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13 Jun 2006 : Column 201WH—continued

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) spoke about those who have died, and the tragedy that it brings to the families. I am old enough to have worked in the collieries in the 1970s, when the pneumoconiosis scheme came into operation. Union officials had the unpalatable job of asking the widows whether a post mortem could be carried out to try to prove that the
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husband had pneumoconiosis. It was one of the most terrible things that I have had to do as a trade union official. I was relatively young then—honestly—and it makes a mark to have to tell a woman that her husband or her son has died and then, to add to the trauma, to tell them that they will have to go through a post mortem. That was unacceptable, and I hope that it will not happen again.

A no-fault liability scheme, as indicated, is the way forward. It would cover the whole of the United Kingdom, which is important. We must not go down the road of chasing funds. That would be unacceptable; indeed, we could not do it.

I list some of those who would be covered: metal plate workers, including those working in shipbuilding, the builders of vehicle bodies, including rail vehicles, plumbers, gas fitters, carpenters, electricians, construction workers, plasterers, builders, handymen, steel erectors, painters, steel metal workers, welders and merchant seamen. How could such people remember all the companies that they worked for? For example, those who work in the building trade cannot remember who employed them in their earlier years because they will have had so many employers. A scheme has to be put into operation that covers all such people, that recognises the problems faced by their families and that can be developed.

I congratulate the Government on being the first to recognise the contribution that working people have made to our country. I therefore hope that they will overturn the decision taken in the other place. That is imperative. It is imperative also that the Government are seen to be a caring Government who can bring home the moneys to which people are entitled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) mentioned the postcode lottery for medicines. For example, those medicines are available in Scotland. We are talking of extending a person’s life. That person will probably have been told that he has a very short lifespan, so another few months will be very important to allow him and his family to get their house in order before he passes on. It should not come down to the cost of the drugs, which should be available throughout the UK and not only in certain areas.

11.44 am

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on initiating this debate. It is an important subject for my constituents. So prevalent is that cancer in Swindon that it is known locally as the Swindon disease, and in my surgeries over the years I have seen many cruel examples of the illness.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and others drew attention to the fact that it is not only those who work in such occupations who are exposed to the disease. It can sometimes affect their families in a particularly terrible way, as wives can acquire the disease from washing the work clothes. The sense of responsibility felt by the husband who is left behind can be terrible to witness. As my hon. Friends have said, the problem will be with us for a considerable time.

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For generations, those affected by this terrible disease have suffered not only the agonising consequences of living with it but the difficulty of securing fair and adequate compensation for the hazard that they endured as a result of their employment. As has been pointed out, the nature of the disease is such that any exposure to asbestos, no matter how small—just one fibre is enough—can result in the contraction of that disease.

Many of those who I see in my surgeries have worked in a number of workplaces and they could have been exposed to asbestos in each of them, but medical science is such that no one can identify which of them it is. As a result, there has been a long and complex history of legal discussion on how to apportion liability. The lawyers and the judiciary have wrestled, rightly and valiantly, with complex and difficult law, but it has created despair for the families whom we represent. Many of my constituents’ families have been riven by the consequences of litigation in trying to get some compensation for a disease that has been contracted through no fault of theirs. That is cruel and unacceptable.

When the House of Lords ruled on the Fairchild case four years ago, it seemed to provide greater certainty for litigants. It was greeted with almost universal relief. That case seemed to establish that any employer who contributed to the risk of mesothelioma would be liable in full, even though others were similarly culpable who could not be identified or perhaps could not pay damages because they were uninsured—or, more likely, had gone out of business and their insurers could not be identified. To most lay observers, that new departure in law accorded with natural justice and common sense.

The risks of asbestos have been known since at least the 1960s, so the cases emerging now are almost certainly those resulting from exposure at a time when employers knew, or should have known, of the potential risk. Although the nature of the disease makes it impossible to determine which exposure to asbestos caused the disease, it is equally impossible to exclude any employer from responsibility. The Fairchild case seemed to establish that, with such uncertainty, the burden of liability should be shared between employers and not transferred at least in part to those suffering from the disease, which had been the case hitherto.

The House of Lords decision on the Barker case, which is the main reason for today’s debate, seems to reverse that approach. It restricts the potential liability of employers and their insurers to the amount that they are individually likely to have contributed to the disease if others contributed to the chance of the disease being contracted; but, for whatever reason, they are now unable to pay up, so the victim of the disease could be denied full compensation, which they would have received under the Fairchild decision.

The House of Lords rightly drew attention to the exceptional nature of the circumstances surrounding the causation of mesothelioma. As Lord Hoffman said, it sought that the new exception created by the Fairchild case should not be allowed to swallow up the rule on liability. Few would quarrel with that. However,
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the heart of the issue lies in the question of fairness, which Lord Hoffmann acknowledged was why the Fairchild exception was created. In his view, the attribution of liability according to the relative degree of contribution to the chance of the disease being contracted would “smooth the roughness” of the justice to employers that a rule of joint and several liability creates.

However, in smoothing the roughness of justice to employers, the House of Lords has created a new roughness of justice for those suffering this terrible disease and their families. In effect, some of the burden created by scientific uncertainty has been transferred to the victims. If medical science cannot be precise about which exposure caused the disease, as in the case of mesothelioma, there will always be a roughness of justice. The question is who should suffer such roughness. The last in line should surely be the victims of the disease. As a result of the decision by the House of Lords, that is no longer necessarily the case. Employers and their insurers, who may be entirely responsible, may well escape full liability.

I understand that there is some learned dispute about whether the Barker case overturns the Fairchild decision, or simply refines it and clarifies some outstanding questions. What appears not to be in dispute is that, following the decision, some of those suffering from the disease will now receive less compensation than they would have done before it. Chop this up as lawyers may, that is unjust. It is rough justice for the most vulnerable and least culpable, and that is wrong.

Various approaches to righting the wrong have been suggested, some of which have been mentioned today. Many of them have great attractions. I do not intend to advocate one over another. All I seek from Ministers—I hope that the Minister will reassure all of us about this—is that they will move to put right the manifest injustice that those suffering from this disease should be denied full compensation from demonstrably culpable employers and their insurers.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I know that my hon. Friend does not want to advocate a particular direction that the Government might move in to right this wrong. Will he listen to those who come from mining constituencies? Their experience of the miners compensation process has been that it is laborious and that it has many inequities. People do not understand why one person receives a lot more money than another when the same set of circumstances seem to be involved, and people have died still waiting for compensation. That has all been because of the laboriousness of the process, where lawyers are making a great deal of money. Will he rule out that direction for the Government?

Mr. Wills: I am happy to do so. Obviously, I have no constituency experience of that particular scheme. My hon. Friend has drawn attention to an important point that I was going to make: any remedy that Ministers bring into place—I hope that they will bring such a remedy into place—should be subject to three things. It should be extremely simple. It should be equitable, and
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it should be done with great speed. We simply cannot allow the uncertainty to hang over families who are already suffering enough.

The decision by the House of Lords has caused turmoil among some of my constituents. I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members in this regard. The Government must move quickly. Of course, they must get things right, but speed is important. As other hon. Members have said, some of the people suffering from the disease do not have long to live and they need the certainty that adequate compensation will be forthcoming, if not for them, at least for their families. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North made some important points, and I am sure that the Minister will take them into consideration.

When science is blind, uncertainty exists, but the costs of that uncertainty should never be paid by those least able to do so and those least responsible for doing so. Yet, in some cases, that is the consequence of the House of Lords decision. That is the wrong that I ask Ministers to put right.

11.52 am

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate, and on the eloquent way in which he opened it. He drew attention both to this dreadful condition and to the manifest injustice that has been created by the House of Lords ruling.

Obviously, the dangers of working with asbestos may have been largely addressed in more recent years by health and safety regulations, although that has perhaps not yet been done to everyone’s satisfaction. The situation now is far better than it was before. Thankfully, people working in affected professions should not necessarily now face the same levels of illness and risk as previous workers, but the legacy of the past is still with us.

As several hon. Members have said, in particular the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), we have not yet seen the worst of this problem. Some 2,000 people a year die of mesothelioma. According to the Health and Safety Executive, the death rate is expected to peak at 2,500 a year in about 10 years’ time. Many of the cases are clustered in the constituencies of the hon. Members who are present. The constituency of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is also affected, and I know that he has taken a close interest in this matter.

As hon. Members have made clear, the condition does not only affect those who are working in the industries affected; in many cases, it affects family members, particularly wives. I hope that the Minister will address that point in his response. Any compensation settlement needs also to consider it, as well as dealing with the issue of the affected workers themselves.

Understandably, the decision of the Law Lords is causing great distress to mesothelioma sufferers and the thousands of bereaved spouses and families. It is fair to say that under the ruling, compensation will be denied in some cases on a technicality. As every hon. Member who has spoken has said, that is clearly
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wrong. Those affected want to know that they can receive 100 per cent. of a fair compensation package and that they can receive it in a swift and simple manner. That is far more important than whether the financial liability is ultimately from one or several relevant employers.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the commitment made by the Secretary of State at the recent meeting of the all-party group that deals with this matter to bring forward legislation to address the concerns about receiving compensation in the wake of the Law Lords decision. The Prime Minister recently met a group of Labour MPs, having given an agreement to do so during Prime Minister’s questions. From what has been said, that resulted in some clear signals of steps forward.

It is also worth pointing out that this is not a party political issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) spoke eloquently about those who have suffered from mesothelioma in his constituency. The TUC and the Transport and General Workers Union have campaigned on this issue on behalf of their members, and have done so effectively. There are several support groups for the sufferers of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions. Will the Minister confirm that they will all be consulted when legislation is drafted in response to the ruling?

Calls have been made for an amendment to be made to the Compensation Bill, which is due to be read in the House soon, having been considered in another place. As has been rightly said by several hon. Members, this provides a timely opportunity, not least because asbestos victims and their families want swift action and a just outcome soon. We also need to be sure that the right outcome is achieved. A number of different ideas have been put forward during this debate. If a consensus can be agreed on proposals in time for them to be included in the Compensation Bill, so much the better. Equally, we should not rush things and end up with a poor outcome and further rough justice for asbestos victims.

A just outcome would deliver the following: full compensation for the victims and their bereaved relatives—I again pick up the point about family members, for whom the condition has also caused suffering—a simple way of accessing compensation, preferably with a single route to receiving compensation where there are multiple employer liabilities; and crucially, given the speed with which the condition can lead to death, the system that is put in place must be able to work quickly. As has been said by Labour Members, ideally those affected should receive compensation during their own lifetime rather than it simply being compensation that goes to bereaved relatives, as often happens.

Chris Bryant: May I add a fourth thing to that list? Whatever scheme we come up with should be light on legal fees.

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman makes a good, appropriate and sensible point. In many such schemes—he has made reference to another one—too much money is swallowed up by legal fees, and therefore not enough is given out in compensation.

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Mr. Clapham: The hon. Gentleman’s third point was about speed and simplicity. We could take the Department for Work and Pensions industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme as the start in respect of a no-fault liability scheme, because it is the first point of contact in which mesothelioma is confirmed.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful for that intervention, although, like the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), I do not wish to lay down a precise scheme for the Minister, in whose response I am interested. The point that has been made is an important one, not least because the suggestion would allow any such scheme to dovetail with an existing programme in the Department. That would perhaps make the scheme more efficient and swift. It might also involve the establishment of less new bureaucracy. I hope that the Minister will consider that idea and address it in his response.

It is worth noting that delays to claims have often resulted from the time taken for the Inland Revenue to provide details of national insurance and tax records. That can take several months. Will the Minister give an undertaking in his response to discuss the problem with his colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs can respond more quickly to requests for national insurance and tax records in those cases? As a number of hon. Members have said, time is of the essence and any delay in any part of the system must be ironed out.

There is an issue about who should meet the obligations of companies that no longer exist. If those companies have been bought out, the new owners should not be able to escape the liabilities of the company that they purchased. If companies have ceased to exist altogether, the Government must reach agreement with the insurance industry on how that gap is filled. Going back to the principles that I have set out, it is important that the victims do not lose out or, as the hon. Member for North Swindon said, end up taking an extra part of the liability or risk on themselves. The Government must discuss that issue with the industry.

As has been said, resolving the problem will require the Government to work closely with the insurance industry to achieve the right outcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale and other hon. Members were somewhat sceptical about the insurance industry’s interests in achieving a just outcome. While it is right that it is important for the Government to negotiate with the insurance industry, the Minister must not allow himself to be diverted from the central task that I think all hon. Members agree should be the objective of a swift and fair compensation scheme that ensures that people receive 100 per cent. of the compensation to which they are entitled.

The Secretary of State has committed himself to reporting back to the House before the summer recess on progress to be made. I welcome today's update and any points that the Minister can make in response to the debate, but I trust that we can still count on a statement before the House rises for the summer.

12.2 pm

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