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Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2011

Volume 725: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2011

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2011.

Relevant document: 16th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, I start with the formalities. It is a requirement that I confirm to the Committee that these provisions are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. I am happy to so confirm.

I am pleased to introduce two sets of regulations, increasing by 3.1 per cent the lump sum amounts paid under the Pneumoconiosis etc (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 and the mesothelioma scheme set up by the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. These new amounts will be paid to those who first satisfy all the conditions of entitlement on or after 1 April 2011.

The increases in the amounts paid under these two schemes are not part of the process that increases the benefit rates across the whole range of social security benefits. As a result, there is no statutory obligation to increase the rates paid under these schemes. However, previous Ministers have made a commitment to annually increase the rate of payment benefit alongside the general increases applying to all social security benefits. I am very pleased to make the same commitment.

At this point I must briefly refer back to the increases made to the payments under these two schemes in 2010. As a result of the economic downturn, the retail prices index in September 2009—the date at which the rates for the following year are fixed—was negative for the first time in 50 years. Notwithstanding that negative figure, the rates were increased in 2010 by 1.5 per cent. It was planned that this increase would then be set against the amount of the increase in 2011—in other words, the planned increase for this year would be reduced from 3.1 per cent to 1.6 per cent. I am pleased to report that this reduction in the increase for this year will not be made. It is proposed instead to increase the rates under these two schemes by the full 3.1 per cent. I am sure that noble Lords will endorse this approach. I would also add that, as the retail prices index at September 2010 was 4.6 per cent, not seeking to offset the 1.5 per cent interim payment now means that people will not lose out from the change to using the 3.1 per cent CPI figure as the measure of inflation to increase the rates of payment in 2011-12. The figures happen to be the same.

Noble Lords will be aware of the background to these Acts but it might help if I briefly recap. A person who is injured or contracts an industrial disease as a result of their work may sue the employer for damages. However, some diseases can take a long time to develop and may not be diagnosed until many years after the exposure to the agent that caused the illness. This is particularly so for asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma.

The understanding of diseases linked to exposure to asbestos continues to expand. It is now recognised that it may be up to 40 years between the original exposure and the linked disease, which is longer than first thought. Because of that long latency period, the employer responsible may no longer exist and it may be very difficult for that person to obtain compensation. The Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 was introduced to help such people by paying lump sum compensation to sufferers of certain dust-related diseases, or their dependants, if they are unable to pursue civil action. The 1979 Act covers a number of respiratory diseases, many of which are directly related to asbestos exposure. The scheme also covers a number of non-asbestos-related diseases such as coal-workers’ pneumoconiosis.

Noble Lords will need no reminding that all of the terrible diseases covered by this scheme are a heavy legacy of our industrial past. Although people who develop mesothelioma through their employment have had access to lump sum payments through the 1979 Act for some time, there was previously no provision for people who developed mesothelioma outside the workplace. This weakness in the provision of compensation was remedied by the introduction of the mesothelioma scheme in 2008. This scheme provides, for the first time, lump sum payments for mesothelioma sufferers who have been exposed to asbestos outside the workplace.

As a result of these regulations, from April 2011 the amount payable to a person under both the 1979 Act and the 2008 mesothelioma scheme will, for a person suffering from mesothelioma, increase to £59,896 for a 50 year-old and £36,422 for one aged 60 at the date of diagnosis. As these two figures show, the amount of money paid as a lump sum varies depending on the age at which they are diagnosed. The highest amounts are paid for those diagnosed at an early age and for those with higher levels of disability.

All payments made in respect of mesothelioma are paid at the full 100 per cent rate appropriate to the age at diagnosis. Your Lordships will not be surprised to learn that about three-quarters of payments made under the 1979 Act are in respect of mesothelioma—a particularly unpleasant and fatal disease, caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos. Those diagnosed with mesothelioma usually have a short life expectancy, generally of between 12 and 18 months. It is common that the sufferer is severely disabled soon after diagnosis.

I am saddened to report that the number of deaths from mesothelioma in Great Britain continues to rise. In 1968, 153 people died from it; by contrast, more than 2,000 people a year are currently dying from the disease. I have a further great regret in stating that we will not reach the peak in the number of deaths from mesothelioma until around 2015. The latest estimates are that between 2006 and 2020, 30,000 people in the UK will die of the disease. Put another way, one out of every 100 men born between 1940 and 1950 will die from mesothelioma. These are chilling figures.

The rise in the number of deaths is reflected in the continued rise in the number of payments made under these schemes. In the year 2008-09, a total of 2,351 payments were made under the 1979 Act; the following year, there were 2,625 payments; and for the full year from April 2010 to March 2011, we expect to make about 2,900 payments.

It may also help if I briefly give you some figures to illustrate the important role fulfilled by the two schemes in providing financial support. In the three years from April 2008 to December 2010, 7,088 payments were made under the 1979 Act, amounting to over £95 million. In the time since the 2008 scheme was introduced in October 2008, about 1,200 payments have been made at a cost of just under £20 million.

These regulations increase the levels of support through the government compensation schemes; and noble Lords will, I am sure, agree that while no amount of money will ever compensate individuals and families for the suffering and loss caused by mesothelioma, those who are suffering rightly deserve some form of monetary compensation, and it is essential that sufferers receive compensation before it is too late. I commend the uprating of the payment scales to noble Lords and ask approval to implement them. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Freud, for introducing these orders in a very sympathetic way. As we have heard, one of the orders increases the amount of compensation paid to sufferers of mesothelioma under the scheme legislated for in 2008, and the other uprates payments made under the Pneumoconiosis etc (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979. My noble friend Lord Jones has spoken passionately about the scheme in the past and was involved in it from the start. I am sure that we will hear from him further this afternoon.

It is noted that in both cases the uprating is by reference to CPI, at 3.1 per cent. Given the Minister’s reference to what uprating by RPI—minus 1.5 per cent—would have done this year, we are in the same place on that issue. Nevertheless, had it been uprated by RPI at the top end of the scale, there would be something like an additional £1,000 of compensation. However, within the context of our overall position on the change to CPI, we can and do support both of these orders.

The scheme brings some relief to sufferers of certain industrial-related diseases. They are all terrible diseases. As the noble Lord said, they are a dire legacy of our industrial past. We have heard that the number of deaths from mesothelioma continues to rise and is still a few years away from its peak, which we were told will be in 2015. I was going to ask the Minister whether he could give us an update on the number of payments made to date in the current year under the 1979 and 2008 Act arrangements, with an estimate for both for next year. I think that he may have given us that, so I will look at the record. If it does not fully cover that query, perhaps he will drop me a line, unless he has the figures available today.

The resources for the 2008 Act payments were to be found from compensation recovery from civil claims related to the 1979 and 2008 Act schemes. Will the Minister give us an update on the current level of successful claims and the compensation recoverable? What amounts are estimated to be due to be received in the current year and next year? He will recall that last year we were able to announce an alignment of the 2008 Act scheme payments with those of the 1979 Act for sufferers of mesothelioma and their dependants. This was about a year earlier than we had originally expected. It would appear that this parity which has been obtained is to continue, and we welcome that.

However, we also took steps last year to reduce the gap between awards to sufferers and awards to dependants. Seemingly no further progress has been made in this regard with the current year's uprating. We should recognise the terrible effect that these diseases can have on families who have to cope with the effects of pain and suffering on their loved ones. Differential payments between sufferers and dependants can put pressure on the former at the most difficult time in their lives. What are the current Government's intentions in this matter? Is it still their intention to narrow or to close the gap, and when is further progress likely to be made?

These orders deal with statutory compensation schemes paid for in part by compensation recovery. The schemes are there to the extent that individuals cannot achieve civil compensation either from a former employer or their insurer. I should like to pursue two points. The first relates to the Court of Appeal decision in October last year which determined that liability for compensation for mesothelioma arose when the symptoms were suffered and not when the exposure to asbestos arose—I think that an appeal in respect of this is in progress—turning on its head prior understanding and practice and creating great consternation among sufferers and support groups. Can we please hear about the assessment which has been made about the implications of the judgment, in particular about the prospects for compensation recovery?

The second point relates to the prospects of individuals claiming against a former employer or their insurer which depend on the ability to trace employers' liability insurance policies. When in government, we launched, together with the insurance industry, a voluntary code of practice for the tracing of policies. That had some success but fell short of what was required, especially for business written after 1999, hence the proposals to establish an employers’ liability tracing office to manage an electronic database. Can we have an update on progress on that project, please? The Minister will also be aware that we consulted on the establishment of an employer liability insurance bureau. That would act as a fund of last resort in cases where all other efforts to trace an employer or insurer failed. Are the Government still looking to take that forward?

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to those points. Of course, I stress that we support each of these regulations.

My Lords, I support the regulations, and I thank the Minister for his considerate and detailed exposition. I certainly welcome all that he said. However, it was daunting to hear of the number of deaths; those details are very sobering. We are all glad that there is compensation—that persons can receive payments of between £12,040 and £77,506. Surely we are all glad that lump sums of between £7,524 and £40,335 can be paid to dependants, and that the Secretary of State of the day can put his signature to these regulations.

This is a dreadful disease. When a diagnosis is made and the facts imparted to the patient, death is usually never far away. It is very good that British Governments can come forward with such compensatory schemes. The regulations are the printed details as referred to in the Explanatory Memorandum. However, they cannot describe adequately the humanity of these desperate cases, or the ignorance which existed then, or the bewilderment, the suffering or the familial anxieties. Surely the departmental staff teams can take some credit, at the very least, for presenting these regulations.

I very much appreciate that the 2008 scheme is wholly funded from compensation recovery, whereas the 1979 Act and 2008 scheme payments are recovered from any subsequent civil damages paid in respect of the same disease. I also understand that consultation is not necessary, because there is no change in policy and no scope to change the outcome, and that these increases are at the rate of inflation as measured by the consumer prices index, in line with other social security benefit rates which are increased under the existing statutory provisions. With regard to regulating small businesses, can the Minister say why the legislation does not apply? Can he, for the record, spell that out?

Finally, there is a history to these regulations. I recollect, first, Mr Harold Walker, the Member of Parliament for Doncaster. He and I served in the Wilson and Callaghan Administrations in the 1970s. Mr Walker was the Minister of State in the Ministry of Employment, as I think it was then called. In that decade the department was very busy and pressured—the old smokestacks fell; the Upper Clyde shipyard was occupied; Rolls-Royce was bankrupted, and then nationalised by the then Mr John Davies MP; the OPEC nations quadrupled the price of oil; and then there came forth a great inflation and many industrial and labour disputes. That was the context whence came the concept that led to these regulations. However, the plight of the workforce in the coal and quarrying fields made it necessary to address these diseases. The menace of asbestos was also demanding compensation.

Harold Walker MP subsequently became Chairman of Ways and Means, then Lord Walker in your Lordships’ House. In his Commons role, he assessed how our departments—the departments for employment and for Wales, in which I served—might jointly address the challenge of those diseases and the demands of families and of sufferers. What should be done in that context of high inflation, industrial labour disputes and all manner of impediments to statecraft, if I may put it like that? There were Ministers looking at these specific problems who wanted very much to address the challenge of these lung diseases.

Mr Walker told me of a tragedy. He had previously been a craftsman and a shop-floor union leader. At a location at Hebden Bridge, he had met workers who had innocently had constant contact with the deadliest of asbestos, which is the blue. Those poor men had literally waded in the blue stuff and kicked it about. They had played snowballs with blue asbestos, throwing the deadly stuff at each other. At that time in our industrial society, nobody had warned them, nobody had briefed them and nobody had considered them. That was taking place across the nation. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, those poor men at Hebden Bridge had frequently gone all the way.

There was no health and safety at work Act. At the time of those great confrontations in British society, as measured in the House of Commons and in disputes throughout the nation, there was a need for consideration about how to make work safer. It was the then Minister, Mr Michael Foot, who brought forward health and safety at work measures. He also brought forward an employment Act. I believe that those measures helped to protect men and women at work. I think that those Administrations who brought them forth and enabled the workforce of Britain to benefit deserve great credit. I would like to put on record that Ministers sought to address these problems brought about by asbestos. I welcome the Minister’s exposition and the team that backs him in enhancing and widening these regulations.

My Lords, first, I welcome the Minister’s statement this afternoon in respect of these regulations. I thank him for the manner in which he delivered them, the understanding with which he delivered them and, more importantly, the way in which he has supported what has been for many people an almost lifelong campaign to ensure that we bring some retribution for the damage caused to so many members of our society by diseases at work. For me, pneumoconiosis is almost a household name. It became the natural word that would roll off your tongue, especially recently. Visiting constituents and seeing men sitting in the corner of their homes with an oxygen bottle alongside them, the last vestige of their survival as individuals, was a frightening and disgraceful comment upon the nature of our industrial landscape of many years ago. For many of us, it is ingrained within us to see the way those people have been dealt with in such a cruel way by these diseases.

As the Minister pointed out, we have not yet seen the peak of these diseases because, while the industrial heritage may have moved away, the diseases are still firmly implanted within the bodies of those people working within those industries. I welcome the fact that these regulations are being dealt with today and that the Minister has chosen—there is no obligation on the Government to bring forward these regulations—to follow the current practice of uprating on a yearly basis.

There are a number of short questions that I would like to place before the Minister. The first concerns dependants, who have been referred to earlier. Will my noble friend tell us the effect on the gap as a result of the changes we are seeing today? With more and more of these sufferers dying as we reach the peak, the dependants will be becoming more and more dependent upon the payments that are made to them. I wonder whether we have some feel for the direction of travel on that gap at this time. Is there any prospect in future of dealing much more with the dependants? For very tragic reasons, that is where we are going to be ending up with this disease.

My second question concerns the issue of tracking down the employment and the vestiges of the employers. Does the Minister have any knowledge of the split between those who have worked for public sector bodies—in the area where I reside the National Coal Board was probably the biggest problem—and the private sector employers around the country in both the coal and asbestos areas of industry?

No matter how often we come forward with compensation schemes and how much work is done on this matter, and although the changes that have been brought about bring comfort to people, nothing can alter the fact that many in our society have died, and are dying, as a result of industrially related diseases. It is pleasing to note that we have moved on so far in understanding such diseases and what happens in the workplace, and in protecting people. Let us hope that we do not have to introduce any other scheme of this nature in the future.

My Lords, the whole Committee appreciates the tone and sensitivity of the Minister’s remarks, as well as the good message he has conveyed. In areas such as these, it is incumbent on any Government to err on the side of generosity and to show a certain breadth of spirit—and not, as it were, to retreat into the small print or the least that they can get away with—even in difficult times. That is easy to say because, obviously, the scale of the overall outlay, and the fact that some of it is potentially recoverable, is rather small in comparison with other matters we have debated in this place. Nevertheless, it is the right approach when these diseases are as unpleasant as they are unspellable and, other than by a Welshman—I say to my noble friend Lord German—unpronounceable. They are extremely unpleasant and should not be treated lightly.

I have had some experience as a Front-Bench spokesperson across the wider aspects of the Department for Work and Pensions, where we held an annual debate on the uprating. The issues have not substantially changed—although they are, perhaps, in clearer perspective than they were—and one should be at least aware of the possibility of relating them to either a constituency or personal experience. A late kinsman of my wife was a pneumoconiosis sufferer, not through coalmining but through his work in the flour-milling industry. His lungs filled up and he died prematurely. I am sure that many people, particularly those from heavy industrial constituencies, could say that. The person I knew who was a mesothelioma sufferer was a former Member of this House. I shall say no more about that, but it is interesting that these diseases can affect people who are beyond the heavy industrial profile.

As to the substance of the regulations, I think we are doing the right thing for the reasons I have given. However, in addition to the points to which the Minister is going to respond, can he give some indication of the emerging actuarial build-up? He has already told us that the peak, sadly, has not been reached, but obviously that is subject to re-evaluation in the light of the claims experience. There will be difficult judgments to be made as to whether it is accelerating and people are presenting claims earlier or whether there is a wider aetiology of claims than was previously thought—that is, whether it is going to be more expensive or, more importantly, more extensive in terms of the number of people who are suffering. I get the impression from the figures and the nature of the debate that the picture is one of broad stability, but it would be useful to have that assurance.

It would also be useful if the Minister could say whether the way in which the system is now set up—particularly under the Health and Safety Executive—will ensure that we do not make similar commitments in relation to other long-term diseases as a result of carelessness.

My second point has already been made by other noble Lords but it is worth a moment. We all feel very strongly that there is a need for good record-keeping and a clearing house method of allocating the liabilities to insurers and employers, as appropriate, to ensure that they do not escape. I should like to make two points about that. First, that should be equally in the interests of good employers and good insurers as otherwise, because if there is an elaborate game of pass the parcel and one is the only one left standing because all the others have cleared off or ceased to exist, that is a very unfortunate position and may be disproportionate. As the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, indicated, there are some fraught issues about the moment of onset and who is liable.

I draw the Committee’s attention to my concern that this is a somewhat wider issue—we have seen it in relation to motor insurance and the Motor Insurers’ Bureau. However, in relation to the whole field, including the pensions field, I think that many people across the private sector feel—as we have also debated—that the record-keeping has perhaps not been as good as it might have been. People may have little entitlements of which they have no continuing knowledge. There might be others who should have obligations that have somehow been lost with the passage of industrial change. That is understandable over a 40-year period. One has only to look at Andrew Marr’s recent series, “Britain from the Air”, to see how everything is different from what it was two generations ago. Nevertheless, the people, their needs and their need for support remain. It is a serious issue and I am sure that the Minister will want to attend to it.

For the moment, I think that we are content, with a measure of real consensus on this, to reflect on the situation that people and their families find themselves in, and on the need to be as generous as we reasonably and possibly can in dealing with and meeting their immediate needs and their family problems.

My Lords, this has been a debate in which I think we are all in exactly the same place. It is a very difficult area, as we all know. I shall try to deal with the issues that have arisen as well as I can.

With the consent of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, I think that we might just park CPI/RPI in this context. We will have another chance to look at it today, another on Monday and another on Tuesday. I shall say a few words on it later, but it is one of those things that, in this context, might feel slightly uncomfortable. I am very relieved that the figures are such that we do not need that debate.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked for some figures on payments and so forth. I can give him some up-to-date figures. The payments made in 2009-10 amounted to £42.3 million. In 2008-09—I am sorry that I am going down the years—the payments amounted to £37 million. In the current year, up to January, in combination, they amounted to £38.8 million.

Yes; it is a combination of both Acts.

The recoveries picture is also improving. In 2008-09, it was £5.3 million; in the following year, 2009-10, it was £16.1 million—which, as a percentage, is 38 per cent; and in the year to January 2011, it was £12.4 million. We are estimating, next year, to get recoveries of £20.7 million. So recoveries are currently running at roughly one-third of the payments.

Both the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord German, were interested in the relationship between the sufferers’ and the dependants’ rate. As they both mentioned, historically, that has been lower. The gap was closed by £5,000 and because of the age factor in many cases, the dependants’ rate can be the same as the sufferers’ rate, and that might not be a particularly valid argument in people’s eyes. At the moment, all I am empowered to say is that raising those levels by CPI is what we have decided we can do. Currently, we are not looking at any acceleration of that gap.

I should perhaps emphasise that the department is currently engaging very actively with customer groups to try to ensure that claims are made before death. That maximises the rate at which payments are made at the sufferers’ rate rather than the dependants’ rate.

The noble Lord, Lord Jones, brought a historical perspective to the subject. One of the horrific things about mesothelioma is that a single fibre can trigger the disease; he talked about snowballs made with blue asbestos. That is almost overkill, but as we see, and as the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, pointed out, people can also get this disease without knowing where they have got it from. It could be contracted from air conditioning even when they had not been in work. I suspect it is the most dangerous thing that we have.

There were other questions on the regulations for small businesses. In practice, the regulations ensure that anyone suffering from mesothelioma can get compensation, so there is not a problem with employment.

On the matter of public versus private bodies, raised by my noble friend Lord German, I do not have the figures. We are trying to improve the tracing, but I shall write to interested Peers with that figure when I get it.

The noble Lord, Lord Boswell, asked about the profile of suffering. We expect it to peak in 2015 but, thereafter, we are expecting a gradual decline in the numbers. From earlier estimates, we might see a slight pushing back of the rates but the shape of the curve has not changed dramatically.

The most difficult questions, slightly wider than these regulations, concern what we do with the tracing and with the bureau. The ABI’s ELTO database will begin to operate from this April, which is a positive step.

The court case, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, pointed out, is a real issue. The Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in October and said that insurance policies should be interpreted on actual policy wordings. That has thrown an important level of uncertainty into what we do about tracing and the bureau because if we do not know what the actual wording was, it creates an extra problem. The judgment has been appealed to the Supreme Court and for obvious reasons it is quite difficult to do anything absolute until we know where we are.

This area is part of my portfolio of responsibility; I am taking very seriously the idea of an insurance bureau or something to find out how we can get compensation for people for whom the records are no longer there. I know there has been a relatively long gap since the public consultation that closed in May 2010. I assure the Committee that I have been in very active talks with various interested parties. I am pursuing some strategies, and hope to be able to achieve an appropriate outcome and bring the proposals forward to the House in due course. Sometimes it is better to get a result than to do things in a hurry. That is what is happening here. I can only give a personal assurance that I am taking this very seriously.

I think I have dealt with virtually all the questions. There is just the public-private split to deal with. The Government recognise that these two schemes perform a very important role and that it is vital that the value of these payments is maintained. I am pleased to confirm the Government’s commitment to review the level of these payments on an annual basis and, where necessary, to increase the payment. I am sure that noble Lords are in full agreement with these sentiments. Indeed, they have expressed that. I therefore commend the uprating of the payment scales and ask for approval to implement them.

Motion agreed.