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Miners' Compensation

13. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): What action she is taking to increase the payment of compensation to former mineworkers; and if she will make a statement. [2044]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): We are making real progress in speeding up medical assessments and compensation payments for retired miners. We are paying out about £1 million in compensation every day, and shortly we will have paid out £500 million across our country. I particularly thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Peter Hain) for all the work that they

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did when in this Department to ensure that British miners receive the justice which they deserve and which was so long denied to them by the Conservatives.

Mr. O'Brien: What action does my right hon. Friend intend to take in response to representations about claims that have been outstanding for four or five years? Constituents of ours who are in their mid-80s are still waiting for compensation. Some people fear that they will not receive the benefit while they are living. It is unacceptable that claims made four or five years ago have still not been met. Will my right hon. Friend take action to ensure that those long-standing claims are met without further delay, so that our constituents receive what they are entitled to while they are alive?

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with the points made by my hon. Friend. We have already put in place a system to prioritise the compensation claims of the oldest miners and the sickest miners, so that they go to the top of the queue for the medical assessment that has to be done before the compensation can be paid. We are determined to ensure that those assessments are made by spring next year. We are carrying them out as quickly as we can, because that is the right thing to do.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I entirely accept the right hon. Lady's good faith, but will she be a little more expeditious and try to ensure that all the claims are settled by spring next year? It is extremely important that they should be.

Ms Hewitt: The scheme is the largest personal injury compensation scheme that has ever been established in our country. No one has ever done that before. We have already received 150,000 claims. We do not know how many more will come in—they are still coming in every week. If those cases had been pursued individually

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through the courts, the miners would have waited up to 15 years to get their compensation. We have prioritised them. We will deal with the oldest and sickest miners first. We have recruited more medical specialists to carry out the assessments. We will go on dealing with the matter as quickly as is possible, but I cannot give an end date by which we will have finished dealing with all the cases, because in some cases we have not even received the claims.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is the Secretary of State aware that more than 300 lawyers are involved in the settlement of the claims—a lot more than would have been involved if the NUM areas had remained intact? They include a lot of fly-by-night lawyers. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how much they are likely to get out of the £4 billion that has been set aside for claims in respect of chronic bronchitis and emphysema and vibration white finger? Can she tell us whether some of them are dragging their feet deliberately? All of them receive a handling fee that is provided by the Government and comes from the taxpayers' pocket. When my right hon. Friend looks into ways of speeding up the claims, will she deal with those legal people who are holding up a lot of claims in order to line their own pockets?

Ms Hewitt: I think that the problem of having 300 lawyers involved in the claims has been very real. We are now dealing better with the solicitors' group and agreeing a faster way forward to get the cases resolved and money paid out. Mr. Justice Turner, the High Court judge who has been hearing the case, confirmed last November that we had to have a complex system in order to achieve fairness. That means, for instance, that we have to pay lawyers for up to one and a half hours' legal advice to help claimants to fill in the assessment forms, which are necessarily complex. Our objective is to get fair compensation to those miners as quickly as possible. We will pay the lawyers a fair fee, but we will not let them hold up the process.

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Business of the House

12.31 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Will the Leader of the House please give the business for the coming week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 16 July—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill.

Motions to approve the membership of Select Committees.

Motion to approve the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001.

Motion to approve a report for the purposes of section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993.

Tuesday 17 July—Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill (2nd Day).

Wednesday 18 July—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill (3rd Day).

Thursday 19 July—Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.

Motion to approve the Police (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2001.

Friday 20 July—Motion on the summer recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week following the recess will be as follows:

Monday 15 October—Second Reading of the Football (Disorder) Bill.

Tuesday 16 October—Remaining stages of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.

Motion to approve the Ministerial and Other Salaries Order 2001.

Wednesday 17 October—Remaining stages of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

Thursday 18 October—Opposition Day (2nd Allotted Day).

Friday 19 October—Debate on drugs strategy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

For the convenience of the House, I should announce that the topics for debate in Westminster Hall when we return from the recess will be:

Thursday 18 October—Debate on the report from the Education and Employment Committee entitled "Early Years".

Thursday 25 October—Debate on the report from the Science and Technology Committee on genetics and insurance.

Thursday 1 November—Debate on third world debt.

Thursday 8 November—Debate on the reports from the Education and Employment Committee regarding higher education.

Thursday 15 November—Debate on housing.

Mrs. Browning: I thank the Leader of the House for that information. We welcome the opportunity to debate

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the Select Committee nominations on Monday. Will he confirm that there will be a free vote for Labour Members on both the Front and Back Benches? The business motion tabled today in respect of the debate seeks to finish the deliberations at 7 o'clock on Monday, so if a statement is made, we will be left with only two and a half hours to debate this important matter. The House will appreciate that the Opposition are very interested in these procedures. I do not expect him to commit himself now, but will he agree to be flexible in terms of that particular business motion if a statement is made? Obviously, we all look forward to hearing from the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson) and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I hope that the curtailment of time will not preclude hon. Members on either side of the House from contributing to such an important debate.

Yesterday, along with colleagues on the Opposition Benches, I voted against the draft special educational needs code of practice because it was flawed and did not recognise the individual and specific needs of children. I am pleased to see that the Government withdrew the code later in the day. Will the Leader of the House outline how the Government will now proceed with the code, particularly as we are coming not only to the parliamentary recess but to the long summer holidays in the educational world? Parents, teachers and Members of Parliament would be anxious if the Government were to publish their changes to the code during the summer weeks when there is no proper opportunity to scrutinise them. How do the Government intend to proceed with this matter?

Earlier this week, the press reported that there are to be significant changes in the Cabinet Office in respect of the way in which the Government deal with national crises. Apparently, as a result of the way they handled the fuel crisis last year and the foot and mouth crisis this year, there are to be changes in the way COBRA—the Cabinet Committee that deals with crises—is run. When the Deputy Prime Minister returns to these shores, could he be asked to come to the House before we rise for the summer recess so that we might all be apprised of the Government's thinking on the way in which national crises are dealt with?

Finally—I am sure that I do not need to ask this question—will the Leader of the House reassure us that the Prime Minister will be available in the coming week to make a statement to the House on the talks on Northern Ireland?


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