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11 Feb 2009 : Column 442WH—continued


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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is talking about the links between pleural plaques and mesothelioma. He will be aware that insurance companies routinely argue that if someone has pleural plaques the probability of them getting mesothelioma is as low as 1 per cent, yet Thompsons Solicitors and others who have done well-rooted research show that the proportion is somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent. We need to work with sounder and better resourced figures than the ones that the insurance companies are using. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some would say, “The insurance companies would say that wouldn’t they?” I think that I speak for many of my colleagues when I say that I would rather trust the words of Thompsons Solicitors than some of the Shylock legal people who are doing the rounds. It is worth remembering that if this problem is not solved, we could, in years to come, face a similar situation to the one that we now face with the bankers—we could be asking the insurance companies why they did not fulfil their obligations.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on campaigning on the issue and on gathering us all together. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Government will not move on the issue. The villain of the piece is the insurance companies. They are the backers of the polluters, and they have been moving away from the problem for years. All we ask is that the insurance companies pay up—not the Government, the insurance companies. I hope that our Ministers are not hiding behind Departments that say, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it.” I agree with my hon. Friend that we could end up back in this Chamber in a year’s time with an insurance crisis on our hands as those companies back further away. We will be pulling insurance companies into public ownership and having to deal with things ourselves. Why go down that route when we can change the law now?

Jim Sheridan: My right hon. Friend is right. Many of us know about the work that he has put in over the years. He was involved in the whole issue of asbestosis for many years, long before I was involved with it. I respect and value his views on the matter.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. If he wants to change the law back, there is now a vehicle for doing so—the Damages (Asbestos-Related Conditions) Bill, which I tabled after my famous sleepover to get priority for it on 24 April. The Government have a couple of months to make up their minds. Then all they have to do is back my Bill and give it Government time.

Jim Sheridan: I am sure that the Minister was listening with interest and taking note of everything that my hon. Friend said. I genuinely wish him well with his private Member’s Bill.

In a recent decision, the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords held that pleural plaques do not constitute sufficient harm to justify any award of compensation, even when the individual is so upset by the diagnosis of future harm that he or she develops a diagnosed psychiatric illness. That unfortunate decision could adversely affect tens of thousands of working people along with all the major trade unions and other Labour Ministers.


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I support a change in the law to overturn that adverse decision, otherwise the insurance companies will have a windfall. For many years, damages have been awarded for pleural plaques, so insurance companies have factored it in to their premiums, and have thus received the premium income on the basis that they would have to pay out a certain proportion of it to pleural plaques victims. If the court decision is not overturned, the insurance companies will simply be able to pocket the money they had planned to pay out, and that cannot be right.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend on his campaign and on securing the debate. Does he agree that our Government must reverse the law before the next general election? We have waited for too long, and the pace and progress on the issue have been miniscule. The time has come for the Government to act, and they must act before the next election.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is right. I hope that the Government will come forward with a positive reply soon—either yesterday or tomorrow and not simply before the next election.

Recently, my colleagues and I had a very helpful meeting with the Secretary of State for Justice, and he was sympathetic. However, he pointed out that if the decision is legislatively overturned, there would be a cost to various Departments, particularly to the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I sincerely hope that the insurance companies, rather than taxpayers, pick up the costs relating to pleural plaques.

We have to raise other questions about the trigger litigation to be used when a condition develops into mesothelioma, or indeed into pleural plaques. Mesothelioma, as I understand it, is a fatal illness caused by asbestos. Around 2,000 people in the UK will be diagnosed with mesothelioma this year and tens of thousands more will die in the next 10 to 15 years. People who worked in the manufacturing, engineering or construction industries, in which employers routinely failed to protect them from exposure to asbestos, are among those most at risk.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and thank him on behalf of all the ship workers on the Clyde. One person we missed out is Tony Worthington, the former Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, who did excellent work on asbestosis, and I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that shipyard workers still need to be looked after, even all these years after losing their jobs.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he has a proud record of representing the men and women on the Clyde in terms of this terrible disease. I too make brief mention of the late Tony Worthington, who worked hard and tirelessly for the victims of pleural plaques, as did John MacDougall. We must remember that there are tens of thousands of John MacDougalls and Tony Worthingtons, and every one of them deserves our attention and support.


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The practice of the insurance industry for decades was that the insurer on cover at the time of exposure to asbestos paid the claim. If someone was exposed in 1965 but diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2006, the employer’s insurer in 1965 paid the claim. In the last 18 months a number of insurers have refused to pay out in mesothelioma cases, arguing that the wording of the insurance policies they sold to employers decades ago means something very different to what they previously accepted it to mean—in other words, a cop-out.

The insurers have run test cases arguing that the trigger for the insurance policy is not the exposure to asbestos, but the development of the disease, so the benefit for those insurers will be to escape liability completely. The problem for victims will be that 40 years or more after they were exposed to asbestos, many employers have ceased trading and no insurance details can be found.

Anne Moffat: I thank my hon. Friend for indulging me once more—I will not test his patience again. Does he agree that there are more health issues related to mesothelioma and pleural plaques? A person who develops pleural plaques sees how many people have developed mesothelioma as a result of pleural plaques, so they think that they will die. That produces the most distressing anxiety for them and their families, and often gives rise to mental health issues as well. The family unit and communities can be affected by pleural plaques in so many different ways. By the way, Tony Worthington is not dead—I saw him last week.

Jim Sheridan: I was referring to his father.

Mr. Dismore: On the point that the hon. Gentleman was just making about the difficulty of tracing insurers and about insurers either going bust or disappearing, may I plug my other Bill, which also relates to the matter, the Employers’ Liability Insurance Bureau Bill, which is scheduled for Second Reading on 13 March? It would provide for a register of insurers so that if employers disappear, we will still have a register of insurers and also an insurer of last resort. If negligent drivers can be required to compensate people through the Motor Insurance Bureau, why should negligent and uninsured employers not also be, because they have broken the law by not having insurance in just the same way? My Bill will provide for that, so perhaps the Government would consider it as well.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is introducing Bills that are of tremendous interest to me.

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) has just said. As someone who spent 30 years in the mining industry, and indeed was exposed to asbestos for the whole of that period, I regularly meet friends and colleagues whose lives have been ruined as a result of such exposure. People who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques can think of little else, and all that they can consider is that their next step could be a fatal one, so it is vital that compensation is paid.


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Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. The anxiety that is caused when a person is told that they have pleural plaques is such that I think that it is incredibly irresponsible of the legal profession to blame the medical profession for causing anxiety because they told someone that they had pleural plaques.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend not only for securing the debate, but for all the work he has done to get some form of compensation for the disease, and indeed that work has been done by many Members on the Labour Benches. Will he join me in congratulating my local newspaper in Newcastle, the Evening Chronicle, which has launched a people’s campaign to bring justice to a “forgotten generation”? That is the sort of campaign that all newspapers across the country should be adopting to get all MPs on board on the issue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the sorriest part of all is that the Law Lords accepted advice from lawyers representing insurers who will save around £1 billion by not compensating pleural plaques sufferers who are also suffering from stress and that that is entirely wrong? It might be all right where the lawyers and insurers live and breathe the air, but where we come from, in areas such as Tyneside and Clydeside, people are dying every day from mesothelioma, and that puts real stress on families, communities and the individual.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I have read the press releases and news reviews from the Evening Chronicle, which has been very positive and helpful, focusing on things that really matter to people. Perhaps our friends in the news and media could take that point on board and report the positive things that parliamentarians of all parties do every day.

Returning to the question of the trigger litigation, the trigger test cases were heard in the High Court over nine weeks from June 2008. The judgment was delivered on 21 November 2008, and the insurers lost. They argued for an appeal, and have been given leave to appeal the case to the Court of Appeal. They successfully sought a stay on any payment of compensation until the decision of the Court of Appeal. The prospect of the trigger issue appeal means that the frustration and delay in the process of obtaining compensation for those dying from mesothelioma and for the families of those who have died will continue until next year.

If the insurers’ appeal is ultimately successful thousands of mesothelioma victims and their families will be deprived of their entitlement to compensation. It is supremely cynical of Anthony Hughes, the president of the Forum of Insurance Lawyers, a lobby group representing insurers, to say, as he has been quoted by the BBC:

He must know full well that the insurers obtaining leave to appeal signals a further delay to any payments.

Across Britain, asbestos-related diseases claim the lives of approximately 4,000 people every year, which is more than the number of road traffic deaths. The heat-resistant mineral was used widely in the UK construction sector from the late 19th century until it was banned in 1999. In the UK, with its history of
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heavy industry, the consequences have been acute and will continue to be so as the latency period can be as long as 40 years.

I also wish to pay tribute to photographer Louie Palu, who has journeyed from Canada to India, England and Scotland, taking stark black and white pictures of sufferers. He said:

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend. There is another important aspect to the issue. Some of us are interested in radiation’s effects on Christmas island; the veterans in that case are often told that asbestos is different in terms of getting the evidence. That often seems to be an excuse—we know that the evidence has not been given—to hide behind. If we can win this one, we can win many other battles where people know that they have been subjected to radiation, chemicals and so on. If we cannot win on asbestos, we will lose an awful lot for many people. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to win this one, so that we can carry on with other problems that have been inflicted on working people?

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has extensive knowledge of safety in the workplace. If we succeed on pleural plaques, I hope it will send a clear message to all UK employers that they cannot play with people’s lives, and that if they subject workers to serious conditions or toxic chemicals, they will suffer the appropriate consequences and pay for it.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue yet again. It is frustrating that we have to keep coming back to it, but it is only right that we do. His point about how people are treated at work fits in with what has been called the compensation culture. It is clear to us, at least on this side of the House, that the best way to do away with compensation culture is to stop killing, poisoning and injuring people at work. Then there will not be any need for compensation.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a proud record of working with people, particularly in the third world, who have suffered serious damage from the workplace, and of campaigning on the issue.

It is important that the UK Parliament should take responsibility for dealing with pleural plaques. The deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), came to the last debate on this subject in Westminster Hall and talked about the situation in Northern Ireland. He said to my hon. Friend the Minister:

As I understand it, that is similar to what is happening in the Scottish Parliament.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I welcome this debate, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing it and apologise for not being able to stay for all of it. He said that the UK Government must take responsibility. They have not yet made clear what they intend to do in relation to funding, but in Scotland, the first and second stages of the legislation have been passed. Notwithstanding the UK Government’s failure so far to declare, it is the intention to pass the Bill at the earliest possible opportunity. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman and his English and Welsh colleagues more leverage in the campaign that they are running, particularly for constituents who are not in Scotland.

Jim Sheridan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I have put it on record that at the end of the day, victims and families simply want compensation. Where it comes from and who is responsible for it is secondary. On a practical level, however, I think it will have to happen through UK legislation. Most people who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques or mesothelioma travel all over the UK. For them to be subjected to different laws in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales would make no sense. There must be a blanket UK legislation solution to the problem. Although I welcome what is going on in Scotland and I wish the Scottish every success, in the long term, the aspirations and compensation claims will be more effectively dealt with at UK level.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his hard work. Does he agree that at the end of the day, it is a question of justice? All the legal niceties, the House of Lords decision and so on can take a running jump. What the families, survivors and victims want is justice. The issue is a political one that should be sorted out in our country’s democratic arena, the House of Commons. The Government should get on, sort it out politically and stop worrying about technicalities. The insurance companies have had the money; they should pay out now.

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can sense the frustration in his comments. It is probably shared by most of my colleagues in Parliament.

I shall now make some progress, as I am conscious that other people wish to contribute. I offer my commiserations to the lawyer David Pugh on failing to clinch an award for his campaign to deprive workers of compensation for the effects of asbestos. He was shortlisted for the personal injury awards 2008 after clinching a ruling in the House of Lords that he claimed saved the industry £1.2 billion. He argued that workers who develop pleural plaques, a scarring of the lungs, should not receive compensation, as the symptom is not dangerous in itself. Asbestos campaigners point out that plaques are often terrifying early warnings of worse to come
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and that the insurance industry has been paying out for them for 20 years. Pugh, a partner with Sheffield-based solicitors Halliwells, won what he described as

I was delighted to find out that he did not win the award. Perhaps we should recognise his lack of contribution.

Dr. Pamela Abernethy, of the Forum of Insurance Lawyers, gave evidence before the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee. She said that


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