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Former British Coal Employees

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]

6.59 pm

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley): I wish to raise an issue that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) on 7 November last year: the dilemma of canteen workers and cleaners who used to work for British Coal and its forerunners. The debate on 7 November was well attended.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy met nearly two dozen Members of Parliament in the Department of Trade and Industry on 13 November. He listened to what we said about the situation and heard our many points about the plight of former Coal Board canteen workers and cleaners. At that meeting, I made a handwritten note that the Minister acknowledged that

under equal pay legislation. He also said that he would see if there was a mechanism for making an ex gratia payment, as he was anxious for the Department to make progress on mining issues.

The Government have made good progress on mining issues, and have learned in the past five years that the legacy of the coal industry runs deep and wide, ranging from cleaning up the environment to compensating workers who have become victims of ill health. It is claimed that there are many victims, not least the women who worked in the industry, who were denied equal pay, given fewer holidays and refused help with concessionary fuel, and who received inferior pensions because they were women. Their fight for justice turned into what can only be described as a war of attrition between the unions in the industry and the Government which went on for many years.

Those women did not have claims in on time, as the legislation stipulated, but many of my hon. Friends and I believe that that was not their fault. As my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out in a letter to me today, it was the responsibility of union representatives to keep their members informed; if the claims had been lodged in a timely manner, the problem would not have arisen. Somewhere along the line, someone did not process their claims. Since our meeting with the Minister, there have been two lobbies of Parliament by those ex-workers. I was invited to the second one on 21 March, which was addressed by the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): I was invited to that meeting by women with claims in my constituency. Did my right hon. Friend, like me, find it bizarre that that was the only lobby of Parliament in which the sole speaker was the president of the NUM? All those women had travelled down to London to lobby their MPs, but the only person allowed to speak was Arthur Scargill.

Mr. Barron: I did indeed find it bizarre. It was the only parliamentary lobby I have ever attended at which the person sitting on the platform asked people to ask questions, then said if there was time MPs could ask, not answer, questions. I dare say that many right hon. and

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hon. Members would love all lobbies to be like that; we could go along and ask questions of people who had come to make a case to the House.

At that meeting, the NUM president once again claimed that in April 2001 the then Minister for Energy and Competitiveness, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Peter Hain), had agreed to pay women who did not have a valid claim under the legislation. I have spoken directly to my right hon. Friend, who categorically denies the allegation made by Mr. Scargill.

I have a copy of my right hon. Friend's letter dated 23 April 2001 which outlines what was agreed between the Department of Trade and Industry and the NUM regarding the women who had valid claims under the legislation. There is no mention in the agreement of any promise of payment to women who did not submit a valid claim. There were three points in the agreement: first, the level of compensation that the women would get; secondly, the minimum payment that they would get; and thirdly, an agreement to fund arrears of subscription and an administration fee in accordance with the ruling handed down at York county court on 2 October 2000.

The third point may sound a little obscure to my hon. Friends, so I shall clarify it. They may be interested to know what the York county court case was about. I have a copy of the court's decision. The court was in fact the Barnsley county court, which happened to be sitting in York that day. No reason is given for that.

In 1999 the DTI offered a settlement to the women who had valid claims, and some of them accepted. Included in the 1999 offer from the DTI was an offer of indemnity against the women having to pay money to the NUM out of their settlement. As some hon. Members know, the NUM asks ex-members to sign a form agreeing to pay arrears of subscriptions and an administration fee if their claims are successful. The women who had agreed the DTI settlement therefore refused to pay the union, given that they had indemnity. As I understand it, the level of settlement would have meant the women handing almost all their compensation over to the NUM.

As a consequence of the women's refusal, the National Union of Mineworkers took three of the women to court—its own ex-members—in a test case. The women were defended by the DTI, but the NUM won the case. It won the right to take a cut of the women's compensation money.

When the rest of the cases were settled by agreement in April last year, the Government gave the NUM £1.7 million under the terms of the agreement to which I referred,

The NUM can hardly justify seeking to recover those legal costs, because it was paid a further £600,000 to cover legal costs incurred over the years in connection with the claims. Out of a total settlement of some £14 million the NUM received £2.3 million. Some people might argue that legal costs paid for in the 1980s and 1990s were paid out of the women's contributions while they were at work.

When the former canteen workers and cleaners who had received no compensation lobbied Parliament on 21 March, I asked Mr. Scargill whether, if the

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Government were to offer ex gratia payments to those women, he would want any of it. He said that he would not. I should think not, given that none of the women had submitted valid claims. It is clear that his union had not represented their interests in the matter.

Hon. Members may be interested to know that the NUM is making a huge profit from the operation of the current compensation schemes for chronic bronchitis, emphysema and vibration white finger. Former coal miners suffering from those industrial diseases who approach the NUM are advised to use a firm of solicitors, Raleys, in Barnsley. When their claims are submitted to Raleys, they are asked to sign a form agreeing to pay fees to the NUM. I have spoken to ex-miners who thought on that basis that the NUM was progressing their compensation cases, but it is not doing so. It is the solicitors who are progressing their claims. One of the fees that they agree to pay to the NUM by signing the form is an administration fee of 3 per cent., up to a maximum of £750, which is different in total from that of the canteen women. The other fee is NUM contribution money for a maximum of three years, which is not dissimilar to the amount that the NUM attempted to take from the canteen workers and cleaners who settled with the DTI in 1999.

I have an example of how much the NUM receives by getting the claimant to sign the form, but letting someone else do the work. The example involves a man who made a successful respiratory claim. Out of the total amount that he received—£6,390—the NUM was paid an administration fee of £184 for pointing him in the direction of Raleys solicitors, plus £308 for back payment of union dues. Some £492 was thus paid to the NUM. Even on claims in which compensation is low, the NUM still takes at least 15 per cent. from claimants through Raleys. Raleys itself is paid large amounts of money by the DTI to administer the scheme, as are other claims handlers, so the firm is not on its own in that respect.

In an answer that I received today to a parliamentary question that I tabled last week, the up-to-date figures show that Raleys has received £4.8 million for chronic bronchitis and emphysema claims and £3.2 million for vibration white finger claims. If we look at how much money is paid to claimants through Raleys, we see a total for respiratory diseases and vibration white finger of some £60.5 million. That is the total that has been paid through Raleys to claimants in the area that my hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) and I represent.

If we accept that the vast majority of Raleys claimants are NUM members and that the bulk of the money paid is for final settlement—indeed, this must be the case because, as my hon. Friends know, interim settlements are only £2,000 per claimant—it is reasonable to assume that the NUM, on the basis of its lowest fees of 15 per cent., has had or will have at least £9 million out of that money for doing nothing more than getting its members to sign up to Raleys solicitors in Barnsley. Furthermore, about 40 per cent. of the claims are settled posthumously, so they are taking dead men's money.

It is clear that the union has been taking millions of pounds for doing very little, while the former canteen workers and cleaners have been left out in the cold

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through no fault of their own. We need to find a solution to this mess. In his letter to me today, my hon. Friend the Minister reiterates his difficulties in finding a legal basis to solve the problem. However, he says that he will continue to explore whether there is any reasonable way of addressing the matter. I hope that a mechanism can be found to make these women an ex gratia payment of at least the minimum sum that was paid out to their more fortunate colleagues in last year's settlement. The NUM was a party to the dilemma in which these women find themselves, so I think that it should also make a contribution to them in an act of solidarity, given that millions of pounds have gone into its coffers over the past few years for doing next to nothing.

I hope that my hon. Friend can tell us about how he would like to make progress with me and other hon. Members on justice for these mineworkers, who have been left out in the cold through no fault of their own.

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