"Pleural plaques do not themselves 'turn malignant' and become a malignant mesothelioma. They do not in themselves cause asbestosis to develop, nor do pleural plaques increase the risk of lung cancer, and they are a different condition from diffuse pleural thickening."
Pleural plaques are evidence of exposure to asbestos. The question of a medical link between the one and the other may be arguable, but the statistical link is not. We know the number of people who suffer
from pleural plaques, and the number of people who get mesothelioma, and the one is evidence of risk of the other. That is what causes the psychological symptoms. A person who has pleural plaques will know that they have been exposed to the risks posed by asbestos, and it therefore preys on their mind that they are at greater risk of contracting mesothelioma.
We are speaking today about the psychological effect on a person of knowing that they have been diagnosed with pleural plaques. The difficulty is with the principle of compensation. It is unfortunate that the Government have not introduced a similar Bill. They have shown some enthusiasm for this one, and for this issue over the years, but not enough to introduce a Government Bill with the full backing that such a Bill would have. I do not mean political backing; I mean the access to the full medical evidence and all the other kinds of backing that a Government Bill would have behind it. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his persistence in bringing his Bill forward again.
I am worried that the hon. Gentleman has suggested that all stages of the Bill should be dealt with today. It is a short, precise, well-constructed Bill, but none of us has had the time or the opportunity to look in any detail at the matters that will be considered in its Committee stage.
Mr. Dismore: I know that the hon. Lady was present at the previous Bill's Committee stage last time, but because of a slight hiccup, which we need not go into, she was unable to participate in the Committee. This Bill is identical to the one that went through its Committee stage at that time. It was subject to amendments tabled and debated in Committee, as well as to amendments tabled and debated on Report, so it had had full consideration by the House before it received its Third Reading last October.
Mrs. Laing: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that explanation; he said exactly what I expected him to say. He is right that a technical error prevented me from taking part in Committee, but I witnessed those proceedings and I cannot disagree that the Bill was scrutinised to some extent. I nevertheless hope that if the Bill passes through the House today, it will be properly scrutinised in the other place. Although I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the matters in the Bill-indeed, I welcome the clarification of the law that it entails-it is also important that we observe the proper procedures of Parliament when passing legislation, not least because this legislation is important and has far-reaching consequences, affecting many people. It may cost a lot of money and it is Parliament's duty to balance the needs and rights of the individual with those of the taxpayer and the public purse. I put it no more strongly than that, but I express my concern.
Ultimately, we are talking about being fair to people who, through no fault of their own, have contracted what might turn into a terrible disease. I approach the
issue with compassion and understanding for the individuals concerned and their families. That said, it is important to leave sufficient time to hear what the Minister has to say, so I shall conclude to allow him to address us.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing a Second Reading for this Bill, which deals with an extremely important issue. Issues of principle are raised, as well as practical issues; above all, this subject involves great human suffering.
I pay tribute to all who have followed the debate over many years, particularly to Members who have pursued the campaign. As we have just heard, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has been extremely diligent; this is his second attempt to get this Bill through the House. He deserves all our thanks for his persistence and diligence in this matter. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) and for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who have been equally diligent and persistent on behalf of their constituents. Many other Members have been involved, as we have received representations from them, from trade unions and from others who are deeply concerned about this issue.
Those who have followed the debate over the years will know that this is my first time speaking from the Dispatch Box on this particular subject. It is not, however, the first time that I have had occasion to deal with the issues raised in today's debate. As the Member of Parliament for North Swindon, I am acutely aware of these problems. As the House will know, Swindon is a great industrial town: it always has been; it was created by Brunel as a great railway town. It had great railway works, which sustained the town and helped it to grow over many decades.
Very large numbers of my constituents worked in the railway works, so they were exposed to asbestos. Mesothelioma, a particularly horrible disease, is, because of its prevalence, well known locally as "the Swindon cancer". Many constituents have had to live with it for many years, so I am deeply familiar with the problem. I have had to deal with some heartbreaking cases. I will always remember the pensioner who came to see me. Our meeting took a long time because he could not speak for tears, as he tried to describe how his wife had died from mesothelioma. He had not been diagnosed with it, but his wife had. She had contracted the cancer because every day when he came home from work, he had taken off his work clothes, which she washed for him before making his tea. As a result of that act of spousal duty, she had contracted this awful illness. He was consumed with grief at the loss of his wife, but also with guilt because his work had resulted in her contracting such a terrible illness.
As I have said, this subject involves complex issues of legal principle, difficult practical issues and weighty financial issues, but above all it is about human suffering of an especially acute nature. I know that all the Members who have raised it, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, are deeply conscious that none of us should ever forget that human suffering is at the root of it.
Mesothelioma is a particularly unpleasant cancer. We have seen great progress in treatment of a range of cancers, but unfortunately we have not yet found a way of dealing with diffuse mesothelioma. It is always fatal and involves a very poor life expectancy of, on average, between 12 and 18 months following diagnosis, which makes the diagnosis particularly hard to accept. That bears directly on the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon about the psychological damage that can be caused by pleural plaques, which, as he has said, indicate exposure to asbestos. Those who are diagnosed with them will inevitably start to wonder whether they will develop mesothelioma, which is a particularly horrible illness because, I understand, very little palliative care is available. It is painful, and, as I have said, the diagnosis is invariably fatal.
The Government take mesothelioma extremely seriously, but it is difficult to deal with because, as with pleural plaques, the legal background is very complex. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) was mildly critical of the Government-although not up to her usual coruscating standards-for not acting more swiftly, and I appreciate the urgency of the matter, but, as I have said, the issues involved are complex.
For many years, the defining mesothelioma case was that of Fairchild in 2002. In that case, the House of Lords held that a person who contracted mesothelioma after wrongful exposure to asbestos at different times by more than one employer could sue any of those employers, even if the employee could not prove which exposure had caused the disease. That is particularly important, because exposure to just one strand of asbestos can be clinically responsible for the development of mesothelioma. It is not a question of sustained exposure over many years. All of us Members who have encountered mesothelioma in our constituencies know that our constituents have often been employed in several workplaces, and that the same workplace may have had different owners. It has been very hard to prove legally which exposure led to the disease, and the Fairchild case was therefore extremely important.
When another case was brought, that of Barker v. Corus, the House of Lords decided that in a case within the boundaries of the Fairchild exception in which someone had contracted mesothelioma after wrongful exposure to asbestos at different times by more than one responsible person, the damages were to be apportioned among those responsible for the wrongful exposure according to their relative degree of contribution to the chance of a person contracting the disease. That means, in practice, that a claimant must trace all relevant defendants as far as possible before liability can be apportioned and compensation paid, and that the risk of any of those defendants' being insolvent and unable to pay the appropriate share falls on the claimant.
That decision was taken in May 2006, and I am sure that Members will understand the huge burden it placed on any potential claimants, as well as the deep distress it must have caused them. I make no criticism of the House of Lords in this case; it was applying legal principles in a way that it has complete discretion to do, and it is not for this House to criticise its decisions. However, the emotional and human consequences of that decision were profound, not least because when someone is diagnosed with mesothelioma, their life expectancy is typically 12 to 18 months. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will understand
from his previous life as a lawyer, the prospect of someone in such a situation having to go through such a tortuous legal process, and of having to try to identify all the possible employers in whose employ they might have been exposed to asbestos, would be enormously difficult and time consuming, and in practice would make it more or less impossible actually to get any compensation.
When this became clear, the Government moved with great speed. The House of Lords made its judgment in May 2006, and by July 2006 the Compensation Act 2006 had received Royal Assent. Through that Act, the Government took measures to rectify the Barker v. Corus judgment by enabling claimants to sue any of the negligent persons and then to recover 100 per cent. of the compensation on a joint and several basis. It would then be a matter for the defendants to apportion the damages they had paid between themselves.
That was clearly the right thing to do. It threw the burden of proof, and the responsibility for seeing through all the complex legal processes, on to the employer, not the mesothelioma sufferer at such a difficult and painful time for them and their families, when they and their loved ones are having to come to terms with this dread diagnosis. When we could see a way clear to take action, we took it, and we did so with great speed. In my time in the House, I cannot think of another occasion when any Government have moved with such speed to rectify a situation.
We will, therefore, move as quickly as we possibly can, but these are very complex and difficult issues, and I want to say a little about them. This Bill passed through a number of stages in the previous parliamentary Session and there have been several Adjournment debates on the subject it addresses. The issues have been raised with great force and cogency by a number of Members, therefore, and I am extremely grateful to them for everything that they have done to highlight the issue and to keep it in the public mind. The Government are sympathetic. I am going to respond very sympathetically to the Bill today, and I should also point out that an identical Bill is today receiving its Second Reading in another place.
The Bill provides for asymptomatic pleural plaques and the separate condition of asymptomatic asbestosis to constitute actionable damage under the law of tort for which damages may be awarded. The overwhelming balance of expert professional opinion is that about 99 per cent. of pleural plaques cases are asymptomatic and therefore difficult to diagnose, and only 1 per cent. are symptomatic. It is important to stress that in that relatively small number of cases where symptoms are exhibited so the condition is readily identifiable, it remains possible to bring a claim under civil law. This Bill therefore addresses asymptomatic pleural plaques. It also contains provisions on limitation and retrospectivity.
Mrs. Laing: For the sake of clarity, do the Government intend that asymptomatic pleural plaques, as a disease, will not give rise to compensation but will merely be noted in order to establish the causal link between the employment and the possible future development of asbestosis or other serious diseases such as mesothelioma? Is the Minister talking about that causal link, rather than having actual compensation for pleural plaques?
Mr. Wills: If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will go through the argument first before I reach the conclusion regarding our attitude to the Bill. On her point about causality-if I understand her correctly-my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has already set out the position clearly. The existence of pleural plaques shows exposure to asbestos, but, as I think is acknowledged widely, it does not mean that anyone who has pleural plaques will inevitably get, or is likely to get, mesothelioma. There is no causal link in that way, but it does indicate exposure to asbestos, and for that reason it is completely understandable that people who have pleural plaques will begin to worry, often very intensely-to the extent that, as my hon. Friend has said, it becomes very disruptive of their lives. To that extent, pleural plaques fall into the category of illness, so it is understandable that the existence of pleural plaques should often cause intense and disruptive worry about the possibility of getting mesothelioma.
In passing, I point out that I agree with my hon. Friend about the distinction that we in this House, as well as the courts, have drawn in the past between mental and physical incapacity. I have already made it clear regarding another Bill-I will not dwell on this, Mr. Deputy Speaker-that in relation to representation in this House, we should not draw any distinction between mental and physical incapacity. It is not tenable, and I am optimistic that this House will make progress on that area. The point that my hon. Friend raised about that distinction was very well made.
The Bill also contains provisions on limitation and retrospectivity to enable claims to be brought in cases that were stayed pending the House of Lords decision on pleural plaques, and in those which have not been concluded subsequently. Again, my hon. Friend spoke about that. The issue of pleural plaques, not because of causality but because of the linkage with the dread disease mesothelioma, has excited considerable interest and attention in this House, the other place and outside. I therefore hope that it will help if I explain the current position before turning to my hon. Friend's Bill in detail.
As hon. Members know, the Government carried out a consultation exercise on the question of whether pleural plaques should be made compensatable under the civil law. The consultation paper proposed action to improve understanding of pleural plaques, to try to deal with the intense mental anguish that can often be caused, and to make sure that people understand that if they are diagnosed with pleural plaques, it does not inevitably mean they will develop mesothelioma. In the consultation paper, we proposed action to improve understanding in this way, and to provide support and reassurance to those diagnosed with pleural plaques to help allay their concerns. This is an important step forward, and it shows the Government's recognition of the importance of this issue. It is also a tribute to the work of my hon. Friend.
Clearly those issues stretch far wider than this issue, important though it is. The law of negligence permeates almost every area of public life in one way or another, so it is important that the consequences of any change we might make on this particular issue are thought
through and discussed as fully as possible. That was a subject addressed by the consultation paper, which also sought views on the merits of offering no-fault financial support to people diagnosed with pleural plaques, and on two possible ways of doing that.
Although the consultation paper was an important step forward, I do understand all the concerns expressed by hon. Members about the time it has taken to reach conclusions in the light of the consultation. As I have said, where we have felt that we could act speedily to resolve the situation, we have done so. We have done so specifically in respect of the legal situation that developed in 2006 in relation to mesothelioma.
The House of Lords decision has raised extremely complex and difficult issues, which, inevitably, have required very careful consideration within government and more widely. It has also been very important to look beyond the issue of pleural plaques to consider how people who have been exposed to asbestos-irrespective of whether or not they have developed pleural plaques or mesothelioma-can be supported much more widely. I am sure the House will understand that anyone who knows they have been exposed to asbestos will worry, so we must consider what we can do to support them. We have made it clear throughout that in our view it is important to ensure that any decisions are reached on the basis of the best available medical and other professional 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 and by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to help to inform consideration of the issue. Very helpful further discussions have also taken place with key medical experts on the medical evidence.
As I have said, it has been important to explore how we can support everybody who has been exposed to asbestos. I hope that the House will agree that the Government have been consistent in their commitment to give people suffering from mesothelioma and other serious asbestos-related diseases the help and support that they deserve, and we want to build on the positive steps that we have taken.
With that in mind, my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary has 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 to help to speed up compensation claims for those who develop serious asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. That is a huge undertaking and the Government are making a serious commitment. The work will include examining the process for tracking and tracing employment and insurance records-the House will understand how important that is in this context-as well as looking into the psychological and other support given to individuals who are unable to trace such records. The Government will shortly be announcing further details of our plans on these extremely important issues. I hope that the House will recognise-I think it will-just how important this is in taking this debate forward.