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4 Jun 2008 : Column 256WH—continued

In Plymouth, we have had 250 deaths in the past 15 years. In 1968, in the early days following people’s exposure at work, the number of deaths was as low as 153, but now it is 2,000 a year and it will probably peak at about 2,500 over the next 10 years. We are not talking just about individuals; there are also families whose anxiety is raised—probably 7,000 to 10,000, if one third go on to develop the condition. Given that some of those families’ worries do not translate into death from
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a cancer-related disease arising from pleural plaques, the number of people affected is much greater than such figures suggest.

I pay tribute to everybody who supports people in this campaign and in dealing with those anxieties. I am thinking of groups such as that in my constituency, which was set up by the family of Roger Lowe, who was a dockyard electrical fitter. He lost his battle against the disease in 2005. His family, and particularly his daughter Jackie, who is an articulate spokesperson, have raised these issues. They want to ensure that people can make the best of things. If the disease becomes a cancer, I think I am right to say that people have about 18 months from that point until death. One reason that that gives rise to anxiety for those who have pleural plaques is that they wish to be prepared—to make those last months as good as possible and to find out about the various support services available.

We should also pay tribute to the trade unions that are backing the campaign. The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians has already been mentioned, but I know that the Public and Commercial Services Union, Unite and GMB are also actively backing the campaign in my constituency.

In May, we had an interesting seminar, but great concern was expressed about the time that it will take to sort out the House of Lords ruling. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has put before us a straightforward and clear way for that to take place. For all those who are worrying about these things, the sooner we sort them out the better. My constituents feel let down.

We should consider how many hon. Members have raised the matter in questions, signed early-day motions and have campaigns running in their local constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) runs an open surgery campaign in his local paper, as the Evening Herald does for Plymouth. The Norwich Evening News runs what it calls the “Dust of Death” campaign.

I hope that we will hear shortly from my hon. Friend the Minister of a way ahead. We have heard that there will be consultation, but I hope that it will not be overly complicated and lengthy. The suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has the merit of being straightforward; it has great clarity and may prove to be a possible outcome. Once again, I thank him for giving us this timely opportunity to debate the matter. It reminds us what the issue means to our constituents. I hope that we will hear of some progress from the Minister.

10.2 am

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) for initiating the debate. I also thank the Minister; as was mentioned earlier, she has a good track record in trying to address such issues—and certainly in helping to overturn the Barker ruling. That was most welcome to those who sadly came together to campaign about the problems of exposure to asbestos, a problem that has happened too frequently for well over a century.

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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone for producing the letter from Mr. Rudd. It dispels many myths that have grown up around the subject debate; I shall return to it later. First, however, I want to ask how we got to this state.

As I said earlier, we have had 25 years of people having the right to compensation, which no one seemed to think was out of order or too expensive—except, of course, the employers and their insurers. I have no doubt that the lawyers in the Chamber and those outside will explain in great detail why it was the right thing to do. I am no lawyer, and I do not pretend to be one, but I have some simple questions, which will show that there has been negligence.

First and foremost, did people suffer? There is no doubt that they did—thousands, perhaps tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands suffered over the years. Did the employers know that people were suffering? Yes, they did. Did they know that the substance being used was poisonous? Yes, they did; they have known since 1892, when asbestos was declared to be a poisonous substance; and they have known since 1965, when they were told not to use it any more. However, people are still suffering.

Did employers do anything to alleviate the problem? To an extent, yes they did. Was it enough? Clearly, it was not. Were they liable? If we answered yes to the previous questions, I do not see how we can give any other answer than yes to that last question. Were they negligent? Clearly, they were. Were they criminally negligent? To my mind, they were.

It is clear that the people who are pushing this are the insurance lobby. Having pushed it this far, they are already gearing up to challenge what might be a way to resolve the matter. We are led to believe that the Scottish Parliament will try to address the legal situation in Scotland, making changes to the law that will allow people in Scotland to challenge the House of Lords ruling.

However, I have been advised that the insurance lobby is already talking of going for a judicial review. They are thinking of using the European human rights legislation—if it was not so serious, it would be funny. They speak of challenging the very remit of the Scottish Parliament—whether it has the constitutional authority to challenge a House of Lords ruling.

I would be very interested to hear the Minister answer those points about the position of the Scottish Parliament. Does she, and do the Government, support the attempts by the Scottish Parliament to take action to resolve the matter for Scottish people? If possible, will she help the Scottish Parliament to progress the matter despite the influence and the interference of the insurance lobby?

It is clear, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), that Ministers have seriously considered the matter. We have had a number of meetings since the matter was first raised, culminating a month ago with a meeting with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was very sympathetic to the case being put forward, but some of the advice that he might have been offered gives me cause for concern.

At that meeting, we were told by an adviser that as many as one person in five could be suffering with pleural plaques. I guess that that is about 12.5 million
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people; if we have to consider the needs of that many people, it is a very serious situation. I asked the adviser if he could provide me with more information. I am still waiting for it. Much more important, however, is the advice that we were given by Mr. Rudd, who is an expert in these matters. He says clearly that less than 1 per cent. of the general population have the problem, and that for nearly all of them it was the result of a history of exposure to asbestos. That is the key: although it is a big issue, it is nothing like as big as we are led to believe by the Prime Minister’s adviser.

The other thing that worries me—it was brought out in the previous debate on this subject in this Chamber—is that some in the industry and some doctors say that it is nothing to worry about. They say that the real problem is people worrying about being ill, and that if people did not know that they had pleural plaques they would not worry and therefore would not be ill. However, if Mr. Rudd is correct, people who have been exposed to asbestos at work have a more than 1,000 times greater risk of contracting mesothelioma than the general population. Those people are right to be worried. We in this Chamber should be aware of that issue, and try seriously to put it right.

The last sentence of Mr. Rudd’s letter gives another reason why people should be looked after properly. He says,

If that is not an issue that should be addressed by the House, what is?

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton, I work closely with a group involved in the mesothelioma campaign—the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Research Fund in the north-east of England. The campaign is run mainly by widows of relatively young men who died in the prime of life. They support each other and raise funds to push forward research. It is clear that they should not have to do this, but they have no alternative. They believe that the only way to make the issue somehow bearable is to try to resolve it for themselves and their families.

This is about real people. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned John Scott, who is a UCATT official in the north-east of England. I had the great privilege of working with him for many years on Newcastle city council. He has spent a lifetime standing up for other people who work in some of the most dangerous occupations in the country in the building and construction industry. He is the sort of person that I came into Parliament to stand up for. If John Scott has pleural plaques, he should be looked after, as should people like him. We should do that now. Will the Minister listen carefully to what is being said today? The consultation period is welcome, but it needs to be short, precise and effective. We need action in the House: if the law needs changing, we should go ahead and do it.

10.10 am

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I add my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) for securing the debate. The issue will not go away until or unless we
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get some sort of satisfactory conclusion on behalf of our constituents who suffer from that terrible disease.

I shall be brief, but I will not dilute in any way the importance of the debate. I am not only anxious to hear what the Minister has to say and to allow her ample time to speak, but to hear what the Opposition parties say. To date, they have been extremely helpful and supportive in the campaign to get justice for those who suffer from pleural plaques. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone for bringing forward new evidence this morning, and I hope that the Minister reflects on it and responds accordingly.

The debate on pleural plaques has been well rehearsed in this Chamber and throughout the country. To my mind, there is no tangible evidence to prevent the Government from introducing legislation that will compensate those workers who, through no fault of their own, have contracted the disease.

Insurance companies and their legal conspirators play a role in the drama. From day one, insurance companies have set out to block and obstruct the legislation that provided workers with decent compensation, which prompts the question why, after 25 or 30 years, the matter has gone back to the House of Lords. The only reason I can think of is that the insurance companies are trying to cut costs and save money by denying people compensation.

To digress briefly, there was a similar example of such practice under Scots law not so long ago. It used to be that when people died of mesothelioma, their claim died with them, so we saw the unedifying spectacle of insurance companies engaging medical practitioners to assess, across the courtroom, how long a claimant had to live. The companies would then find some sort of technicality to put the case back, hoping that the claimant would die and their claim with them. I mention that to give the Minister and the Government a flavour of the kind of people with whom we are dealing in the insurance industry: they may have sharp suits, but they also have sharp practices. Fortunately, under Scots law, the trade unions, to their credit, fought and won the case, so when someone dies, their family can claim compensation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned the previous debate on the matter and the branch of the GMB in London—only one branch—in which at least 12 people per year contracted pleural plaques. A significant number of those people went on to die of mesothelioma. That is one branch, as I said, so extrapolating that number throughout the UK would give us an idea of the seriousness of the problem. If the same number of cattle were affected by a disease, the Daily Mail and others would argue that compensation should be at the top of the list, and that it should be a priority for the Government to compensate the farmers whose cattle had died. What is the difference between cattle and human beings?

There is an international dimension to the matter. The trade unions and the Government have worked to regulate the use of asbestos in the country, but producers have now moved to third-world countries. There is evidence that people in such countries are suffering from the same disease that people in this country suffered from some years ago. That producers of asbestos move from this country to exploit workers in developing countries is a problem. There is a moral case for this country to lead the way and say, “If you poison and
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exploit people in third-world countries, you should suffer the same consequences as you would here.”

There is hope that the Scottish Parliament will introduce legislation to deal with the problem. I have said this before and I shall say it again: I sincerely hope that it brings forward legislation to overturn the ridiculous decision by the Law Lords. I still live in Scotland, and I have watched the performance of the current Administration there, so I have some doubts that they will deliver, given that they have delivered on very few of their promises to date. I wish them the best, but I sincerely hope that the UK Government are not standing back waiting for the Scottish Parliament to legislate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), I want to know what discussion, if any, the Minister or the Ministry of Justice has had with the Scottish Parliament on the issue and what progress has been made.

I have a high level of respect for the Minister—she is a progressive thinker and a fighter for workers’ rights—but, in the previous debate on the matter, she said that she had a duty to consult other Departments. Will she detail which Departments she has consulted and tell us what their position is? What assistance can those of us who are campaigning for legislation to be introduced offer to bring about a satisfactory conclusion?

I am at a loss, as are people outside the Westminster bubble, as to why we need yet more consultation. We have had consultation since October last year. Perhaps people have not been listening, but do we need further consultation? If so, how long will it take? People are anxious about where we are going with those consultations. Telling them that we need another three or six months’ consultation on the matter suggests that we are kicking it into the long grass. I sincerely hope that that is not the case.

Like others, I was extremely heartened when the Prime Minister appeared at the Scottish trade union conference and said that the Government are working toward solving the problem of pleural plaques and that they will bring forward legislation in the near future—he reiterated that at the Scottish Labour party conference. The Prime Minister is a man of integrity. He has said clearly that we want to be on the side of hard-working families and to introduce fairness. To my mind, there is nothing more fair than saying to the workers of this country, “If you contract a disease outwith your control, those responsible will be held accountable.”

10.19 am

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I repeat my congratulations to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing the second debate on pleural plaques in six months. The fact that he has done so illustrates the importance of this subject.

Although I do not want to take up hon. Members’ time by repeating what I said in our earlier debate, I stand by what I said then. In particular, I want to mention a point that I raised in that debate, because it is important and has not come up today. Possibly the worst result in the House of Lords cases was that in the Grieves v. Everard case. Unlike those in all the other cases, Mr. Grieves had a recognised psychiatric illness
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as a result of what had happened to him. People with such illnesses are legally in a very different position from those who suffer simply from anxiety. It is incomprehensible that Mr. Grieves was denied compensation, and I urge the Government to review, in its entirety, the law on psychiatric damage in such cases and, indeed, in all cases.

As the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has said, we currently have two ways forward, and he described both. One is to reverse the legal result in the House of Lords cases, which has also been suggested in Scotland. The other is to ensure that there is a proper fund from which people can claim if they eventually suffer from the serious diseases associated with asbestos—mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point. He has mentioned pleural plaques sufferers going on to develop serious symptoms, but some sufferers will obviously develop less serious ones. Beyond mere stress and anxiety, they may develop physical symptoms that are not life-threatening. Surely, they should also be able to claim from the fund that he proposes.

David Howarth: That is possible, but it needs to be said that people with symptoms of illness—breathlessness and general physical problems—are allowed to claim under the existing law. The House of Lords did not say that they could not, and it is a misunderstanding of what the Lords said—this is causing anxiety in various communities—to think otherwise. Such people are not excluded.

Let me return to the two solutions. I understand why the Government are having difficulty with the first one—the reversal of the law in the House of Lords case—and I will explain why I think that they are right to think that there are difficulties. Indeed, the fact that there are such difficulties is probably why there has been little progress in Scotland, despite the fact that the Scottish Justice Minister announced almost immediately that the Scottish Parliament would reverse the judgment. Those difficulties with the first suggestion are, however, no excuse for not getting on with the second one, which provides a practical way forward. I therefore want to hear the Minister’s view not only on the first suggestion from the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, but on the second one.

Why is it understandable that the Government should hesitate to go forward with the hon. Gentleman’s first suggestion and reverse the judgment? All the bad reasons for hesitating have to do with the insurance industry, but there is one good reason for hesitating, and it relates to the question of how such a statute would leave people who were in similar positions, because they still could not sue. There is the question of fairness towards other sorts of claimant.

Let me give two examples. What about people who have received blood transfusions that might be tainted with HIV or hepatitis? They have a higher risk than the rest of the population of developing AIDS or hepatitis, and they will be very anxious about that. They are therefore in a similar position to people with pleural plaques, but they would not be allowed to sue under the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, because it would apply only to those with pleural plaques.

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