Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will watch the time. Speeches are limited to seven minutes each.

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.

11.25 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble and learned Lord who has clearly

16 Nov 1998 : Column 1102

offered us a recognition of the severity of the problem. I hope that my noble friend will be able to give proper attention to the comments he made.

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

16 Nov 1998 : Column 1103

of contact with the mining industry, recognise that thousands have already passed on as a result of such diseases. We recognise that many with those diseases will die--at an age far below that hoped for by people who have followed more salubrious occupations. I trust that my noble friend will ensure that the message from the Chamber will inject an even greater note of urgency into the present Administration.

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.

11.31 p.m.

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

16 Nov 1998 : Column 1104

improvement did not materialise. The new drill bits clogged and Mr. Owen and his colleagues carried on working in clouds of silica dust.

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?

11.36 p.m.

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.

16 Nov 1998 : Column 1105

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.

11.42 p.m.

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

16 Nov 1998 : Column 1106

member of the usual channels myself I know that, although he could not raise these issues on the Floor of the House, he brought pressure to bear and had meetings with Ministers, and even with the Prime Minister at that time, the right honourable John Major.

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?

I draw the attention of the House to an article in yesterday's Sunday People by none other than David Mellor, who held high position in the previous government. The article is headed:


    "Help Cyril before it's too late".
It reads:


    "Cyril Richardson worked down the mines all his life.


    Now 68, all Cyril has to show for it is an 80 per cent disability through emphysema caused by inhaling too much coal dust.


    He breathes with difficulty and can hardly walk. His life expectancy is not good. He needs a car to get around but can't afford one ...


    So far Cyril has received an interim payment of £2,000, and that's it.


    The D.T.I. say they hope that maybe they can sort everything else out by the end of next year.


    But that may be too late for Cyril and many of his colleagues".

Everyone who comes from a mining community knows of cases similar to that of Cyril Richardson. There is someone with whom I was brought up and have

16 Nov 1998 : Column 1107

known all my life. We used to play football together and go sparring together in the local boxing hall. He was built like a house end and was as strong as a horse. He now has emphysema. He goes out for his weekly pint at a local pub and does not have the strength to hold his dominoes when he plays fives and threes. That is what emphysema does. These are the people who are waiting for some sort of settlement while the arguments go on.

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.

11.49 p.m.

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.

16 Nov 1998 : Column 1108

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 wish to express at the outset the Government's real sympathy to all those miners who have suffered lung damage in the sad circumstances which led to this legal action".--[Official Report, 29/1/98; col. 328.]
I regret that what has happened over the past 12 months does not support that statement. During that time I have been like a ping-pong ball representing Ray Jones between solicitors fighting his case in South Wales and the Department of Social Security in the north-west, in Stockport, near the nursing home where my father-in-law resides. There have been telephone calls and letters. He has not received interim payments. Both the solicitors and the Department of Social Security seem to think that British Coal is somewhat bureaucratic and officious and is weaving a web of red tape which is preventing miners from receiving what they are entitled to.

On 16th September 1998 my father-in-law received the following letter from solicitors in South Wales:


    "Unfortunately, the award notice is still not sufficient to qualify you for an interim payment from British Coal".
That is despite 20 per cent. emphysema and bronchitis, according to his D1 assessment. That is where the problem lies.


    "I note that Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema is listed as a condition taken into account in assessing you as 80% disabled due to pneumoconiosis. In order to be eligible for an interim payment the award must actually state that you have been awarded the benefit due to Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema".
That seems to me a rather pedantic point.

I then got in touch with the Department of Social Security and received the following letter dated 23rd October 1998:


    "With reference to my telephone conversation with you on 16.10.98 I can confirm that a claimant who had a pneumoconiosis (Prescribed Disease D1) assessment of at least 50%"--
which my father-in-law has--


    "and who was also suffering from bronchitis and emphysema will have had the effects of the bronchitis and emphysema added to the Prescribed Disease D1 assessment. Prescribed Disease D12--chronic bronchitis and emphysema--is not prescribed for such people".

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.

More fundamental is the lengthy letter dated 11th November this year from solicitors, three paragraphs of which I shall quote:


    "We have been in negotiations with the Department of Trade and Industry for many months in order to agree a scheme for settling all the claims. After many months of difficult and frustrating negotiations we believe that we have at last made some real progress ...


    However, we still have to agree how 50,000 claimants are to be medically assessed. The DTI want every miner to be physically examined by a doctor. If this were to happen it would take many years to process all claims. (Our estimate is over eight years.) We

16 Nov 1998 : Column 1109

    have proposed that assessments can be made much more quickly without physical examinations based on simple lung function tests and GP records. So far the Government have refused to accept this...


    We know that this is very frustrating for you".
The letter, which is addressed to my father-in-law, goes on to say:


    "Many people are becoming justifiably angry. However, we ask you to direct your frustration to the Government. We are doing everything that can be done to get a just system in place as soon as possible.


    Real progress has been made but more is needed. Your continued support is essential to us. To continue to help you may lobby your local MP at every opportunity".

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.

11.56 p.m.

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

16 Nov 1998 : Column 1110

moving, the delays in setting up procedures and putting every claimant through them may mean that in some cases years will elapse before settlement is reached.

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?

Midnight

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?

16 Nov 1998 : Column 1111

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.

12.6 a.m.

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

16 Nov 1998 : Column 1112

important matter and enabling us to debate it. I join my noble friend Lord Mason in congratulating the noble Lord on his long and forceful campaign on this issue. The length of time that it is taking to resolve this matter is naturally causing a great deal of anguish, anxiety and distress and I welcome the opportunity even at this late hour to explain the action which the Government are taking to deal with it as quickly as possible.

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.

In taking on these liabilities the Government were left with an extremely difficult task in agreeing with the plaintiffs' solicitors group--the PSG--which negotiates

16 Nov 1998 : Column 1113

on behalf of the mass of solicitors representing claimants, the handling arrangements to resolve the mass of claims. As British Coal had expected to win the trial, and had gradually run down its organisation throughout 1997, little work had been put in hand in anticipation of an adverse judgment. In addition, the court's judgment set compensation levels for only six individuals. The Government therefore need to put in place systems to handle as many as 100,000 claims. These claims cover a complex spectrum of injury and cannot be simply settled on the basis of the compensation awarded in the six cases. The judge himself has recognised this and laid down a strict timetable--and I want to emphasise this very strongly--which both parties have to meet to reach agreement and to ensure that the 600-page judgment is taken fully into account. We are due to return to court on 21st December to update the judge on progress, but it is hoped that many of the outstanding issues can be resolved before then.

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.

Since then we have had, and continue to have, detailed discussions with the claimants' solicitors and every effort is being made to meet that timetable so as not to delay matters.

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.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page