§ Mr. Hepburn
To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what mechanisms are in place to ensure that miners' compensation claims for respiratory diseases are settled within a reasonable period of time. 
§ Nigel Griffiths
The Department and our contractors are doing all we can to speed up the process for respiratory disease claims.
The company currently contracted to provide the Medical Assessment Process (MAP), Schlumberger, have recruited 250 respiratory specialists to work on this scheme. This represents 40 per cent. of those available in the UK.498W
To enable the medical assessments to be converted in to offers, IRISC, the Department's claim handlers, have increased their staff from 160 in November 1999 to around 1,150 at present.
To assist solicitors in turning round these offers, we have re-launched our website—www.coalclaims.com—where-solicitors are able to send in forms electronically and agree aspects of the claim online, particularly employment histories. Solicitors can also identify from the website their highest priority claims so they can better target their efforts on those cases that are most important.
The Department has received nearly 400,000 claims so far. We have made some 167,000 individual payments and settled 110,000 claims, totalling £959 million.
The Handling Agreement was approved by the judges concerned who still preside over the process of paying out the compensation. The Department and the claimants' solicitors are required to report back to the judge on progress three to four times a year. The next hearing is 3 February 2004.