HL Deb 16 July 1953 vol 183 cc647-52

3.19 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill which I have the pleasure of commending to your Lordships to-day was described in another place as "a good little Bill." There was some difference of opinion about how little the Bill is. Some thought it not so little at all, and others thought that it might have been bigger. But I am happy to say that there has been no dispute about the essential merits of this measure. That illustrates the broad measure of agreement which prevails nowadays on these questions of social security. There may sometimes be differences on details and method, and there may occasionally be differences of emphasis, but our aims are in harmony. It is perhaps as well to stress that fact.

The history of compensation for injuries at work is in many ways typical of what has been happening in this sphere. In a sense, the Workmen's Compensation Act marked the beginning of our modern schemes of social security. Yet, for half a century, they gave rise, as noble Lords will remember, to much bitterness and much contention. They bred disputes between employers or the insurance companies, and the work-people, and these disputes were reflected in the tone of the Parliamentary debates on compensation. Then, as your Lordships will remember, in 1942, a Liberal, Lord Beveridge (as he now is), recommended in his famous Report that the old system which had engendered so much bitterness and which in so many ways had failed to meet the needs of injured workmen and their families, should be swept away, and that industrial compensation should be built into the new schemes of social insurance administered by the State. This recommendation was accepted and embodied in the Coalition Government's White Paper of 1944. The first Industrial Injuries Bill was published by a Conservative Government in June, 1945. The electoral misfortune which followed later that year interrupted the process only momentarily, and the incoming Labour Government at once introduced a similar Bill which passed into law with the agreement of all Parties in 1946.

This new scheme of State insurance against industrial injuries has now been in force for five years. It is already apparent that its main aims have been achieved. The benefits are more nearly related to social needs and are more clearly integrated than was workmen's compensation with the other social services. Above all, the old atmosphere of suspicion and bitterness has very largely disappeared. Nevertheless, it could not be expected that so novel a scheme would be wholly free from teething troubles. These it is the object of the present Bill to remedy. This Bill does not seek to change in any way the fundamentals of the new scheme, and it is not concerned with the rates of benefit which were dealt with in last year's Family Allowances and National Insurance Act. The Bill, as it were, undertakes running repairs. It is designed to remove isolated difficulties which have become apparent in the administration of the new scheme, thereby giving a better chance to judge the essentials of the scheme itself. Most of the Amendments were decided upon by the last Government, and should therefore meet with general acceptance.

I am afraid that the proposals, being designed to remove technical difficulties in the original Act, are themselves somewhat technical. The most important that I should refer to are those in Clause 3 (1) about disablement benefit. I am sure your Lordships are aware that a man injured at work can receive injury benefit as long as he remains incapable of work, or until six months after the accident. If he is still disabled at the end of this injury benefit period, as it is called, he may claim disablement benefit, and perhaps some of the supplementary allowances which go with it. At present disablement benefit can be paid only if the disablement remaining at the end of the injury benefit period is either substantial—that is, assessed at 20 per cent. or more—or likely to be permanent; indeed, in some cases, it has to be both substantial and permanent. Clause 3 (1) removes these restrictions, and enables the benefit to be paid whenever there is an assessment of at least 1 per cent., whether or not the disablement is permanent. At present some 8,000 men a year have their claims rejected because the disablement is neither permanent nor substantial. These men will in future be able to qualify for benefit (usually a gratuity) under the new conditions, and perhaps 2,000 of them will also get a special hardship allowance for a time. The Second Schedule to the Bill enables those men who have had claims rejected in the past, but who are still disabled when the new conditions come into force, to claim again, from that moment.

Clause 3 (1) also re-defines the "injury benefit period"—the period during which injury benefit can be paid and disablement benefit cannot be paid. The present definition has been found too rigid, with the result that there is sometimes a gap between the two benefits. The new definition will avoid this difficulty. Other provisions of Clause 3 allow the rules about injury benefit to be varied for night workers, as is already done for sickness benefit under the main National Insurance Act; extend the hospital treatment allowance (which at present is limited to disablement pensioners) to men who have been assessed at less than 20 per cent. and have therefore been awarded a gratuity instead of a pension; and enable a widow who ceases to be entitled to a child's allowance when she is over forty, to retain the higher rate of widow's pension—at present the age is fifty.

I do not think that I need go through the remaining clauses of the Bill in detail. They are chiefly concerned with minor matters of administration and adjudication. They are fairly fully described in the Explanatory Memorandum at the front of the Bill. But perhaps I may just draw attention to two of them. Clause 1 deals with the insurance of mariners and airmen. It will enable the Industrial Injuries scheme to be extended, as the main National Insurance scheme already is, to certain classes of seamen serving on board foreign ships and aircraft. One example is the British radio officer who is employed by a British wireless company and is serving on a foreign ship. I think it will be generally agreed that such men should be covered against injuries sustained at their work.

The other provision, and the last that I wish to mention, is in Clause 6 (3). The 1946 Act made the unemployability supplement available, as an alternative to sickness benefit, to unemployable men who were injured before July 5, 1948, and who are getting workmen's compensation; but it did not provide the dependency benefits, which normally go with the supplement or with sickness benefit. Clause 6 (3), by adding the dependency benefits, makes the unemployability supplement into the full equivalent of sickness benefit for men on workmen's compensation. My Lords, I hope I have not been too long in trying to explain this Bill. It is rather a technical matter but it is not in any way a dramatic Bill, nor is it really a Bill of the first importance. It is one of those workaday measures which are so necessary to the progress of our social services. We all, oil both sides of the House, have that progress a the art, and it is in that spirit that I commend the Bill to your Lordships. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(The Earl of Birkenhead.)

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, I will not describe this Bill as a "good little Bill" or as a "good big Bill"; I will describe it as a good Bill. From that angle, the Bill is welcome—so welcome, indeed, that the discussions which preceded the Bill were very amicable and friendly, and the passage of the Bill through another place was expedited so as to get it placed upon the Statute Book in the quickest possible time. The noble Earl rightly referred to the changes which have taken place in discussions on workmen's compensation. These are most marked. I am grateful to him for his clear exposition of the Bill. As he rightly said, Clause 3 is the most important provision, in so far as it absorbs the larger portion of the expenditure from the fund, as compared with expenditure on the other improvements which are included in the Bill.

He rightly said that at the present time some 8,000 claimants, or nearly 10 per cent. of those who claim long-term benefit, fail to qualify because of the anomaly to which he referred. It is rather interesting to note that a large majority of the 8,000 are, workmen employed in the mining industry of this country. Indeed, it is significant that whilst the mining population contribute just 3 per cent. of the income of this Industrial Insurance fund, they take about 40 per cent. of the outgoings. That is a real indication of the dangerous nature of their occupations. I am not going through the advantages of this Bill; the noble Earl has rightly done that. All I am going to say of it is that it is a very useful Bill. One would fully expect, after four or five years' working of this scheme, which completely revolutionised our compensation law in this country, that anomalies would become manifest. They have become manifest, and the Government have rightly introduced this legislation to deal not with all the anomalies but with some of them.

The noble Earl briefly referred to the history of workmen's compensation. It is 56 years since, in 1897, the original Employers Liability Act was passed. This provided for the first time some compensation for injured workmen. Before that time, workpeople in this country had to depend upon the Poor Law and some voluntary organisations for their maintenance during their long or short periods of incapacity caused by accidents. I was in industry before the Compensation Act came into operation, and I have not very happy recollections of collecting my two shillings and sixpence a week out of a sick fund to maintain myself for about three months—that being the period during which I suffered from the results of my first colliery accident. What great improvements have taken place since that time!

The greatest of all was brought about by the Act of 1945. As the noble Earl has justly said, no one political Party can claim any credit for that Act; it was the work of the combined Parties in Parliament, inspired by the feeling that something should be done in this matter. And that "something," when it was done, brought about a marked and fundamental change, far reaching and desirable in its consequences in dealing with what was one of our great human problems. It was a great scheme of reform and, as I have said, it was made possible by the combined wisdom of all political Parties. That Act was a great improvement upon the one which it superseded, for under the old Act almost every industrial accident became a potential source of dispute and, in many cases, of litigation between workmen and employers. There were many features of that measure which were unsatisfactory, and they were a constant source of friction and ill-will between the two sides of industry. The new scheme has cleared away much of the suspicion and bitterness created by the old one. On the whole, it has worked satisfactorily. As I say, it has had some anomalies, such as that with which this Bill is designed to deal. I would conclude by saying that, so far as we are concerned, we are going to expedite the passage of this Bill, and I hope that the Government will see to it that it is placed upon the Statute Book as quickly as possible.

On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.