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Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2006

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.