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Ex-Miners' Compensation: Speed Of Payment

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 13 February 2001

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2.51 p.m.

What progress has been made in the payment of compensation to ex-miners suffering from dust-related diseases.

My Lords, to date the department has registered nearly 134,000 claims for respiratory diseases, 28,000 of which are from Wales. Progress has been slow, but payments are now starting to flow. In total, £113 million has been paid in respiratory compensation, of which £27.1 million has been in Wales. Taken together with compensation for vibration-related diseases, in recent weeks we have paid out about £1 million a day across Britain, with £1 million paid out in Wales alone last week. However, that is not good enough. We are constantly seeking to streamline the process and speed up payments further. New assessment centres are being opened and more doctors recruited. We are looking into using mobile testing units in some areas.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that one of the major stumbling blocks for early settlements is the shortage of consultants? If more were taken out of the National Health Service for that work, it would tend to cause resentment among the general public. Will the Government consider approaching the judge with a view to waiving some of the regulations? That might help to achieve earlier settlements. Does the Minister appreciate that the issue has become a national scandal in Wales? It needs to be tackled urgently.

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend that the shortage of doctors has been a major stumbling block. We have about 200 respiratory disease consultants working on the scheme, mostly in mining areas. Healthcall, the contractors, are now looking outside mining areas for additional consultant expertise. The agreement could be varied effectively only with the consent of both sides. That would be difficult, although I have no doubt that the judge will take account of all the issues when he holds his next meeting on 16th March. I agree with my noble friend concerning the outrage in Wales and sympathise very much with what he says.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that in the debate on this subject on 19th December, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, his noble friend Lord Sainsbury said that the Government had introduced a fast-track arrangement to expedite matters? What offers have been made under that arrangement and to what extent have they been taken up?

My Lords. £74 million has been offered under the fast-track arrangement, of which only £25 million has so far been claimed. That leaves nearly £50 million unclaimed. That is disappointing. Peter Hain has extended the deadline for claims to be made, but the situation is not satisfactory.

My Lords, we all appreciate the efforts that the department has made to speed up the claims, but many people feel that the situation has reached saturation point. The consultants that are needed are not there to be recruited. That means that many miners will have to wait up to five years, despite all the best efforts that are being made. Is my noble friend also aware that my noble friend Lord Sainsbury assured me on a previous occasion in the Chamber that he would look again at my suggestion that the miners who had already been assessed and awarded industrial injuries benefits for this disease should be paid with no further examination? He also informed me that he would have to get the permission of the judge and the acting solicitors.

Having received that information, I wrote to Mr Justice Turner, who told me that he found my suggestion interesting and would put it to the review body on 16th March. If the judge and the solicitors are sympathetic, can the Minister assure me that the department will support my suggestion?

My Lords, I have carefully studied the correspondence between my noble friend and the Ministers—Mrs Liddell and now Peter Hain—and that between my noble friend and the judge. If there were any mileage in using the DSS assessment, we would be keen to do so. Discouragingly, the correlation between DSS assessments and assessments under the scheme is poor. As my noble friend will know from the reply sent to him by Peter Hain, there are only 11,100 successful DSS recipients, of whom 7,000 have already received or been considered for offers. The scope for improvement in that direction is not great. I am sorry to have to give such a disappointing answer.

My Lords, as 134,000 people are applying or are eligible, would it not be in the interests of the Government and of the miners—many of whom have waited so long that one wonders whether they will survive to get any compensation—to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, who has lived with the problem for six to eight years to my certain knowledge, and maybe for more than 10 years? How many of the 134,000 are yet to be assessed?

My Lords, it is obvious from my previous answers that we have listened very closely to my noble friend Lord Lofthouse and to others who know a great deal about the issue. I in no way seek to defend the slowness of the process, but, given that the question has come from the Conservative Benches, I have to point out that this Government immediately accepted the findings of the court and immediately took action to implement them. The number of claims being received week by week is still higher than the number of claims being settled. That is the measure of the problem. If anybody had said two years ago that there would be 134,000 claims, they would have been laughed at. That is the scope of the problem left to this Government because of many years of neglect by the previous government.

My Lords, at the present rate of progress, how long will it take to settle all the claims? During the past three years, a number of applicants have died before their claims were fully assessed. Do the families of those who have been able to prove their entitlement but who then died benefit?

Yes, my Lords. It has been clear from the beginning that we have always given priority to older claimants and to the widows and beneficiaries of those claimants who have died. It is tragic that so many of the claims have been resolved by death rather than by payment in full. Widows have a high priority and interim payments are made to them even if the final claim has not been fully processed.

My Lords, given the speed with which the Chancellor of the Exchequer is busily preparing a basket of goodies—or should I say bribes?—for the electorate in anticipation of the coming election, can the Minister say whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer is able to use all the power at his disposal, together with the generosity he is showing in other areas, to speed up this process? As the Minister said, the Government have decided to implement the compensation system in full, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said, many people are dying. Can the Chancellor not now get round the problem and deal with it once and for all, as it seems possible for him to do in many other areas?

My Lords, I wish it were only a question of money. As has been clear throughout these exchanges, the problem lies in the slowness of making claims, the lack of response to some of the offers that have been made, and, above all—this is the most difficult problem at the moment—the shortage of suitably qualified doctors. If it were simply a matter of money, the issue could have been dealt with a long time ago.