Draft Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) Regulations 2008

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John Battle: I cannot answer for previous Governments, but I am glad that ours has. The number of Labour Members that have raised the subject in the past is a matter of record.
The real tragedy is that we have had to sit in our constituencies watching families die with nothing and wondering whether anyone will help. That was a tragic act of negligence. However, I do not blame Governments per se for causing the pollution. It was the companies that caused it. At the time, they were proved not to have implemented health and safety legislation in their factories. That was part of the problem. The trade unions were campaigning hard to get companies to implement proper health and safety, and if they had it might not have happened.
It was not the fault of those doing the work or the result of the trade unions not knowing the dangers. They knew, but no one was listening. My honest answer to my hon. Friend is that I had the impression whenever I spoke in the Chamber that no Government wanted to listen.
I am glad that this Government—our Government—have listened. They have stepped into the breach. However, I urge the Minister and the Government to keep up the pressure on the companies and insurers. They should not be allowed to get away with what is generally held to be, and was judged in court to be, criminal negligence. It was not an accident. The judges said that the companies had polluted those people to death. We ought to keep that in mind, and ensure that it does not happen again.
Tragically, the company in my neighbourhood that shut down in the 1950s reopened within two years in Bombay. People come to my neighbourhood from Bombay whose relatives now work in that factory. Those relatives are going through it again because they do not have the health and safety that we have here.
I do not ask my hon. Friend the Minister for instant answers, but I hope that the Government will keep up the pressure, and not only the Department for Work and Pensions but the Treasury and other Departments. They should tell the insurance companies that they have a responsibility, and quite a large one.
5.18 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friends, who have been heavily involved in this matter. The two people sitting next to me—my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West—have been raising the issue continually for many years. I remember my right hon. Friend campaigning in those grim 18 years of opposition. It was not easy, especially when dealing with firms that had Tories on the board. That was the problem.
It was all part of a class battle. Are we allowed to use such terms today? I think we can, because this is a typical example. My colleagues, many of them in this room, raised the issue day in and day out, battling against a Tory Government who received money from companies like those named today. That is the truth of it. I do not suppose we expected that the Tory Government would give in, because the 1979 Act was one of the last Acts of the previous Labour Government. It was a very well constructed Act, and I will tell you why. It ensured that the lawyers could not get their snouts in the trough, because the payments were based on the pneumoconiosis settlement of a few years earlier—by another Labour Government. That meant that the matter did not go to court and the payments were not all made on an individual basis. I say to the two Opposition Members who raised the question of the amount of money that if they look back to the pneumoconiosis legislation of the early 1970s from that Labour Government, they will find that a table was drawn up then to prevent the lawyers getting their hands on it.
One of the sad things is that the chronic pulmonary obstructive disease and vibration white finger payments were not made in the same way. That was the result not of the Labour Government but of a man called Justice Turner, who decided that everyone should have an individual payment. The lawyers said, “This is going to be wonderful. We’ll invade the pit villages and we’ll tell them that we can have a rake-off but we’ll all get your money.” Injury lawyers for you, I think the phrase is nowadays, if I can quote that advert.
However, this Government decided to deal with the problem whereby people were dying even faster than in the case of pneumoconiosis. I think we would all agree on that. Pneumoconiosis is a lousy, rotten disease, but based on what we know about asbestosis, this was probably going to kill people off much more quickly. It is to the credit of the Government that they have done something. I have just been checking the record and I do not think that there has been a payment of this kind, without liability, without common law, paid to people who have not gone to court or, indeed, a tribunal, who have been battling for years. We have come up with a solution that says that because these people might not last very long, we will make an interim payment and we will be smart enough to take it back as and when necessary, but in the meantime we will get it done quickly.
The net result of all the representations by some of my hon. Friends in this Committee and others is that the Government have come up with this scheme, which has avoided the lawyers getting part of the money. There are no middlemen. That is what I want to see in all these forms of legislation in the future to avoid people going to court. That was the idea that the pneumoconiosis scheme was based on.
This has been a good day, and I hope that it will be a precursor to many others, because every time I talk to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, he has another scheme ready and waiting, and every time he has a question to the Prime Minister, I know what it is going to be. It will be pleural plaques today and it will be mesothelioma another day, for another group. I can tell people now in advance that he has another scheme. I think the condition is called osteoarthritis, but in mining terms, which we know very well, it is called beat knee. Am I right?
Mr. Clapham: Near enough.
Mr. Skinner: From all the evidence that we have heard today, I think the scheme is a credit to the Government. They have broken fresh ground. It could mean that things like this will happen again in the future. How long was the consultation? It was probably the shortest on record. Did we need PricewaterhouseCoopers to come and give us advice? No, we did not. We saved all that money. It is a compliment to all concerned. Where’s Wokingham? He has buggered off.
5.24 pm
Mrs. McGuire: It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. Just as an aside, I advise him that he can advise our hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone that a consultation paper on pleural plaques and the House of Lords issue will be published soon by the Ministry of Justice, so he can start to plan the next campaign.
I suppose that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean might have felt a little uncomfortable about some of the comments that were made, but I hope he will appreciate that some of my hon. Friends feel strongly and deeply on the issue because their communities and, indeed, some of those in my own area, were blighted by industrial injuries and diseases. Those parts of the country provided the energy and steel and all the elements that made Britain a strong industrial nation. We had to watch many people in those communities die without any recognition of their illness or condition. Essentially, they were given up to an industrial machine that was not prepared to recognise its involvement in the activities that resulted in those deaths. There is a real deep-seated feeling about such issues in communities that many of my hon. Friends represent.
Mr. Kemp: There is anger on the Government side, as the Minister says, not only because of the horrible deaths that we have seen, but because the companies operated deliberate conspiracies for many generations. They not only knew the dangers, but deliberately conspired. We have seen the evidence and the minutes of board meetings that reveal that the companies knew the dangers of their activities, not only to the work force, but to the wider communities. They hid those dangers, which is what caused many of the problems. The anger is doubled because of that, and is not only for the people who died.
Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend has put that very articulately. People were knocking on the door, but nobody was listening: they refused to listen or accept responsibility for what was happening to individuals and families around the country.
I wanted to say that by way of introduction, but I shall answer the question from the right hon. Member for Wokingham, even though he is unfortunately no longer here. It is estimated that the scheme will cost £6 million a year, but we have also estimated that we will recover around £11 million a year from compensation recovery. In the long term, we will consider improving the dependants’ payout, as we have given a commitment to do. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will read that answer to his question tomorrow.
The hon. Members for Cardiff, Central and for Forest of Dean asked what work we were going to do to publicise the 2008 Act. I hope that I can give some reassurance on this matter: officials have arranged a number of meetings with a wide range of stakeholders to be held over the summer to publicise the new schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone indicated that a whole network of organisations is deeply involved in this. The issue is not about an individual going to see their doctor, but about a community that has come together to fight for justice.
John Battle: May I make a positive, practical suggestion? My hon. Friend the Minister could contact the Macmillan nurses, who work with many of the groups, including the community campaign on asbestos in my area. They have been helpful and supportive, and I am sure that they will help disseminate the information for her Department.
Mrs. McGuire: May I advise hon. Friends and other hon. Members that we will be working with a range of organisations, no doubt including the Macmillan cancer nurses, Citizens Advice, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Age Concern? Indeed, we are bringing forward the date on which the new information leaflets will be available to 1 October. The TUC is helping us to draft the leaflets, because it has a reservoir of expertise on such things.
Mr. Skinner: My hon. Friend mentioned the TUC. It is also important to remember that in these days of devolution, we should inform the Scottish TUC. It should be made an important issue in Glasgow, for the good reason that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow tells me that Glasgow is probably the second highest city for mesothelioma. Is it for me to tell my hon. Friend that it may well become an election issue, and that it ought to because it divides the classes?
Mrs. McGuire: I used the TUC in its generic sense. I would hope that my hon. Friend recognised that representing a Scottish constituency, I am aware of the importance of involving the TUC, and also the Welsh TUC. My hon. Friend is correct—Glasgow has had a specific and deep-rooted problem. Indeed, hon. Members of a certain vintage will remember Tony Worthington, who was heavily involved in this campaign. At that time he was representing Milngavie. I am sure that he will be pleased, when doing his gardening tonight, to see that another part of the campaign in which he joined with others has come to fruition.
On a practical point, there are meetings planned between 28 August and 18 September in Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham and London, and indeed in Glasgow, so we are working closely with local communities.
John Battle: Could hon. Members representing those constituencies be informed of those meetings? That has not happened in the past, but we should be grateful if the Minister would let us know.
Mrs. McGuire: I give my assurance that hon. Members will be advised of when the meetings are taking place.
Jenny Willott: That news is very welcome. I am sure that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean will join me in showing appreciation for the fact that that has been brought forward, because it was an issue that representatives of both our parties raised in the House of Lords. It is refreshing to get a positive response when something has gone through both Houses.
Mrs. McGuire: And so quickly too.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone raised the issue of merging the 1979 scheme and the new scheme. The two schemes will not merge, but the payments are expected to equalise by the third year, and I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.
The hon. Lady also raised the issue of equalising payments for dependants. The cost of the changes that we are introducing will be met by the introduction of a compensation recovery, so that all the moneys recovered will then be recycled into the new mesothelioma scheme to make future payments. It is difficult to balance the anguish of losing a loved one and the personal suffering that an individual will have as a result of having the condition. I hope that she will see that these are issues of fine judgment, and we think that the position we have laid before the Committee balances those two particular issues.
Mr. Harper: The Minister said that in the initial stages of the scheme there would be a cost of around £6 million and as the compensation recovery got going, that would enable some improvements in the benefits under the scheme. Has she made any assessment of where the priority might be for those benefits? In other words, picking up the point that the hon. Lady made, would it be to increase the amounts overall in proportion, or to increase the amount going to dependants? I wonder whether the Department has done any thinking on that. Is it picking up any of the points that have been raised by the Minister’s hon. Friends and those who have been consulted?
Mrs. McGuire: I think I said when I replied to the point made by the right hon. Member for Wokingham that we have given a commitment to consider improving dependants’ payments when we get to that position. I hope that that satisfies the Committee.
The hon. Member for Forest of Dean raised a few issues relating to workers and where they have contracted mesothelioma. I want to be clear about this because he is right: we need to be clear so that people are not given an expectation that cannot be met. I think that matter was also considered in Committee. We will pay those who have developed mesothelioma and have been exposed to asbestos in the UK, and it is right that we compensate those who have developed the condition and have been exposed to asbestos in the UK. That includes those who have contracted the condition in the UK, but perhaps are now abroad. It is where the condition was contracted that is the issue and, again, I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that.
The hon. Gentleman specifically raised the issue of service personnel. Working in naval dockyards abroad will be covered by Ministry of Defence schemes and other workers will be covered by the UK industrial injuries disablement benefits if they are subject to UK national insurance, or by the social security scheme of the country that they are insured in. The new mesothelioma scheme is primarily for people who have not contracted the disease at work. Those people are covered by other areas.
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