HC Deb 09 June 2004 vol 422 cc259-61
4. Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in respect o the deduction of contingency fees from miners' compensation awards. [177357]

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

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry on coal health compensation matters, and I also attend the national monitoring group chaired by my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths).

Huw Irranca-Davies

Will my hon. Friend convey my thanks to his counterparts in the DTI for their efforts in working with the Law Society to put pressure on those lawyers who, scandalously, have sought to deduct contingency fees from the compensation rightfully paid to miners, their widows and their families? However, does he share my dismay—not to say disgust—that other lawyers in south Wales continue to deduct contingency fees or part payments from money that rightfully should go to miners and their families?

Mr. Touhig

Yes, I most certainly share that disgust. Claims handlers and others who take a slice of compensation meant for miners and their widows are, in my view, nothing but parasites preying on the fears of elderly and vulnerable people. My message to them is simple. It is, "Give the money back. It does not belong to you; it belongs to the miners."

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)

Yesterday, I was contacted by my constituent Mr. Davies from Abercraf, who is conducting a claim on behalf of his late father. He is furious about the service that he has received from his solicitor, who has taken a long time to settle the claim, and has also submitted copies of wills and probates that refer to a claim being made by another family. Solicitors involved in such matters receive great fees from the DTI: when will those fees be deducted to reflect the poor service that claimants receive, and the stress that is caused to them when they do not get the money that they are due?

Mr. Touhig

On the whole, most solicitors handling miners' compensation claims have acted very well and have sought to process the claims as speedily as possible. However, I am aware that some solicitors are not in that category and that they have caused enormous grief, to my constituents and to those of other hon. Members. I shall bring the details of this particular case to the attention of the Law Society, as I have done on a number of occasions previously, and I shall ask it to investigate the problems that the hon. Gentleman's constituent is having with that firm of solicitors.

Denzil Davies (Llanelli) (Lab)

Given that the activities of the claim handlers seem to generate claims and therefore more work for solicitors, would it not be fairer if their fees were paid out of the solicitors' pockets, and not by the unfortunate claimants?

Mr. Touhig

I have sympathy with that view. Indeed, I have written to the Law Society on behalf of a couple of my constituents who have paid £5,000 to claims handlers. When I wrote to the solicitors handling the claims, I was told that they dealt merely with the process of the claim and that my constituents had signed an agreement to pay that money to the claims handlers.

I have asked the Law Society to investigate the matter because one part of the agreement that my constituents had to sign states that the payment is needed to meet any legal or medical fees. In fact, claimants have to pay no such fees, as the Government are meeting them all. The solicitors know that, and they should act appropriately. I have every sympathy for the point made by my right hon. Friend. Solicitors should be encouraged to help get the money back.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC)

In the Minister's discussions with the Department of Trade and Industry, did he also ask why it is financing the miners' compensation scheme from the surpluses it receives from the miners' pension fund? As the Minister himself said, "Give the money back. It doesn't belong to you; it belongs to the miners."

Mr. Touhig

Plaid Cymru is taking an interest in miners? There must be an election on. The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue recently and gained much publicity as a result. He has created alarm and concern among miners and their widows, who think that their pension fund is at risk because of the issues he has raised. He has not discovered anything new: the issue that he raises was made public by my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell) on 8 December 1999. The hon. Gentleman alluded to the guarantee. At the moment, the miners' pension scheme is in deficit and the Government are putting in millions of pounds to overcome that deficit. If he asks any miner in Wales, they will tell him that the guarantee of their pension security is a godsend. They welcome it, and they know that it guarantees that their pensions are safe.

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