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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. I hesitate to intervene, but the hon. Gentleman is going rather wide of the Bill.

Mr. Wray: Those matters have never been raised in this Chamber. I do not see anything about it in Hansard.

25 Feb 1997 : Column 185

However, they are important to the public and to my constituents. I have been dealing with cases of asbestosis and mesothelioma for several years. It has happened in schools, in the home, and in the workplace, and it is happening in the environment. It is time that the public had it brought to their attention and that the Government--and if not this Government, the next Labour Government--did something about it.

It is a dying shame that, over the years, the Government have allowed the Department of Social Security to defraud people who have died and suffered. They have defrauded families of the claims to which they were entitled. I know that this is an important subject and that many hon. Members wish to speak, but it is time that the nation faced its responsibilities and banned the substances that are imported into this country to make quick profit at the expense of people's lives.

5.46 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): Like other hon. Members, I welcome the Bill because it goes some way to remedying a gross injustice created by the Social Security Act 1989. Nevertheless, I have some concerns to highlight.

The Bill is particularly welcome because it ring-fences general damages. The part of a payment that is made for pain and suffering is to be ring-fenced; deductions for social security payments will not be taken from that element of damages but will be restricted to the payment for loss of earnings. The 1989 Act allowed the deduction to be made from the global sum, which included pain and suffering, as well as payments for loss of earnings.

The other major part of the Bill is the removal of the £2,500 limit below which benefit recovery does not occur. That is welcome because the present system deters people from pursuing claims if they feel that they are likely to be penalised. Claims of more than £2,500 are sometimes not pursued as rigorously as they might be.

We should put the Bill in an historical context by considering the situation between 1948 and 1989 and then judge its worth. When the industrial injuries legislation was enacted in 1948, contributions were worked out between employer and employee. Because the employee contributed to the industrial injuries scheme through the national insurance scheme, it was agreed that the employer would be able to deduct 50 per cent. of all benefits from any settlement. The deduction was restricted to the loss of earnings element and did not affect that part of the payment relating to pain and suffering. The system worked well until the 1989 Act was introduced. The injustice that flowed from that Act has been illustrated by some of the examples given by previous speakers.

Half the benefits paid at that time--industrial injury benefit, disablement benefit and invalidity benefit--were deducted. What is not always taken into consideration, however, is the fact that, although the deduction reduced the amount of damages, if a person returns to work but cannot do the job that he had been doing before his accident or an equivalent job, a cushion of support in the form of a special hardship allowance is available. That later became the reduced earnings allowance, which was abolished in 1990. Although it is no longer available, in many cases enormous sums are deducted from damages payments.

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I wish to refer the Minister to a particular case. Following an accident in 1989, the compensation recovery unit calculated that the deduction would be made until 11 April 1997 and stated:

will be £50,500.99. The case involved a miner who had a small multiplier. The sum to be recovered by the compensation recovery unit has wiped out all the payment for loss of earnings and has taken a portion of the payment for pain and suffering.

Although we welcome the Bill, it will still wipe out considerable amounts of damages in cases such as I have cited. A person earning £10,000 a year with a multiplier of eight, where the element for loss of earnings is as much as £80,000, would receive a payment of £80,000 for loss of earnings. However, the deduction from that loss of earnings payment over a five-year period would be considerable.

As the Minister knows, in the type of case that I have quoted it would take a long time to determine the medical condition. It can take five or six years to determine whether an injury, particularly a head injury, is stable. Consequently, benefits accumulate while one is waiting for a medical condition to stabilise. Benefits that have accumulated over five years must be deducted in full, and, in many cases, the deductions wipe out the loss of earnings allowance.

If a worker can return to work but cannot continue his pre-accident occupation, there is no cushion to help him in a job that pays less than his pre-accident job. The position is therefore much worse today than it was between 1948 and 1989. Reduced earnings allowance is an essential payment and the Minister will agree that most of our partners in the European Union have a similar payment which helps to cushion the effects of light work when a person returns to a job that pays less than his pre-accident job.

Clause 2 provides that there is to be no retrospection. In effect, therefore, four different schemes are likely to operate. We shall be dealing, first, with cases of men injured under the old workmen's compensation legislation before 1948; secondly, with cases that occurred between 1948 and 1989; thirdly, with post-1989 cases that occurred before the introduction of this Bill; and, fourthly, with cases that occur after this Bill is enacted. The Minister should consider the complications that that is likely to cause and give some thought to retrospection, which would be enormously helpful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Wray) made some important points about asbestosis. The Minister should consider whether it would now be wise to accept exemptions. It takes a long time for asbestosis to develop. Many people were exposed to asbestos in the 1950s. I am currently dealing with a claim by a miner who worked a machine that had asbestos brake linings and has recently developed an acute chest problem. He has been into hospital and part of his lung has been removed. His illness is attributable to the asbestos fibres that he inhaled during the 1950s when he worked that machine.

It is difficult to determine when asbestosis developed. That fact must be determined, particularly for disablement assessment. If disablement assessment goes back for many years, a sizeable lump-sum payment has to be made.

25 Feb 1997 : Column 187

Under the Bill, whenever an award is made to compensate for negligence, a lump-sum payment is deducted from the loss of earnings element for five years. However, the deduction could be considerable and, in cases of asbestosis, could greatly reduce the amount available in a negligence claim. Will the Minister consider whether, at this stage, he is prepared to consider exemptions because asbestosis should be exempt from deductions? The disease has special characteristics and it is only fair that it should be exempt from the provisions in the Bill.

The Bill is to be welcomed because it takes us a little further down the road towards fairness, although much more needs to be done. I hope that we can outline that more fully in Committee.

5.58 pm

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me, and I apologise for missing the opening speeches because of other parliamentary business.

I very much welcome the Bill, for the reasons expressed by other hon. Members. I worked for several years alongside Clydeside Action on Asbestos, to which tribute has been paid tonight. It is an enormous tribute to that group that, although a handful of the cases that affect the compensation recovery unit are asbestos cases, tonight's debate has been dominated by that issue.

We should not be here today if Clydeside Action on Asbestos had not lobbied Parliament in November 1994 and if we had not together persuaded the Social Security Select Committee to investigate the unit's work. It is a credit to our democracy that a relatively small local group, working with Members of Parliament, can change the law. Had it not done so, the work of the compensation recovery unit would have continued unchanged.

The Select Committee's report turned the tide. It was a tremendous eye-opener for all members of the Select Committee to discover what was happening in their name. The report was damning, and said that the results of many cases were contrary to natural justice.

Let us consider the scale of the problem. In 1995, the compensation recovery unit was reclaiming much more than £100 million a year from more than 30,000 people who had been victims of accidents, diseases or illnesses for which other people were culpable. In that year, more than 1,500 people were paying back more than £15,000 in benefits. The highest sum that I could find was £94,000, which was paid back by a person who had neck injuries. Imagine the suffering that must have been involved to have led to the payment of £94,000 in benefits.

When the issue received publicity in the Daily Mirror, I received more than 150 letters from people who were outraged by what had happened to them--not only asbestos sufferers but people who had been in road accidents, those with industrial diseases, and victims of industrial accidents or any affliction that had been caused by other people.

One of the great evils of the CRU's work--implementing legislation and the Conservative Government's instructions--is that it has further undermined the insurance principle. My constituents and others believed that they had paid their stamp and would receive benefits in the event of catastrophe, but the Government clawed back that benefit. People were outraged: what was the point of paying the stamp if they were obliged to pay back the benefits?

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I shall concentrate my remarks on the asbestos issues, which especially interest me because, regrettably, Clydebank in my constituency is the national leader for male deaths from mesothelioma. Our death rate is 11 times the national average because of the deadly cocktail in our background of shipyards, ship repairing and an asbestos factory.

The 10 areas that head the Government's list--the Health and Safety Executive list--for asbestos deaths are all ports. Wherever there have been ports and shipbuilding, asbestos has caused carnage. Between 1976 and 1991, in Greater Glasgow, there were 500 deaths from mesothelioma alone--not asbestos-related diseases as a whole. According to the Government, the people who died came into contact with the dust between 50 and 60 years ago; as has been said, asbestos-related diseases are by far the biggest industrial killer, and the problem is getting worse.

According to the Department of the Environment, there will be between 1,300 and 3,000 deaths from mesothelioma in 20 years' time, which dwarfs all industrial deaths, deaths on the road and deaths from any similar cause. If we take into account the fact that there are estimated to be between one and two deaths from asbestos-related lung cancer for every death caused by mesothelioma, we realise the scale of the continuing problem.

Can the House imagine the appalling way in which we have treated those sufferers? They must prove that they are suffering from an asbestos-related disease, which is not easy when many of them have been heavy smokers. They must prove where they contracted the disease, perhaps 50 to 60 years ago, and find evidence. They must enter the legal system against an asbestos industry that knew decades ago that it was killing people but decided to go on doing it, and if they win they must pay back any benefit that they have received.

The most immoral aspect of the Government's action is that they have clawed back money that was awarded for pain and suffering, although they had no right to it. That was repulsive, immoral theft, and I am glad that it is to end. I am pleased that the Government have moved on the issue, but they can claim no credit for being forced to amend what they set up. I nevertheless pay credit to the Minister, who has been unfailingly courteous on this matter.

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