Mineworkers (Bronchitis and Emphysema)

– in the House of Commons at 9:47 pm on 18 January 1996.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wells]

10 pm

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham , Barnsley West and Penistone

This debate concerns compensation for mineworkers suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema. [Interruption.]

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

Order. Will hon. Members leaving the Chamber do so quietly, please?

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham , Barnsley West and Penistone

I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, from your involvement in the early 1970s in the fight to win compensation for victims of pneumoconiosis that you are well conversant with the matter. I am also aware that the Minister knows the arguments: over a period, we have corresponded on the matter of compensation for chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

For many years, the mining unions have sought to have chronic bronchitis and emphysema prescribed as industrial diseases by the Department of Social Security in relation to coal mining, and to have them included—this is part of the argument tonight—as compensatable diseases. I am advised that records show that the issue of compensation payments for the diseases was raised as long ago as the early 1940s. They have still not been realised.

It will be argued that the system of assessing disability as in the case of pneumoconiosis could form the basis of a compensation scheme. Therefore, it will be necessary tonight to explain the intricate connection between the two schemes.

As the Minister will be aware, in 1992, after a study of up-to-date evidence available, not only in England and from around the world, especially America and Belgium, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council accepted that coal miners were more likely than individuals in the general population to contract chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and that therefore, on the balance of probability, the diseases were related to their occupation.

Eventually, on 13 September 1993—but, sadly, in the wake of the massive colliery closure programme—the Government implemented the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council recommendations in full, and prescribed chronic bronchitis and emphysema as PDD 12 in relation to the deep coal mining industry.

To be successful for an award under the DSS scheme, a claimant must first qualify by having worked underground for 20 years or more since 5 July 1948. I mention that because I recently dealt with the case of a man who had worked the length of the qualification period, but who had done so before 1948. He was ruled out because that period of qualification preceded the 1948 industrial injuries legislation. Perhaps that is something that needs to be reconsidered.

The claimant must next show that, on X-ray evidence, he has pneumoconiosis. Finally, he must have a loss of at least one litre of lung capacity as measured by the FEV 1 test. I am aware that that criterion is subject to a further review by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, and that that should be available shortly. I am also aware that that may well have an impact on what we are debating. I took that into consideration when calculating figures about compensation that I shall put to the Minister later.

If a claimant successfully negotiates all the hurdles to which I have referred, and is diagnosed as suffering from the disease and a resulting disability of 14 per cent. or more, he is awarded benefit for loss of faculty, along with a weekly pension. I must emphasise, however, that that is not compensation paid because the employer is in breach of either statutory or common law duty; nor is it a payment made by the industry in recognition of the existence of a foreseeable risk. It is a payment in recognition of the physical impairment of the claimant's lung function.

I strongly believe that miners suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema—terribly disabling diseases—should also be paid compensation by their employers, or former employers, under the coal industry's no-fault liability scheme, or pneumoconiosis compensation scheme, which was introduced by the Government in 1974 as part of their "Plan for Coal". However, because the nationalised industry insured its own risks, the scheme was to all intents and purposes a Government scheme. Since privatisation, the Coal Authority administers compensation schemes in regard to former miners' claims for pneumoconiosis.

There is an overwhelming case for miners who suffer from chronic bronchitis and emphysema. There are four main arguments. First, there is the issue of liability. I maintain that that issue has already been resolved by the introduction of the no-fault liability scheme for coal-dust-related diseases, which recognises the foreseeability of the risk.

The second argument is closely related to the first. The dust that causes pneumoconiosis also causes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The foreseeability, and hence the risk, of anyone's contracting chronic bronchitis and emphysema is precisely the same as for pneumoconiosis. The liability issue is thus resolved.

The case of the Selwood brothers, constituents of mine, illustrates my point. The brothers have worked together in drivages for most their working lives; the three of them are now in their late seventies. One is a prescribed sufferer of pneumoconiosis at a level of 80 per cent., with an attendant 20 per cent. level of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. He receives an award from the Department of Social Security scheme based on a level of 100 per cent., because the Department rightly accepts that chronic bronchitis and emphysema worsen his pneumoconiosis. He also receives a payment under the coal industry pneumoconiosis compensation scheme.

His brothers, however—although diagnosed as suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema by the hospital consultant—receive no award. Even if they received one, under the DSS system they would not be eligible for a compensation payment. Yet the brother who has pneumoconiosis with attendant chronic bronchitis and emphysema has received a compensation payment. Although it is right that he should have received it, it is ridiculous that the others have not. It is one of the primary reasons why the coal industry pneumoconiosis compensation scheme should he extended to cover chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

I turn to the other two arguments. Most of the men who have received an award for chronic bronchitis and emphysema are elderly, and have neither the time nor the resources to finance a lengthy court case, which might not at the end of the day be accepted as a test case.

There is also a difficulty with legal aid. As I understand it, in order to be granted legal aid, claimants have first to be in receipt of an award for chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and therefore in receipt of a weekly pension. Part of that weekly pension must be taken into account for legal aid purposes. So even though they have been made an award, and they are at a time of life when they ought to be using that award to enjoy what little quality of life they have, they are having to use it to finance court cases.

It is likely that the Minister will argue that, in 1974, the mining unions agreed not to widen the scheme. That may be correct, but it was 22 years ago. Surely the men cannot be denied justice on the basis of something that happened to be said in negotiations all those years ago. Neither can the matter be left to common law, as the Prime Minister has suggested. The liability issue has been resolved, and the men have a just case for compensation.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

We are talking about legislation introduced by the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means many years ago. My hon. Friend referred to the widening of the scheme that was introduced in 1974 by Eric Varley. Towards the end of that Government's period in office, they made an addition to the scheme, so that it was slightly different for slate miners and others in north Wales. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that that set a precedent, and it is therefore not much of a hop, step and a jump to argue the case, which he is so capably arguing, that sufferers from chronic bronchitis and emphysema should be included in the general ambit of the scheme.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham , Barnsley West and Penistone

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that point to my notice. I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that the scheme has already been amended and widened to take into account the fact that some miners were diagnosed as suffering from asbestosis.

I have said that the DSS assessments of disability should be used to form the basis for compensation awards. I shall briefly explain the calculation used, because I think that it could be used in precisely in the same way for chronic bronchitis and emphysema cases.

The coal industry pneumoconiosis compensation scheme payments are generally made in a lump sum. They are calculated according to a table, relating set amounts to the age of the claimant, the date of development of disease and the degree of disability under the DSS system. The table increases in multiples of 10, from 10 per cent. to 100 per cent. The greater the degree of disability, the larger the amount of money paid. Of course, those amounts taper off the older the claimant is, in accordance with actuarial principles.

I should like to emphasise to the Minister that it is at this point that the DSS scheme becomes part of the basis for compensation under the coal industry pneumoconiosis compensation scheme.

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith , Blaenau Gwent

My hon. Friend explained the differences, and made comparisons, between those with chronic bronchitis, emphysema and pneumoconiosis. Would he care to comment—I speak from personal experience—on the problems which some former miners have had over the years? Those people have perhaps worked on the coal face all their lives, gone to boards time after time to try to prove that they have pneumoconiosis and have failed dismally. When one of those people dies, it may be accepted, after further arguments, that the person had pneumoconiosis, but it is still not enough, because one must then prove that the person died as a result of pneumoconiosis.

Will my hon. Friend accept that that is a degrading experience for those who have devoted their lives to the coal industry and worked in the dirtiest and most dangerous conditions, who then have to end their lives in that way without the state accepting responsibility or recognising their condition?

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham , Barnsley West and Penistone

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. When the miners' parliamentary group made a submission to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, we suggested that there should be changes in the way posthumous cases are dealt with. It is harrowing for a family to have to nurse an aged miner, watch him die in a degrading situation, and then to find that, after reviewing the evidence and probably after a number of medical examinations, pneumoconiosis is discovered by a post mortem. I agree that there is a need for a much more sensitive examination system.

I should like to discuss the amounts of compensation available under the pneumoconiosis scheme. The Minister is aware that there have been no increases in payments under the scheme since 1989. When he replies, perhaps he could assure us that the system will be corrected. Perhaps he could tell us whether the scheme will be index-linked—it has not been index-linked in the past—so that the lump sums keep their value.

Another reason why chronic bronchitis and emphysema should come under the pneumoconiosis scheme is that, although they are different diseases, the disabling effects are very similar. It would be relatively easy to combine both diseases within the scope of the pneumoconiosis compensation scheme, which would be ideal for the sufferers of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It would remove a great deal of worry about having to progress with court cases at a time of life when those chaps ought not to have such a worry.

I still represent miners before the medical appeals tribunals, and my experience suggests that chronic bronchitis and emphysema sufferers need more care, although I should add that that is not universally so. My experience suggests that the sufferers tend invariably to be elderly, and many of them are confined to their homes.

Paying for the widening of the scheme is obviously near and dear to the Minister's heart. The money to pay for the widening of the coal industry pneumoconiosis compensation scheme to cover chronic bronchitis and emphysema is available from the receipts from the sale of British Coal's property. It is selling, off more than 130,000 acres of agricultural land, which includes 800 houses and an assortment of other property. I understand that the estimated value is well in excess of £100 million. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether that is the case.

The total number of claims in the first year was 4,469, and there have been another 440 this year, so there arc 4,909 cases. We know that the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council is undertaking a study. Even the most favourable amendments will not double the number of cases, so we are discussing fewer than 10,000 cases.

All the men covered by the current scheme are elderly, and under the current pneumoconiosis compensation scheme, a man of assessed at 40 per cent. would receive £3,015. As the scheme involved a greater number in the first year, there will be fewer cases in future. The cost of paying each case a lump sum of £3,015 is roughly £30 million. Even with favourable amendments, there is enough money in receipts from the sale of property easily to cover bringing chronic bronchitis and emphysema under the scheme.

Photo of Mr Richard Page Mr Richard Page , South West Hertfordshire 10:20, 18 January 1996

I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) for giving the House the opportunity to debate an important issue. I wish that we had a little more than nine minutes in which to give full justice to the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I commend him on the way in which he has set out a particularly complex matter, and his determination in fighting for the interests of people affected by it. As he said, we have spoken and corresponded a number of times. I also appreciate the presence of the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith), who take an interest in the subject.

As you will understand from your personal experience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the issue is complex, and extremely emotive. That is understandable, and the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent has referred to some of the trauma it can cause. Whatever the difference in view between medical experts on the causation of bronchitis and emphysema, there is no doubt that the effects on those who suffer from those diseases—particularly emphysema—can be harrowing and distressing for them and their families.

When the pneumoconiosis compensation scheme was established, it was intended to compensate those who suffer from a condition that can be contracted only through coal mining, although, as has been pointed out to the House, some closely related conditions have been added since.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that some of the mining unions signed an undertaking that they would not press for further compensation schemes for industrial diseases other than pneumoconiosis. However, I recognise that life moves on, and I do not see why that should be an all-restricting bar.

I am fully aware that the hon. Gentleman is very keen for the scheme established by British Coal to be extended to encompass chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It may be helpful if I explain some of the corporation's position.

In the early 1970s, the National Coal Board, as it then was, introduced the scheme to provide compensation without proof of fault, because the causal link between contracting pneumoconiosis and working in the coal mining industry was clear. However, it is well known that smoking is a major cause of bronchitis and emphysema, so it could not he appropriate for British Coal to compensate individuals on a no-fault basis, when, if they smoked, they contributed to their own subsequent misfortune. That does not prevent any cases being brought against British Coal.

The hon. Member has drawn attention to the possibility of the Department of Social Security paying benefits in certain circumstances. Before elaborating on that, it might be useful if I briefly explained the background to the prescription of chronic bronchitis and emphysema for DSS benefit purposes, with the caveat that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security may obviously want to comment in more detail on matters relating to these issues.

The Secretary of State for Social Security is advised on the prescription of diseases for social security benefit purposes by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. As the House knows, that is an independent, expert body, on which the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry are equally represented.

Having considered the issues several times for nearly 20 years, the council was eventually persuaded in August. 1992 to recommend to the Secretary of State that chronic bronchitis and emphysema should be prescribed as industrial diseases for underground coal miners. The DSS accepted the council's recommendation in full, and those diseases were prescribed in September 1993.

Workers in many industries, including coal miners, suffer from chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The latter can develop as part of the natural aging of the lung, and severe damage can be caused by smoking. In fact, I am given to understand that more than 90 per cent. of the overall United Kingdom deaths due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—a generic term embracing emphysema—are considered to be due to smoking.

While miners were obviously not allowed to smoke underground, I understand that their consumption of tobacco was close to the national average. The House will appreciate that it would involve fairly heavy smoking sessions afterwards if one had to catch up to somewhere near the national average.

For the purposes of claiming industrial injuries disablement benefit for chronic bronchitis and emphysema, a claimant needs to have a chest radiograph showing at least category one in the International Labour Organisation's "Classification of Radiographs of Pneumoconiosis". I should emphasise, however, that the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council recommended that criterion as an indication of exposure to coal dust, rather than a clear causal link between the two diseases.

I know that the hon. Member—and others—regard the qualifying criteria for DSS benefit as too stringent. I also know that the House will appreciate that I cannot comment in great detail on what is a matter for the Secretary of State for Social Security, but it is worthy of note that the success rate among claimants to date of 11.2 per cent. is broadly in line with the success rate for prescribed diseases in general, which is about 11 per cent.

As the hon. Member stated, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council is conducting a review into the qualifying conditions, and I believe that he has given advice and some evidence to the review on that matter. The council hopes to submit a report to DSS Ministers on the review early this year, and the Government have made it clear that they will carefully consider any recommendations that the council may make.

One of the arguments advanced to support the proposition that British Coal should recognise a causal link between coal dust and bronchitis and emphysema is that the qualifying criteria under the DSS scheme include evidence of category one pneumoconiosis. It is worth emphasising that that criterion merely shows that the individual concerned was exposed to coal dust: it does not show that a particular level or degree of exposure relates directly to the specific incapacity experienced by the individual.

Category one, although widely recognised as an indication of the condition, is not in itself a level that causes disablement. That is one reason why British Coal's scheme requires successful claimants to have at least category two pneumoconiosis. Thus, individuals who are certified as suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema for DSS purposes are not necessarily eligible for benefits under the British Coal scheme.

If they have pneumoconiosis at a lower level—that is, category one—they may be entitled to DSS benefit. If they have a higher level of pneumoconiosis—that is, category two—they may be entitled to compensation from British Coal. Conceivably, if they have a category two level, accompanied by bronchitis and emphysema, they may qualify for compensation from both sources. The hon. Gentleman produced an example to illustrate that point. As we have already noted, IIAC is looking into the matter again, to find out whether any changes to the DSS scheme to provide for additional compensation seem appropriate.

I said at the start that I wished that I had more time to give a full response to the hon. Gentleman. In the very short time that I have taken—at the gallop—I have not been in a position to set out the situation as fully as I should have liked. I understand the strength of feeling on the subject.

The hon. Gentleman and I know that it is a complex matter. He has presented to the House a way in which the existing scheme might be amended, and has given much time and thought to that matter. He would be upset if I gave an off-the-cuff response, and I will come hack to him—

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.