HL Deb 14 September 2004 vol 664 cc1094-108

7.32 p.m.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to speed up payment of compensation for mineworkers and former mineworkers who suffer from bronchitis and emphysema and to control the legal fees associated with such claims.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, first, I am delighted to see that my noble friend Lady Morgan of Drefelin has chosen this debate for her maiden speech. Indeed, I am indebted to her and I know that many miners will be, too.

It is over nine years since the British Coal disease legislation came under the control of a High Court judge and nearly six years since the miners won their case in the High Court. However, it is clear that this was a pyrrhic victory since thousands of elderly miners and widows continue to die without receiving their compensation. It is now time to take stock and to ask one question: is the High Court scheme being run for the benefit of the miners or the lawyers?

According to the Department of Trade and Industry, there are a total of 569,000 claims under the chest disease scheme. Of those claims, 320,000 now relate to deceased miners. Over the past six years, only 152,000 claims have been settled. I was appalled to learn that 417,000 claims are still outstanding and that they will take another 10 years or more to resolve. How many miners will still be alive by the time this shambolic process is finally concluded?

I well remember the suffering in the countryside as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak. However, are there any farmers still waiting for their compensation from Her Majesty's Government? I would think not. The fact is that compensation in that case was prioritised and delivered with great speed. Why, therefore, must miners whose lungs have been destroyed through toil in the mines face another decade of waiting?

The commitment of Her Majesty's Government to the miners and widows has been honoured by the provision of more than £4 billion funding, without capping. I make no direct criticism today against Her Majesty's Government. When Mr Justice Turner first made the award, the Government immediately made £2 billion available and since they have doubled that. There is no direct criticism of them—it is levelled against the administration of the scheme and not least against the lawyers. Why is the compensation being paid out at a snail's pace?

That brings me to the lawyers. In the miners' litigation, fortunes have been made. However, that has not been good enough for some lawyers. Let me tell your Lordships about Mrs Gladys Leadbeater, an 80 year-old widow of the late Albert Leadbeater, a Yorkshire miner. Mrs Leadbeater's claim was dealt with and compensation and a couple of thousand pounds in legal fees were paid by the Department of Trade and Industry. However, lawyers promptly took £9,000 from Mrs Leadbeater calling it "success fees".

I have before me a letter to the Law Society from their son, Dr Gary Leadbeater. Dr Leadbeater pointed out that if he had acted like these lawyers, he would have been charged with professional misconduct and lost his professional registration, his job and his reputation. Dr Leadbeater recognised that the £9,000 has been repaid to his mother and that the Law Society has taken belated measures to secure compliance of solicitors. However, neither Dr Leadbeater nor I will allow this matter to rest. It should not be left to elderly miners' widows to ask lawyers to make repayments. The duty to pay the money back, together with interest, should rest upon the lawyers, with the Law Society undertaking compliance of this. Every lawyer in the UK who has taken money off miners and widows must be forced by the Law Society to repay their clients without further delay.

For my part, I cannot surpass Dr Leadbeater's eloquence in putting forward the case for the miners and their families. In the circumstance, I trust that noble Lords will bear with me while I read a short extract from his letter, in which he said: My father was an honourable and highly principled person whose sole aim was to ensure the happiness and welfare of his family. He, along with my mother and sister, was and are the most courageous and decent people I know, and as a family we strongly believe in being treated with decency and respect by others. That is perhaps why we feel so aggrieved about being deceived, and angry at knowing that many others in similar circumstances have been cheated by people ostensibly in positions of trust". Dr Leadbeater goes on: Let us not forget what the Coalhealth Compensation Awards are all about. They are intended to bring some comfort and restitution to sick Coal Miners and their families, recognising their past suffering and their need to move on with their lives. The money was never intended to line the pockets and boost the bank balances of a small number of Solicitors Firms with questionable ethics and corrupt practices. These people have already been remunerated for their work, so why do they see fit to take more from the deserving? And why do they get away with it?

The lawyers have had six years to deliver compensation provided by the Government to the miners and their widows. I ask this Chamber to send them a resounding message that we shall not stand by and allow this interminable process to continue for a further 10 years.

Is it not correct that at present Mr Justice Turner is forcefully expressing concern about the unacceptable delay in this process? And is it not correct that, in fact, miners and their widows and families are suffering because of the delay? I call upon this House to request the Government to set up a public inquiry into the inordinate delays and exorbitant legal costs and to report back to this Chamber with great urgency.

This is not a situation in which, if people do not speak up, the problem might go away. If all those hundreds and thousands of people—miners and their widows—have to wait 10 years before a settlement, can anyone honestly say how many of them will be alive? I suggest that the answer will be: very few. I hope that this House will take note tonight and advise the Government and whoever is responsible for the delays that the situation is unacceptable and that something must be done to stop it.

7.44 p.m.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin

My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I address your Lordships' House for the first time. I would like to begin by offering my thanks to the staff of the House of Lords for their help and kindness since my introduction. With the large number of new Peers coming in, I know that I am one of many maiden speakers to offer my thanks, but I hope that that will not diminish the sincerity of my words incl my expression of gratitude for the enormous support and courtesy that I have received.

I learnt today that I am the youngest Baroness in your Lordships' House, and I feel particularly aware of the wealth of experience and wisdom around me. This engenders a great sense of humility in me as I stand here. But, since my introduction, I have been overwhelmed by the generosity and warmth of welcome from everyone and now, rather than feeling overawed, I am thoroughly proud and looking forward to making a strong and purposeful contribution to the work of your Lordships' House.

In preparing for my maiden speech, I have obviously taken a great deal of advice from my fellow Peers, and so it will come as no surprise that I plan to be brief. I aim to share with your Lordships a little more about my background and why I have chosen to contribute to this very important debate tonight.

I am the great-granddaughter of a south Wales miner. I have devoted much of my working life to the pursuance of social justice through the work of the voluntary sector and also the Labour Party, first campaigning for tenants' rights at Shelter, then for a national childcare strategy and then, throughout the 1990s, concentrating on health and patient advocacy. I spent some years at the National Asthma Campaign, where I had first-hand experience of the devastating impact of occupational lung disease.

For the past nine years. I have been chief executive of the breast cancer charity Breakthrough, which established the UK's first dedicated breast cancer research centre. Only last week, it launched a world-leading study into the genetics, environmental and lifestyle factors of breast cancer, which we hope will lead to the prevention of possibly in excess of 20,000 cases of breast cancer every year.

I have chosen to contribute to this debate for a number of reasons—most importantly because of my concern for the 17 million people living in the UK with chronic illness, the qualify oflife of a large proportion of whom can be deeply undermined with no prospect of cure and who are cared for by an NHS that many would agree is designed to support acute rather than chronic illness.

Most often, the causes of chronic disease are poorly understood and prevention is merely an aspiration. But that is not so in the case of occupational disease. So it is absolutely right and a matter of great importance that those of us in our community whose early death or suffering could have been prevented by the actions of their employer should be fairly and fully compensated. But that is no easy matter. As my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in another place said only last week: Nothing can bring back a sick miner's health or restore years lost to ill health, and no sum can be traded for the loss of good health".—[Official Report, Commons, 9/9/04; col. 958.] I am concerned not to stray into the realms of controversy or, indeed, to overrun my time, and therefore I shall confine my remarks to a few more general points. I congratulate the Government on establishing the largest compensation scheme of its kind in the world. It is a courageous effort and one which I hope will benefit literally hundreds of thousands of families throughout the UK. Such a multi-billion pound scheme, paying out more than £1 million a day for respiratory illness alone, will inevitably have problems, and I am encouraged by the open and constructive approach that appears to have been adopted by the parties involved in trying to identify solutions for the benefit of the miners and their families.

Whether regarding the difficulties for miners exposed to surface-level dust, which is not currently covered by the scheme, or with regard to those who receive offers that amount to less than their solicitor's fee, or with regard to, say, the uncertainty about the treatment of miners with occupational asthma, much needs to be resolved.

But, most importantly, I believe that the overwhelming message from this debate should be that there is no time to waste in addressing these claims. Living with emphysema or chronic bronchitis can be a nightmare. In the daytime, your world can be the size of an armchair and your sleepless nights a time of breathless fear and isolation. A protracted compensation claim will do nothing to lend dignity and reassurance in such a situation. So I urge that everything should be done to reach a speedy resolution to the huge number of outstanding claims and prove wrong the worrying newspaper assertions that miners and their families will have to wait many years for this vital compensation. I thank noble Lords for their kind attention.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Dixon

My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract on again securing a debate on this important issue. This is the third such debate he has secured since he came to this House in 1997. He first raised the issue with a Ten-Minute Rule Bill way back in 1982 to get chronic bronchitis and emphysema prescribed as an industrial disease. He went on to present another four Bills on this subject.

He raised the matter when he was a Member of the House of Commons Select Committee on energy way back in the eighties and has raised many Questions and led many deputations to see various Ministers over the past 20 years in both Houses of Parliament. He has also written and given oral evidence to the Industrial Injuries Tribunal. I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Morgan of Drefelin—I have a job pronouncing English words, let alone Welsh words. She gave a splendid and informative maiden speech and chose a very important subject on which to make it.

I want to emphasise that compensation for bronchitis and emphysema is not a benefit, gratuity or charity given out by the Government, but payment for an industrial injury which has been proved under common law. Miners suffer from this terrible disease mainly because they have inhaled coal dust through their working lives.

I agree with many of the points made by my noble friend Lord Lofthouse about the delays and some of the points made about those who exploit some of the miners. My honourable friend Kevan Jones, Member of Parliament for Durham North, highlighted a few of the cases which happened in the north-east in a debate which took place in Westminster Hall on 3 March this year.

This evening I want to raise a few points with the Minister that have been put to me by miners and their representatives I know personally. The first is the continued unreasonable delay where a revised offer is requested from the DTI when a mistake or an issue is questioned on the original offer. Miners have to wait for a long time for the first offer but there appears to be no clear or definite timescale for the DTI to consider a request from a miner's solicitor or even to respond to it. Sometimes many months or years elapse before a response is received to a revised offer. The result is that everyone is left wondering what has happened with the claim.

I accept that reasons vary in certain cases. For example, there could be a dispute on loss of earnings or a history of smoking. Mostly, this is on crossover claims which occur when a miner has claims under the vibration white finger and the chronic bronchitis and emphysema schemes in regard to the service element. The service element is when the miner can no longer carry out certain household tasks such as do-it-yourself, decoration, window cleaning, washing and maintenance of their cars and gardening jobs.

However, the calculation differs between the two schemes. Under the chronic bronchitis and emphysema scheme, anyone with a disability of 30 per cent or more qualifies for a services entitlement. Under the vibration white finger scheme, the services element is dependent on a number of factors, including the severity of the miner's condition identified by examining doctors under a second medical examination called MAP2.

These requests for revised offers are causing a lot of concern. I shall give a couple of examples. A claim was made on 25 February 1998. The MAP examination took place on 8 March 2001. An offer was made on 7 January 2003. A request for a revised offer was made on 5 February 2003. The reason for revision was a loss of earnings/smoking history. Still no reply has been given to those representatives of the miner. They waited a long time for the original offer. They requested a revised offer and it just seems to be hanging in the air.

I shall put a couple of points to the Minister. First, does my noble friend accept that where a revised offer is requested, it should be made within 14 days? If for some reason the DTI cannot respond to that particular request because it has to make examinations of the history, and so forth, it should reply in writing within 14 days giving a clear reason why it cannot make a revised offer instead of leaving the matter hanging in the air with no one knowing what is happening.

The second point I wish to raise is an issue I referred to in a previous debate, which concerns surface workers. The only surface workers who qualify under the chronic bronchitis and emphysema scheme are those who have worked for five years underground since 1954. I consider that if you are working on the surface at the pit you are just as likely to get dust in your lungs as miners who are working underground. It is like saying that people who smoke are the only ones who suffer from lung cancer. People who suffer from lung cancer often do so as a result of passive smoking.

The third point I want to raise briefly concerns the vibration white finger scheme. There are three groups who qualify. Under group one, if you have used pneumatic tools after 1975 for 12 months in certain categories laid out under the agreement you qualify for a payment. Under group two, if you have used pneumatic tools in certain categories laid out under the agreement for 24 months, you qualify for a payment. However, those in group three who do not fall within those categories, and have not used pneumatic tools for 12 or 24 months, get nothing. There is no doubt that in the mining industry, most miners have to use pneumatic tools at some given time. Unlike the shipyards where I spent 35 years, there is no strict demarcation. In the shipyards, only the riveters and caulkers use pneumatic tools. In the mines, most miners are requested at times by their employers to use them.

I hope that my noble friend will take these points into consideration in his reply.

7.56 p.m.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, it is a real honour to take part in today's debate. We have already heard three speeches of superb quality setting out with great eloquence the issues behind a subject which is easy to forget if one lives in certain parts of the country.

I start by paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin, for her informed and moving speech. I remember the time when I was the youngest Baroness in the House. My maiden speech was precisely three minutes long. On refection, that was two-and-a-half minutes longer than I needed to say what I knew about the subject. Clearly, the noble Baroness is under no such difficulty. I very much look forward to her taking part in debates in this House, particularly those on health, which will be all the better for her contributions.

I am also delighted to take part in a debate that has been initiated so passionately by the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse. His reputation on this issue—I believe he has campaigned on it for the past 22 years—is second to none. I have a couple of other reasons for being indebted to him. I was born within sight of Lofthouse Pit. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, I come from a family of miners and steelworkers. I discovered earlier this year, for reasons I shall come to, that my grandfather died of pneumoconiosis. I did not know that until recently.

I grew up in coalmining areas, and when I went to school, sliding down the pit bings was something school kids did. We knew people's dads who had what we called "the black lung" and what is now called chronic bronchitis and emphysema. I know how debilitating that can be.

The noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, set out quite starkly the numbers of people who have come within the ambit of this scheme in the past nine years. He quite rightly pointed out that the flaws in the scheme are not in the generosity of the provision on the part of the Government. The problem is in the delivery of the scheme to those who need it. It is important that we in this House raise this matter continually. The way in which this compensation scheme operates has to be revised. Lessons have to be learnt as we go along, for the benefit not only of the miners but of other groups of workers also.

Only last week, Jeff Ennis MP noted in another place that, despite the large scale of the compensation scheme—and it is a huge scheme—solicitors handling claims currently receive an average fee of £2,413 per case, while fewer than half of the miners so far compensated have received final settlements of less than half that amount. Furthermore, more than 3,000 miners have received settlements of less than £200. That cannot be right.

I do not know whether I would use the words "snail's pace", as the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, did, but the fact is that, in six years, only 209,000 out of 569,000 claims have been completed, and only 5,000 claims are settled each month. With the available resources—not just the money for compensation, but also the resources put into the clinics and testing centre—that is very slow.

There is also a difference between the offers and the settlements. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon, drew that issue to your Lordships' attention with great clarity. At the end of 2003, there were more than 23,000 outstanding offers, of which nearly 4,000 had been with solicitors for over a year. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, is right to question the involvement of some solicitors—not all, but some—in the scheme.

The British Coal respiratory disease litigation solicitors group has been in discussions with the DTI about ways in which settlements could be speeded up. I believe that it put forward a scheme whereby there could be a top-up fee to miners from the solicitors' own payments—which, incidentally, are uprated annually by inflation—in an effort to settle cases more quickly. It is remarkable when solicitors are prepared to forgo part of their fee. If they are so prepared, why are the Government so reluctant to go down the route of having a minimum compensation fee that can be fast-tracked? Anything that would reduce the transaction costs in this scheme must be of great value.

I am sure that the Minister will mention the High Court judgment of Mr Justice Turner in which he talked about the different contributory factors that have an effect on individuals. However, there seems to be something wrong when over-elaboration of a system leads to such long delay, as the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, pointed out.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, that the exclusion of surface workers from the case handling arrangements is wrong. Surface workers have eloquently put forward a description of the conditions in which they worked. Miners who worked on screens where coal was washed and graded had to put up with just as much coal dust—albeit not within a confined area—as those who worked underground.

It seems odd that when the medical assessment process—which is so detailed in this scheme—works so well, it is not possible to determine the extent to which those engaged in surface jobs contracted their condition as a result of their place of work. To put it another way, in my layperson's language, if someone who worked all their days at the pithead has the same condition as those who worked underground, surely there has to be a link in the causal factors. I am no medic, but that seems to be obvious.

I return to the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, identified as the most contentious part of the matter—the variation in the charges made by solicitors. In April 2004, in another place, the Minister reported that he had written to solicitors who had charged clients, asking them to repay their fees. Those who failed have been removed from the DTI's list of solicitors. He also reported that the Law Society had agreed that such client charging breached its code of practice. What further action are the Government going to take in conjunction with the Law Society, which is the regulatory body for solicitors, to ensure that such unscrupulous practices are not allowed to continue unfettered?

I have one more question. Claims under the respiratory disease scheme closed at the end of March. To the best of my knowledge, the latest available advice on the DTI website suggests that, after July 2004, a way will be found to facilitate the processing of claims started after the scheme was closed—that is, claims that can be brought only under common law. What progress has been made on finding a way of satisfying those late claims?

I cannot match the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, in his description of those within the scheme who are supposed to benefit from it and who are waiting for help. I simply say that there is a similar condition, asbestosis, the prevalence of which is set to rise within the population over the next 30 years. It will be far more difficult to relate cause and effect in that condition. If we can use what has been learned from this scheme to fast-track those who suffer from related diseases, we will be doing a great favour to others with industrial diseases.

8.6 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, for once again bringing this most important matter before Parliament. He is certainly persistent and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said, "No one can match his words".

I have still mercifully not yet met a victim of these diseases. I have been down a colliery two or three times and I can understand how these problems have arisen. On checking the index to Hansard, I see that we debated the matter on 16 November 1998. One of the perils for a long-serving Minister is that failure to conclude a difficult matter after six years can come back to bite you.

The noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, has been at the DTI all this time. I of course have gone full circle and come back to the DTI portfolio. The speakers' list suggested that the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, would be responding tonight. In fact, we shall be hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Evans, who will speak with equal authority.

It seems to me that the performance of the Government's machinery is inversely proportional to the number of staff and computers within it. I hope that the same rule does not apply to the DTI's management of this problem. The greatest concern of the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, is delay. Six years is unacceptable. But, to be fair to the Minister, not all of the blame can be safely laid at his door.

The noble Lord is also not happy with the progress made by the lawyers. That was a universal complaint and I agree with it. The noble Lord made disturbing revelations about some of the legal practioners—I stress "some". But only yesterday, at Question Time, your Lordships discussed the difference between the ethical codes of the General Medical Council and the Law Society. What is the Minister going to do to help claimants to reclaim illegal deductions when they are ill equipped to do so themselves?

In her excellent maiden speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin, said that she is the youngest Baroness in the House. She should not worry: I think that I am about the third youngest Member on these Benches. If she carries on as she has started, she will be making a major contribution to our debates over many years to come and I look forward to debating with her in full at a later time.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon, illustrated some of the difficulties faced by claimants, not just those with miners' respiratory illnesses but also those with vibration injuries. The Minister will say that the availability of funds is not a problem, but what financial provision has been made for the DTI for these claims this year and next year?

During the 1998 debate, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Drumadoon identified differences between the Scottish and English legal systems. How are Scottish miners' COPD claims being dealt with and what progress is being made there? Does the Minister have any responsibility or is that the responsibility of the Scottish Executive?

During the 1998 debate, there was much talk of the lack of capacity to undertake the medical assessments and we talked about it a little tonight as well. Where are we with this process and how many claimants are yet to be assessed?

I cannot help but conclude that a lot of people have been earning their living, or at least part of it, from these claims. First, we have the lawyers and, of course, the longer a case runs, the more chargeable events are likely to occur. Your Lordships know how much a solicitor's letter costs. On top of the official plaintiffs' solicitors groups there are others seeking to advise claimants.

Secondly, is there any incentive for DTI officials and the IRISC to conclude this matter? Can the Minister say how many officials at the DTI and IRISC are working on these problems? What incentives are there for individuals at all levels in the department to conclude this matter? This is a sorry tale and one to which I did not expect to have to return six years later.

8.11 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, on her excellent maiden speech. She has a remarkable record in charity work, especially in health. It is a record that makes her so effective an advocate for those with chronic and acute conditions. After hearing her excellent maiden speech today, nobody can doubt that she will contribute a great deal of knowledge and judgment to debates in your Lordships' House. I congratulate her again.

In the absence of my noble friend Lord Sainsbury, it is a particular pleasure for me, for a number of reasons, to reply to this short debate on behalf of the Government. My father was born in a mining village in South Wales and wrote extensively about the plight of miners. Just before I arrived in your Lordships' House, I chaired a quango that advised government on museums. One of my favourite museums was, and is, the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield where the oral history of miners and their families vividly illustrates the harshness and ill health that was the miner's lot. Also, by coincidence, last year I read the excellent autobiography of my noble friend Lord Lofthouse, A Very Miner MP. That is a terrible pun but it is a very good book that I commend to any noble Lord interested in the mining industry.

I thank my noble friend Lord Lofthouse for securing this debate and for continuing to keep in the public eye this issue of great human importance. As a general comment, I have heard nothing this evening with which anybody in the Government would disagree. There are huge administrative problems to be solved but I hope that, in the course of the next few minutes, I shall be able to give noble Lords reassurance that we are tackling these important problems.

When the Government assumed responsibility for the former British Coal's health liabilities in January 1998, they acquired not only a legal but also a moral commitment to ensure that former miners and their families receive 100 per cent of their rightful compensation as speedily as is humanly possible. That is the intention.

As my noble friend is aware, there are two schemes, which cover respiratory and vibration-related diseases respectively. The vibration scheme closed for live claimants in October 2002 and in January 2003 for deceased claimants. The respiratory scheme closed at the end of March this year. The Government and solicitors carried out two highly successful advertising campaigns between 2002 and 2004, prior to the closing dates, which resulted in almost 570,000 claims having been fully registered under the respiratory disease scheme, with some 316,000 claims being received in the last six months of the scheme alone. That is a first clue to the administrative problems that we are facing. In addition, some 170,000 claims were registered under the vibration scheme before it was closed last year. They form the largest personal injury schemes ever in the UK, and possibly in the world, as we heard from my noble friend Lady Morgan, with more than 413,000 individual payments amounting to more than £2.2 billion made to date across both schemes to former miners, their widows and families.

Following the closure of the schemes, claims are still being accepted but these will not be able to go through the schemes. Instead, claims will be processed, as we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, through the personal injury courts. Both High Court judges who oversee the schemes have agreed that that is the appropriate procedure for handling claims that were not registered prior to the extensively advertised scheme closures. Since the closure of the respiratory disease scheme, fewer than 200 claims have been received.

The question that is most asked in the former coalfield areas, and in your Lordships' House today, is: when will the last claim be settled? I am aware that at the current rate it could take more than seven years—my noble friend Lord Lofthouse says 10 years—to process all the claims registered under the scheme. The Government do not believe that that is acceptable, which is a view that has strongly come through from noble Lords today.

In order to reduce that timescale, the DTI is working with the claimants' solicitors to try to streamline the process. Using information gathered from claims processed to date, the parties are looking at whether a way can be found to simplify the processing of claims and to give claimants the opportunity to exit the scheme at an early stage with a fair settlement.

If successful, that approach would have the potential to shorten the scheme by several years. Currently, the DTI and the claimants' solicitors are holding detailed discussions on this issue and plan to report, as we have heard, to Sir Michael Turner, the judge who oversees the respiratory scheme, later this month when he visits the DTI's claims' handlers. The department is already taking steps to shorten dramatically the timescale of the scheme. In our view, the public inquiry asked for by noble Lords would simply divert resources and delay things further. The scheme is not overseen by only Mr Justice Turner, but by a ministerial monitoring group that was set up in 1999 by Helen Liddell, the then Energy Minister. The group is made up of mining union officials and Members of Parliament.

The Government are aware of the huge responsibility that the liabilities are, and the DTI continues to review the levels of resources employed on the schemes. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked about resources within the DTI. There follows a few figures: IRISC, the DTI's claims' handler, has increased its staffing levels from 300 in 2000 to more than 1,300 now. In addition, the DTI, through its medical service provider, is employing around a third of the respiratory specialists in the country on the scheme. The Government are aware that many solicitors are also reviewing their level of resources to ensure that claims are settled quickly.

There have been some discussions between the parties in relation to a minimum payment for claimants. As my noble friend is aware, those low-value offers reflect the original 1998 High Court judgment, which discounts for issues such as smoking. Noble Lords may wish to know that at a recent meeting a member of the solicitors' group stated that it was appreciated from the onset of the scheme that very low offers would be produced and it would be a natural consequence of a scheme that could compensate for only one-day underground. The DTI has therefore rejected calls for it to fund a minimum payment because most low-value offers are accepted and most outstanding offers were for chronic bronchitis, which attracts less compensation because—to be brutal—it is non-disabling. I am also informed that it would divert resources away from making and settling new offers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, mentioned that the claimants' solicitors have put forward a proposal whereby claimant representatives would fund a minimum payment from their fees to the value of £500. The DTI is in discussion with the solicitors with regard to that proposal, in particular to establish that there will be the necessary full take-up of any minimum payment by all claimant representatives. It would clearly be unacceptable for there to be inequitable treatment between different claimants depending on the solicitor handling their claim.

To date we have paid solicitors over £300 million to process claims under the coal health schemes. The majority of those firms have taken the tariffed costs paid by the Government. However, as we have heard, a minority are unethically and immorally taking a percentage of a claimant's compensation in addition to that paid under the agreements, a point powerfully made by my noble friend Lord Lofthouse's example.

Nigel Griffiths wrote to over 700 firms of solicitors handling claims under the coal health schemes asking them to confirm that they were not taking a cut from claimants' compensation and, where they were, that they would immediately confirm that they would repay any such deductions. Over 500 firms responded. The Minister also wrote to the Law Society of England and Wales asking it to ensure that those firms that are charging not only make repayments to clients who contact them, but that they proactively review all their files and repay every individual from whom they have made a deduction. The Minister also passed the names of all the firms yet to respond to the Law Society asking it to take urgent action to ensure that the firms comply with the request.

I should also say that the Law Society wrote to all firms that have handled claims for compensation under the DTI's scheme advising them of the society's policy and reminding them to review all the cases they have handled and to repay any money that was inappropriately withheld from miners who have won compensation. Two hundred and sixty complaints have been received by the Law Society, of which 123 are from MPs on behalf of constituents. To date the Law Society has closed 182 matters, which leaves 78 outstanding. Of the 78 outstanding, 53 are complaints received from MPs.

Of the 182 closed matters, the Law Society has been able to conciliate 84. The other 98 have been closed for a variety of reasons: because the claim is still on-going; the complaint has been withdrawn; the complainant did not wish to take any further action; the matter was resolved without assistance; the solicitor's explanation was accepted by the complainant; or no deductions were in fact made.

A total of £69,726 has been recovered for complainants. However, the actual figure is likely to be more because the society has been able to conciliate complaints through obtaining a refund of fees where it has not always known how much was involved. The amounts recovered have ranged from £11 to approximately £9,000. About half the refunds involved amounts below £1,000, but there have been 16 instances where sums of over £2,000 have been involved.

Those miners who worked purely on the surface were not covered by the High Court judgment. The DTI's expert medical advice is that respirable dust levels on the surface of coal mines were insufficient to cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—COPD—in the majority of cases. My noble friend Lord Dixon disagrees with that view, which is something that we will consider. Surface workers' claims for COPD cannot therefore be paid on a schemed basis under the claims handling agreement for respiratory disease. However, Nigel Griffiths permitted the miners' solicitors to have access to British Coal archives in order to assist them in finding evidence to support their case. Following the latest court hearing on 13 July the solicitors have been ordered to identify lead cases and to present them to the judge in advance of the next respiratory disease court hearing on 4 and 5 October 2004.

Claimants can of course pursue a claim for compensation in relation to surface employment under common law if they wish.

Some miners worked for a group of smaller mines and I know that negotiations on this issue have been difficult and protracted. However, following mediation and negotiation, the claimants' solicitors and the small mines' representatives have been able to resolve their remaining differences. As a result, the small mines will now be included within the terms of the claims handling agreement. The DTI is currently working with the other parties and with its claims handlers, IRISC, to put the settlement reached into operation. As a result of this settlement, small mines' claimants should be able to move from interim payment to full and final settlements.

As to those claimants who worked for UK Coal, the DTI has previously agreed to UK Coal's terms for signing up to the claims handling agreement. However, the claimants' solicitors and UK Coal continued to have issues on which they could not agree. The judge allowed them until the hearing on 12 and 13 July to continue negotiations, after which time, had they still not agreed, he would give directions for litigation.

The parties announced at the July hearing that they had reached an agreement in principle. This is yet to be ratified and the DTI's legal advisers are currently examining the details to ensure that the agreement does not change the DTI position. When all parties are satisfied, then the operational work can begin to produce full and final offers for claimants in this group. In the mean time the DTI cannot calculate either the overall amount of recoverable compensation or how that is to be divided between the DTI and UK Coal, and so cannot pay out its own share of the liability independently.

The Government are of course aware of the concerns that this whole process has caused. Many have been referred to today. A lot of stories have been circulated which have misled ex-miners and their families, such as there being a cap on the liabilities and that the Government are waiting for claimants to die in order to reduce the levels of compensation paid.

We see it as one of the Government's main responsibilities to ensure that we meet our commitments as speedily as possible and that we limit to an absolute minimum the distress caused to those who are entitled to compensation. With the assistance and the co-operation of all the parties involved, this can be and will be achieved.

In the two or three minutes remaining, let me answer some of the points raised in the debate. It may be that I shall have to write to noble Lords.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may congratulate my noble friend on an excellent maiden speech. I have today felt somewhat sad during the debate because some of our colleagues who have always taken part in these debates have unfortunately passed away—notably, Peter Hardy. We miss them very much.

Let me make a couple of points in the time available. First, how does the £300 million already paid to solicitors compare with what has been paid to the miners? Secondly, and I shall finish on this point, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said that he had not seen victims of this disease. I occupy the chairmanship of the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust. If the noble Earl is in my area at any time, I will gladly take him and show him some of these victims fighting for life in hospital: you cannot live without oxygen.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, raised a point about the fact that most miners use vibrating tools and that the VWF scheme does not take account of this. I understand that this is a highly emotive issue. The VWF scheme has an occupational group procedure so that those claimants who were not obviously exposed to vibration on the basis of their occupation can establish a case for compensation by gaining the support of witnesses to show that they were exposed. This is a very difficult and contentious area, but it is important that the Government ensure that compensation goes to those who are entitled to it. Although these claims are difficult to assess, they make up less than 10 per cent of all the remaining claims.

My noble friend Lord Dixon made a point also about revised offers. Revised offers are dealt with as efficiently and speedily as possible. A number of issues are still under discussion and are delaying full and final settlement. Issues such as crossover are close to resolution. Wherever possible, the interim payment is made. Solicitors are kept informed of all progress on outstanding issues. To respond to a large number of queries about individual claims would cause further delay.

Given the time, I shall arrange to write to my noble friend Lady Morgan, the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, about the interesting points that they raised.

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