HL Deb 09 July 1996 vol 574 cc246-9

7.36 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 27th June be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the purpose of the regulations is to increase by 2.1 per cent. the amounts of compensation which may be paid under the Act to those who satisfy all the conditions of entitlement on or after 1st August 1996. By so doing we are meeting our undertaking to ensure that the levels of payment match the increases in the retail price index since 1980.

People who suffer from industrial diseases have the right to sue their employer for damages. But certain dust-related diseases take a long time to develop, and many 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 from their employers or indeed from a multiplicity of employers as may be the case. By the time that the disease is diagnosed, the employer concerned may no longer exist.

Parliament enacted this legislation in 1979 in order 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. But it was never 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: the first is that there is no relevant employer who can be sued; the second is that no court action has been brought by the sufferer or his dependants, nor has compensation been received in respect of the disease; and the third is that industrial injuries disablement benefit has been awarded.

The Department of the Environment does all that 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 my department is as generous as the legislation allows.

Since the Act came into force in 1980, 8,729 applicants have made a claim and approximately 70 per cent. of those have received payment. The total cost to date has been £43.2 million. Payments are in addition to any industrial injuries disablement benefit which may have been awarded.

The Government have given an undertaking to Parliament to review regularly the amounts which are payable, in order to maintain their value. These regulations aim to fulfil that commitment.

I am sure that your Lordships will agree that the circumstances leading to these payments are very unfortunate. They reflect the conditions in which some people found themselves working many years ago. Action, which has been 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 welcome the opportunity which is provided by these regulations to maintain the value of that compensation.

Of course, no amount of money can ever adequately compensate people and their families for their loss, but at least these regulations allow us to give some practical and material help. I commend the regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 27th June be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Earl Ferrers.)

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, from these Benches we welcome the initiative of the Government. Although the Minister said this is in accordance with previous commitments and undertakings, nevertheless I am certain, as he is, that this modest increase, in line with the cost of living, will be very welcome.

Can the Minister give some indication along these lines? I believe he said that 8,729 people had successfully claimed and that that was 70 per cent. of those who had claimed, or it might have been that of the 8,729 who claimed, 70 per cent. were given assistance. Could the Minister tell us whether, in latter years, there has been an increase, a decrease or a levelling off in the applications? I imagine that in the industries which are, sadly, susceptible to these kinds of disease, both the trade unions and the people who have worked in them will be well aware of their entitlement. But all too often, as the Minister well knows, good intentions by the Government to make available money and allowances go by default because the publicity and the exposure of the fact that these avenues are available sometimes miss their target. So I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether there has been a falling off.

The Minister, quite rightly, referred to the great problem of asbestos. I do not share the Minister's view that the aftermath of the asbestos era is coming to an end. I am certain that the awfulness of asbestosis, as well as pneumoconiosis and the other related diseases, will be with us for a very long time to come.

The Minister also pointed out, quite rightly, that access to these funds—totalling £43 million since the scheme started—are not directly connected with any other action that may be taken. The Minister said that they had to be satisfied that there was no employer who could be sued, that no action had been taken, and, in addition that the claimants were entitled to injury benefit. Can the Minister tell us whether there exists in his department a section which ensures that people have their attention drawn to their entitlement?

I presume that the increase in each case of 2.1 per cent. is related either to the cost of living or to some reasonable yardstick. I am sure the Minister will recognise my tone. My tone is inquiring and probing—not condemnatory. Sadly, people suffer these terrible injuries in the main accidentally, through no fault of themselves or their employers. The least we can do is modestly to make financial recompense. We on these Benches applaud the Government for having taken the action they have at the time that they have. We hope that those who are in receipt of this benefit appreciate that action.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I appreciate greatly what the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip has said and the manner in which he said it. He spoke with feeling on these matters, and quite rightly too. He also asked some pertinent questions.

First, he asked what was the yardstick by which the sum increased per year. The answer is that it is the retail prices index. That has been the system by which the sums have increased since the scheme first started, and that is the yardstick by which they have increased this year.

The noble Lord wondered whether there had latterly been an increase in applications. I wondered that too when I was preparing myself for this debate. I was surprised to find that there had been an increase. I thought that this kind of disease was something which people contracted some years ago and therefore would be on the decline. The fact is that most of these cases were contracted some years ago but the lead time being 20 to 40 years means that there are more applications now than there were before.

The increase in the number of claims received was indicative of the increasing incidence of asbestos-related disease. But it also points to a greater awareness of the disease. In 1995–96, there were 917 applications. Of those, 363 claims were paid at a cost of almost £4.1 million.

There is a problem about the awareness of the scheme to which the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip quite rightly drew attention. The problem is that claimants can be very heavily penalised financially if they are not aware of the scheme. Late claims are accepted but the amounts which can be paid to dependants are very much smaller than those who claim while they are alive. That may seem to be a curious phraseology. When a person is alive he can claim. When he is dead, of course, he cannot claim but his next of kin can claim. But when she—the wife or other—claims, they are entitled to a much smaller amount of money. It can be unfair for new cases, particularly in mesothelioma cases where death usually occurs within a year of diagnosis. That can have a harsh effect on families. But the Act allows no discretion to pay dependants at the higher sufferers' rates. Ex gratia payments have been agreed only where there has been clear evidence of misdirection of officials.

So publicity about this is quite important. I do not think that as many people know about this as might do. Very often, of course, they do not know about it because they have had no reason to know about it—they may not have realised that they had been so affected.

The noble Lord asked whether there is a section in the Department of the Environment which is responsible for publicising the scheme. The answer is that there is. That is the responsibility of the Health and Safety Finance and Operations Branch in the Department of the Environment. Local officers of the Benefits Agency handle claims for industrial injury disablement benefit which is a pre-condition for payment under the 1979 Act. Details have also been circulated to staff in disablement benefit sections who are the most likely officials to come into contact with potential claimants. So quite a lot is being done in that respect.

There have been 8,729 people who have claimed. As the noble Lord said, 70 per cent. of those have been successful. The reason for increased numbers was the considerable lead time. One hopes that the experiences of people in the 1960s and 1970s, and possibly the 1950s, will not be replicated by those who live today because the conditions are different.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful for everything the Minister said. However, I am intrigued by one statement. If 70 per cent. of the total claims since this scheme started have been successful, how can it be that only 300 out of 900 claims were successful in either 1994–95 or 1995–96? That is only one-third.

There may be an explanation for that discrepancy. One explanation may be that the criteria on which the claims are judged successful have been tightened. Another may be that more claims, if not of a frivolous or some other nature, are being made which cannot be entertained. I am curious as to why, though 900 claims were made in that year, more of those claims were unsuccessful than the average since this scheme started. Perhaps the Minister can help.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Opposition Chief Whip is very alert this evening. He wonders why there is that difference; I wondered too because the difference is considerable. The answer is that many of the claims are still being assessed. One cannot ever give a clear-cut answer because we are dealing with individual people and individual claims. Sometimes they take a long time to process. I understand that a number of them are still pending. Also, 110 claims related to miners who were referred to the British Coal scheme. That may be part of the cause for the drop in successful claims. I commend the order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.