HC Deb 09 September 2004 vol 424 cc955-62

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

6.3 pm

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to sponsor today's extremely important Adjournment debate. I thank hon. Members, especially my hon. Friends, for being in the House at this late hour to give me their support.

I suppose that I ought to begin by declaring my personal interest in this matter: both my grandfathers were former miners who unfortunately passed away suffering from lung-related mining diseases. I guess that anyone who was brought up like me in a mining village, such as Grimethorpe, would probably have to declare a similar interest.

Whenever I speak in the House on either of the two mineworkers' compensation schemes, I always begin, and rightly so, by congratulating the Government on having the courage of their convictions to implement what, after all, are the biggest industrial compensation schemes of their type in the world. Money is flowing into the pockets of former miners and their families in mining communities, and it is making a big difference.

Indeed, in my constituency, if we look specifically at the Department of Trade and Industry statistics for chronic bronchitis and emphysema up to the end of June 2004, we see that more than 6,200 claims were submitted from ex-miners still alive and more than 6,200 claims from deceased miners' families, totalling almost 12,500 claims. I think that those figures reflect the current national statistics for CBE claims, because roughly 50 per cent. come from miners who are still alive, with 50 per cent. from deceased miners' families.

Of the 12,500 claims submitted in Barnsley, East and Mexborough, there have been 3,942 full and final settlements and 2,137 interim payments, with 1,091 full and final offers outstanding. A total of more than £34.5 million has already been paid out for just CBE, which is excellent news for my constituency.

We start from the premise of a good news story for mining communities as far as the Government are concerned. Six years after both schemes were agreed, they have paid out more than £2 billion. Many ex-miners and their families have received compensation and they were satisfied with the outcome in many cases. However, there is no doubt that there are enormous difficulties with delivering such gigantic schemes, so it is not surprising that problems have arisen.

In my contribution to this important debate, I shall focus almost exclusively on putting forward the case for a minimum payment to settle CBE claims, as I did in my early-day motion, ominously numbered 666, which was tabled on 24 February 2004 and said: That this House notes with sadness that solicitors dealing with Miners Compensation Scheme cases for chronic bronchitis and emphysema (CBE) are currently receiving an average fee of £2,143 per case whilst at the same time almost half the former miners so far compensated have received final settlements of less than that amount, and that over 3,100 former miners have received less than £200; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to undertake an urgent review to consider implementing a minimum compensation payment to former miners suffering from CBE of £1.500. I am pleased that more than 70 hon. Members from across all political parties have so far signed the early-day motion.

The main reason why I am putting forward the principle of a minimum compensation payment is primarily that it makes common sense and would drastically speed up the current process, which can be time consuming and wasteful. Of about 610,000 claims registered at the Department of Trade and Industry, only between 130,000 and 140,000 have been settled in the six years since the scheme began. That means that almost 500,000 claims are still in the system, yet only about 5,000 claims are settled each month. That implies that it could take a further nine or 10 years to settle all the claims.

Approximately two thirds of the offers that have so far been accepted were for less than £5,000. Information that I retrieved from the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), in January 2004 allows us to examine that statistic more closely. Many of the settlements were for less than £1,000. As the figures go back to January, they will have increased by this month, but at that time, 21,418 miners had received less than £1,000 as a full and final settlement. Some 9,475 miners had received less than £500 and 3,413 had received less than £200. When all the claims have been finally dealt with, low-value settlements could represent a significant proportion of the total, which raises an important question.

How can an ex-miner whose health has been damaged as a result of working in the coal industry be offered less than £200, no matter what the other contributory factors are? The Department of Trade and Industry itself knows that there is a problem with turning offers into settlements, as it is repeatedly raised in its six-monthly reports to court. At the end of 2003, there were 23,133 outstanding offers, of which nearly 4,000 had been with solicitors for more than a year. As I have already said, there are more than 1,000 outstanding claims in my constituency alone.

The huge influx of claims immediately before the 31 March 2004 deadline reinforces the argument that every effort should be made to turn offers into settlements and free up valuable resources. How many outstanding offers will there be this time next year or the year after? When low offers or settlements are made, the main consideration is often what proportion of the respiratory disease is the fault of the employer—in this case, British Coal—and how much is due to other factors such as smoking, which the Under-Secretary of State will know is one of the biggest considerations. The DTI believes that the calculations are fair and accurate, and entirely in keeping with the handling agreement. However, claimants and solicitors rightly argue that derisory offers do not reflect the levels usually agreed in similar common law cases.

The felony is compounded by the fact that for every CBE claim that a solicitor takes on he receives in excess of £2,100 in fees, even for cases such as three outlined in "Miners' Health Compensation", an excellent document published by the Coalfield Community Campaign in June 2004. Those cases highlight the problem facing the Government. For example, in the first case, an ex-miner with 13 years' experience of the coal industry in Derbyshire was found to have chronic bronchitis. His unapportioned award was assessed at £5,304, but using the handling agreement calculator, the recoverable proportion, after taking his smoking into account, was just 0.31 per cent. of the total, resulting in an offer of £17.64. I remind the House that, on average, the solicitor receives £2,100.

Secondly, the widow of an ex-miner with 35 years' experience in the industry was offered just £77.76 because of her husband's history of smoking. Finally, an ex-miner who worked in Seaham colliery in County Durham for more than 50 years died at the age of 78. He was a non-smoker, but because most of his service was completed before 1954, his widow was offered £146.50, even though he worked down the pit for 50 years. That case highlights two main causes for concern about the scheme. Many families find it difficult to understand why it only covers employment after 1954. An added complication is that in Scotland it covers employment from 4 June 1949, while in England and Wales it only covers employment from 4 June 1954, which many former miners and their families cannot understand.

The three cases that I have quoted underline how derisory the offers are, compared with some of the awards made through the courts under common law, where injuries are often far less serious but result in much higher compensation levels. It was never the intention that the handling agreement should result in payments lower than in a normal court of law. A minimum payment would restore fairness and clear the system of stalled claims.

Regardless of the mechanical nature of the handling agreement calculations, compensation must be seen to be fair. Damage to the lungs, according to organisations such as the British Lung Foundation, is a serious matter, and if British Coal is proved to be in any way responsible, very small amounts of compensation will not be seen as acceptable. A sensible approach would be to make a minimum offer of £1,500 to claimants who are unlikely, on the basis of medicals and other evidence submitted, to be entitled to any more compensation after years of costly administration.

I am aware that the British Coal Respiratory Disease Litigation Solicitors Group—the group of solicitors acting on behalf of the miners—has been in discussions with the Department of Trade and Industry about a minimum settlement based on a top-up from a proportion of the solicitors' fees, which are enhanced every year by inflation. I am also informed that some solicitors are offering top-ups from their fees to help settle cases more quickly. I hope that in his response to my contribution, the Minister will enlarge on that. In principle I am not against the solicitors helping, but the Government should initiate a universal agreement so that everyone is treated equally. The system is weighed down by the huge influx of claims submitted before the March deadline, and something must be done. If one of the justifications for a minimum payment is to reduce transaction costs and lift the burden on resources, both the Government and their contractors, and the solicitors, stand to benefit and both should therefore help to cover the costs.

It is recognised that there may be difficulties in introducing a minimum payment at this stage, with so many claims already settled. An ex gratia payment from the Government would be money well spent. I know that is a difficult concept to consider, but I ask the Minister to carefully consider implementing it. The issue is one of social justice, and the Government have always believed in promoting policies that support the principle of social justice.

There is a moral and practical case for a minimum payment of £1,500 for all ex-miners who have suffered from chronic bronchitis and emphysema as a result of working in the coal industry. I urge the Minister to give that his urgent consideration.

6.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing the Adjournment debate and on the clear way in which he set out the case. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) and for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary, all of whom, along with a large number of other colleagues representing coalfield communities, have taken a close personal interest in the matter on behalf of their constituents.

I am pleased that in the interests of fairness, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough congratulated the Government on what has been done so far. It is good that in his constituency some 12,500 claims have been registered for respiratory diseases and some 5,700 claims for vibration white finger. Across both schemes, more than £72 million has been paid out in his constituency. That, of course, can never be full compensation to miners who were deceased before payment was made, which was then left to their widows. In often tragic cases, the widow, too, has passed on and the compensation has been paid to the relatives.

Nothing can bring back a sick miner's health or restore years lost to ill health, and no sum can be traded for the loss of good health.

I know that the issue concerns all hon. Members, and particularly those whose constituencies are in coalfield areas. I fully understand those concerns, not least because of the excellent advice that I receive from members of the Gilmerton miners' welfare club in my Edinburgh, South constituency, and am pleased to have the opportunity to update the House on the issue.

The House wants to know about the background to the levels of settlement. In a 1990 High Court judgment, Mr. Justice Turner instructed the parties to negotiate a handling agreement to reflect the aspects of his judgment and the damages awarded. I thank Mr. Justice Turner for dedicating his life over the past six years to bringing his fantastic legal expertise to the matter, and a more knowledgeable or fairer judge could not serve on the scheme.

Mr. Justice Turner found many factors that defy precise attribution of effect to one cause or another, and he therefore found that compensation should be apportioned or discounted to take into consideration the fact that some claimants were exposed to non- tortuous dust, which cannot be suppressed by technology. Some claimants had smoked, and the extent of their smoking is relevant. British Coal is not liable for claims made by miners who were exposed to dust before 1954—the relevant date is 1949 in Scotland, as my hon. Friend just outlined.

Of the eight test cases in the High Court judgment, six were apportioned. The apportionment ranged from reducing a £40,000 general damages award to £7,000, to reducing a £32,500 general damages award to £10,500. There was no doubt in Mr. Justice Turner's mind when he examined the nature of compensation schemes, claims and settlements in court. I pass no judgment from the Dispatch Box on how fair those settlements might be, but I know that my hon. Friends are critical of them. None the less, Mr. Justice Turner was properly constrained to examine the evidence and the precedents.

The apportionment affects the settlement. The Government's policy has been to take account of individual circumstances—medical records, and the type of pit and dust to which the miner was exposed—and personal circumstances such as smoking. I know from miners clubs both inside and outside my constituency that that principle is not in dispute, but today's complaints are not uncommon.

The Government's policy has always been to pay the full compensation due under the scheme, however low it might be—it has been as high as £368,000. At the end of August, the average figure for full and final settlement is £7,466. The average settlement for a claim for chronic bronchitis only is £1,105, so I know the background to the debate.

I am also aware of my hon. Friends' concern about the money that has been paid to solicitors, and they know that I have taken a robust stance. I will never be the judge of my own effectiveness, but we have been pressing.

To date, we have paid solicitors more than £300 million to process claims under the coal health scheme in relation to payments to sick miners, their widows and families totalling about £2 billion. Of course, the vast majority of firms have taken the tariff cost paid by the Department, but I have made it clear that I consider that a minority have unethically and immorally taken a percentage of a claimant's compensation in addition to that paid under the agreement.

I was grateful to 20 of my hon. Friends who joined me to quiz the Law Society about that. Even the harshest critics of the lawyers whom we believe to have acted improperly recognise that the Law Society has taken this matter very seriously. We are grateful to it for reinforcing our actions, particularly those that I initiated towards the end of last year.

I said that several factors affect the tariff on a settlement, but I should add that a difference can be made to a claim that might be as high as £300,000-plus by the level of disability that is assessed, the relative length of time that somebody has been working in a pit, and the reduction that is made for smoking or other disabling conditions for which British Coal was not liable. The claimants' solicitors have put forward a proposal whereby claimants' representatives would fund a minimum payment from their fee to a value of £500. I can tell my hon. Friends that the Department is in discussion with solicitors with regard to that proposal, in particular to establish that there will necessarily be full take-up of any minimum payment by all claimants' representatives.

The problem is that it would be unacceptable for there to be inequitable treatment between different claimants depending on the representatives who are handling their claim. That is one of the practical hurdles that we are endeavouring to overcome before a minimum payment can be introduced. Active discussions between the parties are taking place, and it is important that we let those proceed. I know that they will read my hon. Friend's speech with care and hope that they will take it fully into account.

We had a brainstorming session with the claimants' solicitors group on 27 July, and we are reviewing its outcome with a view to putting proposals to the judge in September when he visits the Department's claims handlers. We are particularly concerned to ensure that solicitors groups and claimants' representatives have access to our records. As my hon. Friends will know, I have given that access. I have met the claimants' group that is going through records to try to find evidence that would help their case, especially in formulating test cases in areas that are not currently covered by the scheme.

I do not believe that any hon. Member, or anyone who listens to or reads the debate, should be in doubt not only about my commitment but that of the Government to securing justice and doing more to secure it. We are better informed about remaining grievances through debates such as this and the meetings that hon. Members regularly have with me. Although I should like to assure hon. Members that we shall resolve all outstanding grievances, I fear that that will not be possible. However, it will not be through lack of effort. If we can legally go down the proposed route, we certainly shall.

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for giving way and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on the excellent debate. I know how hard the Under-Secretary has worked to try to get some justice, but surely we must consider ways of getting more moneys and minimum payment to those who are suffering.

Only two weeks ago, the widow of a miner in my constituency came to see me. He had been rushed into hospital some time ago. Although he had been offered £200 compensation, when he was in the hospital where he later died, his lungs were found to be full of emphysema and bronchitis. Clearly, he died because of that. A figure of £200 or even £500 that solicitors might contribute towards the offer is not enough. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough said, £1,500 should be the bottom line in all cases. Why cannot we take a little of the millions—indeed, billions—of pounds that we get out of the coal mining compensation scheme and that go back into the Treasury and pay back those people?

Nigel Griffiths

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) reminded me earlier that the tremendous work of Department of Trade and Industry staff would be put at risk if the Liberal Democratic policy came to pass and the Department were abolished. It is important to realise that all the expertise and commitment that has allowed us already to pay out a world record amount for a public compensation scheme would be jeopardised by such a policy. We are determined to resist that and to allay the fears of miners, their widows and families that the scheme would not have the staff to continue it. We shall ensure that it continues.

The sort of case that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) raised shows that no scheme is perfect and we must learn from those experiences, too. We therefore have independent medical experts who are examining medical records. Again, we accept that they can often be inaccurate or inadequate and that is a source of concern.

I know that hon. Members will revisit the issue. I keep it under constant surveillance and I am grateful to all my hon. Friends who raise individual cases with me or make thoughtful points to me almost every day. Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough on securing the debate and thank my hon. Friends for their attendance and interest in such an important matter.

Question put and agreed to.

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