Skip to main content

Social Security

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 2 March 2021

I beg to move,

That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, which were laid before this House on 14 January, be approved.

With this we shall consider the following motion:

That the draft Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, which were laid before this House on 14 January, be approved.

These statutory instruments will increase the value of lump sum awards payable under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 and the diffuse mesothelioma scheme established by the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. As many hon. Members will know, these two schemes stand apart from the main social security benefits uprating procedure. While there is no statutory requirement to increase rates, I am happy to maintain the position and increase the amounts payable by the September 2020 consumer price index of 0.5%. This is the same rate that is being applied to industrial injuries, disablement benefits and other disability benefits under the main social security uprating provisions. These new amounts will be paid to those who satisfy all the conditions of entitlement for the first time on or after 1 April 2021.

The Government recognise the great suffering of individuals and their families caused by the serious and often fatal diseases resulting from exposure to asbestos or other listed agents. The individuals affected and their families may be unable to bring a successful claim for civil damages in relation to their disease. This is mainly due to the long latency period of their condition, but they can still claim compensation through these schemes. These schemes also aim, where possible, to ensure that sufferers receive compensation in their lifetime, without first having to await the outcome of civil litigation. While improvements in health and safety procedures have restricted the use of asbestos and provided a safe environment for its handling, the legacy of its use is still with us. That is why we are ensuring that financial compensation from these schemes is available to those affected.

I will briefly summarise the specific purpose of the two compensation schemes. The Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979, which for simplicity I will refer to as the 1979 Act scheme, provides a lump sum compensation payment to individuals who have one of five dust-related respiratory diseases covered by the scheme who are unable to claim damages from employers and who have not brought any action against another party for damages. The five diseases covered by the 1979 Act scheme are: diffuse mesothelioma; bilateral diffuse pleural thickening; pneumoconiosis; byssinosis; and primary carcinoma of the lung if accompanied by asbestosis or bilateral diffuse pleural thickening.

The 2008 mesothelioma lump sum payment scheme, which I will refer to as the 2008 scheme, was introduced to provide compensation to people who contracted diffuse mesothelioma but were unable to claim compensation under the 1979 Act because, for example, they were self-employed or their exposure to asbestos was not due to their work. The 2008 scheme allows payments to be made quickly to people with diffuse mesothelioma at their time of greatest need. Under each scheme, a claim can be made by a dependant if the person with the disease has died before being able to make a claim.

The rates payable under the 1979 Act scheme are based on the level of disablement assessment and the age of the sufferer at the time the disease is diagnosed. The highest amounts are made to those diagnosed at an early age and with the highest level of disablement. All payments for diffuse mesothelioma under the 1979 Act scheme are automatically made at the 100% disablement rate, the highest rate of payment, reflecting the serious nature of the disease. Similarly, all payments for this condition under the 2008 scheme are made at the 100% disablement rate and based on age, with the highest payments going to the youngest people with the disease. In the last full year for which data is available, April 2019 to March 2020, 3,220 awards were paid under the 1979 Act, totalling £42.7 million, and 450 people received payments under the 2008 scheme, totalling £9.7 million. Overall, 3,670 awards were made across both schemes in 2019-20 and expenditure was £52.4 million.

I am keen to address the impacts of the covid-19 pandemic on sufferers of pneumoconiosis and mesothelioma. While this uprating debate is an annual event, this has been far from a normal year. We took the difficult decision at the outset of the pandemic to temporarily suspend all face-to-face health and disability assessments, including for the industrial injuries disablement benefit to protect the health of claimants and staff. We have continued, where possible, to process and qualify under SRTI rules—special rules for terminal illness—where a claim can be processed through paper-based review, and have recently explored telephone and video options in line with wider disability benefits to start to clear the backlog.

We are committed to working with our agencies and arms-length bodies to improve the lives of those people with respiratory diseases. People suffering from occupational lung diseases are likely to face a higher risk of complications resulting from covid-19 and it continues to be a distressing time for sufferers of the diseases we discuss today. As of Sunday 14 February, all those identified as clinically extremely vulnerable have been offered a vaccine.

Returning to these important regulations, 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 diffuse mesothelioma and other dust-related diseases covered by the 1979 Act scheme, those who have them rightly deserve the financial compensation that these schemes can offer. I am required to confirm that the provisions are compatible with the European convention on human rights and I am happy to do so. I commend the increase of the payment scales for those schemes and ask approval to implement them.

I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations and I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to respond virtually. As the Minister noted, these schemes stand apart from the main social security benefits uprating procedure and there is no statutory requirement to increase rates. It is right that the Government will increase the amounts payable from 1 April 2021 in line with the September consumer price index figure of 0.5%, and, as in previous years, my Labour colleagues and I will support the increase.

I know that many Members of this House will be aware of the impact that these awful diseases can have on victims and their families. I am sure that they will want to join me in paying tribute to organisations such as Mesothelioma UK, the British Lung Foundation and Macmillan Cancer Support, which provide ongoing support and information.

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that 12,000 deaths each year are linked to occupational lung disease. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is almost always linked to asbestos exposure and most commonly affects the lining of the lungs. According to NHS website statistics, more than 2,600 people are diagnosed with this condition each year in the UK. Most of those diagnosed are aged between 60 and 80, and men are more commonly affected than women. Sadly, it is rarely possible to cure this disease, but treatment can help to control the symptoms.

Before the dangers were known, asbestos was frequently used for insulation, roofing and flooring in commercial buildings and homes. Its use was banned under the Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations 1999. Buildings constructed before 2000 may still have asbestos in them. Many colleagues will be aware that, unfortunately, those who worked in industries such as building and construction, particularly from the ’70s to the ’90s, may therefore have been exposed to asbestos. It can take many years for mesothelioma to develop, between exposure to the hazardous material and the onset of symptoms.

The term pneumoconiosis refers to a group of lung diseases caused by the inhalation and retention in the lungs of dust. People working in construction, quarrying, mining, pottery, sandblasting, ceramics and glass manufacturing are most at risk. As with mesothelioma, there is a long delay between exposure and the onset of disease, so most new cases or deaths reflect past working conditions and occur in individuals who have retired. Although both diseases are usually caused by employment conditions, sufferers are often not able to pursue claims for civil damages because of their long latency.

At last year’s Committee on the uprating of these payments, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) raised, as others had before her, the question of why this does not happen automatically. In response, the Minister stated that there would be “no monetary gain” in automatic uprating because benefit payments are already

“uprated… in line with CPI every year.”

He also noted:

“These debates provide a valuable avenue for Members to discuss their thoughts on the lump sum schemes and, more broadly, on support for people with respiratory disease”.—[Official Report, Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee, 25 February 2020; c. 8.]

While I agree with the latter point, I suspect that many sufferers and campaigners would prefer to have the security of knowing that the uprating will happen every year without fail. I further note that the Minister promised to keep this under review. I would be grateful if he clarified his current position on this.

We also continue to have concerns about the huge discrepancy between lump sum payments made to victims and those made to their dependants. For example, a qualifying individual suffering from mesothelioma who was aged 60 at the time of diagnosis would currently receive £44,092. Payments to dependants, however, are significantly lower, and a dependant of someone who died aged 60 could currently receive £19,087. In response to a written question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) in January last year, the Minister stated:

“It is right that available funding is prioritised where it is needed most, that is to people living with these diseases.”

I ask him again today whether he thinks that this is a fair level of compensation, given that these conditions were caused by individuals’ working environments and a substance that has since been banned.

We also cannot ignore the fact that this disparity is more likely to impact on women. Only 12% of the 2,025 new cases of mesothelioma assessed for industrial injuries disablement benefit in 2019 were female. That gives us a good indication of the gender imbalance. I am keen to know what assessment the Government have made of the impact of this lack of parity in payments on women in particular.

I also ask the Minister to share the most recent estimated cost of providing equal payments for sufferers and their dependants. I am aware that, as with automatic uprating, this issue has been raised annually by my predecessors and other Members. Does the Minister agree that this is rather telling? In 2010, the then Labour Minister, Lord McKenzie of Luton, pledged to equalise payments, yet here we are, 11 years on, still asking the Government do the right thing. Once again, I urge the Minister to reflect on this.

I will finish with two points that may not fall within the scope of this legislation but are nevertheless important to put on record. The first is on funding for treatment and research. As we know, cures for this condition are sadly lacking. Will the Minister and his colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care consider additional funding for research into the increasing number of treatment options available? I know that many will also be keen to know what action the Government are taking to raise awareness of these conditions, their causes and the support available. That feels particularly important during the pandemic, given that victims of these diseases have been at increased risk for the past year.

My second point is on funding for the Health and Safety Executive, with which responsibility for asbestos primarily lies. Under successive Conservative Governments, funding for the HSE has been cut by £144 million in real terms. Although the Government announced £14 million in extra funding in May 2020, that is a drop in the ocean. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues about the impact that these cuts have had on the HSE’s ability to regulate, monitor and take proactive action to prevent work-related injury and ill health?

While we are very happy to support today’s uprating of these lump sum payments in line with inflation, I hope I have made it clear that we continue to have a number of unresolved concerns. I would welcome further commitments from the Minister to look again at the equalisation and automatic uprating of these payments in future years.

As someone who has spoken on these statutory instruments before, I want to start, as I always have, by remembering my Unison comrade and friend Tom Begley, who sadly died as a result of asbestos-related cancer. Today I want to remember him and the others who have succumbed to these pernicious industrial diseases. I also want to pay tribute to and recognise the work of campaigners, trade unions and charities such as Clydeside Action on Asbestos in highlighting the devastating impact that these industrial diseases have on victims and their families.

There is a big problem in ensuring that people who are at risk are identified and diagnosed as soon as possible—not just those who have worked in factories and buildings but those who, for example, contracted these diseases as a result of washing clothes with asbestos on. It was SNP MPs in the 1970s who warned of the dangers of asbestos and industrial diseases. At that time, they were accused of scaremongering, but thankfully we have come a long way since then in recognising the dangers of asbestos and its impact on people’s health. We should recognise that one of the difficulties people have in pursuing civil claims is that many businesses are no longer trading.

I have a number of points and questions for the Minister. First, we welcome today’s uprating. We could quibble about whether the consumer prices index or the retail price index is appropriate, but I suggest that that is for another time. The Minister has said that the Government are under no obligation to increase the payments, but will he please give us a commitment and an indication that it is Government policy to uprate these particular benefits annually? I think the whole House would welcome that, and I hope that he is in a position to do so.

Secondly, as we heard from the Labour Front Bencher—I totally agree—the Government committed in 2010 to addressing the disparity between payments to sufferers and to dependants. That indicates that an equality impact assessment should have been carried out on the benefits, so I hope that the Minister can update the House in response not only to the shadow spokesperson but to me on what progress has been made in addressing the disparity.

Thirdly, given that the Health and Safety Executive comes under the control and purview of the Department for Work and Pensions, will the Minister indicate what help and support HSE is being given to ensure asbestos-free workplaces? What work is being done between his Department and HSE on awareness of asbestos and industrial diseases? It is vital to continue to raise awareness of the risks.

These payments are vital to sufferers of industrial diseases, so the SNP will support the statutory instruments today, with the caveats that I have outlined. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I too welcome the fact that the Government are increasing the value of compensation in line with inflation, even though they are not required to do so. I want to press the Minister on the problems that sufferers of asbestos-related diseases have had while waiting for an assessment for industrial injuries disablement benefit, and I am grateful to him for touching on that point in his opening remarks.

Lots of people suffering from asbestos-related diseases receive IIDB, but eligibility under the provisions we are debating is dependent on whether the applicant has had an IIDB assessment. The Department for Work and Pensions has made the point—the Minister reiterated it today—that the nature of the assessments means that they cannot be carried out remotely. Following the Department’s decision to suspend face-to-face assessments during the pandemic, many claims have been delayed.

The Minister told the Select Committee that the backlog of IIDB claims had increased from a little over 2,000 in March last year up to 5,300 in November, and that the average age of each claim was 116 days. I wonder whether the Minister can update us on those figures. What is the current size of that backlog and the average age of claims? The Minister also told the Committee that the Department has started conducting paper-based assessments for some IIDB claims, and he mentioned that again this afternoon. I wonder whether he can tell us a bit more about how many have been completed, and what the impact has been on the size of the backlog.

The value of a claim for IIDB is reduced with the age of a claimant. There is a sliding scale up to the age of 77, and along that scale payments are reduced as a person gets older. The Minister has given an assurance that awards will be backdated to the date of the claim rather than the date of the determination to ensure that people whose claims were delayed do not have their award reduced. We asked the Secretary of State about that when she gave evidence last month, and the Committee heard from people whose compensation is still reflecting their age at the date of award, rather than at the date of the claim. The permanent secretary acknowledged at a meeting alongside the Secretary of State that at the moment

“the link to age applies to the point where the condition is assessed as opposed to the date of the claim.”

That is a problem.

Let me give one concrete example that was brought to our attention by the asbestos victims support group forum. The Greater Manchester support group helped a 71-year-old man with diffuse pleural thickening to apply for industrial injuries disablement benefit plus a 1979 Act payment. It helped him to make his claim on 21 January last year, but he was not awarded IIDB until 11 November, following a paper-based assessment. In the meantime he had turned 72, so his 1979 Act payment was £5,010, rather than £5,190. He lost £180 because no consideration was made for delays due to the pandemic. The support group makes a perfectly reasonable point:

“We believe it is unjust that victims of asbestosis and pleural thickening are further disadvantaged, having had to wait a considerable length of time for a procedure to be even put in place.”

In another example, a claimant whose date of birth is 2 July 1950 was visited by officials on 31 January 2020, so his application was made when he was 69. However, his workers compensation award letter was not issued until last December. It states his age at determination as 70—correctly, as that is how old he was by then—which entitled him to £5,378. If he had been paid before his birthday on 2 July, six months after he was visited and made his claim, he would have received £5,557. He has missed out on £179.

The Minister has made it clear that he does not intend claimants to suffer that penalty. In those cases, and others like them, what steps will be taken to put things right? How will the Department ensure that all claimants receive the correct amount of compensation, based on their age when they made their claim, rather than when their claim was determined?

When giving evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, the permanent secretary promised to write to us on those points, but we have not yet had such a letter. The asbestos victims support groups forum confirmed this morning that it has had

“no information about what can be done for those victims who have lost out on compensation under the Pneumoconiosis etc (Workers Compensation Scheme) Act due to the delays.”

With publication of the Prime Minister’s road map out of lockdown, will the Minister confirm when he expects face-to-face IIDB assessments to resume? Has the Department found any solutions that would enable telephone-based assessments to take place instead? He mentioned those in his opening remarks. How long does he estimate that it will take to deal with the backlog that has arisen?

These days we often talk about social media in denigrating terms, but we would sometimes do well to remind ourselves why it is a useful tool. I was reminded of this the other day when a picture popped up on my Twitter feed from West Dunbartonshire Council’s arts and heritage account. It showed a gang of riveters from John Brown’s shipyard, dated 1927. On the bottom left was my grandfather, Frances Logan, bunnet on, and wearing a pair of boots that in those days marked him out as a worker, but that these days would mark him out as a hipster. For someone in West Dunbartonshire a century ago, working usually meant Denny’s shipyard at Dumbarton, or John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank. That is what it meant for my granddad, and what it meant for my 86-year-old father, who is a coppersmith.

Owing to our recent industrial history, Clydebank, with its former shipyards and its own former Turner and Newell asbestos cement factory, became the asbestos disease capital of Europe. It is a legacy that hangs over my constituency. The incredible achievements and ingenuity of those who came before is now marked by an anger that not enough has been done to support those who live with the legacy of long-term exposure to asbestos and other noxious chemicals that were part of the process of industry.

The fight for justice in my community has been led by Clydebank Asbestos Group. For almost 30 years, it has been fighting for the legacy of those who took such pride in their work, so that they may have dignity after it. Like other members of my party, I will be supporting these statutory instruments, because it is the least that we can do for those who continue to live with the physical effects of the conditions, and for their dependants and families who care for them. It is on behalf of those families and dependants that I have asked the Minister and the UK Government to make good on the commitments that they made as long ago as 2010 to bridge the gap between in-life and posthumous payments. It cannot be the case that the disadvantage suffered by those who were unable to gain suitable compensation during their lifetime should be visited on another generation. This is a commitment that the UK Government could honour and it would dovetail with the legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament to aid those with mesothelioma or pleural plaques. While the memories of those of us born in West Dunbartonshire may recede, we know that groups such as Clydebank Asbestos will be around for another 50 years if that is what it takes to make sure that these promises are kept. As long as I am in this place, too, I will not turn from the duty that I have as the son and grandson of shipyard workers to ensure that this Government do right by them.

It is a pleasure to follow the very powerful contribution of the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes). As a Greenockian myself, I certainly pay tribute to the heritage of the Clyde shipbuilders.

I am pleased to support today’s motion, which would uprate the payments made to sufferers of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. Members have already spoken about the absolutely devastating impact of these terrible diseases on both the sufferers and their families. It is particularly sobering that The Guardian reported that, alongside Australia, the UK had the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world in 2019. According to the National Asbestos Helpline, 13 people in the UK die every day from conditions that were caused by exposure to asbestos. That is more than twice the number of people killed daily in road accidents.

It is important for us to reflect on the failure of this place, and across the country, to appreciate the dangers of asbestos. The link between asbestos and other related diseases was first established in the 1950s, but it took another 40 years for a UK-wide ban to be enforced. Despite the ban, asbestos is still all around us, and that is quite literally the case for the building that we are in right now, and also for other public buildings such as hospitals and schools.

The Health and Safety Executive plays a key role in such assessments, but, as other Members have highlighted, its funding has been slashed and the number of inspectors has dropped significantly, too. The HSE also plays an important role in research around these and other occupational-related diseases, and I urge the Minister to address that issue in his wind-up.

It is, of course, entirely right that these schemes are under discussion today to ensure that sufferers of asbestos-related illnesses are compensated. None the less, there is an outstanding issue regarding the equalisation of payments to dependants who make a claim after somebody who has had one of the illnesses has died. This is a question of fairness, which is, after all, why the schemes were established to begin with. Will the Minister set out whether further consideration has been given to the issue of equalisation?

We must also reflect on the level of uprating, which is in line with inflation and other disability benefits that have already been passed in this place. When the uprating statutory instrument came through the House, I spoke of the importance of ensuring that legacy benefits and also carer’s allowance received additional uplifts, in line with the universal credit uplift, to reflect the impact that the pandemic has had disproportionately on these groups. The same argument very much applies to the sufferers of asbestos-related illnesses and their families. Diagnoses such as these are incredibly difficult at any time for the person in question and their family. I can only imagine the incredible pain and trauma during a period such as this where restrictions mean being able to see only a very limited number of people. We must acknowledge just how difficult such diagnoses are for the person and for their family at all times, and especially over the past year, and it is right that support is there to reflect that. That will be particularly true for diseases such as mesothelioma, for which the life expectancy for sufferers is sadly very poor.

Early detection is incredibly important for occupational lung-related diseases, as it is for all such diseases and cancers. The national lockdowns will undoubtedly have had a huge impact on people coming forward with symptoms to get checked. I pay tribute to the fantastic work of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) to make the case in this place for catching up with cancer, and to all the many charities and groups that have been making that argument, too. I urge the Government to bring forward further measures to ensure that we catch up with the national cancer backlog. One way that can be done is through proper investment in our healthcare service and cancer services. I hope the Chancellor will address the issue in the Budget tomorrow.

Finally, I note the work to support sufferers that the Minister outlined in his opening remarks, but ask him to address this point. On the uplift in the regulations, will he set out how he has taken into account the impact of covid-19 on people with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, in terms of not only the direct impact on health outcomes for sufferers in relation to covid-19—which is, after all, a respiratory virus—but the indirect impact caused by shielding, increased costs and fewer opportunities to get symptoms checked?

Pneumoconiosis is a horrible disease. I come from a mining family—my father, grandfather and great uncles all worked underground—so I have witnessed the devastating effects of the illness at first hand. I have watched someone struggle and fight for every breath that they take, day after day, and I have seen the suffering in their eyes and in the eyes of their closest family as they watch helplessly. It is typical of a husband to say to his wife, “You make sure that they examine my lungs after I’m gone”—with the feeling of at least some relief that his wife would be looked after by the state after his death.

The death rate from pneumoconiosis in the UK is particularly high in Scotland, the north-west, the north-east and here in Wales—in the devolved nations and deprived communities that the Government talk of levelling-up. I support the 0.5% increase to the lump sum payments proposed in the statutory instrument, but it fails to address long-standing limitations of the scheme—notably, the lack of parity between lump sum payments made to sufferers and those made to dependants, most of whom are women. This disparity is often worth tens of thousands of pounds.

During the covid pandemic, a serious issue has arisen that the Government have failed to address: the rules relating to death certificates have been relaxed and post-mortems are not being carried out, despite the wishes of family. Many who die with covid have no mention of pneumoconiosis or other industrial diseases on their death certificates, so their families do not qualify for the lump sum payments. They are also prevented from accessing a number of schemes designed for the families of miners who suffer from industrial illnesses. Families cannot get the closure of knowing what caused or contributed towards the death of their loved ones.

Covid is particularly lethal for those with pre-existing lung conditions. A recent study that analysed the relationship between respiratory health conditions and covid mortality found that of all the conditions studied, pneumoconiosis had the biggest impact on covid mortality rates. In my former mining community in Rhondda Cynon Taf, the death rate from covid is the third highest in the UK—indeed, covid mortality rates are markedly higher across former mining communities. According to recent research conducted by Sheffield Hallam University during 2020, the cumulative death rate in older industrial towns and the former coalfields was on average 30% above the UK average. Behind the statistics there are grieving families who should have been compensated for the death of their loved one. For many wives and families, the payments make the difference between just about existing and living without financial worries.

The statutory instrument does not address the difficulties in acquiring a post-mortem report and therefore fails to provide reassurance for many families. It is essential that the matter is revisited to ensure that all ex-miners have their lungs examined—often in accordance with their stated wishes while alive—and that any industrial diseases are recorded on the death certificates of all ex-miners so that their widows are able to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. I also urge the Government to do more to raise awareness of the risks of working in environments with asbestos and other airborne particles, and to fund properly the Health and Safety Executive, which has had its funding cut by £144 million in real terms since 2010.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate and recognise the thousands of Liverpool constituents affected by asbestos-related diseases. I would like to start by paying tribute to the fantastic work of the Merseyside Asbestos Victim Support Group, which has assisted thousands of victims in obtaining welfare benefits and civil compensation, as well as providing invaluable community support for victims and dependants of meso and other asbestos-related conditions.

I welcome this move to increase payments in line with inflation, and the uprating being applied to all disability benefits. However, while I welcome the fact that it has been regular practice to agree the uplift, we must make moves to ensure that the annual uprating of the schemes is placed on a statutory footing and that more is done to ensure parity of payments to dependants. Can the Minister tell us what the Government’s latest estimate is of the cost of providing equal payments to dependants, at a time when covid has left cancer patients waiting longer for diagnoses, treatments and surgery as well as facing the heightened health risk of contracting the virus itself? The automatic uplift is especially welcome in this difficult context.

Coronavirus has revitalised our focus on occupational health hazards, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the incredible key workers who are continuing to lay their lives on the line every single day to keep our country running and to care for those in need, and especially to the thousands who have sadly paid the ultimate price. The pandemic has also highlighted the vital role of the Health and Safety Executive in keeping us safe at work. However, cuts over the last 10 years by the Tory Government have seen the number of health and safety inspectors drop by a third. Those cuts have left workers at risk in unsafe conditions.

Despite figures released by Public Health England last month showing that there had been 3,500 covid outbreaks in workplaces including offices, factories and construction sites since last July, the Government have defended their decision not to place covid in the highest risk category, and the HSE enforcement database has revealed that no covid-related prohibition notices have been issued since the pandemic broke out. A decade of devastating cuts has turned the Government’s health and safety watchdog into a lapdog, and without better funding and increased enforcement, which can only come from placing coronavirus in the highest risk category, workers’ lives will continue to be at risk.

The TUC has called covid

“the most serious workplace safety hazard in a generation”.

More than 10,000 workers have died from the virus and many others are now living with long-term health problems as a result of it, yet the Government have so far made an extra £14 million available to the HSE during the pandemic, which does not even begin to scratch the surface of the cuts of more than £100 million in the past decade. I want to take this opportunity to call on the Government to recognise the need to keep workers safe in their workplaces and to take significant steps to provide the HSE with the funding and powers it needs to keep our key workers safe as they work to keep us safe.

This is quite a difficult and personal debate for me today. I was brought up in that world capital of asbestos-related diseases that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) so eloquently described. Indeed, my mum’s name is one of the many—too many—on a memorial in Clydebank to those who have died of asbestos-related lung disease. She did not qualify for compensation under the scheme because, as well as the length of time the disease takes to emerge making it difficult to pursue a legal claim successfully, the many and diverse conditions triggered by asbestos can also create problems with linking it directly to the workplace. There is still much work to be done in that regard. It was years after the asbestos factory closed, and more than 30 years from the time when my mum had worked in the shipyard office, that she was diagnosed when her symptoms emerged. The conditions brought on by breathing in that dangerous substance are no respecters of time, and the toll and the impact that they have, both emotionally and physically, on the victims and their families is huge.

Like previous speakers, I would like to mention the work done over many years by Clydeside Action on Asbestos and others. I remember my mum remarking on the irony—she thought it was actually quite a nice irony—that so many people who had worked together in the 1960s whom she had known in the John Brown shipyard and not seen for years were brought together in mutual support in a campaign to help one another. But for many of us—many of their dependants—that was tinged with a huge sadness, because these were people we had known as our parents, aunts, uncles and friends of the family, who had been young and vibrant, with lives ahead of them, but who now had been brought so devastatingly low by asbestos-related conditions.

We have heard about the legislation in 1979 and the first decade of this century, which has gone a long way to helping those victims of asbestos-related diseases, but we still have so much more to do in ensuring better workspaces and ensuring better compensation for those affected by these and so many other workplace-related injuries and illness. So I have no hesitation in supporting this motion.

Since coming to the House in 2010, I have spoken on this issue on each and every occasion, and I wish to do so again today. I have spoken on it over the years because I have had constituents—other Members have said the same—both during the past 10 and a half or 11 years as a Member of Parliament and when I was a Member of the Legislative Assembly, who have been affected by or died as a result of pneumoconiosis and mesothelioma. These were people I knew personally, so I was very concerned about them. I was pleased that Government responded during that period of time to make sure that the moneys that were necessary were put in place. Some of those people have died, but those who are left still live with the severe health problems, including some who worked at Harland and Wolff, the shipbuilders in Belfast. Many of my constituents worked there over the years, and that is where they ended up having their health problems from. Harland and Wolff used to employ some 30,000 people at one time, which gives us an idea of the magnitude of the number of people who could be touched by this.

I wish to echo the points about the equalisation for relatives that were made by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), because I fully support that, as others have done. Perhaps the Minister might respond on that. I welcome the increase, but may I gently ask the Minister what rationale was behind the decision to uplift this by a mere 0.5% during a pandemic, when most homes, especially those with old people who are shielding, have been put under a large amount of pressure? Instead of being able to shop around for cheaper goods, those people have to do their orders online and to accept whatever products are available. Most of their purchases have increased by 0.5%.

As the Minister is aware, I know him as a compassionate, considerate and assiduous Minister. Does he not agree that these payments, made to the most vulnerable of people, in these most difficult of days, should see an uplift that is appropriate? I ask, even at this late stage, that this amount of reconsidered, taking into account the additional pressures on not simply those who are ill, but their entire households. Not only those who are suffering from mesothelioma, but their families collectively are under health and financial pressure as never before seen in our lifetimes. Minister, I am not being churlish, far from it, but I would appreciate a response to the question: why an increase of only 0.5%?

I thank hon. Members for their helpful contributions to this debate, which is a rare case of cross-party support. The debate was hugely enriched by the very personal stories and experiences that were shared, which highlight the importance of these annual uprating regulations. The Government recognise that these two schemes form an important part of the support available to people with dust-related diseases, and these draft regulations will ensure that the value of that support is maintained. I wish to echo the comments about the charities and organisations that both support claimants and families to secure a diagnose and provide ongoing support. This House recognises what an invaluable role they play for people in such challenging times.

Hon. Members raised a number of points, and I will try to cover the key ones. First, on the delays, due to covid we understandably had to suspend traditional face-to-face assessments. We have now been able to start with paper-based reviews and, as we have seen with wider disability benefits, we have looked to use telephone and video technology where possible. As quickly as we are allowed safely to return to face-to-face assessments, those for whom we have not been able to do a paper-based review or a telephone or video assessment will be a priority in this area.

The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), asked for an update on stats. They are published quarterly, and those he quoted are the last published ones. We will share the stats as soon as they come forward. However, we absolutely understand the importance of getting the backdates cleared. He also mentioned the issue whereby, for some claims made under the 1979 Act, due to the suspension of face-to-face assessments the amount of compensation a claimant can receive is based on their age on the date the IIDB was awarded, not the date of the claim. The Department is actively considering what we can do for those claimants who, through no fault of their own, have received a reduced amount as a result of the delays. We acknowledge that, we are looking to address it, and I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman highlighting the issue in a proactive, constructive spirit. We do get that.

I turn to the quirk of why this debate is held annually. It was set in place in 2004, and Ministers—including me—have done it each year. A change to make this measure part of the wider statutory uprating would require primary legislation. However, aside from requiring legislation to make the change, this is an opportunity for us to focus on the scheme and the wider support, and the quality and merit of the speeches today shows why we have the debate annually. As ever, these things are kept under review, but it is one of those situations where there are gains, and it is about whether a change is needed.

A number of hon. Members raised the principle of equalising the levels of payments made to dependents. I listened carefully to the concerns raised, but the Government remain of the view that available funding should be prioritised to those people who are currently living with the disease.

A number of hon. Members spoke about the importance of research, which is crucial, particularly in our fight against cancer. I very much welcome the fact that the Department of Health and Social Care invests £1 billion a year in health research through the National Institute for Health Research. We have been working actively for several years to stimulate an increase in the level of mesothelioma research, and I thank organisations such as Cancer Research UK, the British Lung Foundation and the Medical Research Council that are proactively trying to stimulate additional crucial research in that area. We will welcome any more work that is done.

A number of hon. Members addressed the HSE, which is a wonderful organisation. I welcome the fact that it secured an additional £14 million for the financial year 2021-22 to continue to support the Government in the national response to the global covid-19 pandemic. That will fund spot checks and inspections, including those enforced by local authorities, to ensure that workplaces are covid-secure for workers and the public. That is in addition to the HSE’s regular Government funding to deliver its wide-ranging regulatory functions.

To be clear, the HSE does not only rely on direct Government funding; it also generates income. Rightly, a key part of its work is raising awareness, and its health and work strategy delivers a strategy for occupational lung disease that includes raising the profile of occupational lung diseases through activities such as facilitating the Healthy Lung Partnership to provide direction of co-ordinating stakeholder activity on occupational lung disease, in addition to targeted intervention activity. When I was responsible for the HSE as a DWP Minister—it is no longer part of my responsibilities—I was incredibly impressed with how well it engaged with businesses of all sizes to give them the best knowledge, support and guidance in all areas of health and safety, and that part of its work is crucial.

Moving on to the very important issue of cancer patients, it is imperative that people can get tested for cancer and that cancer patients continue to receive the treatment they need. While the covid-19 pandemic has presented major challenges for all healthcare systems, overall cancer treatment services have been maintained throughout the pandemic. The NHS has published a cancer service recovery plan that aims to prioritise long-term plan commitments, including respiratory disease, as a clinical priority, and that will support recovery. This includes the delivery of targeted lung health checks and the roll-out of rapid diagnostic centres. As of the end of 2020, there were 53 live rapid diagnostic centre pathways across hospitals in England, compared with just 12 in March 2020, with a further 63 pathways in development. In October 2020, NHS England, NHS Improvement and Public Health England launched the latest “Help Us, Help You” campaign to urge people with potential symptoms of cancer to see their GP. The lung cancer campaign will focus on the key symptom of a cough for three weeks or more and encourage anyone who has had this symptom to speak to their GP. I am sure we would all echo the importance of that message.

On dependents and gender imbalance, we have not conducted an impact assessment, but a valid point has been raised and I will take it away to look at it.

I commend the uprating of the payment scales for these schemes and ask for approval to implement them.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, which were laid before this House on 14 January, be approved.


That the draft Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, which were laid before this House on 14 January, be approved.

Sitting suspended.