Sir Mike Penning backs increases to awards payable to people with diseases resulting from exposure to asbestos and coal dust

6th February 2019

Sir Mike Penning backs legislation to increase the value of lump sum awards payable under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 and the diffuse mesothelioma scheme and asks why these increases are not automatic but need legislation in the House of Commons.

 

I rise in support of both these statutory instruments, which are sensibly being taken together, not least because we can now talk about the need to compensate people because of two basic products: coal and coal dust; and asbestos. This country got its wealth from coal, as men went down the mines to bring the coal out. For centuries, the wealth it provided put this country where it was. Asbestos was the great invention post-war, the insulating product that saved many lives, not least in fire prevention and insulation. Subsequently, however, it has destroyed millions of lives in this country today.

I am supporting the Minister today. I sat on the Bench where she is, taking these original measures through. I will make some more arguments in a moment, but at that time I made exactly the argument that the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) just made: why is this increase not automatically put through? I do not think there is an answer to that; I think this is just about bureaucracy and red tape. When the Bill was introduced all those years ago it was not perfect, as Bills often are not. There was so much happiness that that compensation Bill was brought through by the Labour party that things were missed or, as was my experience when I brought through the Bill that became the Mesothelioma Act 2014, people said, “It is too difficult. We don’t have the information at the moment. It can’t quite be done in that way.” I will touch on that in a moment. Such a measure would need primary legislation, but it could be tagged on to the many, many social security Bills that this House sees regularly—if we get the long title right, that can be done.

I know that the Minister will be listening, not only to me, but to Members from across the House, as, rightly, that is how she is as a Minister. So, first, I ask her to say to her officials, “This should be the last time that this is done this way.” This House can find time, if it really wants to, to right a wrong. There is no way in the world this House will say no to the uprating, so let us be pragmatic and sensible about it. I know that the officials in the Box will be sitting there thinking, “That Penning is going on again, just like he did when he was a Minister”, but what I am saying is right.

I wish to touch on a trivial point that the shadow Minister made: it is not “fibres” that cause mesothelioma, but fibre; something so small it would sit on the end of my finger will, 40 years from now, almost certainly kill people if it develops. No one understands why, and I will address that in moment. The public need to understand that this could affect people working in a school, a shipyard or myriad other occupations, including my former occupation of fireman. We were completely unprotected when we were going in to pull ceilings down, and turn things over and damp things down so that they did not reignite. Often there would be asbestos there, and we knew that. But we were the lucky ones, I think, because we were protected by the Fire Brigades Union, the union I was a member and branch secretary of; I recall being thrown out of the Labour party for a few years because we were too militant at the time. For me, as a trade unionist, this issue was very important, as firemen have died from asbestos-related diseases.

We have talked about the mines. Miners, often generation after generation after generation, put their lives at risk to go down the mines. Should we have learnt from the dangers? I agree that in some cases we should have done, but in other cases we did not really know. I used to live just down the road from a coal merchants, and as lads we often used to go to earn a bit of pocket money by filling the sacks. The coal dust there was not that much different from that in a mine, although the work was not as arduous as working down a mine. Did we realise, and did they realise, that this could seriously damage our lungs in the future? Of course not. So we need to learn from the past, and we have rightly done so.

I was enormously proud to bring through this House, as the Minister, the 2014 Act, which compensates people in cases where we cannot find their insurer and their employer, and where they were the missing few. I was lobbied heavily by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and by Paul Goggins and others to make it 100% rather than the 80% that was initially proposed, and to include third parties. Let us just think for a minute about what “third party” means. It often means the partner. It often means the wife of someone who worked in a shipyard and came home in his overalls covered in asbestos, which she then washed and hung out on the line. Is it right that we do not make sure that she has just as much, and that those families and those kids have just as much? The kids playing in the yard where those overalls were hanging could have been affected, but let us hope that has not happened. Could we, as was suggested in the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, have written into the legislation that research should be part of the funding? I was told by my officials that we could not guarantee the money and we must not jeopardise the Bill, but that we could come back to that later. Well, here we are now, later. I stood at that Dispatch Box and said that if there was money there from the levy, that would be used for compensation. I said that on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, on the Treasury Bench, as the Minister, with full authority from the Government. That should be now be happening. There was clearly enough for the 100% compensation based on the average for those who had found an employer or insurer, and we now have a golden opportunity to say that the money is there. The insurers will say, “We can’t guarantee this,” but they said that before, and it is based on a levy.

We are not even talking about taxpayers’ money; it is a fund, and we could use it to do two things. First, if possible, we could find a cure and work out exactly what is going to go on. In retrospect, that will save lives and stop people needing money from the levy fund in the first place. I am no longer confident—hindsight is a wonderful thing—about the figures that were put in front of me and that this will taper off in the way predicted. I am not convinced about that because it involves too many industries and professions that are completely different from what we thought in the first place. We were looking at shipyards and plumbing, where asbestos was used extensively as insulation, but, as the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) mentioned, there are currently teachers in schools who are not allowed to put a drawing pin into the wall for fear of moving the asbestos fibres. When it is in place, asbestos is perfectly safe; the issue is when it is moved. There are also hospitals to consider. There is one in Watford that looks after my constituency and dates back to before Victorian times. I am told that rather than build a new hospital, they are going to plough loads of money into that one to regenerate and refurbish it. We know that the asbestos in that hospital is a major problem. Why are we treating people in hospitals where we know that asbestos and dilapidation are issues? We need to protect the public as much as possible and make sure that the compensation schemes are there.

Before I finish, let me touch on the Health and Safety Executive, for which I was responsible as a Minister back in 2014, and which does a remarkable job. At the time, we looked carefully at how it was funded, and almost all its funding came from the central departmental funding stream. It is relatively different now: the Health and Safety Executive is a world leader in health and safety and brings a huge amount of money into the country’s economy, because we have freed it up to be able to do that. That does not mean that outside money should pay for everything. I am absolutely sure that the Health and Safety Executive needs to do the best possible job.

In 2005, my constituency was blown up by the Buncefield explosions—the largest fire and explosion in this country since the second world war. The Health and Safety Executive was absolutely brilliant. We were very lucky that no one died, and that meant that the Health and Safety Executive was responsible for the inquiry. As the constituency MP, I gave the Health and Safety Executive a pretty rough time, as everybody would expect me to have done, to get answers. In many ways, the Health and Safety Executive got those answers, and it was a privilege to be the Minister responsible for it some five years later.

Hansard

 

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