HL Deb 07 March 2000 vol 610 cc901-3

2.48 p.m.

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the present situation regarding the payment to miners suffering from lung diseases as a result of their employment in the coal-mining industry.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government signed the handling agreement with the solicitors representing the claimants in September last year. Since then, the DTI has made over 6,800 offers based on spirometry testing and, so far, over 1,500 claimants have accepted. Another 2,800 such offers will be made subject to checking work histories. In addition, some 17,000 individual interim payments have been made. Over £51 million in compensation has been paid to ex-miners and their families.

Healthcall, the contractor delivering the medical assessments, has established 17 testing centres which are operational now, with a further nine centres opening by the end of March. Those will provide the capacity to carry out 2,500 assessments per month. The main constraints are waiting for the documentation from solicitors and collecting medical records from various sources. The sooner those are obtained, the sooner people will receive their money.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that in Wales there are reputed to be no fewer than 25,000 claimants? Will he confirm that none of the settled cases or those yet to be processed will be subject to compensation recovery from the DSS? Have the Government investigated allegations that solicitors are demanding exorbitant fees from miners and their widows? One firm is reckoned to have claimed no less than £2 million. Finally, will he emphatically refute a recent report that claims from members of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers are being given preferential treatment because they are prepared to accept the degrading, so-called "shuttle" test?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am unable to speak about individual payments to firms of solicitors. On the issue of DSS payments, three out of the 15 bases of payment—that is, loss of past earnings, cost of past care or loss of past mobility—may affect the compensation paid by the DSS. In other words, DSS compensation may affect the present compensation scheme. In contrast to the position under the previous Government, when it was possible for the DSS to recover general and special damages which could amount to the whole of the compensation, under the present rules that situation is more limited.

Lord Renton

My Lords, bearing in mind that pneumoconiosis, caused by inhaling coal dust, is the principal cause of problems in this context, can the Minister say whether the National Joint Pneumoconiosis Committee still functions, as it used to most usefully? Is it still presided over by a junior Minister? Do any of the major hospitals in mining areas have a pneumoconiosis wing?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, pneumoconiosis is only one, and not necessarily the most important, of the diseases covered by the compensation scheme. I shall write to the noble Lord on the other points to which he referred.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the monitoring group that deals with this matter is still in existence? If so, what problems is it dealing with at the moment?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the monitoring group is in existence and it is extremely helpful. We have had three meetings and the fourth is to be convened before the end of this month. We envisage that the monitoring group will continue to provide an independent check on the work carried out.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract

My Lords, will my noble friend inform the House what progress has been made on claims by widows of former mineworkers? Is he aware of any widows who have received any settlements? Can he inform me when such claims are expected to be settled? He will be aware that if the delay continues widows, like their former husbands, will die before they receive any compensation.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend refers to an extremely serious problem of compensation arriving too late, which is common throughout the compensation scheme. However, widows' claims have priority over those of other bereaved families. There is the special provision of the bereavement award of £7,500 paid when a death certificate indicates that death has been caused by any of the diseases covered by the compensation scheme. More than 2,000 claims for that bereavement award have been paid out in addition to the normal compensation.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, on the matter of compensation arriving too late, will the Minister consider extending the system of interim payments? In a large number of cases interim payments are made, but in many others such payments are still outstanding.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there is not a limitation on interim payments. Interim payments are being made and will continue to be made. Of course, difficulty arises on the agreement of full and final payments. Such payments have been made wherever possible on the basis of spirometry tests, but inevitably full and final payments based on the medical assessment programme will take some time to complete in the light of the timetable that I described in my first Answer.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, will my noble friend ensure that there is further and ministerial consideration of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, not least in regard to legal fees and to the geographical question?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Yes, my Lords, I can certainly give my noble friend that assurance. I am sure that he is aware that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Helen Liddell have been closely involved personally in all aspects of the compensation scheme.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that he has not replied to my Question regarding the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, or the scab union as we refer to it in South Wales?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I apologise. I am supposed to answer only two supplementary Questions at a time. There is no discrimination either for or against the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. That union has decided to use its internal resources rather than external solicitors, but there is no evidence that that has resulted either in a speeding up or a slowing down of its claims.