Previous Section Index Home Page

3 Dec 2007 : Column 606

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. If hon. Members are not staying to take part in this debate or to listen to it, perhaps they would like to leave the Chamber quietly.

Mr. Clapham: The judgment argued that there should be no compensation for pleural plaques, a condition caused by exposure to asbestos. It occurs as the asbestos is passed through the lung to the back of the lung and the pleura that protect it, and it causes a hardening of those pleura. The judgment suggested that the condition was symptomless and therefore not compensatable. It went on to suggest that if a man suffers anxiety as a result of pleural plaques, it is caused not so much by the condition as by the fact that he has been told that he has it.

I find that judgment quite bizarre and quite appalling. It belittles claimants and it causes great anxiety for them, because they know that there is no chance whatsoever of redress. An amount of evidence is available to suggest that they are not as symptomless as the judges in that case thought. I accept that the five judges gave their judgment unanimously, which makes it a difficult one to overturn. As the Minister will be aware, we saw his hon. Friends at the Ministry of Justice, and there was some concern that we will not be able to overturn that judgment. The only means of seeking some redress now is to consider whether we might be able to include provision for payments to be made in Bill. I know that there are difficulties with that.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend received legal advice from two senior Ministers, who assured him and me that the Law Lords’ outrageous decision was UK-wide and therefore could not be overturned. He may be aware that the Scottish Parliament is making an effort to have the decision overturned, and the best of luck to it; I hope that it manages to do so. It has the political will to do it, and if the same political will existed in this House, perhaps we could cover the rest of the UK and get compensation for those who thoroughly deserve it.

Mr. Clapham: I am grateful for that intervention. I know that my hon. Friend has dealt closely with this complaint because there are people in his constituency who suffer from pleural plaques. He has sought some form of statement that might help the House deal with the situation arising from the pleural plaque decision on 17 October.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): My hon. Friend said that our hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) has constituents who might be affected. Is it not true that practically every Member in the House will have such constituents? If my hon. Friend wishes to use his new clause to probe the Government today, perhaps he might add that many of us want this place to rectify the position so that our constituents who are affected will get compensation.

Mr. Clapham: I have no doubt that the Minister heard what my right hon. Friend said, and will take his point on board.

We may need to discuss the matter with the Ministry of Justice to decide how to take things forward. If we were able to get the provisions in question into the Bill,
3 Dec 2007 : Column 607
we would have to look at how we might pay compensation to people with pleural plaques. It has to be recognised that the Bill deals with mesothelioma, and I accept that mesothelioma—cancer caused by asbestos—is much more unremitting and aggressive, and it is terminal. Pleural plaques are not in that category, but they do indicate that a person’s situation may worsen. They could develop into asbestosis, which is fibrosis of the lung, or indeed into mesothelioma.

In preparation for this debate, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North, I met a branch of the GMB union in London—the “London laggers”. The two officials whom we met, Jim Parish, chairman of the laggers, and Tony Kent, their secretary, told us that they have kept a record of their members from 1989 to the present day. On average, there have been 12 diagnoses of pleural plaques each year since 1989. They say that a number of deaths have occurred as a result of mesothelioma cancer and other cancers, but they could not refer us to a record of those deaths, because many occur when the men have retired and lost contact with the union branch, so they are noted only when someone mentions that one of their colleagues has died or is being buried. There was no correct record of the number who had developed mesothelioma, but the officials were convinced that pleural plaques led directly to a worsening of the situation.

The Minister may be aware that some people say that pleural plaques are general throughout the population, but that is untrue. Others will say that pleural plaques are not altogether concerned with exposure to asbestos.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): My hon. Friend is aware, of course, that pleural plaques can be detected only via an X-ray, but he is also aware that the condition constitutes an irreversible damage to the tissue of the lung. Does he agree that it is hard to believe that, if such damage were caused to visible tissues on any human being, compensation would be denied?

Mr. Clapham: I agree with my hon. Friend. If there is a physiological change, and the court judgment accepts that, in my estimation that amounts to a loss of faculty, which should be compensatable.

As I said earlier, people say that pleural plaques are widespread in the general population. Others say that they are not altogether related to exposure to asbestos. Hugh Robertson, the director of social insurance for the TUC, sent me a copy of an e-mail, which I shall read out to the Minister. It states:

That was the view of Professor Tony Newman Taylor who, at one point, was chair of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. The e-mail continues:

In other words, there is clear medical evidence that pleural plaques are the result of exposure to asbestos.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend as astounded and disgusted as I am to hear that, during a meeting in this place about pleural plaque, a civil servant compared it with freckles? If people are dismissive and do not understand the issue and what it could lead to physiologically and mentally, we are in dire straits. Surely the new clause is the sort of proposal we should accept to help our people out.

5.45 pm

Mr. Clapham: There was exaggeration, but we now have evidence to show that such exaggeration is wrong and that pleural plaques generally result from exposure to asbestos rather than simply emerge among the general population.

Pleural plaques are clearly caused by asbestos, and the decision of the Law Lords is causing a great deal of concern. The Bill appeared to provide an avenue for introducing a payment for pleural plaques. As I said, the laggers that we met were clear that pleural plaques caused breathlessness. I received a letter from Mr. Terence Hook, who lives in Sheffield and has just been diagnosed with pleural plaques. He makes it clear that he suffers from breathlessness, which he attributes to pleural plaques. There is much anecdotal evidence of people with pleural plaques suffering from breathlessness.

The decision, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North referred, of the Scottish Assembly—

Jim Sheridan: Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Clapham: The Scottish Parliament’s decision to try to overturn the House of Lords decision is brave. As my hon. Friend said, we were told that the House of Lords decision was one of rigour and would apply in Scotland in the same circumstances as it applied in England and Wales, and could not easily be overturned. If the Scottish Parliament moves to overturn the decision—all power to its elbow—we need to consider seriously how we proceed. I hope that, if the Minister cannot accept the new clause—I appreciate that there are problems with it, and we may need to take up the matter with the Ministry of Justice—he will refer his colleagues in the Ministry to the fact that overturning the decision is being considered in Scotland.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): We are all grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter in the way in which he has done. Those of us who have fought for victims of asbestos for 20 years or more are regularly defeated in the courts, not by companies that refuse to pay out but by insurance companies, which fight tooth
3 Dec 2007 : Column 609
and nail to avoid paying out. In the course of 20 or more years, our constituents die and their families get nothing, so we must look to the Government to bridge the gap while we try to find a long-term solution to what is medically proven to be a just and legitimate case.

Mr. Clapham: My right hon. Friend is correct. If we consider the number of cases that have come to court in the past few years, we can see that the insurance companies behave almost like jackals. They have gone to court again and again until they have got the decision that they wanted. That throws up another question. We are considering a working class disease; it is not a middle class disease. Is it appropriate for middle class judges to make decisions about a disease that affects the working class? It is clear that those taking the decisions have been rather indifferent to the way in which people explain their suffering. When we met the London laggers, we were told that they gave the House of Lords all their evidence from the records that they had kept on the development of pleural plaques among their members. However, the House of Lords came forth with its decision that pleural plaques is a symptomless condition.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the recent case of Bernie Banton in Australia and the sad circumstances surrounding it, with only eight of the 135 employees working in the James Hardie factory still alive, because of the terrible nature of asbestosis and mesothelioma? Is my hon. Friend also aware that Bernie Banton acted as a witness during the recent election campaign and that the court went to his bedside as he was dying, in order to ensure that there was a double payout and a precedent established for treating mesothelioma in Australia through the courts? He did that with the critical support of the incoming Labour Government there, who will now be duty bound to ensure that victims, in that jurisdiction at least, will receive the compensation that they need and deserve.

Mr. Clapham: Part 4 is welcome, because it will make payments to mesothelioma sufferers available within six weeks of a diagnosis. I note what my hon. Friend says and I am aware of some of the progress being made in Australia, but the Bill is also a progressive measure, in making payments available quickly to mesothelioma sufferers.

In the light of the House of Lords judgment, will the Minister and the Department consider creating a register on which the names of each person who has been diagnosed and is in the queue behind that judgment are kept, as well as any future diagnoses of pleural plaques, rather than mesothelioma? We could keep on that register the names of the man or woman affected, the employer for whom they worked and the employer’s liability insurers, so that should there be a worsening of the condition, we could easily get that information and pursue a claim. That would also benefit the Department, because where there is a successful civil claim, the payment that has been made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 will be recovered, as the Minister will be aware. Keeping the register in order to facilitate claims being pursued through a civil action would therefore also allow claims to be made for the recovery of payments
3 Dec 2007 : Column 610
made under the 1979 Act. Going down that avenue would be an improvement on the current position. In the meantime, we should consider whether we can move forward on the issue, particularly in the light of what might happen in Scotland.

Andrew Selous: I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who follows this issue assiduously—as he does all issues relating to health and safety—and has done for many years, throughout his time in the House. A small number of my constituents with pleural plaques have written to me, so I am aware of the issue from a constituency point of view. I intend largely to quote the Court of Appeal and House of Lords judgments and what was said by some Scottish judges and, more importantly, to consider what the clinicians are saying about pleural plaques.

The House of Lords judgment of 17 October stated that it was not necessary to pay out for pleural plaques because they are symptomless, as the hon. Gentleman said, do not increase susceptibility or lead to other asbestos-related diseases, and do not impact on health, the ability to work and quality of life. That judgment was based on an earlier Court of Appeal judgment, which went to the House of Lords. Paragraph (d) of section 10 of that judgment said:

a slight difference of wording. The judgment continued:

I would separate sufferers of pleural plaques who experience an uncomfortable sensation when they breathe from other sufferers and believe that they should be eligible for compensation, albeit far less than what is provided for in part 4, which deals with mesothelioma, a wholly different condition, as was made clear earlier.

Mr. Clapham: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I had intended to say that the Bill allows for the Minister to bring forward regulations for different classes of case and, presumably, different classes of payment. Should we include provisions to provide compensation for pleural plaques, it would of course be much less than what is paid for mesothelioma under the 1979 Act.

Andrew Selous: As I have said, I would be happy for some compensation to be paid in what I am told is the less than 1 per cent. of cases where there is an uncomfortable grating sensation on breathing.

Paragraph (h) of section 10 of the Court of Appeal judgment said:

Meanwhile, in the case of Wright v. Stoddard earlier this year, Lord Uist said:

But enough of the lawyers—we have heard it said that pleural plaques is a working class disease, so what
3 Dec 2007 : Column 611
do middle-class lawyers and insurers know about it? I want to deal with the remarks of the clinicians—not the insurance companies, but the doctors who have spent their lives trying to treat people with different forms of lung illness. Dr. John Moore-Gillon, the president of the British Lung Foundation, has said:

Dr. Robin Rudd, a leading consultant, has said:

Dr. John Moore-Gillon has also said:

Jim Sheridan rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I call Jim Knight.

Jim Sheridan: Perish the thought.

I wish to raise a point about the statistics. I understand what the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) means in saying that clinicians and doctors do not believe that pleural plaques in themselves lead to cancer or mesothelioma, but can he provide the House with any statistics showing that people diagnosed with pleural plaques go on to develop full-blown mesothelioma as in the cases referred to earlier?

6 pm

Andrew Selous: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I have no such statistics, but I think that they would be very useful. I have heard nothing in the debate so far that has shone any light on that area, although the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has anecdotal evidence. I agree that it would be useful if anyone were prepared to collect such data. If it could be verified, it would make an important contribution to the whole debate.

Let me continue with the remarks of Dr. John Moore-Gillon, who went on to say:

He makes reference to various standard texts on the subject, one of which is “Occupational Lung Disorders”, edited by W. R. Parkes, published by Butterworth-Hienemann, in which it is stated:

Next Section Index Home Page