§ 7.56 p.m.
§ Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract
rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made on compensation payments to miners and miners' widows for bronchitis and emphysema.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I gain no pleasure from finding it necessary to call for this debate. I feel both sad and angry that it is necessary. During the course of the day I read through Hansard of 16th November 1998, which covers a debate on this subject. When I put down Hansard, I thought that all that had been said in that debate could equally be said today—but, I would hope, with more force because events that were suggested during that debate have come about.
The miners were successful in their claim following the decision of Judge Turner, who ruled in the miners' favour on 23rd January 1998. I, along with all the mining fraternity, was delighted when the judge made that ruling. I was rather surprised when I approached the Minister of State at that time, Mr John Battle. It was something of an experience because I met a Minister who was waiting with £2 billion ready to spend to provide the miners with compensation. I was delighted, especially when I compared that with my experience following my campaigns under the previous government for industrial injuries benefits for miners suffering from the same diseases. In fact, I had the bitter experience of receiving a leaked document from one department to another requesting that it did not declare the decision of the industrial injuries tribunal and that it hold on to the decision for as long as it possibly could because by then men would have died. When I heard that the Government had responded so rapidly with this money, I was absolutely delighted.
As time has gone by, the arrangements to implement the scheme have been extremely difficult. I appreciate that. I understand that the Government had to follow 711 the conditions of the judge's decision. Having said that, however, we are now in a situation where 120,000 applicants—miners suffering from disease, with many more to follow—have found themselves in the position of having to wait and wait for a decision. I understand, too, that out of 120,000 applicants, some 40,000 have already died.
I concede that some of those miners died prior to the judge's decision, but nevertheless, they have now died. I do not think that anyone, including the judge when he came to his decision, would want to see such a situation. Obviously I am extremely concerned at the long delays. I believe that the scheme has failed those who have suffered disability as a result of a lifetime spent working in the mining industry. Those men are entitled not only to full compensation but to receive it speedily. They have waited long enough. Having fought and won their High Court case, many of the men have died or are dying without seeing a penny in compensation. It comes down to this: justice delayed is justice denied.
Progress on the scheme was considered in a hearing at Sheffield High Court on 15th November 2000 before the honourable Mr Justice Turner. Consequent on that hearing, I consider that unless greater resources and, indeed, improved working practices are urgently introduced, the scheme will continue to fail those men and increasingly their widows.
At a meeting which I attended only about a fortnight ago, along with my noble friends and colleagues Lord Dixon, Lord Hardy, Lord Brookman and Lord Islwyn, I fully appreciated the Minister's concern. I refer to the right honourable Helen Liddell, herself the granddaughter of a miner. As I have said, she demonstrated great concern. Unfortunately, however, that concern is not speeding up the scheme. It is moving along a little faster but it is not progressing rapidly enough.
In the last debate and during several Questions tabled in this Chamber, I have proposed a suggestion to different Ministers which would at least settle some of these matters. I still believe that I am right about that, but I have not convinced the appropriate powers-that-be. Around 14,000 men have received industrial injuries benefits arising out of the decision reached by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council recommending that the diseases of bronchitis and emphysema should be prescribed. All those men have been examined and have gone through the necessary tests. They have been awarded appropriate industrial injuries benefits for those diseases. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Government and their advisers cannot find a way to pay the men without any further examination or any further period of waiting. It is extremely difficult to understand that.
Although the Minister has replied to my long letter containing 23 questions, which I appreciate, one response stated that the difficulty of implementing my suggestion was that that decision was not part of the judgment and does not follow the same criteria. It would require the permission of the judge or solicitors. To that I say: so what? If we have a blockage of 120,000 712 cases and we have an opportunity to clear 14,000 of them—covering men who have been examined and certified to receive industrial injuries benefits—that seems to me to be a simple enough answer. All it needs is goodwill. We need to show that, in fact, we want to solve this problem.
My time is nearly up. I have talked about 120,000 applications. Former British Coal records show that some 450,000 miners are suffering from chest diseases of this nature. The numbers are going to increase. If we do not find a system that sharpens up this procedure, the list will get longer and longer. It has now been agreed, more or less, that it will be five years before the men now included on the list will receive any settlement. I say to this House tonight that that is far too long. If there is a will, there is a way to settle this. I say to our Ministers and to their civil servants: this problem has got to be solved. It is no good sitting back, rubbing our hands and saying, "It's hard lines for those poor miners. They're dead, but we haven't been able to do anything about it". There is no such thing as "we can't". I say this evening that we must.
§ 8.7 p.m.
§ Lord Mason of Barnsley
My Lords, I should like, first, to thank my noble friend Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract for once more initiating a debate on this subject. There is no more important issue in the coalfields than this of today.
It is a long time since I started work underground, at 14 years of age in 1938, in an industry that was dirty, dangerous and uncivilised. If the top of a coalmine could have been sliced off and televised, no man would ever have ventured underground. Working conditions were appalling. In 1938, 802,000 men were working in the pits. Coal was mainly hand got, pick and shovel slaving at the coalface. The dust came from shotfiring and blasting at the coalface. But in the late 1940s, mechanisation came into the coalmines and with it the dreaded killer dust diseases of pneumoconiosis, silicosis, emphysema and bronchitis. Clouds of dust were caused by cutting machines, power loaders and rock cutting machines driving the roadways. The numbers working in those uncontrollable dust conditions then totalled over 600,000 men. With the noise and dust, every pit was a hellhole. I doubt whether many of those men realised at the time—nor did I, for I was there until 1953—that they would be subject to a slow, lingering death as their chests began to solidify and as they struggled, gasping for breath. Those are the scenes that we have witnessed happening to thousands of our coalmining colleagues in the coalfields for some years.
At this point, let me once again pay a tribute to my noble friend Lord Lofthouse. It was him, above all others, who led the campaign to get the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to recommend that chronic bronchitis and emphysema should be listed as prescribed industrial diseases in coalmines. He introduced a Bill in another place way back in October 1982, which was followed by another four attempts to get it on the statute book, none of which received the support of the then government. Even after the 713 advisory council had recommended implementation and thousands of miners had placed claims, the matter had to go to the courts for a final decision. Unfortunately, that was a major diversion which has caused unforgivable delay in the recognition of claims and especially in having to observe the 600-page judgment. As my noble friend said, the ruling in favour of the miners was given on 21st January 1988. Since then the Government have been grappling with this mammoth problem. It is a mammoth problem because more than 123,000 miners have registered a claim.
The Government may well be trying—I believe that they are—but they are failing to rid the complaints and recognition system of its bottlenecks and blockages. That is really the complaint of miners and their representatives. The compensation payments are agonisingly slow. I noticed that the Government went back to the courts to obtain a speeding-up agreement—a fast-track proposal. I ask my noble friend, what has been the outcome? In the meantime, nearly 7,000 miners—all likely claimants—have died. What an appalling picture of misery and death.
What have the plaintiffs' solicitors group to say about this—the group which negotiates on behalf of the many solicitors representing claimants and which handles the arrangements to resolve this mass of claims? There is a great deal of uneasiness that a lot of money is being made by some of these solicitor groups.
I hope that the Minister will bring us up to date on the number of claimants, the payments made to date, the expedited claims and additional payments, and on what knowledge he has of miners and widows who have passed on—who are, dare I say, eligible but dead.
Finally, is my noble friend satisfied that everything is being done to speed up the payments. Perhaps I may ask him—hesitatingly but I believe it is necessary—to state the obstacles in the way of agreeing a set payment for all the claimants. The Minister knows the number of claimants and the size of the kitty; what is the position regarding a major share-out before hundreds die? Whatever the legal objections or union difficulties, we will save some lives. Is this not still possible?
As of now, does my noble friend believe that, in checking the claimants' records, we have enough mobile and scanning teams, assessment centres and consultants? As we know from the numbers that are dying, time is not on our side. I hope, therefore, for the sake of the lives of some of the claimants, that he can give us some heartening news.
§ 8.13 p.m.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Mason and, above all, my noble friend Lord Lofthouse, who raised this issue.
I speak as a member of the profession that has been mentioned more than once—namely, solicitors. I am ashamed of my profession if we have done that of which we are accused. I am ashamed that my Government have taken so long to deal with this issue. I am deeply ashamed that the Opposition Benches are bereft of speakers—apart from the noble Baroness, Lady Miller—exerting their pressure upon the 714 government of the day. Of course, I assume that has something to do with political points, but they did not do a thing when they were in office to ensure that the miners would be properly compensated. Some 40,000 men have died. It is unbelievable that this should have occurred in this day and age.
I was the Minister of State on 29th January 1998, when my noble friends Lord Davies of Coity and Lord Lofthouse again raised this issue in the House. I went to see my colleague, my right honourable friend John Battle, MP, and we were both of the view that the briefing we had from civil servants was defective. We both changed it, and the answers that we then gave were helpful. Little did I realise that almost three years from that date the matter would not be resolved.
I have been a solicitor since 1953. I have never had a case which has involved so many people. Nevertheless, difficult though it may be, I plead with my noble friend who will reply from the Front Bench to ensure that we get a move on. If we do not, it will not be 40,000 who have died; it will be nearly 120,000. That is not acceptable for a Labour government. We shall be blamed—and rightly so—by the people concerned.
I do not blame my noble friend for the travail that has occurred—of course I do not; it is not his fault—but I do blame those who have the conduct of this matter. If they cannot resolve the matter entirely in a year or 18 months from now, it should be taken out of their hands and dealt with by the Government. I expect my noble friend today to issue that challenge to his friends.
Of course we shall not get the support of the Opposition, whatever may be said by the noble Baroness, nor do we expect or want it. It should be our purpose. The people involved are our people; they expect the Labour Party to perform. My right honourable friend should understand that. There is no doubt that every single one of those people expects us to produce the goods—not for 100,000 or 120,000 people to die. They should be compensated in their lifetime. I beg my noble friend to understand that and to do whatever he or the Minister responsible can do to ensure that we get a resolution of this matter that is satisfactory to the majority. Of course it is not easy. If someone is malingering, so be it. We have 100,000 or 120,000 people who have made claims to date, the majority of which should be satisfactorily resolved.
We shall be met, as we were last time, by those who expect us to perform whatever the law demands. I speak as a lawyer. This matter should not be determined only by the law; it should also be determined by human requirements. Every single one of those people deserves to be taken into account. As miners, most served the nation well and all of them should be properly regarded by the Government in return.
I hope that my noble friend will cause to be speeded up the procedures for litigation. I hope that he will ensure that all cases are resolved within the period I have mentioned—namely, a year or 18 months; or the matter should be taken out of the hands of the lawyers 715 who have done so much to advise the Government, and whose advice in some cases has been terribly wrong.
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ Lord Islwyn
: My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lord Lofthouse for initiating this important debate. He brings a good deal of expertise and common sense to the subject. He has been a constant advocate of the miners' case. My noble friend reminded us that justice delayed is justice denied. That is the theme of the debate.
I was among the delegation of noble Lords who met the right honourable Helen Liddell, the Minister for Energy, on 22nd November. The impression I received was that the Minister and her civil servants were anxious to see the compensation process operating speedily and efficiently so that the miners affected, or their widows, can receive the compensation that is due to them.
The truth, however, is that that is just not happening. I appreciate that the Minister has an unenviable task. There are over 20,000 cases in Wales alone. Some of those former miners are critically ill. They are suffering from killer diseases as a result of the years they spent underground. Regrettably, many have passed away without receiving any compensation, and that is a great tragedy. Certain efforts have been made to speed up the assessment process in order that a realistic level of compensation can be arrived at. In some cases there have been difficulties in obtaining proper medical records. There is still a huge backlog of paperwork. Despite the goodwill at the Ministry, it seems that, given the present arrangements, there will be years of delay before justice is done.
But sick miners need money now, if only to ease their suffering. Some have previously had medical examinations and have been awarded industrial injuries benefit. My noble friend Lord Lofthouse mentioned a figure of 14,000. That is a large number of claimants. I have come to the conclusion that the only short-term answer is to provide generous interim payments. I urge the Minister to re-examine that possibility. I do not speak of the derisory £2,000 interim payments that were put through earlier; I am thinking of a sum in the region of £10,000. Surely it is better to make interim payments than to allow miners to die without receiving a penny. The money is ready and available. We should not allow one more sick miner to go to his grave without receiving a penny.
On 10th October, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, told me that the Department of Trade and Industry hopes to make about 4,000 offers in Wales before Christmas, totalling approximately £25 million. We are now within a few days of Christmas. Will the Minister confirm that the pay-outs are being made?
An issue has arisen over the so-called clawback arrangements. A number of cases have been cited in the South Wales Argus, which has led a full-scale campaign on the subject. It is alleged that one miner 716 accepted a payment of £45,000 when he was very ill. The Department of Social Security took back £21,700 by way of recovery of certain benefits that had been paid to him over the years. It was later discovered that a mistake had been made and that the department should have reclaimed just over £6,000. That former miner is dead, but his widow will receive the adjusted sum. Surely mistakes of that kind merely add insult to injury. There is a very strong case for cutting out the clawback altogether.
The issue of compensation payments to former miners suffering from bronchitis and emphysema is heart-rending. Bureaucracy and red tape should not be allowed to stand in the way of early and generous settlements to those who have suffered so much. I warn the Government that this issue is having a profound effect on public opinion in South Wales. People there are wholehearted in their fight for justice for these disabled miners. I urge the Minister and the Government to take that point into consideration.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Lord Dixon
My Lords, I, too, should like to add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract on initiating another debate on this important matter. I dread to think how many miners have died of this terrible disease since we first debated the issue over two years ago, on 16th November 1998. My noble friend Lord Lofthouse fought hard as a member of the Energy Select Committee in another place to have emphysema recognised as an industrial disease. I can say without fear of contradiction that since it was recognised no one has fought harder in this and another place to ensure that those who are entitled to compensation should receive it as quickly as possible.
Like other noble Lords, I joined a delegation to see the Minister for Energy, the right honourable Helen Liddell, in place of my noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington, who, unfortunately, was unwell at the time. He, too, has fought hard in this House to have such compensation paid. Along with my noble friends, Lord Hardy of Wath, Lord Islwyn and Lord Brookman, I was a member of a delegation led by my noble friend Lord Lofthouse. At the meeting, my noble friends£my noble friend Lord Lofthouse in particular£put forward some concrete proposals that we believed would speed up these payments.
The money is available. I honestly believe that my right honourable friend the Minister for Energy wants such payments to be made. A recent article in our local newspaper, the Shields Gazette, stated that the Prime Minister also wants these payments to be speeded up. Incidentally, many of these miners suffering from emphysema live in the Prime Minister's constituency. These delays seem to go on and on. Instead of receiving credit for making the money available, this Government are being criticised in the mining communities for not ensuring that payment is received by the miners who are suffering.
If the present situation had taken place during the time of the previous government, I can well imagine what some of my honourable friends in the other place 717 would have done. Every day Private Notice Questions would have been tabled, demanding emergency debates and complaining about the slow progress of claims.
Perhaps I may give the House an example from the North East, where I have lived all my life. Although no figures have been made available indicating a regional breakdown of claimants, it is estimated that there are 20,000 in the area. In the first six months of this year only 19 claims had been processed—11 in Newcastle and eight in Durham. That is just not good enough.
I worked in the shipbuilding and ship-repairing industry for 35 years before I was elected a Member of Parliament. Like almost everyone in the industry, I suffer from industrial deafness. The GMB union, which my noble friend Lord Burlison on the Front Bench will remember, took the case of six members to the High Court and obtained what is now known as the "Newcastle settlement". A scale was devised by the court, which gave compensation to those who had a loss of hearing. It quickened up the process of such cases. I see no reason why such a settlement cannot be worked out in this case.
Everyone who comes from a mining community knows of cases of former miners who have been assessed as suffering from emphysema. Such men breathe with difficulty; they can hardly walk; and their life expectancy is not good. They require this compensation as quickly as possible, not only to make their lives more tolerable but also to make the lives of their relatives more bearable. Friends with whom I went to school went to work in the mines when I went to work in the shipyards. I used to play football with them. They also used to box at the local gym; indeed, they were built like house ends. But now they can hardly get across to the local pub for a pint and have difficulty in holding dominoes in their hands. These are the sort of people with whom we are dealing today. As my noble friend Lord Lofthouse said, why cannot these people be assessed immediately?
When the delegation went to see the Minister for Energy, we heard the arguments from some of the civil servants who were present about the effects of smoking. I can tell noble Lords that the conditions under which these men worked were enough to drive anyone to smoke. Moreover, we are talking about many years ago when smoking was not considered to be as dangerous as we are led to believe today.
As my noble friend Lord Islwyn said, another concern is the impact of the Social Security (Recovery of Benefits) Act 1997 in relation to these awards of damages. This legislation allows for certain compensation payments to be exempt. It seems illogical to me that one government department, the Department of Trade and Industry, makes payments of compensation and then another department, the DSS, takes it back. Miners have waited years for settlement of their compensation claims. They have had to endure the trauma of court proceedings to settle their claims with the DTI. But now they will have to go through a similar experience with recoupment under the 1997 Act, but this time with another government 718 department; namely, the DSS. The impact of recoupment under the 1997 Act is simply to move money from one government department to another at considerable cost.
Another reason why recovery is unreasonable is the time factor involved, which will affect the final settlement of these claims. If the Government enforce the terms of the 1997 Act and recover benefits from disabled miners, a vast number of appeals will be lodged with the Medical Appeal Tribunal. Due to the complexity and the importance of the issues involved and the number of claimants, it is almost inevitable that the decision of the Medical Appeal Tribunal will be argued before the Commissioners and, thereafter, before the Court of Appeal. This will prevent the final conclusion of many cases for a long time.
These miners have suffered enough from this terrible disease. They have had to wait long enough to get their compensation claims settled. They should not have to go through a second set of tribunals over the recovery of benefits. The one thing that the Government can do immediately is to use that 1997 Act and exempt these payments from recovery by the DSS. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will take that request on board.
§ 8.36 p.m.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
My Lords, I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Lofthouse for giving us this opportunity to put points to the Government for them urgently to consider, as they seek to speed up the administration of the bronchitis/emphysema scheme.
To justify my making a contribution to the debate, perhaps I should say that I live in Mid-Glamorgan in the heart of the former South Wales coalfield, where coalminers were exposed to very high levels of coal dust and where emphysema was widely prevalent and recognised before the nationalisation of the mines. I have also had the benefit of discussing the administration of the compensation scheme with the secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (South Wales) and with the administrator of the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation in South Wales.
Perhaps I should point out to my noble friend the Minister at the outset of my remarks that it will be for ever to the credit of the present Government that they accepted the High Court's judgment that the Coal Board had been negligent and that compensation was payable. It has been rightly said that the compensation scheme that was approved by the High Court was greatly welcomed. But, of course, the welcome does not extend to the way that it is being administered.
I hear of cases that have gone badly wrong. Former miners, the widows of deceased miners and members of the public feel very deeply that the scheme is too complex and that it takes far too long to process each claim. If I may say so, that feeling has been movingly and powerfully expressed in your Lordships' House this evening by my noble friend Lord Lofthouse. Of course, the Trade and Industry Secretary and the Minister for Energy have admitted that they, too, are frustrated by the way in which the scheme has worked. 719 I believe that I can possibly best help by concentrating on how we can seek to move forward and avoid some of the difficulties that we have experienced over the past two years.
I was glad to see a month ago that the DTI, with the agreement of the solicitors representing the miners, went back to the High Court to seek its consent to modifications and improvements to the scheme in order to speed up the pay-outs. The judge, Mr Justice Turner, consented. Can my noble friend tell the House how long it will take to settle all the existing claims as a result of these modifications and improvements? Of course I appreciate that progress does not always keep up with forecasts, but I trust that the time-scale will be substantially less than the five years mentioned by the judge at the November hearing.
Hitherto there have been two fundamental causes of delay. First, there has been difficulty in producing the hospital records. Where the claim is made by a widow—about a third of the claims are made by widows—the medical records are, of course, critical. Without them it is difficult to evaluate the claim properly. It has been suggested to me by a colleague in the House of Commons that the best way to overcome this problem where it exists is to pay the hospitals concerned to enable them to employ additional clerical assistance to concentrate on tracing the missing records. Has the department given any thought to that positive idea?
No doubt the most important complaint is that there is a long delay in obtaining an appointment for the medical assessment because of the lack of specialist consultants. I believe that this has been referred to by every speaker in the debate. I am told that a Mid-Glamorgan miner in his mid-80s was informed last week that he had been given a medical appointment in September next. Surely that is appalling.
Will the Minister tell the House how many specialists are in post and confirm the number which are required? How is this gap to be closed? One wonders whether a senior registrar could undertake the testing, or must the specialist be of consultant status? I am attracted by the pilot training scheme of doctors and nurses to enable them to summarise medical records. When will the results of that pilot scheme be known?
Like previous speakers, I shall also be interested to learn why those miners who have been certified by the DSS as suffering from bronchitis and emphysema for the purpose of DSS benefit have to undertake further medical examination for the purpose of this scheme. That must be clearly explained, if there is an explanation. However, in fairness, there are indications that things are on the move. There will be more medical testing centres. Like everyone else, I trust that the specialists will be available to man the new centres. If they are available, this development should herald a great acceleration in the programme.
There is concern that the DSS should be entitled to recover out of the special damages element of the final award a part of the disablement benefit for chronic 720 bronchitis and emphysema which it had paid to the claimant. That complaint has been raised this evening by my noble friends Lord Islwyn and Lord Dixon. It is a criticism which carries considerable weight. If we take the case of two ex-coalminers, one suffering from pneumoconiosis, the other from bronchitis emphysema, we see inconsistency. The bronchitis emphysema award will be reduced by the claw back provision while such a provision does not apply to the pneumoconiosis award. The emphysema claimant finds it difficult to understand that anomaly. He sees unfairness. Is that being looked at by the department?
Another criticism which I hear, but I note has not been raised this evening, is that the criteria for determining eligibility for the bereavement award are too narrow and over rely on the evidence of the cause of death as shown on the death certificate. Is that being looked at?
I return to where I began. It has not gone unnoticed in Wales (where there are currently about 27,000 claims) that the administration of the scheme in Scotland (where there are about 8,000 claims) has been devolved to a Scottish body while in Wales it is being administered centrally from Sheffield. I ask the department, in consultation with the Welsh Office, to urge the Healthcall Services and IRISC to set up offices in Wales to process the cases arising in Wales. Such a move should help to speed up the administration of the scheme by relieving the Sheffield office of some work while bringing decisions on the Welsh cases closer to the solicitors in Wales and cutting out the need for journeys to Sheffield.
I am, of course, pleased that the Welsh Office is setting up a claims monitoring group chaired by the Secretary of State for Wales which will meet regularly to ensure that the activities of all concerned are adequately co-ordinated. That also is an important step forward.
§ 8.46 p.m.
§ Lord Hardy of Wath
My Lords, the House should be deeply indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse. He has not only presented a case of substance but has also demonstrated his awareness and knowledge of the matter through his long experience in the mining industry and through his efforts in Westminster.
I was privileged to be a sponsor of my noble friend's Bills in the other place. His efforts and the relevant medical advice presented to the previous government resulted in the establishment of the scheme. We were delighted to see it but we soon realised that deficiency, difficulty and high cost were inbuilt into it. Fairly soon we learned, for example, that the X-rays which were supposed to be used were not suitable to identify either emphysema or bronchitis. I recall raising that matter in the other place. The Minister then promised that action would be taken. The months pass and each week scores of applicants die. We are concerned that the number should not rise at that speed for much longer.
The cost of the measure is enormous. The volume of documentation involved is also huge. Some of the documentation in individual applications amounts to 721 7½ kilograms. We should think of the time that it takes to study 7½ kilograms of paper when dealing with just one case.
There is an argument for the more widespread use of statements of truth, especially where records are not available. There is certainly a case for accepting the point made by my noble friends; namely, that recognition of this disability by the Department of Social Security would allow swift processing of thousands of cases. It would certainly bring a great deal of good cheer and reassurance in the coalfields.
Some of the regulations are unjust. Only the other day I spoke to a friend of mine who had submitted an application for compensation for white finger. He has two badly affected fingers on each hand but he does not qualify because the regulations state that to qualify one must have three fingers affected on one hand. I hope that my noble friend will consider that case.
I return to the issue that we are discussing. My noble friend Lord Dixon mentioned smoking. Let us consider the situation of a man born in 1920 who is 80 years of age today. He would have left school at 14 and gone down the pit in 1934. He would probably have started smoking in his teens and retired from the pit in 1980. Let us consider someone born in 1925. He would have gone down the pit in 1939 at the age of 14, as most boys did in the coalfields. He may have started to smoke at a time when it was fashionable and socially acceptable and when no health risks were associated with it. Yet someone who started to smoke as a boy in the 1930s must suffer an enormous financial penalty in the year 2000, 2001 or 2002 if the situation becomes much more protracted. It is not a kindly, sensible or just arrangement.
The House should have been convinced by the arguments applied by my noble friends today. There are few miners and few pits today but the coalfield communities are not separated from their long heritage. Mining in Yorkshire started in 1296. No coal is being produced now, but for 700 years, and particularly from the 19th century, it coloured the attitudes and values of the people. They know that, although we do not have pits, we have that heritage. We expect this Government to respond to that heritage and to simplify the situation as dramatically and swiftly as they can.
We inherited from the previous government a scheme at which, if it were operated by a private charity, the charity commissioners would look askance regarding the proportion of expenditure devoted to administration and operation rather than providing benefit. The Government are not a charity in that sense, but they must recognise that the legal and medical costs of the scheme—thousands of documents are involved, weighing up to 7½ kilograms per case—are enormous. The money needs to go to those who have earned it while they can still breathe. The sooner they receive that money the better.
§ 8.51 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, if your Lordships will permit me to speak for two minutes, I should like to express 722 the outrage that I feel, having heard the description of a scheme which would have been an embarrassment to the ancien rêgime in France before the revolution. It is difficult to express the degree of distaste one feels when hearing the extent of injustice to a class of people who have a nobility of their own and who have occupied a central place in the history and economy of this country for countless generations. It is not right that such people should be cast aside. It is not right that they should be cheated of their compensation until they and possibly their widows are dead.
I am not pointing the finger of blame at anyone. But I say this to the present Government. If they tolerate this situation they will be failing in an obvious moral and public duty. If the scheme as devised does not work, they have the power of legislation to replace it. As the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said, there must be a time by which the clock must stop.
I speak intemperately because that is the only way in which to condense the strength of my feeling into the limited time available. I believe that the country at large would not tolerate this scandal if people were aware of it. It is part of the function of this House to make them aware. I believe that noble Lords have done a good job in that respect. I am grateful to the House for allowing me this time.
§ 8.53 p.m.
§ Lord Ezra
My Lords, this has been a sad and disturbing occasion. I join in the tributes paid to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, not only for introducing the debate today and speaking so movingly about the problem but also for his years of work in bringing this serious social problem to the notice of the Houses of Parliament and the wider public.
After a judgment as long ago as January 1998—rightly, the Government have been praised for immediately accepting it—and after the procedures were put in place, there is deep and growing concern that, although there are 123,000 claimants. from the information given by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, on 28th September in answer to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, only 25,000 individual payments were made to that date. Around 16,000 offers were expected to be made before Christmas. The Minister will no doubt confirm whether those figures are correct. If they are anywhere near correct, it demonstrates the fatal weakness of the scheme that so few have been compensated and so few offers are expected to be made by the end of the year despite the large number of elderly, ailing mineworkers who have put in claims.
The Government have taken the issue very seriously. They are as worried as we are that while it is dragging on, tragically, a number of claimants are dying. The figure of 7,000 has been mentioned. Many more have died as a result of the disease. The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and others pointed out that the Government have recently taken steps to speed up the operation of the scheme. Because the scheme began 723 as the result of a judgment, the new arrangements had to be cleared with the judge. This apparently was done on 16th November.
What does the Minister expect to come out of this speeded-up scheme? Will it materially affect the rate at which offers are being made? I believe that it will not do so sufficiently to satisfy the doubts expressed so vigorously today. The noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, made specific suggestions. When we have discussed the issue on previous occasions, I have referred to the way in which the pneumoconiosis scheme was dealt with some years ago. The noble Lord, Lord Mason, and others will recall that a lump sum, then considered adequate for the purpose, was set aside. Individual settlements were made rapidly without the procedures which are now taking place. When I raised the issue I was told that the situation is now different; we are bound by a legal judgment; we have to do things according to that judgment. But in the light of the real human suffering involved in these long delays, the deaths that are taking place and the difficulties of these mineworkers in surviving, I wonder whether an accommodation cannot be reached with the judge to speed up the process on the lines suggested so graphically and effectively in today's debate.
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, is not only to be thanked but congratulated on pursuing with other noble Lords and Members of another place this sad and dreadful problem which still has not been resolved.
Many years ago I visited a gold mine in South Africa. It was sanitised and clean. I did not go down deep into the mine but I felt claustrophobic. The smell was awful. It was terribly damp. I wondered then how the miners—many noble Lords have graphically described the situation—could face such work every day. As if that were not enough, they are now victims of horrendous lung diseases which continue to take lives and make their final years ones of constant, debilitating illness with men literally fighting for every breath before their wife and children. And still we wait. The situation is appalling.
To add insult to injury, only recently has anybody accepted that the disease was an occupational one. It was good to hear how hard some noble Lords opposite have worked to get that changed. But is not that often the case? According to the Pavlovian instinctive reaction of Whitehall—I have chosen that non-political word deliberately, because, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said, this is not a political issue—no haemophiliac was given blood contaminated by AIDS, there is no such thing as Gulf War syndrome, organophosphates are not dangerous and beef exposed to BSE was not dangerous to eat. It takes ages for anybody to accept that there is a problem.
In 1992, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council changed its mind and said that bronchitis and 724 emphysema could be accepted. The Conservative Government accepted them on a no-fault basis in 1993. That change in the compensation regime resulted in 45,000 claims, of which only 10 per cent were successful before April 1997. I am happy to give the present Government due credit for changing the criteria. As a result of that change, a further influx of almost 120,000 claims followed. In co-operation with miners' representatives, the former government encouraged a series of eight test cases to test the issues and to embrace a variety of lung injuries and working histories.
The trial of that complex litigation began before Mr Justice Turner in 1996 and ended a year later. I shall not give all the history because time precludes it, but by 2nd August 2000, an irate Mr Justice Turner demanded to know why the claims were taking so long to process. He ordered the DTI to report to him by the end of September. Despite the two and a half years since the judgment, the DTI has failed to make serious inroads into settling the claims. According to answers given in the other place, of the 120,000 claims, only 5,161 have been fully and finally settled and 26,000 payments, totalling £86 million, have been made to other individuals. Sadly, in 6,341 cases, the claimants died before receiving any compensation. That is a sad reflection on all of us. I cannot congratulate enough those noble Lords who continue to press and press. Nobody should be proud of the sad story that we have heard this evening.
I understand that in response to Mr Justice Turner's demand, the DTI has gone back to court for further directions to speed up the payments. Like other noble Lords, I ask the Minister what proposals the Government have regarding the outcome of that application.
We are told that the claims are being held up by delays in the delivery of medical records by hospitals and by controversy over the fees charged by doctors. There is even reported to be disgraceful conduct by some solicitors, who are demanding success fees, despite the scheme providing for all legal fees to be paid by the Government. We have even had the phenomenon of desperate miners being forced to turn to the claim assessors who advertise on television and take a bite out of the compensation. There are anecdotal reports of less reputable assessors snatching at derisory offers, thereby accelerating the payment of their success fees.
The noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, has called on the Minister of State, who was put in charge of the compensation monitoring group more than 14 months ago, to resign. In a press release last September, Mrs Liddell told us:My patience is exhausted with the slow progress".Only last week, the Leader of the House of Commons said:It is a source of irritation to me and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that something that we sought to get under way as speedily as possible in the early months of this Government is still not going through at the speed that everybody wishes".—[Official Report, Commons. 14/12/00; col. 809.]725 I do not blame Ministers for the continuing delay, except to the extent that they are now where the buck stops. I do not doubt for one moment the sincerity of the Ministers involved. Why cannot the Government translate their fine sentiments into deeds and get on and make it happen?
In a timely article in The Times last Saturday, Tristram Hunt complained that, despite cosmetic structural changes made since the Government came to power, Whitehall's machinery has beenleft largely unchanged, and too often has acted as an impediment to Labour's programme".He also said:Labour has not turned its fire on Whitehall's great anachronism—the lumbering departments of state. Tony Blair is a Prime Minister notoriously uninterested in the mechanics of government".I do not expect the Minister to agree with the last sentence of that quotation, but, as a member of the Opposition, I thought that I could continue with it.
One of the Prime Minister's predecessors, Harold Wilson, once urged what he called the "smack of firm government". Will the Minister urge his colleagues, who undoubtedly have good intentions and wish to resolve this hardship to the claimants, to exercise their authority and power and give that smack of firm government, in the form, if necessary, of a boot applied to that part of the anatomy of every person involved where it will do the most good?
§ 9.6 p.m.
§ Lord Sainsbury of Turville
My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Lofthouse for raising this important issue. I welcome this opportunity to update your Lordships on the progress that we are now making on the settling of claims by former miners against British Coal.
There is no Minister in the DTI or the rest of the Government who is not deeply concerned about the issue and desperate to speed up the process. We agree that justice deferred is justice denied, but I urge the House not to blame the civil servants, because there is a dedicated team in the DTI trying to resolve the issue. Neither is it a problem of the machinery of government. I shall attempt to set out the nature of the problems and what we are doing to try to sort them out.
There are two major schemes on health claims resulting from successful litigation against British Coal. In addition to the 129,000 claims received in connection with respiratory diseases, the department has also received more than 115,000 claims in relation to vibration-related diseases. Some 30,000 of those have been registered since the end of August. Progress on those has been reasonably good. To date, the department has settled nearly 19,000 claims and made a further 20,000 interim payments. In total we have paid nearly £200 million in compensation.
The number of claims in connection with respiratory disease also continues to rise. However, we are finding it a great deal more difficult to deal with those claims as speedily as we would wish because the 726 legal and medical issues flowing from the High Court judgments are far more complex than those in relation to vibration-related diseases, and they necessitated a complex agreement with the miners' solicitors. The Government fully accept that progress has been too slow in processing the claims and they are working urgently to speed up matters. Payments are now beginning to flow. In total, some £95 million has been paid out in respiratory compensation. Taken together with compensation for vibration-related diseases in recent weeks, we have been paying out over £5 million per week.
The question of interim payments was raised. We are of course paying interims wherever possible. We have paid nearly £24,000 in total in varying amounts. The figure of £2,000 which was mentioned is based on the receipt of DSS benefit. We are also paying an expedited offer. Where that offer is rejected, we then pay 70 per cent of the offer and the maximum interim payment is over £10,000.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, asked about numbers. In September we said that we would expect approximately 6,000 revised expedited offers, approximately 3,000 ex gratia top-ups and approximately 10,000 new offers, based on reviews of lung tests carried out by respiratory consultants. So far, the numbers are 5,800 revised offers and 3,300 ex gratia payments. To date, we have only 2,700 new offers. We shall not know the total number for a few days as the reviews are still continuing. If we fall short of the figure of 10,000 new offers, it will be because the respiratory consultants have not found in claimants the incidence of the disease that we had expected.
As your Lordships know, within a few weeks of this Government coming into office, the lengthy High Court trial came to a conclusion. Within three weeks of this Government assuming the former British Coal's health liabilities, the judge handed down his judgment. We did not appeal or contest the findings. After years of neglect by British Coal and a blind eye from the previous government, this Government were the first to accept responsibility for the damage caused to our miners.
I believe that the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, would have been more appropriate if he had pointed out that the current situation is due largely to the fact that, as opposed to the previous situation with regard to pneumoconiosis, in this case the miners had to invoke the legal process in order for action to be taken while, as I said, the government turned a blind eye. Many of the issues which we face today are due to the fact that the legal process has had to be invoked, with all the complexity that that brings.
As my noble friend Lord Lofthouse said, we were waiting as a government to give out the money when we heard of that judgment. Indeed, the money is available to be given out now. I believe that at that time everyone failed to understand the difficulty inherent in applying that judgment in what has been the largest case of its kind.
My noble friends Lord Lofthouse and Lord Mason raised the question of a simple system of fixed payments. I believe that in many ways we all wish that 727 we could sweep away this lengthy, difficult and complex process and move to a system of simple payments. However, I believe that it is often forgotten that the department and the solicitors who represent the claimants must endeavour to settle claims in line with the High Court judgment. As Mr Justice Turner said at the last court hearing in November:There is the complexity of the basis upon which compensation in a common law claim is a necessary part and it is not just sheer volumes of numbers. but the complexity of process that has to be completed which, added to the number of claimants, does create the apparent problem of slow progress in the meeting of these claims".At the same court hearing, the judge went on to comment on the suggestion that the department make flat-rate, one-off payments to all claimants—a figure of £10,000 has been mentioned. He said:The purpose of the scheme set up by the Claims Handling Agreement is to evaluate the extent of a claimant's or deceased miner's injury and comparing one miner with another so that the evaluated amount of the compensation will come out of the process at the end … any such evaluated basis of compensation which is fair as between one miner or one deceased and another has to go through the sort of process we have been discussing … to sweep away the evaluated basis of compensation and substitute a lump sum compensation that is totally outside the scheme, is outside anything which is available within the common law jurisdiction in which we operate".He also said that such suggestions would ultimately cause disappointment to many claimants, who would have dashed expectations.
One has to answer the question: if we now took legal action to sweep away the whole scheme and go back to a simpler system of fixed payments, would that solve the issue? I am afraid to say that it seems to me that it would still leave major issues of unfairness and problems of real equity in this case. Remember that we are in a situation where 30 per cent of the claimants are not, in this case, receiving compensation when their cases have been analysed. As a result of that judgment, we negotiated a handling agreement with the claimants' solicitors which set out the procedures for settling respiratory disease claims. It was designed to ensure that everyone received their fair and proper compensation.
I should like to take this opportunity to outline some of the progress which has been made and the actions we are taking to speed things up. Healthcall, which is carrying out the spirometry programme for the department, has had to deal with probably the largest series of lung tests ever undertaken in the country. Spirometry allows us to assess those most likely to have a disability and enables us to prioritise claimants going forward to the full medical assessment process (MAP). To date, Healthcall has tested over 63,500 miners and contacted a further 13,700 for an appointment. Healthcall will continue to invite people to attend spirometry as their claims are registered and we will continue to offer expedited payments and pay interims if the agreed criteria are met.
The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe announced at the end of September new fast track proposals that would generate thousands of new and revised offers by Christmas. I am pleased to say 728 that some 12,000 new and revised offers totalling nearly £60 million have been made and more are due to be sent out this week. About £17 million worth of offers have been accepted and paid.
We are presently completing about 400 medical assessment processes per week but we need to get that up to 1,000 per week as quickly as possible. It must be remembered that there has never been a process of assessment of this size in the UK before. Many of those involved had to develop an understanding of the complex procedures very quickly. We have developed a number of initiatives which we hope will speed up the rate of assessments. The main bottleneck is the lack of respiratory consultants needed to get the medical assessments done.
We are urgently trying to increase the number of respiratory consultants. There are now 180 in post. We are trying to speed that up as quickly as possible. However, there is only a limited number of respiratory consultants who can carry out the assessment. That has now been identified as the main bottleneck in the process. We are looking at how doctors are used and paid in order to ensure that we attract as many doctors as possible to take part in the scheme and that we are using them efficiently. We are also looking at using nurses, GPs or medical secretaries to summarise the extensive medical records which are currently examined by the consultant. That will help to free up additional time for the consultants to examine the claimants, which is seen by many of the consultants as the most useful part of the process in assessing disability.
We are doing a number of other things. We are opening two new test centres in South Wales, which will be operational early in the new year. as well as a centre in Stirling. A new centre in Bristol is now operational and the first tests are booked for 9th January.
The question of medical records is another point in issue. As many of your Lordships will know, part of the medical assessment process requires the department to obtain the medical records of all claimants. Those records are held in a number of sources, such as GP surgeries and hospitals, as well as the DSS. Earlier in the year when we started to collect the records, many doctors and hospitals were cautious about releasing records. We sorted out that problem and that is now speeding up.
I turn to the question of compensation recovery by the DSS. The compensation recovery legislation provides for certain types of special damages, such as loss of earnings, cost of care and loss of mobility, to be reduced where an individual has already received compensation for that loss from the DSS. That is effectively to prevent the claimant being compensated twice, once by the state and once by the compensator. I think that everyone will agree that that is fair to other people in similar circumstances. I agree, however, that the sort of mistake described by the noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, is intolerable. We shall do everything to ensure that it does not happen again.
729 I have already touched on some of the judge's comments at the High Court hearing in Sheffield last month. But your Lordships will be interested to know that Mr Justice Turner also visited our Claim Handlers and Medical Assessment Centre. He noted that the medical tests were a necessary part of ensuring that claimants received the compensation properly due to them and, while they were not easy to conduct, they were absolutely necessary.
Your Lordships may also wish to know that at the last hearing the department proposed that the February cut-off date for lodging respiratory claims be postponed. That was agreed by the judge and the department will keep all parties informed of any new date.
My noble friends Lord Lofthouse and Lord Islwyn raised the point that DSS assessments are carried out to establish the presence of chronic bronchitis or emphysema, and that those could be used for paying compensation. I can only repeat the consistent advice that we received; that is, that those are not sufficiently detailed to allow us to make an accurate assessment of the degree of disability for which we are liable to compensate.
§ Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I can ask a question.
§ Lord Sainsbury of Turville
My Lords, perhaps I can come to the noble Lord's point, which was that we could possibly go back to the judge and the claimants' solicitors group. I am not certain that we could do that, but I shall make certain that the issue is reviewed again and we see whether there is a way in which those records, with the judge's permission, may be used to deal with that situation. I cannot say more on that at this stage. I believe the question has been raised but I shall make certain it is raised again.
A number of specific points were raised by my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies. I have the answers here but perhaps I can write to him because I am running out of time. Also, in answer to my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath, the judge was quite clear that smoking causes emphysema and it had to be taken into account in evaluating the amount of compensation due.
Perhaps I can deal with the final question of the solicitors' fees. As the Government have previously stated, our aim is to make sure that all claimants receive the full compensation to which they are entitled. We are therefore extremely angry that we continue to hear of claimants whose solicitors are 730 taking a cut out of their client's compensation. As your Lordships will be aware, we agreed a scale of fixed costs, plus reasonable disbursements to be paid to solicitors in respect of all successful cases. We are also paying some solicitors' costs in respect of some unsuccessful claims. In addition we are paying for the lung testing, the records collection and the consultation with the specialist and do not intend to recover any of those costs where a claim is unsuccessful, as would be the normal entitlement of a defendant. Therefore, in the vast majority of successful cases, we anticipate that we shall be meeting most, if not all, of the solicitors' costs.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord for all this information on an important matter. But the noble Lord is now 30 per cent over time. I understand that he has 12 minutes. I draw his attention to that fact.
§ Lord Sainsbury of Turville
My Lords, I wanted to make some of these points because this is an enormously important subject. Let me conclude by saying that we will do everything we can to make certain that those making claims for respiratory disease or vibration white finger receive fair compensation as soon as possible. But we will be prepared to listen to any proposal from your Lordships or anyone else that may help to improve this difficult and complex process.
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I raced through my speech in order to ensure that he had plenty of time to reply—it was good that he was able to give so much information—but he made an incorrect comment.
I said that by 1992 the Industrial injuries Advisory Committee had concluded that chronic bronchitis and emphysema was disabling. The Conservative government of the day accepted that report on a no-fault basis. Forty-five thousand applications were received, of which 10,000 were successful before the criteria were changed in April 1997. I gave credit to the present Government for changing the provisions but the Minister suggested that my government had done nothing. That is not correct; we accepted the report. As a result of the no-fault claims, so many claims began that our government brought forward the eight test cases. In fairness, and for the record, I want to mention that to the Minister.
House adjourned at twenty-six minutes past nine o'clock.