HL Deb 10 July 1997 vol 581 cc792-5

7.48 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 24th June be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, these regulations are being made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979. The purpose of the regulations is to increase by 2.7 per cent. the amounts of compensation paid under the Act to those who first satisfy all the conditions of entitlement on or after 1st September 1997.

I welcome the opportunity this debate has given me to reinforce the message put forward in another place on the 18th June and in your Lordships' House on the 26th June. The death toll from asbestos-related diseases is very disturbing. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is determined to do all that is within its powers to minimise the risks posed by this dangerous substance. Over 70 per cent. of compensation claims paid out under this scheme are for people suffering from mesothelioma, a form of asbestos-related lung cancer which is almost invariably fatal within 18 months. People suffering from industrial diseases have the right to sue the employer or employers where exposure took place. But the dust-related diseases covered by this Act take a long time to develop. They may not be diagnosed until 20 to 40 years or more after exposure to the dust. By the time the disease is diagnosed the employer or employers responsible may no longer exist. Sufferers and their dependants can therefore experience considerable difficulty in obtaining compensation.

Although the circumstances leading to the need for this Act are so distressing I take great pride in the fact that it was the last Labour Government which enacted this legislation in 1979 to provide a measure of compensation to those who cannot claim it in the normal way through the courts. Then, as now, we showed our commitment to those who have suffered as a result of poor standards of health and safety at work.

The Act provides for lump sum payments to be made to sufferers from certain dust-related diseases or, when the sufferers have died, to their dependants where there is no realistic chance of success through 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. Payments under the Act are additional to any industrial injuries disablement benefit awarded. The department does all that it can to administer the compensation scheme in a sympathetic way. Rules have to be made and kept, but the department recognises that each case is an individual tragedy and is as generous as the legislation allows.

The previous Government gave an undertaking to Parliament to review regularly the amounts payable and to maintain their value. This Government fully endorse that commitment and these regulations aim to fulfil it. But we are not content simply to compensate those who have suffered in the past. We aim to put public health in the forefront of public priorities and take positive action to improve the nation's well-being. Sadly, this will not help those exposed to asbestos many years ago, but we can start to help future generations.

Asbestos is one of the most serious occupational health problems that face this country. The Government have asked the Health and Safety Commission for urgent advice about placing a ban on the manufacture and importation of asbestos. It has also asked it for advice on the practicalities of surveying and marking buildings so that the problems associated with existing asbestos already in situ are also considered. All of this is a start which we hope will eventually make the provisions of this Act redundant.

I feel sure all noble Lords will recognise that no amount of money will ever compensate individuals and families for their suffering and loss. These regulations do, however, allow us to ensure that the compensation provided for in the 1979 Act maintains its value. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 24th June be approved. 4th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Hayman.)

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her very clear description of these regulations. I should like to inform her—I hope that this is passed on to her noble friend Lady Blackstone—that we support these regulations. Joking aside, this is a very serious problem. I express my sympathy, as did the noble Baroness, to all families who have been touched by these diseases. As I understand the noble Baroness, these problems take some time to develop. Are estimates available as to any increase in the number of cases now arising and the number that is likely to arise in future? The Minister also referred to research that has been carried out. I am glad to hear about that and also the action that the Government have taken. Can she also confirm that this rise is in line with the retail prices index? We support these regulations.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I also thank my noble friend for the detail that she has provided in presenting these draft regulations to the House. The noble Earl who has just spoken asked whether the rise was in line with inflation. If that is not the case I should also like to ask about that. I hope that at some time it will be possible to consider awarding a rise that is greater than inflation. My noble friend will be aware that for a long time I represented a mining constituency. Indeed, I have lived in a mining constituency all of my life. I believe that I have had first hand experience of pneumoconiosis among miners. Even now it is commonplace to see miners walking up the street and pausing on two or three occasions simply to get back their breath. My noble friend commented on the nature of this disease which is absolutely dreadful and must be seen to be appreciated. She also mentioned the effect on families. I hope that that is a matter which will be taken into consideration.

I should say—or perhaps I should not say—that I have tabled a Question next week relating to the mineworkers' pension fund. I recognise that both this Government and the former Government have carried out to the letter what has been put forward under the fund. However, it may be that a Labour Government will be more sympathetic in terms of the money that is to be given to miners under that fund, which I understand amounts to £1.5 billion. Arising out of that, the Government have increased the pensions by 20 per cent. I believe that that decision is a very laudable one. I simply mention that if the increase is 20 per cent. and 2.7 per cent. has been mentioned here, then it seems to me that there is a discrepancy. Perhaps the Government could have been a little more generous as regards this proposal tonight. I understand that that is the normal procedure and it is one that has been followed for some time. I see that my noble friend agrees with that.

Both the House and the community must realise the very high price that miners and their families have paid given the nature of their work, not to mention the many deaths that have occurred in that most disagreeable of occupations. I come from a mining family, but as a Member of Parliament I have been down a pit on many occasions. On every occasion I was glad to get out of that hole. It is the worst job in the world, but miners are very loyal to the industry, to the Labour Party and to Labour Governments. I hope that the present Government will take that into consideration.

Having said that, I am glad to support this Motion.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful for the support of both the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, and my noble friend Lord Dormand for these draft regulations.

Perhaps I may deal first with the scale of these increases. They are in line with the retail prices index. Since the inception of the scheme in 1980 the rates of payment have been kept in line with the RPI. The proposed uprating of 2.7 per cent., which is the correct figure, should ensure that this is maintained during this year. I understand the case put forward by my noble friend Lord Dormand for an even more generous uprating. We have mirrored the upratings in social security benefits generally. While I am willing to look at the representations that he has made it is wrong of me to hold out any hope other than the commitment that I give this evening that the Government will continue to maintain the value of the benefit and keep it in line with inflation.

The noble Earl, Lord Courtown, asked about the extent of the problem and the predictions that have been made. Perhaps I may tell him that 202 claims were made in 1993–94 at a cost of £2.25 million. That rose in 1996–97 to 453 claims being paid at a cost of nearly £5.5 million. Those are disturbing figures and, even more worrying, is the fact that research has indicated that deaths from mesothelioma will increase until the year 2010 and possibly until the year 2020. The Health and Safety Commission has produced statistics on estimates in its annual report and I shall certainly send the noble Earl a copy of that document.

As I said earlier, we are determined not only to do what we can for sufferers today, but also to ensure that future generations will not be plagued by this dreadful disease. What we are doing now is to concentrate on those suffering today and we are trying to ensure that we can all agree on the importance of the draft regulations to update the amounts paid. Perhaps I may also confirm that the department gives every assistance to those who apply for payments under the Act and that it will continue to administer it as sympathetically as the legislation allows. For example, during the past year, 29 cases were reopened for review. I have to tell the House that all those cases ended in payment being made to the claimants.

However, as my noble friend Lord Dormand pointed out, no amount of money can compensate for the sheer misery and suffering that such diseases inflict on sufferers and their families. As previous governments have recognised, the amounts provided do give some assistance, especially because they are in addition to the social security benefits payable, for those affected by the disease who cannot get compensation through the courts. As I said, this Government will continue to review the amount of the payments to keep them in line with the increase in inflation. We are determined to ensure that risks to health are properly addressed so that future generations do not have to suffer in this way.

On Question, Motion agreed to.