expect offers worth £440 million to be sent out in the next five or six months. That compares with £360 million in the past three years, which shows that the programme is being hugely accelerated. We are determined to deliver justice for miners and their widows.

Ms Winterton

I welcome the opening of a centre in Doncaster to deal with vibration white finger claims, but I was concerned to hear yesterday from Tommy Bird, a constituent of mine from Armthorpe. Mr. Bird has chronic bronchitis and emphysema. but even though he has had his final medical assessment, it is likely to be about 15 weeks before he gets a final offer . As I understand it, the problem lies in getting the medical assessment from Healthcall to IRISC. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to speed up that part of the process?

Mr. Hain

We will certainly consider the case of my hon. Friend's constituent. Mistakes have been made and there have been bottlenecks, but we have gradually removed such problems so that the compensation scheme is proceeding much more speedily. There should be no rigid figure of 15 weeks or any other period. We are now processing 1,000 medical assessments each week. That compares with about 500 claims per week last year, so it is clear that the process is being speeded up. I am sure that we will pay special attention to my hon. Friend's constituent's case now that she has raised it with me.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I am concerned about miners' compensation in Yorkshire and Wales. I wrote to the Minister on 6 January, congratulating him on his appointment and asking for an urgent meeting to discuss the matter. Is he happy that I received a reply on 3 March saying,"Try some time later in the spring."? That is simply not good enough.

Mr. Hain

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for congratulating me, but I remind him, that he has had an Adjournment debate in which I gave a full response. I am as happy to discuss any matters with him as I am with any other hon. Member. We have been working night and day to drive the programme forward in Wales, as elsewhere.[Interruption.] On Friday week, I shall open a new medical assessment centre in Ystrad Mynach, which will take forward the whole process of compensation. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) asked the Minister a question, so he should not shout during the reply.

Mr. Hain

I remind the House that while Plaid Cymru whinges about miners' compensation we are delivering it on a scale that has never been seen in British history and that the Tories refused to deliver in their long years of power. We will continue to do that.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his decision on claimants' pension rights, and, in particular, on his decision about asthma cases in which it is shown that it a man could have contracted asthma by working in dust underground. I have no doubt whatever that such cases would have gone to court if the Conservative party had been in power. He will know that the matter involves civil litigation and that although he has extended the claims period until mid-summer, the time bar will come down then. On the basis of the evidence that IRISC will have accumulated in calculating the claims, will he consider introducing a scheme after the time bar comes down, to ensure that people can make future claims?

Mr. Hain

I will certainly consider that. There is no reluctance on our part to pay out the money. Recently, £50 million in offers was stuck with solicitors who were unable to make progress. We want them to speed up their operations. My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of the hugely complex process of litigation. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) often makes the point that the Labour Government in the 1970s dealt with such claims immediately and with great speed. We have been unable to do that because of the court process. However, speed has been increased greatly, and compensation will be paid throughout the country.

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