HC Deb 22 June 1954 vol 529 cc381-92

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

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I am endeavouring to address you to the best of my ability while The tumult and the shouting dies, The captains and the kings depart because I wish to call your attention to a matter of importance, that is, this question of byssinosis and pneumoconiosis as it affects events in my division.

The whole discussion of these matters calls up bitter memories for those of us associated with these and other diseases for the past 25 years. We remember the long struggle to get recognised as an industrial disease one of the most serious scourges from which industrial workers suffer. Not only is it a dreadful scourge, but it is a disease with dreadful consequences, with long periods of pair and suffering, with a permanent state of depression at the end and, ultimately, a state in respect of which there is very little hope of a permanent cure.

So far as byssinosis is concerned, it is treated as a separate disease. The other industrial diseases silicosis, anthracosis, and so on, are classified together under the general heading of pneumoconiosis—a disease caused by grit dust in the lungs—as compared with byssinosis which is caused by the softer dust in the lungs which comes from cotton fibre. Both are similar in their consequences and are grave diseases. I am glad that the hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Horobin) is in his place, and I shall refer a little later to his presence, because we remember in Oldham the long struggle of the cotton spinners to get this disease recognised and scheduled as an industrial disease.

The Minister has wide powers under Sections 55. 56 and 57 of the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act. I remember very well that I made my maiden speech in this House on that Act when it was a Bill in October, 1945. Even then, I ventured to express some mild criticisms of its provisions. I think I can recall the words I used. I ex pressed great dubiety about the system of a single doctor adjudicating on these matters without the right of appeal. I said that if we got a State doctor under a National Health Service dealing with State employees adjudicating without the right of appeal, that was not a Socialist dream, but a Marxist nightmare.

It is, of course, always a mistake to be politically right before one's time, and that, I must confess, is a disease to which I have been particularly prone. But I think that many of my colleagues today would have something to say on that matter. The Minister has exercised some powers and we thank him for that. There have been advances made in the treatment of byssinosis during the term of this Government which represent progress in the right direction, although they have not been steps of very great substance.

Therefore, I ventured to question the Minister on 17th June in an effort to get some information as to the results of the operation of the scheme. The Act of 1954, as I understand, is not yet in operation in the sense that the Minister has not made his order; but the order of 4th January this year is in operation, and the collective results of what has been done shows what are to me some very worrying figures. In 1952, claims for disablement allowance were received from 5,586 applicants, of which 2,153 were disallowed. For death benefit, 860 claims were received, and of those, 237 were disallowed.

In 1953, the figures went down; claims for disablement allowance totalled 3,587, of which 2,850 were disallowed, and of the 582 claims for death benefit, no fewer than 239 were disallowed—a very high proportion in each of those groups of figures. Disablement benefit claims up to 12th June this year were 1,399, and 1,175 were disallowed—that is, five out of every six. That can be described not only as a very high proportion, but as a most serious state of affairs. We must remember that, for a man to make a claim he must be seriously ill and must have a doctor who certifies that he has this terrible disease; so that there is no chance of frivolous claims.

The unions themselves are by no means happy that the Minister is exercising all his powers and as recently as yesterday the Textile Officers' Association sent a memorandum to him suggesting further improvement of the scheme and which I think he has had and is, I hope, considering. In the letter which was sent, one individual from Oldham was referred to, and I would like to put it to the House as the copy came to me, and without comment; it concerns a case which happened during the past three weeks: A mill official employed in the Atherton area was being treated for bronchitis by his medical practitioner. He made little progress and in fact deteriorated and I was asked by our local secretary if I could assist. I suggested that his doctor should make arrangements for him to have consultant treatment, but his doctor did not agree. I then made arrangements on my own for the patient to be medically examined by a consultant who wrote to me that, in his view, the man was suffering from byssinosis. To claim the pension under the Act, as you know. all cases must be examined at the Centre of Occupational Health, University Department, Manchester Royal Infirmary, and he confirmed in writing that, in the opinion of the Byssinosis Board, the man was suffering from the disease and a percentage pension was being recommended. I emphasise that it was only a percentage pension. The letter adds: My assistant wrote me during this week to say that the man had since died and had been buried. No coroner's inquest had been held. I quoted that because, by chance, that letter came to me only yesterday. It is clear proof of the kind of thing which is happening, and those of us who have seen the old system of the certifying surgeon, where general practitioners were called upon to come to a decision, know that such decisions in the industrial injuries field were often based on a single examination taking only a few minutes.

The case which I now wish to mention is that of Alfred Slack.

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

On a point of order. The hon. Gentleman has so far dealt with the question of decisions of independent statutory authorities and is now about to proceed to quote a particular case. The Minister is not responsible for those decisions and cannot interfere with them and I am, therefore, unable to answer, on the Motion for the Adjournment, any point dealing with particular decisions. The hon. Gentleman rose to put a point on a judicial decision—a decision given in this case by independent statutory authorities under the Industrial Injuries Act. I am ready to help the House in any way, but, in my submission, it is out of order, on the Motion for the Adjournment, to raise questions that arise from decisions of independent statutory authorities.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

Is this one of the cases to be decided by the medical tribunal?

Mr. Turton

Cases of the sort which the hon. Gentleman has quoted so far have to be determined by the Administrative Board appointed under the Pneumoconiosis and Byssinosis Benefit Act, 1951. I understand that the case of which he gave me notice is one which has been decided by an insurance officer under the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act, 1946.

Mr. Hale

May I just quote the Question which I put to the Minister on this matter?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If the Minister has no responsibility, it is not a matter which can be raised on the Adjournment.

Mr. Hale

I agree with that without question, and I would not have attempted to raise on the Adjournment anything for which the Minister was not responsible. But if you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, will refer to Sections 55, 56 and 57 of the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act, 1946, you will see that the Minister has almost unlimited powers in these cases. If necessary, I shall have to waste the whole of my Adjournment in order to read those Sections. I can only say that the House has been concerned on at least six occasions during the past two years on matters arising under this Act, and my colleagues know that the Minister has the fullest powers under the Act.

On 17th June this year, I put a Question to the Minister. I asked what right of appeal exists to an applicant for compensation under the Pneumoconiosis and Byssinosis Benefit Act, 1951; and what powers exist, and in whom, for the making of an order for re-examination and reconsideration. The Minister replied: There is no right of appeal from a decision of either the medical board or the administrative board. The administrative board has, however, power to reconsider a case and, where a further claim is made, to refer a claimant to the medical board for re-examination."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th June, 1954; Vol. 412,8; c. 163.] That means that the matter is sub judice. If, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you will read Section 56 (2) of the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act, 1946, you will see that it says: Regulations may provide, in relation to prescribed diseases and injuries, for modifying the provisions of Part II of this Act relating to injury benefit and disablement benefit and for adapting references in the said Part II to accidents, and shall provide for applying in relation to claims for benefit under this Part of this Act in respect of a prescribed disease or injury, and in relation to questions arising in connection therewith or with an award of benefit, the provisions of Part III of this Act, subject to any prescribed additions or modifications. I would also refer you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to Section 57 of the same Act.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I have Section 57 before me, but it is a long Section, and it would take me a little tune to read its many provisions.

Mr. Hale

I am very unhappy that, after having extended to the Minister the courtesy of informing him of what I proposed to raise this evening, he should rise on a point of order which has no substance in fact. There are two Sections of the 1946 Act under which the Minister's powers in these matters are perfectly clear. The Minister can give anyone suffering from pneumoconiosis the benefits under the Act. They are the power which I have asked him to exercise without objection in the course of three debates in the past.

I must say, in fairness to the Minister, that he was good enough to give me notice of this, but I am saying that he should not have endeavoured to adjourn the debate without the matter being discussed. In January last, the Minister made an order extending the provisions of the Act, thus bringing more people into benefit under it.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am not learned in the law, and have to be guided by those who know. If the Minister says that he has no powers, then I am in a dilemma. The hon. Gentleman says that he has, and the Minister says that he has not.

Mr. Hale

In a Written answer, given during the last few days, the Minister said that the matter would be considered. I appreciate your difficulty, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but when you say that you have to be guided by those who know, I am not sure whether you are referring to me or to the Minister, or why you draw a distinction as to the knowledge of the facts, because I have spent 25 years considering such matters.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I was referring to both hon. Gentlemen.

Mr. Turton

When the hon. Member refers to a claimant's right to apply again to a tribunal that is not anything with which the Minister can interfere. It is a right every claimant has. He can make a fresh claim. I raised the point of order because in the eight years since the Industrial Injuries Act came into operation the decision given on an individual case has never been raised by any hon. Member on the Adjournment, and, therefore, while I regret having to make a point which takes up time I felt obliged to do so lest an unfortunate Parliamentary precedent were created.

Mr. Hale

It is unfortunate that we are only wasting time on this Adjournment by talk about this false point, for it will only lead to my putting down a Motion on the Order Paper. I am asking the hon. Gentleman to make new regulations, and I ask him to deny that he can make regulations which will cover these cases. Is it not a fact that he can make such regulations and am I not in order in asking for new regulations? In pursuance of my point, I was proposing to quote one example in Oldham, the case of Mr. Albert Slack.

Mr. Speaker

A point of order has been raised and I have looked at the Industrial Injuries Act of 1946. The hon. Member is speaking very rapidly, and had I had the opportunity earlier I would have looked at it more closely, but Section 36 is headed, "Persons to determine questions and claims."

Mr. Hale

I am referring to Sections 55, 56 and 57, which give the Minister the fullest power to make regulations, and this power he has exercised in the past.

Mr. Speaker

That is in regard to industrial diseases. What is said about that? Is there power to make these regulations?

Mr. Turton

There is certainly power to make regulations altering the conditions. What I have submitted to Mr. Deputy-Speaker is that it is not in order for the hon. Gentleman to raise questions on particular decisions of judicial authorities. The case the hon. Member is now quoting raises the question of the determination of a particular claim. I have submitted that although it is open to Parliament or the Minister to alter the law it is not in order to raise a particular determination of a tribunal under the law as it stands.

Mr. Ian Horobin (Oldham, East)

I do not wish to waste time on this occasion, but as the case arose in my constituency I think we should be clear on what we can talk about and on what we cannot. I did not myself intend to deal specifically with the particular case of Mr. Slack, although that is how this matter arose, but in my submission there are indications in such a case that the regulations already made by the Minister might well appear to be not well adapted to deal with situations of that kind, and if the Minister could make further regulations or amend these, then it was to that general matter, which concerns hundreds of people in the cotton industry, that we had wished to use the opportunity of the Adjournment, even if we dealt with the particular case of Mr. Slack.

Mr. Speaker

The best Ruling I can give is that in so far as the Act sets out certain machinery for the determination of claims—and for that the Minister has no responsibility—we cannot re-try these cases on the Motion for the Adjournment of the House. But if the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) can show that without fresh legislation the Minister is empowered to make regulations which would remedy his complaint, he might be in order.

Mr. Hale

That is what I have been asserting all along, Sir. The Minister made regulations on 4th January by Statutory Instrument No. 5 of 1954, and when the Parliamentary Secretary interrupted I was pointing out the powers of the Minister under Sections 55, 56 and 57 of the Industrial Injuries Act. All I am saying is that the case of Mr. Slack shows that the regulations are inadequate. I am afraid I have been a little discourteous to the Member for Oldham, East in raising a case in his division, but my only reason for doing so is that Mr. Slack's son is an old friend of mine and a Labour councillor. It is certainly no reflection on the hon. Member for Oldham, East, whom I hope, in this debate, I may call my hon. Friend—because he is always most courteous to me—that I am raising the subject. As I was raising the whole subject I wanted to mention this individual case. I will try to do it in two minutes as we have wasted so much time on points of order.

Mr. Albert Slack is 62 years of age. He is a gravely-ill man—there is no question about that. He was employed as an engine driver. It is interesting to note that his engine driving was on the Pennine tunnel, where they are exposed to an exceptional amount of coal dust. During the war they had to drive in the black-out with the cab covered, so that they were exposed completely to the coal dust without any form of ventilation. What is peculiar, therefore, if this man is susceptible to pneumoconiosis?

He was treated for some lung disease without it being diagnosed, which is almost normal in these cases. Then he went to a specialist at Manchester who had him examined by X-ray 15 to 18 times, I am told, and who gave him a medical certificate of which the Minister has a copy in which he said—curiously enough expressing doubt that the man had been exposed to coal dust because he did not know that an engine driver was so exposed—that he had no doubt whatever that this was pneumoconiosis.

The regulations provided for examination at home by doctors, and Mr. Slack was examined at Sunlight House, Manchester, where one X-ray photograph was taken. I put down a Question to the Minister asking him what was the usual number of X-ray photographs under the regulations, which is the material point, and he replied that, on the whole, one was usually found to be enough. One might show that the man had got it, but one would not show that he had not got it; because if it is there, he has the disease, and if it is not there one usually takes a few more X-ray photographs to find out whether one has missed something.

Two months ago two people called at Mr. Slack's house and said that they had come to examine him. They were courteous; I expect they were overworked and they did not spend much time, they took no sputum test, they had no further X-ray examination. They asked him a number of questions and examined his throat, and he has now been told that he has failed.

Before you returned, Mr. Speaker, I gave the figures of failures, and they show that something like five out of six have been refused under the Act. In those circumstances, it is unfortunate that the many matters which I wanted to raise have been cut out by arguments which I think were quite unnecessary. I do not want to keep the hon. Member for Oldham, East out of the debate, so I will bring my remarks to a close by saying that I think I have made a sufficient case to show that the situation is not satisfactory and that new regulations should be made.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Ian Horobin (Oldham, East)

I think it is unfortunate that the debate has taken this turn, because the work on this terrible disease in our part of the country owes so much to the personal interest of the present Minister of Pensions. It is only under regulations made recently that it was possible for this case to come up for consideration again, engine driving not being one of the scheduled occupations. It is unfortunate that the impression should get about that there has been unsympathetic treatment by the Ministry.

Obviously, there must be some finality. At some stage in all these things a doctor or a board of doctors must give a final decision. It may be wrong—they are human—but we accept, I am sure, that there must be a final decision. But in some of these cases some of us are worried—not only in pneumoconiosis, but in similar cases—because we are not quite satisfied that under the regulations every assurance is given that the man's own doctor and the whole case history from his own medical attendant is before the board or the examining doctors, whoever they may be, so that the man does not go away feeling a grave disappointment, a feeling perhaps of injustice, because he was called in at the last minute before someone he never saw before and probably will never see again.

Even if the doctor is right, it is unnecessary to cause this grave disappointment, and it is no help to the Ministry. I should like reassurance that if these regulations are not sufficient to ensure that every opportunity is given to the man's own doctor, then new regulations will be made.

11.5 p.m.

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

When this Government came into office it recognised that a great many pneumoconiosis cases were outside the Industrial Injuries Act. The present Minister has brought in regulations to enable claimants, whether in a scheduled occupation or not, to have the opportunity of going before a pneumoconiosis medical board. The whole of the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) was directed to the question whether too many claims are being disallowed and, in particular, whether the claim of a constituent of the hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Horobin) should, or should not, be adjudicated in his favour.

I have taken the view, and with great respect, I think properly, that it would have been wrong for me to come to this Box and attempt to defend an independent tribunal which has been set up under the Authority of Parliament, and in whose decisions, quite rightly, I cannot intervene in any way. What, however, I can do in the short time remaining is to deal with one point made by the hon. Member for Oldham, West, when he referred to answers which he received from me about the result of claims under the Pneumoconiosis and Byssinosis Benefit Scheme.

My hon. Friend's constituent was not claiming under that scheme. The hon. Member made the point that a higher proportion of the claims was allowed in the first year than in the two succeeding years. The fact is that in the first year the pneumoconiosis claimants included more than 800 who had already established their right to benefit under the 1943 benefit scheme. That is one reason why the proportion has not been constant.

In the first year of a scheme for total incapacity from pneumoconiosis, one would expect a larger number of the claims to succeed than subsequently. The hardest cases naturally come forward first. After seeing the many people, partially disabled, who were coming forward under that scheme, we asked the House, in the Industrial Diseases (Benefit) Act, 1954, to enable us to extend the scheme. Since then we have been preparing the way for taking the views of representative people on the detailed proposals for that scheme, and in a short time the proposals will be referred to interested organisations, which will include the T.U.C., for their comments. When we receive these we shall ask Parliament to approve the scheme, so that it can be brought into operation in the fairly near future.

We have to remember that the boards concerned are doing valuable work. This Parliament has, indeed, thrown a great load upon them, passing the Pneumoconiosis Benefit Act in 1951 and, in January this year, passing regulations which added a great many people to those covered against pneumoconiosis. These included foundry workers, those underground mineworkers who were not previously covered under the Act of 1946 and other persons who had worked in occupations involving exposure to dust. The regulations also allowed people to get benefit for pneumoconiosis even though their disability was assessed at less than 5 per cent.

Now we shall throw more work upon them through the Industrial Diseases (Benefit) Act. I feel sure that those who are acquainted with the work of the pneumoconiosis medical boards will share my confidence in them. The members are men of distinction in the medical world who are making a life's work in these diseases. They carry out their duties with great care and, I trust, have the confidence of all our constituents and of industry.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten minutes past Eleven o'Clock.