HL Deb 03 April 1979 vol 399 cc1834-48

Standing Order No.43 having been suspended pursuant to Resolution of 2nd April:

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill is designed to deal with a long-standing problem. Pneumoconiosis is a disease which occurs as a result of inhaling certain types of dust. It develops very gradually and continues to do so after contact with the dust has ceased. Many noble Lords will probably be familiar with the symptoms of the advanced stages of this distressing disease; essentially, extreme breathlessness, caused by loss of elasticity in the lungs, making the slightest exertion, even gentle walking, a painful effort. In the worst cases, sufferers are confined to bed and kept alive only by drugs, oxygen and, frequently, devoted nursing by wives or other relatives.

The majority of sufferers in this country are former coal miners and in 1974 the National Coal Board, which was faced with a large number of court cases as the responsible employer, set up a compensation scheme in co-operation with the mineworkers' unions in order to compensate those for whom it is responsible without incurring the costs and delays of litigation. But there are other industries which give rise to dust which can cause the disease. Slate quarrying is the best known but iron-ore mining, foundries, potteries and certain work with asbestos can also cause it, and some textile work can cause the very similar disease of byssinosis.

In law, the remedy for people suffering from these diseases is to sue the employer concerned for damages if they can show that he has been negligent. But because of the time it takes for the disease to develop, it can often be the case—Particularly in declining industries—that by the time the disease has been diagnosed the employer responsible no longer exists. We have for a long time been mindful that consideration should be given to the problems of these sufferers. However, the Pearson Commission on Civil Liability and Compensation for Personal Injury, which was set up in 1973, was known to be looking at the question of compensation for pneumoconiosis, and we thought it right to defer any consideration while it was doing so. When the Commission reported early last year, it felt unable to recommend that a special compensation scheme should be set up for such people. However, strong representations were made to the Government from a number of sources and they convinced us that we should look further at the matter.

The slow onset of pneumoconiosis and associated diseases, resulting in a higher possibility than in most other cases that there would be no surviving employers, gave ground for a separate consideration of the problems of sufferers from them. My honourable friend the Minister of State for Employment therefore set up on 2nd May 1978 an inter-departmental working group to review all the available evidence on the question, to obtain such further information and evidence as was necessary and to report back.

In the Queen's Speech last November it was made clear that we intended to press on with this re-examination. The first results of the working group's consideration became available in late January. In the light of those, the Government concluded that it would be right to introduce a Bill at the earliest possible moment to provide State compensation specifically for sufferers from pneumoconiosis, byssinosis and the closely associated but more acute disease of diffuse mesothelioma, or to the dependants of deceased sufferers, provided that there was no employer for whom the sufferer worked in work where he could have developed the disease who was still in business and therefore capable of being sued for damages, and that no claim for damages had been brought in the past against any such employer. The effect of these restrictions is to limit compensation to those who have no employer to sue, and to avoid a situation in which the State would in effect be shouldering the responsibilities of existing employers as an alternative to their facing action in the courts.

Although the Bill does not provide for Northern Ireland, I understand from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that urgent consideration is to be given to enacting corresponding legislation for Northern Ireland by means of an Order in Council subject to Affirmative Resolution made under the Northern Ireland Act 1974.

In view of the circumstances in which the House is meeting, and the publicity which the scheme has already attracted, the House may wish me to bring my introductory remarks to a conclusion. I very much hope, however, that it will be clear from what I have said that we have been anxious to help these sufferers for a long time. We were inhibited by the existence of the Pearson Commission; once its report was available we quickly set up a working group and since the group reported two months ago we moved with all possible speed to get this Bill published. The other place has now given the Bill a Third Reading, and I am sure that noble Lords will wish to join me in welcoming this long awaited and deserved measure. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Wallace of Coslany.)

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, the Government may be assured that from this side of the House the Bill is to be welcomed because it fills a very important gap in legislation. It arises from the need to provide a scheme additional to the existing voluntary scheme of compensation managed by the National Coal Board in association with the National Union of Mineworkers. Your Lordships will already be aware that pneumoconiosis is a disease which is contracted as a result of inhaling certain types of dust. Although the Bill arises directly from the problem of the dust encountered by slate quarry workers, I understand that its terms will be sufficiently wide to cover a number of occupations as well as a number of different types of disease. For instance, asbestos is also a cause of a type of pneumoconiosis. I should mention here in parenthesis that the Simpson Committee on asbestos, which was set up in 1975, has still to report.

This whole subject has concerned the Government for a very long time. I understand that papers were submitted to the Home Office as long ago as 1906. In fact, the subject has been known about in official circles since the setting up of the alkali inspectorate almost a hundred years ago. While bearing in mind the time that has passed, it is very distressing to realise the extreme difficulties of handling a measure of this kind. The Pearson Commission on Civil Liability and Compensation for Personal Injury was a very important body. It said in its report that it was, unable to recommend that a special compensatoin scheme should be set up". We can imagine that the Pearson Commission went into very great detail on this subject. There was a later development when the Prime Minister said in a Statement on the Pearson Commission: A special scheme for slate quarrymen will have to be devised, just as there is for sufferers of pneumoconiosis in the coal pits". There is very great difficulty here because we are concerned not only with the diseases listed in the Bill—and I admire the noble Lord's pronunciation of those diseases—but with other related industrial causes of disease which arise in other occupations. I have in mind, for example, the textile and potteries industries, as well as the industry in Cornwall where kaolinosis arises from the mining of china clay. There is a particular difficulty here because the Pearson Commission reported as follows: Any State scheme would, in our view, have to compensate all employees who had failed through no fault of their own to obtain tort compensation". We understand that under Clause 2 of the Bill the person who is disabled has to pass a series of tests. These tests relate to a situation in which the person concerned has been unable to claim from a previous employer and, furthermore, has not brought any action against a previous employer in respect of the disablement in question.

We hope that the Bill will have a swift passage through your Lordships' House. We also hope that the arrangements for carrying out the terms of the Bill will be as straightforward as possible. However, there are a number of problems of administration. It must be recognised that responsibility will be shared by two Departments. In the Department of Employment, officials concerned will have to co-ordinate their activities with the medical panels which are responsible to the Department of Health and Social Security. In cases of appeal, medical arbitration tribunals will be involved, and their work in this field will be unusually difficult because so many cases are old cases arising from injury incurred in time past. The present compensation scheme, as operated by the National Coal Board, provides for compensation to dependants of workers who died before 26th January, 1970. We hope that the new scheme will be sufficiently wide in its terms of reference so that all those cases which fall within the categories set out in the Bill can be reviewed.


My Lords, I wish to say on behalf of those who occupy these Benches that, although the manoeuvres which were carried out in order to give the Bill priority could be criticised, the virtue of the Bill itself and of its intention cannot. We welcome the Bill, and we hope it has a speedy passage.

4.47 p.m.


My Lords, I want to raise a question which has given me concern. I have not had an opportunity to read the Bill, but I must say that at first sight it appears to be extremely attractive. I believe that the new method of drafting may result in a widening of the ambit of the general approach to the question of diseases of the lungs. What worries me—and this may be due to my own lack of diligence—is that from this somewhat complex document or the introductory remarks I have not been able to discover from where the definitions come. There is a reference to byssinosis, which has had a very long history, but as we are almost upon the eve of the Election I shall not speak about that, although if I am still alive after the Election I propose at the earliest possible opportunity to speak of the bi-party record. On this occasion—and mostly—the Labour Party record has been a little better. It took years before anyone would believe that there was such a disease. This matter has a long history. I recall, for instance, the regulation under which compensation was granted only if one had worked for a long time—I think it was 10 years—in a specified portion of the mill where cotton gathered. There has been a whole series of limited measures.

I am indebted to my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell who has been good enough to supply me with details of two orders relating to this matter, both of which are due to come into force later this week after the House has risen. So far as I know the rising of the House will not present any technical problem regarding the coming into force of the orders.

The reason why I ask this terribly important question—and I think it must have been raised in the Commons, but I have had no opportunity whatever of obtaining a copy of the Official Report containing yesterday's debate in the Commons—is: What has happened to asbestosis? That is the point; because, in all the many discussions we have had on this matter over a long time, while it is acknowledged that mesothelioma can have different manifestations—and certainly, in a sense, it is the most erratic of all, in that it may occur very quickly after contact or it may lie dormant and not develop for a very long time—in referring to mesothelioma we were always referring to a disease of the cavity of the body (the pleural cavity, I think), whereas in the case of asbestosis we were pri- marily talking of a poisoning of the inside of the lungs by the direct inhalation of dust. In other words, mesothelioma, admittedly generally of quite exceptional gravity and offering a far lower percentage of opportunity of cure, was actually caused by the infinitely minute particles which enter the lung in a slightly sharp state, pierce the lung and form a tumour on the outside.

Of course, my Lords, if this Bill refers to mesothelioma—and I should be glad if my noble friend would interrupt me if he wants to, because I have no desire to waste the time of the House—and if my noble friend can say that there is a statutory definition saying that the word "mesothelioma" now includes asbestosis, then that would meet my apprehensions. Of course, the overwhelming number of sufferers from asbestos are cases of asbestosis—and all these words were fully used, of course, in the report on the mill at Hebden Bridge and by the Ombudsman, and have been known as such since. Is it intended to include asbestosis? If not, then a grave measure of injustice is being done to people whose sufferings are just as great; who, indeed, in all ways of measuring suffering, are on an equal basis. Is it intended to include asbestosis, or is this Bill being slipped through? I cannot think that this Government would do it, and I cannot think that the Commons would let them do it, except that I cannot think that I ever visualised a situation in any House of Parliament similar to that which we are seeing at this moment, when it is a virtually impossible position for most devoted Members—and I see a most distinguished medical Member sitting on these Benches now. I gather that at least some information is being brought down to my noble friend from Mount Olympus.

4.54 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend on the Front Bench that I was not in my place when he moved the Second Reading of this Bill, but I was delayed in another place, and the business here is going through, not with the speed of the greyhound but with the speed of the jet. I do not propose to take up a lot of your Lordships' time, but I wanted to rise in my place and give a warm welcome to this measure. I remember when, in 1974, a similar measure was introduced which applied only to coal miners, and I am glad that this benefit is now to be extended to those who are the victims of a dust disease—quarry workers, slate quarry workers and textile workers. I am delighted that the ambit of this benefit has been extended to bring in these people.

I was interested in the remarks that were made by my noble friend Lord Hale, which took my mind back quite a long time now, to when, in the old workmen's compensation days, there was no benefit at all—that is, until 1928—and a person had to be medically certified as suffering from silicosis. Pneumoconiosis is quite a new word; it was not coined until 1943, at the time of the Coalition Government. But the main point I want to make, my Lords, is that in 1928, when it was first prescribed, not only did a person have to be suffering from silicosis but there had to be a certain percentage of silica in the strata in which he was working. Those of us who have been connected with the coalmining industry for quite a long time know the sufferings pre-1928, when there was no benefit at all, and can remember how difficult it was, the principle of benefit having been laid down, in fact to get it because of this condition that there had to be a certain percentage of silica in the strata in which the individual worked.

What I should like to say in a few brief moments is this. I do not think we should make the mistake of thinking that the benefit embodied in this Bill applies merely when a man has been certified as suffering from pneumoconiosis. It goes beyond that. What is proposed in this Bill, as was proposed in the 1974 Bill referring to the coal mining industry, is the payment of damages at common law. My mind goes back just a few years, to 1946, when it was most difficult to get damages at common law arising out of an accident in employment on the grounds of negligence by the employer because there was another hurdle to get over, and that was the doctrine of common employment. I recall that my very good and close friend, who was the Minister of National Insurance at that time, Mr. James Griffiths, set up a committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Walter Monckton, to investigate the question of alternative remedies. I could tell a story about this, my Lords, but time does not permit. The majority report of the Monckton Committee removed the doctrine of common employment, and, since then, it has been much easier to sustain a claim for damages at common law arising merely out of the negligence of the employer. It has a long history and there are lots more details which I could but will not go into.

I should like to ask the Minister this question. When the regulations are produced at some time in the next Parliament, will the scheme be identical with that of the coalmining industry of 1974? Will the amount to be paid in the form of damages in this scheme be on the scale of the benefit that has been determined by the pneumoconiosis panels; and will the age of the individual who is so disabled also be taken into account?

The coalmining scheme during the past few years has worked out very well and there appears to have been satisfaction at that time among coalminers in general that at long last, without going to court (with all the costs involved and all the possibilities of losing the case) a scheme like this has been brought forward to give damages at common law for the people who have been certified as suffering from pneumoconiosis. For that reason I am very happy to welcome this measure and to wish it every success. It will be of great benefit to those who are the sufferers and who will be the beneficiaries under these proposals.

5.2 p.m.


My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow two noble Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Mansfield, and the noble Lord, Lord Hale, who have taken a very great interest in the past in this matter of pneumoconiosis. I can remember Lord Hale years ago making speeches about byssinosis in the other place. Now we have also the disease of mesothelioma. One of the problems in the past has been that of attributability; but as on the one hand protective devices have increased and have become increasingly used, and as on the other hand medical science has advanced, I believe that I am right in saying that it is easier now to determine attributability than it used to be.

We are dealing here with diseases which can take a long time to develop. I am not certain how long what I might call the cumulative diseases like pneumoconiosis and byssinosis take to develop, but they seem to vary considerably with different people. On asbestosis and mesothelioma, we have before us a very distinguished doctor who will probably know all the answers to this; but my impression was that mesothelioma was a rather different disease from a purely cumulative dust disease, in that something like asbestos can provoke the disease after quite a short exposure. In fact, one of the difficulties is that it affects not only those actually directly engaged in the industry but may affect a great many other people. For example, I happen to be likely to be associated with this in another capacity before very long, and there seems to be strong evidence to show that the wives who washed the clothes of people engaged in asbestos work were liable to contract mesothelioma—a very nasty disease which affects not only the lungs but the heart as well, although they interact.

From the way that the Bill is drafted, it looks as if there is a considerable backlog of people who will benefit very soon. If noble Lords will look at the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill, it reads: The cost of payments under the scheme is expected to total up to £4,500,000 in the first year, and to decline thereafter to not more than £75,000 per year". There must be a great many people who are waiting in the hope of compensation either for what they themselves have suffered or for the premature demise of, say, their spouse. I notice from the way in which the Bill is drafted that it would seem to apply not solely to people who actually have been working in, say, an asbestos plant; because Clause 1 says: If, on a claim by a person who is disabled by a disease to which the Act applies…". It does not say "has had to be working in a form of manufacture or service" and so forth. The noble Lord, Lord Blease, as a Belfast man, will know a great deal about this. It does not have to be simply someone working on manufacture or service but could be someone who has been quite unexpectedly and indirectly affected by the disease. I hope the noble Lord will be able to tell us that that is so.

Lastly, on the amount of compensation, I do not know whether the noble Lord will be in a position to answer the inquiries of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Mansfield, but the fact that there is no mention of this in the Bill seems a clear indication that the Bill has been brought forward fairly quickly and, perhaps, before full consideration had matured. However, for my part, I do not complain about that. The mere fact that one has all these people waiting to be compensated in, we hope, the first year—though I imagine it will take a long time to assess the complaints and to examine, that is what the Explanatory Memorandum says—would, in itself, be a justification for bringing forward this Bill.

5.8 p.m.


My Lords, I simply want to add my support to this Bill. It is very difficult to deal with all the various aspects of the Bill but I think that the greater the number of Members of this Chamber who welcome the Bill and ask for as much compensation as is possible to be granted and as quickly as possible, the better. I find it rather difficult to imagine that any Government should wait so long before producing a Bill of this kind. I represented an area where a lot of miners were employed. It took a very long time to get their original problem dealt with. I should have liked the noble Lord who introduced the Bill to tell the House how many applications had been put forward to either Government or all Governments before the Bill was introduced.

It is very difficult to deal with technical matters of this kind when a Minister simply gets up and introduces a Bill; for really one has not had the time to get all the facts. I think that this is a very important aspect of a matter of this kind which apparently deals with a large number of our industrial workers who are waiting anxiously for the scheme. If so many are waiting so anxiously for the scheme, I cannot understand why it has not been introduced before. It is not for me to try to go into any technical matters relating to the Bill because I am not in a position to do so. If the noble Lord could give any detail as to when these people who are now waiting put forward their case, and when either the present Government or the last Conservative Government just let it pass without taking any action, we should like to know that. That is something that will worry most people in your Lordships' Chamber.

I am not going to say very much more because I am not a technical person. However, I have enough knowledge of the work of miners to know what a long time they had to wait before their scheme was introduced and passed by both Houses of Parliament. If possible, I should like the noble Lord to give us a past history, irrespective of where the complaints came from or where the opposition arose, I should like to know that, and not just be told that a large number of people are waiting. If that is so, they ought to have been dealt with long ago. I should be very upset to think that any Member of your Lordships' House had opposed this measure or not taken any action when that could have been done. It is difficult to go into the details now.

I want to give my support to the Bill because I think it is tremendously important that where a genuine industrial disease exists it should be dealt with immediately. Any past history of the disease that is now under consideration would be of immense interest to people like myself. I should like to know more about the history. Just to bring this measure forward and say that there are all these people waiting is one thing, but they never should have had to wait. That is my view and I give my greatest support to the Bill.

5.13 p.m.


My Lords, I cannot disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ward. It is about time that this Bill was produced, put through the House and into operation as soon as possible. I agree with her. I gave a little past history, but it goes further back. There have been difficulties and problems, and commissions, and so on. One of the inspiring things was the action of the National Coal Board in setting up their scheme which sparked off a way out of the problem which had emerged. I welcome the support of the noble Baroness and am grateful for the passionate welcome that she gave to the Bill. I hope that all those concerned will take note.

As the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, said, this does not cover only quarry workers in the slate industry, it covers a number of industries: iron ore, mining, potteries, slate quarrying, textiles, asbestos and a number of others. So far as the limits are concerned, they are set out in Clause 2. Under Clause 10(2) of the Bill, all definitions, unless otherwise required, are those in the Social Security Act 1975 or in regulations made thereunder. The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, said that there must be some degree of co-operation between the Department of Health and Social Security and the Department of Employment. Yes, indeed, that is so. I can say quite definitely from my own immediate experience that that is the case. There must be co-ordination between the two Departments to carry this into full effect. There is the necessity, as things are at the present time, for the two Departments to work together.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ward of North Tyneside, has pointed out, and I agree, that it has taken a very long time to produce this Bill; but the point is that the Bill has been produced. May I say without causing any difficulties in the House—and I do not want to do so at this stage—that it was not anything to do with so-called arrangements. I have seen all the records and I can say that there were definite attempts made to bring the Bill through. It was certain that three Members of Parliament in another place asked for the Bill under certain conditions. That is all right. May I say that a promise made then is a promise kept now. Whatever the arguments in the media, a promise made has been kept; and that is to the credit not only of the Government but to the Houses of Parliament as a whole. Let us forget all this silly nonsense in the newspapers.

I welcome the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, who has since disappeared—I was going to say in a cloud of dust, but that would not be appropriate at the present moment. So far as my noble friend Lord Hale is concerned, I can be quite definite that asbestosis is included. There are involved a number of diseases and pneumoconiosis, byssinosis and diffuse mesothelioma are included. The prescribed disease of pneumoconiosis embraces silicosis, asbestosis and some of the respiratory diseases, such as kaolinosis or china clay disease, as was indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Sandys. So the noble Lord, Lord Hale, can rest completely content that asbestosis is included.

My noble friend Lord Taylor of Mansfield raised a point which I can answer right away. The payments of compensation under regulations made under this Bill will be broadly comparable to those provided under the National Coal Board compensation scheme. Although it is not exactly the same, it will be comparable. That will satisfy my noble friend.

The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, referred to people other than workers contracting disease, and to the worker's wife washing clothes and contracting asbestosis. I am afraid that in the Bill only workers are included. Of course, any legislation introduced into Parliament can always be subject to amending legislation. It may be—I do not know—that investigations may prove that there is a real need. I cannot tie any Government or party down to it; but the point the noble Lord made attracted my interest and I hope it will attract the interest of others.

I should like to point out that the Bill, apart from covering workers, benefits widows and dependants. If noble Lords saw at least one example of the effect of this disease—it concerned a gentleman on television—they will hasten to get the Bill into force at the earliest possible moment. So far as Lord Drumalbyn's point about diffuse mesothelioma and whether it differs from other diseases is concerned, it differs from other diseases in that a brief exposure can create it. However, like the others, it is very slow to emerge; but certainly a brief exposure can create it. I hope I have answered all the questions put by noble Lords—


My Lords, if the noble Lord will allow me, one point was raised, by both my noble friend Lady Ward and my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn, concerning the number of cases likely to come forward. Can the noble Lord give even an approximate number?


My Lords, I am afraid I cannot. This is a very difficult one and, to put it in rather crude language, it means that no applications have been made yet because there has been no Bill. I cannot estimate the number. While there could be quite a number, and it is perhaps wrong for me to try to guess at it, I can hazard a possible hopeful guess. There might be up to 1,300 cases; that is at the moment, but others might come forward later.

I think that is the only point that I missed and now, if I may, I should like to say that I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, and to all the other Members of this House who have supported this Bill. I am extremely pleased that the Bill is about to go through. May I also say that, apart from Members of Parliament and Members of this House, there are a number of people in official jobs who are passionately concerned to see this Bill through. I thought I should reveal this fact, which I have learned through contact with some of those people. It is a good sign that the Bill will go forward and it means that, in the dying days and hours of this Parliament, at least another good Bill has gone through, thanks to the co-operation of everyone present.

On Question, Bill read 2a; Committee negatived.