§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls)
I beg to move,That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations t990, which were laid before this House on 20th February, be approved.The regulations will be made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979. Their purpose is to increase by 8 per cent. the compensation paid under the Act to those who satisfy all the eligibility conditions on or after 1 April 1990.
The 1979 Act provides for lump-sum payments to sufferers, or to their dependants, if the sufferer has died of dust-related diseases but no former employer remains in business against whom a claim for damages might be made.
The reason why compensation is provided in that way is because of the length of time that it takes for the disease to develop and for its symptoms to become apparent. Many years later, the sufferer may discover that he or she has the disease, often long after leaving the employment that caused or contributed to the development of the disease, by which time the employer may have gone out of business.
The Act did not provide for amounts of payment or for automatic uprating, but the Government have undertaken to Parliament to review the amounts payable each year.
The original payment regulations in 1980 set out a scale of payments related to age and degree of disability, as assessed by medical experts. Since 1980, several increases have been made, always with the aim of keeping the payments in line with the value of money. Last year, Parliament approved an increase of 8 per cent. from April. The proposed increase this year again is 8 per cent. to take account of inflation since then.
The Government do all they can to administer the Act sympathetically. We recognise that each case is an individual tragedy and we are as generous as we feel we can be. It has never been the Act's purpose, however, to provide an alternative to taking action in the courts against an employer, and my officials must be satisfied that there is no employer against whom a claim for damages could be made.
Since the Act came into force in 1980, almost 5,000 people have made successful claims. Eighty-two per cent. of all claims to date were made in the first year of the scheme, but it is a sad fact that claims are still being received by the Department. The total cost to date has been £28.6 million. So far in the current financial year, 103 payments have been made, amounting to £694,000.
Most of those payments have been to sufferers, or to their dependants, in industries or occupations that involved contact with asbestos. They reflect the poor conditions in some workplaces a generation or more ago. The dangers of asbestos are now well recognised, and extensive legislation prevents much exposure today.
It is clearly right to maintain the value of compensation paid to those disabled by those diseases. I therefore commend the regulations to the House.
§ Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)
As the Under-Secretary said, the regulations will be made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979—one of the last Acts passed by the last Labour Government, in which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, played a large part. The Labour party is entitled to be proud of that Act.
The regulations provide compensation for an illness that is horrendous not only for sufferers but for their families. A number of my hon. Friends who are involved in the mining industry are in the Chamber. British Coal has a separate scheme, but my hon. Friends can bear witness to the cruel way in which pneumoconiosis and similar conditions affect sufferers.
The original legislation was forced through by the Labour Government but, to be fair, it was also introduced at the behest of a number of Members from north Wales who were worried about the damage done to people working in slate quarries. In recent years, the regulations have been especially important to those involved in the asbestos industry.
The Minister said that conditions were unacceptable a generation ago. For a short time, I worked for an asbestos company in Manchester in the late 1960s. I am not sure whether that is a generation ago. I had my 40th birthday a little over a week ago, and people like me will be the potential victims of asbestosis and cancers for the rest of our lives—I include people younger than me, who continued to work in the industry until the plant closed. The conditions then and for some years later were atrocious. In the asbestos industry, as in other industries such as mining and quarrying, the management were fully aware of the dangers to the work force but oblivious to them in that they were prepared to allow people to continue to work.
§ Mr. Lloyd
Indeed. They were permissive for management but intolerable for workers.
Because I worked in the industry, I can say with certainty that most of the people who worked for an employer such as Turner Brothers in Manchester were unaware of the dangers. I even remember when a room the size of this Chamber was full of clouds of asbestos dust when the extractor fans failed to function. That was not one off; it was a regular part of working practice in such factories only a little over 20 years ago.
The Minister said that the numbers were decreasing, and every hon. Member will welcome that. It would be wrong—no one would impute these words to the Minister—to say that somehow this phenomenon will disappear.
The Opposition welcome the fact that this year's uprating is marginally ahead of inflation.
§ Mr. Lloyd
As my hon. Friend said, it is a teeny-weeny bit.
I hope that the Minister will agree with us. He said that 103 awards were made last year and that the total value was less than £650,000. One needs only simple mathematics to work out that the regulations, which provide a top award of a little under £42,000 for a person under 38 with 100 per cent. disability, do not provide for 685 the reality of these conditions. For most people, symptoms appear slowly and progressively after many years of exposure to dust. The typical award of £7,000 is available to people who are well into their 50s or 60s, or are sometimes even older. The idea that this is a particularly generous compensation system does not accord with the facts.
The Minister said that the scheme was not designed to replace a civil claim against a previous employer. If an employer were found to be negligent in respect of a former employee or an existing employee who had become a victim of one of these dust-related diseases, the award would inevitably be higher than the amounts set out under these regulations.
It must be pointed out that the levels of compensation simply do not equate with the human suffering of the victims of these conditions. The £41,000 maximum is not typical. The typical award is not even the £18,996 that goes to a dependant of someone who has died. The typical award is the £7,000, or thereabouts.
One part of these regulations says that the level of compensation relates to the degree of disability assessed within 12 months of the disability being discovered. By its very nature, this is a progressive condition, and most people are assessed at a level well below that of which they will eventually become victims. Someone whose disability is assessed at 10 per cent. or less within 12 months of the condition being discovered will have his compensation based on that figure, even though he may eventually suffer disability of 100 per cent.
I should like the Minister to look at, and perhaps later comment on, the scheme run by the National Union of Mineworkers, which was negotiated with British Coal. We should do well if the people who will figure under the regulations that we are debating could benefit from two of the features of that miners' scheme. Those in the coal industry are entitled to the same type of lump sum, but there are two other features.
First, there is a reduced earnings allowance whereby someone forced to accept a job at a lower rate of pay is compensated for the difference. But perhaps the most important aspect of the British Coal scheme is that it recognises that these are progressive conditions, that, with continued exposure, the victims of dust-related diseases will suffer progressively. Even if an initial compensation assessment is low, a later assessment may be much higher. It is important that compensation be related not to the initial but to the final level of disability. I hope that the Minister will take those points on board and comment on the possibility of extending those two very sensible practices to people claiming these awards.
There is another point that I hope the hon. Gentleman will pick up. It concerns people in coal mining as well as people who might benefit from extension of the reduced-earnings allowances principle to this compensation system. There is concern among miners in particular that, under social security legislation, the reduced earnings allowance will be phased out for new claimants.
Anybody faced with that situation would have an economic motive not to claim compensation under any scheme but to stay at a higher-paid job even if, by so doing, he would almost certainly guarantee that his condition would become not just progressively worse—that would 686 be happening anyway—but progressively worse at an increasing rate. Sadly, we are building into schemes provisions that give people a financial incentive to do further damage to themselves.
It would be unreasonable to do anything but welcome this uprating at the rate of inflation, or thereabouts. However, there are serious doubts as to whether the scheme provides for the levels of compensation that we should like. It is not a costly scheme. Relatively few people benefit from it. We have heard that last year it cost a little over £600,000, and that in the previous year the cost was a little less than £500,000. Those sums are relatively modest compared with the suffering of those involved.
I urge the Minister carefully to consider the points that I have raised about progression and the operation of a system of reduced earnings allowances. If we can hope for such a system and for compensation that is slightly more realistic in terms of what a civil court might decide, we can say that we have begun to stablish a framework for a compensation scheme that recognises the suffering that people have undergone. We must remember that they have suffered because the type of work in which they were involved guaranteed—although they did not know it at the time—that in later years they would become the victims of crippling and cruel conditions such as pneumoconiosis.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister's announcement of the uprating and intervene briefly to ask for clarification of the working of the regulations in the light of the changes in the companies legislation that took effect at the end of last year.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that receipt of money under the scheme does not prevent the claimant from seeking compensation from a former employer who may have gone into liquidation? I understand that the changes in the companies legislation have allowed claims to be made in respect of a period of 20 years, rather than just two years, prior to the date of liquidation of the company.
My hon. Friend may be aware of the case of my constituent, Mrs. Doris Bradley, of Breightmet in Bolton, who pursued the Eagle Star insurance company through the courts to the House of Lords, albeit unsuccessfully. She had contracted byssinosis from employment in Dart mill in Bolton. Her employment ceased in 1970. In 1980, she received compensation under the scheme. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the payment that she received then should not prevent her, or others in her position, from seeking compensation from either the insurance company or the employers, even though those firms may have gone into liquidation?
§ Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)
I, too, welcome the uprating of the lump sum compensation and the opportunity to debate the regulations on the Floor of the House.
I should like to pursue one or two questions concerning the effect of the regulations on those who suffer from byssinosis. You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker—and certainly my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Mr. Walker), who has just vacated the Chair, will know—that the "etc." in the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 covered byssinosis as 687 well as a number of other industrial diseases. It was particularly welcome in my constituency of Oldham, East, where there were many textile workers who had worked in the spinning section of the textile industry, in premises that were filled with cotton dust. Most of those workers were women, and quite a number received lump sum compensation following the passing of the Act.
I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), that we should remember that that Act was the final Act of the Labour Government, although the regulations were brought in later by the Conservative Government, and I must say that they were very welcome. Almost 2,000 people in the Oldham area received an average of about £7,000.
The provision that caused considerable problems to my constituents stated that they should not receive compensation if any employer for whom they had worked was still in business. By the nature of the problem in Oldham—the disease was in the spinning industry and it was mostly women who were affected—most of the sufferers had worked for several employers in their working lives. They would leave one mill to have a child; they would be off work for perhaps two or three years and then they would start work again—very likely in another mill. I have met many constituents who have worked for six, seven or even more employers during their working lives. If any of those employers are still in business, those workers are debarred from claiming lump sum compensation.
I know that the Minister has applied the regulations as generously as he felt he could without going against the previous regulations that were passed by the House. Short periods of employment with employers who are still in business have been disregarded for the purposes of claiming compensation. However, nearly 300 women and some men in my constituency still cannot receive lump sum compensation.
I know that those people can take their former employers to court to try to obtain compensation. However, the women to whom I am referring are retired and some of them are quite elderly. It costs money to institute proceedings. They must put down some money to begin with, as no lawyer will take on a case without a down 688 payment to cover his services. Money will also be required for a counsel's opinion and for medical examinations. Many of those elderly women cannot face the ordeal of going to court, so they do not pursue their cases.
Curious though it may seem in this day and age, many of those women have some attachment to the family firm for which they once worked. We must remember that in Oldham and the surrounding area there were about 350 mills operated by some 250 companies. In other words, most of the companies had only one mill and were family firms. That is still the case, to a certain extent, in what remains of the textile industry.
When I advised women of their rights to go to court, they told me that they did not want to take the firm to court because they did not want the firm's owners, who in many cases they knew by name, to think, after all the work that they had done for them, that they blamed them and. expected to get money from them. That is not a logical attitude, but I have come across it several times in my constituency. Will the Minister consider that, think the matter over and reconsider the regulations to see whether. he can apply them more generously or find a way of amending them?
I am not making a new plea. I have often made it before. I made it when the original 1979 legislation was passing through the House and I made it again when the regulations were before the House. I made it when the statutory instrument was debated, not on the Floor of the House but in Committee. I usually received a sympathetic hearing and a recognition of the practical difficulties facing the elderly people who are still waiting for compensation.
Those women may have spent three or four years with one firm, and that firm, of five or six, may have remained in business. They cannot understand why that short period should debar them from compensation, while that firm may quite reasonably deny that it is likely that that person contracted byssinosis only during the short period that she worked at the company, at the end of her working life.
Will the Minister contemplate amending the regulations to assist those who worked in the textile industry, who I believe have a particular reason to look for sympathy?
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
I am glad of the opportunity to take part in this short debate. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I were involved in the parentage of the legislation back in the 1970s. I wish only that we had not needed the legislation then and, to the extent that there was a need, that the legislation had not been on the statute book years earlier because many people suffered from its absence.
I refer immediately to a point made by the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Lamond).
There have been problems of people working for short times in the slate quarries particularly in towns such as Blaenau Ffestiniog—where there are several, some of them small—some of which are still in existence, but most of which are now defunct. In a number of cases the Department has taken a reasonably elastic view. Perhaps the Minister should look for some guideline—if that entails amending the legislation so be it—to accept that if anyone worked for a company still in existence for less than a quarter or a fifth of his working life, the time working for that company should be disregarded and the person should not be debarred from compensation by virtue of the fact that, perhaps for four years out of 20, he or she worked for a company that still exists.
I am not sure of the experience in the cotton industry, but certainly in the slate quarrying industry the Transport and General Workers Union has done tremendous work representing people who have suffered pneumoconiosis and whose employers still exist. That union's legal department has done very well in bringing cases forward and in reaching settlements out of court to avoid the trauma and worry that some people suffer.
§ Mr. James Lamond
The Powerloom Carpet Weavers and Textile Weavers Union and the General Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union have also played their part in obtaining compensation in the courts for my constituents.
§ Mr. Wigley
That work is valued. Unions look after people who have long since ceased to work because of their health conditions.
The other possibility that is well worth looking at—I am sure that the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton will also consider it—is to advise constituents that there should be no odium in bringing a case against a small company. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about attachment to small companies, but in most circumstances the insurance company will have to pay. Therefore, it is often possible to come to some agreement without polarisation and the hostility that might otherwise be implicit.
Obviously, we welcome any uprating, and 8 per cent. is certainly to be welcomed as far as it goes. In 1979, the original figure at the bottom of the scale was £700. It has doubled since then, but it is fair also to say that the costs of disability have increased tremendously. The information that has been presented to the House in Office of Population Censuses and Surveys studies and from other sources has highlighted the much greater cost of disability to a person and his or her family than was recognised 10 years ago. We must look at a more generous scale of compensation, particularly for younger people who suffer 690 a large degree of disability early in life and may have to live with the cost implications of disability for many years. The Government might want to consider that matter.
I note the point about the need for a mid-term review for people who have been acknowledged as suffering from pneumoconiosis, almost inevitably at a low percentage. How many people in different industries have been acknowledged initially at 10 per cent. but have seen their disability rapidly escalate to 100 per cent.? Compensation is based on the 10 per cent. figure. Perhaps there could be a structure whereby a person is reviewed every five years. If the percentage disability increases during those five years, it would put him or her on a substantially higher level of compensation than would have been the case five years earlier. The amount of compensation payable could be uprated.
I realise that the Government would not want to do that annually, but for those who have suffered disability young in life and have to live with it, that may be a way of recognising, as the Labour Government at the time said and as the Conservative Government accepted when they introduced the regulations, that the scales represent a degree of rough justice. Perhaps such a review would overcome that rough justice.
Another point made by hon. Members in the past, which needs to be repeated, is the definition of the diseases included as industrial diseases for these purposes. We all know of cases of people whose doctors have stated that they are suffering from chronic bronchitis or emphysema and not from diseases that are accepted for the purposes of the legislation. I have dealt with such a case in the past few weeks that of Mr. Evie Davis from Rhostryfan, the village next to mine. Year after year he has gone back to the board to have his case reviewed. The board has stated that he has a little dust which does not amount to pneumoconiosis. His specialist is convinced that he is suffering pneumoconiosis. No doubt next year he will have to go back again and it will be that much more of a struggle to go, as his health suffers. We know of hundreds of such cases.
There must be a review of the definition. There should be greater flexibility to include people who have worked in industries that are identified as creating the dust and who have conditions such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which are associated with the listed diseases.
Another reason why there may be room to be a little more generous to people affected by the legislation is that, during the past year, the widow's industrial death pension has been ended. I realise that it was only 55p a week on top of the original pension, but it is yet another small element of benefit that has been taken away. Perhaps through the scheme additional compensation could be made for a widow's loss.
Many people who have suffered a loss of health have received probably the largest sum of money that they have ever had or are likely to have. If they have looked after that money, they may be in danger of losing out on some other benefits. If people received a sum of perhaps £10,000 or £12,000 and have looked after it, they may still have over £8,000. They stand in danger of losing community charge or poll tax rebates or housing benefit that they might otherwise have had. That is regrettable because many such people, who face years of disability, look after their capital and we should encourage them to do that.
We must also consider the community care legislation that is soon to be introduced. If there is a move towards 691 privatisation of services and payment for services, will people who have received a lump sum have to pay for services that they previously had and which are certainly necessary if they are to remain living in the community?
Safety standards in places of work must remain high. I have an asbestos factory as well as old slate quarries in my constituency, and I am very much aware of the need for safety at work. The company in my constituency does its best to maintain standards. It is something that all Governments must be aware of. There should be no skimping on inspection or cutting of corners to save costs at the expense of health standards. We must make sure that industries employing people now will not cause the suffering that we have seen in other industries, the consequences of which we are debating tonight.
In welcoming the order to uprate, I hope that there may be room for more flexibility in the directions that I mentioned and that more benefit can be given to people who have suffered so much because of their work.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
I join my hon. Friends and Conservative Members in welcoming the orders. I also join them in their expressions of doubt about the efficacy of the working of the scheme.
I remember when I was a relatively small boy or young man, about 30 or 40 years ago, I read a novel, I think by A. J. Cronin, about the adventures of a doctor who came up from south Wales to do some research into pneumoconiosis in the coal mining industry. The scandals of the matters that prevented him from bringing into law the scientific discoveries that he made in an institute in London aroused my ire. I was surprised, and I am still surprised and disturbed, by the extent to which scientific analysis and evidence is being ignored. That does not redound to the credit of any Government of any party, and certainly not to an Administration in the United Kingdom. Therefore, I view with reserve the Minister's statement that the Government regard the working of these schemes with some sympathy.
I wish to raise one or two matters relating to the operation of the scheme where improvements can be made. I hope that, when the regulations next come before the House, their scope will be wider than those that we are considering. These matters have been brought to my attention by that excellent organisation, the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases, and by the redoubtable lady who runs it, Mrs. Nancy Tait.
Why, in this day and age, is the ex-civil servant widow of a General Post Office engineer to the forefront on these matters? I had hoped that, along with the unions, other agencies in our democracy would have fulfilled that function. However, I am pleased to present some of the features to which that lady and her colleagues in that excellent organisation have drawn my attention.
The first is the applicability of the scheme. I believe that the case of a widow whose husband was employed in Northern Ireland has been drawn to the Minister's attention, probably by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley). I understand that the scope of the provisions may not be as wide in that part of the United Kingdom as in the rest. I may be mistaken in that respect, but I think that that is so. Perhaps the Minister will comment on what may be an anomaly.
692 The asbestosis scourge is at its greatest in east London, around the Thames. I refer to men who, in the past, worked as laggers, boilermakers or boiler workers in power stations and ships, and in insulation work, which still goes on. East London is now suffering a time lag of 50 years or less in these matters.
As I understand it, the scheme does not extend to those who have not been directly employed in the area:3 concerned. It relates only to those who have been employed—in firms that have now gone out of existence—but does not extend to their families. I understand that Leeds city council has done a study into this and that there is now plenty of proof that some families of persons so employed are suffering the effects of asbestos fibres and should therefore be eligible for some compensation.
Even if the Minister cannot give us an assurance on that tonight, I hope that he will at least say that he will have a look at the anomaly. I hope that the number of cases in that classification is relatively low, but surely that makes the moral responsibility all the greater. Where proof can be found, surely there should be compensation.
I understand that out-of-court settlements have been made, but only because of recourse to the threat to go to court. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Lamond) asked whether such threats to go to court should have to be used at all. I understand that: the National Dock Labour Board and one or two firms have come to arrangements with employees' families. I hope that that will not be necessary in future and that they can be brought into the scheme.
I understand that, when such cases occur and there are coroner's inquests, the coroner sometimes finds that the cause of death was natural causes. I question whether that is right. If there is scientific evidence that workers' families have died through ingesting such fibres in their lungs, can the cause of death be natural? Asbestos does not appear naturally in the atmosphere, especially if it is brought in on other people's clothes. Perhaps the Minister will consider that point in relation to the scope of the regulations.
I endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) about the questionable way in which some of the panels operate. About 12 years ago, I had the pleasure of introducing a private Member's Bill, which happily later became an Act—the Industrial Diseases (Notification) Act 1981. It was the Archie Morton memorial Bill. Archie came to my surgery about 12 years ago. He told me that he was dying, that he had obtained some compensation from an out-of-court settlement with the assistance of the General and Municipal Workers Union, and that he would devote that money and the rest of his life to fighting for people who were not so fortunate as he. When he died, a post mortem showed that he was justified in going to the panel, which turned him down time after time.
Last Saturday, a Mr. Smith—that is not his real name—came to see me, by chance before this debate. I do not know whether it is a record—case brought up on Saturday, raised in the House on Monday. It was a coincidence that he saw me so shortly before the debate. There are many men in Mr. Smith's position in east London. He said, "Mr Spearing, I have been coughing blood since January and my GP says that I must go to the panel." He named a firm that is well known in the area, for which he had worked at one time and which no longer exists.
I have talked about the past and the scandals that took place when I was a boy, which I hoped then would never 693 recur. With that in mind, I am not too happy about the way in which the panels operate. As I understand it, the balance of probability is against the applicant. I shall read to the House some of the conclusions reached by the organisation to which I referred earlier, the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases. I shall start where the society quotes a quote:'Asbestos bodies are only formed from asbestos fibres over 12 micron, but shorter fibres may cause fibrosis, so fibrosis caused by these shorter fibres is unrecognisable histologically as asbestosis'. (Whitwell: Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. 71, Dec: 1978, p. 919–922).However, DHSS Special Medical Boards ignore these opinions. SPAID's case work suggests that it is now more difficult to obtain DHSS industrial disablement benefit for lung cancer affecting someone who has worked with asbestos, since it was prescribed for benefit as PD D8.Before 1985, the connection was often accepted by DHSS provided there were even a few asbestos bodies and their pathologists would search for minimal fibrosis.Now, DHSS Special Medical Boards give 'scanty asbestos bodies and minimal fibrosis' as grounds for concluding that a lung cancer is not connected with exposure to asbestos. Not only do they refuse to award DHSS industrial benefit, they also frequently advise Coroners that a death should not be recorded as an Industrial Disease. They are required by DHSS regulations to decide applications 'on the balance of probabilities'. They rarely do so. Instead they often offer very flimsy evidence when asked to justify their decision to refuse a claim.We find that, when the evidence is argued in either a Civil or a Coroner's Court, the view that lung cancer must be accompanied by asbestosis or bilateral diffuse pleural thickening is recognised as being out of date and not in line with modern thinking.Unfortunately, the DHSS opinion is accepted all to often, without question and, as a result, many are quite unjustly, denied benefits or an opportunity of even claiming compensation.I have a shorter quotation from a registered medical practitioner, whom I had better not name. Here is the opinion of a person well experienced in these matters:In 1986, after a considerable amount of evidence had been produced by research workers, the DHSS agreed to accept bilateral diffuse pleural thickening as a compensatible disease. However, the interpretation of the criteria has been so stringent that even in many obviously disabled men no compensation has been offered.There is growing concern and frustration among chest physicians, particularly in those areas where a great deal of a asbestos-related disease occurs, that the DHSS Medical Boards are ignoring much of the evidence produced by medical workers in the field of asbestos-related disease. Even when there is irrefutable evidence of disease they are suppressing facts in individual cases to the extent that the men referred are losing confidence in their referring physicians.They say, "The doctor says I've got it, the specialist says I've got it, the London hospital says I've got it, but the panel says I haven't." That is the sort of message that I get at my advice surgery. The practitioner continues:The members of the Boards insist that their criteria must be met exactly in every case and they have no recourse to the legal 'balance of probability' which is more often than not the fairest way to deal with these problems. I understand that it is likely that the death benefit for the industrial disease of asbestosis is likely to be discontinued next year and if this is so there is even more likelihood that sufferers and their dependents will be deprived of benefit as fewer will be referred to the Coroner for Inquest.I appreciate that the Minister will not be able to reply in detail to these opinions and serious prima facie allegations. I would not expect him to do so, but I would expect him seriously to take them up. When Mr. Smith 694 comes to see me next, after he has been before the panel, I do not want him to say, "Mr. Spearing, having worked for that firm 15 years ago, I'm spitting blood, but the panel has turned me down." If he does, and those accusations are still on the table, we shall be doing a grave injustice to some of my constituents and those of my hon. Friends and of hon. Members all over this United Kingdom.
§ 11.6 pm
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
On Friday, we were trying to reach a Bill that would have assisted victims of another condition. It would be wrong not to mention the fact that nuclear test victims, and the widows of those who have died were not allowed that assistance on Friday. They could have been here listening to this debate in the knowledge that the Bill to provide them with compensation and relief was on the way into Committee. This may not concern the Minister's Department, but I hope that he passes on to his colleagues in the Government the message that we believe that the Bill which was blocked last Friday by Tory Back Benchers should be given another chance and swiftly passed.
§ Mr. Skinner
I have taken part in such matters only to stop queue jumping, and that is completely different. I have never been in on a Friday to do anything other than that.
§ Mr. Skinner
The hon. Gentleman is applauding the way that Tory Members stopped the Bill to help nuclear test veterans. Now we know. He is a Government Whip, justifying the tactics used by his hon. Friends to stop the Bill going through. These people fought for their country and suffered out in the Pacific, but he is applauding the actions of those Tory Members who stopped the Bill. Although the uprating is to be supported, such provisions should be extended to other victims.
Is the Minister satisfied that all the asbestos has been removed from the Houses of Parliament? There have been reports that it is still being removed, and I should like him to check that. Thousands of people work here—not just Members of Parliament. I am not worried about them. We cannot call that work. We are talking about real workers, the people who have to clock on and clock off.
I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) who said that £41,000 is not really a lot of money, and I fully agree with him. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) said the same. We can get carried away with figures if we are not careful. Compare that £41,000 with the amount of money that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer has just got for working for a bank for two days—£200,000. The Government talk as though a £41,000 lump sum is a lot of money. There is no doubt that when that sum is taken into account the miners will have to pay the full poll tax, and all the other so-called "means-tested" benefits will also be affected.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford mentioned the reduced earnings allowance, and I think that it is important that we take that on board—not that the reduced earnings allowance is as good as a special hardship allowance. Many of our friends in the mining industry have suffered because of the change from the 695 special hardship to the reduced earnings allowance, and I want the Minister to give an assurance that he will consider bringing those benefits into the same category.
The case of people who fall below the 10 per cent. limit should also be considered. The hon. Member for Caernarfon spoke about the 10 per cent. minimum; it is one of the problems we have come up against with pneumoconiosis. Although this is a separate measure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford said, to a large extent it was built upon the pneumoconiosis settlement made earlier under a Labour Government. A hell of a lot of people are excluded because the pneumoconiosis medical panel says that they fall below 10 per cent. and cannot get anything, and for years they do not get anything. I would like that 10 per cent. limit to be reduced.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) also referred to the problem, and mentioned the case of Arthur Morton and all the rest. It is easy for a doctor who is far away from the subject, and a member of a panel—he is paid a tidy sum to sit on that panel—to say, "Sorry—9 per cent.," or 8 per cent. or whatever. He may say, "We agree that you have dust, but you do not have enough." It is high time that we went below 10 per cent.—it has been around for too long. We should recommend that payments are made for people who have a level below that figure and that the panel's recommendations are seriously reviewed.
Hon. Members have referred to emphysema and other causes of chest complaints—I think that the hon. Member for Caernarfon mentioned it; he played a significant part in getting the Act passed. Had the then Government extended the Act to somewhere in Northern Ireland, we might still be in office. Who knows?
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford mentioned a doctor's report from south Wales. That doctor was writing—a few years ago—about coal dust, and the research that was done on opencast mining. No Government have accepted that someone can get payments for working in opencast coal mines. People who have worked in slate quarries can get payments, but there has been no case in which an opencast coal worker has come under the legislation. Why? I suppose they argue that, by and large, opencast mines are worked for only a few months or a couple of years, although there are cases where they have lasted longer.
I want an investigation into opencast workings, with a view to workers affected in that industry being brought under the legislation because we now have hundreds, possibly thousands, of opencast sites in Britain. My guess is that there have been very few cases—if any—of opencast workers claiming benefit under this order, or the other one, but my guess is that a hell of a lot of cases could come under it.
I should like the Minister to consider the evidence on opencast mining. I am trying to think of the name of the doctor in south Wales who produced it; we have used it in opencast inquiries. I also think that he should consider reducing the 10 per cent. criterion to 5 per cent., so that more people are included. That is no big deal when the top whack is £41,000. Finally, I ask him to check on this building to see whether there is still an asbestos problem.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
Tonight the Minister is hearing the voices of experience. He should not look at me in that way; the voices of experience are crossing the Chamber to make him understand exactly how we feel.
Nevertheless, we welcome what the Minister has said. The increase is a step in the right direction, and I hope that it will be made annually in future. Inflation is rocketing under the present Government, and is likely to continue to do so. [Interruption.] It is all very well for the young Whip— the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon)—to gawp from his seat; this is experience talking. Conservative Members talk about Arthur Scargill, but if they had worked in the pits years ago they would not have a smile on their face. Arthur Scargill did a first-class job as a full-time official in Yorkshire, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) when he was president of the Derbyshire branch of the NUM.
§ Mr. Haynes
I do not know why Conservative Members keep on talking about Libya and Gaddafi and Scargill; we are talking about pneumoconiosis tonight. I am a bit surprised at their behaviour. That little lad, the hon. Member for Darlington, ought to be sent for by her at No. 10 and given a ticking off: Whips and Parliamentary Private Secretaries are supposed to keep their mouths shut in the Chamber.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover knows what he is talking about: he did a first-class job as president of the Derbyshire miners. He was a working president. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) on the case that he put. We have yet to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) has to say, but no doubt we shall find it an education. My hon. Friend has worked both as a miner and on the management side, so he really knows the subject from A to Z—as does my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), who has been chairing the Employment Bill Committee, and who has also worked on both sides of the industry. The same applies to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Lamond).
The National Union of Hosiery and Knitwear Workers has done a first-class job in representing its members. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has had to speak on something new to him, as it came up only in his Saturday surgery. Nor do I wish to leave out my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd). He has learnt a lot since he became a Member of Parliament. That was obvious when he presented his case at the Dispatch Box. He will do the same tomorrow in the Standing Committee on the Employment Bill.
My hon. Friend referred to the doctor, the consultant and the panel. I am sick to death of the general practitioner telling the patient that because he has pneumoconiosis he will send him to a consultant at the district general hospital. The consultant agrees with the doctor, so the patient goes before the panel. Its members get a nice old rake-off for doing the job. They decide that the extent of the disease is below 10 per cent. That must be looked into, because after that patient's case has been turned down he may die within six months. That has happened many times. The post mortem examination then reveals that the extent of the disease can be as high as 50 or 60 per cent.
697 The so-called specialists on the panel are not doing their job properly. They want their backsides kicking. I am waiting for the Minister to get up and say that he will do the kicking. Some of these people are not getting a fair deal. I accept that some of them are, but the others are not getting what they are entitled to. They have to die before people find out that they were entitled to what they had asked for.
§ Mr. James Lamond
My hon. Friend's point is also correct in the case of byssinosis victims. A general practitioner diagnoses byssinosis; the consultant does the same; the panel turns down the victim; he dies; the post mortem is byssinosis. I wonder whether the panel believes that it must turn down a certain percentage of cases, just to show that it is doing its job. However, it ought to remember that before men and women come before it, they have had to persuade at least two medical practitioners—the consultant and their own doctor—that they are suffering from byssinosis. People are not coming in off the street, hoping to be diagnosed as having byssinosis. They have to go through certain procedures before they come before the panel. Almost 100 per cent. of the people who go before the panel must have the disease that they claim to suffer from.
§ Mr. Haynes
I agree with all that my hon. Friend says. There is a flipping scandal here and it has got to be looked into. People are not being treated properly. All that is related to what I keep telling the Minister about pit inspectors. There are not enough of them to see that the job is being done properly underground.The example I give is that of working in a heading where there is a fan. As the heading advances, they use air bagging to keep up the work at the front. When the fan breaks down, or if it does not work properly, the miners gobble dust into their insides.
That is why they get pneumoconiosis. Inspectors are not on the job to see that it is being carried out properly. Those men should be withdrawn. As a works pit inspector, I should withdraw them. I made that clear to the Minister, and I am proud of it. A trade union official must look after the individuals he represents, otherwise he is not doing his job properly. I want the Minister to grab hold of that fact and to remember it when we are in Committee tomorrow.
I have made my points. I hope that the Minister will respond properly.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
I shall start where my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) left off, on opencasting. There is a report about a Dr. Thomas who has a practice in Glenheath. Dr. Thomas has been involved in an investigation of the high incidence of dust-related diseases, particularly among women and children. The investigation into Dr. Thomas's practice seems rather strange, particularly as it was instigated by the Secretary of State for Wales, when it was discovered that the practice was spending far too much according to the guidelines and compared with other practices in the area. That brings us back to the National Health Service and Community Care Bill, which does not take such matters into consideration.
698 The Ministry carried out an investigation of why the male population did not suffer from the dust-related diseases which affected the women and children in the area. It came across the startling fact that the men no longer worked in the area, so they spent between eight and 12 hours elsewhere, while the women and children spent the whole day in the area. The investigation concluded that they were being affected by airborne dust from opencast mining, and much investigation is still to be done.
The 8 per cent. uprating is in line with inflation this month, although that may not be the case next month, and it would be churlish of us not to welcome it. However, I wish to raise one or two points which may have been mentioned before.
The amount of compensation reduces according to the age of the claimant. The logic of that is that a younger person has longer to live and will experience more difficulties as he gets older. At the same time, the older the sufferer, the more looking after he needs. The person looking after him bears the brunt of it. I know that from first-hand experience, because my father died of pneumoconiosis. I saw him struggle from the time he was assessed—he ended up with 100 per cent. pneumoconiosis—and I saw my mother looking after him. That trumatic experience affected the entire family.
It is necessary to look at the lower end of the scale. The older a person gets, the more looking after he needs and the more strain that puts on the carer, so more compensation should be paid. Although I see the logic in it, it is wrong to reduce compensation to such an extent lower down the scale. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said, at the top of the scale a person aged 37 with 100 per cent. pneumoconiosis would receive £41,000 and that is peanuts. Therefore, it is necessary to look again at the scale and the amount of compensation awarded.
The Government are wrong to phase out the reduced earnings allowance. Many Opposition Members have had experience of men struggling to do a job that they were clearly incapable of doing, purely and simply because of their economic situation. They knew full well that, if they left the job, they would lose a lot of money. The reduced earnings allowance or the hardship allowance cushioned that effect, so that people could be encouraged to leave the work that they should not be doing and move into different work.
I looked at one of the old forms the other day; it referred to compensation for life. It said nothing about compensation being reduced when the claimant reached the age of 65 or being phased out. It was compensation for life. It was compensation while sufferers were working to make up their reduced earnings, and it was also compensation when they had finished working to make up the amount of money that they should have saved but could not save because they had to leave the job early. The Government are wrong to remove the reduced earnings allowance.
A valid argument against the 10 per cent. rule has been made. Sufferers who are diagnosed as having 8 per cent. pneumoconiosis and 20 per cent. emphysema are not paid compensation. Only after they have died and their lungs have been examined are the effects of emphysema seen. Compensation should be paid for emphysema and related diseases. Despite scientific studies, emphysema is not regarded as an industrial disease. The clear evidence is that it is an industrial disease. It should be recognised as such, and proper compensation should be paid.
699 Many miners suffering from pneumoconiosis have had to leave work. They cannot burn solid fuel in their homes. British Coal recognised that by paying them cash in lieu for alternative fuels. The Government take into account the money that a miner, his widow or his family receives and reduce his housing and welfare benefit accordingly. A test case was taken to a tribunal, which ruled against the Government. It said that the Government are wrong to take cash in lieu into account. The Government are likely to appeal. They should not be appealing; they should be considering how much money they owe those people. That money should be paid immediately, and retrospective payments should be considered.
§ Mr. Nicholls
I am grateful to hon. Members for acknowledging that benefits have been uprated in line with inflation, as they have been almost every year since the Pneumoconiosis etc, (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 came into force.
I join the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) in paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Mr. Walker). who was responsible for bringing that Act to a successful conclusion. As I recall, he did so against the findings of the Pearson commission. One can speculate on the efforts that the right hon. Gentleman must have made in achieving that success, bearing in mind the commission's recommendation. That Act is operated in precisely the same way as under the last Labour Government. We argue across the Dispatch Box about other upratings, but we have no argument about this one.
The hon. Member for Stretford mentioned asbestos. He said that he and I are old enough to consider the working lives of a generation. We have learnt much about asbestos over the past 20 or 30 years. It was always realised that it was dangerous, but we continue to find out just how dangerous it was. There is a strict regime under the asbestos regulations of 1983 and 1985 and the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987. Without being complacent, there is every reason to believe that we have achieved the right control.
Hon. Members referred to the amount of compensation that is payable. Uniquely, the compensation scheme does not depend on having to prove negligence. That is a useful aspect of the scheme. In introducing that legislation, the then Minister of State, Department of Employment acknowledged that it was very much in a class of its own. Negligence does not have to be proved. That is a significant advantage, which means that one is not subjected to the vagaries of litigation and having to prove a case. I make no criticism in saying that it is easy to relate cases in which massive amounts of compensation have been awarded, but there is a danger of trying to relate the sums awarded under this scheme to what might be awarded in litigation.
I accept that the sums involved are not massive. The point has been made in this debate and last year that mere money cannot begin to compensate for the misery, tragedy and horrific times that families face when a loved one dies. I am sure that the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) agrees that this matter goes far beyond the issue of money. Having said that, I accept that ultimately we are simply talking about money, and it is right that we should consider the sums that can be awarded.
700 I was asked about the average compensation. It has been about £8,000 in the current year. The maximum could be as much as £41,849; the maximum for dependants would be rather lower, at £18,996. The sums are not derisory, although they are not massive. We are dealing with something that is much more basic than mere money, as hon. Members on both sides of the House accept.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) asked whether it would be possible, having obtained an amount under the Act, to proceed against a company that had been restored to life, albeit briefly, under the Companies Act 1989. According to my reading of the Act, there would be nothing to stop a claim being made against a company in that way, even if a sum had been obtained under the legislation. It is right to point out, however, that the converse is not true. If a judgment against a company has been obtained or a compromise has been reached in some way, that would preclude a claim under the Act. In a sense, that is a point of detail which is well known by those who understand the structure of the legislation.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) mentioned the possibility of a periodic review. Like the hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Lamond), he said that, because disability can increase as one gets older, it should be taken into account in considering the low amounts that are now given to those at the lower end of the scale. I understand why the case was put in that way. However, if after the adjudication there were a periodic review, dependent on the person's health at any given time, the scheme would come to a complete stop. In civil litigation, it is a well-established principle. for obvious reasons, that, once a claim is settled, it stands, except in rare circumstances.
I accept the concern of the hon. Member for Caernarfon. When the scheme was devised, the intention was to weight the lower levels of disability to reflect that fact. The hon. Gentleman may say that that is an imprecise measure. I accept that it must be. The structure of the Act ensures that the lower ratings are weighted to take account of that.
The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) clearly has a personal acquaintance with a constituent who has experienced a number of these problems. I want to deal as explicitly as I can with the hon. Gentleman's comments. I am sure that he recognises a phrase used when civil servants brief Ministers on these occasions and which seems to satisfy them sometimes—"It is not my responsibility", but the responsibility of just about anyone else. The work of the boards on respiratory diseases is not the responsibility of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. However, the whole House will have heard what the hon. Gentleman understands to be the findings of that research. I accept that he feels very strongly about the matter.
I give the hon. Gentleman, as well as other hon. Members, an undertaking that I shall write to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health and draw his attention to this debate and, specifically, to the concern of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), at what—to put it at its lowest—they regard as the unsatisfactory circumstances in which a GP and a consultant make one diagnosis but the man on the board comes to a different view. As I do not want to mislead hon. Members, I have to say that I can pass no judgment on whether, in a particular case, the diagnosis of 701 the consultant and the GP should be weighed in the balance against the decision of the board and found wanting. None the less, if such information came to the notice of myself as a constituency Member of Parliament it would concern me. However, as I have said, I shall write to my right hon. and learned Friend to draw to his attention the comments that have been made.
§ Mr. Spearing
I am grateful to the Minister for his encouraging words. The nub of the problem is that the boards are not always willing to publicise the scientific criteria that they use in evaluating any case, to ensure that it is seen as being in line with demonstrable scientific advance and discovery. Unless there is congruity in that respect, there will be cause for concern. Perhaps the Minister will point that fact out to his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health.
§ Mr. Nicholls
Clearly, boards should be up to date, but I cannot pass judgment on particular cases. However, I accept at once that that is what the hon. Gentleman's research has led him to conclude. I well understand his concern, and I shall certainly draw it—not just formally but quite specifically—to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend.
I should like to make two points that may come as some reassurance to Opposition Members. Members have commented across the Floor on the working of the reduced earnings allowance. That is certainly the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. However, I am advised that it has no bearing whatsoever on the working of this Act, although I accept that these occasions can be useful for bringing in tangential matters. A number of hon. Members referred to the position when someone's disability is assessed at less than 10 per cent. or, for that matter, 14 per cent. The guidance issued by the Department on the working of the 1979 Act puts the question:What do you do about claims to the DHSS?The answer is:We need to confirm that: your husband or wife got disablement benefit or disablement allowance because of the disease or that the only reason he or she did not is that the level of disability was below 14 per cent.Again I am advised that, in relation to this Act, the mere fact that the level of disability was found to be lower than 10 per cent. does not preclude the making of a payment.
§ Mr. Wigley
Surely the Minister will accept that, in case after case, boards, having found a little dust, will not make a 10 per cent. finding if there is no pneumoconiosis. Such experience is very widespread.
§ Mr. Nicholls
The hon. Gentleman made that point in his speech. As I said, I shall draw his comments in their entirety to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend.
Having said what I am not responsible for, and passed it to others, I refer to a point that the hon. Member for Caernarfon made about a person who has had a number of employers, the proposition being that all of them would have to have gone out of business before a claim was made. I am advised that there is no hard-and-fast rule to that effect, but obviously the hon. Member has experience of this matter. The working of that part of the assessment is 702 the responsibility of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, and it is a matter that we shall certainly look at.
The hon. Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone and for Caernarfon asked whether emphysema—and, for that matter, bronchitis—should be classified in the same way. The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, which advises the Secretary of State in these matters, reported in February 1988 that the link had not been made out conclusively enough for the diseases to be included in this category of disablement. The matter is kept under review, and this takes us back to the point made by the hon. Member for Newham, South about the need to ensure that boards are as fully up to date as they should be. I cannot tell the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone that the change that he seeks is around the corner, but the matter is certainly kept closely under review.
I hope that in this relatively short but comprehensive debate I have been able to satisfy the House about the motives underlying the uprating of 8 per cent. while also undertaking to ensure that specific matters are drawn to the attention of those responsible.
§ Mr. James Lamond
I am especially anxious about the case of someone who has one former employer still in business. Is the Minister saying that there is nothing hard and fast in the regulations and that he can re-examine the matter, perhaps with a view to disregarding short periods of employment with one employer who is still in existence or to ensuring that if a period of employment represents only a small proportion of a person's working life, it can be disregarded? Is he saying that he will consider that point?
§ Mr. Nicholls
What I am saying to the hon. Gentleman is that, as I understand it, there is no scheme or tariff which says that, if not all the employers have gone out of business, one simply cannot claim under the Act. The hon. Gentleman would be the first to admit that somewhere along the line a judgment of Solomon will have to be made about how many employers can be in existence and for how long.
I cannot pass any judgment about the matter this evening, but I am concerned at the hon. Gentleman's view—even allowing for what I have just said—that the regulations are being interpreted far too strictly or stringently. I do not have to draw that to the attention of anybody, other than my Department. Without passing judgment on it now, I shall certainly look into the matter and come back to the hon. Gentleman.
This has been a short but useful debate, and I hope that I have been able to offer hon. Members some reassurance.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 1990, which were laid before this House on 20th February, be approved.