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23 Jan 2008 : Column 464WH—continued

2.50 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I appreciate that many hon. Members want to speak today, so I will be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on initiating the debate. As he has said, many hon. Members share his concern about the Law Lords’ decision. I believe that a very simple point needs to be made. Compensation for pleural plaques has been paid for nearly 30 years. The disease has been acknowledged as an industrial injury and many people have received compensation. Although the sums of money have been small, they are a just recognition of the fact that pleural plaques is an industrial disease.

The world’s largest asbestos factory was based in the town that I represent. Rochdale’s Turner Brothers manufactured the stuff and then exported it to different industries, which many hon. Members here represent. Hundreds of people in Rochdale have been diagnosed with pleural plaques, and they are now extremely concerned at the effects of the Law Lords’ decision.

Clearly, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Government should do something. Last year, when the issue of mesothelioma payments arose, they acted very speedily. In the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is now being considered in the Lords, a mechanism was found to ensure that compensation was paid speedily. I put it to the Minister that she should consider allowing amendments to that Bill to be tabled in the Lords to restore a right that has existed previously.

We are not talking about something that has not happened before. It has been an established practice—developed by case law—to recognise that pleural plaques is a disease or an injury caused by exposure to asbestos and therefore that compensation should be paid. I hope that the Minister will listen to what hon. Members have to say and that she will introduce positive proposals to restore that right.

2.52 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): Like the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), I will be very brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate. Pleural plaques is an important issue, and we must impress upon the Minister that she needs to think about how she might change the situation. The Law Lords made their decision on 17 October, and it has impacted on every constituency. Pleural plaques is clearly the result of exposure to asbestos.

My hon. Friend referred to two experts—Professor Mark Britton and Professor Newman Taylor—both of whom have said that pleural plaques is not a disease that affects the general population; it is clearly the result of exposure to asbestos. They also say that, after 30 years’
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exposure, a person will have calcified plaques. After 20 years’ exposure, there will be plaques, but they will not have calcified.

The Law Lords have accepted that there is a physiological change. The calcification, or the change to the lining of the lung, is a tangible change that can be shown on X-rays. It proves that asbestos has polluted the body. Under the concept that the polluter should pay, we should return to the situation in which compensation has been paid for 20 years.

There is no doubt that there is a link with mesothelioma. Although the letter from the Association of British Insurers, which my hon. Friend mentioned, refers to only 1 per cent. of people with pleural plaques developing mesothelioma, Professor Mark Britton and Professor Newman Taylor say that the number is between 1 and 5 per cent. They make it clear that an association exists between pleural plaques and the development of mesothelioma.

My hon. Friend and I met the laggers of London—there is a GMB branch for laggers—who are exposed to asbestos in their daily work. They pointed out that each year in their branch, 12 people are diagnosed with pleural plaques. They say that a significant number go on to develop worsening conditions, such as mesothelioma and cancer.

I hope that the Minister will think very seriously about how we can move the matter forward. My hon. Friend asked what the implications would be if the Scottish Parliament overturned the Law Lords’ decision. I hope that the Minister can give us an indication of the implications that that may have for England.

2.56 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): Like other hon. Members, I will be brief. Although nearly everything has been said already, I think that we need to say it again and again. Until the Government listen, justice will not be done, and this is a massive injustice to so many people. Many of my constituents who have come to me about this matter worked at Devonport dockyard. They have experienced, over a long period of time, a series of injustices, which are only now beginning to be put right.

Pleural plaques is a recognised condition. I hope that I do not have it; I do not want it. I do not think that any hon. Member would want it. If someone has it as a result of being irresponsibly exposed to asbestos, there must be some recognition of the fact that they have a condition. Just because we do not understand all that may happen does not mean that people may not have developed other diseases and illnesses because they have had pleural plaques.

I want to name a couple of my constituents who have contacted me. David Pearn suffers shortness of breath. His condition is very noticeable compared with other people of the same age. He cannot lead the kind of normal life that he would expect. Another constituent, Trevor Talbot, wrote a letter to me. He said:

23 Jan 2008 : Column 466WH

Another constituent, Graham Whiting, said:

The sense of outrage and injustice is clear.

The insurance industry does itself no favours. It has been said that insurers are committed to paying fast, fair and efficient compensation, but while they drag out claims for as long as possible, they can spend as much money fighting any payout as they get in premium income. The process is far from fast or fair. It may be efficient for them not to pay anything at all, but not as far as my constituents and others are concerned. That behaviour does them no justice at all, especially given other rip-offs, such as paying protection insurance, and how people are dealt with in other respects. It is about time that the Association of British Insurers started to recognise that the industry has a bad and worsening reputation.

I am very pleased that the Scottish Parliament is challenging the Law Lords. The effects of asbestos are a terrible legacy of an industrialised Britain that we now know far more about. The nation has generated great wealth. We have done very well on the backs of a number of people who have worked in quite dangerous industries. It is time that we recognised that and gave them the proper compensation that is due to them.

Obviously, if the Scottish Parliament overrules the Law Lords, my constituents and others will say that it is a curious situation. People who worked at naval bases in Scotland, on the Clyde, will apparently be entitled to compensation, but those who worked in Devonport will not. That message should not be sent to those who properly served their country in an industry that has proved to be dangerous to them. It is time that the Government recognised that. If the Law Lords want to play with people’s livelihoods and lives in that way, we should not allow it. There should be a change and it should be soon. These people should get the justice that they deserve.

3 pm

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on raising this issue and keeping it alive in Parliament. He has done so along with other colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Why is the issue important? This is not just a case of unfinished business in which the law has not quite caught up with the victims. My experience in the House is that, every time we take one step forward, we take two steps back. That happens in medical terms and in legal terms.

I represent Armley in west Leeds. The original JW Roberts factory was there from 1886 to 1956, spewing out dust on to the streets. The saga is well known. We got great coverage for our campaign in the 1980s, when it was discovered that that dust polluted people on the streets. We tried to take on the company that became Turner and Newall. We ran a 10-year campaign to identify the people involved. They lied—I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not speaking under
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parliamentary privilege—and told us that they did not have the records although they did. We discovered them.

At the same time, there was the great argument about medical evidence, to which some of my hon. Friends have referred. It was said that there was no evidence that asbestos was dangerous. Well, in Armley in 1922, Dr. Greaves took images—X-rays—of lung diseases to prove that there was a problem. Those very images of pleural plaques are still available in medical records; I think that they are in Edinburgh university’s medical college.

In 1936, the health and safety people turned up and told the factory, “Will you employ certain conditions to make sure people aren’t polluted?” but of course that did not apply to the company blowing the dust out of the windows and the air vent. The neighbourhood was polluted with no safeguards whatever and the company denied all responsibility.

To cut the story short, the factory shut in 1956 and more than 400 people got asbestosis. I think that I was the first person to use the word “mesothelioma” in the House, in 1988. It was still denied then that that had anything to do with asbestos. Medical reports were still going in saying that people had died of diseases such as bronchitis. Sometimes, the reports said, “Disease unidentifiable”. There was no acknowledgement that one fibre stuck in a lung would lodge there for 30 to 40 years, pregnant until it broke out in a terrible death. That was not accepted. The medical world was as responsible then as the lawyers are now.

We got to court in 1996, and we won the case against Turner and Newall, but it was taken over and it slipped the assets across to Federal Mogul in America. Federal Mogul decided to wrap them up in a little bundle and send them back to Britain in a little company that had the assets, because the judge said, “Put a pot aside to pay the victims.” What did that multinational do? It set up a shadow company, ring-fenced it and deliberately made it bankrupt and sent it into administration, so that it would not have to pay out because we had won the court case. We then campaigned for 10 years, from 1996 right through to 2006, but through all the processes, the lawyers managed it so that 16p in the pound was what a handful of victims got as a result. It was a whole mountain to produce a mouse.

At every move of the game, the company and the insurance companies used every trick in the book of what I call corporate gamesmanship to ensure that they did not pay out. That is the story of this issue. Why did it end up in the House of Lords in the first place? People wanted to draw back from the rights that workers already had; the payments were there, as other hon. Members have said. So we are no further along.

It is not right that I should say to my constituents, “Pack your bags and move to Paisley, because that is your only hope,” but that is in effect what we will be saying if the Scottish Parliament overturns the ruling. We have had to say already that, if people want treatment with Alimta, they should move to Scotland, because they can get treatment in Scotland that they cannot get here. That cannot be just. We cannot offer that as an answer to people who are victims. They were polluted through no fault of their own. It was not that they did not wear the protective gear that they were told to wear. In my area, they just happened to live in the neighbourhood
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and the dust was sprayed on them. It is not their fault, but the victims are still being blamed and all the onus is being put on them to try to secure compensation.

Victims are left facing a terrible, terrible death. Anybody who has witnessed, as I have, someone dying of mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease will know that it is a terrible death for people to go through, and we are asking victims and families to go through that without any hope. When the decision came through from the House of Lords, victims and families were left with a sense of deep helplessness and hopelessness—there was nothing that they could do and nowhere that they could go.

Can the Government cut through this? Can we overrule the decision in some way? Can we pass a law to say that people can have the compensation and acknowledge that pleural plaques may well lead to mesothelioma? We certainly know that they are the result of exposure to asbestos through no fault of the people affected. We have taken decisions to ban the use of asbestos. Richard Doll spelt the position out. Deaths will peak in 2015 or 2018. We could count the number of people likely to be victims. We are not asking for an infinite pot of money. I am tempted to say that, if all the compensation payouts were £30,000—the original level—it would certainly not break the bank, and it would be a damn sight cheaper than bailing out some banks, not that I am opposing that. I am suggesting that, in the context of revenues and costs, it will not cost a large amount of money to alleviate the suffering of victims and their families.

It is appalling to say that the victims of asbestos are the worried well. It is an appalling abuse of people to use that expression. They are not the worried well; they are people who are sick through no fault of their own. I plead with the Government: please for once intervene. The Government ought to find a way to cut through the legal logjam that has been fabricated by the insurance companies and the companies behind the asbestos pollution to avoid paying out.

Very helpful suggestions have been made. Perhaps there could be a pot like the fund for pensions. Perhaps there could be a pot that would enable people to be paid now. What is most cynical of all is when companies say what was said to me by a senior insurance company representative, “Well, you do realise that this campaign will die out.” Well, it will, because the people will die. That is unacceptable and that is why it is imperative that we act now and press the Government to do their utmost to give some hope to the victims and their families.

3.7 pm

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate. The issue is so pressing in the areas that we represent. It would be wrong of me not to take part in the debate, given that I come from Tyneside. The incidences of death from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are running at something like two a week, so the relevant court’s decision and the lack of Government action following that decision have left many thousands of people feeling powerless and belittled.

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Pleural plaques is a working-class disease. It is a scarring of the lungs caused by negligent exposure to asbestos in the workplace. Let us analyse what I have said: it is scarring of the lungs and, quite simply, a scar is an injury. People normally get scars if they fall over and hit their head or whatever. That may be caused by their own negligence. The difference with pleural plaques is that it is an industrial injury caused by the negligence of an employer.

In the majority of cases, it is said that pleural plaques will not go on to cause death—or, indeed, mesothelioma, which is a death sentence in itself—but the very fact that someone has been exposed to pleural plaques causes the worry that they could develop mesothelioma. If somebody lives where the Law Lords live in Surrey, Berkshire or wherever, they might never see anyone dying of asbestosis. They might never come across that. However, on Tyneside, where I am from, two people die from the disease each week, which means that people are going to the funerals of workmates every week.

It is not for Members of Parliament to come up with the solution—it is for the Government to act. Thank heaven that people in Scotland have seen the light and are leading on this issue. Our Government and our Minister should do the same and give compensation where it is due.

3.10 pm

David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate and on the energy and determination that he has shown in pressing this issue, and that is reflected in the strength of the turnout. As hon. Friends have said, to make no contribution would be to let down many of our constituents, and I am sure that many people in the room feel the same.

We are discussing people who have suffered the cruel consequences of exposure to asbestos. Too many of my constituents suffer from terrible asbestos-related diseases and too many others have, sadly, died from them. It is totally unacceptable that sufferers, past and present, and their families should be denied compensation by huge insurance companies. It is clear from the insurance press that the industry breathed a huge sigh of relief at the prospect of avoiding multi-million pound compensation bills.

In the meantime, hundreds of people who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques must deal daily with the invisible but no less real scarring of their bodies, which was caused by their employers’ recklessness, and with the invisible but equally real heightened risk of developing a terrible and life-threatening disease.

I can only agree with those who regard the Law Lords’ decision on pleural plaques as perverse. The research on which they based their judgment seems to have led them to take too narrow a view. A fund of respected counter-research points to a different conclusion, and it is generally accepted that pleural plaques are an indication of exposure to asbestos.

Many people who present with pleural plaques—or, indeed, with more serious asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma—have little idea until the point of diagnosis of the damage caused by their past exposure
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to asbestos. There is enough evidence to suggest that patients presenting with pleural plaques have a much increased risk of developing more serious asbestos-related conditions—indeed, they face a 100 per cent. greater risk than those in the general population.

The negligence of some employers in decades gone by has exacerbated the problem, and that negligence was recognised in the Law Lords’ judgment. Employers were aware of the potential risks, but did nothing about them. They, or their insurers, should be made to pay for that negligence.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that knowledge of the potential death sentence implicit in a diagnosis of pleural plaques must have an adverse psychological impact, given the ghastly nature of such conditions. Recognition of the difficulty of living with that knowledge and of the consequent mental anguish has, at least in part, been the basis of the hundreds of thousands of cases that have been settled over the past 20 or 30 years, and nothing has happened to change that.

The Government have shown that they are on the side of common sense and common decency by acting to reverse the Law Lords’ perverse decision on mesothelioma by amending the relevant legislation. I hope that enough has been said today to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister that the Government should intervene again to change the law on pleural plaques to match what any sensible person would consider right and proper.

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