More than £600 million has now been paid out in coal compensation. Nearly 52,000 individual payments, in either interim or full settlement, have been made to respiratory claimants, and 64,000 to vibration white finger claimants. The schemes are expected to cost more than £5 billion.
I thank the Minister for the work that he and the Secretary of State are doing to make progress on this important issue. More than 2,500 claims by former pitmen in my constituency are still unsettled. One claimant recently passed away, and his family are still waiting for the release of his organs, so that they can give him a proper burial. Does the Minister agree that the system is still too bureaucratic and causes great distress to families? Will he consider cutting out more of the paperwork and making more approximate offers? Most people would rather have the money now, even if it is less than they are entitled to. Surely it is the least we can do, to give them some dignity in retirement when they are suffering from these terrible conditions.
I express my regret and sympathy to the family of my hon. Friend's constituent. One of the tragic aspects of this whole business is that, almost by definition, because of the medical conditions involved, and because most of the claimants are elderly, deaths will occur before payment can be made. I can never say that that will not happen. All that I can do is to give an absolute commitment—which I give—to minimising the number of cases in which that happens.
There are two constraints on us in delivering what my hon. Friend seeks. First, we work by agreement with the claimants' solicitors. Secondly, we are governed by the judges' ruling, which is complex and means that there can be no question of uniform payments to all claimants. Having said that, I endorse utterly what he says about minimising the bureaucracy and delays. I am pleased to announce that we have made an important breakthrough with the solicitors that will allow us to make full and final offers in cases for which the work histories have not been finally agreed. That will lead to thousands of full and final offers being made in the coming few weeks. My target for next year is that 50,000 such offers will be made, 15,000 of which will be in Wales, as I said on my visit there earlier this week.
We have to keep up the pressure. There is no complacency. There is an absolute moral responsibility to pay out the money and—
I know that the Minister brings a deeply felt personal commitment to this issue. What can he tell us about the surface workers who were promised by his Department on
I discussed that last point when I was in Wales earlier this week, and I am assured that it is not true that delay is being caused. We are dealing with the biggest compensation scheme ever anywhere in the world, and very substantial payments are being made under it, so we have a responsibility to check a sample of the larger payments, but that is done on the same day—it is turned around within 24 hours—so no additional delay is involved.
My understanding is that discussions with the surface workers' solicitors are on-going, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman about that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress so far in speeding up the claims, but plenty of former miners still come to my surgeries complaining of delays, and when my staff investigate—the IRISC people are very good, by the way—it often turns out that the problem lies with the solicitors, who leave offers sitting on their desks for weeks and sometimes months. They are being paid very generously by the Government for handling these cases. Is not it about time we had an audit, to make sure that we are getting value for money from these solicitors?
My hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point. At the meeting in Cardiff earlier this week, one of the unions handed my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales a list of six cases in which there had been delays. When he checked those cases, he found that three of them were lying in solicitors' offices. That is where the delays were, and they are a practical example of the problem. However, solicitors are working closely with us and I do not want to blame anyone. All I want to do is get the payments made as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Solicitors will note my hon. Friend's remarks and take them to heart. Let us work together and get the payments made. As I said earlier, it is an uncapped scheme so there is absolutely no financial benefit to Government in delay. If a miner dies, the claim passes from the deceased to the widow and to the estate. In fact, delay costs the Government more than it does to pay out quickly. Therefore, every effort is being made to maximise the output of the scheme. The latest agreement with solicitors will lead to a big increase in the number of full and final offers.
I entirely endorse the comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Hughes. I welcome the statement of my hon. Friend the Minister that a breakthrough has been made on the issue of work histories. I urge him to redouble his efforts so that the worst cases are dealt with first. Will he also consider the position of widows who, in some cases, have been waiting for pay-outs on claims that have lasted for three or four years?
I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we have recently reached agreement with the solicitors to prioritise the claims of widows along with those of the oldest and sickest. Inevitably, that will mean that estate claims and claims from younger miners and ex-miners will take a little longer, but I think that everyone understands that priority must be given to the oldest, the sickest and widows. If everyone accepts that and we get the system working, the figures that have been made available will clear a large part of the backlog that has built up over the past year.
We have built up reasonable momentum, but it must be maintained. Many payments have been made. I stress that £600 million has been paid out, and that means that a huge sum of money is going into mining communities on a daily basis. The scheme is uncapped and it is estimated that it will cost between £5 billion and £6 billion, but claims are still coming in at the rate of 1,000 a week. Therefore, we do not know when the scheme will end or what the final figures will be. All that I can say is that every claim will be met.