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Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): That is out of character.

Mr. Worthington: I regret to say to my hon. Friend that it is true that the Minister has been unfailingly courteous on this matter.

The Social Security Select Committee deserves credit for suggesting that the polluter should pay: that those who cause the accident, illness or disease should pay back any benefits to the Government. That should concentrate minds and lead to earlier and larger settlements, as the clock will be ticking, not against the employee--the victim--but against the employer and insurance companies.

I pay a final tribute to Clydeside Action on Asbestos because I am convinced that without that group we should not be improving the law today. I express, as have others, the hope that improvements will be made in Committee.

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There is a powerful case for exempting mesothelioma from the workings of a clawback. I also want to remember those people who have died feeling bitterly let down and angered by a so-called welfare state that kicked them as they were dying an appalling, painful death. They should be remembered today.

6.6 pm

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): I happily join my hon. Friends the Members for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Wray) and for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) in paying tribute to Clydeside Action on Asbestos, because I am sure that all my hon. Friends are right that we should not have made the progress that we have in this campaign but for the work done by that organisation.

I am surprised that Conservative Members have not taken part in the debate because, although there are serious cases in shipyard and port areas, surely in every constituency there must be people who have had compensation clawed back by the compensation recovery unit--sometimes in grotesquely unjust circumstances.

I have been involved in this issue from its fairly early stages. I recall initiating an Adjournment debate, which was replied to by the right hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), who is now responsible for prisons but was then responsible for social security--we may draw what conclusions we like from that. I also met her to discuss cases from my constituency.

I must be courteous to the Minister. The Bill makes a small but important step in the right direction in recognising the iniquity of clawing back compensation awarded in respect of pain and suffering to people who have been injured at work through no fault of their own, but I share the complaint made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham): that the provisions start from later this year. What about all those people, including several of my constituents, and no doubt people throughout the United Kingdom, who have had their payments for pain and suffering clawed back in the eight years since 1989? It was never right for the Department of Social Security to claw back money that was awarded by the courts for pain and suffering.

Can the Minister give the amount that was paid in respect of pain and suffering and clawed back by the compensation recovery unit in those eight years? Will he please, even at this late stage, consider the overwhelming case for making the provision retrospective? If it is right not to claw back that money from claimants in future, surely it must be wrong for the DSS to hang on to the money that it has illegitimately clawed back from people who have claimed on the same grounds in the past.

6.9 pm

Mr. Henry McLeish (Fife, Central): Important points have been made in the debate, but the overwhelming concern is to get the Bill on to the statute book. Time is running out. If, as expected, the Government call a May election, it is vital in the interests of all the considerations that have been mentioned this evening that we get the Bill into Committee and through its remaining stages, so that it will start to benefit people who have been suffering for many years.

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I congratulate my hon. Friends who have contributed to the debate--my hon. Friends the Members for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Wray), for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) and for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). The hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) also contributed to the consensus that prevails in the House and the country on the matter.

It is rare that we achieve consensus, and when we do, we should take advantage of it. Despite some of the concerns that have been expressed, the Bill is positive and it takes the issue forward. Legislation should always be seen to be building for the future. We may want to return to the issue in later months or years, but the Bill represents a significant step forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), the shadow Secretary of State for Social Security, said that prevention was better than compensation. That sends a powerful message to the workplaces of Britain that much of what has been achieved is fine, but much more remains to be done to make our workplaces safe, secure and friendlier environments for people to work in. The Bill does not deal with those issues but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Provan suggested, it is important that we debate the issues and record our concern. Progress has been made, but we have much more to do.

I want to put on record my appreciation of Clydeside Action on Asbestos. If democracy is to work, we as the elected representatives must have groups to pressurise us to bring about positive changes. The action group, supported by others, has been influential, and helpful work has been done by the Trades Union Congress, which is keen for the Bill to be passed.

It is important to recognise that we can have consensus on issues in Britain. The Government, the Opposition, the minority parties, the TUC and action groups throughout the country all say that changes are necessary to the payment of compensation, and we have almost completed the first part of the process.

In Committee we must deal briefly with issues. Outstanding issues remain, and these have been highlighted by my hon. Friends. An important aspect is the start date for the legislation. We hope that the Bill will complete its passage through Parliament before April, but October 1997 is the date on which it is to be implemented. When the Minister replies, will he tell us why, if the legislation has been enacted by then, it cannot take effect from April 1997, instead of October? That would send another message: not only are we concerned to get the Bill enacted, but we are keen for it to benefit people at the earliest opportunity. That would reflect well on the House and on both Government and Opposition.

I seek an assurance from the Government that with our wholehearted co-operation the remaining stages of the Bill's passage will be completed quickly. There is no reason why that should not be accomplished in the time span that we discussed, and I am sure that such reassurances will be forthcoming.

The preponderance of Scots--complemented by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone--who participated in the debate is no coincidence. In areas that have undergone tough industrial times and years of hardship, the legacy of many industries

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remains. As an economy is modernised, the products of the old are evident alongside the benefits of the new. It is no surprise that my hon. Friends should speak passionately from the Opposition Benches--I almost made a slip and said the Government Benches, but that is a few weeks ahead. Even in a debate on a technical measure, there is no reason why hon. Members should not show that they care.

On issues that affect people's income and hardship, we must be clear that the Bill is not the end of the story. Many organisations will see it as a welcome step forward. There has been cross-party endorsement and endorsement from those who belong to no party. That is encouraging. The Bill should be seen as part of a process of improving working environments, improving compensation and ensuring that those who should pay up do pay up. If that message is sent out to the country, it will do a great deal for the victims and for the credibility of the House.

6.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans): I thank all hon. Members who have spoken for the support that they offered for the measure. The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) asked for reassurances from the Government that we would do everything in our power to speed up the Bill's progress. I hope that, by general agreement, that will be possible.

If I may summarise the hon. Gentleman's winding-up speech, the main question--apart from collateral issues--was whether the measure could take effect in April rather than October this year. I shall deal with that shortly.

It is important that I have an opportunity to respond to the hon. Members who have spoken. The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), who opened for the Opposition, made a point that was taken up by several speakers: that all personal injury action cases begin with a personal tragedy of injury or death, and that prevention is very much better than compensation. It is common ground that money will never compensate for the misery involved. The Bill, however, is directed at the narrow issue of the triangular relationship among the three parties involved, and how it should operate fairly and appropriately.

The hon. Lady described that clearly, but she mentioned a number of other matters which arise out of the Bill but go beyond it--the question of the extent to which information should be provided by the Department to encourage the promotion of personal injury claims. Because the Bill removes disincentives in a particular group of cases, it will indeed encourage litigation in appropriate cases, but the hon. Lady went on to argue that further steps should be taken by the Government. Perhaps one of the strangest sights these days is the advertisements that appear on the back of buses for lawyers offering to take up these cases. Trade unions have had a distinguished record in helping their members to bring that kind of litigation over the years.

The hon. Lady asked whether the Secretary of State could go further and either fund claims or step into the shoes of the plaintiff. She used the precise, professional language that I would expect of her: the language of subrogation. That is what occurs in private insurance--although one never bothers to read it on one's insurance policy. If the insurance company pays, it stands in the

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person's shoes and controls the litigation. That is the end of it as far as the individual is concerned, and the insurer is in the driving seat.

The Government deliberately rejected that model in 1989 because we believed that it would involve direct interference in virtually every personal injury litigation. We thought that it was more appropriate to allow the parties to determine how they pursue and conduct the litigation, but nevertheless to operate the process of compensation recovery after they had done so. I do not wish to describe such a proposal for subrogation too unkindly as nationalising personal injuries litigation. However, the Government were reluctant to become involved to that extent.

I turn to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) and by several other hon. Members regarding asbestos and the powerful and persuasive role played by the Clydeside Action on Asbestos group. Asbestosis has several formidable and unpleasant features. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Wray) graphically described the experiences and the misery of his constituents who suffer from that extremely horrible disease. Its consequences were not apparent in the past, and people either did not realise the danger or failed to take adequate precautions.

Asbestosis cases are among the most horrible, graphic and difficult of personal litigation cases. I think that the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington)--[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) corrects me on my Scottish pronunciation; it clearly is not adequate and I apologise to everyone involved. The hon. Gentleman correctly said that we must prove where the disease was contracted, prove the consequence and then establish the negligence. Many people, particularly the hon. Member for Provan, think that the latter issue should be easier to establish. However, the process of establishing the links in particular cases has proved long, bitter and difficult.

Despite those problems, people have succeeded in bringing such claims. The unhappiest features of the 1990 scheme, which this Bill reforms, were most horribly and graphically displayed in relation to existing asbestosis cases. However, it is difficult to see how we could go further in respect of asbestosis, and exactly what remedy and course Opposition Members advocate. It may be argued that asbestosis cases should be taken completely outside common law litigation, and that a special compensation scheme should be established. The pneumoconiosis scheme and the criminal injuries compensation scheme were mentioned in that regard.

The difficulty is that statutory schemes of compensation are not usually--I stress that this is the general rule--as generous as common law damages when one succeeds in proving one's case. Therefore, I suspect that there would be some reluctance to retreat from the common law situation. I appreciate that this group of people have suffered the worst effects of the 1990 arrangements. However, under the ring fencing for pain and suffering, that group is likely to benefit more than any other from the legislation. Mesothelioma, one of the worst manifestations of asbestosis, tends to strike many years after the event, often when a person has retired. Therefore, there would be no loss of earnings. As schedule 2

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carefully limits what may be set off against what, the pain and suffering--as is intended by the legislation--should be recovered by the plaintiff, whole and undiminished.

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