HL Deb 02 March 1954 vol 186 cc11-21

3.0 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill is an extension of the Pneumoconiosis and Byssinosis Benefit Act, 1951, an Act which was among the very first to which Assent was given in this Parliament; indeed it received the Assent a month and a day after Parliament met. At that time, whilst welcoming the Bill, the noble Lords, Lord Kershaw and Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, pressed for its extension to those who were partially disabled by these diseases. I should perhaps explain that these are lung diseases, which are serious, and in some cases are of a fatal character. Pneumoconiosis, which includes silicosis and asbestosis, is most commonly found among coal miners, while byssinosis is confined to the cotton industry. I was able at that time to say that the Government were carefully considering the possibility of such extension to partial disablement, and that if it was at all possible they would introduce a measure as soon as possible to cover that point. I now bring forward this Bill in implementation of that hope. That is to say, by a scheme which will be made under this Bill, benefits will be extended to those who are partially disabled.

Since July, 1948, all new cases have been covered under the Industrial Injuries Scheme. This Bill, like its predecessor, applies to old cases which, for one reason or another, were not covered by the Workmen's Compensation Acts. Two classes of case were not covered: first, where a man had left an occupation before it was covered by a scheme, and could not therefore recover compensation; and secondly where certification of disablement was not made within the time limit which had been laid down. This time limit was eventually set at five years, in most cases, for pneumoconiosis, and one year for byssinosis. These difficulties were met in the Act of 1951 by the provision of benefit paid out of the Industrial Injuries Fund in cases of total disablement or death. I might add that the scheme under the 1951 Act has actually been in operation since March, 1952, and there have been some 3,500 awards for total disablement and nearly 1,000 awards of death benefit.

Now the reasons why the 1951 Act was limited to total disablement and death were three-fold. First, at that date there was no firm basis on which to make even approximate estimates of the number of men partially disabled by pneumoconiosis and byssinosis who were without compensation because of the time limit I have mentioned. Secondly, and more important, there was difficulty in finding a practical basis for assessing the benefit for partial disablement. Payments under the Workmen's Compensation Acts were related to loss of earning capacity, but the "time-barred" men had left the occupation which gave rise to the disease so many years ago that there was no prospect of applying this particular criterion. Thirdly, the pneumoconiosis medical panels, which consist of doctors with the special experience needed for this difficult disease, would be strained in dealing with the examination of men claiming benefit for total disablement and would be overwhelmed if called upon to deal at the same time with partially disabled cases.

I think these difficulties have been substantially overcome. The difficulty of assessing the amount of the benefit to partially disabled men has been resolved by providing that the benefit shall be at the flat rate of 20s. a week—that is, half the allowance for total disablement. In all the circumstances, I hope this will commend itself to your Lordships on the whole as being a fair solution. As I have said, it was not practicable to vary the amount according to the loss of earning capacity, since this is no longer ascertainable. Nor is it possible to make the benefit dependent on the severity of disablement, because that would put a burden on the medical panels which they would not be able to sustain. And even on the basis of the present scheme the panel may well be called upon to examine clinically almost as many men as they are examining under the whole Industrial Injuries Scheme in one year.

This is a formidable undertaking, and much remains to be done before the scheme can be made under the Bill. Extra medical help must be obtained and arrangements made for medical examination which are, at one and the same time, fair to the claimants, and will make the best possible use of the time of doctors likely to be available for the work. The Minister will, however, see that the scheme is brought into operation as soon as the medical machinery is ready.

So far I have been talking only about pneumoconiosis and byssinosis, but your Lordships will observe that the Bill is not confined to these two diseases. It also covers other diseases which have been scheduled under the Workmen's Compensation Acts and have similar characteristics of delayed onset. The number of cases of these other diseases where delayed onset has resulted in a man's being left without compensation is almost certainly small. None the less the Government consider that such cases should be brought within the general scope of the 1951 Act and this Bill. One disease in this category is known as mule-spinners' cancer, of which there are known to be some cases, and there may be cases of other diseases. Mule-spinners' cancer has been brought on by certain types of mineral oil, which are now being banished from our mills and there is therefore good ground for hoping that young workers entering them will never again be exposed to this risk.

Turning to the Bill itself, your Lordships will notice that it is really an enabling Bill. Clause 1 enables the Minister to establish a scheme of benefit for any disease to which the Workmen's Compensation Acts apply and which, on account of its delayed onset, may give rise to cases in which no compensation can be recovered. Clause 2 enables the Minister to extend the operation of the 1951 Act to cases of partial disablement and provides that benefit should be at the flat rate of 20s. a week. It. also contains a provision which would enable the benefit to be paid as from the date of the claim. This is to cover cases in which some time has elapsed before medical examination could be arranged. I have already mentioned the difficulty which has to be faced in arranging. medical boarding. These examinations are bound to take some time, and the clause should ensure that those who are kept waiting do not lose benefit on that account.

Clause 3 deals with administrative expenses. The cost of benefit will be borne by the Industrial Injuries Fund, as provided in the principal Act. It is thought that the benefits resulting from this Bill may cost about £800,000 in the first full year of operation. My Lords, this is a short Bill arid restricted in its operation, but it is a Bill which sets right a long-standing wrong and can, I think, be assured of a welcome in your Lordships' House. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

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

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, I am most pleased to extend a warm welcome to this Bill. With my noble friends who sit behind me, I asked for such a Bill two years ago. I am sorry we have had to wait two years for it, though I understand that there were good reasons for the delay. I welcome the Bill, in the main, because I happen to have a number of friends who are afflicted by this terrible disease. They were friends of mine when I worked at the coal face myself. They are still living but they are suffering. They were excluded from previous legislation, and I am very pleased that they have been brought in now. The operation of this measure will not make their lives very enjoyable, but I am sure it will make them more endurable, and to that extent I warmly welcome the Bill. I also welcome it because of the extension of benefit. There are others outside the coal and cotton industries who suffer from the diseases mentioned, and I am pleased that they have been brought in. My welcome for this Bill would have been warmer if the flat rate had been higher, and if it had been related to the variations which may take place in the case of those on full compensation. There is no provision here for any such variation.

I was exceedingly pleased that reference was made to efforts that are being made to see that when the Bill becomes law there will be no delay in bringing it into operation. There are difficulties—that I can see—but I am sure they need not cause any extensive delay. I hope the Government will keep their eye on work for the prevention of these diseases. When you are providing for benefits to be given in respect of diseases the danger may sometimes arise that you lose sight of the necessity to be as active as possible in trying to prevent those diseases. In the coal industry, we realise how vitally important it is not only to help those who suffer from these diseases, but also to take action to prevent the occurrence of the diseases. I was much interested to see some figures which were used recently by the General Secretary of the Yorkshire Miners, who is also a past President of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. He stated that in the mines 219 miles of coal face needed treatment for dust suppression, but only 87.1 per cent. of that mileage had been treated. That is a reasonable percentage, of course, but I know that if the remaining 13 per cent., as it is approximately, could be dealt with, it would help a great deal. I hope the fact that we are seeking by this Bill to do justice to those who are suffering will not cause us in any way to delay our efforts to prevent these diseases. This is a case where prevention is certainly better than cure. I repeat that I welcome the Bill.

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, may I also join in welcoming the Bill, the Second Reading of which has just been moved by the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk. This is a happy day for many suffering men, and the day the Bill becomes an Act will be a day of rejoicing for them. They are men who have hitherto come up against a blank wall, who thought that their claims in connection with pneumoconiosis had finally been defeated. The word "pneumoconiosis" sounds like something which scientists have recently discovered, but those of us who are familiar with the illness know that for long years it has brought to many of our fellow workers in the mining industry the most painful condition imaginable. Dust can cause much trouble in the mine. It can either, of itself, cause a vast explosion, or it can give rise to this fearful disease of the lungs. I remember that when I was at school I was told—and it is one of the few things I was told at school that I have always remembered—that every man swallows his peck of dust during his lifetime. My noble friend Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor can bear me out in saying that the miner often swallows his share of it in a day.

Like most miners, I have had accidents—and sometimes they were bad accidents—but the episode that remains most vividly in my mind is an experience which befell me when I was about twenty-four years of age. With a number of my fellow-miners I had to go into a new district of the mine, a district which was being reopened. I was working with a pony, in a very low place, and I had to travel at considerable speed. The dust in those old and previously abandoned workings was of such a depth that it came over the hocks of the pony. We had not been working very long before we found that our breathing was being seriously affected. We compared notes, and we found that we were all suffering in this way. We could scarcely breathe, and by the time we had finished our work we were in a somewhat rebellious state of mind. But we had not much energy left to give any manifestation of that rebellious spirit. I remember that when I went home, after ten hours work, I could not eat a bite. After having a cup of tea, I lay on the floor panting and suffering from a most painful feeling in the lungs. That memory is much more vivid than the memory of practically any accident that I ever had. We miners knew this disease as a serious one, but it was a disease that was not put on the compensation list for long years. Men used to say, "There is something the matter with my breath—I am getting short-breathed." We who had responsible positions in the mining industry, knew what it was, but the position was hopeless. For long we could do nothing to ameliorate it. So it was a very happy day for us when we finally got this disease of pneumoconiosis placed upon the Schedule of Diseases.

It is true, as the Minister has said, that this disease is not limited to mines. The workers at the lime kilns, I should imagine, must have a very difficult row to hoe in this regard. The workers in the iron ore mines sometimes must suffer ready and, no doubt, those in the steel industry are, at times, affected with it. Of course, in South Wales both pneumoconiosis and silicosis occur. Workers there have it, perhaps, on a wider scale than in most areas. But in every area where there are deep mines there is—or, at any rate, there used to be—dust on a vast scale. Now something is known of the dangers. I once read (I think the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, with his Home Office experience, will be interested in this) that most of the mine disasters since the beginning of the industrial era had their origin in an explosion, and—this was almost laughable to me—that the investigators spent most of their time looking for the light that caused the explosion. It was only in the early part of the twentieth century that it was agreed that explosions could be caused by spontaneous combustion. But in spite of the wholesale destruction and death due to explosions, I think that not the least of the dangers to the miner is the slow corrosion of a man's lungs by the dread agent which causes these diseases. What has already been done has given great happiness to all those who for a long time thought that this was a hopeless problem and who had to watch men gradually die, often in great pain.

There is one thing about the Bill that I want to say. It seems that one class of men are to he left out altogether—namely, those men who worked at collieries which became bankrupt. It was often the case when collieries became bankrupt, particularly during the depression years, that the companies had not taken the necessary steps to insure their workers on this account. Some of their men received a mere token payment; some of them got nothing. These men are not dealt with under the Bill. Fortunately, those who have been found to be subject to these diseases after they have left the mining industry are to come under the Bill. It seems hard that those men who lost their work through the bankruptcy of their employers should get nothing at all because this happened before insurance was made compulsory, but I am sure that the Minister who is handling this matter, whom I know to be in the advance guard of social legislation of this kind, will give sympathetic consideration to this class of case. I hope the Government have not abandoned the idea of giving these men some hope of being included in the scheme. I should like to press the claim made by my noble friend Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor. As he said, the cost would not be on a vast scale, and I should hope that the sum might be increased for the men suffering from these diseases, who, if they continue to live, suffer very painfully in the later days of their lives. I welcome the It touches only a small part of industry, almost an insignificant part, but it touches men who suffer severely.

3.24 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add my welcome to this Bill, and also to ask the noble Earl. Lord Selkirk, a question. From what he said. I was not quite clear whether there were enough doctors to do this work in a reasonable length of time. If not, what steps can be taken to get the matter speeded up, because in diseases of this kind prolonged delays are painful to those concerned and cause doubt and despair? Perhaps I am wrong, but I gathered from what the noble Earl said that there was a shortage of doctors in this respect. I should like to know whether that is the case and, if it is, what is being done to remedy it.


My Lords, in order that noble Lords opposite may not have matters entirely their own way, I should like to say that we on the Back Benches on this side of the House equally with them welcome this Bill. It gives me singular pleasure to find myself for once—possibly for the only time in my life—in complete: agreement with the noble Lords opposite.

3.26 p.m.


My Lords, I welcome the Bill and congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, on having implemented the undertaking he gave to us when this matter was considered before, Two thoughts occur to me in passing. One is that one of the compensations of advancing years is to find that reforms we have advocated for many years come to fruition before we pass off this stage; and this Bill is one of these reforms. Secondly, I wonder whether, in the reexamination of spinners' cancer, some consideration could be given to the long time that the person must have worked in the industry before he can claim that his disability is due to this disease. Those of us who were interested in this subject years ago could never understand why a man must have been in the industry more than twenty years before he could claim that his disability was due to spinners' cancer.

The whole tenor of this debate shows that the people in industry have always been in advance of medical knowledge in these questions. Whenever legislation has been produced it has always followed many years after the industry concerned could have proved that the disability was due to working in the industry. That has happened repeatedly, and particularly in the three diseases we are considering today—pneumoconiosis, byssinosis and spinners' cancer, the technical name of which I cannot remember. It took many years of agitation by the trade unions and similar organisations before these three diseases were scheduled as industrial diseases. There is one other point which I feel is worth mentioning, because it follows something that my noble friend Lord Macdonald urged a moment ago. It is gratifying to know that the oil which is used in the spinning industry is now of such a nature that it is unlikely to produce this particularly pernicious disease from which so many people suffer. Prevention is the most valuable thing at which we can aim, and I am glad to know that this has been and is our aim.

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lords who have spoken for the warm welcome which they have given to this Bill—and I may say that I felt sure the House would give such a welcome to a Bill of this character. We are always glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, tell us of his personal experiences, because he speaks simply, directly and vividly of what he knows. The point he made with regard to the position of men who have received, or are due to receive, compensation from firms which have gone bankrupt, is not an easy one. I am afraid we have adopted the precedent which has been followed in such Acts as the Industrial Injuries Act and the Workmen's Compensation (Supplementation) Act, 1951, and have not covered that point. I do not feel that it should be covered in a relatively small technical Bill of this character. As the noble Lords knows, anyone who ranks as a creditor with a bankrupt firm for workmen's compensation purposes has a high priority in the composition, and it would require to be viewed strictly from that point of view before any change were made. These people, of course, are not the only ones who suffer: there may be men who receive workmen's compensation in a lump sum which, owing to the fall in the value of money, or for other reasons, becomes worth much less. I do not think this is the sort of Bill in which to deal with that particular point.

The noble Lord, Lord Haden-Guest, asked about doctors. The answer to his query is that there are not enough doctors who are fully experienced in this rather specialised and, as I understand, difficult category of work. However, steps are being taken to do all that is possible to use to the full the doctors available, so that their time is used in the best way possible, and in order not to keep people waiting more than is necessary. But the people who may apply will be considerable in number, and the clinical examinations may be equal to, or possibly exceed, the total number of examinations now carried out in a year under the Industrial Injuries Act, which is a large number. The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, referred to prevention, which is, in a way, far the most important thing. I am glad to say that a good deal is being done in that direction, as the noble Lord probably knows. Research work on pneumoconiosis is being carried out in the Welsh National School of Medicine, and in the Universities of Durham, Edinburgh, London and Sheffield; also there is what is known as the "Twenty-pits scheme," where employees are kept under frequent X-ray observation, so that clinical developments, if any, can be closely watched. Considerable importance is attached to that experiment. Further, the National Coal Board attach great importance to the question of dust suppression. It is not for me to judge: how satisfactory their performance is, but certainly the great majority of coal faces, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, said, are already covered against the rising of dust. In any case, the National Coal Board are taking every step to see that dust suppression is spread as far as it can be. I would thank your Lordships once again for taking part in welcoming this Bill.

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