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13 Jun 2006 : Column 207WH—continued

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North
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(Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate and on the way in which he opened it. Many other hon. Members throughout the Chamber have also made distinguished contributions on this very serious and significant matter.

Such a situation should be broadly uncontentious between parties and we should work together to find a practical solution. No one will argue with the facts. Mesothelioma is a most unpleasant disease. It is insidious and people do not know that they have it or whether they may go down with it, but when they do, perhaps after exposure many decades previously, it inevitably results in extreme distress and death. Such people and their families probably have only a short time—an average of 18 months—to come to terms with the situation. Again, I think that there is agreement between parties that there is an emphasis and premium on us as law-makers to secure rapid and assured action for sufferers and their families. That is what they want, and it has been rightly emphasised this morning, as it was during the debate on Second Reading of the Compensation Bill last week. I believe that we are at one that that is the way in which we want to go.

The Government have a responsibility to respond to the recent judgment of the House of Lords in the Barker case. I interpret that judgment—I am not a lawyer and I do not demonise lawyers—as qualifying the impact of the earlier Fairchild case, which had a certain logic and a degree of imagination in meeting a real problem. In the Fairchild case the House of Lords decided that, notwithstanding that a single fibre of asbestos could be responsible for the onset of the disease and that by definition it was impossible to put the blame unequivocally on a single employer because no one would know whose fibre was involved, it was reasonable to impose a collective responsibility, liability or guilt on all somebody’s employers during the time when they were exposed to asbestos fibres.

The Barker judgment, not illogically, gives some legal proportionality by saying that although those circumstances may apply collectively, the responsibility is not joint and several, but is confined to the proportion of time spent with a particular employer. That has a certain logic to it; otherwise, in theory and in an extreme case, an employer who exposed an employee for one day could pick up the liability for 40 years’ of someone’s working life.

Mr. Clapham: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it has been estimated that a drawing pin that punctures white asbestos in a classroom may, on withdrawal, release as many as 6,000 fibres from that asbestos?

Mr. Boswell: I was not aware of that particular statistic, but the disease is insidious and we must acknowledge that. We need to bring the matter back to the real world and the families involved, and find out how we can meet that liability. What I have said is not in any sense preparatory to suggesting that there is no obligation on the insurers, and I shall come to that in a moment.

We must look at the underlying legal concepts and, at the same time, confront the facts concerning the individuals and their families with this terrible disease.
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In the light of the judgment in the Barker case, they may believe that they will not receive full compensation. I have experience of a personal injury claim involving a member of my family many years ago, and I know that uncertainty is a huge factor. It is compounded if people feel that money is leaking out in legal fees or that insurers are manoeuvring to avoid responsibility. We must also remember that in the real world there may be a few employers in the line of fire, but the argument is typically about insurance companies’ liabilities.

Mr. Wills: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one problem in the Barker case is that apart from all the other problems that have been discussed, there is the burden on those suffering from the illness and their representatives of going through the painful process of litigation against not one, two or three defendants, but perhaps tens of defendants? That is an extra burden on people who do not deserve to have it placed on them.

Mr. Boswell: I readily concede that point. The hon. Gentleman made a distinguished speech based on his experience and constituency work. That is exactly the sort of thing that comes into play.

The Government, as an employer, are a major stakeholder in the argument. The estimate that I have seen is that 40 per cent. of exposure may have arisen in people who worked in the public sector. As a good employer, the Government need to respond to the situation. At the same time and in parallel, they must take legal advice on the Barber case and its implications, and then find an acceptable way forward, as hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have said. The Government must take such action before too long because of the nature of the disease. I do not believe that, given good will all round, it is beyond the wit of man to find an acceptable solution. The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who knows a lot about the matter, suggested a no-fault solution. Other hon. Members have suggested something in that direction. I believe that a solution can be found that is acceptable, manageable and affordable.

During the Compensation Bill debate on Thursday last week, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said:

I want to touch briefly on some of the issues that should come into the debate. They are largely supplementary to points that have already been made.

The nature of the disease—its slow onset but rapid development and inevitable end—should in no way be used to brook or excuse any delay as a tactic for avoiding responsibility either by employers or insurers, or indeed by the political world, in responding to the situation. In my view, it is not reasonable to saddle a single employer, who may be the only one left standing and may have been responsible for only short exposure, with the whole liability. That suggests that to produce an acceptable outcome for the individual, there must be some mutuality in the approach. In addition, the good employers and good insurers with a long-standing
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record might be more at risk, rather than the people who have gone out of business or whose insurers do not keep adequate records.

I put it to the Minister that there is concern anyway to ensure that insurers are pressed to trace information more effectively. The issue is about reputation. Insurance companies like to pay claims because it develops their credibility as insurers. The insurance industry, the Association of British Insurers and the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers need to make the point that to ensure the credibility of the process, insurers must get a grip on this issue and get on with it. I do not mind whether it is done by consent or by Government persuasion, but it has to be tackled.

Mr. Hamilton: The way to tackle the issue is to make the payments up front and then chase the insurers afterwards by whatever means available. It should not be done the other way around.

Mr. Boswell: That is a consideration, and it applies extensively to other areas of personal injury litigation. Forward-thinking people are beginning to approach the issue. One can separate the compensation from the pursuit of liability, and that method reads across into such issues as wider personal injury, no-fault approaches and so forth.

The point has been eloquently made that, in any case and to put it crudely, we must take the legal contentiousness out of the case. Full-scale litigation will take £40,000 out of somebody’s available compensation pot. I would have thought that by the time we had been through the Fairchild and Barker judgments, subject to the advice that the Government receive on the latter, we would have taken as much law out of the issue as we can. The facts would be known and the question of apportioned liability could be determined, and we would then have to get on with the business of delivering an effective compensation scheme. I am sure that the ABI and the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers will want to play a part in that. For all that has been said, the whole industry has a strong interest in coming up with a constructive response.

I should add a note of caution to the debate. If we do not respond to the Barker judgment, there will be a problem, because compensation will be partial and uneven, and that will be inequitable. Equally, if we suggest that the only thing to do is reverse the Barker judgment, we must still face the fact that third parties may have gone down with the disease. In such cases, it is difficult to establish direct liability because there was no employment relationship, and in our attempts to deal with the issue, we might not cover the whole case.

This is a complicated area, and I make no excuse about that. However, it is one that the Government need to address. It is particularly important in this instance that we hear a ministerial response that is not unreasonably delayed, but sensitive, full and considered. This is the first time that the Minister and I have debated together, and I welcome him to his new post. I think that he will discharge it well and sensitively, but I hope that today, even if he cannot give us the final answer, he will at least want to indicate to the House his intentions and his thinking about moving towards any future scheme.

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I hope that the Minister will consider existing statutory schemes and the way in which they interact. I hope that he will consider whether it is possible to recover some of the costs of statutory compensation from insurers and put that into the pot, and to reduce litigation. Furthermore, I hope that he will use this opportunity to report to the House on the undertaking made by his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), when we last discussed statutory schemes. She said that she would consider the entirety of this very difficult issue.

In all seriousness, we know that people suffer and die. Their families are left unheaded and they experience serious financial constraints. Compensation should be paid, and we must ensure that it is joined up with the minimum amount of friction and distress for the families involved. We can do that together and produce a worthwhile and workable solution, and we look forward to the Minister indicating how he wishes to proceed.

12.15 pm

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): I thank you, Mrs. Anderson, and Mrs. Humble, and all those who have participated in and attended today’s debate. Although the attendance will not be reflected accurately in Hansard, it is symbolic of the importance that we place on this issue.

Mr. Devine: Does my hon. Friend share the concern of many Labour Members that for the second time in a week on an issue that affects many people in Scotland, the Scottish nationalists are not here?

Mr. Murphy: We are not short of Scots here today—either Scots who represent Scottish seats or those who are Scots by birthright, as two expats who have been lent to England as Members of Parliament are here, too.

Mr. John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I talk as a Scot and as someone who wants to ensure that their presence is reflected in Hansard.

In my constituency, Clydebank has a proud shipbuilding history, which includes the Queens’ John Brown yard. One of the consequences is that Clydebank now has one of the highest incidences of asbestos-related diseases. I am meeting the Clydebank asbestos group on Friday. It has done a superb job on this issue, and it is looking to the Minister to give a firm commitment to the Barker judgment.

May I also ask the Minister about the no-faults compensation scheme that has been discussed? It has been put to me that individual representation by lawyers can result in greater monetary compensation. Given that background, will he give us the Government’s views about the no-fault liability scheme?

Mr. Murphy: I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments, and I shall refer to his specific points as I progress with my comments, as I am still effectively in my first sentence. I agree with the earlier intervention
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about the lack of Scots here today from one of the smaller parties in Scotland, but that is for them to justify, rather than us.

Ian Stewart: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Murphy: I shall make a little progress first.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on his stubbornness and determination regarding this issue. They are due partly to his commitment and partly to the fact that he, like my father, worked in the Clyde shipyards. From his experience, he has a determination to resolve these matters, as I have from my family’s experience.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Almost everyone who has spoken today has paid tribute to his work as chairman of the all-party group. I should welcome the opportunity to meet him and other group members formally to discuss some of the points that he and others raised. Many of those points deserve a much more thorough investigation and consideration than the 10 to 12 minutes that we have left today can afford. I shall arrange for that meeting to take place.

I also thank all those who have attended or participated today. They include my hon. Friends the Members for Eccles (Ian Stewart), for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Mr. McFall), who has now spoken, and my hon. Friends the Members for Livingston (Mr. Devine), for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) and for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin). I thank the hon. Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander)—a constituency that always sounds like it should refer to more than one hon. Member, although nevertheless it has only one—and for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) for the measured way in which they made their comments.

It is unfashionable to do so, but I should also like to thank a former Member of Parliament whom many of us got to know, Tony Worthington. He worked tirelessly on this issue, and I am sure that he repeatedly met the Clydeside organisations that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire will meet later this week. Tony Worthington was the first in this place to drum into me the importance of getting the treatment of mesothelioma victims right.

Mr. McFall: I add to that tribute to Tony Worthington, who still has an informal interest in the issue; he was one of the pioneers behind the Clydebank asbestos group. There is no doubt that on Friday I will pass the Minister’s comments on to Tony, together with my warm wishes.

Mr. Murphy: I thank my right hon. Friend.

We have heard in pretty graphic terms about the terrible nature of mesothelioma, and its effect on sufferers and their survivors. We all know people in our constituencies who have become victims of mesothelioma. Many hon. Members have spoken about its terrible toll on families, and about the uncertainty of financial compensation.
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That uncertainty has, of course, only been added to as a consequence of the Law Lords’ judgment. In the time available to me, I want to reflect on what the Government are doing about that.

I emphasise again the points made about the nature and scale of what it is fair to call an epidemic: 1,800 people die every year as a consequence of the disease, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone said, by 2015 we should reach a horrible peak of about 2,500 fatalities. At the moment, the dreadful projections are that in total about 90,000 people will lose their lives to mesothelioma. My hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone and for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North are right about the specifics, and about ensuring that a proper care and support package is in place as the number of mesothelioma victims rises to that dreadful peak in 2015. As a consequence of today’s debate, I will have conversations with Ministers in the Department of Health and elsewhere about how we shape that care package and make sure that we get it absolutely right.

Ian Stewart: I attempted to intervene when we were having some fun about nationality, but in line with the statistics that the Minister just read out, will he acknowledge, as we do, that this pernicious disease recognises no geographical boundaries and is a whole-country issue? It affects the whole United Kingdom, and any solution brought about by the Government should recognise that fact.

Mr. Murphy: My constituency does not have any shipyards or coal mines—in truth, it has very little industry—but it nevertheless has victims of mesothelioma, so my hon. Friend is right that it is a nationwide problem, and we need a nationwide or UK approach to it.

I shall deal briefly with the specific points raised. The Government and I are as disappointed with the Barker judgment as hon. Members are, not only because it adds further uncertainty and difficulty, and puts a further burden on those who have been diagnosed, but because it will lead to unfairness in how compensation is provided and offered. In the Fairchild judgment, the characteristics of mesothelioma were considered; unlike other forms of asbestosis, it can be triggered by the inhalation of a single asbestos fibre, as we have heard.

In respect of the specifics, our worry is that the claimants will have to trace all relevant defendants before liability can be apportioned and compensation paid. The Government find that utterly unacceptable, particularly at the victims’ time of life, and given the position in which they will find themselves. It is important to concentrate on what the Government will do about that.

On speeding up payments, there is of course the mesothelioma court fast-track process, which tries to speed up the delivery of the money to victims, so that they receive it while they are still alive. We are working with stakeholders and others on improving systems to speed up the tracing of employers and reduce the associated costs, including—this is an important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North, mentioned—the legal cost.

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