HL Deb 10 October 2000 vol 617 cc154-6

2.53 p.m.

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many claims are outstanding in Wales by miners seeking compensation for chest and lung diseases as a result of employment in the mining industry.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, there are now over 26,000 Welsh claims. Almost all the initial medical tests have been completed. Some 2,000 have received expedited offers and 608 claims have been accepted with payments of £1.5 million. A further 5,300 interim payments have been made totalling £15.7 million, including 800 bereavement awards totalling £7 million. This is the biggest ever personal injury scheme and progress has been too slow. Currently, there are five Welsh testing centres and the DTI is investigating suitable sites for two additional ones in Glanaman and Ystrad Mynach. In addition, the DTI recently announced proposals for new and increased offers to thousands of miners. There are detailed points to work through with the claimants' solicitors, but the DTI hopes to make about 4,000 offers in Wales, totalling approximately £25 million, before Christmas.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, does my noble friend appreciate that the failure to meet these claims has done considerable harm to the reputation of the Government? Mr Justice Turner, who made the original judgment, has been openly critical. Mr Vincent Kane, who chairs the monitoring group, has said that the rate of progress has been pathetic, and he and the whole committee have threatened to resign. Is it not now time for the Minister to consider her position? While I know that she has tried hard, obviously she has failed. Does my noble friend agree that we need a senior Minister with clout who can settle these claims quickly and arrange for a far more generous system of interim payments?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, all members of the Government believe that this extremely difficult situation is being dealt with far too slowly. However, we should also realise that this is a hugely complicated matter in which we must conform with both the judgment of the High Court and the constraints of the Public Accounts Committee, in that we are not free to give money to people to whom it is not due. We must, therefore, input a great deal of information from solicitors, medical employment records, initial lung screening tests and medical assessments by a respiratory consultant. It is accepted that there have been problems to do with solicitors sending claims documents back to us and GPs and hospitals being unsure about whether to release records. We have now sorted that out with the British Medical Association. The Government are united in their belief that the process is taking too long, but there is a limit to what they can do. The Minister announced a whole series of new measures to improve the performance of the medical assessments, to put simplified proposals to solicitors and to increase fast-track offers. I know that the Minister has done everything that she can to move the process forward.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that, to date, of the 26,000 claimants only 23 claims have been finally settled? Is the noble Lord also aware that at the current rate of Healthcall examinations it will take years to complete the medical assessment process? Will the Minister look into the situation where the DSS is reclaiming some of the money paid out under the scheme? Does the noble Lord agree that this process should be looked at again before it becomes even more scandalous than it is?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, there have been 630 full and final settlements totalling £2.2 million. Of those, I believe that 22 cases—perhaps that is the figure to which the noble Lord refers—are negotiated settlements of litigated claims. Although there have been 630 full and final settlements that is not good enough given the total number, but it is better than the noble Lord implies. The purpose of the expedited offers is to enable us to avoid the complicated process of the medical assessment. For that reason we have put a good deal more effort into it. It is, however, clear that it will take two to three years to complete the process, but it is not as long as it would take if one simply divided the numbers involved by the rate at which one carried out the Healthcall assessments. I am unaware of the circumstances in which the DSS reclaims money, but if the noble Lord lets me have any information I shall certainly investigate it.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, can the Minister indicate, first, how many interim settlements have been made, if any? Secondly, is my noble friend aware that more than two years ago when I held the post of Minister of State in his department this Question was put to me and I had every belief that the matter would be settled by now? Why has there been no settlement of the remaining cases?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, as I indicated in my initial answer, 608 final payments and a further 5,300 interim payments have been made. It has taken so much longer than originally anticipated because to comply with the High Court judgment a great deal of paperwork and medical assessment have been involved. We are proceeding as fast as we can. The only justification for the length of time it is taking is that it would have taken more than 15 years to reach a settlement on an individual litigated basis.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, is right. He was the Minister who answered a Question from me two years ago. The House is aware that the problem extends beyond the boundaries of Wales. The main problem now is that miners, and indeed their widows, are dying. Are there any plans for compensation for the families of miners or their wives who unfortunately have passed away in the period of nearly three years since the High Court judgment?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I and the Minister involved are acutely aware that the majority of the claimants are people in their 70s and 80s. Many of them are very ill and some have died. That is a particularly unfortunate factor in the whole situation. Even since I answered a Question on this matter in the House of Lords in May, a further 365 claims have been submitted where the claimant has died. In all these cases the claims will be continued by the claimant's widow or dependants. In addition, where the claimant's death certificate shows that one of the respiratory diseases for which British Coal was found liable either caused or materially contributed to the death, the department will make a bereavement award to the claimant's widow.