HC Deb 07 February 1951 vol 483 cc1896-904

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Hannan.]

11.31 p.m.

Mr. Leather (Somerset, North)

I hope that in the few minutes at my disposal I shall be able to alter somewhat the atmosphere of this House of the last hour, because I want to plead—and plead is the right word—with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance for a cause which I am certain every Member of this House will support, with the exception, I am sorry to say, of the Parliamentary Secretary's right hon. Friend. I have endeavoured by Questions to put this case to her, time and time again, without success. The position is this. As the result of Acts which have been passed from time to time over the last 25 years, it has become almost standard through the Workmen's Compensation Act and other legislation that, for an ex-miner to be eligible for compensation, he must have worked in the pit within the last five years. Those are the words of all the Acts, and that is the position at present, I believe.

When this position first arose in 1925, I am certain the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that the medical profession's knowledge of pneumoconiosis was completely nil. They knew it was a disease which was caused by dust, and that men got short of breath and that men dropped down with it. Even today, medical science has yet discovered no remedy and no treatment, but at least it has discovered how, accurately and quickly, to diagnose the disease. We have got to that stage, and it is really only in the last three or four years that the modern X-ray technique and experience of doctors have got to the stage where they can say that a man definitely is suffering from pneumoconiosis, of which, of course, silicosis is the most common form. I have many men in my own constituency who have been told by experienced doctors—there is no condemnation against them—up to a few years ago that they were suffering from chronic rheumatism, or rheumatoid arthritis, or asthma, when it became clear that they had pneumoconiosis or silicosis of one sort or another.

One man left the pit 18 years ago. During all the intervening period, he has been working in a surface job around the pit. He was doing very well for himself and earning £9 to £10 a week. He had always been short of breath and had trouble in walking uphill, although he had never experienced this before. One day a few months ago, he dropped in his tracks, The doctor wisely moved him to hospital, where he was found to be suffering from 60 per cent. pneumoconiosis. He is not able to do a stroke of work and he drops from about £10 a week income to about £2 a week. Because he has been out of the pit for 18 years, although the only possible way he could have got this disease was from service in the pits during his youth, he is not eligible for compensation.

His is, I think, a common case. He is a man in his fifties. What is he to do? The doctor says to him, "Unless you want to kill yourself you must take some light work." What kind of light work is there, particularly in a mining village for a man aged 50? He cannot become a clerk or a telephonist. He cannot do a sedentary job; therefore, he is thrown on the scrap-heap. I put it to the Parliamentary Secretary that it is now clear, though it has become clear only in the last few years, that pneumoconiosis can take anything from one or five, to 10 or 20 years to develop. I think that is agreed. Will the Parliamentary Secretary also agree that it is only within the last two or three years that diagnosis has been absolutely foolproof?

Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary may be aware that I have had long talks over the last year with his colleague the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power. I have been urging the matter upon him. I am delighted that he has at last pressed his officials and that they are starting a pilot scheme to get a regular annual X-ray examination of all miners. That is a tremendous step. If it is pressed forward with vigour, as I hope it will be, and as I am assured by the Parliamentary Secretary it will be, I am sure that in a matter of three or four years we shall clear this problem altogether.

In the meantime, we have these unfortunate men who are left over, not through any fault of their own, not through any fault of their ex-bosses, or anything like that, but because science has only now begun to catch up with the problem. I have been pressing the Minister to work out how many of these men there are and what would be the cost of doing what I have been urging should be done. The day before yesterday the Minister told me, in answer to a Question, that she had no means of knowing the number of such claims. If I might repeat my supplementary question, I said: Would the right hon. Lady consider asking the National Union of Mineworkers, because I am quite certain that their branch secretaries would be only too happy to provide her with the figures? "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th February, 1951; Vol. 483, c. 1319.] With the greatest respect, I maintain that the right hon. Lady rode off by saying that in these matters they consulted representatives of the workers. I submit that that is not good enough. I am certain that if I said to the branch secretary of the N.U.M. in my division, "David, how many men are there in your area?" he would scratch his head and say there were five or six. I am certain that every other branch secretary could do the same. If a specific question were put to all the branch secretaries, I am certain they could provide the Minister with an approximate figure within two or three weeks. I cannot see that these figures would be difficult to get. It is a question of asking the chaps who know. My estimate is that there are about 30,000 of these men in the country.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

How does the hon. Member estimate that?

Mr. Leather

It is a rough calculation. I am taking the number of men in my area estimating whether the proportion of pneumoconiosis in my area is high or low, and then taking an average figure for the whole country. It may be that I am completely wrong. If I am, I wish the Parliamentary Secretary would tell me and give me his figure.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent. Central)

Does the hon. Member mean that 30,000 men should be getting compensation for pneumoconiosis, and are not getting it because of the five-year limit?

Mr. Leather

I make that as my estimate. That is my guess. I may be completely wrong. By asking people in my own area, and making an average estimate over the whole country, my guess is that there must be somewhere about 30,000 people.

Mr. Thomas

If there were 1,000 people, the argument would be just as good.

Mr. Leather

Quite; but I am trying to get the measure of the problem. If the Minister says it would cost £50 million or some such staggering figure, we must accept it, but I do not think it would cost anything like that. If the Parliamentary Secretary would say, "We will look into this matter and try to make an estimate," he would be in a position very shortly to come before the House with concrete proposals to clear up a very grave injustice. Let me put two specific questions. Does he agree, in the light of the facts I have given—which are supported by my hon. Friends on this side and on the other side—that this is an unfair and unfortunate position, and that something ought to be done? If he agrees with that statement, how are we going to put the position right? Let me put up one aunt Sally for him to knock down.

I am told that this is entirely the responsibility of ex-owners and that they ought to be made to pay. If they can be made to pay, I personally would be delighted to let them; but I have been told that it is impracticable to make them Day. That is no excuse for doing nothing. It would be difficult, because the ex-owners obviously had schemes with insurance companies on which they paid premiums which have probably all gone by the board now. Also there is the problem of men who have been out of the pits 10 years and had worked for two pits; that would present a difficult problem to decide.

If the ex-owners could be made to shoulder the burden, I should welcome it, but that cannot be used as an argument for the Ministry and the National Coal Board saying that nothing can be done now. If the Minister accepts my proposition, will he see that this problem is looked into and see whether the Ministry can find some way to compensate these few thousands throughout the country who have been thrown on the scrap-heap, who have no means of earn- ing a living, and who have definite claims against us in this House?

11.42 p.m.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on a subject of this sort, since I have some knowledge of it as medical adviser to the miners and pottery workers in my area. I remember very well serving on a special Parliamentary committee in 1928 in Staffordshire, when we were first trying to obtain compensation for pottery workers, before the miners had an opportunity to put in a claim, although they then suspected they suffered from the disease and felt rightly that there was a claim. In 1931–2, when their claim was accepted—in those very mean and begrudging days—the miner suffering from silicosis had to prove he was working in 80 per cent. of silica rock, and to bring into the county court a geologist who had gone down to the seam, picked up pieces of rock, tested and analysed them, and then given evidence to prove it, before the maximum of 30s. could be obtained. Those were drab days.

I want the Parliamentary Secretary to imagine that he is in the witness box, and that I am not a doctor but a lawyer. I am going to ask several questions. The first is a simple one. Is he satisfied that, beyond all reasonable doubt, it is impossible for pneumoconiosis to occur in a miner, a potter, a foundry worker, or a pattern maker unless he is working in a process where he inhales a lung irritant which causes the fibrosis in his lungs—in other words, that it cannot be got outside his occupation? I am sure he will agree to that.

Secondly, is he satisfied that our knowledge enables us today to say quite firmly that in many cases this condition is progressive, even after a man has left the industry which gives him the industrial hazard—in other words, that at a critical stage there is an infective process which carries on the man to fibrosis, so that a man may have silicosis or pneumoconiosis and, while working as a farm labourer five or ten years later, may develop a second or third degree pneumoconiosis? I am sure he will agree that is so. Will he take it from me that it is?

Thirdly, will he agree that the number of men so affected—and here I disagree with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Leather), for I estimate them at nearer 3,000 than 30,000, which only makes our case better and stronger—who have unfortunately gone outside the five-year limit, or it may be 10 years if war work is involved, are suffering from an injustice? I am sure he will say "yes" to that question. If he accepts that injustice which the National Union of Mineworkers have been fighting for a very long time now, is it not time something was done?

Obviously there must not be a time limit at all. Miners do not get this condition from kissing their wives or sweethearts, although some of the arguments presented to us would make us believe it was a result of an innocent country walk. There are no ethical or medical grounds for refusing this request. These outstanding cases should be dealt with at once. I do not care what method is used, or whether it requires legislation or not. I only say that the cost would be small. But the injustice is great so let us do something.

11.47 p.m.

Mr. John Arbuthnot (Dover)

As the House knows full well pneumoconiosis is a collective term covering all those diseases of the lung which arise from dust and includes asbestosis, silicosis and all the rest. I feel a particular debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Leather), for raising this question because in the Dover division we have one pit where the incidence of silicosis is higher than anywhere else in the country outside South Wales. In South Wales there is a particularly intensive research into silicosis going on under my friend Dr. Charles Fletcher, but in East Kent there is none of that intensive research.

The reason for the intensive research in South Wales rather than in East Kent is that in East Kent we find that the past history of people suffering from silicosis is more difficult to trace, and therefore it was decided the research should take place in South Wales where the past history of the miner was easier to find out. But the result is that in South Wales the presence of silicosis may be found comparatively quickly whereas in East Kent it may take a very long time before a man is certified as suffering from the disease, which may be progressive. A long period often elapses between the time when a man leaves the pit and the time when the diagnosis is completed.

I feel that there is no justification whatsoever, when there is no doubt that the employment in the pit—or wherever it may be—is responsible for the silicosis or pneumoconiosis, for an arbitrary time limit of five years, and I therefore join with those who have spoken tonight in appealing to the Minister to right immediately this grievous injustice from which those with pneumoconiosis suffer.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. William Elwyn Jones (Conway)

I also have the privilege of representing in this House a body of workmen amongst whom there is a heavy incidence of silicosis. I refer to the slate quarrymen of North Wales. I join with other hon. Gentlemen in impressing on the Minister the need, to take some action in this matter. I urge that the slate quarrymen should be included in any action that may be taken on the lines indicated by hon. Gentlemen. I urge that the Minister should consider not only those men who are outside the scheme owing to the time limit, but also those who are suffering from silicosis and who are not at present entitled either to compensation or to injury benefit by this very technical scope of the existing schemes. I ask my hon. Friend to bear those two points in mind.

11.51 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry, of National Insurance (Mr. Bernard Taylor)

After a long and somewhat hectic day, we find ourselves now in calmer waters, and I am quite sure that humanitarian motives have prompted hon. Members who have made their contributions to this debate. It will be agreed, I am sure, that in the very short time at my disposal it is impossible to give detailed answers to all the very important and valuable points that have been raised. The arguments resolve themselves into one vitally important and outstanding point, the question of the time limits.

The time limits relating to claims in respect of silicosis and pneumoconiosis under the Workmen's Compensation Acts have had a long history. I myself, as many hon. Members know, come from a mining area, and, if I may say so with pride and modesty, I spent many years as a worker underground in the Nottinghamshire coalfield. It will be readily recognised that I have at any rate some small knowledge of this vexed problem of pneumoconiosis and the question of time limits. It has been a vexed problem now for many years, but its long history came to an end on 5th July, 1948, when the Industrial Injuries Act came into operation.

The long history of time limits and of all the circumstances surrounding time limits came to an end. The Industrial Injuries Act, 1948, broke with the past. We made a new start, and in that piece of legislation which had been dodged by previous Governments this Government grasped the nettle and all time limits for all time were abolished as far as pneumoconiosis is concerned. Because the Workmen's Compensation Acts have been repealed, the schemes relating to silicosis and pneumoconiosis which were made under those Acts cannot now be amended without legislation. As this is an Adjournment debate, I must avoid entering into what is forbidden territory and avoid dealing with matters of legislation, as the hon. Gentleman will agree, but I should like to make one or two observations on the history of the time limit, which is very interesting. It goes back to the consolidating Workmen's Compensation Act of 1925, in which the time limit of 12 months was laid down. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that there was not then in existence the medical knowledge of this disease there is now. In 1928, as the result of the representations made to the Department concerned, particularly by the old Miners' Federation of Great Britain, this was extended to three years and, in 1939. to five years.

The hon. Gentleman said that pneumoconiosis may take 20 years before it reveals itself. I would not dispute that for a moment, although that is a question for the medical profession rather than for me. As medical knowledge has increased, the period in which this disease has been found to lie dormant before revealing itself has increased to five years, and it may well be as long as 20. The hon. Gentleman states that in his view the number of men affected is 30,000. Frankly, I have no information. The Department have no information about the numerical size of this problem.

Mr. Leather

Would the Parliamentary Secretary find out? I have told him how to do it quite easily. Will he do that?

Mr. Taylor

Representations have been made by the National Union of Mineworkers and discussions have taken place between them and my right hon. Friend, and all the questions raised by the hon. Member for Somerset. North (Mr. Leather) are at this moment under consideration. The hon. Member for Somerset, North, has put forward a novel suggestion about how the money should be raised—namely, that it should come out of the compensation paid to the late owners of the mines. I do not know what attitude the National Coal Board would take towards that suggestion. Judging from past experience, there is no doubt the former owners of the pits would resist it.

Mr. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

Take it out of the compensation.

Mr. Taylor

Although the hon. Member for Somerset, North, has dealt only with the coal miners, it is impossible to consider the miners alone. There must be brought into the picture those who have contracted silicosis in other industries, such as pottery, slate quarrying and asbestos. In conclusion, I would repeat that, arising out of the representations which have been made and the discussions which have taken place, the matter is being considered.

Adjourned accordingly at One Minute past Twelve o'Clock.