HC Deb 18 July 1940 vol 363 cc546-60

Order for Second Reading read.

9.58 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The House will remember that on 30th January last the then Government undertook to enter into discussions with representatives of industry with a view to devising a temporary scheme for meeting cases of hardship arising out of workmen's compensation law pending the receipt of the report of the Royal Commission. As a result of those discussions, the late Government introduced a Bill with which hon. Members are familiar, which was debated in this House on 30th April. That Bill provided for a scheme of family allowances for married men, who were to receive an allowance of 5s. in respect of a wife and 3s. in respect of each child under 15. That Measure was not acceptable to the Labour party, who were then in Opposition, and my right hon. Friend who is now Minister without Portfolio moved an Amendment to this effect: That this House cannot assent to the Second Reading of a Bill which is limited to a system of supplementary allowances in respect of wives and children, excludes any provision for single men and women, and therefore fails to recognise the admitted necessity for an immediate all-round increase in the rates of compensation. The Amendment was defeated on a Division by 175 votes to 135, and it was clear that the further stages of that Bill would have been of a contentious character. However, before the further stages could be taken, Holland and Belgium had been overrun and the present Government had been formed with the support of all parties in order that we might present a united front to the enemy and prosecute the war to a successful conclusion.

The ensuing weeks were times of great anxiety. It was, in any case, evident that unless the Workmen's Compensation Bill then before the House could be modified to meet the objections of the Labour party, or, alternatively, unless hon. Members—who were then in both a physical and political sense opposite—were in the new circumstances prepared to agree to the speedy passage of a Bill which they had condemned on Second Reading, further progress with that Bill was out of the question. No one could have expected the Government to proceed with contentious legislation in the critical days through which we are passing. We therefore proceeded, in the first instance, to endeavour to ascertain how far we could go within the scope of that Bill to modify it to meet the views expressed on Second Reading. It became clear, however, that while we could meet a number of the points raised in the Debate, an all-round increase could not be introduced into that Measure. One must freely admit that, in view of the Amendment in support of which hon. Members opposite had spoken and voted, it would not have been easy for them to justify to their constituents a change of attitude and an abandonment of their claims for an all-round increase.

It became apparent, therefore, that the choice lay between endeavouring to reach agreement on a new Measure which could be passed speedily through the House with the support of all parties, or alternatively, abandoning the previous Bill and taking no action until such time as the situation of the country became less hazardous. It may seem a little difficult to justify the introduction of a new Measure conferring substantial benefits on injured workmen at a time when new sacrifices are being demanded day by day and week by week from all classes in the country. At the same time, the previous Government had recognised by appointing a Royal Commission that some improvements in workmen's compensation were desirable, and increased rates of benefit has been demanded for some years past on all sides of the House. Moreover, the introduction of the previous Bill had raised expectations in many quarters where need is very great, and these expectations would have been disappointed if nothing further had been done. We therefore announcd on 25th June that we would enter into new discussions with the representatives of all sides of industry whom we had consulted on the previous occasion with a view to seeing what accommodation could be arrived at between the apposing views which had been expressed in the Debate on 30th April. The result of these discussions is embodied in the Bill now before the House.

I should like to pay my tribute to the spirit of good will which has animated all parties in arriving at this accommodation. The employers have throughout made it clear that they could not accept the principle of family allowances being a charge upon industry, and they have expressly safeguarded themselves on this point for fear of making a precedent which might be held to commit them for the future. Apart from this, they have given me renewed assurances that they would operate the proposals in the Bill with the utmost good will. This question of principle apart, they are in agreement with us as to the matters contained in the Bill. So far as the Trades Union Congress are concerned, I have had discussions with them, and they have intimated that they are prepared to accept this Measure in fulfilment of the Government's declared intention to pass legislation of a temporary character to meet cases of hardship. Apart, therefore, from the point of principle reserved by the employers' representatives, this Bill comes before the House as an agreed Measure.

I do not want to detain the House unnecessarily, but this is a Measure of some importance, and if I may I will explain what the principal Clauses do. Clause 1 provides for the all-round increase for which hon. Members opposite contended in the Debate on 30th April. It gives the all-round increase in the form of a flat rate allowance of 5s. to every worker, male or female, in receipt of compensation for total disability. In the course of our discussions the alternative of a 20 per cent. all-round increase was mentioned, but the preference of all parties, and especially of the Miners Federation, was for a 5s. flat rate increase rather than for one of 20 per cent. It has the advantage of giving a rather larger increase to those in receipt of a smaller rate of compensation, and therefore gives most help where the need is greatest. This 5s. all-round increase takes the place of the proposal in the previous Bill for a 5s. allowance in respect of the wife, and it gets rid of the difficult complications in regard to unmarried wives and the claims for other adult dependants which hon. Members made in the previous Debate.

Clause 1 also provides for children's allowances on a rather higher scale, in respect of the first two children, than the previous Bill provided, and it brings the allowances for children into line with the new scales provided under unemployment insurance and the revised scheme for personal injuries suffered by civilians owing to hostile action. In cases of partial incapacity these allowances are scaled down so as to bear the same proportion to the maximum allowances as the weekly payment in respect of partial incapacity bears to what the weekly payment would have been in the case of total incapacity. In both cases of total and of partial incapacity there is an over-riding maximum. In respect of total incapacity cases, the over-riding maximum which a man may draw, inclusive of the allowances, is seven-eighths of the pre-accident earnings, and in cases of partial incapacity the over-riding maximum is seven-eighths of the difference between the earnings before and after the accident. I could give the House examples of how those rates will work out in practice, but I think I had better leave it to hon. Members to calculate them for themselves.

Sub-section (3) of Clause 1 is a valuable provision for the protection of the dependants of injured workmen who subsequently die. In the ordinary way, where the accident eventually results in death the amount of the weekly payments of compensation previously made is deducted from the lump sum payable on death to the dependants. The supplementary allowances under this Bill will not be treated in that way, they will not be deducted from the lump sum, and they will, therefore, accrue in any event to the benefit of the workmen's family. With regard to Sub-section (5), the House will see that we have gone as far as we possibly can to extend the definition of "children" to meet the views expressed in the Debate on 30th April, when it was objected that the Bill then introduced provided only for legitimate children.

Clause 2 proposes to give greater power than is at present possessed to the registrar of a county court to refuse to record agreements for lump-sum settlements. At present the only ground for refusal to record an agreement is that the amount to be paid under it is inadequate. That position still holds good, so far as the ordinary weekly payment of compensation is concerned, but, in regard to supplementary allowances, the registrar may refuse to record a settlement when, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, including the interest of the children, he is not satisfied that the settlement is a proper one. Clauses 3 to 7 are only machinery Clauses. Clause 8 provides that the Bill shall come into operation on 19th August.

After the Bill has passed through all its stages, forms have to be prescribed under Clause 3 for claims for children's allowances. These forms must be prescribed by the Home Secretary. They must be printed, distributed and made available to workpeople with families, so that the first week-day supplementation may be included and paid out without difficulty or delay on the first weekly payday following 19th August. Sub-section (3) of Clause 8 is one of the most satisfactory in the Bill, as it will meet the cases of long-standing disability.

Hon. Members opposite have some points to raise on the Committee stage of the Bill. I hope that the explanations I have given will be satisfactory and that they will be able to agree to what is a reasonable accommodation, under which, of course, not everybody gets what he desires or that to which he thinks he is entitled. Hon. Members of the Labour party have achieved that for which they have contended, an all-round increase of benefit rate. The increase is probably not so great as they desired, but, having regard to the conditions of supreme emergency that exist at the present time, it is a fair and reasonable settlement. The Bill confers substantial benefits upon those whose need is greatest and most pressing.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

The hon. Gentleman has outlined the Bill in a fair and reasonable manner. In his opening remarks he mentioned opposition from the Labour party on 30th April. One hon. Member, the Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson), is unfortunately not with us now, but I remember that he took strong objection to the Bill. He made a powerful speech, and in his concluding passage he said that the Home Secretary would have to retrace his steps and improve the Bill a bit. He said: I am sure I shall not be expected to vote for the Bill. I can only abstain and earnestly hope that if and when I come back for the Third Reading it will be sufficiently worthy of the Government for me to be able to vote in its favour."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th April, 1940; col. 616, Vol. 360.] We all regret his absence, but still his spirit is with us, and I trust that wherever he or his spirit is, he will be able to know that some of the work he has done in connection with workmen's compensation is bearing fruit to-night. He was one of the most earnest advocates of workmen's compensation reform in this House, and I want to pay a tribute to him to-night and let it be known that we remember him for what he has done. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that we moved an Amendment. It was moved by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), who made a most trenchant speech against the Government Measure. Since that time he has gone over to the Government, with our full consent. I believe it is due to him and others who have gone from these benches that we have been able to bring the Government down to a more reasonable frame of mind. I am very glad indeed, if I may say so, that common sense has triumphed and that we have a Measure such as we have to-night to meet the difficulty.

The new Bill has been the outcome of much negotiation and discussion, and I desire to pay a tribute to the Under-Secretary. He has endeavoured to see our point of view. He has been most painstaking in listening to us on many occasions, and he has tried to get as near as possible on common ground with us. His courtesy, tact and skill have certainly impressed the Members of the Labour party. I remarked to an hon. Friend of mine, "Well, the Under-Secretary has had a difficult task, but I want to pay the tribute to him that he got through it very well indeed."

Now I will pass to the Measure itself. I give it a hearty welcome. It embodies the principle which I have always advocated—a flat rate of advance. Men who are getting high rates of compensation with a percentage advance get a greater advantage compared with the man on a low rate of compensation. Through no fault of his own, but owing to the exigencies of the Compensation Act, it may be that owing to short time when the average weekly earnings are taken the man is assessed on a low value, and therefore with a percentage advance that man feels the difference accentuated even further. Quite rightly, the Under-Secretary said that it is not as much as we want. I wanted a flat-rate advance of 7s. 6d. That was a point which I put in an Amendment to the last Bill, hoping that we might secure it. However, one does not always get all one wants, but we have got something for which I am very thankful. After the negotiations and the meetings which we have had, we on these benches have agreed not to oppose the Second Reading of the Bill but to do all we can to see that it is passed into law as quickly as possible. But I want to draw attention to one or two points to which I hope the Home Secretary, whom I now see on the Front Bench, and his Under-Secretary will pay close attention.

When the Bill was introduced it was to have come into operation on 1st July, if carried. Naturally, those who are to benefit under the Bill—married men—will be looking forward to some benefit from 1st July. It is quite common for us Members of the Labour party, when we see our constituents to be asked, "When are we getting this benefit to which we understand Parliament has agreed?" They do not understand Parliamentary procedure, and many thought that, as the Bill had passed its Second Reading, it had become law. They did not realise that we had held the Bill up in order to get something better. Now they are disappointed, and they hope that it may operate as from 1st July. Here is a typical letter, which I received only this morning: I am writing a few lines to you, asking if you can give a little information concerning my compensation. I had my leg off at Newtown Colliery, and was given to understand that the rise in compensation should have taken place on 1st July. I have not drawn it yet, and I am wondering whether I come under the heading of 'totally incapacitated.' I cannot get information from anybody, but, being a friend of yours "— he used to work with me— I thought I would ask how it is progressing. I am a married man, with three children under the age of 15 That poor man has been expecting something from 1st July. That is typical of the cases of large numbers of married men. Only last week, in my constituency, I was speaking to the wife of a man who was injured. She told me of the deplorable conditions in which she was living. I said, "We are dealing now with a Compensation Bill, which I hope will come into law soon, and I hope that you will get added benefit under it." She said, "Is that the Bill under which we get benefit as from 1st July?" I said "I cannot promise that, but the Bill will pass, and I hope we can persuade the Government to go back to the date of 1st July." I put this quite frankly to the Government. Seeing that it was expected that the Bill would pass by 1st July, and that it was due to our agitation that it was held up, and that we now have agreement on what is recognised as a genuine claim by the workers, surely it is not too much to ask the Home Secretary and his able Under-Secretary to put it to the insurance companies, which are run by reasonable men, that a gesture on their part would result in a recognition that they are not so bad as some people think them.

With regard to the children's allowances, there has been an increase from 3s. to 4s. for the first two children. The cost of living has risen since the Bill was introduced, so that the full benefit of that extra shilling is not being obtained, but the increase is still welcome. We think, however, that the allowance should not be limited to children under 15 years of age. If the injured workman keeps the children on full-time instruction, there should be some recognition of that. Such recognition has been given in other directions. For a long time I agitated year after year on the Finance Bill to get a concession in respect of children undergoing full-time instruction, and finally the agitation was successful; the soundness of our case was recognised by the Government. I trust that this small request will be granted, too. We accept the Bill, because we believe that it is a step in the right direction, but I do not want it to be thought that this represents a full recognition of the need for a revision of the workmen's compensation laws. I would like to quote the words used by the Home Secretary in introducing the Bill on 30th April: We are not trying to devise a new scheme of compensation; that is the task of the Royal Commission. The Bill is a war-time Measure, dealing only with a limited aspect of workmen's compensation, but conferring immediate and substantial benefits upon a section of the community whose misfortunes have long excited the sympathy of Members of all parties."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th April, 1940; col. 569, Vol. 360.] It is in that spirit that we accept this Measure; it is something with which to tide over the time until the Royal Commission report their findings. When that time comes we expect a more substantial and far-reaching Measure than the present Bill. Yet we recognise the gesture of good will on the part of the Government that, notwithstanding a time of great stress and urgency, they can turn aside from the war task and say, "There is a deserving body of men and women who are helping industrially to win the war." I want to say how pleased I am that women and single men are being brought into the scheme. We shall now have a wide and comprehensive view of the whole of the injured people, and I believe that when the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament it will be recognised and be received with gratitude by all members of the community. Therefore, I give it a welcome in the hope that when it gets to the Committee stage favourable consideration will be given to the two points I have mentioned.

10.27 p.m

Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr)

I certainly would not get up at this time of night to be captious at all, and I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) in paying my tribute particularly to the Under-Secretary for the extraordinary patience he has shown over this very difficult, and, in parts, rather complicated Measure. There are a few aspects of this Bill which I think can be improved very considerably without adding substantially to the costs of administration. The hon. Gentleman told us that it seemed rather strong that the Government should be introducing an important compensation Bill with regard to injured workmen at a time when so many men are called upon to make great sacrifices. The only comment I can make on that statement is that these days are imposing greater stress and placing added danger upon the lives of millions of people who are employed. There has been a tremendous speeding-up in our industrial structure, and that always brings with it a toll of increased accidents. The war affects labour when it is industrially employed as far as casualties are concerned every time speeding-up is brought about.

I am going to make one or two suggestions with regard to this Bill, which makes a welcome change in the compensation law, and I do not think that there should be any reason to quarrel with them. Why the distinction between male and female workers? There are cases, I am told of widows with children who are not covered by our social insurances, and may I emphasise the appeal that was made by my hon. Friend? It is also most unfair to fix the age of the dependent child at 15. It will certainly cause very considerable hardship in the country. May I just illustrate what applies in more or less every coalfield in the country? In my own constituency, which is still essentially a mining constituency, about 25 per cent. of our children pass from elementary schools to our splendid system of secondary education. It is not an unknown thing for three children from the same household to be at a secondary school at the same time. In fact, if I had not left the mining industry myself, and had suffered an injury I with three children over 15 would have been debarred from these allowances. With regard to the recent scheme of the Minister of Pensions, there is no age limit fixed for children, so long as they are pursuing full-time education and are dependent upon persons who come within their jurisdiction. The Minister of Pensions, when the Under-Secretary was making his speech, must have said to himself, "I have done a great deal better than that so far as the dependants of those who are in receipt of disability pension are concerned." His scheme—and I have it here—was: First child, 6s. 3d.; second child, 5s.; every subsequent child, 5s.

I wonder whether the Under-Secretary and his Department can do something to simplify the appallingly involved formula relating to the payment of these allowances to injured workmen in receipt of partial pension. For a considerable time I, with far abler colleagues, have been trying to reduce this awful jargon to something which the ordinary workman can understand. So far, I have reduced it to the formula of "Something over something else, multiplied by something over something else." I am just a little bit afraid that the practising legal profession will once again see that the Government are again assisting them to profit in this field—I will not use the word "exploit." The hon. Gentleman told us the maximum that an injured workman would receive would not exceed seven-eighths of his pre-accident average earnings. What about those who were injured some years ago when wages were low, and have now to contend with a much higher cost of living? That is going to have a very harsh, if not cruel, bearing on those people who will get nothing from an improved workmen's compensation law. I should be very glad if that could be considered sympathetically to see whether that low ceiling could not be raised appreciably.

I agree that the definition of a child has been widened very considerably, and we appreciate it very much, but there will be cases which are not covered by this definition. It is still too narrow. We know of cases where both parents of a family have passed away and the eldest son takes charge of the family. There may be several small children. You are shutting them out of the benefits of the Bill. This is not reaching for the moon. I appeal to the hon. Gentleman that wherever the child is economically dependent upon a workman, he shall receive these allowances in respect of the children of which he has assumed charge. I hope the hon. Gentleman will consider the matter sympathetically and extend the definition so that in cases where responsibility has been assumed by an injured workman these allowances will be paid. I hope that the Under-Secretary is not under the impression that I do not appreciate the efforts he has made, for I do; but I would like the harshness that still exists to be reduced. I know that the miners, who are so keen on these matters of compensation—a keenness which arises from the dangers of the work in which they are engaged—appreciate a great deal more than I am able to express the efforts and courage which the hon. Gentleman has applied to this matter.

10.41 p.m.

Mr. J. Griffiths (Llanelly)

I have been a Member of the House for just over four years, and during that time I have taken part in many Debates on workmen's compensation; and I am very pleased that on this occasion we are all able to agree on a Bill concerning workmen's compensation. For many years before I became a Member of the House, I was, like many of my hon. Friends, very intimately associated with questions of workmen's compensation, and there have been no happier moments in my life than when we have been successful in waging a struggle to get compensation for injured workmen. One of my happiest recollections is the day when, in another place, we won a test case which brought compensation, with all that it means, to hundreds of men who suffered from that terrible disease, silicosis, in my area.

I am very glad to be able to join in the congratulations that have been offered to the Under-Secretary. When I first heard the hon. Gentleman speak in the House, I listened to him from a seat in the public Gallery, when he made a courageous speech on a famous mining case. The hon. Gentleman has been very courteous to us in what perhaps occasionally have been trying negotiations. We have been anxious to secure what we regard as elementary justice. I do not think the hon. Gentleman need have apologised about our spending some of our time and devoting some of the money of industry to dealing with these people. For many years they have been getting far less than elementary justice. We are now giving tardy recognition. We are not providing the workmen's compensation Bill which the country must have some day. Workmen's compensation represents a piece of our social services which must be comprehensively reviewed some day. We are thankful for this Bill, which will bring joy and comfort to many thousands of homes in this country, and we convey our thanks to all those who have had a part in making the Bill possible; but we regard it only as a temporary Measure, as indeed it is, for supplementary allowances to the existing workmen's compensation payments until such time as the House has the time and the energy to pass that Measure which will put workmen's compensation on a sound footing.

I have seen with regret a statement in the Press that the sittings of the Royal Commission have been suspended, I understand against the ardent desire of the workers' representatives on the Commission. I ask the Home Secretary to make representations to the employers. It may be that the work of the Royal Commission may have to be interrupted by the exigences of the war, but I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to represent to whoever is responsible for the suspension of the sittings that there shall be no suspension, except such as the war renders inevitable, and that the Commission shall be kept alive. The Commission has been given a job of work which must be done. Some day the war will end, and we hope end in the right way; and when that happens, we shall have all these problems to face. The Commission have done a good part of their work, and heard a good deal of evidence; and if that work is pushed on one side, we shall have to begin it all over again at a time when the country will demand that we put our house in order in such matters. I feel sure that the Home Secretary will see the desirability of the Royal Commission continuing. I would support what has been said by my hon. Friends who have spoken. We accepted this; but even when we are agreed it is sometimes necessary to spend a long time discussing certain questions. I hope it will be possible for the Bill to be retrospective from 1st July.

I am glad to see the Solicitor-General present, because he will appreciate two points I wish to raise which I think will be in order on Second Reading. The first thing to do when this Bill becomes law is to arrive at the amount of compensation to which a man is entitled under the old Act. The addition is then made to what is calculated under the old Act. One of the worst features in connection with that Act was the case-made law following a decision made in the House of Lords a long time ago. That decision has, I believe, caused a great deal of distress and has robbed people of something to which they were entitled. It laid it down that in averaging a man's earnings during the 12 months prior to his accident any time he lost as a result of trade depression or something of that nature was deemed to be time he had worked. That is to say, that a miner working on short time might actually have worked 26 out of 52 weeks, and as a result of that decision the 26 weeks were divided by 52 to calculate his average weekly earnings. The result has been calamitous, and I am sure that those who made the decision never foresaw what would happen. I am sure that in these days a great deal can be done by persuasion and administration. I am thinking of what is happening in South Wales, where tragically we are now having short-time work again due to extraordinary circumstances. As a result of a technical point in law these men will probably have to suffer and will have their compensation reduced.

My second point deals with partial compensation where the compensation is half the difference between the pre-accident earnings and post-accident earnings or assumed post-accident earnings. Again taking the case of a coal miner who is entitled to partial compensation, it is assumed that he is able to earn a certain sum, and the partial compensation is calculated on half the difference of what he is assumed to be able to earn. He is unemployed and is receiving unemployment benefit or assistance, as the case may be, but wages in the coal-mining industry have been increased, and there follows from that conclusion, which is used as a basis, that although he is not in employment and not receiving this increase of wages, his partial compensation is reduced. He is not able to enjoy the increased wages which the industry has received, yet the increased wages are used to reduce his compensation. That problem has been met in some areas, and I hope that it will be met in others. It will be a pity if part of the benefit of this Bill is denied to the workman because of the two things I have mentioned. I would add my tribute to those that have been made on the way in which all concerned have worked together to bring about this Measure. We welcome it until the day comes when the House and the country have the time and energy, after we are freed from the present menace, to do full justice to the men who have served the nation in industry and who deserve the best when they are stricken in industry.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Tuesday next.—[Mr. Grimston.]

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.