HL Deb 19 March 1991 vol 527 cc592-3

7.54 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 4th March be approved [13th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Viscount said: These regulations are being made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979. The purpose of the regulations is to increase by 9 per cent. the amounts of compensation paid under the Act to those who first satisfy all the conditions of entitlement on or after 1st April 1991. The 1979 Act was introduced to give help to an unfortunate group of workpeople suffering from very unpleasant diseases of the lung brought on by exposure to the harmful dust at their workplace. These diseases develop slowly and may only become disabling and capable of diagnosis many years after exposure and perhaps long after the sufferer has been out of contact with the cause.

This time lapse increases the possibility that the employer in question may have gone out of business before the sufferer becomes aware that he has cause for civil action. As a result, some workers find that, although entitled to social security benefits, they are unable to seek redress by civil action simply because their former employers are no longer in business.

The Act introduced a scheme to provide some measure of compensation to sufferers and their families when they are unable to get it in the normal way through civil action. It is not the intention of the Act that the state should take over the responsibilities which are properly those of employers. It therefore includes two basic conditions of entitlement. These are that there is no former employer remaining in business against whom a claim for damages could be made; and that no court action has been brought nor compensation received in respect of the disease. Another basic condition is that disablement benefit has been awarded by the Department of Social Security. Payments under the Act are in addition to any social security benefits awarded.

The reason for this debate is that the Government have made a commitment to Parliament to review the amounts of compensation payments with the aim of keeping them in line with the value of money. The original payment regulations, setting out a scale of payments by age and percentage disability, came into operation on 1st January 1980. This is now the eighth occasion on which the Government have asked Parliament to increase the rates of payment. Last year we approved an increase of 8 per cent. from April to take account of the movement in the index of retail prices during the preceding 12 months. The proposed increase this year is 9 per cent. I am sure Members of this House will agree with me that the circumstances leading to these payments are to be regretted. I very much welcome the opportunity provided by these amending regulations to maintain the value of the compensation.

I know that your Lordships will recognise that no amount of money will ever compensate individuals and families for their pain, suffering and loss, but at least these regulations allow us to give practical and material help. The Department of Employment does all it 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. Since the Act came into force at the beginning of 1980, 6,653 people have made claims, 75 per cent. of whom have received payment. The total cost to date has been £29.8 million.

Although numbers of claims for dust diseases covered by the Act are much less than when the Act was introduced, it is a sad fact that claims are still being received by the Department of Employment. Present claims are mainly from those suffering from the asbestos related disease, mesothelioma. Medical statistical projections indicate that deaths from this disease among men will not peak until early in the next century. This reflects the poor conditions which applied in some workplaces a generation or more ago and the long time-span between exposure to the harmful dust and the onset of symptoms of the disease. The dangers of asbestos are now well recognised and extensive legislation is in place which prevents such exposure today.

Sadly, people are still suffering from what has happened in the past and it is clearly right that, where they cannot obtain redress in the normal way, they should nonetheless receive some measure of compensation for support in the tragic circumstances in which they find themselves. Your Lordships will readily understand the importance of maintaining the value of the amounts of compensation to those who are entitled to payments under this scheme. I therefore commend the uprating of these payment scales to the House and ask for your Lordships' approval of the regulations.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 4th March be approved [13th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Viscount Ullswater).

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I rise to thank the Minister for his usual lucid explanation of the order. He is quite right to draw attention to the tragedies involved in a number of these cases and to the fact that people who suffer from dust related diseases very often are quite unaware of the condition, or at least the reasons for their condition, until many years later. Therefore it was quite right that a scheme like the pneumoconiosis scheme should have been introduced. The order is an entirely uncontroversial one. There was a commitment to up-rate in line with the RPI. This was done last year by the 8 per cent. increase. We now have a 9 per cent. increase for this year. On these Benches we have nothing to say in opposition to the order.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the welcome she has given to these draft regulations. I commend them to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.