Pneumoconiosis

– in the House of Commons at 5:25 pm on 25th May 1995.

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Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone 5:25 pm, 25th May 1995

I beg to move, That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 1995, which were laid before this House on 1st May, be approved. The regulations will be made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979. The purpose of the regulations is to increase by 2.2 per cent. the amounts of compensation paid under the Act to those who first satisfy all the conditions of entitlement on or after 1 July 1995.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd , Meirionnydd Nant Conwy

Bearing in mind the fact that inflation is running at 3.3 per cent and that there was no review last year, does the Minister consider that that is an appropriate payment?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

I consider it a very appropriate payment because, during the lifetime of the Act from 1980, the cumulative increase in the level of payments had reached 138.3 per cent., but the cumulative interest in the retail prices index during that time has reached 134.7 per cent. Therefore, there has been a real-terms increase. It is precisely because it was running so far ahead that there was no increase last year.

I briefly remind the House of the purpose of the Act. People suffering from industrial diseases have the right to sue the employer concerned for damages, but certain dust-related diseases take a long time to develop, and may not be diagnosed until 20 to 40 years or more after exposure. Because of that, sufferers and their dependants can experience considerable difficulty in obtaining compensation. By the time the disease is diagnosed, the employer responsible may no longer exist.

The 1979 Act set up a scheme to provide a measure of compensation to those who cannot claim it in the usual way through the courts. It provides lump sum payments to sufferers from certain dust-related diseases, or, when the sufferers have died, to their dependants. But it has never been the intention of the Act to provide an alternative to taking civil action in the courts.

Three basic conditions of entitlement must be satisfied before a payment can be made: that there is no relevant employer who can be sued; that no court action has been brought nor compensation received in respect of the disease; and that industrial injuries disablement benefit has been awarded.

My Department does all it can to administer the Act in a sympathetic way. It is necessary to ensure that payment conditions are met, but it is also recognised that each case is an individual disaster, and the Department is therefore as generous as the legislation allows.

Since the Act came into force in 1980, more than 7,800 applicants have made a claim, and 75 per cent. of those have received payment. The total cost to date has been some £39 million. Payments under the Act are additional to any industrial injuries disablement benefit awarded.

The Government have given an undertaking to Parliament to review the amounts payable regularly in order to maintain their value, and the regulations aim to fulfil that commitment.

I feel sure that the House would agree that the circumstances leading to payments are very much to be regretted. They reflect the conditions under which some people worked many years ago. Action taken by the Government to control the use of asbestos and other hazardous substances should prevent such suffering for present and future generations of workers. Nevertheless, I very much welcome the opportunity provided by the regulations to maintain the value of the compensation.

All of us will recognise that no amount of money will ever compensate individuals and families for their loss, but at least the regulations allow us to give some practical and some material help. I therefore commend the uprating of the payment scales to the House, and ask its approval to implement them.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

I should like to make a brief point before I call the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney).

I think that I have shown that my patience on some occasions knows no bounds. The draft regulations before us, as the House will appreciate, further amend the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) Regulations 1988 by increasing the amount of payments to persons disabled by a disease, to which the parent Act applies, by 2.2 per cent., rounded up or down to the nearest £1 as appropriate. The debate must address that particular item.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney , Makerfield 5:30 pm, 25th May 1995

I am sure that your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, was a general piece of advice, and not aimed in particular at my speech.

My hon. Friends and I want to relate the motion to a series of interrelated issues with a common approach and purpose, which underlines the need to recognise the terrible tragedies at work and to bring in a far wider regime of compensation and prevention. During my short speech, I shall deal with those issues and how they relate to the regulations.

For the Minister to give an impression that the proposed payments are anything other than paltry is a disgrace—indeed, it is disingenuous. The Government do not intend an annual uprating of this benefit. If the benefit were uprated in line with inflation, the Government would have proposed an uprating of around 5.75 per cent. They are, of course, offering an uprating of 2.2 per cent. In real terms, that represents not an increase but a decrease over the past few years. The Minister has no justification for such a mean-fisted approach.

My hon. Friends and I will also refer to the Government's hostility in a range of areas toward injured workers—

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney , Makerfield

I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a moment. I enjoy having a discussion with her. I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions which—perhaps—she can answer when she intervenes.

The coal industry scheme is not directly affected by the amendment; however, there are a number of issues with which the Minister could assist in the context of the draft regulations.

When was the last uprating of the coal miners' pneumoconiosis scheme? When will the Government bring forward regulations to uprate it, even if it is in line with the uprating of the regulations before us? The coal industry pneumoconiosis regulations allow for the opportunity for reassessment, ensuring that, if there is a deterioration as a direct result of the prescribed illness, levels of compensation may be adjusted accordingly. As I understand the regulations, however, no such facility exists for non-coal mining employees.

Under the amended pneumoconiosis regulations before the House, a 50-year-old who is assessed as 10 per cent. disabled is entitled to £10,888 as a full and final settlement. If the pneumoconiosis is diagnosed three years on, however, by which time the sufferer may be 50 per cent. disabled—that is a reasonable assumption, given the cohort of cases about which we already know—his disability will entitle him to £30,006. That is a hypothetical example, but such cases occur all the time.

Entitlement for a disabled person and his or her dependants could vary by as much as £19,118 or even more, simply because of the timing of the diagnosis. That is ridiculous and inequitable. Will the Minister bring forward proposals to allow for reassessment when we next discuss the regulations?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

I am intervening on the hon. Gentleman on the point that he was making when I tried initially to intervene. He said—I heard him quite distinctly—that we have not maintained the value of the compensation over the past three years. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, in April 1991, the increase in the compensation was 9 per cent. against a retail prices index of 8.2 per cent., that the following year it was increased by 5 per cent. against an RPI of 4 per cent., and that the following year it rose by 2.5 per cent. in comparison to an RPI of 1.7 percent.?

That is why there was no increase last year. This increase therefore maintains the value of the compensation against inflation. Over the three years that he quoted, we have increased compensation above the rate of inflation.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney , Makerfield

The hon. Lady is being disingenuous, and I shall explain why. Dust-related diseases, by their very nature, do not always become apparent straight away. Many cases, therefore, under the regulations, are new cases or potential new cases. For the people affected, the regulations do not represent an uprating, which is why I presented the proposed uprating in the context of the past three years. Many people whose illnesses relate to 1979 or 1980 have since died. We are trying to calculate a benefit not for the deceased, but for the living. In that respect, the hon. Lady is wrong and we are right.

The overwhelming bulk of benefit recipients under the pneumoconiosis regulations are former asbestos workers. Deaths from asbestos-related cancers are expected to triple over the next 30 years. Despite the strict controls that govern the use of asbestos today, disease rates will continue to rise because of the long incubation period for such cancers.

Asbestos-related diseases already kill more than 3,000 people a year in the United Kingdom. In Clydeside, Merseyside, Tyneside, Wales, the midlands and every region of the country, there is a time bomb of dust-related diseases. The cancers are the most deadly known. There is no possibility of survival in the medium or long term. Asbestosis causes the most appalling deaths. Dust-related diseases are painful and debilitating.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), who, with hon. Members of all Opposition parties, has conducted a campaign on behalf of the sufferers of asbestosis and those who care for them. That campaign has been not only about the recognition of the disease and the necessity to uprate benefits, but about the consequences of the Government's notorious compensation recovery unit.

How can the Minister say dispassionately that the Government are concerned to ensure that the sufferers of asbestos are compensated throughout their lives? This year alone, the Government are taking almost £1 million away from sufferers of asbestosis through the compensation recovery unit. They are the same Government who, in a matter of minutes, are able to give R. J. Budge a £1 million sweetener to take over the British coal industry.

It beggars belief that, having recognised the nature of the disease and the need to provide compensation, the Government claw back through the compensation recovery unit compensation provided by employers. As I said, £1 million has been clawed back this year, and more will follow. Even at the point of death, when settlements are made, the Government attempt to claw back money from the mourning dependants. It is a scandal, and the Government are attacking those who have been injured at work. It is about time that they gave a commitment to end the notorious activities of the compensation recovery unit. In one instance, £84,000 was recovered from a sufferer by the compensation recovery unit, but the Government still say that they are concerned about the economic well-being of asbestosis sufferers.

The same double standards apply to the Government's approach to prevention. The Minister said that the Government were interested in work to prevent others from suffering such terrible diseases, but, under this Government, the number of visits of inspection of relevant companies and activities has dropped. The number of inspections of asbestos removal companies has declined from 2,709 in 1985 to just 805 in 1994. In other words, the number of visits has dropped by two thirds in only a decade, despite the evidence of an increase in asbestosis caused by industrial injury, and years of neglect by Government and industry.

A number of my colleagues want to speak, so I shall move on to an issue that is causing grave concern to mining communities across the country—how the Government effectively operate the regulations. On the one hand, the Government give the impression that the regulations benefit sufferers of pneumoconiosis, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, but, on the other, the application of the regulations means that a substantial number of sufferers of industrial disease have no access to any benefits.

In my constituency, 90 per cent. of miners with chronic bronchitis and emphysema have been denied access to any benefits. It is a matter of urgency that the Government consider why the application of the regulations should lead to such a lack of access to benefits for the most vulnerable disabled people.

If the Government are serious about their responsibilities to tens of thousands of people who, because of their environmental and working conditions, suffer a life of disability, they will take steps to alter the operation of the recovery unit and amend the emphysema and chronic bronchitis regulations. They will also take steps to ensure that pneumoconiosis benefit is genuinely uprated, not as the Minister suggests.

I now give the views of three of my constituents who suffer daily because of Government's callous pneumoconiosis regulations. One states: I had to take early retirement because of this disease. I spent the majority of my life mining coal underground, and destroyed my health as a result, but the personal cost of my contribution is being denied. Another told me: I've never smoked and don't drink, and just can't comprehend how the agency can distance my illness from my occupation—I feel sickened by the falseness of the Government's 'concern'. A third said: I am severely disabled through my employment, diagnosed long ago as a sufferer of chronic bronchitis. I'm angry that the Government gave the introduction of this benefit such high profile to show the recognition of miners sacrifice, knowing that so few of us would actually qualify for the benefit because of the severity of the criteria. It's all been a sham. The regulations fail to meet the challenges created by occupational chronic ill-health. The meagre 2.2 per cent. award pales into oblivion when compared with the sums handed by the Tories under privatisation to their friends and supporters in the City. The Minister should be more generous to sufferers of chronic bronchitis, asbestosis and related diseases. If the Government were as generous to them as they are to their friends in the City, we should not have to complain today.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley , Barnsley Central 5:43 pm, 25th May 1995

I shall not detain the House long, but I wish to echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) said about staged payments, which do not appear to be part of the scheme. They are included in the coal miners' pneumoconiosis scheme, under which, if a sufferer is reassessed and deemed to have a higher percentage of industrial disability, he is awarded a further payment to compensate for the increase in his disablement.

I am currently dealing with the case of a constituent—a coal miner—who suffered for a number of years, although he was never diagnosed as suffering from pneumoconiosis. Whenever he applied and was X-rayed, he joined the high failure—or refusal—rate referred to by my hon. Friend. When my constituent died, the post mortem revealed that he was suffering from pneumoconiosis. As the Minister knows, pneumoconiosis can be diagnosed definitely only on death, when a biopsy can show the condition of the lung section.

The post mortem found that the chap had been suffering from pneumoconiosis since 1982, but under the terms of the scheme applicable to him—which I understand are to be replicated in this scheme—he qualified only for the rate of compensation applicable at the level of disablement that he suffered in 1982 and for the increased payments from that time as his percentage of disablement increased, based on an estimate made by the pneumoconiosis medical panel.

Although that man had suffered desperately for the final 13 years of his life, he received no compensation. On his death, an artificially low payment was made. It was artificially low because it was based on the initial assessment of a 10 per cent. disability as at 1982 and, sadly, the increased payments are only £200. I believe that, under the coal miners pneumoconiosis scheme, those payments should be increased and included in the scheme to which I have referred. There is a case to be made for the increases in assessments to be reflected in increased compensation.

I referred to the difficulty of diagnosis. In the cases of chronic bronchitis and emphysema, the failure rate is 90 per cent. The rate in respect of pneumoconiosis is also high, but not 90 per cent. The two rates are linked because one of the requirements for claiming compensation for chronic bronchitis is that a coal miner has to have evidence of pneumoconiosis in his X-ray. The X-ray evidence has caused difficulties for years.

We are now reaching the stage at which the Government must consider the X-ray qualification, and either instruct the adjudicating bodies to have soft exposure X-rays, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) will probably mention, undertaken in all cases of assessment for pneumoconiosis, or relax the qualification rules so that the judgment of the medical practitioner is accepted in place of the arbitrary X-ray and the forced expiratory velocity test of one litre.

We should have a system whereby diagnosis is based on medical opinion, which would probably have avoided some of the suffering inflicted on my constituent, who suffered from pneumoconiosis for 13 years but received no compensation, and whose widow will receive only a very small sum.

The failure rate in diagnosing pneumoconiosis, chronic bronchitis and emphysema makes a mockery of the suggestion that the scheme, the 2.2 per cent. increase now, or the 138 per cent. increase over the past few years are or have been generous. Any percentage increase does not matter very much if people cannot qualify for compensation in the first place.

I sat on the Committee that dealt with the legislation to introduce the compensation recovery unit and increased recovery from 50 per cent. to 100 per cent. of any benefit. It is diabolical to recoup 100 per cent. Beveridge, and the 1947 and 1948 legislation, did not intend that to be the case. It was always taken as 50:50 between the employer and the employee, in view of the national insurance contribution of both sides. The recovery rate should not have been increased.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd , Meirionnydd Nant Conwy 5:49 pm, 25th May 1995

First, I welcome the opportunity of having a debate on this important subject today. I have the honour to represent a constituency in north Wales in which there are several working slate quarries, and the subject is of great importance to many hundreds of my constituents. I welcome the opportunity to remind the House that it was continued pressure from my party which brought in the legislation on the matter in 1979. That is a fact of which I am proud.

As at December last year, total expenditure under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 amounted to about £38.1 million, with some 5,700 people receiving payments under the Act. Those facts are worthy of acknowledgement, but it must be said that the current system is failing as many people as it is assisting. Perhaps the system itself could best be described as rough justice.

The principle in compensation law is encapsulated in the Latin maxim "restitutio in integrum". One can never put a person suffering from pneumoconiosis, emphysema or chronic bronchitis back to where he should be. That is as plain as a pikestaff. The legislation was introduced to make the lives of sufferers less of a misery than they currently are. I am afraid that the Government are failing in their duty.

In saying that the system is failing those in need, I refer first to the scale that is applied to applicants seeking compensation. The scale is devoid of flexibility, and an assessment of 10 per cent. disability—that is all too common—for a 40-year-old is as little as £8,742. If that person dies at the age of 60, the amount is lowered to £2,107.

When an assessment of 10 per cent. has been made, it remains at that level, despite the fact that a person's health fails with the onset of old age. Should there not be a statutory form of periodical review—say, every five years at the upper limit—so that these poor people are tested automatically? That would be fair, and the present process does not deliver a just result.

That brings me to my second point. Pneumoconiosis is often linked to other diseases, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. To a layman like myself, it is matter of inescapable common sense that there is a direct link between slate dust and other respiratory diseases, such as those I have mentioned. Alas, common sense makes little headway with the Government.

In 1992, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council recommended that chronic bronchitis and emphysema in underground coal miners should be added to the prescribed list of compensatable diseases. The council looked carefully for evidence of a link between pneumoconiosis and the other two diseases, and evidence showed that air-flow limitation in coal miners who had experienced heavy exposure to coal dust was more likely than not to have been caused by their work. That is an obvious point, which we would all accept. On that basis, the council therefore recommended that those two diseases should be prescribed under the scheme and should become compensatory diseases.

I plead on behalf of slate quarrymen that that same qualification should be applied for them. There is no basis in logic or common sense for that not to occur. There is abundant evidence of a causal link, and it only needs collating evidence. It behoves any responsible Government to initiate a full epidemiological survey.

At present, the collection of data is haphazard in the extreme. People may have their cases referred by the odd GP who takes an interest, or even by an employer—although I doubt whether many employers would volunteer the information. People are being let down, and the Government should understand that. I call on the Government to tackle the issue, and to do so without further delay. Delay—as has been said—is very often fatal for people suffering from these debilitating and horrible diseases. The Government must do something about that.

Clearly the uprating is welcome, but only as far as it goes. It has been more than two years since the last uprating, and I have had discussions with the Minister about that. With respect to her, I do not accept what she says. Even if there have been over-generous payments in years gone by, that does not justify making cuts now. We are dealing with people who can hardly move and hardly breathe, and who are in a living hell. The Minister can say that the Government will cut the scheme by 1 or 2 per cent., and that they will not give an extra pound here and there. That is obscene. I do not accept the Government's figures, either. In the past two years, the retail prices index has gone up by 5.75 per cent. while a 2.2 per cent. uprating has been offered. Since April 1989, the upratings have amounted to 37 per cent., while price increases have amounted to 33 per cent. There has been a 4 per cent. differential in the figures since 1989. That does not justify cutting back or offering a less generous settlement. I will not dwell on that point, as I am not going to agree with the Minister on it.

I do not accept the reasoning behind the Minister's statement, and the inescapable conclusion is that these people are being sold short by the Government. I therefore urge the Government to consider a far more generous uprating for next year, and to introduce a detailed study to extend the diseases referred to and have them listed as compensatable diseases.

In conclusion—and constrained by your initial warning, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I should like to mention one brief matter. I draw the attention of the House to an iniquitous situation regarding how the social security regulations cover compensation for coal dust victims.

It is ludicrous, if not obscene, to confine payments to those who have worked for at least 20 years underground and who pass the threshold test of having the use of only one third of one lung. That is an obscenity, but it is the law. I call on the Government to publish the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council review of disablement benefit, and for a speedy rectification of the issue.

The Minister is a reasonable person, and I ask her to consider the matters that I have raised tonight. They are important to many thousands of people in Britain, and many hundreds in my constituency, who are suffering. They are good, hard-working people who have worked all their lives. They deserve better than this.

Photo of Mr Eric Clarke Mr Eric Clarke , Midlothian 5:57 pm, 25th May 1995

I thank the Minister for bringing the matter to the House, although I am disappointed that we are debating it at the very end of term. There are few Members in the House, and it is a reflection on both the people suffering from these diseases and on the mining industry that these two motions have been tagged on at the very end.

I represent many people who suffer from pneumoconiosis, and many others who are applying for benefit as suffering from emphysema or bronchitis. In the job I had before entering the House, I dealt with the problems related to those diseases. I appeal to the Minister to allow such people the dignity, and the financial dignity, of having this benefit. We cannot restore the health of those suffering a tortuous illness. They face a long and lingering illness before they die, and they look at it on a living death.

We are asking for compassion, and I hope that the Minister takes on board some of the comments made by previous speakers, and by me. In the past, people have been dismissed because they did not have sufficient fibrosis of the lung to qualify for benefit as suffering from pneumoconiosis. The argument was that they had chronic bronchitis and emphysema. When those same individuals have applied under the new scheme, they have been turned down. Some had to leave the industry because they were disabled by the combined diseases. An academic medical argument then went on. It is not an exact science. As someone said, the only exact science is when a post mortem takes place, and it is horrendous that, to qualify for a widow's pension, a widow should have to allow a post mortem on her husband. All I am asking is for the cases to be reassessed.

Had I drawn a number in the ballot on first coming to the House, my private Member's Bill would have put emphysema and chronic bronchitis on the agenda immediately. I was over the moon that the Government were going to give us this breakthrough, but in Scotland only 5 per cent. of the people who apply qualify—there are so many disqualifications.

Some of those who were disqualified have since died. Many families are appealing posthumously, but I think that we are wasting our time. Many other people do not apply at all. They say, "Why should we? It seems to be a waste of time." Many others do not appeal when they get their first knock back.

As an ex-miner, I have many friends and relations who are suffering from these diseases. Although mining is no longer a great industry, a great army of people in the mining communities, as well as many people in other industries, are suffering from these diseases. There are also many other industrial diseases.

As a nation, we seem to be in a backwater when it comes to industrial medicine. Analysing industrial processes and continually assessing people in employment are not a priority for this nation. I do not know why, but I know that that is happening in other nations.

I am using this short speech to make a plea for the Government to reconsider the qualifying periods. I agree with my colleagues, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who is on the Front Bench, about the 2.2 per cent. increase, which is disappointing. I also laughed when I read the words:

rounded up or down to the nearest £1 as appropriate. That sounds like the old negotiating tactics, when we were on piece-rate earnings in the pit. We always found that it was appropriate for the management, but never for the people whom I represented. I hope that that is not the case on this occasion.

Putting that anomaly to one side, it has to be said that 2.2 per cent. is not a great deal of money—nor is the total amount—but it makes a difference. The ex-miners and their families are worried not about the diagnosis, but about qualifying for the pensions concerned. That is the main thing. They know that the person is ill. They do not know why and cannot make a diagnosis—that is up to the medical people—and it is academic to them, but they want to make life a bit more comfortable and tolerable for themselves because they have to give constant care.

I hope that the Minister will consider the matter seriously. Yesterday's Hansard contains a written answer giving the statistics for people with emphysema or bronchitis who have claimed during the past two years. It is a damning indictment of the scheme. I hope that the Government will reassess the qualifications necessary. I cannot emphasise that enough, as it is so important to my constituents and to other people throughout the country.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham , Barnsley West and Penistone 6:03 pm, 25th May 1995

As the Minister said, the regulation applies generally to people who are outside the mining industry. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conway (Mr. Llwyd) mentioned slate quarrying, for example.

However, there will be circumstances in which the regulation applies to mining. If a private mine owner who has taken out employer's liability insurance for a small colliery, for example in Wales, goes out of business, he will have to be traced at some later date, to find out whether claims can be pursued through his insurance. If not, the case would be decided under this regulation.

I want to explore with the Minister the interrelationship between the regulation and the Employers Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969. There is a relationship by virtue of the fact that only when the previous employer cannot be traced, or there is no insurance, can someone be paid under the regulation. The intention of the 1969 Act was that every employer in the United Kingdom would ensure that all his employees were insured. There would have been notable exceptions—for example, the utilities and British Coal—for which the Government would have underwritten the insurance.

The 1969 Act provided for inspectors to visit works to ensure that the certificate of insurance is displayed in a prominent place and that all the employees are aware that the employer has taken it out. Obviously, that does not always happen and people are not informed of what the certificate means. The idea was to protect employees by requiring the certificate to be placed in a prominent position in the workplace, but that does not always give employees the sort of protection that was envisaged when the Act was introduced.

I have discussed the situation with lawyers who deal with common law damages and I am told that they are experiencing extreme difficulties, especially as they are looking back to 1969 and beyond with asbestosis cases. One of the difficulties seems to have come about because there is no requirement that details of the insurance certificate should be deposited in a central office. Consequently, even when employers are traced, they cannot always remember whether they were insured, or the name of the insurer.

Perhaps the legislation could be amended to require employers to register details of such insurances in a central office, so that they would be available to the public for scrutiny. That would certainly help and I hope that the Minister will take the suggestion on board.

It is not merely a question of forgetting the name of the insurance company. If a company has gone into liquidation, it is almost impossible to trace the insurer, especially if we are talking about looking back more than 20 years. Even when an employer has complied with his obligations under the Act, one is not always able to trace the insurance. That means that we perhaps need to go beyond a central office for depositing details of certificates. It seems eminently sensible to consider the possibility of amending the legislation to require every employer, whether a company by incorporation, a partnership or an individual, to file an insurance return at a central point each year when the insurance is taken out.

There should be a central register, which, as I said, should be open to the public to scrutinise. The issue may become more important as we move into the next century because, as the Minister knows, some reports, especially that in The Lancet, which was drawn up by statisticians employed by the Health and Safety Executive, show that by 2020 there are likely to be 3,000 deaths per year through asbestosis. The number of claims that will be pursued is likely to be in excess of the current number. It is therefore pressing to consider the idea of a central office where details of insurers and insurance premiums can be registered.

I am also told that there are certain other problems. Lawyers tell me that even if an employer can be traced, there are ways in which it can get round its responsibility. For example, in some circumstances, the employer will refuse to pass on a letter of claim to the insurer. The employer may hang on to the letter until such time as the insurer is not prepared to accept the claim. We could get around that problem by imposing a duty on employers to ensure that when they receive a letter of claim in cases of asbestosis, pneumoconiosis and byssinosis, it is passed on to the insurer.

I would suggest to the Minister that that principle is already established because sections 51 and 52 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 specifically provide that once an insurer has given insurance, it must meet its obligation even if a thief were driving the car. There is insurance cover even when there is an accident involving a stolen car that is being driven by the person who has stolen it. It is only one short step to relate that argument to the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969 and consequently to these regulations. Payments would be made from insurance premiums rather having to be made by the taxpayer.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney , Makerfield

My hon. Friend is right, but there is one critical fact that he may want to put to the Minister. Under the regulations that govern the compensation recovery unit, insurers are 100 per cent. non-liable. They know that they need only offer a payment that is less than the cost of benefits already paid and that the state cannot recover that money from them. Therefore, not only do people lose access to benefits to which they are rightly entitled because of their industrial injuries, but the state ends up paying everything and insurers walk away having paid nothing. The compensation recovery unit is a scandal because of the damage and harm done to people by employers and because the insurance companies are being subsidised by the Government's proposals, which take benefits off recipients and do not take anything from the insurance companies.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham , Barnsley West and Penistone

I take my hon. Friend's point, which has already been made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley). It is a scandal that the recovery unit takes back every penny. The Minister will be aware that the 1948 legislation set the principle that national insurance contributions were paid 50 per cent. by the employer and 50 per cent. by the employee. That was always an accepted principle up to 1980s under common law in cases of assessing disablement and deductions from disablement assessments. It certainly appears to be a scandal. I hope that the Minister would be prepared to agree that the deduction should be no more than 50 per cent.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley , Barnsley Central

From working on personal injury compensation claims, my hon. Friend and I know the whole history of the compensation recovery unit and the clawback. The compensation recovery unit gave the green light to the insurance companies because it meant that solicitors had to advise clients to accept minimal claims to avoid a substantial recovery by the CRU. The insurance companies got away with murder because they were paying minimal payments and avoided massive compensation payments where a clawback was involved. It was an insurance companies' charter.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham , Barnsley West and Penistone

I take my hon. Friend's point. The Minister should realise from my hon. Friend's intervention that there must be some changes, and not only the change that I suggested for a central office for depositing details of insurance certificates. Unless we start to look at reducing the amount that the CRU takes back, all that will happen as we move into the next century is that employers that want to be helpful to their employees will disappear. There will be no trace that they were in business. Unless the insurance certificates have been deposited, there will be little chance of tracing them. Employers may even find ways around depositing their insurance certificates to help their employees. The 100 per cent. recovery of payments made becomes self-defeating.

I think that the Minister has taken on board the principle that we should have a central office where insurance details should be deposited. That would certainly help and, as I said, that principle is already established. Only when such safeguards are in being will working people feel safe in the knowledge that there is proper insurance protection.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone 6:17 pm, 25th May 1995

This has been an interesting debate and many hon. Members have spoken movingly of their constituents, and others, who suffer from these diseases. Indeed, I think it would be a shared view that it is quite impossible to overestimate the degree of suffering that people go through. As I said in my opening speech, it is not possible to compensate sufferers or their dependants for loss of health and, ultimately, loss of life.

Various points of detail were raised in the debate and, in particular, I would like, in reverse order, to reply to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who raised several points about the problems of enforcing employers' liabilities.

You will be relieved to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am not an expert on the Road Traffic Act 1988. I cannot therefore comment one way or the other on the principle that has allegedly been established. I can say that the Government are aware of both of the main issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The first issue is simply that of the disappearance of records of with whom the insurance was held and the second is that of employers not putting in claims to their insurers. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government are currently reviewing the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969 and that we are consulting interested parties on possible changes to the legislation. I cannot speculate on the outcome of that review, but I can say that the consultation document was issued in April and that comments should be received by the end of July. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to enlarge on any of his comments which, incidentally, I shall ensure that I take into account, I should be interested to receive details either by way of a meeting or in writing.

The specific issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised—records of insurance and the problem of employers having insurance, but not putting in claims— have both formed part of the consultation, and we have sought views on them. I am genuinely grateful to him for bringing these issues out in parliamentary debate because they are extremely important.

The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) also made a moving contribution to the debate. I am rather sad that he suggested that we tagged this debate on at the end of the Session, thus revealing that we did not consider it to be important. Once the decision on uprating was taken, we believed that it was important to avoid any further delay and we thought that it was important to have this debate before the House rose. For that reason, the debate was scheduled for today. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take that point as made in good faith. The debate was not tagged on at the end because it was considered to be unimportant.

Several speakers raised the issue of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)—I am sure that I have not pronounced the constituency properly—mentioned slate quarry workers. The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council is an independent statutory body. It advises the Secretary of State on matters that relate to the industrial injuries scheme and it keeps developments in occupational diseases under review. The major part of its time is spent in considering whether the list of prescribed diseases for which industrial injuries disablement benefit may be paid should be enlarged or amended. The council will recommend a disease for prescription only when it considers that there is sufficient scientific evidence to establish the link between the disease and the occupation. In the case of chronic bronchitis and emphysema, the council is satisfied that the link exists for coal miners who have worked underground for 20 years and who satisfy certain medical criteria. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point that the criteria are strict, but I point out that that is the council's scientific view.

The council also believes that it has not received sufficient scientific evidence to suggest that bronchitis and emphysema should be recommended for prescription in relation to slate quarry workers. I can only suggest to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy that if he is aware of such evidence, he should ensure that it is presented, regularly updated and re-presented to the council so that it can take his views into account. The council is an independent statutory body and we follow its advice.

The hon. Members for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) commented on reassessment, which is available under the British Coal scheme, and on allowance for changes in the nature of the disability or the disease. Payments are weighted—I have an extremely complex table with which I shall not weary the House—to take account of the risk of deterioration and that is built into the scheme. On more than one occasion, the question was raised of why benefits should be recovered from compensation payments.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney , Makerfield

When the regulation was debated two years ago in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) raised the point about someone dying before the benefit proposal was approved. In such a case, the consequent award is reduced by half; there is a 50 per cent. cut on the basis of death. At the time, we asked the Department to reconsider the proposal as the compensation related to loss of earnings and other matters. We felt that the reduction was unfair. Has the Minister considered the matter and, if so, what decision has she come to?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is asking me whether the principle of reduction to take account of death when compensation is paid to dependants is wrong in itself and whether it should be the same as that paid to sufferers or whether he was relating his intervention to my point and talking about a change in the nature of the severity.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney , Makerfield

I am making a different point. The Minister talked about weighting. We disagree with her comments because the regulations dealing with pneumoconiosis in miners are different and there is an assessment procedure. There is a recognition in law of deterioration and that should apply here. Why is it that there is a reduction in compensation on death? There seems no validity in law for that. Has the Department considered the matter since the previous discussion and if so, what was its view?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

I refer the hon. Gentleman back even further to the origins of the regulations, which I always carry round with me, and to the debate in December 1979 when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Sir P. Mayhew), who was then the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, discussed why the regulations were structured so that there should be a difference between dependants and sufferers. He referred to the pattern that had already been established under the National Coal Board scheme and he pointed out that the regulations followed that pattern exactly. The Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979, which was passed by a Labour Government, made a clear distinction between categories. We followed a long-established, recognised difference between the two.

More than one speaker challenged me to say why benefit payments were recovered from compensation. The Government have long held the view that negligent employers and other compensators should not have their liabilities met through the social security system and that victims should not be compensated twice for the same incident. Those tenets led to the formation of the compensation recovery unit. The principle is, therefore, well established. In a former incarnation in the Department of Social Security, I took part in various debates on the underlying principles and I do not think that I can add much to my comments then.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

I would like to make some progress. I have tried to address the various points raised and I am aware that time is a little pressing—

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney , Makerfield

I have nowhere to go.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

The hon. Gentleman may not have anywhere to go. I suspect that others, including some of his colleagues, may.

There has been some discussion about the failure rate of claims. I believe that a system that pays out on 75 per cent. of claims does not raise the spectre of an unduly high failure rate. The only point on which I shall seek leave not to respond but to write—

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley , Barnsley Central

What about pneumoconiosis?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

I shall disregard that intervention because it was a sedentary one. The one point on which I shall write further is the one raised by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central, who has somewhere to go—[HON MEMBERS: "He is here."] So he is. He raised the point about the quality of X-rays and about the adequacy of X-rays to be a determining factor. I shall respond on that matter in due course.

I have tried to answer the major points raised in this debate, although I could not answer the entire rant of the hon. Member for Makerfield. It has been a sensible and sensitive debate, and I commend the Order to the House.

Resolved,That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 1995, which were laid before this House on 1st May, be approved.—[Dr. Liam Fox.]