PLEAS to increase compensation offers to ex-miners have been rejected by Government officials, The Northern Echo understands.

Last night, an influential MP warned that the Government risked "shooting itself in the foot" by failing to make generous initial offers.

Mick Clapham, MP for Barnsley West and chairman of the coalfields communities group, said that unless new "fast-track" offers were made attractive, most claimants would wait for a full medical.

Such an outcome would scupper attempts to speed up the respiratory disease compensation process.

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has submitted new proposals to the High Court designed to speed up the claims process.

This follows a request by High Court judge Mr Justice Turner to increase the pace of settlements.

So far, 152,000 respiratory disease claims have been settled and £1.2bn paid out. But with 378,000 still in the queue, there are fears that the process could drag on until 2011.

In spite of appeals by MPs for an increase in the initial offer made to claimants to encourage large numbers to leave the process, the DTI has refused to budge.

At the moment, most ex-miners have a basic lung function test early on in the process.

Many claimants are made individual offers at that stage but most choose to have full medical assessment.

Under the new proposals, ex-miners who register some lung damage at an early stage will be offered a set "tariff" of between £800 and £1,500, compared to the average payout to date of £10,000.

However, if the former pitmen turn down that offer and decide to wait for a full medical examination, it will be withdrawn.

Under confidential proposals lodged with Mr Justice Turner 12 days ago, the DTI wanted to deny more than 200,000 claimants the right to be assessed by a consultant by making them a "take-it-or-leave-it" offer.

This was reversed after a revolt by coalfields MPs.

The DTI's amended proposals are due to be discussed in the High Court next Monday and Tuesday.

Analysts have calculated that the DTI will save up to £2.3bn if the compensation scheme can be successfully speeded up.

A spokesman for the DTI said: "The department has submitted its proposals to the court, as requested by the judge.

"The department does not propose to comment on the specific amounts included in the tariffs other than to say that until today the only tariffs submitted to the court had been the department's and that solicitors (for the claimants) had not put forward suggestions of their own.

"The department understands that the solicitors have put forward in their proposals tariffs which they believe reflect a fair settlement.

"The judge has made clear that he will make a final ruling on the proposals submitted."