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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments and, again, I completely understand the point being made. In her town of Crewe, as in other places mentioned by other hon. Friends, there have been specific concentrations of industries that, unfortunately, have given rise to a good deal of exposure to asbestos. Many of my hon. Friends constituents will have developed the more serious diseases as a result of that and, sadly, will have died. She rightly points out that this issue also still remains relevant because of the development time implied for some of the diseases. She will have constituents who are found to have pleural plaques and many of them will know that, sadly, that is a precursor of something far more seriousand, perhaps, ultimately fatal, as is the case with mesothelioma. Therefore, of course they
will have concerns about this issue. They will need to know that it is understood and that there are steps that the Government can take to keep the issue that she and other hon. Friends raise under review. I will come on to what those issues are in a moment.
Jim Sheridan: I wonder whether my hon. Friend will make any comment during his contribution about the smart-suited lawyers, the insurance companies or, indeed, the medical profession. It is difficult to get involved in this debate without remembering what happened recently in Scotland, where the law was that when a person died their claim died with them. The trade union movement in Scotland fought hard to get that overturned. It was overturned because when cases came for trial or up for compensation the insurance companies brought in a doctor to look at the victim and make a rough guess as to how long they had to live, and if they had only months or weeks to live they would find a technicality to get that case cancelled in the hope that the person would die and the claim for his family would die with him.
Mr. Plaskitt: I understand my hon. Friends concern about that, and there are undoubtedly questions for insurance companies to answer. He will know, of course, that the circumstances that gave rise to the recent case in the courts were initiated by the insurance companies, perhaps because they had concerns about the levels of claims being made.
In these cases, it is important that all the evidence is put forward. No one would want to rely entirely on what insurance companies felt about such situations, as they clearly have a vested interest in pursuing one particular line of argumentwe all understand that. When the courtsor anyone elselook at this, comprehensive evidence is crucial; that must also come from medics who are independent and do not take a view perpetuated by an insurance company, from other independent experts, and from those who can speak on behalf of the victims themselves and their families. The issue must be addressed in the round. My hon. Friend is right that it must not be considered solely from the point of view of what insurance companies might feel is in their interests.
Andrew Selous: A point has been made about the need to collect proper information in respect of people with pleural plaques, to see whether they do indeed develop into other conditions. Will the Minister address that, as I was concerned to hear that that information might not have been recorded when people were told they were not eligible for compensation? It would be a great pity to lose that source of information, which could give us the data the Minister has just referred to.
That is an important point, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it. I think that information might currently be held on that but in a non-systematic wayand I think that that is the issue. That is partly why there is the degree of debate that there is within the medical profession and elsewhere as to whether or not pleural plaques do inevitably lead to worse diseasesor, indeed, whether pleural plaques are entirely and uniquely caused by exposure to asbestos, as there is even some argument about that within the medical science community. Information is crucial, and
whereas at present it is not systematically gathered there might be a case for its being so. I will say more about that in a moment.
As has become evident as the debate on these measures has progressed, the Scottish Executive have indicated their intention to overturn the House of Lords judgment via legislation, so that people who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques will be able to raise and pursue actions for damages in Scotland. Of course, the civil legal systems in Scotland and in England and Wales are completely separate, and the question whether to legislate in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Parliament.
I know that the Governments decision not to intervene in the way sought by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone is disappointing for some hon. Members who feel, as they have said, that pleural plaques should be compensatable. I reassure them that the Government are fully committed to supporting sufferers of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Mr. Clapham: Does the Minister feel that there will be a chance to meet the Secretary of State for Justice to try to find a way through this, particularly if the Scottish Parliament decides that it will overturn the Law Lords decision? The Minister will know that there is a widening disparity between England and Wales and Scotland on a number of issues relating to this field, such as civil damages. Indeed, a briefing that I received from Thompsons solicitors suggests that civil damages settlements in Scotland and England for mesothelioma alone can differ by £30,000. We must deal with the widening disparity in civil damages and seek to secure equality before the law. If pleural plaques were again to become an issue that someone in Scotland could take to court for compensation while such an approach is restricted in England, we would prevent movement to equality. Does the Minister feel that we will be able to take this matter up with the Ministry of Justice?
Mr. Plaskitt: I entirely understand the point that my hon. Friend is making, and I encourage him to maintain a dialogue with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. He rightly says that any circumstances that give rise to disparities in claims are a cause for concern. I understand his fair point about at least having a degree of equality in the treatment of this matter. He will understand that any suggestion to review civil law in England and Wales in the light of a possible change in the law in Scotland is a matter for the Ministry of Justice, and is beyond the scope of this new clause.
Following on from the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), if there is such a change in the law in Scotland, would it not be absurd to have a situation in the UK where different conditions applied to an English resident with pleural plaques who was working for a Scottish firm and a Scottish resident with pleural plaques who was working for an English
firm? Is it not incumbent on the Government to do something to regularise the situation, regardless of what the Scots door rather, to cater for what they do?
Mr. Plaskitt: Let me try to reassure my hon. Friend. It is incumbent on us to keep the relevant aspects of this situation under review. I do not want to prejudge or anticipate issues that the Scottish Parliament might encounter as it examines this proposed legislation and its potential consequences. As I have said, the issues of how government can deal with such cases and the need for consistency must be addressed.
In addition to the provisions in this Bill, we introduced provisions in the Compensation Act 2006 to provide that, where a person has contracted mesothelioma after there has been wrongful exposure to asbestos at different times by more than one person, negligent persons are jointly and severally liable. That enables a claimant to recover full compensation from any relevant person rather than having to trace them all and recover compensation on a piecemeal basis.
We are also taking steps to improve the claims handling process. For example, the Civil Procedure Rule Committee is currently considering a new practice direction to ensure that a uniform fast-track scheme for mesothelioma cases based on the one that has been working well in the royal courts of justice is applied consistently in all courts around the country.
I also know that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has discussed with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), and Lord McKenzie of Luton, from my Department, the possibility of a register for those diagnosed with pleural plaques to include details of employment and the employers insurers.
Anne Moffat: The Minister is talking about what is incumbent on the Government. They should have a register so that anyone employed in this area who subsequently develops pleural plaques, and perhaps asbestosis, is registered. Who does he think should pay for such a register? Should the Government pay for its administration oras I believeshould the insurers pay?
Mrs. Dunwoody: I cited the case of people who were young apprentices at the time and who now find themselves struck with this terrible disease. There is a genuine problem in this regard, because the rail companies involved no longer exist. A national register is the very least that there should be.
Does the Minister feel that rather than start structuring a register from the beginning, it would be worth communicating with some of the members of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, who already have registers? For example, Thompsons solicitors keep
a register of people with pleural plaques who have contacted them so a database may exist that the Minister could bring together.
Linking that to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) abut the insurance companies, does the Minister feel that discussions should be opened up with themafter all, they are the polluter? We are talking about pleural plaques that have been caused because asbestos has invaded peoples bodies, so according to the polluter pays principle, the insurance company should put the money forward for any scheme related to a register.
I use the term scheme related to a register because, as the Minister will know, people who suffer from pleural plaques come forward for their X-rays because this is linked to common-law damages, but as the common-law damages issue has been removed, there is a need for another incentive. To incentivise people to come forward to put their names on the register, there needs to be a schemeif that is at all possibleand that should be provided by the insurance companies. Does the Minister feel that they can be encouraged to come on board?
Mr. Plaskitt: I am able to confirm that the Government will explore, with key stakeholders, the idea of a register of the sort that my hon. Friends suggest would be viable and provide practical benefits. I am happy to make that commitment to my hon. Friends. They have focused on the steps that we now have to take, having given a commitment to have the appropriate discussions with all potential stakeholders in this area, and to see how we can proceed with the helpful suggestion of a register.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone is right to say that some of the data that we would need to assemble for the register will already exist. We may not need to start from scratch, and we could include in the register people already known to be in that situation, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). As we make progress with the commitment that I have given, we will have discussions with organisations, such as the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, that may already be in possession of some of the data.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone makes an interesting point about the position of the lawyers, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian asked how we can pay for a register, if that is the way forward. As we have our discussions, we will want to meet the representatives of the insurance industry, and we will discuss what contribution they can make to establishing a register. That will be an important dialogue, especially given the many comments made in this debate about the contribution of the insurance industry to this issue and the role that it could play in helping us to work out a solution.
Many Labour Members want us to keep the matter under review, and in doing so, it is reasonable to point out the role of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, which monitors and recommends changes in connection with the diseases for which industrial injuries disablement benefit can be paid. That can include consideration of the same lung diseases as are covered by the 1979 Act. If appropriate, the 1979 Act will be changed to reflect new scientific opinion, as expressed to the IIAC. Hon. Members
who, for understandable reasons, concentrate on this issue may be aware that back in July 2005, the IIAC published its report on its review of asbestos-related disease. In that report, the council recognised that symptomatic pleural plaques can occur, and that is an important finding, because there is some argument on that point. For the Government, it is important to have advice from an authoritative body that studies all the scientific evidence. We have to depend on the view that the council puts to us, and that is why it is important.
Mr. Clapham: The IIAC is especially important. As my hon. Friend knows, it has suggested that pleural plaques can be symptomatic, and that could give rise to a claim for industrial injuries disablement benefit. However, claiming that benefit is not an easy task. For example, over the past five years, the Health and Safety Commission has reported that more than 2.2 million people a year suffer workplace-related illness. Last year, the number of industrial injuries disablement benefit awards was some 6,300. Therefore, the fact that pleural plaques can be symptomatic does not mean that the sufferers will receive industrial injuries disablement benefit. In the case of mesothelioma, we ended up with dual diagnosis, and we may need to reconsider the issue of pleural plaques that cause people to exhibit symptoms and how we could make it easier for them to claim industrial injuries disablement benefit.
Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend is right that we see very many potential cases, although it can be difficult to obtain industrial injuries disablement benefit. The point is that we need to rely substantially on what the IIAC tells us. I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes its report in July 2005, which recognised that symptomatic pleural plaques can occur, which is a change to previous opinion. However, the report also stated that there was a lack of evidence that pleural plaques caused impairment of lung function sufficient to cause disability. I can reassure him that the council continues to monitor all the research on pleural plaques and it will keep the issue under review. Were it to conclude differently at some point in the future in the light of further medical evidence, it would no doubt say something different to us. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured by the knowledge that the issue is subject to regular review.
Jim Sheridan: If, as forecast, Scotland legislates to reverse the decision, can my hon. Friend tell me what would happen if someone were working for a publicly funded UK organisationas, say, an apprentice in the Ministry of Defenceand contracted pleural plaques? In which court could they claim compensation? Would it not be ridiculous if someone working in Glasgow could be compensated, but someone who worked in London could not?
My hon. Friend raises an important point that serves to underline the complexity of this issue. I hope that he will understand why we are trying to proceed cautiously. We want to consider the ruling of the court and we need to see what happens as the issue is debated in the Scottish Parliament. I do not wish to presume the outcome of that debate. I hope that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley,
West and Penistone will accept that our commitment to look seriously into the option for a register is a step forward along the lines they advocate.
The new clause relates to payments under the new mesothelioma scheme. The payments that we are making under the new scheme are for people who have developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos, who often have a short life expectancy, and who experience complex, debilitating symptoms, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Mesothelioma can, therefore, be distinguished from the other conditions that we have been discussing.
The cost of the changes that we are bringing in will be met by the introduction of a compensation recovery process, so that all 1979 Act and new mesothelioma scheme payments will be recovered if a civil compensation claim is subsequently successful. Moneys recovered will then be recycled into the new mesothelioma scheme to make future payments. In that respect, the scheme is self-funding.
Mr. Clapham: As the Minister is aware, the compensation recovery unit did not recover compensation from the claimant. If the claimant made a civil claim, there was a windfall for the insurance company. The Bill would introduce a creative avenue, whereby we could recover a payment made under the 1979 Act, which would then go into the fund to meet further claims. That in itself is a step forward. If we were to introduce payments for pleural plaques, and there were to be a successful civil claim at some time in the future, one would expect the same recovery mechanism to apply to those payments.
Mr. Plaskitt: I understand my hon. Friends point, and I am glad that he acknowledges our innovative funding of the scheme. If there are developments in the future, we shall have to examine how the schemes are funded, but at least a mechanism has been established for the new scheme, which will deliver prompt payments for mesothelioma sufferers.
As my hon. Friend knows, the amount of funding available from introducing compensation recovery is only just sufficient to fund the planned extension of the scheme to all mesothelioma sufferers. Trying to include other diseases in the scheme would greatly increase the administrative work and cost, and undermine the schemes aim of providing mesothelioma patients with compensation as soon as possible. In addition, if such changes were made, the scheme would no longer be self-fundingand the self-funding element was something that my hon. Friend welcomed.
I hope that I have been able to give reassurances to Members who have raised extremely important points about pleural plaques and people who, sadly, suffer from them. I hope, too, that I have been able to explain the Governments position in respect of both the court decision and an issue that may be debated in the Scottish Parliament in the near future. Given those reassurances, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree to withdraw the new clause.
I hear what my hon. Friend the Minister has said. He has noted the feelings expressed by Labour Members about the House of Lords decision about pleural plaques. I am reassured by what he said,
so as I do not want the Bill to be put in jeopardy, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
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