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26 Nov 2008 : Column 305WH—continued

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The disease does not affect only workers from shipyards, engineering factories and other major industries; it affects families, because when people took their clothes and overalls home, their wives and daughters came into
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contact with asbestos. It is important not to have a narrow view, because the disease may affect people in many areas of industry.

The disease is a working class one, and the problem must be solved by a Labour Government. We are hoping that they will overturn the judges’ decision. Our constituents want compensation for being exposed to damage that others were not subjected to. I would dearly love to spread some asbestos in the porridge of the Law Lords so that they understand what the disease does to people.

As well as the moral objections to the Law Lords’ decision, one of the most frequently encountered problems when pursuing a disease claim is identifying defendants and their insurers. For most victims, asbestos exposure occurred more than 25 years ago, and many of the companies that employed them have gone into liquidation and are no longer in business. A considerable amount of time is spent identifying defendants and carrying out searches and inquiries to locate their insurers. That is especially true in the construction industry because companies may be short-lived and periods of employment may be extremely brief. Someone diagnosed with asbestos-related pleural plaques now has no claim, so there is no obligation on any employer or insurer to respond to any claim. There is no possibility of recovering the cost of trying to locate employers and insurers if someone who was exposed to asbestos develops a compensatable condition.

I am conscious that other hon. Members may want to make a contribution to the debate, and I would welcome that. I am extremely keen to hear what the Minister has to say about what we can do to restore people’s confidence in the Labour Government and to obtain compensation. It is right to have this debate, and hon. Members are expressing the views of their constituents who are suffering, with their families, from the disease. The trade unions and lawyers are doing what they can to help victims and their families. It is now up to us, the politicians, to argue the case and, more importantly, to ensure that the Government listen. Our Prime Minister said on two occasions that he supports the campaign, and we will support him when he comes up with a solution for compensating the victims of this horrible disease who are suffering through no fault of their own.

5.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I am pleased to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate. The fact that he secured it and that there are so many Labour Members from throughout the United Kingdom—the north-east, the north-west, the midlands, Wales and Scotland, as well as the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), representing the Democratic Unionist party—shows its significance and the commitment that hon. Members put into representing their constituents who are suffering from mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illnesses. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he outlined the importance of the issue, not only, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) said, in traditional industries, but in others. I congratulate all hon. Members on their contributions today. It is significant how clearly they represent their constituents in this matter.

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Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): We know that we have a friend in the Minister on this issue, but such is the anger in the country that it is looking to the House of Commons to overturn the Lords’ decision, and the Government must lead on that. My constituents are outraged, and 600 of them signed a petition organised by Brian Prosser because they were so angered by the Lords’ decision. I hope that the Government will make a positive response.

It is right to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). Every Wednesday, he and I meet the Prime Minister as shop stewards representing the parliamentary Labour party, and hardly a week goes by when he does not raise the matter with the Prime Minister. The message is getting across, and our message today is that we expect action from our Government.

Bridget Prentice: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) for reminding me of his petition and the fact that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North are keeping the matter at the centre of the Government’s consciousness. As a result of that and campaigning by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) who, unfortunately, cannot be here today, we went out to consultation to see how we should best respond to the House of Lords judgment.

We asked specific and complex questions. We asked how to raise awareness of pleural plaques so that people understand the issue and we can help to allay their concerns. We invited views on whether the House of Lords’ judgment should be overturned, and it is clear from every hon. Member here what their response is. I will forcefully make their view known to the Secretary of State and my ministerial colleagues. We also asked about the merit of offering no-fault financial support to people who are diagnosed with pleural plaques. We set out two possible ways of dealing with that.

The issues are complex and it is important to set out the benefits and difficulties that arise in relation to all the possible options. The fact that we had so many responses—from individuals, the trade union movement and colleagues—shows just how important the issue is to people. In the final part of the consultation, we wanted to ensure that whatever our decision, we made it with the best possible medical evidence available to us. We have therefore asked the chief medical officer and the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to respond and tell us what they think the best way forward is.

As I said, we received a total of 224 responses to the consultation. I do not know whether my hon. Friends are aware that 125 of those were from individuals who suffer from pleural plaques. In a sense, that underlines
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the passion and commitment that my hon. Friends have put into their contributions. Of course, we have also received responses from the legal profession and, not surprisingly—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West will know—we received responses from the insurance industry, as well as from employers, business organisations, trade unions and asbestos victims.

Mr. David Anderson: It is no surprise that the insurance companies responded because when the ruling was given 13 months ago, Deloitte Touche said that the insurance companies stood to make £1.4 billion if the ruling was not changed. That is one reason why we are having this debate. The issue is not about money; it is a moral case about people who are dying. In the 13 months since the matter was put on hold, lots of people will have died without receiving compensation, and that should not have happened.

Bridget Prentice: I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said and I absolutely understand where he is coming from. May I close by saying that I want to apologise—

Several hon. Members rose

Bridget Prentice: I have one minute, or less, left.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I re-emphasise what my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) said: the House must find an answer to the problem. I say that because I am aware that a chap who has pleural plaques and is originally from the Rochdale area has moved into my constituency. The last thing that he wants is to be caught up in a wrangle between English and Scots law, so it is important that the House determine a solution.

Bridget Prentice: I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said. We, too, are conscious of not adding that complication to the problem. I want to apologise for—

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. Minister.

Bridget Prentice: I apologise for the fact that the response to the consultation is not out in November before the Queen’s Speech, as we promised. However, I make a commitment to my hon. Friends that we will publish it as soon as possible. I hope that we will be able to respond in a way that they, on behalf of their constituents who suffer from asbestos-related diseases, would like to see.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Five o’clock.

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