HC Deb 06 February 2001 vol 362 cc224-32WH 1.30 pm
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I welcome the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe to the debate and to his new post. I believe that he will do his utmost to put right the shambles and the great injustice done to the miners of the United Kingdom, especially those for whom I speak today—the miners of Wales. I remember arguing with a Minister during an Adjournment debate about a set of temporary traffic lights. Those temporary traffic lights had been in place for 23 years; it took 10 months to have them replaced. I hope that the same success will follow today's important debate.

The Minister is on record as saying that the Government's handling of the claims is a chaotic shambles. I do not disagree. Today's Western Mail carries a long article by the Minister, which I welcome, although it includes one or two misconceptions that need to be corrected. First, non-smokers have always been discriminated against; they received less money than others because that fact was built into the settlement. Secondly, he said that widows are to be given top priority. With respect—I do not aim this at him personally—that is hypocrisy. The Department of Trade and Industry has just issued a new legal challenge to reduce widows' compensation. I feel sure that the Minister was not aware of that. We need to stop such legal challenges, not to mount fresh ones and thus deny people what is rightfully theirs.

In 1988, the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers—NACODS—began to investigate the links between dust and bronchitis, emphysema and so on. Shortly afterwards, it appointed solicitors and an epic legal battle followed between one of the smallest trade unions in the country and the Government. The case commenced in the High Court registry in Cardiff in October 1996 and culminated in September 1997 in the High Court in London. It was the longest injury trial in British legal history.

The complaints that the miners suffered were, as the Minister will know from knowledge of his own constituency, absolutely awful. I was in the Rhondda three weeks ago speaking with a gentleman who is unable to leave the house or speak to anyone. He uses four bottles of oxygen a day and can hardly move. He is relatively young, getting on for 60, but is absolutely crippled. The Minister will be familiar with the comment he made: with half a smile, that man said that he believed that the Government were waiting for him to die so that they would not have to pay out.

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mr. Peter Hain)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Llwyd

I quote the man's remark. It is not what I said, but what he said to me. I do not know what that man's politics are, nor was it of any interest to me in my investigation.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

In my constituency, a Mr. Stripp is suffering from vibration white finger. His claim started four years ago and still is not resolved. It is time that such bureaucratic nonsense was tackled head on.

Mr. Llwyd

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In the union case, judgment was not handed down until 23 January 1998.

Several serious problems need to be addressed today. The first is about medical staff. At the beginning of 1999, the Department of Trade and Industry stated that it would be completing full medical assessments at the rate of 2,500 a month by March 1999, and 4,000 per month by the summer of 2000. However, by the end of 2000, not even 2,000 per month were being carried out. Almost 133,000 claims are waiting to be completed, more than 27,000 of which are in Wales. In the week commencing January 2001, only 455 full medical assessments were completed; in the same week, nearly 2,000 new claims were made. The Government must ensure that more medical staff are employed so that the targets that they set so long ago can be reached. It is no use opening more testing centres if there are no more staff to do the work. The doctors will simply be playing musical chairs between one centre and another.

I pay tribute to all those who stood up for what was clearly right, and pursued their claims with tenacity and spirit. Those men were sick with a disease that was crippling and killing many of them. It was distasteful in the extreme that such an obviously worthy and excellent cause had to be fully litigated in the High Court. I pay tribute to the solicitors concerned, Hugh James Jenkins of Merthyr Tydfil, who took on the mammoth task with enthusiasm. Many tens of thousands of people will want to express their deep gratitude to the person who above everyone else made everything possible: Bleddyn Hancock, the general secretary of NACODS. He played a vital part in making legal history. He has been tireless in his pursuit of justice for miners and he will carry on until the fight has been won. Despite several knocks, he has never fallen down, but has carried on, driven by the aim of ensuring fair play for the mining community.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

May I point out that the unions in the mining industry have been pursuing the matter for a long time? They want the disease prescribed and to be able to proceed with a scheme at the same time. The issue is of long standing.

Mr. Llwyd

The hon. Gentleman is right. More than one union was involved, but only one took the matter to court. Let us remember that the Government had to be dragged into court kicking and screaming before any compensation could be paid.

Mr. Hain

indicated dissent.

Mr. Llwyd

No compensation was considered until the High Court judgment was delivered. I shall come to the question of agreeing liability in a moment, as it is a separate issue.

The Minister has been busy in the press saying that Plaid Cymru Members do not have constituency interests in this subject. I do not represent a mining area, but that does not prevent me from raising my voice on behalf of people in mining communities. If we are to play that silly game, I remind the Minister that my party has constituency interests through National Assembly Members in the Rhondda, Carmarthen, Llanelli, Islwyn and in the north-east and south-east of Wales. Our two Members of the European Parliament represent the whole of Wales. I hope that that issue will not come up today. The main point is to ensure that we fight for and achieve justice for the miners.

I respectfully remind the Minister that even the previous Government saw fit to exempt people suffering from pneumoconiosis from the clawback now being enforced so unfairly against the miners. I sincerely believe that we must bring the matter to a head. It is insulting, adds insult to injury and only strengthens our resolve to put matters right. Perhaps the Minister will reply on that point in due course. To deflect blame, the Government claimed that the High Court settlement was cumbersome.

Mr. Hain

indicated assent.

Mr. Llwyd

I see that the Minister agrees. The Government also alleged that the judgment was difficult to put into practice. In these days of the culture of BSE—blame someone else—it was inevitable that the Government would attempt to put some blame on the solicitors negotiating individual settlements for claimants; it has been suggested to me several times that a large proportion of the blame for the delay rests with solicitors. However, in an unprecedented move, Mr. Justice Turner, the High Court judge who decided the case recently, sent out a public memorandum in which he specified: That there is no evidence to suggest…that solicitors are in general dragging their feet in processing claims". He also said: The fund out of which compensation is to be paid is not diminished by the costs of the legal advisers". That is from the horse's mouth, as it were. Another attempt at BSE was to say that there were insufficient doctors of a senior grade to do the work. That is also wrong. If the Government have the will to sort the problem out—I believe that the Minister is sincere and has the will to do so—registrars will be brought in and paid properly for their work, and taken off elective surgery if necessary. The problem is huge and urgent. Waiting for it to sort itself out will clearly not do, as that will not happen. As the Minister mentions in his article, the Government are speaking about a priority system. I hope that more of the sick and elderly will be brought in far quicker than they have been hitherto. The Minister has given that assurance, and I have no reason to doubt that he will do his utmost to ensure that it happens.

I referred to people kicking and screaming through the courts. I accept that there was an acceptance of liability at the very last moment, but that brings me to a thorny issue. In 1989, the previous Government brought in a recovery of benefits provision that allowed the state to recover moneys paid in benefit to those who were eventually compensated for their injuries. However, it did not apply to those for whom the onset of disease started before 1989. In practice, therefore, nearly all miners with chest disease were exempted. Against that Backcloth—that Government were hardly the workers' friends—in September 1997 and within weeks of an indication by the High Court that it would find for the claimants, the Government tabled the Social Security (Recovery of Benefits) Regulations 1997. They did so while the House was in recess, thereby bringing in the regulations surreptitiously, before the full judgment was given at the end of January 1998. Never before has there been such underhandedness and sleight of hand. The Conservatives had exempted pneumoconiosis sufferers from the clawback, but new Labour effectively acted against the miners.

I shall highlight some cases that prove how ridiculous the clawback is. The Government demanded £21,707 from a man in Treorci in the Rhondda. That was reduced to £8,540 on appeal; the appeal was then reviewed by solicitors, and in the end only £6.38 was payable. In another case, a man from Pontypridd received a demand for £19,924. That man died before receiving compensation; on appeal, the sum was reduced to £4,170, and a further appeal by the widow reduced it to £22.02. Those are stunning errors. They are disgraceful and immoral, and they represent a waste of the Government's time and money. Even bearing in mind the stance of the previous Government, whatever the situation and regardless of whether a substantial sum might be recovered it is immoral to expend so much money and time to recover only £6.38.

The miners are a special case. Theirs was a huge class action and a legal landmark. When I met the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), a few weeks ago, he said that the miners were not a special case, adding that some of his constituents suffer from asbestosis contracted when they were working for British Rail. I said to the hon. Gentleman that I was not there to plead for his constituents, but for the miners; I told him that pleading for his constituents was his job and that if he did it properly, they, too, might be a special case. That sort of attitude is becoming more common. At a meeting in Betws near Ammanford, a Labour, councillor said how pleased he was that I had kept the matter non-political. He went on to ask why the miners should be treated as a special case and then gave examples of why that should not be so. I could not believe that a Labour councillor in a Labour ward could decry the miners' cause and make them out not to be a special case. To add insult to injury, the Government line is that the miners are not a special case and that the benefits will have to be clawed back, despite the decades of suffering, hard work, loss of health—and, in many cases, life—that were endured on our behalf.

The miners are now being told that they are not a special case and they should get to the back of the queue because they are just like everyone else. That is abhorrent and disgraceful. I do not care what the Minister says, such a claim cannot be substantiated. Does the Minister agree with the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security who said that the miners' injuries are no different from a nurse putting her back out in a hospital? There is a great difference, because the nurse, thank God, will not die and will not be incapable of working again. To add insult to injury, the Treasury is clawing back money from the pension fund.

We are in a terrible situation—a chaotic one, as the Minister acknowledges. It is now up to him and others to sort it out. Over the past few months I have met many miners and miners' widows. We owe them our respect and gratitude for what they have gone through, but most of all, we owe them justice. We in Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales, will continue to fight for justice, as will Labour Back Benchers. The Government are blind to all this. There will be consequences for them politically, but there will be more consequences for them socially, if they ignore those people.

1.45 pm
The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mr. Peter Hain)

This is the first debate that I have answered as Minister for Energy. I enjoy the job enormously and am relishing the opportunity to get stuck in and sort out the problems that have bedevilled this scheme over recent years. I do not question the integrity with which the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) has pursued the matter, but I feel that it is important to bear in mind that the Labour Government is delivering for miners while Plaid Cymru is screaming from the sidelines. The hon. Gentleman should be working with us to deliver a better system and ensure that the improvements are put in place.

Mr. Llwyd

Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. Hain


Like many hon. Members, I represent a mining constituency and, in taking up my new responsibilities, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me a chance to set out the Government's position on the vital issue of compensation for retired miners and their widows. In doing so I worked very closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and others across Britain.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that miners are a special case. That is why we have introduced the biggest compensation scheme of its kind in the history of Britain and probably the world. I want to immediately correct one of the many falsities that he presented by way of argument. The scheme is not designed to penny-pinch and save money; it is the biggest scheme of its kind. Some £2 billion and more is already available and there is no capping of that figure. As the claims are settled, they will be paid according to the rules agreed on both sides and in keeping with the court's judgment. There is no attempt to deny miners or their widows the justice that we as a Government are delivering. The matter is a top priority for my Department and me and I welcome the opportunity to tackle it. Bringing justice to both miners and their widows is my mission. I shall do everything I can and I shall work with all those who share the same objective.

As hon. Members will know, there are two major schemes on coal health claims resulting from successful 1996 litigation against the British Coal Corporation and the last Conservative Government. The hon. Gentleman made it seem as though the Labour Government caused the case to come to court. It began under the Conservatives: they were dragged kicking and screaming into court and we have had to cope with the consequences of that. We were elected on a pledge to bring justice to miners and their widows and we have never at any point questioned the court's decision. The hon. Gentleman should be more even-handed and objective.

In addition to 131,000 claims for respiratory diseases, 28,000 of which are in Wales, the Department has received over 116,000 claims for vibration white finger—VWF—nearly 16,000 of which are in Wales. Progress has been good on VWF: to date the Department has settled nearly 20,000 claims, 3,700 of which are in Wales, and has made a further 22,650 interim payments, 2,480 of which are in Wales. In total, we have paid nearly £215 million in compensation, of which £28.4 million has been paid in Wales to 6,204 people. In the village of Seven Sisters in my constituency, £410,644 has already been paid to 64 people. Many such examples could be cited from right across south and north-east Wales. In Neath the total paid is £781,729 to 167 people, and in Gwent £9.1 million to 1,330 people.

Mr. Livsey

I acknowledge that that constitutes progress, but does the Minister acknowledge that even after two years solicitors are still dealing with questions from the Department to which the answers are already known? For example, an ex-miner obtained a correct diagnosis from a doctor; two years later he had received no compensation and was asked how many operations he had had. Such nonsense must stop.

Mr. Hain

I agree. Progress on lung disease has been much slower. It has been much more difficult to deal with the claims as speedily as we would want, as the legal and medical issues that flow not from Government policy but from the High Court judgment to which NACODS among others was a party are far more complex than those relating to vibration-related diseases.

Mr. Clapham

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. I am sure that with his background in a mining constituency he will bring great energy to sorting out the issue that we are considering.

The Minister's predecessor, our right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell), set up a monitoring group of which I am a member. One of our tasks was to begin turning the legal formula, of which my hon. Friend is aware, into a practicable formula that could be applied to bring compensation into miners' pockets. As of this month, £1 million a day is being paid to miners for chronic bronchitis and emphysema and for vibration white finger.

Mr. Hain

I welcome my hon. Friend's point of information, which contributes to the balanced outlook that I am trying to develop. It is far from the sneering view that Plaid Cymru continually adopts. Incidentally, a Welsh monitoring group is meeting on Monday and I shall attend.

The number of claimants continues to rise at the rate of 1,000 a week, making this the biggest compensation claim in Britain's history. Payments are now beginning to flow. In total, £108 million has been paid in respiratory compensation, with £27.1 million being paid in Wales. Including compensation for vibration-related diseases, in recent weeks we have been paying about £1 million a day. For chest diseases, for example, more than £1 million has been paid in my constituency of Neath. In the former pit village of Seven Sisters, £400,000 has been paid to 80 people and in my own village, the former pit village of Resolven—I am wearing the local rugby club tie today—£98,258 has been paid to 24 people. It is not true that no money is being distributed; in Wales alone last week a total £1 million was paid out.

However, that is not good enough. More needs to be done. The mechanism must be better and speedier and the Government are working urgently on that. In the past 10 days I have been considering ways to accelerate the process. As part of that undertaking I want to satisfy myself that we have done all that we can. I want to hear the first-hand experience of hon. Members who represent mining constituencies. I know that many changes have been made in the past six months, but I have identified several categories in which I believe that fast-track offers can be made to bring quick relief to thousands more ex-miners and miners' widows—perhaps as many as 18,000. I am taking legal and medical advice to ensure that the new initiatives can be carried out quickly.

In addition, I want solicitors, Healthcall and the claims handlers IRISC to ensure that three groups are given priority: the oldest, those who are most ill and widows. That will probably mean that younger and fitter men's appointments will be rescheduled, but I am sure that they will agree that men in their 70s and 80s who can hardly breathe or move should go ahead to take the earliest opportunities. At the end of September, my predecessor announced new fast-track proposals to generate thousands of new and revised expedited offers by Christmas to those whose initial screening tests suggested likely disability. I am pleased that we have now made more than 15,200 offers, totalling £74 million, of which 2,200, totalling £10.5 million, were in Wales. Of those, 1,200 have been accepted, leading to payments totalling £4.3 million.

I remain troubled by delays in medical assessment procedures. We are presently completing around 500 medical assessments a week, and last week the figure was 570. We need to increase that figure significantly. The lack of sufficient numbers of respiratory consultants to perform the medical assessment process, as mentioned by the hon.Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, is the key bottleneck. We are working hard to try to solve that problem. First, we are urgently trying to recruit more respiratory consultants and we are considering how doctors are used and paid to ensure that we attract as many of them as possible. We must also ensure that we use the doctors we have flexibly and efficiently and use our resources more efficiently; therefore, secondly, we seek to streamline the medical assessment process: for example, we are thinking about using nurses to flag entries relevant to lung diseases in the extensive medical records currently examined by the consultant, which will help to free up additional time for the consultants to examine claimants. In addition, Healthcall, the contractor carrying out the medical assessments, is opening two new test centres in south Wales, in Ystrad Mynach and Ammanford.

In every way that we can, we continue to try to reduce delays for widows. That requires the co-operation of all involved, to ensure that claimants are kept in touch and provided with the necessary information.

Mr. Llwyd

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hain

I am afraid that I do not have time.

We are also prioritising widows claiming on behalf of their late husbands. The Department has made more than 4,650 bereavement awards, totalling nearly £39 million, of which 1,030 have been in Wales, totalling nearly £8.5 million. Those are big figures. The largest such payment in south Wales was £140,000. The next largest was £94,000.

Mr. Llwyd

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hain

No. I have taken several interventions.

Mr. Llwyd

None from me.

Mr. Hain

I have been as generous as I can. The hon. Gentleman had a lot of time to make his point.

On compensation, my motto is maximum compensation, minimum benefits reduction. The hon. Gentleman's points were simply inaccurate. The pneumoconiosis scheme was a no-fault scheme negotiated between the solicitors and British Coal. The levels of compensation took into account benefit received, so the exemption applied.

On the matter of smoking and damages, plenty of personal injury case law in other industries shows that courts consider smoking when fixing damages for lung injury. For example, awards have been reduced in cases of byssinosis in cotton workers and lung injury caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in marine workers. I am passionate about resolving the problems that have bedevilled the compensation scheme, whether caused by legal wrangling, Healthcall or the claim handlers, IRISC. Labour came into office in 1997 determined to bring justice to former miners and their widows, who had been so shabbily treated by the Tories for many years. Instead of being able to get moving, we faced a year-long delay in the court process triggered under the Tories. Then, there were 18 months of wrangling over a handling agreement, with the result that, according to a court judgment, every major improvement that we wanted to introduce required agreement between solicitors. In addition, records are often hard to trace: the archives at Cannock contain 30 miles of files of old records, many not indexed.

Those are not excuses, merely a plea for understanding. Members of the House who have worked hard on the matter include the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office. Everyone has been at fault, including the Government, for not driving through a better system quicker. I give a warning, however, and it may be directed at the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy: I shall be tough in exposing any individual, whether claiming to be a miners' leader or not, and any Opposition party that plays politics with people's suffering. There has been far too much of that already. Equally, I welcome constructive criticism—the hon. Gentleman offered some—and practical suggestions for improvements from all quarters. It is important that we all work together, as has been said by the main north Wales paper, the Daily Post, and in the south of Wales by the South Wales Argus. The complaints and wrangling must stop, and everyone must pull together. We have a debt to pay to the men who have worked in this country's coal mining industry, as the Government have freely acknowledged. After years of obstruction by British Coal and the previous Tory Government, I will ensure that that debt is paid as speedily and fairly as possible. With the full co-operation of all parties involved, we will succeed.

I emphasise that payments are going out week by week. I can list all the payments made in south Wales, the north-east and Yorkshire during the past few weeks. Huge sums are paid to many, but I fully acknowledge that more needs to be done. I urge everyone to work with us.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.