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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I take that point. The basis of those procedures is that we shall have a medical test which is conducted by a specialist in lung diseases. In that way, we shall be able to deal properly with all the aspects of that extremely complicated process rather than relying on a single measure.
In addition, we have recently assured the 1,000 claimants who worked for contractors underground on British Coal's premises that their claims will not be held up while British Coal's obligations are sorted out. We have also submitted proposals to the claimants' solicitors to provide full bereavement payments to widows.
A further full hearing was scheduled for Friday, 6th November, but the Government were pleased that their suggestion to adjourn that hearing and instead concentrate their efforts on a further meeting of the two parties was agreed by the claimants' solicitors. That was helpful and I understand that good progress was made to resolve the outstanding issues.
A meeting was held last Wednesday between the respective doctors advising the Government and the plaintiffs' solicitors to thrash out the remaining medical issues. The solicitors agreed also that tendering for certain medical tests can begin soon before final agreement is reached. That will help to reduce any delays after agreement is reached while the Government must follow their procurement procedures to allow competitive tendering.
My noble friend Lord Lofthouse asked about the use of DSS medicals of individuals receiving industrial injuries disablement benefit. DSS medicals exist for individuals who are in receipt of industrial injuries disablement benefit. While the medical confirms that there is a significant loss of lung function, it is not sufficiently detailed to allow an assessment of overall disability on which a full and final offer can be based; nor does it give any indication of an individual's smoking history which is necessary to apply the correct discount against the gross damages.
We must ensure that the full and final settlements that are offered are consistent with the findings of the court and the 600-page judgment. If they are not, there is a danger that some claimants will complain that they have been offered less than they are legally entitled to. That may result in individuals taking their cases back to court. Even if only a small percentage of the 100,000 claimants were to follow that route, we should still be in a very difficult position in trying to manage the further litigation.
Our aim is to avoid further litigation as much as possible, and that means making settlements that are fair to the individual, fair between individuals and in line with the judgment. The DSS medicals do not provide us with that opportunity. It should be noted also that the DSS medicals extend only to some 13,000 claimants, a small percentage of the 100,000 claims we expect in total. As I indicated, earlier receipt of DSS benefits for emphysema is being used as a basis for making interim payments of £2,000.
In answer to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Mason, I shall look at whether any advice can be given to claimants about cowboys seeking improperly to represent claimants. Unfortunately, what some of them are doing is legal, although it may not be morally very attractive.
As regards costs, the High Court awarded costs against British Coal and the level of fees paid to individual solicitors for claims remain a matter for negotiation. I should make it clear that we are prepared to agree only reasonable fees and will not agree a level that results in claimants receiving less than that to which they are legally entitled.
I should point out to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, that the litigation was specific to England and Wales and the judgment established liability against British Coal in respect of collieries in those countries. However, we have made it quite clear to solicitors representing Scottish miners that any compensation arrangements agreed with the solicitors' group will also be offered to Scottish miners.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that if this problem had been tackled in the same way as the pneumoconiosis compensation scheme it would have been done more quickly. British Coal set up that compensation scheme in 1975 in agreement with the unions on a no-fault liability basis to reach settlement quickly. Unfortunately, we are now in a legal situation and liabilities must be met on that basis.
I will examine the text of this debate in Hansard and if any questions asked by noble Lords have not been addressed, I shall endeavour to write to them shortly. I should like to close the debate by reiterating that the Government are acutely aware of the frustration and concern that it is taking so long to compensate the many ex-miners who are suffering from debilitating diseases. I can assure noble Lords that we are working as quickly as possible to resolve the remaining outstanding issues and looking to mitigate the effects of any delay wherever possible.
I have already mentioned that we are actively looking at ways to extend the accepting of offers of interim payments to other categories of claimant, and I expect further offers to be made shortly. In addition, there are a number of other ways in which the Government have sought to move things along to the benefit of claimants. For example, they have offered to pay general damages in advance of settling claims for special damages. That is an unusual and generous act in group litigation of this size which should mean that injured men receive awards as early as possible. They waive their legitimate legal right to take limitation points where late claims can be rejected for being out of time in all cases of emphysema. They have said that they will not reduce awards where a
I hope that the points I have made will help to meet concerns that the Government are not doing enough on this issue. I repeat, good progress has been made in the past few weeks and an end to the delay is in sight. It is now the time for both parties, the Government and the PSG to do all they can to draw the matter to a close and begin paying the miners the compensation awards they so richly deserve.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, we believe that that can be done. Inevitably it will take a certain amount of time, but we believe that having a one-group scheme which is properly quality controlled under the direction of one person is the right way forward.
Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, does he agree with the figures I have given--that there are only 500 positions at present in the country--and if that is the case, it will be a long time before all those miners can go through the examination period and qualify for compensation. A lot of miners will die. That will not give great encouragement in the coalfields.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am sure the House will agree that these matters need to be taken extremely seriously. We cannot afford to have a system which is not agreed; which does not meet the basis of the judgment and which therefore leads to further litigation that will only delay the process even further. We need an agreed basis on the best medical footing and we need to do that as quickly as possible.
Lord McNair: My Lords, I am sorry to delay the House but I did not hear the Minister refer to my specific point regarding silicosis. I understand that bronchitis and emphysema are also involved in silicosis. Will miners with silicosis but not pneumoconiosis be treated in the same way?
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