HC Deb 19 November 1940 vol 365 cc1834-84


Order for Second Reading read.

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

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

It has long been recognised that workmen who have spent many years in certain dusty parts of cotton mills, particularly in card rooms and blowing rooms, suffer to a greater extent than the general population from respiratory troubles, chronic bronchitis being the main feature. The condition from which these workers suffer, which is due to the action of very fine particles of cotton dust on the lungs, has come to be known in the medical profession as byssinosis. There has been during the last 20 years, since the introduction of exhaust ventilation in cotton mills, a marked diminution in the incidence of this disease, but a committee which has recently investigated the question has come to the definite conclusion that new cases still develop even under present improved conditions. It has been repeatedly urged that these workers should be brought within the scope of the Workmen's Compensation Acts, but there have been hitherto two difficulties in the way of applying those Acts by the ordinary method of an addition to the list of scheduled diseases. Those two difficulties have been, first, in regard to diagnosis, and, second, in regard to old cases. So far as diagnosis is concerned, it has not hitherto been possible for medical practitioners or certifying surgeons to determine with sufficient certainty that the disease is occupational in any particular case. There is also a considerable number of old cases, estimated at 250, which would not be met in any way by merely scheduling byssinosis as one of the industrial diseases in the Schedules to the Workmen's Compensation Acts.

For some years past the Home Office has been aware of this unsatisfactory situation and has endeavoured to promote an agreement between the two sides in the cotton industry for dealing with it. Those negotiations achieved a fair amount of success, but could not be brought to a final issue. Therefore, in 1937 the then Home Secretary, the present Lord Chancellor, appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Sir David Ross with terms of reference to consider whether an equitable and workable scheme could be devised for providing compensation both for future and for past cases. The committee reported at the end of 1938. Their report contained the important conclusion that: in advanced cases, where there is total incapacity after not less than 20 years' employment in the cotton room, blowing room or card room, taking into account industrial history as well as clinical evidence in a particular case, the question can be settled that the workman's disability was occupational. Having come to that conclusion, the committee recommended a scheme on the lines of workmen's compensation for dealing with future cases and a special benefit scheme for dealing with cases in which the workman had retired from employment.

Proposals have been worked out in considerable detail by the Home Office. They have been submitted to both sides of the industry, and to a large extent this Measure may be regarded as agreed. I hardly think it is necessary for me at this stage to go through the Clauses of the Bill in detail. Clause 1 applies the Workmen's Compensation Acts to male workmen who have had not less than 20 years' employment in the specified parts of the cotton mills; and Clause 2 establishes the special benefit scheme for the past cases which could not be brought within the scope of the Workmen's Compensation Acts. As regards past cases, it is proposed to establish a fund by contributions levied upon every carding machine, which will provide 10s. a week for men suffering from total disability. Of course, that benefit will be in addition to anything which the workman may receive under the National Health Insurance scheme. Sympathy for these workmen has been expressed in all quarters of the House for many years past, and I feel sure that the Bill will be passed by general agreement, so that something can be done immediately for the unfortunate workmen who become disabled by this disease.

Mr. Tomlinson (Farnworth)

May I, on behalf of the cotton workers of Lancashire, express my thanks that at long last the recognition of the fact that suffering is entailed by working in the cotton mills and in particular portions of the mills is coming to fruition? One would sometimes imagine that, even under difficult circumstances such as the present, a Bill of this kind was regarded in the House as of little importance. When viewed in the light of the national circumstances at the moment and when viewed from the point of view of the number of people affected compared with the whole population the matter would seem to be relatively insignificant. Members, however, who know something of the suffering which this disease has meant in the homes of many people look upon this Bill as not only a step in the right direction, but as a measure of belated justice to some unfortunate people, particularly in my county. It may surprise the House to hear that so long ago as 1863 a well known medical practitioner wrote in the "Lancet": The strippers, grinders and cardroom hands … suffer from a spasmodic cough, sore throat, expectoration of blood, pneumonia, and confirmed asthma, with oppression of the chest. … A carder seldom lives in the cardroom beyond 40 years of age; many have to give up working much younger. That was in 1863. This is the first time in almost a century that recognition has been made of the fact that this disease, arising from the dust in the card rooms, was responsible for the suffering which was entailed. Rightly the hon. Gentleman who introduced this Measure on behalf of the Home Office pointed to the attempts that had been made to deal with this problem and to the difficulties which had arisen with regard to its diagnosis. For many years medical science has been seeking to distinguish between the type of respiratory disease which is set up by this dust and the ordinary bronchitis which human flesh is heir to. Those of us who live in Lancashire and come in contact with these people and have been responsible for the administration of National Health Insurance from its inception, have had the most circumstantial evidence which it was possible to put before any body of men that this dust was responsible for this disease.

Many people have died as a result of it after suffering intense agony for years, after having been reduced to penury and poverty of the worst kind, and yet they have never heard of the word "byssinosis." Ninety-nine out of 100 people who are suffering from it would not know what you were talking about if you told them that they were suffering from byssinosis. Not one in ten Members of Parliament have heard the word before today, and not one in ten knows to what it refers. The fact that they were not sufficiently interested when the Under-Secretary opened his statement to take notice of what he was saying is an indication that some day, when a constituent writes to a Member and asks him to do something for him under the byssinosis scheme, he will inquire what it is when he might have learned something about it this morning. Justice long deferred and belated is none the less justice when it arrives, and therefore, on behalf of those who to-day are suffering from this disease, or who may contract it in future, I want to express thanks that time has been found, even in the midst of a war, for this action to be taken. To those who are a little impatient and think that time should not be spent on these matters while we are passing through a crisis, I would say that the time is very well spent, and that justice is none the less necessary because it benefits only a few when those few have been long suffering.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the number of people who are suffering at the moment, for whom, by the introduction of this Measure, rather than scheduling the disease under the Workmen's Compensation Act, we shall be able to make provision. From time to time since I came to the House two years ago I have had heart-rending appeals from individuals suffering from this disease who have been compelled to attempt to exist on the 7s. 6d. or the 9s. disablement benefit, along with the help they get from their families. They have said "When will you do something for us? The case has been made out time and time again and nothing has been done." I sent a copy of the Bill to the secretary of the trade union which deals with this matter asking for his comments on it. He said the provisions of the Bill were satisfactory in that they provided the machinery under which schemes could be worked, and he wished to express his thanks to those hon. Members, few in number, it is true, who had kept this question alive.

I do not want to weary the House by going over the evidence given at the various inquiries. A Commission sat from 1927 to 1932, and three reports dealing with this question were printed and I am glad that at long last somebody, in some way, by the discovery of a name about which nobody seems to know anything at all, has been able to devise ways and means whereby these sufferers can be helped. Whether we call the disease byssinosis, or asthma, or bronchitis, I would impress upon the House that it turns the individual affected into an old man while he is yet young, and when he becomes prematurely aged his life is, to all intents and purposes, a living hell. One of the characteristics of this disease ought to be known to hon. Members to show them what industrial workers have been called upon to suffer during the development of industry. During the week, whilst a man is working in the dusty atmosphere, he seems to breathe better, but after he has been in the fresh air for a few days at the week-end he finds more difficulty in breathing on going back into the mill on the Monday morning. Only when he has become, as it were, acclimatised to the putrid atmosphere can he go on with some degree of comfort during the week. Some hon. Members may ask why a man should have to be 20 years in this atmosphere before he can be said to have contracted the disease. I do not think the period should be anything like 20 years, but what medical science and all the authorities are agreed upon up to now is that 20 years is the least possible time in which they can determine accurately whether the disease is due to this particular dust. That, as I understand it, is the reason for making the period 20 years.

With these few remarks I want to give what blessing I can to the Bill, in the hope that some of the people now suffering may get a little alleviation in the few short years left to them, and that others may be provided for in the days to come. In conclusion, I would say that although we have made progress with the development of machinery to ventilate mills and extract dust—a great improvement upon the bad old days, when it was difficult to see the card-room worker in the mill on account of the dust—yet no machinery has been devised which succeeds in extracting all the dust from the atmosphere. In spite of the improvements, the disease does persist, though it may not be prevalent to the same extent as previously, and in my opinion it will remain until carding operations are done away with altogether. For these reasons I feel the Government wil receive the blessings of some people for this belated act of justice.

Sir Francis Fremantle (St. Albans)

After the impressive, well-informed and cogent speech of the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Tomlinson), I should like to say a few words from the medical point of view. I agree with the hon. Member when he said that probably many Members did not know the word "byssinosis." Not one in a thousand medical men knew of byssinosis, or know of it. I certainly did not know what it meant until I looked into the matter yesterday, and had the greatest difficulty in discovering what it meant. The "Lancet" recently headed an editorial article, "Card Room Asthma." I should like to protest against the formalism which uses the word "byssinosis," which no one understands, instead of "card room asthma," which would bring the subject home to the mind of Members of Parliament and the people generally. That, however, is a matter for the draftsmen. I was glad that the hon. Member referred to the fact that there is 77 years of history behind the action now taken in this matter, and that shows, as it is well to impress upon Members of Parliament, the earnestness of the people who have been engaged in the campaign. It was shown earlier that the death-rate from bronchitis among male cotton strippers was five and a half times as high as among all occupied males and ten times as great as among males in such dusty occupations as cement working and lime burning. That shows there is something specific about this complaint.

We have heard something of the steps taken in the past ten years to investigate the problem. It is well for the House to know that one of the most prominent workers in this matter, under the Medical Research Council, has been Professor Carl Prausnitz. He had to relinquish his position as a professor in the University of Breslau and his work on this problem is one of the advantages this country has gained from sheltering aliens who are well disposed to ourselves and able to do good work. Another point which has been alluded to by the Under-Secretary and also by the hon. Member for Farnworth is that this scheme is being worked out by degrees, and by helpful co-operation between employers and employés. It is a difficult position. It was shown that young men under 30 did not suffer from this disease, and therefore the employers contended for a time that the improvement in the ventilation of factories, and other improvements, were really effectual. They said that only the older men were affected by the disease. The card-room operators did not accept that argument, and medical science consequently had to look more closely into the problem, and it was clearly found that there were in the particles of dust definite substances which gat through the ventilation machinery, particles of the size of two microns and under.

And so we come to this Bill, which I join with the hon. Member for Farnworth in welcoming; but there are limitations, and in Committee perhaps we shall have to go into them. For instance, there is the provision that it is only after a man has been 20 years in the industry that he can qualify for the benefits under this Bill. I suppose one of the reasons for that is that we have to begin in a small way and hope for delevelopments later. We should prefer not to have such a strict limitation as 20 years, and I am certain that when further knowledge is gained we shall find that the seeds of this disease are sown much earlier than that. Prevention being better than cure, men who are seen to be affected should be taken off this work and given other work and receive some benefit for the injuries they have suffered. The second limitation is that the provisions both as to the compensation scheme and the benefit scheme apply only to those who have been totally incapacitated. There are objections to that limitation, and we should like some explanation of why it has been imposed. Also, we hope the Bill will not be limited to those only a year out of this employment.

It may be difficult to obtain Amendments of the Bill in Committee, although Amendments may be put forward, and there is left only the provision that the schemes are to be laid before Parliament. Under that provision Members can only pray that a scheme may be annulled, and they will not wish to annul a scheme. In a long experience of the House I have often objected to this method of revision by Parliament, because it is so formal. The schemes are drawn up in the Departments and are presented to Parliament, being laid on the Table of the House, and it is often difficult for Members to realise that they exist, and if anyone wishes to amend or improve them the only power which he possesses is to move that the Order shall be annulled. I do not think that procedure is very satisfactory. However, half a loaf is better than no bread, and we shall all agree that there are great advantages in getting the schemes put forward and may hope for improvements later on. Matters will be referred to the administrative boards, which will include representatives of both employers and workers as well as administrative officials. So much has been done hitherto by the close co-operation of employers and workers that we may hope they will be able to suggest developments in the directions which are indicated by the limitations of this Bill. But that will require new schemes, and there will be considerable difficulty in getting them, and one would have preferred that the developments should have been introduced now, if that were possible. I do not understand why there should be different boards working under Clauses 1 and 2. I should have thought one administrative board would have been sufficient.

I have one last point, and perhaps it is due to my ignorance that it has to be raised. I thought we had heard earlier that the industrial medical staff under the Home Office had been transferred to the Ministry of Labour. I should like to know whether that is the case, and if it is, why it is that the Under-Secretary for the Home Office instead of a representative of the Ministry of Labour moved this Bill. I do not quite understand this division of functions which was announced with a great flourish of trumpets by the Ministry of Labour earlier in the year—the transfer of the medical staff to his Department. I hope that that extremely able and experienced staff will be able to carry out these duties as well as they have discharged the other duties which have been allotted to them. I thank the Government for having brought forward this Bill at the present time, and I hope that it will get a Second Reading without difficulty.

Mr. Hammersley (Willesden, East)

As one closely associated with the industry with which the Bill deals, I would like to say—and I am sure I am expressing the opinion of all the employers—that the employers in the industry are very gratified that, at long last, some agreed mitigation of this industrial disease has been found. Of course, it is only a mitigation. The real cure will come by way of improved conditions in the card rooms, such as by improved ventilation and so forth. I merely wish, briefly, to say how gratified we are at seeing the Bill before the House of Commons.

Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton, East)

While thanking the Government for the Bill and desiring to give it support, I would, in a word, support what was said just now about the form in which these schemes are to be put before the House. I t seems to me that we are getting far too much into the habit of giving Government Departments power to frame schemes, which are then put before us, while we have no opportunity of amending any scheme. We can only accept or reject. I wish once again to make my protest in regard to this matter. In this connection I should be glad if the Minister would tell me whether anything in the Bill that we are passing can prevent access to the courts by any person who thinks he is in any way affected by the Bill. Is there anything in the Bill which will oust the jurisdiction of the courts?

Mr. Rhys Davies (Westhoughton)

I should not have intervened in this Debate if, during the last few years, and especially during the last Parliament, it had not fallen to me to urge the Home Office to do something for the men concerned. Like all other hon. Members, I am very glad that the Bill has at last seen daylight. The hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) appears to be a little alarmed that the Bill applies only t o workmen who have been employed in cotton card rooms for not less than 20 years, but if he knew the difficulties that have been encountered in regard to this agreement between the employers and the employés, in reaching the present stage, he would not be alarmed in the least.

The Bill has emerged, in the main, because of research by the approved society covering the people with whom we are now dealing. The card room operatives' approved society has statistical information showing exactly what this disease has meant to the funds of the society. When workmen's compensation is paid in respect of an industrial disease, health insurance is not always paid at the same time, but I believe that the allowances under the Bill will be in addition to the disablement benefit of approved societies. Perhaps the Minister will be good enough to make that point clear. Finally, may I be allowed to observe that the House of Commons is very fortunate, and very glad, to have among its Members a person who has actually worked in a textile mill and who can explain the tremendous difficulties in the way of understanding some of the technical problems of the textile industry. I hope that the Minister will make clear the one point to which I have referred, and I am sure that we shall then all be happy to give our vote in full measure for the Second Reading of the Bill.

Mr. Peake

Perhaps I may shortly reply to two or three points which have been made. With regard to the last point made by the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies), the Bill is in two parts. It applies the ordinary benefit rates under workmen's compensation, including, of course, the supplementary allowances which were provided in the Bill recently before the House, to future cases of disability arising through this disease—which my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) objects to our calling byssinosis. With regard to the old cases, or the past cases, where the man has already retired from the industry he will get a benefit, under the special scheme, of 10s. a week, which will be over and above and in addition to anything he may draw under the National Health Insurance Scheme.

I hardly think the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Tomlinson) has any criticisms of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans asked why the Bill was limited to cases of total disability and where the employment had proceeded for not less than 20 years. The answer to those questions is technical. They are technical issues. We are following the recommendations of the Ross Committee upon those two points. They involve medical technicalities with which I, at any rate, am in no way competent to deal. The conclusion of the Committee was that you cannot at the present moment certify cases of partial disability as being occupational in origin. They further thought that until a man had been employed for 20 years in these dusty portions of a cotton mill you could not say with certainty that his chronic asthma or bronchitis was due to his employment in the mill.

Sir F. Fremantle

Then my hon. Friend definitely denies the suggestion of the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) that the reason for the 20 years' limitation is the employers' objection? I take it that the reason is not that, but is purely a medical, technical objection.

Mr. Peake

I was not aware that the hon. Member for Westhoughton made the suggestion that it was due to the attitude of the employers. Certainly, that is not the case. The 20-year period laid down in the Bill is founded entirely upon the recommendations of the very competent committee which went into this matter under the chairmanship of Sir David Ross. There was one point put by the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) in regard to procedure. These schemes to be drawn up are, of course, both technical and complicated, and they will, in the main, follow the lines of the schemes under Section 47 of the Workmen's Compensation Act, laid down in the case of silicosis and asbestosis. The schemes themselves will lie both long and, I am afraid, exceedingly technical. The hon. Member objected that each House of Parliament will have the right only of rejecting the schemes in toto and not of amending them in detail. I can only say that we are following perfectly good precedents, and that we shall discuss these exceedingly technical details of the schemes at all points with representatives of all sides in the industry. As far as is possible—and in regard to the cotton industry a good deal always seems possible—we shall secure agreement between the masters and men in this industry.

Sir F. Fremantle

Will my hon. Friend comfort us on the subject of his medical staff at the Home Office?

Mr. Peake

This matter did not appear to me to have any direct connection with the Bill. What happened was that, some months ago, the factory inspectorate of the Home Office was transferred, on a temporary basis only, to the Ministry of Labour; but on workmen's compensation and matters allied to it, the Home Office will remain the administrative authority.

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

Bill read a Second time.

Resolved, "That this House will immediately resolve inself into the Committee on the Bill."—[Mr. Whiteley.]

Bill accordingly considered in Committee.

[Colonel CLIFTON BROWN in the Chair.]

  1. CLAUSE 1.—(Compensation scheme for workmen in cotton industry suffering from byssinosis.) 484 words