Clause 4 — Commencement and retrospective effect

– in the House of Commons at 10:45 am on 16th October 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Amendment proposed: 16, page 2, line 20, leave out clause 4.- (Mr. Chope.)

The House divided: Ayes 0, Noes 48.

Watch this
Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website

Hide

Division number 221 Todmorden Rail Link — Clause 4 — Commencement and retrospective effect

Aye: 0 MPs

No: 48 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Watch this

Question accordingly negatived.

Third Reading

Watch this

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon 11:09 am, 16th October 2009

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

I am very pleased that the Bill has been able to get this far. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that today is the 175th anniversary of the great fire of Westminster. If there had been asbestos in the building, we might all be suffering from pleural plaques, but it might not have burned down.

The normal thing to do on Third Reading is thank those who have helped with the Bill. I thank Ian McFall and Tom Jones of Thompsons solicitors, who have done a lot of research and drafting for me; the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers; and all hon. Members who have turned up today and on previous occasions to support the Bill and who have maintained the Trappist vow of silence as I asked. Many would have liked to have got their names on the ticket by speaking in the debate, and I am grateful that they have not done so to give time to ensure that we had a chance to get the Bill through.

I also thank the Chief Whip-he cannot speak in the House, but he has been extremely helpful with the Bill-and the Government. Whether they have been neutral or supportive, they have not sought to obstruct the Bill, to its great benefit.

The people who will benefit are the thousands who suffer from pleural plaques. Pleural plaques in themselves are not disabling, but they are a cause of great worry and they cause physiological changes. About 10 per cent. of people who have pleural plaques go on to develop something more serious.

The fact remains that cases brought in such circumstances are not only about compensation for pleural plaques but about establishing liability for possible future injury. Through the provisional damages system, liability can be established for pleural plaques, and if somebody went on to develop asbestosis or mesothelioma, they would already have the question of liability out of the way. That will shorten claims in future for those conditions, bearing in mind how rapidly they develop and how disabling they can be.

The Bill is modest. It seeks only to turn back the law to what we thought it was prior to the decisions in the courts. Any alternative scheme would cost taxpayers, but turning back the law to what we thought it was will mean that the insurers will have to pay out on the risk that they accepted through the premiums that they took, and that they will not get an unfair windfall.

The Bill is tightly drawn. It is not the thin end of the wedge and will not open the floodgates to any form of parallel litigation for other illnesses or injuries-it relates purely and simply to pleural plaques. It maintains the basic principles of negligence or breach of statutory duty as the tests for liability. The burden of proof that the claim exists and should be upheld will still be on the claimant.

As we have debated, the Bill provides for a suspension of the limitation period, not its disapplication, from the date of the House of Lords decision until the Bill comes into force. That is only fair, but it would not affect any cases that have already been settled or decided in the courts.

I commend the Bill to the House. I realise that there is little time left in this Session, but I hope that the House of Lords will look upon it favourably when it gets there and ensure that it can have a swift passage, so that it can become law and provide compensation for the many thousands of people who have been left in limbo as a consequence of the House of Lords judgment. It is a modest measure, but an extremely important one that will bring comfort and relief to many people up and down the country.

Watch this

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 11:13 am, 16th October 2009

I congratulate Mr. Dismore on having got his Bill this far and having exercised self-restraint in expressing the feelings of frustration that I know he has about the behaviour of the Government on this issue over the last 18 months. I also congratulate him on having found a sponsor for his Bill in the form of Thompsons solicitors, and I am sure that Mr. Skinner will also be pleased, as that firm would stand to benefit significantly-

Watch this

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

I would hate for it to be thought that Thompsons had somehow sponsored this Bill, as that is not the case. The firm has given me some expert advice in the drafting and helped with some of the research on the cases. It has not sponsored the Bill, and to say so would give entirely the wrong impression. It is concerned for the victims of pleural plaques, as am I and as is most of the House.

Watch this

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am happy that the hon. Gentleman has put that on the record. Obviously, any firm of solicitors is welcome to provide advice to Members of Parliament, but sometimes solicitors are not as forthcoming in their pro bono activities on behalf of Members. Perhaps they find it easier when they think that they will get more litigation work out of it. I am not saying that that applies to Thompsons, but it is an important point to place on the record.

The hon. Gentleman also said that he is grateful to his hon. Friends for exercising self-restraint and passing up the opportunity to get their names on the ticket. I hope that in that spirit he is also grateful to me and to my hon. Friend Philip Davies for ensuring that we have had some Divisions, so that the public can see who was present and voting for the Bill, and who was absent. We have enabled hon. Members to put their names on the ticket in terms of accountability.

The hon. Gentleman commended his Bill and repeated his claim that it would turn back the law to the original position. I have concerns about the Bill-specifically that the questions that the Minister raised in Committee remain unanswered. I hope that when she winds up this Third Reading debate, she will explain some of the things that she said in Committee. For instance, she said:

"As my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary indicated recently, we are committed to publishing our response before the summer recess."

What happened? Later in July the Justice Secretary said that the response would be published after the summer recess. When will that response be forthcoming? There is an enormous amount of interest in it. The Minister and the Justice Secretary have no doubt been working diligently over the summer recess, earning their substantial ministerial pay, so why have they not been able to come up with a conclusion so far? We know that yesterday a report that had been available to the Government since before the recess was published only an hour before a major defence debate. On this occasion, we have not even had the Government's response. I hope that the Minister will give us an unequivocal statement on when we may expect the response to be published.

I hope also that the Minister will explain what she meant by saying that there were complications connected with the Bill and that the Government were unsure about whether to support or oppose it. In Committee, she said:

"The Bill represents one approach to the issue, but a number of other approaches could be appropriate and we want to assess the best response. It is therefore not possible at this stage to give a firm indication of the Government's position on the Bill, pending those conclusions being reached. For that reason it has not been possible for me to table any amendments for consideration at this stage.

On that basis, if the Committee decides that this clause-and the others-should stand part of the Bill, it may be necessary for the Government to oppose it, or table amendments to it, at a later stage." --[ Official Report, Damages (Asbestos-Related Conditions) Public Bill Committee, 1 July 2009; c. 8.]

I hope that she will expand on those clear statements so that we are wiser about the Government's intentions.

I hope that the Minister will also assure us that whatever the Government decide to do in terms of the law they will not be influenced by the cost to the public purse of any particular course of action. Justice should come without a price. It would be unconscionable if the reason for the Government's delay is that suggested in an article by Paul Routledge in the Daily Mirror: that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is concerned about the cost to the Exchequer. If the Government think that, as a matter of law, it is right for people with pleural plaques to receive compensation, the logical consequences should be allowed to follow. Let not the decision be determined by the cost to the public purse. I would like an assurance from the Minister that that is the thinking.

My reservations about the Bill are on matters of principle, not about the costs flowing from it. I side with neither the Treasury nor the insurance companies. However, I would like the law of tort or negligence to remain the same for all classes of action. There should be a standard definition of what we mean by damage, and we should not try to change the law in a piecemeal way, which would be the consequence of the Bill.

As has been said, pleural plaques are asymptomatic. The hon. Member for Hendon said in Committee that they carry a 5 to 10 per cent. risk of developing into a more serious asbestos-related condition, although I think that just now he put the risk slightly higher. It is important, however, to keep the risk in context. Those with pleural plaques will be understandably worried, but they must remember that they have a 90 to 95 per cent. chance of not developing a serious asbestos-related condition. I agree with the Government about the importance of sending out that message: people should be encouraged to live their lives to the full, notwithstanding the fact that they have pleural plaques. They should not regard it as a death sentence or a means of getting what are, even under the Bill and the law as it stands, quite modest damages. Countless numbers of people have conditions that can become much worse, but if they allow them to dominate their lives, they will be the poorer for it. I hope that the Minister will spell that out. I want people in areas where they might be afflicted by pleural plaques, and those already afflicted by them, to get that clear health message about the need to put in context the risk of developing a more serious condition.

I hope, too, that the Minister will explain what she meant when she responded, in Committee, to comments by David Howarth about clause 2. He said:

"Arguably, anyone who has been exposed to asbestos is in a similar position to someone with pleural plaques, asymptomatic pleural thickening or asymptomatic asbestosis, in that they are at risk of developing the serious diseases in the future."

He made the point that the Bill does not deal with those who have been exposed to asbestos, perhaps over many years, but who do not have pleural plaques. He argued that they are in exactly the same position as those with the condition. He continued:

"I hope that the Government will bear that in mind when they come forward with their proposals", because the class of people with whom we should be dealing is much larger than the cohort identified in the Bill.

The Minister responded:

"I take exactly what hon. Gentleman says. The clause extends the provisions in a way that was not included in our consultation exercise, so we would have to consider carefully, in light of our conclusions, whether that should be included in any legislation. I leave it at that, with the same caveat as I left at the end of clause 1, that we shall reflect further on whether we need to amend the clause at a later stage." --[ Official Report, Damages (Asbestos-Related Conditions) Public Bill Committee, 1 July 2009; c. 12.]

Having had the chance to reflect during the intervening period-it amounts to July, August, September and half of October-has she reached a conclusion on that point?

Obviously, if the Bill receives a Third Reading in this House, it will go to the other place. Little time remains in this Session, but I understand that the other place has an additional Friday sitting set for early November. I do not know whether that is to deal with Government business or private Members' business, but there will be every opportunity for the other place to consider this Bill. If it is presented with a whole lot of Government amendments, the Bill is dead. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will say unequivocally when summing up whether she intends to table amendments when the Bill reaches the other place. Or will she give a guarantee not to do so? Does she support the Third Reading of the Bill in its current form, is she against it, or is she neutral? She owes it to those outside and inside this House who have been campaigning on this issue, to clarify, and to be open and transparent about, the Government's intention.

A point came up earlier about complications arising through Northern Ireland. Will that be used as an excuse for further procrastination and delay, or do the Government, with their enormous army of civil servants, intend to sort it out pronto? I am a great believer in the concept, "Where there's a will, there's a way", and the fact that the Government have been so slow to reach a conclusion, and have been seen to be leading people up the garden path, has done everyone a great disservice. That is why I think that, although I do not agree with the hon. Member for Hendon on all his legislative proposals, he has done this House and those who have been campaigning on this issue a great service in introducing the Bill. It is a good subject for a private Member's Bill, and even if it does not get on the statute book, provided the Minister plays the game in the way that I have suggested, it should enable the Government to be held properly to account.

For my part, I must put on the record my concern about retrospective change in the law. It goes too far to define as conditions constituting actionable damage, for the purposes of negligence and tort, those that have not caused any impairment of physical condition or personal injury, are not doing so, and will never do so. Such a provision is centred around the fear that something might happen. An enormous number of other conditions could result in fear and so on. If that fear results in a proper psychiatric condition, it can be compensated for, but in normal situations it cannot. To pick out an asbestos-related condition in preference to all those other conditions-we could think of those individuals who are exposed to danger and physical or mental damage in Afghanistan at this time-is the wrong thing to do. That is why I am against the Bill and why I am concerned about its retrospective aspects.

Whatever else happens, people need to know where they stand, but at the moment everybody is in the dark. People hope that the Government's intentions will be to have retrospective legislation, which will enable them to get their compensation, although if the Government do not act in that way, they will have to face up to the fact that they will not get compensation and live their lives accordingly. But they cannot be expected to put their lives on hold, waiting for the Government.

Although it might be convenient for the Government to say, "Well, this is something that we can hand over to an incoming Conservative Government next year," that would be very irresponsible, because it would mean further delay. Although my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham will probably argue strongly from the Front Bench that the issue should form a major part of any first Queen's Speech of an incoming Conservative Government, that can never be guaranteed, because of the enormous legislative programme that will be necessary to put right the things that this Government have done wrong over many years.

I will not go down that route and set out the specifics. All I am saying is that to fail to act decisively on this Bill, at this stage in the Parliament, would be a gross dereliction of duty on the part of the Government. I hope that the Minister will be forthcoming in responding to those points.

Watch this

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice) 11:31 am, 16th October 2009

I will be very brief. Let me once again congratulate Mr. Dismore on bringing the Bill forward. My hon. Friend Mr. Chope has scrutinised the Bill in his customary and inimitable way and has provoked a great deal of important debate.

We should not forget that we are talking about victims, albeit victims suffering mainly from a mental condition, although one that can obviously be pretty devastating. Imagine waking up every day knowing that you have a physical condition that could lead to an evil and wicked illness that is invariably fatal, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is why we need to show compassion to those who are suffering and never forget that they are the only people who really matter in this debate.

The previous common-law situation was based on the case of the Church v. the Ministry of Defence, which established the principle of aggregation-in other words, that the fact of pleural plaques could be aggregated with the anxiety and distress caused. It has struck me over the years that that was a satisfactory state of affairs. Compensation was awarded, but we should remember that it was modest, varying from between £4,000 and £7,000 per victim. It was not a life-changing sum of money, but for people who were probably out of work or perhaps from families that had no prospect of getting work, it could bring some relief and happiness at a time when the individual would be suffering from a great deal of anxiety. Also, as the hon. Member for Hendon rightly pointed out, once liability had been established, if the condition developed into full-blown mesothelioma or asbestosis, there did not have to be another court action.

That was a perfectly satisfactory state of affairs, which did not cost the insurance industry a huge amount of money, but on the other hand, I can understand why the industry was determined to challenge it. We then had the case of Rothwell v. Chemical and Insulating Co. Ltd in the Court of Appeal, which was upheld by Johnston v. NEI International Combustion. That case in the House of Lords held that the pleural plaques per se were not compensatable. The result was extreme anger, and not just in those communities that were previously dependent on traditional heavy industries, mining or refining, but across the whole country.

It is interesting that when I first started to look into the issue in detail, I discovered that there were a number of victims in Norfolk, which is not exactly an area renowned for heavy industry. However, people come to Norfolk to retire and there are also people there who were exposed to asbestos in smaller companies and small and medium-sized enterprises. I would therefore not mind venturing to suggest that in every constituency in this land there will be a small number-and in many cases a significant number-of victims of pleural plaques.

There was huge anger after that House of Lords decision, and we then had a number of Adjournment debates. I spoke in a number of those debates, as did many hon. Members in the Chamber this morning. We kept hearing from the Government that they were concerned about the issue and were going to take action. Then Scotland introduced legislation. The Scottish Executive and Parliament are ahead of the game on this issue, having quickly introduced that legislation. One of the points made this morning, which was also made in those Adjournment debates, is that we will probably end up having one law for Scots and another for people south of the border. That would be an extremely unsatisfactory situation for victims of pleural plaques and could also give rise to many anomalies among people living in the border area of this kingdom.

The Secretary of State for Justice made a written statement-in July 2008, as I recall-in which the Ministry laid out various options for action. Since then, however, we have had procrastination and a lack of decisive leadership by the Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said. I would like the Minister to address that point, because the time has now come for action to be taken. The Government need to make it clear: will they support the Bill, which is a modest measure, or will they take action of their own?

The Government must tell us what is happening, because in the meantime tens of thousands of people are waiting in trepidation. My hon. Friend suggests that they should get on with their lives and look to the future. Perhaps some people will have the willpower to do that, but many others will not be able to, because their condition will have caused them such psychological distress, resulting in their not being able to rebuild their lives.

I am concerned about the prospect of parallel litigation and about what the Association of British Insurers has stated. In its briefing for hon. Members, it points out that the Bill would set a legal precedent with wide implications and that it

"would set a dangerous precedent that could lead to a flood of 'exposure only' claims".

Frankly, however, that did not happen before; indeed, the common law was precise on that point. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon on how tightly he has worded his Bill. The ABI's concerns are therefore misplaced. I would like the Minister to comment on that.

On retrospection, which we have discussed, I am as concerned as anyone about any Bill containing retrospective measures. However, voting in favour of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch would effectively have prevented the thousands of people with pleural plaques from taking any action because of the statute of limitations. In other words, they would have had to start their action within three years of physically discovering that they had pleural plaques, either through a scan or an X-ray. As we have discussed on many occasions, these symptoms often do not have a visible physical manifestation. I sympathise with what my hon. Friend said about retrospection, but his amendment would effectively have wrecked the entire Bill.

This is a modest measure, but we should bear in mind one further point. Health and safety standards have improved out of all recognition. I understand that the average age of pleural plaque victims is past retirement age. In other words, people of my age, and the age of the Minister and the hon. Member for Hendon-people in their 50s, approaching middle age-were not exposed to asbestos as people 10 or 15 years older were. Health and safety standards have improved immeasurably, which is very good news for business and industry. This problem is therefore not going to get worse. We are talking about a finite number of people in this country, and by definition the problem will eventually disappear.

In the meantime, however, there are very real victims in families up and down the country, and they expect action from their Government. We have now been waiting for nearly a year and a half since the Minister's boss, the Secretary of State for Justice, made that written statement promising action, or at least a Government lead on this issue. So far, we have seen very little lead and absolutely no indication that the Government are prepared to grip the issue. There are perhaps seven months before the election, and I hope that the Government will now deal with this, so that all those people out there who are suffering because of this uncertainty will at least know where they stand.

Watch this

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

My hon. Friend will know that in July the Secretary of State for Justice said:

"The Government will give further consideration to the issue of compensation for people diagnosed with pleural plaques before publishing a final response after the recess."-[ Hansard, 21 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 741.]

Has he received any indication of when that response is likely to be published?

Watch this

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

My hon. Friend assumes that I have a direct line to the Secretary of State and to his junior Minister, or that I have their mobile numbers and am on the telephone to them the whole time. Alas, although we have a good relationship, it is not that close. I have been pushing them, but I have to use written parliamentary questions to do so. However, we now have an ideal opportunity to hear from the Minister exactly what the position is and what action Her Majesty's Government intend to take.

Watch this

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister 11:42 am, 16th October 2009

I, too, congratulate Mr. Dismore on his Bill, and on the fact that it looks as though it will actually be given a Third Reading this morning. I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate we shall hear that the Government are to make some time available this Session for the Bill to complete its stages in the Lords.

It is a fact that people who have pleural plaques have been exposed to asbestos. When the Law Lords sought to clarify the law on 17 October 2007, it was made clear that people cannot get pleural plaques without such exposure. It is also true, as Mr. Bellingham said, that the victims have received small sums of money in recognition of that exposure. It is therefore disappointing that the Law Lords stopped that in November 2007, but I am afraid that it is not untypical of the way in which victims of asbestos-whether suffering from mesothelioma, asbestosis or another industry-related disease-have had to fight for their just rights and compensation.

In that context, I pay tribute to a lady who, sadly, died yesterday. Diane Willmore did not have pleural plaques; she suffered from mesothelioma. The day before yesterday, in the Court of Appeal, she finally heard that her compensation for exposure to asbestos while a school pupil had been agreed to by the Law Lords. She sadly died yesterday having just heard that news. Her fight and her courage are typical of the actions that victims of asbestos have had to take. I hope that the Bill will put an end to that situation in regard to pleural plaques.

I agree with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk that, given that it is more than 12 months since the consultation closed and that the Secretary of State promised on 21 July that the response would be published early in the recess, it is disappointing that the Government have not yet published it. It is disgraceful that we should be here today discussing the Bill without having received any indication of the Government's stance. I make a strong plea to the Minister to clarify the Government's position today. Like most other hon. Members present, I hope that she will support the Bill and give us a guarantee that it will move forward in this Session and complete its stages in the House of Lords. If that does not happen, people with pleural plaques will face yet another year of not knowing what the situation is.

As the hon. Member for Hendon said, the Bill is simple, tight and clear in its purpose. It restores the law to what we all thought it was before the Law Lords' ruling. In that sense, it will impose no additional costs on the insurance industry, as the industry had already budgeted for those costs. The costs had already been included when insurers were charging companies their premiums. There will obviously be small additional costs to the Government because of the retrospective element of the legislation, but they will only increase if the Government prevaricate further.

I have been asked to inquire, on behalf of representatives of the asbestos victims support groups, whether the Minister or the Secretary of State will meet them, following the deliberations on the Bill today, to discuss the situation and other asbestos-related issues.

Watch this

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I should like to probe the hon. Gentleman a little further on his point about public expenditure. It is my understanding that the only possible trigger for extra public expenditure would be in relation to those victims who had been exposed to asbestos while employed by Government Departments or agencies-the Ministry of Defence, or a related agency, for example. It is my understanding that the Bill will not lead directly to any public expenditure on the part of the Ministry of Justice. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his point?

Watch this

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

Yes, I am happy to do that. Perhaps I did not make my point very well. There will be expenditure involved, but it will be directly associated with Departments such as the Ministry of Defence.

I hope that the Minister or the Secretary of State will agree to meet representatives of the asbestos victims support groups, following today's debate, to discuss what is going to happen. It would be helpful if the Minister were able to give us a categorical assurance today that the Bill will become law before the end of this Session. She could use Government offices to do that. I see that the Chief Whip is here; perhaps he will be able to tell her that that can happen, and that the Bill will be able to complete its passage through the House of Lords. That will right a wrong and restore rights that people enjoyed prior to the Law Lords' ruling. We have now waited more than two years for this to happen, and I hope that we will today receive a clear, unequivocal yes from the Government that this wrong will be righted and that we can move forward.

Watch this

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice 11:48 am, 16th October 2009

I begin by offering my condolences-and, I am sure, those of the whole House-to the family of the constituent of Paul Rowen who sadly died of mesothelioma yesterday. Later in my speech, I hope to say something that might be of some comfort-if not to that family at least to other victims of mesothelioma, which is a dreadful, horrendously painful and nasty disease.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore not just on pursuing this issue, but on getting this first Bill of its kind on the agenda today. He has been assiduous in pursuing the matter, as have many other hon. Friends who have supported him today and raised similar issues in the many Adjournment debates over the past year and a half or so to which I have replied. I take only a little advice from Opposition Members in respect of my own frustration that we have not yet reached a conclusion. I completely understand the frustration of my hon. Friends and other honourable colleagues who have campaigned on this issue on behalf of their constituents for a very long time.

I confirm for the hon. Member for Rochdale that I will, of course, meet representatives of the asbestos victims support groups. I have met many such groups, trade unions and others who have campaigned on this issue, just as I have met those, including the Association of British Insurers, who are opposed to our doing anything at all about it.

I shall not go through the history of the Bill or the legal position resulting from the House of Lords judgment, as I believe Mr. Bellingham has already outlined that fairly comprehensively.

We said that there would be consultation on action to improve the understanding of pleural plaques and provide support and reassurance to those diagnosed with it in order to alleviate their concerns. I accept the point made by Mr. Chope that there is still a big job to be done on giving further support to people diagnosed with pleural plaques and on explaining the consequences that are or are not likely to result from having them. That is part of the reason why we have not yet given our full response to the consultation.

It is only right at this point that I should apologise to my hon. Friends, to all hon. Members who have campaigned on this issue for some time and, indeed, to the House as a whole for the fact that the Government have not yet responded. That is very frustrating for everyone concerned. I apologise absolutely for that, but it is not through want of trying. We have consulted different groups and only yesterday met a number of medical experts who argued both sides of the case-so there is still further consideration to be taken. I cannot therefore give a categorical date for when the Government response will be made, although I can give my personal commitment to continue to go back to my colleagues in order to reach a conclusion as quickly as possible. As a number of hon. Members have said, time is moving on-not only in a parliamentary sense, but in respect of the lives of the individuals affected.

Watch this

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I am sure that the whole House will accept the Minister's apology in the spirit in which it was given, but we are being invited today to support the Third Reading of a Bill, so will she explain how on earth we can possibly do so when there has been no Government response to the consultation? The Minister admitted in response to an intervention from my hon. Friend Mr. Chope that the Government were still looking at some aspects of the Bill's detail. How can the Government ask us to support the Third Reading of a Bill whose details they have not thought through themselves?

Watch this

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

The hon. Gentleman will know that many a Bill goes through this House or the other place whose details have yet to be hammered out. Our bicameral system provides an opportunity for amendments to be proposed at a later stage, so I am quite relaxed about the Bill going through today, as I expect it will, because if further amendments are necessary, they can be tabled elsewhere.

We have made it clear throughout that it is important to ensure that any decisions are taken on the basis of the best available medical evidence on pleural plaques. That is why we commissioned and have already published the reviews of the medical evidence that were carried out by the chief medical officer and by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. They will help to inform our consideration.

Watch this

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am very interested in what the Minister has had to say so far. She has indicated that there is a possibility that amendments will be introduced in the other place. Of course we accept that, but obviously it would be necessary for this place to consider those Lords amendments. Is the Minister guaranteeing that the Government will provide the necessary time if such circumstances arise during the remains of the current Session?

Watch this

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

In the course of my life in Parliament I have been in the Whips Office, and I know better than to make a claim about parliamentary time while the Chief Whip is sitting to my right. However, I think that he has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I am sure that he will take it into account when the business managers consider future business.

I met medical experts yesterday in response to representations from asbestos campaigners and, in particular, to a request from my hon. Friend Mr. Clapham. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice had said that he would facilitate a meeting. I had a very helpful and informative discussion with those experts, and as a result further issues were identified. We must consider those issues and the views that are expressed before we finally publish our response.

Watch this

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The Minister is being very generous. Can we take it from what she has said that the last word from the Justice Secretary about a final response after the recess is redundant, and that we are now talking about a final response in the next Session of Parliament rather than before the Queen's Speech?

Watch this

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned "a final response after the recess" a number of times, but we are only four or five days into "after the recess". I think, to be fair, that the Justice Secretary is still capable of ensuring that we give a response as soon as we possibly can.

What I can say in response to the hon. Member for Rochdale and, indeed, the hon. Member for Christchurch is that it is important for us to consider how much more support we can give to people who have been exposed to asbestos. We have been absolutely consistent in our commitment to giving people who are suffering from mesothelioma and other serious asbestos-related diseases the help that they deserve.

I was a Minister at the time when we introduced in another Bill compensation for mesothelioma victims, and I think that those people recognise that the changed arrangements are thanks to a Labour Government who took speedy action. We will continue to consider how we can speed up compensation so that others, such as the constituent of the hon. Member for Rochdale, can receive it at a more appropriate time.

We are actively considering measures to make the United Kingdom the global leader in research on the alleviation, prevention and cure of asbestos-related diseases and, as I said, to help to speed up the meeting of compensation claims. That will include examination of the process of tracing employment and insurance records, some of which are very difficult to track down, as well as considering what support we can give individuals who are unable to trace such records. As I said during my meeting with the medical experts, nine times out of 10 exposure to asbestos is due to the negligence of employers. If an employer has been negligent in that respect, he may well also have been negligent in the keeping of records. We will publish our plans shortly.

Watch this

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I am very pleased to hear the Minister's announcement. Does that mean that the Queen's Speech will provide for the establishment of a compulsory employers' liability insurance bureau to deal with the problems to which she has referred?

Watch this

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

Opposition Members are again asking me to go down a road that it would not be appropriate to go down. It is not for me to say what will be in the Queen's Speech; we must leave that for later.

Watch this

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

My hon. Friend need not wait for the Queen's Speech. There could be an alternative Queen's Speech with my 12 Bills. Bill No. 39 on today's Order Paper provides for such a bureau, so perhaps she will support it and give it a fair wind later today.

Watch this

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

If we reach Bill No. 39 today that will be something of a record, and my hon. Friend will deserve to get his Bill through on that basis alone.

The Bill before us has to be considered in the context that I have outlined. It represents a possible approach to the issue of pleural plaques-there may be others, too-as well as to the wider issues to do with asbestos-related diseases. We want to ensure that these are considered fully and the best response is identified.

As we are still in the process of assessing that response, it is not possible for me to give a firm indication today of what our ultimate position on the Bill will be. However, I can confirm that I am content for it to proceed today, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on promoting it.

Watch this

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon 12:01 pm, 16th October 2009

I do not want to detain the House for long, but I wish to thank every Member who has spoken in this debate.

The Bill had no priority whatever. It was a presentation Bill, the product of my spending an uncomfortable night on the floor of the Public Bill Office to make sure I had the first place in the queue-made a little more uncomfortable by Mr. Chope turning up at midnight and waking me by turning the lights on in order to make sure I was there.

Today's speeches from all the Front Benches have been good, and I am grateful for the support that has been given from them. The Northern Ireland point can be dealt with easily: ultimately, that would be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate on, instead of it being incorporated into the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Minister has laid out the position in relation to the consultation and I accept her apology of course, but we could get bogged down in medical issues. This is ultimately a legal issue not a medical question, so it has to be dealt with in terms of legal results. The context of the medical experts may affect how much a claim is worth or the causation question, but we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that pleural plaques are caused by asbestos, so ultimately this has to be a legal issue, as addressed by the Bill.

On how the Bill proceeds, the commencement date is in the gift of the Secretary of State, although he cannot prevaricate for too long because it is a "shall" rather than a "may" requirement. If, as I hope, the Bill is passed and moves to another place today, I am sure that my right hon. Friend Mr. Brown, the Chief Whip, will use his good offices to ensure that it gets a fair reading in the Lords, and that if amendments are made there Government time can be found at the end of the Session to deal with them. I say that as he has been very helpful throughout, and if he wants something done he always gets it done.

The question of the employers' liability insurance bureau is another issue, of course. It is, however, a very important issue, and offers yet another example of how this House should deal with matters relating to asbestos.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Watch this

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The House divided: Ayes 51, Noes 0.

Watch this

Division number 222 Todmorden Rail Link — Clause 4 — Commencement and retrospective effect

Aye: 51 MPs

No: 0 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Watch this

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time and passed.

Watch this