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Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2014

Volume 753: debated on Monday 17 March 2014

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2014.

Relevant document: 22nd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, in moving that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2014, I will also speak to the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2014. These two regulations increase the lump sum amounts payable 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 2014.

These two schemes stand apart from the main social security benefits uprating procedure and there is no legislative requirement to review the level of payments each year. None the less, I am happy to increase the amounts payable for 2014 by CPI—that is, by 2.7%, which is the same rate as that applied to some social security disability benefits and the industrial injuries disablement benefit under the main social security uprating provisions which were recently debated in the House.

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 in relation to these diseases. That is mainly due to the time lag between exposure and onset of the disease, which could be as long as 40 years. Therefore, we fulfil an important role by providing lump sum compensation payments to people suffering from certain asbestos-related diseases through these two schemes. These government schemes also aim to ensure that sufferers receive compensation while they can still benefit from it, without first having to await the outcome of civil litigation. Improved health and safety procedures have restricted the use of asbestos and provided a safer environment for its handling. However, the historic legacy of the common use of asbestos is still with us. That is why we are ensuring that financial compensation from both these schemes is available to those affected.

I will briefly summarise the specific purpose of each scheme. The Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979—for simplicity I shall refer to it as the 1979 Act—provides a lump sum compensation payment to those who suffer from one of five dust-related respiratory diseases covered by the scheme and who are unable to claim damages from employers because those employers have gone out of business and who have not brought any action against others 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 payments scheme was introduced to provide compensation to people who contracted mesothelioma but were unable to claim compensation for that disease under the 1979 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 1979 Act scheme are based mainly on the level of the disablement assessment and the age of the sufferer at the time that the disease is diagnosed. The highest amounts are to those diagnosed at an early age and with the highest level of disablement. All payments for mesothelioma under the 1979 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 are based on age, with the highest payments going to the youngest sufferers.

I would like to give some detailed figures on claims and moneys paid out under the two schemes before us today. In the last full year, April 2012 to March 2013, over 3,500 payments were made in respect of both schemes, totalling just over £53 million.

I know that the occurrences of mesothelioma are of particular concern to Members, with the number of deaths from mesothelioma in Great Britain continuing to rise. In 1968, 153 people died from mesothelioma. By contrast, over 2,000 deaths occur each year from that disease now. Mesothelioma is a fatal disease caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos. Those diagnosed with mesothelioma usually have a short life expectancy—generally between nine and 12 months—with the sufferer becoming severely disabled soon after diagnosis. This rise in the number of deaths reflects the long latency period of the disease, which can take decades to become apparent. Latest available information suggests that mesothelioma deaths will continue to increase to a peak of around 2,500 in 2018, and then start to fall—thus reflecting a reduction in asbestos exposures following its peak use in the 1960s and 1970s. Just under a half—47%—of payments made under the Government’s 1979 scheme are in respect of mesothelioma.

I remind noble Lords that immediately following this debate we will be debating the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme Regulations 2014, and I would ask that any questions about that scheme, and how it interacts with these older schemes, be raised in that debate.

These regulations increase the levels of support through the government compensation schemes. I am sure that we will 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. The government schemes go some way to ensuring sufferers receive it as soon as possible. It is a requirement that I confirm to the Committee that these 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 and ask for approval to implement them. I beg to move.

My Lords, I shall certainly follow the Minister’s suggestion that we leave consideration of the new mesothelioma provisions until the next debate, which makes a lot of sense. I shall want to contribute then, if I may. Perhaps I may ask a couple of questions particularly on the regulations made under the 1979 pneumoconiosis Act. In doing so, I welcome, of course, the upratings that are taking place. They should not lose their value as time goes on.

As the Minister and others may know, I have an interest in the 1979 scheme, particularly from the point of view of slate quarrymen. The issue was not, of course, related only to slate quarrymen; it also affected those working in the kiln and cotton industries, and a number of other conditions came under the purview of that Act. Over the period since 1979 there was initially a surge of applications, which reduced in 1986 to just 95. A decade later, in 1995, this had built up to 900, and was running at a level of 1,000 to 2,000 by 2002-03. I believe that some of the cases leading to that surge arose from coal-mining pneumoconiosis, which had not been covered under the coal-mining scheme—there was originally a tripartite scheme between the NUM, the NCB and the Government, in 1975, for that purpose.

I have been trying to ascertain the breakdown of the figures since 2002-03, and would be grateful if the Minister would give some undertaking on this. My colleagues in the House of Commons have been unable to get from the House of Commons Library the breakdown with regard to industry and to the regional spread of those cases. I imagine that the information must be available in the department because it was available 10 years ago. I hope that it might be possible, by letter or some other way, for this to be disclosed. It would be interesting to see how the pattern has changed from the point of view of the sustainability of the scheme itself, which is an important factor.

The second thing I want to ask the Minister is the breakdown of the figure that he has just given us for 2012-13. He mentioned 3,500 payments and £53 million. That figure covered both the 1979 scheme and the 2008 mesothelioma scheme. Presumably there is again some breakdown between those two at the very least, and perhaps the Minister is in a position to give it today, so we can see where this is going. There will be questions about the interplay of the schemes, but I am content to leave those until the subsequent debate.

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Wigley, I will reserve my remarks about the current 2014 scheme to the later orders. However, perhaps I can ask about the earlier scheme and take the Grand Committee back to remarks that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, made in 2010 when he was Minister. It is good to see him in his place. He said that the,

“differential in payments puts pressure on sufferers during already extremely difficult times. For example, many feel that they need to rush through a quick claim to the department in order to maximise compensation for their families. Some are too sick to make a claim before dying and therefore their families are able to claim only the lesser amount after the claimant's death. In addition, because mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose and the disease onset is rapid, some sufferers are not diagnosed until after death”.—[Official Report, 23/3/10; col. GC 355.].

This therefore raises the question of dependency and lump sum payments which, when the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, was Minister, he said should be the same. He commenced the process of reducing the differential and both his remarks and the action he took then are to be greatly welcomed.

Each year since 2010, Members of both Houses have asked that the differential should be reduced and each year that has been rejected, due to economic circumstances. My question to the Minister is: as the economic situation continues to improve, at what point in the recovery will there be the trigger that will lead to the Government honouring the commitment to reduce the differential and in-life lump sum payments? Until we do that, it leads to three specific anomalies. First, the dependants are paid significantly less than in-life claimants; secondly, dependants’ age is cut off at 67, compared to 77 for in-life claimants; and thirdly, the 2008 scheme dependants do not receive the 10% enhancement.

Over the next 10 years, the Government are expected to receive some £71 million, less £17 million gifted to insurers, in additional recoveries under the terms of the Mesothelioma Act 2014. Could some of those additional funds be used to reduce the differential? As I will argue later, perhaps some of those funds could also be diverted towards research because once we have established what the causes and cures are, then we will not have a need for schemes like this at all.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for taking us back to those earlier days and the discussions we had at that time. I have the same question for the Minister: what progress are we planning to make on closing the gap between amounts paid to dependants and to sufferers? From recollection, the first task was to close the gap between the 2008 scheme and the 1979 scheme, but that gap between dependants and sufferers remains open still.

As I recall, the funding for the 2008 scheme was to come from recoveries of civil compensation claims. There was always a bit of a mystery about how you got those claims in what was meant to be a no-fault scheme, but there is no doubt that recoveries were made and that they funded the 2008 scheme. Will the Minister tell us the current recovery level and how it relates to the 2008 scheme expenses?

We have debated extensively the broader issue of the consequences of exposure to asbestos, and I am sure that we will come on to it in the regulations that we are to consider next. Will the Minister confirm that the HSE will switch on its awareness-raising campaign on asbestos? It ran a very effective campaign that was curtailed a couple of years back. My understanding is that it is going to be revived. If the Minister can confirm that, it would be very helpful. In doing so, will he tell us something about the funding for the HSE to make sure that it is not just a nominal effort but a really effective campaign? Asbestos is, sadly, still with us in too many parts of our infrastructure, and we need to keep messages going about all the risks of exposure to it.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of these regulations, and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, I recognise that there is no statutory obligation to uprate these amounts, and therefore I, too, welcome the Government’s decision to uprate the pneumoconiosis and mesothelioma lump sum payments under the 1979 and 2008 schemes.

A number of the questions that I wanted to raise have been asked, but I want to return to one point, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lord McKenzie, about the difference between payments made to applicants in life and those made to dependants under both schemes. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, explained the three points of difference between the two. As he reminded us, in 2010 my noble friend Lord McKenzie reduced the differential in lump sum payments between in-life claimants and claims from dependants, but there has been no further narrowing of the gap between the two. When regulations equivalent to those here today were before the Grand Committee on 7 March last year—with a very similar cast, I notice from Hansard—representations on this very point were made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who is not in his place. In his reply on that occasion, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, to whom it fell to respond, said:

“Ministers have to balance competing priorities, and because of the current financial situation, it is our duty to ensure that all available resources are well targeted. As around 85% of payments made under these schemes are paid to those who are suffering from the disease, I believe that they are currently rightly targeted on the sufferer to help them and their families to cope while living with the stress that illness inevitably brings”.—[Official Report, 7/3/13; col. GC 314.]

I remind the Committee of the point that the Minister made in his opening remarks, which is, in fact, that people live for a very short time knowing that they have the disease. If people on average live only nine to 12 months after diagnosis, I wonder whether the Minister still feels that that argument for focusing resources holds water.

When the regulations were debated in another place on 7 March last year, the then Minister, Mr Mark Hoban, acknowledged the discrepancy and said:

“It is something that we need to keep under review, and if the resources are available, we will see whether we can introduce measures to do that. The point about the difference between payments made to a sufferer and to their dependants is well made”.—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 7/3/13; col. 9.]

I have three questions for the Minister. First, will he tell the Grand Committee whether the Government have indeed kept this issue under review and, if so, what conclusions they have drawn? Secondly, will he tell the Committee what percentage of payments is currently made to dependants rather than sufferers? Finally, what estimate has the department made of the cost of narrowing further or, indeed, eliminating the differential between the two? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, as ever, noble Lords have asked a set of sizzling questions, which I shall do my best to address, although they are getting so technical now, because we have gone round this subject so many times, that I think that I shall end up writing quite a bit of it out, if noble Lords will excuse me for doing so.

On the question from the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, on the breakdown of the figures for the latest year, 2012-13, there is a total of 3,180 cases due to the 1979 Act. That represents the bulk of the expenditure, at £43.6 million. The 2008 scheme figures are 500 cases and £9.6 million of expenditure. I think that we have the breakdown figures that the noble Lord requested from 2002-03 onwards, but not to hand; I shall need to write with them. I did not anticipate that particular run of figures. I think that that will tie up with the recovery figures for the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and how they relate to the 2008 figures. I think that I will tie that up—I shall aim to do some tables.

On the split between sufferers and dependants, again, I shall use the latest year. Under the 1979 Act, of the total the bulk were the sufferers—2,900 out of the total—and 280 were the dependants. With the 2008 scheme, 450 were sufferers and 50 were dependants. That testifies to the speed with which the money gets out, given the sad mortality expectation that we were discussing. I am in no position today to move much further on making any progress in closing that gap between dependants and sufferers, but it is something that we keep under review. Clearly, we have been looking very closely at this whole area over the past year, and we will keep it under review. That is the best that I can do, speaking today.

I hope that I have covered everything, except for the HSE questions, with the awareness-raising scheme. I will write on the actual cost of what it would be to close that differential on the figures that I have just provided, which will give a baseline on what we are keeping under review. I shall also need to write on the detail of the HSE awareness-raising campaign. I feel somewhat embarrassed that I have resorted quite so much to the written word. If there is anything else at all, I shall include that in the letter. These are two important schemes. I commend the uprating of the payment scales and ask approval to implement them.

When the Minister comes to write his epistles to the Members of this Grand Committee, I wonder whether he will also be good enough to come back to us about the three anomalies that I specifically raised with him.

Yes, my Lords. As I understand the questions, they concern, first, dependants being paid less, on which I have already committed; secondly, the age between 67 and 77; and, thirdly, the 10% enhancement. I shall be pleased to deal with those as well. With that, I ask for approval to implement the regulations.

Motion agreed.