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I have quoted lawyers and clinicians, but I personally place more weight on what clinicians—people who have dedicated their lives to relieving suffering in this area—have to say. I welcome the suggestion that we should collect more data to ascertain what happens over time to people who have plaques. I quite accept the worry and concern caused and I also accept that we
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should all be able to go to work and come away at the end of the day or at the end of our working lives without being impaired in any way. I well understand where hon. Members, particularly Labour Members, are coming from on this matter, but we must proceed according to the clinical evidence. Where that clinical evidence exists, I for one would be very happy to press the Government for compensation.

Jim Sheridan: I intend to make only a brief contribution, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) has covered most of the main points. It has to be said, however, that this is a very emotive subject, particularly in the place where I come from—the shipyards on the Clyde. When I worked there, I could see asbestos dust in the air and I remember the foreman telling me not to worry as it would not affect us and we would be okay. I am not suggesting for a moment that the foremen were to blame, as they were doing what they were told in telling people to work under those conditions. I do blame the companies who produced this stuff and asked people to work with it. It is indeed a very emotive subject.

I can understand where the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is coming from in that we do not have the statistics we need. However, I can provide some practical stats relating to the friends, the families and the colleagues I worked beside. When they are told that they have pleural plaques, many know exactly what the next step will be. They do not need a clinician to tell them that they are safe. They know exactly what the ultimate decision will be. I, for one, have attended too many funerals of people who were told that they had pleural plaques, only to acquire full-blown mesothelioma. I am not talking only about people in the shipyards of the Clyde, as it applies to people in shipyards throughout the whole UK, including Merseyside and elsewhere.

I can provide the practical evidence, as I said, but I disagree with the Law Lords when they decided that those who polluted with asbestos—namely, the companies— were not responsible for people developing either pleural plaques or full-blown mesothelioma. Who was responsible then? It was the irresponsible doctors who told the sufferers that they had the disease; it was their fault for telling people that they had pleural plaques, as that is what caused their anxiety. How ridiculous is that—blaming the doctors for telling people that they are unwell? That is absolutely incredible. Certainly the people I represent, my friends and my family find it incredible: they simply cannot understand it.

When farmers and their cattle are affected by foot and mouth or bluetongue, hon. Members fall over themselves in the House to provide compensation to farmers for their dead animals. Yet when human beings contract this killing disease, the same attention is not given to them. That is my point to the Minister. People—not many in the Chamber, but our people—are watching the debate. The Government may be going through a difficult period now, but this is the sort of issue that our people want our Government to sort out. They want compensation for being exposed to the damage that others have not been subjected to. I would dearly love to spread some asbestos dust on the porridge of the Law Lords, so that they can gain an understanding of what exactly this disease does to people.

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I am sorry if I sound emotive, but I am angry at the Law Lords for taking this decision and I am even angrier that my Government—my Labour Government—are not taking the steps that I believe they should to overturn it. I return to what I said earlier about the SNP Administration in Scotland. I wish them every success in bringing forward this legislation. I am sure that the victims and their families will wish them well.

My only concern relates to the advice given by the two Ministers in the Ministry of Justice. If they are right and the Law Lords’ decision applies throughout the UK, I sincerely hope that people are not playing politics with this. If they can overturn it—on behalf of friends and families of the victims, I sincerely hope that they can—I would hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary could make some sort of compromise in the Bill to ensure that if it is successful in Scotland, it should be successful in the rest of the UK. This is still a disease irrespective of whether people live in Newcastle, Glasgow, Cardiff or Belfast; it does not matter, it is a disease that kills people. I sincerely hope that the Minister takes on board exactly what has been said today and particularly the strength of feeling expressed on the Labour Benches about how this disease can affect people. I sincerely hope for that compromise whereby the rest of the UK can benefit from any compensation agreed by the Scottish Parliament.

Paul Rowen: I am pleased to support the new clause proposed by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). In the short time that I have been a Member in the House—he has been here a lot longer—I have noted his very honourable record in taking up issues surrounding asbestosis and industrial disease. Unlike the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), I actually believe that the Government have in the past and up to now been very good at listening to the concerns of people who have asbestos-related diseases.

I represent Rochdale, which was the home of the world’s largest asbestos factory. Literally hundreds of people in my constituency worked at TBA—Turner Brothers Asbestos—and had pleural plaques. Many of them went on to die of asbestos disease or mesothelioma. I know that last year, when the Law Lords overturned the compensation payments for mesothelioma, the Government listened to concerns. What we have in front of us in part 4 is a system of speedy payments that ensure that victims of mesothelioma get adequate recompense. That has done an awful lot to restore people’s confidence—certainly that of people in my constituency—that the Government listen.

The issue of pleural plaques is slightly different and I understand why the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has drafted the new clause. It has not been mentioned so far in the debate, but the fact remains that people have been receiving compensation payments for pleural plaques for more than 20 years. It has not suddenly started happening: small amounts of compensation, not huge sums of money, have been paid regularly for the last 20 or so years.

That is why it is wholly wrong of the Law Lords to take this decision. It is clearly indicative of the way in which the insurance industry is seeking to minimise its risks by stopping people who have industrial-related diseases from making claims. That cannot be denied.
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As the hon. Gentleman said, there is no way that people can get pleural plaques other than through exposure to asbestos. It is therefore an industrial-related disease. It does not qualify for compensation under the current arrangements, but in the past, under civil arrangements, it has qualified for small payments.

When the Bill goes to the other place, this should be considered further. We are not asking for huge sums, or indeed for any action that has not been taken before. All we are seeking to do is overturn a wrong judgment by the Law Lords, which has already been done in the case of mesothelioma. People have received payments for more than 20 years, but the Law Lords’ decision will end such payments. I hope that even if the Minister cannot accept new clause 4, he will discuss the issue further with Justice Ministers, and perhaps when the Bill reaches the other place we can have a speedy response, as we did last year in relation to the mesothelioma compensation scheme.

As I have said, literally hundreds of people in my constituency have pleural plaques. Before the judgment I was helping two of them to process their claim, and obviously they are now extremely upset and disappointed that it cannot proceed. I look to the Minister and the Government to rectify the injustice. This is a disease that affects working people, and it is clearly wrong for lawyers and the insurance industry to try to deny people their entitlement.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I support the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), and echo what has been said about his great work in this regard. I also share the outrage and concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) and the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) about the Law Lords’ judgment.

One of my brothers developed pleural plaques, and eventually died of mesothelioma. I remember full well trying, before and after his death, to persuade the authorities to take seriously the situation in which he had found himself, and in which his widow found herself. Happily it was resolved in the end, but not before we had gone through all the legal hoops that could possibly be put in the way of a just and fair settlement. There is, however, no just and fair settlement for someone who dies in such an horrific way as someone who dies from mesothelioma. One must see it or experience it to understand just what kind of death it really is.

Let me issue a cri de coeur to the Minister. I entirely agree with what was said earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North. People out there do not see this in quite the legalistic way in which it may be seen by some in this House and the other place, and by the Law Lords; they see it as a matter of simple justice and humanity. I sincerely hope that somewhere in the framework of the Bill the Minister will find a way of assuaging the doubts of so many people about the Government’s good intentions.

Mr. Weir: I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). He could not get the name of the Scottish Parliament right, but I will forgive him for that.

This is a serious matter. The judgment of the Law Lords overturned a situation that had existed for at
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least 20 years in which pleural plaques were recognised as a compensatable condition. Although pleural plaques do not necessarily lead to mesothelioma, they show that someone has been exposed to asbestos and may well develop a more serious condition. It is serious enough for people to know of their exposure to asbestos, and of what may happen thereafter. The current position reflects the long struggle of people suffering from asbestosis to obtain compensation, and the way in which some companies have tried to get out of paying it. I think that that is a disgrace.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) mentioned the Scottish Parliament and the fact that this was a United Kingdom-wide decision. It is a United Kingdom-wide decision because the ultimate court of appeal in civil cases from Scotland is the House of Lords, and the lower courts in Scotland are bound by the decisions of the House of Lords. This problem can be dealt with only if the law is changed, and that is what the Scottish Parliament intends to do. On 29 November the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, said:

That means that the legislation will be retrospective, becoming effective from the date on which the House of Lords ca’d the feet from under those who were bringing their cases. I understand that it is possible for a Bill to be introduced in the Scottish Parliament because civil law and the law on damages are devolved.

6.15 pm

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) made an important point. We should bear it in mind that when we speak of compensation for pleural plaques, we are speaking of relatively small sums. Most of those who received compensation received very modest amounts, not in the range of the amounts received by people suffering from mesothelioma. We are not talking about vast sums. We are talking about justice: justice for people who have been exposed to asbestos in the past through no fault of their own.

Jim Sheridan: The hon. Gentleman is right. The sums awarded in compensation for pleural plaques are minimal; we are talking about the principle.

There is, however, a more important point. When people are paid compensation their records are kept on file, but that register no longer exists. The people who worked in the industry concerned had worked, and contracted the disease, all over the United Kingdom and indeed abroad. Without the register specifying exactly who they worked for and when, the situation becomes extremely difficult, because people who are diagnosed must trace their records way back. As some of them do not have much time to live, it is important that the information is available when they are diagnosed.

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Mr. Weir: The hon. Gentleman is right. In the case of asbestosis, it has always been a problem to establish which of various employers is responsible; hence, perhaps, part 4 of the Bill, and a compensation scheme which I think every Member supports.

As I have said, this is a matter of justice. People have been exposed to asbestos, either through their work or because they were married to someone who worked in a shipyard or lived in an area where asbestos was used. If the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone presses the new clause to a vote we will certainly support him. The Scottish Parliament is taking action. If the new clause is passed, people will have a way of obtaining compensation quickly. As the hon. Gentleman said, it will be recoverable in the event of a subsequent action. But I suspect that the real answer is for the Government to change the law in England and Wales, just as the SNP Government intend to do in Scotland, and that is a matter that the hon. Gentleman may wish to pursue with the Minister.

Mr. Plaskitt: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), whose assiduous campaigning over many years on the issue of asbestosis and associated diseases has played a large part in the measures that we are considering. That is a tribute to his campaigning, and that of many other Members, on what is of course an extremely important issue. I also thank my hon. Friend for his contributions in Committee.

I entirely understand the strength of feeling that was evident in the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) and for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle). For Members representing areas where many people were employed for a long time in industries that led to asbestos exposure, the effect has been devastating. They are absolutely right to pursue the matter and raise it in the House now and on other occasions. It is a crucial issue for many of their constituents and their families, and I also understand the continuing concern and worry that surround it.

Like the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), I have constituents with pleural plaques, although there are not many asbestos-based industries in my constituency. I have therefore encountered the same issues. I therefore understand the concern, as put to me by them as well as by parliamentary colleagues speaking for many more affected constituents.

It should be said that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has this opportunity to introduce his new clause precisely because we are at last legislating to bring about speedy and significant compensation payments for mesothelioma victims, and he and other Members have rightly acknowledged that that is an important step forward. I understand, however, why he wants to raise the issue of pleural plaques.

Many Members are concerned about the recent decision in the House of Lords case of Rothwell v. Chemical and Insulating Company Ltd and conjoined cases on the civil law in relation to pleural plaques. The House of Lords thoroughly considered the issue on the basis of all the evidence put before it and reached a unanimous decision that pleural plaques do not constitute actionable or compensatable damage. That decision confirms that if a person with pleural plaques goes on to develop any recognised disease in the future they
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would have a claim in relation to the disease, because pleural plaques are in that sense an indicator of what can happen—as, sadly, we know—but does not in all cases inevitably happen.

The House of Lords decision is based on two fundamental principles of the law of negligence: first, that compensation in relation to negligence can be payable only where there is actual damage, and secondly that compensation is not payable simply for the risk or worry that something might happen in the future. Overturning those fundamental principles for pleural plaques would create uncertainty in the law and could lead to compensation claims being made much more widely for the risk of an illness occurring or for worry that something might happen—for example, from the effects of passive smoking in the workplace. That would considerably increase the level of litigation and the possibility of weak or spurious claims, and could have damaging effects on both business and the economy.

Paul Rowen: I understand what the Minister is saying, but does he not accept that these payments have been made for more than 20 years and that, therefore, there is custom and practice? They have not led to compensation payments in other areas. This has been accepted as something that has happened as a result of exposure to asbestos and nothing else.

Mr. Plaskitt: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point that there has been a long history of such payments being made, but he will know that the recent case came before the court because people brought an action to question whether that should be the situation. He will also know that the payments made over those 20 years were based on previous decisions of the court which have, of course, now been overturned. That is why Members are raising this issue. I hope I have set out the context in which our discussion arises.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): In Crewe, we have a whole generation—two or three generations, in fact—who after the war spent a great deal of time stripping down engines that had all been filled with asbestos, and I am sorry to say that I have lost a whole group of men in the 50s and 60s age group. For those coming up behind who have this dire prospect in front of them it is very worrying not to know whether they will be able to get compensation, because once those works began to be cut down many of them moved into completely different engineering fields.

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