Opinion: Guilty firms should dig deep and repay miners

Opinion: Guilty firms should dig deep and repay minersOctogenarian Mr Sheppard was pushed into the Manton Miners Welfare in his wheelchair. Frail, elderly and very sick he waited for an hour before springing into action. He leapt from his wheelchair and launched into a tirade against greedy solicitors. Mrs Beckett listened on; her resolve was quiet but equally firm.

After she died, Mrs Beckett’s family wanted the money taken from her ­husband’s industrial disease ­compensation paid back so they could erect a ­headstone in her memory. Like so many others, these two Worksop residents fought for what they saw as right, but never saw a victory. Mr Sheppard died while solicitors’ firm Ashton Morton Slack refused to pay him back his coal health deductions. Even Mrs Beckett’s death failed to persuade Raleys Solicitors to return the cash taken.

At the end of last year I discovered a claims handling company that had told a
miner that he had to make a 5 per cent ­contribution to “help other miners”. ­Watson Burton duly collected the money from him upon completion of his claim.

Thompsons Solicitors pleaded ­innocence until I provided documentary proof of its deductions; Irwin Mitchell was in denial until shown its own contract for a 25 per cent deduction; Moss Solicitors took money for both the National Union of Miners and the Union of Democratic Mineworkers; Wake Smith & Tofields refused to meet me about its deductions; BRM Solicitors tried to ignore letters about the same thing; Graysons Solicitors rang old miners and argued with them. Claims handler Vendside wrote that I was the last MP who would ever be invited to its offices, while Beresfords refused to meet me and even refused my offer to bring my own ­photocopier to copy constituents’ files that they desperately tried to hide away.

These are not the small players, such as Richmonds Solicitors of Worksop, which pocketed a percentage, or Robinson King Solicitors, which pleaded poverty, or Frank Allen Pennington Solicitors, which ­pretended ignorance. Rather these include nine of the top 10 earners from the miners’ compensation scheme. Their combined fees from the Government, in lieu of the National Coal Board, is more than £600m.

But for the nine major firms of ­solicitors it was not enough. Percentages for ­solicitors and percentages for union ­referral fees were taken from the ­industrial disease compensation of sick and dying miners such as Mr Sheppard.

My inbox is full of disgusted solicitors distancing themselves from Beresfords. But virtually all the top solicitors’ firms that had signed up to the Government’s Coal Health Handling Agreement were involved in hoodwinking miners out of some of their compensation.

In Parliament just three MPs – myself, Kevin Barron and Kevin Jones – have taken on this battle, suffering numerous threats and poisonous briefings. We can now see why these solicitors’ firms were so hostile, but it was their arrogance that I always found more stunning.

What are the lessons for the future? The practice of claims handling should be banned forthwith. All those involved in this scandal should be struck off as ­solicitors. Firms wishing to continue in business, with partners struck off, should be required to pay back all monies with compensation without delay. I have fought some hard battles with the Law Society, but its action – even if later than it should have been – compares favourably with the spineless Financial Services Authority and the hesitant Claims ­Handling Regulator.

Decent, honest and hard-working ­solicitors are undermined by the greed of the few and each and every culprit must be pursued out of the profession until they return every penny. Perhaps the Law ­Society should initiate a group action against Beresfords to get this ball rolling.