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Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow): Like many Members of Parliament, over the past few years I have been contacted by constituents about asbestos and the terrible diseases that it causes within communities. Members need no information about asbestos-related diseases, because their constituents will have described in graphic detail their true horrors, so I shall not waste time discussing them. However, in recent months a great deal of concern has been caused by the appalling case of Chester Street Holdings, the insurance company that collapsed under the weight of compensation claims for asbestos-related diseases. I know that the mailbags of many of my colleagues have been swelled by letters about the matter and many constituents have visited their surgeries to discuss it.
For some sufferers, that collapse has not caused a problem, as a claim can still be pursued against individual employers if they can be traced, or against the insurance industry if the claim is post-1972 and made through the Policyholders Protection Board. However, many victims find themselves without cover owing to the fact that their claim is pre-1972, or because the company for which they were working when they contracted a disease cannot be traced or does not have the assets to handle such a large claim. It has been estimated that there are some 10,000 such victims in Tyneside and 50,000 nationally.
Tens of thousands of men find themselves in such a position following the scandalous collapse of Chester Street Holdings. I shall give a brief history. Chester Street Holdings was previously Iron Trades Holdings Ltd. That company had been the employers' liability insurers for the shipyards and other sectors of heavy industry throughout the country. In 1989, the Iron Trades Employers Association dumped all its pre-1990 policies, most of which were asbestos related, in Chester Street Holdings. The most solvent part of the business--the post-1990 policies--stayed with Iron Trades.
Once freed from its liabilities for asbestos, Iron Trades was bought in January 2000 by an Australian company, QBE International Insurance Ltd. The whole deal was set up by a character called Robert Hardy, the former chief executive of Iron Trades, who--to put it in a nutshell--bought an off-the-shelf company in 1997 called Chester Street Holdings. He then deliberately set it up to fail by loading it with Iron Trades' asbestos liabilities. He sold the profitable side of the business that was left to QBE Insurance for £75 million less than its value and, in the process, earned himself an annual pay increase of £460,000 a year--an amount equivalent to the compensation for between six and 12 of the people who die of mesothelioma each year.
To add insult to injury, the liquidators have decided that Chester Street has the assets to cover only 5 per cent. of the tens of thousands of asbestosis compensation claims that should have been compensated in full over the next 40 years or more. Even worse, the first people who have a claim on the assets under the scheme drawn up by the liquidators are Chester Street's very own solicitors.
It is worth putting the scandal of Chester Street into context, because it is fundamentally not about money but about people's lives. The TUC has estimated that a victim dies of an asbestos-related disease every 10 days in my area of south Tyneside. For example, Mr. Garrett of Cedar grove, Hebburn is a sufferer. He has mesothelioma, and that means that he is condemned to die. He is not interested in the money for himself; it is for those who have nursed him. He would like to live. He contracted the disease in the shipyards where he worked as a blacksmith and his claims has been accepted. However, as the situation stands at the moment, he will end up with nothing.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): A widow came to see me in my constituency the other week after the long battle that she and her husband, who died a horrible long and lingering death because of asbestos, had had in the courts. The courts awarded her £200,000 but, as my hon. Friend said, she will unfortunately only receive 5 per cent. of that if she is lucky. That is the horror of the story. People die horrible deaths and are awarded compensation but those who survive them do not see a penny of it.
I asked for this debate to highlight the scandal and to ensure that the victims are not forgotten. With that in mind, I have two basic demands. The first is that the Government and the insurance industry will undertake that the victims of asbestos-related diseases will get nothing less than the 100 per cent. compensation to which they are entitled. The second is that there should be a full public inquiry into the Iron Trades and Chester Street Holdings scandal.
The victims of this scandal have never been big earners. They earned an honest living in the shipyards--unlike the morally deficient boards of directors who have caused such heartbreak. The victims helped to build the wealth of Tyneside and Britain. Many of them even helped to build the defences of the nation when that was needed during the second world war when they worked all sorts of shifts--at the very time when there were air raids and their lives were threatened--to make sure that ships were repaired and built to go out to fight the Nazi menace. In return, they were poisoned in their thousands by employers who did not care about anything other than their shareholders' profits. We cannot let those victims down.