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Ruling on white finger test could cost Government pounds 1bn.

Byline: Martin Shipton

THE downgrading of a medieval-style water ordeal used to assess workers for a medical condition could cost the UK Government as much as pounds 1bn in disablement benefits, it has emerged.

Earlier this month the miners' union Nacods secured a ruling from the High Court in London that the Department for Work and Pensions had acted unlawfully by relying on a rudimentary cold water test when assessing hundreds of its members for industrial injuries disablement benefit (IIDB).

Mr Justice Pitchford agreed with the union that the so-called Cold Water Provocation Test had no scientific value. He ordered Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to rethink the way people suffering with the disabling condition vibration white finger (VWF) are assessed for disability benefits.

A form of Raynaud's disease, VWF is triggered by the continuous use of vibrating hand machinery such as chain saws and drills. It can cause numbness and disabling pain in the hands, fingers and toes. The test used by the Department for Work and Pensions required claimants to keep their hand in ice cold water for five minutes and if the hand did not blanche the men were deemed not to be entitled to benefits.

Thousands of miners who had undergone a battery of tests by the Department of Trade to be awarded compensation found they did not qualify for benefits under the Department of Work and Pensions' assessment.

Bleddyn Hancock, the general secretary of Nacods South Wales, said, ``There was this ridiculous situation where our members were treated entirely differently by two different government departments.

``Men who contracted VWF while employed by British Coal had to seek compensation from the Department of Trade and Industry, which is responsible for the liabilities of the former state owned coal industry. Before the DTI would accept their claims, they had to undergo rigorous, state-of-the-art medical tests that proved they suffered from the condition.

``But when they claimed IIDB from the Department for Work and Pensions they were forced to undergo this almost medieval procedure of putting their hands into cold water. If they didn't pass that test, they were deemed not to have VWF and were disqualified from receiving benefit.''

The union launched its action under the Human Rights Act, claiming the ex-miners were not given a fair hearing. The judgment paves the way for more than 20,000 former miners and many thousands more who worked in the steel, shipbuilding and other heavy industries to claim IIDB. Mr Hancock said estimates about how much the ruling would cost the Government varied between pounds 250m and pounds 1bn.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Pitchford said there was ``un-equivocal evidence'' that some doctors appeared to be wrongly placing reliance on the test when deciding whether or not claimants were suffering from VWF. He ordered the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to modify or revise the existing guidance on the test.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pen-sions said, ``We have accepted the judgment and will not be appealing.We are pleased that the judge did not ban us from using the Cold Water Provocation Test outright. It is our intention to continue to use it, but in future we shall not rely on it as the sole means of determining whether a claimant has VWF.''

He said IIDB was a no fault benefit, so there was no need for a claimant to prove who was responsible for causing the condition. ``We have no information on how much the judgment is likely to cost in additional payments.''

Weekly payments of IIDB vary between pounds 23.36 and pounds 115.80 a week, depending on the level of disability.

CAPTION(S):

DOWNGRADED: The test; Picture: Roger Donovan; SET TO BENEFIT: A High Court judgment has paved the way for more than 20,000 ex-miners to claim industrial injuries disablement benefit after a case brought under the Human Rights Act
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 17, 2003
Words:657
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