PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

DRAFT PNEUMOCONIOSIS (WORKERS' COMPENSATION) (PAYMENT OF CLAIMS) (AMENDMENT) REGULATIONS 1989

Wednesday 15 March 1989

LONDON

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Geraint Howells

Bruce, Mr. Ian, (Dorset, South)

Campbell, Mr. Ronnie, (Blyth Valley)

Cunliffe, Mr. Lawrence, (Leigh)

Fallon, Mr. Michael, (Darlington)

Fearn, Mr. Ronnie, (Southport)

Garrett, Mr. Ted, (Wallsend)

Hague, Mr. William, (Richmond, Yorks)

Hamilton, Mr. Neil, (Tatton)

Hargreaves, Mr. Ken, (Hyndburn)

Heddle, Mr. John, (Mid-Staffordshire)

Howells, Dr. Kim, (Pontypridd)

Jack, Mr. Michael, (Fylde)

Kirkhope, Mr. Timothy, (Leeds, North-East)

Nicholls, Mr. Patrick, (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment)

Redmond, Mr. Martin, (Don Valley)

Strang, Mr. Gavin, (Edinburgh, East)

Walters, Sir Dennis, (Westbury)

Woodcock, Mr. Mike, (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Ms. E. C. Samson, Committee Clerk

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3 Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 15 March 1989

[MR. GERAINT HOWELLS in the Chair]

Draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 1989

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 1989. The regulations were laid before both Houses of Parliament on 16 February. Hon. Members will know that the background to these payments is much misery and suffering. The regulations give us the opportunity of ensuring that the value of the payments is maintained. The Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 provides for lump sum payments to sufferers from dust-related diseases, or, when the sufferers have died, to their dependants, when there is no former employer remaining in business against whom a claim for damages could be made. Compensation is provided in this way because these diseases develop slowly, and are often not identified in the sufferers until long after the employer, in whose employment the disease developed, has ceased to carry on business. It has never been the purpose of the Act to provide an alternative to taking action in the courts, and my officials have to be satisfied that there are no relevant employers still in business, but it serves as a very worthwhile safety net. The Act makes provision for payment of such amounts as might be prescribed by regulation. It does not provide for any particular payment or for automatic or regular uprating, but the Government have undertaken to Parliament to review the amounts each year. The original payments regulations setting out a scale of payments by age and percentage disability came into operation on 1 January 1980 and there have been several increases since then. The most recent increase was from April 1988, of 8.5 per cent. to take account of the preceding 24 months. The proposed new increase will apply to those who first become entitled on or after 1 April 1989. At a further 8 per cent. this increase will however fully maintain the payments' original value. We all recognise that no amount of money compensates individuals and families for their pain, suffering and loss. But the regulations allow us to give practical and material help. Since the Act came into force in 1980, 6,283 people have made claims of whom 75 per cent. 4 received payment, and 82 per cent. of all claims to date were made in the first year of the scheme. It is a sad fact that claims are still being received by my Department, although the number has fallen to about 100 a year since 1984-85. They reflect the poor conditions which applied in some workplaces a generation or more ago. The reduced number of claims shows that, as we moved into the 60s, 70s, and 80s, there has been a steady improvement in working conditions. During the last year we received 107 applications, of which 53 payments have been made. Most of those payments were to sufferers or their dependants in industries or occupations which involved contact with asbestos. Sadly, people are still suffering from what happened in the past, and it is right that, where they cannot obtain redress in the normal way, they should nonetheless receive some compensation for support. I commend the uprating of these payment scales to the Committee.

10.33 am

Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh): I am grateful for the Minister's explanation. Opposition Members acclaim redistribution of wealth, however small. The progressive disease, pneumoconiosis, is a dreaded scourge. Many hon. Members have seen and represented men who have suffered progressive pain. Anyone who has attended the various medical boards and tribunals, as we have and knows the pit villages where sufferers of the disease live, has the utmost sympathy for them. The Minister said that there had been an 8.5 per cent. increase. That is true. It was made not just to keep pace with inflation. One has to bear in mind the earnings level which many of the men whould be on today if they were still working. Does the 8.5 per cent. increase represent a fair degree of financial compensation in today's terms? One could argue a case for a wage-indexed system of compensation, as against an inflation-indexed system, because, at present, wages are running ahead of inflation. A figure based on the average of those two increases would have been a fair and reasonable amount to offer. Nevertheless, it is true that the regulations uprate the level of benefits, for which we are grateful. It ensures that sufferers will not be disentitled as a result of changes in the social security legislation, which, in some cases, remove entitlement to disability benefit, as happened with the original 14 per cent. range that we had. The regulations ensure that sufferers will continue to be entitled to compensation. Again, in principle, that is compassionate and humanitarian, and we record our thanks and acclamation. As hon. Members know, not only pneumoconiosis sufferers but textile workers are affected. Many of us who represent textile and coal mining communities in the north know what happens in textile mills as well, thank goodness. Many of the working conditions in them are far better today than they were in the 1930s, and modern textile 5 mills—Courtaulds mill is one of the best in western Europe, I am told—deserve commendation for the modern conditions which many textile workers now enjoy. From 1985 to 1988, there was no uprating, and the 8.5 per cent. increase seemed small, so we are not sure that there has been much catching-up. We thank the Minister for his explanation, but I should have liked the wage-indexed system to have been brought a little more to the forefront.

10.37 am

Mr. Ted Garrett (Wallsend): Hon. Members were moved by the Minister's recognition of the dreadful implications of the diseases listed. When I was a young man, I was a trade union official, and I well recall the difficulties of establishing the fact that those diseases could be indentified. It is heartening to realise that 75 per cent. of all claimants have been recognised as suffering in varying degrees from the diseases listed. It is interesting to reflect that some of the cases that were presented by the Amalgamated Engineering Union, of which I am proud to be a member, were brought forward 15 or 20 years after the sufferers had left the industry. Nowhere is that more true than in the case of asbestosis, especially among men who worked on boilers whose lagging was taken off and left lying around. That was due to ignorance. The unions did not make the employers take the necessary precautions, and the companies did not apply the regulations severely enough not through malice but because of ignorance about the use of such materials. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) can describe more eloquently than I can the dreadful consequences of pneumoconiosis. I had two brothers-in-law working down the mines in the north-east. They both died slow, painful deaths from that illness. I recall the harrowing experience of meeting them and seeing how the illness affected them, their wives and families. We are now moving to curtail the impact of these terrible diseases. As the Minister rightly said, money can only alleviate the misery and suffering that they cause. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe). We must always remember the need to keep abreast of the cost of living and of the other factors that affect the decision on the 8 per cent. increase. I am sure that sufferers will be more than pleased to receive the additional sum.

10.39 am

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport): I welcome the legislation. The table in part A refers to the "Percentage assessment for the relevant period" and gives various percentages. Who makes the assessment? When it is made, does the applicant have a right of appeal?

10.40 am

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd): I compliment the 6 Minister on the seriousness and compassion with which he introduced the legislation, which will affect many of my constituents. I welcome the tone of his presentation. We must be careful that we do not take it for granted that the terrible disease of pneumoconiosis will disappear. As a result of developments in many collieries, I fear that we will experience a great surge of pneumoconiosis in the early part of the next century, if not in the early 1990s, should many of the collieries survive. The demand for increased productivity means that men often take short cuts in work processes below ground. I do not defend those short cuts. I condemn them as strongly as anyone else does, but the atmosphere in the coal mining industry is such that a new mentality has developed. Systems of work or bonus-oriented and, often unconsciously, encourage men to take risks and to work in areas that they would previously have avoided. I congratulate the Minister on introducing the legislation, but I warn him that it may need adjustments and that, in years to come, we may need to take a far more stringent view of this dreadful illness.

10.42 am

Mr. Nicholls: I thank hon. Members for the way in which they have presented their remarks. I am not sure whether it falls for me to be the first Member of Parliament to welcome the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) to our deliberations. If so, in the light of his remarks, I am fortunate. Otherwise, I join the queue of those who wish to congratulate him on his recent appearance here. On a bright sunny day and in such a pleasant room as this, it is easy to talk clinically about the figures. I did my best to say that, behind the legislation, lies untold human suffering, as any hon. Member who is acquainted with the disease would know. The regulations refer to "Pneumoconiosis, etc." There are a great many related diseases, all of which are particularly miserable and depressing. The legislation is a worthwhile contribution, but it can never compensate those poor people for what they have had to suffer. I accept what the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) said about indexation. We are trying to arrive at the judgment of Solomon. Who can tell whether that judgment will ultimately be right? In some cases, it would not be sensible to link the scheme to wages, but I accept that, at present, wages are ahead of inflation. Our aim was to keep pace with inflation, at the very least. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, in assessing the matter each year, as we are obliged to do, we give due attention to the matters that he raised. As the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) reminded us, 75 per cent. of claims were successful. I understand that, in the overwhelming majority of unsuccessful claims, it is not a matter of claimants being unable to establish that they suffer from the disease, but of being unable to establish that there is a relevant employer to sue—or, to put it positively, 7 that there is an employer to sue. In such cases, of course, the scheme does not apply. In answer to the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn), the assessment is made initially by the pneumoconiosis medical board, but there is an appellate structure in the form of a medical appeal board administered by the Department of Social Security. If the hon. Gentleman were to ask me to elaborate on the appellate procedure, I would have to tell him that the matter is not for me but for my right hon. and lady Friend the Secretary of State for Health. However, there is, first, an appearance before the pneumoconiosis medical board, and, subsequently, there is access to the medical appeals system that has been established by the Department of Social Security.

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Mr. Fearn: If there were an appeal, would the process take six months, nine months or 12 months? Has the Minister any idea how long it would take?

Mr. Nicholls: I cannot speculate on the time that it would take. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular case in mind, perhaps he will write to me, and I shall be happy to look into it.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved, "That the Committee has considered the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 1989.

Committee rose at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Howells, Mr. Geraint (Chairman)

Cunliffe, Mr.

Fallon, Mr.

Fearn, Mr.

Garrett, Mr. Ted

Hague, Mr.

Hargreaves, Mr. Ken

Howells, Dr. Kim

Jack, Mr.

Nicholls, Mr.