Damages (Asbestos-Related Conditions) Bill

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 1:32 pm on 24th April 2009.

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Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon 1:32 pm, 24th April 2009

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Most people in the House know that for 20 years before I entered Parliament, I was a personal injury lawyer;
I suppose that I still am—once a lawyer always a lawyer. I still have my practice certificate and remain a consultant with my firm, although I do not take on any cases. It would be impossible to do that job as well as this one, but I have maintained a keen interest in the development of this area of law. During the course of my practice, I have represented many sufferers of various asbestos-related illnesses and diseases, but the Bill is narrowly drawn, as it is designed to deal with pleural plaques.

Pleural plaques are a thickening of the lining of the lung, which is usually visible on an X-ray or a CT scan, and they are caused by exposure to asbestos. They represent an increased risk—between 5 and 10 per cent.—of more serious asbestos-related diseases, and, because of that, pleural plaques cause real anxiety and stress for those who have them. It is hard to imagine someone's fear if they are at risk of developing an evil, disabling illness such as mesothelioma, which is painful and always fatal. During the course of my practice and, indeed, my time in the House, I have met many pleural plaques sufferers who have expressed to me their strong feelings about the issue and the problems that have recently arisen because of a decision in the courts.

Until recently, pleural plaques were compensated at common law. Since 1984, there have been three cases against the Ministry of Defence, the leading one being Church v. Ministry of Defence. With a diagnosis of asbestos-related pleural plaques, or asymptomatic fibrosis on the pleural lining of the lungs as it is described in the cases, it was decided in Church v. Ministry of Defence that the condition constituted an injury, enabling damages to be claimed. The amount of compensation has varied over the years, but on a provisional basis the rate until recently was probably about £4,000, although at times it has been as high as £7,000.

In the 2006 case of Rothwell v. Chemical and Insulating Company Ltd, the Court of Appeal found that pleural plaques are not compensatable, mainly on public policy grounds. The Court refused to aggregate the condition of pleural plaques with the anxiety and distress that they cause, deciding that each individual condition is not compensatable and that courts cannot look at the aggregate of both pleural plaques and the psychological conditions that they cause. In autumn 2007, that decision was upheld by the House of Lords in a case called Johnston v. NEI International Combustion Ltd; in fact, it was the same as the Rothwell case, because a number of cases had been consolidated and the appeals were linked. The House of Lords upheld the Court of Appeal decision that pleural plaques are not compensatable, which has been a cause of concern in the wider community and the House ever since. There have been numerous parliamentary questions, early-day motions, amendments to Government Bills and pieces of private Members' legislation, and I do not know how many Adjournment debates the issue has been raised in.

At Prime Minister's questions on 12 March last year, the Prime Minister announced that there would be a consultation on how to resolve the issue. That was followed on 9 July by a written statement with the consultation, which ended on 1 October 2008. We are still awaiting the outcome of the consultation, which included three different options: a no-fault payments scheme, presumably funded by the taxpayer, only for historic cases prior to the House of Lords ruling; a general no-fault scheme, which would relate both to the historic cases and to the future; and a return to the common law scheme. So far, the Government have made no announcements about their position.

There is no perfect option for dealing with this issue, but pleural plaques are a serious condition that affects many people, and doing nothing is simply not an option.

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