HL Deb 20 June 1977 vol 384 cc423-30

4.8 p.m.

Lord WELLS-PESTELL rose to move, That the draft Pneumoconiosis, Byssinosis and Miscellaneous Diseases Benefit (Amendment) (No. 3) Scheme 1977, laid before the House on 23rd May, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it might be helpful if I first say a little about the scheme in general, and how it fits in with the overall pattern of provisions for industrial injury. Benefits for accidents and diseases resulting from employments after 4th July 1948 are provided by the Industrial Injuries Scheme, while those suffering from the effects of accidents or diseases resulting from earlier employment receive weekly payments under the old Workmen's Compensation Acts.

The purpose of the Benefit Scheme, as I propose to call it, is to fill a gap between those provisions. The Workmen's Compensation Acts had absolute time limits for claiming and so workers suffering from certain diseases, where the period between exposure to the cause at work and the disease first becoming evident can be many years, are unable to claim under the former Acts. Nor can they claim under the Industrial Injuries Scheme if they left the employment which caused the disease before that Scheme came into effect.

The Benefit Scheme which is made under what has now become the Industrial Injuries and Diseases (Old Cases) Act 1975 provides allowances out of the National Insurance Fund to workers suffering from these diseases who are thus debarred from claiming under either of the other provisions. It provides allowances for partial and total disablement, and additional allowances to meet certain special circumstances; for example, where there is a need for constant attendance, for which the Industrial Injuries Scheme makes provision for its own beneficiaries. Indeed, the purpose of the Benefit Scheme is to ensure that the payments its beneficiaries receive are broadly in line with those payable under the Industrial Injuries Scheme to those suffering from the same disease.

One of those diseases is byssinosis, a slowly developing respiratory disease which can disable workers exposed to cotton or flax dust in certain processes in the textile industry. The requirement in the regulations under the Industrial Injuries Scheme that a worker should have spent 10 years in the process has now been reduced to five years. The similar change in the amendment to the Benefit Scheme which is now before your Lordships has had to await the passing of the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act amending the requirement where it also appears in the Industrial Injuries and Diseases (Old Cases) Act, under which the Benefit Scheme is made.

It is a matter of some concern to us that it has taken so long, but we simply had to wait for the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act before we could repeal what was present in the previous Act. I know from personal experience that this caused some concern to some of your Lordships, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Hale, who over a period of some time asked a number of Questions, to which, let me readily admit, I did not give, and was not able at the time to give, very satisfactory Answers. I hope that the noble Lord will feel that we have accomplished something now. In a sense I think it could be said that it is in some measure a tribute to his persistency that we have reached the stage that we have reached.

The wording of the amending Scheme is designed to ensure that any further reduction in the period under the Industrial Injuries Scheme shall automatically apply to the Benefit Scheme, so that it should not be necessary to come to the House on this matter in the future. Because the Benefit Scheme refers to claims arising from employment which ended before July 1948, there are now rather less than 300 claims a year, and only a very few of these are for byssinosis. While, therefore, only the occasional case is likely to be affected by this change, I think it right that we should provide equality of treatment for any claim that does arise. I therefore commend the Amendment Scheme to your Lordships, because it does precisely that. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Pneumoconiosis, Byssinosis and Miscellaneous Diseases Benefit (Amendment) (No. 3) Scheme 1977, laid before the House on 23rd May, be approved.—(Lord Wells-Pestell.

4.14 p.m.

Viscount LONG

My Lords, we are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, for giving us this information which is vital and important to those who suffer from these diseases. I am also certain that many of the sufferers will be happy to know that this correction in the Act has now been made, though the timing for some of them, as the noble Lord said, was rather irritating. I came across pneumoconiosis three years ago when we were dealing with one of the Coal Board's Bills, and I had no idea how many sufferers there were at that moment. I noticed that the noble Lord said that with the other diseases there were 300 claims coming through a year. I wonder whether that figure includes pneumoconiosis as well, or does it relate to the other diseases? On this side of the House we would not hesitate to accept what the noble Lord has said. There must surely be happy relief now for those who, having had these dreaded diseases, want to claim.


My Lords, I, too, should like to say how glad I am that this Scheme has been introduced. Every now and again something crops up, particularly in industrial areas, which seems to have been overlooked. It has taken a long time to convince people that a scheme of this kind is necessary. I am very pleased that it has been introduced, especially because for many years, when in another place, I represented an industrial area, and I knew of the problems that could, and did, arise. So, I should like to offer my warmest congratulations, and to say how happy I am that the Scheme is being introduced.

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, I appreciate very much the clear statement made by my noble friend on the Front Bench. I venture to think that he made one minor error when he said that this measure brings this disease into conformity. So far as I know, this is the only lung disease in which it is obligatory upon the applicant for benefit to establish a long period of service in the nominated area of the factory which is supposed to be most liable to produce dust. Perhaps the noble Viscount, Lord Long, will take it from me that the figure of 300 relates to byssinosis. For pneumoconiosis there is an immense figure, for which special provision has been made. I suppose by far the largest number of claims emanate from work underground in the coal mines, for which the Government, in conjunction with the Coal Board, have provided very special benefits indeed, which they persistently deny to the cotton workers. I should also like to point out that the figure of 300 is partly due to the fact, as my noble friend will readily concede, that the cotton industry is at the moment providing far less employment than in the great days of Oldham when there were 800,000 people employed in it, when Oldham was known as the great cotton industrial town of the world. It may be that with our diversity of industries we have had some industrial compensation.

I turn now to the procedure of the Government so far as this particular aspect is concerned, and here I wholly exempt the noble Lord on the Front Bench, who has been most helpful and most courteous, and his colleagues who are investigating in massive detail the question of asbestosis, which is another form of pneumoconiosis, as indeed is byssinosis itself. A special problem of byssinosis is that it is a vegetable dust disease. It was not at all observable with the old X ray photography. Anyone who has seen a miner's lungs full of the metal will see something quite stupendous in its appearance. But the procedure of the Government has been rather on the line of Cardinal Newman's most famous hymn: …I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me". The Minister for the disabled has a considerable knowledge of, a profound interest in, and an earliest desire to deal with this problem, which has been an embittered political problem for 40 years. My first job was to try to help to get it scheduled as an industrial disease in the first place, and concessions have been made from time to time, though not many, because cotton does not involve many votes. Let us be frank: at this moment votes are the major concern of the Government, and their policy has to be based from day to day upon the defection of one here or the defection of one there. So we have had a series of useful steps, and I am grateful.

I hope the House will permit me just a moment to pay tribute to Dr. Schilling, whose investigations over many years, particularly at London University, where he was given ample provision for investigation, established the fact that byssinosis was byssinosis and not bronchitis, as the opponents of compensation were apt to say. I was told the other day that no doctor now doubts that byssinosis is an identifiable industrial disease, caused, of course, by cotton dust in the lungs.

My Lords, there are just two further points I should like to make. I take it—I do not think there is any doubt—that when this order comes into force it will not cone into force retrospectively, of course, but the five years of service will be calculated from the time it commenced. Of course, the application itself will be made after the Act comes into force, and must be made after the Act comes into force; and inasmuch as there is no res judicata in the case of applications for benefit, I have no doubt, too, that persons whose claims have been disallowed solely on the ground that they have not been able to prove 10 years' continuous employment in the nominated processes will now be free to re-claim if they can conclusively establish the five years. Those are the only two points I mention quite casually. I of course gave notice to my noble friend of my intention to speak, and I told him I was going to be as uncontroversional as I always am. I therefore do not propose to ask him a question which I may decide to put down for Written Answer in respect of certain other aspects.

My Lords, although regarding myself as naive and unsophisticated—and, indeed, in some matters, it has been conclusively established, gullible to the point almost of imbecility—no member of the class of sentient mammalia could fail to note, first, that these concessions have been made at a time when they are going to cost the Government a great deal less than they would have done had they been granted when the disease was rampant and the number of sufferers was many more. Secondly, the Government have never yet made that limited concession which would give to the cotton workers the benefits which have been given to the miners, particularly of course in relation to old cases in which people have nothing left now but to breathe away their lives with little resource at all. Thirdly, of course, the question of provision of this essential proof of employment, and so on, makes it much more difficult, according to the practising lawyers who know something about this branch of the law, to bring a claim for damages at common law. This point has already been won by asbestos workers and, so far as I know, by every other worker in the field.

Subject to that, my Lords, I thank my noble friend for his constant courtesy, and I am very happy to see something, if so little. It is not an easy time in Oldham. The Cardinal, in his hymn, referred to the difficulties. What are the words? I rely on the right reverend Prelate.

The Lord Bishop of NORWICH: Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on…".


I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate. The Cardinal himself suffered a great deal of unmerited "encircling gloom". I do not wish to see "the distant scene" myself, even though the Chancellor tells us, on his observations of his sea shells and a few glowworms, that a brighter scene may be with us in six months' time. I do not anticipate it myself with the same confid- ence, but I am grateful for the introduction of this Motion and for the passing of this order.

4.25 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for not being here when he opened his remarks, but I should like, if I may, to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hale, because I remember what happened in the other House and in this House when we had debates late at night. I think we all agree that he has been the moving spirit in getting some action taken. I should like to ask the noble Minister what the phrase "Miscellaneous Diseases" actually covers. It does not cover asbestosis, because there would then be no need to have this inquiry which is going on now in which we have all been asked to give evidence. So I would he grateful if the noble Lord could let me know whether, if any fresh information comes out of this inquiry, we shall have another order covering asbestosis or whether it will be included in the phrase "Miscellaneous Diseases" in this order. I thank the noble Lord very much for the interest he has taken in this extremely important subject. I hope it will be of great benefit to the many sufferers in future years.

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have taken part in this discussion today. It may appear that there is some difference between my noble friend Lord Hale and myself over a question which the noble Viscount, Lord Long, asked me. The noble Viscount, Lord Long, asked me whether these 300 cases all stem from byssinosis or pneumoconiosis. I think I must make this clear. I was talking about the benefit scheme, and under the benefit scheme—the one before your Lordships this afternoon—the 300 claims a year are mainly in respect of pneumoconiosis, and only a few of them in respect of byssinosis. That is under this scheme. As to the number of claims made under the industrial injuries scheme, there are far more claims for byssinosis than there are under this scheme. I think that probably answers the question.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ward, for her acceptance and endorsement of the action which has been taken. Again, if I may return to my noble friend Lord Hale who asked me whether the five-year period comes into effect immediately, the answer is, "Yes". Upon this coming into force, then those who have a five-year period of employment and who feel that they are entitled to make a claim will be able to do so. I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Hale about cotton workers and the concession which the Government made to the miners, but I hope I am not going to be misunderstood when I say that the Government made a substantial sum of money available in order that miners could be covered in this particular way because it was a nationalised industry and the Government have some responsibility. That is why, as I say, some special provision was made some time ago for miners. It has not been done for other groups because a Royal Commission is sitting at the present moment —the Pearson Commission—who are considering civil liability for personal injury. With great respect, I think that we must await the outcome of that.


My Lords, will the noble Lord permit me to intervene? Those of us who have been active in this matter have given up asking questions or making comments while the Pearson Commission, an excellent Commission, are sitting; and, indeed, Mr. Max Madden and Mrs. Taylor gave evidence before that Commission. Out of respect for the Commission, we have made virtually no reference except when implicit in a sentence or argument. Meantime, the employers have spent £400,000 on a special fund to issue propaganda about the disease. All noble Lords here, I know, have been circularised with coloured pamphlets and invitations to cocktail parties; and some of this propaganda has been exhibited to me. As I mentioned the word once, may I make clear that we are awaiting the report of the Royal Commission when we shall be able to discuss also the report from the Social Committee at Luxembourg on the matter which is a monumental document of great profundity.


My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, talked about miscellaneous diseases. Only two come to my mind. One is asbestosis; the other, the slow progressive cancers which can stem from certain industrial diseases.

On Question, Motion agreed to.