HL Deb 24 October 2002 vol 639 cc1435-6

3.24 p.m.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the closing date for miners' widows to make claims for compensation under the vibration white finger scheme is imminent, and what steps they are taking to publicise this.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, on behalf of the Department of Trade and Industry, perhaps I may say what a pleasure it is to see the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, back in her place.

In March this year the DTI announced that in line with the agreement signed between the department and solicitors acting for the claimants, we proposed to close the vibration white finger scheme on 31st October 2002. We have carried out two press campaigns during the past seven months with advertisements in both the national and regional press. The date has also been advertised in the DTI newsletter entitled Compensation for Miners, and on the department's coal health website. In addition, the cut-off date has been advertised on a regular basis by solicitors' firms in local papers.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, is it not a matter of great concern that with days to go before the cut-off date, the Department of Trade and Industry has still not reached agreement on the posthumous VWF claims protocol? Further, is it not correct that the DTI has failed to advise widows of their eligibility to claim or that they must comply with the deadline? I acknowledge the points made by my noble friend regarding advertisements. However, such failure could mean history repeating itself. I refer to the situation regarding compensation in respect of chest diseases when such applications spiralled.

Does not the Minister think that the DTI could find itself in a position in which many miners' widows are denied their rightful compensation, as were the canteen ladies in the coal industry who missed out on thousands of pounds through no fault of their own?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I did not fully understand the first part of my noble friend's Question. However, I shall read Hansard and, if necessary, write to him. As regards widows, there has been a process for dealing with posthumous claimants with medical evidence ever since the inception of the claims handling arrangements three-and-a-half years ago. The difficulty has been with such claims in which there is no medical evidence.

We have always made clear that we would accept such claims, and for over a year there has been a form for registering them. We have procedures which have been agreed with claimants' solicitors. I do not think that that has been a problem in the submission of claims. Around 10,000 such claims have been received.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, on 13th September Mr Brian Wilson, the Minister for energy, announced that 150,000 claims under the VWF scheme had been received. Can the Minister indicate how long it will take for such claims to be processed and settled?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the majority of such claims have been processed and settled. At present the number of claimants is falling off. Where an assessment centre can handle, say, five claimants a day for testing and medical assessment, many now handle a much smaller number. That is not economical, and is not a good use of doctors, and medical technicians. That is why it is necessary, regrettably, to bring the scheme to a close, as was always planned.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, in the light of the remarks by my noble friend Lord Lofthouse, if there is the slightest possibility of a widow being denied a legitimate claim, why cannot we have a more flexible cut-off point than we have at present?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have explained why it would be a poor use of resources to carry on the scheme indefinitely. However, that does not mean that there is a denial of claims. This refers only to claims under the scheme. It is still possible for claims to proceed through the courts under common law provisions and there are solicitors available to see that that happens.