HC Deb 21 January 2004 vol 416 cc1307-9
2. Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) (Lab)

When the Wales sub-group dealing with matters relating to miners compensation schemes for chest diseases and vibration white finger last met; and what progress was reported. [148351]

6. Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South) (Lab)

If he will make a statement on payments to retired miners and their families in Wales under the respiratory disease and vibration white finger compensation scheme. [148355]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig)

The Welsh monitoring group dealing with coal health claims last met on 12 January and discussed the good progress being made on both chest disease and vibration white finger claims in Wales. The latest compensation figures show that £284 million has been paid out under the chest disease scheme, and £103 million under the vibration white finger scheme.

Mr. Griffiths

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, which shows that the Government are treating seriously the long-standing problems of illness among miners. However, will he give me some idea of the progress being made on claims by surface workers for that compensation?

Mr. Touhig

Indeed, that matter figured in our discussions at our last meeting on 12 January. The Department of Trade and Industry has already undertaken extensive work in consulting medical experts and conducting dust surveys in respect of affected surface workers. The Department considers that no evidence has yet been found to suggest that it is liable for respiratory diseases suffered by surface workers, but the Government are co-operating very fully with the claimants' solicitors. The judge handling the matter has requested those solicitors to identify lead claims and to gather more evidence for him to consider at the next hearing on 3 February. As I said, the Government, to help the solicitors, have provided access to all the necessary archives, and have made it clear that they will react positively if evidence emerges that the DTI is liable for compensation in this case.

Mr. Jones

Does my hon. Friend agree that the nearly £5 million paid out for dust disease compensation in my constituency shows that the Government are tackling a problem that the Tories ignored for 18 years?

Mr. Touhig

My hon. Friend speaks the truth, as ever. If the Conservative party had not resisted the legitimate claims of miners over the years when it was in government, many miners who are now no longer with us would have received compensation when they were alive. Our priority has been to compensate the oldest miners, the ones who are most ill, and the widows. I can tell the House that the claims of the overwhelming majority of people in that category have been settled. At the beginning of January, 87 per cent. of high priority miners' claims had been settled, and settlement offers had been made in respect of 80 per cent. of widows' claims.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC)

What was the Minister's reaction to the news that the leaders of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers have benefited personally to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds from the miners compensation scheme? To prevent Welsh miners and their families from being ripped off by the company set up for the purpose of securing the compensation, does the Minister believe that the Government should suspend its special deal with the UDM, pending a full investigation of its financial affairs?

Mr. Touhig

Let me make it clear that the arrangement between the UDM and the company, Vendside, was agreed between them and the DTI. The same sort of scheme has been agreed with the claimants' solicitors. As for additional costs and payments, to solicitors or anyone else, I and other Labour Members are on record as saying that we totally condemn any organisation that, in addition to receiving the legal fees being paid by the Government, seeks to take compensation away from miners. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes: Vendside has been involved in some 120-odd claims in Wales, but it ill behoves him to preach to the Government on the matter. I am not so sure that he was quite so outspoken when a leading member of his party doubled his salary by heading an organisation that was taking between 5 and 10 per cent. of compensation from miners and their widows.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the DTI originally agreed to compensate surface workers in exactly the same way as it compensated underground workers? There are only 4,700 surface workers in the entire country. Underground miners had to go through years of hard fighting with the previous Conservative Government to get compensation. Instead of requiring surface workers to go through that, would not it be much more sensible to compensate them in exactly the same way as the underground workers?

Mr. Touhig

I confirm my hon. Friend's point on the DTI's original position on surface workers, but I reiterate that the judge who has been handling the matter has required the solicitors acting on behalf of the claimants to submit evidence. The Government are collaborating closely and fully with the claimants' solicitors and have made it clear that if a case can be made and justified, and if it is demonstrated that miners have been injured as a result of dust intakes when working on the surface, they will respond positively. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that the numbers are small. We are keeping an open mind on the matter and I hope that we can reach a satisfactory conclusion very soon.