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13 Jun 2006 : Column 195WH—continued

As someone who represents a constituency that had a large asbestos factory, I have been shocked at the Law Lords’ decision, as have other hon. Members. It has caused widespread anger in the community. I have received scores of letters from families who have lost people because of mesothelioma and asbestos sufferers who still face the threat of mesothelioma. For us, as Members of Parliament, that decision must be
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overturned. That is why we are here—to represent the people who cannot fight for themselves.

The Secretary of State referred to working with the insurers and companies, but such behaviour is typical of how insurance companies have acted in the past. The first Workmen’s Compensation Act was introduced in 1906, but it was not extended to asbestos victims until 1931. I have a quotation from someone talking about workers trying to seek compensation for industrial illnesses that sums up why, in the 21st century, we are still in the position we are in:

That was written in 1941, but with the judgment that we are discussing, it is as true today as it was then.

From 1931, Turner and Newall, the company in my constituency, employed an insurance company to negotiate down people’s legal entitlement. In 1932, for example, Turner and Newall paid Commercial Union 100 guineas a year for the privilege of doing that job, and in 1931 it noted in its company minutes with some satisfaction that compensation of £254 paid to a victim of mesothelioma was £50 less than what that person was legally entitled to. It is about time we said that this has got to stop.

Mr. Devine: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such people are behaving in the 21st century in the same way as coal mine owners behaved in the 19th century?

Paul Rowen: I agree and would like us to adopt a solution like the coal health claims scheme. We must move away from addressing the issue in the civil courts, and have a common agreement on what is going to happen.

Mesothelioma was first recognised as a disease only in 1956, by a South African, Wagner. What he described on visiting Turner and Newall in 1959 is typical of what we are dealing with:

That sums up the attitude of companies that have used asbestos and enjoyed its economic benefits—so much so that in 1964, when Frank Brooks became the first person in Rochdale to be diagnosed with mesothelioma, his widow was denied compensation because although it was admitted that there were tumours, that was not on his death certificate.

We have to go beyond that. That sort of behaviour has to stop. The last asbestos all-party group heard what was happening in Australia, which is light years ahead of us in what it does to support mesothelioma victims. Lord Rodger is totally right in his dissenting judgment when he says that it is not for Law Lords to rewrite the law; that is a job of Parliament.


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What are the options? There has been talk in the press of an amendment to the Compensation Bill, although some people have said that that would be unwise. I hope that the Minister can advise us better about his thinking in this area. I believe that the model should be what has happened for coal miners. A scheme should be set up that employers and insurers have to pay into. The compensation should be taken out of the hands of the court and of insurers, who will fight for their own self-interest. Payments should be timely. They should be made while people are alive rather than when they are dead.

David Taylor: I advise caution because some of the most difficult and long-running cases in the coal industry compensation scheme are those in which employees have worked for a variety of companies and not just for British Coal. Such cases can get bogged down for a very long time, so I advise caution on the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.

Paul Rowen: I understand what the hon. Gentleman has said, but let us be clear. We are talking about mesothelioma, which is not asbestosis; it is not a cumulative disease. We know now that one fibre—one fibre—can lead to this disease, so in my view it does not matter how many employers a person has; they are all negligent. Therefore, the talk about apportioning blame has to stop. Employers did not provide proper protection for workers, so there should be no argument about the level of claim. The point is that workers have been exposed to asbestos and have got mesothelioma.

We have come a long way since 1924, when Nelly Kershaw from Rochdale was diagnosed with asbestosis, but it is sad that we still have not gone far enough and we are still talking about a disease that should have been wrapped up and dealt with 50 years ago.

11.22 am

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) for obtaining this important debate. It gives us the opportunity to try to encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to work with other Departments and to propose a solution; I believe that there is a solution to this situation.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) referred to a scheme. I believe that it is time for us to consider introducing a no-fault liability scheme. We could introduce such a scheme without the obstructions to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) referred, which we have encountered with the miners scheme. I think it is fair to say—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the miners scheme is in the possession of the courts and we report back to the courts three or four times each year.

With a no-fault liability scheme for mesothelioma sufferers, there would be no need to do that, because we could have a scheme owned by the Government and contributed to by the insurance companies. I am aware that the Department of Trade and Industry has substantial numbers of claims to deal with, because they involve British shipbuilders, people who have
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worked for British Rail and others. If we jointly could develop a scheme involving the insurance companies in private industry, together with the Government, who are the insurer of the industries that I have just mentioned, we ought to be able to provide a no-fault liability scheme for all mesothelioma sufferers.

As we are all aware, there is a real issue about the wives of workers who have come into contact with the fibres as a result of washing working clothes and who develop the disease. Many of these issues came to light in the 1970s around Hebden Bridge, where family members, particularly wives, developed the disease because of contact with clothes on which there were fibres. By breathing in the fibres, they developed the disease, so when we talk about a no-fault liability scheme, perhaps, as the Department for Work and Pensions starts to consider its review of industrial injuries, we could include all people with mesothelioma, including wives who unfortunately and unwittingly have developed the disease. There are real opportunities in that respect, and perhaps the Minister will comment on them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North mentioned the 3 May judgment and rightly pointed out that the law had previously been set by the Fairchild case. I recall the Fairchild case and the decision being made in the House of Lords; in fact, I was in the Gallery when the Lords delivered their decision in 2002. UCATT—the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians—financed that case. It set the law, and the law was that compensation awarded within the parameters set by the Fairchild case would be indivisible, so that if there was just one employer, that employer would be responsible for full compensation.

We must return to the position established by Fairchild, because even if we develop a no-fault liability scheme, as I believe we should and could by the end of this year, we will still have to retain the right of each individual who makes a claim under the scheme to go to law if they so wish. We must keep the route to court for the person who wishes to take their case to court, even if we make an offer under a no-fault liability scheme.

Much has been said about the recent decision, which was a disgrace. It has put the families of mesothelioma victims in a very grave position. Lawyers are saying that it will have enormous implications. First, it will slow down the fast-track system in the courts. Secondly, it will impact on the length of time that a case takes. Thirdly, it may impact on the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979. There is some controversy in that respect. Last week, I received a legal opinion from Allan Gore, QC, in respect of the logic set by the Barker case. The Barker case suggested that if all the employers could not be traced, compensation would be reduced accordingly. The 1979 Act provides an avenue for people to be able to make a claim if they are unable to trace their former employer, so if the Barker case says that if an employer cannot be traced, compensation is reduced, it follows that a claim cannot be made under the 1979 Act, and that is the view of some QCs.

However, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), said last Thursday
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on Second Reading of the Compensation Bill that her view, from advice given to her, was that the route to the 1979 Act, which provides a safety net, would still be open. We need to clarify that, because it is an important safety net and its availability needs to be ensured. Perhaps the Government could say, “Well, whatever the Barker decision, the 1979 route for compensation will be kept open.”

We have an enormous difficulty because of the number of cases that are likely to arise. The number of mesothelioma cases has increased dramatically, from 153 in 1968 to 1,874 in 2003. In this past year there were more cases, and we are now nearing 2,000 a year. The Health and Safety Executive’s view is that those cases will peak in 2015 or thereabouts at between 2,000 and 2,400. They will then plateau and taper away by 2050.

Not all cases will disappear by 2050, because the cases that we are dealing with now are predicted on past exposures. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North referred to the fact that a new drug is available, which is important because we do not have much asbestosis, where the asbestos particles that get into the lungs develop fibrosis, a form of pneumoconiosis, as what tends to happen is that particles enter the lung without forming fibrosis. They stay in the lung and from that presence there is the potential to develop mesothelioma cancer, which is a cancer of the lung pleura that is invariably fatal and is invariably caused by exposure to asbestos. Alimta helps, together with chemotherapy.

The Australians are leading the field in health development. My hon. Friend is right that even if we get the no-fault liability scheme we must have a treatment and care strategy through the Department of Health. We need such a strategy because of the number of people whom we know will develop the disease. It is extremely important that we ensure that victims who develop the disease have compensation before they die. That is why I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that a no-fault liability scheme is the way forward. I had a word with the Secretary of State for Defence, who is on board for a change, and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We need to bring the Departments together.

My hon. Friend mentioned the meeting with the Prime Minister, which was constructive. We hope to move forward and see an amendment introduced in the Compensation Bill that will restore the law established by the Fairchild case. We then need to move towards the no-fault liability scheme.

11.33 am

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this important debate.

Other colleagues have referred to the scope and effects of this pernicious disease that is suffered by workers who through no fault of their own were employed to do necessary work and an honest day’s work, only to find many years later that the honest day’s pay came at the highest price: a crippling illness
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and a premature death rather than the years of retirement to which we all aspire.

I pay tribute to Tony Whitston and the Greater Manchester asbestos victims support group for their tireless campaigning on behalf of the victims and their families and for keeping me well informed. I have constituents who worked for Turner and Newall, which was taken over by Federal Mogul in 1998 and was the subject of an Adjournment debate in 2002 secured by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), as well as constituents who worked in the old British Steel plant at Irlam, who were devastated by the collapse of Chester Street Insurance Holdings Ltd. in 2001. Asbestos sufferers and their families have had enough upset and uncertainty in their lives; I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept that today.

As colleagues have said, the decision by the House of Lords in May this year was that, where two or more companies are responsible for the asbestos exposure and it is not possible to bring a case against them all, the amount of compensation might be reduced. That is outrageous and wholly unacceptable. The upshot of that decision is greater delay, more cost and more uncertainty for sufferers and their families, which is completely unacceptable.

I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions say at a meeting last month that the Government wanted to speed up compensation for workers suffering from the effects of prolonged exposure to asbestos and from related diseases. One solution that I support, which has been mentioned, is a specific scheme for compensation. I hope that Ministers will work with the unions and the TUC to ensure that the matter is resolved quickly.

I would like to take a moment or two, and to test your patience, Mrs. Humble, to talk about the new drug mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Alimta does not fall within the strict remit of the debate but it is pertinent. It can treat, but sadly not cure, victims of mesothelioma. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is due to report on the drug next month. I have written to the Secretary of State for Health to express my strong feelings. All new patients should have the benefit of the drug if appropriate, as it may increase survival rates by between 23 and 40 per cent.

The Scottish Medicines Consortium has already approved the use of Alimta and it is available throughout Scotland. Patients in Salford and throughout Greater Manchester receive the drug, too, but that is not the case in all parts of the country. Our old enemy the postcode lottery is still in operation. It is estimated that the cost of prescribing the new drug to patients will be £2.7 million in 2005-06 and will rise to £5.2 million in 2009-10, which must surely be affordable.

I shall return to the main thrust of the debate, as the Clerk is looking towards you, Mrs. Humble. It is for the reasons that I have mentioned that I support the all-party group, which is well led by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, and the mesothelioma charter.

I and my colleagues will do whatever we can at a parliamentary level to ensure that the disease is made a
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national priority by the Government, that research is funded to improve diagnosis and treatment, that clinical guidelines on best practice are disseminated so that sufferers have access to the best possible treatment wherever they live and that the Health and Safety Executive is tough in enforcing safety regulations.

I send our best wishes to those who suffer from this crippling disease and their families, who give them endless and loving care and support. I say to those families who have lost a loved one and to the medical and other workers who provide treatment and care that we, as parliamentarians, will press our Government to do more to implement the mesothelioma charter in full and to implement a payment scheme as a matter of urgency.

11.38 am

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I apologise, Mrs. Humble, for coming in slightly late. I was at a Defence Committee meeting attended by the Minister for Schools, who did not understand that Scotland was part of the UK. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this important debate.

I rise not to talk about the detail that has been put forward in a great way by earlier speakers but to discuss the experience in the mining industry. We should not take what happened in the mining industry as a panacea to resolve some of the problems that we are talking about. There are major problems with compensation schemes in the mining industry, one of which is that lawyers are being paid far too much money and people are not receiving the money to the extent that they should. We also have problems with multiple employers, in an industry that was nationalised until the last few years when new employers came in. Even the mining industry has issues with multiple employers—imagine what it would be like for everyone making a claim under the system, or what we hope will be the system.

Mr. Clapham: There is something that we must clarify, which is that the current miners scheme is not a no-fault liability scheme. My hon. Friend will be aware that, when the Department suggested making lump sum payments, the judge said that he wanted the case to be determined on common-law principles. That is one reason why the scheme has not developed further.

Mr. Hamilton: I am mindful of that.

Mr. Devine: My hon. Friend will be aware that not only are lawyers making a lot of money out of the scheme but various British Coal coalfield areas are paying different levels of compensation for the same illness.

Mr. Hamilton: I agree with both of my hon. Friends.


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