THE families of sick ex-miners who died before receiving compensation because of scandalous delays today finally received a government apology.

Sir Brian Bender, the senior civil servant in charge of the compensation scheme, owned up to weaknesses that have forced former pitmen to wait years for their money.

In evidence to a committee of MPs, Sir Brian said: "Can I begin by apologising to former miners, and their families, that many people have had to wait so long."

The permanent secretary added: "I certainly can't try to defend the resources that the department put in at the beginning. There is a really powerful lesson there."

And confronted with evidence that 60 per cent of payouts are lower than the cost of administering those claims, Sir Brian admitted: "The lawyers have done well out of it."

The comprehensive apology, in evidence to the Commons public accounts committee (PAC), follows rising criticism of the compensation scheme, the largest in history.

On the one hand, the schemes for lung disease (COPD) and vibration white finger (VWF) had, by earlier this year, paid out £3.6bn to 575,000 sick former pitmen.

But lawyers have made astonishing profits from administration costs totalling £1.9bn and deadlines for administering claims have come and gone.

Earlier this year, the National Audit Office (NAO) identified "significant weaknesses", including too few staff and mistakes when fees were negotiated with solicitors.

Today, Sir Brian, of the department for business, enterprise and regulatory reform (BERR), was lambasted for its performance by MPs on the PAC.

Edward Leigh, the committee's Tory chairman, demanded to know why only three staff were employed on the scheme at the start - a number that eventually rose to 45.

And Labour MP Don Touhig, who was closely involved in the compensation issue as a Wales Office minister until 2005, said: "You came pretty close to destroying public confidence in the scheme.

"Many people who made legitimate claims are not alive, today, to see the benefit of those claims."

Condemning 'claims farmers' - who worked with solicitors to deduct "success fees" from claims - as "parasites", Mr Touhig said: "I don't know what you call it, but I call it fraud."

In reply, Sir Brian defended his department's record in recovering £122m in excess fees from solicitors who had overcharged.

But he was forced to admit that a target for 300,000 outstanding VWF claims by the end of this month had been abandoned.

Ian McKenzie, director of BERR's coal liabilities unit, asked about a miner who received 50p compensation, said: "I fully recognise that didn't meet the expectations the claimant set out with."

By the time all 760,000 claims are settled, compensation totalling £4.1bn is expected to have been paid out - but with administration costs of £2.3bn