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Asbestosis (Compensation)

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

Order. We are now holding the Adjournment debate, so will Members who want to leave the Chamber please do so quickly and quietly?

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. For a fleeting moment, I feared we might lose the opportunity to debate the important subject of compensation for victims of asbestosis in Northern Ireland.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise that important issue. Deaths from asbestos-related diseases are, sadly, on the increase. Figures from the TUC put the number of deaths at about 5,000 a year. By 2020, it is estimated that the number of deaths per year will be about 10,000—[Interruption.] Independent studies indicate that for the period 1930-2020 the number of asbestos-induced deaths across the country could be in the region of 820,000—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can my hon. Friend be allowed to speak without the assembly of Members at the Door?

That is a sensible point of order. I was about to do something about that myself. May we please have the Doors closed?

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is an important issue, which affects the lives of ordinary workers throughout this country, so it is important that it be debated properly.

The asbestos industry is, of course, hundreds of years old, but only since the early 1900s has asbestos been recognised as potentially harmful. Despite that recognition in the early part of the last century, asbestos continued to be used in industry and the workplace for many years, particularly in shipyards, harbours, ports and so forth. As a result, thousands of workers developed asbestos-related diseases.

As a consequence, we are now seeing a large number of claims for compensation arising from these diseases on the part of thousands of shipyard workers, those who worked in the docks and many other workers as well. Actuarial estimates predict that by the 2030s, between 80,000 and 200,000 claims—peaking between 2010 and 2015—will be made. Behind those bare statistics—a terrible enough story in themselves—lie stories of real human tragedies.

I would like to pay tribute to the groups of workers who came together to try to get justice for the victims of asbestos-related diseases—groups like Justice for Asbestos Victims in my own constituency—and to individuals who took up the cudgels to fight not only on behalf of themselves and their family members, but on behalf of their fellow workers. One such person is Arthur Rafferty. Arthur, one of my constituents, is in his mid-60s. He worked in the docks all his life, as did his father and grandfather, and in his early years he was an amateur boxer and a fit young man with great prospects ahead of him. Now, in his mid-60s, he is stricken with the terrible, debilitating disease of asbestosis and has a very poor outlook in respect of quality of life and life expectancy. Arthur’s case is typical of many in his position.

I would like to highlight a number of issues tonight and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to some of them. The sort of cases that I am referring to affect not just the workers afflicted with asbestosis but their family members as well.

First, I would like to say that I welcome the Government’s decision last year to amend the Compensation Act 2006, which meant that from July onwards a worker could sue an employer regardless of the length of service with that employer and that there would be joint and several liability. A worker was no longer placed in a position where all previous employers had to be traced and then sued in order to gain full compensation. Now, as a result of the amendment that reversed the Barker v. Corus decision in the House Lords, workers can access compensation through the civil courts and gain proper compensation. I know many people—Arthur Rafferty is one of them—who are pursuing their cases through the courts.

What we need to ensure, however, is that these cases are dealt with as quickly and expeditiously as possible, so that people faced with this terrible disease do not end up spending the twilight of their years fighting, along with their families, for compensation. They should at least be able to benefit—enjoy is the wrong word—from the compensation that is rightly theirs and their family’s.

I know that the Government—and the Social Development Department in Northern Ireland—have conducted a consultation relating to a number of issues in order to put in place a long-term solution to ensure that, where possible, sufferers of asbestosis and mesothelioma can receive compensation and benefit from it at the same time, knowing that their families will be secure in the future. There are plans to hold a summit on asbestos-related diseases and to consider further the industrial injuries disablement benefit and so on.

I welcome what the Government are doing to address these issues in the long term. However, I caution them that it is important we do not end up with the insurance lobby or insurance companies managing to divert claimants away from their entitlement to take cases to the civil courts and to obtain proper and adequate compensation for themselves and their families. People must receive not only damages that reflect the harm caused to them, but damages for pain and suffering. They must not end up being diverted simply into claiming state benefits for relief. They must still have the opportunity to go to the civil courts to get proper compensation.

I want to raise the issue of family members and relatives. A number of my constituents have come to see me because they are concerned that those family members who contract asbestosis or an asbestos-related disease from incidental exposure can be denied compensation in the courts, as a result of the English Court of Appeal’s decision in the case of Maguire v. Harland and Woolf. In one example, a lady ended up dying as a result of asbestosis, which was contracted as a result of washing her father’s overalls as a young girl.

There are many other examples of wives and family members who have died as a result of such exposure, yet they are denied compensation. I believe that the way to deal with that is further to amend the legislation and the law, so that if an employee has been exposed to asbestos by the negligence or the breach of statutory duty of an employer and if a member of that employee’s family has also suffered an asbestos-related disease by reason of incidental exposure, the member of the family should likewise have a claim for damages.

I have been in correspondence with the Department for Constitutional Affairs about this matter. On 3 January, Baroness Ashton wrote to me to say that a number of people who took part in the consultation on the issue mentioned para-occupational exposures. She said:

“Officials are currently assessing the responses to the consultation and Government will…develop some options for action”.

I believe that that is progress—it is good news—but a difficulty will continue if there is no retrospective remedy.

With existing para-occupational exposures, particularly where the deceased’s dependants are suffering from financial hardship and where negligence has occurred in respect of the employment of the employee, there may very well be instances of severe injustice. It is likely that damages should not be paid out of the public purse where a negligent employer can be identified. So I believe that a simple amendment to the Compensation Act 2006 to extend the relief that was granted to employees to the family members of employees would remedy the situation, as well as being fair and equitable in all the circumstances.

I also want to raise the issue of those who suffer from the asbestos-related disease of pleural plaques, whereby exposure to asbestos results in internal scarring on the lining of the lung. It leads to breathlessness and pain. It can result in the development of more serious asbestos-related diseases. It severely affects many people’s quality of life. Again, as the result of a decision in the English Court of Appeal—the Rothwell case—it has been decided that people can no longer claim compensation if pleural plaques have been contracted as a result of exposure to asbestos.

I know that that case is subject to a further appeal to the House of Lords, but as things currently stand and if the law is not changed, the Rothwell decision will put the onus on a person to engage in a process of ongoing medical monitoring of their condition, as well as ongoing legal monitoring of the position, to see whether they eventually have a case. That constant monitoring is clearly not to be welcomed on behalf of men who are mostly elderly and in grave poor health. It is quite possible that many will die without the appropriate medical evidence having been obtained during their lifetime. This is an important issue that affects thousands of ordinary workers. Their health has been gravely affected through no fault of their own. There is a liability and the Government should look at ways of addressing the issue of pleural plaques.

I refer the Minister to the case of dock workers, in particular. I referred to Arthur Rafferty and a number of former dock workers in my constituency and in the city of Belfast. In May last year, in the case of Rice v. the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the High Court ruled that former dock workers have the right to sue the Government for compensation for asbestos-related illnesses. The Department of Trade and Industry was held partly responsible for the health and safety of workers at docks throughout England and Wales in the 1950s and 1960s. It was held that dock labour boards, which organised the work of dockers, were not entitled to pass on all the responsibility to the shipping companies that carried asbestos cargos and that they owed the dockers—many of them causal labourers—a duty of care. That is an important ruling, because it puts responsibility not just on employers, but on the Department. It also widens that whole area of liability. I would be grateful if the Minister could address that in terms of the Northern Ireland context, in particular. I am grateful for the opportunity to have raised these issues and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) on securing an important debate for him and for his constituents, which will have wider implications throughout Northern Ireland. I am grateful for the support that he has received from the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who has done considerable work on this issue. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) in the Chamber, as well. They obviously care strongly about the subject.

I commend the hon. Member for Belfast, North on the way in which he has presented his case. As he said, no one can fail to be touched by the plight of the people he referred to. They are ordinary working people who have been affected by a terrible illness as a result of their work-related activity. As he mentioned, the number of those deaths in Northern Ireland is currently approximately 120 a year. Asbestosis is now the most common cause of work-related death in Northern Ireland. I am conscious that behind the statistics lie real people, real lives and, as he said, those people’s families.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of Arthur Rafferty. I know of Arthur Rafferty’s resolute campaign to try to get the matter looked into, not just for himself but for his fellow dock workers. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), recently met Mr. Rafferty to discuss his concerns and try to assist him. My officials have been in correspondence with Mr. Rafferty to ensure that his entitlement, or possible entitlement, to benefits under the Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979 has been fully explored. Mr. Rafferty quite rightly feels that Belfast dock workers have been treated less favourably than the former employees of the Harland and Wolff shipyard. They worked side by side in the dock area of Belfast. Harland and Wolff had been in public ownership since 1975, until the shipbuilding trades and assets were sold to Harland and Wolff 1989 Ltd.

Government funding for employer liability and public liability claims in relation to Harland and Wolff stems from our legal responsibilities as an employer. Likewise, it remains the duty of other employers to meet their legal liabilities for claims brought by current or former employees. The Government have paid £37 million in liabilities since 2001 in the settlement of claims.

The pneumoconiosis order provides compensation for certain employees suffering from dust-related diseases, including asbestosis. The scheme provides help, support and compensation for sufferers and their dependants if they cannot claim compensation from the employer. The order was designed to cater for diseases with a long latency period, and to deal with the possibility that by the time the disease was diagnosed the employer might no longer be in existence. Essentially, we try to provide compensation if there is no employer from whom to seek compensation. If the employer is still in existence—and I believe that that may well apply in Mr. Rafferty’s case—the remedy for people suffering from such diseases is to seek compensation from them. Like the hon. Member for Belfast, North, I appreciate that that is difficult and takes time, but he will agree that it is not right for the taxpayer to pick up the cost of compensation for something that is the employer’s responsibility. The Government pay compensation if they are the employer, and employers that are still in existence should pay compensation in similar cases.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the time taken to process compensation, and I accept that that is a difficult problem. With my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I am looking into the problems faced in particular by people suffering from mesothelioma, which can be caused by a single asbestos fibre, and may progress rapidly, with many sufferers dying within 18 months of the onset of the illness. On 1 September last year, we issued a consultation paper on ways in which we could speed up the process for obtaining compensation, and the hon. Gentleman graciously paid tribute to the Government for that work. We are working with the legal profession and a range of bodies and organisations, including insurers, interest groups and others, to put in place measures to help to speed up those claims. I noted the points that the hon. Gentleman made about that, and we shall certainly contact the Association of British Insurers to try to address the problems faced by people seeking compensation in Northern Ireland that were identified in the consultation. I will consider the issues raised made by the hon. Gentleman, and if appropriate, I will follow them up with the relevant agencies.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the House of Lords judgment on Barker v. Corus. That issue is close to my heart, as Mrs. Barker is a constituent of mine from Holywell, in Flintshire in north Wales. She faced the problems faced by many hon. Members’ constituents, as multiple employers avoided their responsibility to pay compensation for the death of her husband. With support, she took her case to the House of Lords, but the judgment did not help her. I am proud to say that, in response to pressure from a number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone and myself as her constituency MP, the Government tabled an amendment to the Compensation Bill to remove the significant hurdle raised by the judgment, which would have caused delays and made it more difficult for sufferers to recover full compensation from former employers. I am pleased that we were able to extend the provisions of the Compensation Act 2006 so that they offer equal cover to Northern Irish citizens. I hope that in future that will prevent such difficulties arising.

In 2005, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council—the independent body that advises the Government on matters relating to industrial injuries disablement benefit—published a report on asbestos-related diseases. The Government accepted its recommendations, and industrial injuries disablement benefit is payable in relation to a number of prescribed diseases suffered by people whose jobs involved working with, or being exposed to, asbestos. Those diseases are pneumoconiosis, including asbestosis; mesothelioma; primary carcinoma of the lung, whether or not accompanied by asbestosis; and diffuse pleural thickening. Under the industrial injuries scheme, such individuals are entitled to industrial injuries disablement benefit, and do not necessarily have to prove employer liability or a causal link. It is necessary only to establish an occupational link.

The hon. Gentleman raised the significant issue of pleural plaques, which I know is of concern to him. I am grateful to him for drawing it to my attention again today. In 2005, in its report on asbestos-related diseases, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council recommended that pleural plaques should not be added to list of prescribed diseases for the purposes of industrial injuries disablement benefit, on the basis of a lack of evidence that pleural plaques cause sufficient impairment of lung function to cause disability. I understand that in civil litigation pleural plaques may attract compensation, as he said, but that is normally for psychological distress and the associated risk of other asbestos-related diseases.

When the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council considered its recommendation on pleural plaques, it examined a number of issues, and looked into the matter carefully. It continues to monitor research and will keep the issue under review. At the moment, I cannot help the hon. Gentleman on that matter, but if he has further evidence or additional information that might be of help to the advisory council, now that the 2005 consideration has taken place, he should draw it to the council’s attention, because it will continue to monitor and review the situation. For the people who suffer from the appalling illnesses that we are discussing, depending on the individual’s circumstances, help is available from a range of social security benefits to assist with income, care and mobility needs. They include incapacity benefit, disability living allowance, attendance allowance, carer’s allowance and income support.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the important issue of family members and other relatives. I am particularly keen to examine that issue, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been considering the matter carefully. The industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme is being reviewed, and the issue of exposure through contact with relatives is part of that review. I hope that my right hon. Friend and I can make an announcement on the outcome of that review in short order. We will examine carefully both the representations that the hon. Gentleman made this evening, and representations made on behalf of family members across Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. This issue is important, and the review is ongoing. We expect it to report shortly, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be patient in awaiting the outcome of that review.

We have made clear our intention to review the industrial injuries scheme to ensure that it remains fit for purpose in the changing work environment of the 21st century. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of key issues that are important not just to his constituents but to mine, as I said earlier. The Government have a good record on helping to support, define and welcome the assistance that we can give to former Government employees, for whom we have a responsibility. We will continue to support and develop schemes to help former Government employees and ensure that they get what is due to them under compensation schemes.

Mr. Rafferty’s case is different, because he was employed in a part of the docks adjacent to the area in which the Harland and Wolff scheme, operated by the Government, applies. I know that he finds that difficult to accept, but the responsibility lies with his then employer. The Government have made efforts to ensure, through the changes made under Barker v. Corus and the Compensation Act 2006, that we give whatever help we can. I hope that my comments have been of help to the hon. Gentleman. He raises an important point, and we will continue to monitor the situation. I shall certainly write to him on the outcome of the review of those important issues, which is being taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Social Development Department. I hope that I have responded to the hon. Gentleman’s points, and I am grateful to him for bringing them to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Seven o’clock.