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Mesothelioma Compensation (Military Veterans)

Volume 602: debated on Thursday 19 November 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me an opportunity to speak about mesothelioma compensation for military veterans. I am pleased that it follows such an important debate on the wider cancer strategy. I also thank the members of the public who have taken the time to come and watch our proceedings from the Gallery, and who signed the petition. It is encouraging to see such strong public support for change, and I am glad that I have the chance today to bring this issue further into the spotlight. I pay tribute to other Members who have raised the issue, including my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who has done so much work on it in the past.

Before I speak about the specific case of my constituent and the problems he faces, let me explain what we are talking about today. Most people who are suffering as a result of exposure to asbestos have been compensated thanks to the Mesothelioma Act 2014, which was passed during the last Parliament and which allows those who were diagnosed with mesothelioma on or after 25 July 2012 to apply for compensation. However, when Parliament reviewed the Act in July 2013, Lord James of Blackheath noted that although civilians suffering from mesothelioma would benefit from it, naval personnel with asbestos-related illnesses would be left behind in terms of financial reparations.

Given its association with asbestos, mesothelioma usually affects individuals who have worked in professions such as carpentry or construction, but it has also afflicted a large number of veterans, particularly naval personnel who worked as engineers in the boiler rooms of ships, and it is on that specific aspect that I intend to focus.

Service personnel and veterans are unable to sue for injuries and illnesses sustained before the introduction of the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987. The only avenue of redress open to veterans with mesothelioma is the war pension scheme, which awards regular payments for life. It is difficult for the scheme to accommodate serious long-term illnesses, as it cannot award large lump sums to those recently diagnosed with terminal conditions. As a result, although service-related mesothelioma attracts a 100% war disablement pension, veterans who are single, divorced or widowed stand to receive considerably less compensation than their civilian counterparts.

For example, whereas a 63-year-old civilian claimant would be awarded about £180,000 in compensation under the Government’s diffuse mesothelioma scheme, a veteran of the same age who lived for one year would receive just £32,000 under the war pension scheme. In fact, many veterans would receive even less. That is at odds with the armed forces covenant, which states that members of our armed forces community should experience no disadvantage as a result of their service, and it is an unfortunate anomaly in the system. I am sure other Members will agree with me when I say that I do not believe the House intended to cause such discrimination against military veterans, but that is the situation that confronts us today. I certainly commend the Government for all their work on the armed forces covenant.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour on securing the debate. Does he agree that military veterans are among the very best in our society, and that, far from being prejudiced in any way by their military service, they should be rewarded? When an ailment has resulted from their service, should not the Government do everything they can to ensure that they are adequately compensated?

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for raising that point. I do agree. I will talk later about my constituent. I think that Members will agree that he served our country admirably and went over and above what was asked of him.

I was talking about the armed forces covenant. I congratulate the Government on everything that has been done so far. Clearly, there is more to do. The covenant has enshrined two underlying principles in law. Members of the armed forces community should face

“no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services”

and

“special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given the most such as the injured or the bereaved”.

As leader of Northampton Borough Council, I signed the Northampton armed forces community covenant in 2013 further to embed those commitments in my local community. I am pleased that that has been taken up by so many other local authorities around the country.

I move on now to the case of my constituent Mr Fred Minall, a veteran who is affected by this. He first raised the issue with me when he was diagnosed a few months ago. Mr Minall is a naval veteran who is suffering from mesothelioma as a result of exposure he received while on active duty between 1957 and 1965 with the Royal Navy. When Fred came to see me to tell me about the problems he was facing, I was very moved. I was also shocked that an anomaly in the system had put him in this position, and concerned that there may be many other veterans such as Fred who are suffering from mesothelioma but who are not receiving the support available to other sufferers outside the military.

Does my hon. Friend have any idea how many naval veterans in total may have mesothelioma now? How many people are we talking about?

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for raising that matter. I will talk about that later, but the Royal British Legion estimates that about 2,500 British naval veterans will be affected.

Mr Minall was not able to make it to the Chamber today to watch the debate, as he is undergoing chemotherapy. I know that he is watching at home and that he is pleased that we are able to debate this subject in greater detail and ensure that the issue, which affects a lot of people around the country, receives the attention it deserves. Fred has asked me to say on his behalf:

“Mesothelioma sufferers have little time left, and so we entrust Parliament to make a wise and fair decision, backdating any awards agreed today to the same date as if discrimination had been avoided in the 1987 Act. Why should these brave men and women endure discrimination, just when they learn they will die, due to events so long ago, during their dedicated service to Queen and Country? They should be aided and rewarded, not penalised.”

It is hard to disagree.

Mesothelioma is an extremely aggressive form of terminal cancer that is usually caused by exposure to asbestos and affects the pleura of the lungs. The disease can take decades to materialise but, once diagnosed, most sufferers die within one or two years. According to research from the Royal British Legion, with which I have been working closely on the issue over the past months, it is projected that just over 2,500 British naval veterans are likely to die from mesothelioma between 2013 and 2047. There is currently no cure for mesothelioma, which means that it is even more crucial that we are able to help our constituents by doing all we can now.

What can the Government do to help constituents such as Fred overcome the hardship they face? The Royal British Legion has suggested that the Government should offer military veterans the choice between receiving a lump sum compensation payment that is comparable to the sums awarded under the diffuse mesothelioma payment scheme and a traditional war disablement pension. Veterans with mesothelioma should be allowed to choose the form that their compensation takes. We recognise that, for veterans who live for some time, or have a spouse or partner, that should be their choice. The traditional war disablement pension may work out more generous than the lump sums awarded by the diffuse mesothelioma payment scheme. I have already mentioned the armed forces covenant principle that those who are bereaved should, where appropriate, be eligible for special consideration. As such, I would not wish any changes in policy to come at the expense of that arrangement.

We should place great importance on the health and well-being of our veterans and I believe wholeheartedly that they should be treated fairly. I am pleased to hear that the Government are committed to ensuring that those who serve in the armed forces and their families, regular or reserve, past and present, are treated with dignity and receive the care and support they deserve, but this is an anomaly that we need to look at.

I am pleased that the armed forces covenant is enshrined in law so that our forces’ families face no disadvantage compared with other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. I look forward to hearing the views of hon. Members from across the House, and also to hearing the update my hon. and gallant Friend the Minister is able to provide to me, my constituent and other hon. Members’ constituents who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in this most difficult situation.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh), and I thank him for allowing me to speak in this debate, which he secured, as this is an issue that causes me great concern, as it clearly does him. I completely agree that the case of Mr Minall perfectly illustrates the need for us to have this debate, and to have it now; unfortunately, people such as his constituent do not have the time for us to waste.

I must also applaud the Royal British Legion, whose campaign in this area calling on the Government to find fairer ways of compensating veterans suffering from this devastating condition, has been very effective. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am aware of many positive developments in the way in which veterans are dealt with across the UK. There have been a number of debates in recent months in this House where this has been usefully discussed.

In Scotland we have a newly appointed veterans commissioner, effective local veterans champions such as those the hon. Gentleman mentioned, innovative housing projects and links with many excellent charities. However, in the UK context, it is none the less true that the issue of mesothelioma represents a gap in our approach to veterans, and one that I sincerely hope we can address.

The hon. Gentleman has already told us what a terrible disease mesothelioma is. There are few things more difficult to deal with for sufferers and their families than the kind of body-blow that a diagnosis of mesothelioma brings. Rectifying this unfair treatment will not make anyone suffering from this disease any better, but it might improve their quality of life during the time they have left, and it might mean that they and their families have significantly less financial anxiety than they may at present.

It is perfectly reasonable to expect anyone in this situation to feel disappointed, because they are being treated less well than their civilian counterparts. That is no way to support our service personnel, and I do hope that we can hear some positive words from the Minister on that.

It is clear that thousands of people who served in the armed services prior to 1987 have been exposed to asbestos while under military orders and have subsequently been diagnosed with mesothelioma. They are suffering from this disease because of the job they did in our armed forces, but clearly at present they are not entitled to the full compensation that others are.

We have heard that around 2,500 ex-service personnel are affected in this way, and every one of them has served this country and has the right to expect to be compensated fairly. Veterans lose out very significantly when compared with civilians in the same position. These civilians may be eligible for up to £180,000 in compensation, but the ex-service personnel may be eligible for only £31,000.

In 2008 the Labour Government published the Command Paper “The Nation’s commitment: cross-government support to our armed forces, their families and veterans”. It stated:

“The essential starting point is that those who serve must not be disadvantaged by virtue of what they do.”

More recently Prime Minster David Cameron has said:

“Our Armed Forces Bill will ensure Parliament holds the Government to account on the central principle of the covenant that military personnel will not suffer any disadvantage as a result of their work”—

and, of course, they should not be disadvantaged. It is not right morally, and it is not fair, but clearly some ex-service personnel are being disadvantaged. This is a breach of the military covenant that we hear so many fine words about.

The military covenant commits the Government to removing this disadvantage. This situation is most certainly a disadvantage at a most difficult time in people’s lives. We need to deal with it, and do so quickly. Let us back up our words with action. The Royal British Legion summarises the situation perfectly when it says it is

“unfair and has to change”.

As the hon. Member for Northampton South told us, in 2014 the Government set up a scheme to pay compensation to civilians, which is very welcome. However, like the hon. Gentleman, I would like to note that a word of caution about the issue of veterans was already being stated when the Mesothelioma Act was being reviewed in July 2013, but so far that issue has not been resolved. It is our duty to deal with this now, before more ex-service personnel have their final months blighted by financial worry and inequity.

I also note that the independent medical expert group for the new armed forces compensation scheme expresses the view that the war pension scheme is unable properly to recognise the impact of asbestos-related cancer. As we have heard, the Royal British Legion suggests that veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma should be able to choose between receiving a traditional war disablement pension and a lump-sum compensation payment broadly similar to that awarded under the new Government scheme. That would quite reasonably allow ex-service personnel to take account of their particular health and family situation and decide which route was the more appropriate.

The Royal British Legion is clearly not a lone voice in this regard. It has support among Members on both sides of the House, as evidenced by a recent early-day motion, and from Seafarers UK, the Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity, Poppyscotland and many other organisations. I note that, at a meeting of the Central Advisory Committee on Pensions and Compensation in June this year, the Minister committed to looking at this issue and said that he understood the urgency involved. I am pleased about that, because it is an acknowledgement of the importance of the issue. However, having read a transcript of a debate in this place in February—some 10 months ago—I note that a commitment was also made at that time to look into this matter urgently. It was also noted in that debate that nothing had happened following a previous commitment to deal urgently with the matter five months before that. I therefore have some anxiety about how urgently this is being dealt with, and I hope that the Minister will be able to allay my concerns.

Veterans who develop mesothelioma from working with asbestos while in the Navy can be left tens of thousands of pounds worse off than their civilian counterparts. This is unfair; it is a clear breach of the military covenant and a completely unacceptable way to treat terminally ill veterans. I agree with the Minster that the matter should be dealt with urgently, and I hope that we will hear something today about positive progress and about how we can move this forward.

I start, of course, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on securing this debate to discuss compensation for our military veterans who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma. I recognise that mesothelioma is a devastating disease that changes the lives not only of the people who are diagnosed but of those who care about them—their families and loved ones. I recognise that this is an important subject to hon. Members across the House and that it is something we all feel strongly about, as evidenced by the correspondence I have received, as well as by the recent letter from the Defence Committee and the early-day motion that some hon. Members have signed. This is also a subject that is close to the hearts of our constituents.

I would like to pay tribute to all those who have taken the time to contribute to the discussions on this subject, some of whom I have engaged with, including the Royal British Legion. I welcome the statement read out by my hon. Friend concerning his constituent, Mr Fred Minall, who I understand has been diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of his service in the Royal Navy during the 1950s and ’60s. This was something I was very sorry to learn of. Let me reassure all hon. Members that I recognise the need to act swiftly and that I am extremely sympathetic to this cause. I can assure them that I am minded to find a solution, and have been working with my officials to do so, and crucially to do so quickly.

I would like to pay tribute to all our armed forces—those still serving and those who have served. This is particularly relevant at this time of year, as we remember their commitment and sacrifice in serving this country. We owe them all a debt of profound gratitude. This Government and I, as Minister for Veterans, are committed to doing all we can to honour that debt of gratitude. That is why we have put the armed forces covenant, which represents the moral obligation we owe to those who serve or have served, at the heart of our national life and enshrined its principles in law.

Our commitment to doing the very best we can for our veterans is genuine and unswerving. However, it is a commitment that we need to frame within the context of fairness and reality. Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, and 40 years or more can often pass before it manifests itself and an individual is diagnosed, tragically with a short life expectancy thereafter. That is why it is so important to ensure that we get the support right for those who are affected by the disease.

Will the Minister give me his reassurance that modern-day sailors are not threatened when they are working in boiler rooms today? We have some pretty old ships, and they might still have asbestos on them.

Indeed, and I will move on in a moment to the action that the Royal Navy has taken. If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I will come to that shortly.

In the light of what I was describing, I want to explain the support that is currently in place for our armed forces veterans who are diagnosed with mesothelioma. Asbestos was identified as causing mesothelioma in the 1960s. At that time, certain types of service in the Royal Navy were identified as particularly increasing the risk of exposure for armed forces personnel. When this was identified the Ministry of Defence started to address the matter quickly. By the early 1960s, the Royal Navy had already introduced new insulation materials on ships and on shore, as well as providing respiratory protection for those personnel who were most highly exposed. That was extended to all personnel who were classified as “at risk” in the following years, and by 1973 the risk of asbestos exposure for members of the Royal Navy was very low. It was not until 1987, however, that the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations were introduced by legislation. As I have indicated, most of the cases of exposure to asbestos were between the 1950s and the 1970s. Under current arrangements, those armed forces veterans who are diagnosed with mesothelioma are able to claim compensation under the war pensions scheme—this applies to service before 6 April 2005.

The war pensions scheme allows an individual to claim the maximum war disablement pension, supplementary allowances and, in many cases, automatic entitlement by an eligible dependant to a war widow’s or widower’s pension. The Mesothelioma Act 2014 enabled the establishment of the diffuse mesothelioma payment scheme. This pays a one-off lump sum to an individual who is diagnosed. That legislation is aimed at those individuals where there is no existing employer to sue. As an enduring employer, the Ministry of Defence has provided for veterans who are diagnosed for a significant period before this through the war pensions scheme. Under the war pensions scheme, claims are settled quickly, so that the early payment of compensation can begin and claimants can be assured that their dependants will be provided for after their death.

It is important, however, that we consider how veterans are treated under the Act. The matter for consideration here is whether the current arrangements for veterans continue to meet the needs for which they were designed. I would again like to thank the Royal British Legion and those who have contributed to the discussion on compensation for veterans who are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the light of the Act—I welcome their engagement. I acknowledge the argument they are making that the Ministry of Defence should offer veterans with mesothelioma the option of a lump sum in compensation which is broadly comparable to that awarded under the Act. During the last Central Advisory Committee on Pensions and Compensation meeting in June, to which the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) referred, ex-service organisations were updated on our consideration of this issue. Let me outline what steps we have taken so far.

Ministry of Defence Ministers commissioned advice from the Independent Medical Expert Group to look at mesothelioma and the awards paid through the war pensions scheme. I want to take a moment to explain some of the observations of the group. It advised that mesothelioma is unique in some respects and considered how awards were made under the war pensions scheme. The group commented that the regular income stream structure of the war pensions scheme addressed the needs of those whose civilian employability was compromised. It observed that the very poor prognosis for the majority of individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma meant that this structure offered only limited benefit in life to the sufferer—I realise that that is a crucial point. However, unlike industrial injuries disablement benefit, the war pensions scheme maintains support to eligible dependants after the pensioner’s death through payments of tax-free dependants’ benefits. While this generosity has been acknowledged, I recognise that the Royal British Legion has raised the position of single, widowed or divorced claimants, and although I am unable to offer a final solution to the House today, I can confirm to hon. Members that I am reviewing the provision that is currently available. I intend to make an announcement regarding the matter of lump sum payments very shortly.

As hon. Members will recognise, this is a complex matter that has required detailed consideration, and close consultation and engagement with colleagues across Whitehall. However, I hope to be in a position to make an announcement as soon as possible. To that end, I hope to update the charities at the forthcoming central advisory committee meeting next month.

In conclusion, I wish to again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South for calling for this debate on what I recognise is an emotive subject. Let me emphasise again that we place great importance on the health and wellbeing of our veterans and are absolutely committed to treating them fairly. As my officials continue to consider the details of this complex matter, I intend to remain fully engaged, but please rest assured that I am dedicated to bringing this matter to a swift conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.