HC Deb 18 April 2002 vol 383 cc805-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]

6.59 pm
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

I wish to raise an issue that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) on 7 November last year: the dilemma of canteen workers and cleaners who used to work for British Coal and its forerunners. The debate on 7 November was well attended.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy met nearly two dozen Members of Parliament in the Department of Trade and Industry on 13 November. He listened to what we said about the situation and heard our many points about the plight of former Coal Board canteen workers and cleaners. At that meeting, I made a handwritten note that the Minister acknowledged that an injustice had been done between those who were registered and those weren't under equal pay legislation. He also said that he would see if there was a mechanism for making an ex gratia payment, as he was anxious for the Department to make progress on mining issues.

The Government have made good progress on mining issues, and have learned in the past five years that the legacy of the coal industry runs deep and wide, ranging from cleaning up the environment to compensating workers who have become victims of ill health. It is claimed that there are many victims, not least the women who worked in the industry, who were denied equal pay, given fewer holidays and refused help with concessionary fuel, and who received inferior pensions because they were women. Their fight for justice turned into what can only be described as a war of attrition between the unions in the industry and the Government which went on for many years.

Those women did not have claims in on time, as the legislation stipulated, but many of my hon. Friends and I believe that that was not their fault. As my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out in a letter to me today, it was the responsibility of union representatives to keep their members informed; if the claims had been lodged in a timely manner, the problem would not have arisen. Somewhere along the line, someone did not process their claims. Since our meeting with the Minister, there have been two lobbies of Parliament by those ex-workers. I was invited to the second one on 21 March, which was addressed by the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

I was invited to that meeting by women with claims in my constituency. Did my right hon. Friend, like me, find it bizarre that that was the only lobby of Parliament in which the sole speaker was the president of the NUM? All those women had travelled down to London to lobby their MPs, but the only person allowed to speak was Arthur Scargill.

Mr. Barron

I did indeed find it bizarre. It was the only parliamentary lobby I have ever attended at which the person sitting on the platform asked people to ask questions, then said if there was time MPs could ask, not answer, questions. I dare say that many right hon. and hon. Members would love all lobbies to be like that; we could go along and ask questions of people who had come to make a case to the House.

At that meeting, the NUM president once again claimed that in April 2001 the then Minister for Energy and Competitiveness, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Peter Hain), had agreed to pay women who did not have a valid claim under the legislation. I have spoken directly to my right hon. Friend, who categorically denies the allegation made by Mr. Scargill.

I have a copy of my right hon. Friend's letter dated 23 April 2001 which outlines what was agreed between the Department of Trade and Industry and the NUM regarding the women who had valid claims under the legislation. There is no mention in the agreement of any promise of payment to women who did not submit a valid claim. There were three points in the agreement: first, the level of compensation that the women would get; secondly, the minimum payment that they would get; and thirdly, an agreement to fund arrears of subscription and an administration fee in accordance with the ruling handed down at York county court on 2 October 2000.

The third point may sound a little obscure to my hon. Friends, so I shall clarify it. They may be interested to know what the York county court case was about. I have a copy of the court's decision. The court was in fact the Barnsley county court, which happened to be sitting in York that day. No reason is given for that.

In 1999 the DTI offered a settlement to the women who had valid claims, and some of them accepted. Included in the 1999 offer from the DTI was an offer of indemnity against the women having to pay money to the NUM out of their settlement. As some hon. Members know, the NUM asks ex-members to sign a form agreeing to pay arrears of subscriptions and an administration fee if their claims are successful. The women who had agreed the DTI settlement therefore refused to pay the union, given that they had indemnity. As I understand it, the level of settlement would have meant the women handing almost all their compensation over to the NUM.

As a consequence of the women's refusal, the National Union of Mineworkers took three of the women to court—its own ex-members—in a test case. The women were defended by the DTI, but the NUM won the case. It won the right to take a cut of the women's compensation money.

When the rest of the cases were settled by agreement in April last year, the Government gave the NUM £1.7 million under the terms of the agreement to which I referred, on the basis that the Union would not seek to recover those costs from the compensation amounts being paid to each former canteen worker—who will therefore receive their full entitlement without any deductions. The NUM can hardly justify seeking to recover those legal costs, because it was paid a further £600,000 to cover legal costs incurred over the years in connection with the claims. Out of a total settlement of some £14 million the NUM received £2.3 million. Some people might argue that legal costs paid for in the 1980s and 1990s were paid out of the women's contributions while they were at work.

When the former canteen workers and cleaners who had received no compensation lobbied Parliament on 21 March, I asked Mr. Scargill whether, if the Government were to offer ex gratia payments to those women, he would want any of it. He said that he would not. I should think not, given that none of the women had submitted valid claims. It is clear that his union had not represented their interests in the matter.

Hon. Members may be interested to know that the NUM is making a huge profit from the operation of the current compensation schemes for chronic bronchitis, emphysema and vibration white finger. Former coal miners suffering from those industrial diseases who approach the NUM are advised to use a firm of solicitors, Raleys, in Barnsley. When their claims are submitted to Raleys, they are asked to sign a form agreeing to pay fees to the NUM. I have spoken to ex-miners who thought on that basis that the NUM was progressing their compensation cases, but it is not doing so. It is the solicitors who are progressing their claims. One of the fees that they agree to pay to the NUM by signing the form is an administration fee of 3 per cent., up to a maximum of £750, which is different in total from that of the canteen women. The other fee is NUM contribution money for a maximum of three years, which is not dissimilar to the amount that the NUM attempted to take from the canteen workers and cleaners who settled with the DTI in 1999.

I have an example of how much the NUM receives by getting the claimant to sign the form, but letting someone else do the work. The example involves a man who made a successful respiratory claim. Out of the total amount that he received—£6,390—the NUM was paid an administration fee of £184 for pointing him in the direction of Raleys solicitors, plus £308 for back payment of union dues. Some £492 was thus paid to the NUM. Even on claims in which compensation is low, the NUM still takes at least 15 per cent. from claimants through Raleys. Raleys itself is paid large amounts of money by the DTI to administer the scheme, as are other claims handlers, so the firm is not on its own in that respect.

In an answer that I received today to a parliamentary question that I tabled last week, the up-to-date figures show that Raleys has received £4.8 million for chronic bronchitis and emphysema claims and £3.2 million for vibration white finger claims. If we look at how much money is paid to claimants through Raleys, we see a total for respiratory diseases and vibration white finger of some £60.5 million. That is the total that has been paid through Raleys to claimants in the area that my hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) and I represent.

If we accept that the vast majority of Raleys claimants are NUM members and that the bulk of the money paid is for final settlement—indeed, this must be the case because, as my hon. Friends know, interim settlements are only £2,000 per claimant—it is reasonable to assume that the NUM, on the basis of its lowest fees of 15 per cent., has had or will have at least £9 million out of that money for doing nothing more than getting its members to sign up to Raleys solicitors in Barnsley. Furthermore, about 40 per cent. of the claims are settled posthumously, so they are taking dead men's money.

It is clear that the union has been taking millions of pounds for doing very little, while the former canteen workers and cleaners have been left out in the cold through no fault of their own. We need to find a solution to this mess. In his letter to me today, my hon. Friend the Minister reiterates his difficulties in finding a legal basis to solve the problem. However, he says that he will continue to explore whether there is any reasonable way of addressing the matter. I hope that a mechanism can be found to make these women an ex gratia payment of at least the minimum sum that was paid out to their more fortunate colleagues in last year's settlement. The NUM was a party to the dilemma in which these women find themselves, so I think that it should also make a contribution to them in an act of solidarity, given that millions of pounds have gone into its coffers over the past few years for doing next to nothing.

I hope that my hon. Friend can tell us about how he would like to make progress with me and other hon. Members on justice for these mineworkers, who have been left out in the cold through no fault of their own.

7.14 pm
The Minister for Industry and Energy (Mr. Brian Wilson)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) on securing this debate and on bringing this issue before the House. He extended his comments, perfectly properly, in order to draw parallels between the treatment of various former miners and former NUM members. I think that the court of public opinion will be very interested in his comments about the NUM's behaviour. However, I shall restrict my remarks, for reasons that I am sure my right hon. Friend understands, to the subject of canteen workers and cleaners.

The subject has become very familiar to me and to all Labour Members who are present. Indeed, the Minister for Employment and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), stood in for me in a similar debate on 7 November. I appreciate that this continues to be a matter on which there are strong feelings within the coalfield communities. I have experienced those, having gone out of my way to encounter the people involved at first hand. I wish that it was within my gift, or that of any Minister, to resolve the issue in a simple, straightforward and just way.

Before discussing the details of where we are now, it might be useful briefly to recap the history of the equal value issue. Originally, certain British Coal women workers, mainly cleaning and canteen staff, lodged claims under the Equal Pay Act 1970, which required like pay for like work". The claims lodged in the 1970s proved unsuccessful, and in the event British Coal won the litigation. The 1970 Act was amended in 1983 so that claims could be made on an equal value basis. Subsequently, a majority of the women who had lodged the earlier claims went on to lodge equal value claims. In all, between 1986 and 1992 around 1,300 women lodged claims at the employment tribunal.

The amended Act enabled the women to seek compensation if they could show that they were being paid less than men in comparable jobs. British Coal resisted that on the grounds that the legislation did not apply to their situation. The arguments about those legal technicalities went on for many years, culminating in hearings in the Court of Appeal and in the House of Lords. Settlements were reached with members of the Union of Democratic Miners and, subsequently, several members from the NUM. However, the NUM urged the majority of its members to hold out.

To fast forward a full decade, a deal to settle the outstanding claims was finally brokered in April last year by the then Minister for Energy and Competitiveness, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Peter Hain). Under that agreement, all the women with valid claims lodged with an employment tribunal stood to receive settlements based on length of service, the average settlement being around £10,000. It was also agreed that those who had accepted British Coal's earlier offer would, as they had lodged a claim, receive top-up payments, ensuring that all those eligible would receive settlements on the same basis. I am pleased to say that almost all—98 per cent—of those with tribunal cases have now been paid.

Up until that point, it was clearly a story of a Labour Government accepting an historic liability and acting in an extremely honourable way towards a group of people who had registered claims that had not been paid out during previous years. Unfortunately, as we all know, the story did not end there.

When the deal was brokered last April, it was apparent that some women who had not lodged equal value claims at the industrial tribunal might otherwise have had valid cases for compensation. It now appears that there may be more than 3,000 such individuals—more than twice the number of those with valid claims. I recognise that at that time, between 1986 and 1992, they may not have been informed of the possibility of making a claim or may have been let down by those acting on their behalf.

The trade unions were well aware of the equal value rules and the procedures that had to be followed. In such matters, it would have been the responsibility of union representatives to keep their members and former members informed.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)

I thank the Minister for giving way on that point. He is very well briefed and he knows that the issue is not quite as simple as that—in fact, it is extremely complicated. In my constituency I sent out forms to about 100 of my former canteen workers and cleaners who fall into this category. I received 79 back, of which only 42—or 53 per cent.—were from NUM members. The other 47 per cent. were either in a different trade union or, in 33 per cent. of cases, not in any trade union. I therefore accept that to some extent the NUM is culpable as regards the situation of their members. However, some women who were not trade union members received no advice at all. My canteen workers are not especially interested in who is to blame; they want to know who will sort out the mess. Arthur Scargill and the NUM will not do that, and I hope that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has timed his intervention wrongly. However, he should not make a speech.

Mr. Wilson

Obviously, we could debate the matter for much longer than half an hour. I cannot begin to tackle the list of reasons why, between 1986 and 1992, each woman did not register a claim or have a claim registered on her behalf. The bottom line is that although 1,300 people registered claims, and there were channels for communicating information, others have emerged—in some cases, 10 or 15 years after they should have registered a claim—who have not done that. I am now confronted with that problem.

As I said, the trade unions were well aware of the equal value rules. I did not mention a specific trade union. Although the Administration at the time were very different, steps were taken to communicate the fact that the claims could and should be registered. I acknowledge the specific difficulties that existed in coalfield communities, especially in the earlier part of the period that we are considering, but they cannot explain the failure to take action that was clearly so much in the interests of members, especially women members. I cannot help wondering whether the interests of male union members would have been so lightly regarded.

Whatever the reasons for claims not being made or pursued, there is no legal basis on which British Coal or the Department of Trade and Industry can simply pretend that the claims were legally registered. The terms of the Equal Pay Act 1970 impose a time limit on bringing a claim before an employment tribunal—a time limit of six months from the termination of employment. There is no discretion to extend that limit. Anyone who fails to register a claim in the employment tribunal system within six months of termination of employment does not have a legally valid claim to equal value pay under the terms of the Equal Pay Act, and is not eligible for any payment.

It is important to note that the legislation does not apply only to the coal industry, but to all employment sectors. Of course, I sympathise with the women who are in the position that we are discussing, and I have therefore agreed to reconsider whether anything can be done for them. I am giving the matter detailed consideration; I have gone down several avenues in an attempt to find a solution. I have listened carefully to representations. However, none of the options that I have identified so far can overcome two key difficulties.

First, there is no legal basis for paying out money on large numbers of claims that have turned up more than a decade late when there is no other legal reason for doing that. Secondly, it is hard to understand how special treatment for British Coal employees would not be unfair to all those other people who have had claims disqualified under the tribunal system because of time barring. I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to consider carefully the significance of that point. All hon. Members have such people in their constituencies. In resolving one apparent anomaly, we would create a much bigger one. The 2,000 claims did not appear until the 13 had been settled. In the same way, if the other 2,000 were somehow settled by sleight of hand, tens of thousands of people throughout the country who have had tribunal claims time barred would be in the same position as the 2,000.

Mr. Barron

I understand the difficulty that my hon. Friend outlines, but, as he said, many of the problems occurred under a former Administration. I know that some of the cases relating to equal pay claims were around in 1985. A constituent, Mrs. Peggy Craig, who, in the 1970s, took over from a man as manageress in the canteen at the coal mine where I worked, received letters in 1985 from her union, the NUM, about the action that it was taking. The case did not progress. That was partly to do with the battle in the courts between the National Coal Board and the Government. The Government were trying to frustrate small victories that the unions gained on behalf of their members. Much of the problem stems from the war of attrition that I mentioned earlier. That did not apply in any other industry to my knowledge. It makes the people whom we are considering a special case for that reason, if not in law.

Mr. Wilson

As I said earlier, if we start going into every individual case to find out why a claim was not registered in 1986 or 1987, that would be an extremely complex matter to determine. Let me assure the House that every legitimate case will throw up an anomaly with someone else who will have a different set of circumstances attached to their case. An awful lot of injustices occurred during that period, in the coal industry and in society in general. The idea that the Government can now address retrospectively 10, 15 or 20 years later every tribunal case that was not registered as a result of these injustices is evidently unsatisfactory.

I want to nail the untruth that an assurance was given to Mr. Scargill in April 2000 that these claims were going to be dealt with. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath confirmed, no such undertaking was given. Incidentally, I have looked at the press coverage on the day after that meeting, and there was not a word from Mr. Scargill about unregistered claims. The coverage was all about the 1,300 registered claims, which have been met in full at a cost to the Government of £14 million—honour due and honour paid to the credit of this Government—and what we are talking about here are the 2,000 or more claims that have subsequently turned up, which were not registered within the proper time frame or, indeed, until a decade or more later.

I want to say something about addressing historic injustices when there is a legal basis on which to do so. My right hon. and hon. Friends have referred to what we are doing in that context. This is not about the money. If one looks at the amount of money that is going into the coalfield communities as a result of actions taken by this Government, it is clear that the amount of money involved in dealing with this issue is absolutely tiny. What is not tiny is the fact that there is no legal basis for addressing these claims under the tribunal system, and that to do so would create an anomaly that would represent a gross injustice to all the other people who have time-barred claims under the tribunal system before and after the episode that we are discussing.

I shall give the House an example of what we have done to try to address real injustices, when there has been a legal basis to do so. On 11 December, I announced that, following the consultation process, I was persuaded that a number of miners who were dismissed in connection with the 1984–85 strike and not subsequently re-employed by British Coal were harshly treated. I concluded that the most appropriate way forward would be to enhance the pensions of those miners in recognition of the years of further service they had lost. I am about to write to the interested parties about the process that will be followed, and to ask them to inform former miners who think they might qualify for a pensions enhancement to register their interest.

On coal health, we have addressed the liabilities of the past that were ignored for 20 years. On low pensions, we have picked up the injustices of the past that were ignored for 20 years. On dismissed miners, we have picked up the injustices of the past that were created almost 20 years ago. On the issue of canteen workers, there is a genuine difficulty in picking up injustices of the past that involve claims that should have been registered 10 or 15 years ago and that were not brought to our attention until 2001 when a Labour Government had come to power. I think that my colleagues can understand that difficulty. I do not expect Mr. Scargill and his like to want to understand it. I have placed our general record on dealing with historic injustices in the coalfields in front of the House tonight, and I believe that we have a very good story to tell.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Seven o'clock.