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Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on his Bill, and on the fact that it looks as though it will actually be given a Third Reading this morning. I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate we shall hear that the Government are to make some time available this Session for the Bill to complete its stages in the Lords.
It is a fact that people who have pleural plaques have been exposed to asbestos. When the Law Lords sought to clarify the law on 17 October 2007, it was made clear that people cannot get pleural plaques without such exposure. It is also true, as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said, that the victims have received small sums of money in recognition of that exposure. It is therefore disappointing that the Law Lords stopped that in November 2007, but I am afraid that it is not untypical of the way in which victims of asbestos-whether suffering from mesothelioma, asbestosis or another industry-related disease-have had to fight for their just rights and compensation.
In that context, I pay tribute to a lady who, sadly, died yesterday. Diane Willmore did not have pleural plaques; she suffered from mesothelioma. The day before yesterday, in the Court of Appeal, she finally heard that her compensation for exposure to asbestos while a school pupil had been agreed to by the Law Lords. She sadly died yesterday having just heard that news. Her fight and her courage are typical of the actions that victims of asbestos have had to take. I hope that the Bill will put an end to that situation in regard to pleural plaques.
I agree with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk that, given that it is more than 12 months since the consultation closed and that the Secretary of State promised on 21 July that the response would be published early in the recess, it is disappointing that the Government have not yet published it. It is disgraceful that we should be here today discussing the Bill without having received any indication of the Government's stance. I make a strong plea to the Minister to clarify the Government's position today. Like most other hon. Members present, I hope that she will support the Bill and give us a guarantee that it will move forward in this Session and complete its stages in the House of Lords. If that does not happen, people with pleural plaques will face yet another year of not knowing what the situation is.
As the hon. Member for Hendon said, the Bill is simple, tight and clear in its purpose. It restores the law to what we all thought it was before the Law Lords' ruling. In that sense, it will impose no additional costs on the insurance industry, as the industry had already budgeted for those costs. The costs had already been included when insurers were charging companies their premiums. There will obviously be small additional costs to the Government because of the retrospective element of the legislation, but they will only increase if the Government prevaricate further.
I have been asked to inquire, on behalf of representatives of the asbestos victims support groups, whether the Minister or the Secretary of State will meet them, following the deliberations on the Bill today, to discuss the situation and other asbestos-related issues.
I should like to probe the hon. Gentleman a little further on his point about public expenditure. It is my understanding that the only possible
trigger for extra public expenditure would be in relation to those victims who had been exposed to asbestos while employed by Government Departments or agencies-the Ministry of Defence, or a related agency, for example. It is my understanding that the Bill will not lead directly to any public expenditure on the part of the Ministry of Justice. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his point?
Paul Rowen: Yes, I am happy to do that. Perhaps I did not make my point very well. There will be expenditure involved, but it will be directly associated with Departments such as the Ministry of Defence.
I hope that the Minister or the Secretary of State will agree to meet representatives of the asbestos victims support groups, following today's debate, to discuss what is going to happen. It would be helpful if the Minister were able to give us a categorical assurance today that the Bill will become law before the end of this Session. She could use Government offices to do that. I see that the Chief Whip is here; perhaps he will be able to tell her that that can happen, and that the Bill will be able to complete its passage through the House of Lords. That will right a wrong and restore rights that people enjoyed prior to the Law Lords' ruling. We have now waited more than two years for this to happen, and I hope that we will today receive a clear, unequivocal yes from the Government that this wrong will be righted and that we can move forward.
Bridget Prentice: I begin by offering my condolences-and, I am sure, those of the whole House-to the family of the constituent of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) who sadly died of mesothelioma yesterday. Later in my speech, I hope to say something that might be of some comfort-if not to that family at least to other victims of mesothelioma, which is a dreadful, horrendously painful and nasty disease.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) not just on pursuing this issue, but on getting this first Bill of its kind on the agenda today. He has been assiduous in pursuing the matter, as have many other hon. Friends who have supported him today and raised similar issues in the many Adjournment debates over the past year and a half or so to which I have replied. I take only a little advice from Opposition Members in respect of my own frustration that we have not yet reached a conclusion. I completely understand the frustration of my hon. Friends and other honourable colleagues who have campaigned on this issue on behalf of their constituents for a very long time.
I confirm for the hon. Member for Rochdale that I will, of course, meet representatives of the asbestos victims support groups. I have met many such groups, trade unions and others who have campaigned on this issue, just as I have met those, including the Association of British Insurers, who are opposed to our doing anything at all about it.
I shall not go through the history of the Bill or the legal position resulting from the House of Lords judgment, as I believe the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) has already outlined that fairly comprehensively.
We said that there would be consultation on action to improve the understanding of pleural plaques and provide support and reassurance to those diagnosed with it in order to alleviate their concerns. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) that there is still a big job to be done on giving further support to people diagnosed with pleural plaques and on explaining the consequences that are or are not likely to result from having them. That is part of the reason why we have not yet given our full response to the consultation.
It is only right at this point that I should apologise to my hon. Friends, to all hon. Members who have campaigned on this issue for some time and, indeed, to the House as a whole for the fact that the Government have not yet responded. That is very frustrating for everyone concerned. I apologise absolutely for that, but it is not through want of trying. We have consulted different groups and only yesterday met a number of medical experts who argued both sides of the case-so there is still further consideration to be taken. I cannot therefore give a categorical date for when the Government response will be made, although I can give my personal commitment to continue to go back to my colleagues in order to reach a conclusion as quickly as possible. As a number of hon. Members have said, time is moving on-not only in a parliamentary sense, but in respect of the lives of the individuals affected.
Philip Davies: I am sure that the whole House will accept the Minister's apology in the spirit in which it was given, but we are being invited today to support the Third Reading of a Bill, so will she explain how on earth we can possibly do so when there has been no Government response to the consultation? The Minister admitted in response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) that the Government were still looking at some aspects of the Bill's detail. How can the Government ask us to support the Third Reading of a Bill whose details they have not thought through themselves?
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman will know that many a Bill goes through this House or the other place whose details have yet to be hammered out. Our bicameral system provides an opportunity for amendments to be proposed at a later stage, so I am quite relaxed about the Bill going through today, as I expect it will, because if further amendments are necessary, they can be tabled elsewhere.
We have made it clear throughout that it is important to ensure that any decisions are taken on the basis of the best available medical evidence on pleural plaques. That is why we commissioned and have already published the reviews of the medical evidence that were carried out by the chief medical officer and by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. They will help to inform our consideration.
I am very interested in what the Minister has had to say so far. She has indicated that there is a possibility that amendments will be introduced in the other place. Of course we accept that, but obviously it would be necessary for this place to consider those
Lords amendments. Is the Minister guaranteeing that the Government will provide the necessary time if such circumstances arise during the remains of the current Session?
Bridget Prentice: In the course of my life in Parliament I have been in the Whips Office, and I know better than to make a claim about parliamentary time while the Chief Whip is sitting to my right. However, I think that he has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I am sure that he will take it into account when the business managers consider future business.
I met medical experts yesterday in response to representations from asbestos campaigners and, in particular, to a request from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice had said that he would facilitate a meeting. I had a very helpful and informative discussion with those experts, and as a result further issues were identified. We must consider those issues and the views that are expressed before we finally publish our response.
Mr. Chope: The Minister is being very generous. Can we take it from what she has said that the last word from the Justice Secretary about a final response after the recess is redundant, and that we are now talking about a final response in the next Session of Parliament rather than before the Queen's Speech?
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned "a final response after the recess" a number of times, but we are only four or five days into "after the recess". I think, to be fair, that the Justice Secretary is still capable of ensuring that we give a response as soon as we possibly can.
What I can say in response to the hon. Member for Rochdale and, indeed, the hon. Member for Christchurch is that it is important for us to consider how much more support we can give to people who have been exposed to asbestos. We have been absolutely consistent in our commitment to giving people who are suffering from mesothelioma and other serious asbestos-related diseases the help that they deserve.
I was a Minister at the time when we introduced in another Bill compensation for mesothelioma victims, and I think that those people recognise that the changed arrangements are thanks to a Labour Government who took speedy action. We will continue to consider how we can speed up compensation so that others, such as the constituent of the hon. Member for Rochdale, can receive it at a more appropriate time.
We are actively considering measures to make the United Kingdom the global leader in research on the alleviation, prevention and cure of asbestos-related diseases and, as I said, to help to speed up the meeting of compensation claims. That will include examination of the process of tracing employment and insurance records, some of which are very difficult to track down, as well as considering what support we can give individuals who are unable to trace such records. As I said during my meeting with the medical experts, nine times out
of 10 exposure to asbestos is due to the negligence of employers. If an employer has been negligent in that respect, he may well also have been negligent in the keeping of records. We will publish our plans shortly.
Paul Rowen: I am very pleased to hear the Minister's announcement. Does that mean that the Queen's Speech will provide for the establishment of a compulsory employers' liability insurance bureau to deal with the problems to which she has referred?
Bridget Prentice: Opposition Members are again asking me to go down a road that it would not be appropriate to go down. It is not for me to say what will be in the Queen's Speech; we must leave that for later.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend need not wait for the Queen's Speech. There could be an alternative Queen's Speech with my 12 Bills. Bill No. 39 on today's Order Paper provides for such a bureau, so perhaps she will support it and give it a fair wind later today.
The Bill before us has to be considered in the context that I have outlined. It represents a possible approach to the issue of pleural plaques-there may be others, too-as well as to the wider issues to do with asbestos-related diseases. We want to ensure that these are considered fully and the best response is identified.
As we are still in the process of assessing that response, it is not possible for me to give a firm indication today of what our ultimate position on the Bill will be. However, I can confirm that I am content for it to proceed today, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on promoting it.
The Bill had no priority whatever. It was a presentation Bill, the product of my spending an uncomfortable night on the floor of the Public Bill Office to make sure I had the first place in the queue-made a little more uncomfortable by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) turning up at midnight and waking me by turning the lights on in order to make sure I was there.
Today's speeches from all the Front Benches have been good, and I am grateful for the support that has been given from them. The Northern Ireland point can be dealt with easily: ultimately, that would be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate on, instead of it being incorporated into the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Minister has laid out the position in relation to the consultation and I accept her apology of course, but we could get bogged down in medical issues. This is ultimately a legal issue not a medical question, so it has to be dealt with in terms of legal results. The context of the medical experts may affect how much a claim is worth or the causation question, but we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that pleural
plaques are caused by asbestos, so ultimately this has to be a legal issue, as addressed by the Bill.
On how the Bill proceeds, the commencement date is in the gift of the Secretary of State, although he cannot prevaricate for too long because it is a "shall" rather than a "may" requirement. If, as I hope, the Bill is passed and moves to another place today, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), the Chief Whip, will use his good offices to ensure that it gets a fair reading in the Lords, and that if amendments are made there Government time can be found at the end of the Session to deal with them. I say that as he has been very helpful throughout, and if he wants something done he always gets it done.
The question of the employers' liability insurance bureau is another issue, of course. It is, however, a very important issue, and offers yet another example of how this House should deal with matters relating to asbestos.
Mr. Chope: Amendments 1 and 2 try to introduce a better and tighter definition of when the Bill will take effect and, in particular, of when the production of the first of the reports called for in clause 1 will be required. At the moment, clause 1 is very vague, because it uses the words:
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