After 10 years of negotiation the deal was hammered out yesterday after all-night talks in Cardiff. Lawyers for the Government and pitmen struck a deal later ratified by a High Court judge.
The package agreed yesterday will initially cover some 65,000 former miners at a cost of about pounds 1.5bn, but solicitors believe the final settlement could be double that figure. Depending on their degree of disability most miners will get between pounds 1,500 and pounds 20,000, but some could receive up to pounds 60,000.
According to some estimates, about 200 retired mineworkers have died each week since British Coal's liability for their illness was demonstrated 14 months ago.
Doctors will now begin one of the biggest screening exercises in medical history so that interim payments of around pounds 2,000 can be made as soon as possible. Miners can then decide whether to take a fast-track final settlement of up to pounds 5,250, or opt for further medical examinations that might result in higher payouts. In this process, however, lung damage caused by smoking will be taken into account and the settlement reduced - in some cases substantially.
Miners' leaders and their lawyers registered their deep contempt for British Coal, which denied initially that there was a link between chronic bronchitis and emphysema and then fought a long battle to minimise payouts.
Bleddyn Hancock, general secretary in Wales of Nacods, the pit supervisors' union, which started the campaign for compensation, said it had been a "David and Goliath battle."
He said: "I feel so bitter that it has taken so long. I'm very angry with British Coal who fought it so hard. And I feel very angry that the last government dragged it out whilst so many people died."
He believed that the present Government would continue to take some pounds 210m a year out of miners' pension funds and use it to pay for the deal. "It's legalised theft," he said.
Tom Jones, of Thompsons solicitors, which represented more than 26,000 miners, said management had placed production far higher up its list of priorities than healthy and safety. "British Coal callously destroyed the health of miners and in some cases took their lives through their negligence. They tried to hide the truth. They lied and falsified records, but were found out by the High Court. They will now have to start to pay."
Peter Evans of lawyers Hugh James, who acted for Nacods, said that 10 years was a long time to wait for justice. "Although we are pleased to see this case reach its conclusion, we must never forget that hundreds of men died waiting for this day."
He said there would now be a flood of inquiries from former miners or their widows.
In the cases of pitmen who died some time ago, the Department of Trade and Industry has agreed to rely on death certificates, post-mortem evidence and family history. Inevitably, however, compen- sation for the descendants of miners who died some years ago will be limited.
Glyn Hamer, 71, who worked at Lewis Merthyr colliery in the Rhondda and has lost 60 per cent of the function of his lungs, welcomed the settlement. "I only hope now they move quickly and get this settled for us," he said.
Morfy Gardner, 73, whose husband, Selwyn, died on 1 March last year, said it was very sad that he would not see any benefit from the settlement. Under the package, widows will receive similar compensation to their husbands, although bereavement benefit will be paid on top. But this is little comfort: "I've lost my husband and no money can replace him. I hope miners will get what they deserve," she said.Reuse content