The Government recognise that mesothelioma is a truly terrible disease—a terminal illness that has a devastating impact on the families of its victims—and we are wholly committed to doing everything we can to help its victims to achieve justice and get the support that they deserve. The Lords amendments seeking to exempt mesothelioma and industrial disease cases from our reforms to no win, no fee agreements in part 2 of the Bill are not the right way to advance the cause of sufferers.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give me a chance to put forward our opposition to the amendments.
First, the amendments are unnecessary. The legal climate in which mesothelioma cases can be brought has wholly changed in recent years, and nothing in our proposals should prevent cases from being taken or those affected from receiving appropriate damages. Secondly, in making an exception to our change to the no win, no fee conditional fee arrangements regime, the amendments would create inconsistency and damage the wider goal of our reforms—to restore sense to the costs of litigation, which have been substantially increased by the way in which no win, no fee cases operate, largely to the detriment of defendants.
How can appropriate damages be recovered by mesothelioma victims if a proportion of those damages is to be taken from them to cover the cost of legal fees?
This is not a question of whether mesothelioma sufferers receive adequate legal support but of how much their lawyers get paid for providing it. We are saying that that must be more reasonably assessed, and that is the point of our reforms.
Let me remind hon. Members that the current regime of no win, no fee conditional fee agreements was meant to promote access to justice but has frequently ended up as something of a racket allowing risk-free litigation for claimants, inflated profits for legal firms, and punitive additional costs for defendants.
Can the Minister tell us of one case in which a mesothelioma sufferer has taken something to court that did not deserve to go there—one case in which a sufferer from this horrible disease, which leaves them dying in a horribly painful way, has in any way abused the system?
Let me repeat what I said: this is not a question of whether the person making a claim has a valid claim but of how much his lawyer gets paid. That is what we are looking at, and that is where the system needs reform. To be clear—I say that because I have heard that some hon. Members are not clear about this specific point—I emphasise that under our proposals the client’s lawyer’s costs will still be recoverable from the losing other side.
However, clauses 46 and 48 abolish the recoverability of the success fees and insurance premiums that have pushed up prices for everyone.
As I have just said, lawyers’ costs will be met in the usual way. What we are talking about is the success fee. That is where the problem has come into the system.
No; if the hon. Lady listens, I will answer the question.
Our reforms are intended to redress the unfairness that exists in our civil litigation system between claimants and defendants. They will move conditional fee agreements back to the position that they were in before the Opposition’s disastrous reforms in the Access to Justice Act 1999. Our proposals are premised on the similar treatment of classes of cases, based on the costs or difficulty of bringing a claim. The Lords amendments would introduce a new unfairness between claimants, based only on the type of disease or illness, and essentially dependent on whether it was caused in the workplace.
A number of my constituents who worked on the docks in Goole and in power stations have been affected by this illness. There seems to be a lot of confusion in this debate. For simplicity’s sake, will the Minister say whether my constituents who worked at the docks and who are suffering from this awful disease will receive more or less money in compensation under the Government’s proposals than they receive at the moment?
That will depend on the arrangements that they make with their lawyers. Under the new system, for the first time since the Opposition’s reforms which did so much to create a compensation culture in our country, the client will have an interest in what their lawyer is being paid. Until we get back to that situation, there will be an ongoing ratcheting of costs, which is not in the interests of such claims.
The Opposition’s Lords amendments rate one sort of claim above another. Somehow, a mesothelioma claim is automatically more worthy than a personal injury claim. The Government simply do not accept that. I acknowledge the concern in the other place, which underpinned Lords amendments 31 and 32, that the new arrangements will prevent lawyers from being willing to take mesothelioma cases and leave claimants out of pocket, but I believe it to be mistaken.
The Minister says that a mesothelioma claim is not, by definition, more serious than a personal injury claim. That obviously depends on the personal injury claim. However, every single mesothelioma claim is a serious matter. Will he at least acknowledge that there is a difference between all mesothelioma claims and some personal injury claims?
All non-clinical negligence personal injury cases, including respiratory disease claims, have been out of the scope of legal aid since 2000—let us acknowledge that—under changes introduced by the last Government. Although some expert reports may be required in respiratory disease cases, the Government are not persuaded that they differ substantially from other personal injury cases in a way that merits the retention of the recoverability of after-the-event insurance premiums.
As I said, this is a question of what lawyers get paid. I am in no way assessing the vulnerability of the individuals whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
I point out to the hon. Gentleman that significant steps have been taken in recent years to lower the barriers to bringing compensation claims for these disastrous diseases. A fast-track procedure for mesothelioma cases has been introduced in the High Court. Over the past few years, various legal changes, including primary legislation such as the Compensation Act 2006 and judgments of the Supreme Court, have removed many of the hurdles for sufferers of respiratory diseases in bringing claims.
The legal climate in which such cases are brought has been transformed in recent years. Judgments of the Supreme Court have removed many hurdles, and a judgment only last month means that victims of this dreadful disease who are able to trace an insurer will now be paid and not miss out on compensation. As I said, a fast-track procedure has been introduced to ensure that claims are dealt with as quickly as possible.
A key outstanding barrier is identifying the employer’s liability insurer when an employer no longer exists, and the Department for Work and Pensions continues to work with stakeholders to see what more can be done to address that. Overall, however, cases are much less difficult to undertake than in the past, and there is no reason to believe that legal firms will stop bringing them, even under the new arrangements, or that they will be particularly expensive.
Does the Minister not accept, though, that some cases will now simply go unrepresented and unpursued, and that victims will instead have to rely on the Government’s own compensation scheme, in which the average payment is £16,000? This change will be an expensive choice for the Government, because it will lock people out of access through the courts.
Decisions are made about such cases now, and even under the existing system, if there are large sums involved, ATE insurance companies want to know the likelihood of losing. A lawyer also has to make such an assessment. As things stand, the balance is not right, and we want to rebalance the situation.
Partly as a consequence of what I have said, I do not believe we should accept the view that critics sometimes advance that our reforms will leave victims of this terrible disease out of pocket. It is true that under our plans individuals will pay legal costs out of their general damages. Crucially, though, damages for future care and losses are protected, and general damages are being increased by 10% to offset a success fee capped at 25%. It is of course entirely up to the lawyer whether any success fee is taken from a claimant’s damages at all.
Even if damages for future care and losses are protected, the average life expectancy for advanced mesothelioma has been disclosed as being about nine to 12 months—so that is a great comfort. How can the Minister seriously tell the House that there will be no loss of damages given that the 10% uplift, which is very indistinct, is compensated for by a 25% loss of damages? We should not blame the lawyers, we should blame the Government, who are taking damages away from mesothelioma and asbestosis victims.
I am actually saying quite the opposite. I am saying that damages are going to be increased, not decreased.
The aim of our reforms is to end the current situation whereby legal firms can get away with charging what they want because the claimants do not have a stake in keeping an eye on the bill. At a time when the cases in question are becoming easier to bring, we should not accept amendments that would reduce pressure on legal firms to cut their fees. Instead, our focus should be on cutting inflated margins, not making exemptions for one type of disease.
I understand claimants’ fear of being left liable for high defendant’s costs should they lose, but under our reforms, we are protecting personal injury claimants from the risk of paying such costs, including in industrial disease cases, by introducing qualified one-way costs shifting.
Even if I accepted the Minister’s argument about plaintiffs keeping an eye on fees, which I do not, how would someone with no legal training who was dying of mesothelioma be supposed to keep monitoring their lawyers’ fees?
People entering into a conditional fee agreement have a relationship with their lawyer, and it is quite right that someone who employs a lawyer has some idea of what is on that lawyer’s clock and what they are charging. That is very important. If someone is sick, they will have family who can help them through their sickness.
The Government are determined to see more proportionate costs in civil litigation, with greater fairness in the risks borne by parties. Without our reforms, high and disproportionate costs in civil litigation would continue. Moreover, if the Lords amendments were accepted, claimants in mesothelioma cases would have an advantage over others who may be suffering from equally debilitating conditions. That cannot be justified.
I will be as brief I can, because a number of my hon. Friends also wish to speak to the two amendments on industrial diseases. If appropriate, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall say a brief word about the Lords amendment on metal theft as this is the only opportunity to do so—[ Interruption. ] In that case, I shall deal with it later.
The first amendment ensures that victims of respiratory industrial disease—for the main part asbestos-induced diseases such as mesothelioma—will not have their damages taken away by lawyers and insurers. The second ensures that victims of industrial diseases as a whole are treated in the same way.
The Government plan to allow claimants’ lawyers to take up to 25% of industrial disease victims’ damages and for the victims’ insurers to take an uncapped additional amount. The current system says that the losing defendant or their insurer should pay the costs of bringing that case. They are still highly contentious and contended cases. Some 60,000 people in Britain will develop mesothelioma over the next decades because of past exposure, and almost 40,000 have died thus far—the highest levels in the world. The Association of British Insurers continues to obstruct victims of asbestosis in high-profile, Supreme Court cases to try to absolve insurers from paying out. After a recent ruling in favour of victims, the
Insurance Times headline read, “Disappointment at pleural plaques ruling”.
Asbestosis is not the only problem, which is why the other place made two amendments. One amendment was specific to respiratory disease and the other encompasses serious industrial diseases. These are not slips and trips, minor accidents at work or road traffic whiplash cases; they are diagnosable medical conditions that can, with difficulty, be proved to have resulted from a breach of duty by an employer. Symptoms include deafness, blindness, spinal degradation, leukaemia, cirrhosis of the liver caused by exposure to chemicals, organ damage, loss of limbs and more.
The diseases are the by-product of hard and often manual work over decades. They are inflicted on people who have spent their lives contributing to the economy of this country in heavy industry, manufacturing and public services. Many of the diseases do not manifest for years—they are the legacy of our heavy industries and of our proud traditions of manufacturing. In time, modern industries will cause diseases as yet undiagnosed.
The Minister has repeatedly said in debates on the Bill that the aim of part 2 is to fix the “compensation culture” or to lower motor insurance premiums, but whose car insurance is affected by mesothelioma sufferers getting their full and just compensation?
Eighteen noble lords from all parties and none signed a letter supporting the amendment. I shall not name them all, but I should mention Lord Alton and Lord Bach, who moved the amendments in the House of Lords, Lord Avebury, and the late Lord Newton, who spoke so powerfully to the amendments. They demonstrated the depth of feeling that the Government should be so crass as to treat mesothelioma sufferers in the same manner as those affected by whiplash. As the noble Lord Avebury said:
“Unscrupulous claimants may be able to fake road traffic injuries, but not mesothelioma or asbestosis. It is impossible for the victims of these horrible diseases to launch a frivolous or fraudulent claim, and it is unconscionable that people on their deathbeds should be mulcted of thousands of pounds out of the damages that they are awarded by the courts.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 14 March 2012; Vol. 736, c. 313.]
The Government contend that that is not relevant and that they are trying to get people to shop around for the best rates, but who, diagnosed with mesothelioma, with perhaps months to live, will shop around for the lawyer that takes the least damages from him—the so-called skin in the game so beloved of the Minister? On average, cancer caused by asbestos exposure kills in about 12 months. General damages are, on average, about £65,000. The victim’s lawyer will now receive up to 25% of that sum. The after-the-event insurer, who insures the claimant in case his action fails, will take an unlimited sum for the premium. Because insurance companies fight mesothelioma cases to the end—often until after the victim dies—such cases are inherently risky to bring, and the cost of insuring the claim can be huge.
The Government have refused to reduce base costs for lawyers, which would be the obvious way to stop inflated costs. Instead, they are going after victims’ damages. The beneficiaries of all this will be the defendants and their insurers. They will have significantly reduced liabilities if they lose. Insurance companies will also benefit, because the Government are promoting a new market in legal expenses insurance—a tax on all citizens worth billions to the industry—although how they expect people to insure against industrial disease I do not know.
The dangers of asbestos and the risks of asbestosis and mesothelioma have been known since the 1920s. Successive Governments of both persuasions have ignored them. In the London fire brigade, in which I served for 23 years, we used asbestos equipment regularly. Every firefighter who worked with the London fire brigade or any other fire brigade has had their personal files annotated with “Exposed to asbestos”. The Government—whichever Government—have a responsibility to those workers, because we have failed to protect them. Is my hon. Friend saying that, in rejecting Lords amendment 31, the Government are not accepting their responsibility to people who have been exposed?
I hear cries of “Shameful!” from the Government Benches. There should be a little humility and a little humanity from Government Members on these issues. We are talking about debilitating diseases, with the longest gestation periods of any diseases—they strike after many years, when it is often difficult to trace employers and when insurers evade their responsibilities—and they kill quickly and painfully. Those are the targets for the Government in this Bill.
The Association of British Insurers’ briefing for this debate—as well as that of some defendants’ lawyers—which claims that the amendments reduce the damages for victims and expose them to the risk of adverse costs is demonstrably false. We have raised that issue with the ABI, which claimed that Members of this House already knew that damages would be reduced by the Bill, hence it did not address that issue. Such tactics do the insurance industry no credit. This Bill does the Government no credit, and neither does resisting these amendments. We ask for full and proper justice for those who have given their working lives—and often their lives—to some of the most painful and debilitating medical conditions. They should not become victims of lawyers, insurers, unscrupulous employers or this disgraceful Government.
I wish to speak only briefly. I am inclined to support Lords amendment 31 this evening, but I intend to listen to the debate carefully before the Division. In the meantime, I hope to make clear my views on this issue.
I ought to start by placing on record the fact that I used to work for one of the UK’s largest insurance companies. My views might therefore surprise many, particularly on the other side of the House. I have always felt that we as a nation have simply not done enough to support mesothelioma victims, but that includes all parties—Government, insurers and lawyers. I have views on mesothelioma—but not on other asbestos conditions—that are different, in part, to those of the insurance industry. With meso, people die quickly and painfully, and often with good cause for compensation, but without any early settlement in sight. A person can have mesothelioma only as a consequence of exposure to asbestos; therefore, it is impossible to bring a fraudulent claim. It is clear that all parties should be working together to ensure that, when a victim passes away, they are able to provide financial security for their family.
It is not my insurance background that drives my real interest in this issue; it is on a constituency basis that I care most. Medway has been highlighted as a hot spot for mesothelioma, which is unsurprising given that the towns have historically provided the industrial hub for Kent, and that the Chatham dockyard was one of the biggest employers for many decades. Shipbuilding and ship repairing have long been associated with asbestos-related conditions, and the predicted figures for future cases of mesothelioma in Chatham follow the pattern of other areas with a shipping past. However, we must not forget that other professions, not least teachers, are coming forward with the condition—including a constituent I met recently.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is clear that this disease affects many people.
In recognition of the high number of cases of mesothelioma, and of the swift and horrible deterioration in the health of its victims, my local primary care trust continues to invest in providing specialist nursing for meso victims, including dedicated Macmillian nurses and support staff. That is hugely welcome for those who suffer directly, and for the families who support them through their dying months. I should like to thank them for their commitment and dedication in often very difficult circumstances.
I should like to see everything possible being done to support mesothelioma victims, especially in regard to providing financial peace of mind before they pass away. Anecdotal evidence shows that sufferers often pass away long before their claim has been settled, leaving their grieving families to settle the claim. Sometimes, the stress of doing so is too much and the claim is no longer pursued. Much has been done on the employers’ liability tracing office, but not much has been done on the insurer of last resort, the employers’ liability insurance bureau—ELIB. That is disappointing. Each party is blaming the other for the lack of progress, as is always the case. The people who lose out are the victims and their families. Although this involves a different Department, I hope that if the Government take away one message from my short contribution today it is that there should be no more delays. It is time to resolve the issue and set up ELIB now. Too much time has passed on consultation, and it is time for action.
If I have one concern about Lords amendment 31, it is its breadth. I want to see meso victims receive a fair package of compensation, and I am concerned that the
Bill as drafted will cause a significant sum of their compensation package to be lost in success fees paid to lawyers. The amendment is not meso-specific and could be interpreted as relating to other respiratory diseases—hence my slight hesitation in wholeheartedly supporting it. However, meso claims account for over half of all asbestos-related claims, so, on balance, it is an important addition to the Bill.
I recognise that the proposed Jackson reforms include a 10% uplift in general damages. I note the Association of British Insurers is warning that mesothelioma sufferers might not benefit from those reforms if the amendment goes through. I do not believe that, and I want to issue the counter-warning that, on fatal industrial diseases such as mesothelioma, the Government will be judged on what they do to help victims, whether through financial or other types of support. The 10% uplift is necessary and right.
I know that others are keen to speak and, as promised, I shall listen to the rest of the debate with interest. I pray that I never contract a disease as nasty as mesothelioma, but I also pray that the Government do all that they can to support those who do, including by providing easy access to justice and ensuring that full and fair compensation is paid to the victims as quickly as possible.
It is an honour to follow such a powerful and brave speech from Tracey Crouch. She spoke incredibly well on the subject.
I wish to speak briefly in support of Lords amendment 31, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Mr Djanogly will listen carefully. I also hope against hope that he will reconsider his decision, because the sight of him sitting there laughing while this subject is being discussed, and labelling victims in my constituency and across the country who suffer horribly as being part of a compensation culture and a racket, does a gross disservice to those people, and ultimately to the Government he represents.
Let us be clear—as the Bill stands, individuals who have contracted horrific and rapidly life-shortening diseases could now be required to pay the cost of bringing their case out of the damages they receive rather than have the defendant meet the costs. This represents a major change to the underlying principles of criminal damages cases in the UK, creating the potential for unlimited costs to be borne by successful claimants. In extremis, it could lead to a defendant, having successfully proven that their employer’s negligence has left them with an almost certainly fatal disease, being left with a bill to pick up for bringing the case.
It is important to get this right. The particular disease falls within the Government’s proposals to introduce one-way cost shifting, which will mean that losing claimants will not pay defendants’ costs.
As the shadow Minister has made clear, it does not cover disbursements. The Minister has not been able to set out a proper case. He has tried to claim that compensation will go up as a result of these reforms. Frankly, all the people looking at this—I see the Minister nodding his head now—do not agree. Given the level of concern and alarm expressed by victims who contract the disease incredibly quickly, many thousands of people are left wondering when they are going to be struck, and the families left behind cannot understand the Government’s attitude towards this incredibly difficult subject.
On average, those who successfully pursue claims for mesothelioma see compensation in the order of £65,000. Under the unamended Bill, their lawyer could receive 25% of that. On top of that, their after-the-event insurer could take an increased premium, and because mesothelioma claims are risky, those premiums can be very high indeed.
From my own constituency, I have seen the appalling impact of mesothelioma on the lives of those who suffer and their families. The industrial tradition of Barrow and Furness means that shipyard workers are particularly affected because of the historic use of asbestos in ship construction. This has left the town, as I said in my intervention, with the second-highest mortality rate from this disease among males anywhere in the country—topped only by West Dunbartonshire, which is, of course, another shipbuilding area. These people served their country through the fine ships they built to defend our shores. They were failed by successive Governments, and this Government now have a duty to address that wrong. That is why sufferers have pushed and pushed for better compensation, and that is why it would be a travesty for this House to vote today to reduce the payments they can get.
I start by echoing the distress expressed by my hon. Friend John Woodcock about the tone of the Minister’s remarks, which showed a real lack of empathy with the situation that mesothelioma sufferers and their families face. What happens in so many of these cases is that victims become aware of the illness many years after they been exposed to asbestos, and often after the organisation responsible for that has long since disappeared. They face a troublesome problem in identifying who was responsible in the first place and they are then faced with the shocking news that their lives are shortly going to come to end and they are going to experience agonising circumstances in the run-up to their deaths.
For many of the people who have been on that journey, the last thing on their minds when they receive this appalling news is the idea that they need to embark on some complicated and potentially costly hunt for compensation. People who work with victims of asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, say that it is hard to persuade them to make claims because they are so heartbroken by their recent experiences. They tell me that if those who seek advice learn that there may be a cost impact, many are likely to choose to let the matter drop. It would be a real dereliction of duty on the part of all of us if we allowed that to happen.
The Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team has given me some examples including that of Roy Redfern, a joiner in the building trade from Chesterfield who also worked for Severn Trent for 16 years. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma, but died before he could obtain compensation. His wife Vicky and his daughter Helen pursued his claim, but when they came to see me this week they said that if they had been told that costs would be attached at the time when they were facing the tragedy, they would not have proceeded with the claim. This is not just about the fact that the increased costs will mean victims ending up with less money; it is also about the impact on victims and their families who pursue claims in the first place.
I also question the level of costs that the Government will save. Under the 2008 mesothelioma scheme, every claimant receives a compensation payment regardless of whether the company concerned still exists or whether the exposure to asbestos is secondary. A person aged 77 or over receives £12,666, while one aged 65 receives about £22,000. If someone subsequently pursues a successful civil claim, the Government recoup the money through the compensation recovery unit. If fewer people proceed with their claims there may be a cost saving, but the Government will not be able to recoup that money.
Finally, there is the question of whether approving the exemption for mesothelioma sufferers would open the floodgates. Surely the fact that we cannot always do the right thing for every single group does not mean that we should never do the right thing for any group. As we heard from my hon. Friend Mr Slaughter, these people face an agonising death, and they are never the cause of their circumstances but always the victims. At a time when the Government are proposing massive savings in justice bills, for us to make this small concession to one group of people who are suffering terribly would show the human side of the House. I urge all Members to support the amendment, which was backed by members of all parties and huge numbers of Cross-Benchers in the other place, and to show that the House of Commons has a heart.
As you have probably gathered, Madam Deputy Speaker, I did not plan to speak in this part of the debate. However, after I had listened to a couple of speeches—notably that of my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch, and what I could hear of that of Toby Perkins—I was struck by the fact that the issues do not sit comfortably together.
There is genuine concern about the possibility that people suffering from what is indeed a horrible condition will lose out in some way, but I have to say, quite bluntly, that I do not understand why on earth the Government are involved in this aspect of disputes between people and their employers. One of the real problems is employers who do not have the guts, decency and honesty to admit liability, stop messing about, sort out compensation, pay it as swiftly as possible, and let people die in dignity and security.
Many hon. Members are aware that I am a lawyer, and as such, I say that we must be honest about the other problem. I will always defend my profession and the other profession involved, that of solicitors. The real problem is not just that employers are not doing the honourable thing; we have to make sure that we, as lawyers, also do the honourable thing. It cannot be right that we do not behave honourably when we are representing somebody. We must make sure that the fees we charge are the right ones.
I say bluntly that I have looked at solicitors’ websites, including only today, and been horrified by how they advertise themselves. They say, “This is the money we can get you.” I do not believe—I know that some Opposition Members are solicitors—that that is the way solicitors should work. I will always defend good, honourable lawyers, but what I have described cannot be the right approach when bringing an action on behalf of somebody in real need of our assistance—that is what lawyers often do. This idea that we are all heartless and just in it for money is simply not true. In my experience, most lawyers, certainly those at the criminal Bar, are, most of the time, social workers with wigs on, and we do a lot of hard work pro bono. However, I am sorry to say that there is a section of lawyers who see this as a way of making money out of other people’s pain and distress. So we want employers to do the decent thing and we want the Law Society to be far more honourable and to regulate its own members far harder. Perhaps if we could achieve that, we would not face this farce.
Given what the hon. Lady has said, does she think it is appropriate to leave it up to the victims of mesothelioma to be the people who police what lawyers are charging? What the Minister said earlier, in a shockingly insensitive remark, was that the victims can watch the lawyer’s clock; it will now be the job of people whose lives are running out to watch the lawyer’s clock.
That is a strong point, but I have sympathy with the Minister’s argument, because everyone who is engaged in litigation has a duty—some of us have been engaged in litigation in difficult emotional times, with divorce being a very good example—to ensure that things are being done on their behalf in the right way. Some hon. Members are muttering from a sedentary position. Of course when somebody is sick it does seem heartless and cruel to say that they should be watching the clock, but we hope that they would be taking an interest in the conduct of their case. I respectfully suggest that that would include the costs. Often these people have families, who would also want to ensure not only that the costs are being properly done, but that the case is being properly conducted. That is what I would say on that point. I just hope that somewhere along the line there will be some way of sorting this out, given all the various submissions that have been made.
I shall be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have read an excellent letter from my right hon. Friend Paul Goggins to the Lord Chancellor, which set out an unanswerable case against this proposal. It is wrong, in principle, that the Government are proposing this evening to reduce the damages of a successful mesothelioma claimant. I am a solicitor, and I did not go into the law to take damages away from a dying person, pending the outcome of a claim.
I have been very much strengthened in my conviction by the words of my constituent Marie Hughes, whose husband Phil, a massively respected head teacher in Wrexham, died from mesothelioma, having worked for four years at the Brymbo steelworks in his youth. She has written to me explaining, in her own words, why she thinks this proposal is wrong, and I am going to read this out to the Minister, whom I respect. I hope that he will listen. She says:
“Had we had to undergo the further anxiety of financial implications we would not have attempted to claim. The thought of ‘shopping around’ for deals on success fees like other claimants as the Government suggests would be an unimaginable burden. Any monies available were needed to sustain our day to day costs, my inability to go to work while my husband was ill, and the need for travelling/sustenance funding when receiving treatment away from home, also supporting our family in further education. If there was a chance of treatment, we could not gamble with our savings as the stakes were too high. By the final 3 months of Phil’s life, tumours had also developed on his spine resulting in paralysis from the chest down—and all this while he was fighting to breathe.
My husband was not there to proudly escort his daughter down the aisle, though he had spoken of this dream several times during our precious time together. He never saw grandchildren. He bravely bore his condition and battled to the end but Mesothelioma takes no prisoners.”
I appeal to Government Members to reconsider their position. They should listen to the Lords and accept the amendment. To take damages away from these victims would be an appalling act of which the Government should be ashamed.
I want to speak briefly to amendments 31 and 32. I am sure I am not the only MP who has received many representations on the important issue in question. Lawyers should not skin people who are dying. I was a lawyer—both a solicitor and a barrister—and I would be ashamed of taking back as much as possible from the damages claims of people who may not have long to live. That is disgusting, but there is a very real worry that the Government are creating that problem in attempting to address what they call the compensation culture. Many of us do not recognise that such a culture exists, but even if it does, it involves petty claims such as whiplash injuries and people tripping up, or pretending to trip up, on pavements. In trying to sort out that problem, the Government are creating a problem for industrial injuries cases.
Under clause 43, a success fee under a conditional fee arrangement will not be recoverable from a losing party in all proceedings. Instead, it will be paid out of the damages of the injured person, meaning they may lose 25% of their damages.
I should address this point as it has been raised about half a dozen times. The 25% is a maximum. Because under the current system people will always pay the lawyers the maximum, Members seem to be assuming that under the new system the maximum will still be claimed, but under the new system people will be encouraged to pay their lawyers less, not the maximum.
Well, that is what a person such as the Minister thinks will happen, as he believes in the market ideology. He was a commercial lawyer, and never got his hands dirty as some of us have had to do over the years.
Clause 45 removes the recoverability of the after-the-event—ATE—insurance premium from the losing defendant. Therefore, that premium will in many instances be taken out of the damages awarded to the injured party. The amendments passed in another place would exclude industrial disease claims from these provisions, thus allowing the claimants to keep 100% of their compensation. We must uphold those changes and exempt such individuals and therefore prevent what would be a glaring miscarriage of justice.
Industrial disease cases are utterly different from road traffic claims. Cases centring on diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma are complex and require intensive research before liability is admitted. As a result, fraudulent industrial disease claims are almost an impossibility. Because of their complexity, such claims cannot be dealt with by inexperienced litigators, but if there is neither the uplift required to allow a solicitor to take a case on a CFA nor a recoverable ATE premium, many experienced solicitors will be unable to take on cases where the chance of recovering their costs is low without the client having to pay them from their damages. That is particularly true of low-value cases in which the additional liabilities may dwarf the amount of damages awarded, leaving the claimant worse off than when they started.
The potential for injustice, I am afraid, is huge. The defendant in such cases is often a multi-million pound organisation with access to teams of lawyers. It is also worth noting that after-the-event insurance also pays for additional expenses such as medical reports, without which industrial disease claims would fall at the first hurdle. Thus, without expert reports, which are necessary to prove liability, and the support of experienced solicitors who know this area of law thoroughly, claimants will simply be unable to proceed with their cases.
The situation is dire enough for those suffering from asbestosis, but as the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers has pointed out, if an individual who is diagnosed with asbestosis goes on to develop later in life a fatal disease such as the lung cancer mesothelioma, but has not brought a claim for asbestosis, they will be unable to claim compensation for that fatal disease. They will then effectively be denied compensation twice.
The view which seems to underpin much of part 2 of the Bill is that all no win, no fee claims are bogus. That is clearly not true, and I hope I made it clear that it is well nigh impossible to bring a fraudulent industrial disease claim on account of the high degree of medical evidence necessary. Industrial disease cases centre on situations in which an individual has suffered over a period of years on account of negligence by their employer. These individuals should not fall further victim to this Government’s reforms because of their doubts about the petty claims industry. That would deny them justice, and I hope it is the last thing on the Minister’s mind; although, having listened to his earlier comments, I am not sure how committed he is to these claimants in any event.
I begin by paying tribute to Lord Alton and those who supported him in proposing amendment 31. We have had a number of powerful contributions to this evening’s short debate, but none more so than that from the hon.
Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who made a thoughtful and compassionate speech that was listened to carefully. I urge the Minister, even at this late stage, to show some compassion and to listen carefully to the expressions of concern that are not just reserved to the Opposition, but are being expressed publicly and privately on both sides of the House.
What this issue boils down to is: who pays the legal fees when a claim for damages is concluded? As we have heard from the Minister, legal aid is no longer available. Since 1999, the losing defendant has paid; now, the Government are saying that the claimant must pay. I have to be completely honest and open with the Minister: if he was proposing to switch the burden to claimants for road traffic claims only, which account for 70% of personal injury claims, I would not be contributing to this debate. It would remain to be seen whether he was right to think that that would drive down costs, but I do not have evidence to argue to the contrary in those cases.
However, amendment 31 is not about whiplash cases; as we have heard, it is principally about people with a fatal respiratory disease: mesothelioma. These are people who, frankly, expect to be dead within one year of their diagnosis; who face the prospect of excruciating pain and difficult medical treatment; who have to cope with the trauma and upset that they and their families feel. These people are not ambulance-chasers; they are not part of a compensation culture, and they deserve justice.
The truth is that, as my hon. Friend Kate Green alluded to earlier, many of these people do not claim now, such is the trauma they have to face. If the Government’s proposal is enacted, it will drive that number down still further. How can the Minister expect such victims and their families—people who have received the diagnosis and know they are going to die—to shop around for the cheapest possible lawyer when they need every ounce of their energy to fight their disease?
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to comments made by the widow of someone who died from mesothelioma, which were brought to my attention by Tony Whitston from the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victims Support Group. These are compelling remarks and I ask the Minister to reflect on them. The widow says:
“I know the mere talk of legal action, court cases and costs was the farthest thought from mine or Peter’s mind. Whilst you are trying to cope with the physical and emotional trauma that comes with the words terminal illness you cannot contemplate the extra worry and anxiety that claiming compensation would bring. Mesothelioma sufferers are in constant pain and always fighting to breathe, they suffer horrendously and they and their families are traumatised at what the future holds.”
It is up to the Minister to bring some hope to people in that situation, not injustice, yet Ministers want to make successful claimants pay up to 25% of their award for pain and suffering as a success fee to their lawyer. I know that that success fee is not a bonus for the lawyer but is meant to cover the costs of other cases, but why should the successful claimants—the mesothelioma sufferers—have to pay? Surely their former employers and their insurance companies should have to pay.
The Government say that there will be a 10% uplift in general damages in the awards, but that is an estimate and cannot be guaranteed. Even so, those who were awarded payments would still pay thousands of pounds in a success fee. Ministers also talk about qualified one-way cost shifting, but that does not take account of the disbursements that are often required in these complex cases, costing on average £8,000 a claim.
I have never believed that compassion belongs to one party in this House. I believe that it can be found all around the Chamber and Members of Parliament from all parties are concerned about the issue. I finish my speech by urging the Minister to listen, even at this stage, to the voices of those who have spoken in tonight’s debate and those who might speak to him after the debate in more private surroundings. I urge him to listen because what the victims of mesothelioma want from him is not only compassion but justice.
It is 43 years since I started work as a coal miner, and during the many years for which I was a union rep I saw some horrendous accidents: men who had their legs cut off by broken ropes or broken chains; a man buried alive under thousands of tonnes of coal; a man impaled on the roof of a coal mine by a machine; and a man whose pelvis was broken by another machine. I represented people with stress-related illnesses. I represented thousands of people in my 35 years as a trade union representative and I sat on social security tribunals, went to social security tribunals and sat on industrial tribunals, but nothing could convince me that anything is more pernicious than the situation for people who are suffering from mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is an exceptional case, because of what the disease does. When I first became aware of mesothelioma, I asked a solicitor, Ian McFall from Thompsons Solicitors in Newcastle, to explain to me exactly what it was. He said that one fibre could go into someone’s lung and lie dormant for many years, but when it becomes active there is no alternative—that person suffers horribly and then they die. There is no cure, no remission and no element of survival; they die, and that makes it a special case. Everybody who gets mesothelioma will die an agonising death.
The real real reason why mesothelioma is an exceptional case is that the problem was known about for more than a century. Asbestos was identified as a poisonous substance in 1892 and has been banned for use in this country for almost half a century, yet employers knowingly exposed their workers to it day in, day out. They knew the dangers and ignored them for decades. They were eventually held accountable, but ever since the first successful case against the employers and their insurers on asbestos-related diseases, the employers and the insurers have kept coming back to the courts and to this place.
Anna Soubry asked why we in this place were involved in this issue, but we constantly have to rewrite the law because people are using the law and this place to get away from their responsibilities. The decision on pleural plaques a few years ago was welcomed by KPMG because, as it said, that was a £1.4 billion handout to the insurance industry in this country. Those were the people who were clapping their hands on that day, not those who have asbestos-related diseases.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that is why the constituents whom we have been speaking to feel so angry? They cannot understand why the Government are on the side of negligent employers and their insurance companies instead of on the side of mesothelioma victims.
What can I say? Someone said earlier that no empathy is being shown, but I think that empathy is being shown—to the insurance companies. We can take our guidance from that.
The Minister talked about the compensation culture, but it is very easy to stop that culture: tell employers to stop killing people at work and to stop poisoning people at work. Then people would not be able to claim compensation. That is exactly what needs to be done. We are talking about employers who have contempt for workers and their families. They let workmen go home in dirty work clothes that their wives then washed, and became infected with mesothelioma through doing so. What happened was known by employers. We are talking about employers who were using young kids in Namibia to fill plastic sacks with raw asbestos. They put young kids of seven, eight or nine in the sacks to tamp the asbestos down. That is the type of people we are dealing with—people with no regard for human life. Some successful cases were brought by a trade union in South Africa and they got £38 million in compensation. That £38 million was welcome but it did not save the lives of any of those kids.
We have had 42,000 people die in the past 40 years in this country and 60,000 more will die in the next 50. That is more than 1,000 people a year and more than were being killed in the coal mines in this country in the disastrous years of the 1930s. That is why this is a special issue. We should be looking to people such as Chris Knighton in the north-east of England who has led a campaign on behalf of her husband who died 15 years ago—a man who was fit enough to ride from Newcastle to Berwick on a bike on a Sunday morning and think nothing about it. He fell down one day in the local club and when he went to see the doctor, the doctor told him, “You’ve got mesothelioma.” He asked, “What does that mean?” The doctor said, “It means you’re going to be dead in nine months’ time.” Those are the people we are standing up for today. We are not standing up for big business or insurers—we are standing up for ordinary people who have been exploited for years. If we do not support the amendments to this legislation we will be letting those people down. I say to the Liberal Democrats in particular, “If you ever want to claw back from where you are now, support these amendments tonight. You will never be forgiven if you don’t.”
I rise briefly to support Lords amendment 31. It cannot be right, as my hon. Friend Ian Lucas and others have said, that victims of asbestos-related diseases should be required to surrender a quarter of the damages they have been awarded to pay for legal costs. Those damages are awarded to recognise and compensate men and women, if it is at all possible to compensate them, for the pain, suffering and life-shortening illnesses they got from their work. In my constituency, the number of cases of asbestos-related diseases is far too high. The link between mesothelioma and exposure to asbestos in the shipbuilding industry is well known, as we have heard tonight. There is a common pattern involving high levels of mesothelioma and areas of shipbuilding or areas that contain ports and dockyards. Hartlepool is a former shipbuilding area and it is the 16th-worst affected place in Great Britain for deaths caused by mesothelioma.
In considering Lords amendment 31, I ask the Minister to consider one harrowing case out of many from Hartlepool. Mr C was diagnosed with mesothelioma after he had complained of breathing difficulties and a pain in his rib cage. Originally it was thought he had pneumonia but a CT scan and a bronchoscopy showed that he had mesothelioma. Mr C had left school at 16 and worked at South Durham Steel and Iron Company for the best part of a quarter of a century. He was regularly exposed to asbestos dust in the air and was not provided with any protective clothing or equipment. He was awarded £67,000 in compensation in recognition of his excruciating pain and suffering. He died five months after receiving that award.
The Government’s argument against the amendments—that the Bill protects against frivolous or fraudulent claims—is offensive in the extreme. The idea that these constituents of mine are ambulance chasers or people looking for a quick buck is risible. The notion that tens of thousands of pounds of damages should be taken from workers and their families who have suffered the harsh effects of a painful illness is another insult and injustice to them.
In a little over 10 days, the country will observe workers memorial day to commemorate those who lost their lives as a result of injury or neglect at work. Having listened to the Minister tonight and seen him in his place, I have to say that he does himself no credit with the smirking and the body language that is offensive to every single sufferer. The best way in which he could make amends is by honouring the spirit and values of workers memorial day, accepting Lords amendment 31 and getting rid of this huge injustice.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment 31 disagreed to .
The Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 32.—( Mr Djanogly. )
The House divided:
Ayes 297, Noes 252.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment 32 disagreed to .
Lords amendments 6 to 23, 25 to 30, 33 to 167, 173 to 176, 182 to 188, 195, 197 to 205, 221 to 239, 241, 242 and 244 to 326 agreed to , with Commons financial privileges waived in respect of Lords amendments 6, 9,
100, 104, 173, 176, 182 to 187, 195, 197,
198, 203, 221, 228, 229, 231, 233 to 239, and
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H (2) ),
That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments 1, 2, 24, 31, 32, 168, 170 to 172, 194 and 196;
That Mr Jonathan Djanogly, Mr Shailesh Vara, Mr Andy Slaughter, Yvonne Fovargue and Tom Brake be members of the Committee;
That Mr Jonathan Djanogly be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Angela Watkinson.)
Question agreed to .
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords .
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During the last debate, many of us were dismayed by the conduct of the Minister, who giggled and grinned through descriptions of people dying of mesothelioma and what they suffered. I have to say that in almost 15 years in this House, I have never seen conduct that so demeans a Minister of the Crown and is so damaging to the reputation of the House. Is there anything that you can do to ensure that in future Ministers pay proper attention to such serious debates and conduct themselves as would be expected from a Member on the Treasury Bench?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. The Minister is welcome to respond if he wishes, but he is not under any obligation to do so.
No, he is not going to respond.
Helen Jones will know that I came into the proceedings relatively late, and in those circumstances it is not for me to act as umpire on the matter, which would be wrong. However, her observations, sincerely expressed, have been noted, and all I would say is that each and every one of us in this place is responsible for his or her own behaviour and for the impression that we give in the conduct of debate. Let us leave it there for tonight.