HL Deb 11 December 1984 vol 458 cc198-203

7.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Lucas of Chilworth) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 15th November be approved. [2nd Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, these regulations will increase by 4 per cent. the amounts of compensation paid under the Act to those first satisfying all the conditions of entitlement on or after 1st January 1985. They are made under the Pneumoconiosis (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 which was debated in your Lordships' House early in 1979. While the Act does not provide for any review of the size of these payments, the Government nevertheless increased them by 40 per cent. for those first qualifying from 1st January 1983, by 5 per cent. from 1st January 1984 and now propose this increase of 4 per cent. from the beginning of next year. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State intends to review these amounts each year.

The Act covers the industrially contracted diseases of pneumoconiosis, which includes silicosis, asbestosis and kaolinosis, byssinosis and diffuse mesothelioma. Those suffering from these diseases, and the dependants of sufferers who have died from the disease, are entitled to seek compensation under civil law where they can show that the disease was caused through negligence, or breach of a statutory duty, on the part of an employer. In practice, however, it might prove difficult to pursue a claim where the employment giving rise to the disease ocurred a long time ago. In addition, the time lapse between exposure to the cause and diagnosis increases the possibility that the employer in question may have gone out of business before the sufferer becomes aware that he has a claim against that employer.

For these reasons, the Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 was introduced to provide a measure of lump sum compensation for those who are unable to claim compensation in the courts because there is no employer remaining in business against whom they would have a viable claim for damages. Those who apply under the Act do not have to demonstrate that their employers have been in breach of either a statutory or common law duty.

It has never been the purpose of the Act to provide an alternative to pursuing claims through the courts in cases where there is an employer available to sue. However, the Government have done all they can to assist those who have a previous employer still in business but where it could not be considered that they have a viable claim against that employer. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been as generous as the Act will allow him to be.

During the past 12 months we received 100 applications in addition to 26 applications outstanding at the beginning of that period. Of these, 81 applications were approved at a total cost of over £400,000. Thirty-one applications were rejected, mainly because there was still a relevant employer still in business. Fourteen applications are at present outstanding. The total of payments made under the Act since it came into force is nearly £27 million. From this I think your Lordships will understand that the large numbers of eligible people suffering from these diseases who awaited the coming into operation of these provisions have received their compensation. We are now mainly dealing with applications from people who have been recently diagnosed. That is a brief résumé of the regulations before the House.

Your Lordships will readily understand the importance of uprating the amounts of compensation the Government pay to those sadly disabled by these diseases. I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 15th November be approved [2nd Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Lord Lucas of Chilworth.)

7.36 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, let me say first that I am grateful to the Minister for the sympathetic manner in which he has introduced the regulations. I am also grateful, of course, for the increased amounts contained within them. These are very acceptable. I fulfilled this role about the same time last year. It may be that there will be a repeat performance by myself or someone else next year. I know that the Minister, because of his thoroughness and assiduity, will have taken the trouble to read the proceedings of the Statutory Instruments Committee that dealt with this subject on behalf of, and in, another place.

Noble Lords present will bear with me if I digress for a moment to refer to two or three of the Members who spoke during those proceedings and who obviously have a keen interest in particular matters covered by this Act. I know, as the Minister has said, that the Government have been generous and are continually keeping the situation under review. The noble Viscount, Lord Long, sitting alongside the Minister gave the undertaking last year. It is difficult to know where one could conclude this type of activity with any real conviction that one had reached the end of the road.

I refer first to Mr. James Lamond, the Member for Oldham Central and Royton in another place, who, over a number of years, has followed with great thoroughness and keenness the case of textile workers some of whom benefit from under the regulations we are discussing and some, unfortunately, who do not. I would ask the Minister to take note of the fact that there are still, as I believe—and certainly this is the case if one reads Mr. Lamond's observations—a substantial number of people in the textile industry, mainly women, who are outside any benefits from the past private employer and the present private employer. Although, as the Minister said, there is the right of recourse to litigation, they are frightened of the thought of going to court and the financial implications of doing so and therefore look to someone else to care for them.

One of the sad facts is that most of the women or ladies concerned are in their twilight years. While we may not be talking in terms of large sums of money when discussing some of the individual benefits under the Act, it is right to say that for those people they would be viewed as substantial amounts indeed.

I want to refer to the dedication that Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse has shown. He is an MP for a mining area who has on three occasions attempted to introduce a Bill in another place that would bring within the ambit of these provisions the terrible disease of emphysema. As most noble Lords will know, that is a terribly regressive disease. People can retire from work possibly visibly unaffected and then the disease starts to develop and take its toll. I wish Mr. Lofthouse every success in the future. I hope and believe that when the time comes Mr. Lofthouse and people who sympathise with him will be pushing at an open door in their approaches to a Government who have shown I think great sympathy.

I have to refer also to Mr. Peter Hardy, who is the Member for Wentworth, another mining area. Over a number of years he has persistently taken an interest in this type of thing and he spoke very forcefully in the debate in another place on this matter. I think it is as well that we place on record sometimes some of this rather unsung and unpublicised work that MPs of all parties do. It never reaches the press, or the media; it is not designed to be newsworthy. But it is one of the most caring things that Members of Parliament undertake; and, as I say, I do not make any special plea for my party. It is done by members of various parties in both Houses. I think it was because of the persistence of people from all parties that Governments, irrespective of their political colour, were persuaded that society as a whole owed a debt to such people and was prepared to shoulder that burden.

I am only too delighted, of course, that the Minister has indicated that the Government will keep an open mind on this, and if they err in any way in the future, I would hope and expect that it will be on the side of generosity.

If I appear to cavil a little, it is because of what I have read in the Hansard report of what the Minister said in another place when dealing with statutory instruments. It may be that what he said was said in a different tone than appears in Hansard. That could very well be the case. For the Minister's benefit, I point out that I am talking about the third paragraph of the report—which starts, "I do not wish". I do not want to quote, other than to say that the Minister said in that paragraph: We all know that the Act was right, but that getting it passed was part of a deal to keep the Labour Government going for a little longer.". If one just accepts that as it reads, it appears as though a shabby deal was done. But I can assure noble Lords—and I think the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who was involved in particular dealings at that time might agree—it was not quite like that. We knew that a Labour Government could not survive indefinitely. This particular Bill, as it was then, had a priority on the stocks. The question was, when would the General Election be? When would the Government be defeated? The Government of the day did not want to trigger off a Bill that would fall because that Parliament itself was coming to an end. What happened was that approaches were made to three Members of Parliament of one of the minority parties. They thought they were getting something more than the actual Bill. They were the ones who actually threatened the passage of the Bill unless certain things were done. The Conservative Party—the Opposition at that time—to their credit did not oppose the Bill. So that really had nothing to do with what I believe the Minister has been referring to. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, would concur with the facts that I have described but I think that they give the true picture.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

That is my recollection, my Lords.

Lord Dean of Beswick

It was not the Bill that was opposed; we were talking about three votes on something else which eventually did not matter anyway because the Government fell. I hope I have put the record right. It seems a little garbled, but that is what actually took place. I think the Bill had almost total support itself in another place at the time.

I believe that the last speech that was made in another place by the present Leader of the Opposition in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, was made on this very Bill. He made a very forceful speech, which I think convinced quite a few of the waverers that the Bill was justified and was necessary. Of course he was taken note of. Obviously the speech was made in the full knowledge that there were a lot of people in North Wales, working in the slate quarries and that type of industry, to whom the Bill related and who would benefit by it.

Having said that, I have great pleasure in saying that the 4 per cent. increase is very welcome. I have made the point that I know the Government and the Minister have given an undertaking to review this on an annual basis. I would hope that, as surely the economy starts to improve and perhaps more money is available for this type of thing, not only may the annual increase be slightly more than the current rate of inflation—to which this figure is about equal—but that we may also be able to look at the widening of the parameters relating to people who can be brought into this benefit, bearing in mind, as I have said, that most of the people involved will, I am sure, be in their twilight years. We are a caring nation and I believe that Members of all parties in another place and in this place will welcome such a development with open arms. I am grateful to the Minister for the way he moved the regulations and I close my remarks on that basis.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, we on these Benches should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for introducing these regulations. This is indeed, as has already been said, an annual event, and I think a very worthy one. It is a good scheme; it is a scheme which we all applaud.

I have one small question and one slighly larger question that I should like to ask. The small one is this. Although reference has been made to the generosity of the scheme and to the generosity of the Government, can the noble Lord tell me, if this is a regular uprating, why it has been decided to uprate by 4 per cent. rather that 4½ per cent. or 5 per cent., which I think are the expected increases in inflation? If we are going to have a regular uprating it would seem sensible to uprate by the forecast for inflation. It is only a small point but, on the other hand, if you took an award, let us say, of £10,000, an increase of 4 per cent. is £400, whereas an increase of 5 per cent. is £500; so it can make a difference.

My second point is a rather more general one. As the noble Lord will be aware, much more valuable research has been commissioned into diseases of the lungs and respiratory tract by the Medical Research Council. Would he not agree that properly funded medical research might go a long way to reducing these problems in the future and also, in fact, to reducing the requirements to draw on this fund? Will he therefore ask his right honourable friend to make sure that the Secretary of State for Education and Science keeps this in mind when assessing the Science Vote?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dean, and the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, for their reception of these regulations which I have just laid before the House. May I touch on one or two points? Yes, I do so agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dean, that there are many Members in another place who, unsung, pursue the interests of those less fortunate than ourselves, and that, of course, is absolutely creditable. It does not really matter what party they belong to, since the 1979 Act had the serious and intended support of all parties.

In regard to the difference between the spoken word and the written word, it is perhaps easy for those who were in another place in 1979, or, indeed in your Lordships' House at that time, when we first debated the Act, to remember what was really meant and intended; and so, although the noble Lord, Lord Dean, made a small quotation, I do not think he really expects me to pick that one up.

When one is talking about the efforts of Members of another place, and, indeed, others, I should like to remind your Lordships that the Act was originally introduced to provide lump-sum payments to those suffering from these certain dust-induced diseases, which are all characterised by so long a period. When a suitable opportunity arises, we hope to amend the Act so that additions may be made by regulations to the list of diseases. While the Government will consider seriously any requests for an extension to the list of diseases in the Act, the immediate purpose of this action is to maintain the original intention of Parliament by extending the Act to cover the two asbestos-related diseases which formed the subject of an announcement by the Secretary of State for Social Services on 16th March.

In regard to the extension, I understand that the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council has undertaken to study and report on chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Of course, neither the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, nor the noble Lord, Lord Dean, would expect me to comment upon that until the council reports to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, spoke about the figure of 4 per cent. I am sure he will recall that these amounts are calculated during September. Movement in the retail price index between January and August was 3.7 per cent. From January to 16th October, it was 4.4 per cent. It might well reach 5 per cent. by the end of the year. But it is necessary to start preparing the statutory instrument in September if it is to be laid in draft early in November so that it may become effective in January of the year following. It is for those reasons that the figure of 4 per cent. was reached. I think this looks right for this current year's review, which will be paid on 1st January. As I have said—I now confirm—the amounts of these payments will be reviewed during 1985.

I will of course give an assurance to the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, that I will pass on to my right honourable friend his comments with regard to medical research. I do not think he would ask me to do any more than that. Finally, I should like to thank both noble Lords for their acceptance of this Motion and for the sincerity with which they have spoken on this matter.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.30 p.m.

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

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.54 until 8.30 p.m.]