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Clause 1

Volume 889: debated on Thursday 10 April 1975

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Grants To National Coal Board To Meet Expenditure Under Pneumoconiosis Compensation Scheme

10.35 p.m.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The fact that there was no Division on the Money Resolution on the Referendum Bill after all has caught both sides of the House by surprise. As one who has not taken part in the previous consideration of the Bill, I think it would be a great pity if the Report stage and Third Reading did not take place. I hope that those on both sides of the House who are conducting the Bill through the remainder of its passage will be able to make it back to the Chamber as quickly as possible. There is a certain amount of business to be got through.

I appreciate that there has been a certain amount of misunderstanding, but I see that the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) is now here to move Amendment No. 1.

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 11, leave out subsection (2).

The amendment seeks to achieve what the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Wilson) and other Labour Members sought to do in Committee; namely, to remove the arbitrary fixed limit of £100 million which has been set on the pneumoconiosis grant. That figure is the only sum mentioned in the entire Bill, which is unusual for a coal Bill in this day and age.

I shall not go over at length all the arguments deployed on Second Reading and in Committee, except to say that we on this side of the House fully understand the Government's reluctance to increase public expenditure still further. But it is a pity that such a worthwhile compensation scheme, devised by the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board, should be spoilt in any way.

As the hon. Gentleman said in Committee, the amendment leaves the scheme open for a further extension at some time to include the two categories of pre-1970 widows and pre-1948 commuted pensioners. Our previous debates have shown how united we all are on the matter. The miners and their families who have suffered as a result of this dreaded dust disease and are eligible will receive handsome compensation, running into thousands of pounds. We all welcome that, but the scheme fails to include even a compromise sum for the original cases who, often under great pressure, commuted their pensions for £100 or so, and to provide such a similar compromise modified award for those widows who, because their husbands died before 26th January 1970, will also receive a few hundred pounds, whereas the post-26th January widow will receive a much larger sum, often running into four figures.

I am sure that no one, least of all the Minister, with his wide experience of the coal mining industry, will dispute the unfairness of the scheme to those two categories of pneumoconiosis sufferers. The Government justly feel proud of the large financial contribution being made to the coal industry in the Bill, and to the compensation scheme. However, the Minister has been unable to extract from the Treasury that extra amount of money for which we pressed to ensure that the two cases we are discussing would be covered by the pneumoconiosis scheme. We all understand why. We know what happens when the Treasury closes its heavy doors upon such a request.

By this amendment we do not ask for an immediate increase in the £100 million grant limit. We simply ask that no stipulated limit be laid down and that as the scheme unfolds and it becomes ever more obvious that further provisions or amendment of the existing amounts are required a further grant shall be made to the scheme when more cash becomes available.

It became obvious from my discussions with members of the unions and the National Coal Board that the scheme was originally drawn up to cover these categories and then it was tailored down to fit into the £100 million limit. With an arbitrary limit, it is reasonable that this should be done, but it meant leaving out these two groups of pneumoconiosis sufferers and their families. Bitterness may well develop among these older corn-muted pensioners, many of whom are 70 or more years of age, and the pre-1970 widows. That is regrettable.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson) referred to our social responsibility in this matter, and hon. Members on both sides, many with mining experience, shared the desire to arrive mutually at a satisfactory solution to this long-standing problem. This amendment would serve that worthwhile purpose.

I support the amendment so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam). I am happy to note the bipartisan approach adopted in the House and in Committee to the Bill. We all recognise that there are certain injustices and claims in the mining industry which need to be met by society. It is perhaps a pity that those who work in the industry and public opinion should have concentrated on the question of wage claims and not sufficiently on the gaps in the social and industrial welfare system. I trust that we can fill in those gaps.

Inevitably any scheme of this kind must have certain boundaries drawn to it. Perhaps those limits have been too tightly drawn. I know that the heart of the Under-Secretary of State is in the right place, but I wonder whether he has sufficient political muscle to extract from the Treasury Ministers the due measure of compensation for those who have suffered in the industry.

Two particular categories will not derive benefit from the scheme, and I have encountered many sad examples in them in my constituency. The Under-Secretary of State has visited the East Kent coalfield and he will know that there are people who deserve well of our society whose deceased husbands gave of their best in their working lives underground. It would be wrong if their widows and dependants should not receive compensation.

I hope that since the Committee stage the Under-Secretary has been able to get a little more out of his right hon. and hon. Friends and that he will be able to come some way to meeting our modest amendment. We appreciate the country's economic and financial difficulties, but it is wrong that the door should be closed irrevocably on two deserving classes of people who might otherwise have benefited under the scheme.

I therefore trust that the Under-Secretary will take account of what we have said and that he will be able to demonstrate that he has pointed out to his right hon. and hon. Friends the force of the arguments deployed for these two classes of sufferers. I hope that he will be able to offer some hope, if not immediately, then in the foreseeable future, and will at least accept the principle underlying the amendment.

10.45 p.m.

I wish to put on record that all of us on the Labour benches who represent miners agree that there should be an extension of the scheme. There should be an extension to emphysema and to other categories of worker. That is not why we shall oppose this amendment. Many of us who served on the Committee believe that the extended compensation should be paid for by the consumer of coal. We do not believe it is desirable to ask the taxpayer to meet more than the £100 million provided for in the Bill. When we oppose the amendment we are not opposing the principle of extending compensation. We are opposing the principle of asking the taxpayer to meet this compensation rather than the consumer.

Before the hon. Member sits down, will he say why he would not extend the principle, which I understand, to the whole of the scheme? Why not ask the consumer to pay for all of it? Why exclude these two classes of sufferer?

The figure of £100 million was a reasonable sum by way of compensation because of the freezing of the price of coal for a two-year period. These categories were excluded after negotiation between the National Coal Board and the union. That was decided as the limit. The Government have acted very well in this instance.

It gives me great pleasure to respond to a debate in which speakers have shown such humanity, compassion and understanding. I appreciate the things that have been said about me. No one doubts that we are dealing with a serious problem. In Committee we had a debate on the subject that did credit to this Mother of Parliaments. I believe that we have emerged from this debate with much credit following the moving of this amendment by the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam). In some ways he has replied to the point raised by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees).

The hon. Member for Exeter drew attention to the anomalies of such categories as the commuted pensioners and the pre-1970 widows. Rather courageously, he said that he felt that the £100 million the Government had put in to assist with the funding of the scheme was a magnificent lump sum. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Wilson) has said that, despite his reservations, this was a "dream clause".

It is important to understand how it was born. It came about during a period of crisis for the country. In February 1974, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was responsible for setting up a tripartite inquiry to look into the question of the mining industry. That tripartite inquiry led to the £100 million being available. The Government agreed to fund up to £100 million, but it was not a Government scheme. It was a scheme that was freely negotiated between the unions and the NCB. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did not claim that the scheme would solve all the problems associated with pneumoconiosis in the mining industry.

In Committee I told of my experience of pneumoconiosis victims. In miners' language, "pneumoconiosis" is not necessarily a curse word, but "bronchitis" sometimes is. Miners often claim to be suffering from pneumoconiosis, and they go before the panel, but the panel decides that they are suffering from bronchitis. The union representative will almost invariably advise an elderly man to whom this has happened to inform his wife and family that although he has failed to win the case whilst he is alive there is a possibility that he may be able to win it after he is dead.

I described in Committee how I have often had to carry out this duty. On one occasion my wife told me that one of my union members had died. I knew that he had been before a pneumoconiosis panel on three or four occasions but had never won his case. I remember going to see the widow to advise a postmortem examination on her husband. I tried to explain that although John had lost the battle when he was alive there was a possibility that he could win the battle when he was dead. It would mean a lot for the family, a lot for the widow and a lot for any dependent children. I can remember saying to the widow when the man was lying dead in his coffin in the house, "I have tried to arrange for a post-mortem right away." The young daughter burst out crying and said "No, you cannot do that. You cannot take my daddie away and cut him up." That is not a pleasant experience for anyone to have. I confess that I nearly broke down.

Although this is a magnificent sum, as has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, neither my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State nor I have ever claimed that we are solving all the problems. Yes, we would have liked to have more money. We would have liked to be more generous. We would have liked to extend the scheme and done something about including bronchitis in the mining industry—

Yes, and other industries. We would have liked to include it in the scheme, but that has not been possible. However, as I said in Committee, no agreement is for ever. I said that people outside the House would be listening to our debates. I hope that they are listening and that they will read our words. The time comes when we look at agreements afresh. I hope that the whole House will accept that in allocating £100 million, the Government are making a humanitarian gesture.

The Government are not seeking to take the credit for themselves. I hope that Parliament will take the credit. The speeches that we have heard from the Opposition Front Bench have been full of humanity and compassion. Maybe if we had more debates of such a character there would be more understanding and more progress would be made in our social provision. To some extent Parliament must take the credit for the gesture which we are making by funding £100 million. I hope that the Opposition will not press the amendment to a Division.

The Under-Secretary of State has given us his customary fine description of this scheme. We have had such descriptions from him in Committee and on Second Reading. I must support strongly the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees).

We were encouraged to table the amendment because of the words uttered by the Under-Secretary of State in Committee, when he said:
"the outstanding contribution we shall make as Members of Parliament in this Committee is that our remarks will be read by the people who have negotiating responsibility for this."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 4th March 1975; c. 18.]
The only point I must make is that the Under-Secretary of State has told us that another £50 million would have cleared the whole operation. That was the figure that he quoted in Committee. Of course, we recognise the constraints which currently face the whole economy. I shall not split hairs with the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding). He and I have discussed the matter in Committee. We would like to feel that the Government recognise that, while there is no legal responsibility, there is a moral responsibility for some token payment to be made. If that payment were made perhaps we would all feel rather happier in our consciences. That is what led us to table the amendment.

We very much hope that we can take the words that have just been uttered by the Under-Secretary State—namely, that no scheme is for ever. Let us very much hope that those listening to the debate and those who read it will take account of the fact that we believe that there is a moral responsibility to be discharged and that anything that can be done to help in its discharge will be welcome.

11.0 p.m.

I rise because I feel very much upset that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has not been able to convince the Treasury that some further money should be allocated.

Neither do I like the Opposition's placing us in this invidious position, because I do not know whether they are playing politics or not or whether it is a kind heart they are pretending this evening, but they know full well that there is much unrest throughout the industry among people who are not able to claim benefits because their husbands died before 1970 from this dread disease. It is not helpful of Conservative hon. Members, because I have never known them to be as generous when they have been in Government as they pretend now to be. I can hardly appreciate that they should bring this up now.

The hon. Gentleman is being unfair to us and to himself. He knows our views. No Government have produced this scheme until now, and we have to look forward, not back. What we have done is done in total sincerity, as he, I am sure, is speaking in a sincere manner.

I appreciate that this is the first time this has come before the House but people have been dying from pneumoconiosis for a long time and no, or very little, benefit has gone to their widows.

The National Coal Board and the old coal owners may have been negligent, and they were on many occasions, and they helped men to contract the disease, but there was never much talk of industrial diseases benefits going to them.

I shall be reluctant not to go wholeheartedly for the amendment. Many of my hon. Friends will have the same kind of feeling in their hearts because we know that throughout the industry there are widows today feeling embittered because they have not qualified for benefit because their husbands died earlier and more quickly than many others, and in many cases had a greater percentage of pneumoconiosis than the others.

There is nothing perfect about the scheme. Bronchitis and emphysema are prevalent among miners. I have dealt with scores of cases where I have had to help a man into the examination room and he could hardly breathe if he walked a few steps, cases in which some doctors have said that the man had pneumoconiosis but when he was examined by the panel he was turned down.

I could speak about a good number of cases, as can the Under-Secretary. Too long have we ignored what it means to contract this dread disease and the effect it has on the man's life. If there is any sense of weakness at all in his lungs, he can contract not always pneumoconiosis but some other lung disease which affects and shortens his life.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not leave the matter where it is. I hope that he will not close the door to change, but will leave the matter in such a way that in future we shall find it possible to bring these people into the provisions.

On many occasions when we wish to help our people, we come up against the dead hand of the Treasury. I accept that economically at the present time, largely because of the situation which the Labour Government inherited from their predecessors, things are difficult. But I know that my hon. Friend the Minister in his heart experiences the same sensations as I do on these issues. Therefore, I accept, although a little reluctantly, what my hon. Friend said on this issue. I hope that if in future the economic situation improves, we can bring these people into the provisions since they richly deserve better treatment.

I rise to make a brief contribution, following the sincere plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright). Unfortunately, this discussion has taken a most unfortunate turn. In introducing the Bill on Second Reading my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy said that the measure had about it a certain nobility which attached itself only rarely to provisions before the House. Most hon. Members agreed with him. But somehow or other the matter has taken on a somewhat niggardly aspect, as if the Government arc now being a little churlish.

I appreciate that there are serious practical reasons why the Government have had to fix the limit. This matter was examined in Committee, and I was surprised that Amendment No. 1 was tabled by the Opposition. The point was made in Committee that if any open-ended commitment were entered into, the whole matter would become impracticable. The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) reminded the Committee that these arguments could apply equally to workers in the slate industry who suffer from pneumoconiosis. Ideally, I believe we should accept the provision as it stands and hope that the Government will consider the whole question of compensation for dust diseases comprehensively. I do not believe we should hold them to any open-ended figure.

I should like to make an appeal to Opposition Members, although I do not put the matter in the same way as did my hon. Friend the Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright). I welcome the concern of Opposition Members—a concern expressed equally in Committee—about the effects of this terrible disease. However, I would ask them to consider the heartfelt feelings in the mining industry about this disease and to show good faith in the Labour Government over this Bill.

I have great confidence in my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, and I am aware of his great knowledge of these problems. We should recognise the magnitude of the Bill and appreciate the extent of the assistance given in the face of the country's serious economic difficulties. I plead with the Opposition to look at the Bill in that spirit and to accept that it marks a great step forward.

I, too, was a compensation secretary. My father died at the age of 54. My hon. Friend the Member for Dearne Valley told the House of his experiences as a branch representative and said that he had to plead with families to allow post-mortems on their loved ones who had died of disease. This happened to me when my father died. My mother's view was "I will not let them open up your father to enable us to get money." I realise all the heartfelt feelings in the mining industry. But let us not forget that the whole industry welcomes the Bill and the measures which the Government are taking in the present economic crisis.

The Government cannot please everybody. A long time ago, as a trade union official, I accepted that a step forward was a step forward and that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. Let us accept the spirit of this debate and make sure that this legislation does not represent finality. I look forward to the day when bronchitis and emphysema are classified as prescribed diseases.

The Opposition must realise that the Government have taken a terrific step forward in this matter. I plead with them to realise what the Government are doing with regard to mining. Let us not spoil that achievement.

Having listened to the three speeches made by my hon. Friends the Members for Morpeth (Mr. Grant). Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) and Wrexham (Mr. Ellis), I am proud to have been associated with the mining industry. Between us we have had a total of about 150 years' experience in the mining industry. We understand the industry because we are associated with it. My hon. Friends are probably more conscious of the problem than is any other hon. Member. They are also more conscious of the anomalies which remain. Miners and people associated with the mining industry have self-discipline. We are now saying that despite the fact that anomalies exist, this is a great step forward. We have not made as much progress as we would have liked. Nevertheless, we have taken a big step forward.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy should receive the credit. He was able to obtain £100 million from a British Cabinet at a time of economic crisis. Therefore, he should be proud of the rôle he has played.

The hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and his hon. Friends have spoken with sincerity and compassion. I stress that the agreement on payment to pneumoconiotics is not sacrosanct for all time. Although the principle has been established, I do not believe that any agreement is for ever.

People outside the House will read what has been said in this debate. Progress will come from that. I hope that the Opposition will not press this amendment to a Division.

Amendment negatived.