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Health: Pneumoconiosis

Volume 735: debated on Wednesday 29 February 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many payments of compensation were made, in the most recent year for which figures are available, under the provisions of the Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979, and how many of these were made to former slate quarrymen.

In the year from April 2010 to March 2011, 2,820 payments were made in total under the Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979. We are not able to identify how many payments were made specifically in respect of former slate quarrymen.

My Lords, the Minister will clearly be aware that, while the 1979 pneumoconiosis Act was primarily triggered by the plight of slate quarrymen who were unable otherwise to secure compensation for industrial lung diseases they suffered, most of the beneficiaries have, quite fairly, been from other industries. Is he aware that while some coal-miners suffering emphysema and chronic bronchitis have secured compensation under the 1979 Act, former slate quarrymen suffering emphysema and chronic bronchitis—which are equally endemic in slate quarrying as in coal-mining—cannot be compensated under the Act? Will he discuss this with fellow Ministers so that this small but long-suffering group of slate quarrymen can achieve the justice to which they are equally entitled?

My Lords, I was not aware of this discrepancy, so I will go back and have a look at exactly what is behind it, because I just do not know.

My Lords, as many of us will know, many of the sufferers from pneumoconiosis were victimised by avaricious lawyers and lost a substantial portion of their compensation awards. Was that money ever recovered and returned to the proper beneficiaries?

Again, my Lords, I am regrettably not an expert in that matter. As far as I am aware, there was not any movement to restore it, but I will have a look and write to the noble Lord on that matter.

My Lords, I am encouraged by the statement of the Minister that he will look to see if there is a gap in the legislation that needs to be covered. The Act was one of the proud achievements of the Labour Government of 1974 to 1979. Its intention was to apply generally where there was a problem. In particular, the question of the quarrymen had been raised and pushed forward very strongly. We take pride in having passed the Act and the Minister has encouraged me by saying that he would look for any gaps in it.

My Lords, I will look at the Act. The 2008 Act and the 1979 Act were intended to help people with this set of diseases. We are very conscious that some people miss out because they cannot trace claims. That is another matter that we are looking at very actively.

My Lords, I am grateful for the Act, and of course some who advocated it are present in the Chamber this afternoon. At its height, the Welsh quarrying industry employed some 17,000 quarrymen. As the years have gone by, the numbers suffering from pneumoconiosis and silicosis have fallen. How many people now have been diagnosed with these two diseases, which the Act was introduced to cover?

As noble Lords may imagine, when I was asked this Question I tried to get more fine detail, but it simply is not available. There is a division between those suffering from mesothelioma and those suffering from other diseases; that is the only breakdown that we have. I cannot provide the information that the noble Lord requested.

My Lords, perhaps in common with other noble Lords I have members of my family who worked in the slate quarries and died as a result of their employment. When the Act was passed by the Callaghan Government in 1979, Members of the Commons were assured that there would be an equality of authority for workers in the slate quarrying industry—a small, fragmented, rural industry—and those in more powerful and numerous groups working in, let us say, the coal-mining and textile industries. In view of the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, can we be sure that those assurances have been met?

My Lords, the 1979 and 2008 Acts were drawn very precisely to cover certain diseases. I am sure that noble Lords know that these range from asbestosis through mesothelioma, relevant silicosis and other illnesses contracted from cotton, clay, and so forth. The Acts that cover these diseases are very precise. Other industrial diseases are covered by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, and industrial benefits are based on those diseases.

My Lords, while strongly supporting the pleas made by noble Lords who come from Wales, could I, who represented many thousands of coal-miners in England, emphasise to my noble friend that the problem is by no means confined to the Principality, and that there are people in Staffordshire, Yorkshire and all over England who will want to hear what he says and who will hope for a positive result?

My Lords, if there are discrepancies between miners and quarrymen, I will go back and look at them. I was not aware that there were such discrepancies. I will look at them and take whatever measures are required.

My Lords, as we know, one of the challenges of long-latency diseases is the tracing of old employer liability insurance policies. The noble Lord referred to that a moment ago. Will he be more specific about progress on the Employers’ Liability Tracing Office, and in particular whether it is now accepted that there should be back-filling of policies to November 1999—the start of the code—rather than applying it only to future policies? Will the Minister also say whether there has been progress on ELIB, the bureau of last resort when employer liability policies cannot be traced?

My Lords, although there has been silence since the document came out in May 2010, I assure the noble Lord that there has been a lot of activity behind the scenes. I am holding discussions with all the relevant parties and I hope that I am making progress on the matter of tracing. Noble Lords will be aware that when a company disappears some claimants simply cannot find their insurance. That matter is under active discussion.