'We only want what is fair and right'

Despite the Government's compensation scheme for former miners with coal-related diseases, more than 6,000 have died before their claims could be settled. What is causing the delay?
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The Independent Online

Leslie Butcher was just 14 years old when he was sent down the Yorkshire coal mines. In the dark days of 1939, conditions at the coal face were harsh but pit jobs were the only ones around.

Leslie Butcher was just 14 years old when he was sent down the Yorkshire coal mines. In the dark days of 1939, conditions at the coal face were harsh but pit jobs were the only ones around.

While Leslie was starting his apprenticeship, other Yorkshire miners were hoping to escape the ubiquitous coal dust which blackened their lives by volunteering for active service in the Second World War.

Soon, Leslie too made his bid for freedom when he tried to join the merchant navy. He visited a local recruiting office but was told his job was too important to the war effort and had been classified as a reserved occupation.

So, for 44 years, Leslie Butcher, now 75, worked in the Yorkshire coal fields, until he was made redundant in 1983.

He used to be a strong man and still takes pride in the fact that he has done every job in the mines apart from foreman. But now he has trouble walking to the end of his road to meet his friends at Hackenthorpe working men's club for a couple of pints and a game of bingo. "By the time I reach the top of the hill, I'm wheezing and have to use my ventilator to get to the door. On the way back, it's down hill but can be just as difficult."

Like thousands of other old miners, Leslie's breathing problem has little to do with his age and everything to do with the years he spent down the pits. The news-reel images of bible-black miners happily soaking in pit-head baths scrubbing off the tar, belies the irrevocable damage that was being done to their lungs.

Leslie Butcher has emphysema and chronic bronchitis, which he knows was caused by his years down the pits. The storms of coal dust stoked up by the heavy machinery regularly caught the men by surprise, causing them to literally cough their guts up. It was only in 1970 that proper breathing apparatus became standard issue. Yet the miners have struggled to prove the fatal link between their working conditions and their lung diseases.

In 1991, when the miners first began their campaign for compensation, the Conservatives refused to acknowledge that they had a case and fought them every inch of the way. When Labour was elected, the new political climate allowed a different approach. Labour MPs from the mining constituencies, as well as the trade-union lobby, persuaded the Government that it had both a moral and legal duty to award proper compensation.

Shortly afterwards, a compensation scheme was established. It is expected to generate payouts in excess of £3bn, the biggest ever personal-injury award in British history.

That's the good news.

However, last week, the Government revealed that only £350m had been paid and more than 6,000 former miners have died before their claims for compensation for coal-related diseases could be processed. Energy Minister Helen Liddell also announced that even with the full co-operation of the courts, it would take a further 10 to 15 years before all the claimants are paid. Lawyers acting for the miners say that, because of the men's age and the serious nature of their medical conditions, the compensation should have been settled much more quickly.

Leslie Butcher is now represented by law firm Irwin Mitchell. Although he is a widower and the father of six children, he has been paid just £500 for his claim. "They offered me another £1,500 to get rid of me but I told them where they could put it. It's insulting for what I have had to go through," says Leslie, who has voted Labour all his life.

He also knows some of the miners who have died before their claims had been settled. "I had a friend up the road who was a miner like me. He left the mines before me but was only 78 when he died. The sad thing is he had a button job (machine work rather coal-face work) but still died of emphysema two months ago."

Tom Jones, a solicitor with Thompsons, one of the three law firms leading the majority of the claims, says: "We are dealing with immense emotion here because people are going to die from terrible diseases. And many of those who are still waiting for compensation are hooked up to oxygen machines."

Some of the old miners are also falling prey to unlicensed compensation claims assessors who offer to take on the miners' claims. Typically, they will under-settle the claim and take a hefty cut from the compensation, sometimes as much as 30 per cent. They target the kind of working clubs popular with old miners like Leslie Butcher for their recruitment drives.

Mr Jones says the contracts signed are legal and can be enforced by the courts. "But often it can be argued that they were signed by miners without fully knowing what they were doing or even under duress," says Mr Jones. "In those circumstances they should rip them up and get a lawyer who won't take a cut from their compensation."

Under the Government scheme, the lawyers or claims assessors are paid a fixed fee for each claim. "These claims assessors are not only taking a share of the compensation but also the fixed fee - in effect, they are getting paid twice."

There is no let-up in the rising numbers of claims, and the longer it takes to settle them the more vulnerable some of the miners are to the practices of the unscrupulous claims assessors.

The Department of Trade and Industry is still receiving around 1,000 fresh claims a week, on top of the 123,000 already lodged. Last week, the Government finally decided to take action to speed up the process and promised £100m would be paid to mining communities in the lead-up to Christmas. Ms Liddell told the House of Commons: "This is a unique process as the biggest personal injury case in British history." But she added: "Medical assessments are now being done at more than 400 a week and we should shortly see offers made at a similar rate. In view of my frustration, in September of this year I introduced a new scheme that provides higher and expedited payments."

Ms Liddell said that to turn the DTI offers into money in miners' pockets by Christmas would take co-operation between Government and the miners' lawyers. The Law Society has written to solicitors across the country inviting them to seminars where they will be encouraged to help accelerate the compensation process. The most serious obstacle to speedy settlements is the length of some of the paper trails - some of the medical records are 1,700 pages long.

Leslie Butcher is still being asked to submit to medical tests to prove his case. The tests can last up to an hour at a time and are in themselves gruelling for very ill, old men. Leslie says that he collapsed when a breathing tube was inserted in his mouth and left there for over an hour.

For Leslie the suffering continues. "I don't want a fortune in compensation, just what is fair and right. They owe us that."