HL Deb 13 July 1998 vol 592 cc1-4

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that advances in medical science and engineering technology have substantially removed the dangers to health, in particular to lungs, of work in deep mining of coal.

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

My Lords, coal-related lung diseases are progressive and irreversible. However, much can be done to relieve the symptoms through the use of drugs. In some cases patients can benefit from home oxygen treatment. It is not possible wholly to remove the hazards to health that arise from the deep mining of coal, but the current situation is a substantial improvement on the past. This is particularly true in relation to the risk of lung disease. The Coal Mines (Respirable Dust) Regulations 1975 have significantly reduced the incidence of pneumoconiosis among miners. The regulations are currently under review to ensure that they remain effective.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her reply. Is the Minister aware that some noble Lords who have been concerned in Parliament with the issue of disablement, in my case for nearly 40 years, have observed many cases of severe occupational illnesses that are eventually recognised with compensation and they shall be reminded of that on Thursday when the Pneumoconiosis (Compensation) Regulations are laid before the House? Can the noble Baroness assure the House that this is now all history and it is unlikely to be repeated on the scale of the past?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right to point out the terrible and long-standing consequences of lung disease and sometimes the long time it has taken to recognise the risks that workers have endured in their particular occupations. The Government always look at ways to improve health protection. The evidence of British Coal health surveillance, in particular its programme of X-ray screening, shows that the introduction of the Coal Mines (Respirable Dust) Regulations 1975 has brought about substantial improvements. But we are concerned to ensure that the prevalence of this disease that has reduced dramatically since 1975 continues to decline. For that reason a review is being undertaken into the 1975 regulations to see whether action should be taken to improve their effectiveness.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, while the development of technology and the practice of safety in mines has led to the British mining industry being the safest in the world, is my noble friend aware that the extinguishment of the role of the colliery deputy, and therefore the lack of primacy in safety underground, is hardly helpful in maintaining that achievement? Does my noble friend also accept that there may well be too much sustained overtime worked underground which is hardly conducive to health? Further, does my noble friend agree that if the previous government had been a little more concerned about the health and safety of the coalfields they would not have been contracted at the speed they were?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am aware of my noble friend's long-standing concerns in this area. The 1993 regulations which changed the position of deputies in the pits still provide that every person working underground must be under close supervision and that every part of any underground mine must be regularly inspected. I understand that the additional flexibility as to who carries out those roles should not be taken as a cause for reduced safety standards. The changes were instigated as part of an overall ongoing review by the Health and Safety Commission of health and safety legislation as it related to the mining industry. It is in that context that the review with particular regard to dust, to which I referred earlier, is being undertaken.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 was one of the first Acts of the incoming Conservative Government?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I did not look in my briefing to see which political party introduced that particular Act. It was very important because it introduced no-fault compensation for a group of workers who needed it.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, can my noble friend advise the House about the Government's current stance in relation to vibrating white finger, which is an injury that is experienced by a good number of miners as a result of the drilling that they have had to carry out in deep mines?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I understand that that disease is being considered as part of the industrial injuries list. I shall take further advice on that matter and write to my noble friend.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, does the Minister agree that over the years since the war enormous strides have been made in fighting pneumoconiosis; and that the levels of new incidents have been dramatically reduced? With regard to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, does the noble Baroness also agree that we lead the world in the technology for dealing with pneumoconiosis? Is full advantage being taken of that in technological exports?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point out the progress that has been made. Prior to the 1975 regulations, the prevalence of ILO Category 2 simple pneumoconiosis and higher in the 55 to 59 year-old age group representing those who had worked in the industry for 35 years exceeded 4 per cent. By 1993 the level had fallen to 0.025 per cent. in that age group; so there is considerable progress. There are opportunities because of the technological expertise that exists. I am sure that those are transferable to other countries' coal industries.

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, as coal mining is bad for the health of the workers, why do the Government continue to give subsidies to increase or encourage coal mining?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, on 25th June the Government published a clear consultation document on their review of energy and the different factors to be taken into account when looking at the sources of energy on which this country should depend. The period of consultation will end on 20th July. It would be wrong to speculate on the outcome of that process before we have had a chance to consider the representations made—including, I am sure, the representation that the noble Lord has just made, if he wishes to make it.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that pneumoconiosis has been caused mainly by miners who shot-fire with explosives when cutting new galleries underground having failed to observe the regulation that they must not fire a further shot until dust has settled? When they failed to do so, they sometimes died. Will those regulations be enforced in future?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I do not wish to debate with the noble Lord about who was at fault here. There were clear indications that the prevalence of dust in mines was a factor that caused pneumoconiosis. The responsibility rests with the operating organisations to ensure that workers operate in safe conditions. The review will consider whether the 1975 regulations, which have made such a vast improvement, need any further tightening up.

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