HL Deb 22 March 1988 vol 495 cc168-72

8.3 p.m.

The Earl of Dundee rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th February be approved [19th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, these regulations are to be made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979. They will increase by 8.5 per cent. the amounts of compensation paid under the Act to those who first satisfy all the eligibility conditions on or after 11th April 1988. They also take account of the changes made to the conditions of entitlement in Section 2 of the Act by the Social Security Act 1986.

The Act provides for lump sum payments to sufferers (and where the sufferers have died, to their dependants) from dust-related diseases where there is no former employer remaining in business against whom a claim for damages might be, or might have been made. The reason compensation is provided in this way for those diseases is because they develop slowly. The sufferer may not know he has the disease until long after he has ceased the work that caused his illness. It is often the case that by that time the employer in whose employment the disease developed has ceased to carry on business and it is therefore no longer possible for an action for damages to be brought through the courts.

One of the conditions for a sufferer or a dependant making a successful claim for lump sum compensation under the Pneumoconiosis Act, is that either disablement benefit or industrial death benefit has been received. The Social Security Act 1986 removed the award of the disabled benefit in some cases where the percentage disability is less than 14 per cent. and abolished industrial death benefit, although the Social Security Act 1988 retains industrial death benefit in respect of deaths before the 11th April, 1988.

The amendments to Section 2 of the Pneumoconiosis Act ensure that the following categories of applicants will not be disentitled to a payment under the Act merely as a result of those changes: first, sufferers or their dependants where the level of disability is less than 14 per cent. but at least 1 per cent. Secondly, dependants of sufferers who did not receive disablement benefit but who can at present make a successful claim for lump sum compensation under the Pneumoconiosis Act because industrial death benefit has been awarded. Such dependants would not be able to make a successful claim for compensation when industrial death benefit is abolished were it not for the proposed changes.

The amendments to Section 2 of the Pneumoconiosis Act mean that its disablement benefit condition will be satisfied if disablement benefit was disallowed solely because the level of disability was below 14 per cent; a posthumous award of disablement benefit was made; or the deceased died before he or she had suffered from the disease for the appropriate period under the statute, which at present is 90 days.

The regulations will come into operation on 11th April 1988 to coincide with the changes to the provisions relating to the award of industrial death benefit. Regulations 4 and 5 have been amended to take account of the changes made to the conditions of entitlement in Section 2 of the 1979 Act.

References to death benefit in the regulations remain necessary because such benefit will still be payable under the pneumoconiosis, byssinosis and miscellaneous diseases benefit scheme and industrial death benefit in respect of deaths before 11th April 1988 will continue to be paid. The pneumoconiosis medical board, the pneumoconiosis medical panel and insurance officer have all had a change of title and the regulations have amended references to those bodies accordingly.

The original payments regulations setting out a scale of payments by age and percentage disability came into operation on 1st January 1980. The Act itself does not provide for automatic uprating of those amounts but the Government have undertaken to review those amounts each year. A number of increases have been made since 1980, the most recent being in January 1986. The further increase of 8.5 per cent. is now proposed to take effect from 11th April. This increase takes account of inflation between January 1986 and 11th April this year.

I should like to add that the Government have done all they can to administer the Act in a sympathetic way. We recognise that each case is an individual tragedy and we are as generous as the statute will allow us to be. However, it has never been the purpose of the Act to provide an alternative to taking action in the courts, and the Department of Employment has to be satisfied that there is no employer against whom a claim for damages could be or could have been made. During the past 12 months we have approved 66 applications at a total cost of over £450,000.

Your Lordships will readily appreciate the importance of uprating the amounts of compensation the Government pay to those disabled by these diseases and the changes to reflect the revised Act.

I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 29th February be approved [19th Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Earl of Dundee.)

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the regulations, which are largely uncontroversial. However, I should like to make one or two points.

I note that the main purpose of the regulations appears to be to uprate benefits in the pneumoconiosis scheme in line with inflation. As far as that provision goes it is to be applauded and we on these Benches are happy about it. However, might it not have been more appropriate in a year where there is a substantial surplus available which has enabled tax cuts to be applied to the really well off, to have been slightly more generous in this area?

Pneumoconiosis is a progressive and extremely disabling disease. Those who suffer from it know that they have little to look forward to but increasing pain, discomfort and disability, leading ultimately to an early death. It is an occupational hazard for miners in an industry which is still one of the most dangerous in the United Kingdom. It also affects those who work in foundries. It is deeply distressing to the sufferer and also to the families of sufferers, but I gather from the Minister's statement that he understands this.

As the Government's intention is to review the amounts each year, I wonder whether it might not be possible on a future occasion to have some regard to the wages index when considering the degree to which uprating should take place. It seems logical to do so in a situation where the index is in fact very much higher than the rate of inflation and where benefit obtainable under the pneumoconiosis scheme is intended to provide some form of compensation for loss of earning capacity. However, with those comments, I accept the regulations but I should like the Minister to take account of what I said.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the welcome she gives to this measure and for her comments. She made the point that in a month and in a year when we have seen such a successful Budget we should perhaps be awarding greater funds under the regulations to those disabled in the manner which has been described. Many applicants under the Act have had only one assessment; for example, those who have been diagnosed for the first time during the past year. Others are now much older than when they were first diagnosed. However, the Government recognise that the diseases often progress to higher levels of disability. To take that into account, payments in respect of the lower percentage of disability have been proportionately increased, and that may give some reassurance to the noble Baroness.

She also referred to the wages index. Upratings have always been related to the RPI, which provides an accurate indication of inflation. I believe that that more accurately meets the needs of sufferers or their dependants. Again I thank the noble Baroness for her approval of the regulations. I think that she agrees with me that this is a useful measure, which takes into account inflation over the past two years.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at twelve minutes past eight o'clock.