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Coal Health Claims

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2007

I am pleased to have secured the debate, which is our third or fourth in Westminster Hall on coal health claims. I am proud of what Labour Governments have done to bring in those claims. The Prime Minister said today that more than £3 billion has already been paid out. I was astonished to find that there has been a £10 million increase in what has been paid out in my constituency since our last debate on this issue. Some £33 million has been paid out in North Durham to date. We should be proud of Labour for that record.

We cannot be proud, however, of the way in which solicitors, claims handlers and, sadly, some trade unions, have raided victims’ compensation. There has been a feeding frenzy as they have taken money for their own greed. As I have said before in this Chamber, if those events had taken place in the leafy suburbs of Surrey or in middle-class England, it would be a national scandal and would be in the headlines of every newspaper. I was pleased that the report of my noble Friend Lord Lofthouse got some national publicity when it was finally published a few weeks ago. We should congratulate him on highlighting the unscrupulous way in which certain solicitors firms have raided and plundered victims’ compensation.

I shall focus on two issues today, the first of which is the deductions that are still being taken even though this issue has been well publicised in this Chamber and elsewhere. The second issue is the poor standard of service that some solicitors are giving to miners and their families.

I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), on pressing hard for the introduction of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which is a move in the right direction. For the first time, there is independent control over the regulation of solicitors. I also congratulate the Legal Complaints Service on finally getting its act together and responding to the complaints that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and I have made in large quantities. It is dealing with those cases very effectively and with some gusto.

The good work of those two organisations is marred, however, by the culture of denial in the senior echelons of the Law Society. I had the privilege, or honour, of meeting Fiona Woolf, the chief executive of the Law Society, at the launch of the SRA a few months ago, and I must say that her attitude told me everything that is wrong with the Law Society. There is a culture of denial and a belief that this issue does not affect the society. It thinks that its members have done nothing wrong, but that culture of denial needs to end.

We are seeing some signs of that culture ending. Peter Williamson, the chair of the SRA, gave an encouraging response to Lord Lofthouse’s report last week, when he said that he was ashamed that solicitors whose costs were being met by the Government were doing such things. There are moves to clean up the legal profession’s act in this regard, but there is a long way to go. We must insist today that the Law Society and individual solicitors pay back the money that they deducted from people’s compensation.

The scam—I have called it a scam before, because that is what it is: deluding people and taking payments from their compensation—could not have gone on without collusion between solicitors, claims handlers and some trade unions. I shall use as an example a firm that I have mentioned before: Thompsons Solicitors. I had a lot of dealings with Thompsons in my former life as a trade union official, and I greatly admire the work that it has done for asbestos victims and on behalf of trade unions, but its relationship with the Durham area National Union of Mineworkers does not cover it in a great deal of glory.

Durham NUM and Thompsons operate a system whereby 7.5 per cent. of people’s compensation is taken by Thompsons and passed on to Durham NUM, even though all their fees are paid by the Government. Durham NUM has reluctantly realised that the system is unsustainable and now says that it will be voluntary in future.

The federated structure of the NUM still exists, and I am still a fully paid-up member of the Northumberland area NUM, which operated a system of purely voluntary contributions from day one. That system was very successful, and those contributions were used to continue the very good work that it does in fairly remote communities and to maintain a service that is greatly appreciated by many people.

My hon. Friend pre-empts what I was going to say next. By way of contrast, I was about to compliment the Northumberland area NUM. It has been very good at ensuring that miners and their families get access to justice, but without taking a fixed fee. Instead, it asks for a voluntary donation, which is very defendable. Comparisons between those systems lead us to ask why Durham NUM has continued to deduct 7.5 per cent.

Is it not true that during the period that we are discussing, Northumberland NUM had a number of working miners paying subscriptions into the union, whereas that was not the case with the Durham miners?

That is an interesting point, but I ask my hon. Friend to wait while I expand on what Durham NUM is doing with the money.

The amount that has been paid to the legal profession is obscene, as is the agreed sum of £1,800 per lawyer per case. The Department of Trade and Industry should have done much more to challenge those sums. Payments of £1,800 were also made in cases that were fast-tracked. I know that they went to court, but does my hon. Friend not agree that the DTI should have challenged those payments in instances where the recipients were doing nothing for that money? Is not that an obscenity?

I agree, but I do not want to pre-empt what the Minister is going to say. Those payments were challenged in a court case last week, in which the court ruled that £100 million has to be paid back to the DTI.

I have asked the Durham area NUM, even though it refuses to meet me, to write to every claimant it has worked with to say that the contribution system is now voluntary and that if people wish to have their money back, they can. Thompsons agrees with me on that point, but is reluctant to write to everyone concerned. We had tortuous meetings earlier this year, in which the NUM produced a long-winded two-page letter that would be difficult for anyone to understand. What is needed is for a simple letter to be sent to people telling them that they can have their money back if that is what they want. It could be as simple as that.

It is mind-boggling that the certification officer’s accounts for Durham NUM show that it has 15,000 members, of whom 5,000 are women. The vast majority of those people are not full but associate members. I tried to find out what rights they get as associate members, and the quick answer is none. They pay a £20 fee to access the so-called legal services of Thompsons Solicitors through the Durham area NUM. I have asked what rights they get to decide the structure of the regional NUM, and they do not get any. They have no voting rights. If one of them forgets to pay the £20, they get an interestingly worded letter from Mr. Hopper and Mr. Guy at Durham NUM saying that if they do not continue to pay their legal case will be withdrawn. First, that is wrong. Secondly, it questions the nature of the relationship involving Thompsons.

Does Thompsons, or the Durham area NUM, represent the best interest of the client? My constituent, Mrs. Clark, challenged the NUM by asking whether she could have back the £60 that she had paid. She wrote and then rang the NUM only to be told, “We haven’t got any notification of your letter. Anyway, why are you complaining?” We are talking not about a membership fee, but about an access fee that one would pay to a claims handler to get the case put forward.

Great claims are made in Durham that the deducted money is being used for the promotion of other health claims, the protection of the mining community and in supporting welfare work. I question that, because I do not see much evidence for it on the ground in Durham. I thought that I would see what the Durham NUM does. What I shall now say is happening to the money would amaze many of the people who have paid the 7.5 per cent. My information is not made up; it comes from the Durham area NUM’s accounts, lodged with the certification officer for the past two years.

The president, Mr. David Guy, and the general secretary, Dave Hopper, are paid £6,034 by the Durham area NUM. In addition, they receive £16,000 in car and other benefits. One then notices a figure in the accounts of £120,000, which is transferred to something called the north-east area NUM. That body’s accounts for last year show that two of its employees are, lo and behold, Mr. Hopper and Mr. Guy. Mr. Guy is paid £51,000 and also receives £5,000 a year in pension benefits, while Mr. Hopper is paid £50,000 a year and a further £5,700 in pension benefits.

Unless one traces the Durham area NUM’s accounts to the north-east area NUM, one cannot discover where the money is going. It clearly pays two individuals very well. I have asked for the north-east area NUM’s accounts for this year, but I am told that the body has now been delisted as a registered trade union, so it does not have to produce accounts. Why is that? The interesting point that lifts a veil is that the north-east area NUM has just 30 members. I am also told that not only are Mr. Guy and Mr. Hopper employed; the new Mrs. Guy is too, although one cannot see that in the accounts.

I am told that all this activity is going on, and that is what the money is being paid for. However, I thought that I had better check to see what is being said in the returns to the certification officer. I have the details here. All trade unions have to put in these returns. They contain a number of self-explanatory headings that have monetary figures next to them.

The return for the representation of employment-related issues was nil. The figure for representation of non-employment-related issues—that obviously relates to welfare, disease cases and so on—was nil. The return for communications was nil. The figure for advisory services—giving advice to people—was nil. The figure for dispute benefits was nil. The other cash payments were nil. The figure for education and training services was nil. The negotiator discounts totalled nil. The salary costs were nil. Interestingly, the figure for other benefits or grants—that is specific—was nil. The figure for death benefits was £1,280. That is all the activity that was being paid for. Given that two individuals are earning a hell of a lot of money, what is the union doing? By its own admission, the answer seems to be very little.

I must enlighten my hon. Friend a little. I know those two gentleman and the organisation well. I do not represent a constituency in the north-east of England, but I know about their activities, as do many hon. Members who are present. I have no financial connection with the organisation, but I must tell him that he is not blind and he is well aware of what the NUM does in the north-east of England. It is heavily involved in welfare activities, in representation activities and in the communities in the north-east. He cannot hide away from that fact. I hope that he is not intimating that the NUM in the Nottinghamshire area is in any way involved in these issues. It is a separate organisation, and is not involved in the ways that he has described.

Not at all. I am raising a specific issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) referred to the Northumberland area, and its returns show what it does. I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) that that is not the case in this example.

This 7.5 per cent. has been taken off people’s compensation. Many people feel that they have to pay it and they still think that they are legally obliged to do so. It generates £5.5 million for the Durham area NUM, which sits in its bank accounts. It was news to me when I found out that the accounts show that £680,000 is in an offshore bank account. What is a trade union doing with an offshore bank account that has more than £500,000 sitting in it?

If the organisation was doing the welfare work to which my hon. Friend refers, I would have no problem, but it is not. I shall cite an example. It paid out just over £1,000 on death benefits last year. I understand that its death benefit is now a £20 to £30 payout. I understand that Durham Mechanics, a less wealthy organisation, pays out more than £600 in that regard, and I know that other areas do too. So we need to ask what has happened to the money.

The clear solution would be if Thompsons was to write to every person who has had their 7.5 per cent. deducted to ask whether they know whether they were legally obliged to pay it. If people want the money back, it should be paid back. In all of the cases that I have put forward so far, the money is being paid back, and unless that is done, this situation will continue.

If people wish to give their money—the 7.5 per cent.—to Durham NUM, that is up to them, but many of these people do not know about this. It is all very well Mr. Guy and Mr. Hopper condemning me for being an attacker of the trade union movement, but I am not—I want rights for my individual constituents—and if they have nothing to hide, why do they not write to people? Every time that I raise the issue, more constituents say to me, “I want to claim my 7.5 per cent. back.” That will doubtless happen when this debate appears in the local press. This matter needs to be cleared up.

The other issue that I should like to raise is the relationship between solicitors and claims handlers. I want to raise the case of Watson Burton solicitors in Newcastle. It purports to be a major commercial law firm, but it clearly could not resist getting involved in miners compensation. It had a relationship with an organisation called P and R Associates of Sunderland, which is another one of those claims-handling companies that does nothing for clients apart from getting them to fill in a form and then passing it over to the likes of Watson Burton. That firm has deducted £325,000 from miners compensation victims.

On 27 February 2006, a complaint went to the adjudication panel of the Law Society, which found that the named partners in Watson Burton had breached solicitors’ practice regulations. One might expect that some action would have been taken, but was a fine imposed on Watson Burton? No. Were the partners struck off? No. Were they suspended from practice? No. There was merely a reprimand, which Watson Burton was able to trumpet in its press releases as being the lowest form of reprimand that the Law Society put forward.

I have still not received an answer from Watson Burton about its relationship with P and R Associates. Did it buy these cases? Its defence and argument is that it was legally obliged to pass the money over because people had signed a legal contract, but did it advise clients that they did not need to pay the money? No, it did not; it just passed the money over anyway. We are talking about a firm that has taken £325,000 of victims’ money. I understand that one senior partner earned £850,000 last year, so I would challenge the firm to pay back the money, because the clients were clearly being ill advised; they were not being advised that they did not need to pay the money to P and R Associates. That goes to the nub of a lot of relationships, and such disgraceful activity could not have happened without collusion between solicitors, claims handlers and others.

I first became involved through a case concerning a firm in Newcastle called Mark Gilbert Morse, which would unscrupulously charge 25 per cent. in the early days, but I am told by the Law Society that it no longer does so and has paid the money back. I want to highlight an issue about the service that clients receive. A constituent of mine—I shall call her Mrs. X because I do not want to name her—went to Mark Gilbert Morse via a claims handler whose advert was stuck on her door. She was a miner’s widow and last year Capita offered Watson Burton £42,000 to settle her claim. Mark Gilbert Morse did not even inform her that that offer had been made but rejected it saying that it could get a higher offer. However, lo and behold, when Capita made another offer six months later, it was considerably less than the £42,000. I complained to the Law Society, and it shamed Mark Gilbert Morse into paying the original figure of £42,000. However, I am worried about how many other cases are being handled by firms, such as Mark Gilbert Morse, that are giving a poor or substandard service.

Will my hon. Friend comment on the lessons that we can learn, because there are likely to be similar claims for damages to industrial workers? The mechanism for meeting such claims is wholly inadequate and subject to exactly the sort of problems that he has outlined. How can we avoid the problems happening again? My hon. Friend may want to reflect on the pneumoconiosis scheme that the Government introduced and which bypassed all that.

There is one short answer: keep the solicitors out of it. If there is to be a scheme for beat knee sufferers, we do not want another feeding frenzy for lawyers. We need a clear scheme that is simple for people to understand and does not need representation.

I have said before that many of the people who come to see me with such complaints have never dealt with solicitors. They are elderly and sometimes without a high degree of literacy. They are in awe of solicitors and believe everything that they say. The Law Society should check those firms to see whether the advice that they give is correct.

The level of claims is revealing. I pay credit to Thompsons who do a good job in ensuring that the claims that it takes on are worked through properly. However, the average figure that Thompsons obtains compared with those obtained by some other firms raises the question: why does one firm obtain more than others? Are the claims different? They cannot be, and often they are very similar. The issue is that firms, such as Mark Gilbert Morse, raise thousands of claims and deal with them like a sausage machine, as they come along. In some cases, I doubt whether a solicitor ever goes near them.

Perhaps one reason why Thompsons has better results is that they work closely with the NUM and people such as David Guy and David Hopper who have a hands-on relationship in the villages that they come from. They put the work in and get witnesses to come forward, so better cases are put to the Department of Trade and Industry and the courts. That is why they win more money.

I wish that were the case, but why is it that firms in North Durham, such as Mark Gilbert Morse, and the claims handlers have so many cases if they do such a good job? They were not doing a good job in those areas. My parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) suggests that, somehow, they were out there actively doing such work, but they were not. In North Durham, for example, claims handling companies, Mark Gilbert Morse and others have a large number of claims from people who have gone not through the union but to claims handling companies. The worst thing about that—it gives me no pleasure to say this—is that there is clear collusion between former NUM officials and unscrupulous claims handlers, such as Industrial Disease Compensation Ltd.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. The misclassification of vibration white finger claims into groups 1, 2 and 3 is an example of the differential quality of solicitors. A huge number were incorrectly placed in group 3 by Government contractors and only a certain number of solicitors pursued them. Many people accepted as gospel that their claims had been rejected and that they should forget about them. It was only pressure, partly from Members of Parliament but also from well-informed solicitors, that led to many rejected claims being looked at again.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Some solicitors give correct advice and press claims, and I have no problem in saying that Thompson do that, but I am sorry that they are dragged into the matter by an agreement that they should not have had in Durham. There was collusion, and I do not blame individuals for being confused.

A working men’s club in my constituency has a long tradition of being associated with the NUM, and I found out that IDC Ltd. was holding a surgery there. I asked the club secretary why he had let IDC Ltd. in, and he said that a certain individual, who used to be a trade union official, had said that it was okay, again giving the impression that such organisations have some legitimacy with the trade union movement. Some of those people should, frankly, hold their heads in shame for their relationships with some claims handling companies.

I give no credit to collusion between ex-trade unionists and a filing company, but that has always been the case with ex-trade unionists who move across the floor to management.

My hon. Friend refers to Thompsons and solicitors in England. There is also an issue in Scotland, and Thompsons is picking up hundreds of cases because English solicitors made themselves available to try to make a cheap trick, but did not realise that Scots law was different from English law, and just left people high and dry. Thompsons and the NUM in Scotland—I should emphasise that the NUM is a federal union—is picking up those cases.

I make no bones about it. The NUM has a federal structure, and it amazes me that Thompsons and others have allowed a relationship that is not correct to develop in Durham. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) mentioned the situation in Northumberland, which I commend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian is correct, and that comes back to the Law Society. Under the Legal Services Bill, there must be an onus on the Law Society not to try to educate—that is too patronising—but to ensure that solicitors tell claimants if they may not be the best firm to deal with a case and that another, more specialist firm would be better.

My hon. Friend raises a legitimate point. There was a feeding frenzy and people wanted to get in, so small high street firms of solicitors with no expertise in industrial disease work became involved, and gave bad advice. That is why we should tell people to go to a solicitor by all means, but that they should make sure that they go to someone who knows what they are talking about.

My hon. Friend has paid tribute to Thompsons and is also critical of them. Can we move on to other solicitors who had their hands in the till, or their snouts in the trough, such as Beresfords of Doncaster, who have earned hundreds of millions of pounds from such cases?

I agree, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw will add more names. I could read a long list of shame, and it saddens me that Thompsons is associated with that list of shame. They should try to sort that out.

Many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. Unless the Law Society instructs its members to pay back the money that they have deducted themselves and kept or passed on to a third party, whether a trade union or claims handling company, the matter will not go away. Today, I am challenging the Law Society to instruct every solicitor to pay the money back. It is no good saying, “We are waiting for people to come forward and complain,” because most people do not know whether they have a complaint. In most cases, people have signed a bit of paper with a claims handling company, which they think is a legal obligation. In some cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw knows, people have been threatened when they have not paid.

Although I agree 100 per cent. with my hon. Friend’s comments about many firms of solicitors, does he agree that there are also decent firms of solicitors that have acted honestly, pursued claims diligently and recovered a lot of money for their clients? One such firm is Browell Smith and Company. Northumberland miners use that company and have had some great success with it.

I know Browell Smith and Company well from when I was northern region legal officer of the GMB, and I commend it. As I have said to Durham NUM and to Thompsons, what people do with the compensation they receive is up to them. If people want to give it to the NUM, fine. It is entirely up to them if they want to give a portion to a cats home, but people should not be given the impression that they have to give a certain percentage to an organisation.

Will my hon. Friend accept the distinction between claims handlers and the NUM? He has criticised the NUM in Durham. The claims handlers take all the money that they get for the company’s profit, but the NUM in Durham is one of four regional branches that put by £1.2 million to try to lodge a claim on knee litigation. The regional branches are Scotland, Derbyshire, Durham—or the north-east NUM, I am not sure what it is called—and south Wales.

My hon. Friend’s loyalty to ex-colleagues is admirable, but what he said is not the case. [Interruption.] Well, let us just take beat knee, or miners’ knee. Until I raised the issue, there was no situation in which Durham NUM would have contributed money, and it still has not put any money in. I am sorry, but the Durham NUM is not different from claims handling firms. The union is acting as a claims handler, and two individuals are quite clearly doing well out of it. Indeed, Mr. Guy’s wife is now also employed by the organisation. It has acted exactly like a claims handler. If the money were genuinely going back into communities and people had a choice about it, I would have no problem; however, that has not been the case. I say to my hon. Friend that I accept long friendships and loyalties, but I ask him to look at the facts and not to be blinded by his past loyalties.

A challenge has to be made. Every single law firm that has deducted money from people’s compensation and kept it themselves should pay it back, and if they have deducted the money for a third party, whether a trade union or claims handler, they should also pay it back now. Otherwise, I will not give up on the matter, as I am sure other hon. Members present will not.

I will keep my remarks brief because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on his tenacity in pursuing the case. He has not come to it lately; he has been working hard on it for months if not years, for which I pay tribute to him. I shall say something that will probably not endear me to the Chamber: I was a solicitor for 20 years. After that, I reformed, and became a barrister, which is probably even worse. I do not know where that puts me exactly.

In the few minutes that I have to speak, I wish to refer to knee injuries, as the hon. Members for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and for North Durham did. It is common knowledge that many miners suffer from cartilage damage, osteoarthritis and other complaints. Those are serious injuries, which often result in surgery or the need for surgery such as knee replacements and so on. They are crippling injuries, which onset at a relatively young age. Sufferers often have to have second knee replacements, which is frequently impossible because of the general health of miners. In my way of thinking, compensation is absolutely vital.

As far as I am concerned, what the hon. Member for North Durham said about solicitors is absolutely right. Some of the behaviour that he described is in breach of practice rules, and I cannot for the life of me understand why those solicitors are not brought to book. The hon. Gentleman, and others in the Chamber, will pursue the matter until they are, and he is right to do so.

On the question of compensation, I hope that the Government have learned from the lengthy and expensive legal battle fought over miners with chest illnesses. The National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers is pursuing knee injury cases, and it had hoped that such cases would not have to go to the High Court. Some time ago, it seemed that the Government were in favour of avoiding a long trial and that they were committed to mediation, an approach with which all of us would agree. Echoing the hon. Gentleman, we should keep the solicitors out, which is fair enough. On 30 April, at a county court hearing in Leeds, the barrister leading for the Government, Robert Jay QC, said:

“Realistically, these cases will go to the High Court.”

It seems that the last thing that will happen now is that the lawyers will be kept out of it. Worse still, even with the Woolf reforms, we are looking at a two or three-year wait—perhaps even longer with a class action—before any decision is reached.

In February, Bleddyn Hancock of NACODS wrote to the Minister to ask whether he would meet the claimants to see whether a scheme could be devised to avoid the expense and delay of a court action. The Minister replied that there was not enough evidence to convince him to do so. However, there was sufficient evidence to convince a judge to allow trial on the issues, which is absolutely right. I have tabled parliamentary questions asking the Minister to reconsider meeting NACODS and miners’ representatives to see whether we can come to a fair and reasonable arrangement.

I realise that there is not an endless amount of money. I realise also that in any legal case, there must be due deference to the question of liability; that is common sense. However, for the Minister to say that to date,

“liability has not been established,”—[Official Report, 14 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 480W.]

to quote him again, is I am afraid representative of something like a denial culture. I hope that we can all get around the table and talk about the issues without recourse to costly and time-consuming litigation.

I have written to the Secretary of State for Wales asking if he will consider contributing his efforts, because as late as November last year, he said about the miners:

“It became a personal crusade for me, I knew that so many sick miners had suffered so grievously. This is why it has been so important for me to work continuously, and I will work for all former miners and widows wherever they live and this Government will honour our debt to the men who sacrificed their health to deliver prosperity for the rest of us.”

Hear, hear. The case under discussion is one to which we should apply that rationale.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said last week that one of the highlights of the Prime Minister’s tenure was the introduction of compensation. Fine; I agree with that point. However, let us not forget that compensation came about after a lengthy court process, which I hope we can avoid this time around. It can be done. The money would not—in my respectful submission—amount to a king’s ransom, and there is the money that could be utilised for that purpose.

There will have to be proper medical reports and liability will have to be considered, but please, let us not drag the process out for two, three, four or five years, because even though we may reach the High Court and eventually find that there is liability, in the meantime, some people may be crippled, or even worse, they may pass away. In the best possible way, I ask the Minister to look at the issue urgently to see whether we can avoid a debacle.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate, which is important for my constituents and many others who have worked in the pits and suffered great illnesses as a consequence. I join others in recognising the Government’s proud record in developing a compensation scheme that has paid millions of pounds to miners and their families. If anything demonstrates the Government’s commitment to those who gave their health, and in some cases their lives, to build the coal industry and this country’s prosperity, it is that compensation scheme.

However, no amount of compensation will restore the health of a miner or bring back a loved one who has died. My staff and I have helped more than 500 constituents with claims, and more than £49 million has been paid out in Islwyn to those suffering chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or vibration white finger. However, it is not only the money that is important, but securing justice and putting right a wrong.

I knew a miner called Bob James, whom I could visit only in the afternoons. He told me not to come round in the mornings, because he was on oxygen and had difficulty getting off his bed. One of the Minister’s predecessors, Helen Liddell, visited Bob with me; indeed, he charmed her, and they got on very well. When Bob finally got his compensation, he said, “You know, Don, when the grandchildren come now and say, ‘Granch, lend us a tenner,’ I’ll say no—I can give them one. When my own children were growing up, I didn’t have two ha’pennies to rub together. Now, my health has gone, and the money is no good to me. My pleasure in life is giving it to my children and grandchildren.” He added, “I did get justice in the end, didn’t I? They did recognise what I had gone through.”

Of course, too many miners never live to see justice. I work closely with an ex-miner by the name of Nat Thomas, who helps miners and their widows make compensation claims. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister met him when he met the NUM in Cardiff recently; indeed, he would not have been able to get away from Nat terribly easily. Only last week, however, Nat wrote to me about another chap whom we had been helping, but who had died without receiving compensation.

My own father worked underground for 42 years. He developed a brain tumour, but, thank God, he lived for several more years. However, the last two years of his life were hell and he was suffering—gasping for breath and having to manage on gulps of oxygen from an oxygen cylinder. He worked for 42 years at Blaenserchan colliery, and when the National Coal Board finished him on health grounds, it wrote to him thanking him for his services. It gave him a pension of £1 a week, but told him that that would go down to six shillings and eightpence if he got another job.

For me, the campaign to compensate miners is not over, and it will not be over until we agree a compensation scheme for surface workers. As is the case with many colleagues, my pride in the Government’s commitment to the miners knows no bounds, but it is tinged with sadness. I share with them a sense of disappointment and frustration at the fact that the Government seem intent on diminishing their outstanding record on delivering justice to miners by refusing to recognise the legitimate claims of surface workers. There are men who worked on the surface, at the screens or at the coal preparation plants whose disabilities are as great as those of any miner who worked underground, and those surface workers suffer just as much.

My disappointment is all the greater given that we are having to debate this issue today. Had the Department of Trade and Industry followed through on a minute that it laid before Parliament on 10 July 2000, when it agreed to accept liability and to compensate surface workers, we would not be debating this issue today. Paragraph five of that minute clearly says:

“The DTI proposes to accept that British Coal did not fully meet its responsibilities towards certain categories of workers in dusty jobs on the surface.”

Paragraph six states:

“In accepting liability”—

those are key words—

“the DTI would propose to miners’ solicitors that compensation for surface dust exposure be handled within the current agreement for underground exposure.”

Unless anyone disagrees, I would say that that makes it clear—it is set out in plain English—that the Government accepted liability at that time for the illnesses caused by some surface jobs. Sadly, it seems that we were all mistaken, and not a penny has been paid out in compensation in nearly seven years.

In a parliamentary question on 8 January, I asked the Minister what proposals had been put to claimants’ solicitors regarding compensation for surface workers. I was told that the claimants group was

“in favour of further joint studies and the House was informed in March 2001. As a result of these further studies and developments over the next four years, the Department’s position is now that ‘it cannot scheme compensation’ to surface only workers.”

“It cannot scheme compensation” to surface workers—what a wonderful phrase. I wonder who sat up burning the midnight oil thinking up that answer.

On the same day, I also asked on what date Ministers were informed that medical advice had been sought about compensation for miners exposed to surface dust. I was told:

“Ministers were informed on 5 June 2000 that medical advice was being sought on compensation for miners for exposure to surface dust.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 297W, 298W.]

That was one month before the DTI put the minute to Parliament accepting liability and agreeing to compensate surface workers.

In an Adjournment debate on 7 February 2006, my hon. Friend said that further studies, which had come about following negotiations,

“confirmed the Department’s view that incidence of COPD disability was…very small.”

I have to tell him that that felt like a slap in the face to all the surface workers and families whose hopes had been raised when the Department’s minute was laid before Parliament. The DTI raised hopes of compensation, but immediately dashed them. Does the DTI’s view now mean that the medical advice that it sought and brought forward was flawed in some way? I do not know. Such behaviour is not good enough for those living with respiratory diseases that have been caused by surface dust from their time in the mining industry.

Whatever grounds the DTI has for rejecting claims, one simple fact remains: dust—that killer dust—did not distinguish between a miner working underground and one working on the surface. Are we to tell the families of men who have become used to the sight of oxygen bottles in their living rooms that the dust that their fathers and grandfathers inhaled on the surface did not have the same terrible effect as the dust inhaled by men underground?

In that debate on 7 February, my hon. Friend said:

“The clear way forward is for those who feel that they have a good case to receive compensation is to put claims on the usual common law basis.”

Is my hon. Friend seriously asking surface workers, some of whom are in their 70s or 80s, and some of whom are extremely ill, to put their homes and life savings at risk to hire a lawyer to go to court and challenge a Government whom they have helped to put in power not once but three times over the past 10 years? Asking claimants to take part in expensive and lengthy litigation will benefit only the lawyers, not benefit the taxpayer or the claimant.

Last year my hon. Friend said that he did not believe that

“the cost should be borne by the…taxpayer.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 7 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 222-24WH.]

Does that mean that the DTI would prefer to spend millions on legal costs in the courts? Compensating the surface workers would cost far less than the millions of pounds that the lawyers will end up being paid. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I know that the National Audit Office is investigating the compensation scheme. I look forward to the occasion when the Committee assembles, and the permanent secretary at the DTI comes before us to justify, on value-for-money grounds, wasting money on lawyers, rather than introducing a scheme that could compensate miners.

The number of former surface workers who are affected is very small—it is 3,000 or perhaps 5,000. In a report on coal health compensation, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry said:

“We hope that a solution can be found which allows ex-surface workers to be admitted to the COPD scheme. While we recognise that the DTI’s current position may be legally watertight, it does not seem to us to be just.”

Of course it is not just, and nor is it defensible. Here we are three years on, and nothing has changed.

The Committee asked whether there was a solution, and there is a simple one: let the surface workers go through the medical assessment procedure test. If they do, the number of claims will be significantly reduced. Those who fail the test would have no claim; those shown to qualify for compensation should be compensated.

I know that my hon. Friend is an honourable and decent man and a good Minister. I say to him, “Ignore the siren voices behind you at the DTI, which are urging you to take these matters to court.” The best thing that he can do to those who say such things to him would be to arrange an exchange of jobs for them and send them down the pit for a year or two. I guarantee that they would give him different advice after that.

Delivering justice for surface workers is the right thing to do. In a month or so, we will have a new Prime Minister, and perhaps my hon. Friend will have a new job. While he still has this one, however, I hope that we can award him the accolade of being the Minister who finally delivered justice for miners, and surface workers in particular.

When he comes to reply to the debate, in all humility I urge him to tear up the notes that his officials have given him, to speak from the heart and to give the miners the justice that they deserve.

I have a few quick questions for the Minister. First, some of the earlier discussions rather missed the point in dealing with the question of knees and who should pay for the litigation. The absurdity, aside from the issue of moneys being paid to the NUM and others, is that there should be any suggestion of miners funding future litigation out of their industrial injury compensation, when the solicitors have made £500 million—a sum which is going up. Thompsons is meant to be the great trade union solicitor. The firm has made more than £100 million—it looks likely to go up to £200 million—out of the scheme that we are discussing alone, so why does not Thompsons pay the Scottish NUM’s money, and more? Indeed, I wonder, on the basis of a rough calculation, why it does not donate £5 million to the Scottish NUM. That would be a pro rata kind of sum from its vast profits. This is the fundamental issue. We should not tie ourselves in knots about how the funding is handled.

We could go through the other solicitors, such as Rayleys, with more than £50 million, and Graysons, with more than £25 million, or Beresfords, whom I suspect will be more reluctant than others to fund anything, with more than £200 million. Those people have done rather well, and, frankly, will do rather well again if a knee litigation case is won. It is a supreme irony that they refuse to fund something from which they will benefit, and that they make up excuses to suggest that elderly miners and widows should fund it. That is the true scandal and the scale of the disgrace of the legal profession—including those who purport to be on the side of the labour movement. Let them put their money where their mouth is.

I have only one point to make to the Minister about surface workers. He is clawing back £100 million from the solicitors, thanks to the fast-track money from the court action that he has won. That is a significant sum, and a tiny proportion of it would sort out the surface workers issue, which, as he knows, is not going away. One of my constituents has, through me, put the Minister on notice, and we have offered mediation, which has unfortunately been rejected. However, my surface worker constituents will have their day in court to argue their case, one way or another, even if we must do it case by case—even if we lose every one. The case, and the justice, is indeed more important than the money, although to someone seriously ill with a chest disease the money is important as well. There is no avoiding the issue.

I have a question about industrial deafness. Why were 11,000 cases given to a claims handler, Vendside, without solicitors, in the knowledge that there were no consumer rights and that for that reason, the individuals concerned could not use the Law Society regulations, which are not voluntary but statutory, to obtain their files and see whether their cases had been properly dealt with? No challenge can be made in the Vendside deafness cases, or in the vibration white finger and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease cases that went only through UDM/Vendside and not through solicitors, because those concerned cannot even see the files. The Minister is legally entitled to give access to those files as the defendant employer. Will he allow access for those individuals who want to see whether, among other things, the medical reports were properly analysed, the services claim was dealt with properly and the group three issue was properly dealt with?

That seems to me to be a basic consumer right for that group of claimants, and the absurd decision to allow a claims handler to enter into its own agreement and to take cases separately from solicitors has led to a loss of consumer rights. The Minister could be very helpful by giving further details about his officials’ meetings and dinners at the Rubens hotel and elsewhere, during the past eight years, with representatives of UDM/Vendside. Were minutes taken at those dinners? If not, why did officials go to such dinners and not produce minutes? If there were minutes, can they be produced for Members of the House to see?

The issues of probate that come before all solicitors are vexed and complex, and almost by definition more and more issues are beginning to emerge out of that complexity. Will the Minister issue a clear and coherent advice note on probate, both for solicitors and, more crucially, for Members of the House and our constituents, to enable understanding of the principles of and issues behind probate? It is an aggravating factor, causing splits in families in my area, and, I suspect, elsewhere, because of disputes about who owns the minuscule amounts of money from a deceased miner’s claim.

Will the Minister investigate the scale of speculative claims? They are claims for deceased miners, whereby a claim is put in, but, strangely, no one seems to own it. I shall cite one that the Minister could examine specifically. It is the case of a John Mann, from Nottinghamshire. I was contacted by Avalon solicitors, who rang me up about my claim, which they then treated as my deceased father’s claim. Neither I nor my father has a claim. We did not work in the industry. The firm was happy to tell me what had happened. There was a claim owing, which it had put in, and it was trying to find the family. The family had not put in a claim; the solicitors had done it, and they were seeking the family—and obviously would be getting significant costs for it if they could find the family. This is a wide area of activity that needs investigating, and which is possibly beyond the remit of the Department of Trade and Industry. However, will the Minister specifically study the case that came from the firm of Avalon, of John Mann of Nottinghamshire, to examine in detail whether it was a speculative claim?

My final question to the Minister is about double charging and has been raised before. I shall give one example, concerning Union and General Services and Frank Allen Pennington of Doncaster. About £3,000 is deducted per case. Many of the relevant cases are outside my area—in fact, the vast majority are. I am certain that there are people who do not realise that £3,000 has been wrongly deducted in their case. Will the Minister ensure, in the case of those claims handlers, that everyone concerned is written to as a matter of urgency explaining the consumer rights that they have through the Law Society, so that those vital sums—large amounts of money—can be put back in the pockets of the people who deserve them?

I am conscious of the time, Mr. O’Hara, and will try to keep my contribution to a minimum. It goes without saying what a difference is being made by compensation money to the lives of miners and their families in my constituency, which has the highest number of individual claims; there is talk now of compensation for former miners there being well over £100 million.

There are two issues that I want to raise, which have not yet been covered. I raised the first in my Adjournment debate in February 2004 and in the consequential Adjournment debate in the House in September 2004. I think that my early-day motion 666, tabled on 22 February 2004, puts my point in perspective:

“That this House notes with sadness that solicitors dealing with Miners Compensation Scheme cases for chronic bronchitis and emphysema are currently receiving an average fee of £2,143 per case whilst at the same time almost half the former miners so far compensated have received final settlements of less than that amount, and that over 3,100 former miners have received less than £200; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to undertake an urgent review to consider implementing a minimum compensation payment to former miners suffering from CBE of £1,500.”

At that time we had a large number of claims. In fact 21,500 former miners had then already accepted full and final settlements of less than £1,000. Indeed, 9,500 miners accepted less than £500 and 3,400 accepted £200, at the same time as solicitors were claiming an average of £2,140. Since then, substantially more miners have settled for less than £500. In fact, between 2004 and 2006, another 17,500 miners have settled for less than £500.

In response to my Adjournment debate of September 2004, the Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), said that the claimants’ solicitors were trying to set up a scheme to pay a minimum of £500 back to their clients. I am pleased to say that the scheme got off the ground in February 2007. It is a bit disappointing that it has taken so long for that to happen, but I am pleased that the scheme is now up and running. The obvious question to which I would like the Minister to respond is this. We have already talked about the global figures for the fees that the solicitors have received—which, incidentally, amount to nearly £1 billion—but, given that 20,000-odd miners have already accepted less than £500, does the Minister agree that we should consider paying out for them, too, now that the scheme is off the ground?

The other issue that I want to raise briefly—I promised Mrs. Riley from Grimethorpe that I would raise it with the Minister—is compensation for former canteen workers and cleaners under the Equal Pay Act 1970. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that some 2,500 former canteen workers and cleaners have still not received compensation, because they unfortunately did not get their claims in on time under that Act. That was very much the fault of certain union officials at certain pits. I wonder whether the Minister can offer any advice that I can pass on to Mrs. Riley, because the issue is one of social justice and fairness. The situation is that some canteen workers and cleaners have received up to £20,000 in compensation, while other canteen workers and cleaners, who put in exactly the same amount of time working at the other pit, have not received anything.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara. It is useful to have these debates regularly, because they give us a chance to be updated on the progress of the scheme. Indeed, I found the regular meetings that we used to have with the Minister helpful in that regard, too. I am not sure whether they take place now—perhaps I have been left off the invitation list or otherwise been unable to attend.

It is good to reflect on a scheme that has brought compensation to people who worked in terrible conditions and suffered as a result, and on whose backs the nation thrived for many years. It is a great shame and a pity when I see former miners in my constituency who have had difficulties establishing their claims and who have not been paid becoming more ill and more dependent on their wives and families, yet still not receiving the benefit of compensation. Many of them tell me that they would be satisfied to know that even if they died before receiving compensation, at least their widows would receive it. They could then be confident that their widows would have no difficulties after their days.

The scheme has basically worked reasonably well. A great amount of compensation—well, the right amount—has gone out to communities that have been devastated by illness. However, there have been difficulties, some of which have been mentioned today. I commend the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on pursuing the issue. As far as I am concerned, the legal profession has been well rewarded for the work it has done in connection with the scheme. To then take extra money out of the compensation was entirely wrong. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has campaigned on the issue as well.

I might be corrected by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) if I am wrong about this, but we do not seem to have had so many of those complaints in south Wales, although complaints about the efficiency with which the solicitors have dealt with claims have certainly been quite common. Indeed, I had a case where just threatening the solicitors with a complaint to the Law Society led them to pay compensation immediately, because they had bungled the application so much. I am sure that the contributions that the hon. Member for North Durham and other hon. Members have made today will bring some recompense to those former miners who have had their compensation reduced.

There are a number of miners suffering from diseases other than COPD or vibration white finger whose cases have been raised today. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) raised the case of those with osteoarthritis in the knee. I am sure that we would all like to work together to ensure that progress is made on that issue.

The other outstanding issue concerns the cases of the surface workers, which the right hon. Gentleman has been prominent in pursuing. There are cases in my constituency of surface workers who have undoubtedly suffered as a result of their working conditions. I met the Minister recently and he suggested that I write to some of the legal firms that have been involved in pursuing such claims, to see whether they could use the money that they have received—obviously the sums have been quite substantial—to pursue the cases of surface workers through the courts. It would be better if we could come up with a scheme for what would not be a huge number of claimants. If the £100 million that is to be returned to the DTI as a result of payments to legal firms on the fast-track scheme could be used for that, that would be very helpful indeed.

The other group of mineworkers that has not been mentioned, but which certainly causes me considerable anxiety and work, is workers in small mines. Such cases are difficult to sort out, because it is sometimes difficult to track down the exact employment history of some of those former miners, because it can go back over a very long period. Even if those miners have good memories, it can be very difficult indeed to establish evidence to substantiate their claims. If a miner has finished work early in a small mine, compensation for loss of wages and loss of pension can also be a difficulty. However, we should introduce a system to make some payment as soon as possible and thereby bring some consolation to that class of workers, even if it is difficult to work out the exact balance of compensation between those in small mines and those who worked for British Coal. I know that the situation is very difficult indeed. The Minister advised me to write to some of the insurers for the small mines, such as AGF. I have done that and hope to meet its representatives.

This has been a worthwhile debate. We look forward to the Minister coming forward with some solutions, tearing up his advice—he is being handed another piece at this very moment—as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, and bringing some happiness to those miners and their families who have suffered so sorely with such injuries.

I begin by expressing our support for those miners still seeking compensation and congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this important debate. I also acknowledge the local expertise that many hon. Members have shown this afternoon and welcome their input.

In disclosing any interests that I may have as a solicitor—albeit not one who practises in the personal injury or litigation sectors—I feel that the situation, involving relatively small numbers of solicitors, has left a black mark against the standing of the legal profession. As Peter Williamson of the Solicitors Regulation Authority on 25 April said:

“The row over solicitors making deductions from the compensation to sick miners has seriously damaged the reputation of the profession”,

and thus public confidence in both the profession and the legal system itself. He has urged the partners of 515 firms that dealt with miners’ compensation to return to all clients any additional charges that they made in those cases. That was a key point made by the hon. Member for North Durham, and I should be interested to know which firms have refused that plea. Perhaps the Minister could advise us of the position.

One sad aspect of the situation is undoubtedly the length of time that it has taken for individual miners to receive compensation for the harm that they suffered. It has, after all, been some 10 years since the High Court found British Coal negligent in respect of miners suffering from vibration white finger. As has been mentioned, some 225,000 claimants given money for chronic chest conditions were paid less than £2,000—less than the scheme allows in legal fees for each claim handled—and 13,000 received less than £200. In fact, two thirds of claimants have received less than it cost the Government to handle their claim. By contrast, more than £800 million of public money has been paid in legal costs to the 30 highest earning solicitors’ firms involved in registering and settling claims.

The Government, and specifically the Department of Trade and Industry, have spent too much time debating claimants’ legal costs and not enough time examining their failings in controlling their own legal costs. According to an estimate in The Lawyer, the DTI’s legal costs are expected to reach £2.4 billion once the compensation scheme ends, over £1 billion more than has been paid out to claimants’ solicitors.

Finally, there is the issue of clawbacks against solicitors, claims handlers and trade unions. We are glad to hear that some money may yet be clawed back. The SRA has gained refunds of £2.5 million from some of the law firms involved, and the Government have stated that they will reclaim almost £100 million in legal costs. I should be grateful if the Minister clarified how much has been reclaimed from solicitors so far, how much has yet to come and how much will be written off. Of those totals, how much will be allocated to those miners or miners’ families who lost out because their compensation was reduced by so-called administrative deductions?

What can we learn for the future? We are all keen to learn from the mistakes made and see that compensation schemes for miners and their families are completed successfully. We are also eager to ensure that future complaints handling schemes, particularly those relating to personal injury claims, are handled more fairly and without excessive charges or pressure being brought to bear on claimants.

The Trade and Industry Committee in its 14th report concluded:

“We feel that better and more direct regulation would have curbed the worst behaviour exhibited by such companies in respect of the coal health compensation schemes.”

In light of that statement, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), said:

“When we produce our legislation…colleagues will be keen to ensure that it contains the principles and language that provides that professional conduct.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 22 March 2005; Vol. 432, c. 237WH.]

The Minister promised in a written ministerial statement on 15 December 2005 to follow up with the Law Society the extent to which claimants would be made fully aware in future that they were free to use solicitors who do not make deductions. I hope that he will confirm that those discussions have resulted in specific Law Society recommendations and let us know what they are. Judging from the comments of the hon. Member for North Durham, the Government have clearly failed in that regard.

The conduct of a few solicitors has negatively impacted on the legal profession’s reputation, but the smell of inefficiency, waste and mismanagement permeates much further than to a handful of solicitors. It goes to the top—to the DTI and its Ministers, who must now account for their mismanagement. Other parties must be reviewed as well—one union has pocketed millions through just one firm of solicitors, another has been subject to a Serious Fraud Office investigation and new revelations about union activities were made earlier today.

The Conservatives agree that there should be firm regulation, but we think that it should apply to everybody involved in the business of claims management and to unions, not just to lawyers, and that it should include accountability to the regulators. At the start of this debate, I sat back, somewhat bemused, as Labour Members debated among themselves solicitors’ practices versus Durham NUM practices versus Northumberland NUM practices, and then the north-eastern NUM practices versus DTI oversight. Frankly, rats in a barrel come to mind, falling over each other in what the hon. Member for North Durham called a feeding frenzy. Very few come out of this cleanly. The Legal Services Bill will come before the House shortly, and we hope that it will address the concerns raised by hon. Members about the regulation of the legal profession in the future.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for all the faults pointed out this afternoon, had it been left to his Government, no miner would have been paid any compensation whatever? It was an absolute disgrace—not just the Conservative party’s position on the closure of the industry, but how it treated sick miners.

Considering the nature of this debate, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman does himself much credit in making an overtly political point.

Having heard today’s evidence, we need to reconsider the position of unions acting as claims handlers. As for the DTI, the National Audit Office will report in late summer on the planning, implementation and run-down of the two schemes. I do not wish to pre-empt the NAO’s findings, but we shall review them carefully once they are published. A huge amount of public money is being spent, and the Conservative party remains to be convinced that it is being spent appropriately.

This has been an important debate. With the exception of the last contribution, it has been based on a great deal of experience of the coal mining industry and a great deal of knowledge. It has been informative, not least for the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who raised some important issues deserving further investigation.

I am trying to make a point first. Let me come to the end of my first paragraph, as it were—not one written for me, but one of my own.

It has been a passionate debate at times—rightly so, given the debt of gratitude, as many describe it, that we owe to the mining community and the terrible, debilitating health effects suffered by so many coal miners. I do understand that, but I also wish to put it on the record that I pay tribute to my officials, who do a remarkably good job. They have presided over a scheme that has already paid out some £3.5 billion and made a big economic impact on communities. Throughout a number of recent meetings—I shall make sure that the invitation list is revised; I apologise if there has been a problem—there has been a good relationship between my officials and Members of Parliament.

The Minister said that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made some informative points. If the debate had been longer, some of us might have challenged those points in much more detail than we could in interventions.

Yes, I got the impression that a debate had started rather than concluded. As a London MP, I shall leave it there.

I had better not give way now, as there are a number of points that I want to answer. If I do not answer them all—I suspect that I shall not have time—I will, of course, write to colleagues in the normal way.

Before I deal with the particular issue of double charging, I shall use this opportunity to put something on the record. Reference has been made to the High Court’s decision in April that a coal miners’ law firm should pay back about £99 million in legal costs to the Government. That sum is the difference between the tariff for claims for which medical examinations are being performed, which was applied pending resolution of our appeal, and the level set by the judge for handling respiratory disease fast-track cases.

Of that £99 million in cost savings, £74 million has been paid to solicitors and is to be recovered. The remaining £25 million is an anticipated amount that would have been paid on settlement of the outstanding fast-track claims. It has taken a long time to achieve, but it is a significant step in ensuring that solicitors’ costs are fair and relevant to work necessarily undertaken. Administrative arrangements for recovery have commenced, and a further discussion in court in July will resolve outstanding matters.

To return to the issues raised today, it is important that we continue our endeavours to ensure that claimants receive their full compensation as paid by my Department. I am confident that all Members will wish to join me in utterly condemning what can only be described as the shameful behaviour—we have heard about it already today—of that minority of solicitors involved in the delivery of the schemes. Solicitors who have made those deductions think that they are untouchable; indeed, many have an outstanding arrogance. Are they greedy? Yes. Are they untouchable? No. That is the view not only of Members of our Houses of Parliament. Peter Williamson, who has already been quoted, has said:

“Solicitors are supposed to put their clients’ interests first, and that is a fundamental, professional principle.”

My noble Friend Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract and Members of this House must be applauded for their determination to ensure that justice is done in respect of solicitors who double charge. The Department pays solicitors’ costs in full, some might argue quite generously, for advising and processing their clients’ vibration white finger and respiratory claims under the schemes. In our view, there is no need for such deductions by solicitors. We expected that the fees paid for successful claims would cover those that are ultimately unsuccessful.

I met Lord Lofthouse on 17 April, shortly before he published his recent report. At that meeting, I explained the actions that we have taken in the past five years in response to some solicitors who have charged miners in addition to the fees received by the Government, or who have deducted referral fees for trade unions or for claims farmers from coal miners’ compensation. Since then I have met the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who is responsible for legal services, on 17 May to discuss the matter in some detail at the meeting of coalfield MPs. That meeting was helpful. There was much common ground between us. We were at one in acknowledging that the new Legal Complaints Service and the Solicitors Regulation Authority board have made good progress in seeking to tackle the issues. They have recovered £2.5 million so far, but much more needs to be done.

To address further the ongoing concerns, today I can announce two initiatives that we will take forward over the coming weeks. First, my hon. Friend and I will send a joint letter to all solicitors involved in handling claims under the schemes to remind them of their obligations to repay deductions, whether they be success fees for themselves or payments on behalf of a union or claims farmer. That will follow up a previous exercise undertaken by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), when he was responsible for the schemes.

Secondly, my Department, in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice, is working with the Legal Complaints Service and the legal services ombudsman to help claimants better to understand their rights and the mechanism for investigating service complaints. I welcome the commitments that the Legal Complaints Service made in its recently launched service improvement agenda. To build on that, we will take forward a pilot exercise in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron).

No, I shall not. I mean no discourtesy, but I have to reply to the debate.

We will take forward our proposals carefully, in order not to panic elderly claimants who, in the main, will probably not have been affected by the issues raised. We will want carefully to assess the impact of the pilot before judging the merits of a wider roll-out. I hope that colleagues have already received my Department’s May 2007 edition of the “Compensation for Miners” newsletter, which contains helpful advice. I am sure that many Members will want to make use of the information in their own constituencies, to ensure that the full benefit of the compensation schemes goes to those for whom we intend it.

I shall now turn to other issues that have been raised, of which there is a large number. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham started an important debate on his concerns about the Durham NUM. We all listened carefully to his speech—offshore bank account and all. As he knows, the union certification officer has powers to investigate the affairs of a trade union in certain circumstances. The officer has powers to appoint an inspector to investigate the financial affairs of a union, for example, but only in restricted circumstances and if there is evidence to suggest financial irregularities. I am sure that the officer might be approached about the matter that my hon. Friend raised.

We have rehearsed the important issue of knee injuries a number of times. Liability is not yet proven in respect of such injuries, and it is only right that the Government should follow the appropriate legal requirements to establish it. The DTI is taking the issue seriously and is doing everything that it can to follow the directions of the court in managing the issue. I am happy to provide colleagues with further details about that. We have discussed a number of times—rightly so—those who worked on the surface of mines. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) spoke with a great deal of passion about them, and I listened to what he has said. The court has issued an order with which the Department will comply and with which solicitors should be encouraged to comply to ensure that the position on such cases is advanced, as I want it to be. It is important that colleagues support the terms of the order to ensure that matters progress. Essentially, we need to ensure that we have a number of test cases in court. The financial onus to fund the cases should be on the solicitors who have done so well out of the scheme, and perhaps on some trade union branches. We will then see what the court says, reflect on the outcome of the cases, and try to take the matter forward as sensitively as possible. That is where we now stand.

There are many great champions of miners, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is certainly one. He referred to access to Vendside files. On receipt of a file access request from a compensation claimant, the Department would decide whether to disclose it, taking account of its legal obligations. My hon. Friend and I have corresponded about that and I am happy to talk to him again. He also raised an important point about probate; we recognise that probate is a key challenge for the settlement of many claims in the scheme. Advice on such matters is clearly a matter for the claimant’s solicitor, but I shall consider my hon. Friend’s request and offer further advice to him in writing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) talked about the minimum payment scheme. I know that solicitors have implemented their own version of such a scheme, which he acknowledges. I note what he said about payments that have already been made; I can see the merits of his suggestion and my officials will ensure that it is brought to the attention of the co-ordinating group of solicitors at the most suitable opportunity.

I do not have time to go into detail on the issue of small mines, but in most cases, small mines claimants should be able to move from interim payment to full and final settlement. I take a good deal of interest in that issue, and I may write to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) about it.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) referred to an article in The Lawyer. I am advised that it was wrong about what we have spent on our legal fees, and we are seeking a correction.

There have been important contributions today; the hon. Gentleman’s was not one of them. I am replying to them.

I have only a few seconds left. On the implications for the future of the scheme, we set up an inquiry into the scheme under Mr. Boys Smith, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read. It made some important points, and said that if we have such a compensation scheme again, it will be sensible not to pursue it through an individual, legal, court-based process, because of the sheer cost involved. As a former social security Minister, I understand the implications of that, should we have such a scheme again.

I failed to mention only canteen workers. That is not quite my province, but I can understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough raised the issue. I shall do my best to advise him in writing. It has been an important debate, Mr. O’Hara, and we are grateful for your chairmanship.