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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans): I was smiling only because I have the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question. It is yes.

Dr. Godman: I am delighted to hear that. I am sure that the voluntary organisations and, much more important the sufferers and claimants, in Northern Ireland will be pleased with the Minister's emphatic assurance.

It is not for me to ask the Minister lots of questions now, because I hope to be lucky enough to be on the Standing Committee, but may I ask him one more? I have received several complaints about the time that it takes for an appeal against a decision of the compensation recovery unit to be heard. If the Minister cannot respond to those complaints now, will he do so later in writing?

I believe that an increasing number of appeals have been upheld over the past two years; it is doubly unfortunate if a person making an appeal has to wait an unconscionably long time before it is even heard, let alone decided.

Having served my time in a shipyard as a shipwright, I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), have seen many serious injuries. As one who is closely associated with the fishing industry, I have also come across numerous fatalities in that industry, both when vessels are at sea and when they are tied up at the quay.

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I welcome the Bill. It is an important measure--although the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State will not be surprised to hear that in my view it does not go far enough. The Secretary of State would be astonished if I were more complimentary than I already have been. I have frequently engaged him in debates on issues concerning constituents and others in the unfortunate position of having to seek social security incomes of some kind from the state. If nothing else, the right hon. Gentleman usually listens courteously--although he usually gives me an equally courteous dismissal.

I have always thought that the CRU was engaged in a squalid exercise, but the record of the insurance companies is far more despicable than that of Ministers and officials in the Department of Social Security. Ministers have, at least partially, seen the error of their ways, but insurance companies seem much more concerned with providing benefits for their boards of directors than with dealing expeditiously with the legitimate claims brought by people, many of whom have been severely injured or are terminally ill.

I am sure that I speak for every hon. Member when I say that I have seen such people in my surgeries--terminally ill people with asbestosis, for example. I do not say that that disease is peculiar to the shipbuilding and construction industries, but people in those industries who have given loyal, skilled and hard-working service to their employers have often been made to suffer dreadfully because of those employers' sheer negligence and indifference.

The insurance companies have a poor record in that regard. Their conduct when dealing with such cases is always characterised by prevarication and procrastination. It is disgraceful that cases involving people who are seriously injured or who suffer from a terminal illness take so long to settle.

What is the average length of a case involving such a person--three years, four years, five years? I have dealt with some cases recently, involving people making claims against the hospital board, and been told that the average is five years. Is it the same for asbestosis sufferers and people who have been injured because of the negligence of their employers?

I wish to record my grateful appreciation of the efforts of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, the GMB, the Transport and General Workers Union and, last but not least, those of the members of Clydeside Action on Asbestos, including some of our Scottish colleagues who are in the Chamber today. The Scottish Trades Union Congress and the TUC have also played an important role.

On behalf of my constituents and others in Scotland who have suffered the problems that we are discussing, I wish to express thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the Chairman of the Select Committee. My hon. Friend had to attend a meeting at 5 o'clock, so he offers his apologies for his unavoidable absence from the debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) for organising a remarkable meeting with the Chairman of the Select Committee and other interested Members of Parliament that enabled some

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seriously ill members of Clydeside Action on Asbestos to present their cases to us. I am sure that that had an effect on those members of the Select Committee who attended the meeting.

I received a letter and a briefing from Margaret Sharkey of UCATT. The briefing said:

It went on to say:

    "Compensation is paid by employers/insurers because they have broken the law".

That is an emphatic statement with which I have a great deal of sympathy.

The briefing continued:

My reason for saying that I have a great deal of sympathy with that emphatic statement is that I have seen other accidents in the industries that I know well, largely--not always--brought about by the negligence of employers who demand that workers work excessive hours. Making workers do shifts of 10, 12 or more hours increases the incidence of accidents.

The briefing continued:

To that I would add the lack of inspection by accredited inspectors. I have seen strange requests carried out by workers at the behest of their foremen and supervisors. They have had to engage in risky operations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie quoted from the Clydeside Action on Asbestos briefing. I want to reserve a couple of quotations for the Standing Committee, but I should like the Minister to respond to the group's demand on the need to avoid the delay spelled out by the Secretary of State.

Members of Clydeside Action on Asbestos said:

I consider that a legitimate complaint; matters could be expedited along the lines suggested.

The Bill is a worthwhile measure: it does not go far enough, but it will bring some relief to many of my constituents who at this very moment are pursuing claims against negligent and careless employers. If those employers were to have a son or daughter injured because

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of their negligence, that might bring home to them the scale of neglect and negligence on some of our building sites and shipyards and elsewhere.

Shipyards today have a much better record than hitherto, but there are still too many accidents in workplaces throughout the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) is absolutely right to say that much more needs to be done, but at least those who are injured will derive some benefit from this legislation.

5.35 pm

Mr. Jimmy Wray (Glasgow, Provan): It is an absolute disgrace that a Bill of such substance and importance is given only two and a half hours to be debated in the Chamber. Think of the time that has passed: asbestosis and mesothelioma go back as far as 1889.

It is also important to note that previous Governments have done nothing about a disease that is one of the biggest killers. Millions of pounds have been spent on prevention and training about AIDS and other diseases that are a much lower priority, but very little has been spent in the past seven years on mesothelioma: only £447,000.

The disease affects not only bricklayers and plumbers, but members of the public. I remember, when I was a plumber, going into King's Park school where pipe coverers were stripping all the pipes and taking off all the asbestos. The place was polluted with dust. If a small speck of that dust gets into people's lungs, they are finished.

We are talking about ring-fencing pain and suffering, but it is very sad that thousands of people before and after 1989 lost out on their claims. I am glad that the Secretary of State for Scotland has said that the Government are getting rid of the small payment of £2,500, because it has been a disaster, but is it right for the Government to have gained through the clawback system from the pain and suffering of people with mesothelioma? Will those people be re-compensated? This is grave-robbing, and the families are suffering. It is not only the person working with asbestos dust who dies: it is the woman who washes the clothes and the children who greet their father or mother. That is the seriousness of the case.

I want to take a little time to explain some of the saddest cases. I want them to be recorded in Hansard, because I believe that the Government have taken a diabolical liberty over the years, especially as it has taken eight years, from 1989 to 1997, to get something done. Nothing would ever have been done if the Social Security Committee had not examined this unfair situation in 1995, or without the efforts of organisations such as Clydeside Action on Asbestos, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Trades Union Congress and all the other unions involved. People do not think that the matter is serious; but thousands of people are dying because the environment that they walk through to get to work means that they have contracted mesothelioma or asbestosis, which is not as deadly.

Most people with mesothelioma, a cancer of the chest lining, die within one or two years of diagnosis. It is uniformly fatal and as ugly and horrible as it sounds. June Hancock, who is still alive, was diagnosed as having the disease in January 1994. She is still relatively active and mobile. She is enjoying some borrowed time, as she calls

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it, because she was one of the first people to win a claim as having contracted the dust in the environment. She won the last round of her historic legal battle for compensation for the damage done to her health by asbestos. It was the first example of the so-called third wave of environmental asbestos cases to reach the British courts. Many more similar compensation claims are likely.

June is now 60. When she was a child in Armley, a suburb of Leeds, she and her friends played in the streets around the former J W Roberts asbestos factory. White fibrous dust from the factory filled the air and built up in drifts in corners and against walls as the children played in the streets. In the loading bays of the factory, they would throw snowballs made of asbestos at each other in fun. The deadly particles steadily accumulated in their lungs.

Fourteen years ago, June Hancock watched her mother die a painful death from mesothelioma. Now she, too, has the disease, but early on she decided to fight it rather than give in. She has been sustained by the fight to win compensation from T and N plc, formerly Turner and Newall, of which J W Roberts is a subsidiary. She is one among many victims of a man-made epidemic--I call it the silent epidemic--that makes few headlines but is becoming impossible to ignore. While we worry that eating beef might trigger a rare brain disease, thousands of people have died not through any choice that they made, but from having once inhaled asbestos fibre in their workplace, home or school. They are the innocent victims of our modern industrialised society.

About 3,000 people die in Britain every year from asbestos-related disease; more than half die from mesothelioma. Asbestos has killed thousands of people since it was first exploited commercially at the end of the last century. It has been, and still is, the largest occupational killer in industrialised societies. It is not one among equals but the leader of the pack. The death toll is rising steeply.

The Health and Safety Executive, not a body given to wild predictions, said recently that, by 2025, there could be 10,000 deaths annually in Britain from asbestos-related disease. That is far more than are killed in road accidents or by AIDS-related illnesses. It is 200 times more than Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has ever killed in a year. Over the past 20 years, we have learned that asbestos is dangerous stuff, to be avoided at all costs. Less often do we hear that it is too late for many thousands of June Hancocks--the people dying and doomed to die--or that thousands more are still being exposed to risk. In many places and trades, asbestos is a plague to come, yet Governments have ignored the dangers for most of the century. We are looking forward to a Labour Government taking action to stop the killer once and for all.

The basic dangers relating to asbestos have been recognised since the end of the last century. For example, the report of Her Majesty's lady inspector of factories of 1898 mentions the

In 1899, a 33-year-old man who came to consult Dr. Montague Murray at London's Charing Cross hospital seemed to be merely another victim of bronchitis until he mentioned that the other nine men who had worked with him spinning the new miracle substance--

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