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Miners' Claim Against British Coal

Volume 589: debated on Saturday 11 April 1998

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2.52 p.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the result of the negotiations that have taken place with lawyers acting on behalf of miners suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema in respect of their claim for compensation.

My Lords, unfortunately, the negotiations are not yet finished. On 27th March, the plaintiffs' solicitors asked the court for a three-month adjournment to allow for further discussions. This was granted. Discussions continue and we hope that, by the end of June, we will have an agreed settlement. I should point out that the Government have real sympathy for those miners unfortunate enough to have suffered lung damage. That is why we intend that these arrangements should provide a quick and fair settlement.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister appreciate that the Government's action in agreeing to settle the miners' claims in line with the High Court decision was much welcomed? However, since that time, there have been damaging reports stating that thousands of claimants have not even received the £2,000 interim payment. Can my noble friend tell the House what the real reason is for this delay? Further, will my noble friend ensure that the Government take action to speed up the process so that these miners—these worthy applicants—who have had their lives ruined through the arduous and hazardous nature of the mining industry, receive their just compensation?

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that we are not moving slowly. That is why we are offering interim payments of £2,000 each to at least 5,000 elderly claimants who are currently receiving state benefit for chronic bronchitis and emphysema. We have also extended this to widows whose husbands were in receipt of that benefit. Nearly 1,000 offers have been made since April. We hope to start making interim payments this week.

My Lords, in seeking to reach an agreement on the present case, will the Government bear in mind the settlement reached as regards pneumoconiosis some years ago when a substantial capital sum was set aside from which adequate compensation was thereby made to those suffering from this dread disease, thus avoiding expensive court action?

My Lords, British Coal set up the pneumoconiosis compensation scheme in 1975, in agreement with the unions, on a no-fault liability basis to avoid a long and expensive trial. However, liability has been established for chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Therefore, settlement arrangements will have to reflect that fact.

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge the fact that the pneumoconiosis scheme was a piece of Tory legislation, for which the Conservatives should be credited?

My Lords, can the Minister give me any hope for justice for men such as my neighbour in south Wales, Mr. Owens, who spent 25 years boring into silica rock without the benefit of water damping equipment and, therefore, suffers from silicosis and who now faces apparent collusion between the social services and the medical authorities in his attempts to gain just compensation?

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot give the noble Lord much hope as regards the particular arrangement that we are now discussing. The judgment was specific to underground coal-mining and the damages reflect the negligence of British Coal. Compensation will reflect that fact. The settlement arrangements cannot extend to employees in other industries.

My Lords, are the Government aware that, in the former Bristol coalfield where I live, there are several dozen qualified miners all of whom are aged 70 or 80 and among whom there are, therefore, frequent deaths? Will the Government accelerate these payments as much as they possibly can?

My Lords, the Government are well aware of this and priority has been given to elderly miners.

My Lords, are the Government actively considering compensation not just for coal-miners, which we welcome, but also for quarrymen who have suffered from lung damage through long employment in the slate quarries of north Wales?

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what size of financial provision the Government have made for these claims, both for this financial year and the next?

My Lords, it is too early to say what the total cost will be as all the claims have not yet been evaluated. It is a huge task. There are tens of thousands of claimants and hundreds of millions of pounds involved. Indeed, it is just too early to be able to say.