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Pleural Plaques Victims (Compensation)

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2008

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue, which is at the core of a great many people’s problems. People feel very strongly and passionately about it, and I am delighted with the turnout from colleagues representing constituencies across the length and breadth of the UK.

Pleural plaques is a condition caused by asbestos passing through the lung and the pleura that protect it, causing a hardening of those pleura. In October, the Law Lords decided to deny victims of pleural plaques the right to compensation on the basis that the condition is symptomless and therefore is not compensatable. Bizarrely, the ruling went on to suggest that if a person suffers anxiety as a result of pleural plaques, it is caused by being told that they have it, rather than by the condition itself. That belittles claimants and causes increased anxiety, because they know that there is currently no chance whatever of redress.

There is significant evidence to suggest that pleural plaques are not the symptomless condition that the judges thought. The five judges were unanimous, and I accept that that makes their judgment difficult to overturn. However, legislation is needed to offer hope to the victims of the condition. The Scottish National Administration in the Scottish Parliament have pledged to introduce legislation to deal with this issue. I am pleased about that, because the victims do not care how they get compensation as long as they get it. My only concern is about the SNP leading people up the garden path, believing that it can overturn the decision or introduce legislation, only to let them down at the end. I sincerely hope that the party is sincere in its endeavours to overturn the decision.

The judgment talked about the condition being symptomless, but it also says that there is a physiological change—the body changes as a result of pollution from asbestos. Does my hon. Friend agree that although the physiological change may be symptomless, it has certainly been caused by pollution?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a long history of dealing with such issues. I am no medical expert, but I refer hon. Members to the work of Professor Mark Britton and Professor Tony Newman Taylor, who are world-renowned medical experts on asbestos-related disease. They have confirmed that pleural plaques are not prevalent in the general male population and are an indicator of asbestos exposure.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He mentioned the action being taken by the Scottish Parliament, which he has previously welcomed. I am sure that his fears about leading people up the garden path will not come to fruition. This is not a constitutional issue, but a medical one. When he presses the Minister, will he make the point that people with this condition who have been exposed to asbestos have an increased risk of mesothelioma and bronchial carcinoma? It needs to be impressed on the Government that this is not a theoretical or abstract debate; real issues are involved.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right. I do not mean to be disrespectful when I talk about leading people up the garden path. If a genuine attempt to solve the problem for victims is being made, I hope that it is successful, because if it is successful in Scotland, a case can be made for the rest of the UK. We need the same commitment from Westminster as there seems to be in the Scottish Parliament.

For many working-class people such as myself, this is an emotive issue. Having spent years working in the Glasgow shipyards, I remember times when we could see asbestos dust floating in the air. The foremen would tell us to carry on working because it would not do us any harm. I do not blame the foremen or managers, because they were only doing as they were told. I place the blame squarely at the door of the companies that produced the stuff and asked people to work with it who did not know the damage that it was causing.

My hon. Friend is quite a bit older than me, but I guess that he was not in the shipyards before 1965, when asbestos was effectively banned. It has been known to be a poisonous substance since 1892, so he is quite right to say that the real guilty parties are the employers who exposed people to that substance when they knew it was dangerous.

My hon. Friend is right, and when they were exposed for doing that, they left the country and went on to expose people in underdeveloped countries to the same dangers, encouraging them to use the same substance. This is not just a UK problem; it is a global problem.

Will my hon. Friend also make the point that this issue is not only about private companies? A constituent of mine has told me about working in power stations in which lagging was hanging off, dripping with asbestos, and about being forced to work in state facilities in which that danger was lurking all around until relatively recently.

My hon. Friend is right. The private sector does not have a monopoly on making people work with asbestos dust.

We have a lobby next Tuesday, when some of my constituents will be coming down. They would want me to point out that this is not just about looking back at old industrial practices; it is happening right now. There are GMB union members working in the insulation stripping industry, trying to make life safer for our communities, and they need protection. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that they need to know that they will be able to get compensation if they suffer from pleural plaques?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—there are people working with asbestos today. Unfortunately, symptoms will not materialise or be felt in their bodies until some years later.

I have details of friends, family members and colleagues whom I worked beside in the shipyards. Those who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques know exactly what could be the next step. I have attended too many funerals of people who were told that they had pleural plaques only for them to acquire full-blown mesothelioma. I am not talking only about people who worked in the shipyards on the Clyde. This problem is prevalent throughout the UK and in the underdeveloped world.

I vigorously disagree with the decision of the Law Lords that those who polluted with asbestos, namely the relevant companies, are not responsible for people developing pleural plaques or full-blown mesothelioma. The decision prompts the question, “Who is responsible?” Is it the irresponsible doctors who told sufferers that they had the disease? Is it their fault for telling people that they have pleural plaques, thus causing them anxiety? I find that a ridiculous supposition. Blaming doctors for telling people that they are unwell is absolutely incredible. The people whom I represent, including my friends and family, feel the same.

When farmers and livestock were affected by the foot and mouth and bluetongue diseases, Members of this House were up in arms and exercised themselves in demanding compensation for the animals that were destroyed to halt the spread of disease. I do not wish to denigrate the plight of farmers whose livelihoods were threatened or even ruined, but human beings who contracted a killing disease were not given the same attention by Members of this House or, indeed, by the Government.

The point that I am trying to make to the Minister is that the illness affects our people. The working-class men and women of this country are watching this debate, and they expect their Labour Government to sort out the issue. They want compensation for being exposed to damage to which others have not been subjected. I would dearly love to spread some asbestos dust on the Law Lords’ porridge in the morning to give them an understanding of exactly what the issue is.

A briefing that was recently put out by the Association of British Insurers states:

“Insurers are committed to paying fast, fair and efficient compensation to people who are injured or made ill as a result of their employer's negligence; in 2006, our members paid out over £1.2 billion in employers’ liability claims.”

I have to say that that is what insurers are meant to do. They take on premiums against a risk, and, if the event occurs, they have to pay out. The ABI claims that there is a new consensus among independent medical experts.

I do not want my hon. Friend to let insurers off the hook. I championed the Armley asbestosis victims in my constituency for 20 years. We took the insurers to court in 1996 and won the case, but they fought tooth and nail to avoid paying out. Hon. Members will find that much of that large amount of money is actually payment to liquidators to liquidate the firm rather than pay victims. The majority of the money has gone on corporate gamesmanship to prevent the victims from getting it.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I can sense his emotion and anger. I can well recall the situation in Scotland when people were diagnosed as having mesothelioma. When they died, the claim died with them. The sad fact of life was that when the court case came up, the insurers would invite a doctor to sit beside them, and, from a distance, he would try to judge how long a victim had to live. He would then find the technicality to get the case cancelled, in the hope that the person would die and the insurers would not have to pay out the money. Fortunately, the trade unions saw that, and, through their campaigns, they managed to get the law changed.

The ABI claims that there is a new consensus among independent medical experts. I would say that there is no medical consensus, although there is, thanks to the House of Lords, a new legal consensus. The ABI states:

“Insurers will continue to pay compensation to people suffering from these diseases and to their families as quickly as possible”.

Why then are the insurers pursuing another challenge to block mesothelioma compensation? Trigger test cases, as they are known, are working their way through the courts. That is something that will become prevalent in the near future.

The ABI states that it wants to

“speed up the provision of compensation to people with serious asbestos-related diseases”

and it goes on about the £1.8 billion. I would simply say that if it is that keen, why not show claimants the money? Why not use the savings from the judgment and set up a fund of last resort for claimants who cannot trace an insurer?

On that point, would my hon. Friend agree that there is a case for setting up a scheme similar to the pension protection fund so that if a firm goes bust, when a former employee makes a claim at least the employee will receive the compensation that they are due?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There should be some mechanism whereby people can trace their employment. Anybody who knows someone who has died from either pleural plaques or mesothelioma will know how difficult things are when they are diagnosed. They do not have a great deal of time to start tracing their employer. Some of them, particularly those who worked in the construction industry years ago, find that either their employers or the insurers have gone bust, and it is extremely difficult to get compensation. There is a case to be made for some mechanism whereby people can trace their employer.

Recently, several insurers have refused to pay out on mesothelioma claims. They now say that the wording of the insurance policies that they entered into with employers means something very different from what they accepted it meant for the past 40 years. The insurers are arguing that the trigger for the insurance policy to respond to a mesothelioma claim is not exposure to asbestos but development of the disease asbestosis itself. The obvious benefit for insurers who are using the trigger issue is that, if they are successful, they will escape liability completely. The problem for the victims is that there will be no other insurer to turn to, because by the time they begin to suffer symptoms of the disease, which is often or could be as much as 40 years or more after they were exposed to asbestos, many employers will have simply gone bust, as my hon. Friend said.

The effect of the trigger defence is to frustrate and delay the process of obtaining compensation for some terminally ill claimants, but it also introduces uncertainty about how employers’ liability insurance policies should be interpreted in mesothelioma cases. The insurance industry and its advisers know that, although perhaps not all insurers are presently using the trigger defence as accepted by the court. The rest of the insurance industry will fall in line, leaving our members, our constituents and thousands of other workers who develop mesothelioma deprived of their entitlement to compensation.

What should the Government do? Pleural plaques is a condition that affects thousands of ordinary working people. They were negligently exposed to asbestos, their lungs have been damaged, and they face an increased risk of fatal illness, about which they are genuinely worried. The decision of the House of Lords to deprive them of compensation should be reversed by legislation. Insurers should be forced to use any savings from the judgment—it is estimated that they stand at some £1.4 billion—to set up a fund of last resort for claimants who, through no fault of their own, cannot identify an insurer, or whose employer, again, through no fault of the claimant, has gone bust.

I have heard from people who are close to these issues that there is a reluctance by the Government to intervene in such cases because, as someone said, the disease is symptomless. People who go off sick with stress could perhaps claim similar compensation, but I think that there is a clear distinction between people suffering from stress and people diagnosed with pleural plaques. Pleural plaques is a tangible disease, the effects of which people can see. They can see what it develops into.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although pleural plaques can be detected only by X-ray, the disease causes irreversible damage to the lining of the lung, and that if such damage were done to visible tissue, obviously a compensation claim would not be denied?

Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a long history of working in industries where asbestosis was prevalent at the time.

On stress, I stress the point—excuse the pun—that I can see no comparison between people suffering from stress in the workplace and claiming compensation, and those diagnosed with pleural plaques, which can lead to full-blown mesothelioma, and the anxiety that that then causes. Like many people, I am not keen to have a compensation culture develop in this country. However, we are not talking about claims for a sprained ankle or whiplash but a life sentence of breathlessness, pain and worry about the increased risk of developing mesothelioma or, indeed, asbestosis. One cannot help wondering whether the Law Lords are perhaps more interested in trying to keep the courts free of what they consider petty compensation claims than in serving justice.

I could say far more on the issue, and I apologise if at times I become emotional about it, but there is a serious problem that must be addressed by the Government. I know that time is moving on and that some of my colleagues, who have equally genuine concerns, want to make their own representations about what happens in their constituencies. I beg the Minister, who has a good track record in dealing with such important issues, to listen to MPs, trade unions and union lawyers. This disease has to be tackled. People who have contracted the disease should get the compensation that they deserve. I ask the Minister to look seriously at what we can do here at Westminster, and also to consider how a possible change in the law in Scotland will impact on the rest of the UK.

I appreciate that many hon. Members want to speak today, so I will be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on initiating the debate. As he has said, many hon. Members share his concern about the Law Lords’ decision. I believe that a very simple point needs to be made. Compensation for pleural plaques has been paid for nearly 30 years. The disease has been acknowledged as an industrial injury and many people have received compensation. Although the sums of money have been small, they are a just recognition of the fact that pleural plaques is an industrial disease.

The world’s largest asbestos factory was based in the town that I represent. Rochdale’s Turner Brothers manufactured the stuff and then exported it to different industries, which many hon. Members here represent. Hundreds of people in Rochdale have been diagnosed with pleural plaques, and they are now extremely concerned at the effects of the Law Lords’ decision.

Clearly, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Government should do something. Last year, when the issue of mesothelioma payments arose, they acted very speedily. In the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is now being considered in the Lords, a mechanism was found to ensure that compensation was paid speedily. I put it to the Minister that she should consider allowing amendments to that Bill to be tabled in the Lords to restore a right that has existed previously.

We are not talking about something that has not happened before. It has been an established practice—developed by case law—to recognise that pleural plaques is a disease or an injury caused by exposure to asbestos and therefore that compensation should be paid. I hope that the Minister will listen to what hon. Members have to say and that she will introduce positive proposals to restore that right.

Like the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), I will be very brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate. Pleural plaques is an important issue, and we must impress upon the Minister that she needs to think about how she might change the situation. The Law Lords made their decision on 17 October, and it has impacted on every constituency. Pleural plaques is clearly the result of exposure to asbestos.

My hon. Friend referred to two experts—Professor Mark Britton and Professor Newman Taylor—both of whom have said that pleural plaques is not a disease that affects the general population; it is clearly the result of exposure to asbestos. They also say that, after 30 years’ exposure, a person will have calcified plaques. After 20 years’ exposure, there will be plaques, but they will not have calcified.

The Law Lords have accepted that there is a physiological change. The calcification, or the change to the lining of the lung, is a tangible change that can be shown on X-rays. It proves that asbestos has polluted the body. Under the concept that the polluter should pay, we should return to the situation in which compensation has been paid for 20 years.

There is no doubt that there is a link with mesothelioma. Although the letter from the Association of British Insurers, which my hon. Friend mentioned, refers to only 1 per cent. of people with pleural plaques developing mesothelioma, Professor Mark Britton and Professor Newman Taylor say that the number is between 1 and 5 per cent. They make it clear that an association exists between pleural plaques and the development of mesothelioma.

My hon. Friend and I met the laggers of London—there is a GMB branch for laggers—who are exposed to asbestos in their daily work. They pointed out that each year in their branch, 12 people are diagnosed with pleural plaques. They say that a significant number go on to develop worsening conditions, such as mesothelioma and cancer.

I hope that the Minister will think very seriously about how we can move the matter forward. My hon. Friend asked what the implications would be if the Scottish Parliament overturned the Law Lords’ decision. I hope that the Minister can give us an indication of the implications that that may have for England.

Like other hon. Members, I will be brief. Although nearly everything has been said already, I think that we need to say it again and again. Until the Government listen, justice will not be done, and this is a massive injustice to so many people. Many of my constituents who have come to me about this matter worked at Devonport dockyard. They have experienced, over a long period of time, a series of injustices, which are only now beginning to be put right.

Pleural plaques is a recognised condition. I hope that I do not have it; I do not want it. I do not think that any hon. Member would want it. If someone has it as a result of being irresponsibly exposed to asbestos, there must be some recognition of the fact that they have a condition. Just because we do not understand all that may happen does not mean that people may not have developed other diseases and illnesses because they have had pleural plaques.

I want to name a couple of my constituents who have contacted me. David Pearn suffers shortness of breath. His condition is very noticeable compared with other people of the same age. He cannot lead the kind of normal life that he would expect. Another constituent, Trevor Talbot, wrote a letter to me. He said:

“For me personally, having been proved to have the asbestos-related pleural plaque scarring whilst working with asbestos in HM Dockyard Devonport, I feel that it is an injustice that fellow working colleagues have had their claim settled in full while mine, which was in the process of being settled, has been stopped.”

Another constituent, Graham Whiting, said:

“Could I ask for your continued support for a change of policy on this matter by voicing this once again in the House of Commons. It does beggar belief that something that has been recognised as a debilitating disease for twenty years can be just thrown out.”

The sense of outrage and injustice is clear.

The insurance industry does itself no favours. It has been said that insurers are committed to paying fast, fair and efficient compensation, but while they drag out claims for as long as possible, they can spend as much money fighting any payout as they get in premium income. The process is far from fast or fair. It may be efficient for them not to pay anything at all, but not as far as my constituents and others are concerned. That behaviour does them no justice at all, especially given other rip-offs, such as paying protection insurance, and how people are dealt with in other respects. It is about time that the Association of British Insurers started to recognise that the industry has a bad and worsening reputation.

I am very pleased that the Scottish Parliament is challenging the Law Lords. The effects of asbestos are a terrible legacy of an industrialised Britain that we now know far more about. The nation has generated great wealth. We have done very well on the backs of a number of people who have worked in quite dangerous industries. It is time that we recognised that and gave them the proper compensation that is due to them.

Obviously, if the Scottish Parliament overrules the Law Lords, my constituents and others will say that it is a curious situation. People who worked at naval bases in Scotland, on the Clyde, will apparently be entitled to compensation, but those who worked in Devonport will not. That message should not be sent to those who properly served their country in an industry that has proved to be dangerous to them. It is time that the Government recognised that. If the Law Lords want to play with people’s livelihoods and lives in that way, we should not allow it. There should be a change and it should be soon. These people should get the justice that they deserve.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on raising this issue and keeping it alive in Parliament. He has done so along with other colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Why is the issue important? This is not just a case of unfinished business in which the law has not quite caught up with the victims. My experience in the House is that, every time we take one step forward, we take two steps back. That happens in medical terms and in legal terms.

I represent Armley in west Leeds. The original JW Roberts factory was there from 1886 to 1956, spewing out dust on to the streets. The saga is well known. We got great coverage for our campaign in the 1980s, when it was discovered that that dust polluted people on the streets. We tried to take on the company that became Turner and Newall. We ran a 10-year campaign to identify the people involved. They lied—I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not speaking under parliamentary privilege—and told us that they did not have the records although they did. We discovered them.

At the same time, there was the great argument about medical evidence, to which some of my hon. Friends have referred. It was said that there was no evidence that asbestos was dangerous. Well, in Armley in 1922, Dr. Greaves took images—X-rays—of lung diseases to prove that there was a problem. Those very images of pleural plaques are still available in medical records; I think that they are in Edinburgh university’s medical college.

In 1936, the health and safety people turned up and told the factory, “Will you employ certain conditions to make sure people aren’t polluted?” but of course that did not apply to the company blowing the dust out of the windows and the air vent. The neighbourhood was polluted with no safeguards whatever and the company denied all responsibility.

To cut the story short, the factory shut in 1956 and more than 400 people got asbestosis. I think that I was the first person to use the word “mesothelioma” in the House, in 1988. It was still denied then that that had anything to do with asbestos. Medical reports were still going in saying that people had died of diseases such as bronchitis. Sometimes, the reports said, “Disease unidentifiable”. There was no acknowledgement that one fibre stuck in a lung would lodge there for 30 to 40 years, pregnant until it broke out in a terrible death. That was not accepted. The medical world was as responsible then as the lawyers are now.

We got to court in 1996, and we won the case against Turner and Newall, but it was taken over and it slipped the assets across to Federal Mogul in America. Federal Mogul decided to wrap them up in a little bundle and send them back to Britain in a little company that had the assets, because the judge said, “Put a pot aside to pay the victims.” What did that multinational do? It set up a shadow company, ring-fenced it and deliberately made it bankrupt and sent it into administration, so that it would not have to pay out because we had won the court case. We then campaigned for 10 years, from 1996 right through to 2006, but through all the processes, the lawyers managed it so that 16p in the pound was what a handful of victims got as a result. It was a whole mountain to produce a mouse.

At every move of the game, the company and the insurance companies used every trick in the book of what I call corporate gamesmanship to ensure that they did not pay out. That is the story of this issue. Why did it end up in the House of Lords in the first place? People wanted to draw back from the rights that workers already had; the payments were there, as other hon. Members have said. So we are no further along.

It is not right that I should say to my constituents, “Pack your bags and move to Paisley, because that is your only hope,” but that is in effect what we will be saying if the Scottish Parliament overturns the ruling. We have had to say already that, if people want treatment with Alimta, they should move to Scotland, because they can get treatment in Scotland that they cannot get here. That cannot be just. We cannot offer that as an answer to people who are victims. They were polluted through no fault of their own. It was not that they did not wear the protective gear that they were told to wear. In my area, they just happened to live in the neighbourhood and the dust was sprayed on them. It is not their fault, but the victims are still being blamed and all the onus is being put on them to try to secure compensation.

Victims are left facing a terrible, terrible death. Anybody who has witnessed, as I have, someone dying of mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease will know that it is a terrible death for people to go through, and we are asking victims and families to go through that without any hope. When the decision came through from the House of Lords, victims and families were left with a sense of deep helplessness and hopelessness—there was nothing that they could do and nowhere that they could go.

Can the Government cut through this? Can we overrule the decision in some way? Can we pass a law to say that people can have the compensation and acknowledge that pleural plaques may well lead to mesothelioma? We certainly know that they are the result of exposure to asbestos through no fault of the people affected. We have taken decisions to ban the use of asbestos. Richard Doll spelt the position out. Deaths will peak in 2015 or 2018. We could count the number of people likely to be victims. We are not asking for an infinite pot of money. I am tempted to say that, if all the compensation payouts were £30,000—the original level—it would certainly not break the bank, and it would be a damn sight cheaper than bailing out some banks, not that I am opposing that. I am suggesting that, in the context of revenues and costs, it will not cost a large amount of money to alleviate the suffering of victims and their families.

It is appalling to say that the victims of asbestos are the worried well. It is an appalling abuse of people to use that expression. They are not the worried well; they are people who are sick through no fault of their own. I plead with the Government: please for once intervene. The Government ought to find a way to cut through the legal logjam that has been fabricated by the insurance companies and the companies behind the asbestos pollution to avoid paying out.

Very helpful suggestions have been made. Perhaps there could be a pot like the fund for pensions. Perhaps there could be a pot that would enable people to be paid now. What is most cynical of all is when companies say what was said to me by a senior insurance company representative, “Well, you do realise that this campaign will die out.” Well, it will, because the people will die. That is unacceptable and that is why it is imperative that we act now and press the Government to do their utmost to give some hope to the victims and their families.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate. The issue is so pressing in the areas that we represent. It would be wrong of me not to take part in the debate, given that I come from Tyneside. The incidences of death from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are running at something like two a week, so the relevant court’s decision and the lack of Government action following that decision have left many thousands of people feeling powerless and belittled.

Pleural plaques is a working-class disease. It is a scarring of the lungs caused by negligent exposure to asbestos in the workplace. Let us analyse what I have said: it is scarring of the lungs and, quite simply, a scar is an injury. People normally get scars if they fall over and hit their head or whatever. That may be caused by their own negligence. The difference with pleural plaques is that it is an industrial injury caused by the negligence of an employer.

In the majority of cases, it is said that pleural plaques will not go on to cause death—or, indeed, mesothelioma, which is a death sentence in itself—but the very fact that someone has been exposed to pleural plaques causes the worry that they could develop mesothelioma. If somebody lives where the Law Lords live in Surrey, Berkshire or wherever, they might never see anyone dying of asbestosis. They might never come across that. However, on Tyneside, where I am from, two people die from the disease each week, which means that people are going to the funerals of workmates every week.

It is not for Members of Parliament to come up with the solution—it is for the Government to act. Thank heaven that people in Scotland have seen the light and are leading on this issue. Our Government and our Minister should do the same and give compensation where it is due.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate and on the energy and determination that he has shown in pressing this issue, and that is reflected in the strength of the turnout. As hon. Friends have said, to make no contribution would be to let down many of our constituents, and I am sure that many people in the room feel the same.

We are discussing people who have suffered the cruel consequences of exposure to asbestos. Too many of my constituents suffer from terrible asbestos-related diseases and too many others have, sadly, died from them. It is totally unacceptable that sufferers, past and present, and their families should be denied compensation by huge insurance companies. It is clear from the insurance press that the industry breathed a huge sigh of relief at the prospect of avoiding multi-million pound compensation bills.

In the meantime, hundreds of people who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques must deal daily with the invisible but no less real scarring of their bodies, which was caused by their employers’ recklessness, and with the invisible but equally real heightened risk of developing a terrible and life-threatening disease.

I can only agree with those who regard the Law Lords’ decision on pleural plaques as perverse. The research on which they based their judgment seems to have led them to take too narrow a view. A fund of respected counter-research points to a different conclusion, and it is generally accepted that pleural plaques are an indication of exposure to asbestos.

Many people who present with pleural plaques—or, indeed, with more serious asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma—have little idea until the point of diagnosis of the damage caused by their past exposure to asbestos. There is enough evidence to suggest that patients presenting with pleural plaques have a much increased risk of developing more serious asbestos-related conditions—indeed, they face a 100 per cent. greater risk than those in the general population.

The negligence of some employers in decades gone by has exacerbated the problem, and that negligence was recognised in the Law Lords’ judgment. Employers were aware of the potential risks, but did nothing about them. They, or their insurers, should be made to pay for that negligence.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that knowledge of the potential death sentence implicit in a diagnosis of pleural plaques must have an adverse psychological impact, given the ghastly nature of such conditions. Recognition of the difficulty of living with that knowledge and of the consequent mental anguish has, at least in part, been the basis of the hundreds of thousands of cases that have been settled over the past 20 or 30 years, and nothing has happened to change that.

The Government have shown that they are on the side of common sense and common decency by acting to reverse the Law Lords’ perverse decision on mesothelioma by amending the relevant legislation. I hope that enough has been said today to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister that the Government should intervene again to change the law on pleural plaques to match what any sensible person would consider right and proper.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) not only on securing this debate, but on his track record of defending working-class people’s rights since he first came to the House. People ask me why people such as my hon. Friend and I came to the Houses of Parliament, and the answer is because of such issues. If people such as us, who know the reality of working with things such as asbestos, did not stand up for those who have been exposed to them, their voice would not be heard in this place to the extent that it should be.

Last year, I was proud to be involved in the discussions on reversing the Lords’ decision on mesothelioma. It was a great moment for our party, our movement and our Government when we reversed that decision, because it was the right thing to do. Today, we should be celebrating last night’s announcement by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence that it has finally thrown out all the appeals by those who wanted to stop the use of Alimta, which would increase a little the length and quality of the lives of those suffering from mesothelioma. But what are we doing? We are standing here talking about a disgraceful situation that has been brought about over more than a century.

As I said in my intervention earlier, people first said that asbestos was dangerous in 1892, but it took 70 years to make it formally illegal. What happened then? People kept on using it. We are discussing employers who have such scant belief in the sanctity of life that they use little kids to maximise profits in places such as Namibia. They put them inside giant plastic bags to stamp down the raw asbestos, so that more will go into the bags. If that does not show the kind of people we are dealing with, what does?

Thompsons solicitors told me about discussions that it had with civil servants in the Department about the impact of pleural plaques. Thompsons was told, “What are you worried about? It’s no more than freckles.” Well, the people whose lungs have been scarred think that pleural plaques are slightly more than freckles.

Like other colleagues, I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s speech. Will he join me in pausing for a second to think what it must be like for people not only to know what mesothelioma does, but to live day in, day out with the knowledge that there is a good chance that they may develop it because of their pleural plaques? It must be horrendous to wake up with that thought every morning. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I could not agree more. I was actually coming on to the great disservice that the insurance industry and the employers have done us by peddling the idea that stress does not matter. In their view, people who think that they have the disease should not worry; indeed, they think that people’s doctors should not even tell them about it, and it is absolutely disgraceful that they could even consider that. The insurers say that the stress does not matter, but perhaps they are really worried that people will take them to court over the impact of stress.

In the late 1990s, after years of battling my trade union, Unison, the insurers had to give in and award £187,000 to a social worker who had been stressed out by work. Perhaps that is what the debate is really about; perhaps the insurers are worried not about people with scars on the inside or outside of their bodies, but about the people who are really suffering. I am a patron of an organisation that supports mesothelioma sufferers, so I know what individuals are going through and I do not need to imagine it. I meet such people regularly, and I know that none of us would ever want to be in their position. It is on our backs that we do something about this.

The ABI brief has been mentioned. Referring to the Lords judgment, it says that the

“conclusion was based on the new consensus… and this consensus represents good news”.

If I got a letter in the post tomorrow morning saying, “Mr. Anderson, you have pleural plaques,” I do not think that I would be jumping up and down saying that it was good news. If that happened, I could become one of the 90,000 people who will die in the next 13 years as a direct result of being criminally exposed to a dangerous substance. It therefore behoves our Government to do everything in their power to put that injustice right.

Like my colleagues, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) and congratulate him—if that is the appropriate word in such a debate—on his work on this and other issues.

My hon. Friend and I come from a similar area, and as teenagers and young men, we saw family after family suffer the consequences of having done what they were asked to do by working hard for their country and their company. Subsequently, because of latent industrial diseases, the trade union movement has spent 45 or 50 years fighting for recognition of what has happened as a result of industrial processes. People who have worked hard and contributed have been damaged as a result, but there has never been a general acceptance of the fact that they should receive financial, social and medical recognition for the effects of their contribution.

The most recent judgment is the latest in a long line of judgments since 1924. There has been a failure to accept and recognise that exposure to asbestos and mesothelioma are deadly. The first case was reported to the British Medical Journal in 1924 by Dr. Cooke from the Wigan Royal Albert Edward infirmary. The lady concerned, Mrs. Kershaw, worked in a weaving shed in the constituency of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen). He was the first doctor to say, “This woman has died not of tuberculosis but of fibrosis caused by her exposure to asbestos dust.” Yet from that moment it has been a struggle to get where we have.

The present situation is incredible. Despite what I have described, I never thought that I should be asking in the House of Commons to have something back that had already been conceded. We are not asking for something new to be recognised. There has already been medical recognition, state recognition—by way of benefit payments—and recognition towards compensation. My worry is what will happen if we do not win this case and find a mechanism, as we have in the past.

In 1998, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) was the Minister for Energy, and he found a mechanism to upgrade the payments relationship for pneumoconiosis sufferers. We found a mechanism to deal with issues such as bronchitis and emphysema that has resulted in the biggest payouts on injury benefits that the world has ever seen, and the House found a legislative mechanism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (David Heyes) mentioned, to deal with a recent perverse judgment by the Law Lords.

Perhaps we can find a mechanism to correct the decision that we are now discussing. If we do not, there will be debates here for the next 10 years arising from this judgment’s use in other areas, against other claimants with other injuries. Let us think of the progress that has been made on stress-related injuries in Britain since Unison, the National Union of Public Employees and others took on that cause. It has become accepted as fact that there are certain circumstances in which, if employers do not act in their employees’ interest, they will suffer damages because of stress. That is an accepted concept, but the Law Lords have gone out of their way to state in the judgement that, unless a physical injury is associated with the stress, no claim can be met. What does that mean for public sector workers who attend accidents every day and suffer trauma and stress? They have no physical illness, but there has been the capacity for more than a decade to compensate those workers for the stressful job that they do.

I am not a lawyer—I do not want to give the impression that I am—but lawyers and others have the unending capacity to take one decision and link it to other potential decisions. Therefore, what has been decided is important not only to the sufferers; it should make us recognise the importance of retaining what we have won. We must retain it: there are no grounds for not finding a mechanism.

I know that the Minister will want to respond, and I have one final point. If the Law Lords’ judgment is read in a common-sense way, it suggests that the plaques do not occur naturally in the body, but are caused by an industrial process, which the law recognises in judgments as a failure by the employer to protect the interest of the employee. What is missing is a common-sense judgment. The Law Lords have taken common sense out of the way they have dealt with it. They have cited, as the ABI has, the figure of 1 per cent. The figure of 1 to 5 per cent. is not relevant: what is relevant in the cohort is that 100 per cent. have plaques. However, it cannot be judged who, within the cohort, will go on to contract a debilitating disease that will kill within 18 months of diagnosis. So all must suffer 100 per cent., to the point when the disease transforms from a plaque into a cancerous fibre, followed by death. That is why the Law Lords’ approach is not a common-sense one.

We must put common sense back into the law, but in putting it back, we must put back something else. The courts have already recognised that negligence led to the disease. The state gave recognition, in relation to payments, and there was recognition through previous court judgments that the insurance industry had a liability to meet, which it was meeting. On that basis, taking a common-sense view—difficult as it is for the state to meet every claim in every circumstance—we should go back and deal with the cases that have been left in limbo and accept that the diseases have been caused by workers doing the one simple thing that they have been asked to do: work hard and look after their home community.

Those communities are devastated. Not every community in Britain faces the same circumstances. Those affected are from shipyard and mining communities. They are textile workers and those who worked in industries making products for other industries or who travelled around in the construction industry, building up our capacity to power our houses, shops and commercial enterprises. That generation is now suffering. The debate is an opportunity for us: if the Minister cannot respond as we would like her to do now, I hope that she will leave the door open for further discussions towards a solution, because a solution must be found.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on obtaining the debate. The two most important points that have come out of it for me are, first, the fact that as a result of corporate manoeuvring people with a valid claim might be removed from circumstances in which they can make their claim good and, secondly, the point that several hon. Members have made about stress at work. The danger in the House of Lords judgment in the pleural plaques case arises largely at the point at which it becomes a discussion of psychiatric illness. That point came up in part in the debate, but it has not been discussed enough, so I want to spend some time on it.

I do not agree with those hon. Members who said that the judgment was perverse. I have studied this area of the law for 30 years. It was an entirely orthodox judgment of the House of Lords. The conclusions that were reached, except with respect to psychiatric injury, were entirely in line with what one would expect the Lords to say. It was orthodox, first, because it has not been possible to sue for anxiety since the 1860s. People can sue for psychiatric illness but not for anxiety. It would be a major departure in the law to allow people to sue for anxiety, although some people have argued for it. People cannot sue for future risks unless something has already happened to them—some symptoms have already started. That was a decision that the House of Lords took in 2005, after a lot of debate, in which there was, again, argument on either side, but, nevertheless in the light of what was decided in the Gregg case it is not unexpected that the House of Lords came down where it did.

On the point about there being no symptoms yet—there is internal scarring but no symptoms—the decision is, again, not unexpected. There is difficulty in measuring the loss until someone actually suffers from something. I should stress at this point that the House of Lords decision does not apply to people who have symptoms. The battle in the pleural plaques cases is not yet lost, for two reasons: first, the decision binds only on the law, not on the facts, and if new medical evidence emerges or new medical expert views are accepted, that will change the entire thing; and secondly, even on the law, the House of Lords left open the possibility of suing in contract rather than just in the law of tort. Lawyers are therefore not giving up on such cases at this stage.

The next point that I want to make is one made by the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle). Victims must wait until their symptoms start to develop. The problem with that is that by the time it happens many of the defendant companies will no longer exist, either because of the normal processes of commercial operation—they just go out of business—or, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, because they have figured out some corporate manoeuvre that lands all the liabilities on a corporate entity with no assets. We must take action to make sure that that does not happen. The idea of a fund into which defendant companies must pay, effectively insuring the victims against the insolvency of those companies, is one that the Government should take seriously.

I should like to make a point about psychiatric illness and the case of Mr. Grieves. Mr. Grieves was different from the other plaintiffs in the House of Lords case, because he had developed a recognised psychiatric illness—clinical depression—as a result of being told about his plaques. Psychiatric illness is different from general anxiety; it is a specific illness, and Mr. Grieves suffers from it, but, in addition, he was denied compensation. There have been unjust decisions on psychiatric illness for a long time—we could go back, for example, to the Hillsborough cases. That part of the law has become immensely complicated and, in my view, immensely wrong-headed. The Law Commission proposed reform as long ago as 1997. It said that judges should be given a chance to sort out parts of the law themselves, but they have not done so and the law has become more complicated and incomprehensible.

The two reasons given by the House of Lords as to why Mr. Grieves could not sue are wrong, and they are incompatible with modern views of mental illness. The first reason why the House of Lords decided that Mr. Grieves could not sue is that he was not a man of ordinary fortitude; in other words, he was more susceptible to mental illness than the average run of humanity. However, that is not an excuse in ordinary law. If the victim of an accident has brittle bone disease, the person who caused the accident would still have to pay out, and would be unable to say that the victim was not of ordinary strength. I do not think that the position should be different in mental illness cases.

In addition, the reason given by the House of Lords is based on a wholly wrong idea of the incidence of mental illness and the likelihood that a person will suffer from it. Between one in four and one in six people in this country suffer mental illness at some point in their lives—it is not unusual, so it is wrong to say that employers could not reasonably foresee mental illness. That idea is completely out of date, and it implies that Mr. Grieves was responsible for his own illness, which is not right.

That brings me to the second reason why Mr. Grieves was denied compensation. He was denied it on the basis of an argument that I believe is quite wrong, namely, that the real cause of his mental illness was being told by the doctor that he had plaques. That supposes that his mental illness resulted not from his exposure to asbestos by a negligent employer, but because the doctor told him the result of that exposure. That is not a good argument for not compensating him, as it is not wrong for doctors to tell people that they have pleural plaques.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for applying his legal expertise to the issue. I am trying to follow his argument carefully, but there is a crucial causal difference. Someone referred to freckles. A person could say that they have freckles because they were exposed to the sun. They might worry about their freckles turning into cancer and become anxious. The difference with plaques is that we know that the cause is asbestos, which is a banned substance, as we know that it is deadly. Without that root cause, there would be no reason to be worried, which is why the judgment is wrong.

Someone with plaques knows that they run a much higher risk of developing mesothelioma than the general run of the population—hon. Members were quite right to say that we are talking about a 5 per cent. risk rather than a 1 per cent. risk—so people who are told that they have plaques have a serious problem. They are told that their problem is a consequence of breathing in asbestos, to which they were exposed as a result of their employers’ negligence, so it is a different sort of case.

The argument that “the doctor did it” is not right but, according to some of the judges, that was why Mr. Grieves should be denied compensation. That argument was wrong. For 10 years, the Government have had on their desks a Law Commission document about the reform of the law on psychiatric illnesses. We need a reform of the law that takes into account what we now know about mental illnesses.

I am intrigued by the legal case that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward. I would never pretend to be a lawyer—I am aware of the saying that if one puts two lawyers in a room, three legal opinions will come out—but I am here as a legislator. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Law Lords applied the law in an orthodox and correct way, should we as legislators not simply change the law?

I am saying that the orthodox parts of the decision have some long-standing reasoning behind them, but the decision on psychiatric illness is the latest in a long line of decisions that make no sense. Most people involved in the law know that that part of the law does not make any sense. The Government have had a Law Commission report for 10 years, and there is no doubt that legislative intervention on the law on psychiatric illness is not only required, but is being asked for by lawyers.

The law on psychiatric illness ought therefore to be reformed. Moreover, to take up the point made by the right hon. Member for Leeds, West, there must be a way of preventing employers from escaping their responsibilities by delay and corporate manoeuvre. It is a question of justice, but it is also a question of efficiency. The companies have imposed on the world costs that they have not paid for. Efficiency and justice demand that they pay.

We have had a passionate debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on the way in which he presented his case. He has an impressive and proud record of campaigning on this and many other issues. I remember well the help he gave me some years ago when we had a major gangmaster problem in East Anglia. He brought forward a Bill on gangmasters, which had a profound impact on the problem.

This issue affects people in many parts of the country. Obviously, it affects the former industrial heartlands above all, but it has an impact on every constituency in the land. Indeed, my constituents in north-west Norfolk, which is a long way from those heavy industrial heartlands, have sent me letters on the issue. People who have retired to my area have written to tell me that they are very concerned about the House of Lords’ decision.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

I was just about to say, before the Division bell went off, that I have recently received a letter from Mr. Legg, who is president of the Swansea boilermakers society. There is obviously a major campaign developing. I believe that Mr.Legg is actually a constituent of yours, Mr. Caton, so you will be well aware of the pressures that are building up. In fact, all MPs now know of cases in their own constituencies.

What we have seen in the last few years is a very successful campaign on behalf of those exposed to asbestos and dust. One has only to look at the measures that have been introduced, including the Pneumoconiosis (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979, the action that has been taken to assist mesothelioma sufferers, the Compensation Act 2006, which stipulated that negligent companies had to be jointly and severally liable, and part 4 of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is going through Parliament now. We also have the Civil Procedure Rule Committee, which is examining a new practice direction to ensure a uniform fast-track system for all mesothelioma cases. So there has been impressive progress and indeed there is a great deal of public support for sufferers of any form of industrially caused lung-related illness.

Among the 1980 cases was Patterson v. MOD, in which the key finding was the theory of aggregation, which did not accept that plaques themselves could give rise to a claim, but when they were aggregated with risk and anxiety that could create an actual case. Indeed, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) pointed out that many cases were settled, but not at high cost. We are talking about many cases settling at £4,000 or £5,000, up to about £10,000 or £15,000, so they did not cost the insurance industry a great deal of money.

On the other hand, we are talking about one of the most vulnerable groups of people in the country and those small amounts of compensation were actually bringing some relief to people at a time of great distress. It is very unfortunate indeed that we had a situation in place—we had a status quo, as the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) pointed out—that met with approval and satisfaction yet the insurance companies decided to take the test case to the House of Lords. However, the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)—my legal adviser from the Liberal Democrats—tells me that the law was, in fact, changed in another case and that the insurance companies had to take this test case.

So we had the two cases, Johnston v. NEI International Combustion and Rothwell v. Chemical and Insulating Company, and the conjoined cases. There certainly was a very substantial cost in bringing these cases and it is a great pity that they were brought. I was not surprised at the outcome when I saw all the evidence. Nevertheless, I was very disappointed indeed. I did not sit through the House of Lords case. I did not hear all the evidence, and I do not think that any of us did. However, when we had a system that was working perfectly well and we see that system turned upside down, it is indeed most unfortunate.

The only good thing that came out of all of these cases is that a great deal of medical expertise is now on the record. However, that medical expertise, it has to be said, is divided. In fact, a number of hon. Members—I think that among them were the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) and the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn)—pointed out that there are medical experts who say that pleural plaques are not common. Those experts include Professor Mark Britton and Professor Tony Newman-Taylor, who are two of the most pre-eminent chest physicians in the land and world-renowned experts on lung diseases, and they both confirmed that pleural plaques were not prevalent in the general male population and were an indicator of asbestos exposure. In other words, one cannot develop pleural plaques through passive action, or as the result of smoking or other activities.

However, there are other experts, for example Dr. John Moore Gillan, who is president of the British Lung Foundation, and Dr. Robin Rudd, who is a leading consultant, who are adamant that pleural plaques do not themselves form any malignant problems and do not themselves cause asbestosis to develop.

I would suggest to the Minister that we have a great deal of medical opinion out there, but it is divided opinion, and there is a need for a wider inquiry. May I suggest to her that she either sets up a royal commission on this subject or tasks the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to examine the evidence urgently? She should also look at setting up a proper register of medical evidence. There is a great deal of evidence out there and indeed there is a large amount of factual evidence that can be pulled together, but it is not being pulled together in any worthwhile shape. It would be very helpful to have that information brought together.

I have to say that I was disappointed at the attitude of the Association of British Insurers. In its briefing to hon. Members, it said:

“We know that some have called for a new database to record the details of people with pleural plaques. The ABI rejects this proposal. It would not benefit people with plaques, and may cause anxiety”.

I do not accept that argument at all. We need more evidence and we need to have all of the facts properly recorded and when we achieve that, we will be well on the way to mounting a stronger case.

There is another point that I would like to make that flows from the opinions of the medical experts who have been commenting on this issue. They conclude that 1 per cent. of people suffering from pleural plaques suffer some form of inconvenience, pain or constant irritation; whether or not that suffering leads to anything more serious, those people experience that suffering anyway.

Of course, I dare say that sufferers would be able to mount a legal challenge anyway, but why should they, when the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is going through Parliament, will help those people with mesothelioma? Would it not be possible to amend that Bill so that 1 per cent. of people suffering from pleural plaques could be immediately eligible for some form of compensation? That is an issue that the Minister should examine carefully, and it stems from a debate that took place on 3 December 2007.

One point that the Government will have to examine very carefully is what is happening in the Scottish Parliament. If the Scottish Parliament legislates successfully on this issue we could end up with some ridiculous anomalies. For example, we could have a company that has plants both sides of the border, with employees moving from plant to plant. Those resident in Scotland would be able to take action and mount a civil case, but those living south of the border would have no hope of doing so. Another example would be if someone was working for a Government Department, such as the MOD, with facilities both sides of the border. Again, people may be posted to different sites and different rules would apply for Scottish citizens than for people who are resident south of the border. I foresee significant problems. The Government need to tell us what contingency plans they have put in place and how they plan to address the problem. If legislation is enacted north of the border that puts residents of Scotland in an advantageous position, it will lead to even more anger in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We have had a passionate debate, and I congratulate hon. Members on proposing it and on the way in which they put forward their arguments. We are talking about a very tough decision. A retrograde step has been taken and the status quo, which was working perfectly well, has been turned upside down. We need more information; we need that register and an urgent independent inquiry or commission to look into it. Furthermore, the Government must act, in another place, on the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is being considered. If they take those steps, the Opposition will certainly support them.

Like the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate. This has been one of the most passionate and committed debates that I have listened to anywhere in Parliament. No one could leave the Chamber today in any doubt about the strength and depth of the feeling on this matter. The representations made by my hon. Friends, particularly on behalf of their constituents, were passionate, heartfelt and sincere, for which I thank them. Their arguments were incredibly persuasive. Having said that, my hon. Friend will know that I set out the Government’s position on this matter, on 29 October last year, in response to his written parliamentary question. We considered in great detail the judgment on the Rothwell case, at which point we decided that it would not be appropriate to legislate.

I shall provide some background to that case, then respond to the specific matters that were raised. I hardly need to explain what pleural plaques are. They are small, localised areas of fibrosis caused by exposure to asbestos. They do not normally cause any significant symptoms, although they might indicate a slightly increased risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. I understand that that figure is closer to the 5 per cent. mentioned by some of my hon. Friends, rather than the far less significant 1 per cent. suggested by the ABI and others.

As has been said, over the past 20 years, it has been possible to sue for negligent exposure to asbestos leading to the presence of pleural plaques. Compensation was based on High Court decisions in the early 1980s. However, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) explained, a test case finally reached the House of Lords to establish the exact situation. Earlier High Court decisions were not challenged, so the question of whether it was legally right that those pleural plaques should be compensatable never reached the consideration of the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords.

The problems began when the Rothwell case was finally brought to the House of Lords, which considered the case very thoroughly. As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, the Lords had access to detailed medical information that we do not have, and reached a unanimous decision that upheld the earlier decision of the Court of Appeal, which was that pleural plaque does not constitute actionable or compensatable damage. As has been explained, however, it also confirmed that if someone with pleural plaques develops a recognised future condition, such as mesothelioma, they would have a claim in relation to that disease.

The House of Lords decision was based on two fundamental principles of the law of negligence: first, that compensation in relation to negligence is payable only if there is actionable damage; and, secondly, that compensation is not payable simply for the risk or the worry that something might happen in the future. The hon. Member for Cambridge developed the point in relation to the Law Commission’s proposed reforms of the legislation on psychiatric illness, which, as he explained, have been on the table for some time. The Chamber might like to know that the Government have undertaken a consultation exercise on the Law Commission’s proposals and that those responses are being analysed. We hope to publish our response in due course. We have not forgotten about it; it is being dealt with.

Does the Minister agree with the insurance industry, which advised doctors that the best way to avoid pleural plaques becoming a stress-related matter is not to tell the patient that they are suffering from them?

Any doctor told to behave in such a way would rightly stick to their professional and principled position on the treatment of their patients. It is grossly irresponsible to suggest that doctors should not tell patients what illness or disease they have, nor explain in detail the consequences. It is disappointing that the insurance industry even thought to suggest such a thing. I am worried that, as a result of the House of Lords decision, the insurance industry may now question people diagnosed with pleural plaques about their liability. I have even asked for information on that. I am very concerned that the insurance industry may increase people’s insurance payments, in the light of the position taken by the House of Lords, and I would like an investigation into that to ensure that it does not go down that road.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the situation in Scotland. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk is absolutely right; if the Scottish Executive act on their announcement after the House of Lords decision, it would make things very complicated. We have asked for information from the Scottish Executive about progress on the matter, and I am afraid to tell my hon. Friends that silence was the great reply. We have not heard much about what progress, if any, they have made.

In many respects, Scottish law is very different from the law in England. The hon. Gentleman asked about people living in England, but working in Scotland, and about Scots living in Scotland, but working in England, who have pleural plaques. Because the law in England says that there is no compensation, they will not achieve what they think they might achieve. The issue is very complicated, but we will watch it with interest, and if the Scottish Parliament finds a way of dealing with it, we will examine that very carefully. I agree that it would be unacceptable in such a situation for people in one part of the United Kingdom to receive compensation and others in another part not to do so. That would be inequitable.

Why are we waiting for the actions of the Scottish Parliament before we act? Why does Parliament not take the lead, do something about it, and let the Scottish Parliament follow us?

Because we have accepted the House of Lords decision and we do not think it would be appropriate to legislate. In conversations with hon. Friends who have raised the issue and campaigned on it, including my hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North and for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), we considered the idea of a register, which the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk mentioned. However, from discussions with the TUC, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and others, it does not appear that a register is appropriate. I understand the commitment and passion shown by hon. Members and the campaigning that they have undertaken, and it would be inappropriate for me to close the door on further discussions about what else might be achievable. I need to involve colleagues from other Departments that would be directly affected by any change in the law, if any were to be made. However, the Government’s current view is that a change in the legislation is not appropriate; it would change the law of negligence so fundamentally that it would not be an appropriate process.

I accept what my hon. Friends said about the issues, and if, as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, for example, the Industrial Injury Advisory Council considered the issue in more detail and decided where pleural plaques should be placed in the definitions of industrial injury, we might be able to reconsider our position. I make a commitment to my hon. Friends that the door is not entirely closed. It does not seem appropriate currently to legislate, but I shall return to the Department and examine whether there is a way of reviewing the industrial injuries process to determine whether action would be appropriate. People were compensated with relatively small amounts of money, and the House of Lords decision, having overturned that decision, has made life more difficult for others.

If the Minister is going back to speak to her officials and take some advice about the issue, will she also consider taking some independent advice, particularly from the trade unions and their legal representatives?

My hon. Friend knows that I have met, and we will to continue to meet, the trade unions about that and other issues in this area to ensure that we get the situation right. The trade unions have been very open with us, as we have been with them, about the right way forward.

I understand the passion and commitment that my hon. Friends have brought to the debate, and I have deep sympathy with them and their constituents. However, it is not appropriate to overturn the House of Lords judgment, given that it was unanimous and given that the matter was dealt with in that manner. Nevertheless, I am more than happy to continue to hold discussions with my hon. Friends to determine whether there is a way in which we can help and support people such as their constituents, who have been suffering as a result of industrial injuries and pleural plaques.