THE compensation fight faced by thousands of North-East miners took a new twist last night after it was revealed it could still take five years to test every claimant.

About 7,000 men in the region whose lungs have been wrecked by coal dust remain trapped in the compensation process, waiting for their due.

And despite recent progress, a dire lack of qualified respiratory consultants in the region has meant for many there is no end in sight to their nightmare.

The Northern Echo has now been told that it could be five years at the current rate before every claimant in the North-East is medically assessed for their claim.

That is not withstanding new claimants suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema who are joining the queue at a rate of 1,000 a week nationally.

Solicitor Roger Maddocks, who is representing North-East claimants, said: "There is a particular concern about the number of qualified respiratory consultants in this region where the problem is particularly acute.

"There is also a significant disparity in the time it takes for men to be assessed in the North-East compared with other parts of the country.

"We have been reassured by the Department of Trade and Industry that they are keen to address these problems."

A number of key barriers aimed at speeding up the compensation process have been removed in recent months, leading to renewed optimism.

These have included agreement being reached on a package aimed at compensating claimants for a loss of pension earnings which had proved a major sticking point.

Energy Minister Peter Hain has also announced that over the next six months £230m worth of lung compensation will be offered, doubling that already paid out.

But he admitted: "We do need more suitably qualified doctors and technicians to help us. Just 40 per cent of the British pool of respiratory consultants work on this scheme and we are appealing for more."

Easington MP John Cummins, who sits on the parliamentary mining group, said he felt that the delays in medical assessments were unacceptable.

And he revealed that Mr Hain would be visiting the the region later this month to discuss with claimants the problems they face.

Last night, a Department of Trade and Industry spokesman said that it would be looking again at why the problem of consultants was so acute in the North-East.

l An extra £210m is also being offered to 18,000 Vibration White Finger claimants over the next six months