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Pneumoconiosis Etc (Workers' Compensation)

Volume 204: debated on Tuesday 25 February 1992

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10.38 pm

I beg to move,

That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 4th February, be approved.
The regulations will be made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979. The purpose of the regulations is to increase by 5 per cent. the amounts of compensation paid under the Act to those who first satisfy all the conditions of entitlement on or after 1 April 1992.

The 1979 Act set up a scheme to provide lump sum payments to sufferers from dust-related diseases or, when the sufferers have died, to their dependants. In law, the remedy for people suffering from those diseases is to sue the employer concerned for damages. But, because of the time it takes for the disease to develop, diagnosis may not be made for 20 to 30 years or more after exposure and the employer or employers responsible may no longer exist. The aim of the scheme, therefore, is to provide a measure of compensation to those who cannot claim it in the normal way through the courts. I must stress, however, that it has never been the intention of the Act to provide an alternative to taking civil action in the courts.

There are three basic conditions of entitlement which must be satisfied before a payment is made to a claimant: that there is no relevant employer who can be sued; that no court action has been brought and no compensation has been received in respect of the disease; and that disablement benefits have been awarded.

The conditions of the Act are interpreted by my Department as sympathetically as the Act will allow, but we must ensure that the payment conditions are met.

I am sorry to interrupt but does the Department's interpretation cover Scots law? Will the Minister look sympathetically on a ten-minute Bill —it is the only way that one can raise the matter—on 17 March? The reason for its introduction is a report of the Law Commission due on 5 March, which will seek to remedy the anomaly that estates in Scotland cannot claim in the same way as estates in England. That disadvantages some thousands of people, particularly those who worked with asbestos and suffer from mesothelioma in some way, who worked in the construction industry and in particular the shipyards.

As the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter on a previous occasion, I am aware of his continuing interest in it. As he said, the report has yet to be published. We are not yet aware of what it will recommend, but I am confident that whatever recommendations it makes will be considered sympathetically in the light of the facts that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I will certainly ensure that the point that he raised is brought to the attention of my colleagues in the Scottish Office in order that weight is added to his request for it to be considered in the light of the matter that we are debating this evening.

The Government have given an undertaking to Parliament to review the amounts regularly to maintain the value of the payments under the terms of the regulations. Last year, Parliament approved an increase of 9 per cent. from April to take account of the movement in the index of retail prices during the preceding 12 months. The proposed increase this year is 5 per cent., the aim, again, being to keep the payments in line with inflation. I wish to re-emphasise that my Department does all that it can to administer the Act in a sympathetic way. We recognise that each case is an individual disaster and we are as generous as the statute will allow.

But does the Minister recognise that the rationalisation of hospital provision in coalfields which no longer have any coal mines or, like south Wales, have few coal mines has created a deep fear among men who are still in the industry that expertise in diagnosing pneumoconiosis contracted, for example, in the past decade simply will not be available in future? Has he anything to say about that? It is a great worry to people currently working in the industry.

I understand the basis for such misgivings, but they are misplaced. I am confident that the machinery available through both the Department of Social Security procedures necessary to establish the claim to benefit and the medical boards which are called in wherever necessary will be available on a permanent basis. Although I recognise the developments that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I see no reason to believe that they will reduce the level of expertise that is available to make a fair and proper assessment of claims. I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance.

I thank the Minister for saying that, and I hope that he will put pressure on his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Health to maintain the facilities available within the South Glamorgan area to service the coal mining communities that we represent. However, it is not as simple as that. There are outstanding instances throughout the south Wales coalfield of, for example, miners who are diagnosed as 100 per cent. in life and receive a disability pension and benefits relating to the disease, but on death at the post mortem they are excluded from the lump sum benefit outlined in the regulations.

It is not simple. We have had to face distressing situations with families who suddenly find themselves destitute because no compensation is payable after death, although the miner or ex-miner had received compensation for a considerable period when alive.

I confess that I have not been aware of the problem that hon. Members have mentioned. They should write to me with the appropriate background and details to the cases. If a problem arises from the administration of the regulations I shall certainly want to consider it. I have already given an undertaking that our concern is to ensure that we give the maximum allowable under the regulations because, by definition, they are designed to deal with real human distress. If there is an inhibition in the regulations I would want to ensure that it was dealt with, as far as possible.

I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the Minister, but, following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), it is usually found on post mortem that the deceased was suffering from emphysema. May I draw the Minister's attention to the report of the Institute of Occupational Medicine at Edinburgh university, which discusses the causes of disability in coal miners. I shall pass the report to the Minister. A passage in it states:

"There was a clear association between the occurrence of … emphysema and the amount of dust to which a man had been exposed during life, allowing for the effect of age and smoking. This association was more definite in men showing some dust-related fibrosis and emphysema was more likely the greater the coal contact of the dust exposure."
In other words, there is evidence to show that emphysema in coal miners has been caused through the conditions that they were working in. That concern is expressed by many families of former mine workers. Therefore, will the Minister consider the situation carefully and try to impart to his colleagues at the Department of Health that compensation should be paid to coal miners with emphysema because of the evidence available, according to the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh? Perhaps the Minister would take note of that and a copy of the report could be obtained, in the interests of miners and their dependants.

I am advised that in January 1990 the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council—the independent body which advises the Secretary of State for Social Services on the prescription of industrial diseases—announced a further study of bronchitis and emphysema in workers in the metal-producing industries. A further IIAC study on bronchitis and emphysema in coal miners was also announced in October 1991 and the results of both studies should be published later this year. I think that that shows that the problem that the hon. Member mentioned has been recognised in the sense that it is being looked into. Although such studies always take longer than many hon. Members would wish, I think that that answers the hon. Gentleman's point. It is being actively considered and will be reported on later this year.

The Minister appears to believe that the study commenced in 1991. If he checks the record, he will find that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) has presented a Bill to deal with this problem on at least half a dozen times in the past decade. Surely we do not need to consider further research at this stage, given that a great deal of research was carried out more than 10 years ago.

The problem is that we are dealing with an issue that is subject to contention and judgment. We are talking about the attribution of particular conditions to particular working environments. The issue involves the payment of compensation and the judgment of eligibility for such payments. I hope that the Opposition accept that we must get matters right, in fairness to the sufferers and, if I may dare say in this context—I hope that hon. Members will not take this amiss—the taxpayers. It is a tax-funded scheme which is designed to compensate.

I believe that the study that I have mentioned is a step in the right direction. I ask hon. Members to be patient for just a little longer until its results are available. If it shows that the connections mentioned by the Opposition exist, I am confident that the appropriate action will be taken. However tempting it might be, a private Member's Bill is not necessarily the right means by which to pursue the matter.

Part of the problem is obtaining the correct diagnosis in life. Pneumoconiosis is caused by the scarring of the lung tissue by silicates that are inhaled. That ailment is often obscured by other associated diseases, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (M r. O'Brien). With the use of electron microscopy one can detect pneumoconiosis, but, unless such sophisticated equipment is used, the proper diagnosis is not obtained. Therefore, many people who should receive benefit do not and that is why my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) has pushed his Bill. It would clear up such areas of doubt.

The studies that I have mentioned should cover that problem. If hon. Members are not satisfied that my comments cover the issue raised, they should take the matter up with me so that I can do my best to ensure that their concerns are met. If necessary, we shall reconsider the issue in another study. That is the way in which to proceed.

No one wants to conceal matters or to delay their resolution. Opposition Members are expert in this problem and deal with many constituency cases and I am sure that they understand that progress must be steady and undertaken on a proper basis. We are dealing with complex, often contentious, matters. However, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) suggested, many of the problems can be overcome with advanced technology.

Given the background, it is right that we should identify the areas of difficulty and then identify how to resolve them. If hon. Members are not satisfied with my proposals, they should raise the matter with me in the normal way.

I welcome my hon. Friend's guarantee to address immediately any recommendations that the report may make. There are just as many Conservative Members as Labour Members who are anxious that this matter should be addressed.

I would not like to dispute whether my hon. Friend is numerically accurate, but I would not dispute my hon. Friend's commitment to his constituents, which is at least the equal of that of any Opposition Member.

I hope that there is no contention about this issue. All hon. Members with constituents affected by pneumoconiosis deal with matters that involve issues of great tragedy and family and human deprivation. I hope that my Department always handles such cases sensitively and positively within the terms of the existing regulations. We are talking here about the somewhat different issue of any definition or redefinition of the boundaries within which the regulations operate. We need not be divided on that, and I hope that we can move forward on it.

We are nearing a general election. Sensitive to their election prospects, the Government have in recent weeks been saying and doing things that have not been unhelpful to our constituents. Tonight, on the eve of the election, Opposition Members are offering the Minister a chance to win some glory. Recognising the correlation between emphysema and pneumoconiosis and the fact that payments are made according to certain guidelines, we invite the Minister to say that the Government will make a positive recommendation to the body examining the whole issue to the effect that the link between emphysema and pneumoconiosis should be strengthened to the point at which private Member's legislation on the subject is acceptable. That would mean it becoming law tomorrow. We simply want a commitment from the Minister, on behalf of the Government, that they will support our case. That might result in the Conservatives pinching another vote. Or we might pinch another 20,000 votes. It is election time. The Minister should do the right thing and say that the Government support us in principle.

It is with some trepidation that I tell the hon. Gentleman, in view of his experience in this place, that were he to find himself a Minister in a future Labour Government, which might surprise him more than it would surprise me—but one never knows—he would find that what he seeks is not as simple as he suggests. Given the nature of the area that we are discussing, it is not just a question of a Minister waving a wand and saying, "Because I wish it to be so, it shall be so." If it were that easy, Opposition Members would be suspicious, and rightly so.

I have said that there is an ongoing study into the point that Opposition Members have raised. That will report later this year. I have no doubt that if that report found what they believe it will find, the appropriate action would follow. That is the right course, rather than Ministers giving instant responses, tempted though they might be by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

We recognise each case on its merits and deal with it as generously as possible. I emphasise that the purpose of the Act has never been to take on the liabilities of employers, and we must be satisfied that there is no employer against whom a single claim for damages could be made. It is a long-standing measure which the House debates each year. I hope that, having heard my remarks, hon. Members will support the regulations.

10.57 pm

We must place in context the fact that every one of those who benefit under the regulations and all those about whom my hon. Friends are talking have suffered considerably because of the actions of their former, and in some cases their continuing, employers. They have given their health for the nation's economy.

The regulations do not deal directly with the coal industry, in which a superior compensation scheme is already in existence. Even so, the experience of my hon. Friends and the testimony that they bring before the House about the difficulties of claiming under British Coal's scheme and the scheme under the regulations are relevant, because much frustration exists. People who have been diagnosed by their GPs, and having had that diagnosis confirmed by a consultant, still find themselves refused compensation under either scheme because they are considered to have insufficient disability to benefit.

The Minister said that his Department always tries to treat each case sympathetically, but we are talking about an extremely vulnerable group of people and time is often of the essence. The overwhelming bulk of people who benefit under the pneumoconiosis regulations are former asbestos workers. As I am one of those former asbestos workers, I have a certain vested interest in the regulations. The pattern of ages at which people begin to be seriously affected by the impact of asbestos shows that it happens many years after they have worked in that industry.

For example, of those assessed as suffering from asbestososis in 1990, the overwhelming majority were in their late 50s or older before their condition was diagnosed. At that stage in life, people often feel that they cannot wait for a prolonged review on whether the regulations can be extended. The matter is therefore urgent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) raised an associated matter. He rightly pointed out that the full impact of those conditions is often visible only at an autopsy.

To illustrate that point, my brother-in-law left a colliery in south Wales in 1945 and went to live in Newark, where he worked in Ransome and Marles until he had another industrial accident. Only about 10 years ago, when he was 70 or 73, he was diagnosed—as a result of action by the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, which helped him, from its Nottingham office, to have a proper medical examination —as having pneumoconiosis. That was almost 40 years after he had left the industry, but he had been insidiously ill all the time.

My hon. Friend's point is valid. Of the 24 asbestos workers who were considered to be between 80 and 100 per cent. disabled in 1990, all but four were in their 60s. They had been exposed to asbestos early in their working lives and the full impact of that exposure had been diagnosed only at that late stage.

Although the Minister is right to say that compensation is funded by direct taxation, we are not talking about vast sums of taxpayers' money in relative terms, but of some £1·5 million in the current financial year. Neither are we talking about massive pay-offs to a lucky—I use that word hesitantly—minority who benefit under the scheme. A typical payment this year will be about £10,000. One must go down the different scales of assessment to see who will qualify for a payment of £10,000. Specifically, for someone suffering 30 per cent. disability to receive £10,000, he or she must be at least 60 years of age. The Minister must appreciate that people will receive relatively little compensation towards the end of their lives, even though they may have suffered for many years.

I hope that the Minister will consider other issues sympathetically, because the Government have the power to look afresh at the defects in the scheme. They should consider in particular the relative advantages in the coal industry scheme, an important feature of which is the opportunity for reassessment. One of the problems with pneumoconiosis and asbestosis is that they are progressive and the compensation is awarded according to the level of disability when the initial diagnosis takes place. Under the coal board scheme—I checked this information today with the National Union of Mineworkers, which has more experience of it than anybody—in the most recent year for which figures are available, although some 300 new pneumoconiosis cases were placed on the books, about 150 people returned for reassessment because their condition had deteriorated.

We know that, in any given year, half of those presenting themselves could be replicated by people who should go back for re-examination. Under the coal board scheme, that is possible, but it is not possible under the regulations. Somebody who, at the age of 50, is assessed as being 10 per cent. disabled will receive the grand sum of a little more than £10,000. In another two or three years, he might have become 50 per cent. disabled so he will have forgone the extra £20,000 that he would have received if he had been—I say this hesitantly—lucky enough to be patient and to wait until he was diagnosed as having severe pneumoconiosis. That does not seem to be a fair and acceptable way to run a scheme, as it appears to be a lottery as to when one is first taken on to the doctor's books.

Another advantage of the coal industry scheme is that allowance is made for people who can continue to work, albeit on reduced earnings. It is recognised that someone who cannot do the work that he was once capable of doing is still given some allowance to make up his earnings to guarantee an acceptable standard of living. No such facility exists in the regulations. Those two changes would transform the regulations and the position of the many victims of past industrial practices.

The bulk of claimants under the regulations are former asbestos workers. The Minister may or may not be aware of it, but it is far from being beyond living memory that while management in industries such as the asbestos industry knew very well of the dangers of asbestos—that it was a major cause of cancer and that asbestosis was a particularly unpleasant way of killing employees—the safety practices of that industry were outrageous. That is not an abstract observation; I have seen and breathed the conditions in those factories at the time. Some people of my generation will be recipients of the scheme in years to come, and will doubtless be grateful for any change that the Minister can make.

I should like to place on record my appreciation of the continuing interest in the regulations of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Lamond). He would have been with us tonight but, unfortunately, he had to chair a Committee in another part of the House. Over the years, he has taken a keen interest in the problems of his constituents who have suffered from a condition prevalent in the textile industry: byssinosis.

My hon. Friend repeatedly asked Ministers to reconsider the position in that industry. The common practice, particularly among women workers, was to spend a lifetime moving from one firm to another, with short stays at each firm. Therefore, it becomes almost impossible to identify the specific time and firm responsible for the byssinosis suffered by the women later in life. The Minister has already outlined the difficulty that they face. As some firms may still trade and, theoretically, the women may have a claim for compensation against a firm, they cannot claim under the regulations.

According to the Employment Gazette of September 1991, the number of people presenting themselves as sufferers of byssinosis is low; it is literally fewer than three dozen. If we were to consider making the scheme a little more liberal in its interpretation, we could do something significant, at little cost to the scheme's funding, for those who are suffering in a particularly unpleasant way.

The total funding for this financial year will be about £1·5 million. The Minister will be able to conform that, in recent years, the overall number of claimants coming forward and the total financial liability of the scheme have both dropped. Next year's budget for the scheme is £1·4 million—less in both cash and real terms than this year's expenditure. I trust that the budget is based on the recognition that the number of people coming forward is diminishing. I hope, however, that the Minister can assure us that, if there is a shortfall next year, no attempt will be made to limit the number of people who can benefit under the scheme.

As I have said, every one of the people concerned is a victim of the industrial practices of our society. They are our common responsibility, because they gave their health for the sake of industrial production. We are in debt to them, and the last Labour Government recognised that by introducing the regulations: they were one of the last pieces of legislation that they introduced, and they are particularly important to the victims to whom I have referred.

The Minister has announced an uprating of around 5 per cent., in line with the retail prices index. In the light of that, my hon. Friends and I will not oppose the motion. However, there are a number of ways in which the victims' lives could be made at least a little easier in what are, in many cases, their final years, given some easement in the interpretation of the scheme. I hope that the Minister will consider carefully what has been said, and will assure us that he will at least examine in detail whether such easement is possible.

11.10 pm

I wish to address my few remarks to the provision for victims of the consequences of working with asbestos. I pay tribute to the Isle of Wight County Press, which has constantly reported the number of cases of mesothelioma among workers who were employed in the shipyard industries on the Isle of Wight and worked in a heavy asbestos environment. Articles and letters in our local paper describe the atmosphere as being like a white snowstorm. Recently, an article spoke of apprentices engaging in "snowball fights" with asbestos.

I understand that one of the problems with the disease is that it does not always show up on an ordinary chest X-ray. I have sought the advice of our director of public health, Dr. Brian Keeble, and have asked whether, now that the island has raised the money for its own scanner, it would be possible to organise a programme of screening for the island's population in view of the large number of people employed in our shipyard industry in the past.

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that Jimmy Reid, who did the programme for Channel 4, revealed in that excellent programme that the asbestos danger had first been suspected as long ago as 1898? He has seen documents relating to the 1930s which warned shipbuilding employers about the dangers of asbestos. On the programme, however, we saw John Rannie saying how wonderful it was that his great Queens liners built on Clydeside—I am sure that the same is true of the Isle of Wight—were covered in asbestos, because it would prevent fire. That was all done when, apparently, it was known how dangerous asbestos was to human beings.

I did not see the programme. Perhaps I could borrow a tape of it from the hon. Gentleman.

I particularly wish to raise the case of Eric Frederick Bolan, who died at the age of 61. Unusually for one of my constituents, he was not, so far as his relatives are aware, employed in the shipyard industry; he was a self-employed painter. From what his family has been able to ascertain, it seems that he worked on a contract with Sandown and Shanklin urban district council, where he was involved in asbestos removal. His son, Mike Bolan, came to see me recently at my surgery on behalf of his mother and I have their permission to raise this case today.

The problem is that it is very difficult for a widow to undertake litigation when a disease is diagnosed only very late or, as has occurred in a number of cases, at the coroner's inquest—a point alluded to by a number of Opposition Members. The Isle of Wight coroner, on account of the high level of employment in the industry, is meticulous about ensuring that the disease is properly diagnosed.

The order provides some financial help, but I am sure that the Minister will appreciate the problems involved in proving a connection with a previous employer. I see that in the Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. which considered these regulations on 14 March 1991 the Minister said, as reported at column 6 of Hansard, that if evidence was brought before him as to the way the regulations were operating he would examine it very carefully. I know that it would be a great comfort to all my constituents, as well as to the Bolan family and others who have worked in the shipbuilding industry, if my hon. Friend could reaffirm again today that he will give careful consideration to these concerns when they are drawn to his attention.

11.15 pm

Many of the pneumoconiosis sufferers who will benefit from the measure suffer also from another disease, emphysema. However, they will receive no compensation for that disease if the pneumoconiosis from which they suffer amounts to no more than 50 per cent. If Conservative Members who do not represent mining community constituencies could see the condition of those who are suffering from 50 per cent. pneumoconiosis as well as emphysema, they would appreciate what suffering these men experience.

On five or six occasions I have introduced Bills to highlight the problems faced by these unfortunate mineworkers. The Minister said earlier that to introduce Bills is not the right way to address the problem, but I can think of no other way in which I could have highlighted it. I believe that the first Bills that I introduced persuaded the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, under the chairmanship at that time of Professor Lowe, to undertake studies of the problem.

During the research that I undertook before introducing my Bills I presented 19 learned papers to the House. I have caused articles to be published in The Lancet, all of which supported the view that mineworkers' emphysema was caused by working underground in coal mines. I was given the opportunity to give both written and oral evidence to the council when it conducted its last inquiry. I challenged the council to refute the learned medical evidence and research papers that I relied upon. I said that if it could do so I would understand if it found against my case. At no time was the council able to refute the medical evidence and research that I had presented. It was strong research, much of it headed by Dr. Anne Cockroft, a chest consultant who was previously at St. Thomas's hospital.

Many of the men who would have benefited from the regulations have died during the last 10 years. They never received the compensation that was rightfully theirs. Fewer people are suffering now than when I began introducing Bills because, first, improvements have been made in dust suppression and, secondly, there are fewer pits. However, the problem is as great for the widows who have been left behind.

One must see such men to understand their problems. Only a fortnight ago, I saw men in Pontefract general infirmary—previously strong, hard-working miners—who rely on oxygen masks for their existence. They were suffering from emphysema and pneumoconiosis. Emphysema is a far more disabling disease than pneumoconiosis. Men who are suffering from it cannot walk a yard or lift a cup to their lips to drink tea, and they contracted the disease because of their work in the mining industry.

I was encouraged by the Minister saying that he expects a further report from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council at the end of the year. Has it recently conducted a further investigation of the problem? If so, I am not aware of it.

I do not want to end my few remarks on a sour note, but the last time that the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council rejected such evidence many people thought that it had been influenced by the Government. I never said that and I have no evidence to suggest that that was true. Professor Harrington, who became chairman of the council, assured me that it was not true. I know that many men have been denied the compensation to which they were entitled for the disease that they contracted from their employment.

I can hope only that the council will advise the Minister that this disease should be prescribed. If it fails to do so, it will ignore all the evidence that has been presented to it. I stand by my remarks to the council: prove that the evidence of the 19 learned papers that I have presented is wrong and I shall have no case. So far, the council has not been able to refute that evidence.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) rightly mentioned one of his constituents, but I assure him that I could mention hundreds of people in my area who have died an early death because of this disease. I welcome any improvement in the regulations, but I hope that the Minister, who said that he is prepared to listen—and I believe him—will influence the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council and refer it to the evidence that is available and the work that has been done, because many senior members of the medical profession have assured me that no more evidence can be advanced to prove that these men are suffering from an industrial disease. The only way that it can be done, other than on the basis of the present evidence, is after a man has died. That is too late. I hope that the Minister will take that on board, give us his sympathy and—if this is the correct word—pressurise the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. If the council's fear was the high costs involved because there were hundreds and probably thousands of such men, the Minister can tell the council that many are now dead. Will it please try to help those who are left?

11.24 pm

The speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) illustrates, alas, the need for what has become virtually an annual debate. I should have hoped that we could have passed an uprating motion on the nod or wish it godspeed with a few words. Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend has shown, we have mixed feelings about the motion. He has had the misfortune not to have properly drafted private Members' Bills on the issue passed. I have had the good fortune to have one become law.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) mentioned the shipyards on the Isle of Wight and a particular case. If what he said is true of the Isle of Wight, I leave it to the House to imagine what has, alas, been true of the Thameside and east London areas and of the whole port of London area where, for the past 20 years or so, asbestosis caused by asbestos inhalation has been a scourge. We know of the miners' problems. This is a matter related to the boilers of ships and power stations and to the insulation and equipment of the same, to refrigeration and cold stores, where insulation is also important, and to the lagging of pipes.

For many years the port of London was—and still is in some respects—the biggest port in the country. I need hardly say that in such a dockland area contractors 'were thick on the ground. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said, dockers unloaded unaware of the risks. The problem has existed in east London for a long time and I wish to draw the House's attention to the struggle I had to help one man. The example illustrates something to which many hon. Gentlemen do not give credence—the opportunity that we have to introduce private Members' Bills.

A man came to my advice service one morning, leaning on a stick, wheezing and coughing. He said that his name was Archie Morton and that he was dying. He had been working in dust and asbestos and had tried to get compensation through court action. He was backed by his union and was glad that the case had been settled out of court for £25,000, with which he had purchased a motor car to get around and which he intended to use to give his family a good time, as he said, "before I go".

With the redoutable Mrs. Nancy Tait of the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases, we plotted what should be done. Mr. Morton was convinced that a post mortem would show that the panel before which he had appeared and which had turned him down had made an incorrect diagnosis. Alas, through a quirk of legislation, Archie Morton never had a post mortem, so the truth of his condition was never known.

As a result, I had the honour and privilege of introducing in the House in 1981 the Industrial Diseases (Notification) Bill, which was then enacted. Under the Bill, if a general practitioner or hospital surgeon had cause to think that a person's occupation might have been a contributory factor to his death, he could mark the death certificate accordingly and so cause a post mortem to be held. We cannot identify the accuracy of tribunals and panels, to which my hon. Friends have referred, unless checking can be done by such means.

The Act is also, I hope, a tool for detecting industrial or occupational diseases hitherto unknown. It is only by backtracking through medical investigation of people whose lives may have been foreshortened by virtue of their occupation that we can uncover hitherto unknown industrial risks.

I do not wish to sound unnecessarily contentious, but when the hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of Archie Morton on an earlier occasion he stated that the post mortem showed that Archie Morton

"was justified in going to the panel, which turned him down time after time."—[Official Report, 5 March 1990; Vol. 168, c. 692.]
The report says that a post mortem was indeed carried out.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. That may have been the case. It is two years since I made that speech and my memory may be at fault. The point is valid either way. When that case happened, post mortems were not so general as they are now. The point of principle is clearly there. The fact that my local newspaper, the Newham Recorder, lists cases year after year in which the Walthamstow coroner certifies death from asbestosis shows that man after man and family after family are in that unhappy position.

In that area, for some reason that I do not understand, there still appears to be official resistance. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford mentioned the report that has been sent to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. According to what he said—I am sure that he is right—there is a good deal of medical evidence to back up a case for compensation, but so far it has been officially refused. I presume that the council says that positive evidence cannot be found to prove that, among other matters which may be involved, there is a positive link between the occupation and, in the case that my hon. Friend mentioned, emphysema.

In this area, we should give the benefit of the doubt to the family and to the person who has suffered an early death. In the case of the existing panel, it is not a matter of proving a link, because the link has already been proved for miners, slate quarry workers and asbestosis victims. My experience of cases about which constituents have written to me is that there is still some dissatisfaction among Members of Parliament and among the families who write to us about the procedures of the panel.

I do not want to go into individual cases or to go into scientific detail at this point—I do not think that that would be right or reasonable—but if the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases or any of my hon. Friends can put particular matters to the Minister, will he undertake to consider them seriously?

It is unfortunate that we have to have this debate annually or biennially to uprate what is due to sufferers. It should not be necessary. My constituents look around and see great expenditure on public works, some useful and some not so useful. Nearly £1,000 million is being spent on roads and railways, with some not yet being developed in the docklands. Yet in pneumoconiosis cases, which would not involve much public expenditure, there is still a need for much letter-writing to establish proof. We have to be more careful about what we do.

I hope that the Minister will consider the procedures carefully so that there will be no suspicion of Victorian penny-pinching and we may give these unfortunate people and their families what they should have.

11.35 pm

I will be brief. I want to draw the Minister's attention to the struggle that we had to establish pneumoconiosis as an industrial disease and the problems and difficulties that many of us have since faced in our constituencies to get just rewards for sufferers not only of pneumoconiosis but of asbestosis. It still is a struggle. We should not allow the Minister to feel that we are happy with the uprating and with the scheme. However good the scheme is, our constituents have enormous difficulty in getting into it.

In the history of pneumoconiosis, the dread of widows was that it would be below heart attack, hypertension and emphysema as a cause of death. Although it might be obvious that the other illnesses were a consequence of the pneumoconiosis, because that was not the primary cause of death—in other words, because it was not at the top of the list, because the doctor had been careless—compensation might not be paid. Fortunately, the scheme now says that if pneumoconiosis is a contributory factor to death, compensation can be paid. That was a substantial step forward.

There is still a problem about the mobility allowance. Constituents who live in a valley have only two options —to go up or down. When the person goes for a medical examination for the mobility allowance, ease of perambulation on a flat surface is the criterion for the award. However much one tries to point out to doctors that constituents cannot go to a shop without going downhill and then back uphill, or vice versa, the regulations do not allow that to be taken into account. There is a constant battle to get compensation.

With pneumoconiosis there is also the problem of diagnosis in life; often it can be proven only by a post mortem. A person will suffer for a long time when the pneumoconiosis is shrouded by associated illnesses such as emphysema.

I mentioned one of my family. I could have mentioned others who went through life being diagnosed as having emphysema. Only in death was pneumoconiosis discovered. For 30 or 40 years, the compensation that should have been paid to them was not paid. When the Minister receives the report—from yet another body that is looking into the matter—he should consider carefully not just the framework of the scheme but access to it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) mentioned the problems of asbestosis, as did the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field). Asbestosis is a problem which, oddly enough, does not arise particularly often in mining valleys, but one of my constituents had been working in the dismantling of the power station at Aberthaw and landed up with asbestosis. One of the problems with that disease—as opposed to pneumoconiosis—is that the asbestos fibres that get into the lung do not merely scar the tissue, which is then more readily identified in normal X-rays; the fibres are shrouded by carcinogenic growths and one cannot even diagnose asbestosis because of the growths. It requires a specialist in quite a narrow field to identify the problem.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South, I pay tribute to Nancy Tait of the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases for the enormous amount of work that she has done. One constituent of mine had come to the end of his tether. He had struggled to get compensation. He was dying of cancer of the lung as a result of asbestos fibres. He had been offered the derisory figure of about £2,500. Hon. Members know what it is like with some cases: one has to be a lawyer; one has to bone up on medical knowledge to fight the case and slog away at it. After two years of hard work, my constituent received £75,000. Two or three years before, he had been told, "It is £2,500 or nothing."

The attitude of employers in the industry who are not prepared to compensate even though they are not taking the proper safety precautions to protect people handling these known death-giving substances also needs to be looked at again. It is only with the development of electromicroscopy that asbestosis can be properly identified, because of the shrouding of the fibres by what are often carcinogenic growths.

I reiterate that we can create the most fantastic schemes, with the most fantastic amounts of compensation but unless we facilitate access to the schemes to enable people to obtain that compensation, the schemes might as well not be there in the first place. I plead with the Minister to look carefully at the report when it is published so that our constituents and his—I am sure that he has the same problems—can receive the benefit to which they are justly entitled.

11.43 pm

I cannot pretend that I can speak on this matter with anything like the personal authority of my hon. Friends the Members for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) and for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers). I do, however, speak with sincere passion. I became a Member of Parliament partly through an act of the now defunct Shale Miners Union and with the support, at the selection conference, of the National Union of Mineworkers. As a non-miner, I have always felt a special obligation and during my first 10 years in the House that obligation very often took the form of going to constituents' homes and finding oneself talking to men of 50 or 55 who could not climb their own stairs for lack of breath. To a non-miner, that leaves a lasting effect.

Peggy Herbison and others struggled to have chronic bronchitis, emphysema and pneumoconiosis scheduled as industrial diseases. It was a long, hard struggle because the truth of the matter is that the price of coal is too often pneumoconiosis and, frankly, life itself. If anybody asks questions about my strident support for nuclear power, it is partly that I have attended far too many funerals of middle-aged and young miners to think that if there is an alternative we should make use of it. But I digress.

I wish to direct the Minister's attention to this urgent, special Scottish problem and to express my good fortune that this morning, after queuing from half past six, if that is good fortune, I was able to table a motion for a ten-minute Bill for 17 March entitled "The Effect of Death on Damages (Scotland) Bill". The motion states:
"That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision in Scotland similar to that in England and Wales in respect of the effect of the death of a person upon any claim by or on behalf of that person for compensation or damages; to make specific provision for the making of claims in respect of asbestosis, mesothelioma and other industrial diseases and conditions; and for connected purposes."
Normally, ten-minute Bills, unfortunately, are tilting at windmills. We all know that a ten-minute Bill hardly ever becomes law. However, I make a special case to the Minister on this occasion. On 5 March, the Scottish Law Commission will report on this very subject, as indeed the Minister has acknowledged. There is every reason to believe that the Law Commission will come down, as every other expert has, on the side of the argument for bringing Scottish law into line with English law in this respect. I am not one of those who think that Scottish law is in any way inferior to English law—often it is better—but, bluntly, in this case it is a jolly sight worse.

I refer the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) to a remarkably powerful Channel 4 documentary called "The Cost of a Ship", which was done by my old friend Jimmy Reid, and produced by Bill Thomson. It makes the point that, along with many Scots, we are ashamed of ourselves in this matter of our law. I shall tell the House of Commons precisely what has been happening.

Lawyers acting on behalf of their clients have used delay as a tactic. In England, estates can pursue legal proceedings. In Scotland, once death takes place, the level of compensation is very much less and the estate cannot operate in the same way as in England. The sum and substance of that is that the west of Scotland has the highest rate of mesothelioma among any white population anywhere in the world. That is because of the history of the shipyards. On that film, we saw the late John Rannie—he was a considerable man in many ways and I do not decry him—boasting that, as manager of the yard which produced the enormous Queens liners, he was extremely proud that they had been working on asbestos and spraying it to cut down the risk of fire.

I have gone through the agony of a school, Linlithgow Academy, with asbestos problems—the whole place has to be evacuated. The relevant Minister, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), was very generous about the matter and we had an extremely good interview with him from Lothian region. I have to say in the same breath that the Scottish Office itself now has to move out of new St. Andrews house for precisely the same problems. The Minister knows the agony that his Scottish colleagues are going through.

The truth of the matter is that asbestos is a very dangerous substance. I wish to ask the Government a particular and precise question arising out of Jimmy Reid's film. I did not know this, although I have been immersed in the subject with a constituency case—the cause célèbre of Alec Horne—but in that programme Jimmy Reid and his researchers asserted that the danger of asbestos was first suspected in 1898. They further asserted that they had seen papers which showed that in the 1930s massive amounts of paper was submitted to the shipyard owners stating that asbestos was dangerous.

I do not pretend that the evidence has the same precision as that now produced by the electromicroscopes to which my hon. Friend the Member for the Rhondda referred. Nevertheless, the direct question is this: in the view of the Department of Employment, in what year or group of years did it first become evident that asbestos was so dangerous? The answer to that question is obviously important because of the interpretation in the courts. It is one thing if the employers had evidence that what they were doing was dangerous for their employees. That is a huge question mark, for compensation.

The change in the law is urgent. I must be frank with the Minister. Our worry is that, whoever wins the election, the matter will somehow be relegated down the list to 1993. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford knows exactly the history of legislation such as this being pushed down the list. I do not pretend that if my right hon. and hon. Friends come to power the first, second or third Bill will be on this subject. Equally, if there is a new Conservative Government I doubt that the matter will be high on the list. Parliament will find other, more pressing matters.

I am told, however, that there is such a degree of agreement among officials and Ministers that with good will a Bill could be put through. I do not suggest that a ten-minute Bill, let alone my Bill, is the way to do it. I believe that such measures should be introduced by the Government with the aid of the departmental lawyers and not with the resources available to private Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford nods in assent because he knows the difficulty.

The Department of Employment would have the unanimous support of my Scottish Labour colleagues—I have talked to almost all, if not all, those concerned—if it introduced a Bill as soon as the Law Commission reported. I gather that that would not be difficult and that the Scottish Office knows exactly what has to be done to synchronise the law between Scotland and England. I plead with it to take action, for the sake of sufferers who are getting older, more desperate and in greater need, and in view of the fact that it is asserted by Jimmy Reid and Bill Thomson who have gone into the matter that mesothelioma has not yet peaked. As my hon. Friends have said, it is a delayed action.

I do not want to take up any more time. The House has been patient with me. I make an impassioned plea to cut through the red tape and to get hold of the Scottish Office, which I believe has good will in this matter. I believe that the Department of Employment also has good will. I plead with the Government to do something before this Parliament ends its own life.

11.54 pm

I shall try to answer the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) immediately because he is tempting me—an English Minister—on to Scottish territory. He has rightly taken the opportunity to raise a matter which is germane to the debate but which unfortunately is complicated by the fact that it is a Scottish Office matter.

The best that I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I shall ensure that the matters that he has raised are placed before my colleagues in the Scottish Office. However, I must point out something that must be obvious to the House: if the report is published on 5 March, one can immediately envisage the great difficulties that would arise, in terms of the need for parliamentary counsel to draft the necessary legislation and for the means to be found by which both Houses of Parliament could deal with such a measure, however much good will and support there was for it, before the dissolution of the House. I am not prejudging when that might be; I do not know. But, even with the best will in the world, I suspect that it might be difficult to achieve what he is asking of the House.

Having said that—and it is only fair to point it out—I shall ensure that my Scottish Office colleagues are well aware of the matters raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and shall see what response we can give. I see no reason why my Department cannot be as sympathetic and helpful as possible in that regard.

In replying to this brief debate, I shall re-emphasise a number of matters so that we know where we stand. The regulations deal specifically with cases where there is no longer an employer available or extant against whom someone with one of the conditions in question can take action. That was the closely defined aim of the regulations when they were first promulgated by the last Labour Government in their dying moments. We must remember that because it answers some of the questions asked by hon. Members who have spoken in the debate.

We are talking about cases of defined industrial disease —those which qualify for disablement benefit under the Social Security Acts—so the intention of the Pneunoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 and the regulations flowing from it were closely defined from the start. That is why it is relatively difficult for those who would seek to extend the scope or the intention of the Act. We have to return to the Act, as we always have to do in the House, to remind ourselves of its original intention.

In reply to the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), let me say that if someone's case is rejected by the medical board in the first place he has the right to appeal to the medical appeals tribunal. In case anyone thinks that that is some sort of facile arrangement, I must say that 38 per cent. of such appeals are successful. It is a genuine appeal mechanism. The answer to many people who find themselves frustrated by the fact that the board will not recognise their condition, as is required by the regulations, is that the appeal tribunal route is open to them. I always tell my constituents to use the appeal process if it is there, and if 38 per cent. of applicants are successful that demonstrates that it is a proper appeals route.

The hon. Member for Stretford asked me whether there was a cash limit. The answer is no. My Department will meet all claims in full if they fulfil the conditions laid down by the regulations. There is not, has not been and, as far as I am concerned, never will be any suggestion of a cash limitation. I hope that I can set the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest on that.

In answer to the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), I confirm that a further study into emphysema commenced in October 1991. We expect the results some time later this year. I cannot, and would not in any circumstances, undertake to seek to lean on or influence the body carrying out the study. It is an independent statutory body, set up precisely to be independent of people such as myself, and if the hon. Gentleman were to reflect on it he would not want such a body to be unduly influenced by Ministers. Although that influence might well be benign in some cases, I am sure that he can imagine others in which it might not be so benign. However, I shall undertake to ensure that the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, which is carrying out the study, is aware of this debate so that it can take into account the points made by the hon. Member for Castleford and Pontefract and by his colleagues, especially the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers). In that way hon. Members' deliberations will be taken into account by those conducting the study. That is the best I can do and I do not want to go further by even implying that there would be any ministerial influence on a statutory independent body.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) who raised similar points should be assured that we will study them closely.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight mentioned mesothelioma. Could the Department of Employment ensure that the total knowledge that resides in the Department of Health and the MRC is taken into account? When I made inquiries before I put forward the Effect of Death on Damages (Scotland) Bill, I learnt that there is a great deal of knowledge in various parts of Britain and in the Government machine. However, that knowledge has not been brought together. A proper assessment should be made of the consequences of the disease over a long period. The incidence of that disease has not yet peaked, and that relates to what my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said about delay. I hope that the Minister can assure me that a serious study of the disease will be made.

I give that assurance gladly. The object of this debate is not just to consider the regulations, but to enable hon. Members to express their views. Officials in my Department and others can then study what has been said and follow that up. Where a reply is necessary, I shall give one. I hope that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) can confirm that I do that—I hope unfailingly. We shall consider any request for matters to be reviewed to see what can be done under the terms of the regulations.

Could any further study also include the work of the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Mr. Bill Spiers? The STUC has a great deal of case history at its headquarters in Woodland drive, in Glasgow, which is within the keeping of Bill Spiers. That case history would be extremely valuable, because the STUC, of all organisations, has campaigned, to its credit, for a long time on this issue.

It matters not whether that case history is made available as a result of a request from the hon. Gentleman or my officials. I see no reason why such contact should not be possible.

Given that some special pleadings have been made, will the Minister ensure that work of SPAID and Nancy Tait, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and me, is also taken into account? When the Minister and I were colleagues in the European Parliament we passed regulations relating to the use of asbestos in productive processes in order to combat asbestosis. At that time I discovered that SPAID and Nancy Tait had the best body of clinical and case history anywhere in the world. That lady needs to be consulted.

I will ask my officials to consider the best sources of information and the best way in which to utilise them.

I shall give way once more, but I sense a growing impatience around me—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—and I am sure that hon. Members will understand if I ask that the hon. Gentleman's intervention should be the last.

I am grateful to the Minister, especially given what he has just said. I would not have thought that there was any question of a vote on the regulations. I am grateful to the Minister for what he said about SPAID and Nancy Tait, but we regret that that good lady, whose husband, a post office engineer, died from asbestosis, has had to do something. Irrespective of party, we believe that such action should have been the responsibility of the Department of Employment, the Minister of Health and the Minister for Social Security. Great though the work of SPAID is, alas, it should not have had to have been undertaken by that great and good lady through that voluntary organisation.

That could be said of so much in public life. The hon. Gentleman may wish that all good things flowed from Government. That is not so and, I suspect, never will be so. We rely, rightly, in many ways on individuals and bodies, voluntary groups and others, to carry matters forward, and I regard that as a healthy sign. I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to anyone, including the lady in question, doing similar work. They deserve our recognition and praise.

I hope that I have answered the points raised in the debate and persuaded the House to support the regulations. I shall be looking to my Department and others to follow up the various points made by hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 4th February, be approved.