HL Deb 16 November 1998 vol 594 cc1096-116

11.1 p.m.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress is being made to deal with claims for compensation by mineworkers who are suffering from respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful that so many noble Lords have shown an interest in the debate which is important to disabled miners. Your Lordships will be aware that on 25th November 1992 the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council report recommended that chronic bronchitis and emphysema should be listed as a prescribed disease in coalminers. That recommendation was not implemented until 13th September 1993. There was great concern among disabled miners suffering from this disease that there was a deliberate policy by the then government to delay the implementation because the longer it was delayed more miners suffering from the disease would have died and this would of course have lessened the financial cost to the Government. This fear seemed to have foundation, when a leaked document came into my possession on 29th October 1992 from the Department of Social Security to the Department of Trade and Industry suggesting the delayed implementation of the recommendations of the report for as long as possible because the longer the delay the more miners would have died. I am sure noble Lords will appreciate how suspicious the miners are now. However, I want to assure miners that the present Government are not getting up to such tricks as did the previous government. I have satisfied myself through meetings with the Minister of State in another place, John Battle, that that is not the case.

However, since the awards by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council many miners have placed claims against the British Coal Corporation for compensation. Arising from those claims I corresponded with the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, on Thursday 9th March 1995, and Mr. Tim Eggar, Minister of State at the DTI, on Wednesday 22nd March 1995. I expressed my concern that if the claims were to be heard by a High Court hearing it would cause long delays and, considering that many of the miners suffering from bronchitis and emphysema are elderly, infirm and in some instances terminally ill, any long delayed High Court hearings could deny them the immediate substantial compensation to which they are entitled. I requested that instead of preparing for years of litigation, with trials of simple cases taking about eight weeks or more, I would consider it equitable and consensual for defendants to give earnest consideration to setting up a bronchitis/emphysema compensation scheme. This would avoid massive litigation costs and the subsequent enormous expenditure on legal aid costs over the years.

I regret that my suggestions were not accepted. Had the previous government taken on board my proposals, clearly the present Government would not have inherited a liability running into several billions of pounds. Arising out of this, the miners, as a last resort, pursued legislation with the utmost reluctance, supported only by the Legal Aid Board and the appropriate union. I was delighted that Mr. Justice Turner, sitting in the Royal Courts of Justice in London on 21st January 1998, ruled in the miners' favour. In his summary, his Lordship was extremely critical of the British Coal Corporation both in respect of health and safety and, indeed, its defence of the litigation.

The present position, as I understand it, is that it has been agreed by the two sides that in principle there should be a single medical assessment process rather than either side proceeding on the conventional basis of separately obtaining medical evidence and then exchanging reports. The reason for this is that it removes the need for two examinations. They feel that this in turn will speed up the assessment of individual cases and the assessment of damages. I personally do not believe that it would speed it up sufficiently.

The speed of delivery of medical assessments is a key issue because there are now 60,000 claims, with a potential of 120,000 claims, and many of those people are elderly. The DTI is concerned that every signal claimant who wishes to claim full damages under a handling scheme should, as part of the medical assessment, undergo a physical examination by an appropriately qualified physician. The medical advice I have received states that in a large number of cases this is not necessary and will delay assessments significantly.

Why will there be a delay? I am informed that there are approximately 500 appropriately qualified respiratory physicians available in the country. Your Lordships will readily identify that if all the 500 physicians were employed on this work alone, which is very unlikely, it would mean 1,200 cases for each physician. If there are to be 120,000 applications the number rises to 2,400 for each physician. One can imagine the delays that will occur.

Considering that I have received medical expert advice that it is both fair and reasonable to undertake paper assessments in a large number of cases, this would streamline the assessment process and ensure that compensation is paid as quickly as possible. I ask my noble friend the Minister to give consideration to that.

I also understand that there is a distance between the two sides as to how retrospectively to diagnose chronic bronchitis. I understand that the DTI is concerned that there must be some criteria. I can well understand that, but I feel that that is going to be difficult. Chronic bronchitis was so common in many mining communities that it was thought by the men not worthy of medical attention and some general practitioners who were faced with a patient with a condition often thought it not worthy of a note in their medical records.

I understand that the DTI is seeking a discount of 15 per cent. from damages to reflect the benefits of handling agreements. The benefits are illusionary if the process is not as quick as it could be and if the medical assessment is full and comprehensive. The DTI has indicated that 15 per cent. is not its final position. But if there is to be a full and fair medical assessment in all cases where full damages are claimed it is difficult to understand why any discount is justifiable.

It is fairly obvious that the present arrangements will cause considerable delay, which will mean that many miners suffering from the disease will have died while the negotiations are in progress. I ask your Lordships to bear in mind that it is calculated that since the judgment 10 months ago, 1,000 people have died, at an average of 20 per week.

I believe that the procedures could be speeded up. Noble Lords may recall that during Questions on 29th January of this year I put a suggestion to my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davies. It concerned the men who had already been certified in accordance with the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council's recommendations and where it had been proved that they had been suffering from bronchitis and emphysema. They had been medically examined and assessed and given a percentage assessment of disability. Those men then received industrial injuries benefits. Surely it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that those men could be accepted as suitable for the payment of compensation. They have gone through the medical routine; they have been examined; and they have been certified and awarded a pension. Surely it would be a simple exercise to pay compensation to those men without dragging them through the further procedures, if and when the examinations can be carried out. It seems simple to me. I appreciate that not all the claimants will have been examined, but the majority have been.

In conclusion, I should tell the House that I have discussed the matter recently with the Minister of State in another place, Mr. John Battle. He is in a unique position. It is not often that one finds a Minister who has money available without having to go dashing to the Treasury. I understand that he has about £2 billion at his disposal and he is keen to spend it and pay it out to those miners. However, he has been held up by arguments between lawyers.

Some heads must be knocked together. There is no doubt that those lawyers will be earning vast sums of money from the exercise. I have formed an opinion of the people whom I have met in my area. They seem quite genuine and they want to help the miners. However, others will be in it simply to see how much they can obtain for themselves. There will be a colossal bill. The Minister of State has given me assurances and I know that he is keen to recompense the miners. Surely a formula can be produced which will enable as many of those men as possible to be paid before they die of that terrible disease, as have many of their predecessors.

11.9 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I shall be brief. First, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract. He made the first presentation of a Bill in another place which asked that emphysema should be recognised as an industrial disease qualifying for compensation. That was way back in October 1982. He has pursued that issue doggedly, with five Ten-Minute Rule Bills in another place, and, incidentally, his sponsors have been my noble friends Lord Hardy of Wath and Lord Ashley of Stoke and myself. My noble friend Lord Lofthouse also prepared learned papers on the subject and persuaded the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to undertake the studies. He is undoubtedly the miners' champion in this cause.

My noble friend is fully aware of this issue both from his experience of working underground and from observing some of his very ill and breathless constituents. And so am I, having worked for 14 years underground and now seeing so many of my former pit mates slowly dying from excess dust in their lungs. Emphysema is a slow and painful killer of coal-miners. Therefore, coming from the coalfields, I am pleased that it has been recognised as an industrial disease. But I must explain to the Minister that I am much concerned that many claimants, and unfortunately the widows of emphysema victims, are having to wait so long for payments.

I know that, since judgment was made, up to 100,000 claims have been submitted, and perhaps to date more than 10,000 recognised. Since then there have been three separate hearings and the involvement of plaintiffs' solicitors groups. Can the Minister say what is causing the frustrations and the delay? Are the plaintiffs' solicitors groups partly responsible? I gather that at the last hearing on 1st October some agreement may have been reached to streamline the procedures. If so, can the Minister give us an update?

Finally, apart from the plaintiffs' solicitors groups involved in the preparation and presentation of claims, can my noble friend's department publicly advise claimants to avoid lawyers who are allegedly charging inflated fees and also failing to get proper compensation payments? Indeed, some seem to be exploiting the system and cheating disabled miners and their widows. Some ministerial guidance would help, and it would be welcome.

11.17 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon

My Lords, I seek to make a short contribution to this debate against the background of having acted in the past, in Scotland, as a personal injuries lawyer for miners suffering from emphysema. I have been down a coalmine only once in my life, many years ago when I was a student at the University of Edinburgh. I remember the visit vividly. I remember feeling a certain apprehension for my own physical safety and I remember in particular, over the days that followed the visit, every time I blew my nose my handkerchief would fill with the coal dust, to which I was not accustomed.

It struck me then, as it has struck me ever since, that miners who work underground for many years must have inhaled a great deal. Those memories never escaped me in my years as a personal injuries lawyer when I acted for those who suffered from emphysema. When they came to see me their disability was obvious. Their shortness of breath was to be heard and observed. When they came into the room where I met them, it frequently took them some minutes to recover from the physical exertion of having walked from a waiting room, not even up a set of stairs, to meet with me. And on occasions when the emphysema had developed to a severe extent, it was necessary for myself and my instructing solicitors to go to their home to meet with them there. Indeed, on occasions it was necessary for the court itself to go to the home of a miner because it was physically impossible for the miner concerned to come to court and give evidence. Those were extremely awkward experiences. I always felt a sense of invasion of the privacy of a miner's home, particularly as a large number of people had to collect in a small room which was frequently heated to a high temperature to help the individual concerned deal with his disability.

In each and every one of those cases the miners concerned were worried about their future. They knew that they were suffering from a progressive illness; they knew that that illness affected their current enjoyment of life and would continue to do so to a greater extent in the years ahead. In some instances the miners concerned were worried that they might not survive until their court case had reached a conclusion. Those were concerns which were shared by myself and my solicitors as a very understandable desire to ensure that the cases were concluded if at all possible before the miner in question passed on.

Against that background, I find it a matter of grave concern that so many claims remain outstanding. Just who is responsible for that being the current position does not, to some extent, matter. However, the fact is that there are at least 60,000 and possibly up to 100,000 claims still to be resolved. As the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, has already observed, the hard and stark truth is that, unless this issue is dealt with as a matter of urgency and a greater speed of progress is achieved, a highly significant number of these claimants will die before their claims are resolved.

I was particularly shocked to be informed by a Scottish solicitor to whom I have spoken over the past few days that, at the current rate of progress, officials in the Department of Trade and Industry are suggesting that over the next 12 months they may dispose of only a maximum of 12,000 cases. At that rate, it will take at least five years for all outstanding claims to be settled. When one bears in mind that these claims are against the British Coal Corporation and date back many years, it is most disturbing.

I also find the unfortunate attitude on the part of DTI officials slightly disturbing. They appear to be criticising miners' solicitors for the vigour with which they are pursuing their claimants' cases. Such criticisms have to some extent been reflected in the speeches already made this evening by the noble Lords, Lord Lofthouse and Lord Mason. If there is any truth whatever in such criticisms, I hope that the Minister will confirm that such complaints will be directed to the respective Law Societies. I say that because it is quite intolerable that any claim should be delayed due to any mercenary motive on the part of the solicitors concerned. From my own personal experience of those who act for miners in Scotland, I have to say that I find such claims very difficult to believe. Indeed, they are as anxious as anyone that the claims should be settled. Like many personal injuries solicitors, they have more than enough business to be dealing with without unnecessarily protracting these cases.

Therefore, I hope that the Minister will be able to inform the House on a number of points in his reply. First, perhaps he can tell us when he expects DTI officials to be able to reach final agreement on the medical assessment process for the assessment of compensation payable. Secondly, can he confirm that the Government accept that claimants will receive full common law damages and that there will be no question of their damages being subject to a 15 per cent. discount, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse?

Thirdly, I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that the cases of widows will be given particularly urgent attention. I understand that there is a most unfortunate dispute in this respect, which depends upon the contents of death certificates. I believe that interim payments are being made if the death certificate includes the word "emphysema", but that there is some dispute as to whether such payments should be made if the entry on the death certificate reads "obstructive airways disease". Many doctors take the view that there is absolutely no difference between emphysema on the one hand and obstructive airways disease on the other. If that is their attitude in completing death certificates—whether or not they are right—it is singularly unfortunate that widows should suffer further, having already suffered the loss of their husbands.

In conclusion, perhaps I may make a few points about the Scottish claims which form part of the total outstanding. I understand that they may amount to 10 per cent. or 15 per cent. of the outstanding claims. Lawrence Lumsden, who is a very experienced solicitor in Edinburgh and has handled the miners' cases for many years, has expressed the concern that the group of officials in Sheffield which is negotiating these claims on behalf of the DTI does not include a senior official knowledgeable in the law of Scotland and knowledgeable in how cases are handled by the Scottish courts. This has led to difficulty in two respects. First of all, as the Minister may be aware, the procedure for awarding damages in fatal cases in Scotland is different from that which applies in England and Wales. Secondly, whilst there have been test cases in Scotland these have been sisted or stayed by the courts pending the outcome of the test cases in England. Whilst substantial payments have now been made to some claimants in England, I understand there has not been similar progress—

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will watch the time. Speeches are limited to seven minutes each.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon

My Lords, I apologise for speaking a minute too long on this important matter. I conclude by urging the Minister to agree that this is a matter of grave social concern. I hope we will receive his assurance that every effort will be made to speed up an unfortunately slow progress.

11.25 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble and learned Lord who has clearly offered us a recognition of the severity of the problem. I hope that my noble friend will be able to give proper attention to the comments he made.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lofthouse on his initiative in securing this debate. Those who live in and represent coalfield communities have been well aware for a long time of the effect on people's health of long service underground. In the 1970s after the battle for recognition of pneumoconiosis was over it was clearly appropriate that effort should be made to secure recognition for those suffering from emphysema and bronchitis. For a long time my noble friend and others made representations on behalf of our constituents. Then, 16 years ago, my noble friend presented the first of five Bills to the House of Commons. The Industrial Injuries Board made a recommendation and we were relieved when the then government said they would introduce a scheme. Great hopes were raised. That was a long time ago. Despite that scheme and despite the promises of that government, we are still a long way from securing the solution which is obvious to all of us here this evening.

We have witnessed a miserable marathon. At every stage of that marathon many more men have died. It is time that this matter was resolved. I point out to your Lordships that when the previous administration wished to change mine safety regulations they acted with a dispatch that has certainly been lacking in the matter I am discussing.

One reason for my concern is that for a long time I was involved with the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers. I still have an interest in the proceedings of that association. By virtue of their occupation these men have given long service in underground employment. Because of the decline in the mining industry the working members of that responsible organisation have declined to a number not in four figures. However, there are far more former members who worked long years in the pit. It may well be that those ex-members of the association with emphysema and bronchitis or even pneumoconiosis far outnumber those still working who have the disease. The resources of the organisation have been taken up in large measure to fight this cause. It is a pity that it has had to devote funds on such a scale for such a long time as this marathon has proceeded.

I am pleased to see that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, is present. If he had time to do so, I am sure he could confirm the assessment I have made of the inevitable consequences of long service underground of NACODS' members. He will be aware of the devoted efforts of my friend Peter McNestry and of other full-time officials of our rapidly shrinking union which is still endeavouring to serve the cause of members who suffer from such ill health.

I am therefore delighted that my noble friend secured this debate. I endorse the arguments that he has advanced. I welcome the comments that the previous speaker made and I trust that the Minister will pay due regard to the observations of my noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley. He and my noble friends, who have long experience of the coalfields and a great deal of contact with the mining industry, recognise that thousands have already passed on as a result of such diseases. We recognise that many with those diseases will die—at an age far below that hoped for by people who have followed more salubrious occupations. I trust that my noble friend will ensure that the message from the Chamber will inject an even greater note of urgency into the present Administration.

I have another point which I hope that my noble friend will address. No one begrudges a proper payment to those who have given legal advice and assistance. That is right and proper. However, there are some—perhaps they are qualified lawyers; perhaps they are not—who seek to ensure that they get an unfair share of whatever benefit former miners receive. There needs to be some advice about the cowboys on the fringe of this activity who are seeking to get their hands on money without having undergone the long experience underground or the debilitating effects of such diseases. Appropriate words could well be said. If my noble friend can tell the House the Department of Trade and Industry's estimate of the cost already incurred in meeting those fees, I am sure the House will be obliged and perhaps surprised.

I should like to think that the message will get through and that the anxiety, disease, distress, discomfort and the fact that life expectancy is low will bring about the early resolution of the problem. It certainly ought to be resolved.

11.31 p.m.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, for tabling this Unstarred Question. I feel humble to be speaking in a debate in which miners and former miners and those who have had close contact with the mining industry have spoken. However, this gives me another opportunity to raise the case of my friend, Mr. Dynfor Owen, to whom I referred in my supplementary question to a Starred Question on 11th May this year. I do so, not to have a response to that particular case, but as a peg on which to hang a more general question.

The point that I made then, rather hurriedly and probably not very well, was that in the coalfield of South Wales—uniquely, I believe, in the United Kingdom—the coal is contained within or behind silica rock. I confess that I have never been down a coal-mine. I regret that, and I regret that it may be too late to do so. Mr. Owen spent 25 years of his working life in the mines of South Wales. He did not seek or have any of the jobs that were considered soft options. He was literally at the coal-face. He was drilling and setting charges. He and his friends worked a lot of the time in a cloud of silica dust.

In the mid-1950s, the coal board introduced hollow drills, which had a jet of water through the centre. The idea of that innovation was that the jet of water would prevent the dust which was so unpleasant, but which was not known at that time to be such a health hazard. As sometimes happens with technology, the hoped-for improvement did not materialise. The new drill bits clogged and Mr. Owen and his colleagues carried on working in clouds of silica dust.

As time went on, he and his friends found that they were unable to continue working. I believe that he is now the only one left alive at approximately 60 years-old. He has alleged difficulties with the administration of the X-rays that he has had. There seems to be a problem with the definitions used for assessing disability. It appears that there is a very severe form of lung disease which does not show up on an X-ray. I am sure that other noble Lords who are participating in this debate will know more about that than I do. However, I wonder whether, despite having all that money available, the authorities are perhaps keen to wait and to pay a lesser sum to the widow following an autopsy rather than a larger sum to the person concerned before he passes on.

I have taken a little while to paint a picture of the service that Mr. Owen, his colleagues and all other coalminers have given to this country, reaching back to the dawn of our industrial greatness. Will the Minister reassure me, the House and the former miners of South Wales that miners who suffer from silicosis—damage from silica dust—will receive the same treatment in respect of compensation for injury sustained from their working conditions as miners who suffer from pneumoconiosis. There is no excuse for treating them less well. It has been difficult enough to secure the degree and scope of compensation that we have achieved so far.

The changes and reductions in the coal industry which have affected the miners of South Wales and other areas so powerfully give a poignancy to the plight of their number who still survive with varying degrees of disability. I am delighted to hear that there is money available. I am concerned about the administrative delays which will probably make these payments too late for a lot of the miners. Surely it would be honourable to treat more generously those who have given their working lives and their health in the service of their country and their fellow countrymen?

11.36 p.m.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, we are deeply in debt to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, for initiating this short but very important debate. I am in my 33rd year as a parliamentarian and I have never previously spoken in a coal-mining debate. For 31 years I represented Newport, which was essentially a steel constituency, and I left coal-mining debates to people who represented mining communities. Nevertheless, this debate brought a bitter nostalgia to me.

I was born and spent my formative years in the Sirhowy Valley in South Wales. The area was littered with pits, which have now all closed. Both my grandfathers, my father and my mother's brothers all worked at Nine Mile Point colliery. As a young lad I also spent several years underground. My father was invalided out of the pits early on with nystagmus. His eyesight was very badly impaired right up to his dying day but, to the best of my knowledge and belief, he never received any compensation.

Mining is an arduous and hazardous occupation. There is a perpetual risk factor in working underground. Perhaps the most prevalent hazard to miners is respiratory diseases. Tonight in this debate we are essentially concerned about chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Breathing and inhaling dust over the years takes its toll. We all know that a High Court judgment in January found that British Coal was liable for causing the illnesses to which I have referred.

The liability to manage and meet these claims transferred to British Coal on 1st January 1998. When the judgment was announced the Government, to be fair, immediately accepted their responsibility. A sum of £1.5 billion was set aside by the Treasury to enable the Department of Trade and Industry to pay the claims. Mr. Justice Turner, who made the judgment, urged an early settlement. Since then there has been a good deal of haggling and delay. The Government have been subjected to much criticism, a good deal of which is unjustified. However, the Government have insisted that each case be looked at individually. They say "How else can the level of lung injury be assessed?"

To try to ease the overall situation, the Government have paid out more than £1 million in compensation in the form of interim payments of £2,000 to hundreds of former miners suffering from debilitating illnesses as a result of working conditions underground. I note, too, that the Government are complaining about what they call the unhelpful attitude of the plaintiffs' solicitors groups which act as the negotiators for the vast majority of solicitors who are dealing with claims. Likewise, colleagues in another place and some noble Lords in this debate have criticised certain solicitors for allegedly targeting miners for profit. It is diabolical to make money out of disabled miners. It is obvious now that the sooner these cases are settled, the better. I believe that the Government are now doing all they can to expedite a quick settlement. Even the Prime Minister has promised to help.

Finally, I recall from earlier days that when there was a disaster or a serious accident in a pit people invariably referred to it as "the price of coal". The chest complaints that we are debating are silent slayers. But the victims are the men who laboured underground to make a living for their families. That is "the price of coal" and these men have paid a high price. It is now incumbent on Ministers to dispense with the bureaucracy and, as the noble Lord, Lofthouse, has already pointed out, there should be no problem in the case of the people on industrial injury benefit. For many of these men it will suffice just to walk into their homes or hospital wards to see at first hand how they have been laid low. The months and years are taking their toll. Their numbers are diminishing. They more than deserve a quick, just and fair settlement.

11.42 p.m.

Lord Dixon

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract on initiating this debate and, as the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said, on the way he carried out his duties in another place, not only as a Back-Bench MP and member of the Select Committee on Energy but also as Deputy Speaker. As a member of the usual channels myself I know that, although he could not raise these issues on the Floor of the House, he brought pressure to bear and had meetings with Ministers, and even with the Prime Minister at that time, the right honourable John Major.

Like many of my noble friends who are present for the debate and many of my honourable friends in the other place, I know only to well the suffering and the early deaths that this terrible disease has brought to many of my comrades in the coalmining industry. Time is not on their side. I accept that since the court hearing on 1st October there has been some progress. However, there are issues that remain unresolved and require urgent attention.

Since negotiations began in January this year, as my noble friend Lord Lofthouse said, more than 1,000 claimants have died. I believe that my honourable friend John Battle is a sincere and genuine person on this issue which I accept is complex and difficult. However, issues relating to the determination of the medical assessment remain unresolved. There still remains a difference over whether the plaintiffs' suggestion that a streamlined approach for most live claimants should be adopted. Like my noble friend Lord Lofthouse, I strongly disapprove of the DTI idea of a more rigorous, costlier and slower approach which would involve claimants undergoing an exercise test. Could not a scheme be agreed based on a percentage of disability on a sliding scale?

Before becoming a Member of Parliament I worked in the shipyards for over 30 years. I suffer from industrial deafness and am presently wearing a hearing aid. I am glad that this House has a loop so that I can hear the rest of the debate. At that time my union, the GMB, took six cases to the Newcastle Crown Court, which resulted in what became known as the Newcastle settlement. When I went to put in my claim I was merely given a similar hearing test and was paid compensation on a sliding scale. There was no hassle and no court case. Why could not something similar be done to help these people? Could not something be sorted out so that they could receive a decent settlement without having to go through lengthy tests and cases?

I draw the attention of the House to an article in yesterday's Sunday People by none other than David Mellor, who held high position in the previous government. The article is headed: Help Cyril before it's too late". It reads: Cyril Richardson worked down the mines all his life. Now 68, all Cyril has to show for it is an 80 per cent disability through emphysema caused by inhaling too much coal dust. He breathes with difficulty and can hardly walk. His life expectancy is not good. He needs a car to get around but can't afford one … So far Cyril has received an interim payment of £2,000, and that's it. The D.T.I. say they hope that maybe they can sort everything else out by the end of next year. But that may be too late for Cyril and many of his colleagues". Everyone who comes from a mining community knows of cases similar to that of Cyril Richardson. There is someone with whom I was brought up and have known all my life. We used to play football together and go sparring together in the local boxing hall. He was built like a house end and was as strong as a horse. He now has emphysema. He goes out for his weekly pint at a local pub and does not have the strength to hold his dominoes when he plays fives and threes. That is what emphysema does. These are the people who are waiting for some sort of settlement while the arguments go on.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, referred to the fact that widows whose husbands had worked underground for 20 years or more and whose death certificate showed that the cause of death was emphysema were given an interim payment of £2,000. In my view and that of many of my colleagues, a positive death certificate should override the 20-year criterion. There should be no question of a complicated and arbitrary apportionment.

I accept that some progress has been made in recent weeks and that there has also been an attempt at progress by the DTI. That is to be welcomed. I have little doubt that this progress has been prompted by the increased level of tireless effort on the part of the unions and my noble friends, especially my noble friend Lord Lofthouse, and by the efforts of my honourable friends in the House of Commons, the Labour miners group of MPs, led by Bill Etherington, Eric Clarke, Dennis Skinner, Mick Clapham, Ron Campbell and John Cummings, who only last week organised a deputation to John Battle on this issue.

I have been informed that the money is there. The people who are suffering cannot wait. They are not interested in the niceties of negotiation. They are entitled to spend their remaining time with some small comfort that the compensation will bring to them and their families. Let us deal with this case as early as possible. I appeal to the Minister to do that.

11.49 p.m.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lofthouse for initiating this debate. I hasten to declare a personal interest. My father-in-law, Ray Jones, is one of those on whose behalf compensation is being sought. I make no apology for telling the House his story, because many thousands of others are in the same circumstances.

Ray Jones is 86; early next year he will be 87. He spent 45 years in the pits of South Wales, a working lifetime, mostly as a collier, then as a fireman, then as an overman and finally as a health and safety officer. In 1966 he led a rescue team into Aberfan to try to rescue the children who were covered by the tip that slipped down the mountain and covered the school.

Ray Jones has a lung disability of 80 per cent., 60 per cent. pneumoconiosis, 20 per cent. bronchitis and emphysema, clearly stated, but not stated to the satisfaction of British Coal. Fourteen years ago he had a stroke and he is in a wheelchair. His chest is in such a condition that he cannot have an operation because he could not sustain the period of the anaesthetic.

On 29th January this year I asked a Question when the judgment with regard to compensation was given. I received the following Answer from my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis, the Minister at that time: I wish to express at the outset the Government's real sympathy to all those miners who have suffered lung damage in the sad circumstances which led to this legal action".—[Official Report, 29/1/98; col. 328.] I regret that what has happened over the past 12 months does not support that statement. During that time I have been like a ping-pong ball representing Ray Jones between solicitors fighting his case in South Wales and the Department of Social Security in the north-west, in Stockport, near the nursing home where my father-in-law resides. There have been telephone calls and letters. He has not received interim payments. Both the solicitors and the Department of Social Security seem to think that British Coal is somewhat bureaucratic and officious and is weaving a web of red tape which is preventing miners from receiving what they are entitled to.

On 16th September 1998 my father-in-law received the following letter from solicitors in South Wales: Unfortunately, the award notice is still not sufficient to qualify you for an interim payment from British Coal". That is despite 20 per cent. emphysema and bronchitis, according to his D1 assessment. That is where the problem lies. I note that Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema is listed as a condition taken into account in assessing you as 80% disabled due to pneumoconiosis. In order to be eligible for an interim payment the award must actually state that you have been awarded the benefit due to Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema". That seems to me a rather pedantic point.

I then got in touch with the Department of Social Security and received the following letter dated 23rd October 1998: With reference to my telephone conversation with you on 16.10.98 I can confirm that a claimant who had a pneumoconiosis (Prescribed Disease D1) assessment of at least 50%"— which my father-in-law has— and who was also suffering from bronchitis and emphysema will have had the effects of the bronchitis and emphysema added to the Prescribed Disease D1 assessment. Prescribed Disease D12—chronic bronchitis and emphysema—is not prescribed for such people". I therefore asked how he could get that benefit. The solicitors were saying that he required a further assessment, whereas the Department of Social Security was telling me that if he has had a D1 assessment he was now ineligible for a D12 assessment. That is a classic Catch-22 position.

More fundamental is the lengthy letter dated 11th November this year from solicitors, three paragraphs of which I shall quote: We have been in negotiations with the Department of Trade and Industry for many months in order to agree a scheme for settling all the claims. After many months of difficult and frustrating negotiations we believe that we have at last made some real progress … However, we still have to agree how 50,000 claimants are to be medically assessed. The DTI want every miner to be physically examined by a doctor. If this were to happen it would take many years to process all claims. (Our estimate is over eight years.) We have proposed that assessments can be made much more quickly without physical examinations based on simple lung function tests and GP records. So far the Government have refused to accept this… We know that this is very frustrating for you". The letter, which is addressed to my father-in-law, goes on to say: Many people are becoming justifiably angry. However, we ask you to direct your frustration to the Government. We are doing everything that can he done to get a just system in place as soon as possible. Real progress has been made but more is needed. Your continued support is essential to us. To continue to help you may lobby your local MP at every opportunity". This money is for people who are suffering. If a man has bronchitis and emphysema he has bronchitis and emphysema. One cannot say that it is categorised in one way or another. Such a man is undoubtedly entitled to compensation. The Department of Social Security appears to agree with that and the solicitors who represent NACODS, his trade union, also believe that to be the case. Only the Coal Board says that it must be displayed in two different forms to entitle the person to compensation. As we have heard this evening, many have died. I am afraid that many more will die unless the Government do something about it now.

11.56 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I should declare an interest having served for many years in the mining industry. I am still actively involved in the energy sector. We are much indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, who has for long been a strong advocate for the mining industry and the miners. I do not believe that in all that he has done anything is as important as his work in connection with the whole dread issue of bronchitis and emphysema. I was interested to learn that he had made the suggestion that the previous government should set up a fund to deal with these diseases that everyone recognises as one of the high prices of mining.

In the Starred Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, on 11th May I asked by way of a supplementary whether the pneumoconiosis settlement of 1975 could be used in this case. It was explained to me that it was too late because judgment about liability had already been given and the whole matter would have to be resolved through the courts. How unfortunate it was that the proposal of the noble Lord, Lofthouse, had not been made at that time. If it had, it would have brought much quicker help to the sufferers of this dread disease. I have no doubt that it would also have saved the Government much money. However, we are where we are.

The nature of this disease has been movingly described by all who have participated in this debate. Many personal cases have been mentioned. There is no doubt that the Government are sympathetic. They have set aside money to provide compensation and have accepted liability; they have not fought against it. But if there is one thread that runs through the whole debate it is the concern expressed by all noble Lords about the delays that are now likely to ensue. Despite the progress made with the plaintiffs' solicitors group and the undoubted endeavours of the Government to get moving, the delays in setting up procedures and putting every claimant through them may mean that in some cases years will elapse before settlement is reached.

I put it to the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, that this is a matter in which the Government should use their undoubted authority, as their will is already there, to make sure that these payments are made much more quickly than now seems likely. Could they not set in place something similar to the pneumoconiosis scheme, even though, technically speaking, that period has passed? We have heard harrowing tales of the number of mineworkers who are fully entitled to this money but who have died in the meantime. Many more deaths could take place over the next three, four or five years during which these procedures could run. The basic message to the Minister is this: can we not have his assurance that this matter will be speeded up in the interests of humanity and in order to alleviate the suffering of those who have given so much time to the mining industry?


Earl Attlee

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, for raising this issue in the House once again and also for his efforts over the years in another place. It will be no surprise to the Minister that all noble Lords hold the same position on this matter. As described so ably by noble Lords, these miners and their widows do not have the luxury of being able to wait years for compensation. In moral terms it is the victims of this long-running tragedy who are entitled to be compensated and not so much their estates or their advisers.

But worse than that, in a Written Answer it was stated that the DTI has already spent £10 million defending these claims. So noble Lords may be right that only the legal profession is gaining as much as the victims despite the best efforts of the legal profession. The noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, pointed out the record of the previous government. I believe that the difficulty is that the government of the day will want to be confident that all claimants are bona fide. However, that is balanced by the Opposition and Back-Benchers who will always be pushing for prompt and proper compensation, as we are tonight. It is for the Minister of the day to strike the difficult balance and in this case progress the matter with zeal and energy.

The noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, hopes that this Government will not use any "tricks", as he put it, to delay compensation claims. I sincerely hope that he is not disappointed by events. I am sure that the Minister will have taken the precaution of studying Hansard on the last occasion we debated this issue. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, was then the Minister. His Answer to my Parliamentary Question referred to the comprehensive spending review. The Minister will therefore not be surprised if I repeat my Question post-CSR. It is this: what financial provision has the DTI or IRISC made for these claims for each year over the next three years? What is the expected total compensation bill, and how many interim payments have already been made? Many noble Lords have noted that interim payments may be made especially to widows when the death certificate shows emphysema as the cause of death. Unfortunately, if the certificate shows chronic obstructive airways disease interim payments might not be made—a point made by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Drumadoon and many others. Does the Minister accept that COAD will have been entered on many death certificates without the doctor realising what the significance of that would be in the future? Can the Minister say what is the difference between COAD and emphysema; and will interim payments be made to widows if either is entered on the certificate as the cause of death?

As noted by many noble Lords, there are delays centred on the medical assessment procedure. The DTI is proposing a rigorous, costly and slow process, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, in his informative speech. If medically qualified people are to do these apparently very detailed examinations, will not that be a distraction from their core activity of treating patients? Can the Minister now say who is to undertake these tests, and how much capacity is available to do them?

The noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, illustrated the scale of the task when posing his Unstarred Question. How does the Minister view the noble Lord's suggestion to accept the medical decision made previously in respect of industrial disabilities?

The noble Lord, Lord Mason, mentioned the position of the plaintiffs' solicitors group. Does the Minister accept that the PSG has for years accepted and not resisted the single medical assessment process?

My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Drumadoon spoke sympathetically about the problems of disabled miners and their illnesses and the effect on their mobility. Mercifully, I have not met a miner suffering from any of these diseases. If the noble Lord, Lord McNair, would like to go down a pit, I can tell him that Mr. Richard Budge certainly gave me an excellent tour of one of his pits. I think that it was Rossington, but I am not confident of my memory. Not only was it reassuringly dust free, but I was struck by the morale and enthusiasm of his workforce—something that noble Lords opposite will recognise, I am sure.

But how does the Minister justify different arrangements agreed for underground workers and surface workers? Does he agree that many surface jobs were notoriously dusty and dirty, if less, dare I say it, glamorous?

Progress is being made and we are grateful for that. However, it appears to have been as a result of pressure arising from court action, which is a waste of resources, as already noted. We on these Benches believe that a speedy and efficient compensation scheme should be put in place as a matter of urgency in order that those affected can have greater enjoyment of the past few years of their life.

12.6 a.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, for raising this very important matter and enabling us to debate it. I join my noble friend Lord Mason in congratulating the noble Lord on his long and forceful campaign on this issue. The length of time that it is taking to resolve this matter is naturally causing a great deal of anguish, anxiety and distress and I welcome the opportunity even at this late hour to explain the action which the Government are taking to deal with it as quickly as possible.

I should like to begin by echoing the concerns raised about the terrible diseases from which many ex-miners are now suffering. For many decades, thousands of men have suffered the most appalling conditions while working underground in the nation's coal mines. They have also braved great dangers in carrying our their tasks and I pay tribute to all of them.

As a result of the sacrifices they made, many miners are now suffering from the combined debilitating effects of emphysema and chronic bronchitis as well as other conditions relating to their employment in Britain's mines. I can perfectly understand their frustration at why it is taking so long to receive their just compensation and I hope that I can assure noble Lords that the Government are doing all they can to resolve this complex matter as quickly as possible. I am acutely aware, as many speakers have said this evening, that every month miners are dying. I understand the situation of people like Cyril Richardson. The noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, spoke movingly of the contribution that miners have made to our society and I share his views. We believe that we have both a moral and a legal duty to deal with these claims fairly and promptly.

Before turning to the specific points that have been raised in the debate, it might be helpful if I set out some of the background and explain what the current position is regarding payment of compensation.

This litigation—which became known as the British Coal respiratory disease litigation—is the longest running personal injury litigation against a single employer ever in the UK. It covered a compendium of lung diseases collectively known as COAD—chronic obstructive airways disease—and principally included chronic bronchitis and emphysema among others. To date, the Government have received over 60,000 claims and are expecting as many as 100,000 in total.

The litigation began as long ago as 1992 and the court judgment was finally handed down in January this year. British Coal was found negligent in failing to protect its employees from the damaging effects of mine dust and fumes and was found liable to compensate employees suffering from these injuries. On 1st January this year, three weeks before the judgment, these liabilities passed from British Coal to the Department of Trade and Industry. It should be noted that the Government accepted liability immediately on the day of judgment. They did not appeal any aspects of the judgment.

I am afraid that I cannot agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, that it does not matter how this situation arose. The current situation is a result of the fact that the matter was not tackled firmly earlier.

In taking on these liabilities the Government were left with an extremely difficult task in agreeing with the plaintiffs' solicitors group—the PSG—which negotiates on behalf of the mass of solicitors representing claimants, the handling arrangements to resolve the mass of claims. As British Coal had expected to win the trial, and had gradually run down its organisation throughout 1997, little work had been put in hand in anticipation of an adverse judgment. In addition, the court's judgment set compensation levels for only six individuals. The Government therefore need to put in place systems to handle as many as 100,000 claims. These claims cover a complex spectrum of injury and cannot be simply settled on the basis of the compensation awarded in the six cases. The judge himself has recognised this and laid down a strict timetable—and I want to emphasise this very strongly—which both parties have to meet to reach agreement and to ensure that the 600-page judgment is taken fully into account. We are due to return to court on 2 I st December to update the judge on progress, but it is hoped that many of the outstanding issues can be resolved before then.

The Government are moving as fast as they can and have recently expanded their resources within the DTI to move forward on all issues. The timetable to reach agreement depends on the plaintiffs' solicitors as well as the Government and we have already moved our position on a number of points to help facilitate that agreement.

Immediately after the court judgment in January we began work on many of these complex issues and this work formed the basis of our proposed handling arrangements which were submitted to the plaintiffs' solicitors early in March. At a court hearing on 27th March the PSG requested a further three-month adjournment to allow discussions to continue. We had no objection to such an adjournment.

Since then we have had, and continue to have, detailed discussions with the claimants' solicitors and every effort is being made to meet that timetable so as not to delay matters.

In recognition of the unwelcome delay we have offered interim payments of £2,000 to over 10,000 claimants who are receiving benefit for chronic bronchitis and emphysema and widows whose husbands were in receipt of that benefit. Over £20 million has now been paid out. We have also extended that offer to all widows who were bereaved after 1st January 1983, when the statutory award was introduced, and are able to produce a death certificate which shows emphysema as the cause of death together with evidence that he worked underground for British Coal for 20 years. We are also actively looking at ways in which offers of interim payments can be extended to other categories of claimant, possibly on the basis of a simple lung function test and corroboration, through British Coal's records, of significant underground working.

The latest court hearing was on 1st October when good progress was made. Despite their earlier resistance, the plaintiffs' solicitors have now accepted an important element of our proposals on a single medical process which we believe will help to speed up the handling of claims. A single agreed medical makes far better use of scarce medical resources and helps to avoid adversarial negotiation which would further delay settlements.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will allow me to intervene. Can we be assured that, unlike the previous government, the present Government will not allow X-ray film in medical examinations; film which was not of a quality to be able to discern whether or not the disease existed?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I take that point. The basis of those procedures is that we shall have a medical test which is conducted by a specialist in lung diseases. In that way, we shall be able to deal properly with all the aspects of that extremely complicated process rather than relying on a single measure.

In addition, we have recently assured the 1,000 claimants who worked for contractors underground on British Coal's premises that their claims will not be held up while British Coal's obligations are sorted out. We have also submitted proposals to the claimants' solicitors to provide full bereavement payments to widows.

A further full hearing was scheduled for Friday, 6th November, but the Government were pleased that their suggestion to adjourn that hearing and instead concentrate their efforts on a further meeting of the two parties was agreed by the claimants' solicitors. That was helpful and I understand that good progress was made to resolve the outstanding issues.

A meeting was held last Wednesday between the respective doctors advising the Government and the plaintiffs' solicitors to thrash out the remaining medical issues. The solicitors agreed also that tendering for certain medical tests can begin soon before final agreement is reached. That will help to reduce any delays after agreement is reached while the Government must follow their procurement procedures to allow competitive tendering.

My noble friend Lord Lofthouse asked about the use of DSS medicals of individuals receiving industrial injuries disablement benefit. DSS medicals exist for individuals who are in receipt of industrial injuries disablement benefit. While the medical confirms that there is a significant loss of lung function, it is not sufficiently detailed to allow an assessment of overall disability on which a full and final offer can be based; nor does it give any indication of an individual's smoking history which is necessary to apply the correct discount against the gross damages.

We must ensure that the full and final settlements that are offered are consistent with the findings of the court and the 600-page judgment. If they are not, there is a danger that some claimants will complain that they have been offered less than they are legally entitled to. That may result in individuals taking their cases back to court. Even if only a small percentage of the 100,000 claimants were to follow that route, we should still be in a very difficult position in trying to manage the further litigation.

Our aim is to avoid further litigation as much as possible, and that means making settlements that are fair to the individual, fair between individuals and in line with the judgment. The DSS medicals do not provide us with that opportunity. It should be noted also that the DSS medicals extend only to some 13,000 claimants, a small percentage of the 100,000 claims we expect in total. As I indicated, earlier receipt of DSS benefits for emphysema is being used as a basis for making interim payments of £2,000.

In answer to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Mason, I shall look at whether any advice can be given to claimants about cowboys seeking improperly to represent claimants. Unfortunately, what some of them are doing is legal, although it may not be morally very attractive.

As regards costs, the High Court awarded costs against British Coal and the level of fees paid to individual solicitors for claims remain a matter for negotiation. I should make it clear that we are prepared to agree only reasonable fees and will not agree a level that results in claimants receiving less than that to which they are legally entitled.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord McNair, that there is absolutely no question of waiting for miners to die to save money. We all agree that that would be deeply immoral.

I should say to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that under the comprehensive spending review, the potential future liabilities have all been provided for.

I should point out to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, that the litigation was specific to England and Wales and the judgment established liability against British Coal in respect of collieries in those countries. However, we have made it quite clear to solicitors representing Scottish miners that any compensation arrangements agreed with the solicitors' group will also be offered to Scottish miners.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that if this problem had been tackled in the same way as the pneumoconiosis compensation scheme it would have been done more quickly. British Coal set up that compensation scheme in 1975 in agreement with the unions on a no-fault liability basis to reach settlement quickly. Unfortunately, we are now in a legal situation and liabilities must be met on that basis.

I will examine the text of this debate in Hansard and if any questions asked by noble Lords have not been addressed, I shall endeavour to write to them shortly. I should like to close the debate by reiterating that the Government are acutely aware of the frustration and concern that it is taking so long to compensate the many ex-miners who are suffering from debilitating diseases. I can assure noble Lords that we are working as quickly as possible to resolve the remaining outstanding issues and looking to mitigate the effects of any delay wherever possible.

I have already mentioned that we are actively looking at ways to extend the accepting of offers of interim payments to other categories of claimant, and I expect further offers to be made shortly. In addition, there are a number of other ways in which the Government have sought to move things along to the benefit of claimants. For example, they have offered to pay general damages in advance of settling claims for special damages. That is an unusual and generous act in group litigation of this size which should mean that injured men receive awards as early as possible. They waive their legitimate legal right to take limitation points where late claims can be rejected for being out of time in all cases of emphysema. They have said that they will not reduce awards where a claimant has small airways disease, even though they were not found liable. They have accepted the plaintiffs' solicitors methodology for calculating life-time dust exposure and, finally, they have gone out to the market seeking expressions of interest in delivering the complex medical assessment process, whatever its eventual nature, to expedite contract awards once agreement has finally been reached between the two parties.

I hope that the points I have made will help to meet concerns that the Government are not doing enough on this issue. I repeat, good progress has been made in the past few weeks and an end to the delay is in sight. It is now the time for both parties, the Government and the PSG to do all they can to draw the matter to a close and begin paying the miners the compensation awards they so richly deserve.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, can he say that he is absolutely confident that there is the capacity to carry out the medical assessments?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we believe that that can be done. Inevitably it will take a certain amount of time, but we believe that having a one-group scheme which is properly quality controlled under the direction of one person is the right way forward.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, does he agree with the figures I have given—that there are only 500 positions at present in the country—and if that is the case, it will be a long time before all those miners can go through the examination period and qualify for compensation. A lot of miners will die. That will not give great encouragement in the coalfields.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am sure the House will agree that these matters need to be taken extremely seriously. We cannot afford to have a system which is not agreed; which does not meet the basis of the judgment and which therefore leads to further litigation that will only delay the process even further. We need an agreed basis on the best medical footing and we need to do that as quickly as possible.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I am sorry to delay the House but I did not hear the Minister refer to my specific point regarding silicosis. I understand that bronchitis and emphysema are also involved in silicosis. Will miners with silicosis but not pneumoconiosis be treated in the same way?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, this case is covered by the judge's judgment. I am not sure of the case to which the noble Lord refers, but I shall certainly write to him on that.