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9.15 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I shall not support the amendments and shall support the Government, but I want to discuss issues relating to industrial injuries disablement benefit, because neither the amendments nor the new clause address that issue. As the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) said, the previous Government abolished the whole concept of a good-cause exception, and nothing in the amendments or the new clause addresses that fundamental problem.

We have to go far beyond the concept of backdating for one, two or three months or even a year; we need to look fundamentally at the way we address the issue, because industrial injuries disablement benefit raises special problems. Sometimes symptoms can develop late--long after illness has started and long after exposure to harmful substances such as asbestos has occurred. Asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma lead to an extremely unpleasant death, as I have seen in my previous life as a lawyer representing people with mesothelioma.

Mr. Godman: My hon. Friend obviously has legal experience, so can he correct an assumption of mine?

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I was under the impression, following a famous case taken by a commissioner, that there was such a thing as justifiable ignorance; is that not still the case?

Mr. Dismore: It is my understanding that the previous Government abolished that, with effect from April 1997. That is the issue I am currently addressing and I hope to give some ideas to the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), who is to respond to the debate.

Mesothelioma is a prime example of the problems that can arise. It leads to an extremely unpleasant death, especially in the last three months of life. It is a fatal illness and those last three months are extremely traumatic for the family and extremely painful and distressing for the individual sufferer. Similar problems arise in respect of other industrial diseases and cancers.

Sometimes, there can be late diagnosis or even a diagnosis made only after the post mortem. Regrettably, that is an all too frequent occurrence in respect of lung diseases. In addition, diagnosis can take a long time to come through: for example, patch testing for dermatitis can take many weeks before a diagnosis can be made.

Problems can arise in making a causal connection between the illness and the hazard at work that caused it. An example I cited in Committee was that of a dental nurse whose claim I dealt with, who suffered from glutaraldehyde poisoning. Glutaraldehyde is a sterilising chemical used in dentistry; the nurse suffered quite severe nasal and respiratory trouble, but it was nearly a year before she realised that there was a causal connection between the chemicals with which she was working and her illness.

Repetitive strain injury is becoming an increasingly common and recognised problem, particularly for those who work on keyboards. Again, the causal connection can often be extremely difficult to establish, and a diagnosis may be long in the making. That problem was recognised by the Social Security Advisory Committee, which commented on the previous Government's proposals and said that one of the problems with delays in the payment of disability benefit was that

It was critical of the previous Government's proposals.

The answer is not to go back to the old ways of simply looking at the matter in terms of good cause. We need to develop new ideas to deal with such cases. The problem with good cause is that it relied on the discretion of an adjudication officer in the Department of Social Security. If one has to rely on someone's discretion, the decision can go either way.

I have some sympathy with the previous Government's response to the SSAC's comments on good cause. They said that the problem with the good-cause exception was that it ran

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    I should like to devise a new way of looking at such cases which did not rely on a good-cause defence and gave people the right to have benefit from an early stage, perhaps from the date of diagnosis or perhaps some other possible date.

As part of our overall review of social security we must look at that problem and come up with an imaginative solution rather than opting for the old methods used pre-April 1997 or the old method of backdating payment for a month or two. Frankly, that does not address the evil that I have identified in some of the cases and illnesses I have described. To backdate a claim for two months, three months or perhaps a year is purely arbitrary. We must find a more imaginative way of proceeding.

Mr. Godman: I should like to cite an example where I believe that a claim of justifiable ignorance would be useful. Recently, two of my constituents who are crew members of a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry complained to me about their experience. They went into the crew's quarters and were told that it contained asbestos-contaminated material. I advised them to inform the Health and Safety Executive in Glasgow. Could that action be used as evidence if, God forbid, they had to make a claim in 10 years or 15 years because they were suffering from asbestosis?

Mr. Dismore: That could be evidence in a civil law claim, but that does not address the problem that faces us, which relates to the industrial injuries scheme. That evidence may prove good causal connection at a later date, but the difficulty with respiratory conditions in particular is that it is often many years before the illness starts to develop. It may be many years after that before the sufferer, thinking back 20 years, makes a causal connection and seeks a diagnosis from the GP. After that, it may be some time before the patient is referred to a consultant for an opinion. Some conditions are not even detected until a post mortem is conducted. Those problems with the old system are not addressed by the amendments. That is why we need to look for a more imaginative solution.

I do not want to run the risk of people making premature claims. I do not want people to make speculative claims because they think, "I may have a certain condition and I had better put a claim in quick just in case because I do not want to be caught up by some backdating rules." Such claims could clog up the system and defeat the prime objective of the Bill. It is about not just lone-parent benefit or backdating, but the fundamental need to modernise the social security claims system to make it work more efficiently. The problems associated with backdating could militate against that laudable goal.

We must think about imaginative solutions and I hope that the Minister will assure us that he will consider that as part of an overall review of DSS procedures and benefits. I hope that, at a later date, he will offer us some ideas to deal with a real problem.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): In support of my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), may I tell the Minister that in my inner-city constituency, hardly a week goes by without people coming to my surgery already at risk or having suffered loss of benefit because they have not been able

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to claim on time, or have not been advised that they had a right to claim, or have been misled by others. They expected the Government to rescue them from the callousness of the previous Government, yet the Labour Government intend to target the people who are struggling most.

I hope that the Minister and his colleagues understand the practical implications for people who are desperately trying to make ends meet. When they fail, some of them are driven to illness, self-abuse, suicide attempts and so on, because they are not coping. It is a real, practical, weekly problem, and for those of us who try to look after them, the proposal is one of the most unhelpful steps that the Government could take.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Clause 72 is not only draconian in its effect, but is perhaps the only truly original part of the Bill. It was not proposed by the previous Government, but is entirely home grown. It might be for the convenience of the House to say that we intend to divide on new schedule 1.

In Committee, Conservative Members expressed the deep concerns of many organisations about the Government's proposals to restrict the backdating of benefit claims. The Bill allows enormous scope to the Government to legislate by regulations later. Indeed, that was a subplot throughout the Committee stage. More than once, the Minister promised to let the Committee see draft regulations to be passed under the Bill, and on a number of occasions we pressed him to redeem that promise. However, there has so far been a marked reluctance by Ministers to produce those draft regulations, and by and large the Committee stage came and went without any drafts.

Even on Second Reading, Ministers were clearly defensive on the subject of backdating. They said that hardship provisions would be considered in Committee. The Committee was indebted to the Minister for a stream of helpful letters and memorandums on various aspects of the Bill. The Minister was at pains to ensure that the Committee had the benefit of the Government's thinking on a number of issues, yet until we came to the debate on clause 72, the Committee had been kept in the dark on backdating. One might say that that was the dog that did not bark.

On 20 November, shortly after the debate had commenced, the Minister rose to announce a series of exemptions from the effects of clause 72. That was followed by the Minister's letter to the Committee dated 25 November, setting out in enormous detail the various exemptions. The fact that the Minister has been so detailed and frank about the Government's intentions is not, I believe, a result of the Government's professed commitment to open government--which, as we have seen on more than one occasion recently, is much in doubt. Rather, it is a tribute to the persistence of the Opposition on the Committee.

New schedule 1 and amendment No. 32 have the simple effect of listing the same exemptions that the Minister listed in his letter to the Committee of 25 November--no more, no less. The effect of the new schedule is to challenge the Government to put in the Bill what they claim that they intend to do by way of regulation. These are important issues affecting many vulnerable people, and they should appear in the Bill. If the Government were able to give in Committee such a precise list of exceptions to the harsh backdating provisions, surely they can commit themselves and accept our new schedule.

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At the end of the proposed new schedule, we make it clear that further exceptions may be allowed. That merely echoes what the Minister stated in his letter to the Committee. In addition, amendment No. 6 seeks to take account of the Government's arguments for cost cutting, and to recognise that there are many groups, including the elderly, the recently widowed and the severely disabled, for whom one month will simply not be enough time. The amendment targets those groups and gives them an extra two months' leeway. Moreover, with respect to contributory benefits, backdating will give them money to which they are entitled and to which they have contributed through their national insurance contributions.

I also point out to the Minister that the distinction we seek to draw in the amendment between the various types of benefit is exactly the same as the distinction that he drew in his letter of 25 November--I see the Minister nodding. In that letter, he says that there will be automatic backdating for non-income-related benefits such as retirement pension, widows' benefit and child benefit. The principal, if not the only, difference between what we suggest and what the Minister proposes is that we advocate three months and he wants only one month. The amendment provides for three months' backdating for incapacity benefit, invalidity benefit, maternity allowances, benefits for widows and widowers, retirement pensions, war widows' pensions, attendance allowances, severe disablement allowances, invalidity care allowances and disability living allowances.

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