HL Deb 08 June 1995 vol 564 cc1516-9

7.15 p.m.

Lord Inglewood rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 1st May be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the regulations are being made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979. The purpose of the regulations is to increase by 2.2 per cent. the amounts of compensation paid under the Act to those who first satisfy all the conditions of entitlement on or after 1st July 1995.

People suffering from industrial diseases have the right to sue the employer concerned for damages. However, certain dust-related diseases take a long time to develop and may not be diagnosed until 20 to 40 years or more after exposure. Because of this, sufferers and their dependants can experience considerable difficulty in obtaining compensation. By the time the disease is diagnosed, the employer or employers responsible may no longer exist.

Parliament enacted this legislation in 1979 to provide a measure of compensation to those who cannot claim it in the normal way through the courts. It provides lump sum payments to sufferers from certain dust-related diseases, or, when the sufferers have died, to their dependants. However, I would point out that it has never been the intention of the Act to provide an alternative to taking civil action in the courts.

There are three basic conditions of entitlement, which must be satisfied before a payment can be made: first, that there is no relevant employer who can be sued; secondly, that no court action has been brought nor compensation received in respect of the disease; and thirdly, that industrial injuries disablement benefit has been awarded.

The Department of Employment does all it can to administer the compensation scheme in a sympathetic way. While it is necessary to ensure that payment conditions are met, it is also recognised that each case is an individual disaster and the department is as generous as the legislation allows. Since the Act came into force in 1980, over 7,800 applicants have made a claim and 75 per cent. of those have received payment. The total cost to date has been £39 million.

Payments under the Act are additional to any industrial injuries disablement benefit awarded. The Government have given an undertaking to Parliament to review the amounts payable regularly to maintain their value. These regulations aim to fulfil this commitment.

I feel sure that all noble Lords will agree with me that the circumstances leading to these payments are very unfortunate. They reflect the conditions in which some people worked many years ago. Action taken by the Government to control the use of asbestos and other hazardous substances should prevent such suffering for present and future generations of workers.

Nevertheless, I very much welcome the opportunity provided by these regulations to maintain the value of the compensation. I know all of us will recognise that no amount of money will ever compensate individuals and families for their loss, but at least these regulations allow us to give some practical and material help. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 1st May be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee.]

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the regulations. I understand, of course, that this is a relatively routine matter: the uprating in line, allegedly, with inflation is dealt with in the regulations. However, I wish to make a few remarks about the scheme generally.

As the Minister has already indicated, this is a disease which affects numbers of people—mainly men—who have worked in mining or in steel. It is extremely unpleasant and, after a long period of time, is invariably fatal, which is why we need to have benefit for dependants. Moreover, it is frequently not diagnosed until after death. Many miners have been refused benefit on the grounds that they are not suffering from it, only for it to be clear from the post mortem that they indeed had the disease.

It seems to me that it might have been more generous if, instead of doing as the Minister says has been done, an allowance were made for the fact that apparently there was an alleged overpayment, which is why the amount that is on offer now is 2.2 per cent. via the regulations. In view of the unpleasantness of the disease and the fact that it is so difficult to diagnose and that often individuals concerned may feel that they have the disease but have great difficulty in establishing it, it might have been more generous if the Government had given a full uprating rather than the 2.2 per cent. which is indicated. I understand that when this matter was discussed in the other place the suggestion was made that an uprating of the order of 5.75 per cent. would have been in order rather than the 2.2 per cent. which emerges from the regulatory uprating this time round.

The Minister referred to the fact that it is not possible for individuals in such situations to sue at common law for damages from their employer. He made reference to the Industrial Injuries Act in that connection. However, I remind the Minister that, if an individual who succeeds in a claim at common law wins some compensation, there is a provision now, to which I very strongly objected at the time, whereby the whole of the benefit so obtained via the Industrial Injuries Act is reclaimed. So the individual concerned has to pay back any amounts that might have been payable under the Industrial Injuries Act.

Therefore, this matter is not so straightforward as was indicated in the Minister's presentation. Nevertheless, I accept that these regulations have been through the other place and been accepted there. In those circumstances, it is not our intention on these Benches to oppose them. I simply make the point that they could have been a little more generous in view of the nature of the illness and the kind of individuals who will benefit from them.

With those few comments, I do not oppose the regulations from these Benches.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for her support in this matter. She raised one or two points which it may be helpful to cover. So far as concerns the system itself, she drew attention to the distinction that is made in the payments on the one hand to sufferers themselves and on the other hand to their dependants.

It is a long-established principle of compensation in this area of the law that the compensation relates to what the individual concerned may be suffering and that some money is made available in respect of people who are dependent on him. In the event of the sufferer having died, where dependency can be established, the amount in respect of the dependency is obviously less than the amount to which the person who died would have been entitled had he made a claim. I should like to emphasise that where a claim is made by a sufferer before that person dies, the full amount is payable.

The noble Baroness made reference to the amount of the uprating. What is important in this regard is to look at the way in which the amounts payable have been uprated since the scheme itself came into effect. Since January 1980, the amount by which the payments under the scheme have increased has been 138.3 percent., while the cumulative increase in the RPI over that period was in fact less than that, namely, 134.7 per cent. I do not feel that it is fair to maintain in any respect that that is niggardly with regard to the fact that it is not uprated with inflation itself. I conclude by commending the Motion to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn until 7.30 p.m.

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

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.24 to 7.30 p.m.]