I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Before I start my speech on Second Reading, let me, too, pay tribute to the firefighters and professional emergency services in Glasgow. As a former firefighter, I know the training that those in the emergency services go through, but nothing prepares anyone for the scenes they will have encountered when they arrived. I have had a huge and devastating disaster in my constituency, at Buncefield, and the fact that the public went in rather than walking away proves what a great nation we all live in today.
As I am a Minister of the Crown and an MP who is dyslexic, it was an interesting experience to be given the Mesothelioma Bill. It is an honour and a privilege, however, and I hope that colleagues will bear with me if I occasionally get the word “mesothelioma” wrong.
I think we can all agree that working people should have proper protection from personal injury or disease arising as a result of their work. When the principle is breached through negligence or a breach of statutory duty, it is obviously right that that person should be compensated by their employer or their employer’s insurer. However, many sufferers of diffuse mesothelioma, the aggressive cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, are unable to find an employer or relevant insurer to claim compensation from. They developed a fatal disease through the fault of their employer yet they are still unable to seek compensation through the civil courts because the responsible employer no longer exists or the records are insufficient to show who the insurer might have been.
My brief states that the “previous Administration” made some noise about this issue over the years, but in fact previous Administrations have done so—yet there is still no provision on the statute book. I am confident, however, that we can get these measures on the statute book as soon as possible and I shall explain why in my speech.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am pleased to see this Bill, only three years after the Labour consultation, and I am particularly pleased that the Minister is in charge of its progress through this House. Will he admit that this is not the scheme that Labour published in February 2010, that almost all the concessions the industry sought during the consultation have been conceded by the Government and that this is a now a scheme that shows that the Government have not stood up to the interests of the big insurance companies?
No, no and no. The previous Administration undertook their consultation just before the general election. I will not get into party politics, but as the former Minister started on the subject, I will continue on it. After 13 years, suddenly there was a consultation, which was very wide ranging and did not develop the scheme. I cannot find out exactly what the previous Government wanted to do, because under the rules I am not allowed to see that, but all the indications are that what they would have proposed would not have passed into statute without huge cost to the taxpayer, or to people being insured today. None of that cost is incurred under the Bill.
The Bill is part of the ongoing commitment by the Government and the insurance industry to correct the market failure that everyone accepts there has been in respect of mesothelioma cases. It tackles the problem in two ways: first, by providing a power to set up a payment scheme and, secondly, by providing the possibility of establishing a technical committee that will, where there are disputes, make decisions that are binding on the insurance industry.
Diffuse mesothelioma is a fatal disease caused exclusively—this is crucial to the Bill—by exposure to asbestos. It has a long latency period, often of between 40 and 50 years, but after diagnosis average life expectancy is, sadly, only eight to nine months, with very few exceptions living beyond that. The long delay between exposure and developing the disease, combined with inconsistent record keeping in the insurance industry, means that too often people struggle to trace an employer—the employer may no longer exist—or the insurer who provided the employer’s public liability insurance, against which they can make a claim for civil damages. The insurance industry and the Government recognise that this is unjust, and that a provision must be brought forward in the Bill.
The obvious question is: why is legislation being introduced? Despite recognition of the failure of the market, the insurance industry has not been able to put forward a scheme of its own that would compensate those concerned. Disputes between insurers, and the different interests of companies that still offer employers’ liability cover, or active insurers, and those no longer offering cover, or run-off insurers, have prevented the industry from agreeing a voluntary levy; I think that was looked at in the consultation.
I want to make progress. I am very conscious of the time, so I will not take an awful lot of interventions. Colleagues will have the opportunity to speak, either later on Second Reading or in the later stages of the Bill.
Industry representatives asked for legislation imposing a levy to support the payment scheme. The Bill establishes a payment scheme that will make substantial lump-sum payments to eligible sufferers from mesothelioma—and, crucially, eligible dependants of sufferers. The scheme will be funded through a levy on insurers active in the employers’ liability market, meaning that the active employers’ liability insurance market will bear the cost of the scheme.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I know that the insurance companies are trying to sell this as a generous scheme, but all estimates say that it will be worth about £350 million. Last year alone, the profits of Lloyd’s of London were £2.7 billion. Does he not think that, from that perspective, the insurance companies are getting away very cheaply?
Nothing is perfect, but there was nothing there before, and if we had carried on the way we were going, nothing would be there, going forward, for people who are suffering so much, and who need help today.
It is no good the hon. Gentleman chuntering; he has had an opportunity to intervene, and perhaps later he will make a speech. That would be more useful than chuntering. As a friend of mine, he should know better, because I will not respond to that sort of chuntering. It just wastes time in the House.
The scheme is intended to be an alternative to seeking civil damages, which we still want people to do, if the opportunity arises. The driving principle is that where adequate records are not available—this is why the scheme was developed—the disease has been diagnosed, and there has been negligence or a breach of the statutory duty, a person should still be able to access payment for their injury. That is the crucial part of the Bill. Payments should be made, wherever possible, to the sufferers themselves, while they are still alive; I think that everyone would want that, but sadly it has not been happening. The scheme will therefore be straightforward, simple, and quick to process claims.
Sadly, we expect roughly 28,500 deaths from mesothelioma between July 2012 and March 2024, when the scheme is expected to come to its conclusion. We are seeing a peak at the moment.
I simply wanted to say, given the Minister’s experience in Northern Ireland—the Bill extends to Northern Ireland and the Assembly has passed a legislative consent motion—that many people there will warmly welcome the fact that legislation is being put in place. I would have liked it to go further, but I commend the Government for bringing it forward.
I am very pleased that I gave way to the right hon. Gentleman. The legislative consent process has taken place in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, which is important in ensuring that the Bill can go forward.
If the Bill is passed before the end of the year, the first payments could be made by July 2014, which I think is what we all want. Around 300 people a year could receive an average payment of £115,000, less benefit recovery, which will be around £20,000 on average. Timing is key, because the number of mesothelioma cases is expected to peak in 2015. We must act now and launch the scheme as soon as we can, with the regulations made as soon as possible after Christmas. I expect the regulations to be in place by April 2014.
Let us look quickly at the eligibility criteria. First, an individual has to have been diagnosed with the disease on or after
Eligible dependants of diffuse mesothelioma sufferers may apply to the scheme in cases where the person with the disease has died before making an application or while the application was being processed. Eligible dependants will receive exactly the same amount of money as the sufferer would have received.
A sufferer must have been diagnosed on or after
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will make some progress.
The date of
Mesothelioma is a distinctive disease, because it is always fatal and always caused by asbestos. That allows for a straightforward scheme to be put in place as soon as possible. A streamlined scheme, such as the one we have brought forward, could not cover all the other diseases. It would otherwise be very complicated and expensive for the taxpayer.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I am not going to give way.
The costs of other schemes would be disproportionate and the agreements we have with the insurance companies —I know that some colleagues do not like them—would make that very difficult. We are 100% committed to delivering on the Bill. This measure represents a huge step forward, and it should be recognised as such. I thank Mr Dodds, who is no longer in his place, for doing so.
The scheme will make payments to eligible people according to a fixed tariff and according to the age of the person who has the disease. The payment will be based on roughly 75% of the amount of average civil damages. Those who have followed the Bill’s progress through the other House will realise that it raised the figure from 70% to 75%. The figure of 75% is probably is not as important as the 3% levy, which is very important.
I will not give way.
Setting the payments at the right rate is crucial to the success of the Bill and the ultimate establishment of a payment scheme. The payment rate of 75% of average civil damages takes the levy right to limit of what insurers have indicated they could absorb without passing the costs on to new businesses—an absolutely crucial issue. It is the absolute maximum that would be realistic within a fixed-payment scheme.
The levy on insurers will be imposed on active employers’ liability insurers at large today, not the individual insurers who took out the premiums, who were covered in cases that come under the scheme. The scheme could be jeopardised if the levy were set disproportionately high. That could delay the introduction of the scheme, preventing the payment mechanism from being in place at the time of the peak of mesothelioma deaths, which, according to the actuaries, will be around 2015. I am sure we will debate that as we go through the Bill, but I hope that that will not detract from the importance of ensuring that it gets on to the statute book as soon as possible. As everybody in the House will understand, the scheme must strike a careful balance in making a substantial payment to eligible people while ensuring that the contribution made by the insurers is fair and not excessive. Crucially, the proposed levy rate must not be so high as to risk increased costs on business, thereby adversely affecting British businesses, which no one in the House would want.
In addition to the payment scheme and the levy, the Bill makes provision for the possibility—I stress, the possibility—of establishing a technical committee to adjudicate on making binding decisions on disputes between insurers. I think we would all prefer that to these matters being in the courts.
The Bill and the principles behind it merit the support of the whole House.
I am coming to the end of my comments.
We have no doubt that the principle of the Bill—[Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Front Benchers chuntering; they will have their opportunity to speak in a minute. Let us just get on. If Gemma Doyle wants to speak, as lots of Members do, she will be welcome to do so. That is why I am not giving way every five seconds.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister is expecting to speak for a second time in this debate, but he is not prepared to give way during his speech now. Can you confirm that it is a matter of discretion for the whole House as to whether somebody is allowed to speak for a second time in a debate?
I am conscious that lots of colleagues want to speak in this debate, which has been shortened because of the two very important statements that took place earlier. I have given way three times and there will be plenty of opportunities for Members to speak. Chris Bryant has probably got his press release, yet again, but that is unnecessary in this sort of debate.
I hope that the House will see the urgent need to push this Bill through and get it through its Committee and Report stages so that it goes on to the statute book and I am able to move the regulations that are under consultation as soon as possible. It can then provide compensation for our constituents who have been suffering from this terrible disease or, if they have died, for their dependants who need assistance from the scheme.
I am very pleased to follow the Minister in opening this debate. As he has said, this Bill marks an important step on the long road to justice for mesothelioma sufferers and their families. I welcome the progress that has been made so far, but the Minister is right to say that we should take this opportunity to see whether we can go a little further before the Bill completes its passage through the House.
I am very pleased to see so many colleagues present, many of whom represent constituencies where the disease is prevalent as a result of their industrial history. I know it will be important for colleagues on both sides of the House to be able to speak about their communities’ experiences, over many decades, of the consequences of this terrible disease. Although I totally share the Minister’s wish for the Bill to make progress through this House so that a scheme can be put in place and payments can flow to victims in the next few months, I do not think we are so pressed for time this evening that we should not give the opportunity to every one of our colleagues to make the case on behalf of their constituents, because this issue is felt very deeply in many of the communities they represent.
I know that many colleagues will want to join me in paying particular tribute to the asbestos victims support groups, which have done so much to campaign for a fairer deal for victims and to keep parliamentarians briefed, not only for this debate, but over many years.
Will my hon. Friend also add the congratulations of the House to the trade unions, which have not only campaigned on behalf of asbestos victims, but won literally millions of pounds of compensation for people who would not have got it unless they had been members of a trade union?
I am very happy to join in that tribute to the work of trade unions, a number of which have worked over many years not only to advocate the cause of individual victims, but to maintain the pressure that has ultimately led to the scheme under discussion.
I also pay tribute to our colleagues in the House of Lords who have already carefully scrutinised and, as the Minister said, improved the Bill. In particular, I acknowledge the work of my noble Friend Lord McKenzie, who, under the previous Labour Government, launched the consultation that has resulted in this Bill. I pay tribute to his assiduousness and his determination to secure justice for the victims of this terrible disease. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord Freud, who has demonstrated his equal determination and commitment to righting a long-standing and terrible wrong by introducing the proposed scheme.
The Bill follows a series of earlier pieces of legislation passed by previous Labour Governments to improve the lot of victims of asbestos-related and industrial diseases. In 1969, Labour introduced the Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969, requiring employers to insure against liability for injury or disease to their employees arising out of their employment. In 1979, Labour introduced and secured the passage of the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979, which provides lump sum compensation payments to people suffering from certain dust-related diseases or, if they have died, to their dependants, when a claim for damages is not possible because the employer or employers are no longer in business. In 2008, we introduced the mesothelioma payment scheme, which provides lump sum payments for people suffering from diffuse mesothelioma who are unable to claim compensation from other sources.
I am really glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned the progress made by the previous Labour Government, because so many of us, including those who became Members before me, have wanted to see faster progress and have pushed for it for so long. The Minister was simply not right to say from the Dispatch Box that nothing was done in the period leading up to this Bill.
It is right to say that progress could have been faster and that more could have been done, but we should not overlook the fact that, over four decades, it is Labour Governments who have, until now, made the progress that has been made. As I have said, it was my noble Friend Lord McKenzie who began the process of consultation that has brought us to where we are today.
I am happy to answer that question, as I would have done during my speech. The Opposition welcome the progress that has been made, and we will not oppose the Bill this evening, because we share with the Minister and Members from both sides of the House a wish to process payments and get them to victims as quickly as we can. That is not, however, the same as saying that the Bill cannot be improved further. We believe that it can be improved, and I will outline some of our suggestions for how that might be achieved.
As I have said, the Bill has already passed through the House of Lords, and the work done in that place has undoubtedly improved it already. We will support the Bill on Second Reading, but it does not go quite as far as necessary in bringing justice for victims. We will therefore seek further improvements as the Bill continues its parliamentary passage. I want to make it very clear that we are not doing so to score political points or to delay the Bill unnecessarily. Everyone understands the importance of establishing a scheme and getting payments flowing as quickly as possible. However, this House will fail the victims of this terrible disease if we do not do the best we can to recognise their appalling suffering through a fair system of payments.
Victims have been left for years without any compensation, while the insurance industry has continued to benefit from billions of pounds in premiums. It certainly seems to the Opposition that the Government have not yet done everything that could be done and all that needs to be achieved, despite the progress that has been made and the undoubted good intentions of the Minister and his colleague in the House of Lords.
The Minister spoke about the fact that insurance companies want to keep the 3% levy because they are worried about the ongoing impact on them. Is not the reality that, for 50 years at least, insurance companies got in money that they were not spending? That money has evaporated, but we should now turn to it so that people can get 100% compensation, not the paltry 75% that is on offer.
My hon. Friend is right. Over many decades, insurance companies have taken in premiums and in every way resisted paying out to victims. It is good to have reached the point at which the industry is finally facing up to its collective responsibility, but it still has a long way to go.
The Minister rightly described mesothelioma as a cruel and vicious disease that is caused by exposure to asbestos, and as a long-tail disease that is diagnosed years and often decades after it has been contracted. It is invariably fatal and, once a diagnosis is made, cruelly quick: following diagnosis, most victims have only about nine months of life left. The effects of the illness are horrifying for sufferers, and for the loved ones who watch them die. The true disgrace is that the link to asbestos has been known for many decades.
One consequence of the long period for which the disease can lie dormant is that, following a diagnosis, it is of course more difficult to attach liability, given that the circumstances that brought about the condition often took place many years previously. As a result, many sufferers have until now been forced to rely only on statutory payments and welfare benefits. Although I am pleased that the industry will at last take a small step towards meeting the obligations it owes to sufferers, it is only right and proper that it should finally do so.
I understand that, as the Minister said, the scheme will be established as one of last resort, which is to be relied on only if no employer or insurer can be traced. That might be a reasonable position for the industry, but we must ensure that it does not exacerbate the pain and difficulty for claimants.
During the short period from diagnosis to death, sufferers become desperately ill, yet at the same time they are expected to go to often huge lengths to trace a former employer, perhaps from many years back; to identify that employer’s insurer, perhaps via the Employers’ Liability Tracing Office; to obtain the necessary medical records and wait the 40 days that agencies have to respond to such requests; and then, ultimately, to take legal advice and access the scheme. I think we can see how that would eat into the tragically limited time remaining to sufferers following diagnosis, so we must do all we can to speed up and smooth the process.
I recognise the progress made in speeding up the process and helping victims to trace their employers’ insurers. Following its introduction in 1999, many insurers signed up to a voluntary employers’ liability code of practice, but none the less tracing rates remained deeply disappointing, never exceeding 50%. In 2012, the success rate was just over 34%; and even accounting for those cases now proceeding via ELTO, the success rate in 2012 still reached only 61%. Clearly, there is considerable scope for better support for victims to pursue insurers.
It seems, however, that the industry, in its negotiations with Ministers, has sought to do the very minimum it can get away with to make amends to sufferers. As noted, payments will be set at just 75% of average civil damages—admittedly, as the Minister said, an uplift on the 70% initially proposed. It is claimed that the industry cannot afford to pay more without passing on the additional cost to current employers’ liability customers. The notion that this multi-billion-pound industry, which has been collecting premiums for decades while doing all it can to avoid payouts and which is to be gifted £17 million by the Government under this Bill and lent a further £30 million to help with the scheme’s introduction and the smoothing of the first year’s payments, cannot and should not be more generous is simply not credible.
Does the hon. Lady have a view on what level of compensation could be paid without insurance companies passing on the cost to current policyholders?
There are two questions wrapped up in that one question. First, on present figures, what does it appear the industry can afford? I will say something about that in a moment. Secondly, does the industry have to pass on the cost to its customers, or could it choose to absorb it? We are talking about roughly 10% of the total value to the industry of the employers’ liability market. I appreciate that that is not a small sum, but as colleagues have pointed out, the industry has had decades to accumulate profits as a result of the premiums it has collected.
It is not just about the accumulated profits to which my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend Mr Anderson have referred: insurance companies are still making huge profits. Lloyd’s of London made £2.7 billion in 2012, Royal and Sun Alliance made £233 million between January and June 2012, and Aviva made £605 million between January and June 2013. These companies are not unprofitable, so their attitude to a levy costing £350 million is an insult to the victims.
In contrast to the previous speaker, the hon. Lady is being generous in giving way. She will be aware that compensation under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 is 100% of liabilities available before the courts. Should that not be the guide?
I can say that the Opposition will be pushing for payment levels to be increased, and we believe they can be, given that the industry has accepted that a levy of 3% of gross written premiums is affordable and given that the impact assessment has shown that payments set at even 80% or 90% of average civil damages are affordable within a 10-year period. The Minister said that the proportion of GWP that the levy represented was more important than the 75% level derived from that 3% figure. It is our reading of the figures, however, that there is scope for the industry to be more generous, even within its own accepted cap of 3% of GWP. I hope to explore that in more detail with the Minister in Committee. As Hywel Williams said, there is a strong moral argument, of course, for setting payment at 100%, as is the case, for example, for the Motor Insurers’ Bureau scheme—all the more so because under the Bill recovery of any benefits paid will be set at 100%.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Is this not a familiar tune we are hearing from the Government? Whether it is, in this case, the insurance companies, or, in the case of the statement earlier, the energy companies, they do not seem prepared to stand up to powerful vested interests or to stand up for vulnerable people in need of support.
Obviously, we want to try to help people who are suffering—everybody has accepted that—but these are complex areas. The hon. Lady has spent much of her speech attacking the insurance industry, which might be fair enough, but it rather raises the question: what was going on during the 13 years Labour was in power?
First, the hon. Gentleman might have missed the history I just rehearsed of the legislative process to date, and secondly, he is right that the condition and the legal circumstances surrounding it have been extremely complicated—there has been considerable litigation in this area, not just in the UK but internationally. I share his frustration that it has taken so many years to bring justice to victims, but it is not true that no efforts were being made. In particular, as colleagues have noted, in making what progress has been made, we have been powerfully supported by our colleagues in the trade union movement, so there has certainly not been utter indolence when it comes to securing justice for victims.
This might help my hon. Friend. I am very impressed by the case she is making about the need for the scheme to be simple, smooth, speedy and more generous. Does she know that, in its briefing, the Association of British Insurers has said today that it would expect the scheme to run for about 40 years and therefore that any calculation of what could be afforded as a level of compensation—and to whom—should be seen in that context and not that of the short four-year term on which the Government have so far based their calculations?
Four years certainly seems a remarkably short period over which to cost the scheme, given the many decades over which the industry expects it to continue. It is a concern—one that we will discuss further in Committee—that the figures seem to have changed since the Bill moved from the Lords to the Commons, and changed back again, in a manner that might be said to favour a particular outcome that suits the industry. We will want to question that in more detail when considering the range of figures being presented.
While the Bill has been proceeding, the Ministry of Justice has been consulting on its proposals to expedite and streamline the process for taking legal action, and to introduce fixed fees for mesothelioma cases, and we have real concerns about the MOJ’s plans for the fate of the scheme before us. Evidence suggests that fixed fees are likely to exert a downward pressure on the level of civil damages, notwithstanding the 10% uplift in damages that has not yet been applied to mesothelioma suffers under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Indeed, our suspicions are borne out by the view of the insurance industry that this Bill and the MOJ process should be seen as part of a single package.
I recognise that the Minister cannot answer for changes that the MOJ will make to court rules, but it is of concern that there will be no parliamentary scrutiny of those changes. I warn him that as the Bill proceeds we will seek assurances that the MOJ’s actions will not adversely affect the scheme in the Bill. Moreover we should remember that these already quite meagre payouts, which are already to be reduced by benefits recovery, will be further depleted by legal fees and fees for medical certificates. We are anxious that the deal looks less and less good for sufferers, and we will return to those points in Committee.
As has been noted, hundreds of sufferers will lose out because the scheme does not take effect until
As the debate in the House of Lords exposed, this is not a matter of insurers reserving policy—I accept that a more rigorous framework might apply to provision for risk—but a simple matter of business planning. Surely it would have been prudent for insurers to have assumed from 2010 that there would be a payment system with which they would be required to comply, and to have made provision for best and worst-case scenarios. That, too, is a matter we expect to explore further in Committee.
I am sure the Minister will assert that there is a cost to the industry of an earlier start date, and I hope we will have some definitive figures for that. Lord Freud said the costs at 100% of civil damages would be £119 million, and he undertook to calculate figures at the lower percentage—then 70%—introduced by this scheme. It would be helpful to know from the Minister before we go into Committee what progress has been made with those calculations at the level now proposed of 75%.
My hon. Friend, quite rightly, points out the faux concerns about cost and affordability. Does she agree that insurers are not doing this out of the goodness of their heart? For many years, they received payments for exactly this eventuality, and they should therefore be made to compensate those who are now sufferers.
I can only agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope the industry does not assume that the House will let it get away with the minimum it can propose. I assure the House that the mood of many colleagues from all sides is determinedly that we should do the best we can for victims—we and the industry owe them that.
As I think the Minister has alluded to, there is also a debate to be had about the scope of the Bill. It will exclude the self-employed unless they can determine they were de facto employees, and exclude family members who may have been contaminated—for example because they washed a brother’s or husband’s overalls. It will cover only mesothelioma and exclude all other asbestos-related illnesses. I heard what the Minister said about that, and again, I hope we can explore that issue further in Committee. Lord Freud offered welcome assurance about Ministers’ intentions in relation to other forms of asbestos-related disease when the Bill passed through the House of Lords, and I hope we will be able to secure firm commitments from the Minister on that.
I can certainly assure the hon. Lady on her second point. On her first point, it is right that the House has those calculations before we go into Committee, and I will ensure those figures are made available to her in the Library.
I would never push the Minister too far.
We had hoped to have received fuller details of the scheme’s operation by now, but regrettably the regulations have yet to be published. I am sure, however, given the shameful history that precedes this Bill, that Members will agree it is vital that the scheme is seen to be run in a transparent and wholly independent manner. In the House of Lords, Lord Mackenzie asked for more information about the oversight committee, and I have seen the letter that Lord Freud wrote to peers on
May I suggest to my hon. Friend and the Minister that a precedent that could be considered is the miners compensation scheme for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease? That had clear oversight, including democratic engagement both at UK level and also in the regions, which gave the surety that every last penny piece was paid out to the people who deserved it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that advice, and he is right to draw attention to the importance for local communities of a scheme that is transparent, credible, and which they are able to scrutinise and interrogate.
I expect that other issues will arise during our deliberations on the Bill, for example in relation to medical research, where I welcome the commitments made by the Government in the House of Lords, and on the differential between the levels of award made before a sufferer’s death and the level that can be obtained afterwards by his or her dependants. Frankly, that difference has little to commend it for a condition where death is the certain outcome. I recognise that the situation arises not from this Bill but from existing fatal accidents legislation, but I hope there may be scope for a more generous and flexible approach to mesothelioma.
There remain many complex and important issues to explore, and while we share the Government’s ambition to get the scheme in place and payments flowing, it would be a dereliction of our duty as parliamentarians if we did not scrutinise the full detail of the scheme and do all we can to maximise its generosity for sufferers. Victims have waited long for justice in the face of what can only be described as a hitherto intransigent industry. Now it is time to right a long-standing wrong, and give some small peace of mind to victims and their families in the midst of the most terrible suffering.
Let me conclude with the words of my constituent, Mrs Elaine Haskins, who first drew my attention to the terrible injustice and cruelty that victims have long lived with. Her husband died of mesothelioma in 2005—a death she describes as
“very stressful and painful. Two of the insurance companies were not traceable and the others did everything possible to get out of paying a penny. The sad thing was my husband died before he could see justice for his suffering and death.”
For too long we have let down too many victims of this cruel and terrible disease. Let us resolve today that we will right that wrong, and at last give justice to those victims.
It is a pleasure to speak on this issue, on which I have a great deal of knowledge from working in the insurance industry for five years before I became a Member of Parliament and from representing a constituency with very high levels of mesothelioma. Britain has the highest rate of mesothelioma in the world and sadly that rate is rising. In the past five years, the south-east of England has had the highest rates of deaths from mesothelioma compared with anywhere else in the UK. Medway, with its heavy industry and dockyard history, is a particular hot spot.
Mesothelioma is a horrific disease that is contracted exclusively by exposure to asbestos. Those who are diagnosed are often dead within a year. For many years, lawyers and insurers have taken their time to settle claims through civil procedures, leaving great financial uncertainty for sufferers and their families. A great deal has been done to speed up civil claims for victims and tribute ought to be paid to the work of Senior Master Whitaker for making that happen. However, there remains a small yet significant group of people who contracted mesothelioma but could not be compensated either because of poor record keeping by their employer or their employer’s insurer, or because neither existed any more.
The Bill will help to rectify that and is therefore welcome, but it still contains shortcomings that, if Ministers, insurers and lawyers were open-minded, could be rectified at little extra cost to them. Before going into detail, I congratulate Lord Freud on his sterling efforts to introduce the Bill. From my own experience of working in the insurance industry and alongside lawyers, I know that the negotiations would have been very difficult. He deserved the praise he received from peers on both sides of the House as the Bill progressed through the other place, but it still lacks fair compensation for victims of this dreadful disease.
In my preliminary discussions with interested parties, there was consensus on one point: the Bill will give sufferers something. That is true and something might be better than nothing, but the Bill puts the something squarely in the pockets of the insurers and lawyers, and not as much as there should be in the hands of the victim. The victim is the one who turned up to work and was exposed to asbestos. The victim is the one who happened to work for a company that kept shoddy records. The victim is the one who will die through no fault of his own. The Bill has room for improvement, based on further compromise.
Their lordships debated the Bill on a set of assumptions that have been revised since it has progressed to this place. The goalposts have moved. It is a shame that what should be a simple piece of legislation has become so mired in suspicion and confusion regarding what is and is not included in the levy. When the Bill was discussed in the Lords, Lord Freud made it clear that the levy could not be more than 3% gross written premium. That was to ensure that insurers financing the scheme would not incur additional costs that would be passed on to their existing customers. At that point, the levy agreed with the insurance industry was 75% and equated to, as illustrated in the Department for Work and Pensions’ own analysis in support of the Bill, 2.79% GWP in the first four years of the scheme and 2.27% GWP in the first 10 years of the scheme.
Since the debate in the Lords, the assumptions relating to legal costs have changed. Their lordships debated a fixed legal fee of £2,000, but we are now debating a fee of £7,000. In truth, there is total confusion about who will pay the fee. As the Association of British Insurers understands it, it will be paid by claimants out of their compensation which the Government will uplift accordingly.
Not only is it unclear what precisely the fee is for, but what the other 25% is paying to administer. It would be helpful if the Government clarified who pays the legal fees. Is it the claimants out of their compensation or the insurance companies out of the administration fee? If it is the claimants, we need to be absolutely clear that when they are awarded £57,000 of compensation, £7,000 of legal fees will have to be deducted from that award.
Lawyers, insurers and the Government are, unsurprisingly, at loggerheads on the fixed fee, presumably because if it is acceptable for this scheme, why could it not be applied to civil claims? Where would it fit into the LASPO review that the Ministry of Justice is expected to complete and report on next year? At the heart of the Bill is supposed to be the fact that the victim is coming into the scheme at last resort. A lot of what is required will have already been done, so lawyers in a civil claim might not be as necessary as they would be in this scheme. Senior Master Whitaker has helped a great deal and the Department is clear that in some circumstances a medical report would be enough. The underlying point, however, is that because of the revised estimates, about which I remain sceptical, there is no room to raise the compensation limit from 75% to 80%—a much fairer level of financial recompense for victims of the disease. In his introduction, the Minister said that 75% is not the important figure and that the 3% levy is. With the greatest respect to the Minister, it is the level of compensation that is important to the victim, not what the level of GWP is to the insurance industry.
My hon. Friend mentioned that Medway is a hot spot for the disease. There have been 42 deaths in my constituency in the past five years—a greater number even than in her constituency, and about three times the national average. She mentioned the 3% and 75% figures. Is it not the case that the changes to which she referred will affect the sums relating to the 3% cap? If that is so, will it not be open to Ministers to show some compromise or movement in the direction that she is so ably arguing for?
My hon. Friend is right that our constituencies are particularly affected and I am delighted to see him in his place to debate this important issue. He makes an important point. The Government have set a cap of 3% and there is no room for manoeuvre unless they are willing to stand up to the insurance industry and say that there is a firm view on both sides of the House that the 75% they have currently negotiated is not good enough. They need to agree on another figure. I believe that 80% would be appropriate as a good compromise between the 90% being called for by the lawyers—they cite the financial services compensation scheme as a useful comparator—and the 70% the insurers were originally willing to accept. Furthermore, with the previous assumptions under which their lordships debated the Bill, 80% would have been 2.98% GWP over the first four years and 2.42% over 10 years. Now, with the 3% cap, under the new legal costs associated with the scheme, there is no room for manoeuvre. I find that disappointing, unless the Minister is willing to stand up to the insurance industry and discuss this.
The hon. Lady is making a compelling case. Does she agree that, as the Minister said, the employers were 100% to blame, that the insurance companies have had 100% contributions for many years, that the Government are asking for 100% clawback on DWP benefits and that, sadly, 100% of the victims are dead? Is there not a clear moral case for this House to accept nothing less than 100% compensation for the people who have died?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I was persuaded by the 100% argument, but having read the House of Lords debate, I now think that 100% would not be right. There is room for compromise on the percentage and we need to ensure that we put the victim at the heart of the compensation scheme—not the insurers and lawyers who may ultimately benefit from it.
I am also concerned about the lack of clarity on assumptions relating to the age of people diagnosed with mesothelioma. Some think that those accessing the scheme will be younger than the current age group of claimants going through civil schemes, whereas the Department has assumed that there will be an older age group. I tend to believe that, as employers’ liability insurance has been compulsory since 1972, and given this disease’s latency, those unlikely to be able to trace their insurer, making them eligible for this scheme, would surely be older and the younger workers would be fewer. Again, there is room for negotiation with the insurance industry over the compensation levy.
I understand that the industry is worried about a cohort of younger people who might access the scheme because of exposure in schools and other areas with a less obvious asbestos risk. I am afraid that that is bunkum, because not only would schools have some form of liability insurance, but it would be possible to access compensation via civil procedures. For me, the current 25% running cost of the scheme is far too high, and I genuinely think that this is a poor outcome for the sufferer and a good outcome for the industry, which, as Mr Anderson said, has behaved poorly over many decades in this area.
I am conscious that during the course of the debate I may be able to alleviate some concerns across the House about how the scheme is proceeding. Earlier in her comments, my hon. Friend asked whether the legal fees would be in addition or inclusive. They are clearly in addition to any payments that the person receives from the scheme.
We will have an interesting discussion about that in Committee. The representations I have received are contrary to what the Minister says, suggesting that the fees would still come from the claimant, albeit that the Government will uplift the amount of compensation payable in the first place. A victim might get £57,000, for example, but would then have to pay the £7,000 fee out of it—unless the legal fee comes in lower than that, in which case they get to keep the difference.
Let me clarify once and for all that the legal fee of £7,000 is outside the payment. If people do not spend £7,000, they keep the difference. It is outside, not part of, the compensation.
As I say, we will have an interesting debate in Committee. Is the Minister saying that the insurance industry will pick up the legal fee? Where is this magic legal fee coming from? Who is paying for it? If it is not the claimant, it must surely be in the 25% administration costs. Officials have said that it is not within those costs, so we are going to have an interesting debate about where this £7,000 is coming from and, indeed, what it actually equates to.
The Bill went through the other place on the basis that the legal fees would be £2,000, yet we are now told that they are £7,000. The Minister needs to respond to my hon. Friend’s earlier point that one could move to an 80% level of compensation and accommodate it if the legal fees were indeed £2,000 within the 80% of gross written premium. One could not do it otherwise. It could not be accommodated if the legal fees were £7,000. There is room for manoeuvre if the assumption on which the other place proceeded—namely that the legal fees would be £2,000—is correct, but the Minister needs to be clear in the concluding speech about where this £7,000 figure has come from.
I am grateful for my hon. and learned Friend’s intervention. The irony is that, when the Bill first started in the House of Lords, the figure of £7,000 was debated, but the assumption was subsequently revised down to £2,000 and then back up to £7,000. Under the original £7,000 assumption, however, the DWP calculations were exactly the same as they were when £2,000 was being discussed. Unfortunately, it is completely unclear to anyone who has paid any attention to this Bill precisely who is paying for this, what it includes and how the victim can still be put at the heart of it all.
On one particular point, I pay tribute to the insurance industry. It improved over the years in its financing of research into mesothelioma. This began when I was working at Aviva—I am not talking all the credit for it, but it did—as an attempt to stop the last Government from following the lead of Scotland and legislating too harshly on other asbestos diseases such as pleural plaques. As it happens, I supported the last Government’s resistance to following Scotland and was pleased that the top four insurers contributed to research funding into mesothelioma instead. That said, the funding runs out next year, and there has currently been no voluntary commitment—not just from the top four, but from all EL insurers—to contribute further money into research. I think that is a dreadful shame, which will have a major impact on future treatments to alleviate suffering at a time when we expect meso-diagnosis to spike. I share the views of the British Lung Foundation—supported, I believe, by the Association of British Insurers—about building the continuation of funding directly into the Bill. It is sad that a £4 billion EL industry cannot make a voluntary offering, spread equally across all insurers. If that is so, we parliamentarians now have a statutory opportunity to force them to do so.
The hon. Lady is generous in giving way. Is she aware that when the pleural plaques legislation went through the other place and the Law Lords decided that it would no longer be compensated, KPMG estimated that the insurance companies had a £1.4 billion windfall, so surely a little bit of that could go into the research that she is talking about?
I do, indeed, remember that. I remember having long conversations about pleural plaques with Mr Hepburn, who has been a long-time campaigner on the issue. As it happens, I disagreed with the idea of compensating pleural plaques. Everybody involved with this Bill well knows that I am passionate about mesothelioma—a disease from which people will die, and quickly—but I have never thought of extending the provisions to other diseases. I supported what the industry did on pleural plaques, but I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point.
Let me quickly turn to the issue of benefit recovery. While I agree that this scheme should follow civil procedures and recover benefits from those who have received payments until their compensation has been paid, I think it incredibly unfair that a claimant who is getting the equivalent of 75% compensation to that from a civil claim must repay 100% of his benefits. To return to the main point of the Bill, the claimant is accessing the scheme because of poor practices by employers and insurers after having been negligently exposed to asbestos. I feel that the victim is the one who will lose out here, so I hope we get an opportunity to look carefully at the recovery issue in Committee.
Finally, let me briefly mention secondary exposure. I understand why diagnosis of mesothelioma caused by secondary exposure from asbestos is excluded from this Bill, but this is an area that I genuinely hope the Department is looking at pursuing. The numbers are small, but I would hazard a pretty good guess that most victims of secondary exposure will be women, who are sufferers of this dreadful cancer purely because they did their wifely duty and washed their husband’s overalls. These women deserve to be compensated, too. They receive payment under the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008, so it is an accepted cause of suffering, but a proper compensation scheme should be considered for the future.
While I worked in the industry, I campaigned hard for better, faster justice for those who would die from mesothelioma. I may have been an irritant in the industry, but I was passionate that, after decades of poor behaviour, something had to change. Improvements were made and I was proud to be a part of those small, but important developments. However, in the middle of a constant stand-off between insurers and lawyers remains a person who will die a most horrible death, and at present this Bill, while welcome in principle, still puts too much in the pockets of other interested parties. I hope that Ministers both in this place and the other place will remain open-minded and listen to the concerns of colleagues on both sides and ultimately be willing to go back to the insurers and lawyers and fight just a little harder for the victims of mesothelioma. To my mind, it is the very least that they deserve.
Let me first pay tribute to Tracey Crouch for the genuine interest and compassion she has shown on this subject for a number of years. I am sure that, at the end of the day, we will get the outcome that we are all looking for.
Last Friday, I sadly attended the funeral of a great and old friend, Terry Smith, a local lad from Hebburn, a town in my constituency. He was a local activist, secretary of the local social club, the Iona club, of which I am a member, too. He was a member of the local church, St Aloysius. He was very active in the Society of St Vincent de Paul, and visited the sick. He was a long-term member of the Labour party, and would go out and distribute leaflets whenever he was needed. I am sure that we all know men of his kind—men who do a lot of work but who are unsung heroes, and who never ask for anything in return. Terry left school and went to work in the shipyards, but after a while he changed his career. He went to college, and then managed to get a job teaching. He taught for 28 years, until he retired.
Two years ago, Terry went to the doctor. After being given a medical, he was told that he had mesothelioma and had three months to live, or, if he had treatment and if he was lucky, he would make it to a year. However, because of his determination, his obvious faith and his medical treatment, he got through two years. It was very sad to be at his funeral last Friday: it was very sad for his friends, and, more important, it was very sad for his family.
Terry has now become part of a statistic. Every week, three people in the north-east die of mesothelioma. What most of those people have in common is that they are working-class, and were employed by a negligent employer who exposed them to the poisons of asbestos.
I welcome the scheme, and I think that the Minister has done a great job, because it has been kicking around in the long grass for long enough. It will impose a levy on the insurance industry, which will compensate victims who cannot trace an employer for whom they may have worked many decades ago and who may have gone bust since then, and cannot trace the employer’s insurance company either. The regional media welcome the scheme because they see it as an end to an injustice that we have witnessed for a long time, and, as I have said, I welcome it because it is an improvement on the status quo. However, the Bill falls far short of what the last Labour Government intended.
I agree with what my hon. Friend has said about the regional media, but did he feel as concerned as I did about a headline in the Sunderland Echowhich referred to a £300 million bonanza for asbestos victims? In fact, many of his constituents and mine will not be covered by the Bill, and will be short-changed.
I think that many issues of that kind will be exposed as the Bill proceeds through its stages. The media gave the scheme a warm welcome because they did not know the details and the nitty-gritty.
The Bill falls short of what we intended when we issued our consultation document. It falls short in regard to the cut-off time—in its present form, it will deny compensation to thousands of mesothelioma victims and save the insurance companies millions—and it falls short in regard to the payments, which will be 75% of the average payment made following a civil claim. I think that the proportion should be 100%, and that insurance companies should be fined a further 25% for ignoring their responsibilities over the years. The money could then be used to establish some proper research on a cure for mesothelioma.
Why has the Bill been diluted, and why was it kicked into the long grass? Why has this taken so long? The answer is, quite simply, that the insurance companies’ fingerprints are all over the Bill. That shows the unhealthy relationship that the Tory party has with the insurance industry, which has pumped millions into the party’s coffers over the years. It also shows the value that the Government place on working people, especially those in the north-east. I wonder what would have happened if those people had been professionals in the south-east of England. I wonder what would have happened if, for example, judges had all of a sudden developed an occupational cancer as a result of inhaling hairs from their wigs. We know exactly what would have happened. Those would not have been working-class people breathing in asbestos fibres, and the Tories would have looked after their own people.
I do not make this point from a partisan perspective, but the hon. Gentleman said that the scheme was not as generous as the one that the previous Government had planned. Is there something about the disease, about the insurance industry or about politics in this country that explains why it has taken so long for us to reach this stage?
This came about because of the Labour party’s links with the trade unions, which brought the issue to our attention. Labour Members in the last Parliament—many of whom are sitting here now—had a number of meetings with the then Prime Minister and with justice Ministers. The Bill has been a long time coming. It could have been here two years ago, but because the insurance industry was crawling around and because the Government wanted to appease it, it was kicked into the long grass. Eventually, however, the Minister—and all credit to him—took over the brief and, very recently, enabled us to make progress.
There is a long history of delayed compensation for such diseases. In the early 1960s, a campaign for compensation for slate workers began in Wales. It eventually led to the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979, but for 20 years or so, nothing at all happened.
Let me end by saying that the Bill can be improved. There is time. However, if it is to be improved, the Government must stand up to the employers who have literally got away with murder, and they must stand up to the insurance companies which have literally robbed dead people of £1 billion. They must stand up for what is right. We are convinced that we are on the right side, and we want to know whether the Government will be on the right side. If they do not get on to the right side, they will be seen for what they are. They will be seen to be on the side of the privileged, the powerful and the wealthy, and, ultimately, to be letting cancer sufferers down.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Hepburn, who spoke with understandable passion. All of us who know something about industrial life in this country are aware that for too long we were literally in a state of ignorance. I think of industrial deafness, which affected members of my family, and of other respiratory diseases. In particular, I think of mesothelioma, and of the date of knowledge in law, which is deemed to be 1969. It is assumed for the purposes of liability that, until that date, employers, businesses and industries throughout the country—and the people who worked in those businesses, delivering productivity and profit for year after year—were labouring in a state of ignorance. That is a tragedy when we consider the individual stories of the workers and what they went through.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about the date of knowledge, but, as he knows, mesothelioma was originally identified in the Meriwether report of 1931. After the second world war, the Government wrote to the British shipowners’ confederation drawing attention to the dangers of asbestos. For all those years the fact that it is a danger to health was denied, although that was known to be the case.
I was coming to that point. Although for the purposes of liability knowledge of the dangers is defined as having started in 1969, we know that the debate had been going on for many years before that. It is a tragedy that the decision was not made for a generation. Thousands of workers, many of whom are no longer with us, were working in dangerous conditions.
I represent Swindon, a railway town which had the Great Western Railway at its heart, and had a railway works until 1986, and I have heard stories from many former railway workers who worked in and around asbestos every day of their working lives. Asbestos was being transported along the railway system, but it was also being used to line the boilers and pipes, and to insulate the heat generators which are an integral part of a locomotive. More than that, however, asbestos was being used to line all the carriages built at the Swindon works, and asbestos was used in sprays that were applied to surfaces within and without those carriages. It was very much part of the essence of working life in Swindon. For very many people whom I know exposure to asbestos has been a reality, and that means that many people are still carrying a latent disease—a latent disease that can manifest itself as late as 40 or even 50 years after exposure.
I am going to single out one person, not because he would have regarded himself as an exceptional man, but because he rose to become the mayor of our town and because he died this year from mesothelioma. Rex Barnett worked for British Rail from 1953 to 1961. It was while he was there that he was exposed to asbestos and went on to develop what was for many years a latent disease. He was diagnosed with pleural plaques back in the mid ’90s and then was one of the unfortunate people who went on to develop mesothelioma right at the end of his mayoral year in 2011. Rex battled on. He was an indefatigable character who in his mayoral year raised over £60,000 for local charities, an exceptional feat in itself. He battled on for another two years, but finally, sadly and tragically, succumbed this year. In his memory and the memory of thousands of other people who worked alongside him, this measure is a welcome one.
I pause now for a moment to think about the memorial garden we have in Queen’s park in Swindon to the victims of mesothelioma, which is marked by a very simple memorial, and which gives members of my community an opportunity to contemplate and consider the sacrifice— the unwitting sacrifice—that was made by those who were exposed for all that time to lethal amounts of asbestos.
In my early legal career I was trained in personal injury work, which included industrial compensation, and therefore have some, albeit limited, experience of dealing with claims relating to conditions such as mesothelioma. I think that perhaps we are in danger of oversimplifying the position when talking, perfectly naturally, about the need for a swift resolution to the claims made by victims of this disease and their families. There is a danger that seeking to resolve claims before death could lead to a significant under-settlement of claims, which would deprive dependants of the victims of a substantial proportion of the damages they could recover in a posthumous claim.
I think it is right to talk very briefly in this Second Reading debate about the wider position and principles, while recognising the fact that this Bill will deal with a relatively small cohort of people for whom traceability of employer or insurer has not been possible. The following important point has been raised with me by claimants’ solicitors, some of whom have years of experience in practice in Swindon. The regime that applies to posthumous claims for damages is still dramatically different in England and Wales from that which applies to those made during the lifetime of the claimant. For example, bereavement damages are not payable during the lifetime of claimants, claimants cannot recover for future funeral expenses during their lifetime, and living claimants cannot recover damages for services provided to dependants after death; that is recoverable only as a services dependency under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976. It is clear that under that Act income dependency claims will usually be significantly more for dependants than a lost years claim made under common law for a living claimant. It is clear that claims that are brought by widows after death will be about 20%—a fifth—more valuable than equivalent claims made during life. So the dilemma for mesothelioma sufferers going through all the pain and struggle they have to endure is: do they resolve their claims during their lifetime for what will be a lesser sum, or do they die with a claim unresolved?
It is interesting to note that the Scots have legislated to bring the rights of relatives before and after death into some alignment. That is one of way of dealing with this, but there are alternatives that could, and do, deliver a practical solution.
I probably am thick, but will my hon. Friend explain why there is a difference between claiming before death and after death, because I have not quite understood that?
I am certainly not going to insult my hon. Friend, but what I will say is that payments after death are governed by the 1976 Act and payments before death fall under common law, so different rules and regimes apply. As I have said, in Scotland there has been some move to try to align certain aspects—but not by any means all aspects—of the rights of dependants, relating to mesothelioma in particular.
There are practical alternatives, and in her excellent speech my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch made a point that deserves re-emphasis. The work of the senior master of the
Queen’s bench division, master Whitaker, should be singled out for particular praise because he and his colleagues have developed specialist lists that, in effect, create a fast-track procedure for the efficient resolution of liability issues. The fast-track procedure allows for summary judgment to be passed where sufficient evidence has been demonstrated by claimants about exposure to asbestos in breach of duty and where defendants then have to show cause—reversing the burden, as it were—on evidence why that liability should not be proved. With the resolution of liability, interim payments can be made to claimants and their families to meet the claimants’ needs during life, but that interim payment does not bring resolution or quantum to a close. That can be achieved by a stay of the claim until after death, to allow the full quantum—the final value—of that claim to be properly assessed.
It is important that we make these points because if we are truly to address the needs of victims and their families, we have to understand what they need, rather than just make glib assumptions about brevity and the need to tie things up before the tragic event of the death of a victim.
We know that over the next 30 years mesothelioma will claim about 60,000 lives, and that means about 2,500 people will be dying every year from this aggressive cancer. This particular scheme deals with last-resort claims where there is no other alternative. Already we have seen welcome changes by the Government in the other place, by conceding the 70% levy and raising it to 75%, on figures that at the time in question still represented under 3% of the gross written premium for employer liability insurance. I know that these figures have been updated, but when this Bill reaches Committee more particularity must be given as to the basis for those updated figures, because it is crucial if we are to have a meaningful continuing negotiation with the insurance industry—which I think we should—that we know precisely what we are dealing with.
I know my hon. Friend the Minister cannot commit himself and the Government to particular figures today, but I urge him—and I know he will listen—to keep those figures open and to look to see if we can get a greater proportion, and whether we can achieve 80% as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford suggested. The more we get, the more justice we will deliver for the victims and their families.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the insurance industry is unlikely to walk away from this scheme because of a very small uplift to 80%, given that it already has an incredibly bad reputation, thanks to the way it has dealt with mesothelioma victims? The notion that, all of a sudden, the entire scheme is going to fall apart because of a small, continuous uplift to 80%, and that the insurance industry is just going to walk away, is absolute nonsense.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not believe that the industry, which has rightly been criticised for lack of action and lack of resolution, would dare risk further opprobrium by appearing to be even more unreasonable at the end of what has already been a lengthy—some would say over-prolonged—negotiation process.
My hon. Friend made an interesting point about the industry’s argument regarding the likely age of claimants. Her point has real merit and force, because as she rightly says, given the changes in the law—the Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969 and the introduction of compulsory employers’ liability some 41 years ago—the issue of traceability of insurers surely belongs to a period before the introduction of such legislation. That must mean that the cohort of claimants who would be eligible under this scheme will be older, rather than younger. I fail to see any clear basis for the assertion that we will be dealing with a younger group of claimants. It is important that we as legislators, both here and in Committee, seek to challenge and probe at every stage glib assertions made on behalf of an industry that, although it is now coming to the table, should have done so some years ago.
I welcome the Bill and all measures that create a degree of justice for those who, as a result of unfortunate accident, are unable to trace employers or insurers. But at the very least, when we make such legislation, it is our duty to ensure that we drive the best possible deal for our constituents and that they get in fullest possible measure the justice they so clearly deserve.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Buckland, who has once more shown his expert understanding and knowledge of this issue. I also compliment Tracey Crouch, who has again shown her utter determination to ensure that the right thing is done for those who have suffered so terribly from mesothelioma and for their families. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Hepburn, who has been a redoubtable campaigner on this issue for many years, on all the work he has done.
Every July on action mesothelioma day, in Lincoln square, Manchester, the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victims Support Group, ably co-ordinated for many years by Tony Whitston, brings together Members of Parliament, other community leaders and the families and loved ones of those who have died as a result of mesothelioma. It is a profoundly moving occasion, and I see in the House hon. Friends who have attended this event in previous years. Doves are released into the sky as a symbol of peace and reconciliation for those families who have faced so much difficulty, and the message goes out that there is still a need for justice for those who have suffered so much.
One of the most profoundly moving things is that many of the women there hold up photographs of their husbands and loved ones, who worked hard in heavy industry or as electricians or joiners, and who lost their lives to mesothelioma because an employer—an irresponsible, negligent employer—did not remove the risk, did not alert them to the risk they faced. I think of people such as Mr Fryers, a constituent of mine, whose voice is included in the excellent Asbestos Victims Support Group’s “Forum UK” briefing. He says:
“I never thought I would be exposed to asbestos diseases and suffer mesothelioma. During my apprenticeship from the age of fourteen as these diseases were never talked about you just did the job given to you. No tradesman knew much about asbestos due to the neglect of the employers who exposed them to it.”
At the event in Manchester—I am sure they take place throughout the United Kingdom—we have a particular focus on the 6,000 innocent mesothelioma sufferers who were unable to find a former employer or insurance company before they died: who were unable, in other words, to get any form of redress or compensation for the illness and eventual death they suffered. The Bill enables us to focus on that group and on those who still struggle to find an employer or an insurance company.
I welcome the Bill, which is a huge and important step forward. It will bring a measure of justice to those who have been unable to trace employers or insurance companies. However, my message to the Minister—one that is coming loud and clear from all parts of the House this evening—is that if we are going to enact this Bill, we should do it properly and gain the maximum possible justice for those who have been affected.
Let us remember that the insurance companies start well ahead on this issue. The estimated value of payments that ought to have been made but never were to those who have suffered and died is at least £800 million. We should also add to that the premiums the insurance companies have collected but have never had to pay out on. I encourage them to participate in the development of this scheme; but we should remember that they start ahead, not behind. Throughout the debate on the Bill through its various legislative stages, we should also remember that the voice and experience of those most affected—the loved ones, the families—must be heard. Over many, many years, they have felt ignored and betrayed, and we have to emerge at the end of this process with something that they feel offers them a measure of justice.
I want to make four brief points, the first of which concerns the level of compensation, which everybody has spoken about this evening. Seventy-five per cent. may be better than 70%, but it is not good enough, and we simply have to do better. Here, there are technical arguments, some of which have already been aired, but in this regard I rely for my view on the view of Parliament. That view was clearly demonstrated during the debate on what became the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which brought about changes to the conditional fee agreement. It was very clear in the debates in this House and the other place that to expect mesothelioma claimants to pay more than 25% of their compensation to lawyers was completely unacceptable. That argument was had here and in the Lords, which passed an amendment to prevent the new conditional fee agreements from applying to mesothelioma claims. Members may recall that we entered a period of ping-pong, and eventually there was a compromise and section 48 of the Act was inserted.
The will of Parliament was very clear on those occasions, and my argument is that if it was wrong to expect mesothelioma claimants to pay 25% of their fee to lawyers, why is it fair to expect them to pay 25% of the fee that they should have to the insurance companies? That is the practical effect of having a cap at 75%. My starting point is 100%. Other figures have been mentioned—90%, 80%—but the message to the Minister is that the figure has to be substantially higher than 75%. We do not want political game-playing here; there has to be a sensible, proper, grown-up discussion with the industry, Ministers and Members of this House to make sure that we get the best level of compensation that is available. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford was right to suggest that the level of compensation that is agreed on, whatever it might be, should be the level at which benefits are repaid. It would be grossly unfair to set a compensation level of less than 100% and then to expect claimants to repay 100% of their benefits. That would be quite wrong.
My second point relates to the start date from which people should be paid compensation. I make no criticism of Lord Freud. He made his statement to the House of Lords in July 2012, in the last days before the summer recess. If he had not cared about the issue, he could have left it until October when the House returned, but he wanted to make the statement in July because he does care. The start date should be set further back, however—at least to February 2010—and the reason for that is clear. When the Labour Government published the consultation document, it became clear to the industry that things were going to change and that a compensation scheme funded by the industry would be put in place. From that moment on, the industry has had every opportunity to make the necessary arrangements.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that the date needs to be put back. Does he agree with the point made by the hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) that, because the date of knowledge is 1969 and most of the claimants are likely to be elderly, there is a reasonable case for putting the start date back at least to 1969 because the number of cases involved will be quite small?
My hon. Friend is very knowledgeable about these issues and he makes an important point. I am saying that the date should be put back to at least February 2010, and there are arguments for going back further. I hope that we will have an opportunity to examine those arguments in Committee.
On the point raised in the intervention by Mr Jones, the dependants of those who have been affected by this terrible illness will be comp—I nearly used the word “compensated”; we are not supposed to use it. Payments will go to them. It is not the case that no payment will be made just because someone has sadly died. The dependants will get payments as well, and that has to be taken into account. I understand what the hon. Gentleman was saying, but that has to be taken into consideration.
I am happy to be the conduit for a conversation between the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham. I hope that we will be able to have a sensible discussion about this in Committee. Whatever the start date is, it should predate July 2012.
My third point relates to section 48 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, to which I referred earlier. Last week, I received a copy of a letter sent by Lord McNally to Lord Alton of Liverpool. One or two other Members who took part in the debates during the passage of the LASPO Act also received a copy. Section 48 prevents sections 44 and 46 from coming into force in relation to mesothelioma claimants. That means that the new conditional fee agreements cannot operate in relation to mesothelioma claims.
Ministers keep making the point that the review that has to be carried out under the LASPO Act has somehow to be dovetailed with the arrangements in this Bill. In the letter, Lord McNally says:
“I can absolutely guarantee that we will work in a synchronised way with the DWP”.
However, there is no relationship between the review set out in the LASPO Act and the provisions of this Bill. As I have made clear, the provisions in the Act cover civil claims and the arrangements for conditional fee agreements. They will ensure that claimants have to pay back 25% of their success fee to the lawyer who represented them. There have been arguments about that, and the Government clearly have their point of view, but Parliament has expressed the view that that provision should not operate in relation to mesothelioma claimants.
The Bill, on the other hand, deals with a fund of last resort for people who cannot find their former employer or insurance company, and who have no one against whom to make a civil claim. The two issues are therefore completely separate, and I ask the Minister please to clarify that when he responds to the debate. If there is to be a decision in relation to section 48 of the Act, let us have that debate and make that decision, but let us not confuse that issue with the provisions of the Bill that we are debating today.
My final point relates to research, which the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford also mentioned. It is shameful that we spend so little on researching the causes and treatment of mesothelioma. It is a disease that will kill 2,400 people this year, and in the region of 60,000 people over the next 30 years, and we should be devoting much more to research. I applaud the initiative that a small number of insurance companies took to set up the research fund that is being managed by the British Lung Foundation. Some good, promising work has been done as a result of that, and Lord Alton and his colleagues in the House of Lords wanted to make that arrangement more sustainable, better funded and more reliable in the long term so that we could get some proper research done and some good outcomes. Indeed, Lord Alton pressed an amendment to that effect, but it was narrowly defeated. However, that does not remove the argument, or the need for Ministers to do much more in regard to the funding of research.
“I have hit a brick wall at every turn.”
He is a Minister who was trying to get a better outcome for research but clearly found it difficult. Earl Howe also spoke on Report about how he was trying to improve the research programme, and I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on progress tonight, because the promises were made in July and it is now November. I hope that some progress has been made, but we cannot get away from the fact that the Bill should contain a provision for the long-term funding by the insurance industry of research into the causes and treatment of mesothelioma.
I welcome the Bill, but it could be and must be improved. The families of those who have suffered and died as a result of this dreadful disease must be better compensated, and we need a scheme that is affordable and in which those people can have confidence.
It is a pleasure to follow Paul Goggins. He has put forward some compelling arguments.
I welcome the Bill. Mesothelioma is a terrible disease, and I have seen at first hand the indignity and pain that it has inflicted on many of my former patients. Perhaps it is because I have been there in the room while they have suffered repeatedly having fluid drained from their lungs that my main complaint about the Bill is that it does not go far enough in its scope. It would be a terrible shame if we were to pass it without taking the opportunity to act on this important area of prevention.
There is no safe lower exposure limit for asbestos, and children are particularly at risk. A child who is exposed to it at the age of five is between two and a half and five times more likely to develop mesothelioma than an adult aged 30. Since 1980, 228 teachers have died in this country as a result of negligent exposure to asbestos. Let us remember that every one of those teachers had 30 children in the classroom with them. Let us also remember that 75% of our schools contain asbestos, and evidence from the Health and Safety Executive shows that about 13,000 out of 23,800 schools were built at the time when asbestos use was at its peak. That asbestos is now crumbling. Every time a drawing pin is stuck into an asbestos board and taken out again, it releases about 6,000 asbestos fibres.
The trouble is that the argument we take in this country that we should literally cover up asbestos is not good enough. The evidence shows that slamming doors and children kicking kick-boards around the classroom edges can increase the level of asbestos fibres in the air by about 6,000 times. We should go far further than we are doing; that is what happened in the United States. In 1980, the US conducted its first major audit of asbestos and introduced stringent regulations in 1986. As a result, the level of mesothelioma in the US has stabilised since 1999; there are now about 14 deaths per million per year, whereas in 2009 in the UK there were 37.8 deaths per million—and unfortunately, that level continues to rise. I know that the Minister has said he expects it to peak in 2015, but we do not yet know what the future impact of asbestos exposure in schools will be.
This is a good opportunity for me to address a slight hiccup. The number of mesothelioma victims will peak in 2014—the claims will peak in 2015.
I thank the Minister for clarifying the point. The trouble is that the Bill is about compensating people who have been negligently exposed in the course of their work. What will we be saying to future victims who are negligently exposed in the classroom? They will not have an employer; they are being negligently and knowingly exposed by the state, and it is simply not good enough that we take a view that there is nothing we can do.
Does the hon. Lady agree that there should be a phased, managed removal of all asbestos from schools, rather than relying on management plans, as prevention is always better than cure?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I think we should be starting with the schools with the highest risk. Since the original decisions were made, when air sampling tests for asbestos were technically difficult, could detail only a single pinpoint in time and were immensely expensive, the technology has moved on significantly. I call on the Minister to examine the new technology that is emerging in air sampling for asbestos, which gives real-time data on exposure and could be widely rolled out in schools—prototypes are available. I ask the Minister to review during the passage of the Bill whether we could bring such new technology into the scope of the Bill.
I know that the property data survey was designed to be light touch, but it is extraordinary that not only the most expensive aspect of future building programmes in schools—asbestos removal—but the most dangerous aspect have been completely omitted. At the moment, parents have little knowledge of where their children are at risk. I wrote to all the schools in my constituency to ask about their asbestos policies, and one school replied that it had had an asbestos survey carried out a few years ago and that
“There is very little asbestos in the school, just in a few floor tiles and in the artex”.
I am sorry, but asbestos in the floor tiles and in the artex is exactly the kind of thing I am most concerned about, because it is raining down on children in our classrooms. As I say, technology is now available that allows us to look in real time for any dangers, rather than spot-check after building work. What happens when 30 children charge round over floor tiles containing asbestos? I urge the Minister to take an opportunity during the passage of the Bill to examine that matter. Without acting to protect children from asbestos now, we will not see a long-term falling off in the incidence of mesothelioma and this terrible disease will affect those children in decades to come.
It is a pleasure to follow Dr Wollaston, who speaks knowledgeably and movingly from her own experience, making some extremely telling points.
I, too, welcome this Bill as a step in the right direction but, as has been said many times, it needs to be strengthened, particularly in respect of the level of compensation. I pay tribute to the work done in the other place on this Bill by Lord Wigley. As I have said, he worked tirelessly for many years to get the Pneumoconiosis etc (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 on to the statute book.
I have a special constituency reason to be interested in the Bill, because I represent a former slate quarrying area that has benefited from the provisions of the 1979 Act; it provided compensation to slate workers whose former employers had gone out of business and could not therefore be sued. My area also, at one time, had a Ferodo/Turner and Newall factory, which used asbestos for many years from the 1960s onwards. Recently, I have heard dreadful tales from former employees of workers in the 1960s having snowball fights with fistfuls of asbestos during tea breaks and at lunch time. I was also told that the factory was a dust trap from one end to the other and that it was rarely cleaned properly. Some hon. Members will know that the factory later morphed into the infamous Friction Dynamics concern, which provoked and then lost the longest-running industrial dispute of recent times. The owners lost and then evaded their responsibilities—it is a lesson to us all—and the wrongly sacked workers still have not received a single penny piece in compensation for wrongful dismissal. Some of those people are also suffering from the effects of asbestos.
The incidence of mesothelioma in my constituency is much lower than elsewhere; Gwynedd is a rural area, and therein lies the clue. Mesothelioma is less prevalent there, but among the particular group of workers I mention it is as prevalent as elsewhere. The effects on the individual are, of course, as bad as anywhere else, whatever the incidence in the general population. We know that it can take many years for symptoms of this awful disease to be manifest, and people in seemingly unconnected industries and occupations can be sufferers. They include a former constituent of mine who had never worked near an asbestos plant but had worked as a boiler maker on submarines, and someone who had many years before been a sub-contractor removing asbestos from redundant buildings before fully realising the danger to which he was exposed.
As we have heard, mesothelioma strikes people in later life and, for me, the case for compensation could not be clearer. Many people may have lost out on compensation because of the delay between 2010 and this scheme being announced in 2012. As I said, however, my main concern, and the main concern that has been conveyed to me, is about the level of compensation. Sufferers face 100% of the effects of this dreadful disease, so how can it be right that they are offered a lesser degree of compensation? In the other place, Lord Wigley tabled an amendment that would have brought the level up to 80%. As other hon. Members have noted, Lord Freud said that it was impossible to get the insurers to agree. I made the point in an earlier intervention that the 1979 Act provides for 100% of the compensation available before the courts, and of course recovery of already paid benefits will be at 100%.
I am glad that progress has been made, but the Bill is narrower in scope than some of us would like. It offers recourse to those suffering from diffuse mesothelioma only—and to eligible dependants—and it is available only to those diagnosed on or after
I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that conditions excluded from the provisions—presumably because of the difficulty in proving causation—have already been included in an administrative scheme that pays compensation to all asbestos victims at Turner and Newall asbestos factories. If that company can do it, why cannot the Government do it?
It seems unfair, cruel and inhuman to impose—as insurance industry insiders have suggested—a lower rate to encourage people to persevere in identifying insurers so that claims will be brought to the scheme only once all other avenues have been exhausted. People will be experiencing the distressing and incapacitating symptoms at a time when they are likely to be seeking compensation and will often not be in any condition to pursue extensive research, not least because of their very short life expectancy. That is the grim reality.
Finally, I echo the points made by other hon. Members in respect of the research that is so desperately needed. As has already been said, the UK has the highest rate of mesothelioma in the world, and the small amount of money invested in research compares very badly with the research into other cancers. New funding for research over the past three years has produced good results. I have read about new researchers and new expertise, but long-term funding must be secured for this important research.
The one constant I find from people who suffer from mesothelioma is that it covers all disciplines. Although my hon. Friend Mr Hepburn is right that the disease is mainly concentrated in the industrial towns and cities, we now see incidents of mesothelioma in other disciplines, such as in teaching.
Before we go into the pros and cons of the Mesothelioma Bill, it might be appropriate to look at the effects of mesothelioma on people. The best description of the disease comes from one of my constituents, who said that it was like having a tree growing inside him. He said the branches spread and eventually choke the sufferer to death. There are people out there who, when they cough, are anxious that they could be suffering from mesothelioma. When that person catches a heavy cold, their families are worried that they have mesothelioma or pleural plaques, which is the start of the disease.
When I worked in the shipyards in Glasgow, we used to make fun of the asbestos workers, or pipe coverers as we called them. They then became known as laggers and were then upgraded to insulating engineers. We used to mock them and make fun of them, not knowing that we were swallowing the same particles of asbestos that covered everyone who worked in that industry. I warmly welcome the work of asbestos support groups, and none more so than Clydeside Action on Asbestos, which does a tremendous job in helping people cope with that difficult disease.
There has been much criticism of the insurance companies during this debate, and I am sure that much of it is right, but perhaps I can take colleagues back to some years ago in Scotland. When a person died in Scotland their claim for asbestosis or mesothelioma died with them. The insurance companies used to invite the sufferer to court, because the thought was that if a person was diagnosed with mesothelioma, they did not have long to live. These people decided to cut to the chase and try to get as much money as they could from the insurance companies before they died, so they went to court to get a judgment.
During the court case, the insurance people had doctors sitting beside them, trying to ascertain how long that person had to live. Then they would find some technical reason to postpone the case, hoping that in the intervening period the person would die and they would not have to pay out. I know that the trade unions came in for a lot of criticism, but the Transport and General Workers Union campaigned hard and successfully to get rid of that heinous legislation. It is important that we understand those events. Even today, producers export asbestos to some of the most vulnerable countries in the world. There is no protection whatever on offer. These people are now being subjected to what we were subjected to some 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
As chair of the all-party group on occupational health and safety, I welcome the Bill. As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Mike Penning knows, the process began under the previous Labour Government, with the consultation in February 2010, and I am pleased that the coalition has at least in part kept the sentiment of those original proposals. Sadly, the Bill does not go anywhere near far enough and the Government are well and truly siding with the insurers, who have profited from the collection of premiums over many decades and who will now continue to be subsidised by people suffering from diseases other than mesothelioma.
It would be remiss of us not to recognise the excellent work that was done by Michael Clapham, the former Member for Barnsley West and Penistone, who worked extremely hard not just on mesothelioma cases but on all industrial cases. He fought hard to get the compensation that people deserved. That responsibility has now been taken up by my hon. Friend Ian Lavery, who is secretary of the all-party group and who does equally important work on these issues.
In our all-party group, we recognised that there was a real need to address the issue of asbestos-related illnesses as a consequence of working in certain environments. For that reason, we set up the asbestos sub-committee. It is devastating that, even though we have known of the dangers of this chemical, workers have continued to be exposed to it and are only now, decades later, discovering the consequences of their employers’ negligence.
Almost every week, there are plumbers, trade workers, electricians and joiners who die from this hidden killer. Their work has been the bedrock of our society. They have built the infrastructure that we rely on, and so it is only right that they are compensated for the sacrifices that they have made.
Dr Wollaston, who is no longer in her place, talked about teachers suffering from mesothelioma. The all-party group produced an excellent booklet, highlighting both the problems and solutions of the disease. She was right that we should deal with the old schools first and then build up the effort to try to get rid of the diseases. We are talking about not just teachers but administrative staff, janitors and even children. I do not want to frighten people, but this is an issue that must be addressed. Unfortunately, the Education Department has chosen to ignore the information that we have provided.
About one in eight sufferers cannot trace their employer or insurer to lodge a complaint. That is completely unjust, and it is luck of the draw whether a person’s records have been lost due to the widespread misplacement of them by the insurance industry. Indeed, in bringing forward the Bill, the Government have acknowledged that. It seems strange that they accept the unfairness, to an extent, but will not allow these people to claim the same amount as those who can trace their employer or insurer. Those people who are suffering from mesothelioma and other industrial diseases through no fault of their own, and who cannot get access to their records, again through no fault of their own, are being penalised by losing 25% of their damages. Not only that, but through this decision, asbestos victims will absorb 25% of the ongoing cost because insurers lost or destroyed their policy records. That is simply not fair: not only is that money necessary to these people, but it is only right that they should receive it.
Obviously, we would welcome higher compensation and would raise it to 90%. That is not the full 100%, but I am convinced that the Government would be more than happy to accept that rise as it is still affordable according to their own figures. It still falls within the 3% levy on gross written premiums, which not only the Government but the industry are happy with. The figure would also work as there is a precedent for it in the financial services compensation scheme, which covers the liabilities of insolvent insurers in circumstances where compulsory insurance is involved. That compensation level is legal, established and much fairer than the one proposed by the Government.
Mesothelioma is a dreadful disease, but it is not the only asbestos-related disease and the Government’s choice to focus only on it is another injustice of the Bill. Lord Freud said in the other place that other asbestos-related diseases need to be considered and I, as well as my colleagues, would like to hear the Minister affirm that comment and explain the steps that will be taken to look into those diseases, too. It is frankly offensive that the Bill has neglected all but one group of people who have been exposed to asbestos. That limitation excludes 50% of asbestos victims and adding them would represent just 20% of the cost. I ask the Government what are those suffering from asbestos-related lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural thickening supposed to do?
The Government say that proving causation is simpler for mesothelioma as asbestos is the only known cause, but I would point the Minister towards a successful precedent: the T&N UK asbestos trust and the payment of claims not just for mesothelioma but for other asbestos diseases.
As the Minister will be aware, Opposition Members feel that the cut-off date for the proposed scheme is another unfairness. The consultation was issued in 2010 and its objective was very clear, as it stated:
“The Employers’ Liability Insurance Bureau…would be a compensation fund of last resort and would ensure that some individuals who are unable to trace…insurance records would receive compensation”.
That is clear to me and I have no doubt that the insurance companies panicked at that point and began to prepare immediately. They spent thousands of pounds on public affairs officials, which might explain why the Government seem to be on the side of the insurance industry in this case, and those officials will be calculating and planning how to react to each and every policy proposal. They will not have missed this and the companies are well and truly ready.
The companies argue that if the legislation was based as far back as 2010, that would amount to
“unlawful interference with insurers’ property rights”,
but they are happy to put their rights ahead of the far more important right to life and loss of property rights of the victims we are speaking about today. Surely the
Government cannot accept that; surely even they can see the complete injustice. The date of
In yet another example of the Government favouring the industry over our constituents, it is becoming clear that the scheme will be administered by the insurance industry in one way or another. We have seen time and again that industry regulation does not work and it is important that an independent body is established to take charge. A scheme administered and run by the industry would have a clear conflict of interest between assessing the eligibility of applicants and keeping the levy on insurers low. How could we be sure that a fair number of applicants was being considered if the industry was in charge? Lord Freud commented that the Government would explore the options for an independent oversight committee and I would be keen to hear the same assurances today.
We are concerned that the scheme awards claimants only 75% of civil compensation rates while clawing back 100% of previously awarded benefits and lump-sum payments. It is unclear why the Government will claw back a greater percentage than is being paid, which will mean that the applicant will receive a net sum that is substantially less than 75% of the net sum he would have received in the courts if the insurer could have been traced. It is somewhat immoral that the state is being given a greater right of financial recovery than the victim and it is grossly unjust that victims are being penalised twice. I hope that the Minister will outline exactly how he will think about changing that.
Finally, let me say a word on research. I do not want to spend too much time on that, as the Bill already needs a lot of work to make it a fair and just solution to a disgraceful situation, but until recently very little was spent on research into mesothelioma in the UK. In the other place, we were promised a joint strategy with the Department of Health on how to encourage proposals for high-quality research into mesothelioma and it is clear that more money should be spent on finding a cure for the disease. I hope that the Government have not forgotten those issues.
As I said earlier, I welcome the Bill. We have worked long and hard to secure it, but it has flaws. I hope that the Government will see that it should be fair and just. Insurance companies can afford the risk, but asbestos victims have already paid with their health. Do not make them pay financially as well.
Members on both sides of the House have made excellent speeches and I will not repeat their points, except one. The Minister will be used to hearing about the 75% figure and the timings.
A close family member of mine died from mesothelioma a few months ago and I got the chance to reflect on it with him over a period of months while he could still speak. It was my brother, Ray, who talked a lot at the best of times, although people obviously cannot do that towards the end of this disease. During the course of the disease, I would visit him and we would talk through the scheme. He was lucky, as some Scottish workers are, to have worked on the rigs, so his family was relatively well cared for and prepared for the future.
One thing we discussed at the time has not yet been mentioned, and although it might perhaps not have an immediate bearing on the legislation, I think that it should. The folk who are primarily affected are the wives of husbands who worked on shipyards, building sites and so on. They are primarily women who have not paid full pension contributions over their lives, so they have relatively low incomes. Some of those who are householders or house owners—the ones whose husbands might have been unlucky when they were still in their late 50s—will not have paid off their mortgages. If they have relatively modest insurance provision outside that, that will affect them for the rest of their lives, as will their modest pension contributions—if, indeed, they have made any.
Many of those people live in rented or council accommodation and £100,000, which they will not get if their cases are from between 2010 and 2012, would have paid for a wee house, which would have made them substantially better off. These are human beings we are talking about—mainly women, as we know—and that would make a big difference to the rest of their lives. They will be seriously ill affected by the period for which they will not be compensated between February 2010 and July 2012.
A second point occurred to us as we were chatting earlier this year. The Minister alluded to the fact that insurance companies will negotiate and argue—that is a legitimate point, and I guess that is what government is about to a substantial degree—but the idea that insurance companies were unable to plan for this from 2010 is manifestly ridiculous. They must have offset the risk, because it was clear that such a provision was coming.
I wonder whether, if the figure were greater than 75%, the insurance industry might say that it would not be able to absorb the cost and that it would pass it on to consumers and so on. I wonder whether in future the industry might give this scheme as an example of a liability where costs are slightly higher because of that 75% figure. We should not hear that, because the industry says that it will absorb the cost, but it behoves all of us to watch to see whether the industry gives the 75% scheme as an example of something that increases people’s premiums, even slightly, in future.
Another thing that struck me as the disease unfolded was that most people who have mesothelioma are not diagnosed with it at the start, but they pretty much know that they have it, that they have about two years, and that it will be very bad at the end. Dr Wollaston, who is no longer in the Chamber, may be aware of this issue: it occurred to me and my brother that doctors may have known that the scheme would be given a start date at some point in, say, the next six or nine months, and so would slightly delay the final “You’ve got mesothelioma” gig—the black spot. My brother was diagnosed officially in the first week of August, a week after the scheme came into play; I do not wish to invalidate his family’s claim. Most sufferers in the very early stages of mesothelioma who Google their symptoms and think about what job they had know what is going to happen to them about two years in advance. If doctors help in modest ways in that respect, administratively, good on them.
I have two final points. The first is about a moment of black humour. Again, this is on a point that the hon. Member for Totnes talked about. People with public budgets will look at the relatively modest risk, as they see it, of people contracting asbestosis as a result of there being small amounts of asbestos still in buildings. From a budgetary point of view, I understand how it happens that people with modest public budgets that are very squeezed will sometimes allow a very small amount of asbestos that is within the limits to remain in place. In the hospital where my brother was treated—very well, I should say—there was a sign that said “Danger—asbestosis”, and that was where the smokers gathered to have a fag. It made me reflect on the nature of risk; it was a darkly humorous moment.
Several Members have alluded to the fact that the industry may well administer the scheme. I do not have any personal enormous objection to that, but as hon. Members have said, if the industry is to administer the scheme, oversight will be a critical element, certainly from the point of view of public confidence. I am sure that the Government and the industry will pay careful attention to that.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Eric Joyce, who spoke movingly about his brother and talked with knowledge about his constituency. I rise to speak about my constituency, too. Like hon. Members on both sides of the House who have spoken, I think that the Bill is welcome but does not go far enough to help victims and their families in my constituency.
Far too many of my constituents are severely affected by asbestos-related disease. Thousands of them have died painful deaths as a result of dangers that they were exposed to at work. Families have seen their loved ones die in agony, often while worrying about the financial impact of their death on those whom they left behind, and without seeing proper justice done, or compensation for their illness. Tragically, we know that more deaths as a result of exposure to asbestos in the workplace will come to Hartlepool.
We in Hartlepool suffer more than our fair share of mesothelioma and asbestos-related deaths because of our industrial legacy. My town was a major centre for heavy manufacturing, which was based around the docks, shipyards and steelworks. Firms such as Richardsons, Westgarth and Co.—Richies—and William Gray and Co. are long gone, but are engrained in the social history of my town, having provided employment for many generations of Hartlepudlians. However, asbestos was regularly used in those environments for lagging and other purposes, and employees were far too often not provided with proper protective clothing or equipment.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, in the last 30 years, the number of deaths per million people arising from mesothelioma in England has risen from 26.6 to 67.1. I am pleased to see many hon. Friends from the north-east here; our region is the worst-affected in the country, reflecting the legacy of our heavy manufacturing industry. In the same 30-year period, the figures for the north-east rose from 56.1 to 105. Hartlepool is the 16th worst-affected constituency in the entire country.
However, those are just statistics; we should think about the families, and the tragedy that we have seen. When I do, it brings to mind one of the most tragic cases that I have heard of in my constituency. A woman who was brought up in a community of laggers lost her father, then her husband, then her son, and finally her own life, to mesothelioma—all because of exposure to asbestos in the workplace as a result of negligent employers. Far too many of my constituents are suffering from this disease, and to make matters even worse, they are not seeing justice done or getting compensation for their suffering.
As I say, the Bill is welcome, but it is far from perfect. Amendments were tabled in the other place, but the Government did not listen to the arguments for them. The Minister in charge of the Bill—the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Mike Penning—is on the Treasury Bench; he is a decent, honourable man who cares about working people, so I hope that during the Bill’s passage in the House, he will reconsider many of the amendments that were tabled in the other place. Otherwise, the Bill will not help my constituents. There has been very clear consensus in this debate that we need to make changes to the Bill to ensure that all our constituents are provided with proper compensation.
Clause 2, which sets out the criteria for compensation, is the key part of the Bill. The criteria include the person being first diagnosed with diffuse mesothelioma on or after
I thank my hon. Friend for making a valuable contribution, as usual. The Minister said in his opening remarks that the people to blame were the employers, 100%. Regardless of when somebody was diagnosed, if they were in employment, surely there is a moral duty on the employer. The employer is to blame; their insurer should carry the cost. The employee should be awarded compensation, regardless of when they were diagnosed.
My hon. Friend makes an important and eloquent point. He has been a passionate champion on this issue for many years, and I pay tribute to him. I will come to the Bill’s impact on the insurance industry in a moment—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I have heard the argument about accepting the February 2010 date, but that, too, is an arbitrary date, and that is why I do not agree with it. A more sensible way forward would be to go back to 1969 and the date of knowledge. The Minister says that families will be included in the scheme, and that there will be a huge bow wave of claims; my experience in this area makes me think that there will not be, but at least that would be a more logical way of deciding on the date.
Any cut-off date will be arbitrary. We just want compensation for victims in our constituencies. That issue will have to be explored, and I hope it is explored at length in Committee.
Secondly, I am concerned about the fact that only diffuse mesothelioma is included in the scheme. Workers have contracted a variety of diseases as a result of exposure at work, including pleural plaques and asbestosis. It is not good enough that only one, narrowly defined condition can be included. Again, I hope that the Minister will amend that in Committee.
My third point was touched on by the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Kate Green, and by Tracey Crouch. I have great concerns about the fact that clause 2 confines the scheme to those employees who were employed at the time of exposure. In Hartlepool I have had at least two cases—I referred to one earlier—in which the wife of a worker developed pleural plaques, then asbestosis and then mesothelioma as a result of washing her husband’s work clothes, which released the fibres and allowed them to enter her lungs. Those women—there are probably many more—suffered and died as a direct result of asbestos exposure caused by an employer. Surely it is only fair and just that they should be included in the scheme. I hope that the Government will accept that secondary exposure is an important part of what the Bill should provide for.
The third way in which the Bill must be improved relates to the amount of compensation provided. We have heard time and again from hon. Members on both sides of the House that the payments will be only 75% of the value of civil claims. That really is a mean-spirited and petty act from the Government against people facing a terrible, terminal disease. There can be no possible justification for the scheme paying less than 100% compensation. Why should victims in Hartlepool miss out on what could be several thousand pounds in compensation, which could provide a little dignity and comfort in their final days or—let us be frank—provide their families with the money to bury them, just because a deal has been struck with the insurance industry, an industry that might have lost or destroyed the policies for which they took the cash from those employees in the first place? Let us be under no illusions: the insurance industry has got a hell of a good deal out of this Government and out of this Bill.
I am president of the Merseyside Asbestos Victims Support Group. I know from the people I have spoken with—I am sure that the same is true in my hon. Friend’s constituency—that most victims want the recognition that someone is being held accountable for their suffering or that of their loved ones. The financial compensation will help them in their last days or alleviate the financial hardship that losing them, perhaps the breadwinner, might bring to their family.
My hon. Friend makes such an important point. My constituents are victims. They have done nothing wrong. They just tried to do a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. They did not want the trauma and tragedy that exposure to asbestos caused. It is the negligent employers who should be held accountable for that negligence.
The insurance industry should have a key role to play but—let us be honest—has been let off. It has negotiated a scheme that excludes approximately half of all asbestos victims, it can ignore liability for all claims prior to
On top of all that, the insurance industry is planning to reduce average compensation by 25%, compared with civil cases, and the Government are giving insurers £17 million to set up the scheme. Given that employers’ insurance was compulsory from 1972, the insurance industry has already received the premiums from firms and banked the cash for over 40 years. It has had the money, so now it is time for the victims to receive their fair share.
The insurance industry must have seen the Government coming. The Government have been rolled over by the industry. As a result, my constituents will miss out on justice and compensation at precisely the time in their lives when they need it most. For far too long we have let those people down. My constituents have been let down by a failure to act quickly. The Bill is a step forward, but it does not go far enough for victims of this horrific disease in Hartlepool and elsewhere.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr Wright, who spoke so passionately about the situation in the north-east. Mesothelioma is a tragedy. It is a global tragedy, but in the UK alone it cuts short the lives of some 2,500 people annually. The disease has a devastating impact on all it touches, both the victims and their loved ones. It is a fatal disease, with life expectancy of between nine and 15 months following diagnosis. It is a horrendous disease, described earlier as being like a tree growing inside the sufferer, with branches reaching out. We cannot begin to understand what that must mean for them. The people of the north-east suffer greatly from the disease, as a result of the region’s history of heavy industry, including shipbuilding, coal mining and steel manufacturing.
This horrendous disease, as a number of Members have explained today, is a form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. It is a long-tail disease, meaning that people exposed to asbestos decades ago are only now discovering the consequence of their employers’ negligence. One of the huge problems with mesothelioma is the latency period. Someone can work in industry, perhaps for many different employers, and be in contact with asbestos either unknowingly, as was generally the case, or knowingly, as was the case in the tales recited by hon. Members on both sides of the House about young workers throwing snow balls of asbestos. Whether someone was throwing snow balls of asbestos as a young man or woman or whether they were unaware that they were coming into contact with it, the result is the same: mesothelioma 30, 40 or 50 years later.
There are individuals who feel absolutely fine and have worked all their lives—this disease mainly hits hard-working people—but then 30 years later they begin to get that feeling, like a tree growing inside them, and start to wonder where it is coming from and what has caused it. They think about their occupation and what could have created the problem, because many people were in and out of different occupations. When someone realises they have a condition, they don’t think, “This must just be mesothelioma,” but when the doctor explains that they are suffering from that disease, that really is the end of their days.
Mesothelioma is not like many other types of cancer that the NHS has proved tremendously successful in treating. The NHS can identify many different cancers at early stages and survival rates are much higher, but that does not happen with mesothelioma. When the doctor tells someone that they have the disease, they are basically saying in round about terms that their life expectancy has been cut drastically. Several Members mentioned different life expectancy rates, from between nine and 15 months to two years. Let us just say that the maximum is two years, and that is for working hard in industry and being subjected to asbestos unknowingly or knowingly.
The payments scheme will be funded by the industry through a levy on currently active insurers in the UK employers’ liability market. The scheme is intended as a fund of last resort. Claimants who are unable to trace their employer or their employer’s insurer can apply to the fund. Successful applicants will receive 75% of the average compensation. That is important to note, and I will touch on that in a few moments.
My hon. Friend touches on the very important issue of the 75% payment. Does he understand the thinking behind saying that someone is going to receive only 75% of the damages they are entitled to, with a 75% loss of their earnings but 100% being recouped by the Department for Work and Pensions? Where is the equity in that proposal?
There is no equity; 75% of average compensation is totally unacceptable for the individuals concerned. Huge amounts of finance will be involved, by the way—we are not talking about pennies.
The Labour party has a history of fighting for those with mesothelioma. I could spend all day and night putting on record my thanks to Members of Parliament, members of the public and organisations such as the GMB and Unite unions that have worked tirelessly to get compensation for those with asbestos-related prescribed diseases. The Labour party’s history in this area is fantastic. In February 2010, we launched the original consultation; in 2008, we introduced the mesothelioma payment scheme; and in 1979 we introduced the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979, which has been tremendously successful for many people suffering from, in the main, coal dust-related incidents in the north-east and across the coalfields of the UK.
My hon. Friend mentions the part that the Labour movement has played, but there is also the part played by the insurance industry, which has abrogated responsibility from day one and kicked back at every single push that the unions and the Labour movement have made. Does he see any parallels between large industries such as the insurance industry and construction industry that have failed to take responsibility for things they have done such as blacklisting and, much worse, possibly killing people through their irresponsible behaviour?
I have been involved for many years in trying to claim compensation for people in work, whether from insurance companies or employers, and it has always been a difficult challenge because they try to abrogate their responsibility at every opportunity. They try to run away from it and to put as many obstacles in the way of any form of compensation as they possibly can. Unfortunately, that is how they operate.
Thank goodness we have trade unions that stand up for individuals who are hurt and who suffer from prescribed diseases such as mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, industry-related diseases and injuries at work. Thank goodness that ordinary people have behind them the security of trade unions, which have the finance at least to try to get the compensation that lots of families should have had.
I welcome the scheme as a massive move forward, but I hope that we can come together in Committee and iron out a few major problems. I will mention four items of concern, but that is not to say that there are not others: first, the level of the percentage payment; secondly, the exclusion of other asbestos-related diseases; thirdly, the cut-off date of
On the level of payment, why should anybody who will have two years to live, max, be happy with 75% of any compensation? These people are dying.
Yes, they are being killed.
Why should 75% be acceptable? Someone has said that 80% would be a better figure; of course it would, but it is absolutely vital to have 100% compensation for somebody who has very little lifetime left. Claimants to the scheme have to meet the same standards of evidence and burden of proof that apply in a court action, but those with a successful civil claim will get paid 100%. Why should there be a difference?
Employers’ liability insurance is one of two compulsory insurances in the UK; the other is motor insurance. Insurers collected premiums in full and invested them for decades. The insurance companies used these finances for generations. They put the money in the bank and paid themselves dividends. People made themselves rich while at the same time stashing away the policies—hiding them, burning them, and getting rid of them. The only people who will suffer as a result are those who are set to die 30 or 40 years later due to the latency period and the activities of the insurance companies, which had the money but decided not to keep it for future generations in case something like this occurred. They paid out nothing on the untraced policies that they lost or destroyed. This could have saved the insurance companies billions of pounds, yet we are debating whether to pay these people and their families three quarters of what they are due.
Somebody said that the Minister is an honourable man who looked after honest, hard-working people, and I really do not doubt that. I appeal to him by saying that we cannot give people three quarters of what they are due and think we are being fair—that does not square the circle.
I think my hon. Friend shares my puzzlement that we are talking about 75% being awarded to people under this scheme, welcome though it is, because it is better that we compensate people in full. Yet when this Government go to the European Union they go into bat for an 100% uplift in bankers’ bonuses. For goodness’ sake, does that not tell us everything we need to know about the values that are at play?
I thank my hon. Friend. I will cover that during the next 30 minutes of my speech.
The regulatory impact assessment estimates that approximately 6,000 mesothelioma sufferers lost about £800 million in compensation due to untraced insurance. If we add the cost to victims of other asbestos-related diseases, the deal cooked up between the Government and their friends in the insurance industry represents a saving to insurers of some £1 billion. On average, the 75% figure means that individuals will lose up to £43,000 in each claim and that victims are absorbing 25% of the ongoing costs due to insurers losing or destroying their policy records.
Secondly, there is the exclusion of other diseases. Why is this about mesothelioma only? The employers’ liability insurance for which the employers paid premiums covered them for claims arising from all “bodily injury or disease”, not just asbestos-related disease, and certainly not just mesothelioma. By limiting the scheme to mesothelioma, the Bill excludes 50% of all victims. Those suffering from asbestos-related lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural thickening have been cast aside. Among other industrial prescribed diseases that might be considered—I pick this one out of the air—is baker’s asthma, a disease that is crippling for people who work in the baking industry, whereby they suffer the same conditions although it does not have such drastic problems with regard to latency and shortened life expectancy. There are all sorts of different diseases, including baker’s asthma and other asbestos-related diseases, that should be covered by the Bill. It is a decent Bill, but we do not want a decent Bill: we want a good Bill.
If the Bill included 50% of asbestos victims, that would represent just 20% of the total cost. It is not acceptable that the scheme is limited to just mesothelioma. The Government’s justification for excluding other diseases is to say that proving causation is simpler for mesothelioma, because asbestos is its only known cause. However, there is already a successful precedent, namely the Turner and Newall Asbestos Trust, which administers payments of claims for not just mesothelioma, but other asbestos-related diseases. The Bill should be extended to cover all long-tail latent industrial diseases prescribed under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979.
The third issue is the cut-off date, which has been mentioned by many Members. The cut-off date of
I wondered why 1969 was mentioned; I think that 1965 would be more appropriate.
The cut-off date will have a huge impact on lots of people. Geoffrey Leonard Bradshaw was from Pegswood in my constituency. He died of mesothelioma aged 66. He did everything necessary to try to find out which employer and insurance companies were to blame. He approached the Association of British Insurers and sent letters to employers. Mr Bradshaw did everything, but sadly he died before the cut-off date with minimal compensation from the pneumoconiosis compensation scheme. The civil-claim value of his case was in excess of £350,000, but he got less than £25,000. The cut-off date is really important and we need to look at it. It is not fair. I think that 1965 is probably the right date.
The fourth issue is the clawback of 100% DWP benefits when the Bill pays out only 75% in compensation. Why claw back a greater percentage than what is being paid? I want someone from the Government Front Bench to explain that. Why should we accept that under the premise of fairness? It is not and cannot be fair. Why should the state have a greater right of financial recovery than the victim? Why should the state get 100% back and the victim only 75%? I would be glad to listen to any explanation and perhaps even accept it if there is a valid argument behind it. To depart from a principle of like-for-like offset is both illogical and grossly unjust.
I want to place on record my thanks to the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Research Fund, which was set up by the wife of Mick Knighton, who died of mesothelioma at a very young age. It operates from Wallsend in north Tyneside and has raised more than £1 million for mesothelioma research. It does a fantastic job and continues to help everyone who suffers from this horrible, horrendous disease.
Ideally, the Bill will be enacted before the end of the year. It is broadly welcomed, but it needs to be strengthened for the sake of people who have suffered for so long and those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, such as Mr Bradshaw in my constituency and the thousands of hard-working people who, through no fault of their own, contracted this deadly disease. Let us hope that, in the name of fairness, decency and justice, this House can bridge the gaps.
It is not very often that I disagree with my hon. Friend Ian Lavery, but I want to start by agreeing with the Minister, who was right to say that we should not have had to be here tonight. This issue should have been resolved no later than when the previous Government were in office and probably much earlier than that. As my hon. Friend the Member for North
Durham (Mr Jones) has said, this has been known about since at least 1965. We should have done something about it. Lots of us had meeting after meeting with the previous Prime Minister and others in the previous Government as we tried to find a way forward. I believe that he was genuine in his approach but that he was badly advised by civil servants and special advisers who were frightened that the cost would escalate. As a result, we did not take the action we should have taken.
I did not put the blame on any particular previous Government. I referred to Administrations and I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates that.
I did not say that the Minister said that. The issue should have been resolved, because the facts have not changed between then and now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck mentioned the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Research Fund. I have been a patron of that fund for more than a decade. When I was president of Unison I was approached by a former colleague I used to work with in the mines who asked, “Can you help these people out, Dave?”
It is worth listening to the story of Chris Knighton, whose husband was a classic sufferer of mesothelioma. He would think nothing of getting on a pushbike and riding from Newcastle to Berwick and back again on a Sunday morning before going to the club to see his mates, who had just staggered out of bed. They would be standing at the bar, bleary-eyed, asking, “Where have you been, Mick?” He had done a 100 mile bike ride on a Sunday morning.
On one of those Sunday mornings, the lad fell on the floor. The following day he went to see his doctor, who told him he had mesothelioma. “What’s that, doctor?” asked Mick. He told him it was asbestos of the lungs. “What can you do?” asked Mick. “Nothing,” said the doctor.
Within a matter of months, the lad was dead. His widow set up the research fund with a good friend, Anne Craig, and they pledged to raise £100,000. Two years ago they raised £1 million, and all that money has been put into research into this disease. It is people like them and the men, women, children, daughters, wives and husbands who have suffered that this debate should really be about.
There is a history of people exploiting asbestos throughout the world. I was proud when a member of my trade union went to South Africa and worked alongside Thompsons Solicitors to litigate against companies there. One of the stories they heard in Namibia was that one of the ways in which companies ensured maximum output was by filling big plastic bags with raw asbestos. How did they make sure they were full? They put young Namibian kids in them to tamp down the asbestos as if they were pressing grapes. Those kids were exposed to raw asbestos at the ages of six, seven, eight and nine. Those are the sorts of people behind the desperate negligence under discussion.
Other diseases have been mentioned. When compensation for plural plaques was challenged in the courts in 2007, the case was won and people stopped getting compensation. As I said in an intervention on Tracey Crouch, KPMG announced a £1.4 billion windfall on that same day.
That is what the insurers got as a result of the Law Lords’ ruling. Members on both sides of the House tried to get our Government to change the law so that those people could get compensation again.
Other parts of this nation have managed to change the law. Earlier, Mr Dodds intervened on the Minister in relation to Northern Ireland, and the Scottish Parliament has been able to do it, but we were told that it could not be done in this part of the world. We should have done it.
Equally, people may not have mesothelioma or anything life threatening, but the truth is the same: they were negligently exposed at work to substances that the employer knew would be damaging. Employers have known that since 1892, when asbestos was first recognised as a poisonous substance. As we have heard, they have known since 1965 that it should have been illegal to do so, but they kept on exposing people to the substance for days, weeks, months and years.
We are now told that people can have 75% of their compensation. One thing always sticks in my mind in talking about this. I first had real evidence of mesothelioma when I spoke to a lawyer dealing with it, a guy called Ian McFall, who works in the Thompsons north-east office and is a renowned expert on the issue. He told me that the fibres lie dormant for decades, but all of a sudden they become active, the person suffers horribly and then dies.
I used those words when there was a discussion about this issue some years ago. I was approached via e-mail by a woman who was not one of my constituents, who said that I had really upset her. Her family was sitting there, with their father going through the process, and she had tried to be careful to shield her family from knowing the truth.
I am sorry that I have to repeat those words today, but the people of this country need to understand how serious this disease is. It is to the credit of the Government and others that they have accepted that this is a very special case, because it is a killer. There are no two ways about it: if you get this, you are going to die. That is the main reason why the situation has been challenged to the extent it has over many years.
The insurance companies have put forward the compensation as somehow an act of benevolence: “We are being really nice to you, aren’t we?” No, they are not; they have been caught on the hop and forced into a corner to put right what they should have done. The deal struck between the Government and the insurance companies is just that—a deal. It has not involved the people it should have involved to the extent that they should have been involved, whether they are claimants, their support groups or, crucially, the trade unions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck spoke about the work of the trade unions, but that had an impact not only on trade union members but on every member of the public in this country. Many people are not in trade unions or in unionised workplaces, but they have the same rights to compensation and legal redress as those for whom the trade unions work.
I read Lords Hansard last night. Does my hon. Friend agree that throughout all the negotiations the Government have had on the Bill, those in the driving seat have been the insurance companies? The fact is that we are having to accommodate the situation to suit the insurance companies, rather than the victims.
That is absolutely right. The Government are saying that they can go only so far, because the companies cannot afford more, but they are forgetting the fact that companies have received millions and millions of pounds, which they could and should have put away since 1965, in the knowledge that this might come along one day. Is not the whole point of insurance that people should save for a rainy day? Well, the umbrellas are up now.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we are talking about sophisticated people, who have battalions of actuaries to look at the figures, and that they would have taken into consideration the possibility of having the cut-off date as
Those people must obviously have realised that there was a potential for that. If the consultation had lasted for a short period, it would have been that date, but without a shadow of a doubt, they clearly could have thought that it might be the start date.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham spoke about some of the consultations. I went to some of the meetings, which Ministers opened and then virtually handed them over to members of the insurance companies to run and to answer questions. Civil servants and Ministers were not engaged; it was people from the Association of British Insurers who answered all the questions, and it was clearly in their interests to do what they have now got away with. It is clear that the scheme will not provide full protection or full compensation.
I share the concerns of other hon. Members about the level of payment. For the life of me, whatever the cut-off date, I cannot see why the payment should be anything less than 100%. I made the point earlier that there is 100% liability on the employer and the insurer, while 100% of those with this disease have died. If people go through all the hoops they have to go through, which are the same as those in civil litigation, it is not their fault that insurers, employers or both have disappeared; the fault lies with the industry, which collectively should be putting this right. The insurers have had the premiums and have invested them, so they should pay up.
We are talking about at least 6,000 people who, between them, have lost somewhere in the region of £800 million. Compensation of 75% means that people have to absorb 25% of the ongoing costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck said that that is at least £43,000. To somebody who is probably on the sick, and whose family is probably not working because they are taking care of them, £43,000 is a life-changing sum of money. It might not be very much to insurance companies or to some of those funded by insurance companies, but it is clearly a lot of money for people at a time of grief.
I want to pick up what has been said about the exclusion of other diseases. If people have been criminally exposed to a poisonous substance, those who did that should be brought to book, and the way to do that is to make them pay compensation. I hope that we would support that and that as the Bill goes forward we can make that case more and more strongly.
Again, why is the cut-off date not February 2010, which is when the consultation was announced? The written ministerial statement came out two and a half years after that consultation was announced. That was two and a half years of what—things gathering dust and people having discussions? What were civil servants doing? All of a sudden, there was a statement two and a half years later, followed by a discussion period to bring us to where we are now. That clearly is not fair. The minimum has to be February 2010, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham that if we really are serious, we should go back to 1965. My guess is that we probably will not, but we must address that issue in Committee as a matter of real urgency.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is at least some logic in that? The arbitrary date of 2010 is when the consultation started. The fact is that when that started in 2010, the companies knew about the liability. My hon. Friend has pointed out that they took the premiums and saved money by not paying out.
Absolutely. The truth is that the companies knew. What was happening was not a secret. It was not the case that all of a sudden the consultation found that mesothelioma was not caused by exposure at work or employers neglecting their duty in not providing proper safety equipment and so putting people at risk. They knew the likely outcome was that there would be implications for the industry. Clearly, they should have said, “Right, we need to start on this at least as a bottom line.”
The insurers have apparently said that they think the legislation will be retrospective and amount to unlawful interference with insurance property rights. What a load of gobbledegook. They mean, “We want to keep more money in our pockets. We want to deny people their rights.” They are denying people, either those seeing out their last few days or their families, the right to have a decent life.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the sums are in stark contrast to some of the eye-watering figures paid out, for example, for the mis-selling of payment protection insurance? These groups of people clearly need the money, and in some cases the victims have suffered a very horrible and painful death.
There is absolutely no comparison between the two, and seeing what has happened for people abused by being wrongly sold PPI when they did not need it does not make this situation any better. This is about people deliberately being exposed to this substance at work. To reiterate, I see no logic in the state saying, “We want back 100% of DWP benefits”. Reading between the lines, my guess is that there is probably nothing else the state can do, but if so, it has to get its act together and change that part of the Bill.
Some say that we should feel sorry for the insurers and their balance sheets, because if we go beyond the 3% level they will struggle and so put the costs on to people buying insurance today. My hon. Friend the
Member for North Durham has already mentioned Lloyd’s making £2.77 billion; it clearly is not suffering too much. I would be much happier if the insurers were so strapped for cash that they were not donating huge sums to the Conservative party. Every Wednesday, our Prime Minister comes here, talks to my leader and accuses us of being in the pay of our paymasters, the trade unions. Let us look at the Tory party’s paymasters in the insurance industry.
It might be coincidental that the Tory party is bankrolled massively by the insurance industry, but it might not. Let us look at some of the figures. [Interruption.] If I can find my glasses, I might be able to tell hon. Members—aged 60 today, I’m not doing bad! Sir John Beckwith and the Beckwith family have donated £524,000 to the Conservative party at central and local level; Caledonia Investments and the Cayzer family have donated £275,300; Centrepoint Insurance has donated £10,000; Dickinson insurance brokers has donated £2,000; General Insurance Brokers has donated £5,000; Hampden insurance has donated £16,800; Michael Spencer and IPGL—this is eye-watering—have donated £3, 929,892.52; the Keswick family in Scotland have donated, between them, somewhere in the region of £523,000; Norwich Union has donated £8,500; R L Davison and Co., from Lloyd’s, donated £5,000; and Theodore Agnew, who founded Town and Country Assistance, has donated £134,000.
If someone today, instead of those names, was saying, “Unison, T&G, Amicus, Unite, the GMB”, we would be being told, “You’re being bought off by the trade unions”, but I could never be that callous towards the Minister or his friends. It does make us think though. This deal has been hatched between the Government and the insurance companies. The restrictions in the Bill are illogical. The clawback from the DWP, the start date for claims—they really say, “There’s something going on here.” Is the Conservative party worried about going too far and upsetting the insurance companies? I hope we can flush this out in Committee and say, “Listen, this has to be paid, because it’s a moral duty.”
We are in a cleft stick tonight. I will probably vote yes tonight, but I feel abused. I feel abused on behalf of the people I work with day in, day out and the families who are helping them to get through this thing. I feel as though I am being blackmailed, because if we do not support the Bill tonight, we will be accused of stopping the Bill and not supporting what we all need to do for these people. I support the Bill with huge reluctance, therefore, and hope that when it returns here, it is in much better shape than it is tonight.
I rise to speak to this extremely important Bill. I take a strong constituency and personal interest in the subject, having seen people and their families suffer from this terrible disease. Under the previous Government, I sat on the Committee for the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, part 4 of which set up the mesothelioma payments scheme in 2008.
The Bill is the result of the consultation exercise that Labour set up in February 2010. I share with my hon. Friends the considerable concern that it has taken nearly two and a half years for the Bill to come to fruition, particularly given that the results of the consultation were already on Ministers’ desks when the Government changed. It has taken a considerable time, and there is serious concern about the victims and families who will miss out as a result of the delay.
I want to talk, first, about an area that has not been mentioned particularly today, before adding my voice to some of the strong criticisms from the Opposition. I am concerned about the implications for reputable small businesses that are unable to trace insurance. It is very difficult for a victim trying to suss out exactly who their employer was when they contracted the disease, particularly if they worked for several different employers, and for them then to suss out who the insurer was for that particular employer. Victims are now finding that many of the companies they have worked for have disappeared or re-emerged under different names, and sometimes the only company a claimant can find will be one of a few family firms that have a good reputation in an area and which want to maintain good health and safety standards.
One case in my constituency concerns a highly reputable firm that probably never had any asbestos anywhere near the victim. Nevertheless, it has to prove that and defend itself, because none of the myriad other companies that the poor sufferer of mesothelioma worked for still exist. Even prior to 1969 when the Labour Government made employers’ liability insurance compulsory, we are pretty certain that most companies had such insurance because there was no massive increase in the number of companies taking it out. Nevertheless, records seem difficult to trace. The case goes back a considerable number of years, and finding proof of that insurance is extremely difficult.
The Bill establishes a technical committee, and its remit will be to make decisions on questions that arise
“between a potential insurance claimant and an insurer about whether an employer maintained employers’ liability insurance with the insurer at a particular time.”
A potential insurance claimant is defined in the Bill as a victim, a relative of a victim of mesothelioma who has passed away, or
“an employer alleged…to be liable for damages in respect of the disease or death.”
The technical committee has an extremely important role, and responsible employers are anxious that employers should be represented on it. If a potential insurance claimant can be defined in that way, it seems only fair that the technical committee set up to adjudicate on such matters should include employer representation. Will the Secretary of State or Minister confirm, either today or certainly before the Bill Committee, that employers will be represented on the technical committee?
Briefly, I will also mention the Employers’ Liability Tracing Office, and ask that the Government continue to identify areas for improvement. We know that as a result of the consultation last year, the Government have already announced their intention to require employers’ liability insurers to be members of the ELTO, and it is important that potential claimants can access from the ELTO the information they need as simply as possible. Promises have been made in the other place about improving the money available for research, and taking the issue extremely seriously. I know that a lot of good work has been done, not least by the former hon. Member for Barnsley West and Penistone, Michael Clapham.
Some areas of the Bill are not at the point they should be, including the percentage of payment—a point raised by a number of my hon. Friends. Insurance companies have said that they would consider figures that go up to 3% of gross written premium. Why on earth are the Government settling for 75% of average civil compensation claims when their team has produced figures to indicate that 90% would still mean that insurance companies are looking at a percentage of GWP of something like 2.9%—well within the 3% limit? Indeed, 95% of average civil compensation claims would be only 3.05% of GWP, and 100% would be 3.19%. The Government could clearly afford 90% of average civil compensation claims as a very minimum, rather than a measly 75% that leaves people up to £18,000 worse off than if the average were 90%. There is no excuse for plucking a figure out of the air rather than matching what insurance companies have said they could afford.
On the date from which the scheme should commence, it was clear back in February 2010 that we were looking at an insurance company-funded scheme. In other words, the insurance companies were fully aware of what was being discussed in the consultation. They knew it would be an industry-funded scheme, so there is no excuse for the funding not to start from then, if not considerably earlier, as a number of my hon. Friends have pointed out.
Other diseases related to asbestos—asbestosis, pleural plaques and cancers related to asbestos—account for 50% of cases, but would account for only 20% of the cost. Many sufferers could benefit, but they are not included in the provisions in the Bill. People ask how it is possible to identify those diseases and whether it is possible to trace them back, yet the T&N Asbestos Trust manages to do so and administers claims for other asbestos diseases, as well as mesothelioma.
Many of my hon. Friends noted the disparity between the Department for Work and Pensions’ 100% clawback of benefits and the Bill allowing for a claim of only 75% of the average civil compensation. That is a huge disparity, with the state clawing back unfairly considerably more than a victim can claim in compensation.
I welcome the Bill and want to see it on the statute book as quickly as possible to help the victims and their families, but I have serious reservations. This is a missed opportunity: the Bill could be considerably more generous to claimants and ask a great deal more from insurance companies.
Many Members welcome the Bill. I welcome that a move has finally been made on compensation for mesothelioma victims, but I do not welcome the Bill in its present form. Irwin Mitchell, a firm of solicitors in Newcastle that deals with compensation cases, described this as “a second-rate Bill.” I totally agree. A lot has been said tonight on the history of mesothelioma claims. My hon. Friend Kate Green, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, was clear that all the major changes on asbestos-related legislation have been made under Labour Administrations.
Tracey Crouch is not in her place. She spoke well in summing up some of the issues. She admitted that she was a poacher turned gamekeeper, but her points were well made. She talked about serving on the Public Bill Committee—I am not sure whether the Whips will allow her to be a member of the Committee after that speech. She mentioned the figure of 80% and I will come back to that later on in my contribution. I take the view that in negotiations one should never declare one’s final figure at the beginning. If she is aiming for 80%, she should have started negotiating for a much higher figure. The current figure is totally unacceptable. I pay tribute to Lord McKenzie of Luton for his work when he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions under the previous Government, and for his work in the other place in trying to amend the Bill.
The tragedy—it is a tragedy—is that asbestos-related deaths have been known for many years, but they have been ignored. It is a cruel and painful death. I saw many cases when I was legal officer for the GMB northern region and no amount of money can compensate for suffering a long lingering death, literally gasping for air at the end, or for the pain that families go through while watching their loved ones die. My hon. Friend Mr Wright mentioned a number of cases relating to traditional industries in his constituency. One tragic case I had to deal with concerned a 44-year-old lagger—I think the proper title is thermal insulation engineer—who used to lag pipes in the shipbuilding and offshore industries. This chap, who was 43, had a wife and three young children, so it was terrible to be told that he was suffering from mesothelioma. The most tragic aspect of this case was mentioned by my hon. Friend Andy McDonald —that it was a death sentence. This man had to face the fact that he would not live to see his children grow up or to continue the close relationship he had with his family and extended family within Hartlepool. This man was 43, but I have also dealt with cases of people who were a lot older.
Much reference has been made to the fact that the disease might take 30 or 40 years to develop, but in my experience it is quite arbitrary whether the disease develops following exposure to asbestos. I remember speaking to some old boilermakers—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough will have done so, too, in his previous life before coming here—who described dealing with asbestos as “lagging it on” and “blowing it on”. They would walk into double bottoms in ships and be surrounded by airborne asbestos, yet some of them have not developed a long-term, asbestos-related condition. I have also seen some very old gentlemen with asbestos still scarring their hands. The arbitrary nature of the disease makes it very difficult to predict who will ultimately develop mesothelioma or other asbestos-related cancers and conditions.
When I was elected in 2001, I shared an office for my first six months with my hon. Friend Mr Hamilton and John MacDougall, the former Member for Glenrothes. Some colleagues may remember John—a larger than life character, a dedicated constituency MP and a former council leader. It was tragic that his career in this House was cut short by mesothelioma in 2008. John’s attitude was very positive. He knew, deep down, that he was dying, but he came back to this Chamber, even after quite aggressive surgery on one of his lungs, and maintained the cheerful and positive manner for which we all knew him. Unfortunately, he did succumb to that disease, showing that it can affect people like him who worked in the shipbuilding industry many years ago.
Much of our attention has quite rightly been focused on heavy industry, but this disease does not just affect people working in heavy industries. There are well-documented cases of people who have had very limited exposure to asbestos in hospitals or other public buildings, yet have gone on to develop mesothelioma. Again, that shows the arbitrary nature of this disease.
Personally, I think there are a lot of scare stories about asbestos. Some of the press could be labelled “asbestos deniers”, but asbestos is a safe product as long as it is not disturbed. As was said earlier, we need to educate people about how to use asbestos and how to react to it. As a minimum, asbestos should be marked on any public building. If it is not disturbed, it is not dangerous, but we must ensure that when it is removed, it is done professionally by people who know what they are doing. That should help to prevent any further damaging exposure, which is important for the future.
As I said earlier, the tragedy of this and other asbestos-related conditions is that the danger has been known for many years. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans worked out that if people worked for a while with asbestos, they developed a disease and died. Moving on to the 1930s, there was the Meriwether report, in which the term mesothelioma was first used. We have thus known from the 1930s that the condition was related to asbestos.
I know that the date of knowledge is 1965 for the purposes of the courts, but earlier cases have been documented. The Government wrote to the Confederation of Shipbuilders after the second world war, congratulating it on the work that it had done during the conflict but warning about the dangers of exposure to asbestos. However, nothing was done to protect people from those dangers. Our failure to take the warning more seriously and react to it at the time is a national scandal, and a dark stain on the nation’s history. As my hon. Friend Mr Hepburn said earlier, if this had been happening in a leafy suburb, Governments would have paid attention to it more quickly, but those affected were mainly poor working-class communities in areas such as the north-east.
I pay tribute to the campaigning work of the asbestos awareness groups, which have been tenacious in ensuring that the issue has remained in the public eye. They should be given credit for the fact that the Bill has at least reached its starting point. I am not afraid to say that I think we should also congratulate the trade unions on the work that they have done for many years in raising awareness. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State accused me of chuntering earlier, but he is chuntering now. That is obviously because the modern Conservative party considers trade unions to be universally bad. However, the test cases and the education about asbestos that followed them would not have been possible without the trade unions who championed those cases, and they ought to be thanked for that.
I also pay tribute to Ian McFall of Thompsons in Newcastle, who was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend Mr Anderson. I worked with him closely when I was the GMB’s legal officer, and he was very tenacious in his efforts to ensure that cases were heard and compensation was secured for people. A difficulty that used to confront me every week was caused by the fact that, in the case of many older men, it was not known that they had contracted mesothelioma until they died. It is awful to have to say to a family “There must be an autopsy to establish what this person has died of.” I remember one alarming occasion when someone rang two days before a funeral was due to take place, and Ian and I had to stop the funeral to ensure that there was an autopsy so that the evidence could be used. Ian has great expertise when it comes to compiling the history of where people worked and trying to trace the insurance companies. It is time-consuming, laborious work, but it can be done.
It is important for anyone who has worked with asbestos to make a record of where they worked with it. I pay tribute to those in GMB Northern Region who, along with their solicitors, set up an asbestos register on which people were asked to log that information. They might not have developed the disease yet, but if they developed it later, at least it would be possible to establish where they had worked. It was not uncommon for people to move around different shipyards on both Teesside and Tyneside, and before nationalisation it was sometimes very difficult to establish who their actual employer was. Another industry that proved notoriously difficult in that regard from the late 1980s onwards was the building industry, in which people moved from site to site—usually on a very casual basis—and were exposed to asbestos throughout their working lives. Trying to put together some of those long employment histories was very difficult. That is why I recommend that anyone who has worked with asbestos make sure that loved ones or solicitors know where they worked, because this disease can develop later on and that is vital information in order to be able to trace the employers and the insurers and companies involved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool raised the issue of the north-east, as did my hon. Friend Ian Lavery. The north-east has nearly 10% of England’s mesothelioma cases. That will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about asbestos-related diseases, because of the north-east’s heavy engineering, coal mining, shipyards and other industries that dealt with asbestos. Between 1985 and 2005, some 2,387 people in the north-east died of mesothelioma, and that is not counting all the other asbestos-related illnesses people died from. In that period, 192 people died in Durham, 72 of them in my constituency.
I agree that it is very important to talk about the figures, but I have dealt with these individuals and have seen the awful way in which they die and the agony their families go through––and the poverty, because it is the breadwinner who goes from many of these families. I therefore know that we are not talking about people who have access to large amounts of discretionary income or expenditure. They need this compensation. It will not be a luxury for these individuals but something to support their loved ones in future.
The key thing people who are dying from mesothelioma say they want is help so they can leave money and know their families are taken care of. They want to be able to die with the knowledge that their families will be taken care of. That is not always possible. As has been said, thoroughness in these cases is very important. There are certain firms with a specialism in doing asbestos work, but I have come across some atrocious solicitors as well, who have taken on cases but, frankly, should not have been let loose on them at all.
In many cases, these individuals would not have got access to justice through the courts system if it had not been for the trade union movement. That is true not only in terms of their individual cases, but also in taking forward some of the very expensive early test cases that established the case law in this area.
That we have a Bill is welcome, but it is a very disappointing Bill. Much has been said about the insurance companies and, having dealt with them over a number of years, I can tell Members that trying to get money out of them can be very difficult, as sometimes they will try anything in order not to accept a claim, not only in these areas but in other personal injury cases as well.
The insurance companies have done very well out of this Government. They have convinced everybody that there is a claims culture in this country, which there clearly is not if we cut away from the headlines and look at all the actual evidence. They have got assistance through changes in the law that help them rather than the victims in a whole array of personal injury cases, and they are going to get off the hook again under this Bill as it stands, because, basically, what it does is cap their liability.
The estimate is £350 million. That is a large sum of money to individuals, but we also need to consider that the insurance companies have not only not paid out for these cases that they took premiums for over many years, but they have had the premiums and then failed to pay out about £800 million of claims on them. If we add it all up, £350 million is not a great deal of money.
It is also not a great deal of money if we look at the profits the insurance companies have made over the previous few years. Let me mention a few, just to give a flavour. Lloyd’s of London posted pre-tax profits of £1.5 billion between January and June 2012 and its profits for the whole of 2012 were £2.77 billion. Royal Sun Alliance had pre-tax profits of £233 million between January and June 2012. The £350 million being offered here is therefore in stark contrast to the profits that some of these companies are making.
In fact, according to the Bill, these companies will not pay the money themselves anyway, because it will be a levy that they will get from future premiums. In the other place, Lord Freud said:
“The levy will be imposed on active employers’ liability insurers at large, not on the individual insurers who took the premiums and who were on cover in the cases that will come to the scheme.” —[Hansard, House of Lords, 20 May 2013; Vol. 745, c. 691.]
So the insurance companies are not even dipping into their profits for the scheme as it stands. If that is not a good deal for them, I do not know what is. They have been in the driving seat, and the Government’s argument, certainly in the other place, has been that if we do what the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford wants to do—increase the compensation level to 80%—that would somehow be a show-stopping moment.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the insurers have already had a windfall in the form of cases that have been badly pursued—loss of services and earnings claims that have not been pursued properly—and cases that have never emerged? The insurers have already had a windfall, therefore, several times over.
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is true that there has been bad litigation, and certain solicitors have settled for woeful amounts. Also, there are a number of people who had claims but died and never pursued them.
I find it strange that we started with a figure of 70% and ended up at 75%. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, who was not present when I started speaking, said that she would like to see 80%, but I suggest that she should have started a bit higher and worked down from there. In negotiations, people should never start at the figure they actually want, so perhaps she should have started at 95%. If she is lucky enough to get on the Bill Committee, I suggest that she start at, say, 88% and work downwards to the 80% figure that she wants. There is no rationale for the 75% figure.
The hon. Lady made a very good point about future liability. Since 1972, such insurance has been compulsory, so most future cases will be covered by insurance policies. Potentially, the next biggest area is public buildings and schools, but most such cases will not come under this scheme because it will be possible to prove who the insurer is and who is liable for the risk. It is therefore not clear to me what the 75% figure is based on. The Minister said that he will produce the various figures. It would have been helpful to have had those during the debates in the other place and today, so that we could have examined the basis of the negotiations.
As I said earlier, it seems that the insurance companies have been in the driving seat in these negotiations, which is a very strange way of negotiating on behalf of the victims, which is what I expect the Government to be doing. They will have done the modelling and know exactly the various costs involved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough said, we are not talking about people who do not calculate risk. They calculate risk, and they also calculate the age profiles of the groups that will be affected. I therefore find it odd that we do not have the relevant figures before us today. Again, that should not be the starting point for the insurance companies. The starting point should be to ask what the maximum compensation could be for the victims of this missed justice, and I believe that 100% is the right figure. I know that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford thinks differently, but if we at least start at 100%, we might end up with a better figure than the one that is on the table.
It was also pointed out that the figure is not simply 75%, but 75% of the average. People should not expect payments that are on a par with those resulting from litigation settlements or other insurance policies. These arrangements will not be like that at all, and many of the people who should rightly get compensation because they have been affected by the disease through no fault of their own are going to be short-changed. Let us remember that the insurance companies took the premiums and benefited from them for many years. There is a debate to be had in Committee on that.
Will the Minister tell us how the negotiations have taken place? If the rules were set by the insurance companies, rather than by the Government setting down the starting point, they will have been poor negotiations because they will have started from the wrong premise. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon wants to question the Government’s motives in this regard, and he has every right to do so, but if we are on the victims’ side, we should be trying to get the maximum compensation for them irrespective of our political party allegiance.
It is also remarkable that the insurance companies seem to have been in the driving seat in setting the date of diagnosis from which the scheme will apply—namely,
It has been pointed out that the insurance companies have known since February 2010 that this change was coming. I doubt that they are so bad that they will not make provision for this in their calculations, but the Government need to explain why that date of July 2012 has been stuck to. Was it at the insistence of the insurance companies? I guess it was, because it will limit their liabilities. Frankly, if I were them, I would be laughing all the way to the bank if I could cut my liabilities in that way.
I accept that, whenever we set an arbitrary date, there will be people who fall either side of the line, but many of those campaigning on behalf of loved ones who died from mesothelioma before that date will not get a penny out of this scheme. What is the logic in what has been decided? People have argued that it would be logical to set a 2010 date because that was when the consultation started and that it would be fair to the insurance companies to give them some warning, but that is complete nonsense. The insurance companies have known about this for years; it has not come as a surprise to them. There would at least be some logic in going back to the date of knowledge of mesothelioma, in regard to the other legal cases, because that argument has been formed in law.
When I suggested this approach earlier, the Minister intervened to say that a huge group would be included, because it would include families. There are two issues involved here. First, a number of people will have died in the intervening period, so we are not going to get any new cases from that—this is about historical cases. I accept that legacy cases could come from families who want to pursue a claim, but there will be very few of those. I have done asbestos work for a number of years and I know the detail of it. In these cases, someone needs detailed knowledge of where individuals worked and were exposed to asbestos. In addition, a lot of these people who died of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma would have died without even knowing this. I find it difficult to believe that the insurance companies have not done some modelling to know what that figure could be. It would have been good for us today, and when the Bill was introduced, if someone had at least asked how many potential cases could be in that group, but that has not been asked. Again, we have just accepted that this would be onerous for the insurance companies—that may be true, but let us find out what the number is. That debate has not been had. That earlier date would be more defendable than even the 2010 decision, which would be arbitrary in that respect. I am not a lawyer, so I look to the lawyers in the room to answer whether or not people will legally challenge a date, if it is agreed, of 2012 or 2010 on the basis that the date of knowledge goes back to 1965. There is a potential there for more delay.
One thing that the Minister said in opening was that we needed to get on with this, and I do not disagree. However, as the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford said, it is important that we get it right because once this deal is signed with the insurance companies, there will be no going back. There will be no trying to open this up later for other cases or trying to change the scheme, because the insurance companies will be wedded to this in terms of what they want.
I have heard what the hon. Gentleman said, but am I right in saying that as a colleague in the other place laid this down as a regulation rather than a ministerial order, there is more flexibility for Parliament to improve, change or reorder the scheme as it goes forward? We could improve it specifically by laying it down that way.
The hon. Gentleman is being very optimistic. I do not know whether he has ever dealt with insurance companies, but if he thinks they are going to reopen this one, he is being naive, to put it politely. He is a Liberal Democrat, after all, so that is possibly acceptable. The answer to his question is no, he is not; once this has been done, that will be it. That is the important point.
The other issue I wish to discuss is other conditions. Mesothelioma is clearly a death sentence. [Interruption.] Sorry, I am never fair to Liberal Democrats. The hon. Gentleman may be trying to get some sympathy from me on behalf of Liberal Democrats, but he is certainly not going to get any after what they have done in supporting this Government. If he is looking for sympathy for Liberal Democrats, he can forget it.
“The issue of individuals who have developed other asbestos-related diseases through negligence or breach of statutory duty and are unable to bring a civil claim for damages of course needs to be addressed.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 20 May 2013; Vol. 745, c. 690.]
It would be interesting to know what other compensation schemes or other redress the Government are considering introducing. I would not hold my breath, given the record of other Conservative Governments. They have never done anything. This is the first time they have done something for asbestos victims. We do need to know though, because Lord Freud, who has a strange relationship with the Conservative party, is clearly sympathetic to looking at some of the other debilitating asbestos-related conditions.
If there is one thing that annoys me it is people who wander into a debate, having not listened to any of the discussion. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to read out all the legislation, I certainly will, but it has already been done. If he could trouble himself to sit through and listen to the debate, he might find it a good way of understanding what is going on. If he reads Hansard tomorrow, he will see that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck read out the long list of what the Labour Government have done for asbestos victims in the past. Not one single piece of that legislation was ever done on a Conservative Government’s watch, apart from this one. Please read with interest Hansard tomorrow—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State is chuntering in a jovial sort of way; he is a jovial sort of chap. He has a nervous smile on his face, which is quite excusable as he has a lot to be nervous about.
The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford raised the issue of research. The research into mesothelioma under the previous Government was good but it is time-limited. When we look at the amount of money that has gone into cancer research, it is shocking to realise what a small amount has gone into mesothelioma. That funding has been important for the pioneering research that has been done with the British Lung Foundation. I agree with her that we need to insert some reference to research in the Bill. Without that—I know that she is poacher turned gamekeeper and clearly knows the inside track and how the companies operate—there is no way that the insurance companies will voluntarily give up any money to research unless they have to. I hope that the Bill gets amended in Committee and that the Government support such research, because it has been important in understanding the condition and in looking for possible treatments in the future.
In conclusion—[Interruption.] I can go on if the Minister wishes me to. I am glad that we finally have a Bill before us, but it is not the Bill that mesothelioma victims require. It needs huge change, and I hope that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford is on the Committee and can argue from the Government Benches, in the articulate way that she did tonight, some of the points to improve the Bill as it goes forward.
It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr Jones no matter how long he speaks for. Anyone who watched “Britain and the Sea” last night—I think it was on BBC1—would have seen a great deal of my constituency, because it was all about shipbuilding on the Clyde. Unfortunately, that is now part of our history because the remaining yards on the Clyde are not in my constituency. Although we are proud of the industry, we have two quite stark reminders of our shipbuilding past that we would rather not have. One is a large derelict piece of land at Queen’s quay, on which I hope we will soon see some houses built. The second is the scourge of asbestos exposure, which leads to, among other things, the horrible cancer that is mesothelioma. As we have heard this evening, people have also been exposed in a number of other industries—among other things, my constituency had an asbestos factory.
Being diagnosed with such a disease is bad enough, but having to fight not only it but for compensation is a double blow. The average life expectancy following diagnosis with mesothelioma is about two years, which people should not have to spend battling to ensure that their family have a little financial security.
I welcome the Bill and want to see it become law as soon as possible, but I also want the House to work together, if possible—it looks like that will be possible—to make it better. The Bill could and should be better.
I want to reinforce a number of points that Members have already covered today. My first concern is the level of compensation. Why should it be set at only 75% of the average paid out? I wanted to ask the Minister that as he was making his opening speech, but he refused to take more interventions—I do not know whether he takes a daily allowance of three—and we did not get an answer to that question. I urge the Government to consider raising the level to at least 90%, although hon. Members have suggested other figures. According to the Government’s own analysis, that would still fall within the 3% levy on premiums that the industry tells us it can afford. The pay-outs would be raised by an additional £18,000, and I hope that proposal is considered seriously in Committee.
Secondly, the cut-off date for those eligible for the scheme has simply been set far too late and does not kick in until a good two years after the consultation was launched. Whether the two-year delay is attributable to the wheels of the civil service turning slowly, or Ministers prevaricating with or placating the insurance industry, that is two years in which people will have been diagnosed who are now excluded from the scheme. There is a seriously twisted irony in the fact that, as I have said, the average life expectancy following diagnosis with mesothelioma is approximately the same length of time—two years.
As other Members have argued, it is entirely justifiable for the kick-in date to be put back to February 2010, when the consultation and the intention to legislate for an industry-funded scheme were first announced. An industry whose business is assessment and the management of risk would have made plans to meet that responsibility from the very first mention of it.
Thirdly, like other hon. Members I am concerned about the exclusion of other asbestos-related diseases from the scheme and see no reason why it is limited to mesothelioma only. Lord Freud said in the other place:
“The issue of individuals who have developed other asbestos-related diseases…and are unable to bring a civil claim for damages of course needs to be addressed.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 20 May 2013; Vol. 745, c. 690.]
I hope that the Government and the Minister will deal with that issue at some point.
Fourthly, there is the inequitable situation of the compensation that is to be paid out compared with the clawback of previously awarded benefits or lump sum payments. There is no logic whatsoever in awarding claimants only 75% of civil compensation rates while clawing back 100% of previously awarded benefits or lump sum payments, and I hope that that issue will be dealt with in Committee.
Those are the four key points that need to be addressed. Research has been mentioned and I note that in the Lords a commitment was made to a joint strategy with the Department of Health on encouraging proposals for research on mesothelioma. I hope that will be taken forward. I also back the suggestion, made by my right hon. Friend Paul Goggins, that industry should contribute to research.
I pay tribute to Clydebank Asbestos Group in my constituency. The people who run it are volunteers; they are not paid, but—I am not overstating this—they genuinely dedicate their life to helping people who have been affected by asbestos-related diseases, wherever they live. They deal with victims and their families. They campaign, run very informative conferences in my constituency, and offer advice and support that is both professional and personal. They see people at various stages of the disease; some have literally just walked out of the doctor’s surgery, having been diagnosed, and are afraid and confused, and do not know what their diagnosis means. They assist people who are battling for compensation. Everybody who walks through the door of the group’s shop sees a friendly face, and gets a cup of tea, and advice and support that are absolutely second to none.
Some, if not all, of the volunteers have lost friends or loved ones to asbestos-related diseases. I want to share a few words of Joan Baird’s. I know her well; she is one of the group’s stalwarts, and she lost her husband some years ago. If anyone would like to read her story, it is on the group’s website. This is what she said about her husband:
“How do I feel! Cheated, lonely and empty; denied the autumn of my years with my husband. The doctors confirmed that Willie most likely would have lived to a ripe old age had it not been for this devastating disease. Like thousands of others he was killed by corporate murder. UNFORGIVABLE.”
I hope that the Government will consider the improvements to the Bill that Members on both sides of the House have suggested this evening. I also hope that the Minister will enter more fully into the spirit of debate in his closing remarks, given his refusal to take interventions and answer legitimate questions during his opening remarks. He shakes his head, but he did not do justice to this very serious issue.
I am grateful to have been called to speak so late in this debate. I apologise to both Front Benchers, and to most of the speakers who preceded me, for not having been here throughout the debate. I declare an interest as a former asbestos worker. I suspect that not many former asbestos workers have spoken in the debate. If they have, I suspect that they were from the Labour Benches. No disrespect to Government Members, but hearing from such speakers gives us greater insight into the issue.
He has not been promoted yet. When we worked in the fire service, we used asbestos anti-fire equipment; we had asbestos hoods and gloves. We are lucky: having worked for local authority fire brigades, we know our employers, know that they are insured, and can trace them. Should anything happen to us
—goodness forbid—our families could track back and seek appropriate compensation for our early demise. Clearly, that is not the situation for thousands of other asbestos workers, especially those who worked in industries and businesses that have gone out of business or become defunct.
On the comments made by my hon. Friend Mr Jones about being able to track people, when I was the senior health and safety official at London fire brigade, I got management to agree that every member of London fire brigade who served before the withdrawal of asbestos equipment would have “asbestos-exposed” on their personal record file, so thousands of firefighters are covered. London fire brigade was great in making sure that that happened.
I share the Labour Front Benchers’ five key concerns about the Bill: that the level of compensation is lower than it should be; that other asbestos-related diseases have been excluded; the decision on the cut-off date; the clawback of benefits; and, most importantly, the level of research into asbestos-related diseases. We have some very strong points to make. It is clear that there is support in the other place, especially from senior Members on the Government Benches. I would be very surprised if Government Front Benchers in this House did not have great sympathy with a number of the points raised by the British Lung Foundation and other charities that provided briefings for today’s debate.
I look forward to the Bill going into Committee and to having discussions with Government Front Benchers. I look forward to them being as accommodating as they can be, because bringing the Bill forward is a great signal of their intention to deal fairly with the victims of asbestosis and those suffering from mesothelioma. I think that the Bill can be improved and hope that the Government see it that way, too.
It was a great delight to hear my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick provide that final rousing contribution, because even though he was not here for any of the debate, he managed to catch its whole flavour and repeat everything that has been said. I think that everyone agreed with my hon. Friend Kate Green when she congratulated the Government on bringing forward the legislation. We warmly congratulate the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, Mike Penning, on bringing forward the Bill. In all honesty, we hope that they will help us improve it, because we certainly intend to help them.
I thought that the Minister got off to a slightly bad start by not taking interventions. He ended up intervening on twice as many Members as he took interventions from in his speech. He intends to speak a second time, which is purely in the gift of the House and not just because he says so, but it might have been easier if he had taken more interventions. I sympathise that the first piece of legislation that he has to take through the House in his new role has a name that is quite difficult to pronounce. Tracey Crouch came up with a good suggestion, which was that rather than bothering to say mesothelioma all the time, we should just call it meso.
I think that is spelt with an “i”, not an “e”.
As many Members have pointed out, cancer of the mesothelium is a particularly cruel disease. First, it affects some of the worst paid in society and some of those who do the hardest physical labour, who are not rewarded particularly well at all. That is why we have heard from so many hon. Members this afternoon about how the parts of the country and the communities most affected are those that have had some of the toughest industries, whether shipbuilding, as my hon. Friend Gemma Doyle pointed out, or down on the Medway, as the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford pointed out, or in Totnes, as Dr Wollaston—she is unable to be here at the moment, for understandable reasons—pointed out. Sometimes a whole family can be affected, as my hon. Friend Mr Wright explained. We heard a particularly sad story from Eric Joyce, who told us about his brother, who recently died as a result of mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is also cruel because of the long tail, which many Members referred to, which means that it is often almost impossible to track down the details of the company from which a victim might need to claim compensation, because it is such a long time since the asbestos was introduced into the body.
Mesothelioma is also cruel because the insurance industry, as many Members have pointed out, has behaved cruelly through its extreme reluctance to provide compensation. Sometimes it is the negligence of the industry in keeping proper records across the years that has made it all the more difficult for people to get redress. Finally, it is cruel because once a person has contracted the illness, as many Members have explained, the length of time before death is so short. Who in this House would want somebody to have to spend their last dying months trying vigorously to chase down lawyers and insurance companies?
Many issues were raised, but I will cover those that are particularly important and have been mentioned constantly. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, in an excellent speech that I could not fault—I hope one day to see her on the Labour Benches—made the very valid point that the 75% compensation that is being allowed for by the Government is not borne out by the figures to which the insurance industry has already signed up through its 3% commitment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said, there is a perfectly good moral case for saying that it should be 100% compensation. We will want to tease out these issues in Committee. I am grateful for the Minister’s comments about being able to provide us with numbers and statistics before we get to the first Committee date, because it feels as though there has been a bit of jiggery-pokery over these numbers in the past few weeks while the Bill was in the other place and since then.
The second key issue is the earlier start date that many of us think would be suitable. That was mentioned by Hywel Williams, who is not in his place. It seems inconceivable that any part of the insurance industry was unaware that there was going to be a scheme of this kind after the Labour Government started the consultation in February 2010, so it is only fair that we should go back to the earlier start date. Several other Members referred to this, including my right hon. Friend Paul Goggins and my hon. Friend Mr Hepburn, who had an interesting idea about how judges would have reacted if there were an illness that affected only judges and whether legislation would have been introduced rather more swiftly.
The third issue, which was raised by several Members, including the hon. Member for Totnes, is about self-employed people and people who manifestly fall outside the scheme as currently organised, including those who might have contracted mesothelioma by virtue of washing their partner’s clothes. We will want to return to those matters in Committee.
Fourthly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East mentioned, there is the 25% that is apparently being allocated to lawyers. When I first arrived in the House, one of the big issues facing mining constituencies such as mine was the miners’ compensation Bill. The biggest row we had was with lawyers who wanted to extract unnecessarily ludicrous fees for work that could already be paid for, and in fact was paid for, by the Government. We will want to shine some light on the precise statistics. If a significant amount of money—say £7,000, a figure that has been stated several times—ends up being taken out of people’s compensation to pay for lawyers, that would not be the justice that people are looking for.
The fifth issue, which was raised by my hon. Friend Nia Griffith, is who runs the scheme and who will sit on the technical committee. She also referred to the very important requirement on us to consider how to ensure that that is not just a stitch-up between Government and the big players in the industry when much smaller players need to be considered as well.
The sixth issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire mentioned, is the 100% clawback. It seems intrinsically unfair for the Government to say, “You can only receive 75% of the compensation that you would get if you were going through the civil courts in the normal way, but we will take back 100% of the money that you received in benefits.” There may be arguments to be had about that, but it is something else that we will want to look at in Committee. It was also referred to by my hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery).
I hope the Minister will also address the question of the timetable for the Bill. The programme motion allows for the last Committee sitting to take place on
Finally, my hon. Friend Mr Anderson made an extremely good point, namely that we should stop talking about whether the Bill is generous, generous enough or not generous enough. The most important thing to recognise is that this is not about generosity. It is not some kind of charitable act that we are doing; we are trying to right an injustice. It is a fairly simple point. We believe that it is only really possible to right that injustice if we improve the Bill by ensuring that people get a better deal with regard to the percentage of compensation on offer, as well as by going back to an earlier date and by looking at some of the many other issues that have been raised.
I assure the Minister that we will do everything in our power to help him get the Bill through, but at the moment it has only three stars and by the end we want it to have five. That will require amendments and his co-operation.
With the leave of the House, I will respond to the debate, which I opened earlier today.
May I say from the outset that my intention was for as many Members as possible to be able to take part in this important debate? Seventeen colleagues, including those on the two Front Benches, have taken part. I could have taken a few more interventions, but if I had taken too many the hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) would certainly not have got in. Anyone in the House who knows me will know that that was my intention and that I was not trying to shirk my responsibilities in any way. Perhaps when the hon. Lady has been here a little bit longer, she will know me a bit better.
Interestingly, many Members have said that the Government are in bed with lots of different parties and that perhaps I am anti-trade union. Many Members will know that I am a proud member of the Fire Brigades Union and that I was a member of Unison’s predecessor when I was a lifeguard in Castle Point in Essex after I first left the Army. It is important that we pay tribute to those who have worked so very hard over the years to introduce not just this Bill, but others. I pay tribute to the trade unions for the work they have done over the years and to the victim support groups across the country.
I also want to acknowledge something that my former colleague from the fire service, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, acknowledged in part, namely that, while this disease has massively affected areas of heavy industry—I understand fully what many Members from the north-east have said—it does not cherry-pick. It is possible for someone to glance past an area with asbestos one day, pick up the disease and not know about it for another 40 years. As has been said, many people who are in work do not know that they have been in contact with asbestos. In some cases, their employers might not even know, especially if they run the emergency services.
I am reminded of my former colleagues in Glasgow and the work they did over the weekend. They would not have thought about whether there was asbestos in there; they would have gone straight in, quite rightly, and dealt with it. What their employers have to do—I completely agree that it is much easier for the public sector to do this than the private sector—is address their own responsibilities. I agree with Mr Jones that the unions and employees should have a register. Had they had a register, a lot of the issues under discussion would have been addressed a lot earlier.
The hon. Gentleman makes an enormously important point. I can remember being in an asbestos suit not long ago, and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse is a little older than me, and was in the fire service before me. So many lessons can be learned, and they need to be learned, because people have the disease and are suffering.
I think almost 100 different questions—some were very technical and nearly all of them were very important—have been asked during the debate, and it would be impossible for me to answer them all in the time I have been given. I will therefore write to hon. Members who have spoken, and for the benefit of those who have not taken part I will put the answers in the Library of the House so that everyone has an opportunity to read them.
I have listened very carefully to the debate, and I have tried not to be party political or partisan in any way, but nobody watching would think that the previous Administration had been in government for 13 years. The issue has been known about for many years and, as I said in my opening speech, Administrations should have dealt with it.
It is worrying that we have been asked why the Government have taken two years to sort out the problem. The consultation was very wide ranging, and no one would have known from it what the previous Government wanted. I cannot find out exactly what they wanted, because we are not allowed to see their papers. The consultation came out in February 2010, just before the general election, after which we had the purdah period, and then we came into office, and without knowing exactly what was intended, my predecessor and the very dedicated Lord Freud, the Minister in the other House, worked with the Secretary of State to bring forward this Bill.
Nothing is perfect, and I fully understand that hon. Members on both sides of the House want to table amendments in Committee and probably on Report. What is very important, however, is that the Bill is passed and regulations are laid, and that compensation gets out to the victims of this terrible disease and their loved ones. If even some points that have been discussed were put in, the Bill would have to go back to the Lords and that would mean a period of ping-pong. [Interruption.] I said some, not all points.
It is absolutely imperative to get the Bill through, or people who have waited for compensation, in some cases for decades, will not get it. If there is ping-pong on the Bill, we will be into the new year—the Leader of the
House is sitting next to me—and although I will be as open minded and pragmatic as I can, the Bill needs to be put on the statute book.
I am good friends with the hon. Gentleman, and I know him well. I do not see it that way, as he knows, but I understand why he does. There has to be an arbitrary cut-off date, and Mr Wright said that the date will be arbitrary whatever we do.
We have been in deep negotiations—there is no argument about that; it will all come out—but the insurance companies did not just stroll up to Lord Freud’s office and say, “By the way, can we do a deal?” They were dragged there, otherwise that would have been done under the previous Administration. The Bill is not perfect and it probably can be amended, but it must not be delayed.
That would be an arbitrary date too, because, as the hon. Gentleman said, mesothelioma was known about before 1965. Whatever happens, if we get bogged down in a legal argument, it will delay the Bill, and the compensation that everyone has worked towards for so many years will be massively and dramatically affected.
I am sorry to intervene on the Minister, but he seems to be saying that he will not countenance any amendment to the Bill—despite our having had a debate in which everyone who has spoken has said they want amendments—because such amendments would delay the Bill beyond Christmas. With his timetable, however, I cannot see how he can possibly get it out before Christmas anyway.
That is the second time the hon. Gentleman has talked about my timetable. The Opposition insisted on three days in Committee; we said they could have less.
If the hon. Gentleman talked to his own Whips, he might get some sense. That is exactly what happened.
At the end of the day, however, some parts of the Bill can be amended without it going back to the Lords. Some parts, particularly on the percentage—[Interruption.] It is for regulations. It is not actually part of the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Bill, he will understand what is going on. He is trying to score party political points on a really serious issue, and he is wrong. We need to ensure that what can be amended, is amended, but I will not have the Bill, and therefore the compensation, delayed. With that, I hope the House will give the Bill a
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (
That the following provisions shall apply to the Mesothelioma Bill [Lords]:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Consideration and Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of any message from the Lords) may be programmed.
The House divided:
Ayes 267, Noes 202.