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Consumer Protection

7. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden): What steps she is taking to improve protection of consumers. [9554]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson): The Enterprise Bill will benefit consumers by strengthening the competition regime, introducing measures to take swift action against traders who do not comply with their obligations to consumers. The consumer credit review

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will ensure that consumers are adequately protected against unfair and exploitative lending practices, and consumer support networks across the country are making it easier for consumers to get quality advice and information.

Siobhain McDonagh: Will my hon. Friend specifically address the issue of car maintenance and repair? Many of my constituents who come to see me feel most vulnerable in that area and often pay large sums for poor work. What guarantees can she and the Government give that they will be better protected in future?

Miss Johnson: I entirely share my hon. Friend's concerns: £9 billion a year is spent on servicing and repairing our cars and consumers are far from confident that they are getting a fair deal. Our proposals include the promotion of minimum standards of customer service, improving the effectiveness of codes of practice, and advice to help consumers feel more confident and better informed in their dealings with garages, including a good garage scheme.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): But can the Minister confirm that over a quarter of a century has passed since the Conservative fair trading legislation; that the previous Secretary of State's rip-off Britain campaign descended into farce, fiasco and failure and caused much needless offence to British industry; and that, despite a White Paper in the middle of 1999, we are unlikely to have legislation before next year at the earliest? When are this Government going to take the needs of British consumers seriously instead of relying on cheap soundbites?

Miss Johnson: The House will judge where the cheap soundbites are coming from.

This is the first full-scale review of the consumer credit legislation in more than 25 years. For much of that period, there were Governments of the hon. Gentleman's persuasion in office, yet they did nothing. We are aware that the laws are more than 30 years old and we are taking steps to introduce changes that will protect consumers and radically modify and modernise the regime. There are many measures in the Enterprise Bill, and many of the measures in the consumer White Paper have already been implemented.

Miners' Compensation

8. Andy Burnham (Leigh): If she will make a statement on the progress of the compensation scheme for former miners. [9555]

The Minister for Industry and Energy (Mr. Brian Wilson): More than £600 million has now been paid out in coal compensation. Nearly 52,000 individual payments, in either interim or full settlement, have been made to respiratory claimants, and 64,000 to vibration white finger claimants. The schemes are expected to cost more than £5 billion.

Andy Burnham: I thank the Minister for the work that he and the Secretary of State are doing to make progress on this important issue. More than 2,500 claims by former pitmen in my constituency are still unsettled.

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One claimant recently passed away, and his family are still waiting for the release of his organs, so that they can give him a proper burial. Does the Minister agree that the system is still too bureaucratic and causes great distress to families? Will he consider cutting out more of the paperwork and making more approximate offers? Most people would rather have the money now, even if it is less than they are entitled to. Surely it is the least we can do, to give them some dignity in retirement when they are suffering from these terrible conditions.

Mr. Wilson: I express my regret and sympathy to the family of my hon. Friend's constituent. One of the tragic aspects of this whole business is that, almost by definition, because of the medical conditions involved, and because most of the claimants are elderly, deaths will occur before payment can be made. I can never say that that will not happen. All that I can do is to give an absolute commitment—which I give—to minimising the number of cases in which that happens.

There are two constraints on us in delivering what my hon. Friend seeks. First, we work by agreement with the claimants' solicitors. Secondly, we are governed by the judges' ruling, which is complex and means that there can be no question of uniform payments to all claimants. Having said that, I endorse utterly what he says about minimising the bureaucracy and delays. I am pleased to announce that we have made an important breakthrough with the solicitors that will allow us to make full and final offers in cases for which the work histories have not been finally agreed. That will lead to thousands of full and final offers being made in the coming few weeks. My target for next year is that 50,000 such offers will be made, 15,000 of which will be in Wales, as I said on my visit there earlier this week.

We have to keep up the pressure. There is no complacency. There is an absolute moral responsibility to pay out the money and—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Price.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): I know that the Minister brings a deeply felt personal commitment to this issue. What can he tell us about the surface workers who were promised by his Department on 10 July 2000 that they would be eligible to make a claim under the scheme but whose solicitors have now been informed that that is no longer the case? Will he make good his original promise? Can he confirm also that claims over £50,000 have been called in by his Department? Does not that add a further level of bureaucracy and delay to claims from what are inevitably the oldest and the sickest miners?

Mr. Wilson: I discussed that last point when I was in Wales earlier this week, and I am assured that it is not true that delay is being caused. We are dealing with the biggest compensation scheme ever anywhere in the world, and very substantial payments are being made under it, so we have a responsibility to check a sample of the larger payments, but that is done on the same day—it is turned around within 24 hours—so no additional delay is involved.

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My understanding is that discussions with the surface workers' solicitors are on-going, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman about that.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress so far in speeding up the claims, but plenty of former miners still come to my surgeries complaining of delays, and when my staff investigate—the IRISC people are very good, by the way—it often turns out that the problem lies with the solicitors, who leave offers sitting on their desks for weeks and sometimes months. They are being paid very generously by the Government for handling these cases. Is not it about time we had an audit, to make sure that we are getting value for money from these solicitors?

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point. At the meeting in Cardiff earlier this week, one of the unions handed my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales a list of six cases in which there had been delays. When he checked those cases, he found that three of them were lying in solicitors' offices. That is where the delays were, and they are a practical example of the problem. However, solicitors are working closely with us and I do not want to blame anyone. All I want to do is get the payments made as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Solicitors will note my hon. Friend's remarks and take them to heart. Let us work together and get the payments made. As I said earlier, it is an uncapped scheme so there is absolutely no financial benefit to Government in delay. If a miner dies, the claim passes from the deceased to the widow and to the estate. In fact, delay costs the Government more than it does to pay out quickly. Therefore, every effort is being made to maximise the output of the scheme. The latest agreement with solicitors will lead to a big increase in the number of full and final offers.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): I entirely endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes). I welcome the statement of my hon. Friend the Minister that a breakthrough has been made on the issue of work histories. I urge him to redouble his efforts so that the worst cases are dealt with first. Will he also consider the position of widows who, in some cases, have been waiting for pay-outs on claims that have lasted for three or four years?

Mr. Wilson: I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we have recently reached agreement with the solicitors to prioritise the claims of widows along with those of the oldest and sickest. Inevitably, that will mean that estate claims and claims from younger miners and ex-miners will take a little longer, but I think that everyone understands that priority must be given to the oldest, the sickest and widows. If everyone accepts that and we get the system working, the figures that have been made available will clear a large part of the backlog that has built up over the past year.

We have built up reasonable momentum, but it must be maintained. Many payments have been made. I stress that £600 million has been paid out, and that means that a huge sum of money is going into mining communities on a daily basis. The scheme is uncapped and it is estimated that it will cost between £5 billion and £6 billion, but

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claims are still coming in at the rate of 1,000 a week. Therefore, we do not know when the scheme will end or what the final figures will be. All that I can say is that every claim will be met.

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