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7.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) on securing this Adjournment debate. I am glad to be able to respond to the important issues that he has raised.

The hon. Gentleman is right: I used to be a Minister at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, where I had responsibility for the Health and Safety Executive. I also worked very hard--and, thankfully, with success--to produce agreement in Europe regarding a ban on white asbestos. That was the final form of asbestos, which was legal at the time. The ban came into effect in the United Kingdom and the European Union last year, and I am very proud of that.

However, I am now a Minister in the Department of Social Security.

Dr. Brand: May I therefore say how grateful I am to have a Minister from the Department of Social Security responding to the debate? The rest of my remarks still apply.

Angela Eagle: I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's gratitude, as the Department of Social Security has prime responsibility for running the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme. That scheme provides some compensation for people who can prove that they have developed one of the four prescribed diseases as a result of being exposed to them in the course of their work. Members of the armed services have their own scheme, which is part of the war pensions benefits regime.

The people who really lose out are those who suffer environmental exposure, with the result that they cannot prove that they have been exposed in the course of their work. They therefore do not qualify for the industrial injuries benefit but have to make do with the ordinary disability benefits available to people with chronic or disabling diseases not acquired at work.

Different schemes and different approaches exist, but that reflects the industrial preference that any industrial injuries benefit scheme must, by definition, inject into a system. I agree that there is some complexity in the existing arrangements.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight spent some time describing a process that will be only too familiar to many hon. Members. Companies seek to avoid their liability for personal injury suffered by people whom they employed

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in order to avoid having to pay compensation. Many people would recognise the hon. Gentleman's description of the delays that can occur when attempts are made to take cases through the courts.

I promise to pass on what the hon. Gentleman said to the Lord Chancellor's Department. His description of what happens in these difficult cases is familiar to anyone who pursues a personal injury case through the courts, especially when there may be a significant number of potential beneficiaries. Often companies do not and will not admit liability. There are examples of that in the litigation against tobacco companies in other countries, as well as the more obvious cases in this country to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The Lord Chancellor may have views on the future of personal injuries litigation in order to ease some of these difficulties, but that is a matter for him rather than me. However, I promise to pass on the hon. Gentleman's comments.

There are other difficulties with long latent diseases, such as the four prescribed asbestos-related diseases that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. It sometimes takes so long for them to become apparent--it can take up to 40 years after exposure before some symptoms become obvious--that employers have often disappeared, and the companies responsible for the original exposure of individuals have long since gone out of business. That is why the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme exists. When I was a Minister at DETR, I had responsibility for matters arising under the Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers Compensation) Act 1979, which is linked to the industrial injuries disablement benefit.

We do what we can to provide cover for asbestos-related diseases within the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme. The four prescribed diseases in the regulations are pneumoconiosis, mesothelioma, primary carcinoma of the lung and diffuse pleural thickening. The benefit scheme covers all employed earners, and there is no need to establish whether anyone was at fault. With many such no-fault compensation schemes, the compensation awarded tends to be lower because there is no court case and no fault is proved. The benefits are paid in addition to other incapacity and disability benefits, and they are not taxed.

Industrial injuries disablement benefit pays up to £108 a week, which will go up on 12 April to £109.30 if someone is assessed as 100 per cent. disabled. Additional benefits can be paid if someone is in need of constant care and attention, and when such a need is likely to be permanent. The additional benefits can amount to another £131 a week. I know that when people's health is affected, no figure can ever seem like reasonable compensation. This is merely the Government saying that they recognise the legacy of exposure to asbestos and the damage that has been caused. We want to give extra assistance to those who have been disabled in this way by their work.

Over the past five years, about 1,200 people a year have been awarded industrial injuries disablement benefit for the four prescribed asbestos-related diseases. For sufferers of mesothelioma, the majority of awards of benefit are paid at the maximum 100 per cent. disablement rate. For the other three prescribed diseases, benefits are paid on average at the 20, 30 and 40 per cent. rates of benefit, attracting weekly payments of between £21 and £43 a week. The payments continue for all the time that the person is disabled--usually for life, in these instances.

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The Government get advice on which diseases should be included in the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. The council is an independent, expert body that includes representatives of both employers and employees as well as medical and other experts. Its most recent report on these diseases was published in 1996. It reviewed in detail the coverage for asbestos of the prescribed diseases and occupations within the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme.

The council recommended improvements to the rules in respect of these diseases. Those were agreed and came into effect in April 1997. In particular, the removal of the usual 90-day waiting period for sufferers from mesothelioma helps to get benefit to people more quickly. The considerable widening of the range of occupations included in benefit provisions for this disease helps to get benefit to more people. That touches on the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised with respect to the shipbuilding industry. I represent Wallasey, which is on the River Mersey and has a great tradition of maritime activity, so this is also an issue for me as a constituency Member of Parliament. There is regrettably a great legacy of exposure to asbestos in such industries.

It is a continuous part of the IIAC's role to monitor scientific research and publications on all occupational diseases. This monitoring includes asbestos-related diseases. In the 1996 report, the council considered whether lung cancer without asbestosis or pleural thickening following substantial exposure to asbestos should be prescribed. I know that there has been some pressure from, among others, the hon. Members whom the hon. Gentleman said take a particular interest in the issue, to extend the prescription of disease to lung cancer. The council recommended to the Government that prescription was not appropriate in the light of current scientific evidence. However, the council will look again at any issue if new and robust scientific evidence emerges or is brought to its notice by whatever means.

It is important to remember that the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme is an occupational scheme designed to compensate employed earners. If it is clear that in a particular case a person has contracted an asbestos-related disease from exposure that was nothing to do with their work, then industrial injuries disablement benefit is not payable. However, these diseases, particularly mesothelioma, can take many years to develop and it is important for anyone claiming benefit for this disease to tell the Benefits Agency about any jobs that they did when they were younger in which they could have been exposed to asbestos--even if the jobs were only of short duration. It is important that people who develop such symptoms think long and hard about where they may have been exposed.

There are also other forms of compensation for asbestos-related diseases. I mentioned earlier war pensions provisions for service men and women whose service has resulted in their contracting the diseases. As the hon. Gentleman explained in some detail, people can make civil claims for damages against a negligent employer, but no one would discount the difficulty of proving such claims and taking such litigation through the courts. I accept the points that he made about that.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is responsible for a compensation scheme for people who have contracted certain lung diseases,

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including the diseases caused by asbestos, compensation for which is paid under the DSS scheme. The scheme is designed to pay mainly slate, quarry and some pottery workers who were subject to dust and developed pneumoconiosis as a result.

The schemes can appear complex. We try in the DSS to ensure that when we are made aware of a case we fast-track it as much as possible. We require medical evidence and we have to go through processes to check the claims, but, especially with mesothelioma, we fast-track cases to get a result as quickly as possible.

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