HC Deb 07 July 2003 vol 408 cc741-2
7. Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

What plans he has to change the medical criteria used to decide disablement awards for (a) vibration white finger and (b) chronic bronchitis and emphysema; and if he will make a statement. [123527]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

I acknowledge my hon. Friend's great expertise in this field and compliment him on his continuing efforts on behalf of his constituents who have acquired industrial disease and injury while in the mining industry.

As my hon. Friend is aware, we asked the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to carry out a review of prescribed disease A11, commonly known as vibration white finger, and its report is expected at the end of the year. We have no current plans to change the medical examination process for prescribed disease D12, chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Mr. Clapham

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and am encouraged by the referral of vibration white finger to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. However, I encourage her to refer COPD—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—to the council, too. She will be aware that both diseases are prescribed diseases and that there are two systems of examination—one for compensation and one for state benefit. People become confused when they are awarded compensation but denied state benefit. If she were prepared to make the change, it would set the basis for persuading the Department of Trade and Industry to introduce a no-fault liability scheme at the end of the tort scheme for COPD, which concludes on 31 March next year.

Maria Eagle

I always take a great deal of notice of what my hon. Friend says on the subject, because his interest in it and expertise are well known. He will know that the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council reconsidered the lung function test in 1999. He will also know that the social security lung function test is, in many ways, more generous than the test operated by the DTI. I understand where he is coming from, but he must be aware that the two schemes—the DTI tort scheme and the scheme that we run—are different. One is based on an individual personal injury claim going through the court. The other is a much more general collectivist scheme that is based on simpler and different tests, with different hurdles. Although I will consider what my hon. Friend suggests, I cannot promise to do as he says.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon)

Do the Government have any intention of extending disablement awards to former slate quarry workers? The Minister will know that slate quarrymen are already covered by the 1979 Act as far as dust is concerned, but surely there is a very strong case for extending those benefits to the few elderly men and widows who are left after the closure of the north Wales slate industry.

Maria Eagle

I am happy to consider that. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the requirement that one has to work for 20 years underground to obtain the benefit, but I will be happy to consider any evidence that he brings to me to convince me otherwise. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), I will listen, but I do not undertake to do as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire)

While it is right that the medical criteria for compensation and disablement benefits are constantly reviewed, can the Minister assure the House that those who do not meet the medical criteria do not receive a double whammy in the sense that they are then discriminated against when seeking work? What role does she see for the Disability Rights Commission? Is there a need to enhance that role?

Maria Eagle

My hon. Friend will be well aware that my Department has just undertaken a major push to assist more disabled to get back into work. We hope that that will involve all kinds of people, whether they have had disabilities from an early age or have become disabled because of industrial injuries or disease, for example. We aim to ensure that we reduce the number of people on sickness and incapacity benefit by ending discrimination in the workplace and ensuring that we help those people overcome the barriers that they face in returning to the workplace?