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Industrial Deafness

Volume 15: debated on Monday 14 December 1981

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Bud gen.]

11.40 pm

I do not think that there is a great difference of opinion between the Minister and I on this important issue. The matter has been debated before, and I have raised it again to see whether more can be done for these unfortunate people.

This is the International Year of Disabled People, and deafness is a soul-destroying disability. Many individuals have been made deaf because of the conditions in which they work, but if they are not in the occupations laid down by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council they cannot claim disablement benefit. Those poor individuals do not even come under starter's orders. They cannot be considered for disablement, due to that anomaly.

In the Industrial Diseases Review, Cmnd. 8393, October 1981, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council states:
"We recommend that the council also regularly review the terms of prescription of diseases already on the schedule so that restrictive conditions can be removed and the terms simplified as soon as there is justification of evidence".
There are many restrictive conditions covering deafness and I hope that they will be removed. If some are removed, many more people will be able to claim disablement benefit, which is to be welcomed.

The case of one of my constituents was brought before the Commissioners before 1975. If the case had been brought after 1975 it would have made no difference because the disability was not on the prescribed list. I shall not mention the name of my constituent, but the Commissioners' report stated:
"In the light of the medical evidence, I see no reason to doubt that the claimant's ear condition and his subsequent deafness and also the operation which he underwent are a tribute to his work. Accordingly, I have every sympathy with his claim to benefit".
Nevertheless, the claim could not be allowed because the disability was not on the prescribed list. The list should be reviewed and more industries and disabilities should be included in the schedule. My constituent's deafness was caused by his work; and that was accepted by the Commissioner, but because of the rules of the game he was not allowed to claim industrial disablement benefit.

I do not wish to deal with cases of industrial deafness that are before the courts. The Minister will agree that this is not the time or place. I am interested only in the disablement benefit that comes from the State.

I desire to bring to the notice of the Minister the shortcomings of the present scheme of disablement benefit for occupational deafness. The scheme came into being in 1975, when occupational deafness was added to the list of prescribed industrial diseases. The shortcomings are that many restrictions were made at the same time.

There are a number of restrictions, but I intend to confine myself to two of them, because it is necessary to make a start somewhere.

The outstanding restriction is the one known as the 20-year rule. It provides that a person must have worked for a period of no less than 20 years in one or more of the prescribed occupations. I want to spell out the bad effect that this 20-year rule has on workers.

No other country has this restriction of 20 years. Most other countries have schemes which have no requirement of specified minimum periods of work in a noisy occupation. There are a few exceptions which provide for 90 days, and there is a further country which has a longer period of two years. But we are the only country with a 20-year rule, and the result is terrible for the individuals suffering from industrial deafness. These men will be deaf for the remainder of their lives, but, because they have not worked for 20 years in that occupation, there is no way that they can claim benefit.

We live in an age when we are told by politicians of all political complexions that people may have to change jobs three, four, five and six times in their working lives. Progress and new technology means that that will be necessary. Yet the rule governing benefit for industrial deafness provides that a claimant must have worked in the same occupation for 20 years. There is something radically wrong about that. In a country that prides itself on fair play it cannot be right, and I ask the Minister to do away with this unjustifiable 20-year rule.

There have been 10,511 claims for industrial deafness benefit in the 25 months up to 29 September 1981. Only 1,850 have been allowed. It means that there were 8,661 cases disallowed. I assume that some of them were affected by the infamous 20-year rule. The number of disappointed claimants suffering from industrial deafness cannot be equalled by the numbers suffering from any other industrial injury. The magnitude is too great.

If a person is sent to a noisy occupation by his local jobcentre and he is, say, 50 years of age, no matter how deaf he becomes through his working conditions, there is no way that he will be able to claim industrial benefit. This injustice must be ended. If we believe in fair play and social justice, the 20-year rule must go, and I am sure that the Minister is sympathetic to my view.

There is also another rule that is unacceptable to those who wish to see justice done. It is the rule that a person must claim within 12 months of having developed a disability. It was introduced to limit the number of claims, and of course it did so. I appreciate the difficulties that existed at the time, but why should an individual who suffers the same disability as another not receive the same benefit? Is it not justice that two individuals who work together and suffer the same disability should get the same disablement benefit? I do not believe that any hon. Member would disagree with that.

Can the 12-month rule be brought into line with the 36-month rule that applies to other benefits? That would be a move in the right direction and it would help many people. It might mean more claims being allowed, but is it not better that people see that justice is done, even if it costs more?

It may be said that such a move would increase the demands on the aurological service. I concede that, but if we are to treat people with equity that will have to be done. Equity is involved in many issues and, if we will the end, we must will the means.

We could reach the terrible position of a person having worked in noisy employment for 18 years but not getting disablement benefit because he had not completed 20 years' service. If he has to finish that work because of his disability and is transferred to another job in the same undertaking, where he completes the 20 years, the 12-month rule would then prevent him from claiming. Such people are in a Catch—22 situation, they cannot win. There is something immoral about that. I do not blame any particular Government, but methods of working out benefits may have to be altered in the light of progress, and it is the duty of the Government of the day to help those who are affected.

I am sure that the Minister is as concerned as I am about the two rules. I now that the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council is keeping the scheme under review, but in its latest report in October this year, it did not go into the question of industrial deafness—I appreciate that it had to deal with a number of other issues related to the Common Market—and I should be grateful if the Minister would request the council to look into the various aspects of industrial deafness.

There are many shortcomings in this area, but it would be a start in the right direction if the Minister would request the council to consider the two vital issues that I have raised. I am sure that, like me, the Minister wishes to help the unfortunate individuals concerned and if he will meet my request and ask the council to report back in good time I shall be satisfied.

11.53 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Welsh) for raising this subject and for the manner in which he has done so. His interest on behalf of those suffering from occupational diseases is well known to the House and there is little, if any, difference between us on the subject.

Because the loss of hearing is not fatal and does not cause physical disfigurement, the disability that it produces has not received as much attention as other causes of disablement. Noise at work, resulting in partial or total loss of hearing, has been a problem since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution. Despite this, it was not until 1975 that occupational deafness became a prescribed disease attracting preferential benefits under the industrial injuries scheme. This is partly because the research that demonstrated clear connections between high noise levels at work and irreversible hearing loss is of comparatively recent date.

An important piece of research was Commissioned by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, after a preliminary investigation in 1961. It was carried out jointly by the Medical Research Council and the National Physical Laboratory and a report based on its findings was published by the council in 1969. It concluded that
"it is now possible to estimate the hearing loss that can be expected to result from exposure to a known noise level for a given length of time".
Working from that base, the council went on to consider in greater detail how an occupational deafness scheme might work. The result was its report, published in 1973, recommending the prescription of occupational deafness, and in consequence disablement benefit became available for occupational deafness from 3 February 1975.

The terms under which the disease was prescribed covered a comparatively small number of noisy processes—principally in the metal-working and shipbuilding industries and involving the use of pneumatic tools on metal or work in the vicinity of drop-forging machines. In 1979, following a review of the scheme by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, published in 1978, occupational cover was extended to workers using pneumatic percussive tools on coal or rock as well as metal, and to those supervising or assisting in the use of pneumatic percussive tools. In addition, those working in weaving sheds, in some parts of nail manufacture and those using plasma guns in metal spraying were newly covered.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as he has mentioned, entitlement to benefit is subject to three further conditions: first, employment in one of these occupations for at least 20 years; secondly, a claim for benefit to be made within 12 months of leaving the occupation; and, thirdly, a minimum hearing loss of at least 50 dB in each ear, being due to occupational noise in at least one ear. The complete terms of prescription, which I have attempted to summarise, can be found at item 48 in part I of schedule 1 to the Social Security (Industrial Injuries) (Prescribed Diseases) Regulations 1980, a copy of which is in the Library.

The hon. Gentleman has set out some of the difficulties and resentment that these conditions cause in practice. In particular, he has cited the two time limits. As I ant sure he knows, he is not alone in his concern. My Department has received criticism of the harshness of these limitations from a number of quarters. Indeed, it has always been recognised—and the Government fully accept—that the coverage provided falls far short of the ideal—that everyone whose hearing has been significantly damaged by his job should be eligible for compensation.

But, in order to set these criticisms in context, I should like to explain why the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council recommended the initial imposition of restrictions in 1973 and the retention of most of them following its review of the scheme in 1978. I shall then go on to look at the prospects for improvements in the scheme.

As regards the 12-months rule, part of the difficulty arises from the nature of occupational deafness and its diagnosis. To have to deal with claims from people who had worked in prescribed occupations and subsequently left them as long ago, perhaps, as 1948 when the industrial injuries scheme started, would clearly cause considerable administrative problems. There would also be problems of diagnosis, in relation to people who had retired for many years, especially since it would be very difficult to distinguish occupationally caused hearing loss from that which occurs naturally because of the ageing process.

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the diagnosis and assessment of deafness requires specialist skills—those of a consultant otologist and, in most cases, of a technician to carry out hearing tests. Unfortunately, such skills are in short supply. The council's main purpose in recommending restrictions on the scheme was therefore to limit its impact on the NHS audiological services which were, and are, under considerable pressure.

The council wished to produce a scheme that was workable and would not be too disruptive to the main functions of those services—the diagnosis and treatment of all hearing impaired people. To quote from the 1973 report,
"it became clear to us that, if noise deafness was prescribed for all noisy processes, the necessary technical, and medical resources to deal with the number of claims which could be expected at the outset would not be available now and could not be made available in the forseeable future. To get a compensation scheme off the ground it would therefore be necessary to impose severe limitations initially."
The council, on the advice of those in the Department of Health and Social Security concerned with the audiological services and of the major professional body involved, the British Association of Otolaryngologists, made an estimate of the available capacity. From the evidence, it was reckoned that it would be possible to carry out about 10,000 examinations annually in connection with the occupational deafness claims without diverting the audiological services from their primary task. The restrictions recommended—and accepted by the then Government in introducing the scheme—were designed to keep the number of examinations within that limit.

In practice, however, as the hon. Member knows the number of examinations carried out in connection with the occupational deafness scheme never exceeded a third of that figure in the early years. But I should stress that in practical terms the shortfall was not as large as it might appear, because claims tend to show a very uneven geographical distribution. Indeed, about 85 per cent. of all examinations are carried out in five of my Department's social security regions. As is only to be expected, they are those where heavy industry is concentrated, as it is in the area represented by the hon. Member.

Nevertheless, the striking difference between the actual number of claims and those expected was a major factor that led the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to propose extensions to the scheme in 1978. The council, however, concluded that the maximum possible number of audiological examinations for occupational deafness purposes should remain at about 10,000 a year, and added
"it seems unlikely to increase significantly for a number of years to come."
It therefore recommended a fairly cautious extension, leaving the 20 years and 12 months rules untouched. But it said that it should be possible to make further extensions at
"regular and fairly frequent intervals"
and recommended that it should keep the scheme under continuous review.

The latest figures in relation to occupational deafness claims show that in the year ending 1 September 1981, 4,931 claims were received and 3,468 claimants were referred for examination. This figure compromises those new claimants who had met the occupational tests and a number of reassessment cases.

I accept that these figures show that the scheme is still not giving rise to as many examinations as was originally estimated and that this must give added weight to the criticisms of the present restrictions, such as those the hon. Member has very forcefully put to us tonight. As I hope I have made clear, I have considerable sympathy with his views, although I hope I have also made clear the reasons why these restrictions were imposed.

I understand especially the resentment caused by the fact that the specified period is as short as 12 months. I accept that its effect is particularly harsh when it bars claims from people who have been made redundant or have been retired for many years before their occupation became prescribed, and I have made this known to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. I have said that the council recommended in 1978 that it should keep the operation of the occupational deafness scheme under continuous review. This suggestion was accepted by the then Government and a year was allowed to elapse to give time for the extensions made in 1979 to take effect. The council then began to collect and consider evidence for its future review. I understand that it will be submitting a report to my right hon. Friend next year.

The council is, as the hon. Gentleman knows, an entirely independent body and he will understand that I cannot predict what recommendations it will make. However, I know that the sub-committee undertaking the review has sought evidence from a wide range of interested bodies and individuals, and that it has set up a working party, with expert advice from the technical inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive, specifically to look into various noisy occupations which have been proposed as suitable for addition to those prescribed. It has also taken evidence on the present capacity of the audiological services.

The sub-committee is, I understand, also looking at the 20 years and 12 months restrictions. I shall be very glad to pass on to it the comments the hon. Member has made this evening, and I know that it will give them the most careful and sympathetic consideration.

I should like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the council for the patient and painstaking way it has carried out its duties. It has an endless task. It involves not only the regular examination of new processes and substances but the constant need to go back over old ground as new evidence of risks to health becomes available.

The Government and their predecessors have been fortunate indeed in being able to secure as members of the council distinguished medical and legal experts, as well as representatives of both sides of industry, who approach their work on the council in a non-partisan and constructive spirit. I am sure that I speak for the whole House in wishing the council well in its future endeavours.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the recommendations that the council makes when its review is completed will be looked at with care and sympathy by the Government. As he, I hope, recognises, while it is not at present likely to be possible to remove or relax all the restrictions on the scheme, I share his concern about those who, in contributing to the nation's wealth—whether in the mines, in heavy industry or elsewhere—have paid the terrible price of losing their hearing. As this International Year of Disabled People draws to its close, I am glad that we have been so vividly reminded this evening of the plight of disabled persons.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Twelve o' clock.