Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to table this motion and the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, for taking the time to respond to it.
I grew up in a mining community and my earliest recollections as a child are of watching very tired old men with blackened faces and mining lamps on their heads disgorging from a number of lorries on the main street of Drumshanbo and then having to find their bicycles to cycle a mile or two home. This was after they had worked underground in what were unacceptable conditions by today's standards, lying on their bellies for more than eight hours as they tried to dig out coal from the Arigna coal mines. It was not until I became a Member of the Seanad that I realised just how difficult life had been for the people concerned.
Other childhood memories are also associated with the mining community in Arigna, or the Connaught coalfields, as it is known, because my late father, Joe Mooney, a former Member of this House, God rest him, was an insurance representative for New Ireland Assurance. There was not a house or cottage in Arigna, or in the Arigna valley and mountains, that I was not in at some stage in my young life. Mainly, it was wives and mothers who insured their husbands and sons and the money was kept in a little jar over the fireplace in order that they would have it. There was not sufficient insurance for many of those workers at the time and we did not have the progressive legislation we do now.
As I grew into adulthood I became aware that not only in Arigna but also in other coal mines in Ballingarry and Laois a very serious medical condition had developed as a result of the many years people spent in mines. Its local name is "black lung" and it affects the lungs of those who work underground for long periods of time. I pay a compliment to one man in particular, because he was the first person to alert me to the lack of acknowledgement by the State agencies of this condition suffered by former miners, and that is former councillor Charlie Hopkins from Arigna. As a former miner, he suffers from this condition. I am sure nobody in the House or beyond could not but have been moved emotionally by the filmed reports that appeared on national television in recent months as this issue has come to a head.
I also compliment former Minister and Deputy, Michael Smith, who in 2007 brought together the disparate forces throughout the country, who are a declining number of people, to lobby the then Minister to acknowledge they had a very serious medical condition that warranted equality of treatment before the law.
That is the background and context in which I raise this issue. I have always found the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, in his various portfolios to be the most compassionate and humane of Ministers. He has gone the extra mile on those occasions when it has been required; the most recent example is the restoration of pensions to elderly farm women, mainly in the south of Ireland. I am again before him as a supplicant asking him to right a wrong that has existed for decades among a dwindling number of our citizens who worked very hard all of their lives to care for their children, and worked at a time when there was very little work in this country, and many of their contemporaries had to emigrate and never came back. They are with us and here now, and in some instances they are suffering physically and emotionally, apart from the psychological impact it is having on their families and siblings.
I do not want to over-egg the pudding; the Minister is fully aware of the case that has been made to date by the eminent people to whom I referred. All I am doing is raising it again in the hope that now he has taken over this portfolio he will correct the wrongs of many of his predecessors who, for whatever reason, did not fully acknowledge the medical condition of miners' lung.
I thank the Senator for raising the issue. Officials from my Department and the Departments of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and Health and Children recently met a delegation from the National Coalminers Group to hear their concerns at first hand.
The Senator will be aware that the primary role of my Department with regard to the range of issues raised by the National Coalminers Group relates to the provisions of the occupational injuries scheme and specifically to the disablement pension payable under the scheme. The occupational injuries scheme is a compensation payment for loss of faculty arising from or in the course of insurable employment. The legislation governing the occupational injuries scheme provides entitlement to benefit for persons suffering from certain prescribed diseases which are listed in the legislation and where a person has contracted that disease in the course of his or her employment.
Employment under a contract of service as a miner is insurable for occupational injuries benefit under the Social Welfare Acts. Miners who are unable to work due to an accident arising from their employment may be entitled to occupational injury benefit for the first 26 weeks of their claim. If their incapacity extends beyond that period, they may received illness benefit or invalidity pension, subject to meeting the qualifying conditions for these payments.
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 that they contracted at work. Medical assessments are undertaken in all such cases to determine the degree of disablement, which is calculated by comparison of the state of the health of the applicant with a person of the same age and gender. Miners who contracted the prescribed disease pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, are entitled to disablement benefit.
The issue raised by the Senator has been the subject of several parliamentary inquiries from a number of Deputies and Senators and was discussed at some length at a meeting in February 2010 of the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. In the course of that meeting and again at the recent meeting held with the National Coalminers Group it was argued that the list of prescribed diseases under the occupational injuries scheme should be extended, and reference was made in particular to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD.
My Department has considered whether COPD should be added to the list of prescribed diseases but has been advised that it is a common clinical condition and one of the leading causes of death, after heart disease, cancer and stroke. It is not a condition that is specifically linked with 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. My Department has been advised that no European Union member state other than the United Kingdom includes COPD in their schemes equivalent to the occupational injuries benefit scheme.
The position in the United Kingdom is that its equivalent of our occupational injuries benefit may be paid to coalminers who have worked underground for at least 20 years and who are diagnosed as having definite pneumoconiosis with considerable lung function loss. The effect of prescribing COPD, or chronic bronchitis and emphysema, otherwise known as CBE, was not to confer entitlement to people who did not already qualify for the United Kingdom equivalent of occupational injuries benefit but, rather, to enable a higher rate of payment to be made to some pneumoconiosis sufferers in certain circumstances.
In this country the position is that where miners develop pneumoconiosis as a result of their occupation, occupational injuries benefit is awarded. Persons claiming it 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 will establish the extent of lung malfunction, irrespective of the specific medical condition giving rise to that malfunction. 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 occupational injuries benefit.
I am acutely conscious of and sympathetic to the difficulties faced by the former miners. I am actively exploring whether there is any leeway within the confines of the occupational injuries scheme to provide some further income supports to the miners affected by ill-health as a consequence of their working conditions in privately owned mining operations.
I thank the Minister for his response, in which he indicated some degree of latitude which he and his officials will examine. One has to see the miners who are suffering from this lung disease. While we can be technical about the issue - one obviously has to have medical expertise - the bottom line is that people like Charlie Hopkins and the others to whom I referred know the reason they have this condition and that it came about because they were underground for many years. Irrespective of the points being made, I hope that, given what the Minister outlined today, he will revert to us some time soon, clarify the situation and offer some monetary compensation to the miners who have been affected by black lung disease.
I am examining the disablement benefit and occupational injuries scheme. They are the only two schemes within the remit of my Department relevant in this case. I am looking to see whether there is any leeway within the narrow confines. It is important to emphasise that it is in that context alone that I, as Minister for Social Protection, can examine the issue.