Pit-disease damages bill could top £500m

Government inherits liability for vast compensation payout to former coalminers

By Andrew Cavenagh

The Government will probably have to pay more than £500m in compensation to miners suffering from lung disease, after last month’s ruling by a High Court judge that British Coal was at least partly responsible for their condition.

The judgement in respect of eight lead cases resulted in payouts to six men, ranging from £3,200 to £10,500.

With the precedent set, the Government will now come under pressure to resolve outstanding claims rapidly. These alone are likely to involve payouts of £100m-200m.

Jonathan Markham, who heads the respiratory diseases department at Rayleys solicitors in Barnsley, said: ‘There are certainly 20,000 claims knocking about.’

The final liability is likely to be much higher as further claims are lodged following the ruling. Markham said Department of Social Security figures suggest that 50,000 of the 200,000 living miners (past and present) were claiming disability allowance. Widows and other dependants of deceased miners could also claim.

‘We’re getting a lot of calls from people whose husbands died,’ said Markham.

In a 500-page ruling, the judge said British Coal (formerly the National Coal Board) had always known of the health risks posed by coal dust and could have acted to protect workers long before it did in 1970.

The verdict rendered British Coal broadly liable for conditions such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema suffered by miners who worked underground between 1954 and 1970. There will also be pit-specific claims arising since 1970. Pneumoconiosis is covered by a compensation scheme set up in 1975.

Following the judgement, energy minister John Battle said his department, which has inherited British Coal’s liabilities, had a duty to deal promptly with claims.

As for the final bill, a DTI spokesman said: ‘It’s impossible to tell at this stage.’