Orders of the Day — National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) (No. 2) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th June 1953.

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Photo of Mr Joseph Slater Mr Joseph Slater , Sedgefield 12:00 am, 25th June 1953

The last two speeches from hon. Members on this side of the House have been from men who are specialists in their own fields, both connected with the Trades Union Congress. As one who has just come from the industrial field, I want to tell the House that I believe the workers in industry were grateful when the National Insurance Act came into operation in 1946. It was the culmination of the desires which had been expressed for a very long time by trade unionists in the country.

The State, through the efforts of the Labour Government, accepted the responsibility of furthering the efforts which had repeatedly been made, and the Government introduced this comprehensive Scheme, in which benefits for industrial injuries play a prominent part. It was thought that at last the people inside industry would be able to look forward to a true state of security, for the essence of the Act was to cover everybody and to provide them with benefits during periods of domestic crisis.

What has happened since that time? From the time of the implementation of the Act, even up to the present moment, world prices have been threatening to undermine the effectiveness of these benefits, and no one will deny that since the time the proposals became effective for the injured worker, the cost of living has increased out of all proportion. The result has been that even the proposals envisaged in the Bill—and my hon. Friends and I are grateful for the provisions in the Bill—will not ease the position to the extent to which we should like it to be eased.

What is the principal proposal in the Bill? It is to relax the conditions for the payment of disablement benefit. This action will remove a sense of grievance which many workers inside industry have had for a very long time because the assessment of their injuries was below 20 per cent. The Bill proposes that in future benefits shall be payable for any period during disablement which is assessed at 1 per cent. or more, whether it is likely to be permanent or not—and we cannot go much lower than 1 per cent.

When we had under consideration the main proposal for increasing benefits from 45s. to 55s. a week we were, in fact, requesting the Government to increase industrial injury benefits by no less than 50 per cent. We asked that that increase should be made in industrial injury benefits to meet the rise in the cost of living which had taken place from 1946 until that time. We got two-ninths on the basic benefits, with additions to the dependancy allowances. Our proposal of 67s. 6d. was turned down and we were granted 55s. instead.

This injury benefit of 55s., which is paid for a limited period during incapacity for work, may be followed by disablement benefit at a maximum rate of 55s. a week, but all this depends on the medical assessment of the severity of the disablement and not upon the loss of earnings. In addition, the special hardship allowance of 20s. a week, about which much has been said in connection with this issue, may be paid if the injured person is unfit to resume his regular work or equivalent work. I am given to understand that at present 8,000 people in this country are missing disablement benefit, and there are also supposed to be 2,000 who, under the existing Regulations, are as yet unable to get a special hardship allowance. I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary, for clarification, whether it is now proposed in the Bill that these people, whose claims have previously been rejected because the disablement was neither permanent nor substantial, will now be able to claim benefit under the new Regulations.

The last time I took part in a debate of this nature I presented to the House certain figures of the great part which has to be played by men and boys in my industry in producing the commodity upon which this country depends to the greatest extent at the moment—coal. The provisional figure of those who lost their lives in the mines of this country in 1952 is 420, which is a decrease of 67 when compared with the previous year. Even that figure is still too high, in cost in human life, for giving us the coal which our people in industry demand. I make this impassioned reference to this matter because of certain statements made in the country, against the people inside my industry, by hon. Members of the party opposite—statements denigrating the efforts of our people in the industry in giving of their best in this day-to-day battle with Mother Nature.

Approximately 775,000 claims for injury benefit in Great Britain were made in 1952. One-third of those killed were killed in industry; and about one-third of the one-third were killed in the mines of this country. Seven hundred men died of pneumoconiosis and a further 3,000 have been certified to have contracted this terrible disease. It will therefore be appreciated, I think, by hon. Members on both sides of the House that we have every cause for alarm when such revealing facts are represented to us by those with whom many of us worked before we came to the House.

I believe, therefore, that these figures ought to be sufficient evidence to prove that we as hon. Members must at all times ensure that those who are disabled through their calling, whatever the industry, and even the dependants of those who have lost their lives, can at least look forward to financial security. I do not think any of us can evade that responsibility, no matter with what employment we have been connected. It is also true that, no matter what Government are in power, they also lay claim to the efforts which can be made by those in industry, the return from whose efforts will substantially assist in improving the country's economy. If that be so, much responsibility rests on us to ensure that these people, from whom we expect so much, are not forgotten.

I wish to refer to injury by process, which should have special consideration and which is not mentioned in the Bill. Since the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act came into operation a number of cases have caused great concern in the mining industry because of the interpretation of the law by the Industrial Commissioner. Such interpretation would appear to be contrary to common logic and has prevented workmen, incapacitated because of their employment, from receiving benefit.

I support that contention by quoting two types of cases. In the one type there may be a single accident or a series of ascertainable accidents followed by an injury and incapacity. In the other there is a continuous process which is going on from day to day, though not necessarily from minute to minute or even from hour to hour. Over a period, that process produces incapacity. In the first type of case the incapacity is held to be an injury by accident, but in the second it is not. The present position cannot be changed without amending the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act, and there are arguments against that.

Surely there is no logical distinction between the case of a man incapacitated by a series of cuts, scratches or bruises and the case of a man who, because of his arduous occupation, is subjected to a series of strains which eventually result in complete incapacity. Is there any difference between fibrositis following two bad wettings and fibrositis following a period of working in wet conditions?

It is argued that if the grounds for benefit claims under the Act were widened there would be an increase in the number of contentious cases brought before tribunals. But could anything be more embarrassing than for the Commissioner to have to explain to a man, totally incapacitated by sciatica caused by the unhealthy conditions in which he has been working, that he may not receive benefit; but that if he had been slightly disabled by dermatitis through the same cause he could receive benefit?

Many men in the mining industry are incapacitated because of the bad conditions in which they have to work. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill) referred to some of her hon. Friends who had come from the coalface to this House. I am one of them. In 1950 I came straight from the coalface to become a Member of this honourable House. I know of men who have been incapacitated because of the bad conditions under which they have had to work for many years. Some have had to work in seams from 16 inches to 20 inches in height, with water coming on to them during the whole seven hours of their shift at the coalface. They have had either to lie down or to sit in the water in order to win the coal.

I know of men suffering from serious chest complaints who have had to kneel down to work all day. As one who has worked in the coal industry for over 30 years, I believe that the acute strain imposed on the chest muscles is one of the reasons for the chest complaints from which miners suffer, as well as the dust and other unhealthy conditions. Hon. Members who have had experience of working in the mines will know about this, and it should be our concern to see that miners need have no fear of being forgotten should they become incapacitated.