HL Deb 09 March 1999 vol 598 cc120-2

2.54 p.m.

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in the payment of compensation to former miners in Wales suffering from emphysema and other diseases.

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

My Lords, to date the Government have made payments totalling £25 million to former coal miners and their widows and £6.5 million has gone to those living in Wales. We have tendered for a national spirometry testing programme, which will enable us to make further offers of interim payments and, in some cases, full and final settlements from April. We have also agreed with the plaintiffs solicitors the levels of compensation that will be payable and we are close to agreeing the medical assessment process.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. I am glad to hear that some progress is being made. However, does he appreciate that over 30 Welsh miners who were seeking compensation have died in recent weeks? Therefore, does that not indicate that a speedy settlement is vital? Will the Government now concede the principle that those miners who have had medical examinations and been awarded industrial injuries benefit should be given compensation without a further medical examination?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, clearly we are acutely aware of some of the tragedies regarding those people who have died while this complicated process has been going on. However, as it is an area of considerable uncertainty to many people, I must make clear the exact situation. The court settlement was solely concerned with chronic bronchitis and emphysema; it did not cover pneumoconiosis, which is a separate disease. In the case of those people who are receiving benefits under the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit Act for chronic bronchitis and emphysema and where we do have records which show that they had been working underground for 20 years, payments have been made.

However, for people who are receiving benefits under the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit Act we are not able to make payments because we do not know the extent of the chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Moreover, we have no records stating how long the miners worked underground. That is why we brought forward the spirometry testing programme to provide us with more information. In those cases we can make settlements as soon as possible.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, may I take it from the reply of my noble friend the Minister, which I found most encouraging as far as concerns those cases which are being dealt with, that the Government are fully implementing the pledge given by me from that Dispatch Box on the issue—namely, that the Government would, under no circumstances, act as if they were a company of insurers taking advantage of every weakness in a claimant's claim?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I would certainly like to say that we are carrying out that pledge. Without wanting to cast any aspersions on insurance companies, our aim has always been to make payments as speedily as we can, subject to the need to do so fairly and in line with the very specific High Court settlement. Of course, we have to agree every step with the Plaintiffs' Solicitors Group. We are proceeding as fast as we can in this complicated case, though not as fast as we would like.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, having had to deal with the problems of pneumoconiosis during my time in the coal industry, and having witnessed now the problems associated with emphysema and related diseases, I believe that the Government have made good progress in dealing with a complicated situation. However, in view of the improvements made in mining technology, does the Minister think that such problems can be avoided in the future?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the Government are always considering ways to improve health protection. The evidence of the British Coal health surveillance, especially its programme of X-ray screening, showed that the introduction of the Coal Mines (Respirable Dust) Regulations 1975 have brought substantial improvements. However, we are concerned to ensure that the prevalence of this disease, which has reduced dramatically, continues to decline further in the future.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, should not the House be appreciative of the compassionate and just arrangements that the Government have adopted in this matter? However, would it not be possible to extend such consideration by perhaps not separating emphysema and bronchitis victims from those suffering from pneumoconiosis? Does my noble friend accept that there still is a residual despair which was generated in the last Parliament when enormous resources appeared to be devoted to delaying this matter as much as possible? Can my noble friend tell the House how much was spent on combating and delaying the just and deserving case which this Government have accepted?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we have moved with all speed since the High Court judgment. We have, of course, had to make a clear distinction between the different groups of people involved as considerable differences apply to them. Since we have been in power every step has been taken to rectify a situation which had gone on for far too long without corrective action being taken.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract

My Lords, I appreciate the present Government's efforts to assist in this problem. However, I cannot understand why the Government and Ministers cannot pay industrial injuries benefits to the men who have already been assessed. These men have undergone examinations and have been awarded industrial injuries benefits. For the life of me I cannot understand why the Government cannot accept that these men have no need to undergo further medical examinations with all the delays that that will cause. Also, some of them will die in the meantime. It seems to me that there is a simple way out; namely, to pay these men immediately. I cannot understand why the Government will not concede that request.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the Government would like nothing better than to make immediate payments to these people. However, one has to appreciate that the High Court settlement is specific as to the conditions that have to be fulfilled with regard to this matter. We can see no way to conduct this matter fairly and in line with the requirements of the High Court without a medical assessment process. Until that is done we cannot reach a settlement without it being subject to further legal action, which I do not think would be in anyone's interests.