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Byssinosis (Compensation)

Volume 888: debated on Friday 14 March 1975

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4.1 p.m.

I welcome this opportunity to speak on behalf of many hundreds of working people living in and around my constituency who suffer from byssinosis. Byssinosis is a chronic respiratory disease occurring in people who have been employed for a long period in certain dusty processes in the manufacture of cotton or flax. The disease is progressive, starting with comparatively minor symptoms and sometimes developing, with continued exposure to the dust, to more serious stages.

The disease has been the subject of a number of reports of the Joint Advisory Committee of the Cotton Industry, beginning in 1946. The latest report of the. Joint Standing Committee on Health and Welfare in the Cotton and Allied Fibres Industry devotes considerable space to a study of the disease. Recommendations are made which, if implemented, would no doubt have a considerable effect on the incidence of byssinosis. Unfortunately, although these recommendations were made in April 1973 they do not so far have the force of law. It follows from that that even if a worker can prove that the standards in his work place fall below those recommended by the joint standing committee this would not be conclusive evidence of his employer's liability. This is only one of the difficulties facing workers who are trying to obtain compensation. I hope to outline other difficulties in a moment.

Various estimates are available of the number of people in the United Kingdom suffering from byssinosis. The Minister of State for Health and Social Security told me, in a Written Answer on 26th February, that the figures available
"relate to diagnoses in Great Britain in connection with claims to industrial injury disablement benefit. The latest available figure shows that 3,210 people were receiving benefit on 30th September 1973."—[Official Report, 26th February 1975; Vol. 887, c. 155.]
By contrast, the Amalgamated Textile Workers' Union estimates that there may be over 10,000 who are either suffering from byssinosis or are the widows of workers who died from the disease. In my calculation of costs I intend to use the much higher figure produced by the union, not from any desire to exaggerate the problem but rather to see that the case for compensation, together with the estimated cost, is fully and fairly put.

The union has fought very hard in the past for its members and others who are suffering from the disease, and it is now engaged in making strong representations, through the TUC, for parity of treatment on compensation for byssinosis and pneumoconiosis victims. Today's debate arises because I wish to assist the work of the union in every way I can.

Many of my constituents are intensely interested in the outcome of the debate. I have with me bundles of letters which are the response to a single article on the subject of byssinosis published in the Oldham Evening Chronicle. I have over 150 letters, many from women, because the incidence of the disease among women appears to be much greater than among men, presumably because they comprise the basic work force in the areas of the textile industry which are particularly dusty.

A lady in Oldham wrote to me saying:
"I feel that whatever industry may be responsible for causing the disease, whether it be mining or the cotton mills, as in my case, all the sufferers should be treated equally in regard to compensation, since we all have to suffer equally. Please use this letter as evidence of my support. I wish you good luck with your campaign."
Another wrote:
"I have suffered from byssinosis for the last eight years. I am now 58 per cent."—
That is the percentage of disablement.—
"I have never worked in a cotton mill since I first knew I had the disease. I have a hardship allowance but in the winter there are weeks when I cannot even go upstairs to bed and I have to keep a fire on day and night."
Yet another says:
"I am one of the byssinosis sufferers, having worked in a cotton mill for 40 years. I am practically housebound. I cannot go anywhere in the evenings, as the night air affects me. I have had ill health due to byssinosis since 1959, when I collapsed in the mill. After examination it was proved that I had caught the disease. I was unable to work. I left the mill and I have not been able to work since. It is a painful disease and there is no cure. I have never been able to enjoy life in all these years."
The next letter I wish to quote says:
"I am a sufferer from byssinosis and have been for about 15 years. I receive 60 per cent. benefit. I am only 48 years of age."
The next letter says:
"I am not able to get out these days unless I have someone with me when I do go. In answer to your article in the paper about byssinosis, well, I am 70 per cent. and have been since 1962. I was 58 years old last month. I have not done a day's work since I left the mill. I weigh just under five stone and I never can go out anywhere as I am always so tired and I am frightened of coughing. I just go my few errands but I never go out at night except in the summer. I was in bed nearly all last winter and the winter before. I go to bed early every night to try to get some sleep before the night air changes."
I have many more letters of that kind, some of them extremely tragic.

Anyone who is associated with the area of South-East Lancashire where the disease is prevalent must have come across many similar cases. Many sufferers come to my advice bureaux, and have done over the five years since I became the Member, and it is distressing to see them trying to recover from the effort of climbing even one flight of stairs.

In September 1973 there were 3,210 people receiving disablement benefit under the Industrial Injuries Acts. This figure will be much bigger now, as the Department of Health and Social Security announced on 30th August 1974, following trade union representations, an extension of the cases covered for benefit for byssinosis.

The improved arrangements came into force in November 1974, and it was estimated by the Department then that perhaps 1,000 people would become entitled to benefit for the first time. Perhaps my hon. Friend can say whether this figure has been reached. In any event, the extension of the occupational cover to additional categories was most welcome, and it has been of great assistance to many people in the North-West of England and elsewhere.

I come now to the main reason for asking for this debate. For many years the trade union movement has argued convincingly that sick pay, national insurance benefits and the Industrial Injuries Scheme did not provide adequate compensation for the victims of industrial injuries and diseases either for loss of earning power or for bereavement. This is especially true of byssinosis victims, as they are not eligible for injury benefit: the onus lies with the worker to pursue his compensation claim through the courts.

Claims for tort damages are extremely complicated, calling as they do for proof of liability. I have already explained the difficulties caused by the lack of the force of law behind dust-extraction regulations. In addition, many of the companies involved in the cotton and allied textile industries have gone out of business in recent years and, therefore, no longer exist for legal purposes. Many workers change their employers several times during a lifetime in the industry, and this complicates the problem of deciding at which firm the disease was developed.

A compensation scheme was recently agreed between the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board, which means that lump sum awards will be made to coal miners suf- fering from pneumoconiosis and to widows, which will relieve the victims from the need to pursue common law claims. I believe that that was right, and I strongly support that action.

I believe also that I have shown that the difficulties facing byssinosis victims in pursuing this kind of claim are almost too difficult to be overcome. The Amalgamated Union of Textile Workers has placed some cases in hand, but, so far as is known, no byssinotic has ever made a successful claim for tort damages. Because of its complexity, the process must be lengthy and wasteful of the resources of unions, employers, insurers and the legal system.

I am asking, therefore, that a scheme similar to that introduced for pneumoconiosis sufferers be introduced for byssinosis sufferers. I fully understand that I am asking that the State should take over the liabilities of employers in the industry. I say, however, that the cost, estimated to be less than £40 million, would in some way restore the balance to the workers, who have seen the Government give substantial assistance to the industry under the 1959 Cotton Industry Reorganisation Act, while in more recent times the Government have given financial aid in the form of regional development premiums and investment grants. Courtaulds, for example, only one firm in the industry, received almost £30 million in Government grants between 1970 and 1974.

Finally, I close by referring again to the 46-year-old man who called for advice at my office in Oldham recently. At that age it took him 20 minutes to recover from climbing stairs. His life, to be brutally frank, is terrifyingly restricted. His compensation, as he lives alone, is £16·40 per week. This is the kind of case that concerns me very much.

4.14 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Olham, East (Mr. Lamond) raises many issues in this House on behalf of his constituents, all of them important. He always speaks in a well-informed manner which is extremely persuasive. This afternoon has been no exception. I welcome this opportunity of making clear a situation over which a number of people, including some hon. Members, have allowed themselves to become utterly confused.

Regrettably, these people have not allowed their confusion to make them at all reticent, either in their criticism of the setting-up of a special National Coal Board fund, or of an alleged failure to extend such a fund to workers in other industries. Both criticisms are ill-founded. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has not sought to say that the position of the NCB fund is one which creates entitlement for any other lung disease sufferers. Under existing statutes, all workers who suffer injury or develop illness as a result of their work have two quite distinct methods of seeking compensation.

In the first place, all employed persons are covered by the national insurance industrial injuries benefit scheme, which allows for various forms of compensation irrespective of any blameworthiness on the part of the employer, the employee of anyone else. The forms of compensation under this national insurance scheme include weekly payments to cover disability and absence from work.

In addition to this non-fault national insurance scheme, every worker who feels that his injury or illness is attributable, wholly or in part, to the fault of his employer or any other person has the right to bring a claim at law against his employer or that other person. Payments of industrial injuries benefits are not affected by any damages awarded in litigation, though half the benefits payable will be taken into account in assessing damages.

The Government have a duty to keep the industrial injuries scheme under periodic review to ensure that the various levels of benefit are appropriate. Furthermore, there is currently in being a Royal Commission, under Lord Pearson's chairmanship, reviewing the entire area of civil liability and compensation for personal injury. Until the Royal Commission reports it would be unwise to deal in a piecemeal fashion with these complex issues.

The Royal Commission is engaged in a wide-ranging inquiry. The Government are anxious that the report should be made available as soon as possible. That is the current situation, under which all workers are able to gain compensation for industrial injury or disease, including byssinosis.

My hon. Friend asked me for the latest figures. I am advised that 3,021 certified cases were known as from September 1973.

I now turn to the main point, on which there is so much confusion, namely, the special pneumoconiosis fund set up to compensate employees of the National Coal Board. This fund is not something additional to the two existing forms of compensation I have just described. It is an alternative to a recourse to legal proceedings which workers in other industries will retain. Those who make claims and obtain compensation under the NCB fund will forfeit their right to proceed against their employer in the way I have described.

The reasons why such an alternative was freely negotiated between the NCB and National Union of Mineworkers, and supported by the Government, stem from a unique situation in the nationalised coal industry. That situation was fully described in the Interim Report of the Coal Industry Examination, published by the Department of Energy in June 1974. For the benefit of hon. Members who may not have read that report or who have forgotten it, let me remind the House of the situation described by the report. It disclosed that there are 39,000 registered pneumoconiosis sufferers among the NCB's former and present employees. If these individuals had to take their cases through the courts, even if the courts had the capacity to handle them, there would be an enormous cost to be borne in legal expenses alone by both employer and employees. This is to say nothing of the cost of compensation which the courts might award. Some of the present sufferers might not now he able to assemble all the evidence required, and undoubtedly a good many would not survive to hear the result of their cases because of the inevitable delay in handling such a vast load.

Many of the sufferers contracted pneumoconiosis in mines that are now closed, in circumstances which may have been examined by inspectors who are no longer available. In these circumstances. the NCB and NUM freely negotiated an alternative plan which, because it was likely to be far less expensive in overall terms and certainly far more humane to the sufferers and their dependants, the Government fully supported.

In order to help with the immediate setting up of this alternative fund, at a time when the coal industry's finances were particularly under strain, the Government made an initial grant to the NCB. Without such a grant there would have been a delay before the arrangements could have come into force, and, in the light of the long-term economic benefits of the scheme and for reasons of simple social justice, the Government did not consider such a delay acceptable. But the scheme is now one which must be run entirely by the industry itself. If there should be any case in which the circumstances are the same as those obtaining in the coal industry, it could be that in such a case the employer and his employees would need to consider a negotiated industrial agreement, such as that made between the NCB and the mining unions.

In these circumstances, there is no question of extending the NCB scheme. It is a scheme which belongs to the industry itself and which will be administered by that industry.

In conclusion, I would like to draw my hon. Friend's attention to the efforts being made by the industry itself and the Health and Safety Executive to reduce the prevalence of byssinosis and to minimise its effects. My hon. Friend properly paid tribute to the efforts of textile workers' unions in this area.

The Joint Standing Committee on Health and Safety in the Cotton Industry, on which manufacturers' associations, trade unions and the Health and Safety Executive are represented, published its report in September 1974. In addition to setting a hygiene standard for cotton dust, the report made practical recommendations for reducing airborne dust levels. It also emphasised the need for further research.

Inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive are making special visits to cotton mills to check on the action taken by industry to implement the recommendations of the report. In addition, 95 full-scale surveys have been carried out since 1970. The Employment Medical Advisory Service has carried out a further study of workers in the industry, and the results are currently being analysed.

Following the JSC's recommendation, my Department has financed a research project by the Shirley Institute into the control of dust at winding and beaming machinery. I hope that the joint efforts of employers, trade unions and the Health and Safety Executive will make a significant contribution to the reduction of byssinosis.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Four o'clock.