Ministers `cheating injured ex-miners'.
THE Government was last night accused of cheating former miners out of statutory benefits by adopting a bizarre set of double standards to assess industrial injuries.
Thousands of pit workers with vibration white finger in Wales have been denied disability benefits because the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) does not recognise they are suffering from the debilitating industrial disease.
But those same miners have already received thousands of pounds in compensation for the condition from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) after undergoing rigorous medical tests.
In a legal challenge that could cost the Government millions of pounds in backdated benefit claims, the pit union Nacods South Wales is appealing to the High Court in London to force the DWP to abandon its current ``archaic and unscientific'' test for vibration white finger.
The union has brought the landmark action under the Human Rights Act which guarantees everyone the right to a fair hearing.
``This Government is a benefits cheat,'' Nacods South Wales general secretary Bleddyn Hancock said. ``It ran a campaign last year saying time is running out for benefits cheats but we have news for the Government - time is now running out for them.
``All we want is a chance for a fair hearing without these tests and guidelines that are biased against our members to stop them getting benefits.''
More than pounds 80.6m has been paid out to 8,500 former miners suffering from vibration white finger in Wales under the DTI's compensation scheme which was set up in 1998 after the High Court ruled they had the right to claim Government compensation for their injuries.
But Nacods figures suggest that as many as 98% of these miners who had also applied for the industrial injuries disablement benefit after receiving DTI compensation were turned down on the basis of the cold water provocation test.
The benefit is a form of no fault compensation for those who have become disabled following an injury at work and payments range from pounds 22.90 to pounds 114.80 a week.
The latest figures for industrial injury disablement benefits claims in Wales reveal 1,600 people, who had suffered some form of industrial disease, applied between July 2001 and June 2002, but just 185 were successful - less than 12%.
The cold water provocation test used by the DWP to evaluate claims for disability benefits from former miners, aims to replicate the blanch-ing effect in the fingers caused by poor blood circulation.
Claimants must put their hands into very cold water to determine whether their fingers go white.
Mr Justice Pitchford yesterday heard that the Royal College of Physicians regarded the test as having ``negligible value'' and believed it should be abandoned as far back as 1993.
But a spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions last night said, ``The cold water provocation test is one of a number of diagnostic tools available to doctors assessing industrial injury disablement benefit claims relating to vibration white finger.
``Its use depends on the professional judgement of the doctor and is not obligatory. The doctor will also take into account other aspects of the assessment process, such as the history of the claimant.''
The case continues.