Previous Section Index Home Page

All hon. Members have agreed on the importance of regulating claims management services and putting in place vital safeguards for consumers. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and others, especially those representing coal mining constituencies, have described some of the problems—to put it mildly—that arise with those intermediaries and the way in which they mislead people who make claims. The regulatory
8 Jun 2006 : Column 499
framework that we have set out is both proportionate and targeted at the areas where there is the greatest potential for consumer detriment. It is consistent with the Government’s better regulation agenda, and will ensure that standards are raised in the industry.

The regulation of claims management services is a necessary step for protecting consumers. The safeguards that we propose will ensure that bad practices stop and the era of unregulated claims management companies misleading consumers and leaving them out of pocket will be brought firmly to a close.

A number of hon. Members have raised the Barker decision in the House of Lords relating to mesothelioma. I reiterate what the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice) said: it is the Government’s intention to address this issue as soon as possible. Hon. Members have stressed the importance of speed, because of the nature of the disease. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made the good point that unless new legislation is introduced, if we leave it to the courts, it could be years and years before the matter is properly resolved. Colleagues will be reassured not just by my words but by those of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs in opening the debate, and those of the Prime Minister the other day.

In the same vein, we await the decision of the House of Lords on pleural plaque—a subject that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). It is not appropriate to say what we will do until we have heard the final decision.

Mr. Heald: One concern is that it is not only insurers but the Government, too, who have substantial liabilities. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the estimated costs of those liabilities in respect of the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education and Skills, both of which could have significant liabilities for mesothelioma?

Nick Ainger: The hon. Gentleman is right. Other Departments have, or will have, significant liabilities, but the fact remains— [ Interruption. ] The judgment is not that old, but all Departments are considering it. Our position is that we want to try to assist claimants who are, rightly, arguing for joint and several liability.

Several Members spent time on clause 1, and I shall try to address some of the many points that were raised. The Government do not believe that putting a definition of desirable activity into the Bill is appropriate. The provision gives the court the flexibility to consider all the relevant circumstances in the case, to reach a fair and just decision. Including a definition of “desirable activity” could imply that certain types of desirable activity had more weight than others.

Clause 1 addresses a misperception of how the law works, which has taken hold to such an extent that it affects behaviour. It is a legitimate function of legislation to address such matters. The law may be familiar to lawyers and insurers, who deal with it on a daily basis, but it is not familiar to people and organisations concerned about possible litigation. The clause will show them the
8 Jun 2006 : Column 500
importance that the Government attach to the issue and will make the law more widely known.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) believe that the inclusion of clause 1 will lead to a tsunami of litigation—I think that was the phrase that my hon. Friend used. The Government do not believe that will be the case. The clause reflects the existing law and the guidance given by the higher courts, and should not fuel any increase in litigation. It will discourage the bringing of claims based on the proposition that reasonable care involves all steps required to prevent accidents in any conceivable circumstances, regardless of the effect of requiring those steps.

Mr. Dismore: A few moments ago, my hon. Friend said that the interpretation of the phrase “desirable activity” would be a matter for the courts, thereby implying that the courts would have to try cases to decide what it was. He has now said that there will not be more litigation as a result of the clause. How can he square those two arguments? If the courts have to interpret the phrase, more cases will go to trial and there will inevitably be more litigation.

Nick Ainger: Every court that has to settle a claim will have to decide on the facts. The provision will not increase the number of cases; it merely notes that desirable activity is an important factor.

David Howarth: The point we are trying to make is that there will be more appeals, and more cases forced to trial rather than settled. That is where the extra costs will arise.

Nick Ainger: I appreciate that point, but the Government do not take that view. I am sure that the matter will be debated in Committee. I hope, for the sake of my hon. Friend the Minister who will be there, that it will not be debated at quite such length as it was in the House of Lords, but I am sure that Members will spend some time on it.

Mr. Brazier: The point that the splendid legal adviser to the Scouts, Andrew Caplan, made to us is not only that he welcomes the clause, but that it may encourage other organisations to show the courage that the Scouts showed in fighting those wretched people when an unjustified vexatious claim is put forward.

Nick Ainger: The hon. Gentleman makes his case very well.

The concept that we have sought to capture by the term “desirable activity” is the well-established one of taking the wider social value of activities into account. That reflects the existing law. The courts are already able to—and do—take these matters into account when considering all the circumstances of an individual case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood raised his concern, and the concerns of the TUC, in relation to the impact of clause 1 on certain employees. May I try to reassure him? It is suggested that clause 1 would change the law so as to put at a disadvantage those who are employed in public service occupations that are arguably desirable, such as firefighting, compared with those employed in commercial operations such as retail sales, which may not be seen as desirable. However, that
8 Jun 2006 : Column 501
is not correct. It appears to be based on a misconception, first, as to the purpose and meaning of the term “desirable activity” and, secondly, as to the existing law. That is to say that the approach of the courts is to balance risk and the effect of preventive measures on an activity. On the first point, “desirable” was expressly chosen by parliamentary counsel as a term wide enough to encompass the wide range of existing case law—in contrast to terms such as “socially useful”.

Mr. Dismore: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Ainger: I have covered the point that my hon. Friend made in his speech.

The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) raised the need for a good communications strategy. The Government recognise that. There is a ministerial working group, together with a stakeholder group, which is developing that communication strategy with the idea of using champions in the volunteering sector. Volunteering England is involved. There will be that communications strategy in relation to part 1.

I am grateful that colleagues have endorsed the usefulness of clause 2 and the benefits that it will bring. I can assure the House that we have no intention of removing or amending that clause in any detrimental way. On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), I am assured that clause 1 will apply to volunteers working during the Olympics.

All Members welcomed part 2. The only dissenting voice that I could hear was from the Opposition Front Bench in relation to the exemption for trade unions. I reiterate that trade unions will be subject to a code of conduct, and that if they are found to be acting like claims handlers, their exemption will be removed and they will be subject to the same regulation as a claims handler. In relation to the abuses of the coal health scheme, as chairman of the coal health monitoring group in Wales, may I reiterate the call of my predecessor that the parasites living off the back of what is undoubtedly the biggest industrial claims scheme ever—we have paid out £3 billion to miners and their relatives—should return all the fees that they have claimed from the claimants?

I am sure that there will be further, and perhaps lengthy and interesting, discussion in Committee on the provisions in the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6) (Programme motions),

8 Jun 2006 : Column 502

Question agreed to.


Queen’s recommendation having been signified

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connections with bills),

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Criminal Law

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 115(1) (Northern Ireland Grand Committee (delegated legislation)) and Standing Order No. 116(1) (Northern Ireland Grand Committee (sittings)),

8 Jun 2006 : Column 503

Question agreed to.

8 Jun 2006 : Column 504


Overseas Aid

6 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I wish to present a petition on global justice, trade, aid and debt on behalf of the residents of the Bishop Auckland constituency and others.

The petition states:

The petition was initiated in fair trade week. Churches, citizens and the Oxfam in Barnard Castle were instrumental in collecting the signatures.

To lie upon the Table.

8 Jun 2006 : Column 505

Manor Hospital (Walsall)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

Next Section Index Home Page