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Constitutional Affairs

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2006

The Minister of State was asked—

Mesothelioma

22. What steps she has taken to ensure that people with mesothelioma are able to claim compensation. (83868)

I intend to table an amendment to the Compensation Bill, which is due to be debated in the House next Monday, to provide that negligent persons should be jointly and severally liable in mesothelioma cases, so that the claimant can recover full compensation from any relevant person.

I thank the Government for what they are doing and I pay tribute to other hon. Members and organisations, such as the GMB union and Thompsons solicitors, in helping to bring about this change. On Saturday, I attended the Durham miners gala, which is a celebration of traditional industries in the north-east; but because of that industrial legacy, up to 5,000 people die from asbestos-related diseases each year in the north-east. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the proposed changes to the law are retrospective, so that people who lost out under the Barker decision can claim their full original compensation, so that what may well be their final days are dignified and comfortable?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point and I have every sympathy with all he says. I want to put on record my thanks to my right hon. and hon. Friends who have been campaigning on this issue for some time—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). The Government also realise that the Barker decision makes claims much more difficult, and I am hopeful that the amendment will enable us to achieve the retrospectivity that my hon. Friend seeks.

Does not the Minister recognise that the Barker v. Corus case, which she mentions, was brought by the Government and therefore that she is seeking to overturn with that amendment what the Government argued for in court? We welcome that, but does not she accept that that is hardly joined-up government? Many victims of this crippling disease still cannot trace an employer or an insurer, so they will not be able to make a claim at the moment. Will she examine my new clause 6 to the Compensation Bill and the proposals of the Association of British Insurers and others to consider whether it is feasible to set up an independent body to assess claims and pay out compensation speedily to all those who contracted mesothelioma in the workplace, and then to recover the money from all those who should, in fairness, share liability?

Of course the hon. Gentleman is right that all those who are responsible should share liability where it is possible to trace them. That is why we have been working very closely with all relevant stakeholders, including the ABI, to find a scheme that will be fast, efficient and fair and will reach the people who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) rightly said, are in incredible pain and in the last days of their lives in some cases, so that we can secure some comfort for them and their families.

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that she has done in introducing the amendment. May I tell her that retrospectivity is very important? I received an e-mail from the Liverpool asbestos group yesterday, to say that a request for deferment had been made in a certain case until such time as Parliament had sorted out the Barker decision. The judge would not allow a deferment. The case went ahead, and the person suffered a substantial reduction in the compensation received. I hope that there is a way—perhaps in the Appeal Court—to review that case.

I understand exactly my hon. Friend’s point, and it was of course entirely up to the judge to make that decision; it would not be right for me to intervene. Judicial process can still obtain in that case, but we are aware of the gap that might now exist in terms of ongoing cases, which is why we are looking carefully at getting a proper scheme in place that will ensure that everyone involved in this terrible, harrowing disease is properly compensated.

A few weeks ago, Councillor David Childs died of this terrible disease and Rushden lost a dedicated person who looked after the interests of the town. His death was a great tragedy. I welcome what the Minister has said, but despite all the words, what many sufferers are looking for is fast action to relieve the problem. I urge the Government to act quickly.

I convey my deepest sympathy to the family of Councillor Childs and to the town of Rushden, which has lost such a dedicated and public-spirited person. We are very aware that the big issue is making sure that we get as fast a response as possible, and we are ensuring that that will happen.

I congratulate the Minister on the great work that has been done. As one of the people who raised this issue when it first became clear how bad the problem was, I am very proud and pleased that my party and my Government have put it right. But can we go a step further by introducing what I, as somebody who always wants more, shall call the Oliver Twist clause? Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State for Health to request that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence lift the limits on the use of the drug Alimta, so that people can have not only proper financial compensation but their lives extended?

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he has done in this area. I will of course express his concerns relating to the drug and NICE to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, and if his suggestion is a suitable and helpful solution, I hope that it will be progressed.

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said, but there are two other issues that need to be looked at. One is the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987, which forbids claims by members of the armed forces exposed to asbestos before 1987 who only now exhibit the symptoms of the disease; that is a manifest injustice. The second issue is pleural plaques. The Court of Appeal recently indicated that no claims could be brought for asymptomatic pleural plaques, despite the risk of mesothelioma, which might well occur later. Perhaps my hon. Friend will look sympathetically on the new clauses to the Compensation Bill that I have tabled today, so that we can take this opportunity to ensure that we address the issue of mesothelioma compensation claims properly and comprehensively.

My hon. Friend warned me that he would table amendments to the Compensation Bill and I will take a careful look at them. I should point out to him and to the House that pleural plaques is a significantly different disease in terms of how it manifests itself; diagnosis is not as straightforward as it is for mesothelioma. I do not want to go into that issue any further as I am not a medical expert, but that is my understanding. However, I will of course look at his amendments to see whether they can ensure that the principle that we are setting out today can be carried through.

Court Buildings

23. When she next expects to meet representatives of the lay magistracy to discuss improvements to court buildings. (83869)

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for that reply, but when looking at improvements to magistrates courts, will she ensure that her Department always makes a priority of ensuring that justice is kept close to local communities? Does she agree that local hooligans and vandals need to be tried as close to their homes as possible, so that they learn to respect the administration of justice? Does she also agree that it is important that there be no further court closures in East Anglia?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the need for people to see justice happening in their local area. In addition, we want to ensure that the courts in which people are tried have proper facilities for victims and witnesses, and disabled access. If possible, we also want to ensure—certainly on the civil side—that people can get disputes resolved without having to go to court. We must balance all those issues and get good value for money out of the courts estate—including judges’ lodgings.

What impact will the significant cuts in the Courts Service budget have on the court building and refurbishment programme?

Obviously the courts estate budget is part of the Courts Service budget as a whole. People want value for money from all public services. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have invested across the piece in public services such as health, education, law and order and indeed the justice system, but we must make absolutely sure that we secure value for money, and that is what the Courts Service will try to do.

Verbal Testimony

I have met a good many Court of Appeal judges in my time, two of them very recently, but I have not met any to discuss verbal testimony, and I have no plans to do so in the immediate future.

Every day many prisoners who witnessed serious crimes are interviewed by the police in prisons up and down the country. I am immensely concerned about the integrity and transparency of the procedure, as many of those prisoners subsequently claim compensation. Having discussed the matter with many senior members of the judiciary, I share their view that such interviews should be video-recorded. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree?

Matters relating to the way in which police procedures are carried out are for the Home Office, and of course my hon. Friend’s suggestion has resource implications. However, when it comes to the hearing of such evidence in court, I can only agree with her, and with the senior members of the judiciary to whom she has spoken, that taped or even video-recorded interviews with witnesses in serious cases who are vulnerable or whose evidence is likely to be strongly contested would provide better protection for all parties.

Asylum and Immigration Tribunal

25. What the backlog of appeals is at the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal; and if she will make a statement. (83871)

The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal did accrue a sizeable backlog between April and October 2005, which has caused delays in some appeals. We expect all those appeals to have been heard by the end of the year.

I thank the Minister for her answer, and for a letter that she sent me earlier in the week. Does she agree that part of the problem lies outside the AIT—in some embassies’ delays in sending information and in the quality of judgment elsewhere, which the Court of Appeal then reverses? What steps can she take to ensure that information is given to the tribunal speedily so that it can set a date, and also to ensure that decisions made elsewhere do not necessitate the hearing of appeals?

I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I can tell him two things. First, last month we began trying to streamline the entry clearance process. We hope that that will reduce the period that elapses between bundles being received and being sent out by seven weeks, which I believe would make a substantial difference. Secondly, it is expected that 100 new judges will be recruited this year. That will also help to reduce waiting times.

I intend to visit some of our high commissions to see what problems entry clearance officers face, and to establish whether we can take direct action to improve their procedures.

I appreciate the enormous efforts that the Minister has made personally to deal with the backlog at the AIT, but the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) is right. Part of the problem is the decision-making process in posts abroad—I welcome the Minister’s proposed visit to the subcontinent—but there is also the fact that documents are being lodged at Loughborough and Leicester, photocopied, sent back to the posts abroad and then returned. That means a 56-day period at the beginning of the process which adds to the delay.

Will the Minister undertake to examine the appeal process and ensure that it is revised so that cases, once lodged, can be dealt with as quickly as possible? Then constituents of ours who want to attend weddings here will be able to do so, and the appeal process will not be taking place when the wedding has already happened.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent appointment to the Privy Council. He is right, in that the system he describes has existed in the past; but we are trying to persuade posts abroad to stop engaging in the lengthy photocopying procedure and to use slightly more modern techniques such as e-mail so that the information reaches us more quickly. The listing times for entry clearance and family visitor appeals currently average 11 weeks across the AIT, which is down from the 16 weeks that it was earlier this year.

The Minister’s replies to the previous two questions were helpful, but if appeals are submitted at foreign missions, they can take only six weeks—and that is good. Can she direct that such times should also be achieved if appeals are submitted here in London? On some occasions, the tribunal has allowed entry clearance officers to take 11 weeks or even up to 17 weeks just to get their papers ready. That means that the service can be up to three times worse. If an appeal is successful, but the Home Office wants to challenge it, can it be required to do so promptly, not six or nine months later? That sort of delay is disgraceful.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point and I understand the problem as I, too, have many constituents making such appeals. We are continually looking for ways to reduce the time taken, and he will know that I have held forums with MPs to discuss some ideas, many of which have now been incorporated in the system. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality will visit the tribunal here in Britain and I hope that, through co-operation, we will be able to achieve a better standard across the piece.

Coroners

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. In July 2000, my constituent, Alison Miller, lost her son, Matthew, when he was knocked over and killed by a speeding driver on the island of Minorca. In Spain, when a death is accidental, prosecution has to be requested by the injured party, but because of a clerical error between the Foreign Office and the British consulate, the time limit expired before Ms Miller could file for a prosecution and she could not get access to justice for her son. What contact have my right hon. and learned Friend and her officials had with the Support Abroad for Equal Justice Foundation, which my constituent set up to ensure that other bereaved British families get access to justice abroad when they lose loved ones in such tragic circumstances?

As it turns out, before my hon. Friend tabled her question, I had already arranged to meet Alison Miller as part of a group of families who were coming to see me about the coroner system and about how we can ensure that those who are bereaved by a sudden death get answers to their questions. Relatives want answers to sudden deaths when they happen in this country, but it is especially difficult for people to get information when it happens abroad. If a local coroner cannot get information from Spain or another country that they need to complete an inquest, our new proposed chief coroner—part of the reform of the coroner system that we will put before the House—will be able to ensure that they get the information instead of struggling to do so or failing, as they often do at present.

Will the Minister investigate the extreme staffing crisis in some coroners’ courts, especially south-west London, which has resulted in prolonged delays in the hearing of cases and great distress to the families concerned?

I will look into the staffing situation in south-west London. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we plan through the coroner system reform to have national standards so that we do not have delays in certain areas. We want to have proper training and we need an overview of what resources there are to support coroners’ offices in their work. At the moment, we do not have a proper national picture and we cannot monitor the situation, but I will look into his particular concerns. Bereaved relatives need to know that there will be a prompt inquiry and that their questions will be answered.

Court Facilities

There are 93 Crown courts, 88 of which of have dedicated witness facilities. Of the 355 magistrates courts, 302 can provide dedicated facilities for witnesses and victims.

One of the successes of the domestic violence court pilots was that better facilities for witnesses and victims improved people’s experience of the system. Will my right hon. and learned Friend elaborate on any plans that the Department might have to roll the provision out further and to invest in more facilities throughout the court system?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In the past, no one was surprised that many domestic violence cases did not stay the course. Abused wives and girlfriends did not give evidence because that meant that they had to sit in the court waiting area, opposite the defendant and all his friends and relatives. The introduction of proper facilities for victims and witnesses is long overdue, especially as they are often intimidated. We are therefore planning to roll out the provision across England and Wales.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend planning to admit journalists to family courts? If so, will she assure the House that victims and witnesses waiting for their cases to come up will not face unwanted approaches from journalists?

My hon. Friend will know that we are consulting on how to ensure not only that justice is done in family courts, but that it is seen to be done. We want those courts to be more open and accountable, and we are proposing to allow the press in, subject to reporting restrictions. Hon. Members are welcome to engage in the consultation, but we are concerned to ensure that people waiting to give evidence in family courts are property protected, and not hassled by journalists.