HC Deb 20 May 1980 vol 985 cc235-6
8. Mr. Wigley

asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he is satisfied that applicants for compensation under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers Compensation) Act 1979 are being answered as quickly as possible; and if he will make a statement on those cases which are causing difficulty.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

Yes, in all the circumstances. The necessary investigations are requiring very protracted work. Out of the 2,533 applications made before the end of 1979 fewer than a quarter are now outstanding. Over 300 claims made since then have also been cleared. Overall, the main problems have arisen over the requirement that all relevant employers must have ceased to carry on business.

Mr. Wigley

Will not the Minister accept that a figure of 600 outstanding claimants since before last January is an unsatisfactory level, given that the measure has been enacted for almost a year? In circumstances where all the evidence is not forthcoming, will he give the benefit of the doubt to marginal cases? Will he say anything about those who are employed in quarries which may have employed them for only two or three years out of a total quarrying working lifetime of 20 or 30 years? Is he in a position to make a statement on that matter?

Mr. Mayhew

The difficulty that we face with the statutory definition of a relevant employer is that we must satisfy ourselves that he was the person by whom the claimant was employed at any time during the period that he was developing the disease, and against whom he might have had a claim for damages in respect of the disablement. There is no such employer still in business. I have reconsidered the extent to which the Act permits some discretion, and it is proving possible to adopt a slightly more favourable approach than had at first seemed necessary.

Mr. Needham

Will my hon. and learned Friend please remind the House about the circumstances in which the Bill reached the statute book, and what exactly happened under the previous Administration with regard to these matters?

Mr. Mayhew

The Act was passed by the House, having been introduced by the previous Labour Government in the very last days of their Administration. Not the least of the difficulties of its application arose from the very short consideration that the House was able to give to the Bill.

Mr. Ashley

Is the Minister aware that the point that he made is correct? The Act has many shortcomings. Is he aware that the pneumoconiosis medical panels have rejected the medical advice of skilled doctors, consultants and pathologists? Those panels should be abolished. Does he agree that the decision of the doctors and consultants in mining areas should be accepted as evidence of pneumoconiosis?

Mr. Mayhew

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have answered that question in the past, and that the pneumoconiosis medical panels are not the responsibility of my Department. He knows also the relevance of their decisions under the terms of the Act passed by the previous Administration.