THE Government last night finally moved to end the scandal of thousands of North-East miners still left waiting for compensation for disease contracted in the region's pits.

Energy Minister Helen Liddell announced a package of measures aimed at speeding up the compensation process and released an extra £90m for claimants.

The move came on the day a 12,000-signature petition calling for action was presented to the Government in Whitehall by The Northern Echo and County Durham miner's daughter Pat Daglish.

It comes a month after The Northern Echo organised a public meeting in Seaham to highlight the scandal.

Earlier yesterday, Department of Trade and Industry officials and claimants' solicitors had met to thrash out a new handling agreement for the compensation scheme. New proposals will mean that:

l Some 16,000 men deemed to be urgent cases should receive increased "fast-tracked" compensation offers aimed at settling their claim by Christmas;

l Thousands of claimants who have already settled claims will receive top-up cash;

l Claimants who were not previously eligible for interim compensation after initial medical checks will now be entitled to higher compensation payouts without taking further tests.

Announcing the measures, Mrs Liddell said: "My patience with the slow progress is exhausted.

"We have listened and we have acted to offer a package which should start delivering next month.

"It shows our unflinching determination to bring some comfort to our men and their families who have suffered too long."

Mrs Liddell also praised The Northern Echo's Justice For The Miners campaign.

She said: "Campaigns like The Northern Echo's are actually very valuable. As long as the focus is kept on this, it helps me make the point to all the different people involved.

"If people started to forget about the problem that would make my job harder."

Other key improvements being made are aimed at speeding up the Medical Assessment Procedure (MAP) - the final step for many miners who reject initial compensation offers.

A major sticking point has been claimants' medical and employment records, the collection of which will be streamlined.

New testing centres will be set up and "roving teams" of staff employed across the country to quickly collect records for people who are not expected to live much longer. Adverts are also being placed abroad to increase the number of doctors qualified to carry out the MAP.

Last night, the improvements were welcomed by miners' leaders, solicitors and MPs.

Jim Perry, of the North-East NUM, said: "Helen Liddell said her patience was exhausted with the slow progress - well ours was exhausted a long time ago. We are pleased, though, that these big steps are being taken to improve things."

Roger Maddocks, of Newcastle solicitors Thompsons, said: "This is a means of getting money to injured miners swiftly."

Easington MP John Cummins said: "I welcome any measures at all which are going to increase the number of payments to ex-miners.

"But no one will ever be satisfied until the last miner has received his just rewards."

Latest figures show that since the Government agreed to compensate miners for injuries caused by coal dust 18 months ago, only 30 claimants have been offered and have accepted a full and final offer after completing all stages of the compensation process, including the MAP.

But officials remain confident that previous pledges of settling all claims within three years can be met.

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