HC Deb 13 November 1996 vol 285 cc292-312

11 am

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, know this subject inside out, because you were at the forefront of a campaign in the past few years to have the disease prescribed. That campaign came to fruition when the disease was prescribed on 13 September 1993. Today's debate is about the callous and uncaring way in which the Government have treated former miners by failing to act on the recommendations that have come from the review carried out by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council of the prescription test for deciding chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

The Secretary of State for Social Security has had a copy of the recommendations on his desk since February this year—some three months before it was officially published in May 1996. In the mean time, many miners who would probably have been able to succeed with a claim under the recommendations of the review have, sadly, passed on.

Last week, I took the opportunity to check with Centris, the company that now manages the mineworkers' pension scheme, to find out how many miners in receipt of an occupational pension had died since April 1996. I used the criterion of the occupational pension because, as the Minister is aware, the qualification period to claim chronic bronchitis and emphysema is 20 years and, therefore, most of the miners who claim will be members of the mineworkers' pension scheme. Centris provided me with figures showing that 3,502 former miners had passed on since April 1996. I accept that it is not possible to say how many of them would have been made an award under the terms of the new recommendations, but it is fair to assume that a good number of them would have won through.

The House will recall that the disease was first prescribed on 13 September 1993. The prescription was made because new evidence, which was examined at the time by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, showed that the disease was an endemic risk of coal mining. The new evidence had come from longitudinal studies that had been carried out in America and Belgium. After that new evidence has been analysed, it showed a greater incidence of the disease among coal miners than in the general population and, consequently, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council made the recommendation that the disease should be prescribed.

The date of introduction was more than a coincidence. In my view, the Government timed it to sweeten the bitter pill of the colliery closure programme. In other words, political expediency led to the introduction of prescription. Now we find that the delay seems to be caused by public expenditure fears, which I believe to be totally unfounded.

In its first report in November 1992, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council recommended three tests for diagnosing the disease. The Government accepted those recommendations and implemented them in full. Under the tests, an applicant must first qualify by having worked underground for 20 years. That means that we are talking about miners who had a career in coal mining, not about people who left the industry after a few years. That is a fair point. Secondly, a miner has to show that he has X-ray evidence of dust retention or simple pneumoconiosis. Thirdly, he must demonstrate a 1 litre or more reduction on the forced expiration volume test over one second. If his lung capacity is reduced by 0.98, he is ruled out because the criteria are absolute. I have seen cases in which a man has had a 0.98 reduction in his lung capacity, yet the examining authorities have not been able to make him an award. There is a need for greater flexibility, and the review accepted that.

Many people have been turned down because of the X-ray evidence. One of the arguments in the early days was about whether the X-rays were of the International Labour Organisation type. We got over that problem and the X-rays now conform to the ILO type, but many injustices still occur. I shall give an example to show the Minister what is happening. In my constituency live three brothers who spent their whole working lives in the industry. The Selwood brothers are aged between 79 and 83. The brother who is 79, Harry Selwood, has 100 per cent. pneumoconiosis. The other two brothers have no pneumoconiosis, but they are racked with chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Because they have been unable to show on their X-rays evidence of dust retention, the other two brothers cannot receive a payment for the disease.

Such examples led the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to carry out the review. It had soon become evident that the prescription test, as originally introduced, was unfair. The number of applicants and those receiving awards did not come anywhere near the figure that the Government predicted. At the time, the Government predicted that there would be 80,000 to 90,000 applicants.

In fact, the bulk of the applications and awards were made in the first year. I can say that because I have made comparisons between parliamentary answers. For example, on 27 October 1994, in answer to a parliamentary question, it was revealed that between September 1993 and September 1994 a total of 43,827 applications had been received. Of those, 40,338 had been processed and just 4,469 awards had been made. Two years on, according to a parliamentary answer given on Monday this week, by 30 September 1996 a total of 48,778 claims had been received and 5,352 awards had been made. The bulk of the applications and awards have been made and, in the past two years, only about 5,000 new applications have been received.

The number of awards is absurdly low and that has led to the prescription test being challenged by such people as Mr. Peake of Pontefract general infirmary and Mr. Howard of the Hallamshire hospital in Sheffield, two consultants who deal daily with miners suffering from the disease. It also resulted in a regionally based media campaign that included, for example, the Barnsley Chronicle, the Yorkshire Post, the South Wales Echo and the Nottingham Evening Post as well as regional television and radio. As a result of that campaign, the IIAC eventually decided to conduct a review. It started that review on 16 January 1995.

The council reported to the Secretary of State in February 1996. In the review, which was published in May 1996, the council recommended to the Government that the X-rays should be dropped from the prescription test altogether because there was clearly no connection between pneumoconiosis and chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Therefore, to call for X-ray evidence of simple pneumoconiosis did not address the problem. The council considered that the FEV1 test should be amended, but that the 20 years underground qualification should remain.

In the final paragraph of his letter to the Secretary of State published at the front of the report, the chairman of the IIAC said: The Council understands that these recommendations may lead to a large number of previously unsuccessful claims being reconsidered and may therefore be relatively costly to implement. Nevertheless the strength of new scientific evidence published since our 1992 report makes it necessary for us to recommend a revision of the terms of prescription. We believe it should not be necessary to review the terms of prescription for the foreseeable future unless there is evidence that levels of exposure to respirable dust in coal mines are increasing. In other words, the chairman recognised that the prescription test set out in the original report of 1992 was flawed. It is appalling that the Government have so far failed to act on the IIAC review. One gets the impression that interference by the Treasury is to blame for this unjustifiable delay. Perhaps the Minister could shed some light on that.

I put it to the Minister that even if the total number of awards is doubled, the costs are easily manageable. It will not cost the Treasury one penny, as I shall show in a moment. I say that because currently 5,352 awards have been made. The average assessment is 55 per cent. The pension payable for that degree of disability is £54.72 per week. If my mathematics are correct, that works out at less than £15 million a year for the pension element. Administration costs would, of course, have to be added. So if as a result of the new criteria the number of applicants doubled to 10,700, the cost of the pension element would be about £30 million. As I say, administration costs would have to be added. The Minister may say that one of the reasons for the delay is the administration that is required to deal with large numbers of applicants.

Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

Has my hon. Friend seen a parliamentary answer from the Minister only last week which suggested a cost of £20 million in the first year, with £5 million administration costs? Does he agree that that is a small sum in the relative scale of things?

Mr. Clapham

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have seen that parliamentary reply. It suggests that the costs of introducing the new criteria set out in the review are manageable.

I said that changing the criteria would not cost the Treasury a penny because the awards could be paid for out of the £320 million that has already gone into the Treasury's coffers from the sale of British Coal's land. By anyone's reckoning, that is money that should come back to mining communities. If that source of financing cannot be tapped, the awards could be financed from half the annual surpluses that the Government rip off from the mineworkers' pension scheme. As the people whom we are talking about are elderly, clearly the cost will diminish year on year. Therefore, that £320 million could well pay for the scheme into the future.

It is an appalling indictment of the Government that they have sat on the IIAC recommendations for nine months. In the mean time, literally hundreds of former coal miners have died of the dust and have been unable to make a claim. Neither they nor their families, who in many instances cared for and nursed them, have a chance of claiming benefit for their suffering. It is estimated that in the Barnsley borough 12 per cent. of the population are carers and that most of the people for whom they care are relatives who previously worked in the mining industry.

I hope that the Minister can tell us that the recommendations will be implemented immediately and that they will be retrospectively applied in view of the delay that has been caused by the Government.

11.16 am
Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing the opportunity to debate this matter. As soon as the debate appeared on the Order Paper, I wrote to Madam Speaker asking for the opportunity to take part. This is a significant issue which involves a substantial number of my constituents as well as others in west and north Yorkshire. My colleague represents south Yorkshire and I endorse all his remarks because they apply to miners in west and north Yorkshire.

As several hon. Members want to speak, I shall keep my comments brief. I wish to put a number of questions to the Minister. If he cannot respond to them this morning, they will be on record and I hope that he will follow them up after the debate. The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council report was presented to the Secretary of State in February this year and was made public in May. It recommended two main amendments. The first was that the forced expiration volume in one second test—the FEV1 test—should be retained but amended to allow underground workers who have small lung volume to be judged according to their frame. The second was that the need for radiographic evidence of coal dust retention be removed from prescription.

Since the report was published, I have received numerous inquiries from former mineworkers in my constituency. They asked how and when the report would be implemented. I wrote to the Secretary of State giving the names of some of the individuals who had been pressing me. The response has been negative. I should like the Minister to deal with a number of issues. First, when will the recommendations be implemented? That is what everyone wants to know. If he can give some indication today, that will be a step in the right direction. Secondly, will claimants denied benefits because they failed either the FEV or the X-ray test, or both, be granted benefit automatically, or will they have to reapply when the Secretary of State agrees to implement the recommendations?

Thirdly, will the widow or any relatives be able to make a posthumous claim because their husband or father failed the FEV and X-ray tests, but has since died? Will claimants who have satisfied the FEV test but have been denied benefit because they failed the X-ray test be automatically assessed? Will any benefits due to them be paid back to the date of their previous claim, or to September 1993 if the claim was submitted within the original time limit? A substantial number of people applied in September 1993, but it took three or four months before some qualified for the examination. If we are to be fair to them, they should receive compensation from September 1993. Will that apply to posthumous claims made on behalf of a miner's family? Will those claims go back to 1993?

We must also consider surface workers. Those of us who have worked in the mining industry are aware of miners who worked underground for perhaps 15 or 18 years, but then had to work on the surface in dusty conditions. Those men have been denied the opportunity of applying for benefit, and that is an injustice. The Minister must reconsider, because a substantial number of people who should be claiming benefit are involved.

We are told that 3,502 former mineworkers in receipt of an occupational pension have died since the report was presented to the Secretary of State. How many of those who claimed benefit were turned down because they failed the X-ray test? It would be easy to identify them. Since the Secretary of State received the report. how many appeals have been lodged on the basis that the X-ray showed no dust on the lung? The Secretary of State is sitting on a recommendation from the advisory council while people are being refused benefit because there is nothing on their X-ray. Those applicants are appealing, but that test will not now apply. How much will that cost the Department of Social Security? We have heard that there is a lack of resources to pay the benefit, but the Secretary of State's refusal to act on the recommendation is costing the Government money. However, the people who will pay most are the retired miners.

How many people have failed because of the FEV test? How many appeals have been lodged? If the Secretary of State implemented the recommendations of the report, it would solve many of the problems and many miners would not need to appeal against their assessment. We are also aware of people who—having been turned down because the X-ray did not show them to be suffering from category 1 dust—have died shortly after the X-ray and been found to have been suffering from category 3 dust, which causes pneumoconiosis. But because the regulations say that the X-ray should show category 1 dust, they have not qualified for benefit. The regulations are flawed, as the case now being pursued through the courts will reveal. In such cases, no payment has been made to the family or to the widow.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

My hon. Friend will be aware that two years or more ago, some of us—including, I think, my hon. Friend—submitted evidence to the Minister that the quality and nature of the X-ray film being used did not allow a proper diagnosis to be made.

Mr. William O'Brien

That is a substantial point that we made in our evidence to the Government. A significant amount of evidence shows beyond any shadow of a doubt that an injustice is being done to many former miners.

In the 1950s, I worked at a colliery where 2,500 miners worked underground, and some 20,000 miners were working in the area at that time. Those were the numbers in the industry in the early 1950s, and—while other hon. Members will be representing some of them—few of those miners are left because they have been racked by industrial illness and injury. But for the few who remain, the recommendations must be applied immediately. Will the Minister address the points of concern that I have raised? If he cannot answer them this morning, will he ensure that we receive written answers so that people can be made aware of the Minister's response to the concerns of former miners?

11.26 am
Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian)

I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on obtaining this debate. I think that I am qualified to take part as I am an ex-miner and for 12 years was general secretary of the Scottish area of the National Union of Mineworkers. I also represent a mining constituency, where many people suffer from the diseases in question.

As only 5 to 6 per cent. of Scottish claimants were successful in obtaining a pension under chronic bronchitis and emphysema prescribed disease D12, I was delighted to hear that the Government's advisory committee had agreed to recommend changes in the qualifying method. For example, the recommendation to drop category 1, pneumoconiosis, was a breakthrough. However, the Minister has still not embraced that change, although he received the recommendations in February and we are now in November. Are the Government waiting for most of the claimants to die so as to save the Exchequer money? As the economist John Maynard Keynes once said, In the long run, we are all dead. The Minister wrote to me in response to a letter that I had sent on behalf of the family of the late Joe Knox of Bonnyrigg, who died prematurely of bronchitis and emphysema, but was disqualified under the current scheme. The Minister's reply made the excuse that he did not have time to analyse the findings of his advisers, but he made it clear—as he has done to my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien)—that no retrospective claims would be accepted. We cannot repay families for the loss of a relative's life or health, but a pension or lump sum might show that society actually cared in some small way for the sacrifice that they made. Many miners' families are extremely bitter, and they blame the Government for the way in which the situation has been handled.

I wonder how the Minister can sleep at night, knowing that he is a party to such a grievous injustice. But it is never too late: even Ebenezer Scrooge had a dramatic change of heart. I appeal to the Minister in the run-up to Christmas to change his attitude and shed some ray of hope on those affected in mining communities and particularly in my constituency. I hope that he will reconsider the policy of no retrospection and implement the recommendations immediately.

11.29 am
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing this debate.

I ask the Minister to note how many hon. Members signed the early-day motion and also consider all the correspondence. The issue matters a great deal, especially to hon. Members who represent coal mining areas. We have heard a great deal in the past 24 hours about how the House must determine issues of health and safety at work and deal with matters which, according to the Government, affect this country. In mining areas, nothing matters more than ensuring that those who have worked underground and have paid with their health get proper compensation for chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Concern is not confined to ex-miners and their families; the British public realise how much suffering and hardship has been endured. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone spoke earlier about the newspaper campaigns, especially in Yorkshire, and in my area of north Staffordshire the Evening Sentinel is backing the cause. We need a proper answer from the Minister today. If we do not get it, we can turn the matter into a public campaign throughout the country, and especially in mining areas.

We must give ex-miners an assurance that they need not live in fear of the cold this winter. In north Staffordshire, about 90 per cent. of applicants for the benefit have been turned down. I spoke to the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers this morning and he told me that a huge number of men had died since the benefit was introduced in 1993. We cannot afford to let down those who are left and their families.

The compensation is not large, ranging between a maximum of £90 and £20, but for the men and their families it represents the ability to keep warm as we approach the winter months. We cannot afford to delay action for another 12 months. I have read the recommendations carefully and I have written regularly to the Minister. I recognise that the Government should have due time to consider the various recommendations, but how long must we wait for them to say whether they intend to implement them?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone said, it is right to do away with the X-rays and we should no longer count sickness and absence in the 20-year period that is being assessed. There should also be changes in the criteria for the lung function assessment. As new mining techniques mean that miners could be at risk from a more concentrated exposure to coal dust, the matter should be kept under review.

Will the Minister give us an absolute assurance about how much money is involved, how many people in his Department are working on the issue, and whether he has the staff resources to ensure that the recommendations can be implemented in full? Will he ensure that when he implements the proposals—as I hope that he will, not least because of public pressure—there will be proper arrangements so that an administrative blunder cannot create a three or four-year delay in assessment? The administrative arrangements must be in place, especially in coal mining or ex-coal mining areas, to ensure that the men who need the benefit and apply for it can be paid quickly.

Only last week I received a letter from a constituent in Bradeley village who said that she had followed carefully the campaign in the House of Commons and that, although it was too late for her husband, who had died, we should do what we could to get the Government to introduce the benefit in full and without further delay, on behalf of all the men who have died and all the wives and families caring for men who are ill. That is what we want from the Minister today.

11.36 am
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

It is important to recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) has been slogging away on this campaign for ages; others have been involved—I and other hon. Members went to present evidence at the Trades Union Congress, for instance—but my hon. Friend has been in the front row for a long time, and he is to be congratulated on his efforts.

The issue could have been settled relatively easily because, generally speaking, the Government are supposed to take on board what the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council—a so-called independent body, staffed by people with medical expertise—says about a case; although the council is a quango, I do not think that it has yet been stuffed with Tories. If the recommendations had come from the City of London, the Government would have implemented them within a couple of weeks and we might have had a statement from the appropriate Minister, but this is different: it is about miners and mining communities in areas of Britain where the Tories by and large have no political influence.

I put it to the Minister and to the Secretary of State, who is not here today, that I know what their game is: they think that miners vote Labour so they need not bother about them. That was their attitude when they shut the last batch of 31 pits. We are talking about communities that have been ravaged by the Government, especially in the years since the miners' strike. There are areas of mass unemployment: male unemployment is as high as 50 per cent. in some of the coalfield villages, despite the fiddled figures that the Tories trot out every day—we had another lot today. We are talking about real poverty.

Groups of miners, wealth creators who worked, in some cases, for 40 or 50 years, who dug the coal during the war and whenever it was necessary, are coughing their lungs up, and what thanks to they get? They are told that they can have an X-ray and an FEV test, that they have to have worked for 20 years and that if they were dragged out of the pit on their hands and knees and had to work on the surface for the last few years they would not qualify. There were about 10 different hurdles for people to jump. What happens? As my hon. Friend said, only 10 or 11 per cent. succeed. Yesterday, at Social Security Question Time, we heard about some tribunals where 50 per cent. of applications are successful, so 10 or 11 per cent. is a paltry amount.

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have also been involved in this matter, probably from the beginning, in an attempt to put the matter on the statute book, so this could be described as an all-party affair, although it does not extend as far as the Conservative Benches.

What does the Minister have against miners and their communities? We are talking about a relatively small amount of money. The Government gave away the pits to Budge for a song; yet they cannot find this small amount of money to legislate on the recommendations of a body whose recommendations are usually accepted by Governments.

I remember only too well my efforts during the 1974–79 Labour Government to have a chemical factory disease prescribed. Some of my hon. Friends will remember that, because there are not many prescribed industrial diseases. When such a measure goes on the statute book, it is supposed to be implemented. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), who was in the Department of Social Security at the time, had that recommendation accepted within a short space of time. Yet the present lousy, rotten Government have been sitting on this matter for almost the whole of this year because they cannot stand miners who had the guts to stand up against this paltry Government on a number of occasions.

What is bugging the Government? This is not a Common Market directive. When we have a directive such as the one that we had from the Common Market yesterday giving workers three weeks holiday and a 48-hour week, one can understand that the Government have to give way to the Euro-sceptics in their party. But this is not a Common Market directive—it is British through and through—so why can the Government not implement it?

Just think about those miners walking along the streets of the pit villages, struggling from lamp post to lamp post. They walk 25 yards, then they grab at the nearest fence, coughing, their heads bent low. Then along comes Mr. Deputy Speaker and people such as my hon. Friends and they manage to convince the powers that be that there should be chronic bronchitis and emphysema legislation. It took years; then, when it was introduced, the Government emaciated it. Many thought that after 40 or 50 years they would see some rainbow, a little extra money to buy all the things that they had never been able to buy, but they finish up with this tinpot legislation.

Some of us decide to try to make things better and we make promises. We tell people that we will take the matter to an independent body. We do so, and that body goes along with many of our proposals. Yet this stinking Government do not have the guts to implement the recommendations. The Government should get off their knees and give some hope to people who have put more into society than any of those who sit on the Conservative Benches.

11.42 am
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I shall be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as a number of my hon. Friends wish to join in. I echo the reference made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to yourself. You will recall that I was one of the sponsors of the several Bills that you presented in an effort to achieve justice in this matter of coalfield concern.

On Sunday morning last, with a number of other people from my local community, wreaths were laid at the memorial to the men of Manvers Main colliery who were killed in the world wars. In the first world war, more than 200 men from that one pit died. More than 40 of them gained medals for gallantry, including the Victoria cross. Their grandsons and great nephews are suffering from these industrial diseases now. Yet they were labelled by the Government as the enemy within.

My hon. Friend referred to the substantial contributions made by people from the coalfields, yet they have not been treated fairly. In response to your private Member's Bills, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Government eventually gave way and allowed a scheme. Then they drew up qualifications and regulations which meant that only a tiny proportion of the men who applied would succeed. Yet their neighbours, people without political experience or qualification, knew well that those men were coughing and would die far earlier than they otherwise would have done. While the Government have hedged, prevaricated and delayed, thousands have died. As my hon. Friends the Members for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) and for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) have said, the numbers are shrinking and the cost will diminish rapidly. The Government have taken a great deal of money out of the coalfields as a result of privatisation; we ask that a little of that money is put back into the areas where it was created.

11.45 am
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

I hope that the Minister has heard the voices from coalfield communities all over the country—Scotland, Wales and the midlands—and that he recognises the strength of feeling there. He knows of the campaign to obtain the benefit in the first place. We need to congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on that. Then there was the campaign to have the benefit reviewed because it was not meeting the needs of those involved.

The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council reported in February. It is now nine months on and the clock is ticking for many of those miners. They have given their health and lives to bring comfort and warmth to the nation. It is time for the Minister to make an announcement. Nine months is a long time in anyone's reckoning. For those who are ill and in the twilight of their days, it is important that we have an announcement now.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the campaign by the Nottingham Evening Post, in which he has been quoted. Back in June, the Secretary of State told that paper that the recommendations would be implemented. If he can tell the Nottingham Evening Post in June that things will be good for former miners, why cannot an announcement be made here today in Parliament during this important debate?

Perhaps it has something to do with the cost. I am grateful for the parliamentary answer that the Minister gave me only last week, telling me that according to his calculations the cost in the first year would be £20 million with £5 million administrative costs. As many of my hon. Friends have pointed out, that cost will decline in future years as the group of beneficiaries gets smaller.

The coalfields have contributed to Britain's wealth, but the communities there have had a tough time. They believe that the Government have turned their back on them and walked away. They have buried the coal industry, but they must not bury those miners who are chronically crippled and ill without giving them the benefit of some extra help.

The Budget is due in a fortnight's time. If the Minister cannot make an announcement today, will he ensure that a decision is made as part of the Budget process? There may well be discussions, debates and perhaps some tension between the Department of Social Security and the Treasury at this moment, but the campaign will go on. People will not walk away from this. Enough is enough. It is important to make an announcement and pay the benefit now because many of the miners, their wives and families are in an intolerable situation.

Let us have an announcement now. The Government have had the opportunity to consider the matter for nine months. We know what the cost has been. The time has come to look after those who have looked after the nation for so many years.

11.49 am
Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on his campaign, not only on this issue but on many other issues relating to the mining industry. He has acted with his customary modesty, but I pay special tribute to his persistence in those matters, which is applauded by those us who represent mining communities.

Luckily, I still represent a mining community, but that is no thanks to this Government. It is thanks to the effort of the miners themselves—not to the Deputy Prime Minister, who was responsible for the privatisation programme and who made many promises during the passage of that legislation, most of which have been broken. Indeed, on 27 June this year, he told us that he was looking at the recommendations as a matter of urgency. I do not know what urgency means to the Deputy Prime Minister—perhaps it means working with civil servants in an attempt to commandeer them in his vain efforts to win the next general election. I can tell him now that he might as well give up and apply himself to matters of greater importance, such as this campaign.

The Minister, the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans), himself represents a south Wales constituency—it might be ungracious, but I should add that he will not do so for much longer. I am sure that, in the next general election, that seat will be reclaimed for the Labour party. The hon. Gentleman knows the situation in south Wales and the conditions in which people live. From his practice in the area, he has known for many years the suffering that those communities have endured. He knows that, all along, miners and their families have had to fight for every penny of compensation that they have ever received from the state. When I was a journalist, I fought alongside the miners in the pneumoconiosis campaign. Everyone knows how hard the miners had to fight to get just compensation for contracting that terrible disease.

I was elected in the middle of a miners' strike. In 1984, I went down a small street in Penrhiwceiber—a small mining village known to the Minister. In every other house there was a man suffering from either bronchitis and emphysema or pneumoconiosis and many of those men were using oxygen machines at that time. I went down the same street a year later and was told, "He's dead," "He's dead," "He's very ill," "He's dying." That is why it is important that the matter be dealt with urgently. Urgency must mean more to the Deputy Prime Minister than five months' delay while people wait for him to come up with a response to those proper recommendations.

The Minister has, of course, been trying to explain why the reduced earnings allowance is a just measure, but I remind him that, ever since the Social Security Act 1986 was passed, disabled people and their relatives have been penalised by this Government. This is an opportunity to put matters right. We are not asking a big favour—the sum of money involved is small—but it would make an enormous difference to those miners and their families who are suffering as a result of an industrial disease that they contracted when they were working in our mining industries.

11.53 am
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) for not having been present at the beginning of the debate. He has done us all a service by obtaining the debate. Like many other Opposition Members, I come from a coal mining area and have many constituents who are worried about the current position.

When, after a long campaign of which you do not need reminding, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the House decided to classify emphysema and bronchitis as an industrial disease, many of us were greatly relieved. That was followed by massive disappointment, with many of my constituents finding that the tests to get compensation were so tightly drawn that the rejection rate was well above 90 per cent. For many years, I have been dealing with the case of Mr. George Lambton who worked for 51 years in Kiveton Park colliery in my constituency. He failed the tests that were originally used to determine whether someone qualified for compensation.

When I read the report published in February this year which revealed the weaknesses in the tests, I was greatly relieved and wrote to Mr. Lambton about it. I also discussed the matter with hospital consultants who were experts on the question of hard versus soft X-rays being used to identify the disease. What intrigued and pleased me about the February report was its findings on the FEV test—that lung capacity varies according to the stature of the individual.

Mr. Lambton is a very small man. He and his general practitioner are absolutely convinced that he suffers from the disease—now classified as an industrial disease—of emphysema and bronchitis, but he has failed the FEV test. As has been made clear by the report, the main reason for his failure is probably his stature—he is only about 5 ft tall. I wrote to him about the report and said that he should reapply for compensation for emphysema and bronchitis, and he has done so. It is nearly sorted out now—he went for an X-ray and was told, "Oh, by the way, you have pneumoconiosis as well, so you should apply for that compensation, too." Mr. Lambton's lungs are clearly in a bad condition.

Mr. Lambton's appeal has not gone through yet, but if he reaches that point before the regulations are changed to correct the problems with the original assessment, he will be back to square one. That is not good enough. When a report is published that clearly shows why there was a failure rate of more than 90 per cent., action is needed. It is wrong to leave thousands of people like Mr. Lambton in this state of limbo resulting from delay in implementing a sensible recommendation that would enable them to get the compensation from the state that they deserve.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) pointed out that the Secretary of State said that the regulations would be altered. I hope that the Minister will come to the Dispatch Box to say that that will be done as soon as possible. If my constituent fails at his next attempt because the regulations have not been altered according to the recommendations, I shall tell him to reapply, and to keep going until he gets justice. The Minister should give some firm assurances about when that injustice will be put right—many thousands of people need it to be done straight away.

11.57 am
Mr. Henry McLeish (Fife, Central)

This has been an excellent debate and I hope that the Minister is thinking about what he is going to say. Hon. Members have spoken with great emotion and the report contained cold logic, so I sincerely hope that the Minister has come here not with fine words, but with a commitment to accept the recommendations and to proceed quickly with implementation of the proposals.

There is a profound sense of injustice, anger and disappointment throughout the coalfields of Britain, and rightly so. Communities, ex-miners, miners' families, councillors, councils, mining unions, Members of Parliament and local newspapers such as the Nottingham Evening Post have campaigned vigorously over the past few years for the issue to be taken seriously and resolved. I join my hon. Friends in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) for his endeavours in this respect—he simply will not give up and that is a message that the Minister should understand. I hope that the Minister has something positive to say, but he should be under no illusion about the fact that, if he is not positive this morning, the campaign will go on and on until we achieve victory for the thousands of ex-miners up and down the country.

Emotion is important in the House and, this morning, we have heard passionate but concise speeches. These men have contributed greatly to the nation's prosperity—that is not in doubt. Many of them knew that their health was being damaged every day they went down the pit. The real tragedy is that the lives of some of those whom we hope will be beneficiaries are now ebbing away. They face the damage caused by chronic bronchitis and emphysema and that is linked to a sense of injustice and concern at the fact that they do not have enough cash in the household. That is not a situation facing the Minister, but it does face those families.

It is always useful to throw in one's own experience. My father was a mineworker for 30 years and his last trip up from the mine was on a stretcher. My grandfather worked for the private coal companies. The conditions in those mines were part of the reason for nationalisation. I have seen colleagues who have been councillors, lying in bed with an oxygen cylinder by their side. I am sure that that is not an experience shared by the Minister or those who advise him, but it provides a telling insight into the suffering that is endured by many of those ex-miners.

Of course, of itself, emotion is not enough on which to base changes to legislation or regulations. However, the emotion of this issue has been built on by the hard and compelling logic of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. Public interest should be represented. We have the emotion, the passion and the sentiment, but more important, we have the logic of an inquiry that has delivered recommendations to the Minister.

Given that emotion and logic, Parliament must respond. That is why there is a tremendous responsibility on the Minister this morning. He cannot duck the issue. All my colleagues have put their points to him and he has the report on his desk. The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Social Security and a host of Under-Secretaries have uttered fine words, but they have been running. The Minister cannot run any further. He is faced with the contributions made by my colleagues and the logic of the report. I hope that he will rise to the occasion.

So far, the campaign has been successful, and that success encourages everybody to believe that we will go from strength to strength. It was as a result of the campaign started by my hon. Friends that, in 1993, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council made emphysema and bronchitis a prescribed disease. It was through their efforts that, in January 1995 the IIAC decided to review the prescription because it was far too constrained and, as a consequence, out of 50,000 miners who had applied only a handful—5,000—got what they deserved.

The IIAC reported to the Minister earlier this year. It is worth restating that, in a technical area, the changes will make a profound difference to those seeking to obtain industrial injuries benefit. The report recommended dropping the requirement for X-ray evidence of pneumonoconiosis. It recommended keeping the 20-year rule but, importantly, making sure that it included sickness periods. It was outrageous that, initially, the 20-year period would not have included the sickness periods. The report recommended keeping the FEV test, amending it to allow for workers with small lung volumes. That seems to be elementary common sense and one wonders why it was not included in the first set of recommendations. One does not have to be a medical expert to realise that implementing those changes 'would allow a larger number of people to get the justice that they deserve.

The case has been made and that is not the basis for this debate. It is important to look at some of the comments that have been made from the Prime Minister through to the Under-Secretaries. To come right up to date, when visiting Nottingham a few days ago, the Prime Minister said that the matter was still being considered. The headline in the Nottingham Evening Post said, "Prime Minister, John Major, visiting Nottingham today, is still refusing to guarantee extra cash help for crippled ex-miners."

On 27 June—this has already been quoted—the Deputy Prime Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone that he would view the matter with urgency. What does "urgency" mean" The report has been on the Minister's desk since February and it was published in May. The Prime Minister spoke in November, the Deputy Prime Minister spoke in June and we have had many fine words from other Ministers. I am pleased to see in the House the right hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir N. Scott), because during his time as a Minister he contributed to some of the more positive aspects of the debate.

Why the inactivity? What is the problem in a budget that spends £90 billion of taxpayers' money and which will rise in 1998–99 to £101 billion? This is the first group of Ministers to look forward to that level of budget, but they will see a Labour Government use it more effectively. I want to ask the Minister some direct questions.

The Minister has seen the report and has had expert advice. He knows of the hardship and misery that the delays are causing to people in the coalfield communities in Britain. Why the delay? I hope that he will give us the reasons. Although we have had some comments on the recommendations in the report, the Government have not overwhelmingly embraced its findings and recommendations. The Minister—I see him raising his eyebrows—may suggest that he has done that, but the comments were not specific enough for us to be reassured that, at the heart of Government, the scientific report has been accepted. I want to find out whether the recommendations have been fully accepted. When will the Government implement the changes? My hon. Friends have already asked whether this is a battle between the Department of Social Security and the Treasury—it often is. We have not found out whether the Department of Social Security is whole-heartedly pursuing the Treasury—if it is the Treasury that is blocking this. Those are important questions.

The other issue which underpins the attack that we are making this morning goes back to the initial comments. This is supposed to be a Parliament for all the people of the United Kingdom. It is supposed to be a Parliament that looks at evidence impartially, weighs it up and makes recommendations. If I were an ex-miner in Nottingham, Barnsley or any other part of Britain and I was struggling for breath in the way described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—I have seen such people walking along the streets—I would wonder what sort of Parliament this is. The partiality of this Parliament is often a disgrace.

If the debate is reported, it means that the public will have an opportunity to know about this excellent debate and the contributions made by my colleagues. Also, the Minister has an opportunity to become a superstar in the mining communities. That is not an opportunity that will fall to him very often. He has the chance to become a hero in the working-class communities of Britain. That must be a challenge for any Tory Minister.

I have been generous and have tried to reflect the excellent case that has been made by my colleagues. I hope that the Minister will say, "Yes, yes, yes," to all the questions we ask so that we can tell our constituents that this Parliament works for them and for Britain and that, on this serious issue, there was a consensus which paid dividends and people got their just reward.

12.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing the debate, and I am grateful to him for that. I have been asked in a number of different ways by everyone who spoke, including the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish), whether I will make an announcement. I shall begin by making my answer to that question clear. I am not able to make an announcement this morning. I did not leave that statement to the end of my speech, because I knew that hon. Members wanted to know my answer now. Let me explain where we have got to, and then I will reply to the debate in some detail.

I raised an eyebrow when the scientific medical aspects of the IIAC report were mentioned. The Government accept those conclusions: that is an important matter. I also make it clear that an announcement will be made shortly, but I cannot go into detail about what stage those matters have reached. I stress that the Government are attending to the matter, and an announcement will be made shortly. I cannot go further than that. I have no doubt that hon. Members will press me to do so, but that is my position.

Ms Walley

In view of what the Minister has just said, will he tell us what is holding up the announcement? Where is the blockage? Is it in the Treasury? Will he share that information with us? We want to know why, having had sufficient notice, he is unable to make an announcement today.

Mr. Evans

It is tempting to answer the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), and it may be simpler for me to do so, but she will appreciate that I cannot. The matter is being attended to, and an announcement will be made shortly.

Mr. Tipping


Mr. Hardy


Mr. Evans

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone first, because he secured the debate and I think that he rose slightly more quickly than the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). [Interruption.] I am so sorry, it is the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping).

Mr. Tipping

Will the Minister remind the House that on the day after the Budget it is normal practice for the Secretary of State for Social Security to make an announcement? By my reckoning, that day of judgment will be 27 November. My hon. Friends may be relaxed and mild now—the Minister heard my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—but he should reflect on that and make it a red letter day in his diary.

Mr. Evans

I do not think that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) could be so described this morning: he made a powerful speech. I hear what the hon. Member for Sherwood says, and I have made it clear that an announcement will be made shortly. [HON. MEMBERS: "When is shortly?"] That means shortly shortly, within reasonable shortness. Other than that I cannot qualify shortly in a helpful way, and beyond that I cannot and will not go.

Mr. Hardy

A long time ago, when a better Government were in office, I brought to the House's attention the case of a constituent who was suffering from those diseases. He depended on oxygen and could not leave his house because he had to be by the side of a large oxygen cylinder. I asked the then Government to allow portable oxygen cylinders to be provided by the national health service. They agreed, and within an astonishingly short time people such as my constituent were able to go to the local club, go for a walk to see their son's allotment and accompany their wives to the local shop, because they could carry a portable cylinder and were free. They were liberated by a caring Government who acted with expedition, whereas this lot have been sitting on this matter for years.

Mr. Clapham


Mr. Evans

I think that I am obliged to answer the hon. Gentleman's question first. I hear the point that he makes. It concerns a wider issue, but I understand why he makes it.

Mr. Clapham

Will the announcement that is likely to be made in the near future be made orally to the House, and not in the form of a written answer to a question?

Mr. Evans

I cannot answer that, but I can assure the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone that it will be made in whatever is the appropriate conventional fashion. I shall deal with the specific points that hon. Members have raised, because it is important that I go through them one by one. The hon. Member for Sherwood referred to my parliamentary answer on the cost, which will be £20 million plus £5 million for administration. I appreciate the points made about property sales and the sums that, it is said, should be paid back to the mining communities. For nearly 200 years, there has been a consolidated fund. Hon. Members must appreciate that, whatever their merits, the proposals involve a public expenditure commitment, which must be accounted for in the usual way.

The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish), who seemed in one breath to be satisfied with the largeness of the social security budget, said that if he were in office he would apply it more appropriately. He must explain what allowance would be made if that were done.

The hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) asked me several specific questions about matters that go beyond the area that we are discussing today. I warn him that some of his observations about retrospection go further than what any Government have done in the past in connection with this scheme. I shall read his speech carefully in Hansard, and I shall do my best to answer his questions. I may be able to answer them more fully at the time of the announcement. I have noted the points that he made, and I shall examine them carefully.

Mr. William O'Brien

I prefaced my remarks by saying that I thought that the Minister would not be able to answer my questions, but that it would be helpful if he could answer them in writing. I am concerned about what the Minister just said about retrospection going beyond what we could expect. Does he accept that the regulations are deeply flawed? They require that dust retention should show up on the X-ray, but post-mortems reveal a vast discrepancy in that area. In my opinion, retrospection is understandable and fair, and I hope that the Minister will give it fair consideration.

Mr. Evans

As I understand it, the scientific evidence presented by IIAC is correct. The difficulty with the X-ray test is that what shows up on the X-ray depends in part on the carbon content of coal. Anthracite and best Welsh steam-coal produce more visible signs in X-rays than do other types of coal. That is the scientific argument presented by IIAC, and, as I said, we accept that.

The difficulty with retrospection—I put this in general terms—is the way in which the scheme has operated since 1946. Scientific knowledge develops. The purpose of IIAC is to monitor the scientific argument as it develops and extends. Governments have traditionally taken the view that when the scientific evidence, as assessed and reported on by IIAC, meets the statutory test of the scheme—which has been in place since 1946—the change is made for future cases. That happened in 1993 in respect of this issue.

I put in a word of caution, because the hon. Member for Normanton, for understandable reasons, is trying to press me to go further than any Government have gone before. I shall consider the point, and I shall try to reply to him as best as I can immediately, and subsequently when the announcement is made.

Mr. McLeish

I wish to reinforce the point. Between 1993 and now, a significant number of cases have come before the Department. Will the Minister reassure me that if the changes are accepted and implemented, the case load from 1993 to 1996 will be eligible for reconsideration in an attempt retrospectively to bring justice to those people?

Mr. Evans

That would involve further expense, over and above the figures that we quoted earlier. I shall consider all matters, including that one, before the announcement is made. However, the scheme has not traditionally been operated in that way. The purpose of IIAC is to advise the Government and Parliament on the evolving state of the scientific evidence. The point at which, in IIAC's judgment, the two criteria have been met is the point at which, traditionally, we respond to IIAC.

Mr. McLeish

I am grateful for the candidness of the Minister's responses. Would he be amenable to further representations being made in the next few days about the question of retrospection? It is important to my hon. Friends. I merely ask the Minister to acknowledge its importance, and to tell us whether he would be happy to obtain further evidence before the announcement is made—shortly, or shortly shortly.

Mr. Evans

I hope that "shortly" means fairly shortly. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is, of course, yes. I hope that there was no misunderstanding in the summer. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone on 23 July, inviting him to meet Ministers with members of the miners' group. That meeting has not taken place for some reason, but I shall be delighted to meet any members of the group.

Mr. Clapham

We want to see the Minister.

Mr. Evans

When people say that to me, I know full well that it will happen. Anyway, if any hon. Members wish to make further representations, I shall be delighted to listen.

Mr. Eric Clarke

I raised the question of retrospection because a letter that I received suggested that there was to be no retrospection. Is the Minister now opening the door to discussion about the matter? In the example that I gave, someone died of the disease.

Mr. Evans

The fact that I am always prepared to listen to an argument should not lead to the supposition that I necessarily accede to that argument. As I made clear to the hon. Member for Normanton, what is being demanded goes further than any Government have traditionally gone under this scheme. Nevertheless, if anyone wants to put a particular case to me, I am prepared to listen to it carefully. I will have it assessed carefully, and I will have it costed carefully. I give this warning, however: although I am prepared to listen, we are being asked to go much further than the scheme has previously gone.

I should make it clear to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North that there is an issue of administration. I was asked specifically how long the arrangements would take to implement were we to make such an announcement. The 1993 scheme took five and a half months to implement, and serious questions of administration are involved in any such implementation; but the Government are attending to all matters.

I shall be kinder to the hon. Member for Bolsover than he was to me. IIAC is, of course, a quango, but I think that even the hon. Gentleman will agree that, if there is such a thing as a quango, it is the best of all possible quangos. It is an expert body: it contains medical experts of the highest repute, as well as representatives of both the TUC and the CBI.

The hon. Member for Sherwood mentioned the Nottingham Evening Post interview with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I regret to say that that newspaper read rather more into off-the-cuff remarks than was justified, although I appreciate that the interview excited considerable interest in Nottinghamshire at the time.

Criticisms have been made of the 1993 scheme, quite apart from those addressed by IIAC. The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) seemed to be saying that in 1993 we had somehow frustrated everyone's intentions by devising a scheme that was tighter than the one for which they were campaigning. As I understand the position, we simply implemented what IIAC then recommended.

Having—I hope—dealt with most of the points that have been made, I will not reintroduce a discussion with the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) on reduced earnings allowance, or on any of the other matters that she mentioned. The debate focuses, very properly, on a particular matter.

Mrs. Clwyd

It is an important issue.

Mr. Evans

I know that it is important, but it is separate and distinct from what we have been discussing today.

It is important to define the role of IIAC, and the conditions that must be satisfied before a disease may be prescribed. That will explain why the terms of the prescription of chronic bronchitis and emphysema were drawn up in the way that they were in 1993, why the council reviewed the criteria this year and why it reached the conclusions and made the recommendations contained in its report.

No doubt everyone will be encouraged by the fact that the opinions expressed in both the 1992 and the 1996 IIAC reports on the subject were unanimous: there was agreement among all representatives on the body, including the medical experts.

Industrial injuries disablement benefit is payable for disablement resulting from industrial accidents and from certain diseases that are prescribed. As I said earlier, the legal basis for prescription has remained unchanged since the scheme was introduced in its modern form in 1946—although I appreciate that that reformed the 1897 scheme. The statutory provision is contained in section 108 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992, which states: A disease or injury may be prescribed in relation to any employed earners if the Secretary of State is satisfied that— (a) it ought to be treated, having regard to its causes and incidence and any other relevant considerations, as a risk of their occupations and not as a risk common to all persons: and (b) it is such that, in the absence of special circumstances, the attribution of particular cases to the nature of the employment can be established or presumed with reasonable certainty.

Mr. William O'Brien

When my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Sir G. Lofthouse)—now Deputy Speaker—introduced his Bill, he had in mind the regulations to which the Minister referred. Although the Bill was accepted, my hon. Friend's experience in the mining industry—which was included in it—was not taken into consideration by the review body. We are asking for the changes to be implemented without further delay, and for other matters that we have mentioned today to be taken into account. I hope that the Minister will consider all the facts that have been presented, because further changes must be made.

Mr. Evans

I hear that argument, and will give careful consideration to what it involves.

The statutory test is important. It is of fairly long standing, having existed throughout my lifetime. It has worked so far, although I appreciate that whether it is too strict, and whether it is drafted in quite the right way, are matters of argument.

This is a slightly unusual scheme. It is a compensation scheme, not a benefit scheme. It is distinct from, for instance, the arrangements for disability and incapacity benefits. It is a scheme of compensation—in the tradition of workmen's compensation that goes back to 1897—which is not based on proof of fault: it is a tax-free, no-fault compensation scheme. Therefore, it requires criteria that are clear and well established: no doubt that is why they have remained in their present state for a long time.

Mr. Clapham

The payment of compensation is normally connected with the fact that someone has been subjected to an unnecessary risk. Here we are talking about the loss of a faculty, either mental or physical, following an injury sustained at work. The benefit that is payable from the scheme is for that loss of faculty, and will therefore continue to be paid because the loss of faculty will remain until the end of the person's life. That is rather different from a compensation payment.

Mr. Evans

Traditionally, that is not so. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's analysis is correct, although I suspect that at the end of the day it does not matter.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, between 1897 and 1946, when a Labour Government reformed the scheme, people had an option, although not a very comfortable one. Either they accepted no-fault payments under the scheme's predecessor, or they sued at common law and had to prove negligence or breach of statutory duty, which was difficult and expensive. At its inception, the scheme was perceived as an alternative to suing at law. When the 1946 reforms came in, instead of either/or it became both.

Mr. Skinner

Under a Labour Government.

Mr. Evans

I know what the hon. Gentleman says. I accept that the scheme has remained in that state since 1946 and of course it was a Labour Government who imposed it, but the point is that, in its modern form, the scheme remains one of statutory compensation and is distinct from benefits. We have been talking loosely in terms of benefits, but the scheme is not like the welfare benefits generally administered by my Department, but a form of compensation for a type of injury.

Mr. Skinner

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Evans

I have about half a second. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Skinner

Yesterday in the handgun debate, as a result of representations about money, the Secretary of State for the Home Department said that he would consider finding extra money to resolve the gun lobby arguments. Will the Minister give the same guarantee on this matter when he has considered all the questions that have been asked by my hon. Friends?

Mr. Evans


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. We must now move to the next debate.