Orders of the Day — Pneumoconiosis (Workers' Compensation)

– in the House of Commons at 10:15 pm on 17th December 1979.

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Photo of Sir Patrick Mayhew Sir Patrick Mayhew , Royal Tunbridge Wells 10:15 pm, 17th December 1979

I beg to move, That the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) Regulations 1979, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5 December, be approved. The Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979, under which these regulations are to be made, was passed by the previous Parliament immediately before the dissolution in April this year, and came into force on 4 July. Regulations enabling claims to be made came into operation on the same day. The regulations that the House is asked to approve tonight set out how the amounts to be paid to those who satisfy the entitlement conditions under the Act will be determined, and by means of the tables, to be found at pages 7–11, the actual amounts payable in particular cases can be precisely calculated.

I had originally hoped that it would be possible for these regulations to be approved before the Summer Recess and, when it became clear that this could not be done, that they would be laid as soon as the House reassembled after the summer. Unfortunately, the preparation of the regulations has proved a very much more complex task than had been envisaged. This has been partly because of difficulties in deciding on the fairest way of reflecting, within the limitations imposed by the Act, the varying patterns of progression shown by the particular varieties of disease within its scope, and partly because of purely technical difficulties in linking these regulations with the relevant procedures of the Department of Health and Social Security in handling claims for disablement benefit and death benefit. I very much regret that this has inevitably delayed payments to those unfortunate and, for the most part, elderly people.

The regulations take as their starting point the provisions of that part of the National Coal Board's pneumoconiosis compensation scheme, introduced in October 1974, which covered sufferers, and dependants of deceased sufferers, who had been diagnosed as suffering from pneumoconiosis prior to that date. This was foreshadowed by the right hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker) when he introduced a Bill on 2 April. There are, however, a number of variations from the details of the NCB scheme, and I will draw attention to the most important of these.

Regulation 3, taken in conjunction with table 1, is the key regulation, which sets out how payments to living suffers from one of the diseases covered by the Act are to be determined. The amount of the payment is to be decided by reference to what is called the first determination that the sufferer was suffering from the disease—usually by a pneumoconiosis medical board. The amount the sufferer receives will depend on his age at the time of that first determination, and the extent of his disability assessed at that time. This differs slightly from the NCB scheme, which used the sufferer's age and assessed level of disability at the date from which disablement benefit first became payable—which was sometimes backdated to several years before the date of the first determination. The level of disability applicable from that earlier date may be lower. In some cases this variaation will be to the advantage of the applicant, in others to his disadvantage; but for the most part not by a great deal either way. The different basis has been adopted because of the ready availability of the necessary records.

Those familiar with the NCB scheme will know that under that scheme five-year bands were used, whereas we have adopted single-year age bands. Single-year age bands seemed rather fairer to us; five-year bands would have led to some people losing a great deal if their birthday fell just the wrong side of the dividing line. I see that I have the agreement on that of the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley), who has taken a great interest in this matter.

However, the major variation from the NCB scheme is in the actual amounts to be paid at corresponding points on the tables. The NCB scheme was introduced in October 1974. Because of inflation, money is now worth only about half what it was then. So it seemed right that an average payment under the Act should be about twice what it would have been using the NCB tables. The obvious way to achieve this would have been simply to double all the NCB figures.

However, there was a good reason for not just doing that. If the amounts of the payments to be made in particular cases are to be determined by reference to the age and level of disability of a sufferer when he was first discovered to have the disease, then obviously the amounts should take into account the likelihood of this disability becoming more severe as the sufferer gets older. This factor is most important in cases where, at the time of first diagnosis, the disease was not very severe—that is, where the assessment at that time was only 10 per cent. or 20 per cent.

It seemed clear both from the DHSS statistics and other information provided to us that the proportion of those first diagnosed as 10 per cent. disabled, and to a lesser extent 20 per cent. disabled, progressing to the more severe levels of disability, is considerably greater for the main groups who will benefit under the Act—slate, cotton and abestos workers—than it is for coal miners. The most satisfactory way of reflecting that seemed to be to reduce the differential between the amounts payable for those first diagnosed at any given age at the lower levels of disability, and the amounts payable for those diagnosed at the same age with higher disability levels.

We therefore took the amounts from the NCB tables, and increased those for sufferers first diagnosed as 10 per cent. disabled by 50 per cent., for sufferers first diagnosed as 20 per cent. disabled by 25 per cent, and for sufferers first diagnosed as 30 per cent. disabled by 10 per cent. We then increased all the figures in the resulting table by 60 per cent. Our estimate is that that will produce average payments approximately the same as if there had been a straight 100 per cent. increase of the figures in the NCB tables.

It was suggested to us that the right way to pay regard to the greater likelihood of progression to higher levels of disability might be to take account of the sufferer's most recent assessment in determining the amount to be paid. At first sight, that seems a very reasonable suggestion, and we looked into it carefully. There are a number of difficulties about it, but the major objection arises from the fact that the Act provides only for a single lump-sum payment. Many of those who receive the payment would have developed the disease may years ago, and it is now known whether it did or did not progress to the severe stage in their case. But there will be others who have only recently developed the disease, and once payments have been made in all the old cases all subsequent beneficiaries will fall into that category.

To take account of latest assessments in individual cases would be to the clear disadvantage of those in the second group with low initial assessments, because it cannot yet be known to what extent the disease may progress in their case. We concluded that it would be unreasonable to discriminate against them in that way.

I will now go rather more briefly through the remaining regulations. Regulation 4 covers payments to the great majority of dependants of deceased sufferers. It follows very closely the pattern under the NCB scheme. If the sufferer was receiving disablement benefit for the disease, the dependant receives an amount arrived at by taking the amount that would have been payable to the sufferer if he were still alive and then deducting from it an amount which would have been payable to him if his age when he was first diagnosed had been his age when he died. If the sufferer died as a result of the disease, an additional payment will be made, in accordance with table 2 of the schedule. These amounts have been increased over the NCB equivalents in the same way as in table 1.

A dependant who is entitled to a payment in a case where disablement benefit was not payable to the sufferer in life will receive only the latter payment. In determining whether the payment should be made, reliance will generally be placed on the decision reached by the doctors of the pneumoconiosis medical panel, although it will be possible for the Secretary of State to take other evidence into account if no such decision was reached, or if it cannot now be discovered what the decision was.

Regulation 5 deals with the special case of dependants of sufferers who died from diffuse mesothelioma. These rather complicated provisions are needed partly because that fatal disease almost always progresses within a year or two from first diagnosis to death, and partly because those who develop it may well also be sufferers from pneumoconiosis. In that case only, the amount of a payment to dependants of those who died as a result of the disease is determined solely by the sufferer's age of death, not by his level of disability when first diagnosed.

Regulation 6 contains special provisions covering those sufferers who were also suffering from tuberculosis when pneumoconiosis was first diagnosed. These are needed because, if and when the tuberculosis becomes inactive, the assessed level of disability may actually go down—the only circumstances in which that happens.

Regulation 7 covers the minority of cases where it will be impossible to confirm from any available official records the information necessary to work out the right payment in accordance with the tables. These should be confined to a small group of dependants, unlikely to number more than 100 altogether.

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has drawn special attention to the regulations on the ground that the provision in regulation 7 for the Secretary of State to pay whatever amount appears in any particular case to be just and equitable in the circumstances is an unexpected use of the powers in the Act. The effect of the provisos to the regulation will, however, be to determine the precise amount payable in substantially all the cases concerned.

We adopted the form of words which the Joint Committee has questioned because we are most anxious to avoid claimants being precluded from receiving a payment in accordance with the foregoing regulations merely because of some purely technical deficiency in the information available.

Regulation 8 sets a minimum amount of £725 to be paid to any dependant who is entitled to a payment. Table 1 sets the same minimum for sufferers, but without regulation 8 the dependant of a sufferer who died shortly after the disease had been diagnosed, but not as a result of the disease, would otherwise receive nothing, or only a derisorily small sum.

In conclusion, I should say that I wish that these regulations might be simpler, but we have tried to provide within the limitations of a single payment to each individual—which is imposed upon us by the Act—for a wide variety of possible situations. There is no single "right" pattern of payments that can be objectively identified. I believe, however, that in the circumstances these regulations are as fair as any that could have been devised, and I ask the House to give them its approval.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster 10:27 pm, 17th December 1979

I share the Minister's regret at the delay in bringing the regulations before the House, but, having seen their complexity, I can quite understand and I make no complaint.

I welcome the regulations, and, in particular, I welcome the Minister's assurance on the point raised by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments about regulation 7. I am sure that the House will accept that assurance, and I go so far as to urge it to do so. Beyond that, I wish to say nothing which might further delay the regulations, which, as I say, I warmly welcome.

Perhaps I should add—it might be churlish were I to do otherwise—that the regulations are at least as generous as we had intended, and perhaps, given the present Government's policies, more generous than one might have expected.

I pay tribute to the officials in the Minister's Department. I know how hard they have worked and the difficulties which they must have experienced in producing the regulations. I am glad to put that on record.

I come now to two questions to the Minister. Will he discuss with his Department's press and publicity section the possibility of giving wide publicity to the scheme now that it is launched? There is a widespread assumption that it is solely or mainly applicable to the slate quarry industry. That is incorrect, as the Minister said. It applies to workers engaged in the cotton and asbestos industries and to a number of other industries about which concern has been expressed in the House over the years. I think here of iron ore mining, pottery and other industries.

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman consider giving wide publicity to the scheme and—dare I suggest it?—think about urging the head of his information division to look at the possibility of using trade union journals?

My next point is not for the hon. and learned Gentleman or his Department but it is nevertheless closley related to the matter before us. I referred to this on the last occasion when his Department answered oral questions. There is widespread disquiet about some of the decisions of the pneumoconiosis medical board panels. Many people regard some of these decisions as extraordinary.

I have already mentioned in the House one case which highlighted the apparent contradictions between what a company does in accepting civil liability and not defending a case in the courts and what is done by the Department of Health and Social Security. Oddly enough, in such cases the Department's own pneumoconiosis panels will not share the view often taken by a particular company in the courts, perhaps after considerable expense.

I refer again to a case which had been reported in The Guardian. The widow of a maintenance fitter claimed that her husband died of mesothelioma arising from his work with asbestos. His employers, Babcock International, settled out of court for £10,000. One assumes that they paid that rather large sum—it may not have seemed a large sum to the poor widow—only after the most careful consideration of the chances of winning or losing in the courts. Despite that, the London pneumoconiosis medical panel refused to accept that the man had died from a dust-related disease or from one of the prescribed diseases.

That is not an isolated case. I remember being at Hebden Bridgewhere there was the infamous Acre Mill situation and talking to a former engineer at the mill who had been granted £16,000 compensation after a biopsy and yet the pneumoconiosis board refused to accept that the man had been suffering from asbestosis.

I mention two cases, but I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides of the House could add to them. I recognise that this is not for the Minister, nor for his Department, but I hope that he will pass on the disquiet expressed to the Secretary of State for Social Services.

I wish the regulations well and hope that the scheme will quickly become operative and that those who have waited for a long time to obtain justice will at last be able to receive it.

Photo of Mr John Golding Mr John Golding , Newcastle-under-Lyme 10:31 pm, 17th December 1979

May I say how grateful many of us were to my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker) for making certain that the scheme was introduced in the House. I represent both pottery and foundry workers, and my hon. Friend the Member for Whitehaven (Dr. Cunningham), who is here this evening, represents iron ore miners. This statutory instrument is important to all of them.

I want to make just one point. I am dissatisfied with the conditions laid down for payments to dependants of persons disabled by disease.

A few years ago I made representations to the late Brian O'Malley about the circumstances of widows of coal miners when pneumoconiosis compensation had been paid. The husband died, a post mortem would take place, and a certificate would be given that the man had died of emphysema or bronchitis. Then there would be distress because no allowance would be paid.

Brian O'Malley tackled that problem. I may be over-simplifying the position, but roughly, if payment has been made in life for pneumoconiosis, the indignity of a post mortem and the change of diagnosis to emphysema or bronchitis is avoided. That is important in the potteries and foundries as well as in the mining industry.

I ask the Government to reconsider their position on this point. I know that the statutory instrument states that it is not open to the Secretary of State to be satisfied with the cause of death if certain conditions are not met, but it will lead to a great deal of unhappiness in he families of workers.

It is a cause of great discontent among workers and their families that such different treatment is given to sufferers from pneumoconiosis and byssinosis compared with that given to those suffering from emphysema and bronchitis. The effects are often indistinguishable. I am sure that the regulations will go through tonight, but I am certain that they will lead to a great deal of unnecessary distress. I ask the Government to look carefully at their operation.

Photo of Mr Dafydd Wigley Mr Dafydd Wigley , Caernarvon 10:34 pm, 17th December 1979

These regulations are obviously of great importance to my constituency because of the presence of the slate quarrying industry in it. I give a belated welcome to slightly belated regulations. I understand the reasons for delay. I welcome the fact that they have been presented tonight.

My constituents had expected that possibly the payments would have been made before the end of November, and in some ways it is sad that they have not, with Christmas coming, but I hope that there will be no further delays with payments in January. I should be interested to hear from the Minister when people might expect to have the cheques in their hands. If the regulations were two months late in arriving, the Act was 20 years late. However, I welcome the progress that has been made.

I give the contents of the regulations a mixed welcome. It is to be welcomed that the payments exceed those in the National Coal Board-National Union of Mineworkers scheme. The increase is between 160 per cent. and 300 per cent. However, as the Minister said, inflation accounts for most of that. I welcome the greater weighting given to the lower percentages—those with 10 per cent. to 30 per cent. disability—in recognition of the progressive nature of the disease.

It is also to be welcomed that there are one-year bands rather than five-year bands. The five-year bands in the coal mining scheme produced some tremendous anomalies. The one-year bands smooth out the anomalies and are fairer to everybody. I welcome the fact that there is no artificial cut-off point in time. Such a provision produced difficulties in the coal mining scheme.

The Minister will understand that I much regret that it was not possible to accede to the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) and myself to give genuine recognition to the progressive nature of the disease and to go beyond the 10 per cent. loading.

The best that I can do is to give an example of a man who was first recognised, at the age of 50 years, as a sufferer with a 10 per cent. disability. Under the regulations he would have £4,470 compensation. By the age of 52 years he may progress to a 20 per cent disability. Had that been the age when he was first recognised as a sufferer, he would have received £7,100. By the age of 55 years he may progress to 30 per cent. If that had been the age of recognition, the compensation under the regulations would have been up to £8,280. If by 57 years he has progressed to 100 per cent., and if that had been the age of first recognition, the compensation would have been £12,800. That is an example of the anomalies that arise.

The Minister is aware of the schedule of about 50 cases that my hon. Friend and I passed to him in the summer. The schedule indicated the rapid progression of the disease that takes place. I shall draw three cases at random. Case A went from 10 per cent. in 1970 to 100 per cent. in 1978. Case B went from 20 per cent. in 1961 to 100 per cent. in 1965. Case C went from 20 per cent. in 1975 to 40 per cent. in 1977. As greater study is given to these matters, I ask the Government to consider whether it is possible to have a grid, a combination of age and disability, so that the sufferer may have the most favourable combination of both factors. For example, two men may both be suffering 50 per cent. disability and both may be aged 50 years. One may receive £13,760 under the regulations and the other £5,400. That is a clear anomaly. I hope that there is a way of overcoming it.

The scales would have been fairer if the first column had been under 10 per cent., and thereafter 10 per cent. to 19 per cent., 20 per cent. to 29 per cent. through the scales. That would have produced a fairer balance. However, that is a matter of detail.

The right hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker) and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) have already spoken about the identification of the disease. There are great misgivings whether the pneumoconiosis medical boards accurately assess the disease. For example, there is concern that emphysema and bronchitis may be caused by industry and that that will not be recognised by the boards.

There is especial concern whether the pneumoconiosis boards are willing to ascribe death to pneumoconiosis. There is widespread evidence of differences of opinion between coroners and local doctors, on the one hand, and pneumoconiosis medical boards, on the other. In the Eryri area the coroner, Mr. John Pritchard-Jones, told me of the considerable personal anxiety that is caused to him by the difference of medical opinion on the cause of death. He states that he prefers to accept the evidence of the pathologist since he has looked into the whole body in great detail and has presented a detailed report, but more than anything that he has also appeared in court to explain his decision. Mr. Pritchard-Jones states: The pneumoconiosis board, on the other hand, only look at a slide and section of the lung. Although they are clearly experienced in matters of pneumoconiosis the coroner is of the opinion that the pathologist on balance has a greater weight of evidence in his favour.

That is important. It affects these regulations as well as other matters. This matter came before the House recently in early-day motion No. 192, which was supported by over 100 Members.

[That this House calls for the immediate abolition of pneumoconiosis medical panels, many of which reject applicants despite evidence from general practitioners, consultants and pathologists; notes that the proportion of applicants rejected by these panels has risen from 32 per cent. in 1953 to 72 per cent. in 1978; and proposes that an affirmative diagnosis by a general practitioner and local consultant should be the only medical evidence required for a claim, and the onus of proof to the contrary on appeal should be placed on the Department of Health and Social Security; and in the case of death, the affirmative decision of a coroner and his pathologist should be accepted, with the onus of proof to the contrary on appeal placed on the Department of Health and Social Security.]

Regulations 4(4) and 4(5) appear to direct the Minister not to take note of the coroner's evidence. To some extent, that goes against the spirit, if not the letter, of section 5 of the Act, which provides for a degree of discretion. I hope that in such cases where difficulties arise there will be an opportunity for discretion. Clearly there is a widespread bone of contention that is worrying a number of hon. Members. I ask the Government to give serious thought to these matters.

We should also like confirmation of the status of these regulations and the fact that they do not place any limitation on the eligibility laid down in the Act. Clearly the Act is the basic document. The regulations should not inhibit or cut across the eligibilty provided by it.

I suggest that eligibility under the Act is specifically laid down under four headings: first, to specify the amounts of any payments; second to provide that the amounts may vary with the circumstances; third, to provide the manner in which the claims may be made; and, fourth, to lay down the period in which reconsideration of a determination may be made, together with "incidental, supplementary transitional" provisions to these ends. In other words, the regulations should not in any way limit eligibility. It is important that this message goes from the House today so that if the matter arises in the courts they may be clear on the interpretation. I hope that the Minister accepts that the Act—not the regulations—is definitive in the matter of interpretation. I see that I am carrying him with me in this matter.

Next, I raise the matter of those who have worked in more than one quarry or industry. A man may have worked for a period of only 12 months for a company that is still carrying on, but worked after that for 30 years in one that went defunct. Does the fact that one company is still in operation debar people from obtaining compensation under the regulations and the Act? I hope that there will be a degree of discretion and that the Minister will use the discretion that is available to him under the Act.

I next refer to people who were alive on 5 July, who made proper applications under the Act but who subsequently died. Sadly, there are numbers of such examples in my constituency. I should like an assurance that, if they made applications in full and properly before they died, the money that would have been paid to them would be paid to their estates. There is worry about the scale of compensation for people who suffered from tuberculosis, particularly when the person's death was not ascribed to pneumoconiosis. The widows of men who died in their forties will receive only the £725 safety net payment. That is a weakness in the scales laid down in the regulations. I hope that the cases of TB sufferers who did not die as a result of pneumoconiosis, but who may have been suffering substantially from it before death, will be reconsidered. I know of a man in my constituency who died in his forties. His widow is likely to receive only about £700 compensation.

If a man, who suffers from pneumoconiosis when alive, dies, and the question of cause of death is taken to the court, does that debar his widow from compensation under sections 2(1)(c)and 2(4), even though the question of his eligibility prior to death has not been taken to the court? I hope that the Act will not be administered in that way, even though the wording suggests that it will be.

I should like an assurance that the widows who got £300 as a lump sum on the death of their husbands under the old Act will not be debarred. I am sure that that will not be so, and that they will be treated in the same way as those who are now receiving the additional 55p on their weekly pensions. I should also like an assurance that the Government will make adequate financial provision to cover the implications of the Act.

I ask the Minister to use his discretion, wherever possible, as generously as he can, to limit any feeling of people being unfairly treated through no fault of their own. Money will not bring back those who have died and it will not give men their health back, but it can at least lessen the burden of groups of workers and widows who have suffered for far too long.

Photo of Mr James Lamond Mr James Lamond , Oldham East 10:45 pm, 17th December 1979

I join with those Members who have welcomed these regulations. They are one further step—perhaps not the final step, but an important step—in the long struggle, in my constituency in particular, in the interests of people suffering from byssinosis. I spoke to the trade unions in Oldham about this matter and they told me that they estimate that at least 4,000 people in the metropolitan borough of Oldham are suffering from byssinosis.

Therefore, it will be understood that this is an important measure for those people. They have been waiting since the Act was passed just before the general election, not impatiently, because they are not impatient people, but with some anxiety. I regret to say that their feeling was that the Tory Government might try to avoid the payment of lump sum compensation. However, I do not share that distrust. I assured my constituents that they would receive their payments in due course. The Labour Government made certain of that by passing the Act; it was one of the last things that they did.

I understand why there has been a long delay in producing the regulations. I congratulate the Minister on his explanation of them and appreciate the care that has gone into trying to compile fair regulations with a proper balance in the amounts of compensation that are to be paid. However, there are a few points I should like to comment on, some of which have already been mentioned.

The point at which the assessment is made is important. I share the feelings of the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) about this. People will look at the regulations and say "If only I had delayed my application for a year or two I would have been eligible for substantially more compensation". The Minister covered that point. He said that he felt that it would not be fair on new applicants and so as not to be unfair to them he produced a table which, in my opinion, is unfair on some who have suffered for a long time.

I wonder whether those new applicants would have felt that they had been unfairly dealt with if they knew that others who had suffered for a long time had received more compensation than them because of something that could have been easily explained to them. As these regulations are put into operation, I hope that matters of this kind will be borne in mind. Any anomalies that are thrown up by the application of the regulations will, I hope, be looked at by the Government and perhaps some amendments to them will be brought in, at which point we might discuss this matter again.

I mentioned earlier that the struggle for those suffering from byssinosis had been going on for many years. Tonight I had a chance meeting with Lord Hale, who was Leslie Hale, the Member of Parliament for Oldham, West for many years—from 1945 to 1968, I believe. He told me of occasions on which lie had raised the question of compensation for byssinosis sufferers. He had spoken on Adjournment debates on this matter.

I also raised the issue on an Adjournment debate at least four years ago, and we have had other debates in the House. Max Madden, who was formerly the Member for Sowerby, was particularly interested in those who worked in the asbestos industry, and he played a part in getting compensation for them. Another former colleague, Mike Noble, who represented Rossendale, was interested in compensation for byssinosis sufferers. Many former Members have played a part in trying to achieve these things, and now that the day has arrived I am sure that, although they are now outside the House, they will welcome it as warmly as we do.

One of the parts of the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 which gives rise to some concern in my constituency was touched upon by the hon. Member for Caernarvon. Section 2(b) provides that every relevant employer of his has ceased to carry on business; If this is strictly observed, it will cut down the number of workers who can claim compensation, particularly in the textile industry where it is common for people to work for a large number of small firms, then go to a larger firm. Although the smaller firms are no longer in existence, it is quite possible that the larger one is. Many people are anxious in case they are disallowed compensation because one of their firms is still in existence.

I understand that the reason for the section is that it is expected that workers could sue the existing firm for a lump sum of compensation. However, I have discovered that in the textile industry no successful case has ever been pursued against a firm. There have been a number of cases in which an out-of-court settlement has been obtained, but as no case has ever been brought successfully in the courts there is no precedent that can be used by other workers who wish to do the same thing. I hope that the Secretary of State, in interpreting these regulations, will act generously in this matter.

Finally, I turn to the question of publicity. This is important as there has been a lot of talk in Oldham already. Many people come to my "clinic" and ask about this matter. Only last Friday three people came to ask about the progress being made. However, a number of people are still unaware of the possibility of making claims. When the Department considers the publicity which should be given, I hope that Ministers, in addition to using trade union journals, will use newspapers such as the Oldham Chronicle, the daily newspaper in my constituency. Although it does not have a wide general circulation, it has a wide readership in the areas where the byssinosis sufferers live. Therefore, I hope that Ministers will give the widest publicity to this issue to ensure that those who should benefit from these welcome regulations do so.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South 10:53 pm, 17th December 1979

I join with my hon. Friends in welcoming these regulations, albeit a little belatedly. My particular concern relates to asbestosis in East London, where this malady gives rise to a good deal of anxiety and controversy. It causes mesothelioma of the chest—a cancer induced by asbestos dust. It is not always easy to determine to what extent the cancer was induced by this or other causes. It is associated particularly in port areas with workers who have been working on refrigeration plant and the boiler lagging of ships or, more recently, in cold stores. As this work is often carried out by contractors and firms that rise, fall and go out of business, and as some of the workers work on a semi-casual basis, there have been difficulties up to now in the implementation of the regulations. I am sure that these regulations will be of great assistance.

Of course, they will not always be of assistance to the families of those who have been so affected, because until fairly recently the risk from asbestos was not as widely known as it is now. Wives shaking out workmen's clothing even exposed themselves and children to the risk.

I join those of my colleagues who have drawn attention to the apparent inconsistencies in the findings of the medical panels in this respect. If it is possible, I should like to know whether the Minister is really satisfied with what has been going on. In the London area in particular, there has been a high proportion of so-called non-diagnosis of asbestosis. I hope that he will have a look at this and, if not now, then in the not too distant future will tell us whether he is satisfied with what is going on. If he is, I hope that he will have another look within about 12 months.

I hope that the Minister will tell us how he wishes to carry out publicity. I am quite sure that the Oldham Chronicle is an admirable newspaper, but its circulation is not very great in East London. Perhaps the Minister, whose constituency is nearer those parts, will tell us how he intends to ensure that everyone who is entitled to compensation will be able to know the exact machinery.

I think that the House is now well aware of the concern about asbestosis. Perhaps the Minister will say whether he agrees that the white, brown and blue varieties are risky. This very Chamber in which we speak has recently had some repairs, and those of us who came here in the Summer Recess will know that great efforts were made to ensure that we did not breathe the asbestos that would be removed from the roof. I tabled a parliamentary question about the working conditions of our Clerks, who were supposed to be at risk, as, indeed, they were. But the amount of asbestosis fibres which were discovered in the air was well within the existing limits specified in the regulations.

That must give rise to a question. If we take steps to ensure that changes are made, even when the fibres in the atmosphere are well within the health limits, it is the duty of this House not only to ensure that those who have succumbed and are eligible for these payments get them, but also that those who are still exposed to this risk are exposed to the minimal risk contemplated. If we in this House take steps to deal with this matter, we have a moral responsibility in every direction. In that regard, perhaps the Minister will comment on what has appeared in The Guardian today. He may not wish to, but if he can deny what is said there concerning the factory inspectorate, I am sure that that will be welcome.

In these days of inflation, I wonder whether the Minister can give any indication with regard to any conceivable up rating in the figures that appear in the appendices. It may be too early for him to do so, although it may not be too early for him to give an indication as to the basis on which any such revision might be made.

These are welcome regulations. I trust that at some later stage we shall have better regulations than those at present for those who are still exposed to these debilitating and destructive diseases.

Photo of Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas , Merioneth 10:59 pm, 17th December 1979

Those of us who have been involved with this issue, both inside and outside the House, are extremely pleased to see these regulations debated.

On the Second Reading of the Coal Industry Bill in 1974, we discussed the scheme then proposed by the Government for the National Coal Board, which arose from the tripartite agreement between the NCB, the National Union of Mineworkers and the Government. At that time, many of us modelled our scheme for other groups—slate quarry men, iron ore workers, asbestosis victims and others—on that NCB scheme. Those of us who took that line are glad that the Government have taken this course and are modelling the regulations on the NCB's scheme, whilst at the same time improving on it in order to benefit these specific groups.

We always experience difficulty in debating regulations because they are unamendable. Those who have been critical of the regulations have therefore prefaced their remarks by saying that they do not wish to do anything that will further delay the regulations. I shall similarly preface my remarks.

I deal first with the regulations concerning those disabled by the disease. In section 2(1)(b) of the Act reference is made to "every relevant employer" and to the entitlement qualification that every relevant employer has ceased to carry on business. The reference made by the hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Lamond) to the textile industry is appropriate to the slate quarrying industry, particularly as it is organised in areas such as Blaenau Ffestiniog and Merioneth where there are many small and some larger quarries involving a great mobility of labour—particularly craftsmen—between quarries. I have a number of cases on file of people who have worked for 18 months or two years in a quarry before moving on to another. They may work in as many as seven or eight different quarries.

The companies involved have a chequered and varied history—hanes brith iown. Some people have worked for most of their lives in companies that have gone out of business. However, some may have also worked for two years in a company which is still in existence. That company can still be litigated against or sued.

I appreciate that this area is not specifically covered by legislation, but I seek clarification from the Minister as to what "every relevant employer" means. Does it cover someone who has spent only two years working for an employer who is still in existence? That period may be relevant in terms of his employment in the slate quarry industry but hardly in terms of a period in which the disease could be contracted. The effect of working for those two years early in life would not be relevant when compared to a period of 30 years as the disease progressed under another employer. That is a crucial issue for many of the applicants.

I am concerned also at the Department's statement that of those who have applied—there is a list of 2,324 claims received as on 5 December—a significant proportion of the claims do not satisfy the entitlement conditions. Many of us are concerned that entitlement may be prevented in many cases.

There is a further danger that claimants may fall between the existing provisions of being able to sue existing employers and the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act. Indeed, I am concerned that some companies that are still in existence are trying to make this Act a scapegoat. I have a letter from Elwyn Jones and Company, the solicitors who act for most of the claimants in the Merioneth constituency who are members or former members of my union, the Transport and General Workers' Union. They talk of correspondence that they have had with the lawyers acting for J. W. Greaves Ltd. of Llechwedd slate quarry. It is a quarrying company which has had the added incentive in recent years of massive profits and, indeed, public expenditure for the tourism side of its investments. As the solicitors write, this very successful company is saying to solicitors acting on behalf of claimants going to them with a view to taking up legal action under legislation apart from this scheme: They say that they —the company— do not accept any liability in respect of your claim. They regard this as being a claim to be made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979. That kind of statement is intolerable. If existing companies are trying to make this Act the excuse for not accepting their liability and trying to fob off genuine claimants with letters of that kind, we are in a serious position. That is why the question of "relevant employer" is relevant to our debate on these regulations.

I come to the determination date. I suppose that this is the only major bone of contention between the Minister and ourselves on this issue. Although we have had a lot of argument about this, I still take the view that the determination date could have been worked in a different way, in a way that would have been more beneficial to the majority of the older claimants.

Here again, I take the point made by the hon. Member for Oldham, East. I am certain that if we had taken the best available date for each individual claimant—which was the system that we proposed in our discussions—there would have been a significant improvement for some individuals. I am thinking of two particular friends of mine in Blaenau Ffestiniog who are in this position. One of them is 59 years old, turning 60. He has now progressed to 70 per cent. If he had his payment on the existing assessment, he would be in a much better position than he will be when having it under his initial assessment, done, in his case, 10 years ago. It is the progression point that was put so forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley).

I understand the argument. It is one of equity between new claimants and old claimants. But I think that there is also such a concept as historic justice which one can introduce here, and to be fair to the older men who have suffered over a longer period is, in a sense, more important than to be seen to be fair to the new claimants. Of course, the older men will be in the majority. The majority of the claimants come into the category of the friend that I have just described. It is a minority who will be what are described as new claimants who have only recently been referred to the pneumoconiosis medical board for determination and the payment of industrial injury or disablement benefit from the Department of Health and Social Security.

I understand the difficulty that only one payment is made. But taking that point, should not the one payment be the most beneficial payment to the claimant? The average cost would probably work out at something similar. I am not tonight advocating an increase in public expenditure for one group. I see that the Secretary of State for Wales accepts that point. I do not think that it would affect the total cost of the scheme, but it would certainly affect the individual payment to many of the older people who will benefit from it.

I accept that the Department has attempted to give figures that reflect progression. There is the point that they are 60 per cent. higher than the comparable figures in the National Coal Board scheme. But this does not meet the serious problem of the older claimants in respect of this scheme. In the DHSS industrial injuries scheme, we have provision for unforeseen aggravation, for going back. Indeed, many of the pneumoconiosis claimants have used this unforeseen aggravation in order to meet the extensive progression that they have experienced in the disease. I only wish that there was some kind of unforeseen aggravation provision written into these regulations.

I shall not delay the House too long, as I know that the right hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Jones) wants to deal with the subject of water, but there are one or two further issues that I should like to raise.

The figures in these regulations—and I also pointed this out on Second Reading of the Bill on the coal industry—do not reflect the levels of out-of-court settlements made by companies. The legal argument is that a notional figure has to be set because these people are receiving compensation having only filled in an application form. They have not had to go through the courts. As in the case of the NCB scheme, however, these figures are 20 to 30 per cent. below settlements obtained out of court.

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts), is present, and I know that people in his constituency have benefited from out-of-court settlements with existing companies. I am sure that he will confirm that the level of those settlements is substantially higher than that obtaining under this scheme.

I come finally to the question of determination in the case of dependants. I wish to underline a point made about the role of pneumoconiosis medical panel in these determinations. In the regulations the panel is being given a greater statutory position than is normal in the determination of industrial injuries, and I object to that most strongly.

To take the analogy of determination of death benefit in the DHSS's industrial injuries scheme, that benefit is determined by the insurance officer and not by the medical panel. When coming to a decision, the insurance officer, as the statutory authority, is able to take account of all evidence. I quote from a decision of the national insurance commissioner: The question whether death results from pneumoconiosis is one to be decided by the statutory authorities. They have an unfettered discretion and are certainly not bound to follow the opinion of a pneumoconiosis medical panel". In these regulations the Secretary of State is being fettered to the pneumoconiosis medical panel, which is quite unacceptable.

In a distressing case in my constituency there was disagreement between the pneumoconiosis medical panel and the coroner after a pathological examination had been conducted. A Mr. Roberts had died from a heart attack and the coroner found that the presence of silicosis was a factor in death, but the pneumoconiosis medical panel disagreed. In a letter of 30 May 1978, the coroner, Mr. Pritchard-Jones, says: This case highlights what has become a rather embarrassing difference of opinion between Doctor Wayte"— who is the pathologist in Gwynedd"— and myself on the one part and the Pneumoconiosis Medical Panel on the other over the question of what constitues Pneucomoniosis being a 'factor' in death. The opinion that Dr. Wayte and myself hold is that if the presence of silicosis either reduces a man's life expectancy or reduces his chance of recovering from some other illness then it must be a factor in death. The Pneumoconiosis Medical Panel do not appear to hold this view as they have had several cases where there has been a difference of opinion but unfortunately the Pneumoconiosis Medical Panel never give reasons for their opinions nor do they give any interpretation of the word 'factor'. I do have the power to subpoena Members of the Pneumoconiosis Medical Panel to attend Inquests and to give reasons for their decisions and the result of their examination but I have not done this due to the fact that I do not consider it to be necessary for the purposes of the Inquest. I consider that my own Pathologists have in the past been as experienced as most Members of the Pneumoconiosis Medical Panel in dealing with Pneumoconiosis cases and are in fact in a better position than Members of the Panel to decide whether Pneumoconiosis was a factor or not…I consider that my own Pathologists are in a far better position to assess the effect of Pneumoconiosis than a Doctor who merely sees the lungs. This difference of opinion has undoubtedly caused hardship to families concerned due to the fact that a finding that Pneumoconiosis was a factor in death at an Inquest naturally makes the family assume that a Pension will automatically follow. This particularly distressing case is relevant to our discussion of the regulations.

It is essential that the independence of statutory authorities to decide claims should be preserved, whether by a DHSS scheme in the case of death benefit or by the decision of a coroner, who is an independent judicial officer who determines the cause of death. He is able to rely on evidence from different sources, in particular, from the pathologist's report. All these factors should be taken into account whenever there is a decision on the cause of death. Statutory authorities—certainly the Minister—should not be bound, as seems to be the case, by the regulations.

Here, at last, there is a measure of justice. We would have liked to see that justice being done far earlier, 20 or 30 years ago—indeed, before some hon. Members who now represent quarrying areas were born. We would like to see fairer and more thorough justice done, particularly for the older group of claimants. We are concerned that outstanding cases may not be covered by the regulations, and we are concerned about some cases where the determination may be unfair to the claimants.

Photo of Mr Robert Cant Mr Robert Cant , Stoke-on-Trent Central 11:16 pm, 17th December 1979

I wish briefly to follow the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) in referring to regulations 4 and 5. Undoubtedly some misgiving is felt about the implication in respect of the freedom of manoeuvre of the Secretary of State.

There is no doubt that these cases cause a great deal of heartache among many widows of pottery workers. I spoke today on the telephone to a widow who nursed her husband for many years. He was alleged to be suffering from emphysema and bronchitis. When he died, the coroner received a report from the pathologist which clearly stated that death was due to pneumoconiosis. Only today—some months later—the senior medical officer of the pneumoconiosis and silicosis medical panel telephoned her to say that that was wrong and that the death certificate should have recorded that he had died from cancer.

I do not wish to get involved in disputes between medical authorities. The coroner in my constituency is undoubtedly a charismatic figure. He has made a massive contribution to alleviating the suffering of the workers in the pottery industry. The pathologist is a dedicated and competent professional who has carried out post mortems for many years. I am equally satisfied that those who work in the narrow field of pneumoconiosis on the medical panel are just as professional. I am not concerned about differences of opinion between experts bringing medicine into disrepute. I am concerned about the massive emotional impact inflicted on the bereaved who receive from the pathologist and the coroner a death cerificate stating that pneumoconiosis was the cause of death, only to be told some months later that, in effect, death was due not to that disease at all but to something else.

I hope that the regulations do not tie the hands of the Secretary of State tighter than they are tied at present. Something should be done to resolve the difficult problems that arise in these cases and I should like the Secretary of State to be given more freedom of action as an arbiter, and certainly more than is implied in the regulations.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford 11:20 pm, 17th December 1979

I join other hon. Members in welcoming the regulations and congratulating the Minister on his presentation.

I am concerned about regulations 4 and 5. The findings of the pneumoconiosis panels have often brought the authority of the coroner's court into disrepute. I always understood that the reason for the existence of the coroner's court is that it determines the cause of death.

When a person has been certified as suffering from pneumoconiosis and has been given a pension, one can imagine the distress caused to dependants when, after a coroner's court has found, on the advice of a pathologist, that pneumoconiosis was the cause of death, a third party decides that the death was not caused by the disease.

I stress the sense of injustice felt by those who are satisfied by a coroner's decision that their loved ones have died of pneumoconiosis and the panel debars them from their rightful entitlement. I hope that something can be done to eliminate that problem.

Photo of Mr Alec Jones Mr Alec Jones , Rhondda 11:22 pm, 17th December 1979

I welcome the regulations, which is not unexpected since the Act that gave birth to them was passed by the previous Government. I welcome them particularly because they not only contain provisions for the slate quarry men in Wales, who have suffered for a long time, but offer a degree of justice and fair play to a whole range of people from many other parts of the United Kingdom, from those working in the cotton industry to sufferers of asbestosis to those in the iron ore industry.

I pay tribute to Max Madden, my former hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby. I served as a Minister in the DHSS and I know the efforts that he made on behalf of those who suffer from asbestosis. The regulations are dependent on the Act, and I also wish to pay tribute and express my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker), who made several visits to North Wales, met many people from Blaenau Ffestiniog and other areas and was convinced by the justice of their demands, expressed eloquently and with the right degree of modesty, that something should be done.

I am grateful that the regulations have been introduced to put flesh on to the Act. The regulations and the Act indicate that there are still many major gaps in our provision for industrial injuries, but they have at least helped to close that gap.

I am pleased, as a representative of a South Wales constituency with mainly mining problems, that the payments are generally at least equal to those in the National Coal Board scheme.

Since my hon. Friends are no doubt anxious to hear the Minister's reply, I shall conclude my remarks. I welcome the regulations as I welcomed the Act. They represent a real step forward. They provide a measure of justice to people who have suffered for a long time. Most of those who have spoken in the debate welcome them in spite of our misgivings on one or two narrow points. I hope that the payments under the Act will be made as soon as possible.

Photo of Sir Patrick Mayhew Sir Patrick Mayhew , Royal Tunbridge Wells 11:26 pm, 17th December 1979

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply briefly to some of the points that have been made.

I begin by thanking the right hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker) for his welcome of the Bill and for the congratulations that he offered to the officials in my Department who have worked with great industry and great skill at compiling regulations that are fraught with complexities. The issues have been very difficult and his words will be most gratefully received, I know.

The right hon. Gentleman made no complaint of the time that has been taken to produce the regulations. I am grateful that he expressed his understanding of that.

He and other hon. Gentlemen have asked that further publicity should be given to the availability of this compensation. That is an important matter because of the period of 12 months from the coming into force of the Act during which these claims must be made. We are conscious of that. The latest figure available to me for claims that have been made is 2,434. I am told that the claims have now dwindled to a trickle, or even less. It is thought that the existence of the regulations and the availability of the compensation is widely known in the areas where potential claimants live. This matter will be kept under review. We do not have plans for specific renewal of publicity, but we shall see how matters develop. At the moment rather more claimants have surfaced than were expected. I think that about 1,500 were anticipated, but we shall keep this question in mind.

Photo of Mr James Lamond Mr James Lamond , Oldham East

Has the hon. and learned Gentleman any figures to indicate how many of the applicants so far suffer from byssinosis?

Photo of Sir Patrick Mayhew Sir Patrick Mayhew , Royal Tunbridge Wells

In round figures, the number is 1,200 in respect of byssinosis. The round figure for slate is 600, for pottery 200 and for asbestos about 50, of which 10 are diffuse mesothelioma. The total number of claimants who have so far been told that they are ineligible is 194.

Much has been said by way of dissatisfaction and anxiety about the pneumoconiosis medical panels. As the right hon. Member for Doncaster fairly and accurately acknowledged, they are not the responsibility of the Department of Employment. What has been said, however, will certainly be noted by those who are responsible for those panels. I say in fairness that we do not have any evidence to suggest that there is any lack of diligence or skill on the part of the panels in carrying out their responsibilities.

The statute requires as one of the conditions of entitlement that disablement benefit should be payable to a living sufferer in respect of the disease. That disablement benefit can be obtained only upon the finding of the pneumoconiosis medical board. One of the reasons why the board is employed throughout the jurisdiction is that considerable difficulties could arise were one decision to be taken on behalf of the Secretary of State for Social Services and another subsequently on behalf of the Secretary of State for Employment. It is obviously desirable to avoid difficulty of that kind.

Photo of Mr John Golding Mr John Golding , Newcastle-under-Lyme

Will the Minister direct his attention to what happened in a comparable situation in coal mining? The solution there, I understand, when a pension had been paid during the life, was that the coroner, on the advice of the pathologist, certified that the death had occurred as a result of the disease and that there be no further inquiries—in effect, that the case be not referred to the pneumoconiosis panel. We are arguing not about the niceties or technicalities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Cant) said, but about a great deal of distress in families after the death of the individual and what seems to be a decision of the panel that the coroner or pathologist was wrong, and perhaps the pension itself was wrong.

Photo of Sir Patrick Mayhew Sir Patrick Mayhew , Royal Tunbridge Wells

I understand that point. The difference between the NCB scheme and this scheme is that the NCB scheme was wholly voluntary, whereas this one depends for its validity on statutory provisions. But I understand the point and will take note of it.

Photo of Mr Dafydd Wigley Mr Dafydd Wigley , Caernarvon

May I press the Minister regarding regulation 4, paragraphs (4) and (5), where it is said that certain matters shall not be open to the Secretary of State and on which the pneumoconiosis panels have taken a certain line? Will the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that section 5 of the Act gives him power to reconsider the determination where there has been a material change in circumstances, and that that section would overrule regulation 4, paragraph (4) or (5), as appropriate?

Photo of Sir Patrick Mayhew Sir Patrick Mayhew , Royal Tunbridge Wells

The discretion given by section 5 of the Act relates to new circumstances, and I am advised that a new circumstance would not be represented by, for example, a finding of a coroner which was in conflict with the finding of the pneumoconiosis medical board. It would have to be a new fact of a different character. The discretion vested in the Secretary of State depends upon the Act itself. In broad terms, I understand, it is limited to this. Where the basic foundation for an entitlement is established by evidence but there are marginal matters which are incapable of being ascertained, the Secretary of State has a discretion not, as it were, to shut a claimant out from an award. But the Secretary of State is not, so to speak, permitted to take into his own hands the question whether someone shall be deemed to be entitled or not. I have no doubt that that is a wise provision in the Act.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) asked also about publicity, and I have dealt with that. I believe that the fact that this compensation is available is adequately known, but we shall keep that in mind.

The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) asked a good many questions. I shall attempt to deal with them, but I hope that he will forgive me if I do not deal with them all. I have given my reply on the question of discretion. The hon. Gentleman next asked whether it was the case that the regulations could make provision only for matters which were, as it were, within the vires of the Act. I agree with that, of course.

The hon. Gentleman then raised the question of someone who worked for more than one quarry—or, in many cases, for a large number of quarries—and whether a claim was defeated solely by reason of the fact that there remained in existence one company for which a man had worked at a time during which the disease had been developing. The answer to that is "Yes", and that is something that we owe to the wording of the statute, which was not our statute. The statute makes it perfectly clear that if there is one employer still in existence in that category, that precludes a claim. That is to be found in section 2 of the Act"— every relevant employer of his has ceased to carry on business". "Relevant employer" is defined in subsection (3) as any person by whom he was employed at any time during the period during which he was developing the disease and against whom he might have or might have had a claim for damages in respect of the disablement. I am afraid that in formulating these regulations we have not been able to go behind the wording of the statute, for the very reasons concerning vires that the hon. Member was raising in another context.

The hon. Member for Caernarvon then asked whether a claim will survive for the beneficiaries of an estate in the case of someone who, though entitled, had not made his application in time, before he died. The answer, as I understand it, is that the claim will survive to his beneficiaries and in the amount which would have been appropriate to him had he survived to make the claim.

The hon. Member also asked about tuberculosis sufferers. It was a rather technical point about those who suffered from tuberculosis and who died, not as a result of pneumoconiosis, but who had suffered from pneumoconiosis for a considerable time before they died. I think that he has a particular case in mind, arising from a constituency matter, about which I have written to him, although I do not believe that he will have yet received the letter. I hope that my letter will deal with the case he has in mind. I am sure that he will let me know if it does not.

The hon. Member also asked about widows who receive £300 under the old cases scheme—would they be shut out from the Act or would they be within its scope? I can tell him that they will be covered by the scheme. He also asked whether the Government would make funds available for the scheme. That is the easiest of questions to answer. The answer is "Yes, the Government will make the funds available." The estimated cost under this scheme is just under £11 million, which compares with the £4·7 million estimated as being the cost by the previous Government. In these days of financial stringency, as the right hon. Member for Doncaster was kind enough to acknowledge, that is a remarkable indication of the importance which this Government as well attach to meeting the claims for compensation of this unfortunate class of person.

The hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Lamond) has important constituency interests in byssinosis. He asked whether every employer must be out of business. That is a point I have already dealt with. This, unfortunately, is the case under the provisions of section 2 of the Act. The hon. Member raised a point about publicity, with which I have already dealt.

The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) raised a question about the pneumoconiosis medical board and I do not wish to add to what I have said about that. He also raised a case, which was new to me, of a company attempting to use the Act to, as he put it, "fob off claims" made, I suppose under common law or statute, for compensation. There is nothing in the regulations or the Act which entitles any company or provides a defence to any company that is potentially liable in negligence or for breach of statutory duty to escape its liabilities towards any claimant in respect of these diseases.

As to the determination date, the hon Member for Newham, South reverted to the point made by the hon. Member for Caernarvon as to why we have chosen the date of first assessment. I understand the point. What is, in short, really being said is "Why cannot we have a scheme in which someone may choose whichever is the most beneficial to him of two bases?" One would be the date of first assessment and the other the date of last assessment. I tried to deal with that in outline when introducing the regulations. We believe it to be important that we should try to achieve justice as between claimant and claimant. There will be some claimants who have had a recent assessment; there will be others who, perhaps, contracted the disease and were diagnosed a long time ago and have not had a recent assessment. That would be one distinction which would cause grievance.

Another is this. On the evidence of 50 case histories, not of claimants under the Act, average payments to living sufferers in slate cases would be increased by about 30 per cent. or £1,000 only if later assessments were to be used when they produced a higher amount, even using the tables now proposed. But the differential increase for the lower percentage assessments was introduced because latest assessments would not be taken into account.

The comparison between payments as now proposed and those if latest assessments were taken into account but with a straight 100 per cent. increase on all National Coal Board figures would show a much smaller difference. A small minority of applicants would receive far more, but a larger number would receive somewhat less. I understand the points that are made, but it is extraordinarily difficult to arrive at a system for entitling compensation which meets every case in a way which is patently just and correct.

The hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) has constituency interests. He asked about the case of more than one employer—I have dealt with that—and about what "relevant employer" means, and I have dealt with that. He also raised an important new point—that the figures under the tables do not represent anything like what can be awarded by the courts. As he knows, the damages which are awarded by the courts are awarded upon a finding of full liability. They take into account not only pain and suffering but loss of earning capacity and loss of future earnings.

It is, of course, a major advantage of this scheme that in order to qualify one does not have to show that there was breach of statutory duty, and one does not have to show that there is a breach of common law duty. Inevitably, therefore, the awards which are made under this scheme will, rightly, be substantially less to take account of that distinction.

I hope I shall not be thought discourteous if I do not reply to any of the remaining points raised by the hon. Gentleman, save to thank him for the welcome he has given to the regulations, and also to thank the right hon. Member for Doncaster for his kind remarks and congratulations on the presentation of this measure.

Photo of Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas , Merioneth

I refer to the question of determination of cause of death. The hon. and learned Gentleman made the point, which I accept, that this is a statutory scheme and the NCB scheme was a voluntary scheme and therefore did not require determination of cause of death or establishment of claim on a statutory basis, but I mentioned the analogy of the statutory basis of the insurance officer who was an independent figure within the DHSS system in determining whether death benefit was to be paid. He was independent of the pneumoconiosis panel, of the pathologist and of the coroner. Does the Minister not accept the analogy and hold in this case that the Minister, or the Department determining on his behalf, should have this degree of independence and not be tied to the findings of the doctors on the pneumoconiosis medical panel, as appears to be the case in regulation 4(5)?

Photo of Sir Patrick Mayhew Sir Patrick Mayhew , Royal Tunbridge Wells

The difficulty is that where there is a statutory tying-in to a disability benefit, which has to be awarded only on the finding of a pneumoconiosis panel, it is very difficult to switch to the findings of some other officer for the purpose of determining the cause of death.

I recognise what was said by the hon. Member for Caernarvon, as must everybody, that no sums of money will compensate for the pain and suffering, still less for the death of someone, as a result of these dreadful diseases. All we can try to do is our best within the limitations of financial stringency which are imposed upon us. These regulations go some way, at any rate, to rectifying a major lacuna in our law, and I am grateful to those who have given care to them tonight. If I have omitted to deal with any points, I shall write to the hon. Members concerned. I am grateful for the reception given to the regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers Compensation) (Payment of Claims) Regulations 1979, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5 December, be approved.