HL Deb 01 May 2001 vol 625 cc553-5

2.43 p.m.

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in the payment of compensation to former miners suffering from chest diseases as a result of their employment in the mining industry.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, more than £406 million has already been paid to miners in compensation for health claims. Of that, more than £142 million relates to chest diseases—some £30 million more since the noble Lord raised the matter in February. We continue to pay out over £1 million more a day.

Although substantial progress has been made, we continue to make every effort to speed up the process. In the past few months, we have taken measures to ensure that the oldest and sickest claimants are seen before the younger and fitter ones; we have written to all respiratory consultants in order to recruit more; we have opened two regional scanning centres; we have authorised the commissioning of two mobile testing units; and we have established links with Scottish, English and Welsh registrars to obtain death certificates directly. We are also prepared to consider any other suggestions for speeding up the process within the legal framework of the judgment.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that mining communities up and down the country will he pleased that progress is at last being made in paying compensation to the most deserving cases? Can he say whether any new fast-track schemes are envisaged? Will he look in particular at the plight of widows, who, it appears, are not included in any priority procedure? Will he give noble Lords an assurance this afternoon that the Government will take all necessary steps to try to remedy that situation?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we prioritise claims from the most ill, the oldest and those whose screening spirometer indicates that they have the greatest injury to their lungs. I can assure my noble friend that widows are also prioritised. They receive priority points based on the age of the original claimant. If my noble friend knows of any cases where that scheme appears not to be operating, I should be grateful if he would let me know and I shall see whether it can be remedied.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, in view of the substantial backlog of claims which still exists, will the Government consider whether, even at this stage, they could introduce a statutory scheme which would speed up the settlement? It would then be for claimants to choose whether to go through the faster, statutory scheme or to take their turn in the common law scheme.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, having embarked in 1996 on the scheme which involves the courts, I believe that it would be very difficult to introduce a scheme which essentially gives a flat-rate payment without employing the procedures that are now being put in place to make an exact assessment of the state of claimants. I shall certainly have a look at the matter. However, having embarked on the legal scheme, and particularly in view of the fact that there are now 145,000 claims, it is difficult to envisage a second scheme which would make no assessment of the validity of the claimants.

Lord Renton

My Lords, bearing in mind that pneumoconiosis is the worst and most frequent disease to the chest suffered by miners and that it is incurable, will the Minister say whether the National Joint Pneumoconiosis Committee is still functioning and still trying to persuade young miners to obey the rules which would prevent their getting pneumoconiosis?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I believe that since those claims were made enormous steps have been taken in terms of control over working conditions. We are now dealing with completely different conditions in the mines.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract

My Lords, although I recognise the efforts that have been made to speed up the scheme, for which the miners are very appreciative, the situation is far from satisfactory and the delays are still not acceptable. My noble friend will be aware that on 15th March in the High Court Mr Justice Turner informed the DTI that if, in the near future, it could not produce an acceptable timetable to resolve all claims, he would have to undertake a difficult inquiry. Does my noble friend agree that it is now time for that difficult inquiry to take place?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am satisfied that within the DTI everything is being done to take the matter forward as quickly as possible. The main problem is in relation to respiratory consultants. We have taken a whole series of actions to try to increase the number of such consultants and are now employing on this work some 230 of the 600 respiratory consultants available in this country. As I said in my Answer, we shall try to adopt any methods or actions that may be suggested as a means of speeding up the process. If Mr Justice Turner believes that he should hold an inquiry on this matter and can suggest ways in which the process could be made to work faster, we shall of course be only too happy to take action.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, since my recent visit to South Shields, the local paper has put forward a campaign for a local centre because, it said, it was too difficult for people to attend the referral centres mentioned by the Minister in his Answer. Can he tell me why people have to travel long distances to a centre? Is it because of the shortage of consultants, or is it due to the physical facilities? Could those people be assessed al a local hospital?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we have set out a pattern relating to the location in which consultants will carry out that work. We are prepared to open those centres at any hour of the day and during weekends to suit the convenience of consultants. If there are particular instances in which there seems to be a case for having another centre—perhaps because people have to travel long distances—I should be very grateful for that information. We shall consider whether we can deal with that situation.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks on respiratory consultants. Can he tell the House how many posts for respiratory consultants are now vacant, and what was the equivalent figure on 1st May 1997?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I shall be only too happy to write to the noble Lord with those figures.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

My Lords, I am encouraged by the Minister's comments. Does he accept that many of the people who live in former mining communities had throughout their lives longed for—indeed, prayed for—a strong Labour government? I ask that because for the past nine years in my diocese I have been alongside many miners and former miners, some of whom have been waiting for compensation. They are deeply disappointed in this regard by the Labour Government's response so far.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the Government's record on this issue is that on coming to power—almost simultaneously with the original judgment being handed down—we agreed right away and without taking other considerations into account to take forward compensation. We have done all that we can to do so as fast as we can. I have not heard it said that we have failed to take action that could have moved the matter forward sensibly. Our record in that regard is remarkably good. If we can do more, we shall do so. I appreciate that it is completely unsatisfactory for people to feel that although compensation was available for them, they had difficulties getting it. Nevertheless, as I hope that I have made clear, we are using all the resources that we can to deal with the situation.