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Lord Mackay of Drumadoon: My Lords, I apologise for speaking a minute too long on this important matter. I conclude by urging the Minister to agree that this is a matter of grave social concern. I hope we will receive his assurance that every effort will be made to speed up an unfortunately slow progress.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lofthouse on his initiative in securing this debate. Those who live in and represent coalfield communities have been well aware for a long time of the effect on people's health of long service underground. In the 1970s after the battle for recognition of pneumoconiosis was over it was clearly appropriate that effort should be made to secure recognition for those suffering from emphysema and bronchitis. For a long time my noble friend and others made representations on behalf of our constituents. Then, 16 years ago, my noble friend presented the first of five Bills to the House of Commons. The Industrial Injuries Board made a recommendation and we were relieved when the then government said they would introduce a scheme. Great hopes were raised. That was a long time ago. Despite that scheme and despite the promises of that government, we are still a long way from securing the solution which is obvious to all of us here this evening.
We have witnessed a miserable marathon. At every stage of that marathon many more men have died. It is time that this matter was resolved. I point out to your Lordships that when the previous administration wished to change mine safety regulations they acted with a dispatch that has certainly been lacking in the matter I am discussing.
One reason for my concern is that for a long time I was involved with the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers. I still have an interest in the proceedings of that association. By virtue of their occupation these men have given long service in underground employment. Because of the decline in the mining industry the working members of that responsible organisation have declined to a number not in four figures. However, there are far more former members who worked long years in the pit. It may well be that those ex-members of the association with emphysema and bronchitis or even pneumoconiosis far outnumber those still working who have the disease. The resources of the organisation have been taken up in large measure to fight this cause. It is a pity that it has had to devote funds on such a scale for such a long time as this marathon has proceeded.
I am pleased to see that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, is present. If he had time to do so, I am sure he could confirm the assessment I have made of the inevitable consequences of long service underground of NACODS' members. He will be aware of the devoted efforts of my friend Peter McNestry and of other full-time officials of our rapidly shrinking union which is still endeavouring to serve the cause of members who suffer from such ill health.
I am therefore delighted that my noble friend secured this debate. I endorse the arguments that he has advanced. I welcome the comments that the previous speaker made and I trust that the Minister will pay due regard to the observations of my noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley. He and my noble friends, who have long experience of the coalfields and a great deal
I have another point which I hope that my noble friend will address. No one begrudges a proper payment to those who have given legal advice and assistance. That is right and proper. However, there are some--perhaps they are qualified lawyers; perhaps they are not--who seek to ensure that they get an unfair share of whatever benefit former miners receive. There needs to be some advice about the cowboys on the fringe of this activity who are seeking to get their hands on money without having undergone the long experience underground or the debilitating effects of such diseases. Appropriate words could well be said. If my noble friend can tell the House the Department of Trade and Industry's estimate of the cost already incurred in meeting those fees, I am sure the House will be obliged and perhaps surprised.
I should like to think that the message will get through and that the anxiety, disease, distress, discomfort and the fact that life expectancy is low will bring about the early resolution of the problem. It certainly ought to be resolved.
Lord McNair: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, for tabling this Unstarred Question. I feel humble to be speaking in a debate in which miners and former miners and those who have had close contact with the mining industry have spoken. However, this gives me another opportunity to raise the case of my friend, Mr. Dynfor Owen, to whom I referred in my supplementary question to a Starred Question on 11th May this year. I do so, not to have a response to that particular case, but as a peg on which to hang a more general question.
The point that I made then, rather hurriedly and probably not very well, was that in the coalfield of South Wales--uniquely, I believe, in the United Kingdom--the coal is contained within or behind silica rock. I confess that I have never been down a coal-mine. I regret that, and I regret that it may be too late to do so. Mr. Owen spent 25 years of his working life in the mines of South Wales. He did not seek or have any of the jobs that were considered soft options. He was literally at the coal-face. He was drilling and setting charges. He and his friends worked a lot of the time in a cloud of silica dust.
In the mid-1950s, the coal board introduced hollow drills, which had a jet of water through the centre. The idea of that innovation was that the jet of water would prevent the dust which was so unpleasant, but which was not known at that time to be such a health hazard. As sometimes happens with technology, the hoped-for
As time went on, he and his friends found that they were unable to continue working. I believe that he is now the only one left alive at approximately 60 years-old. He has alleged difficulties with the administration of the X-rays that he has had. There seems to be a problem with the definitions used for assessing disability. It appears that there is a very severe form of lung disease which does not show up on an X-ray. I am sure that other noble Lords who are participating in this debate will know more about that than I do. However, I wonder whether, despite having all that money available, the authorities are perhaps keen to wait and to pay a lesser sum to the widow following an autopsy rather than a larger sum to the person concerned before he passes on.
I have taken a little while to paint a picture of the service that Mr. Owen, his colleagues and all other coalminers have given to this country, reaching back to the dawn of our industrial greatness. Will the Minister reassure me, the House and the former miners of South Wales that miners who suffer from silicosis--damage from silica dust--will receive the same treatment in respect of compensation for injury sustained from their working conditions as miners who suffer from pneumoconiosis. There is no excuse for treating them less well. It has been difficult enough to secure the degree and scope of compensation that we have achieved so far.
The changes and reductions in the coal industry which have affected the miners of South Wales and other areas so powerfully give a poignancy to the plight of their number who still survive with varying degrees of disability. I am delighted to hear that there is money available. I am concerned about the administrative delays which will probably make these payments too late for a lot of the miners. Surely it would be honourable to treat more generously those who have given their working lives and their health in the service of their country and their fellow countrymen?
Lord Islwyn: My Lords, we are deeply in debt to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, for initiating this short but very important debate. I am in my 33rd year as a parliamentarian and I have never previously spoken in a coal-mining debate. For 31 years I represented Newport, which was essentially a steel constituency, and I left coal-mining debates to people who represented mining communities. Nevertheless, this debate brought a bitter nostalgia to me.
I was born and spent my formative years in the Sirhowy Valley in South Wales. The area was littered with pits, which have now all closed. Both my grandfathers, my father and my mother's brothers all worked at Nine Mile Point colliery. As a young lad I also spent several years underground. My father was invalided out of the pits early on with nystagmus. His eyesight was very badly impaired right up to his dying day but, to the best of my knowledge and belief, he never received any compensation.
Mining is an arduous and hazardous occupation. There is a perpetual risk factor in working underground. Perhaps the most prevalent hazard to miners is respiratory diseases. Tonight in this debate we are essentially concerned about chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Breathing and inhaling dust over the years takes its toll. We all know that a High Court judgment in January found that British Coal was liable for causing the illnesses to which I have referred.
The liability to manage and meet these claims transferred to British Coal on 1st January 1998. When the judgment was announced the Government, to be fair, immediately accepted their responsibility. A sum of £1.5 billion was set aside by the Treasury to enable the Department of Trade and Industry to pay the claims. Mr. Justice Turner, who made the judgment, urged an early settlement. Since then there has been a good deal of haggling and delay. The Government have been subjected to much criticism, a good deal of which is unjustified. However, the Government have insisted that each case be looked at individually. They say "How else can the level of lung injury be assessed?"
To try to ease the overall situation, the Government have paid out more than £1 million in compensation in the form of interim payments of £2,000 to hundreds of former miners suffering from debilitating illnesses as a result of working conditions underground. I note, too, that the Government are complaining about what they call the unhelpful attitude of the plaintiffs' solicitors groups which act as the negotiators for the vast majority of solicitors who are dealing with claims. Likewise, colleagues in another place and some noble Lords in this debate have criticised certain solicitors for allegedly targeting miners for profit. It is diabolical to make money out of disabled miners. It is obvious now that the sooner these cases are settled, the better. I believe that the Government are now doing all they can to expedite a quick settlement. Even the Prime Minister has promised to help.
Finally, I recall from earlier days that when there was a disaster or a serious accident in a pit people invariably referred to it as "the price of coal". The chest complaints that we are debating are silent slayers. But the victims are the men who laboured underground to make a living for their families. That is "the price of coal" and these men have paid a high price. It is now incumbent on Ministers to dispense with the bureaucracy and, as the noble Lord, Lofthouse, has already pointed out, there should be no problem in the case of the people on industrial injury benefit. For many of these men it will suffice just to walk into their homes or hospital wards to see at first hand how they have been laid low. The months and years are taking their toll. Their numbers are diminishing. They more than deserve a quick, just and fair settlement.
Lord Dixon: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract on initiating this debate and, as the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said, on the way he carried out his duties in another place, not only as a Back-Bench MP and member of the Select Committee on Energy but also as Deputy Speaker. As a
Like many of my noble friends who are present for the debate and many of my honourable friends in the other place, I know only to well the suffering and the early deaths that this terrible disease has brought to many of my comrades in the coalmining industry. Time is not on their side. I accept that since the court hearing on 1st October there has been some progress. However, there are issues that remain unresolved and require urgent attention.
Since negotiations began in January this year, as my noble friend Lord Lofthouse said, more than 1,000 claimants have died. I believe that my honourable friend John Battle is a sincere and genuine person on this issue which I accept is complex and difficult. However, issues relating to the determination of the medical assessment remain unresolved. There still remains a difference over whether the plaintiffs' suggestion that a streamlined approach for most live claimants should be adopted. Like my noble friend Lord Lofthouse, I strongly disapprove of the DTI idea of a more rigorous, costlier and slower approach which would involve claimants undergoing an exercise test. Could not a scheme be agreed based on a percentage of disability on a sliding scale?
Before becoming a Member of Parliament I worked in the shipyards for over 30 years. I suffer from industrial deafness and am presently wearing a hearing aid. I am glad that this House has a loop so that I can hear the rest of the debate. At that time my union, the GMB, took six cases to the Newcastle Crown Court, which resulted in what became known as the Newcastle settlement. When I went to put in my claim I was merely given a similar hearing test and was paid compensation on a sliding scale. There was no hassle and no court case. Why could not something similar be done to help these people? Could not something be sorted out so that they could receive a decent settlement without having to go through lengthy tests and cases?
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, referred to the fact that widows whose husbands had worked underground for 20 years or more and whose death certificate showed that the cause of death was emphysema were given an interim payment of £2,000. In my view and that of many of my colleagues, a positive death certificate should override the 20-year criterion. There should be no question of a complicated and arbitrary apportionment.
I accept that some progress has been made in recent weeks and that there has also been an attempt at progress by the DTI. That is to be welcomed. I have little doubt that this progress has been prompted by the increased level of tireless effort on the part of the unions and my noble friends, especially my noble friend Lord Lofthouse, and by the efforts of my honourable friends in the House of Commons, the Labour miners group of MPs, led by Bill Etherington, Eric Clarke, Dennis Skinner, Mick Clapham, Ron Campbell and John Cummings, who only last week organised a deputation to John Battle on this issue.
I have been informed that the money is there. The people who are suffering cannot wait. They are not interested in the niceties of negotiation. They are entitled to spend their remaining time with some small comfort that the compensation will bring to them and their families. Let us deal with this case as early as possible. I appeal to the Minister to do that.
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lofthouse for initiating this debate. I hasten to declare a personal interest. My father-in-law, Ray Jones, is one of those on whose behalf compensation is being sought. I make no apology for telling the House his story, because many thousands of others are in the same circumstances.
Ray Jones is 86; early next year he will be 87. He spent 45 years in the pits of South Wales, a working lifetime, mostly as a collier, then as a fireman, then as an overman and finally as a health and safety officer. In 1966 he led a rescue team into Aberfan to try to rescue the children who were covered by the tip that slipped down the mountain and covered the school.
Ray Jones has a lung disability of 80 per cent., 60 per cent. pneumoconiosis, 20 per cent. bronchitis and emphysema, clearly stated, but not stated to the satisfaction of British Coal. Fourteen years ago he had a stroke and he is in a wheelchair. His chest is in such a condition that he cannot have an operation because he could not sustain the period of the anaesthetic.
On 29th January this year I asked a Question when the judgment with regard to compensation was given. I received the following Answer from my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis, the Minister at that time:
I therefore asked how he could get that benefit. The solicitors were saying that he required a further assessment, whereas the Department of Social Security was telling me that if he has had a D1 assessment he was now ineligible for a D12 assessment. That is a classic Catch-22 position.
This money is for people who are suffering. If a man has bronchitis and emphysema he has bronchitis and emphysema. One cannot say that it is categorised in one way or another. Such a man is undoubtedly entitled to compensation. The Department of Social Security appears to agree with that and the solicitors who represent NACODS, his trade union, also believe that to be the case. Only the Coal Board says that it must be displayed in two different forms to entitle the person to compensation. As we have heard this evening, many have died. I am afraid that many more will die unless the Government do something about it now.
Lord Ezra: My Lords, I should declare an interest having served for many years in the mining industry. I am still actively involved in the energy sector. We are much indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, who has for long been a strong advocate for the mining industry and the miners. I do not believe that in all that he has done anything is as important as his work in connection with the whole dread issue of bronchitis and emphysema. I was interested to learn that he had made the suggestion that the previous government should set up a fund to deal with these diseases that everyone recognises as one of the high prices of mining.
In the Starred Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, on 11th May I asked by way of a supplementary whether the pneumoconiosis settlement of 1975 could be used in this case. It was explained to me that it was too late because judgment about liability had already been given and the whole matter would have to be resolved through the courts. How unfortunate it was that the proposal of the noble Lord, Lofthouse, had not been made at that time. If it had, it would have brought much quicker help to the sufferers of this dread disease. I have no doubt that it would also have saved the Government much money. However, we are where we are.
The nature of this disease has been movingly described by all who have participated in this debate. Many personal cases have been mentioned. There is no doubt that the Government are sympathetic. They have set aside money to provide compensation and have accepted liability; they have not fought against it. But if there is one thread that runs through the whole debate it is the concern expressed by all noble Lords about the delays that are now likely to ensue. Despite the progress made with the plaintiffs' solicitors group and the undoubted endeavours of the Government to get
I put it to the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, that this is a matter in which the Government should use their undoubted authority, as their will is already there, to make sure that these payments are made much more quickly than now seems likely. Could they not set in place something similar to the pneumoconiosis scheme, even though, technically speaking, that period has passed? We have heard harrowing tales of the number of mineworkers who are fully entitled to this money but who have died in the meantime. Many more deaths could take place over the next three, four or five years during which these procedures could run. The basic message to the Minister is this: can we not have his assurance that this matter will be speeded up in the interests of humanity and in order to alleviate the suffering of those who have given so much time to the mining industry?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, for raising this issue in the House once again and also for his efforts over the years in another place. It will be no surprise to the Minister that all noble Lords hold the same position on this matter. As described so ably by noble Lords, these miners and their widows do not have the luxury of being able to wait years for compensation. In moral terms it is the victims of this long-running tragedy who are entitled to be compensated and not so much their estates or their advisers.
But worse than that, in a Written Answer it was stated that the DTI has already spent £10 million defending these claims. So noble Lords may be right that only the legal profession is gaining as much as the victims despite the best efforts of the legal profession. The noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, pointed out the record of the previous government. I believe that the difficulty is that the government of the day will want to be confident that all claimants are bona fide. However, that is balanced by the Opposition and Back-Benchers who will always be pushing for prompt and proper compensation, as we are tonight. It is for the Minister of the day to strike the difficult balance and in this case progress the matter with zeal and energy.
The noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, hopes that this Government will not use any "tricks", as he put it, to delay compensation claims. I sincerely hope that he is not disappointed by events. I am sure that the Minister will have taken the precaution of studying Hansard on the last occasion we debated this issue. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, was then the Minister. His Answer to my Parliamentary Question referred to the comprehensive spending review. The Minister will therefore not be surprised if I repeat my Question post-CSR. It is this: what financial provision has the DTI or IRISC made for these claims for each year over the next three years? What is the expected total compensation bill, and how many interim payments have already been made?
Many noble Lords have noted that interim payments may be made especially to widows when the death certificate shows emphysema as the cause of death. Unfortunately, if the certificate shows chronic obstructive airways disease interim payments might not be made--a point made by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Drumadoon and many others. Does the Minister accept that COAD will have been entered on many death certificates without the doctor realising what the significance of that would be in the future? Can the Minister say what is the difference between COAD and emphysema; and will interim payments be made to widows if either is entered on the certificate as the cause of death?
As noted by many noble Lords, there are delays centred on the medical assessment procedure. The DTI is proposing a rigorous, costly and slow process, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, in his informative speech. If medically qualified people are to do these apparently very detailed examinations, will not that be a distraction from their core activity of treating patients? Can the Minister now say who is to undertake these tests, and how much capacity is available to do them?
The noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, illustrated the scale of the task when posing his Unstarred Question. How does the Minister view the noble Lord's suggestion to accept the medical decision made previously in respect of industrial disabilities?
The noble Lord, Lord Mason, mentioned the position of the plaintiffs' solicitors group. Does the Minister accept that the PSG has for years accepted and not resisted the single medical assessment process?
My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Drumadoon spoke sympathetically about the problems of disabled miners and their illnesses and the effect on their mobility. Mercifully, I have not met a miner suffering from any of these diseases. If the noble Lord, Lord McNair, would like to go down a pit, I can tell him that Mr. Richard Budge certainly gave me an excellent tour of one of his pits. I think that it was Rossington, but I am not confident of my memory. Not only was it reassuringly dust free, but I was struck by the morale and enthusiasm of his workforce--something that noble Lords opposite will recognise, I am sure.
But how does the Minister justify different arrangements agreed for underground workers and surface workers? Does he agree that many surface jobs were notoriously dusty and dirty, if less, dare I say it, glamorous?
Progress is being made and we are grateful for that. However, it appears to have been as a result of pressure arising from court action, which is a waste of resources, as already noted. We on these Benches believe that a speedy and efficient compensation scheme should be put in place as a matter of urgency in order that those affected can have greater enjoyment of the past few years of their life.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, for raising this very
I should like to begin by echoing the concerns raised about the terrible diseases from which many ex-miners are now suffering. For many decades, thousands of men have suffered the most appalling conditions while working underground in the nation's coal mines. They have also braved great dangers in carrying our their tasks and I pay tribute to all of them.
As a result of the sacrifices they made, many miners are now suffering from the combined debilitating effects of emphysema and chronic bronchitis as well as other conditions relating to their employment in Britain's mines. I can perfectly understand their frustration at why it is taking so long to receive their just compensation and I hope that I can assure noble Lords that the Government are doing all they can to resolve this complex matter as quickly as possible. I am acutely aware, as many speakers have said this evening, that every month miners are dying. I understand the situation of people like Cyril Richardson. The noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, spoke movingly of the contribution that miners have made to our society and I share his views. We believe that we have both a moral and a legal duty to deal with these claims fairly and promptly.
Before turning to the specific points that have been raised in the debate, it might be helpful if I set out some of the background and explain what the current position is regarding payment of compensation.
This litigation--which became known as the British Coal respiratory disease litigation--is the longest running personal injury litigation against a single employer ever in the UK. It covered a compendium of lung diseases collectively known as COAD--chronic obstructive airways disease--and principally included chronic bronchitis and emphysema among others. To date, the Government have received over 60,000 claims and are expecting as many as 100,000 in total.
The litigation began as long ago as 1992 and the court judgment was finally handed down in January this year. British Coal was found negligent in failing to protect its employees from the damaging effects of mine dust and fumes and was found liable to compensate employees suffering from these injuries. On 1st January this year, three weeks before the judgment, these liabilities passed from British Coal to the Department of Trade and Industry. It should be noted that the Government accepted liability immediately on the day of judgment. They did not appeal any aspects of the judgment.
I am afraid that I cannot agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, that it does not matter how this situation arose. The current situation is a result of the fact that the matter was not tackled firmly earlier.
The Government are moving as fast as they can and have recently expanded their resources within the DTI to move forward on all issues. The timetable to reach agreement depends on the plaintiffs' solicitors as well as the Government and we have already moved our position on a number of points to help facilitate that agreement.
Immediately after the court judgment in January we began work on many of these complex issues and this work formed the basis of our proposed handling arrangements which were submitted to the plaintiffs' solicitors early in March. At a court hearing on 27th March the PSG requested a further three-month adjournment to allow discussions to continue. We had no objection to such an adjournment.
In recognition of the unwelcome delay we have offered interim payments of £2,000 to over 10,000 claimants who are receiving benefit for chronic bronchitis and emphysema and widows whose husbands were in receipt of that benefit. Over £20 million has now been paid out. We have also extended that offer to all widows who were bereaved after 1st January 1983, when the statutory award was introduced, and are able to produce a death certificate which shows emphysema as the cause of death together with evidence that he worked underground for British Coal for 20 years. We are also actively looking at ways in which offers of interim payments can be extended to other categories of claimant, possibly on the basis of a simple lung function test and corroboration, through British Coal's records, of significant underground working.
The latest court hearing was on 1st October when good progress was made. Despite their earlier resistance, the plaintiffs' solicitors have now accepted an important element of our proposals on a single medical process which we believe will help to speed up the handling of claims. A single agreed medical makes far better use of scarce medical resources and helps to avoid adversarial negotiation which would further delay settlements.
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