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26 Nov 2008 : Column 300WH—continued

4.40 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Timms: In addition, there is a commitment for the coming year by the major mortgage lenders on the lending panel—Abbey, Barclays, Bradford & Bingley, GE Money, HBOS, Lloyds, Nationwide, Northern Rock and the Royal Bank of Scotland—not to repossess homes within three months of an owner-occupier going into arrears.

In September, we launched a mortgage rescue scheme which will help up to 6,000 borrowers facing repayment difficulties to remain in their homes, and in the pre-Budget report, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced an extension to mortgage rescue to cover second-charge lending. The major mortgage lenders are committed to giving their full support to mortgage rescue products, including shared equity.

The Government also provide direct support to individuals—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West raised this point—through support for mortgage interest, which is available to those who are out of work and to pensioners. It is delivered through social security benefits. We will make the scheme more generous, as he requested, by increasing the size of mortgage for which support is payable for new working-age claimants. At present, it is £100,000. We announced that it was going up to £175,000, then this week announced that it will go up to £200,000. In addition, we will increase net support for beneficiaries of support for mortgage interest through maintaining payments at the current interest rate for the next six months for existing claimants.

The hon. Gentleman asked about new claimants who might be in a difficult position. I will drop him a line to respond specifically to that.

The Government are also determined to ensure that every household struggling with debts can access free and impartial debt advice. My right hon. Friend announced in the pre-Budget report an additional investment of £5.85 million to March 2011 for telephone advice, and £10 million to March 2010 for citizens advice bureaux to expand face-to-face debt advice capacity, and to ensure that advice and support are available for borrowers who may need it. I believe that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that, and it will be particularly important for the group of people about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) was concerned.

We recognise that tighter credit conditions are making life significantly harder for a large group of home owners across the country. What we need to be doing is not pushing lenders into operating in a risky or non-commercial way, but rather fostering appropriate long-term conditions for economic stability and growth. In the shorter term, we are targeting support on those home owners who most need help. That is the right approach, and we will continue to do everything we can to support those who get into difficulties.

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Pleural Plaques (Compensation)

4.43 pm

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I thank Mr. Speaker for selecting this debate, which is very important to constituents throughout the UK. I am deeply appreciative. I am also extremely grateful that so many colleagues have turned up to listen to and, I hope, participate in the debate. They all know as well as I do the damage that has been caused to many of our constituents who are victims of pleural plaques.

I know, Mr. Gale, that it is always wrong specifically to thank people, but may I take this opportunity to mention two colleagues who have worked tirelessly on the whole question of pleural plaques? The first is my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) who, due to other parliamentary business, unfortunately is not with us today. No one has worked harder than he has. Likewise, I would like to make special mention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), who has been working on asbestos-related diseases for longer than some of us have been in the House. I put on the record my appreciation for his work.

I also mention the work of the trade unions on pleural plaques, and Thompsons, the lawyers who work with the trade unions on such issues. Their assistance is greatly appreciated and welcomed.

Finally, I make special mention of the workers from the whole of the UK who came to Parliament to lobby some weeks ago, sacrificing a day’s wages to do so. To me, that demonstrates the strength of feeling among victims and their families about losing compensation for pleural plaques. When people make the choice to lose a day’s wages to come to the mother of democracy and express their concern, they demonstrate their commitment.

On the subject of commitment, our Prime Minister said clearly on two public occasions that I know of—at the Scottish Labour party conference and at the Scottish TUC conference—that he was working to resolve the matter of compensation for pleural plaques. I and other colleagues will certainly be holding him to that, and I have every reason to believe that he will deliver his promise.

The question is whether pleural plaques cause any symptoms. The insurers say that they do not.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In his introduction, he gave thanks and endorsements to various people. He may also want to pay tribute to our late colleague, John MacDougall, the former MP for Glenrothes, who died from an asbestos-related disease.

Jim Sheridan: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. John MacDougall was a great champion of tackling asbestos-related disease. Unfortunately, he was a victim himself. Anyone who has seen the unfortunate circumstances of someone who is dying of mesothelioma will know that it is probably the most horrible death that they will ever see. I pay tribute to John MacDougall for the work that he did to raise awareness of asbestos-related disease.

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Are there any symptoms of pleural plaques? The arguments have been well-rehearsed in many meetings. On this occasion, I praise the Minister, who has been accessible to colleagues who are concerned about the issue. She has always made herself available, and she has always been prepared to listen to the arguments. We have certainly appreciated that and hope that it continues.

Once diagnosed, people with pleural plaques experience anxiety, and some develop psychologically induced breathlessness. Anxiety levels are highest in the trades that have seen former colleagues such as John MacDougall die. Some people develop anger or feelings of helplessness as well as anxiety, and a small number develop psychiatric illnesses.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the sorriest parts of the decision by the lawyers was their refusal to accept that pleural plaques can induce stress in people who have the condition? Things may be all right where lawyers live in the leafy suburbs of Berkshire, Surrey or wherever, because they never come across anyone with pleural plaques, but in places such as Tyneside or Clydeside, where my hon. Friend lives, two people die each week of mesothelioma. Workmen and former workmen go to funerals every week. If that is not stress, what is?

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is not much chance of lawyers or people in the City catching an asbestos-related disease. It is highly unlikely, given the circumstances in which they work. He is right to say that it is a working-class disease, and we need a working-class Government to sort it out quickly.

My hon. Friend rightly raised another issue. I do not think that the number of victims of pleural plaques has peaked yet. There are still more cases to come, and it is important to make that point. If we do not overturn the decision by the Law Lords now, what hope is there for those who will come in the years ahead? I do not think that the problem has peaked yet.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I commend my hon. Friend on securing the debate. It is important to keep this matter alive. As he knows, I represent a part of West Lothian—Bathgate—which used to have a car plant, but now we are seeing cases, including one well-documented case about which there was a television programme, of someone who is gasping for breath and who caught the disease so long ago that we have all forgotten that there was a car plant in Bathgate. Is it not surprising that the Law Lords’ judgment is that pleural plaques are not to be considered, except in exceptional circumstances? How can it be right for people to be compensated for pleural plaques in some circumstances, but not in most cases?

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend has been involved in many important campaigns. Likewise, he has been vociferous in the campaign on pleural plaques. He is right. The common denominator for victims of pleural plaques is that people cannot get the disease unless they come into contact with asbestos. Returning to my previous point, not many lawyers or people in the City will contract the disease, because they do not come near asbestos, unless it is found in their offices or whatever.

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Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. Does he agree that we have not peaked? That is common knowledge. The Minister must also address the fact that we have to change the structure in respect of where people are acquiring the disease. Changes must take place in the workplace now, because resolving the problem in payment terms is not dealing with the issue. The main issue has to be dealt with, as well as the compensation.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is right. He, too, has been actively campaigning and he is right about solving the problem. In many ways, we have solved the problem in the United Kingdom by bringing in health and safety legislation that will go some way to protect workers, but the important thing to remember is that the problem has moved on and there is clear evidence that asbestos producers are moving into third-world countries, so a problem that was started in this country is now moving there. We need to set an example and, through our Ministers, ask the producers to endorse the same safety measures in the third-world countries that they have in the UK.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on keeping the campaign at the forefront of Parliament’s and the Government’s mind. I thank him for his kind comments earlier.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the villain of the piece now is not so much the Government or the medical profession, which is on-side, and not the lawyers or the companies, but the insurance companies? I have not yet seen an insurance company go to the wall, although I have seen a few banks go that way. The time has come to take on the insurance companies, which have tried every trick in the book, including the Law Lords’ decision, to avoid their justifiable liabilities. Is it not time that our Government cut through this legal knot and delivered justice to people who have already won the case?

Jim Sheridan: My right hon. Friend is right. The insurers have used every trick in the book to try to dodge their responsibilities. Indeed, some years ago they tried to blame a Department for lodging a claim against compensation. That is perverse. It is ridiculous to try to blame the Government. The Government should be in a position to rebut that.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Is it not obvious what the insurers are up to? Last week, with the result of the so-called trigger litigation on mesothelioma cases, the leader of the Forum of Insurance Lawyers said:

If that is so, why does he think that the insurers have gone ahead with appealing the Law Lords’ decision? He could have said, “We now accept it. We have been caught bang to rights. Let’s pay these people with pleural plaques what they are due.”

Jim Sheridan: I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. He is right. For the insurance lawyers to take such an altruistic approach to life, as if they were offering good will and looking after the workers, is ridiculous and should be condemned at every level.

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Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate him on securing the debate. As a former trade union lawyer, I say that although the legal decision in the House of Lords may, on its facts, legally have been correct, in terms of justice we Members of Parliament must, if necessary, change the law. I urge that course on the Government. The insurance companies have had the premiums—the money—on their employers’ liability insurance policies for potential pleural plaques, for which people have had compensation for years. Now they are trying to wriggle out of having to pay out the money. It is unjust, unfair and the Government should change the law.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is right. I sincerely hope that the Minister is listening to what colleagues are saying about changing and overturning the Law Lords’ decision. I hope that we go some way to achieving that—if not today, then in the near future. We will certainly be looking closely at that.

We have just finished the consultation on pleural plaques, to which there were a number of submissions. It would be helpful if the Minister gave us, today or in the near future, some indication about when those findings will be made public so that we can make an informed decision and move forward somehow on dealing with pleural plaques.

I am concerned about some of the figures, particularly those suggested by the insurance companies, that show that if the Law Lords’ decision is overturned it could lead to hundreds of thousands of victims claiming throughout the UK. Those figures are grossly exaggerated. Is it possible for the Minister to investigate exactly, or approximately, how many people would be affected by pleural plaques, in terms of compensation?

People are also concerned about the Scottish dimension. The Scottish Parliament has made it clear that it will overturn the Law Lords’ decision. I have said it publicly before and I will say it again: best of luck. I hope the Scottish Parliament overturns the decision, because at the end of the day the victims do not care who legislates, as long as they get the compensation that they are entitled to. I say to the Scottish people and the Scottish Parliament, “Best of luck. I hope you overturn this decision.” But the cynic in me suggests that they may not be able to do that and will, therefore, end up blaming someone else. I have no doubt that that someone else will be us. That seriously worries me.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. In Northern Ireland, the Department for which I have responsibility is currently undertaking a consultation on this issue. We have followed closely what Scotland has done and proposes to do. The matters that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members are raising are so important. We must make a priority of dealing with and tackling the issues facing ordinary families, who have been devastated by the consequences of this disease and other effects of asbestosis. Hopefully, we in Northern Ireland will be able to move forward on this issue at the earliest opportunity, taking account of the consultation process.

Jim Sheridan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I genuinely welcome his and his party’s support on this issue. That underlines why we need
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legislation covering the four countries of the UK, rather than have people going off and doing their own thing. For me, that resonates and is important.

I am conscious of the time. We want to leave the Minister some time to respond to the major concerns that have been raised and, hopefully, she will be able to do so.

For more than 20 years the courts recognised pleural plaques as a compensatable injury; they accepted that plaques, together with the increase of developing asbestos-related malignant disease and the resulting anxiety that flowed from that diagnosis, amounted to significant harm. Actionable damage claims proceeded through that period without any difficulty. That was the position before the Law Lords’ decision and, hopefully, we can get back to that. People with pleural plaques have suffered identifiable harm from exposure to asbestos and it is right that they should be compensated. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that today’s turnout of hon. Members from across the UK, representing their constituents, demonstrates the interest that is shown on this matter.

There is significant evidence suggesting that pleural plaques are not the symptomless condition that the five judges thought. Indeed, it is a matter of record that their judgment was unanimous and I accept that that makes it difficult to overturn, but legislation is needed to offer hope to the victims.

I vigorously disagree with the Law Lords’ decision that the companies that were named earlier and which polluted people with asbestos were not responsible for people developing pleural plaques or full-blown mesothelioma. So who was responsible? Was it the irresponsible doctors who told sufferers that they had pleural plaques, because that caused their anxiety? It is ridiculous to blame doctors for telling people that they are unwell, and I am sure that the people I represent and those my hon. Friends represent find it incredible and cannot understand it.

I was a Member of the House when farmers and their livestock were affected by the foot and mouth disease and bluetongue outbreaks. Hon. Members were up in arms and demanded 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 when human beings contract a killing disease, the House does not afford them the same attention. I want the Minister to understand that pleural plaques are a working-class disease.

Mr. McGovern: Does my hon. Friend agree that most people seem to regard mesothelioma and pleural plaques as diseases emanating from shipyards and car factories, although they affect other workers? I have a friend, John Manzie, whose father was a school janitor and died of mesothelioma because he was forced to work in a school where there was asbestos. These are not diseases only of shipyard and car workers.

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