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Pleural Plaques

Volume 487: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2009

As you can see from the number of hon. Members present, Mr. Williams, there is a great deal of interest in this issue. If my memory serves me right, this is the fourth debate on pleural plaques. It has taken us a long time to get an answer to the problem, and we are not there yet. However, given what the Prime Minister said about an hour ago, we are extremely confident that something positive will be forthcoming.

First, may I thank a number of people? Through you, Mr. Williams, I thank Mr. Speaker for affording us the time to debate the issue. He has been extremely generous with time, and we should like to put our thanks on record. I also take this opportunity to mention the trade unions that have been extremely helpful and vigilant. Unite—my union—the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians and the GMB have been helpful. I thank Thompsons Solicitors for advising all those who have taken an interest in the matter.

Will my hon. Friend also congratulate Karen Gillon MSP who put through the Scottish Parliament the Bill that now receives all-party support in Scotland?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Karen Gillon worked tirelessly in the Scottish Parliament to bring forward that Bill. I will touch on progress in the Scottish Parliament later.

Finally, I put on record the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (John McFall) for not being in the Chamber. As Chairman of the Treasury Committee, he is currently raising some serious questions with bankers.

Although most people know where pleural plaques come from, it may be worth while for me to put on record the background. They are caused by asbestos fibres lodged in the lungs. In and of themselves, they are generally symptomless. The most likely source of exposure is the workplace. People diagnosed with pleural plaques are often very fearful of developing asbestosis or full-blown mesothelioma, which is always fatal. Our late great friend, John MacDougall MP, died from mesothelioma earlier this year.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am quite sure that he is aware of what is happening within John MacDougall’s family. His wife and daughter are very keen to set up a trust, which is supported by our hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy). who is on another Select Committee and gives his apologies as well. They want to set up a trust fund for all sufferers of lung disease, including conditions that could be related to pleural plaques. Would it not be a fitting tribute for our Government to give money for that in John’s name?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When John MacDougall was alive, he campaigned long and hard for people with asbestosis. Unfortunately, he, too, fell victim to the disease. I am well aware that his family—his wife Cathy and his daughter Julie—are working to secure a trust fund for people who are suffering from that terrible illness.

My hon. Friend is talking about the links between pleural plaques and mesothelioma. He will be aware that insurance companies routinely argue that if someone has pleural plaques the probability of them getting mesothelioma is as low as 1 per cent, yet Thompsons Solicitors and others who have done well-rooted research show that the proportion is somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent. We need to work with sounder and better resourced figures than the ones that the insurance companies are using. Does my hon. Friend agree?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some would say, “The insurance companies would say that wouldn’t they?” I think that I speak for many of my colleagues when I say that I would rather trust the words of Thompsons Solicitors than some of the Shylock legal people who are doing the rounds. It is worth remembering that if this problem is not solved, we could, in years to come, face a similar situation to the one that we now face with the bankers—we could be asking the insurance companies why they did not fulfil their obligations.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on campaigning on the issue and on gathering us all together. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Government will not move on the issue. The villain of the piece is the insurance companies. They are the backers of the polluters, and they have been moving away from the problem for years. All we ask is that the insurance companies pay up—not the Government, the insurance companies. I hope that our Ministers are not hiding behind Departments that say, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it.” I agree with my hon. Friend that we could end up back in this Chamber in a year’s time with an insurance crisis on our hands as those companies back further away. We will be pulling insurance companies into public ownership and having to deal with things ourselves. Why go down that route when we can change the law now?

My right hon. Friend is right. Many of us know about the work that he has put in over the years. He was involved in the whole issue of asbestosis for many years, long before I was involved with it. I respect and value his views on the matter.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. If he wants to change the law back, there is now a vehicle for doing so—the Damages (Asbestos-Related Conditions) Bill, which I tabled after my famous sleepover to get priority for it on 24 April. The Government have a couple of months to make up their minds. Then all they have to do is back my Bill and give it Government time.

I am sure that the Minister was listening with interest and taking note of everything that my hon. Friend said. I genuinely wish him well with his private Member’s Bill.

In a recent decision, the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords held that pleural plaques do not constitute sufficient harm to justify any award of compensation, even when the individual is so upset by the diagnosis of future harm that he or she develops a diagnosed psychiatric illness. That unfortunate decision could adversely affect tens of thousands of working people along with all the major trade unions and other Labour Ministers.

I support a change in the law to overturn that adverse decision, otherwise the insurance companies will have a windfall. For many years, damages have been awarded for pleural plaques, so insurance companies have factored it in to their premiums, and have thus received the premium income on the basis that they would have to pay out a certain proportion of it to pleural plaques victims. If the court decision is not overturned, the insurance companies will simply be able to pocket the money they had planned to pay out, and that cannot be right.

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend on his campaign and on securing the debate. Does he agree that our Government must reverse the law before the next general election? We have waited for too long, and the pace and progress on the issue have been miniscule. The time has come for the Government to act, and they must act before the next election.

My hon. Friend is right. I hope that the Government will come forward with a positive reply soon—either yesterday or tomorrow and not simply before the next election.

Recently, my colleagues and I had a very helpful meeting with the Secretary of State for Justice, and he was sympathetic. However, he pointed out that if the decision is legislatively overturned, there would be a cost to various Departments, particularly to the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I sincerely hope that the insurance companies, rather than taxpayers, pick up the costs relating to pleural plaques.

We have to raise other questions about the trigger litigation to be used when a condition develops into mesothelioma, or indeed into pleural plaques. Mesothelioma, as I understand it, is a fatal illness caused by asbestos. Around 2,000 people in the UK will be diagnosed with mesothelioma this year and tens of thousands more will die in the next 10 to 15 years. People who worked in the manufacturing, engineering or construction industries, in which employers routinely failed to protect them from exposure to asbestos, are among those most at risk.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and thank him on behalf of all the ship workers on the Clyde. One person we missed out is Tony Worthington, the former Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, who did excellent work on asbestosis, and I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that shipyard workers still need to be looked after, even all these years after losing their jobs.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he has a proud record of representing the men and women on the Clyde in terms of this terrible disease. I too make brief mention of the late Tony Worthington, who worked hard and tirelessly for the victims of pleural plaques, as did John MacDougall. We must remember that there are tens of thousands of John MacDougalls and Tony Worthingtons, and every one of them deserves our attention and support.

The practice of the insurance industry for decades was that the insurer on cover at the time of exposure to asbestos paid the claim. If someone was exposed in 1965 but diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2006, the employer’s insurer in 1965 paid the claim. In the last 18 months a number of insurers have refused to pay out in mesothelioma cases, arguing that the wording of the insurance policies they sold to employers decades ago means something very different to what they previously accepted it to mean—in other words, a cop-out.

The insurers have run test cases arguing that the trigger for the insurance policy is not the exposure to asbestos, but the development of the disease, so the benefit for those insurers will be to escape liability completely. The problem for victims will be that 40 years or more after they were exposed to asbestos, many employers have ceased trading and no insurance details can be found.

I thank my hon. Friend for indulging me once more—I will not test his patience again. Does he agree that there are more health issues related to mesothelioma and pleural plaques? A person who develops pleural plaques sees how many people have developed mesothelioma as a result of pleural plaques, so they think that they will die. That produces the most distressing anxiety for them and their families, and often gives rise to mental health issues as well. The family unit and communities can be affected by pleural plaques in so many different ways. By the way, Tony Worthington is not dead—I saw him last week.

On the point that the hon. Gentleman was just making about the difficulty of tracing insurers and about insurers either going bust or disappearing, may I plug my other Bill, which also relates to the matter, the Employers’ Liability Insurance Bureau Bill, which is scheduled for Second Reading on 13 March? It would provide for a register of insurers so that if employers disappear, we will still have a register of insurers and also an insurer of last resort. If negligent drivers can be required to compensate people through the Motor Insurance Bureau, why should negligent and uninsured employers not also be, because they have broken the law by not having insurance in just the same way? My Bill will provide for that, so perhaps the Government would consider it as well.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) has just said. As someone who spent 30 years in the mining industry, and indeed was exposed to asbestos for the whole of that period, I regularly meet friends and colleagues whose lives have been ruined as a result of such exposure. People who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques can think of little else, and all that they can consider is that their next step could be a fatal one, so it is vital that compensation is paid.

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. The anxiety that is caused when a person is told that they have pleural plaques is such that I think that it is incredibly irresponsible of the legal profession to blame the medical profession for causing anxiety because they told someone that they had pleural plaques.

I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend not only for securing the debate, but for all the work he has done to get some form of compensation for the disease, and indeed that work has been done by many Members on the Labour Benches. Will he join me in congratulating my local newspaper in Newcastle, the Evening Chronicle, which has launched a people’s campaign to bring justice to a “forgotten generation”? That is the sort of campaign that all newspapers across the country should be adopting to get all MPs on board on the issue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the sorriest part of all is that the Law Lords accepted advice from lawyers representing insurers who will save around £1 billion by not compensating pleural plaques sufferers who are also suffering from stress and that that is entirely wrong? It might be all right where the lawyers and insurers live and breathe the air, but where we come from, in areas such as Tyneside and Clydeside, people are dying every day from mesothelioma, and that puts real stress on families, communities and the individual.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I have read the press releases and news reviews from the Evening Chronicle, which has been very positive and helpful, focusing on things that really matter to people. Perhaps our friends in the news and media could take that point on board and report the positive things that parliamentarians of all parties do every day.

Returning to the question of the trigger litigation, the trigger test cases were heard in the High Court over nine weeks from June 2008. The judgment was delivered on 21 November 2008, and the insurers lost. They argued for an appeal, and have been given leave to appeal the case to the Court of Appeal. They successfully sought a stay on any payment of compensation until the decision of the Court of Appeal. The prospect of the trigger issue appeal means that the frustration and delay in the process of obtaining compensation for those dying from mesothelioma and for the families of those who have died will continue until next year.

If the insurers’ appeal is ultimately successful thousands of mesothelioma victims and their families will be deprived of their entitlement to compensation. It is supremely cynical of Anthony Hughes, the president of the Forum of Insurance Lawyers, a lobby group representing insurers, to say, as he has been quoted by the BBC:

“We welcome this clarification of the law. We hope this will now unlock the flow of damages to mesothelioma victims.”

He must know full well that the insurers obtaining leave to appeal signals a further delay to any payments.

Across Britain, asbestos-related diseases claim the lives of approximately 4,000 people every year, which is more than the number of road traffic deaths. The heat-resistant mineral was used widely in the UK construction sector from the late 19th century until it was banned in 1999. In the UK, with its history of heavy industry, the consequences have been acute and will continue to be so as the latency period can be as long as 40 years.

I also wish to pay tribute to photographer Louie Palu, who has journeyed from Canada to India, England and Scotland, taking stark black and white pictures of sufferers. He said:

“No one deserves to die because they go to work and breathe a dust that gives them a death sentence…I met workers in the late stages of cancer from asbestos who looked like they had wandered out of a concentration camp. That shocked me and made me angry. Thanks to these brave people consenting to having their stories told and images published, we will not forget that the next victims of asbestos could be or already are our friends, mothers, sisters, wives, husbands, brothers, fathers and children. Their experience, memories and suffering should not be forgotten. There is asbestos all over the place, and people need to know and see that average everyday people can unknowingly poison themselves and die.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend. There is another important aspect to the issue. Some of us are interested in radiation’s effects on Christmas island; the veterans in that case are often told that asbestos is different in terms of getting the evidence. That often seems to be an excuse—we know that the evidence has not been given—to hide behind. If we can win this one, we can win many other battles where people know that they have been subjected to radiation, chemicals and so on. If we cannot win on asbestos, we will lose an awful lot for many people. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to win this one, so that we can carry on with other problems that have been inflicted on working people?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has extensive knowledge of safety in the workplace. If we succeed on pleural plaques, I hope it will send a clear message to all UK employers that they cannot play with people’s lives, and that if they subject workers to serious conditions or toxic chemicals, they will suffer the appropriate consequences and pay for it.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue yet again. It is frustrating that we have to keep coming back to it, but it is only right that we do. His point about how people are treated at work fits in with what has been called the compensation culture. It is clear to us, at least on this side of the House, that the best way to do away with compensation culture is to stop killing, poisoning and injuring people at work. Then there will not be any need for compensation.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a proud record of working with people, particularly in the third world, who have suffered serious damage from the workplace, and of campaigning on the issue.

It is important that the UK Parliament should take responsibility for dealing with pleural plaques. The deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), came to the last debate on this subject in Westminster Hall and talked about the situation in Northern Ireland. He said to my hon. Friend the Minister:

“In Northern Ireland, the Department for which I have responsibility is currently undertaking a consultation on this issue. We have followed closely what Scotland has done and proposes to do…We must make a priority of dealing with and tackling the issues facing ordinary families, who have been devastated by the consequences of this disease and other effects of asbestosis. Hopefully, we in Northern Ireland will be able to move forward on this issue at the earliest opportunity, taking account of the consultation process.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 26 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 304WH.]

As I understand it, that is similar to what is happening in the Scottish Parliament.

I welcome this debate, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing it and apologise for not being able to stay for all of it. He said that the UK Government must take responsibility. They have not yet made clear what they intend to do in relation to funding, but in Scotland, the first and second stages of the legislation have been passed. Notwithstanding the UK Government’s failure so far to declare, it is the intention to pass the Bill at the earliest possible opportunity. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman and his English and Welsh colleagues more leverage in the campaign that they are running, particularly for constituents who are not in Scotland.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I have put it on record that at the end of the day, victims and families simply want compensation. Where it comes from and who is responsible for it is secondary. On a practical level, however, I think it will have to happen through UK legislation. Most people who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques or mesothelioma travel all over the UK. For them to be subjected to different laws in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales would make no sense. There must be a blanket UK legislation solution to the problem. Although I welcome what is going on in Scotland and I wish the Scottish every success, in the long term, the aspirations and compensation claims will be more effectively dealt with at UK level.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his hard work. Does he agree that at the end of the day, it is a question of justice? All the legal niceties, the House of Lords decision and so on can take a running jump. What the families, survivors and victims want is justice. The issue is a political one that should be sorted out in our country’s democratic arena, the House of Commons. The Government should get on, sort it out politically and stop worrying about technicalities. The insurance companies have had the money; they should pay out now.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can sense the frustration in his comments. It is probably shared by most of my colleagues in Parliament.

I shall now make some progress, as I am conscious that other people wish to contribute. I offer my commiserations to the lawyer David Pugh on failing to clinch an award for his campaign to deprive workers of compensation for the effects of asbestos. He was shortlisted for the personal injury awards 2008 after clinching a ruling in the House of Lords that he claimed saved the industry £1.2 billion. He argued that workers who develop pleural plaques, a scarring of the lungs, should not receive compensation, as the symptom is not dangerous in itself. Asbestos campaigners point out that plaques are often terrifying early warnings of worse to come and that the insurance industry has been paying out for them for 20 years. Pugh, a partner with Sheffield-based solicitors Halliwells, won what he described as

“one of the most groundbreaking personal injury litigation decisions in UK legal history”.

I was delighted to find out that he did not win the award. Perhaps we should recognise his lack of contribution.

Dr. Pamela Abernethy, of the Forum of Insurance Lawyers, gave evidence before the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee. She said that

“the consensus…is clear that pleural plaques are simply the body’s physiological response to the presence of foreign fibres.”

The fibres, she said, are then walled off by the body’s defences to prevent them from causing harm, so

“my submission would be that plaques are a good thing and do not cause harm…The plaques are markers of exposure to asbestos.”

The Bill before the Justice Committee is intended to reverse a decision by the House of Lords that people with the condition cannot claim compensation. That gives us a flavour of how the insurance industry feels about the situation.

During the last debate on this issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) asked the Secretary of State for Justice whether he was aware that trade unionists were demonstrating and lobbying at that moment outside Parliament and in this very Chamber. The Justice Secretary said:

“I am indeed aware of today’s lobby and demonstrations. I fully understand the concern of all who are here and the people they represent about the implications of the Law Lords’ decision…The consultation that I initiated earlier this year closed three weeks ago. We have received more than 300 responses to it and we are currently assessing them. I hope to announce our response next month.”—[Official Report, 28 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 726.]

We are still waiting for that to happen.

The Prime Minister has said on record:

“Asbestosis and mesothelioma are terrible diseases, and all of us who have seen the effects that they cause know that we have to do more to help the victims of those diseases.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 276.]

Later in 2008, he said:

“I met a delegation of hon. Members concerned about pleural plaques. It is a serious issue that has arisen as a result of a High Court judgment, and the Government are proposing to bring forward a consultation document on it in the next few weeks. We are looking very carefully at the representations that my hon. Friend and others have made. We are very sensitive to the fact that people with pleural plaques may suffer from asbestosis and other diseases as a result of their exposure to asbestos, and we are determined to do what we can to help them. I think that he will look forward to the document that we will bring forward in the next few days.”—[Official Report, 21 May 2008; Vol. 476, c. 317.]

This is a very important debate. Thousands of our constituents are concerned about the lack of compensation. They look to their legislators, from all parties, to come up with a solution to the problem, so that they can receive the compensation they so richly deserve and so that, most importantly, we send this message from Parliament to employers: “If you treat your workers badly, if you cause them harm, we will be after you.”

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. The number of hon. Members who are here this afternoon, all of us representing the industrial backbone of this country, shows the great strength of feeling in our communities about the Law Lords’ decision.

I want to pose one question: why is it that, when bankers are threatened with losing one year’s bonus, they threaten legal action straight away, but when ordinary people who have worked all their lives and then become ill because of an industrial injury, whether it is pneumocosis, byssinosis or asbestosis, the history all along is that those folk have had to fight for what is their right and their just dessert? This issue of pleural plaques is yet another example of that, and that is why people are so mad.

I hope that when the Government announce their decision, they will not just deal with this one issue. I hope that they will set in train a system that will prevent employers and insurance companies from avoiding their responsibilities. It is quite clear to me that, whether it is from the trigger case or whatever, there must be legislation in place to ensure that employers have employer’s liability insurance and that records are kept.

We also need to keep records of when people are diagnosed with an injury. In Rochdale, we had Turner and Newall, a company that used to boast about the annual medical inspections that it gave its work force. The fact is that the workers were never told what injuries they had contracted, and when workers tried to chase things up, the company denied that they ever had an injury.

I want to put on the record that that company, Turner and Newall, which was the parent company of J. W. Roberts in my constituency, where people died in the 1980s, denied that it even had any records. We had to go to court to force the records out of the company to find the list of employers, because they claimed, rather amazingly for an asbestos company, that the records had been destroyed by fire.

Of course they were not destroyed. Some of us are concerned that there may still be changes in the Turner and Newall compensation fund. That is why I believe that the Government, in dealing with the issue of pleural plaques, must go further and not just deal that issue alone, as a one-off, so that next time round the insurance companies find another way to weasel out of paying people their due.

Does the hon. Gentleman also remember a time when Turner and Newall argued that blue asbestos was the danger and white asbestos was so safe that people could eat it on their sandwiches? That was a lie as well, which was backed by the medical brotherhood.

Yes, absolutely. There is a lot of guilt hanging about, so I do not think that we should feel guilty about any of the things that we are saying now about the lies that the medical, academic and other professions spread in the days of Turner and Newall.

I agree. The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. As I said, at every stage throughout this whole sorry saga, hon. Members and ordinary members of the public have had to fight for what is their right. The issue of pleural plaques is yet another example.

As I say, I hope that the Government will consider broadening the scope of their response to measures to ensure that there is a register and that the records are kept. It is quite clear that the voluntary register is not working and that people are being denied their rights. I hope that the Government will go further and insist that anyone who is diagnosed with pleural plaques receives regular medical examinations, so that the extent of their injury can be determined and they do not have to go into a legal fight to receive what they are due when, say, they have a terminal illness such as mesothelioma. I also hope that the Government will use some of the subsidy because, let us be honest, we are not saying that the Government should pay. The employers have paid their liability insurance, so this is now an insurance company matter. Finally, I hope that a levy can be introduced to ensure that research into asbestos-related diseases receives the priority that it deserves.

In my view, this is a marker for whether the Government are serious about taking on the insurance industry. That is the root of the problem. Are we going to take the industry on, or will we continue to allow it to use every legal trick in the book to deny people who have worked all their lives, often on low pay, what they deserve? I hope that in the Minister’s response today and in the announcement later on, we will see not only a resolution of the pleural plaques issue, but a root and branch review of the system of dealing with industrial injury compensation. At the moment, clearly, the only winners are the insurance companies—and the lawyers.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), not only on securing this debate but on the long campaign that he has waged to try to get justice for the victims of pleural plaques.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, pleural plaques are caused by the asbestos fibre coming through the lung on to the lining of the lung. Some time ago, during a meeting with a Minister, we encountered an adviser who said at that time that pleural plaques were not confined to people who had been exposed to asbestos. As a result of that, we got the report of two eminent consultants, who made it quite plain that pleural plaques occur only when a person has been exposed to asbestos. We know that after 15 years the plaques generally show up, and that after about 20 to 30 years, there is a calcification of the plaques.

The decision that was made by the Law Lords was a perverse decision. I realise that many lawyers say that the decision complies with the law, but I take the view that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) expressed. We are not talking about the “niceties” of the law. We want to see justice and fairness. The law may be correct, but it is unfair and unjust. We want to see that judgment of the Law Lords overturned, to give people with pleural plaques fairness and justice. We know from evidence that pleural plaques can, in certain circumstances, lead to a worsening of the disease.

My hon. Friend says that the law may be correct, but if it is, why have the legal systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland rejected that same law? Surely, the law being an ass is normal.

I hear my hon. Friend’s comment. In many circumstances, the law is an ass, and in this particular case I believe that it is an ass. In our last debate on this subject, I recall the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who is the spokesman for the Liberal party, talking about where the law became very complicated and complex in relation to this case. As I say, it is not the “niceties” of the law that we are concerned with. We want to see the judgment overturned and we want to see justice and fairness.

We know that there is a relationship between pleural plaques and mesothelioma. When the courts dealt with these cases before 2004, they accepted that relationship. Then we got the 2004 High Court judgment that gave us this term about the well-being of people who had pleural plaques. Since then, we have seen the law move on from November 2005 to the recent House of Lords decision. In that period, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) said, the insurance companies have waged a continual assault on the legislation as it relates to asbestos and diseases that are brought about by exposure to asbestos.

I hope that when we get the decision from the Ministry of Justice, it sends the message that we will not tolerate the insurance industry interfering, as it has over the past five years, to set back decisions in cases involving asbestos, asbestosis and mesothelioma cancer, thus depriving people of compensation. We have to reinforce people’s right to compensation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has mentioned his private Member’s Bill, with which he hopes to introduce an employers’ liability insurance bureau based on the principle of the Motor Insurance Bureau. That is the way forward, because we need to know that people who take out employers’ liability insurance will also pay a little extra into a fund that would then be available to someone whose employer’s insurance certificate could not be traced. That person would then be able to obtain compensation and would not be denied it because the insurance certificate that his employer might or might not have had could not be traced, or because his employer had gone out of business. It is important to develop that concept, and I hope that the Minister is prepared to take that on board.

The employer’s liability insurance bureau would be very important in relation to mesothelioma and other cancers that are caused by exposure to asbestos—it does not cause only mesothelioma. As has been noted, about 4,000 people a year die from exposure to asbestos, although the TUC argues that the number is twice that. An expert on the subject, Peter Martin, set out in The Sunday Times magazine of 17 April 2007 that between 2000 and 2050, there would be 186,000 deaths as a result of exposure to asbestos. We have to ensure that people who are exposed to asbestos have a fair and just system by which to proceed with compensation claims if they have been negligently exposed and have then developed the diseases that we have heard about as a result of their employer’s negligence. That applies particularly to pleural plaques, which come about only through such exposure. In 99 per cent. of cases, exposure has been negligent.

The Government have done a number of things, and the Minister has played an important part in ensuring that we got the Compensation Act 2006, which dealt quickly with the Barker case and reductions in compensation. The House of Lords’ decision in that case was delivered in May 2006, and the Government had overturned it by July 2006. The Government’s speedy action on that was welcome, as was the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008, which set out a compensation scheme for mesothelioma cancer sufferers that kicked in on 1 October 2008. Anyone who is diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer may make a claim and receive compensation, so the Government have acted very speedily in certain areas. The dual diagnosis system that was used when people claimed for industrial injuries and disability benefits has gone. Now, the report of the consultant who diagnosed the mesothelioma cancer can be used when claiming industrial injuries disablement benefits. A great deal has been done, but we must overturn this case to give justice and fairness to people who suffer from pleural plaques.

I agree with my hon. Friend about having an employers’ liability insurance bureau, and about the other steps that the Government have taken. However, does he agree that although it is important to have state insurance and state help for victims, the Government should not cast the burden on to taxpayers and let insurance companies off the hook in pleural plaques cases, allowing them to save £1.5 billion? Does he agree that although we want state support for victims, we also want insurance companies to pay out the money that they have taken in premiums in previous years?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend; the polluter should pay. In cases in which a man or woman has been exposed to asbestos, and that has brought on a disease, their employer should pay. On the basis of the polluter pays principle, the employer should be made, through its insurance, to ensure that there is compensation.


I shall wind up by drawing hon. Members’ attention to the fact that a group of consultants met here just before Christmas with a view to setting up a national centre for asbestos studies. They have been in touch with Mike Richards, at the Department of Health, and things seem to be going very well. I hope that such a centre will be set up in the UK early this year, because there is such a lot to be done and so much that we do not know about the effects of asbestos on the body. We do not know whether people tend to develop mesothelioma after a number of brief exposures or whether it can be brought about by a single exposure for a short period.

In 1997, I brought to the attention of the House a case of a former miner—like my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), who is no longer in his seat—who had kept a fair record of his work and could recall that he had worked with a machine for four months in 1954. Because of the long latency, he was not diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer until 1997. It is important that we give fairness and justice to our people by overturning the Law Lords’ decision through legislation.

My hon. Friends have explained the situation clearly. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) in particular for his excellent work on mesothelioma, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) for securing the debate.

One issue of concern is that there was a precedent for compensation payments back in the 1980s, and there was recognition of why we needed those payments, so their subsequent disappearance has made people extremely angry. In 2004, when insurers brought test cases before the High Court for England and Wales, Mr. Justice Holland gave a judgment in favour of the claimants. One cannot believe that that case was not well prepared. I am sure that absolutely every effort would have been put into it, because the insurers were trying desperately to wriggle out of their responsibilities. Clearly, the message was sent that there was a need for compensation, so it came as a disappointment to everyone when the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords turned that decision on its head.

I know that my hon. Friend has met my constituent, Brian Legge, the chairman of the boilermakers’ section of the GMB in Swansea, who is a pleural plaques victim and an assiduous campaigner for justice for his fellow victims in south-west Wales. Does she agree that this issue will not go away until the Brian Legges of this world have got justice?

I certainly do agree. The campaign has been going on for a long time, as my hon. Friend says, and many people who are more experienced than me have done a tremendous amount of work on it. The current situation is that the Government consultation closed on 1 October. Although it is a decision that is extremely significant and will take some time, four months have gone by and we really want to have answers now.

The important question about the answers that we get is: what sort of message are we sending to insurers? Are we sending out a message that they can wriggle out of payments? We have made huge strides forwards since the 19th century in terms of health and safety and improving working conditions and, indeed, in our development of the understanding of occupational medicine. However, in any profit-making industry, there is always the temptation to cut corners. Often, the first things to go are the measures necessary to protect workers from the harmful substances with which they are working.

Such cost-cutting exercises are often exacerbated by the fierce competitive tendering culture that we have seen in the past few years. Taking no action on the issue or, indeed, letting insurers think that they can get away with wriggling out of compensation for conditions such as pleural plaques sends out a powerful message—to my mind, the wrong sort of message—that workers do not matter, that any hardships, difficulties and diseases that they suffer are not of any importance, and that companies and insurers can forget about social responsibility. Taking no action tells employers to spend money on finding ways of dodging their responsibilities, paying their lawyers, and dining out with their cronies in the insurance business, rather than looking after their workers and making their workplaces as safe as possible.

That is not my vision of a just and fair society. I want a society in which people come before profit and where a worker’s health and lifespan are more important than a boss’s bonuses. I stress to the Minister that the Government’s response to the consultation must send out a clear message to society, employers, insurers, and workers, that goes much further than the issue of compensation for pleural plaques. That message will go to the heart—or perhaps I should say the lungs—of what sort of society we want.

When this debate was proposed, I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) whether anything had changed because I have been involved in the past few debates on the matter. He said, “No, Dave, nothing’s changed.” I wondered whether it was worth coming here today, other than to give support.

Are we going to discuss again the history of working people across the world who have been abused and the fact that in Namibia they put young children inside great big plastic bags to stamp down the asbestos and make sure that they have more of the poisoned substance loaded up to send around the world? Are we going to talk again about civil servants who described pleural plaques as being little more than freckles? Do we talk about employers who for many years knowingly and criminally exposed workers to the substance, despite the fact that they knew for more than a hundred years that it was killing people? Do we go over the debate about people arguing in court that if it cannot be proven which fibre from which factory killed a worker, they cannot get compensation? Do we have to speak again about the £1.4 billion that the insurers said that they would save as a result of the Law Lords’ rulings last year or the year before? Do we again have to go through the issue of doctors saying that people only get stressed because they have been told that they have pleural plaques—the inference being that they should not tell somebody that they have an illness? That seems quite wrong.

Do we again talk about the frustration that we all feel about the debate? We should not have had to have a debate here in the first place, but we are now here for the fourth time. We have been to see the Prime Minister, and we have met the Minister, and I have nothing but total respect for the way in which she has dealt with the subject. However, the truth is that we have met Ministers time and again. We have asked questions; we have tabled early-day motions; we have had debates. In addition, as mentioned before, there have been campaigns in the local press, and it would appear that, more or less, nothing has changed.

However, the truth is that some things have changed. One of things that I have heard today makes me feel confident, but also worries me. We have heard that in Scotland—as we clearly said would happen—Karen Gillon has introduced a Bill. I am pleased to tell hon. Members that Karen Gillon is a close friend of mine and my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat)—it is good to see one of our apprentices doing well. If the legislation in Scotland is all we can get, it is great for the people in Scotland, but there is a real worry that if we have different legislation in this part of the United Kingdom, we will end up creating another bun feast for the lawyers.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) for securing the debate, and I apologise for not being here at the beginning. The last time we were here, I told the Minister that a solution to the problem must be found in this House. I reiterate that I have a constituent who probably became ill during his working life without knowing it. He now lives in my area. The last thing that we want is people living in one part of the country and finding that they cannot get compensation, which can only be paid in relation to something that is happening in a devolved Administration. We need a solution here in this House of Commons—in our Parliament.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who first made that point about four months ago—it could even have been in the debate about eight months ago. The thing that I worry about is if we have legislation here and other legislation in Scotland, the lawyers will once again get their hands on it and have an argument, but while that is going on, people are dying.

The real reason that I want to speak today is that something has changed. Three hours ago, I was advised that a close friend of mine who was a leader of the community for which I am MP died. She had been suffering from mesothelioma for two years. She had worked in the health service and was a vivacious woman. She was well known in the area, full of life, and at the top of the tree in her career. I will not name her, because her family and friends might not be aware of what has happened yet. However, her death has brought home to me what far too many people in this country are going through, day in and day out. People are dying as a result of criminal negligence—there is no other way to describe what has gone on. We must make sure that we put an end to the matter as quickly and as fully as possible today.

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) for securing the debate. I am sorry that he has had to do so. The comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) about how long this has been going on show that the situation is clearly unacceptable.

In the few minutes available, I shall talk about an aspect that we sometimes forget. All contributors have spoken eloquently about the victims, but we never really define who they are. We talk about compensation for the person suffering from asbestos-related disease, but the person suffering from the disease is not the only victim, because this is a whole-family issue. The family suffer and we never stop to think about that and how to compensate them.

We heard earlier that money is not the only compensation. First and foremost, how do we recognise how devastating this disease is? How many of us have had members of our family contract these diseases and die from them? From my own personal experience, through which I wish I had not had to go, I have had two such people in my family. I do not wish that on any family in the country. There might, for example, be someone who has an uncle who is told that the pleural plaques are nothing, but who then goes on to develop a full blown asbestos-related disease from which he subsequently dies. A member of the family will have had to visit the hospital—not during the normal hospital visiting times—and stay there all through the night so that they can turn their loved one and ensure that the fluid in their lungs does not cause them discomfort. People cannot expect hard-working health care nurses and doctors to turn a loved one every couple of minutes through the night. When someone spends 28 nights in one month before their loved one dies, working through the night turning them and they hear the suffering of the other patients, they realise what a horrible death results from respiratory disease.

I would like the Minister to take away from today the understanding that although the comments about compensation and the legal decisions are correct, this is not simply about the person who suffers the illness; it is a whole-family issue.

I know a bit about industrial lung disease myself, because my grandfather, who was a coal miner and then a foundry worker, died of it; and, only last month, a former colleague, who was a scientist, died of mesothelioma. The disease affects not only industrial areas, such as the one that I am originally from, but the area in which I now live. It is important, however, that we do not let our natural anger at these negligent and often deceitful employers—or at the insurance companies which, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) rightly said, have had a windfall as a result of the events—divert us from proposing practical and fair solutions to the problem.

I shall say a couple of things about where I think the solution lies. I agree largely with what the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said in an intervention about setting up a better insurance system, and I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North about the psychiatric injury cases. However, I am perhaps the last person around to have some doubts about the Damages (Asbestos-related Conditions) (Scotland) Bill, which does not quite work. It defines pleural plaques simply as personal injury, but there are two problems with that. First, it is unfair to other people who are exposed to asbestos and have an equal chance of developing mesothelioma or asbestosis but who do not have plaques—we must sort that out. The second problem, which is more distant but still bothers me, is that the Bill does not help people who are in a similar position but suffer from other diseases—for example, people who have been exposed either to contaminated blood and have HIV-positive results but no symptoms of AIDS, or to other blood diseases. The Bill leaves them no better off than they are now, even though, in many respects, their cases are equivalent to the pleural plaques cases.

The explanatory notes to the Scottish Bill state that the average compensation will be about £8,000, but that the lawyers’ fees will be £14,000, which is not right. There must be a better way than just handing all the money over to lawyers, but I fear that the result will be worse, because the relevant Scottish Parliament Committee assumes that the compensation payment will be roughly the same as it was before. I am not too sure that it will, however, because the law, after Gregg v. Scott, states that one cannot get compensation simply because of the risk of developing a future disease, and a good part of previous pleural plaques payments were associated with the idea that one could.

I fear that the Scottish Bill will not produce compensation anywhere near £8,000, and the courts will treat the plaque issue as separate from the future disease issue, because there is no causal link between the two. It is a sign that one is at risk, but there is no causal link between the plaque and the eventual disease. If one cannot get any money for the risk of future disease, one will get money only for the plaques, and nothing in the Bill states what that compensation will be. Even allowing some money for anxiety, I would be surprised if, based on the Bill as drafted, people got more than £1,000. If so, the ratio of compensation to lawyers’ fees would be 1:14, and we must do better than that; we cannot allow a lawyers’ bonanza to develop in this area. That is why we must consider other solutions and look at the Scottish solution more carefully.

On the idea of better insurance arrangements, I must say that people who have claims against employers, where the employers are insured, can in theory, under the Third Parties (Rights Against Insurers) Act 1930, recover against the employer even when they have become insolvent. However, there are many practical problems in doing so, and the Law Commission has proposed a draft Bill that would clear away many of those practical problems. I gather that the measure—the draft Third Parties (Rights Against Insurers) Bill—will be brought forward this Session, and I really hope that it is, because it will help.

The Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008 also helps, because, under that measure, people suffering from diffuse mesothelioma can get a compensation payment from the Government, and the Government can get the money back from the employer later. In both cases, however, there are gaps, and the two pieces of legislation do not cover the whole field. The 2008 Act covers only mesothelioma, not asbestosis, and the rights against insurers legislation does not cover cases where the employer illegally failed to insure, or failed to insure enough. That is why the suggestion from the hon. Member for Hendon, which I have also made in the past, is so important. There must be arrangements, first, to demand that when a plaque case comes up, the employer certifies that they are insured adequately for the purposes of the 1930 Act, because if they are not, there will be an obvious gap; and, secondly, if that does not work or the case involves a past event that cannot be corrected, there must be arrangements to provide for a fall-back liability fund, like the Motor Insurers Bureau fund, which is paid for by a levy on the industry. That is where I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen). We need that arrangement to ensure that people can be compensated fully when they get mesothelioma or asbestosis without having to rely on the present, shaky arrangements or hoping that the employer is still legally in existence.

Turning to psychiatric damage cases, the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) rightly said that, in purely technical and legal terms, the pleural plaques case in the House of Lords was orthodox. In one area, however, it was not orthodox but very odd, indeed: namely, in the case of Grieves v. F. T. Everard, to which the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North referred. Mr. Grieves developed clinical depression —a recognised medical condition—as a result of his diagnosis. In previous cases, the House of Lords said that all one had to prove to recover psychiatric injury damages was that some injury, whether physical or psychiatric, was foreseeable based on what the defendant did. Suddenly, based on the Grieves case, however, the illness had to be specifically psychiatric, and the House of Lords said—I do not think that even this is right—that psychiatric illness is not a foreseeable consequence of being diagnosed with pleural plaques.

On the facts, I do not understand that decision, and even on the law, it makes no sense. The argument, as other Members have said, was that either it is somehow the doctor’s fault for telling someone that they have pleural plaques, although I do not think that that is right, because doctors have a duty to tell their patient their condition; or, worse than that, it is somehow the victim’s fault for worrying about it, which is a Victorian point of view and is not right, either. It cannot be the case that it was nobody’s fault, because, as Members rightly keep saying, the employer was negligent—in the wrong—in the first place by exposing the employee to asbestos. That aspect of the House of Lords case must therefore be reversed, so that it applies to all cases, not just to asbestos cases. It can be reversed in principle, not just in the one case. I recognise that there are some difficulties with the Scottish method of dealing with the problem, but I urge the Government to come forward with proposals that will work, that are practical and that have been suggested in this Chamber.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), who has been an assiduous and tireless campaigner on this issue. He sponsored a debate in January last year, but I believe that this one is even better attended than that one, which shows the level of interest in the subject.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) that the vast majority of pleural plaques victims are in constituencies that historically contained heavy industries, but there a substantial number around the country. In my constituency, it is not just retired constituents who have developed the condition. It has also been picked up by employees in the packaging, house building, electronics assembly and warehousing industries. It has spread across the entire country.

As we have heard, pleural plaques are caused by asbestos passing through the lungs and the pleura that protect them, causing a hardening of the pleura. It is an incredibly unpleasant physical condition, because people live in the knowledge that it might at any time develop into something that is life threatening. The point was made today that the victims of pleural plaques were negligently exposed to asbestos. They would not have developed the condition if there had not been some negligence on the part of an employer. That point was made clearly by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), and it was reinforced by the hon. Member for Cambridge.

While most of the victims mercifully do not go on to suffer life-threatening diseases, I know from talking to constituents that the psychological harm and stress are enormous. I do not understand how any court of law or insurance company can measure it. How does one quantify it? In many cases, families are torn apart, people lose the will to go on working and they suffer enormously. We heard from the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) how appalling the suffering can be when full-blown symptoms develop.

The previous situation was based on a pragmatic compromise: the victims received what was not particularly generous compensation but a reasonable amount of money. For people in a vulnerable position, receiving between £5,000 and £7,000 could make a difference to their lives. The final award of up to £20,000 was not a life-changing sum, but it could bring some respite to families who were suffering a great deal. The compensation did not cost the insurance industry a lot of money because, as was made clear by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North, the cost was carried by insurance companies which simply adjusted their premiums upwards. It was almost as if the insurance industry accepted that it had a wider moral and social obligation to a group of vulnerable people.

We had a reasonably acceptable state of affairs which, as several colleagues pointed out, was based on Church v. Ministry of Defence; Sykes v. Ministry of Defence; and Patterson v. Ministry of Defence. Those cases, which were heard in the 1980s, were based on the theory of aggregation. In other words, although it was accepted that pleural plaques themselves could not give rise to a claim, they could create a causable action when aggregated with the risk of anxiety. Then, as the hon. Member for Cambridge explained, we had the Gregg case, which encouraged the insurance industry to take various test cases—I believe that there were 10 in total—leading ultimately to the House of Lords decision in Johnston v. NEI International Combustion, and Rothwell v. Chemical and Insulating Company.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge about the October 2007 House of Lords judgment, but we should not necessarily criticise the House of Lords. I agree with the hon. Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Barnsley, West and Penistone, who questioned why the insurance industry felt that it had to take the test cases. After all, we are talking about a problem which ultimately will go away, because, mercifully, there is much less exposure in the modern industrial context. The problem was not going to get worse. It was a problem that the insurance industry could live with by adjusting the premiums, as it did.

Before the hon. Gentleman carries on with the legal history, could he simply agree with me and most of the hon. Members in this Chamber that the law should be changed?

We must be clear about the facts and the fictions. The hon. Gentleman hits on an important point, because work was done by Professor Richard Doll some 10 years ago, as hon. Members know, which set out accurate projections that are proving to be true of the number of people who would become victims. He proved that there would be a peak, then the numbers would draw down. It is not as if a quantifiable measure cannot be put on the insurers’ bill. That is why, for the life of me, I cannot understand why they had to panic and rush to the Lords to get that decision, other than to get a short-term windfall gain.

What a pity the right hon. Gentleman is no longer a Minister in what is now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. He would be gingering up other Ministers to demand a solution.

To be fair to the Ministry of Justice, it published the consultation paper, “Pleural Plaques”, on 9 July. I would like to ask the Minister about the response to some of the key questions in that document. Was there any broad consensus on the two key options? Option 1 was to change the law; in other words, to go back to the status quo ante. It is staggering that the range of costs for doing so in the document is so wide. Can the Minister not be more specific and accurate on the costs? Presumably she has to hand a substantial amount of research.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge that there is a solution. If we were to change the law and go back to the status quo ante, then build into the system a number of insurance safeguards and possibly tag on a levy on the industry, we could well have a way forward. That appeals more than the idea of some no-fault payment scheme, although it should be considered as well. Perhaps the Minister could tell us what the balance of support was between the two main options in the responses that were received.

I shall close now, because people do not want to hear from the official Opposition—they want to hear from the Government—but I will just say to the Minister that the shadow Ministry of Justice team has strong feelings about the issue. A solution must be found. We accept that there is a huge amount of anger and concern in the Commons, and we will work with the Minister to the best of our ability to find a solution to the problem.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I am sure that the hon. Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and for Cambridge (David Howarth) will forgive me if I do not spend too much of my time responding to their contributions, important as they were, but turn specifically to those made by my hon. Friends.

First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) said, this is the fourth debate on this subject. I congratulate him on securing it, and I hope to God that it will be the last one. The debates demonstrate the real importance that my hon. Friends and others attach to the issue. Secondly, I want to make a profound personal and departmental apology to my hon. Friends and to the victims of pleural plaques for not yet publishing the response to the consultation. I deeply regret that. It is very unfortunate, and all I can say is that, along with this debate and the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) put to the Prime Minister today, the focus is very much on getting the response out quickly.

Let me speak briefly about the responses to the consultation. There was a large number—larger than we expected—including many from my hon. Friends, among others, and they are quite complex. The issue is complex, and the hon. Member for Cambridge highlighted some of the complexities. I say to my hon. Friend the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) and others that the Government are not hiding behind the insurers. We are determined that we get to a resolution quickly.

I did not say that the Government are hiding behind the insurers, but I am worried that the Department officials actually say, “We’re on the side of the insurers and not on the side of justice in this case.”

I do not think that Department officials say that, but even if they did, they do not make the policy—elected Members do, and we certainly would not be going down that line.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone that I absolutely intend that something should happen well before the general election. I shall also keep in mind the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has a number of private Member’s Bills in the offing and, if it is not to be the draft Third Parties (Rights Against Insurers) Bill, which I will mention in a moment, one of his Bills is also hanging in the air if there is a role for legislation.

I say to the hon. Member for Cambridge that the draft Third Parties (Rights Against Insurers) Bill is second in line to go under the new procedure in the House of Lords, so I cannot guarantee that it will be dealt with in this session of Parliament. However, it is up there near the top, so that is another example showing that we are considering ways of moving this forward. The scrutiny of Karen Gillon’s Bill in the Scottish Parliament highlighted some of the complexities involved. Although the Scottish Justice Committee welcomed the measures to enable people with pleural plaques to claim compensation, it is concerned about the Scottish Executive’s financial memorandum. In a sense, that confirms that our decision on going out to consultation was the right one.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) said earlier that this would create a division, again, between Scotland and England—and Northern Ireland, for that matter. I agree that there are certain anomalies in the Bill as it stands and that it will be amended before it goes through. It is important to note that it receives all-party support—Tory, Liberal, Scottish National party—and was introduced by Labour. However, there is a second issue. After that Bill goes through, and the status quo stands, how will employers be dealt with in Scotland? Will they not be disadvantaged by heavier premiums and insurance than apply in England? That is another anomaly that would emerge. We need a UK solution to this issue.

I could not agree more with hon. Friend. We need a UK solution. In past debates, we have raised the matter of what would happen to someone who worked in Scotland but lived in England, and vice versa. We have all rehearsed those arguments on many occasions.

As hon. Members have mentioned, the consultation considered a range of options. We received some 220 responses, some of which came from people who had been diagnosed with pleural plaques. I read helpful, informative responses from medical professionals, including Dr. Rudd and Dr. Moore-Gillon, who gave evidence to the House of Lords in the Rothwell case. Those responses, along with the review that we asked the chief medical officer and the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to undertake, demonstrated that in a number of areas there was consensus on some key points. That is useful, important and positive.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), who said that the best way to do away with the compensation culture is to have better health and safety at work. He is right. Although to some extent I accept the logic of looking at things from a wider perspective, I say to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) that, given the time that people have waited on the pleural plaques issue, I would prefer on this occasion to see something done in respect of this matter, then we can consider things in a wider scope on another occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has been rightly praised for the work that he did in respect of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. In the first three months of the scheme, 225 payments have been made totalling more than £3 million. We expected the payments to be, on average, in the region of £10,000, but on average they are £18,000. Our target was to pay claims within six weeks but, in fact, the majority are now being cleared in less than a week. What my hon. Friend said on the subject is important and shows that if we put a scheme together that goes directly to the individuals we get a better, more efficient and faster scheme that does not just pay £14,000 to the lawyers.

How much money has been recovered directly from employers—from defendants—under the Act that the Minister mentioned? She has given the figure for the money out, but how much money has been brought in?

Unfortunately, I do not have those figures, but if I can get hold of them I will certainly make them available to the relevant Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), who has left to attend a Select Committee sitting, was right. The Newcastle Evening Chronicle has been running an effective campaign—I get more coverage in that newspaper than in my local papers—and, hopefully, one day, there will be something slightly more positive to mention than there is at the moment. It is important that those campaigns continue and that the pressure is kept on. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) made a passionate contribution to the debate. He is right: the victims are not just the people with the pleural plaques, but their families and the loved ones around them.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister, as a Labour Member of Parliament in a Labour Government, accept the basic proposition that justice demands that the law, as interpreted by the House of Lords in its decision, be changed statutorily by the House of Commons for the whole of the United Kingdom?

I think that I can probably agree with my hon. Friend on that subject. We need to find a way of ensuring that people get some recompense, because another unwelcome effect of the House of Lords judgment was that people diagnosed with pleural plaques were no longer able to establish the employer’s liability of negligence at an early stage. That potentially creates difficulties, especially if people eventually get mesothelioma, or another asbestos-related disease, as that delay inevitably affects the speed with which they can obtain compensation.

My hon. Friend the Minister has not said whether she agrees with the proposition that there should be an employers’ liability insurance bureau and a compulsory insurance register for employers who may later go out of business. Perhaps she could say whether she agrees with those propositions, which are in my Bill and have generally been welcomed in this Chamber.

That would be a constructive way forward and it is something that we would want to look at. I would not want to go any further than that on this occasion. [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] Perhaps in the next debate we can have that discussion.

Today, we heard the Prime Minister make a clear indication, in response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, that something will be coming forth soon from the Government. I want to reassure my hon. Friends and, indeed, all hon. Members that we are firmly committed to helping people who have suffered as a result of exposure to asbestos.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) and others who mentioned our dear departed friend, John MacDougall, that the idea of a trust fund in his memory would be an appropriate way for us take this matter forward. I hope that the trust fund that the family is setting up will be successful. When my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North was thanking people at the beginning of the debate, it was a bit like the Oscars, but I hope that the award to him and to those he represents will be that we will treat people with pleural plaques and other asbestos-related diseases with the respect and support that they deserve.