The Treasury waits. And these men die

They gave their lives, and their lungs, to coal. Now a dwindling group of miners are in a race against time. Which will come first: death - or long-overdue compensation?
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Ernie Dixon's son gently lifts the collar of his father's shirt. A thin blue scar, about two inches long, runs along the top of the spindly 91-year-old's pale white back. It's just one of many. The old man's body is peppered with little inky dots and blue lines, some so tiny they might be mistaken for splinters. "It's where the coal dust got into cuts," explains Ernie junior, 65. "It leaves permanent scars."

Ernie Dixon's son gently lifts the collar of his father's shirt. A thin blue scar, about two inches long, runs along the top of the spindly 91-year-old's pale white back. It's just one of many. The old man's body is peppered with little inky dots and blue lines, some so tiny they might be mistaken for splinters. "It's where the coal dust got into cuts," explains Ernie junior, 65. "It leaves permanent scars."

At his council flat in the former pit village of Seaham, near Durham, former miner Ernie is remembering the thick, choking dust that plagued him for the 51 years he worked underground. "You could not see a hand in front of you," he says. "Even lamps did not penetrate."

Three of Ernie's fingers are also missing, severed by a coal-cutting machine. And he is still lame from a pit accident. But coal dust left far worse marks inside his body. For Ernie suffers from emphysema so chronic that the wonder is that he has reached the age he has. Most miners with lung damage as serious as his don't. Ernie began to have trouble breathing more than 30 years ago. It blighted his retirement, and now every day is a battle just to inhale.

"We knew what the dust was doing, though the Coal Board would never admit it," says Ernie, bright eyes sparkling above razor-blade cheeks. "But there was nothing but pits." Anyway, you got used to it, he says. He pauses to pull on the plastic mask attached to the nebuliser by his chair. Warm weather is making it even harder to breath.

It has been seven years since the causal link between coal dust and emphysema and chronic bronchitis was recognised, and two-and-a-half years since a landmark court ruling established British Coal's liability for the damage done to miners by pit dust. The National Coal Board (later British Coal) improved conditions in the 1970s. But before that, ventilation was terrible and out-dated machinery whipped up storms of dust. No protective gear was issued. "I used to cut my wife's pantyhose and tie them over my face," remembers one former Durham pit deputy.

Eighteen months ago, lawyers for the miners and the government - which took on British Coal's liabilities after the rump of the once-mighty coal industry was sold off - finally agreed the terms of a compensation package worth an estimated £3bn, the biggest of its kind in the world. But Ernie Dixon has yet to see a penny. He is not alone. Full compensation has so far been paid out to only one of 112,000 claimants. The NUM claims, meanwhile, that an estimated 200 miners are dying every month.

"Scandalous" is how they describe the slow progress at the NUM's north-east headquarters in Durham, where a grand oak-panelled chamber and antique union banners are about all that's left of the union's old power days, before the ideological fight to the death between Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher killed off the industry.

David Guy, president of the north-east area of the NUM, says only 19 retired local miners have been fully medically assessed by Healthcall, the company hired by the Government to test miners' lungs at 21 centres across Britain. About 20,000 claims are expected in the north-east. Guy calculates that at the current rate they could take eight years to process. While a quarter of claims come from the families of deceased workers, the rest are largely from men over 65. Many are sick. Time is not on their side.

Miners' lawyers argue that ministers and civil servants are to blame for the mess because they insisted on an overly complex scheme. Guy claims that the required medical tests are unnecessary in most cases. "These men have already got comprehensive medical records," he says.

The Department of Trade and Industry, meanwhile, protests that no one is more frustrated than it is about the poor progress, but that it is hemmed in by the deal hammered out not by just its lawyers, but those for the miners. If the scheme is too complex then lawyers on both sides are to blame, it says.

In August Mr Justice Turner, the judge who originally ruled on British Coal's liability, ordered the DTI to report to him by this month on what has gone wrong. In court he read out a moving letter from a chronically sick miner, frustrated with the scheme's snail's pace.

Few miners are shorter of time than Ernie. He has already outlived four miner brothers. All had "the dust". He was diagnosed with emphysema in hospital way back in the 1970s, but British Coal denied his condition had anything to do with work. By his early sixties, he was already sick but the pit refused him early retirement. "Because I'm a conscientious worker," he says, with a mixture of irony and pride. So he struggled on, until he was 65, clocking up half a century underground.

Since compensation terms were agreed, a man has visited Ernie's to measure his lung function with a spirometer test. Ernie, like many others, could not muster enough breath to satisfy the machine. He has been waiting six months for the full follow-up medical.

Ernie's housebound wife, Elisabeth, 86, her bare legs swollen over red, furry slippers, puts their case bluntly. "If the money takes much longer we simply won't be around," she says. That calculation, says Roger Maddocks of Thompsons, one the miners' lawyers, may explain why a few thousand miners have accepted expedited payments offered after initial spirometer tests, though their payouts - £1,000 to £5,750 - are much less than the five-figure sums they might expect if they persisted. "If you have never had any money and you are at death's door, a derisory £2,000 can seem attractive," says Gareth Morgan of Hugh, James, Ford, Simey, lawyers representing miners in Wales. Guy says expedited payments are a scam to save the Treasury money.

The Dixons blame Tony Blair for Ernie's wait, just as they already blame him for Seaham's decline since the closure of its last pit four years ago. While a few mining families rail against the "ginger president-for-life from Barnsley" (Arthur Scargill), bitterness against the Labour Party is endemic.

In the neighbouring pit village of Easington, Myrtle MacPherson, 72, a Labour Party activist, is furious with the energy minister Helen Liddell's "arrogant" statement that families can pursue claims after miners have died.

Myrtle's husband Gordon died last January, aged 70, a month before compensation details were announced. He spent 36 years underground and continued to mine after he was diagnosed with emphysema. Pit work was all he knew, and they had two kids to raise.

"Helen Liddell should have been here that last year," says Myrtle. "Gordon practically lived in hospital. Sometimes he could not talk or eat. He did not like to be a bother but you would find him on all fours, struggling to breath. And in the night you would think he was dying. Every breath felt like his last."

Gordon came home to die. Myrtle and her daughter, Heather, 48, tried everything, from acupuncture to huge air condensers to ease his pain. By the end he was on oxygen almost constantly. "He had his family around him but it was an awful way to go," says Heather.

Myrtle and Heather are pursuing Gordon's claim "out of principle. My father used to say, you fight this when I'm gone because the pit did this to me," Heather says, before adding quietly, "...and yet he loved the pit and the men he worked with."

Pursuing the claim has a price. Loss remains raw. Heather still cannot speak of her father without crying. "Because of the claim, it's like my dad is still here," she says. Until it's settled, nothing can be put to rest.

Back in Seaham, Kath Faulkner, 37, helps her father Michael, 71, struggle up from his chair. He says - as he does a dozen times a day - that if he could only put his coat on, and run up the street, he would be over the moon.

Michael can barely shuffle the length of his small living room.

Emphysema, which set in two years ago, is one of a host of health problems he blames on 30 years underground. In the past two years he has suffered two strokes and a heart attack, and Kath has given up her job to care for him full-time. Michael weighs 16 stone. Kath must help him in and out of bed every night and into the bath when he washes. "He gets embarrassed and says hide your eyes," she jokes. A family picture, just five years old, shows Michael with his late wife, strong and full of vigour. "I've got into a terrible habit, just sitting here," he confesses. "I watch the legs of everyone who passes and wish they were mine."

Michael, like everyone else, is still waiting for full medical assessment. When he wrote to Tony Blair to complain, he merely received a stock reply referring him to the DTI.

Kath feels angry with Labour. She, like Myrtle, says there is no comfort in compensation after death. "I want the money while my father is still alive," she says. She wants to buy an electric wheelchair to get her father outdoors. That would go some way to fulfiling his dream of putting on his coat and running up the street.