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Clause 111—(Inquest In Case Of Death By Accident)

Volume 529: debated on Thursday 1 July 1954

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I beg to move, in page 66, line 41, after "at." to insert:

"or by a disease which may have resulted from his employment at."
I wonder whether it would also be convenient to consider with this Amendment the next Amendment, in line 43, after "Minister," to insert:
"and the person nominated pursuant to section one hundred and eight of this Act or some other person on his behalf."

I think it would be almost impossible to avoid discussion on all Amendments to this Clause if the discussion is not to be unintelligible.

It may be for the convenience of the House and I am in the hands of hon. Members on this matter.

Clause 111 makes provision that where death has taken place a result of an accident the coroner shall convene an inquest, and it is provided that the inquest may be adjourned unless the inspector or some other person acting on behalf of the workman is present in accordance with Clause 108.

By this Amendment we desire that the same procedure should be adopted in the case of industrial diseases. In South Wales many men die as a result of pneumoconiosis contracted during employment in the mining industry. It is very important that where death is suspected to have been due to pneumoconiosis an inspector should be present at the inquest so that the record of the man's employment should be available and the provisions of Clause 108 should be applicable in any event.

A further point is that when dealing with cases of accident a great deal of inquiry is made as to the cause of the injuries and of the accident. That is the principal feature of such inquests. The coroner has to satisfy himself that the death was due to injury or accident at the quarry. But that procedure does not apply in the case of industrial disease, particularly in cases of pneumoconiosis. All the medical evidence is not always available in those circumstances.

It is serious when in South Wales a certain amount of medical evidence is given at an inquest and a verdict is returned that death may have been due to pneumoconiosis. That verdict appears in the local Press and the widow believes that she will get compensation because of that verdict. Then the man's lungs are sent to Cardiff, or some other medical centre, where, after examination, it is decided that death was not due to pneumoconiosis. She then has two medical certificates, one saying that her husband died from pneumocononiosis and the other saying that he did not die from that disease. That causes unnecessary distress.

When we raised this matter in the debate on Welsh affairs, a very delicate position seemed to arise. Clause 111 provides that the coroner shall carry out certain duties when death takes place as a result of an accident in the quarry. All we seek is that the same procedure shall apply if death is due to pneumoconiosis. At present the lungs may be packed up and sent to Cardiff or somewhere else and then it may be found that death was not due to pneumoconiosis and the widow has two death certificates. That causes unnecessary distress and pain to the dependants. There should be uniformity. I have raised this matter in Committee and with the Minister of National Insurance. There seems to be some power held by the coroner which no one is able to touch. We press this question very seriously because of the unnecessary pain and distress which result in such cases.

I beg to second the Amendment.

It is becoming increasingly important to include industrial diseases in this provision. In the quarries men suffer from silicosis through breathing dust from the stone. Yesterday we were discussing the position of men making tarmac at quarries. Those men are subject to other diseases as well as silicosis—for example, epithelioma cancer, brought about by the use of pitch and tar. If a man dies from that disease, the same circumstances should apply to him as to the man who suffers an industrial accident.

There are other diseases. For instance, recently we read of other forms of cancer brought about by the breathing of fumes. Men working on tarmac plants in the quarries are continuously among fumes and in danger of contracting cancer, and if a man dies from cancer in this way his case should be dealt with in the same way as that of a man who suffers an industrial accident which proves fatal.

We know that there are difficulties in relation to these Amendments because there has to be collaboration between the Home Office and the Ministry of Fuel and Power, but that does not in any way derogate from the vital principles which we think should be embodied in this Clause. It is up to the Government to find some way of meeting this problem. Why should the death of a person who has died from a disease not be brought before a coroner's inquest? In Committee it was said that a man may die in the Isle of Wight and it would not be known where his relatives were; but throughout the Bill many exceptions have been argued in order to try to prove the rule. I hope that we shall not be arguing in that way tonight.

There is another important point. When men are killed or die of injury, we are not notified officially by the coroner that an inquest is to take place. The coroner is tied by the Act to inform the inspector but not to notify those who have to represent the widow. Why should not the report and the documents be given to those who represent the relatives as well as to the inspector? I do not know why there should be opposition to that suggestion.

Nearly all the collieries of the N.C.B. used to give us the plan, a copy of the statements, and all the other paraphernalia when there had been a fatal accident, but that was done through the goodness of the manager and not by legal rights. We have to defend the widow and children, and we are entitled to be as fortified with information as is the inspector who sits beside the coroner and questions everybody so as to get at the truth. The Minister ought to go some way to meet us on this Clause, in regard to these important points.

8.30 p.m.

Coroners' inquests are very important in mining life, because the incidence of accident and industrial disease is very great, and focus our attention upon the defence of those who are left and upon the evidence and the statements that have to be made. When an accident arises, a man can have his trade union official present at the inquiry to make statements. If we are entitled to that, and if the inspector at an inquiry is entitled under the Bill to bring in someone to help a man in particular circumstances, why should we be debarred from the same procedure at the coroner's court when the welfare of a widow and family are at stake? When we defend a widow who has lost her husband and may be left with children, we are entitled to have the same documents and other material as the inspector.

The hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch) has performed a service in putting this Amendment on the Paper, although the problem with which he, I and many other hon. Members wish to deal can probably not best be dealt with by amending this Clause or perhaps even this Bill. I say that, because the problem is not restricted to diseases arising out of mining but may arise equally with diseases occasioned in employments for which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power is not responsible.

Nevertheless, there is a real problem here which week by week causes distress to considerable numbers of people, when there are conflicting opinions and certificates as to the cause of death in the case of persons who may have succumbed to industrial disease. I have in mind an instance in my constituency where a man died who had been drawing industrial injury benefit as a pneumoconiotic. The original death certificate gave the cause of death as pneumoconiosis. Imagine the situation of the widow and her feelings when a further certificate was given stating, with the authority of the assessors of the Ministry of National Insurance, that the cause of death was quite different and that her benefit is to be cut off because she falls outside the scope of our industrial injury legislation.

There is a real problem, and I make no apology for detaining the House so as to impress upon my right hon. Friend the necessity of a solution being found by discussion among Her Majesty's Ministers, even though my right hon. Friend should advise the House that the best solution is not by the method of Amendment of this Clause.

I only intervene in this discussion to lend my support to the observations made by the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch) and by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). I have had personal experience of quite a number of instances where great distress has been caused to families by conflicting decisions based upon medical grounds regarding the cause of death.

It may well be that one of the real troubles is the procedure adopted in our coroners' courts, where evidence is given as to the cause of death without the proper inquiry or really searching investigation which is necessary in order to bring about reliable conclusions. But whatever the reason, there can be no doubt at all that the present position is highly unsatisfactory and frequently causes distress to people at a time when we should be particularly anxious to avoid any sense of difficulty. I should like the Minister to look again at this point.

I am far from satisfied that the Amendments will achieve the desired result, but that is only one aspect of the matter, and I think that if the Minister really tried to find a solution to the problem he would be able to alleviate real hardship and suffering in this sphere.

I think that it may be of assistance to the House if I intervene at this stage, particularly as I believe that what the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen) has in mind goes beyond the scope not only of the Amendments but even of the Bill itself. He has almost invited me to offer guidance to the House on the general question of procedure in coroners' courts. I can assure the House that I am going to be exceedingly careful to do nothing of the sort, and I am certainly not going to trespass upon the prerogative of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

I think that the point of view expressed by the hon. Member for Cardigan was also expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), but I particularly wish to assure the House that we are acutely conscious of the distress, anxiety and pain which is caused to innocent people as a result of the issuing of dual certificates of a conflicting character.

I happen to have had a certain amount of experience of that in my present position, and such experience certainly causes one to realise how hardship can be caused as a result of a totally unexpected circumstance. It is probable that when these things first began, no one anticipated the possibility of the worry, anxiety and distress to which they would ultimately lead. But I have seen it, and recognise it, and it is something which, as my right hon. Friend said in Committee, we have every intention of trying to get cleared up.

There are considerable difficulties about it. To begin with, the Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch) proposes to insert the words:
"or by a disease which may have resulted from his employment at."
The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about pneumoconiosis, but that is only one disease. There are many diseases which might result from employment at a mine or quarry, and that is one of the problems which we have to face. By seeking to impose upon a coroner similar duties to those imposed upon him in the event of death by accident arising in the course of employment in a mine or quarry, we are widening the scope and fettering the discretion of the coroner to a very great extent in cases where death may have occurred from disease.

The coroner need not, and frequently does not hold an inquest in the case of death from disease. If one puts upon him the statutory obligation to hold an inquest in the case of a death which may have resulted from a disease contracted in the course of employment in a certain industry, an obligation is imposed upon him which would carry the whole burden of coroners' inquests very much further than they go at present.

That is one difficulty, but perhaps I may refer quite shortly to some of the arguments put forward about the notification of Her Majesty's Inspectors and of workmen's inspectors.

Before the Parliamentary Secretary leaves this point, I wonder if he will accept from me that the difficulty which he has brought forward is one that does not exist in fact, although it may exist in theory? I hope that he will accept that a coroner faced with the pos sibility of a death resulting from a disease caused by the man's work—whether scheduled or not—always does hold an inquest.

I am afraid that I cannot accept that as an argument in favour of this Amendment. As the Amendment is drafted, a man may have ceased to be employed for 20 years, and it would be exceedingly difficult for a coroner to make the decision as to whether the death resulted from a disease which may have arisen from an injury in the work in which the man was originally employed.

What has been said about inspectors has given the impression—it has given me the impression, at any rate—that there is, if not some confusion of thought, at least some misapprehension. Her Majesty's Mines Inspectors do not receive plans or witnesses' statements from the coroner. Coroners are under no obligation to issue, nor in fact, so far as Her Majesty's Mines Inspectors are concerned, do they issue, these particular documents or anything of that sort. Whatever does take place—and I am assured that it is the same for workmen's inspectors as for Her Majesty's Inspectors—is purely by mutual arrangement. They get the information from the witnesses themselves.

It would not be possible really to depart from the general practice of coroners' courts, nor to impose upon coroners a special procedure with regard to this particular form of inquest—inquests on people who have died as a result of accidents or, if the Amendment were acceptable, from disease arising out of mining or quarrying. It would introduce an entirely fresh classification of the law for one limited purpose into this much wider sphere of dealing with inquests as a whole.

But does not the Parliamentary Secretary agree that where a doctor feels that a man has died from an industrial disease he calls for a post mortem. He then reports to the coroner, who has regard to the decision given to him by the medical man.

It is a matter entirely within the discretion of the coroner. The point which I was seeking to make was that at this stage and in these circumstances it would not be right for us to fetter the discretion of the coroner.

Perhaps I may return to what I have said. As my right hon. Friend said earlier, we believe that the exchange of information—or, as the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Blyton) graphically and understandably called it "paraphernalia"—can be arranged administratively, so far as Her Majesty's Inspectors and the workmen's inspectors are concerned. That we are perfectly prepared to try to do. I suggest that it would be a far more practical and satisfactory method of doing it than trying to introduce it in statutory form into an Act of Parliament where it has necessarily got to be hedged about with conditions, qualifications, penalties and all the rest of it. We can perfectly well arrange that in the mining industry by administrative procedure.

8.45 p.m.

On the other question which was originally raised by the hon. Member for Bedwellty—this question of the possibility of dual certificates—my right hon. Friend and I said that we would discuss the matter with our right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to see whether we could obtain any suggestion from him which would meet and overcome the point, because we were quite sure that he would be as sympathetic as we were in finding a way to stop the issue of dual conflicting certificates.

Those discussions have taken place. We have not been idle during the period since we met upstairs, and I can inform the House that the point raised by the hon. Gentleman is being fully dealt with by administrative action in the form of a Home Office circular to coroners. We hope very much that as a result of that. which is the practical way of dealing with the point—because it would be impossible by statutory arrangement to preclude the issue of conflicting dual certificates—we shall have met in substance the point that the hon. Gentleman raised. We are as determined as he is to ensure that these dual conflicting certificates are not issued.

I should like to know something about the type of suggestion that is to be made to Her Majesty's coroners on this point. The Minister is aware that this problem has not always existed and that it has come to our notice in recent years mainly because of the increase in the number of cases of pneumoconiosis. In the early days, certainly when I first became conversant with cases of pneumoconiosis, in 1928, I never remember a post mortem, followed by an inquest, when a member of the Pneumoconiosis Board, as it was then called—before they were named panels—was not present at the post mortem. The result was that there was full consultation at the time, and thus there was never any question of a possibility of dual certification.

The Minister must be aware that speedy action is necessary. We have been talking for a long time about the grievances and the hardship caused to widows and dependants when they receive from the coroner advice which he tenders on a certificate, having been advised by a consultant or a medical practitioner or whoever has performed the autopsy that the man has died of the prescribed disease: and then ultimately, when a full and more careful examination is made, including histological examination of the lungs by the Pneumoconiosis Panel to make sure that the case is clear-cut, or by incineration of the lungs to determine the ash content of the lungs, another kind of certificate is issued stating that there has been no such disease

We are speaking on behalf of the dependants who cannot understand this issue. It is impossible for them to listen to a debate of this description and understand why there cannot be some simple procedure. Obviously, if Her Majesty's coroners are going to withhold certification until all the results of examination have been received and then make up their minds, I can see a solution to this problem. If some advice of this type is to be given, and if we have an assurance that the coroners will take note of it—and I am sure they will if they are so advised—it would seem to us that the problem can be solved. How long it is going to be before this is done I do not know, and I think we ought to have a further reassurance that a solution will speedily be found and that the lapse of time before it is put into effect will be very short. We have been discussing this sort of question for some years now. I hope that we can now have that assurance. If we cannot, I think that we ought to express our indignation at what has been going on by dividing on the Amendment.

The debate has so far revealed the justification for the action which has been promised by the Parliamentary Secretary. During the last few years many of us have been disturbed by the actions of coroners' courts. We know that the coroner is a law unto himself and cannot be interfered with. I want to refer to one of the many cases with which I had to deal when I was concerned with the industrial side of the matter. There was a man in the Farnworth area who was suffering from spinal injuries. After being on his hack for three years he died, and the doctor was of the opinion that his death was not due to these spinal injuries but to something else.

All this time the man had been in receipt of an allowance because of his incapacity. The doctor who intimated that the spinal injuries had not caused his death had, rightly or wrongly, been giving the man certificates stating that he was also suffering from asthma and chronic bronchitis. That awakened my curiosity, and immediately I was notified of his death I sought the assistance of the coroner and told him that this was a matter which warranted a post mortem examination. That examination was made, a section of the lung was taken away and sent to the Silicosis Board in London for microscopic examination, and it was revealed that the man's death had been caused by silicosis.

If we had not taken the trouble to find out the actual cause of death that man's widow would not have received compensation for the death of her husband, because the doctor said that he had not died as a result of his spinal injuries. These cases have been occurring with great rapidity during the last few years. In my own village there are men suffering from injuries to the legs and, at the same time, pneumoconiosis. If, when they die, the doctors decide as they did in the case to which I have referred, difficulties will again arise.

I am pleased to know that the matter will receive the attention of the Home Office. I agree that the Ministry of Fuel and Power has nothing to do with it. The Home Office has control over coroners' courts, and is the proper Department to instruct coroners and medical men as to the procedure in relation to deaths from industrial diseases. By moving the Amendment we are seeking to secure the attention of the powers that be. So many cases are now occurring which warrant the attention of the Home Office without delay, and we want to see that justice is meted out to the dependants of injured workmen.

I find myself in a slight difficulty, because this discussion has ranged round English legal procedure, whereas about 80,000 miners in Scotland work under a legal system which differs from that of England. If a fatal accident occurs in a mine or a quarry, there is a inquiry under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act. It need not deal simply with that accident alone but with half a dozen or a dozen other accidents, and it may not take place until weeks or possibly months afterwards. I should like an assurance from the Minister that this will be clearly noted and that there will be nothing in the Bill by which the position in Scotland will be worse.

I compliment the hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) on raising the question of dual certification. Only this week I had a parlous illustration of what can happen under dual certification. A great Scottish football player who had been certified suffering from pneumoconiosis for a great number of years died. He had contracted the disease in the mines of the Lothians. When he died the Pneumoconiosis Board certified that he died from cancer. There is a poser for the Home Secretary. Everybody knew that man had been suffering from pneumoconiosis, but the authorities get out of their liability by the Pneumoconiosis Board's certifying he died from cancer, so that the widow and children get nothing. I think that I am not being unreasonable when I ask the Minister to take note of these two points, and to see that our people have due protection.

The Minister has given a very careful reply, and one that, I think, to a certain extent has satisfied my hon. Friends. However, his reply on the mater of dual certification, that the Home Secretary was going to do something about it and that in future all the evidence would be before the coroner and that possibly there would be no dual certification, does not apply to Scotland because of our legal system and the different way in which we deal with these matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian and Peebles (Mr. Pryde) has raised the matter from a different angle. I have raised it time and time again, not with the Minister of Fuel and Power but with the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance.

I have a great many miners in my constituency, and on not a few occasions I have had widows of miners come to me to ask for my help. The Scottish branch of the National Union of Mineworkers, as, I suppose, the union has in the rest of the country, argued that in these cases there should always be a post mortem. As it is, the widow is informed only that her husband has not died from pneumoconiosis, and, of course, there is no chance of taking action in a court to get compensation.

9.0 p.m.

When the widow has come to me, she has been most disturbed and distressed, and on a number of occasions I have had to write to the pneumoconiosis medical board in Edinburgh to draw its attention to the fact that not only has my constituent been done out of benefit by the decision of the board, but also that she wishes to find out, if her husband did not die from pneumoconiosis—for which she has a certificate—from what, then, he did die. On a number of occasions I have had to get the information from the board and pass it to my constituent.

The Minister's advice does not in any way help us in respect to dual certification of industrial diseases and its effects upon the widows of miners in Scotland. I hope the Minister will give some attention to this matter before the Bill reaches another place, because the advice which perhaps will be given to the coroner in no way affects the cases which cause us a great deal of concern in Scotland.

It is clear that we face a serious difficulty. No one must under-estimate the amount of hardship and distress which is likely to be caused to widows at a particularly distressing time. We all wish to avoid it. Yet we find that, to be quite frank, although hon. Members have put down this Amendment, we cannot take this action in the Bill because of the constitution of the coroners' courts. We must, therefore, try to find the best way to make some progress.

What has happened is that a demonstration has been made, both in Committee and in the House, which has had the effect of bringing this subject to the fore. It has therefore been very useful, although it appears that we cannot proceed by legislative processes. I am advised—because this is in the province of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary—that the way to proceed is by addressing Her Majesty's coroners, and that is done by the Home Secretary, normally by means of a circular. As a result of discussions which we have had with the Home Secretary, following our talks in Committee, my right hon. and learned Friend has told us that he will issue a circular dealing with those points in an endeavour to secure an improvement and to avoid this difficulty. We know that the circular is already in draft. I hope that the results will be good.

I am a little disturbed by what was said by the hon. Lady the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison), because I had not heard that this difficulty had arisen so much in Scotland. Previously I had heard that it was a problem more of the English courts, and I am much disturbed to hear that it is also a problem in Scotland. While I have to approach the Home Secretary and the English legal system with great respect—and will always do so—when it comes to dealing with the Scottish legal system, my timidity increases still further.

As I hope the hon. Lady recognises, I could not, as a mere southern Member, make any statement about the Scottish legal position. The most hopeful thing to do would be for me to approach the Secretary of State in this matter in the same way as I have already approached the Home Secretary. I will also undertake to see that in the formulation of the draft for the coroners, I will bring to attention any additional points which have arisen out of the discussion.

Before the Minister concludes the debate. I should like to emphasise a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch). I do not want to go into the question of dual certification. The Bill contains a Part devoted to safety, health and welfare. In this connection, dealing with industrial diseases— whether pneumoconiosis or any other disease—presumably the Bill is designed to try to prevent deterioration in the health of the workers in the mining industry. We know that there is not as much knowledge of industrial diseases, even in the medical profession, as there ought to be. We know that, apart from pneumoconiosis, there are in the mining industry many menaces to the health of the workers.

If this is to be a safety, health and welfare Bill, I think that we should ask the Minister to go a little further into this question of the hazards which confront the health of the workers than merely to pass on to the Home Secretary a request that he should do certain things in regard to coroners' courts. We have here an opportunity to make this an effective Bill in regard to its health section, because the question of the health of our people is just as important as our concern about accidents.

I do not think that the matter which the hon. Member is now raising arises on this Amendment.

The question of health is specifically mentioned in the Bill, and also the question of industrial diseases.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the question of dual certification and the question of industrial diseases, and discussion has centred around those matters.

The discussion is about the cause of death and dual certification.

In view of the assurance given by the Minister that the Home Secretary will give some directive to the coroners on this very important matter, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: In page 67, line 1, leave out "send," and insert "give."

In line 2, leave out "a notice in writing," and insert "notice."

In line 12, after "inspector," insert "for the district."

In line 17, leave out "send," and insert "give."

In line 17, leave out "in writing."—[ Mr. Joynson-Hicks.]