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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2001

Second Standing Committee

on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 17 October 2001

[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair]

Draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2001

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2001.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings.

The regulations were first laid before the House on 17 July 2001 and they are being made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979. The scheme is an award of last resort designed to pay compensation to those for whom there is no recourse to legal action against their former employers. The purpose of the regulations is to increase by 3.8 per cent. the compensation paid to those who first satisfy all the conditions on, or after, 1 December 2001. The 3.8 per cent. represents the increase in inflation since the previous uprating, which took effect from 1 June 2000.

The purpose of the 1979 Act was to give people suffering from industrial diseases the right to sue the employer concerned for damages. Asbestos-related diseases in particular are not usually diagnosed until 20 to 40 years or more after initial exposure. As a consequence, sufferers and their dependants can experience considerable difficulty in obtaining civil compensation because, in many instances, by the time that the disease is diagnosed, the employer or employers responsible may no longer exist.

The 1979 Act was introduced by a Labour Government and it provides for lump-sum payments to be made when there is no realistic chance of success through the courts. Recipients of such a lump-sum payment may be those who suffer from certain dust-related diseases or, when the sufferers have died, their dependants.

Three conditions of entitlement must usually be satisfied before a payment can be made. First, a threshold must be satisfied in that industrial injuries disablement benefit has been awarded. Secondly, there must be no relevant employer who can be sued and, thirdly, court action should not have been brought and compensation should not have been received in respect of the disease.

Payments under the 1979 Act are additional to an industrial injuries disablement benefit that has been awarded. My Department does all that it can to administer the compensation scheme sympathetically. Although rules have to be kept, we recognise that each case is an individual tragedy and we are as generous as the legislation allows.

The Act covers five main respiratory diseases, most of which are related directly to asbestos exposure. They are mesothelioma; pneumoconiosis, which includes asbestosis; diffuse pleural thickening; primary carcinoma of the lung, if accompanied by diffuse pleural thickening or asbestosis; and byssinosis. Since the Act came into force, to April 2001 more than 9,300 claimants have been paid at a cost of approximately £84.5 million.

Asbestos is one of the most serious occupational health problems that faces this country and the death toll from asbestos-related diseases remains extremely disturbing. Furthermore, because of the long incubation period and the fact that diagnosis, in many instances, occurs many years after initial exposure, research shows that deaths from mesothelioma are set to rise for the next 10 to 25 years.

Today, more than 70 per cent. of compensation claims paid under the scheme are for those suffering from mesothelioma. It is an extremely severe form of cancer, which affects the lung lining and the chest wall. Although the disease can take up to 35 years or more to develop, it is invariably terminal within 12 to 18 months of diagnosis. The scheme therefore aims to assist those people who have tragically been affected, many of whom, because of the long incubation period, do not have a realistic chance of pursuing through the courts those employers responsible for their condition. The Government have given an undertaking to Parliament to regularly review the amounts payable under the scheme to maintain their value. The regulations aim to fulfil that commitment.

Overall, however, the Government remain committed to ensuring that strong and effective measures are taken to minimise the risks posed to future generations by asbestos. It is failure to fully recognise and take all possible action in previous decades that has left us with a terrible legacy of ill health and death from asbestos exposure. The Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations 1992, as amended in 1999, prohibit the import, supply and use of all forms of asbestos. The only exception is when certain specific safety-critical uses of white asbestos are permitted for a time-limited period. The Health and Safety Commission is consulting this autumn on new proposals that will require anyone with legal responsibilities for the maintenance and repair of workplace premises to manage the risk from asbestos in those premises. The aim is to avoid accidental exposure to asbestos by maintenance staff and other contractors.

I am sure that the Committee will agree that the circumstances leading to such payments are tragic, and are to be deplored. They reflect the conditions in which some people worked many years ago, and the price that many working people are still paying for those unacceptable and unregulated working conditions. I hope that Government action to control the use of asbestos and other hazardous substances will prevent such suffering for present and future generations of workers. I know that all of us will recognise that no amount of money will ever begin to compensate individuals and families for their suffering and loss. However, the regulations allow us to provide practical material help. In consequence, it is important that we maintain the value of that compensation. I commend the uprating of these payment scales to the Committee, and I ask its approval to implement them.

4.37 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I echo the Minister's words in welcoming you, Mr. Cummings, to the chair for this important discussion. I am grateful to the Minister for the measured way in which he explained the order to us. He will not be surprised to find that it elicits a degree of sympathy and equal concern in all parts of the Committee.

I happen to have a strong interest in matters of occupational health—I hope that they are never confined to one party or interest—and I happen to believe that it is in the interests of good industrial relations generally that they are actively addressed. The difficulties that face us are long-tail liabilities—as insurers would say—for past neglect, misunderstanding or under-emphasis on such activities. That price will continue to be paid. First, we need to say to those who are suffering from such conditions that we will be as generous as we reasonably can be. Secondly, we need to do as much as we can to reduce the risks for the future. If we start on that principle, we may strike an element of consensus.

I learn something all the time in this place. Casually, and probably inappropriately, I originally thought of pneumoconiosis as miner's lung and that it related to coal miners. Although there is a legal screen, to which I may return, that is an important interest. However, as the Minister rightly said, it is not the only one, because there is the matter of mesothelioma, which arises from exposure to asbestos. There are other occupational conditions too.

Hon. Members who know the location of my constituency will not be surprised to learn that I have no local occupational interests in coal mining, but that does not mean that former miners will not move to the area. In fact, there is a lot of coal there, but it is very deep and none is mined. We have all met people with severe respiratory conditions. Somebody I knew was involved in flour milling and his lungs filled up. I do not know the precise description of the condition, but it shortened his life. That is no different from the other cases that were referred to.

Clearly, there is a common interest in tackling the problems and it is only appropriate that we at least upgrade what the Minister—I cannot remember his exact words—described as the fallback, long stop or last ditch compensation that is the subject of the order. Therefore, he will not be surprised to hear that the principle of the changes is acceptable to the official Opposition.

May I take a moment of the Minister's time to ask specific questions and to request that he fill us in on some of the wider issues? He will remember that I once held Opposition responsibilities for energy and the coal mining industry, so I have an interest in how those are going.

On the narrow matter of the regulations, the Minister explained that the uplift reflects inflation since the last operational date, which was June 2000. The regulations come into force in December, so the period of uplift is not regular. A period of 18 months may have been used, but that seems anomalous. There may be reasons, connected with the election or otherwise, for not introducing the uplift regularly every 12 months, so it would be helpful for the Minister to tell us previous practice and whether it is the Government's usual intention to uprate the figures annually. We want that to be predictable so that people do not miss out because they are caught between two dates.

Will the Minister give the anticipated overall cost to public funds due to the changes? That is not to cavil at the cost, but to identify it. Will he comment on a tentative idea that I had as I examined the figures? I suspect that there is a rising median age for claimants, though there may not be because of mesothelioma cases. It would be interesting to know if there is a change in the profile of claimants or their families.

Is it clear that the individual annual amounts for each year are appropriate? For example, is there a case for weighting the scale further to the later years of life, when compensation is quite small? We all know, in actuarial terms, that one is not expected to live as long when one is older as when one is younger. Nevertheless, the distress is real and the cost may be greater for living subjects. Will the Minister ponder on that, even if he does not want to give a definitive response now?

I pick up a point that I mentioned in relation to people I knew with such complex conditions. It would be helpful for the Minister to give details of the numbers of affected cases and the proportion of people who are ex-miners, from the asbestos industry or from other occupations.

Beyond those narrow points, it would be helpful if the Minister said more about two matters. First, the general point that will concern all members of the Committee is ensuring that modern working practices are as safe as they reasonably can be. A huge amount has rightly been changed—the Minister obliquely referred to Conservative legislation on asbestosis; this is not a matter that should ever divide political opinion—but one wants to feel sure that the situation is getting progressively better as the state of knowledge continually expands. We may find out about things that we did not know were a trouble. Conversely, we occasionally find that things that we were worried about are not as serious as we thought.

It would be useful to get the Minister's perspective on that, although I appreciate that this is a social security debate and he may not wish to cover the whole subject of how the Government collectively are tackling occupational safety in such areas, with particular regard to long-run chronic conditions.

Secondly, I may have been momentarily unsighted during the Minister's rather terse presentation, but I did not quite take in the relationship between this fallback scheme and what was done in earlier legislation to pick up miners' compensation claims. Possibly the effect has been to take them out of the order, unless they are very old cases, and deal with them under new measures. That has caused some worry.

When I have been to coalfields community meetings I have heard concerns expressed about delays in compensation assessment. When people are in difficulties it is important that their cases are dealt with equitably and timeously—they must not be delayed any longer than is necessary, especially bearing in mind the condition of those involved and the stress on their families. I hope that all that is now coming together; it would be with the good will of all members of the Committee if it is.

I would be grateful if the Minister explained the interaction between the new measures and what he described as the fallback scheme. Whatever we do, it must be right to assess the damage to individuals, which was not intended by other individuals, but brought about by previous state of knowledge and industrial practice, in order to compensate for it and then to adjust that compensation annually in a fair and decent way.

We shall give fair support to the regulations. I am grateful to the Minister for describing them and look forward to any further debate and his response to the points that I have made.

4.47 pm


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