HL Deb 12 December 1983 vol 446 cc67-70

7.8 p.m.

Viscount Long rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16th November 1983 be approved.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I beg to move that the Pneumoconiosis etc. Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 1983 be agreed to. These regulations will increase by 5 per cent. the amounts of compensation paid under the Act to those first satisfying all the eligibility conditions on or after 1st January 1984.

The original payment regulations came into operation on 1st January 1980. The payment tables in those regulations were increased by 40 per cent. from 1st January this year by regulations debated in this House on 20th December 1982. This restored the payments to the value they had when first determined. This proposed further increase will once again restore the value of these payments.

The purpose of the Act is to provide for compensation, in the form of a single payment, to sufferers from the dust diseases pneumoconiosis, byssinosis and diffuse mesothelioma, where there is no former employer remaining in the business against whom a claim for damages might have been made.

The Act is not intended to be used as an alternative to seeking compensation through the courts. These diseases are in a special category as they are slow developing respiratory diseases. They frequently do not manifest themselves until well over 20 years after first exposure to the dust. They often continue to develop after exposure to the dust has ceased. A sufferer from one of these diseases is therefore at a disadvantage when he seeks to sue a former employer as there is a greatly increased likelihood that his employer will have gone out of business by the time he realises he has the disease and seeks to obtain compensation. The problem is particularly acute for those who worked in declining industries.

I now turn to conditions of eligibility. It is therefore a condition for payment under the Act that every relevant employer of the sufferer has ceased to carry on business. The Act explains that a relevant employer is any person by whom the disabled person was employed at any time while he was developing the disease and against whom he might have, or might have had. a claim for damages in respect of his disablement. In addition, the sufferer must be in receipt of disablement benefit and he must not have brought any action or compromised any claim for damages. Provision is also made for the payment of compensation to certain dependants of deceased sufferers.

Next, I come to applications and payments made. During the first 1 I months of this year there have been 186 fresh applications in addition to 38 applications outstanding at the beginning of the year. Of these, 133 applications were approved at a total cost of £570,000. Seventy-four applications were rejected, mainly because there was still a relevant employer still in business. Thirty applications are at present outstanding. Thus the total of payments made under the Act since it came into force is £25.5 million. Nearly 4,500 people have benefited.

In conclusion, these proposals will maintain the value of the compensation paid under the Act to people who are disabled by these distressing diseases and are unable to claim compensation through the courts. I understand that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State intends to review these amounts annually in the future. I commend the regulations to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16th November 1983 be approved.—(Viscount Long.)

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount. Lord Long, for the spirit in which he moved the regulations. They cater for people in society who, because of circumstances beyond their control, have gradually deteriorated through industrial disease and have no recourse to action against their former employer because the firm no longer exists. From various inquiries I have made, I understand that the largest group of applicants to and recipients from the fund is now textile workers. The noble Viscount is correct when he says that the applicants come mainly from the declining industries. I should think that steel smelting and engineering generally come a very close second to the textile industry. The number of applicants from those industries might even equal the number from the textile industry. At one time we had a tremendous industry in steel, iron and brass foundries. They were a large percentage of the engineering industry. Anyone who saw, even a few years ago, the conditions in which people were working in the fettling and blasting shops knows only too well the type of matter that was being inhaled. As the noble Viscount said. the disease is regressive. Very often it starts as a slight cough, but as time moves on it becomes very serious indeed.

I have taken the trouble, as I am sure the noble Viscount has, to read the debate in Standing Committee in another place. I do not put my arguments in the same way as the honourable Member for Bolsover, but he sometimes gets near the nub of the argument on what we should look to for the future. People who suffer from closely related diseases, such as emphysema, find it difficult to understand why they are not included in the scheme and why they are treated differently. To the ordinary man in a textile factory or steel works—whether the disease is silicosis or asbestosis—it means the same thing if he has a bad chest or bad lungs: the name of the disease does not matter. The man becomes an almost permanent invalid with no hope of recovery.

I am glad that the noble Viscount said that the Secretary of State was keeping the matter under review. Progress has been made in various industries in the type of extractors used, in damping down and in the types of spray used in these very difficult processes. The methods that were once used took a substantial toll of people's lungs, causing chest complaints, and so on. I hope that I am right in believing that the number of people contracting these diseases is diminishing. I have not seen figures for the past few years. If the number of applicants is diminishing, I hope that the Secretary of State and the Government will look not to reducing the overall sum but to erring on the side of generosity, being kinder wherever they can and, if necessary, substantially increasing some of the grants.

I am sure that the grants are extremely welcome, but we should bear in mind the additional things that the sufferers need to purchase and the type of life that they have to live. I have been round the homes of elderly people in industrial areas, as I am sure have other noble Lords. One finds the odd miner, dry grinder, and so on, who is a complete wreck and has no recourse to any claim because the company that he worked for years ago no longer exists.

I have been as brief as possible. It is a very human problem. I am glad that the noble Viscount said that the Secretary of State was keeping the matter under review. Speaking from this side of the House, I hope that when it is possible he will look at the compensation more generously, in which case everyone will be extremely grateful. I support the regulations.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, we on these Benches should also like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Long, for introducing these amending regulations. The scheme is clearly a good one as far as it goes. We understand that the intention is to uprate it by something in the order of 5 per cent. for the current or expected level of inflation.

I have one or two questions. The noble Viscount told us that last year 133 applications were approved, that there were some 30 outstanding and that 74 were rejected on the grounds that there were still existing employers or ex-employers. Does he have any evidence as to what has happened in the courts where applications have been made by the people who were rejected under the scheme? It occurs to me that there may be employers who have gone out of business and who may not be able to meet a claim of this nature.

I think I understood the noble Viscount to say that there have been 186 applications made during the past 10 months. I wonder whether he has any evidence of how many of those have been approved and how many have been rejected. Finally, does he agree that the regulations bring into prominence the great importance of the whole area of health and safety at work? Will the Government undertake that there will be no further cuts in this field?

Viscount Long

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Dean of Beswick and Lord Kilmarnock, for showing interest in these regulations, as they are particularly important. They concern people who can never be cured of these dust-related diseases. I welcome the questions that have arisen.

I should again make it clear that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State intends to review these amounts annually in future. They will never be allowed to slip away, even with inflation. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, spoke about keeping our eye on the disease. Medical research into these diseases continues. It is vital that it should.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, some of the worst scourges of industrial disease have almost disappeared because of new techniques. That certainly applies to the chemical industry and cancer-related diseases. I am sure that most people are pleased about that, but we wish to ensure that the process continues.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that intervention. The Industrial Acts have helped to wipe out some of the problems in the chemical industry, and so on. I was interested to hear the noble Lord quote the textile industry. The number of sufferers in that industry was fairly large. The mining industry also had an enormous number of people who suffered from dust-related diseases. In the textile industry there were 2,258 approved sufferers, and on top of that there were 276 dependants. I am glad that the noble Lord referred to the textile industry, since I feel that very few people realise how affected it is by its own problems. The noble Lord also mentioned the permanent invalids. This is a very great tragedy, it is a very nasty disease, and medical research must go on to find some help and cure for the sufferers.

The noble Lord questioned me on the figures for the present year. I can say that in the first 11 months of this year there have been 186 fresh applications. It appears that the numbers are balancing down to that figure from three, four, five or more years ago, when the figure was very much higher. So we are beginning to see and record the trend, and I think that that in itself is a help.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, asked me some questions, and if I may, I should like to write to him regarding the figures. I wish to thank him for taking an interest in these vital regulations, since we really must keep our eye on the sufferers from this deadly disease, pneumoconiosis, as well as diseases such as asbestosis and so on. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Dean of Beswick and Lord Kilmarnock, for their interest. If I have not replied in full to them, I hope that they will allow me to write should they need any further advice on the regulations. I am most grateful to them.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount for his response to my questions and I look forward to his letter.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.22 to 8 p.m.]