To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on insurance companies’ balance sheets of paying mesothelioma sufferers 100 per cent of the compensation to which they are entitled under the terms of the scheme set out in the Mesothelioma Bill [HL].
My Lords, over the first 10 years of the scheme, a tariff set at 100% of average civil compensation would total £451 million. That is £129 million more than the current proposals, which are forecast to cost £322 million.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. Indeed, I thank him for all that he has done personally to advance the cause of all those suffering from this dreadful disease. However, does he recognise the deep frustration felt by many in your Lordships’ House, and many outside as well, that the Medical Research Council seems unable to launch fundamental research into this dreadful disease, even when the insurers are prepared to pay millions to fund it? Does he also recognise the deep sense of injustice felt by so many that the insurers are refusing to pay 100% of all claims to all those who are entitled to them?
My Lords, the point about research is that it is pretty complicated, one reason being that the Medical Research Council is constrained by the quality of the research proposals presented to it. There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation going on, as I see it, and I am working with my noble friend Lord Howe and the British Lung Foundation to break that situation. We are hosting a seminar on the importance of mesothelioma research shortly to try to stimulate the proposals for funding. As for the second aspect of the question, clearly there has been much debate on the exact level of compensation. In the end, this has been a very complicated and intricate deal to make sure that we can get good sums of money. We are getting an average of £87,000 a head to people who suffer from this terrible disease who have not been able to find any compensation whatever.
My Lords, those who have suffered industrial lung diseases get the full level of compensation under the 1979 pneumoconiosis Act, when they cannot identify their former employers to sue them, so by virtue of what reasoning should there be a scaling down for those who suffer from mesothelioma and cannot identify their insurance policies? They suffer equally and have great need of those funds.
My Lords, I know that everyone in this House would agree with the proposition that we want to get as much money as we possibly can to mesothelioma sufferers, particularly those who, through no fault of their own, have not been able to trace the insurer that should be paying them the employers’ liability compensation. The reality is that we cannot trace the insurer in roughly 10% of cases. We are trying to make sure that we trace as many as possible. They will get the full amount, and then get a payment—not quite as much as I would want, but a safe, sustainable payment, for this group of people, and that is a lot better than the nothing they are getting currently.
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on bringing the good insurance companies to provide compensation for this fatal industrial disease for those who are non-traceable or wayward in their insurance. Will my noble friend tell me what guarantees he has that the insurance companies will not simply pass on the costs to their customers in their bills? If he has no guarantee of that, it might well happen anyway. Surely it would be worth the little extra it would cost to bring that 70% closer to 100% in order to be able to give compensation and help to sufferers and their suffering families.
My Lords, as my noble friend pointed out, this scheme is based on a levy on insurers who are active in the market today, not those who may have actually been responsible for the historic liability. It is very difficult to assess who takes the real burden of the cost. I have been very anxious to get to a position where I am as assured as I can be that the bulk of that cost is carried by the insurance industry, not by British industry as a whole. The risk is that if the levy is too high, the amount would have to be passed on by the industry.
My Lords, not so long ago, I was at the bedside of one of our clergy who died of mesothelioma, having not been diagnosed until very late. Will the Minister tell us what part sufferers themselves, their relatives and support groups will play in managing what sometimes comes over as an agreement and arrangement between government and insurance agencies?
Let me make it absolutely clear that we have been acting as the agents of the sufferers in our discussions with the insurance industry. The idea that there is some kind of cosy relationship between government and the insurance industry is absolutely not true. It has been a really tough business to get a deal through. I talk regularly to victims’ groups and lawyers. I get their support and as we develop the next stage, which is a practical process, I will be getting their views and having them very much in mind.
Will the Minister confirm that with people dying of mesothelioma at a rate of 2,000 a year the Government have predicted a further 56,000 deaths over the next 30 years? Will he tell the House the total level of compensation that will have to be paid out during that period to meet those claims? Will he contrast that with the not a penny piece that is currently being spent on research into finding cures for mesothelioma? In that context, will he give further consideration to the letter sent to him by more than 20 Members of your Lordships’ House from all sides of the House asking for public and insurance industry money to be used in order to do more to find a cure for this terrible disease that will take a further 56,000 lives in the next 30 years?
My Lords, that is precisely the point. This is a terrible disease. It is about to peak in the next couple of years. That is why I have been in such a hurry to provide a scheme for those who cannot get compensation. I cannot do the sums in my head, but the payments are clearly in the many hundreds of millions. We have had much discussion about the lack of research in this area compared with other cancers. It is something that I and my noble friend Lord Howe are concerned about. We are going to try to launch that. There are two aspects: whether the Medical Research Council will find it valuable to do the research, and the insurance industry, which has been providing the only substantial source of funding until now in this terrible area.