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The report rightly noted that in the circumstances it would not be possible to use secondary legislation to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. It also noted that the Secretary of State’s standards for modern zoo practice could form the basis for regulations to promote the welfare of animals in travelling circuses. We want to see improvements in winter quarters and travelling conditions, and we will undertake a feasibility study to see whether the regulatory system to promote welfare is workable. I expect that study to be completed by early spring. Ministers will have to consider it carefully and report back to the House.

Mark Pritchard: Will the Minister give an undertaking that different experts and scientists will be involved in that feasibility study instead of the same old suspects?

Jonathan Shaw: If the hon. Gentleman wants to criticise highly-qualified and eminent academics, that is a matter for him, but it does not move his argument forward.

The study will involve DEFRA veterinarians, zoo licensing inspectors and economists talking to the industry, and seeing what safeguards are currently in place and what could be done to improve them. It will also take account of the views of animal welfare organisations. We have made it clear that we want to hear the views of parliamentary colleagues, which is why this debate is very welcome. We will look at the study and report back to the House. The 2006 Act has been in place for a year, and we need to take account of how it is promoting animal welfare. So far, the feedback has been positive. We will look at the feasibility study and report back in order to consider how to move it forward.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): Does the Minister accept that the circus industry and those in the performing industry want regulation and are willing to work with the Government to find a sensible way forward without the banning of circuses?

Jonathan Shaw: We always want to work in partnership.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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Pleural Plaques Victims (Compensation)

2.30 pm

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue, which is at the core of a great many people’s problems. People feel very strongly and passionately about it, and I am delighted with the turnout from colleagues representing constituencies across the length and breadth of the UK.

Pleural plaques is a condition caused by asbestos passing through the lung and the pleura that protect it, causing a hardening of those pleura. In October, the Law Lords decided to deny victims of pleural plaques the right to compensation on the basis that the condition is symptomless and therefore is not compensatable. Bizarrely, the ruling went on to suggest that if a person suffers anxiety as a result of pleural plaques, it is caused by being told that they have it, rather than by the condition itself. That belittles claimants and causes increased anxiety, because they know that there is currently no chance whatever of redress.

There is significant evidence to suggest that pleural plaques are not the symptomless condition that the judges thought. The five judges were unanimous, and I accept that that makes their judgment difficult to overturn. However, legislation is needed to offer hope to the victims of the condition. The Scottish National Administration in the Scottish Parliament have pledged to introduce legislation to deal with this issue. I am pleased about that, because the victims do not care how they get compensation as long as they get it. My only concern is about the SNP leading people up the garden path, believing that it can overturn the decision or introduce legislation, only to let them down at the end. I sincerely hope that the party is sincere in its endeavours to overturn the decision.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): The judgment talked about the condition being symptomless, but it also says that there is a physiological change—the body changes as a result of pollution from asbestos. Does my hon. Friend agree that although the physiological change may be symptomless, it has certainly been caused by pollution?

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a long history of dealing with such issues. I am no medical expert, but I refer hon. Members to the work of Professor Mark Britton and Professor Tony Newman Taylor, who are world-renowned medical experts on asbestos-related disease. They have confirmed that pleural plaques are not prevalent in the general male population and are an indicator of asbestos exposure.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He mentioned the action being taken by the Scottish Parliament, which he has previously welcomed. I am sure that his fears about leading people up the garden path will not come to fruition. This is not a constitutional issue, but a medical one. When he presses the Minister, will he make the point that people with this condition who have been exposed to asbestos have an increased risk of mesothelioma and bronchial
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carcinoma? It needs to be impressed on the Government that this is not a theoretical or abstract debate; real issues are involved.

Jim Sheridan: I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right. I do not mean to be disrespectful when I talk about leading people up the garden path. If a genuine attempt to solve the problem for victims is being made, I hope that it is successful, because if it is successful in Scotland, a case can be made for the rest of the UK. We need the same commitment from Westminster as there seems to be in the Scottish Parliament.

For many working-class people such as myself, this is an emotive issue. Having spent years working in the Glasgow shipyards, I remember times when we could see asbestos dust floating in the air. The foremen would tell us to carry on working because it would not do us any harm. I do not blame the foremen or managers, because they were only doing as they were told. I place the blame squarely at the door of the companies that produced the stuff and asked people to work with it who did not know the damage that it was causing.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): My hon. Friend is quite a bit older than me, but I guess that he was not in the shipyards before 1965, when asbestos was effectively banned. It has been known to be a poisonous substance since 1892, so he is quite right to say that the real guilty parties are the employers who exposed people to that substance when they knew it was dangerous.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is right, and when they were exposed for doing that, they left the country and went on to expose people in underdeveloped countries to the same dangers, encouraging them to use the same substance. This is not just a UK problem; it is a global problem.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend also make the point that this issue is not only about private companies? A constituent of mine has told me about working in power stations in which lagging was hanging off, dripping with asbestos, and about being forced to work in state facilities in which that danger was lurking all around until relatively recently.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is right. The private sector does not have a monopoly on making people work with asbestos dust.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): We have a lobby next Tuesday, when some of my constituents will be coming down. They would want me to point out that this is not just about looking back at old industrial practices; it is happening right now. There are GMB union members working in the insulation stripping industry, trying to make life safer for our communities, and they need protection. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that they need to know that they will be able to get compensation if they suffer from pleural plaques?

Jim Sheridan: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—there are people working with asbestos today. Unfortunately, symptoms will not materialise or be felt in their bodies until some years later.

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I have details of friends, family members and colleagues whom I worked beside in the shipyards. Those who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques know exactly what could be the next step. I have attended too many funerals of people who were told that they had pleural plaques only for them to acquire full-blown mesothelioma. I am not talking only about people who worked in the shipyards on the Clyde. This problem is prevalent throughout the UK and in the underdeveloped world.

I vigorously disagree with the decision of the Law Lords that those who polluted with asbestos, namely the relevant companies, are not responsible for people developing pleural plaques or full-blown mesothelioma. The decision prompts the question, “Who is responsible?” Is it the irresponsible doctors who told sufferers that they had the disease? Is it their fault for telling people that they have pleural plaques, thus causing them anxiety? I find that a ridiculous supposition. Blaming doctors for telling people that they are unwell is absolutely incredible. The people whom I represent, including my friends and family, feel the same.

When farmers and livestock were affected by the foot and mouth and bluetongue diseases, Members of this House were up in arms and exercised themselves in demanding compensation for the animals that were destroyed to halt the spread of disease. I do not wish to denigrate the plight of farmers whose livelihoods were threatened or even ruined, but human beings who contracted a killing disease were not given the same attention by Members of this House or, indeed, by the Government.

The point that I am trying to make to the Minister is that the illness affects our people. The working-class men and women of this country are watching this debate, and they expect their Labour Government to sort out the issue. They want compensation for being exposed to damage to which others have not been subjected. I would dearly love to spread some asbestos dust on the Law Lords’ porridge in the morning to give them an understanding of exactly what the issue is.

A briefing that was recently put out by the Association of British Insurers states:

I have to say that that is what insurers are meant to do. They take on premiums against a risk, and, if the event occurs, they have to pay out. The ABI claims that there is a new consensus among independent medical experts.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I do not want my hon. Friend to let insurers off the hook. I championed the Armley asbestosis victims in my constituency for 20 years. We took the insurers to court in 1996 and won the case, but they fought tooth and nail to avoid paying out. Hon. Members will find that much of that large amount of money is actually payment to liquidators to liquidate the firm rather than pay victims. The majority of the money has gone on corporate gamesmanship to prevent the victims from getting it.

Jim Sheridan: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I can sense his emotion and anger. I can well recall the situation in Scotland when people were
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diagnosed as having mesothelioma. When they died, the claim died with them. The sad fact of life was that when the court case came up, the insurers would invite a doctor to sit beside them, and, from a distance, he would try to judge how long a victim had to live. He would then find the technicality to get the case cancelled, in the hope that the person would die and the insurers would not have to pay out the money. Fortunately, the trade unions saw that, and, through their campaigns, they managed to get the law changed.

The ABI claims that there is a new consensus among independent medical experts. I would say that there is no medical consensus, although there is, thanks to the House of Lords, a new legal consensus. The ABI states:

Why then are the insurers pursuing another challenge to block mesothelioma compensation? Trigger test cases, as they are known, are working their way through the courts. That is something that will become prevalent in the near future.

The ABI states that it wants to

and it goes on about the £1.8 billion. I would simply say that if it is that keen, why not show claimants the money? Why not use the savings from the judgment and set up a fund of last resort for claimants who cannot trace an insurer?

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): On that point, would my hon. Friend agree that there is a case for setting up a scheme similar to the pension protection fund so that if a firm goes bust, when a former employee makes a claim at least the employee will receive the compensation that they are due?

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There should be some mechanism whereby people can trace their employment. Anybody who knows someone who has died from either pleural plaques or mesothelioma will know how difficult things are when they are diagnosed. They do not have a great deal of time to start tracing their employer. Some of them, particularly those who worked in the construction industry years ago, find that either their employers or the insurers have gone bust, and it is extremely difficult to get compensation. There is a case to be made for some mechanism whereby people can trace their employer.

Recently, several insurers have refused to pay out on mesothelioma claims. They now say that the wording of the insurance policies that they entered into with employers means something very different from what they accepted it meant for the past 40 years. The insurers are arguing that the trigger for the insurance policy to respond to a mesothelioma claim is not exposure to asbestos but development of the disease asbestosis itself. The obvious benefit for insurers who are using the trigger issue is that, if they are successful, they will escape liability completely. The problem for the victims is that there will be no other insurer to turn to, because by the time they begin to suffer symptoms of the disease, which is often or could be as much as 40 years or more after they were exposed to asbestos, many employers will have simply gone bust, as my hon. Friend said.

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The effect of the trigger defence is to frustrate and delay the process of obtaining compensation for some terminally ill claimants, but it also introduces uncertainty about how employers’ liability insurance policies should be interpreted in mesothelioma cases. The insurance industry and its advisers know that, although perhaps not all insurers are presently using the trigger defence as accepted by the court. The rest of the insurance industry will fall in line, leaving our members, our constituents and thousands of other workers who develop mesothelioma deprived of their entitlement to compensation.

What should the Government do? Pleural plaques is a condition that affects thousands of ordinary working people. They were negligently exposed to asbestos, their lungs have been damaged, and they face an increased risk of fatal illness, about which they are genuinely worried. The decision of the House of Lords to deprive them of compensation should be reversed by legislation. Insurers should be forced to use any savings from the judgment—it is estimated that they stand at some £1.4 billion—to set up a fund of last resort for claimants who, through no fault of their own, cannot identify an insurer, or whose employer, again, through no fault of the claimant, has gone bust.

I have heard from people who are close to these issues that there is a reluctance by the Government to intervene in such cases because, as someone said, the disease is symptomless. People who go off sick with stress could perhaps claim similar compensation, but I think that there is a clear distinction between people suffering from stress and people diagnosed with pleural plaques. Pleural plaques is a tangible disease, the effects of which people can see. They can see what it develops into.

Mr. McGovern: Does my hon. Friend agree that although pleural plaques can be detected only by X-ray, the disease causes irreversible damage to the lining of the lung, and that if such damage were done to visible tissue, obviously a compensation claim would not be denied?

Jim Sheridan: Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a long history of working in industries where asbestosis was prevalent at the time.

On stress, I stress the point—excuse the pun—that I can see no comparison between people suffering from stress in the workplace and claiming compensation, and those diagnosed with pleural plaques, which can lead to full-blown mesothelioma, and the anxiety that that then causes. Like many people, I am not keen to have a compensation culture develop in this country. However, we are not talking about claims for a sprained ankle or whiplash but a life sentence of breathlessness, pain and worry about the increased risk of developing mesothelioma or, indeed, asbestosis. One cannot help wondering whether the Law Lords are perhaps more interested in trying to keep the courts free of what they consider petty compensation claims than in serving justice.

I could say far more on the issue, and I apologise if at times I become emotional about it, but there is a serious problem that must be addressed by the Government. I know that time is moving on and that some of my colleagues, who have equally genuine concerns, want to make their own representations about what happens in their constituencies. I beg the Minister, who has a good track record in dealing with such important issues, to
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listen to MPs, trade unions and union lawyers. This disease has to be tackled. People who have contracted the disease should get the compensation that they deserve. I ask the Minister to look seriously at what we can do here at Westminster, and also to consider how a possible change in the law in Scotland will impact on the rest of the UK.

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