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13 Jun 2006 : Column 188WH—continued

Since the 1999 periodic review, water companies have prepared 25-year water resource plans. Until recently, they were not required to, and did so only on a voluntary basis. The 25-year plans describe how each company aims to achieve a sustainable supply-demand balance for the public water supply. They are updated
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annually by companies and reviewed by the Environment Agency for consistency with its own 25-year national and regional water resources strategies.

The big change is that the provision of water resources management plans is to become a statutory requirement under the Water Act 2003. A consultation on proposed regulations relating to the process ended in April this year, and the responses received are being considered. Our aim is for the new regime to come into force by next April.

Like drought plans, water resources management plans will be subject to public scrutiny and consultation. The plans are designed to reflect the best available information on the consequences of climate change, an issue to which the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) referred, and to ensure that the latest research is factored into them on an ongoing basis.

The plans should also reflect the Government’s “twin track” approach to managing water resources, which is based on demand management, developing sustainable resources where they are needed and the implications of demographic change and increasing pressures for housing on the demand for water resources. I shall explain in detail how the system is supposed to work.

The Government recognise that there are concerns that their plans for significant new house building in the south-east might have an adverse impact on supply and demand for water in that area. That additional demand should be factored into water companies’ water resource plans, and it is important for those plans to be updated as more detailed information on housing numbers and locations is provided, to ensure that resources are available to meet any increase in demand. As a Government, we want a two-way dialogue between water companies and planning bodies to ensure that that happens.

During this debate, we have perhaps missed the point that the water companies are statutory consultees on regional spatial strategies and local development frameworks, and that the planning bodies will be statutory consultees on water resources plans. That is an important step forward. However, a question is left in my mind about how individual planning applications should operate, and there is at least an arguable case that significant planning applications should have very clear inputs from the water companies, and that those inputs should be taken into account as part of the planning process.

I am not sure that the water companies themselves would want to be statutory consultees for every planning application, but the fact that they are statutory consultees to the local development framework and the regional spatial strategies is an important and significant point.

Richard Ottaway: I completely accept the Minister’s point and am glad to hear that he is considering the issue, certainly in respect of the larger applications. However, I should like to take him back to my previous point: he probably has to consult more water companies in the south-east than in the rest of the country. That fragmentation concerns me. On the map,
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one sees that South East Water is separated physically from itself by Southern Water, and then it starts again; then it is over on the Isle of Wight. There is an absolute patchwork of economic interests—all well run; I do not belittle that. Is there some way of putting that lot together into a more cohesive unit?

Ian Pearson: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, but we are talking about private companies. If the market decides that there is a more efficient way to allocate those resources, market forces will be expected to drive further consolidation in the industry, subject to the normal concerns of regulations and competition. I would expect that to happen.

I make the point back to the hon. Gentleman that there have been significant improvements on connections between companies’ networks. Water sharing between water companies is going on to meet variations in demand. To that extent, the market is deciding that, where it is sensible to join up, that should happen.

The current and future long-term water resources plans identify a range of options for meeting the supply-demand balance. Supply side options include new reservoirs and desalination plants; both are identified in the plans of some companies and will need proper appraisal for the future.

As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle said, the additional demand for water from new development will depend also on the extent to which water efficiency measures are incorporated into the new buildings. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Communities and Local Government will undertake a joint consultation on options for further regulation to secure improved water efficiency in homes and buildings.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South said that the Government should lead on water efficiency. As he will be aware, in October 2005 we established a water saving group to encourage the efficient use of water in households and help ensure the long-term sustainability of the water supply. The group’s action plan has five different workstreams dealing with targets, the evidence base, best practice, education and policy. I chair the group that includes the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, the Consumer Council for Water, Water UK and Waterwise. Each workstream is led by a different organisation, and a great deal of work is going on.

A number of hon. Members raised the issue of water metering, which has been actively considered by the water saving group. Increased water metering can contribute to helping achieve a sustainable long-term water supply and demand balance. Currently, there is water metering in about 28 per cent. of households and, as part of the work of the water saving group, we are looking at ways to enhance the rate of metering in water-stressed areas.

A number of hon. Members mentioned the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report, which was published last Tuesday following a 10-month inquiry into water management in England and Wales. It is wide-ranging and makes a number of recommendations on improving water management. I
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do not have time to go into a number of the points raised in this debate, but I should say that as a Government we are doing much to address such issues as the labelling of white goods and the use of grey water, mentioned by the hon. Member for Cheltenham. Perhaps I can write to hon. Members to outline our views. Our response to their lordships will be published in due course.

In conclusion, it is clear that to achieve the sustainable use of water resources, we need to introduce a combination of measures—when necessary, through regulation—to balance supply with demand, including the promotion of best practice and advances in technology. A partnership between the Government, the water regulators, the water companies and communities is required, all working together to ensure that there are sufficient supplies of water to meet demand, both now and in future.

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Mesothelioma Sufferers (Compensation)

11 am

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May I say from the outset that I am absolutely delighted to head up this debate on mesothelioma and fairness to victims? I wish to thank several people who have contributed to this campaign, none more so than my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who has been at the heart of the campaign. I have been extremely grateful for his help, advice and support. Likewise, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), who unfortunately cannot make it to this debate, has also been extremely helpful and supportive. The advice and co-operation of the TUC have been exemplary, and I also thank Thompsons, the local solicitor, which has represented a number of the victims and their families during this difficult period.

Current and former shipyard workers such as myself live every day with the fear that the dreaded fibre is inside us. As it can take up to 50 years to manifest itself, people in our communities live in fear that someday they will be struck down by this horrible disease. The only compensation that they can get is the knowledge that their families will be taken care of when they are no longer with us. I for one have been to too many funerals and seen too many families suffer as a result of this terrible disease, mesothelioma.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I read a report recently by Clydeside Action on Asbestos, which claims that as many as one in three individuals who worked in the shipyards could be affected by this terrible disease.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Here and now, the problem is in the thousands, but it could grow to involve some 100,000 people. I am delighted that he took the opportunity to mention Clydeside Action on Asbestos, which is a voluntary organisation that works for the families, not the victims, in providing help, support and advice at a time when they need it. It should also be congratulated.

To get to the substance of the problem, on 3 May the House of Lords gave a judgment that would slash the amount of compensation that is paid to workers dying of asbestos-induced mesothelioma. In Barker v. Corus, the Lords ruled by a majority of four to one that workers who developed mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos by multiple employers could recover compensation from the insurers of only those employers that are traceable and solvent, and that the insurers will be liable for only a proportion of the compensation that would otherwise be payable.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. It is very important, and I look forward to hearing some positive remarks from the Minister later. I apologise that I cannot stay for the full debate.

My hon. Friend mentioned insurers and insurance companies. Does he agree that there has been a cost to absolutely everyone—the victims, their families and everybody in their community—as a result of this terrible illness, but not to the insurers? Even the health
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service bears a cost, as it has to look after the people who are suffering from this dire disease. The only people who are liable are the insurers, and they are the only ones who are not paying a cost.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It was quite humbling—excuse the pun, Mrs. Humble—to witness people in hospitals and hospices go through this traumatic period in their life, and to see at first hand the excellent support that they get from our medical staff.

My hon. Friend makes a point about the health service. If I may digress slightly, let me point out that there is medication on the market that does not present a cure for mesothelioma but definitely helps in prolonging someone’s life. If someone has only 12 months to live, prolonging their life for even a month would be extremely helpful. The medication is Alimta, and it would be helpful if the Government were to give it a sympathetic hearing so that it could be offered by the national health service.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister, who is building a reputation for being fair-minded and creative in whatever role he is allocated, could well focus on the dissenting voice of Lord Rodger, who said that the decision would create an enclave of cases that were inconsistent with legal principles and, in respect of the last intervention, that the courts were throwing a lifeline to wrongdoers and their insurers at the expense of claimants? That cannot be allowed to continue, can it?

Jim Sheridan: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Like him, I believe that the Minister is building a reputation for being fair-minded, and one can only hope that that will continue today. He is absolutely right about the comments of Lord Rodger. Thank God, someone in the other place is still listening to us.

The Law Lords gave the judgment even though they knew that mesothelioma has a latency period of up to 50 years, during which employers and insurers can disappear, and that victims will have had multiple employers. Anyone who knows people who worked in that industry will know that they moved around on a regular basis, and that to try to keep track of employers would be virtually impossible.

In the 2002 case of Fairchild v. Glenhaven, the Lords recognised the ruling that the family of a worker who died of mesothelioma after negligent exposure to asbestos by more than one employer could recover compensation from any of their employers, even though it could not be proved when the worker had inhaled the fatal fibres. Fairchild was an exceptional decision that was imposed to create fairness. It allowed claimants in limited cases to depart from the normal liability rules whereby they must prove on a balance of probabilities that the defendant’s conduct caused their injury. Scientific knowledge does not enable claimants to prove which exposure to asbestos caused their illness. Putting their claims to a balance of probabilities test would usually disqualify claimants from any compensation, and at that time that was deemed unacceptable by the Law Lords.

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However, in Barker v. Corus, almost as if repenting their bold approach after a two-day hearing in March, the Law Lords wiped out much of the Fairchild gain. Giving the lead judgment in three conjoined appeals, Lord Hoffmann said that Fairchild had involved only two employers and that it had been appropriate to fix them both with liability and joint and several damages; that is, both were equally responsible for the whole amount and in practice would share it. It was clear, however, that there would be incremental development of Fairchild through subsequent cases and the Barker appeal raised issues left unconsidered or undecided by Fairchild.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) referred to Lord Rodger, who said that the real reason for insurers challenging joint liability was the insolvency of so many defenders and their insurers, and that the appeal was their only hope of minimising their liabilities. Lord Rodger could not understand why the courts were throwing a lifeline to wrongdoers and their insurers at the expense of claimants.

The TUC, claimants, lawyers and support groups reacted similarly. Thompsons solicitors, which has acted on behalf of many claimants, described the decision as a massive injustice and a legal technicality that will make sense to no one but the driest of lawyers.

Mr. Devine: My hon. Friend listed professional bodies, voluntary organisations, relatives, families and so on. Does he know any other three people, apart from the three Law Lords, who agree with the decision?

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People find the decision incredible, and not only ordinary people on the street, but lawyers who have worked in the industry for a number of years. Likewise, the TUC said the decision was “cruel and unjust” and called for legislation to ensure full compensation for entirely innocent claimants caught in this legal mess.

Anne Moffat: On the level of support for what my hon. Friend is trying to do and the strength of feeling against the Law Lords’ judgment, what has been his experience of the political parties? Does he share my concern that no Scottish nationalist representatives are present in this debate?

Jim Sheridan: Having had informal discussions with the main political parties, I understand that there is cross-party support for legislation to try to address the wrong that the Law Lords have done. Unfortunately, but not untypically, no hon. Members from the Scottish National party are here, although I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend will be not surprised about that, because they only work part-time anyway.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced in a recent press release his intention to work in partnership with insurers to ensure faster compensation for mesothelioma sufferers and their families, saying:

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The press release continued:

I stress the word “our”—

Mr Hutton said he would report back on progress made—

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to refer to hon. and right hon. Members not by name, but by title or constituency.

Jim Sheridan: Thank you, Mrs. Humble. I stand corrected and apologise if I have caused any offence.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that he would report back on progress made before Parliament rose for the summer. That was an ambitious but welcome statement, and I know that the Minister is also keen to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Likewise, we met the Prime Minister last week, and he was also keen to bring the issue to a satisfactory conclusion.

If we do nothing else as legislators, we should protect those vulnerable people who are suffering as a result of the Law Lords’ decision—I sometimes wonder what planet they are on when they make such decisions, which are seriously offensive to people who are suffering from that terrible disease.

I hope that the Government can find a way forward alongside others. There are moves afoot in the Scottish Parliament to bring forward a private Member’s Bill. That should be welcomed, but if we can sort the problem out at Westminster, we should do it. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on this important issue.

11.14 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on initiating this debate and the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on the work that he has done.

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