HL Deb 19 July 1979 vol 401 cc1580-7

7.10 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979 be approved. A draft of it was laid before this House on 9th July. The object of this order is to provide for Northern Ireland what has already been enacted for the rest of the United Kingdom in the Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979, which was passed by your Lordships' House immediately before the Dissolution of Parliament earlier this year. As with the Act, the draft order now before your Lordships provides for lump sum payments to victims of dust diseases in such industries as the textile, pottery, quarrying and foundry industries who have, in the past, been unable to claim compensation because employers in whose employment they contracted the disease have gone out of business. The proposed scheme of lump sum payments also extends to those who have worked with asbestos in a variety of industries and now find themselves in a similar situation.

Your Lordships will already be aware of the extremely distressing symptoms of pneumoconiosis—a term which embraces the conditions also of silicosis, asbestosis and kailinosis. Indeed, it would be wrong of me at this point not to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Hale, who I know has often expressed his anxiety in your Lordships' House in particular for sufferers of byssinosis in the cotton industry.


And, my Lords, I will do it again in a minute.


My Lords, the disease develops very gradually as a result of inhaling certain types of dust and continues to do so long after contact with the dust has ceased. The main symptom of the advanced stage of the disease is extreme shortness of breath caused by a lack of oxygen getting to the bloodstream because of damage to the lungs. The slightest exertion, even walking, becomes a painful effort. The worst sufferers become bedridden and are only kept alive by drugs, oxygen and devoted nursing.

Sufferers of byssinosis and diffuse mesothelioma display similar symptoms, and your Lordships will see that the order also makes provision for compensation to be paid to sufferers of these diseases. Byssinosis can affect textile workers, and the provisions of the order are therefore very relevant to Northern Ireland, where there was once a thriving linen industry. There is now a situation there similar to that in certain slate quarrying areas in Wales, where sufferers are unable to obtain compensation by suing the employer concerned because he is no longer in business. Information available to the Government at present indicates that about 30 people in Northern Ireland might benefit from the scheme now proposed.

Noble Lords will see that the drafting of the order is somewhat different from that of the corresponding Great Britain Act, but I can assure your Lordships that its content is the same. Its main provisions are Articles 3, 4, 6 and 8. Article 3 provides that if the conditions contained in that article are met, those disabled by these diseases may submit claims for compensation to the Department of Manpower Services for Northern Ireland. Article 4 provides that where a sufferer has died, but where the conditions laid down in Article 3 would otherwise have been fulfilled, a claim may be made by his dependants. Article 6 provides for the reconsideration of a decision if there has been a material change of circumstances or the determination of a claim was made in ignorance of, or based on a mistake as to, some material fact. Article 8 provides for an appeal in relation to any question of law arising in connection with the determination of a claim or its reconsideration.

The Great Britain Act came into force earlier this month and claims for compensation may now be made by victims in Great Britain of the dust diseases I have already mentioned. I am confident that your Lordships would wish to ensure that sufferers in Northern Ireland of these diseases, or their surviving dependants, should be equally eligible for compensation. It is intended that the scales of compensation to claimants in Northern Ireland will be identical with those in Great Britain and it is intended they should become payable at the same time. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 9th July, be approved. —(Lord Elton.)


My Lords, if I may ask the noble Lord a question, I am not criticising; I am asking for elucidation. I am happy to say that I could hear the noble Lord much more clearly than I can hear on occasion. He made two remarks in the course of his speech which go a little way to satisfy my apprehensions. He said that asbestosis is included. Well, where? This is the problem. I hate to take the time of the House tonight; I should have been on my way home by now if this point had not cropped up and I had not been trying to find a solution. I apologise for not giving notice to the Minister, but until a very recent hour I did not know this matter was going to be discussed. Of course, we have not had a printed Order Paper for a long time.

I have been trying since, with the help of the Officials of the House in the Library, to settle the problem in my mind. The noble Lord said in his concluding remarks that the Act for England is now in force. Indeed, of course, it was passed immediately after the election. This was one of the Bills that were produced and passed through the Commons in the middle of one night, and which arrived here at 3 o'clock in the afternoon with several other Bills which we were told had to be passed by about 5 o'clock in order to get Her Majesty's Assent either late that night or the following morning.

I did, fortunately—unfortunately for me, perhaps—notice something that gave me cause for concern. It is an oddly named Bill—Pneumoconiosis (I think; I have not even got a copy of it), Byssinosis and Miscellaneous Diseases Etc. The word " Etc." I have never before seen in the title of a Bill, and it does seem to me a little vague in its implication when you are dealing with diseases. I know the noble Lord would not say something unless he had been told it and had reason to believe it. Is this Act in force? As I read that Act when it came before the House on 3rd April last—and it was a most welcome Act—it provided an almost new idea of procedure, but it provided also that a scheme should be prepared, laid before both Houses, to make it practicable for the procedure to be put into force. It introduced something quite new—the application of lump sums. I do not remember that it contained any definition of how the lump sums should be calculated. I did not notice whether it referred to Northern Ireland or not.

If the purpose of this order is merely to bring Northern Ireland into conformity with Britain, where is Britain? The difficulty is a little more than a purely academic one. It may be—and if I am wrong I will plead guilty and express my apologies—that asbestosis has been shunted in with the word " pneumoconiosis " in some parliamentary definition, but I have not been able to find it—the point arose only fairly recently; I am not suggesting I have been spending my life looking for it. If not, then I did raise the question during the debate on 3rd April, when we were all inhibited from speaking. I suffer from grave inhibitions in almost every connection. I said that diffuse mesothelioma does not include, in my view, asbestosis. I can only go by definition. It is odd, of course, that asbestosis could conceivably be held to include diffuse mesothelioma.

I am not trying to make trouble or difficulty, but it seemed to me that no court could really say that it had found diffuse mesothelioma, which, of course, is generally caused by infinitely small sharp pieces of asbestos working through the lungs into the mesothelia and establishing what, alas! often proves to be can- cerous growths on the outer part of the lungs. Asbestosis normally bears a very considerable relationship with other forms of pneumoconiosis, silicosis and so on. But, what is distinguishing is that asbestos is of a poisonous nature ipso facto and therefore it would be unlikely to be included in the long list of diseases of our time originating from vairous industries and so on which we have discussed and in respect of which amendments have been made.

I should like to get it on record and, if possible, on to the noble Lord's notes, that the definition in respect of byssinosis has, over the years, been confined to a limited number of workers who had to establish that they had worked in the mill for 10 years in the first instance. Years later it was reduced to five years; then it was reduced again, and I think that I am right in saying that some time early this year a separate order was made which virtually meant that byssinosis was classified as a disease without any particular limitations of employment at all and it was brought quite comfortably into the scheme. I do not want to use up the time of the House so if the Minister would care to interrupt me, I do hope that he will do so. However, has a scheme for England been arranged and put into force? If so, when was it brought before Parliament? I am not saying that I cannot make mistakes or go through these long lists day after day—


My Lords, I am seized of the question which the noble Lord is putting and I also have the answer. However, I think that the tradition of the House is that I should answer all the questions at the end of the debate.


My Lords, I am very grateful and if that is done—


My Lords, is the noble Lord addressing the House or sitting in his seat? I am a little confused.


My Lords, certainly I was in my seat and saying " Very well " However, if I do not clearly understand the Minister's reply, I hope that I shall be able to interrupt him.


My Lords, I shall not delay the House for more than two minutes. First, part of what I wanted to ask has already been asked. Secondly, I want to pay a tribute to all those people—on whichever side of the House they may be—who have worked over the years to get some clarity about compensation for those who suffer from pneumoconiosis, particularly, in the mining and pottery industries.

I have known men who could not do up their bootlaces. In my own rugby playing days I have seen fine rugby players finished at the age of 25 and cutting coal in the anthracite mines of Ystradgynlais and West Wales. At last we now have the opportunity of old claims being made regarding old mines and mine owners who have disappeared.

As a Minister at one time, I had the pleasure in another place of moving a little step forward. I want to pay a tribute to the work of my noble friend Lord Hale and to an old colleague of mine who has now passed on, the late Dr. Stross, who was the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent and the adviser to the North Staffordshire miners on this problem.

We have had a very tough day and I should like to pay a tribute to the noble Lord who is bringing this order forward. I hope that he will clarify the questions that have been asked by my noble friend Lord Hale. Incidentally, my Lords, I have spoken for only one minute.


My Lords, I certainly welcome the order before the House and the interventions of my noble friends from this side. I noted that in his remarks the Minister mentioned that asbestosis would be included, and I would welcome clarification of that particular matter.

I should like to conclude by saying that I know that the unions in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland have for a long time campaigned for this legislation. I think that these measures will be welcomed far and wide. In the context of Northern Ireland—I know that the Department of Health and Social Security has already issued some explanatory information—may I ask the Minister whether he would inquire if some form of educative or explanatory leaflet could be circulated about this matter. It would be of great benefit to the unions and those persons concerned. I support the order.

7.25 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad, as I indicated previously, to see the noble Lord, Lord Hale, in the Chamber on this occasion because he brings to this matter experience and expertise which I lack. However, he has raised two points of considerable force. First, he has asked whether the Great Britain Act is in force. Yes, it is in force, but it provides for the making of a scheme, and the scheme, as he rightly says, has not yet been laid, The reason it has not yet been laid is that the construction of an appropriate schedule of payments has proved technically a great deal more difficult than was originally envisaged.

I recognise the urgency of the case and the sufferings of the people entitled to benefit, and so do the Government. I hope that your Lordships will recognise that we have indeed carried straight on from where the last Adminstration left off without delay in the legislation and we shall be laying a scheme as soon as possible in the autumn. Draft regulations will be laid before your Lordships' House immediately after it reassembles in the autumn. In the meantime, it is already possible for claims to be submitted by victims of these diseases in Great Britain and it is the intention that it should be possible for similar claims to be submitted in Northern Ireland as soon as the present order comes into operation. In that connection I take well the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Blease. Personally, I am not apprised of the situation regarding explanatory leaflets. But if there is a need for them and it has not yet been met, I am sure that it will be.

The noble Lord, Lord Hale, also raised the point about the inclusion of " asbestosis " in the Bill. Although less expert than him, I also noticed that discrepancy and I made stringent inquiries. I am assured that the term " asbestosis " is embraced by the terms included in the order. If that proved not to be the case it is contrary to the intention of the Administration. However, I do not think that we need provide against that contingency.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek—and how refreshing it is to hear from Wales again after my brief but enforced absence from that sphere of interest!—quite rightly gave great credit to Dr. Stross and others who have done much to champion this cause. I think it would be fair for me to say that in thanking me for anything I have done—which has been minimal to the point of invisibility—he was, of course, also thanking my predecessors who brought this matter so nearly to fruition. I am glad that this order apparently meets with the approval of your Lordships and I commend it to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.