House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2008 - 09
Publications on the internet
Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Cummings
Anderson, Mr. David (Blaydon) (Lab)
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Barrett, John (Edinburgh, West) (LD)
Blunkett, Mr. David (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing, West) (Con)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral, South) (Lab)
Clappison, Mr. James (Hertsmere) (Con)
Heald, Mr. Oliver (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen (Jarrow) (Lab)
Jones, Helen (Warrington, North) (Lab)
Riordan, Mrs. Linda (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op)
Shaw, Jonathan (Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions)
Skinner, Mr. Dennis (Bolsover) (Lab)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)
Syms, Mr. Robert (Poole) (Con)
Williams, Hywel (Caernarfon) (PC)
Gosia McBride, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 4 March 2009

[John Cummings in the Chair]

Draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2009
2.34 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2009.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. It is a requirement that I confirm to the Committee that the provisions are compatible with the European convention on human rights. I am happy to do so.
The regulations will be made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979. They will increase the amount of compensation paid under the 1979 Act by 5 per cent. for those who satisfy the conditions of entitlement on or after 1 April 2009. Following the transfer of responsibility for this work to the Department for Work and Pensions in 2002, we made the commitment to increase the rates of payment annually. I am happy to honour that commitment again.
In previous debates, Ministers have outlined the history and purpose of the 1979 Act. I will do so briefly for the benefit of anyone who is not familiar with the scheme. Someone who suffers from a dust-related industrial disease can sue their employers if the disease was contracted as a result of working for them. However, diseases covered by the Act can take a long time to develop and might not be diagnosed until 20, 40 or even more years after the exposure to dust. By that time, the employer or employers responsible may no longer exist. It is not surprising therefore that sufferers and their dependants can suffer great difficulty in obtaining compensation.
A good example is the widespread use of asbestos in shipyards. Many shipbuilding and ship-repairing companies that traded 20 or more years ago are no longer in business. That means that people exposed through their work in shipyards cannot pursue a claim for damages.
The Act was introduced in 1979 to help such people and I am pleased that it has done so. It provides for lump-sum payments to be made to sufferers. From April 2009, the maximum payment will be just over £74,000 for a person aged 37 or under at diagnosis. That lump sum is received in addition to any award of industrial injuries disablement benefit. A person diagnosed with mesothelioma is automatically assessed as 100 per cent. disabled for industrial injuries benefit. From 2009, that is equivalent to £143.60 per week. The lump sum is based on a straightforward calculation that takes into account the age of the sufferer and the level of their disability. The highest amounts are paid for those diagnosed at an early age.
Three conditions must be satisfied before any payment can be made. First, the sufferer must be entitled to industrial injuries disablement benefit. Secondly, there must be no relevant employer who can be sued. Thirdly, no court action can have been brought or compensation received in respect of the disease that is claimed for under the 1979 Act.
The Act covers five respiratory diseases, most of which are directly related to asbestos exposure: mesothelioma, pneumoconiosis, diffuse pleural thickening, primary carcinoma of the lung following exposure to asbestos, and byssinosis. However, mesothelioma is the main reason for a claim being made. About 80 per cent. of the payments are made to sufferers of that disease.
The average payment to sufferers is about £14,800. A lower amount is paid when a dependant makes the claim after the sufferer has died. The average payment to dependants is about £5,000. Since the 1979 Act was introduced, payments totalling £256 million have been made, and payments of just under £26 million have been made in the last year alone. I am pleased that the scheme continues to perform an important role. It provides compensation at a critical moment in a person’s life.
As most hon. Members present will know, mesothelioma is a severe form of cancer, which is invariably terminal in a short time scale. Although I am pleased that we are able to provide substantial financial support, I am aware that our success in doing so is a sad reflection of the rising number of people affected by asbestos-related diseases. For every sufferer of the disease, the situation is tragic. Every section of society is affected. Colleagues will recall the sadness at the death last year of our friend John MacDougall to mesothelioma. He is remembered for his campaigning on the rights of miners. I am sure that we all support his family in their efforts to set up a trust fund for the sufferers of lung diseases.
The scheme has been very successful, but some sufferers of mesothelioma are not entitled to any payment under the 1979 Act because they were not exposed to asbestos in the workplace. In their case, exposure was environmental, or through a relative who worked with asbestos. We recognised that that was a weakness in the provision of compensation, and we have acted to remedy the situation. Legislation that took effect on 1 October 2008 for the first time provides compensation to people suffering from mesothelioma, whose exposure did not occur at work, or where the source of exposure cannot be identified. In both instances, no case can be pursued for civil compensation, as no employer can be identified.
My officials estimated that, in the first year of the scheme, we could expect about 1,200 claims. In fact, the numbers in the first four months are slightly lower than we expected, with just fewer than 300 claims being received. In that period, compensation of just over £4 million was paid. I am also pleased to report that the claims under the scheme are being processed very quickly.
Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): Will the Minister confirm that former workers at Cammell Lairds, the shipyard on the borders of my constituency, are just the sort of people who might benefit from the proposals, especially the uprate?
Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing to the Committee’s attention his constituents who worked in that shipyard. He knows that I, representing Chatham, have many constituents who benefit from the compensation scheme.
The officials in the new scheme set a six-week target for paying more than 90 per cent. of claims, but nearly all payments have been made much sooner—on average, within three weeks, for claims made in the first three months. I am very pleased, therefore, to report the successful introduction of the scheme.
However, I would like to highlight again the numbers of people affected by mesothelioma. I am sure that we are all aware that the number of mesothelioma deaths in Great Britain has risen substantially over the past 30 years, and continues to do so. In 1968, only 153 people died of mesothelioma, in contrast with 2006, when there were more than 2,000 deaths. The number of deaths continues to rise, and sadly it is now the most common cause of work-related death.
I am sure that we all agree that no amount of money will ever compensate sufferers and their families. However, the regulations help us to ensure that compensation provided through the original legislation maintains its value. I commend the uprating and payment scales to the Committee, and ask for approval of the regulations.
2.44 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I share the Minister’s sentiments, Mr. Cummings; it is indeed a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, in what I anticipate will be a short Committee sitting. The Conservative party certainly has no wish to delay or oppose the passage of the regulations, because, as the Minister said, this is a long-running payment scheme to compensate workers and their dependants, as a result of their exposure, and consequent contraction of a debilitating and tragic condition. As he said, without the scheme, they would find it very difficult to claim compensation. In fact, I can go one step further: given the conditions that must be fulfilled, it is fair to say that they would find it almost impossible to claim compensation from any other source.
I had several questions about the scheme and the state of play, which the explanatory memorandum did not cover, but happily the Minister answered most of them in his introductory remarks. He told the Committee that, to date, about £250 million has been paid out, and that £26 million has been paid this year. It would be helpful if he could write to me and set out the amounts paid in the past five years, because I think that the last written parliamentary question on the subject was tabled in 2004. It would be useful to have information on the scheme to see how it is operating. I understand that there has been a generally increasing trend in payments over the past few years. In making that point, I am conscious that, as the Minister said, such cases can take a very long time to develop following a worker’s exposure to the materials in question.
The Minister also referred to the additional scheme for those who have contracted mesothelioma as a result of environmental conditions, as opposed to the long-running scheme, which compensates people who have been exposed to asbestos at work. Indeed, there is a well-known case in Armley in Leeds, where many local families were exposed to airborne asbestos as a result of their proximity to a local plant.
In the spirit of bipartisanship, I pay tribute to two Labour Members who have fought long-running battles for such people. The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) has campaigned for those who have suffered such conditions, as well as for former miners—they are in a different category—who have similarly suffered as a result of their work. Also, the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) has led a long campaign to obtain compensation for those who have been exposed environmentally to asbestos and contracted tragic conditions.
The Minister also told us that, as a result of the schemes, an average payment of £14,800 has been made, as well as £5,000 to each dependant. We must set those sums against the fact that, as the Minister says, the conditions are tragic, debilitating and cause a great deal of suffering. But at least we know that, due to the regulations and their uprating according to a pre-arranged formula, the suffering workers and dependants are at least receiving some compensation.
2.47 pm
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I, too, will not delay the Committee. We are pleased to support the uprating, and I thank the Minister for informing us in his brief but detailed introductory remarks that £256 million has been paid since the Act was introduced. The issue was certainly brought home to many hon. Members at John MacDougall’s funeral last year; he was a friend as well as a parliamentary colleague.
We appreciate the Act’s good work, but finance can never compensate for ill health. It can, however, go some way towards easing the suffering of those who discover, sometimes after many years, that they have a condition as a result of working with asbestos or other airborne contaminants.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon will talk about the provisions’ impact on the Welsh slate mines. The Liberal Democrats support the uprating of this good scheme.
2.48 pm
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): May I apologise for my late arrival? I was told that there might be a second vote in the House.
I am glad to be able to pay tribute to the people who run the scheme, which has been of great use to constituents of mine who suffer from slate dust and had no one to sue because companies had long gone out of business. The scheme also, of course, makes help available to dependants, which is much appreciated. It was originally introduced in 1979 after a long campaign by the Transport and General Workers Union, supported by my predecessor Mr. Dafydd Wigley, and the then TGWU organiser in Caernarfon, Mr. Tom Jones.
The scheme is also much appreciated by other workers: jute workers in Dundee, for example, sometimes suffer from dust-related conditions. It is a very good scheme, and I am glad that it has been uprated, although there is no particular legal requirement that it must be. I must point out, however, that other diseases are related to dust-exposure in slate quarries; for example, there has been a campaign about chronic bronchitis for some years. The Minister is not in a position to comment on that at present, but it is worth mentioning because people suffer from other conditions related to exposure to slate dust, and they currently get no compensation. However, I have been informed that coal workers can receive compensation.
2.50 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): I wish to speak in this debate simply because mesothelioma is back in the news in a big way. I was on the Committee that discussed it last year. I know that the Chairman might help me by allowing me to expand a little.
Mesothelioma is on the agenda because, in October 2007, we had a body blow when the Law Lords decided that people with pleural plaques would no longer get compensation. I use this opportunity, when everybody is concerned about mesothelioma and asbestosis victims, to say that we cannot afford to let this matter fall off the agenda. We have to deal with it; the Law Lords were wrong. Their decision came out of the blue—nobody expected it—and the result is that a lot of those who get pleural plaques before they get mesothelioma will generally suffer the same death. That is why the issue is important.
The only other thing that I want to say, which I have mentioned in Committee on numerous occasions, is that this scheme, which was introduced in around 1974 and expanded for the slate quarrymen in 1979, was important because it had a collective basis. Mr. Cummings, you will know only too well just how important that is in the current context. I say that because the hon. Member for Caernarfon referred to chronic bronchitis and emphysema. We are not allowed to talk about those diseases at great length, but he did mention them. I want to draw Members’ attention to how, with the pneumoconiosis block settlement in 1974, which was subsequently improved upon in 1979 and again later for mesothelioma, no lawyers were needed. In contrast, Justice Turner, to his constant shame, decided in 1998 not to use the pneumoconiosis settlement type, but to go for every individual having their own lawyer. When we hear those extraordinary and extravagant stories about the lawyers making money, we can feel content that today we are passing, for the umpteenth time, an increase of 5 per cent. in the awards, and that people with any of these five diseases do not have to potter off to a lawyer who will charge them for this, that and the other. We have all heard the stories, and the sad thing that people should understand is that the 1998 decision was made by a lord—not one of those who decided to get rid of pleural plaques, but Justice Turner. He caused the trouble by insisting that a collective decision could not be taken on mesothelioma, whereas it could on pneumoconiosis. I make this appeal because there are people in the room who ought to understand that we cannot afford to travel down that road again.
The people who adjudicate in the courts should understand just what kind of misery they have caused. They have lined the pockets of the lawyers in the process, with almost Fred Goodwin amounts. These recipients will not get anything like those amounts and that is not in question either, because every single one of us will nod the regulations through. Sadly, some of the lawyers have received considerably more than Freddy Goodwin has because of the tin-pot way in which Justice Turner made the decision on chronic bronchitis, emphysema and vibration white finger in 1998.
2.54 pm
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): If the Minister is considering writing to people on some of the points that do not relate directly to the increase, it would help to know what happens to those who were involved in shipbuilding in Northern Ireland. It is clear that the uprating applies to Great Britain. Are similar arrangements being made through the Northern Ireland process?
The Minister might also let us know what the Government intend to do to cope with the Law Lords decision referred to by the hon. Member for Bolsover. He was quite clear that they were not saying that people were not deserving, but that the legislation was not written in a way which could necessarily include them. It would be useful to know how the Government intend to respond to that.
I shall throw in two final points. First, when did we start having one order to cover the five diseases? I seem to remember that, 25 years ago, when I was the relevant Minister, I introduced more than one order to get the upratings. I am glad that we have only one order, but it would be interesting to know more about that change. However, that is a matter for a written response rather than an oral one now from the Minister. Secondly, if the Minister knows who is responsible, who will respond to the Archer report on the haemophiliac victims of the national health service blood transfusion scandal?
2.56 pm
Jonathan Shaw: May I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Hertsmere who speaks for the Opposition? I am pleased that I was able to provide him with detail in my introductory remarks. It is always comforting when contributions from Opposition Members confirm what a Minister has said. That was helpful. Our constituents will be pleased that there is consensus on this matter.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West referred to John MacDougall, and I thank him for those kind comments. The hon. Member for Caernarfon mentioned slate miners in his constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South referred to his constituents, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. As I said earlier, Chatham is one of the hottest spots for mesothelioma anywhere in the country. I do not stand here just as the Minister, but also as a constituency Member of Parliament and I am pleased about the uprating.
I will have to write to hon. Members to answer some of the points they raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover asked about pleural plaques. He will know that our right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary received the report on pleural plaques in October. The Government received a considerable number of submissions and he is considering them carefully. We expect a response on that issue very soon. Obviously, my hon. Friend made his views clear about Justice Turner in his usual gentle way.
I was asked about Northern Ireland by the right hon. Member—
Peter Bottomley: Not right honourable.
Jonathan Shaw: Did they not do that?
Peter Bottomley: No.
Jonathan Shaw: I thought the hon. Gentleman was a Cabinet Minister. Did he never make it?
Peter Bottomley: That was my wife.
Jonathan Shaw: There we are.
The shipbuilding industry in Northern Ireland has its own scheme, which mirrors this one. Our officials liaise closely with officials in Northern Ireland. I have no reason to believe that that scheme is not operating in the same satisfactory way as this scheme. I will investigate the haemophilia question and write to the hon. Gentleman.
I hope that I have covered all the points—as I have said, I will write to hon. Members. I can confirm that the Government are determined to ensure that risks to health are properly addressed so that future generations do not suffer. Hon. Members mentioned that we are seeing an increase in the amount of compensation.
Peter Bottomley: I also intended to ask the Minister—perhaps I can get a response via correspondence—whether the Government have estimates of how the profile is likely to rise before it falls. Could they be shared with hon. Members?
Jonathan Shaw: We are currently looking at the profile because there have been some changes in it. That is why I did not refer to it in my remarks. The anticipated profile has not been borne out—it has been extended somewhat. We can be sure that the amount of money paid out will continue to rise before it reaches the peak. We have commissioned a piece of work to update the projections and I know hon. Members will want to be aware of that information on behalf of their constituents. I hope that I have satisfied the Committee with those replies.
Question put and agreed to.
3.1 pm
Committee rose.

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 5 March 2009