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Asbestos-related Illness (Plymouth)

4.30 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak on this subject; sadly, it is of great importance to many of my constituents. In recent years, asbestos-related illness has been the subject of debates in the House, legal challenges, and ongoing demands from victims for understanding of their plight and for financial support to help them face the challenge of having been diagnosed with the illness. Let us not forget that Plymouth is a hot spot for asbestos-related disease-the third in the country.

During the summer, I was invited to attend a detailed briefing run by Bond Pearce solicitors, a firm based in Plymouth, to discuss with health professionals and victims what more needs to be done. I was joined at that briefing by the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), who I am pleased to see here today. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) was not able to attend, although over many years she has been a fighter on behalf of the victims who live in her constituency.

Asbestos-related disease takes many forms. They include pleural plaques, which is scarring of the lung tissue; it is a real physical injury, visible and identifiable by X-ray. It is caused by exposure to asbestos over a long period, and it is avoidable. In most cases, it was caused by the negligence of the employer. Many people, including those in my constituency, suffer the condition through no fault of their own. The only people to gain from it are those in the insurance industry.

Given that the disease was for the previous 20 years clearly acknowledged as a compensatory condition caused by employers' negligence, the Law Lords ruling of 2007 remains an unexplainable and unjustifiable mystery to my constituents. Most employers and their insurers were aware of the dangers of exposure to asbestos. Such knowledge has been around since the end of the 19th century, but employers still chose to do nothing to protect their work forces. They seemed callously to rely on the fact that the latency period of such a disease could be anything from 10 to 20 or even 40 years.

The result is that many people are now diagnosed, and suffer constant fear and uncertainty about their future. I fully appreciate that the condition is said by some to be completely benign, and that it will lead to something more sinister in only 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. of diagnosed cases. However, there is a serious underlying issue. Pleural plaques is a clear indicator of long-term exposure to asbestos. Those diagnosed therefore have an increased risk of developing more serious asbestos-related diseases, resulting not only from pleural plaques but from the exposure to asbestos itself.

It is hard, therefore, to expect someone who has been diagnosed with pleural plaques not to be distressed and anxious about the fact. According to the excellent and well-supported GMB campaign, that anxiety has already led to one suicide. I was appalled to learn of the comments of Dr. Abernethy, of the Forum of Insurance Lawyers. She stated that pleural plaques were harmless and therefore a good thing. I assure the House-and Dr. Abernethy if she is watching or listening to this debate-that they are not. I invite Dr. Abernethy to speak to those of my constituents who have been diagnosed, and seek their reaction to her comments.

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Concern has also been raised that some insurance lawyers would take advantage of the situation should compensation be allowed-that they would lure and encourage people to make a claim based in part on their anxiety. Is that not inconsistent? On one hand, the insurers have acknowledged the danger of asbestos and the anxiety caused, taking it so seriously that they say the matter should be pursued by them. On the other hand, they argue that anxiety is not serious enough to warrant compensation. If one listens to or reads stories of individuals, as I and other MPs have done, one quickly realises what such anxiety means to them and their families. They cannot escape it, because most of those diagnosed may well have seen former colleagues dying from mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis.

Anxiety also encroaches on other areas of people's lives. One of my constituents told me of a friend who was diagnosed with pleural plaques. When he applied for travel insurance, he provided information about his health and was charged a higher premium because of his condition. My constituent said it was a case of double standards, and I cannot think of a more appropriate term-other than financial opportunism. It is hypocritical of the insurance industry to suggest that there is nothing to worry about, and not to recognise pleural plaques as a disease, yet at the same time whacking up the insurance premium if they know that someone is a victim.

I will move on to mesothelioma. It is estimated that between 2006 and 2020, 30,000 people in the UK will die from mesothelioma, and that 90,000 will have died by 2050. The number of deaths is expected to peak in the next five to 10 years, although a whole new tranche of people are currently being diagnosed with the illness-people like my constituent, Debbie Brewer, a young woman who contracted the disease from her dockyard worker father. She is only 50 and a mother of three, and she believes that there is a significant number of young people who, like her, had contact with someone working with asbestos and will contract the disease, and who are currently not included in official estimates.

Debbie is a very brave woman who is fighting for a trial of a specialised treatment called chemoembolism, which appears to be holding back the disease significantly in her case. The treatment is not currently available in the UK, so she has to travel to Germany and pay for it privately. I would hate to describe Debbie as fortunate, but she was able to agree a settlement, and a payout from her father's employer, the Ministry of Defence, which is paying for the treatment. Although it does not fall within the Minister's remit, I hope that she will pass that concern on to her colleagues in the Department of Health.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I have been listening carefully to the powerful case my hon. Friend is making, particularly the human stories. I am not sure whether her constituent, Debbie Brewer, knows the daughter of Roger Lowe, who has set up a campaign in memory of her father. It goes from one generation to another, and it is as much about the angst caused for the families as it is about the victims themselves when they are diagnosed with pleural plaques.

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Alison Seabeck: I am that pleased that my hon. Friend is in the Chamber today and thank her for her comments and for highlighting the campaign being run by her constituent.

Another issue raised at the Bond Pearce seminar was funding for Macmillan nurses and the need to ensure that it continues. They are undoubtedly providing some fantastic support for my constituents and, I am sure, for others across the country.

Although much has been achieved by the Government with the introduction of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008, more needs to be done. We need to speed up the system for those who have been diagnosed to ensure that they or their solicitors do not have to spend valuable time trying to trace their employers and insurers. One of the solutions could be the establishment of an employers' liability insurance bureau. Many people, as the Minister will know, cannot trace their former employers because they have gone out of business. If the firm had no insurance in place at the time, or if the insurance cannot be traced, the victim cannot make a civil claim against anyone for compensation. If a bureau was set up, it could act as a fund of last resort, paying out claims in cases where no defendant or insurer can be found.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) introduced a private Member's Bill in the last Session that would have addressed that issue, but like many good pieces of private Members' legislation, it foundered, although only after completing its passage through the House of Commons. An identical Bill has been introduced by Baroness Quin in the other place, and I can only hope that it will receive Government support and, with a fair wind, reach the statute book before a general election is called. My hon. Friend's Bill proposed a fund that could be paid for by insurers, rather than the taxpayer, using a similar model to that used by the Motor Insurance Bureau, which pays victims of uninsured drivers. He had extensive discussions with the Ministry of Justice and there was a good measure of support for his proposals.

Linda Gilroy: I know that my hon. Friend has expressed a hope that the Bill will be taken to a successful conclusion in the House of Lords, but will she urge everybody to continue to put pressure on the Government to support it? We have been here before on several occasions-we are just so close.

Alison Seabeck: My hon. Friend, with her wealth of experience of this place, knows just how difficult it has been to make progress, but I am sure the Minister has been listening to her comments.

Bond Pearce in Plymouth deals with many people who currently can make no claim in this country, and they often have to rely on payments via a convoluted route from the United States trust, which will pay out. Not everyone can benefit through that route, and we really need a scheme that will apply in the UK. I would be grateful if the Minister could let us have her views of the proposal being brought forward in the Lords, because it cannot be right that the Government should pay lump sums to sufferers, funded by the public purse, because insurers do not want to pay compensation. Insurers have to be liable and pay up. That is why they receive their premiums in the first place. I therefore welcome
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the commitment of the Justice Secretary and the Minister-which I hope will be repeated today-that consideration will be given to reviewing the current process of tracing insurance records.

I also support the Government's idea that the UK should be made a global leader in research on asbestos-related diseases. However, that must be speeded up. We have also been waiting rather too long for a decision from the Government about compensation. I urge the Minister to make the Government's intentions clear sooner rather than later, because for some of my constituents it could be too late.

4.40 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I support the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck). We both attended the conference in the summer, and we work closely together in Plymouth, in a cross-party way. I do not want to repeat her arguments, but I want to support them and her description of the difficulty in obtaining justice for sufferers of asbestos-related diseases.

Rather than repeating the arguments that she put more eloquently than I ever could, I want to add one further point, which draws partly on my background as a lawyer-the application to the issue of the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987, on which I know the Minister is something of an expert. That Act, which prevents Crown personnel from suing the Crown in relation to matters prior to the date in question, effectively means that ex-service personnel can claim civil damages from the Ministry of Defence for asbestos-related illnesses, or any other injury, only if the exposure occurred after 1987. In cases involving asbestos, exposure will usually have occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, before the world woke up fully to the perils of asbestos. The people in question therefore cannot make a civil claim for compensation against the Ministry of Defence.

That situation is in contrast to what applies to civilians, who can make a civil claim against the Ministry of Defence irrespective of when the exposure occurred. The situation is very unjust for ex-forces members, of whom there are of course many in Plymouth. In the dockyard and the naval base, civilians and service people, men and women, have for many generations worked side by side. They have done almost the same jobs, some in uniform and some as civilians. Is it not grossly unfair that, of two people doing the same job during the 1970s, both of whom contracted a serious lung disease, one would have the right to compensation from the Ministry of Defence, but the other would not? I see officials looking quizzically at me. If the Minister can say that I am wrong in what I am saying, we shall be jubilant and excited, and many legal actions will follow.

We hear much about the postcode lottery, but the situation I am describing is a pay-as-you-earn lottery, and the Government must surely be concerned about it.

Linda Gilroy: I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that aspect of the issue, and am grateful to him. He has referred to the cross-party basis on which this matter has for many years been pursued. The point that seems to be made in this context is that the pensions of service personnel somehow rule out their making a claim. It does not add up or make sense.

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Mr. Streeter: I agree on that point. I have considered what reasons there may be for people being treated differently, and I cannot think that any such reasons would prevail for people who have acquired their injuries during a period of work in a domestic situation at home as opposed to in the trenches overseas.

Lawyers in Plymouth deal with many victims of asbestos-related problems each year, but instead of obtaining justice from the Ministry of Defence they must resort to relying on payments from United States trusts set up by the companies that manufactured many of the asbestos products, which saw their liability and put money aside. People in the UK can draw down on that, but it is nothing like the amount of compensation to be obtained from suing the Ministry of Defence, as many civilians can. The idea of compensation is to put someone back in the place they would have been in had they not fallen ill or been injured. At the moment that does not happen to ex-servicemen who contract the crippling diseases in question. Many of them must rely on state benefits or a war or disability pension, instead of proper compensation that would help them to live the lives they would have lived had they not been contaminated, through no fault of their own.

I recognise that Governments of both colours have hidden behind the 1987 Act-and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport is right to say that this issue has continued for a long time under Labour and Conservative Governments. There may be reasons of public policy for that, which the Minister may want to set out. However, I ask him to review the application of the Act in relation to claims of this kind, where there is a real injustice. I am sure it is not the Government's strategy to delay matters until time takes its toll and people go the way of all flesh. I am sure that is not the Government's thinking, but of course there is an element of urgency because many of the sufferers are of a certain age and we want them to receive compensation in due time. I hope the Minister can make a helpful response.

4.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Claire Ward): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) on securing this important debate. The fact that this is the fifth debate that we have had on pleural plaques demonstrates the importance of the issue, not just to hon. Members across the political parties but, more importantly, to their constituents and those whose lives are impacted by this state of affairs. We recognise that pleural plaques are a major issue for many people, particularly those who have worked in traditional manufacturing industries where exposure to asbestos was an all too common danger.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, our consultation on pleural plaques closed at the beginning of October last year. I understand hon. Members' concerns about the time that it has taken to reach conclusions in the light of the consultation. The decision by the House of Lords raised extremely complex and difficult issues that have required careful consideration within Government. It has also been important to look beyond the issue of pleural plaques to consider how people who have been exposed to asbestos can be supported more widely. We have made it clear throughout that it is important to
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ensure that any decisions taken are reached on the basis of the best available medical evidence on the nature of pleural plaques. For that reason, we have commissioned and published reviews of the medical evidence carried out on behalf of the chief medical officer for England and Wales and by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to help to inform consideration of the issue. The reports indicate that consensus appears to exist on a range of key points relating to the medical nature of pleural plaques.

However, in response to representations from asbestos campaigners and a request by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), the Secretary of State for Justice undertook to facilitate a final meeting between key medical experts in the field to consider the medical reports together with new evidence that has emerged since the reports were published. That was to make sure that any areas of disagreement over the evidence and conclusions in the reports could be identified and fully considered. The meeting took place on 15 October and was extremely helpful and informative. The Government are giving careful consideration to the outcome of the discussion and the views expressed before publishing their response on pleural plaques.

The Government have been consistent in their commitment to give those suffering from mesothelioma and other serious asbestos-related diseases the help and support that they deserve. With that in mind, the Secretary of State for Justice confirmed that the Government are actively considering measures to make the UK a global leader in research for the alleviation, prevention and cure of asbestos-related diseases, and also to help speed up compensation claims for those who develop serious asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. That includes examination of the process for tracking and tracing employment and insurance records, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport mentioned, as well as looking into the support given to individuals who are unable to trace such records. We fully accept that the current arrangements for tracing employers' liability and insurance policies are not satisfactory. Too many individuals are not able to access the compensation that they deserve. The situation is not acceptable and we are determined to do more. We are looking seriously at options such as setting up a mandatory tracing database and whether we might establish an employers' liability insurance bureau as a fund of last resort, as recommended by several hon. Members. Further details of the Government's plans on these extremely important issues will be announced shortly.

Provisions in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008 were brought into effect on 1 October last year by colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions. They provide up-front financial support to mesothelioma sufferers who were previously not eligible for help from the Government, including those, such as the constituent of my hon. Friend, who were exposed to asbestos as the result of contact with a relative. Someone's exposure could have taken place, for example, by washing the work clothes of their father or husband. Where sufferers have not been able to make a claim during their lifetime, a payment under the scheme can be made to their dependants.

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