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Mesothelioma Sufferers (Compensation)

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2006

May I say from the outset that I am absolutely delighted to head up this debate on mesothelioma and fairness to victims? I wish to thank several people who have contributed to this campaign, none more so than my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who has been at the heart of the campaign. I have been extremely grateful for his help, advice and support. Likewise, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), who unfortunately cannot make it to this debate, has also been extremely helpful and supportive. The advice and co-operation of the TUC have been exemplary, and I also thank Thompsons, the local solicitor, which has represented a number of the victims and their families during this difficult period.

Current and former shipyard workers such as myself live every day with the fear that the dreaded fibre is inside us. As it can take up to 50 years to manifest itself, people in our communities live in fear that someday they will be struck down by this horrible disease. The only compensation that they can get is the knowledge that their families will be taken care of when they are no longer with us. I for one have been to too many funerals and seen too many families suffer as a result of this terrible disease, mesothelioma.

I read a report recently by Clydeside Action on Asbestos, which claims that as many as one in three individuals who worked in the shipyards could be affected by this terrible disease.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Here and now, the problem is in the thousands, but it could grow to involve some 100,000 people. I am delighted that he took the opportunity to mention Clydeside Action on Asbestos, which is a voluntary organisation that works for the families, not the victims, in providing help, support and advice at a time when they need it. It should also be congratulated.

To get to the substance of the problem, on 3 May the House of Lords gave a judgment that would slash the amount of compensation that is paid to workers dying of asbestos-induced mesothelioma. In Barker v. Corus, the Lords ruled by a majority of four to one that workers who developed mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos by multiple employers could recover compensation from the insurers of only those employers that are traceable and solvent, and that the insurers will be liable for only a proportion of the compensation that would otherwise be payable.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. It is very important, and I look forward to hearing some positive remarks from the Minister later. I apologise that I cannot stay for the full debate.

My hon. Friend mentioned insurers and insurance companies. Does he agree that there has been a cost to absolutely everyone—the victims, their families and everybody in their community—as a result of this terrible illness, but not to the insurers? Even the health service bears a cost, as it has to look after the people who are suffering from this dire disease. The only people who are liable are the insurers, and they are the only ones who are not paying a cost.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It was quite humbling—excuse the pun, Mrs. Humble—to witness people in hospitals and hospices go through this traumatic period in their life, and to see at first hand the excellent support that they get from our medical staff.

My hon. Friend makes a point about the health service. If I may digress slightly, let me point out that there is medication on the market that does not present a cure for mesothelioma but definitely helps in prolonging someone’s life. If someone has only 12 months to live, prolonging their life for even a month would be extremely helpful. The medication is Alimta, and it would be helpful if the Government were to give it a sympathetic hearing so that it could be offered by the national health service.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister, who is building a reputation for being fair-minded and creative in whatever role he is allocated, could well focus on the dissenting voice of Lord Rodger, who said that the decision would create an enclave of cases that were inconsistent with legal principles and, in respect of the last intervention, that the courts were throwing a lifeline to wrongdoers and their insurers at the expense of claimants? That cannot be allowed to continue, can it?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Like him, I believe that the Minister is building a reputation for being fair-minded, and one can only hope that that will continue today. He is absolutely right about the comments of Lord Rodger. Thank God, someone in the other place is still listening to us.

The Law Lords gave the judgment even though they knew that mesothelioma has a latency period of up to 50 years, during which employers and insurers can disappear, and that victims will have had multiple employers. Anyone who knows people who worked in that industry will know that they moved around on a regular basis, and that to try to keep track of employers would be virtually impossible.

In the 2002 case of Fairchild v. Glenhaven, the Lords recognised the ruling that the family of a worker who died of mesothelioma after negligent exposure to asbestos by more than one employer could recover compensation from any of their employers, even though it could not be proved when the worker had inhaled the fatal fibres. Fairchild was an exceptional decision that was imposed to create fairness. It allowed claimants in limited cases to depart from the normal liability rules whereby they must prove on a balance of probabilities that the defendant’s conduct caused their injury. Scientific knowledge does not enable claimants to prove which exposure to asbestos caused their illness. Putting their claims to a balance of probabilities test would usually disqualify claimants from any compensation, and at that time that was deemed unacceptable by the Law Lords.

However, in Barker v. Corus, almost as if repenting their bold approach after a two-day hearing in March, the Law Lords wiped out much of the Fairchild gain. Giving the lead judgment in three conjoined appeals, Lord Hoffmann said that Fairchild had involved only two employers and that it had been appropriate to fix them both with liability and joint and several damages; that is, both were equally responsible for the whole amount and in practice would share it. It was clear, however, that there would be incremental development of Fairchild through subsequent cases and the Barker appeal raised issues left unconsidered or undecided by Fairchild.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) referred to Lord Rodger, who said that the real reason for insurers challenging joint liability was the insolvency of so many defenders and their insurers, and that the appeal was their only hope of minimising their liabilities. Lord Rodger could not understand why the courts were throwing a lifeline to wrongdoers and their insurers at the expense of claimants.

The TUC, claimants, lawyers and support groups reacted similarly. Thompsons solicitors, which has acted on behalf of many claimants, described the decision as a massive injustice and a legal technicality that will make sense to no one but the driest of lawyers.

My hon. Friend listed professional bodies, voluntary organisations, relatives, families and so on. Does he know any other three people, apart from the three Law Lords, who agree with the decision?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People find the decision incredible, and not only ordinary people on the street, but lawyers who have worked in the industry for a number of years. Likewise, the TUC said the decision was “cruel and unjust” and called for legislation to ensure full compensation for entirely innocent claimants caught in this legal mess.

On the level of support for what my hon. Friend is trying to do and the strength of feeling against the Law Lords’ judgment, what has been his experience of the political parties? Does he share my concern that no Scottish nationalist representatives are present in this debate?

Having had informal discussions with the main political parties, I understand that there is cross-party support for legislation to try to address the wrong that the Law Lords have done. Unfortunately, but not untypically, no hon. Members from the Scottish National party are here, although I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend will be not surprised about that, because they only work part-time anyway.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced in a recent press release his intention to work in partnership with insurers to ensure faster compensation for mesothelioma sufferers and their families, saying:

“As an MP in a ship building area, I have seen at first hand the effects that exposure to asbestos can cause.

Mesothelioma is a particularly unpleasant disease and the time between diagnosis and death is often tragically short.

No amount of money will ever compensate individuals and families for the suffering and loss caused by mesothelioma, but it is doubly important that the process for claiming compensation does not add to the distress experienced by individuals and their families.”

The press release continued:

“The DWP will work with the Association of British Insurers, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and the Department for Constitutional Affairs to urgently identify ways to speed up the settlement of claims. We all believe there is more that can be done to improve the system.

Our aim”—

I stress the word “our”—

“is to ensure that wherever possible sufferers of mesothelioma can receive compensation whilst they themselves can still benefit from it, at the same time knowing that their families will be secure in the future.”

Mr Hutton said he would report back on progress made—

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to refer to hon. and right hon. Members not by name, but by title or constituency.

Thank you, Mrs. Humble. I stand corrected and apologise if I have caused any offence.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that he would report back on progress made before Parliament rose for the summer. That was an ambitious but welcome statement, and I know that the Minister is also keen to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Likewise, we met the Prime Minister last week, and he was also keen to bring the issue to a satisfactory conclusion.

If we do nothing else as legislators, we should protect those vulnerable people who are suffering as a result of the Law Lords’ decision—I sometimes wonder what planet they are on when they make such decisions, which are seriously offensive to people who are suffering from that terrible disease.

I hope that the Government can find a way forward alongside others. There are moves afoot in the Scottish Parliament to bring forward a private Member’s Bill. That should be welcomed, but if we can sort the problem out at Westminster, we should do it. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on this important issue.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on initiating this debate and the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on the work that he has done.

As someone who represents a constituency that had a large asbestos factory, I have been shocked at the Law Lords’ decision, as have other hon. Members. It has caused widespread anger in the community. I have received scores of letters from families who have lost people because of mesothelioma and asbestos sufferers who still face the threat of mesothelioma. For us, as Members of Parliament, that decision must be overturned. That is why we are here—to represent the people who cannot fight for themselves.

The Secretary of State referred to working with the insurers and companies, but such behaviour is typical of how insurance companies have acted in the past. The first Workmen’s Compensation Act was introduced in 1906, but it was not extended to asbestos victims until 1931. I have a quotation from someone talking about workers trying to seek compensation for industrial illnesses that sums up why, in the 21st century, we are still in the position we are in:

“Adequacy of compensation has never been a guiding principle of British workmen’s compensation law. Payments thereunder have always been regarded, with some justification, as contributions wrung from employers, who have collectively and individually insisted upon the principle that the injured workmen should shoulder some part of the loss arising from circumstances which, in most cases, were wholly beyond their control”.

That was written in 1941, but with the judgment that we are discussing, it is as true today as it was then.

From 1931, Turner and Newall, the company in my constituency, employed an insurance company to negotiate down people’s legal entitlement. In 1932, for example, Turner and Newall paid Commercial Union 100 guineas a year for the privilege of doing that job, and in 1931 it noted in its company minutes with some satisfaction that compensation of £254 paid to a victim of mesothelioma was £50 less than what that person was legally entitled to. It is about time we said that this has got to stop.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such people are behaving in the 21st century in the same way as coal mine owners behaved in the 19th century?

I agree and would like us to adopt a solution like the coal health claims scheme. We must move away from addressing the issue in the civil courts, and have a common agreement on what is going to happen.

Mesothelioma was first recognised as a disease only in 1956, by a South African, Wagner. What he described on visiting Turner and Newall in 1959 is typical of what we are dealing with:

“We went to lunch...where I was introduced to senior managers…I was questioned on my work and future interest. I explained about the investigations into the possible association between crocidolite and mesotheliomas and the nature of the tumours. They felt further work in this field was unwise, and advised against it…Their final opinion was that I was being foolhardy and wasting my time.”

That sums up the attitude of companies that have used asbestos and enjoyed its economic benefits—so much so that in 1964, when Frank Brooks became the first person in Rochdale to be diagnosed with mesothelioma, his widow was denied compensation because although it was admitted that there were tumours, that was not on his death certificate.

We have to go beyond that. That sort of behaviour has to stop. The last asbestos all-party group heard what was happening in Australia, which is light years ahead of us in what it does to support mesothelioma victims. Lord Rodger is totally right in his dissenting judgment when he says that it is not for Law Lords to rewrite the law; that is a job of Parliament.

What are the options? There has been talk in the press of an amendment to the Compensation Bill, although some people have said that that would be unwise. I hope that the Minister can advise us better about his thinking in this area. I believe that the model should be what has happened for coal miners. A scheme should be set up that employers and insurers have to pay into. The compensation should be taken out of the hands of the court and of insurers, who will fight for their own self-interest. Payments should be timely. They should be made while people are alive rather than when they are dead.

I advise caution because some of the most difficult and long-running cases in the coal industry compensation scheme are those in which employees have worked for a variety of companies and not just for British Coal. Such cases can get bogged down for a very long time, so I advise caution on the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman has said, but let us be clear. We are talking about mesothelioma, which is not asbestosis; it is not a cumulative disease. We know now that one fibre—one fibre—can lead to this disease, so in my view it does not matter how many employers a person has; they are all negligent. Therefore, the talk about apportioning blame has to stop. Employers did not provide proper protection for workers, so there should be no argument about the level of claim. The point is that workers have been exposed to asbestos and have got mesothelioma.

We have come a long way since 1924, when Nelly Kershaw from Rochdale was diagnosed with asbestosis, but it is sad that we still have not gone far enough and we are still talking about a disease that should have been wrapped up and dealt with 50 years ago.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) for obtaining this important debate. It gives us the opportunity to try to encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to work with other Departments and to propose a solution; I believe that there is a solution to this situation.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) referred to a scheme. I believe that it is time for us to consider introducing a no-fault liability scheme. We could introduce such a scheme without the obstructions to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) referred, which we have encountered with the miners scheme. I think it is fair to say—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the miners scheme is in the possession of the courts and we report back to the courts three or four times each year.

With a no-fault liability scheme for mesothelioma sufferers, there would be no need to do that, because we could have a scheme owned by the Government and contributed to by the insurance companies. I am aware that the Department of Trade and Industry has substantial numbers of claims to deal with, because they involve British shipbuilders, people who have worked for British Rail and others. If we jointly could develop a scheme involving the insurance companies in private industry, together with the Government, who are the insurer of the industries that I have just mentioned, we ought to be able to provide a no-fault liability scheme for all mesothelioma sufferers.

As we are all aware, there is a real issue about the wives of workers who have come into contact with the fibres as a result of washing working clothes and who develop the disease. Many of these issues came to light in the 1970s around Hebden Bridge, where family members, particularly wives, developed the disease because of contact with clothes on which there were fibres. By breathing in the fibres, they developed the disease, so when we talk about a no-fault liability scheme, perhaps, as the Department for Work and Pensions starts to consider its review of industrial injuries, we could include all people with mesothelioma, including wives who unfortunately and unwittingly have developed the disease. There are real opportunities in that respect, and perhaps the Minister will comment on them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North mentioned the 3 May judgment and rightly pointed out that the law had previously been set by the Fairchild case. I recall the Fairchild case and the decision being made in the House of Lords; in fact, I was in the Gallery when the Lords delivered their decision in 2002. UCATT—the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians—financed that case. It set the law, and the law was that compensation awarded within the parameters set by the Fairchild case would be indivisible, so that if there was just one employer, that employer would be responsible for full compensation.

We must return to the position established by Fairchild, because even if we develop a no-fault liability scheme, as I believe we should and could by the end of this year, we will still have to retain the right of each individual who makes a claim under the scheme to go to law if they so wish. We must keep the route to court for the person who wishes to take their case to court, even if we make an offer under a no-fault liability scheme.

Much has been said about the recent decision, which was a disgrace. It has put the families of mesothelioma victims in a very grave position. Lawyers are saying that it will have enormous implications. First, it will slow down the fast-track system in the courts. Secondly, it will impact on the length of time that a case takes. Thirdly, it may impact on the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979. There is some controversy in that respect. Last week, I received a legal opinion from Allan Gore, QC, in respect of the logic set by the Barker case. The Barker case suggested that if all the employers could not be traced, compensation would be reduced accordingly. The 1979 Act provides an avenue for people to be able to make a claim if they are unable to trace their former employer, so if the Barker case says that if an employer cannot be traced, compensation is reduced, it follows that a claim cannot be made under the 1979 Act, and that is the view of some QCs.

However, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), said last Thursday on Second Reading of the Compensation Bill that her view, from advice given to her, was that the route to the 1979 Act, which provides a safety net, would still be open. We need to clarify that, because it is an important safety net and its availability needs to be ensured. Perhaps the Government could say, “Well, whatever the Barker decision, the 1979 route for compensation will be kept open.”

We have an enormous difficulty because of the number of cases that are likely to arise. The number of mesothelioma cases has increased dramatically, from 153 in 1968 to 1,874 in 2003. In this past year there were more cases, and we are now nearing 2,000 a year. The Health and Safety Executive’s view is that those cases will peak in 2015 or thereabouts at between 2,000 and 2,400. They will then plateau and taper away by 2050.

Not all cases will disappear by 2050, because the cases that we are dealing with now are predicted on past exposures. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North referred to the fact that a new drug is available, which is important because we do not have much asbestosis, where the asbestos particles that get into the lungs develop fibrosis, a form of pneumoconiosis, as what tends to happen is that particles enter the lung without forming fibrosis. They stay in the lung and from that presence there is the potential to develop mesothelioma cancer, which is a cancer of the lung pleura that is invariably fatal and is invariably caused by exposure to asbestos. Alimta helps, together with chemotherapy.

The Australians are leading the field in health development. My hon. Friend is right that even if we get the no-fault liability scheme we must have a treatment and care strategy through the Department of Health. We need such a strategy because of the number of people whom we know will develop the disease. It is extremely important that we ensure that victims who develop the disease have compensation before they die. That is why I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that a no-fault liability scheme is the way forward. I had a word with the Secretary of State for Defence, who is on board for a change, and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We need to bring the Departments together.

My hon. Friend mentioned the meeting with the Prime Minister, which was constructive. We hope to move forward and see an amendment introduced in the Compensation Bill that will restore the law established by the Fairchild case. We then need to move towards the no-fault liability scheme.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this important debate.

Other colleagues have referred to the scope and effects of this pernicious disease that is suffered by workers who through no fault of their own were employed to do necessary work and an honest day’s work, only to find many years later that the honest day’s pay came at the highest price: a crippling illness and a premature death rather than the years of retirement to which we all aspire.

I pay tribute to Tony Whitston and the Greater Manchester asbestos victims support group for their tireless campaigning on behalf of the victims and their families and for keeping me well informed. I have constituents who worked for Turner and Newall, which was taken over by Federal Mogul in 1998 and was the subject of an Adjournment debate in 2002 secured by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), as well as constituents who worked in the old British Steel plant at Irlam, who were devastated by the collapse of Chester Street Insurance Holdings Ltd. in 2001. Asbestos sufferers and their families have had enough upset and uncertainty in their lives; I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept that today.

As colleagues have said, the decision by the House of Lords in May this year was that, where two or more companies are responsible for the asbestos exposure and it is not possible to bring a case against them all, the amount of compensation might be reduced. That is outrageous and wholly unacceptable. The upshot of that decision is greater delay, more cost and more uncertainty for sufferers and their families, which is completely unacceptable.

I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions say at a meeting last month that the Government wanted to speed up compensation for workers suffering from the effects of prolonged exposure to asbestos and from related diseases. One solution that I support, which has been mentioned, is a specific scheme for compensation. I hope that Ministers will work with the unions and the TUC to ensure that the matter is resolved quickly.

I would like to take a moment or two, and to test your patience, Mrs. Humble, to talk about the new drug mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Alimta does not fall within the strict remit of the debate but it is pertinent. It can treat, but sadly not cure, victims of mesothelioma. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is due to report on the drug next month. I have written to the Secretary of State for Health to express my strong feelings. All new patients should have the benefit of the drug if appropriate, as it may increase survival rates by between 23 and 40 per cent.

The Scottish Medicines Consortium has already approved the use of Alimta and it is available throughout Scotland. Patients in Salford and throughout Greater Manchester receive the drug, too, but that is not the case in all parts of the country. Our old enemy the postcode lottery is still in operation. It is estimated that the cost of prescribing the new drug to patients will be £2.7 million in 2005-06 and will rise to £5.2 million in 2009-10, which must surely be affordable.

I shall return to the main thrust of the debate, as the Clerk is looking towards you, Mrs. Humble. It is for the reasons that I have mentioned that I support the all-party group, which is well led by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, and the mesothelioma charter.

I and my colleagues will do whatever we can at a parliamentary level to ensure that the disease is made a national priority by the Government, that research is funded to improve diagnosis and treatment, that clinical guidelines on best practice are disseminated so that sufferers have access to the best possible treatment wherever they live and that the Health and Safety Executive is tough in enforcing safety regulations.

I send our best wishes to those who suffer from this crippling disease and their families, who give them endless and loving care and support. I say to those families who have lost a loved one and to the medical and other workers who provide treatment and care that we, as parliamentarians, will press our Government to do more to implement the mesothelioma charter in full and to implement a payment scheme as a matter of urgency.

I apologise, Mrs. Humble, for coming in slightly late. I was at a Defence Committee meeting attended by the Minister for Schools, who did not understand that Scotland was part of the UK. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this important debate.

I rise not to talk about the detail that has been put forward in a great way by earlier speakers but to discuss the experience in the mining industry. We should not take what happened in the mining industry as a panacea to resolve some of the problems that we are talking about. There are major problems with compensation schemes in the mining industry, one of which is that lawyers are being paid far too much money and people are not receiving the money to the extent that they should. We also have problems with multiple employers, in an industry that was nationalised until the last few years when new employers came in. Even the mining industry has issues with multiple employers—imagine what it would be like for everyone making a claim under the system, or what we hope will be the system.

There is something that we must clarify, which is that the current miners scheme is not a no-fault liability scheme. My hon. Friend will be aware that, when the Department suggested making lump sum payments, the judge said that he wanted the case to be determined on common-law principles. That is one reason why the scheme has not developed further.

My hon. Friend will be aware that not only are lawyers making a lot of money out of the scheme but various British Coal coalfield areas are paying different levels of compensation for the same illness.

I agree with both of my hon. Friends.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) spoke about those who have died, and the tragedy that it brings to the families. I am old enough to have worked in the collieries in the 1970s, when the pneumoconiosis scheme came into operation. Union officials had the unpalatable job of asking the widows whether a post mortem could be carried out to try to prove that the husband had pneumoconiosis. It was one of the most terrible things that I have had to do as a trade union official. I was relatively young then—honestly—and it makes a mark to have to tell a woman that her husband or her son has died and then, to add to the trauma, to tell them that they will have to go through a post mortem. That was unacceptable, and I hope that it will not happen again.

A no-fault liability scheme, as indicated, is the way forward. It would cover the whole of the United Kingdom, which is important. We must not go down the road of chasing funds. That would be unacceptable; indeed, we could not do it.

I list some of those who would be covered: metal plate workers, including those working in shipbuilding, the builders of vehicle bodies, including rail vehicles, plumbers, gas fitters, carpenters, electricians, construction workers, plasterers, builders, handymen, steel erectors, painters, steel metal workers, welders and merchant seamen. How could such people remember all the companies that they worked for? For example, those who work in the building trade cannot remember who employed them in their earlier years because they will have had so many employers. A scheme has to be put into operation that covers all such people, that recognises the problems faced by their families and that can be developed.

I congratulate the Government on being the first to recognise the contribution that working people have made to our country. I therefore hope that they will overturn the decision taken in the other place. That is imperative. It is imperative also that the Government are seen to be a caring Government who can bring home the moneys to which people are entitled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) mentioned the postcode lottery for medicines. For example, those medicines are available in Scotland. We are talking of extending a person’s life. That person will probably have been told that he has a very short lifespan, so another few months will be very important to allow him and his family to get their house in order before he passes on. It should not come down to the cost of the drugs, which should be available throughout the UK and not only in certain areas.

I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on initiating this debate. It is an important subject for my constituents. So prevalent is that cancer in Swindon that it is known locally as the Swindon disease, and in my surgeries over the years I have seen many cruel examples of the illness.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and others drew attention to the fact that it is not only those who work in such occupations who are exposed to the disease. It can sometimes affect their families in a particularly terrible way, as wives can acquire the disease from washing the work clothes. The sense of responsibility felt by the husband who is left behind can be terrible to witness. As my hon. Friends have said, the problem will be with us for a considerable time.

For generations, those affected by this terrible disease have suffered not only the agonising consequences of living with it but the difficulty of securing fair and adequate compensation for the hazard that they endured as a result of their employment. As has been pointed out, the nature of the disease is such that any exposure to asbestos, no matter how small—just one fibre is enough—can result in the contraction of that disease.

Many of those who I see in my surgeries have worked in a number of workplaces and they could have been exposed to asbestos in each of them, but medical science is such that no one can identify which of them it is. As a result, there has been a long and complex history of legal discussion on how to apportion liability. The lawyers and the judiciary have wrestled, rightly and valiantly, with complex and difficult law, but it has created despair for the families whom we represent. Many of my constituents’ families have been riven by the consequences of litigation in trying to get some compensation for a disease that has been contracted through no fault of theirs. That is cruel and unacceptable.

When the House of Lords ruled on the Fairchild case four years ago, it seemed to provide greater certainty for litigants. It was greeted with almost universal relief. That case seemed to establish that any employer who contributed to the risk of mesothelioma would be liable in full, even though others were similarly culpable who could not be identified or perhaps could not pay damages because they were uninsured—or, more likely, had gone out of business and their insurers could not be identified. To most lay observers, that new departure in law accorded with natural justice and common sense.

The risks of asbestos have been known since at least the 1960s, so the cases emerging now are almost certainly those resulting from exposure at a time when employers knew, or should have known, of the potential risk. Although the nature of the disease makes it impossible to determine which exposure to asbestos caused the disease, it is equally impossible to exclude any employer from responsibility. The Fairchild case seemed to establish that, with such uncertainty, the burden of liability should be shared between employers and not transferred at least in part to those suffering from the disease, which had been the case hitherto.

The House of Lords decision on the Barker case, which is the main reason for today’s debate, seems to reverse that approach. It restricts the potential liability of employers and their insurers to the amount that they are individually likely to have contributed to the disease if others contributed to the chance of the disease being contracted; but, for whatever reason, they are now unable to pay up, so the victim of the disease could be denied full compensation, which they would have received under the Fairchild decision.

The House of Lords rightly drew attention to the exceptional nature of the circumstances surrounding the causation of mesothelioma. As Lord Hoffman said, it sought that the new exception created by the Fairchild case should not be allowed to swallow up the rule on liability. Few would quarrel with that. However, the heart of the issue lies in the question of fairness, which Lord Hoffmann acknowledged was why the Fairchild exception was created. In his view, the attribution of liability according to the relative degree of contribution to the chance of the disease being contracted would “smooth the roughness” of the justice to employers that a rule of joint and several liability creates.

However, in smoothing the roughness of justice to employers, the House of Lords has created a new roughness of justice for those suffering this terrible disease and their families. In effect, some of the burden created by scientific uncertainty has been transferred to the victims. If medical science cannot be precise about which exposure caused the disease, as in the case of mesothelioma, there will always be a roughness of justice. The question is who should suffer such roughness. The last in line should surely be the victims of the disease. As a result of the decision by the House of Lords, that is no longer necessarily the case. Employers and their insurers, who may be entirely responsible, may well escape full liability.

I understand that there is some learned dispute about whether the Barker case overturns the Fairchild decision, or simply refines it and clarifies some outstanding questions. What appears not to be in dispute is that, following the decision, some of those suffering from the disease will now receive less compensation than they would have done before it. Chop this up as lawyers may, that is unjust. It is rough justice for the most vulnerable and least culpable, and that is wrong.

Various approaches to righting the wrong have been suggested, some of which have been mentioned today. Many of them have great attractions. I do not intend to advocate one over another. All I seek from Ministers—I hope that the Minister will reassure all of us about this—is that they will move to put right the manifest injustice that those suffering from this disease should be denied full compensation from demonstrably culpable employers and their insurers.

I know that my hon. Friend does not want to advocate a particular direction that the Government might move in to right this wrong. Will he listen to those who come from mining constituencies? Their experience of the miners compensation process has been that it is laborious and that it has many inequities. People do not understand why one person receives a lot more money than another when the same set of circumstances seem to be involved, and people have died still waiting for compensation. That has all been because of the laboriousness of the process, where lawyers are making a great deal of money. Will he rule out that direction for the Government?

I am happy to do so. Obviously, I have no constituency experience of that particular scheme. My hon. Friend has drawn attention to an important point that I was going to make: any remedy that Ministers bring into place—I hope that they will bring such a remedy into place—should be subject to three things. It should be extremely simple. It should be equitable, and it should be done with great speed. We simply cannot allow the uncertainty to hang over families who are already suffering enough.

The decision by the House of Lords has caused turmoil among some of my constituents. I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members in this regard. The Government must move quickly. Of course, they must get things right, but speed is important. As other hon. Members have said, some of the people suffering from the disease do not have long to live and they need the certainty that adequate compensation will be forthcoming, if not for them, at least for their families. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North made some important points, and I am sure that the Minister will take them into consideration.

When science is blind, uncertainty exists, but the costs of that uncertainty should never be paid by those least able to do so and those least responsible for doing so. Yet, in some cases, that is the consequence of the House of Lords decision. That is the wrong that I ask Ministers to put right.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate, and on the eloquent way in which he opened it. He drew attention both to this dreadful condition and to the manifest injustice that has been created by the House of Lords ruling.

Obviously, the dangers of working with asbestos may have been largely addressed in more recent years by health and safety regulations, although that has perhaps not yet been done to everyone’s satisfaction. The situation now is far better than it was before. Thankfully, people working in affected professions should not necessarily now face the same levels of illness and risk as previous workers, but the legacy of the past is still with us.

As several hon. Members have said, in particular the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), we have not yet seen the worst of this problem. Some 2,000 people a year die of mesothelioma. According to the Health and Safety Executive, the death rate is expected to peak at 2,500 a year in about 10 years’ time. Many of the cases are clustered in the constituencies of the hon. Members who are present. The constituency of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is also affected, and I know that he has taken a close interest in this matter.

As hon. Members have made clear, the condition does not only affect those who are working in the industries affected; in many cases, it affects family members, particularly wives. I hope that the Minister will address that point in his response. Any compensation settlement needs also to consider it, as well as dealing with the issue of the affected workers themselves.

Understandably, the decision of the Law Lords is causing great distress to mesothelioma sufferers and the thousands of bereaved spouses and families. It is fair to say that under the ruling, compensation will be denied in some cases on a technicality. As every hon. Member who has spoken has said, that is clearly wrong. Those affected want to know that they can receive 100 per cent. of a fair compensation package and that they can receive it in a swift and simple manner. That is far more important than whether the financial liability is ultimately from one or several relevant employers.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the commitment made by the Secretary of State at the recent meeting of the all-party group that deals with this matter to bring forward legislation to address the concerns about receiving compensation in the wake of the Law Lords decision. The Prime Minister recently met a group of Labour MPs, having given an agreement to do so during Prime Minister’s questions. From what has been said, that resulted in some clear signals of steps forward.

It is also worth pointing out that this is not a party political issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) spoke eloquently about those who have suffered from mesothelioma in his constituency. The TUC and the Transport and General Workers Union have campaigned on this issue on behalf of their members, and have done so effectively. There are several support groups for the sufferers of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions. Will the Minister confirm that they will all be consulted when legislation is drafted in response to the ruling?

Calls have been made for an amendment to be made to the Compensation Bill, which is due to be read in the House soon, having been considered in another place. As has been rightly said by several hon. Members, this provides a timely opportunity, not least because asbestos victims and their families want swift action and a just outcome soon. We also need to be sure that the right outcome is achieved. A number of different ideas have been put forward during this debate. If a consensus can be agreed on proposals in time for them to be included in the Compensation Bill, so much the better. Equally, we should not rush things and end up with a poor outcome and further rough justice for asbestos victims.

A just outcome would deliver the following: full compensation for the victims and their bereaved relatives—I again pick up the point about family members, for whom the condition has also caused suffering—a simple way of accessing compensation, preferably with a single route to receiving compensation where there are multiple employer liabilities; and crucially, given the speed with which the condition can lead to death, the system that is put in place must be able to work quickly. As has been said by Labour Members, ideally those affected should receive compensation during their own lifetime rather than it simply being compensation that goes to bereaved relatives, as often happens.

May I add a fourth thing to that list? Whatever scheme we come up with should be light on legal fees.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good, appropriate and sensible point. In many such schemes—he has made reference to another one—too much money is swallowed up by legal fees, and therefore not enough is given out in compensation.

The hon. Gentleman’s third point was about speed and simplicity. We could take the Department for Work and Pensions industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme as the start in respect of a no-fault liability scheme, because it is the first point of contact in which mesothelioma is confirmed.

I am grateful for that intervention, although, like the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), I do not wish to lay down a precise scheme for the Minister, in whose response I am interested. The point that has been made is an important one, not least because the suggestion would allow any such scheme to dovetail with an existing programme in the Department. That would perhaps make the scheme more efficient and swift. It might also involve the establishment of less new bureaucracy. I hope that the Minister will consider that idea and address it in his response.

It is worth noting that delays to claims have often resulted from the time taken for the Inland Revenue to provide details of national insurance and tax records. That can take several months. Will the Minister give an undertaking in his response to discuss the problem with his colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs can respond more quickly to requests for national insurance and tax records in those cases? As a number of hon. Members have said, time is of the essence and any delay in any part of the system must be ironed out.

There is an issue about who should meet the obligations of companies that no longer exist. If those companies have been bought out, the new owners should not be able to escape the liabilities of the company that they purchased. If companies have ceased to exist altogether, the Government must reach agreement with the insurance industry on how that gap is filled. Going back to the principles that I have set out, it is important that the victims do not lose out or, as the hon. Member for North Swindon said, end up taking an extra part of the liability or risk on themselves. The Government must discuss that issue with the industry.

As has been said, resolving the problem will require the Government to work closely with the insurance industry to achieve the right outcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale and other hon. Members were somewhat sceptical about the insurance industry’s interests in achieving a just outcome. While it is right that it is important for the Government to negotiate with the insurance industry, the Minister must not allow himself to be diverted from the central task that I think all hon. Members agree should be the objective of a swift and fair compensation scheme that ensures that people receive 100 per cent. of the compensation to which they are entitled.

The Secretary of State has committed himself to reporting back to the House before the summer recess on progress to be made. I welcome today's update and any points that the Minister can make in response to the debate, but I trust that we can still count on a statement before the House rises for the summer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate and on the way in which he opened it. Many other hon. Members throughout the Chamber have also made distinguished contributions on this very serious and significant matter.

Such a situation should be broadly uncontentious between parties and we should work together to find a practical solution. No one will argue with the facts. Mesothelioma is a most unpleasant disease. It is insidious and people do not know that they have it or whether they may go down with it, but when they do, perhaps after exposure many decades previously, it inevitably results in extreme distress and death. Such people and their families probably have only a short time—an average of 18 months—to come to terms with the situation. Again, I think that there is agreement between parties that there is an emphasis and premium on us as law-makers to secure rapid and assured action for sufferers and their families. That is what they want, and it has been rightly emphasised this morning, as it was during the debate on Second Reading of the Compensation Bill last week. I believe that we are at one that that is the way in which we want to go.

The Government have a responsibility to respond to the recent judgment of the House of Lords in the Barker case. I interpret that judgment—I am not a lawyer and I do not demonise lawyers—as qualifying the impact of the earlier Fairchild case, which had a certain logic and a degree of imagination in meeting a real problem. In the Fairchild case the House of Lords decided that, notwithstanding that a single fibre of asbestos could be responsible for the onset of the disease and that by definition it was impossible to put the blame unequivocally on a single employer because no one would know whose fibre was involved, it was reasonable to impose a collective responsibility, liability or guilt on all somebody’s employers during the time when they were exposed to asbestos fibres.

The Barker judgment, not illogically, gives some legal proportionality by saying that although those circumstances may apply collectively, the responsibility is not joint and several, but is confined to the proportion of time spent with a particular employer. That has a certain logic to it; otherwise, in theory and in an extreme case, an employer who exposed an employee for one day could pick up the liability for 40 years’ of someone’s working life.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it has been estimated that a drawing pin that punctures white asbestos in a classroom may, on withdrawal, release as many as 6,000 fibres from that asbestos?

I was not aware of that particular statistic, but the disease is insidious and we must acknowledge that. We need to bring the matter back to the real world and the families involved, and find out how we can meet that liability. What I have said is not in any sense preparatory to suggesting that there is no obligation on the insurers, and I shall come to that in a moment.

We must look at the underlying legal concepts and, at the same time, confront the facts concerning the individuals and their families with this terrible disease. In the light of the judgment in the Barker case, they may believe that they will not receive full compensation. I have experience of a personal injury claim involving a member of my family many years ago, and I know that uncertainty is a huge factor. It is compounded if people feel that money is leaking out in legal fees or that insurers are manoeuvring to avoid responsibility. We must also remember that in the real world there may be a few employers in the line of fire, but the argument is typically about insurance companies’ liabilities.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one problem in the Barker case is that apart from all the other problems that have been discussed, there is the burden on those suffering from the illness and their representatives of going through the painful process of litigation against not one, two or three defendants, but perhaps tens of defendants? That is an extra burden on people who do not deserve to have it placed on them.

I readily concede that point. The hon. Gentleman made a distinguished speech based on his experience and constituency work. That is exactly the sort of thing that comes into play.

The Government, as an employer, are a major stakeholder in the argument. The estimate that I have seen is that 40 per cent. of exposure may have arisen in people who worked in the public sector. As a good employer, the Government need to respond to the situation. At the same time and in parallel, they must take legal advice on the Barber case and its implications, and then find an acceptable way forward, as hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have said. The Government must take such action before too long because of the nature of the disease. I do not believe that, given good will all round, it is beyond the wit of man to find an acceptable solution. The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who knows a lot about the matter, suggested a no-fault solution. Other hon. Members have suggested something in that direction. I believe that a solution can be found that is acceptable, manageable and affordable.

During the Compensation Bill debate on Thursday last week, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said:

“We are keen to enter into constructive discussions with the Government on the Barker judgment once they have received advice, but more needs to be done.”—[Official Report, 8 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 437.]

I want to touch briefly on some of the issues that should come into the debate. They are largely supplementary to points that have already been made.

The nature of the disease—its slow onset but rapid development and inevitable end—should in no way be used to brook or excuse any delay as a tactic for avoiding responsibility either by employers or insurers, or indeed by the political world, in responding to the situation. In my view, it is not reasonable to saddle a single employer, who may be the only one left standing and may have been responsible for only short exposure, with the whole liability. That suggests that to produce an acceptable outcome for the individual, there must be some mutuality in the approach. In addition, the good employers and good insurers with a long-standing record might be more at risk, rather than the people who have gone out of business or whose insurers do not keep adequate records.

I put it to the Minister that there is concern anyway to ensure that insurers are pressed to trace information more effectively. The issue is about reputation. Insurance companies like to pay claims because it develops their credibility as insurers. The insurance industry, the Association of British Insurers and the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers need to make the point that to ensure the credibility of the process, insurers must get a grip on this issue and get on with it. I do not mind whether it is done by consent or by Government persuasion, but it has to be tackled.

The way to tackle the issue is to make the payments up front and then chase the insurers afterwards by whatever means available. It should not be done the other way around.

That is a consideration, and it applies extensively to other areas of personal injury litigation. Forward-thinking people are beginning to approach the issue. One can separate the compensation from the pursuit of liability, and that method reads across into such issues as wider personal injury, no-fault approaches and so forth.

The point has been eloquently made that, in any case and to put it crudely, we must take the legal contentiousness out of the case. Full-scale litigation will take £40,000 out of somebody’s available compensation pot. I would have thought that by the time we had been through the Fairchild and Barker judgments, subject to the advice that the Government receive on the latter, we would have taken as much law out of the issue as we can. The facts would be known and the question of apportioned liability could be determined, and we would then have to get on with the business of delivering an effective compensation scheme. I am sure that the ABI and the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers will want to play a part in that. For all that has been said, the whole industry has a strong interest in coming up with a constructive response.

I should add a note of caution to the debate. If we do not respond to the Barker judgment, there will be a problem, because compensation will be partial and uneven, and that will be inequitable. Equally, if we suggest that the only thing to do is reverse the Barker judgment, we must still face the fact that third parties may have gone down with the disease. In such cases, it is difficult to establish direct liability because there was no employment relationship, and in our attempts to deal with the issue, we might not cover the whole case.

This is a complicated area, and I make no excuse about that. However, it is one that the Government need to address. It is particularly important in this instance that we hear a ministerial response that is not unreasonably delayed, but sensitive, full and considered. This is the first time that the Minister and I have debated together, and I welcome him to his new post. I think that he will discharge it well and sensitively, but I hope that today, even if he cannot give us the final answer, he will at least want to indicate to the House his intentions and his thinking about moving towards any future scheme.

I hope that the Minister will consider existing statutory schemes and the way in which they interact. I hope that he will consider whether it is possible to recover some of the costs of statutory compensation from insurers and put that into the pot, and to reduce litigation. Furthermore, I hope that he will use this opportunity to report to the House on the undertaking made by his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), when we last discussed statutory schemes. She said that she would consider the entirety of this very difficult issue.

In all seriousness, we know that people suffer and die. Their families are left unheaded and they experience serious financial constraints. Compensation should be paid, and we must ensure that it is joined up with the minimum amount of friction and distress for the families involved. We can do that together and produce a worthwhile and workable solution, and we look forward to the Minister indicating how he wishes to proceed.

I thank you, Mrs. Anderson, and Mrs. Humble, and all those who have participated in and attended today’s debate. Although the attendance will not be reflected accurately in Hansard, it is symbolic of the importance that we place on this issue.

Does my hon. Friend share the concern of many Labour Members that for the second time in a week on an issue that affects many people in Scotland, the Scottish nationalists are not here?

We are not short of Scots here today—either Scots who represent Scottish seats or those who are Scots by birthright, as two expats who have been lent to England as Members of Parliament are here, too.

I talk as a Scot and as someone who wants to ensure that their presence is reflected in Hansard.

In my constituency, Clydebank has a proud shipbuilding history, which includes the Queens’ John Brown yard. One of the consequences is that Clydebank now has one of the highest incidences of asbestos-related diseases. I am meeting the Clydebank asbestos group on Friday. It has done a superb job on this issue, and it is looking to the Minister to give a firm commitment to the Barker judgment.

May I also ask the Minister about the no-faults compensation scheme that has been discussed? It has been put to me that individual representation by lawyers can result in greater monetary compensation. Given that background, will he give us the Government’s views about the no-fault liability scheme?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments, and I shall refer to his specific points as I progress with my comments, as I am still effectively in my first sentence. I agree with the earlier intervention about the lack of Scots here today from one of the smaller parties in Scotland, but that is for them to justify, rather than us.

I shall make a little progress first.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on his stubbornness and determination regarding this issue. They are due partly to his commitment and partly to the fact that he, like my father, worked in the Clyde shipyards. From his experience, he has a determination to resolve these matters, as I have from my family’s experience.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Almost everyone who has spoken today has paid tribute to his work as chairman of the all-party group. I should welcome the opportunity to meet him and other group members formally to discuss some of the points that he and others raised. Many of those points deserve a much more thorough investigation and consideration than the 10 to 12 minutes that we have left today can afford. I shall arrange for that meeting to take place.

I also thank all those who have attended or participated today. They include my hon. Friends the Members for Eccles (Ian Stewart), for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Mr. McFall), who has now spoken, and my hon. Friends the Members for Livingston (Mr. Devine), for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) and for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin). I thank the hon. Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander)—a constituency that always sounds like it should refer to more than one hon. Member, although nevertheless it has only one—and for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) for the measured way in which they made their comments.

It is unfashionable to do so, but I should also like to thank a former Member of Parliament whom many of us got to know, Tony Worthington. He worked tirelessly on this issue, and I am sure that he repeatedly met the Clydeside organisations that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire will meet later this week. Tony Worthington was the first in this place to drum into me the importance of getting the treatment of mesothelioma victims right.

I add to that tribute to Tony Worthington, who still has an informal interest in the issue; he was one of the pioneers behind the Clydebank asbestos group. There is no doubt that on Friday I will pass the Minister’s comments on to Tony, together with my warm wishes.

I thank my right hon. Friend.

We have heard in pretty graphic terms about the terrible nature of mesothelioma, and its effect on sufferers and their survivors. We all know people in our constituencies who have become victims of mesothelioma. Many hon. Members have spoken about its terrible toll on families, and about the uncertainty of financial compensation. That uncertainty has, of course, only been added to as a consequence of the Law Lords’ judgment. In the time available to me, I want to reflect on what the Government are doing about that.

I emphasise again the points made about the nature and scale of what it is fair to call an epidemic: 1,800 people die every year as a consequence of the disease, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone said, by 2015 we should reach a horrible peak of about 2,500 fatalities. At the moment, the dreadful projections are that in total about 90,000 people will lose their lives to mesothelioma. My hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone and for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North are right about the specifics, and about ensuring that a proper care and support package is in place as the number of mesothelioma victims rises to that dreadful peak in 2015. As a consequence of today’s debate, I will have conversations with Ministers in the Department of Health and elsewhere about how we shape that care package and make sure that we get it absolutely right.

I attempted to intervene when we were having some fun about nationality, but in line with the statistics that the Minister just read out, will he acknowledge, as we do, that this pernicious disease recognises no geographical boundaries and is a whole-country issue? It affects the whole United Kingdom, and any solution brought about by the Government should recognise that fact.

My constituency does not have any shipyards or coal mines—in truth, it has very little industry—but it nevertheless has victims of mesothelioma, so my hon. Friend is right that it is a nationwide problem, and we need a nationwide or UK approach to it.

I shall deal briefly with the specific points raised. The Government and I are as disappointed with the Barker judgment as hon. Members are, not only because it adds further uncertainty and difficulty, and puts a further burden on those who have been diagnosed, but because it will lead to unfairness in how compensation is provided and offered. In the Fairchild judgment, the characteristics of mesothelioma were considered; unlike other forms of asbestosis, it can be triggered by the inhalation of a single asbestos fibre, as we have heard.

In respect of the specifics, our worry is that the claimants will have to trace all relevant defendants before liability can be apportioned and compensation paid. The Government find that utterly unacceptable, particularly at the victims’ time of life, and given the position in which they will find themselves. It is important to concentrate on what the Government will do about that.

On speeding up payments, there is of course the mesothelioma court fast-track process, which tries to speed up the delivery of the money to victims, so that they receive it while they are still alive. We are working with stakeholders and others on improving systems to speed up the tracing of employers and reduce the associated costs, including—this is an important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North, mentioned—the legal cost.

Despite those efforts, the shocking statistic is that the average time taken to process and pay compensation is still longer than the life expectancy of the victim post-diagnosis. None of us should ever seek to defend that or be satisfied while that is the situation; it would be indefensible for any of us to make that case. That is why we want a much-improved system for paying that compensation.

Although I will not be provoked into commenting, I remain open-minded about the options available to the Government if a voluntary basis—best practice and good will—does not ensure improvement. We are working with many insurers who are alive to the nature of the problem and who, in many cases, are working very hard on it, but if that does not deliver the type of justice that Members of all parties expect, there remain other options, and we are open-minded about them.

I am grateful for what the Minister says, and I think that all of us feel that he is moving in the right direction, but it sounded as though he was suggesting that he would have to wait some time to see whether there would be co-operation. Once that period has elapsed, we hope that the swiftness point that he made with regard to others will apply to the Government.

My hon. Friend, who has also worked tirelessly on the issue, makes a fair point. What I am saying is that the current processes test victims’ patience. Hon. Members from all parties should be equally impatient about the way in which, on occasion, victims have been strung along. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and others spoke about the way in which victims have been let down as a consequence of a long period of tracking down employers, processing and making payments. What I am saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and others is that we remain open-minded about statutory opportunities to resolve the problem.

I want to make some more progress, specifically on Barker—

Before the Minister moves off the point about timing, and as I share the impatience of everyone in the House with this issue, may I ask how long it will take the Government to make a definitive decision on how to respond to the Barker case?

In the short time available, I shall seek to answer that point. In respect of the Barker case, we are looking for the best legislative opportunity to do something about the matter. There are a number of vehicles currently before the House through which we might resolve the problem of the Barker judgment. Of course, the Compensation Bill is one of them; we are actively considering that. Other opportunities have been speculated on, including a stand-alone Bill and amendments to existing legislation before the House. We want an effective, speedy resolution to the problem. This morning, at a conference held by the GMB—my own union—the Prime Minister made a commitment, saying that he regrets the Barker judgment. He said:

“I'm looking at the moment to see the best opportunity for us to change it… If we can change it, we will. I hope to announce something on this in a couple of weeks.”

I have only got a minute left; I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to conclude.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon that the Government share the frustration so eloquently described by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North and others. We are currently looking across Government at the most effective and speedy way of remedying the gap and the problems created by the judgment. We will continue to hold conversations with hon. Members from all parties. I hope that when we come forward with something, perhaps in the Commons but possibly in the other place—speedy legislation is the most important thing—there will be cross-party consensus on it, so that we can resolve the issue and get a speedy resolution to the issues raised by Barker.

We are absolutely determined to move on the issue and find a legislative solution to the unfortunate and frustrating decision by the Law Lords. We will seek to undertake consultation, as has been requested, but unfortunately time and the speed of developments may not allow that. In closing, I say to my hon. Friends that we will continue this conversation about the best way forward. There is unanimity across the House, and certainly among the hon. Members who turned up here in such great numbers today, on the fact that we must deliver justice, as regards both the timing and the provision of compensation, and resolve the issue of the very disappointing decision of the Law Lords in respect of Barker; act on it, we will.