HC Deb 17 July 1979 vol 970 cc1475-86

11.52 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Hugh Rossi)

I beg to move, That the draft Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers' Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 9 July, be approved. Most hon. Members will recall that at the close of the last Parliament approval was given to the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Bill. During the passage of that Bill, assurances were given in both Houses that urgent consideration would be given to enacting similar legislation for Northern Ireland which would be made by Order in Council, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. In bringing this order before the House tonight the Government accept that similar legislation should be enacted for Northern Ireland.

If hon. Members wish to compare the order which we are now discussing with the corresponding Great Britain Act, they will see that its drafting is somewhat different, but I assure the House that the content is the same, namely to make provision for lump sum payments to certain sufferers of pneumoconiosis, pyssinosis or diffuse mesothelioma in Northern Ireland on a basis comparable to that which applies in Great Britain.

In my briefing notes it is suggested that I might now take the House through each article of the order seriatim and explain its content. However, although the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Moly-neaux) is anxious that we spend one and a half hours on each of the orders coming before us tonight, I am not sure that that is necessarily the wish of each and every one of us, so if the House will permit me I shall draw attention to certain key provisions of the order. I shall do the same in respect of the other orders that we have to consider and perhaps make progress in that way.

The main article—article 3—provides that those disabled by the industrial diseases to which I have referred may submit a claim for compensation to the Department of Manpower Services for Northern Ireland. It further provides that where the Department is satisfied it shall pay to the claimant the prescribed sum.

The article also specifies the conditions that must be fulfilled before payment may be made. The conditions, briefly, are that the claimant has been admitted to disablement benefit suffering from one of the diseases that I have mentioned; secondly, that there is no employer against whom a claim for damages may be made, and, thirdly, that he has not yet brought an action for damages or received a court settlement. The object of the order is to enable compensation to be paid where industrial diseases have been incurred and where there is absence of a court remedy.

The order continues to deal with appeal on points of law, to enable the Department to reconsider the matter where there have been changes of circumstances and generally to provide for the protection of the claimant in an orderly and proper way.

The sums of compensation to be paid are not mentioned in the order. Article 11 provides for the making of regulations and for the procedure to be adopted. Payment will be made by one lump sum. That will reflect, as a court order for damages, the degree of pain and suffering experienced by the claimant, the average rate of progression of the disease and elements of loss of earnings. It follows that the younger the claimant and the greater the disability the larger will be the amount of compensation subect to an intended maximum of £10,000.

I suspect that few hon. Members will need reminding how distressing pneumoconiosis is. It occurs as a result of inhaling certain types of dust. It develops gradually and continues to do so after contact with the dust has ceased. There have been cases where the disease has appeared about 20 years after first contact with the dust.

The predominant symptom of the advanced state of the disease is an extreme shortness of breath caused by lack of oxygen getting to the blood stream because of damage to lung tissues. That makes the slightest exertion, even gentle walking, a painful effort. In the worst cases sufferers are confined to bed and are kept alive only by drugs, oxygen and, frequently, devoted nursing by wives and other relatives.

Although the disease is normally associated with occupations such as coal mining and slate quarrying, a similar disease —byssinosis—can affect textile workers from the inhalation of cotton or flax dust. The provisions of the order are very relevant to Northern Ireland, where a once prosperous textile industry has over the years been contracting.

The situation in Northern Ireland is like that which applies to certain slate quarrying areas of Wales, where sufferers have been unable to seek compensation by suing the employer concerned because the employer is out of business. The indications are that there are about 30 persons in Northern Ireland who would stand to benefit from the provisions of the order.

I am confident that the order, like the Great Britain Act, will receive the wholehearted support of the House. I know that hon. Members will wish to ensure that sufferers from these diseases, or their surviving dependants in Northern Ireland will be equally eligible for compensation as are sufferers elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I have no hesitation in recommending the order to the House.

11.58 p.m.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

Someone coming from my part of the world can be expected both to know about the pain and suffering that pneumoconiosis and associated diseases cause and to be sympathetic towards the sufferers.

Although, for understandable reasons, the Government have not gone through the usual process of consultation, I give the order a wholehearted welcome on behalf of the Opposition. It seems to be a humanitarian gesture and one that will benefit perhaps 30 sufferers at this stage, although I ask the Minister to estimate whether there are others who may come forward at a later stage to make a claim. I suspect that there is not a great awareness of the provisions of this measure.

The order is thoroughly worth while. The Great Britain scheme had all-party support and I hope that the order will likewise receive all-party support. I wish it well in the remaining few minutes of its passage.

12 midnight

Mr. Robert J. Bradford (Belfast, South)

We on the Official Unionist Bench welcome this Northern Ireland order for the obvious reason that many people in Northern Ireland involved in the textile industry will benefit from its provisions.

There are one or two questions that I should like to put to the Minister. He referred to the linen industry. I wonder whether there is any basis for the belief that those involved in the man-made fibre industry might also contract this disease. If so, it will mean that the order will have wide application in Northern Ireland, where approximately one-third of the textile industry of the United Kingdom is situated.

It has been the custom to send some people who have applied for the pneumoconiosis payment to Scotland for a medical examination. I wonder what necessitates the examination there, and whether it is envisaged that future applicants will have to make that journey. There may be a simple reason for this. It might be good if the Minister explained why that has been the experience of at least some applicants.

Although normally we should not look favourably upon the procedure adopted here—that of the absence of a draft order and the normal consultative period—all hon. Members on both sides of the House appreciate that this is a pressing matter. Certainly we should not be so churlish as to make this an opportunity to object to certain short cuts being taken in procedure, as long as they do not materially affect the composition of the Bill or the provisions in the order.

12.2 a.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

It is somewhat ironical that there should be no representative of the remains of Plaid Cymru in the House tonight. After all this was the sop thrown to them amidst the last desperate efforts of the late Administration to retain some sort of a majority in this House. It was, so to speak, if not their lifeline, at any rate their pipeline. In this they were more fortunate than some of the rest of us in that very differently composed House of Commons: we have not yet got our pipeline, although we shall get it, whereas—to the general satisfaction—the Welshmen have their Pneumoconiosis, etc (Workers' Compensation) Act.

The Minister of State handsomely made out the case that this was not a Welsh measure. It is not a measure for any one part of the United Kingdom. It is—and ought to be—a United Kingdom measure.

We are told in the explanatory memorandum, which accompanied the draft order, that it was brought forward not by the accelerated procedure but with the omission of the " proposal stage " in order to match as closely as possible the operative date for the Great Britain legislation. I should like to inquire a little more closely exactly how that comes about.

The Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act, which is a Great Britain Act, comes into force, according to section 10, on the expiration of a period of three months beginning from the day on which it is passed. It was passed on 4 April so presumably it " came into force " on 4 July.

In that case the hope of the Minister of State—which he expressed in a letter of 5 July, to my hon. Friends and myself and others—that it would come into force at the same time as in Great Britain, might appear not to be fulfilled. However, I am not sure that the date of " coming into force " is the operative date for the purposes of those who we all hope will benefit from this legislation; for we find in the Act that regulations have to be made—these were referred to by the Minister of State—prescribing, among other things, the form of application, and also the maximum sums and the gradation of sums that will be payable under the Act. So it appears that until those regulations have been made and approved—for I think they are subject to affirmative procedure under the Great Britain Act—the legislation will not in Great Britain, be in effect in the natural sense of the term. There must be the regulations, and those must have been approved, before claims can be admitted or sums can be paid out.

There is to be a corresponding procedure for Northern Ireland, both as regards coming into operation and as regards the prescription of the particulars to which I have just referred. Article 1 of the order provides that the order is to come into operation on such day or days as the Head of the Department may by order appoint. I fear that at this moment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you may be detecting a rather familiar trend in these observations, for I have to acquaint those who have not been through this mill so often before that that reference to the " Head of the Department " is entirely misleading. There is no such thing at the moment as " the Head of a Department " in the sense in which that appears in the order, because these orders, for reasons which can be examined at greater length on another occasion, apparently have to be drawn on the assumption that the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, which is no longer in force—and which its most devoted former admirers do not suppose will ever be in force again—were actually in force at the moment. They are drawn in terms of a non-existent constitution, never popular, which came to a sticky conclusion and is now in abeyance. Still, there is no doubt that regulations will be required—statutory rules, I imagine, and not subject to any parliamentary procedure at all—to implement the effect of the Act in Northern Ireland.

I want to inquire just a little further—this has a wider application than the present order and is a matter of great importance, obviously, to those whom we represent in Northern Ireland—into this question of simultaneity; for I am sure everyone would agree that, if benefits are to be improved or payments are to be provided under legislation which is basically the same in both parts of the kingdom, they ought to be law simultaneously and to be effective simultaneously.

This is a point which was brought out a few months ago by a report of an excellent official, who performs in Northern Ireland single-handed the function of the Scrutiny Committee on Statutory Instruments in Great Britain—the Examiner of Statutory Instruments. He drew attention to the fact that there was a hiccup between the making of regulations in Great Britain and the making of the corresponding regulations applying to Northern Ireland under the principle of parity.

I hope that the resultant arrangements have been brought to the attention of the new Ministers; for I am sure that they would wish to ensure that they were implemented, and maybe this will be the first case in point for the practice of it. The locus classicus on the case is a letter from the right hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) dated 27 February 1979, in which he announced—the letter is addressed to me, but it is a public document—the arrangements which were thenceforward to be made to ensure the simultaneous making of regulations in matters such as this on both sides of the Irish Sea.

The Minister wrote: With a view to ensuring that GB instruments and the corresponding NI rules can, wherever possible, be made on the same day —that is what I hope the Minister of State can assure us will happen in this case— arrangements have been made whereby, as soon as my Department —that is, the Great Britain Department— determine to draft an instrument, the draftsman and those who will be responsible for processing the instrument will ascertain the name and telephone number of the official in Belfast who is to be responsible for the correspanding NI rule. This will make it possible for the information required quickly, for example that the instrument has been signed, and as to any minor corrections made on the proof, to arrive at the point in Belfast where it is needed more rapidly than the post can carry or an official can travel —that must be nearly the speed of light— In addition, where time is of the essence and the alterations are too extensive or complex to be safely or conveniently imparted by telephone, we propose to make use of the Mufax facilities in the Northern Ireland office. I do not know whether the Minister of State has yet made the acquaintance of that facility. If he has done so, I hope that he will acquaint the House more particularly with the nature of that remarkable instrument, which transmits vital pieces of information even faster than an official can travel or a telephone can work —though that is, admittedly, sometimes not very fast either in Northern Ireland or between here and Northern Ireland. The Minister went on in his letter: I hope that these new arrangements will achieve the result we all wish to see. That is something which I am sure we would all commend to the attention of the Minister of State.

It took a good deal of trouble on the part of many people and a great deal of good will on the part of many officials and several Departments to arrive at the understanding and mechanism whereby in future we hope to have what should go without saying, namely, simultaneity of application of beneficial law on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Obviously the sums and the conditions must be uniform throughout the kingdom. We hope to see them speedily in force and we hope to see them, not only in this case but in all similar subsequent cases, promptly and simultaneously authorised on both sides of the Irish Sea.

12.14 a.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

I welcome the order. It is a humanitarian, worthy and necessary measure.

I do not intend to join in the criticisms of other hon. Members from Northern Ireland. My question is, why has it taken so long for a measure of such merit to come before the House? As the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said, the credit for the order lies not with the present Government or their predecessors but with the hon. Members representing Plaid Cymru, who were given it as a sop to encourage them to save the life of the previous Government.

I do not intend to take this opportunity to ask the right hon. Member for Down, South about the position of his group of hon. Members in relation to the sop of the previous Government that was taken up by the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) and the former Member for Belfast, North, Mr Carson.

I wonder whether the pneumoconiosis order will help about 30 people in Northern Ireland. I fear that because of the large number of people involved in the cotton, woollen and linen textile industry many may not be aware that their illness is brought about through having worked years before in factories producing textiles. I hope that the Minister will do his best to make sure that people in Northern Ireland are given every opportunity of having their cases studied by the medical authorities and that every attempt is made to help them.

I should like to take up the criticism of the right hon. Member for Down, South, that the order is drawn on the assumption that the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 is still in force. That Act is in abeyance. He and his colleagues are all in favour of direct rule and total integration. They want all laws to apply throughout the United Kingdom —[HON. MEMBERS: " Hear, hear."]—I can hear their echoes of " Hear, hear: However, when the previous Labour Government tried to bring a measure of justice to spouses in Northern Ireland whose marriages had come to end, they fought it bitterly. They did not want that Act to apply to Northern Ireland. They speak a great deal of rubbish, and their hypocrisy must be exposed.

The Deptuy Speaker (Mr. Bryant God-man Irvine)

Order. The hon. Member should return to the order.

Mr. Kilfedder

I did not think that I had departed too far from the remarks of the right hon. Member for Down, South. As his speech had not been interrupted. I thought I could follow his comments.

The people of Northern Ireland would wish me to thank the Government for introducing the order. We want the reestablishment of a Stormont Parliament, and that opportunity must be kept alive. This is a worthy measure. I congratulate this Government and the previous one and also the Welsh national party on having originated it.

12.18 a.m.

Mr. Rossi

I thank the House for the general welcome that it has given to the useful and, I hope, helpful order. Having welcomed the order and congratulated the Government on bringing it forward, hon. Members proceeded to chide me. On the one hand, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) and the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) chided me for not bringing it forward quickly enough. On the other, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) and the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) chided me for not having gone through the usual proposal procedure, which would have delayed the matter ever further.

Suffice it to say that when we took office we found that Northern Ireland sufferers of pneumoconiosis and their dependants did not enjoy the advantages of compensation under the legislation passed immediately before the election. We took the view that they should enjoy these benefits. We therefore took steps as quickly as we could, given the hiccups caused by the election and the demands on a parliamentary timetable, to bring the matter forward. For that reason, I hope that the House and Northern Ireland hon. Members will forgive us for not going through the ordinary proposal procedures.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

The Minister must have misunderstood or misheard me. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) expressed approval of the fact that the omission of a proposal stage had taken place.

Mr. Rossi

Obviously I misunderstood the right hon. Gentleman. I thought that he was suggesting that it should have been brought forward in time to be enacted by 4 July. The right hon. Member then asked me whether I was aware of the workings of the Mufax simultaneous machine, which would have ensured this marvellous process. I have seen this machine in operation. I have seen it in Whitehall, spewing out a long stream of blotting paper of scarcely legible print, and I have been assured that simultaneously, the material was being fed into a similar machine in Belfast.

The right hon. Member and the hon. Member for Down, North will forgive me if I do not become involved at this stage in the wider constitutional issues that have been raised. These are matters that the Government will have to consider carefully. The right hon. Gentleman raised matters of integration by implication in the way that he presented the defects that he sees in the present methods of bringing forward legislation affecting Northern Ireland. Other hon. Members feel that integration is not the right solution, and that there should be a form of devolved government. I am not going to be drawn on this issue while I am dealing with pneumoconiosis. Certainly in time the Government will have to form a view and discuss these very important matters with the House, but I do not think that tonight is the time to do so.

I have been asked a number of detailed questions about the order. I mentioned 30 sufferers. That is the best estimate that we have been given by our advisers of the number known or likely to be suffering from this disease. We shall make known the operation of the order as soon as it is enacted. We shall give it as wide publicity as we can, and we hope that people who have been victims of this disease will come forward with their claims.

I was asked whether there was an application to man-made fibres. I believe not, but I am not sure. I shall check and write to the hon. Member for Belfast, South, who raised the matter. Similarly, I shall check on questions of sending people to Scotland for medical tests. It may well be that we do not have the equipment or the medical expertise at present in Northern Ireland, and the nearest facilities are in Scotland.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Before the Minister sits down, will he deal with the coming into effect of the Act in Britain, and the order in Northern Ireland? Will he confirm whether that is dependent on the making of the regulations to which he referred, prescribing the sums and the methods of making application, and so on?

Mr. Rossi

The Great Britain order came into effect on 4 July. Obviously this order cannot come into effect on that date. It is subject to affirmative resolution and the moment this House approves the matter and it is dealt with in another place, it will come into effect. The regulations are subject to negative resolution, because they are governed by article 2 of the Interpretation Act 1954, which turns an affirmative procedure into negative procedure for this House. The affirmative procedure relates to the position that would exist were there an Assembly, which there is not.

Mr. Powell

I apologise for pressing the point, but it may be a matter of importance to the people concerned. Have the corresponding regulations prescribing the sums, and so on, been made for Great Britain, and is it not the case that, although those regulations have been made on the one side and on the other, claims cannot be entertained and payments cannot be made?

Mr. Rossi

I received one nod and two shakes of the head from the Box. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the answer to that question. Again, if I may, I will write to him about it.

12.26 am.

Mr. George Grant (Morpeth)

I welcome this measure. I do not want to get involved in the controversies of politics in Northern Ireland, or, indeed, in the Welsh side of the story under the Labour Government, but having been a miner I have personal experience of the human suffering in the mining areas. In my opinion, my father died from pneumoconiosis, and I saw him die a terrible death. I therefore welcome this measure for what it means to the few people concerned in Northern Ireland.

The National Union of Mineworkers was the first to bring such a measure forward. Previously, the matter had to go through the courts and the difficulty was in proving negligence on the part of the employer. Whilst pneumoconiosis can be proved only by X-ray, the most eminent people in the medical profession will be the first to admit that radiography is not a true and sincere test of the existence of pneumoconiosis. I therefore ask the Government to look favourably at the recent reports on the question of consideration of compensation for emphysema and bronchitis. I welcome this measure and am pleased to have been able to take part in the debate.

Mr. Rossi

By leave of the House, I should like to convey to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) some information that has now come into my possession and which might be helpful to him. I am informed that the regulations under the Great Britain Act will be laid before the House in the autumn, and therefore we hope that our Mufax system will enable us in Northern Ireland to be in step with Great Britain, and the two things can then go forward together.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers' Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 9 July, be approved.