HL Deb 15 July 1999 vol 604 cc544-6

3.30 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether satisfactory progress is being made with the compensation scheme instituted for former miners with respiratory problems.

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

My Lords, the House will he aware that Healthcall Services Limited was awarded the contract for the delivery of the national spirometry programme throughout England, Wales and Scotland in March. It has since opened a dozen assessment centres in coalfield areas and further centres will be opening shortly.

So far Healthcall has completed over 2,500 assessments, and we have written to over 1,000 of these claimants making, wherever possible, offers of interim and full and final payments. A further 6,000 additional claimants have been sent appointment letters. The tendering process for the main elements of the medical assessment process is now commencing with a view to awarding the contract in the autumn. This should mean that the first full and final settlement offers for valid claims will start flowing later this year.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful reply. Does he recall the enthusiastic welcome given earlier this year by miners suffering from pneumoconiosis and related diseases following the High Court decision and the enthusiastic support of the present Government for it? However, is he aware that there are a number of concerns with regard to the way in which the scheme is being administered, particularly in relation to compensation being exempt from recovery? Surely the 1974 pneumoconiosis Act is the basis on which it should be operated.

Secondly, despite what the Minister said, is he aware of the concern at the delay in dealing with so many cases? Why are there not more consultants appointed? I feel that 90 is inadequate for the heavy workload which has to be completed.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we have already opened 12 assessment centres. Further centres will be opened shortly. There will be a further 13 by the end of the month. In relation to the spirometry test, therefore, we are making good progress. My concern is with the main assessment process, and that is still being negotiated. The exact position on special damages should be known by the end of July. If not, the judge will be asked to rule on any outstanding issues at that time.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, when this issue was previously discussed in this House, I asked the Minister whether he was satisfied that measures had been taken to avoid a recurrence of these unfortunate diseases in the mining industry, and I received a positive response. However, in the unfortunate event that nevertheless there should be further respiratory problems in mining, can he assure the House that the compensatory processes will be speedier than they have been in the present instance?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, that is a hypothetical question. We are dealing with a judgment which deals specifically with a situation which was dealt with here. We cannot comment on a hypothetical situation and the speed with which that would be progressed. It would have to relate to the circumstances of the day.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that the information he has given this afternoon is encouraging. However, he will be aware that on 17th March this year Mr John Battle in another place confirmed bereavement payments for widows of mine workers who had worked 20 years in the underground industry and died from emphysema and bronchitis. But is he aware that many of the claims by those widows have been denied because the authorities dealing with the cases say that the records cannot be traced? Having investigated the matter I found that the records of some of those miners were destroyed when the pits closed. That cannot be the fault of the widows. Will the Minister investigate that injustice?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we are in a difficult position where we must have evidence that the conditions were caused to people working down the mines. If there are cases where an injustice seems to have been done, of course we will investigate those and see whether there are other ways in which evidence can be found of what happened.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the Minister will no doubt be aware that sufferers from pneumoconiosis and other respiratory illnesses may have had impaired performance for some time before they were diagnosed. But is he aware that under Clause 57 of the Welfare Reform Bill people will no longer receive incapacity benefit if they have not paid national insurance contributions in the two years before the claim? Will he therefore consider, as an appropriate compensation, exempting former miners with respiratory problems from the operation of that clause?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I cannot speak to that. I can only speak to the specific circumstances relating to the question of compensation which was granted by a High Court decision. That is the issue with which we are dealing at the moment. It is carefully circumscribed by that judgment and we have to act within that situation.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, will my noble friend consider that if the employer has mislaid or destroyed the records of employment, those responsible should take into consideration evidence that may be provided by the mining trade unions? Can that point be looked at urgently?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we will certainly look at that. We need to produce proof of employment and if that proof can be provided in other ways, we will certainly consider that.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that since the scheme started—only four or five weeks ago—15 miners have died? In view of that statistic I hope that, despite the assurances he gave us earlier, there will be no let up in the efforts being made. Secondly, will he ensure that maximum publicity is being given to everybody concerned as to what has to be done and what is being done?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we will certainly keep up the pressure to get through these cases. We will also be prioritising the medical assessment process on the basis of age to try to deal with this unfortunate situation and will keep up the pressure in every way we can.