Tuesday, 21 November 2017
I wish to raise the need for the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to outline the number of former miners who worked in Arigna and in other mines who have availed of disablement benefit due to work-related illness; and whether there are enough resources currently available to expedite existing applications from former miners seeking disablement benefit.
I am glad the Minister could come to the House to take this very important Commencement matter. Disablement benefit has been a very welcome development for many ex-miners. I live a short distance from Arigna, which is in the vicinity of north Roscommon, south Sligo and Leitrim, and many men worked hard in the mines all their lives to provide for their families. Unfortunately, many suffered severe illnesses due to working long hours in the mines. As one can imagine, they had to work in very difficult conditions, resulting in health consequences.
In 2010 the national coal miners' group secured agreement that the Department of Health would extend disablement benefit to former miners suffering from the prescribed occupational disease pneumoconiosis, known as "black lung disease". Since this development seven years ago, which I strongly lobbied for on behalf of miners, hundreds of miners across the country have applied for disablement benefit, not just those who had been employed at Arigna but also those who had worked at Castlecomer, Ballingarry and Rossmore mines.
I am glad to say that, over the last number of years, our office has assisted many ex-miners in their applications for disablement. Unfortunately, there have been some delays in processing applications and more staffing resources were deployed when I highlighted the problem. To date, I understand that more than €1 million has been paid in disablement benefit to former miners nationally, with approximately half of that paid to former Arigna miners. The Minister might confirm these figures and outline how many applicants have availed of disablement benefit to date. Is she satisfied that there are enough resources to expedite the existing applications from former miners seeking disablement benefit? I hope no applicant is currently facing unnecessary delays.
Recognition of the plight of these miners would not have happened without the sterling work of many people, including former Roscommon county councillor Charlie Hopkins and Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, who was the Minister at the time and who became a strong advocate of the national coal miners' group. The miners were hard-working men and many of them suffered greatly. I want to recognise their vital contribution to their local and national economy. The coal mining industry sustained the community of Arigna and all the area, as well as many others down through the centuries. I am heartened that many miners affected by ill-health have availed of disablement benefit as a result.
I thank the Senator for raising this topic, which I know is particularly important to people in his neck of the woods. Any person, including a former miner, who has suffered an occupational injury or prescribed occupational disease, is entitled to apply for disablement benefit under the occupational injuries scheme, which was introduced with effect from 1 May 1967. In order to qualify for a payment under this scheme, applicants must show that they were insurably employed at the time they sustained the injury or disease and that it was caused by their occupation at the time. If these conditions are satisfied, applicants are examined to determine whether and to what extent they have suffered a loss of physical or mental faculty as a result of that injury or disease.
In 2010, the then Minister met with miners’ representatives and it was agreed at that meeting that former miners who suffered from the prescribed occupational disease pneumoconiosis, which is particularly associated with mining, would have their applications expedited.Applications for disablement benefit should normally be made within three months of the entitlement commencing. However, many of the applications from former miners concern injuries that occurred up to 50 years ago. Given the passage of time and the lack of witnesses in some instances, investigations into the circumstances surrounding these cases can be difficult and time-consuming, with the result that applications typically are taking much longer to process than we would expect. Where application forms are not completed in full or where medical or other evidence has been requested from applicants, it can take some time to process applications. However, I assure the Senator that the Department is committed to ensuring that all benefit claims are processed as expeditiously as possible and that the scheme is continuously monitored and reviewed to ensure that customers are responded to as quickly as possible.
To respond to the Deputy's final request, I advise him that, to date, 565 applications have been received from former coal miners. A total of 209 claims have been awarded, 66 are pending and 290 were refused. Of those 565 applications, 296 were from former Arigna coal miners. A total of 123 of their claims have been awarded, 36 are pending and 137 have been refused.
I thank the Minister for her reply. She will be aware that this was a difficult situation. Compensation was an issue and we were able to get around it. Since 2010, this issue has brought all the coal miners from around the country together. It provided a huge lesson and has been a major eye-opener. Unfortunately, many of the miners have died . The 123 former Arigna coal miners and others throughout the country are very thankful that in some way their contributions were recognised. The amount of money involved is small. I hope the Department will work twice as hard to expedite the applications of those who have claims pending. I thank the Minister for her input. The State forgot about the plight of those involved. However, we were able to find a mechanism by means of which they could be recognised and have their issues resolved.
We will redouble our efforts to ensure that the outstanding and pending claims are expedited as quickly as possible. I commend Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív and other politicians at the time on the work they did in respect of this matter. These men were working in particular conditions - these were not unique and others were working in similar conditions - and we did not quite recognise the damage that was being done to their health. The benefit in question only goes a small way towards recognising the damage that was done to these men. I wish them a happy and a healthy retirement.