HC Deb 13 January 2004 vol 416 cc665-6
25. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab)

What progress he has made since 2 December 2003 regarding lawyers' fees for former miners' claims for compensation and the role of the office for the supervision of solicitors. [147120]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy)

The Law Society's compliance board is urgently investigating the claims made in this House that some solicitors have inappropriately charged additional fees in compensation cases for mining-related diseases. The board is also investigating the basis on which the charges have been made. I am expecting to hear from the Law Society later this week.

Mr. Allen

I thank the Front-Bench teams both in the Department for Constitutional Affairs and in the Department of Trade and Industry, on behalf of hon. Members of all parties, for their speedy response to the problems faced by former miners and their widows. Those people have been ripped off—to use the technical legal expression—by being charged extra fees over and above those charged by the DTI. Will the Minister also look into the claims-handling companies, which are just as involved in this malpractice? I understand that a company called Vendside has taken millions of pounds in fees from the DTI. My hon. Friend has done a great job helping former miners and their widows, and I hope that he will also look into the claims companies.

Mr. Lammy

My hon. Friend has been assiduous in campaigning on behalf of miners in this matter. I undertake to investigate the matters in respect of claims companies that he has raised, and to write to him about them. The Clementi review, which was set up by my Department, is looking into regulation in this sector, and there will be some proximity to claims companies. This is a serious matter, and I look forward to what the Law Society has to say later this week.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC)

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), it is true that Union of Democratic Mineworkers officials Neil Greatorex and Mick Stevens have paid themselves six-figure salaries through a subsidiary company established—with the Government's active co-operation—to process claims. Will the Minister confirm that the remit of the Law Society's office for the supervision of solicitors includes such companies, which subcontract the legal work and then charge miners and their families up to £500 for the privilege?

Mr. Lammy

Solicitors are required by their rules of conduct to agree with clients the basis for charging from the outset of a case. In the absence of a specific agreement, the Law Society would view as improper any subsequent deduction. That is why the matter, which falls clearly and squarely within the Law Society's remit, is so serious. We must wait to see the outcome of the investigations that are continuing.

David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab)

Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that in the cases of many miners in my constituency, the Law Society of Scotland has decided already? They were underpaid before 1999, and then received a payment of £1,000. Because of the advice of lawyers, they are now receiving payments in excess of £10,000, £12,000 and £15,000. Will the Minister investigate to determine that the same is not happening in England and Wales?

Mr. Lammy

My hon. Friend will be aware that we keep a close eye on what arrangements take place in Scotland. Those are different from the arrangements in England, but clearly in this case there is a perception of unfairness, and some merit in that perception.