My Lords, progress has been too slow on the medical assessment programme. Helen Liddell, the energy Minister, announced last week an increase in the number of centres and records scanning teams. The DTI is also working to streamline the programme and cut down on the number of records required. We also announced last week that increased amounts are being offered as expedited payments to thousands of miners. In addition, some claimants not previously eligible for expedited offers will now be entitled, without undergoing further tests.
We had a constructive meeting with the claimants' solicitors last week and reached broad agreement on the proposals. There are detailed points to be worked through, but the DTI hopes to make around 16,000 offers, totalling around £90 million, before Christmas. That is in addition to the nearly 25,000 individual payments made to claimants to date, which total over £73 million.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his detailed reply. However, he mentioned that progress in the matter has been slow. Is he aware of the widespread criticism and anger that have arisen in dealing with so many of the claims? Can he tell us the problems? After nearly two years have been spent dealing with the scheme, surely those problems ought by now to have been identified and dealt with. Can my noble friend also tell the House how many claims have been made and how many have now been completed? Before he replies, I should remind him that every month 200 former miners who submitted claims under the scheme are dying.
My Lords, my noble friend referred to anger. We are also angry; indeed, Helen Liddell is angry, as am I, about the fact that it is taking so long. The problems that I identified when I answered a similar Question in March have, on the whole, been overcome. Claimants' solicitors are coming forward much more rapidly with claim forms. However, as we get deeper into the programme, we are finding difficulties with doctors who are worried about the Access to Health Records Act 1990 and about the burden on them of producing the records for scanning. That is why, as I indicated in my original Answer, we are simplifying that process. It is a fair comment that perhaps we should have done so before now.
As to my noble friend's last question regarding numbers, there have been something like 117,000 claims, and the number is rising every month. As I said in my first Answer, approximately 25,000 individual payments have so far been made.
My Lords, although I welcome the additional screening that Helen Liddell has arranged, can the Minister say whether that is specifically for lung diseases in miners or whether there will be additional facilities for women with the disease? As we know, recent figures have revealed that lung cancer is now more common among women than breast cancer.
No, my Lords. The programme that I described is a result of the judgment against British Coal in respect of miners suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease--that is, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. This is a class action and refers only to miners.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, referred to the current rate of mortality among miners. I live on the edge of a former Bristol coal field. Is it not the case that nearly all the claimants are now in their seventies and eighties? Therefore, does that not reinforce the need for speedy action? Would not payments on account be helpful where the claim has not yet been quantified?
My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right. That is why we are giving priority in this process to those who are old, to the widows of deceased miners and to those who are particularly ill. As to the issue of interim payments, I can tell the noble Lord that we have made a very large number of interim payments. We have offered such payments after spirometry tests. I am pleased to say that we have either made appointments for spirometry tests or have offered appointments to 91 per cent of those who are eligible, after which interim payments are available. However, not all miners wish to take up interim payments because they feel that they may receive more after further detailed consideration has been given to their cases. That is a legitimate point of view.
My Lords, the noble Lord has made it clear that Ministers share the concern of all of us who know something about the coal industry--and, indeed, of many others--as regards this prolonged delay in settling such a serious issue. Can he say, even at this late stage, whether the Government have considered proceeding along the lines of the settlement achieved in the pneumoconiosis crises that occurred some 20 or 30 years ago when I was involved with the Coal Board? I realise that legal problems may make that difficult. None the less, that matter was settled much more quickly and expeditiously, without the sort of personal problems that have now arisen in this case.
My Lords, I should make it clear that the delays that have occurred are not due to the fact that nothing is being done. Those delays are occurring because new problems, such as those relating to medical records and employment history, are being uncovered as we make progress in processing the claims that have been made. I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, is right. We are restricted in the way in which we can handle the programme because it arises from a court judgment. However, the upside of that is that we have to report to the judge on progress. We did so as recently as mid-September.
My Lords, I express the hope that the meeting to which my noble friend referred will lead to greater urgency in this matter. Does he agree that in the six months ending in May this year 1,298 claimants have died and that since then another 1,000 will have died? Urgency is justified.
My Lords, my noble friend's figures are, of course, correct because they were obtained from a parliamentary Answer given by my noble friend Lord Sainsbury of Turville in May this year. I am afraid that my noble friend's prediction of what has happened since that Answer was given is also true. That is one of the most distressing aspects of this whole problem. However, I should not conceal from the House that we anticipate that the programme will take three years to complete.
My Lords, many doctors thought that there would be data protection problems under the Access to Health Records Act because some of the records make reference also to third parties. They have now been reassured by the data protection registrar and by the BMA that that is no longer a problem. Health Call Services Limited, which is extracting the records, is now able to do so much more easily with the use of advanced scanning equipment than was the case initially now that GPs' fears have been allayed.