Seanad debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Adjournment Matters

Occupational Injuries Benefits Scheme.

9:00 pm

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me raise this important matter of the situation faced by a number of former miners in the Ballingarry, Thurles area. Ballingarry was the location for coal-mining for a good number of years. Coal-mining was a strong industry in this area until it ceased a number of years ago.

During the period when this group of miners were working in these mines the level of safety measures which are nowadays taken for granted did not apply. When one speaks to these men one sees evidence of the kind of conditions under which they worked. In some cases, explosions took place in the unvented underground mines in which they worked and carbon monoxide was not able to escape. In some cases, they worked in tunnels only 18 inches high.

Not surprisingly, as a result they have been left with significant and serious health problems some of which could be described as miner's lung, which usually incorporates conditions such as bronchitis, asthma and emphysema which result in breathing difficulties. These are progressive diseases. Other conditions arising from these miners' experiences would include tinnitus, for instance, which is a degree of deafness, and numbness in the extremities including fingers.

I refer to a group of approximately ten men. They feel strongly that their pensions are entirely inadequate and, more importantly, do not recognise the level of disease and suffering from which they are suffering. Having met a number of the men involved, it seems extraordinary that it cannot be recognised that this is a group who deserve to be compensated for the progressive nature of their illnesses in some way for what remains, in some cases possibly a short period, of their lives.

A number of miners have died, some at a young age, as a result of the diseases which they contracted as a result of their work, and this is not being recognised. They have had a long, as yet unsuccessful, battle to be properly compensated for the illnesses from which they suffer.

One of the difficulties they face is that some of them were assessed a good number of years ago for the illness and injury suffered, but there is no possibility of them being reassessed despite the fact that theirs is a progressive illness account of which should be taken in what they receive.

These men feel strongly that they have been abandoned and also that they have been the subject of broken promises. They have been given the impression that there is compensation available to them and one of the matters on which I seek clarity is what is the Government's attitude to this group. The Taoiseach met the group only a short number of weeks ago in Killenaule when he was in this part of Tipperary.

I ask the Minister to clarify exactly the Government position on this matter. I particularly urge the Government to address the case of these miners and ensure they get what they need. Is the Government planning a compensation scheme? If not, why not? What is the Government's response to the claims of the miners? We are talking about a one-off set of circumstances faced by a small number of people and it should not be impossible, therefore, to acknowledge the problem and to deal with it. The men themselves feel very strongly that they made a great contribution to the economy, not only that of their area but also that of the country, at a time when conditions were very difficult. They rightly feel they are now living in a prosperous state and that it, therefore, would not be too much to ask that their suffering be recognised and that they receive compensation as a result.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue and will respond to it on behalf of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan. The social welfare code already provides for payments to former mine workers who suffered a loss of faculty arising from their employment as miners. Disablement benefit, payable under the occupational injuries benefit, OIB, scheme, is a compensation payment for loss of faculty arising out of or in the course of insurable employment. The legislation governing the scheme provides entitlement to benefit for persons suffering from certain prescribed diseases listed in the legislation and where persons have contracted such diseases in the course of their employment.

Miners may be entitled to disablement benefit if they suffer a loss of physical or mental faculty as a result of an accident at work or a disease prescribed in legislation they contracted at work. Medical assessments are undertaken in all such cases to determine the degree of disablement, which is calculated by comparing the state of health of the applicant with that of a person of the same age and gender.

Miners who contracted the prescribed disease pneumoconiosis are entitled to disablement benefit. There are currently 19 miners in receipt of disablement benefit in respect of pneumoconiosis, seven of whom were former Ballingarry miners. These miners and their representatives have also sought to have other conditions, specifically chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, included as a recognised disease for the purpose of the OIB scheme.

The question of whether COPD should be added to the list of prescribed diseases was considered in the Department in 2003 and it was advised that COPD is a common clinical condition that accounts for 10% of total medical admissions to Beaumont Hospital in Dublin. COPD is not a condition that is specifically linked to a particular occupation and it is not possible to establish a causal link between coal mining, or any other occupation, and the experience of COPD. Smoking is by far the most common cause of COPD.

The Department was also advised that no EU state, other than the United Kingdom, includes COPD in a scheme equivalent to our OIB scheme. The position in the United Kingdom is that its equivalent of our OIB may be paid to coal miners who have worked underground for at least 20 years and who are diagnosed as having pneumoconiosis with considerable lung function loss. The effect of prescribing COPD or chronic bronchitis and emphysema was not to confer entitlement to people who did not already qualify for the UK equivalent of OIB but rather to enable a higher rate of payment to be made to some pneumoconiosis sufferers in certain circumstances.

In this country, OIB may be awarded where miners develop pneumoconiosis as a result of their occupation. Persons claiming OIB in cases of pneumoconiosis are referred to a consultant respiratory physician in the first instance for an examination and report. This examination consists of a clinical assessment and pulmonary function testing. The latter is a standardised test that establishes the extent of lung malfunction irrespective of the specific medical condition giving rise thereto. Disablement benefit is awarded on the basis of the consultant's objective report, including the pulmonary function test results. If COPD is present in some of these cases, the disablement award will reflect this. Given this background, it was concluded that it would not be appropriate to specify COPD for the purposes of the OIB scheme.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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There appears to be a sense abroad that the Government intends to create some sort of special compensation scheme for the miners in question. Is this the case?

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I do not know as I am only answering on behalf of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. I am aware that this is a burning issue, as are public representatives in the area in question. As the Senator stated, the Taoiseach met the concerned parties. I have not been briefed other than to say meetings took place. I do not know if there is any action or movement in another direction. I have outlined the view of the Department.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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That is why I tabled this matter for that Department.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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The Senator knows that until a decision is agreed, standardised and processed, one gets a standard reply from the Department. I do not know anything other than that the Taoiseach met the miners, and other public representatives have raised the issue recently. I am not aware of what is happening behind the scenes.