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The hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of Arthur Rafferty. I know of Arthur Rafferty’s resolute campaign to try to get the matter looked into, not just for himself but for his fellow dock workers. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), recently met Mr. Rafferty to discuss his concerns and try to assist him. My officials have been in correspondence with Mr. Rafferty to ensure that his entitlement, or possible entitlement, to benefits under the Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979 has been fully explored.
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Mr. Rafferty quite rightly feels that Belfast dock workers have been treated less favourably than the former employees of the Harland and Wolff shipyard. They worked side by side in the dock area of Belfast. Harland and Wolff had been in public ownership since 1975, until the shipbuilding trades and assets were sold to Harland and Wolff 1989 Ltd.

Government funding for employer liability and public liability claims in relation to Harland and Wolff stems from our legal responsibilities as an employer. Likewise, it remains the duty of other employers to meet their legal liabilities for claims brought by current or former employees. The Government have paid £37 million in liabilities since 2001 in the settlement of claims.

The pneumoconiosis order provides compensation for certain employees suffering from dust-related diseases, including asbestosis. The scheme provides help, support and compensation for sufferers and their dependants if they cannot claim compensation from the employer. The order was designed to cater for diseases with a long latency period, and to deal with the possibility that by the time the disease was diagnosed the employer might no longer be in existence. Essentially, we try to provide compensation if there is no employer from whom to seek compensation. If the employer is still in existence—and I believe that that may well apply in Mr. Rafferty’s case—the remedy for people suffering from such diseases is to seek compensation from them. Like the hon. Member for Belfast, North, I appreciate that that is difficult and takes time, but he will agree that it is not right for the taxpayer to pick up the cost of compensation for something that is the employer’s responsibility. The Government pay compensation if they are the employer, and employers that are still in existence should pay compensation in similar cases.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the time taken to process compensation, and I accept that that is a difficult problem. With my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I am looking into the problems faced in particular by people suffering from mesothelioma, which can be caused by a single asbestos fibre, and may progress rapidly, with many sufferers dying within 18 months of the onset of the illness. On 1 September last year, we issued a consultation paper on ways in which we could speed up the process for obtaining compensation, and the hon. Gentleman graciously paid tribute to the Government for that work. We are working with the legal profession and a range of bodies and organisations, including insurers, interest groups and others, to put in place measures to help to speed up those claims. I noted the points that the hon. Gentleman made about that, and we shall certainly contact the Association of British Insurers to try to address the problems faced by people seeking compensation in Northern Ireland that were identified in the consultation. I will consider the issues raised made by the hon. Gentleman, and if appropriate, I will follow them up with the relevant agencies.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the House of Lords judgment on Barker v. Corus. That issue is close to my heart, as Mrs. Barker is a constituent of mine from Holywell, in Flintshire in north Wales. She faced the problems faced by many hon. Members’ constituents,
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as multiple employers avoided their responsibility to pay compensation for the death of her husband. With support, she took her case to the House of Lords, but the judgment did not help her. I am proud to say that, in response to pressure from a number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone and myself as her constituency MP, the Government tabled an amendment to the Compensation Bill to remove the significant hurdle raised by the judgment, which would have caused delays and made it more difficult for sufferers to recover full compensation from former employers. I am pleased that we were able to extend the provisions of the Compensation Act 2006 so that they offer equal cover to Northern Irish citizens. I hope that in future that will prevent such difficulties arising.

In 2005, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council—the independent body that advises the Government on matters relating to industrial injuries disablement benefit—published a report on asbestos-related diseases. The Government accepted its recommendations, and industrial injuries disablement benefit is payable in relation to a number of prescribed diseases suffered by people whose jobs involved working with, or being exposed to, asbestos. Those diseases are pneumoconiosis, including asbestosis; mesothelioma; primary carcinoma of the lung, whether or not accompanied by asbestosis; and diffuse pleural thickening. Under the industrial injuries scheme, such individuals are entitled to industrial injuries disablement benefit, and do not necessarily have to prove employer liability or a causal link. It is necessary only to establish an occupational link.

The hon. Gentleman raised the significant issue of pleural plaques, which I know is of concern to him. I am grateful to him for drawing it to my attention again today. In 2005, in its report on asbestos-related diseases, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council recommended that pleural plaques should not be added to list of prescribed diseases for the purposes of industrial injuries disablement benefit, on the basis of a lack of evidence that pleural plaques cause sufficient impairment of lung function to cause disability. I understand that in civil litigation pleural plaques may attract compensation, as he said, but that is normally for psychological distress and the associated risk of other asbestos-related diseases.

When the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council considered its recommendation on pleural plaques, it examined a number of issues, and looked into the matter carefully. It continues to monitor research and will keep the issue under review. At the moment, I cannot help the hon. Gentleman on that matter, but if he has further evidence or additional information that might be of help to the advisory council, now that the 2005 consideration has taken place, he should draw it to the council’s attention, because it will continue to monitor and review the situation. For the people who suffer from the appalling illnesses that we are discussing, depending on the individual’s circumstances, help is available from a range of social security benefits to assist with income, care and mobility needs. They include incapacity benefit, disability living allowance, attendance allowance, carer’s allowance and income support.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the important issue of family members and other relatives. I am
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particularly keen to examine that issue, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been considering the matter carefully. The industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme is being reviewed, and the issue of exposure through contact with relatives is part of that review. I hope that my right hon. Friend and I can make an announcement on the outcome of that review in short order. We will examine carefully both the representations that the hon. Gentleman made this evening, and representations made on behalf of family members across Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. This issue is important, and the review is ongoing. We expect it to report shortly, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be patient in awaiting the outcome of that review.

We have made clear our intention to review the industrial injuries scheme to ensure that it remains fit for purpose in the changing work environment of the 21st century. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of key issues that are important not just to his constituents but to mine, as I said earlier. The Government have a good record on helping to support, define and welcome the assistance that we can give to former Government employees, for whom we have a
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responsibility. We will continue to support and develop schemes to help former Government employees and ensure that they get what is due to them under compensation schemes.

Mr. Rafferty’s case is different, because he was employed in a part of the docks adjacent to the area in which the Harland and Wolff scheme, operated by the Government, applies. I know that he finds that difficult to accept, but the responsibility lies with his then employer. The Government have made efforts to ensure, through the changes made under Barker v. Corus and the Compensation Act 2006, that we give whatever help we can. I hope that my comments have been of help to the hon. Gentleman. He raises an important point, and we will continue to monitor the situation. I shall certainly write to him on the outcome of the review of those important issues, which is being taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Social Development Department. I hope that I have responded to the hon. Gentleman’s points, and I am grateful to him for bringing them to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Seven o’clock.

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