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16 Oct 2009 : Column 569

Mr. Dismore: I would hate for it to be thought that Thompsons had somehow sponsored this Bill, as that is not the case. The firm has given me some expert advice in the drafting and helped with some of the research on the cases. It has not sponsored the Bill, and to say so would give entirely the wrong impression. It is concerned for the victims of pleural plaques, as am I and as is most of the House.

Mr. Chope: I am happy that the hon. Gentleman has put that on the record. Obviously, any firm of solicitors is welcome to provide advice to Members of Parliament, but sometimes solicitors are not as forthcoming in their pro bono activities on behalf of Members. Perhaps they find it easier when they think that they will get more litigation work out of it. I am not saying that that applies to Thompsons, but it is an important point to place on the record.

The hon. Gentleman also said that he is grateful to his hon. Friends for exercising self-restraint and passing up the opportunity to get their names on the ticket. I hope that in that spirit he is also grateful to me and to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for ensuring that we have had some Divisions, so that the public can see who was present and voting for the Bill, and who was absent. We have enabled hon. Members to put their names on the ticket in terms of accountability.

The hon. Gentleman commended his Bill and repeated his claim that it would turn back the law to the original position. I have concerns about the Bill-specifically that the questions that the Minister raised in Committee remain unanswered. I hope that when she winds up this Third Reading debate, she will explain some of the things that she said in Committee. For instance, she said:

What happened? Later in July the Justice Secretary said that the response would be published after the summer recess. When will that response be forthcoming? There is an enormous amount of interest in it. The Minister and the Justice Secretary have no doubt been working diligently over the summer recess, earning their substantial ministerial pay, so why have they not been able to come up with a conclusion so far? We know that yesterday a report that had been available to the Government since before the recess was published only an hour before a major defence debate. On this occasion, we have not even had the Government's response. I hope that the Minister will give us an unequivocal statement on when we may expect the response to be published.

I hope also that the Minister will explain what she meant by saying that there were complications connected with the Bill and that the Government were unsure about whether to support or oppose it. In Committee, she said:

I hope that she will expand on those clear statements so that we are wiser about the Government's intentions.

I hope that the Minister will also assure us that whatever the Government decide to do in terms of the law they will not be influenced by the cost to the public purse of any particular course of action. Justice should come without a price. It would be unconscionable if the reason for the Government's delay is that suggested in an article by Paul Routledge in the Daily Mirror: that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is concerned about the cost to the Exchequer. If the Government think that, as a matter of law, it is right for people with pleural plaques to receive compensation, the logical consequences should be allowed to follow. Let not the decision be determined by the cost to the public purse. I would like an assurance from the Minister that that is the thinking.

My reservations about the Bill are on matters of principle, not about the costs flowing from it. I side with neither the Treasury nor the insurance companies. However, I would like the law of tort or negligence to remain the same for all classes of action. There should be a standard definition of what we mean by damage, and we should not try to change the law in a piecemeal way, which would be the consequence of the Bill.

As has been said, pleural plaques are asymptomatic. The hon. Member for Hendon said in Committee that they carry a 5 to 10 per cent. risk of developing into a more serious asbestos-related condition, although I think that just now he put the risk slightly higher. It is important, however, to keep the risk in context. Those with pleural plaques will be understandably worried, but they must remember that they have a 90 to 95 per cent. chance of not developing a serious asbestos-related condition. I agree with the Government about the importance of sending out that message: people should be encouraged to live their lives to the full, notwithstanding the fact that they have pleural plaques. They should not regard it as a death sentence or a means of getting what are, even under the Bill and the law as it stands, quite modest damages. Countless numbers of people have conditions that can become much worse, but if they allow them to dominate their lives, they will be the poorer for it. I hope that the Minister will spell that out. I want people in areas where they might be afflicted by pleural plaques, and those already afflicted by them, to get that clear health message about the need to put in context the risk of developing a more serious condition.

I hope, too, that the Minister will explain what she meant when she responded, in Committee, to comments by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) about clause 2. He said:

He made the point that the Bill does not deal with those who have been exposed to asbestos, perhaps over many years, but who do not have pleural plaques. He argued that they are in exactly the same position as those with the condition. He continued:

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because the class of people with whom we should be dealing is much larger than the cohort identified in the Bill.

The Minister responded:

Having had the chance to reflect during the intervening period-it amounts to July, August, September and half of October-has she reached a conclusion on that point?

Obviously, if the Bill receives a Third Reading in this House, it will go to the other place. Little time remains in this Session, but I understand that the other place has an additional Friday sitting set for early November. I do not know whether that is to deal with Government business or private Members' business, but there will be every opportunity for the other place to consider this Bill. If it is presented with a whole lot of Government amendments, the Bill is dead. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will say unequivocally when summing up whether she intends to table amendments when the Bill reaches the other place. Or will she give a guarantee not to do so? Does she support the Third Reading of the Bill in its current form, is she against it, or is she neutral? She owes it to those outside and inside this House who have been campaigning on this issue, to clarify, and to be open and transparent about, the Government's intention.

A point came up earlier about complications arising through Northern Ireland. Will that be used as an excuse for further procrastination and delay, or do the Government, with their enormous army of civil servants, intend to sort it out pronto? I am a great believer in the concept, "Where there's a will, there's a way", and the fact that the Government have been so slow to reach a conclusion, and have been seen to be leading people up the garden path, has done everyone a great disservice. That is why I think that, although I do not agree with the hon. Member for Hendon on all his legislative proposals, he has done this House and those who have been campaigning on this issue a great service in introducing the Bill. It is a good subject for a private Member's Bill, and even if it does not get on the statute book, provided the Minister plays the game in the way that I have suggested, it should enable the Government to be held properly to account.

For my part, I must put on the record my concern about retrospective change in the law. It goes too far to define as conditions constituting actionable damage, for the purposes of negligence and tort, those that have not caused any impairment of physical condition or personal injury, are not doing so, and will never do so. Such a provision is centred around the fear that something might happen. An enormous number of other conditions could result in fear and so on. If that fear results in a proper psychiatric condition, it can be compensated for, but in normal situations it cannot. To pick out an asbestos-related condition in preference to all those other conditions-we could think of those individuals who are exposed to danger and physical or mental
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damage in Afghanistan at this time-is the wrong thing to do. That is why I am against the Bill and why I am concerned about its retrospective aspects.

Whatever else happens, people need to know where they stand, but at the moment everybody is in the dark. People hope that the Government's intentions will be to have retrospective legislation, which will enable them to get their compensation, although if the Government do not act in that way, they will have to face up to the fact that they will not get compensation and live their lives accordingly. But they cannot be expected to put their lives on hold, waiting for the Government.

Although it might be convenient for the Government to say, "Well, this is something that we can hand over to an incoming Conservative Government next year," that would be very irresponsible, because it would mean further delay. Although my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) will probably argue strongly from the Front Bench that the issue should form a major part of any first Queen's Speech of an incoming Conservative Government, that can never be guaranteed, because of the enormous legislative programme that will be necessary to put right the things that this Government have done wrong over many years.

I will not go down that route and set out the specifics. All I am saying is that to fail to act decisively on this Bill, at this stage in the Parliament, would be a gross dereliction of duty on the part of the Government. I hope that the Minister will be forthcoming in responding to those points.

11.31 am

Mr. Bellingham: I will be very brief. Let me once again congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on bringing the Bill forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) has scrutinised the Bill in his customary and inimitable way and has provoked a great deal of important debate.

We should not forget that we are talking about victims, albeit victims suffering mainly from a mental condition, although one that can obviously be pretty devastating. Imagine waking up every day knowing that you have a physical condition that could lead to an evil and wicked illness that is invariably fatal, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is why we need to show compassion to those who are suffering and never forget that they are the only people who really matter in this debate.

The previous common-law situation was based on the case of the Church v. the Ministry of Defence, which established the principle of aggregation-in other words, that the fact of pleural plaques could be aggregated with the anxiety and distress caused. It has struck me over the years that that was a satisfactory state of affairs. Compensation was awarded, but we should remember that it was modest, varying from between £4,000 and £7,000 per victim. It was not a life-changing sum of money, but for people who were probably out of work or perhaps from families that had no prospect of getting work, it could bring some relief and happiness at a time when the individual would be suffering from a great deal of anxiety. Also, as the hon. Member for Hendon rightly pointed out, once liability had been established, if the condition developed into full-blown mesothelioma or asbestosis, there did not have to be another court action.

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That was a perfectly satisfactory state of affairs, which did not cost the insurance industry a huge amount of money, but on the other hand, I can understand why the industry was determined to challenge it. We then had the case of Rothwell v. Chemical and Insulating Co. Ltd in the Court of Appeal, which was upheld by Johnston v. NEI International Combustion. That case in the House of Lords held that the pleural plaques per se were not compensatable. The result was extreme anger, and not just in those communities that were previously dependent on traditional heavy industries, mining or refining, but across the whole country.

It is interesting that when I first started to look into the issue in detail, I discovered that there were a number of victims in Norfolk, which is not exactly an area renowned for heavy industry. However, people come to Norfolk to retire and there are also people there who were exposed to asbestos in smaller companies and small and medium-sized enterprises. I would therefore not mind venturing to suggest that in every constituency in this land there will be a small number-and in many cases a significant number-of victims of pleural plaques.

There was huge anger after that House of Lords decision, and we then had a number of Adjournment debates. I spoke in a number of those debates, as did many hon. Members in the Chamber this morning. We kept hearing from the Government that they were concerned about the issue and were going to take action. Then Scotland introduced legislation. The Scottish Executive and Parliament are ahead of the game on this issue, having quickly introduced that legislation. One of the points made this morning, which was also made in those Adjournment debates, is that we will probably end up having one law for Scots and another for people south of the border. That would be an extremely unsatisfactory situation for victims of pleural plaques and could also give rise to many anomalies among people living in the border area of this kingdom.

The Secretary of State for Justice made a written statement-in July 2008, as I recall-in which the Ministry laid out various options for action. Since then, however, we have had procrastination and a lack of decisive leadership by the Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said. I would like the Minister to address that point, because the time has now come for action to be taken. The Government need to make it clear: will they support the Bill, which is a modest measure, or will they take action of their own?

The Government must tell us what is happening, because in the meantime tens of thousands of people are waiting in trepidation. My hon. Friend suggests that they should get on with their lives and look to the future. Perhaps some people will have the willpower to do that, but many others will not be able to, because their condition will have caused them such psychological distress, resulting in their not being able to rebuild their lives.

I am concerned about the prospect of parallel litigation and about what the Association of British Insurers has stated. In its briefing for hon. Members, it points out that the Bill would set a legal precedent with wide implications and that it

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Frankly, however, that did not happen before; indeed, the common law was precise on that point. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon on how tightly he has worded his Bill. The ABI's concerns are therefore misplaced. I would like the Minister to comment on that.

On retrospection, which we have discussed, I am as concerned as anyone about any Bill containing retrospective measures. However, voting in favour of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch would effectively have prevented the thousands of people with pleural plaques from taking any action because of the statute of limitations. In other words, they would have had to start their action within three years of physically discovering that they had pleural plaques, either through a scan or an X-ray. As we have discussed on many occasions, these symptoms often do not have a visible physical manifestation. I sympathise with what my hon. Friend said about retrospection, but his amendment would effectively have wrecked the entire Bill.

This is a modest measure, but we should bear in mind one further point. Health and safety standards have improved out of all recognition. I understand that the average age of pleural plaque victims is past retirement age. In other words, people of my age, and the age of the Minister and the hon. Member for Hendon-people in their 50s, approaching middle age-were not exposed to asbestos as people 10 or 15 years older were. Health and safety standards have improved immeasurably, which is very good news for business and industry. This problem is therefore not going to get worse. We are talking about a finite number of people in this country, and by definition the problem will eventually disappear.

In the meantime, however, there are very real victims in families up and down the country, and they expect action from their Government. We have now been waiting for nearly a year and a half since the Minister's boss, the Secretary of State for Justice, made that written statement promising action, or at least a Government lead on this issue. So far, we have seen very little lead and absolutely no indication that the Government are prepared to grip the issue. There are perhaps seven months before the election, and I hope that the Government will now deal with this, so that all those people out there who are suffering because of this uncertainty will at least know where they stand.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend will know that in July the Secretary of State for Justice said:

Has he received any indication of when that response is likely to be published?

Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend assumes that I have a direct line to the Secretary of State and to his junior Minister, or that I have their mobile numbers and am on the telephone to them the whole time. Alas, although we have a good relationship, it is not that close. I have been pushing them, but I have to use written parliamentary questions to do so. However, we now have an ideal opportunity to hear from the Minister exactly what the position is and what action Her Majesty's Government intend to take.

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