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Social Security (Statutory Instruments)

Volume 592: debated on Monday 9 February 2015

I beg to move,

That the draft Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, which were laid before this House on 14 January, be approved.

With this we shall take the following motion, on pneumoconiosis:

That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, which were laid before this House on 14 January, be approved.

I am sorry that the names of these regulations are not very catchy, but they are important none the less. I confirm that they are compatible with the European convention on human rights. The two schemes stand apart from the main social security uprating procedure, and there is no legislative requirement to review the level of payment each year. However, I am happy to increase the amounts payable for 2015 by the consumer prices index—that is, 1.2% as at September 2014, which is the same rate being applied to some social security disability benefits and industrial injuries disablement benefit. I was here for the previous debate when my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions clearly set out why CPI, rather than the discredited retail prices index, is the right measure by which to increase these benefits. I do not propose to detain the House by repeating his very clear and detailed explanation.

The Government recognise that people suffering from diseases as a result of exposure to asbestos or one of a number of other listed agents may not be able to bring a successful claim for civil damages, partly due to the time lag between exposure and the onset of the disease, which could be as long as 40 years. As well as compensating people who cannot make civil claims, these two schemes fulfil an important role by ensuring that most sufferers receive compensation while they can still benefit from it.

The Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 provides a lump sum compensation payment to those who suffer from one of five dust-related respiratory diseases, who are unable to claim damages from employers who have gone out of business, and who have not brought any action against others for damages. The 2008 scheme provides compensation to people who contracted mesothelioma but were unable to claim compensation for that disease under the ’79 Act, perhaps because their exposure to asbestos was not due to their work. The 2008 scheme means that payments can be made quickly to mesothelioma sufferers at their time of greatest need.

Under both schemes, a claim can be made by a dependant if the sufferer has died before being able to make a claim. Payment levels under the ’79 Act scheme are mainly based on the level of the disablement assessment and the age of the sufferer at the time the disease is diagnosed. The highest amounts are paid to those diagnosed at an early age and with the highest level of disablement. All payments for mesothelioma under the ’79 Act scheme are made at the 100% disablement rate—the highest rate of payment. Similarly, all payments under the 2008 scheme are made at the 100% disablement rate and based on age, again with the highest payments going to the younger sufferers. In the last full year, April 2013 to March 2014, over 3,700 payments were made in respect of both schemes, totalling over £54 million.

These regulations increase the levels of support through the Government compensation schemes. I am sure we all agree that while no amount of money can ever compensate individuals and families for the suffering and loss caused by mesothelioma, those who are suffering rightly deserve some form of monetary compensation. I commend the regulations to the House.

I thank the Minister for his remarks. Labour Members welcome the uprating by 1.2% of payments made under these two important schemes. As he said, there is no requirement for those payments to be uprated, but it is surely right, at the very least, that those who receive awards under the schemes should see them rise in line with increases to social security disablement benefits.

As things stand, the uprating of the payments has to be confirmed by a Minister bringing forward legislation in the House in each year that uprating takes place. When the regulations were considered last year in the Delegated Legislation Committee that met on 24 March, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) suggested that the awards should be put on a statutory footing. The then Minister for disabled people, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), said that the Government were actively reviewing the way in which uprating could be done in future. What consideration have the Government given to that approach since then?

For a number of years, when uprating regulations have been debated, the main item of discussion has been the differential treatment of dependants and sufferers under the schemes. Dependants receive lower awards than sufferers in three ways. First, the cut-off age for dependants to be in receipt of an award under these schemes is 67, compared with 77 for in-life claims. Secondly, some in-life claimants can receive a 10% enhancement under the 1979 scheme, although not the 2008 scheme. Thirdly, awards to sufferers are in any event set at a higher level than those made to dependants.

Those anomalies have long concerned hon. Members, and furthermore they are at odds with the treatment of civil mesothelioma claims for compensation in the courts, where dependants actually receive higher awards. As hon. Members will appreciate, the speed and ferocity of these terrible diseases means that differentials can operate particularly harshly. Some sufferers, for example, may feel under pressure to rush through a claim to ensure that the maximum amount can be secured for their loved ones—a truly distressing experience when the life that remains to them is so short—while others may simply be too sick to claim at all before they die, and some may not be diagnosed while they are alive.

In 2010, my noble Friend Lord McKenzie of Luton took steps to eliminate the difference in treatment and began work towards equalising payments for dependants and sufferers. There has been no further progress, however, in narrowing the gap since then. I did not hear the Minister say anything about that, and it appears that it has once again been overlooked.

On 7 March 2013, when these schemes were considered by the Delegated Legislation Committee, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), recognised the wish to equalise payments for dependants and for sufferers and said that the Government were keeping the issue under active review, but at that time he blamed the economic situation for lack of progress since 2010. What further consideration have the Government given to moving towards equalisation, and what sort of economic performance do they believe would create the conditions for reducing the differential?

My understanding—I think this was confirmed by the Minister, although I may have misunderstood him—is that the vast majority of awards are made to sufferers and only a small number to dependants, so what estimate has he made of the cost of full or partial equalisation between the two schemes? How much has been recovered from civil compensation compared with the cost of the schemes, and is there any scope this year to fund some of the cost of equalisation from the civil compensation recoveries?

These matters have been raised each year we have debated the regulations, and I hope the Minister will at the very least be able to assure the House that they are not dropping off the radar. They are of deep importance to sufferers and to their families.

Finally, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead told us last year in Committee that the Health and Safety Executive would launch a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos and that there would be a full evaluation of that campaign’s effectiveness. Everyone knows the importance of repeatedly reminding people of the threat that asbestos poses—even today when so much is understood about its dangers—and how, in so many industrial and other settings, people continue to be at risk and exposed to it. Will the Minister update us on the progress of the HSE campaign and tell us what formal evaluation has been or will be carried out?

We certainly do not object to the uprating announcements that the Minister has made, but I hope he will be able to say something about the Government’s intentions in relation to becoming more generous to sufferers of some of the most terrible diseases that people can die of—diseases that are almost invariably contracted through no fault of the sufferer him or herself. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Mesothelioma is a disease that affects far too many of my constituents. In fact, numerous studies show that some parts of my constituency have the highest percentage of asbestos-related disease per head of population in the UK by a considerable measure. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green): of course, we welcome the uprating, but it is still some way from the compensation levels that people suffering from this awful disease should receive and deserve to receive.

I want to mention the Clydebank Asbestos Group in my constituency. While the Prime Minister faffs around with his big society project, its members just get on with helping their fellow Bankies and people across Scotland who have been diagnosed with this terrible disease. The Mesothelioma Act 2014 was very welcome—it was overdue—and it obviously means that many people can access compensation that they would not otherwise have had.

It is not acceptable that those responsible for poor working conditions or for exposing employees, tenants and others to asbestos can shirk their responsibility and live their lives without consequences, while too many of our constituents have succumbed to this terrible disease or have watched their loved ones die. I suspect that if we looked at the uprating of the payments compared with the profits of the insurance industry over the past year, we would see a significant difference, and that makes the case for making compensation levels far higher than those set thus far.

There is still a serious anomaly for veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma. It was brought to the Government’s attention by the Royal British Legion, as well as by me and other hon. Members some five months ago. It is a clear breach of the armed forces covenant because veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma are receiving only a fraction of the compensation paid to civilians—in some cases, up to £100,000 less—which is clearly unacceptable. I appreciate that this is an issue for both the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Defence, but five months ago we were told that the matter would be looked at urgently and that there would be action. Will the Minister discuss that with his colleagues in the MOD as a matter of urgency?

I apologise for missing the beginning of the Minister’s speech, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to you for allowing me to say a few words on this incredibly important matter.

I represent Chatham, where the former dockyard was involved in ship lagging for many years—centuries in fact—so the issue of mesothelioma is very dear to my heart and to those of my constituents. Chatham is one of the UK hot spots for mesothelioma, and for that reason I have been very passionate about the issue for many years, including before I entered the House.

Today’s announcement of the uprating of benefits for mesothelioma claims is obviously very welcome. It is fair to say that the Government have made great progress on compensating those who could not trace their insurer in the past. I know that that scheme is different from the one we are discussing now, but compensation and benefits for mesothelioma quite often get mixed up into one big pot, and people sometimes find it very difficult to navigate their way around the various schemes available. I appreciate the fact that the Government have made great progress in ensuring that people not subject to this scheme can find a way to get the compensation they are owed if they cannot trace their insurer, although some people who claimed benefits for mesothelioma but were then successful in the Government’s other scheme have lost 100% of the compensation to receive only 80% in return.

I want to touch on the points made by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) about research and other establishments. The research still has some way to go, and people are not necessarily coming forward to take advantage of existing research bursaries. I recently visited the university of Greenwich, which has a base on the Medway campus. It is doing great work on trying to identify ways to break the link in the chemical structures that form mesothelioma. As well as having a fantastic re-acquaintance with the chemistry I learned at school and learning what double bonding was, I was told of some interesting research that it had done into the number of research papers on mesothelioma. It found that in one year, there had been only 15 papers across the entire world, compared with thousands and thousands on other cancers. We clearly have a long way to go.

Traditionally, asbestos conditions, particularly mesothelioma, have been linked with industrial employment. We are now seeing an increase in the number of people from other sectors, particularly the teaching profession, who are becoming the victims of mesothelioma. Something like 122 former teachers died of mesothelioma last year.

It is important that people who are getting this incredibly painful cancer, and who will die very quickly as a consequence, are getting the money that they deserve. Although we have had long discussions about dependants—I note that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston raised this matter in her speech—there is still a long way to go before we give mesothelioma victims adequate compensation and the benefits that they deserve.

I welcome the uprating today. It is an incredibly important step forward. I am pleased that there will be no Division, because this is a sensible thing to do for those who get this horrible disease. There is so much more that we need to continue to discuss in this Chamber and elsewhere to ensure that people who get this horrible cancer, who will die quickly and painfully, are given the right amount of money and the compensation that they deserve, and to ensure that this Government and future Governments continue to support research into this incredibly important area.

May I, too, apologise for missing the start of the debate? I was taken by surprise by the starting time.

I wholeheartedly endorse what has been said by Members on both sides of the Chamber. This is an important step forward, but it is not the last word on the matter. Mesothelioma victims and those who represent them have struggled for years to get justice. They were disappointed when this Government chose to cap payouts at 80%. Nevertheless, it is progress. We have seen an all too slow but steady improvement from the days of the last Labour Government, when I was pleased to play a small part in setting up the 2008 scheme at the Department for Work and Pensions.

Progress has been made since then, but let us not forget that this House and this country owe a debt of gratitude and responsibility to those people and their families, because they gave their lives to national service in shipyards across our country to build the ships that kept us safe. Through no fault of their own, they put themselves in the care of employers who exposed them to this lethal, horrific disease from which they are still suffering. The country still has a duty of care to those sufferers, and their struggle for overall justice will go on.

I will try to respond to all the questions that have been asked.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), asked about the progress that has been made to change the statutory position on uprating. That remains under review, but the House can see the Government’s view clearly from the fact that I am bringing forward the orders to increase the payments by the rate of CPI. As hon. Members have said, that reflects the importance of uprating the amount in line with inflation.

The shadow Minister and one or two other Members referred to the balance between the compensation that is paid to sufferers of the disease and that which is paid to their dependants. The main intention of the schemes was to ensure that financial support went to the people suffering from those diseases. They were set up as they were, with no fault having to be produced and a focus on the speed with which payments were made, to ensure that the support could go to the sufferer of the disease while they were still in a position to benefit from financial compensation.

When the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008 was debated in the House—the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) referred to his part in that—I was a shadow Minister and the Bill had the full support of the Conservative Opposition. One issue was about ensuring that we were speedy in providing compensation, given the small gap between when someone is diagnosed with mesothelioma and, sadly, their inevitable death. We got compensation to people while they were still able to—I am not sure “enjoy” is the right word, but to benefit from it to the extent that that was possible.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston is right to say that most payments are made to sufferers rather than dependants: in 2013-14, 3,410 payments were made to sufferers and 360 to dependents. As my predecessor rightly said in the debate last year, the case for the equalisation of those payments was kept under review, and our most recent assessment is that it would cost a further £2 million a year. It is worth putting on record that in the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 and the 2008 schemes, payments substantially outweigh the money received from compensation recovery. There is no money sitting around to make those payments. The Government paid out more than £54 million of taxpayers’ money, and recovered just under £26 million. The two schemes together cost the taxpayer nearly £29 million, and in the current financial position one has to make difficult choices about funding these schemes. They are already costing £29 million, and it would cost a further £2 million to make those changes. However, we will keep the position under review.

The hon. Lady referred to what the Health and Safety Executive is doing to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos. I am familiar with that because I launched the current £1.13 million awareness campaign last October, which was particularly aimed at helping at-risk workers recognise that asbestos was relevant to them and their work. It encouraged them to seek reliable information about how they can protect themselves, and encourage and enable safer working with asbestos through behavioural change.

On the day we launched that campaign I went to a large company that sells products to small traders, who are often at risk when they carry out that work. We used information packs and information that small traders could use and access on their smartphones to answer questions about the type of properties they were working in and the risks they may face, and those I spoke to found that helpful. That campaign is due to end in March, and a fuller valuation of it will be undertaken before any decision is made about a further campaign in the next financial year. The HSE and those in the various trades that are affected by this issue take it very seriously. I was encouraged to see that there is a fair degree of knowledge about it, although not as much as one would hope, given the serious health consequences of not taking the issue seriously.

The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) made a point that was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), which was that sufferers of this disease are not evenly distributed throughout the United Kingdom. They reflect industrial work patterns and are not evenly spread, and some Members who have spoken today will obviously have a larger number of constituents who are affected.

The hon. Members for West Dunbartonshire and for Barrow and Furness also referred to the new scheme that was set up last year. That is not what we are debating now, but in case hon. Members are not already aware—I am sure they are—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) has secured a debate on that issue this Wednesday in Westminster Hall at 9.30 am. I will be responding on behalf of the Government and will deal with any questions that hon. Members may have.

The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire raised an issue concerning the armed forces. If she will forgive me, I will take that away and raise it with my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence. I am not quite sure what the answer will be, but I suspect that the most sensible way to progress is for either me or a Defence Minister to write to the hon. Lady and to put a copy of the letter in the House of Commons Library. I have no doubt that she will be assiduous in pursuing us if that does not happen on a timely basis, or if she is not satisfied with the response.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford referred to the increasing incidence of the disease. There is a very long period between people being exposed to asbestos and being diagnosed and, sadly, dying from the disease. The latest available information suggests that the number of deaths will continue to increase and peak at about 2,500 in 2018, but will then start to fall, reflecting a reduction in asbestos exposure following its peak use in the 1960s and 1970s. The research she mentions is clearly important. If there are bursaries out there, it is obviously helpful if people take them up. More research by some of our best scientists would clearly be welcome to see if there is anything that can be done, once people have been exposed to asbestos, to stop the development of this dreadful disease.

I think that that deals with all the questions raised by Members on both sides of the House. I commend the regulations to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Social Security


That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, which were laid before this House on 14 January, be approved.— (Mr Harper.)