HC Deb 20 December 1982 vol 34 cc780-98 11.43 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. David Waddington)

I beg to move, That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 1982, which were laid before this House on 16th November, be approved. These regulations are simple and non-controversial, and I am sure that they will receive a wide welcome, particularly from those who have fought so hard over the years for the victims of such diseases. The regulations are made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 and will have the effect of increasing by 40 per cent. each of the payments made under the Act to sufferers, and the dependants of deceased sufferers, who first become entitled to a payment on or afer 1 January 1983.

The current rates of benefit came into operation on 1 Janauary 1980, and the new rates are intended to restore the payments to the value thay had when the original rates were determined.

The Act did not provide for any particular payments, only for the payment of such amounts as might be prescribed by regulations. Consequently there was no provision for regular upratings, but it seems to us only right that there should now be an uprating; and the higher rates will be paid to those who first become entitled to payment on or after 1 January 1983. They will not be paid to those who, although now entitled to payment, have not applied for payment and do not apply until next year for the obvious reason that it would not be right for them to benefit over those who who have made prompt claims.

As hon. Members know, in order to benefit under the Act three main conditions have to be satisfied. First, the applicant must be being paid disablement benefit because of one of the dust-induced diseases that the Act covers. Secondly, every relevant employer must have ceased to carry on business. Thirdly, he must not have brought any action or compromised any claim for damages.

Therefore, a person who is first awarded disablement benefit on or after 1 January 1983, with no relevant employer left, will benefit from the new rates. So is a person who is drawing disablement benefit now but is disqualified under the Act at present because he has a relevant employer but finds that that relevant employer goes out of business within 12 months of the disablement benefit first becoming payable.

We have to date received more than 5,500 applications for compensation under the Act. It is interesting to compare that number with an earlier estimate of about 1,500. Of the 5,500, more than 4,250 have come from people suffering from the diseases to which the Act applies and approximately 1,260 have come from the dependants of deceased sufferers. More than 4,200 applications have been approved and paid at a total cost of £24.8 million.

About 1,200 applications have been rejected for failing to satisfy all the entitlement conditions prescribed in the Act. The majority of those which failed did so because there was still a relevant employer in business.

Hon. Members will remember that the Act was put together in some haste and passed through the House at what might be called a gallop, the then Opposition not wishing to see it killed by the dissolution of Parliament prior to the general election. It would be unfair to criticise the draftsmen, but the fact that the Bill was introduced on 28 March 1979 and, by agreement, having passed through all stages in both Houses, received the Royal Assent on 14 April 1979 cannot be without significance. I must tell the House that it has not been an easy Act to apply. Nothing has proved more difficult than to decide what the Act means when it refers to a relevant employer being a person by whom the disabled person was employed at any time while he was developing the disease and against whom he might have or might have had a claim for damages in respect of his disablement. The problem was obvious. Should we reject an application where a sufferer from one of these diseases worked for fewer than say two years for an employer still in business? Should we reject an application where the sufferer had worked for 35 years in a dusty environment and the only employer still in business had been that person's employer for, say, five years? Could a person really be held to have had a viable claim against a former employer if he had last worked for the employer more than 20 years before he was determined to be suffering from one of the diseases? It is easy to state all the conundrums that are posed by the Act.

We took advice and concluded that, where a person had first been diagnosed to be suffering from one of the diseases prior to the coming into force of the Limitation Act 1963, any action would have been statute barred; and we could take it that there no employer against whom a claim could have been brought and, therefore, no relevant employer within the meaning of the Act.

I confess that that is a somewhat difficult passage, but I remind the House that, though one might criticise the wording of the Act, many lawyers have criticised the terms of the Limitation Act 1963. That Act enabled for the first time the strict time period to be disapplied if, during the time period, the person concerned had no knowledge of the material facts—for example, no knowledge of the fact that he had contracted the disease giving rise to the cause of action. That was the first thing of which we had to take note.

The advice enabled us to approve about 300 cases which had previously been disallowed. That shows our willingness to apply the Act as liberally and sympathetically as possible.

We were advised also that it was not right to say that a person might have or had a claim against a former employer even where the employment did not appear to have made a material contribution to the development of the disease. Therefore, we obtained medical advice about the periods of employment on dusty work which could be considered in the case of each of the disease not to have made such a material contribution. We then felt able to make payments to a further 200 applicants whose claims had previously been rejected.

The time limit for making applications is normally 12 months after disablement benefit first becomes payable. Sometimes it happens that someone applies promptly after he or she has become entitled to benefit, only to be turned down because there is still a relevant employer in business. However, to make sure that people do not lose out by applying just before an employer goes out of business, we review cases at the end of the 12 months during which they could have applied. If they qualify within the 12 months, we pay them. The determination of claims regulations made under the Act also give the Secretary of State discretion to accept late applications, and we try to use this discretion fairly generously so that, if someone would have been entitled to a payment had he or she applied in time, the claim is generally allowed.

I accept that, despite all these changes and relaxations, some people who have had their applications rejected feel unhappy about the rejection because a relevant employer is still in existence. It must be a great disappointment to them, especially when neighbours with a like disability have received compensation under the Act.

We also accept that there may often be considerable difficulties preventing individuals from bringing actions for damages against former employers even though the former employers are still in business. However, those who drew up the Act did not feel that they could make what would have been a major departure from the basic principle that if there is or has been a right of action against an employer, no compensation should be paid by the Government. I must stress that the Act is not intended and was not intended as an alternative to bringing a claim against an employer still in business. It is intended to help those who are at a disadvantage as against others who suffer injury or contract disease because of their working conditions, because of the long time these particular diseases take to develop and because, by the time they are diagnosed, the employer who is responsible may have gone out of business and any action in the courts is therefore no longer possible.

I should say something about the scale of payments. Some might say that the payments that we make are low when compared with awards of damages in the courts, but it should be remembered that claimants under the Act need not demonstrate that their employers have been in breach of either a statutory or a common law duty. That important difference should be reflected in the size of the payments made. Generally, however, the amount paid is related to the degree of disability assessed and the age of the applicant when a medical board first determines that he is suffering from the disease. Therefore, the award is determined for the number of years of his working life for which he is likely to suffer financially from the disability.

It has been represented to us, especially by the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley), that the system is unfair to slate miners suffering from silicosis who, in general, seem to receive lower awards than, for example, byssinosis sufferers, despite the fact that silicosis is more likely to progress quickly to a higher assessment. The main reason why, on average, they get much less is that their average age at first diagnosis is much higher—58 as against 49 for byssinosis sufferers—and it is difficult to see how one could get away from a scale of compensation related to loss of earnings which took account of how many working years the sufferer has left. In any case, the payment tables are weighted in favour of the lower assessments of disability to make allowance for subsequent progression to higher assessments. As hon. Members will know, to some extent the inspiration was the miners' scheme that had a weighting on the lower assessments to take account of the possible progression to a higher level of disability.

The Act also makes provision for payments to dependants of people who, immediately before death, were disabled by one of the diseases. If disablement benefit was being paid before death but death was not due to the disease, the dependant receives an amount arrived at by taking the amount that would have been payable to the sufferer if he were still alive, and then deducting from it the amount that would have been payable to him if he had first been diagnosed at the age at which he died. The dependant receives a payment covering the actual years of disability. If disablement benefit was being paid and the sufferer dies as a result of the disease, an additional payment is made in accordance with table 2 of the regulations or, where death is due to diffuse mesothelioma, in accordance with table 2, part C. Finally, if the sufferer was not receiving disablement benefit at the time of death, the dependant can still receive compensation in accordance with table 2 if the sufferer died as a result of the disease and the dependant is in receipt of industrial death benefit.

We shall keep the benefits under review in the light of further changes in the value of money. Whatever the scale of payments, they will never truly compensate individuals and families for the pain, suffering and loss that they suffer, but at least we shall have done something to ease their lot.

I ask the House to approve the regulations.

11.58 pm
Mr. Barry Jones (Flint, East)

The House will be grateful to the Minister for the patient and helpful way in which he outlined the regulations. We understand his need to amplify the legislation in part, albeit retrospectively. Clearly the Opposition will not oppose what he proposes.

However, a backward look is helpful in an endeavour to place the regulations in context. There were once 20,000 slate quarrymen in north-west Wales—what is now known as the county of Gwynedd. Slate quarrying was once the principal industry. Today all that remains of this bankrupt industry is a handful of jobs.

Slate quarrying was a harsh and demanding industry. One could be 1,500 feet high, perched on a Snowdonia slope, exposed not only to the dust but to the varied elements of harsh weather. If one was a quarryman at Blaenau Ffestiniog, one would work in huge dank caverns, hundreds of feet below the ground, water at one's boots and the chilling darkness above one's head. The quarryman had poor wages and even had to buy his own candles if he worked underground.

At the Llanberis quarrymen's museum today, the tiny hospital bears eloquent testimony to the hazards of the quarries. There are also the surviving widows, who once had but 55p weekly pittances as compensation. Happily, we now have the regulations and the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979. I note that since the 1979 Act, 413 payments to sufferers and 152 payments to dependants of deceased quarrymen have been approved. As a North Welshman, I have no doubts about the rightness of that Act and the regulations that followed it.

The slate quarrying towns were tightly knit. Townships such as Blaenau, Bethesda and Llanberis are sociable, well-informed communities with a highly developed sense of justice and fair play. The pity was that those isolated communities had to wait so long for a semblance of justice and compensation. The Government formed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) enacted compassionate legislation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker) played a key role in the compensation story when he was a Minister of State in the Department of Employment. It was he who went to Blaenau Ffestiniog to meet the ailing quarrymen and their families. He liaised with the Transport and General Workers Union official, Idwal Edwards, and the quarrymen's solicitor, Sir Elwyn Jones as he then was. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) and the then right hon. Member for Anglesey, now Lord Cledwyn, helped to propel the compensation scheme along. Throughout North Wales, there was all-party and community-rooted support for despairing quarrymen and their dependants.

I recollect that it fell to me, then a Welsh Office Minister, to visit Mr. Edwards at his harbourside union office in Caernarvon and Sir Elwyn Jones at his retirement home on the bank of the Menai Strait, to ask whether they would lend their experience and statistical insights to a compensatory project.

It would be wrong to mention only the North Wales quarrymen. The 2,177 sufferers who now receive compensation having worked in the cotton industry, bear eloquent testimony to the risks in that industry. Traditional work in the Gracie Fields cotton towns of the North-West had deadly hazards. There are 412 sufferers and 152 dependants who receive compensation in the Potteries. There are sizeable numbers of people who draw compensation for diseases contracted in the ore mines of Cumbria, in refractories, in foundries and in the tin mines.

The figures are compelling evidence of the neglect, ignorance and misjudgments that accompanied often isolated and sometimes exploitive and greedy regional industrial development. The Act was a sympathetic, beneficial and humane response to often slowly unfolding family tragedies. It must be of additional regret to all right hon. and hon. Members that many of the once thriving quarrying villages and towns are now black spots of unemployment as well as reservoirs of industrial disease. Britain is indebted to those underprivileged communities and no one should begrudge the payments.

The Act has been justified. There have been 5,495 applications for compensation, and 4,229 have been approved. The Labour Government were at their best in enacting the 1979 Act. It was a small piece of legislation, but it gave major assistance to forgotten minorities. It was in key with the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which was a major milestone in British social history.

The asbestos industry figures tell their own story—35 sufferers and 68 dependants are eligible for compensation, but 81 claims by sufferers and dependants have been rejected. The Minister will no doubt confirm that that is because a high proportion of asbestos-producing firms are still in business.

The asbestos story is worrying. The GMWU national officer, Mr. Frank Earl, predicts 60,000 deaths from asbestos diseases in the next 30 years and the union estimates that 2,000 asbestos victims die each year. The Times recently carried an article by Mr. David Nicholson-Lord who implied that a total ban on asbestos might be the only answer. The millions who watched Yorkshire Television's indictment "Alice—a fight for life" were appalled. The Guardian carried a leading article entitled "The magic, tragic mineral".

Asbestos is not merely a congestant of the lungs; it is also a cruel carcinogen and is associated not only with lung cancer but with mesothelioma, for which no cause other than asbestos has been found.

What initiatives is the Department taking in the asbestos sector and how urgently is it acting? Hon.

Members may recollect the October 1981 debate on the Common Market asbestos directives. The Opposition attempted to amend the Government's motion and we were criticised both by the Government and by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith). My speech was described as inflammatory, but time has proved the Opposition right. Our stance has been vindicated.

The quality press and television programmes have spelt out in chilling detail the dangers of this "magic, tragic mineral". Not even white asbestos is clear of suspicion. Since the advent of increased media interest and in the wake of opposition and pressure from the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) is a co-chairman, the Government have been moving faster on the asbestos problem.

I am glad that the Under-Secretary informed me that the EC worker protection directive now includes a provision governing the demolition industry. In the 1981 debate the Opposition highlighted the dangers to demolition workers.

What information can the Under-Secretary give about the trials of automatic counting devices? What action is he taking to give publicity to the potential dangers of asbestos? When will he present new regulations concerning the emission of asbestos from the workplace? What action is being taken concerning asbestos waste tips? Is he surveying the environs of asbestos manufacturing and processing factories?

If the Government will make the asbestos menance a top priority, there will in future be a decline in the necessity to have recourse in the industry, to the provisions of the regulations that we are debating tonight. Indeed, can we be assured by the Minister that work in the asbestos, pottery and textile industries is now far safer than before?

Where does the Minister's Department stand concerning the search for a viable substitute for that dangerous substance, asbestos? What economic and social studies are his Department making of the potential impact of a gradual switch to asbestos substitutes? Has he plans for statutory legislation concerning asbestos? Clearly, asbestos will stay on the political agenda. Asbestos can damage the health of the company that is producing it, as well as the health of the people working with it.

The regulations now before us provide simply for a 40 per cent. increase in the rates of payment to people eligible for compensation. It is an increase awarded under section 1(1) of the Pneumoconiosis (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979, which provided for a payment of such amount as may be prescribed by regulations". Thus, an increase in payment could have been awarded at any time since 1979.

Why has the increase come forward now? Why could not the Government have paid an increase earlier in the life of this Parliament, when inflation was considerably higher? The Department of Employment press notice of 16 November argues that the increase— will restore the payments to their original value". Of course, the increase is based on the inflation rate since the first payments were made, rather than the date of the Act itself. Why could not the Government pay an increase from April 1979, the date of the Act? Had they done so, a 51 per cent. increase could have been paid—that is to say, the increase in the inflation rate since April 1979.

The Government might demur, but I remind the Under-Secretary of State that the Government, in their first Budget Statement, hugely increased VAT, which, in its effect on the poor and needy, is a tax on spending. The Government have also greatly increased tax concessions to the very well-off.

Is it not the case that since 1979 attention has focused on the managerial problems of the Act—the difficulties of proving that employers have gone out of business—rather than on the rates of benefit? I understand that the most recent estimate of the cost of the scheme so far is £24.8 million. Clearly, the public expenditure impact is minimal and the case for a 51 per cent. increase rather than a 40 per cent. increase is thus the stronger.

12.14 am
Mr. Dan Jones (Burnley)

I enjoyed the Minister's contribution very much, because it brought me confirmation and a great deal of joy.

One Saturday morning a man came to my so-called surgery and collapsed there. Not being a medical man, I did not know what to do for the best, but with the aid of cold water I brought him round. When I asked him "What is the matter with you?" he said "I suffer from pneumoconiosis." That is a familiar disease to me because, to some extent, I suffer from it myself. That man came to me to complain because he was unable to get any compensation. When I went into the case with him, I found that he had really and truly misplaced his own case. I told him to go home, and that I would get in touch with him as soon as I had something definite to tell him.

I found, as a result of getting my doctor to sort out a chest specialist for me, that there was a man in Manchester who was first-class, and had trained in Edinburgh, London and the United States. I asked him to take a patient for me, and I would pay for it. I sent this poor man to Manchester. He had been working in the pits for 42 years, and had a serious case of silicosis.

I asked the man to get evidence from his doctor that he could travel to Manchester, and he did. There, the doctor gave him a signed statement. He was visited by Joe Gormley, whom he asked for assistance, as he asked the NUM man from Barnsley, whose name I cannot remember, and do not particularly want to remember. Neither has reacted positively.

All these people have seen this unfortunate man, and he is rapidly going downhill. After carefully listening to the Minister, it seems to me that if my friend can get his claim established—I see no reason why he cannot—he will be better off. Perhaps the Minister will allow me to send the evidence to him from this highly placed doctor. The Minister can base the judgment as to whether my friend is suffering from pneumoconiosis on that statement.

I can give the Minister a copy of the doctor's statement so that he will understand why I have been so irate for two years. It says: X-ray of the lungs shows generalised emphysema, with a suggestion of mottling of the lungs with the possibility of grade 1 pneumoconiosis. This is from a chest expert. When I heard the Minister, I thought about this man, Dan Murray, and I thought that at last there is hope for him with certification of this kind.

If I get all these facts carefully documented and into the Minister's possession, will he judge them? I hope that he will give help to this unfortunate man who for four years has endured this complaint in a chronic form, and yet has been denied any help on the assumption that he did not have a sufficient percentage. There is evidence given by one of the best lung experts in the country to the contrary.

12.18 am
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

I thank the Minister for the regulations. They relate to an act that is of great interest to many of us. It is ironic that, although it was the slate quarrying industry that provided the impetus in 1979, after a long campaign, it has been a benefit to many workers in many other industries. That gives us great pleasure—but not pleasure that there are people who need compensation, because this is a suffering that we would all rather did not exist. However, it gives some satisfaction that an Act that has brought benefit to a large number of quarrymen and their widows has also had a wider implication and has been of much greater benefit to other industries than was anticipated. Only 15 to 20 per cent. of the claimants have been quarrymen, which shows how the Act has helped in other directions.

I thank the Minister for the way in which, since he has been reviewing the application of the Act, he has used discretion where it is usable. I realise that in many cases it is not possible to use that discretion and that the way in which the Act was drawn originally has tied his hands too much. However, it has been possible to use discretion in many cases, and the extended use of discretion over the past two years has narrowed the number of cases that have missed out.

There are still cases that miss out. The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Jones) mentioned one category. They are people who are recognised by the boards as suffering only from "slight dust, not amounting to pneumoconiosis"—I have seen those words so many times. The emphysema may be there, the chronic bronchitis may be there, there may be a range of suffering, but it has not been attributed to pneumoconiosis. There is room for medical research to identify more clearly people who are suffering.

Only last week I was given details of a person who in life had not been identified as suffering from dust but who had a post-mortem which revealed that dust existed in his body to a very large extent. I do not want to overstress those cases. They are a minority, but they are a minority who at the moment may be missing out on the benefits available under the Act.

The other category of cases involves people who, as the Minister said, have worked for more than one company. One company may be defunct and the other still operative. The Minister said that he had succeeded in tying up many of the loose ends prior to 1963, but there are people who have worked since 1963 for more than one company. They may have worked for four or five years for a company that is now defunct and for four or five years for a company that is still operative. The company, still operative, says that the dust was caused by the defunct company, and the chances of a case succeeding before the court are fairly minimal, and so the people appear to miss out on compensation. They fall between two stools: the course that existed before this legislation was put on the statute book, through the courts, and the provisions of this Act for compensation. Again, I do not labour this too strongly. The number of cases has been diminished substantially, thanks to the Minister's discretion, but perhaps a few dozen cases remain which come into this category and need to be looked at.

I listened to the contribution of the hon. Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones) with interest. He spoke of the compassion of the Labour Government for minorities. We were very glad when eventually their compassion found its way on to the statute book, albeit very late in the day. The right hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker) did a great deal of work on the Act. But, as the Minister said, the Act reached the statute book in a very hurried period. Had it been possible to pass it in 1974 rather than in 1979 or somewhere in between and with more thought, some of the problems now being encountered could have been avoided.

Those are the lessons of history. There is no point in trying to rewrite history or to reinterpret it. History is there. Those affected by it know that it is there. They know the issues perfectly well.

The increase of 40 per cent. in the regulations may be roughly right, more or less. As the Minister said, money does not compensate people who have lost their health, or even their lives, or widows who have lost their husbands because of the effect of these diseases. Therefore, it is not easy to say that, if the base figure was right, 40 per cent. in addition to it is more or less right now. We cannot say what is right and what is wrong. It is a matter of being as generous as possible in the circumstances.

However, bearing in mind the fact that other social security provisions are reviewed on a regular basis, is not it possible to review this one on an annual basis? Cases are still coming through. I have had half a dozen in the past month or so in my constituency surgery, two of them cases of quarrymen who finished work in the slate quarries at the beginning of the Second World War, and it is only now that the dust has come through. They would be treated as suffering from silicosis rather than pneumoconiosis, but they would still come under the provisions of the 1979 Act. These cases are still coming through, though the industry has largely declined. We have only some 300 quarrymen working in Gwynedd now compared with the 20,000 at the beginning of the First World War. There are still many people who work in the quarries who are identified as having slight dust but who have not been fully recognised by the procedures.

In the coming years there will be a trickle of quarrymen, as well as more than a trickle of men from other industries, claiming under the Act. I hope that the message will go out that people still have the right to claim. Some people were under the misapprehension that the Act was in force for 12 months only. It is in fact in force for 12 months from the time of the determination of the disease. People should always be aware that they have the right to make a claim as soon as they are identified as suffering from the disease.

I have raised with the Minister before the way in which claims are made. Someone who holds back his claim can come in at 20 per cent. or 50 per cent., whereas if he had claimed at once at 10 per cent. he would have had lower compensation. I accept what the Minister says about the time scale of the disease having a different effect. I realise that it is not a matter for regulations, but were it possible to amend the Act by giving the alternative of an earlier age and lower percentage or a higher age and a diferent percentage it might be the fairest way of ensuring that people did not miss out.

I want to refer to two other diseases. One has been referred to and one has not. Asbestosis has been mentioned and I am aware that the EC regulations will tighten the one fibre per cc standard applicable throughout the EC. Asbestosis worries us a great deal in areas such as Caernarvon where we have a major asbestos factory as well as the experience of the slate quarries. I should be grateful if the Minister would take up with his colleagues the point that if the standard is applicable, as it should be, in Great Britain, it should be applicable equally in other EC countries. There is cause to worry that manufacturing companies in countries such as Italy may not apply the dust standards as rigorously and therefore have an unfair competitive advantage over companies in Great Britain.

Farmer's lung is a disease which is not covered by the primary legislation, although it affects many people. A number of people feel that there is unfairness in relation to farmer's lung. I understand the argument that it develops quickly compared with slate pneumoconiosis, and that the person affected is still in the farmer's employment and can therefore bring proceedings. There are people who still miss out, and if it were possible to extend the primary legislation to include farmer's lung a number of people—not that many but suffering a considerable amount—would benefit from provisions analogous to those in the Act.

I thank the Minister for bringing the regulations forward. I hope that the need for people to receive their benefit, although appreciated by those who receive it, will diminish as the years go by.

12.28 am
Mr. Michael McGuire (Ince)

I add my congratulations to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones). My hon. Friend was correct to remind the House of the considerable part played by my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker) in bringing forward this legislation. It was brought forward in a hurry and it may contain one or two slight imperfections. I think we all know why it was brought forward in such a hurry, but the legislation has proved, and will prove in future, to be most valuable.

The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) was right to remind us that the Act runs for a continuous period. The 12-month period is determined on the basis of when the person is certifiable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East rightly reminded us that the quarrymen became the symbol of this legislation. There is no doubt that political considerations at the time put them in the forefront of the battle to introduce the Bill. However, other groups have also benefited and will continue to do so.

Textile workers are one such group. Indeed, the Minister lives in the heart of what used to be the textile industry. Indeed, I think that many textile workers can still be found in that area. Textile workers, foundrymen, people in the asbestos industry and slate quarrymen have benefited and will continue to benefit from compensation in the present form.

Dust reticulation diseases have their genesis in the Pickles case, in which the AUEW pursued a claim on behalf of an ex-miner. As a Member sponsored by the NUM, I know that good things flowed from these curious happenings, even though there was some animosity at the time.

Pickles sued the NCB. The NCB's defence was that it could not be proved whether the man had worked in safe or unsafe conditions because the pit had closed. As a result, a compromise, out-of-court settlement was reached. Pressure subsequently built up among other miners, who felt that this matter should be dealt with on a common law basis just as the union, with its tremendous record, did in respect of other industrial injuries. There was a long-standing dispute between those who felt that the union should go at the Coal Board hammer and tongs.

Arising from that, there was a tripartite agreement in 1974–75, when the Labour Government came into office, and one of the pre-conditions was that a miner would surrender a common law claim in return for a settlement based on an assessment of the disease and the age at which it was contracted.

I congratulate everyone involved with this legislation. Someone once said that politics is the art of the possible. At the time the legislation was introduced, the Labour Government were seeking to do good work for the country, but they had a non-existent majority. In fact, one of our late colleagues, Tom Swain, the former Member for Derbyshire, North-East, had the misfortune when driving his Mini to be hit by a Coal Board truck, and he died. That meant that we had no majority. We were looking for friends. We found some, at least to sustain us to get the measure through, and I congratulate those who brought it forward.

I had hoped to introduce a modest measure in 1979, because "old cases" are mentioned in the schedule. Everyone knows that "old cases" is a term used to describe those people who many years ago—certainly before the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act 1948—settled their cases on a commuted basis. Written into the folklore of the working class is that a wealthy and powerful insurance company was able to put pressure on an injured workman to settle for what seemed an enormous sum—a few hundred pounds. Today that cannot be done. One cannot settle an industrial injuries case on a commuted basis. I hoped to use the good will towards the quarrymen and other groups at that time to bring in my modest measure, but there was not time. Perhaps it was not popular and glamorous. I still have an interest in such a measure but I do not know whether I would succeed in getting it on the statute book.

The hon. Member for Caernarvon was right in what he said about an upgrading at more frequent intervals than has happened so far. I know that the Minister will want to respond to the debate. I want to stress that this is a most valuable measure. It will run and run. I believe that it will be even more valuable in future for people in the asbestos industry. The Government Whip, the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Thompson), agrees. I believe that his constituency has plenty of these problems. More will develop. I am sure that, at the end of the day, everyone will thank the 1979 Labour Government for bringing forward this measure, which will prove more useful than it has already proved.

12.36 am
Mr. D. E. Thomas (Merioneth)

I endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire). I am glad to see the right hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker) on the Opposition Front Bench, because he played a leading part in piloting the legislation through the House.

It is perhaps essential to take a broader context than did the hon. Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones). Not only do we have the NCB scheme as a precedent but there was the rejection by the Royal Commission for civil liability and compensation for personal injury of the original arguments of the slate workers and others who were not compensated.

In a sense, the legislation on which these regulations are based is inserted into what I regard as the unsatisfactory nature of civil liability and personal injury law in the United Kingdom. There is no such thing in Britain as the "no fault" liability that operates in other countries. Therefore, the onus is always on the injured employee to prove liability on the part of the employer when suing for compensation for injury. In the submission that was made and rejected by the Pearson Commission, the commission argued that an exception could not be made in the case of slate workers and others because they were a limited group and that would set up precedents in civil liability law. The argument for the precedents still exists. We need to move to a system whereby it is possible to compensate the employee without having to prove major liability on the part of the employer, at least in the initial stage. There is still an argument for a broader based industrial injury scheme, in terms of both common law and social security, than we now have. Both the NCB settlement and the settlement that we are debating show what is possible in compensation terms and in broadening the existing structure.

As has been said, we have had problems with the existing scheme and the need for an existing employee to be in receipt of disablement benefit or for dependants to be in receipt of a death benefit. The social security test for the existing pneumoconiosis scheme is the threshold for this scheme. The problems relate to the nature of the diagnosis. There are cases of people who do not receive compensation because they are not identified early enough or because there is insufficient evidence of pneumoconiosis by X-ray or other means. Therefore, there is always the problem that there will, because of the failure to diagnose cases sufficiently early and accurately, be a period when compensation will be lost to such people. The problems of diagnosis of the disease still apply to these regulations, as to the broader pneumoconiosis schemes that are available through the national insurance social security system.

The other test is that of the relevant employer. We are particularly grateful for the way in which the Minister and his Department were able to be flexible on that definition. The Minister will remember the deputation of representatives of the trade unions, particularly my union, the Transport and General Workers Union, and their submission, after which he was able to accept a far broader definition so that cases do not fall between the two areas. In other words, there were not cases that would have some kind of legal potential or been available for compensation under the Act.

My impression, from consultation in my constituency and elsewhere, is that there are few cases that now fall between these two points. In other words, there are no cases in which litigation is outstanding which are not pursuable through the courts. Neither are there cases which are not receiving compensation under the Act because of the possibility of litigation under the still existing test of the relevant employer. That is because the Department has been able to identify the meaning of "relevant employer" sufficiently flexibly so that all those whose employers have clearly lapsed under the present definition may receive compensation under the Act without having to face up to the likelihood of unsuccessful litigation in the courts.

The ground between common law and litigation for the pursuit of compensation cases through the courts and State compensation through this scheme has been narrowed. Here again we are setting a precedent. I know that this may not be entirely acceptable to the Government, but we are setting forth areas for State compensation without recourse to the legal action that is necessary under the present industrial injuries legislation. Other groups that face industrial injury problems, or perhaps will do so in the future, should look at the models that have been established in the Act.

We have already talked about the number of people who have been able to receive compensation. I endorse everything that my hon. Friends have said about the fact that, although initially the impetus for this legislation may have come from State workers, we are well aware of the long-standing argument for compensation that has been deployed in the case of textile workers, asbestosis sufferers, and so on. That the measure has been of broader use has meant that State workers have benefited and are grateful.

There are some dependants who still have difficulty, not so much with their initial application to the Department but in finding sufficient proof of the receipt of disablement benefit where social security records are inadequate. We are grateful to the Department for having accepted various forms of proof, even when the files are not available. In some cases, the cause of death was not sufficiently explicit to allow the payment of death benefit or to qualify under the Act. In the past, the general practitioner or doctor at the hospital has often failed to write down that death was caused by an industrial disease. As a result, disablement benefit was not paid, and there is no possibility of compensation for dependants under the Act.

Clearly, that is history, and it is difficult to re-open cases in which the cause of death was not certified in that way. However, in some cases there may be records of hospitalisation for a disease even though there was no payment during that person's lifetime. I appreciate that there may be problems if there is no clear post-mortem evidence that death was due to industrial disease. However, the family of the deceased has sometimes felt unable to allow a post-mortem and so the evidence is unavailable. There are marginal cases in which dependants have not benefited from the legislation because they did not meet the requirement in the Act.

Because of the nature of the Act, there may still be some grey areas and some claimants may have been excluded. In my constituency, the action group has campaigned strongly. I mention in particular Mrs. Marian Jones, the secretary of the group, and the chairperson Dafydd Yoxall, who both campaigned hard and who have helped the Department through assisting people with their application forms. Our impression is that nearly all the potential cases in the area have been compensated. A gap has not grown between those who could gain compensation through the courts and those who could qualify under the Act.

The legislation involves the difficult area of legislation on industrial injuries and may exhibit many of the contradications inherent in such a legislative framework. We have neither an acceptable basis of common law nor of industrial injuries legislation to cover employer's liability. Our social security system cannot wholly take up the burden imposed by the rest of the legal system. However, it is not open to us, under the regulations, to propose such wide-ranging changes. It is open to us to say that as a result of the Act and the regulations it has been possible to give a measure of limited justice to members of my family and others who have suffered from this grave industrial disease.

The slate quarrying industry in North Wales housed—or at least roofed—the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The housing and so on that was made available helped to create centres of industry and industrial growth in Gwynedd, which still survive as unique industrial towns set, as the hon. Member for Flint, East said, in the middle of a national park. Those communities also generated through the nature of the communities themselves a commitment to social justice and, indeed, a commitment to Socialism which many of us regard as our political inspiration. The fact is that we have been able, late in our time—this should have been done not in our generation but two generations ago—to collaborate—I say this as someone who was involved in these discussions at the time, not all which have yet been documented—between the progressive sections of the labour and trade union movement in Gwynedd and outside Gwynedd. If we could have the same type of collaboration in other areas of social justice we would do the populations whom we represent far more good. We would also show the possible avenues for change, which are broader than the areas compensated in the Act.

The Act arises out of a background of industrial suffering but also out of a commitment to social justice which was brought about by such suffering. It is also right to record the way in which the rational and enlightened section of the Conservative Administration were able to take the Act of the previous Labour Government and to ensure that it was interpreted in a way that would allow for justice.

12.51 am
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The word "congratulations" has been mentioned in the Chamber several times tonight, as it often is in other contexts, but I cannot agree with the way in which my hon. Friends and others have used it. Welcome though the measures were, they came too late. The regulations come too late—not too late to be of help, but later than they should have been. On occasions the House collectively congratulates itself when it does not deserve it. Perhaps I am casting aspersions on Members of all parties, but, from my experience of constituents who come to see me about these matters, that is a fair comment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones) mentioned my name in connection with the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases. I am a humble supporter, not the chairman. The chairman of that organisation is my noble Friend Lord Plant. Much is owed to the society's indefatigable secretary, Mrs. Nancy Tait. In this respect, I should also mention Mr. Max Madden, the former Member for Sowerby, who was also heavily involved in the work of that society.

Diffuse mesothelioma, which is mentioned in the regulations, is commonly called asbestosis. Unfortunately, unlike the tragic example of north Wales, where it is a diminishing problem as we have gladly heard from hon. Members tonight, asbestosis is a growing problem. One of our difficulties is that we do not know to what extent it will grow, but grow it will. I shall return to that point.

The regulations will apply particularly to laggers, dockers and workers in asbestos production industries. As is well-known, firms involved in insulation and lagging often go out of business. Dockers often transfer from one firm to another. Therefore, many of them will come within the scope of the regulations under discussion.

There are, of course, problems because of the proof that is necessary. It will come as no surprise to the House when I say that concern about the working of the panels is well justified. I should like the Minister to examine one aspect, even if he cannot reply to the point tonight. Will he ensure that where there are coroners inquests or post-mortems, some of the findings get back to the panels conducting the investigations. There is a feeling—perhaps it is unjustified, but I think not—that many of the findings of those panels are too narrow. So, even when the employer has gone out of business, the person concerned, or his dependants, is or are not able to benefit from the regulations, and certainly not from the updating of figures that we have before us today.

There are doubts about the degree of research into the spread of asbestosis in the body. Electromicroscopes are now a possibility. There is fear about the effects of the disease on the chest and related organs and about the way in which asbestos fibres can find their way into all parts of the body, possibly through the blood stream. We do not know enough about the effects of asbestosis.

It would not be in order to go into environmental risks, but the Minister knows about them. I do not believe that the Government have considered these issues sufficiently coherently and comprehensively.

There has been insufficient mention of the way in which sufferers from these diseases impinge upon their relatives and dependants. Money can go some way to ease the lot of those who see their dear ones changing from week to week and almost from day to day before their very eyes, but it behoves those of us who are fortunate not to have contracted occupational diseases to ensure that companionship and various psychological factors are taken into account.

I have in mind the work of St. Joseph's hospice in east London. I do not know what we would do without that institution in east London—an area where hundreds, if not thousands, are dying from the effects of asbestosis. The ministrations of that hospice are not purely physical. There is an outbridge to voluntary organisations which can assist. They can do as much or more than the financial arrangements in the regulations.

One of the most tragic difficulties concerns those who are forced to resort to the courts. Where the issue is in doubt, sufferers, who are visibly and clearly in physical degeneration, have to resort to the courts. They may do so with the help of unions. It is a good thing that the unions will help them. Sometimes the issue is in doubt, and frequently such cases are settled out of court. There is often not commutation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire) said, but the award of a lump sum. I question whether that is good enough. I know that I am opening up an issue that goes wide of the regulations, but I think that in passing we should at least question whether recourse to legal proceedings, when the employer is still in business, is a right and proper way of dealing with claims for compensation for these terrible diseases.

I understand that asbestosis makes its presence known at any time between 20 and 30 years. It may be sooner or it may be slightly later, but that is the time scale after exposure by the sufferer. It can sometimes happen very quickly. When that happens and there is recourse to the courts, we should ensure the availability of emergency legal aid.

There is also a problem for relatives. Families are sometimes involved. For example, in the past men have come home with asbestos on their clothes. Even a few years ago men at the docks told me of "snowball fights" with asbestos fibres. That used to happen because the risks were not known. It is not clear that the Government have yet formulated a coherent response to these interlocking factors that I have mentioned only briefly.

If he has not already received them, the Minister will no doubt receive comprehensive documents from the interested societies. We look to his Department and to related Departments to produce a coherent response to a terrible social risk that will almost certainly soon be upon us. Instead of one Alice fighting for life, there could be tens of thousands. We hope that there will not be, but it is the Government's responsibility to look to the future and to prepare for and take action accordingly.

12.59 am
Mr. Waddington

Something of the spirit of Christmas seems to have descended on the House tonight. I wish only that plenty of the spirit of Christmas will descend upon those who must suffer from these diseases. It has been an impressive debate, because many of those who have spoken have played a part in trying to make a contribution towards the alleviation of suffering in this area. I do not wish to be slow in paying tribute to the work done by the right hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker). All of us who have heard him speak in the House are aware of the depth of his experience and the debt that we owe to him because of his great knowledge of the subject.

The hon. Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones) also made an impressive speech, again referring to the terrible trials and tribulations of quarrymen in the old days who had to buy their own candles. At least we can today say of our troubles that great progress has been made since those days. The hon. Gentleman referred to the programme "Alice—a fight for life" and asked what initiatives the Government were taking about asbestos. This is not the right time for me to tell him, because if I did I would go far beyond the time when the debate must end. However, we have already made it clear that regulations will be brought forward in the near future to deal with the licensing of insulation and coating with asbestos, the prohibition of spraying, reinforcing the voluntary ban on the use of blue asbestos, and the lowering of the control limits. On top of that, the Health and Safety Commission announced some time ago that Sir Richard Doll, who is an acknowledged expert in the subject, will carry out a detailed study of the latest medical evidence. That will be of great help to us in deciding how to proceed.

It would be more sensible if I were to write to the hon. Gentleman about automatic counting methods—there is a wealth of information about that—substitutes and their economic impact, and publicity of the dangerous emissions from working places. Although I would dearly wish to become involved in a debate about such matters, we do not have time.

The hon. Member for Flint, East asked me why the 40 per cent. increase is being brought forward now. I am not shy to admit that much of the early years of this Administration were taken up with working out how to apply the Act. If one contemplates the administrative problems in deciding what was meant by a "relevant employer" and the fact that we had to take legal advice on the matter, and then seek medical advice on how long one could be exposed to dusty conditions in an environment in order to make one liable to contract a disease, one can understand why our energies were not directed as early as they might have been to providing the machinery for regular upratings.

The rates were not set by the Act. When one considers the 40 per cent. increase, one should not consider the increase in the retail price index between April 1979 and now. It would be more realistic to consider the increase in the retail price index from the date when the original regulations came into effect, 1 January 1980, and now, or the autumn of 1979, which must have been about the time when the existing rates were first set. Between October 1979 and November 1982, the retail price index increased by 38.4 per cent. Therefore, the 40 per cent. does not seem too unrealistic.

I am sorry that the hon. Member—I nearly said my "hon. Friend"; it would not be inaccurate to say so, although he sits on the Opposition Benches—for Burnley (Mr. Jones) is not still here. He has been a fine constituency Member and I am sorry to hear that he is retiring at the end of this Parliament. He described the case of a miner. If I heard the hon. Gentleman aright, that miner might be covered by the miner's scheme. The hon. Gentleman might be well advised to proceed in a direction other than that which he proposed. No doubt he will read Hansard tomorrow. I am happy to examine any documents that he has at his disposal and then do my best to advise him as to whether he ought to approach the Department of Health and Social Security or to take some other action.

The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) was kind enough to thank the Department. I must be frank—the thanks ought to go to the Department far more than to me for having set Ministers on the right track. It has helped us to direct our energy in those directions where we could best use our discretion. He is right when he says that much room for medical research remains. He mentioned the problems of those who have worked for more than one company.

If someone has worked for one or two companies for a short time, we would probably not find that the person for whom he worked for a short time was a "relevant employer" but his chances of succeeding in a court with an action for damages for negligence against the employer for whom he worked for most of the time might be fairly good.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the possibility of regular reviews. I promise that we shall give that full consideration, although I cannot make any commitment. We have done our best to publicise the right to claim from the time of the first determination. The figures are evidence of the fact that the message has got through. Many people have applied.

The hon. Gentleman was worried that other countries may not be applying the same standards as we apply, especially with regard to asbestos. He has every right to worry. That is why for a long time we struggled to try to get agreement in Europe and to get the two directives that would have meant harmonisation of safety standards throughout the EC. It was only because such slow progress was being made that eventually, in the late summer of this year, we decided that, in certain respects at least, we had to make progress on our own.

With regard to farmer's lung, the hon. Gentleman posed the question and then gave the answer. It is slightly different. The disease develops quickly. I am afraid that we have to work within the framework of the Act, at least for the time being, and that farmer's lung does not come within its scope.

I was interested in what the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire) said about Pickles' case and the origin of the miners' scheme which, in its turn, gave birth to the present scheme. He also called for more frequent upratings. I shall bear that strongly in mind.

The hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) was sad that the United Kingdom has still not progressed to a state of affairs in which there is no-fault liability. Such liability would not help those people whom we are helping under this scheme. It is no good having no-fault liability if there is no employer to fix with the liability although he has not been at fault. The hon. Gentleman was right to draw our attention to the fact that there can be problems in the identification of a disease, but it is presumably at about the time when a disease is identified that a person begins to suffer a physical disability and a loss of earning capacity. It is a question of diagnosis corresponding with the time when he can no longer so follow his employment or work as fully as previously.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the case of a person who dies, with the cause of death not being clearly stated and there being no determination leading to the payment of industrial death benefit. We refuse to pay only if there has been a determination by a pneumoconiosis board that the person is not within the scheme. If there is not such a determination, we are willing to look at any evidence and we try to be as liberal as possible. Hospital notes and the like are not discarded; they are looked at with any other available evidence.

I knew about the great interest of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) in asbestosis. He was right to point out that coroners' verdicts sometimes do not coincide with the decisions of boards. That causes anxiety, but determining the cause of death is seldom straightforward, particularly when numerous pathological conditions are present, and experts of equal standing often come to different conclusions. In addition, a pathologist is required to produce information to help the coroner reach a conclusion on the cause of death. Therefore, he will record the presence of any condition that he thinks may have had a bearing on the death. On the other hand, the job of the pneumoconiosis medical panel is to determine whether pneumoconiosis caused or played a material part in a death.

People sometimes try to draw a distinction between the number of statements on death certificates showing that people may have died of pneumoconiosis and the number of dependants who have received benefit. That is a false analysis, because we do not know in how many cases there are dependants or how many dependants have claimed.

I hope that I have dealt with the bulk of the issues raised by hon. Members——

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3 (Exempted business).

Question agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 1982, which were laid before this House on 16th November, be approved.