HC Deb 05 March 1951 vol 485 cc179-90

10.37 p.m.

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 11, after "before" to insert "the first day of January."

May I say, with regard to this and other Amendments which we have on the Order Paper, that we do not propose to detain the Committee long nor to divide it unless something very unexpected occurs. We feel that this Measure requires some elucidation on particular points, because it is one of the most loosely drafted Bills I have ever seen. That, I am sure, is not the fault of the Parliamentary draftsmen, but is because the Minister cannot foresee precisely what may be required when the Bill becomes operative. At the same time, this is a Measure which will be of great interest to many trade union secretaries, insurance officials dealing with workmen's compensation, solicitors and other professional people, and I feel that one or two explanatory statements from the Minister may at this stage, be of great assistance.

The first Amendment which we have put down is in reference to subsection (1), which refers to persons who are or have since the commencement of this Act been entitled to weekly payments by way of workmen's compensation in consequence of an accident happening before nineteen twenty-four. I shall have a word to say later about the words "the commencement of this Act," but this Amendment deals with the words "nineteen twenty-four." I believe that the actual operative date, as far as these Acts are concerned, is 1st January, 1924. As far as I remember, the Workmen's Compensation (Supplementary Allowances) Acts, passed during the war, applied to all accidents which had occurred on or after 1st January, 1924. Therefore, I think that the accidents, to qualify for benefit under this Bill, will have to have occurred in the year 1923 or earlier.

It seems a little slipshod to put into a Bill the words "nineteen twenty-four"— not even, be it noted," nineteen hundred and twenty-four. "We are speaking of these accidents as if they were a vintage port, or something of that description. We are speaking of the "nineteen twenty-four cases" here. I think that, at any rate, it ought to be "nineteen hundred and twenty-four." It would make it even clearer still if we were to put in the actual date concerned, which I believe to be 1st January.

The Minister of National Insurance (Dr. Edith Summerskill)

I do not think that we can charge the Parliamentary draftsmen with being slipshod. He may perhaps have erred on the side of an economy in words, but I think the intention in this subsection is clear. It refers to men who were injured before the beginning of 1924, but if the right hon. Gentleman feels very strongly on this subject I am prepared to accept the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Peake

I beg to move, in page 1, line 21, to leave out from "scheme," to" and," in line 22.

By this Amendment I seek to leave out the words: in respect of periods before the making of the later scheme … Subsection (3) of the Clause provides that under the Bill a scheme may be made. In fact, more than one scheme may be made, because later schemes may vary earlier schemes. Subsection (3) goes on to say that the later scheme may vary an earlier scheme …in such a way as to make allowances payable, or payable at an increased rate, under the earlier scheme in respect of periods before the making of the later scheme, and may also revoke an earlier scheme. It is a little difficult to see why it is necessary for the later scheme to provide for retroactive operation for an unlimited period. It is perfectly true that under subsection (4) a scheme has to be laid in draft before Parliament before it becomes effective, and the Minister may well say that when she finds it desirable to provide for an amending scheme she wishes the allowances to be payable back for a period necessary to make the payments operative from the date when she lays the scheme before Parliament. But it does not seem to me to be necessary to provide by a later scheme that the payment of allowances may be made indefinitely retrospective.

10.45 p.m.

After all, although we all have great sympathy with these pre-1924 accident cases, we must remember that the supplementation of their workmen's compensation has to be made out of the Industrial Injuries Insurance Fund. That is a fund contributed to by people in employment at present, and by their employers, and by the Exchequer. The fund is, in a sense, a trust fund, and the Minister is, in a sense, a trustee for the proper handling of that fund. It does seem to be going a little far to take powers by a later scheme to increase allowances retroactively, and retrospectively, for an indefinite period. I hope the Minister will be able to give us a satisfactory explanation of this somewhat unprecedented subsection.

Dr. Summerskill

The right hon. Gentleman said, a little earlier, that he thought the Bill was a loose Bill, or words to that effect, because he felt that I needed a certain freedom in the administration of the Act. He is correct, and subsection (3) illustrates what he has already said. He must recognise that although this is a Bill rather limited in its administration, it will be necessary for us to examine the cases of men who have been injured before 1924, right back to the end of the last century.

Not only have we to examine those cases which have been governed by the old Workmen's Compensation Acts, but we have to examine cases governed by contracting-out schemes. There are, I believe, something like 200 of these contracting-out schemes alone. Therefore, it will be necessary to examine individual cases. Perhaps there may be just one survivor of a contracting-out scheme. However carefully we pursue this work it may be that one or two men, or a group of men, are left out of the first scheme. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would be the last to say that because these men were left out, through no fault of their own, that they should be penalised.

All that we are asking for is that if it happened that a few men were left out of the first scheme, and were then discovered to have been subject to a contracting-out scheme and ought to have been included, that we should be allowed to make a second scheme including them, and that then their supplementary benefits should operate from the beginning of the first scheme. Let me illustrate that by reminding the right hon. Gentleman of a contracting-out scheme—the Lilleshall Collieries Field Club. A certificate was given for this in 1897, and it was revoked on 31st December, 1907. Here is a club which we have to investigate. There may be an odd survivor who was subject to that scheme. Perhaps that man may have been left out, and surely the right hon. Gentleman would not deny us the right to make a supplementary scheme to include that man. We are asking for a little elbow room so that, in the event of one contracting-out scheme, or one group of men, being left out, they shall not be penalised.

Mr. Peake

I think that what the Minister has said is satisfactory. I wanted an assurance that these powers were not to be used to increase payments retroactively to a large number of men for a very long period. If, as the Minister has said, it is only to deal with exceptional cases, I fully concur, and beg to ask leave to withdrawn the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Ronald Williams (Wigan)

I want to raise one point with my right hon. Friend concerning the question of entitlement under this Clause. It seems to me to be quite clear that the intention is that entitlement, as under all the Workmen's Compensation Acts, shall begin upon the loss of wage-earning power. In subsection (5, b) reference is made to this question of entitlement. Probably, it will help if I extract a few words from it which make me feel some doubt as to whether or not this particular part of the Clause carries out the intention. Paragraph (b)says: a person shall be deemed entitled to weekly payments as mentioned in subsection (1) of this section at any time when he would be so entitled"— and these are the important words— if the amount he is earning"— and, then at the end of the subsection— were sufficiently reduced. Taking these words, "if the amount he is earning were sufficiently reduced," the amount he is earning must necessarily be his post-accident earnings. That being so, this Clause seems to be addressing itself to a sufficient reduction of the post-accident earnings whereas, it seems to me, that the intention is that to enable the normal criterion of entitlement to be applied, there must be a reduction not of the post-accident earnings, but of the pre-accident earnings.

Consequently, it seems as if what is intended is that the pre-accident earnings shall be reduced before there can be entitlement whereas, on the other hand, some ambiguity is bound to arise if the impression is given that post-accident earnings are referred to. I have refrained from putting down an Amendment on this particular point. I see the intention is perfectly clear, and I ask the Minister if she will look at this point between now and the Report stage of the Bill.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I wish to ask the right hon. Lady for clarification on a point cognate to that of the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams). The Bill refers to: persons who are or have since the commencement of this Act been entitled to weekly payments.… In other words, it envisages allowances being made under the Bill to persons who, since the commencement of the Act, have ceased to be entitled to weekly payments. I understand that one set of circumstances in which they might so cease to be entitled is that earnings might rise above a certain level. However. I take it that the definition in subsection (5, b,) to which the hon. Member for Wigan has just referred, is intended to bring these persons within the scope of those who are entitled to weekly payments, by assuming that their post-accident earnings are, in fact, not so high as to cause them to cease to be entitled to weekly payments under the existing Act. I am, therefore, led, until I am assisted by the right hon. Lady, to think that no category covered by the words. "who have since the commencement of this Act." shall be entitled to such payments. Perhaps, she will help the Committee by explaining the type of case where a person is no longer entitled to payments.

Mr. Peake

The point I want to raise on this Motion refers to persons who are or have since the commencement of this Act been entitled to weekly payments by way of workmen's compensation. The importance of this, of course, is that if a person commutes the ordinary weekly payments on a lump sum basis before the commencement of this Act, he will not have any entitlement under the Act at all and will be excluded from all the benefits of the Bill. Now in the ordinary way Bills have a subsection or Clause in them saying "This Bill shall come into force on such and such a date." This Bill has no such provision. It simply says: since the commencement of this Act. and presumably the Act will commence on the day when it receives the Royal Assent. That will probably be some time towards the end of this month. It seems to me of some importance that the Bill should come into force a little earlier, because even at present, persons in ignorance of what they are to receive under this Bill are being offered lump sum payments and are, in some cases no doubt, accepting them in full discharge.

I have here one of several letters which I received about this Bill after the Second Reading debate. It is from a man who was injured on the railway in 1909, and this is what he says: While on shunting duty in 1909 my heel got jammed in the points. I had nothing else to do but lie down and allow two coaches to pass over. I have recently come to the retiring age of 65 and I had to retire and was made to attend at court for possession of a cottage belonging to the railways. They offered me £125 compensation and 7s. 6d. a week pension for the loss of my legs and they have since increased the offer to £150 I went to court but the judge put off the case until I got a solicitor to act for me. I am sure that the county court judge has acted very properly in this case, but this is an example not of a wicked insurance company or a private employer, but of the Railway Executive—a nationalised industry—apparently taking the case to court with a view to securing a lumpsum payment.

Mr. John Cooper (Deptford)

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware of the protection, which has been in existence for many years, provided by the registrar of the county court, to whom all settlements must come for approval before they are finally completed?

Mr. Peake

I did draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that in this case the county court judge had adjourned the matter until the injured workman had obtained the advice of a solicitor. It may be there are county court judges at present who are not aware of the terms and provisions of this Bill. Indeed, I should be very surprised if county court judges knew all the provisions of the Bill. No good lawyer ever reads a Bill before it becomes an Act because if he does so he gets into a state of great confusion as to what becomes the law. I give that elementary piece of instruction to the hon. Member.

There may be a prima facie case between now and the Report stage for considering whether or not the date of the commencement of the Bill should be fixed at some slightly earlier date than the date on which it receives the Royal Assent. I do not expect the Minister to give a decision upon the matter tonight, but I hope it will be considered. Let it be made clear that I am making no attack on the Railway Executive by mentioning this particular case. It happens to be one case of a lump sum which has been brought to my notice and there may be many factors in that case, of which I am not aware, that justified them in bringing the case.

Mr. Iain MacLeod (Enfield, West)

I want to mention very briefly a point relating to the one the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I am more concerned with the date of the commencement of the scheme than the date of the commencement of the Act, and my question is related to that. This Bill is, of course, purely enabling; and the Minister will, in due course, as she said on Second Reading, come to the House later with a scheme. We are told in the Explanatory Memorandum that allowances under the scheme will normally be payable from the date when the scheme comes into operation. So far as the men who are injured are concerned—and this is what worries most of us—the important date is the dale when the scheme comes into operation. I would ask the Minister whether that scheme, of which a draft has to be laid before the House and approved by the House, is ready yet, and can it be put before the House at a reasonably early date after the passage of the Bill.

11.0 p.m.

Dr. Summerskill

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, North (Mr. Peake) will agree with me that whenever a Bill goes through Parliament — whatever Bill it may be—cases of hardship arise during its passage. That is inevitable, and I do not suppose that this Bill will be an exception to the rule. It is unfortunate, of course, that the magistrates and the men who are concerned with workmen's compensation do not know what the provisions of a Bill may be; but most people, unfortunately, are not very interested in the business of the House of Commons.

With regard to the point that has been put by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Enfield, West (Mr. I. MacLeod), the time-table will, I think, be as follows. I cannot prophesy, of course, what will happen in another place, but assuming that we get the Royal Assent before the House of Commons adjourns for Easter. I hope to have the scheme ready on the resumption; then, as hon. Members have heard, it will be subject to an affirmative resolution; if the House agrees to the scheme, then it wil be necessary, of course, to constitute the board, and there will be certain work to be done; and I think the scheme will then come into operation—by that I mean that the first payments will be made—about the middle of the year.

With regard to paragraph (b) about which two hon. Members have asked, this deals with two classes of people who, though generally entitled to workmen's compensation, have not apparently the right to weekly payments. First, there are those cases where weekly payments are in abeyance because the workman's current earnings exceed his pre-accident earnings; second, there are those cases where the right has been displaced under paragraph 3 of the First Schedule of the Workmen's Compensation Act, 1906, by a pension, benefit or an allowance from his employer. In subsection (5, b) of this Clause, a combination of both those cases is provided for.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams) and I were aware of the intention of Clause 1 (5, b.) I think the point we were raising with my right hon. Friend was whether the drafting of the last few words was sufficiently expressive of the intention of the subsection. The words used are "were sufficiently reduced." The question my hon. Friend was raising was whether those words are clear enough an expression of the intentions of the subsection. We realise that the subsection covers the two types of cases that have been mentioned—those whose claim to weekly compensation is in suspension because their current earnings are equal to or exceed the pre-accident earnings, and those cases where they are in receipt of pension from the employer equal to or in excess of the weekly compensation payments to which they would otherwise be entitled. We fully appreciate that.

The question is, do the words ("b) a person shall be deemed entitled to weekly payments …if the amount he is earning or able to earn …were sufficiently reduced express the intention? It would probably be clearer to say they were "singly or both lower than the pre-accident earnings." That seems to be what the Clause intends to say. Anyhow, I leave it to my right hon. Friend to consider whether, as a matter of drafting, the subsection could be made clearer.

On the question of the effective date of the scheme, when the Bill is passed, and the possibility that at this moment courts are agreeing to the conversion of weekly payments into lump sums, I offer the hon. Member for Leeds, North (Mr. Peake), the suggestion that pre-1924 cases which are now being made the subject of lump sum payments must surely be very rare indeed. I fully agree that he has read out one case of a railway worker injured many years ago, and there may be other cases, but I think that the risk of serious disadvantage to numbers of compensation cases of pre-1924 vintage is rather small.

Mr. Molson (The High Peak)

I think that the right hon. Lady did not fully appreciate the point of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North (Mr. Peake). Surely, it is not her intention, when a Bill is introduced to give relief to pre-1924 pensioners, that because they were not aware of the provisions of the Bill they should accept lump sum payments which would then debar them from obtaining the assistance and relief of the Bill. The right hon. Lady said that there were hard cases, and suggested that it was not possible for anything to be done about them, and that that would be an uncommon thing.

Let me assure her that that is quite contrary to general practice. There have been two notable Bills quite recently in which the date from which relief could be obtained was the date upon which the Bill was published. One was the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. From that time the values were fixed. Similarly, in the case of the Leasehold Property (Temporary Provisions) Bill, now before Parliament, the date was 22nd November, 1950. In both cases the intention was quite clear. One of the parties might be aware of the provisions of the Bill, and the other might not, and it really would be a very great injustice if those people more alive to what is going on in the House of Commons were able to obtain an advantage that way. I do not ask the Minister to give an answer tonight. I think that this is perhaps a new point that was put to her, but I would ask her to consider it in a sympathetic spirit. We feel strongly about it because we think it would work a serious injustice, and we will seek to raise in on the Report stage of the Bill, by which time I hope she will be prepared to give it sympathetic treatment.

Mr. Scholefield Allen (Crewe)

There is yet another point about the Bill which troubles me. Before the Industrial Injuries Act most of the compensation was covered by insurance companies, and very frequently they made a settlement with the injured workman. The case had to be taken before the registrar, and if he was not satisfied it went before the county court judge. Obviously he, in the case quoted by the right hon. Member for Leeds, North (Mr. Peake) had not approved the settlement. But what is to be the position when this scheme is in operation? The insurance company will be liable under its policy in respect of payments under the old Act. The Government will be liable for the new supplementary payments.

If that is the case, suppose the workman chooses to ask for a lump sum, and a figure is agreed with the insurance company. The point is this: is that figure to include the redemption of the supplementary allowances out of this fund? If not, when the bargain has been struck, is the fund to continue paying the workman who has compromised in respect of the insurance allowance the supplementary benefits? The case is not envisaged by the Bill, but it is bound to arise.

Mr. Blyton (Houghton-le-Spring)

I would ask the Minister to consider the point raised by the right hon. Member for Leeds, North (Mr. Peake). There is nothing about the issue of commutation between the date the Act receives the Royal Assent and the date the scheme comes into operation. In my opinion, this Bill will cover few of the pre-1924 cases. Many of them are over 65. I was in a lodge recently and looked it up, and I found that 10 pre-1924 cases were all over 65. A man would have to be under 30 to get the benefit of this Bill.

In many cases this is a book transaction. We shall be transferring men from national assistance to benefit by right under this statute. The cost to National Insurance by requiring that this Bill shall operate in a commuted case between the Royal Assent and the date of this scheme will be triflng, but it will give some safeguard to those who do commute. We are on good ground here, because the Opposition accepted the principle in the National Insurance Bill that no commuted case prior to the passage of the Bill would receive attendance allowance or anything else. The suggestion put forward by the right hon. Gentleman is a reasonable one, and I advise the Minister to accept it.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.