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Volume 750: debated on Thursday 5 December 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what funding has been secured for research into the causes of and potential cures of mesothelioma.

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to research into the causes of this dreadful disease and into potential treatments. The usual practice of the main public funders of health research is not to ring-fence funds for expenditure on particular diseases, and funding is available for high-quality research proposals. With its partners, the Department of Health is actively pursuing a package of measures that we believe will stimulate an increase in the level of research on mesothelioma.

While thanking the noble Earl for his reply, does he recall the assurance he gave to the House, when an all-party amendment—which would have created a small, statutory levy to support mesothelioma funding—was defeated by 199 votes to 192, that insurance companies would voluntarily step up to the plate? Given that there have been 2,400 deaths from mesothelioma this year, with 60,000 anticipated over the next 25 years, and with the imminent ending of even the existing insurance industry funding, would it not be shameful to leave unfunded research that could save lives and prevent vast expenditure on compensation? The Mesothelioma Bill is now before another place, with an amendment supported by both Conservative and Labour Members of the House of Commons. Surely Ministers should be looking again at this practical way of finding a cure for this deadly disease.

My Lords, I understand that the British Lung Foundation has had discussions with representatives of the insurance industry about extending the funding for research, but that no commitment has been made by the industry so far as to future funding. As I made clear during the debate, the issue holding back progress is not the lack of available funding—there is plenty of that—but the lack of sufficient high-quality research applications. The money previously donated by insurers is supporting valuable research, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said. At the moment, a greater volume of mesothelioma research is supported by the Government, and we believe that the package of measures that I mentioned will stimulate an increase in that volume.

My Lords, I refer to my interest in the register. Section 48 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 requires the Government to review the application to mesothelioma claims of the provisions banning conditional fees. The Government have announced that, in the light of a consultation as yet unpublished, they will not treat those cases differently from other claims. They seek to conflate this issue with entirely different provisions in the Mesothelioma Bill.

Is the Minister aware that the Civil Justice Council has been unable to agree whether the current consultation,

“fulfils the conditions set out in Section 48 of LASPO”?

Is this not another example of the Government cravenly caving in to the demands of their friends in the insurance industry and ignoring the strong feelings of this House in support of those suffering from this terrible disease?

I am sure that the noble Lord wants to take advantage of this opportunity to raise that particular issue, but it is a rather different one from the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. However, I will take his question away and ensure that a letter is sent to him in response.

My Lords, the Government are to be congratulated on introducing the Cancer Drugs Fund, but how do they anticipate that the vital research which needs to be done into mesothelioma will continue to be funded without legislation to compel those insurance companies which so far have not stepped up to the plate to make a contribution?

My Lords, as my noble friend will be aware, four insurance companies have stepped up to the plate with funding of £3 million, which admittedly is nearing its end, but I do not think that we can belittle that contribution. My noble friend may be interested to know that the MRC and the NIHR together spent more than £2.2 million on mesothelioma research in 2012-13, which is a larger sum than for many other disease areas. I say again that the issue is not the lack of funding because the research funding in both the MRC and the NIHR has been protected. What is lacking are suitable proposals.

My Lords, does the Minister share the disappointment expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, which I certainly do, that following the scandalous mistreatment of mesothelioma sufferers by employer’s liability insurers over decades, there has been no commitment from those four employer’s liability insurers or from the rest of the industry to continue funding beyond next year? Whatever arrangements are made to secure the continuation of research in this vital field, can the Minister be more precise on how the Government will bring their influence to bear to ensure that the research is of suitable quality?

My Lords, we have committed to doing four things, the first of which will be to set up a partnership to bring together patients, carers and clinicians to identify what the priorities in research are. Secondly, the NIHR will highlight to the research community that it wants to encourage research applications in this area. The NIHR Research Design Service will be able to help prospective applicants develop competitive research proposals, and we will convene a meeting of leading researchers to discuss and develop new proposals for studies. I think that those four measures together will deliver what the noble Lord seeks.

My Lords, does my noble friend acknowledge that the £3 million has run out and that there is a danger that the talented clinicians who have been working on mesothelioma as a result of that fund will move on to other subjects? However, the Association of British Insurers has told me that it would be prepared to consider a new scheme funded jointly by all employer’s liability insurers and the Government, so I wonder if the Government will approach the ABI to see if that scheme could be taken a little further.

I am very grateful to my noble friend and that is certainly something I can undertake to do, perhaps in conjunction with the British Lung Foundation.

My Lords, what makes mesothelioma such a fatal disease is the length of the incubation period, in that individuals who have been exposed to asbestos may not develop the disease until many years later; indeed, 2,000 new cases have been reported this year. The developments to which the Minister has referred are helpful and encouraging, but have the Government been able to persuade the relevant insurance companies to increase significantly their contribution to the research programme?

My Lords, I said earlier that the discussions between the British Lung Foundation and the insurance industry have not so far resulted in a pledge for further funding, but as my noble friend Lord Avebury has indicated, that door may be open. However, we should bear in mind that asking insurance companies to fund research is an unusual mechanism in itself. I suggest that we should not push the envelope too far because in the end the cost will fall on the industry.