HC Deb 22 November 1951 vol 494 cc717-24
Dr. Stross

I beg to move, in page 3, line 5, to leave out "twenty," and insert "ten."

The reason I have brought this forward is that I think the modern medical view suggests that 10 years rather than 20 is the correct period. I recognise that there are certain inherent difficulties in the way of the Minister accepting this Amendment, which perhaps may not be as simple as it appears. But my plea is supported by the facts as we know them in these days. Our knowledge of this condition has improved in recent years, although it is by no means complete.

We speak of four conditions of this type that affect workers. One is mill fever, which affects them in the early stages with cough, fever and chills, sometimes nausea and vomiting, and they quickly get better if they are removed from their occupation. Then we speak of byssinosis. Thirdly, there is weaver's cough, caused by mildewed yarn. Fourthly, there is another type of acute illness caused by handling low grade cotton affected by a minute organism. We believe that all these are byssinosis and not separate entities.

A leading article which appeared in the "British Medical Journal" in 1948 referred to 36 surveys of cotton workers in many countries, including Britain, where I am glad to say they were the most complete and the best of the surveys. The conclusions were largely as follows. First, that it is carding which liberates the noxious dust causing byssinosis. Secondly, the symptoms appear like those of asthma and bronchitis—and that is why in earlier days we put in 20 years, to distinguish between those who might have asthma and bronchitis from other causes. Third, and this is the important point here, they develop after an exposure of 10 years or longer. That is specifically stated in this article, which I think is the latest information of the type we can lean on. It is said that during this time there are often milder manifestations, such as mill fever, but they clear up on removal to a clean atmosphere.

There is a reason why the Minister should accept this Amendment, if only because there will be a tendency for the workers to go before the boards rather earlier. Ten or 20 years is a long time, and human beings are differently constituted. We know that in silicosis and asbestosis different people are differently affected. The time factor differs. People with respiratory troubles may show more easily manifestations of the disease than those with a well developed chest and thoroughly healthy respiratory organs. If we can get people to come early, and if, as a result of coming early, they will be taken out of the dust rooms and obviously cured, we shall find that this is not going to cost anything. If accepted, this Amendment must save money; it is bound to save money while helping the most precious asset we have—the human material, the labour at work in this particular industry.

11.0 p.m.

Therefore, it is fair to say that the Minister should try to find some way out of his difficulty. I think he has done so well on the very much more important and major Amendment that he can take this one in his stride. Lastly, may I put this to him? There are bound to be a few people who are certainly going to suffer injustice unless this Amendment is accepted, and if there are only half-adozen, it still means an injustice is there. We do not create justice by turning our heads away and saying that evil does not exist because it is only a small one.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance (Mr. R. H. Turton)

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) did not overstate his case when he said that there was considerable difficulty in accepting the Amendment. On Second Reading, I told hon. Members that there were two criteria that we must follow. It must be administratively practicable, and it must conform to the existing Workmen's Compensation and Industrial Injuries Acts. Under the Workmen's Compensation byssinosis scheme, we have the 20 years period as a pre-requisite; equally, we have it under the Industrial Injuries Act. We cannot, in this very limited field, attempt to amend the provisions of these schemes.

There is one further point. The hon. Gentleman rested part of his argument on medical evidence, and I would not attempt to compete with him on that. I would only say that, as late as July, 1948, at Manchester, there was a meeting of medical experts on this matter of the disease of byssinosis and the Regulations, and it was then agreed that it was imperative to retain the 20-year qualifying period. If that was the medical view in 1948, it would not appear that there is very much substance in the case put forward by the hon. Gentleman.

I will give him another argument. The hon. Gentleman talked about other investigations made into this matter of occupational disease. There was a report issued in January, 1950, on the research carried out by Dr. O'Sullivan and Mr. Dingwall-Fordyce, members of the Nuffield Department of Occupational Health. They examined 140 cases in 22 mills of men who had worked in this waste cotton process. They found that, out of these 140 cases, there were only seven cases of disability from byssinosis, and, of those seven cases, the shortest period which anyone had worked in the process was 26 years and the longest 52 years. They also examined 41 other cases of people who had left the dust rooms or had worked in processes other than in the waste cotton process, and, of these 41 cases, there were three who had been disabled from byssinosis, and the shortest period which anyone had worked was 28 years and the longest 60 years.

I therefore suggest that, as a result of medical evidence, this Amendment cannot possibly be accepted.

Dr. Stross

At the conference which the Parliamentary Secretary describes as a conference on byssinosis, can he say with some certitude how they defined byssinosis? Did they refer to the four conditions I have described, which the modern medical view considers to be byssinosis?

Mr. Turton

I was referring to the medical experts who were reviewing, in relation to the prescribed disease, the byssinosis Regulation, and presumably, therefore, those medical experts know byssinosis as well as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, and a good deal better than myself. I will add one final reason why this Amendment should be rejected. The unions concerned—the Association of Card Room Workers and the T.U.C.—had the opportunity, both in 1948 and 1950, to put forward their view that the 20-year period should be changed, but they did not do so. Therefore, I suggest that this Amendment is at least premature.

Mr. Hale

I am sorry to intervene again, but I would press the Parliamentary Secretary to reconsider the Government's attitude towards this Amendment, because what possible harm can it do? The test is whether a man is suffering from byssinosis. Either he is, or he is not. If he is and has worked in the cotton industry, then he ought to qualify under this Bill. If the Amendment is accepted it merely limits the test which is applied whether a man fails to qualify or not. Quite frankly, I cannot see why it is necessary to have a limiting period at all. As I say, if a man has byssinosis, he has got it.

I appreciate one difficulty. Of course, there are many dust diseases and many have similar symptoms to other diseases of the lung, and, therefore, it might be possible to confuse one with another with the result that a man in the cotton industry might get compensation for a disease other than byssinosis.

Dr. Stross

It has to be permanent, too.

Mr. Hale

Yes, and it has to be permanent. The only test at the moment under this Bill is whether a man is totally incapacitated by byssinosis or not. If he is, why should he be eliminated because he has only been employed in the cotton industry for 19 years? It seems to me, with respect, that the Parliamentary Secretary is putting a highly technical point, and, quite frankly, again with respect, on the figures he has quoted, the examinations were not very widespread. Everyone is happy to know that byssinosis today is beginning to disappear and that in the modern card room people are not exposed to the dangers of the disease to the same extent as previously. We have some persons in Oldham suffering from this disease, but, fortunately, it is a disease which is decreasing under modern conditions whereas pneumoconiosis in the coalmines is on the increase.

Mr. Alfred Robens (Blyth)

I think it is a question of better diagnosis.

Mr. Hale

That is true, and that reinforces a point I was making earlier about people not benefiting because of faulty diagnosis.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to reconsider this matter again. Why should it be said that if a man has been in the industry for 19 years and is totally incapacitated he fails to benefit merely because he had not completed 20 years in the industry at the time he became ill? Is it not really an archaic test? Is there any danger in saying that if a man has worked in a card room for seven or eight years and has contracted byssinosis he might benefit? Surely, the test is the disease. I gather from the way the Parliamentary Secretary is looking at the moment that he is in a more benevolent mood, and I hope that in a few seconds he might be urged to say that on the whole he will accept the Amendment.

But, quite seriously, it would be a very pleasant gesture if he did. The Minister must not become hidebound. This is the Civil Service mind predominating; it is the preconceived view which comes from a statistical survey of figures which have had all the humanity taken out of them. If a man is suffering from byssinosis today and lying in bed, probably in all the misery of present day housing conditions, in Oldham as elsewhere, do not let us cut him off from benefit because by a few months he has failed to qualify for a statistical test. If he is suffering and is totally incapacitated, why should he not benefit? If I cannot persuade the Parliamentary Secretary to jump to his feet, can I persuade him, then, to say that he will consider this matter between now and the report stage?

Dr. Morgan

We have seen in the trades union movement a great number of these cases, and it really is difficult for us to understand this official view. I agree that conditions are changing, and that there have been considerable improvements in factories, but many of the unfortunate individuals now suffering from byssinosis contracted their complaint under the worst possible conditions.

This stringent attitude of fixing a certain number of years, where a man's chest disability has been diagnosed as byssinosis, is wrong. It is wrong that we should definitely state that he must have worked for a given period of 20 years in his particular employment before he can get his benefit. Factories vary; one man may inhale a great deal more in 16 years than his colleague inhales in 25. One cannot limit the absorption by workers' lungs by the number of years they have given to a specified occupation.

Will the right hon. Gentleman not reconsider this and say that this very harsh attitude he is adopting, having regard to the various factors of varying circumstances in different factories and the different reactions in different human beings, will be altered? Why cannot he consider making this 10 years instead of 20?

Mr. Peake

Quite honestly, we are not adopting a harsh attitude, as the hon. Member has just said. We are, briefly and simply, trying to deal with two time-limits which have barred certain persons from obtaining Workmen's Compensation. So far as byssinosis is concerned, the disease is defined in this way by relation to a 20-year period of employment in the carding rooms of the cotton mills.

The Committee under Sir David Ross, which reported to the Home Office in 1938, said that the nature of the disease was such that a duly appointed medical board, in the case of an applicant of about 20 years' employment history, should be able, after considering all the clinical and historical evidence, to decide not only if he was incapacitated by respiratory disease, but whether that disease was respiratory in origin. That was in 1938—

Dr. Morgan

It is 13 years ago.

Mr. Peake

Yes, but it has also been adopted since for the purposes of the Industrial Injuries Insurance Act; furthermore, during the whole of the time that the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) was Minister of National Insurance, that 20-year rule has held good in regard to byssinosis, and during the whole of the time that the right hon. Lady the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Edith Summerskill) was Minister, the rule held.

It is not, therefore, reasonable to suggest that in this limited benefit Bill to deal with a few time-barred cases, we ought to alter what has for so long been accepted. It may be that there is a case on medical grounds for a change in the definition. If there was a case, it ought to be brought before the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. But it is perfectly clear that on this limited Bill we cannot pick these cases out because it would put them in a more favourable position than those who might claim under the Workmen's Compensation Act and the present Industrial Injuries Insurance Act.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Hale

This is a technical point, and it may be important. Byssinosis comes within the terms of the Industrial Inpuries Insurance Act and is included within the definition of pneumoconiosis, which is a wide definition of all dust diseases of the lung. It would come in under the one without the qualification of the other.

Mr. Peake

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is wrong about that point. This Bill is called the Pneumoconiosis and Byssinosis Benefit Bill just because byssinosis is not included in the term pneumoconiosis. I am sorry we have to refuse this Amendment, but I think it would be quite impossible to alter the general law in this way. It would reopen the whole question of the prescription of byssinosis under the industrial injuries insurance scheme. There is appropriate machinery under which this could be considered, and the matter could be raised in a general way, but we could not alter the law by means of this Bill, and I hope that the amendment will not be pressed.

Dr. Stross

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

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

Dr. Stross

I do not apologise for keeping the Committee a minute or two longer, because I wish to thank the Parliamentary Secretary with regard to one particular matter. During the Second Reading I pointed out that some workers, particularly miners, might have been suffering when they were overmen, and therefore, earning £450 a year or more, would be left out according to the 1925 Compensation Act. I asked for them to be included in this Bill, and the Parliamentary Secretary in replying said that this could not be done. Since then he has written to me, and for the sake of the record, and because his answer is so satisfactory, I should like to read what he said: On looking at my winding-up speech on the Pneumoconiosis and Byssinosis Benefit Bill last Friday, I think that I might have dealt more fully with your point on Clause 2 (1, e). We have so worded the Subsection as not to exclude from the scope of the new Scheme any man who at some time or other in his life worked as a manual worker under contract of service in any of the processes covered for either pneumoconiosis or byssinosis. I quite understand that some men who contracted the disease from such employment may have failed in their claim to compensation because by the time they were found to be disabled by the disease they were no longer manual labourers and were outside whatever income limit then applied; but they will be within the scope of the scheme. I take these words to mean that if men in the process of going up the ladder in the mining industry have ever stopped upon grounds which were inside the Workmen's Compensation Act they would come within these benefits. That being so, I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman's letter, which I am sure will give great satisfaction.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.