New Clause 8 — Review of compensation available to veterans suffering from mesothelioma

Representation of the People (Proportional Representation) (House of Commons) – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 16th December 2015.

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Within 12 months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must commission a review of how former members of the armed forces who have contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos in the course of their military service are compensated, and must lay the report of this review before both Houses of Parliament.”—(Mr Kevan Jones.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

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

The new clause, which is similar to one I moved at an earlier stage, would affect veterans who have the misfortune to suffer from mesothelioma. You will know, Mr Crausby, from your engineering background, how debilitating this terrible condition is and the death sentence it imposes.

In 2014, the Government set up the diffuse mesothelioma payment scheme under the Mesothelioma Act 2014 to pay lump sum compensation to civilians who contracted mesothelioma in cases where former employers or insurance companies could not be traced. Under the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987, many veterans are not covered by the scheme and so do not have the option to sue the MOD over this death sentence.

Great strides have been made to improve health and safety in handling asbestos, not just in civilian life but within the MOD, but we are talking here about cases that go back 30 or 40 years, if not further. Mesothelioma is one of those terrible conditions that affects people at random. In a previous life, when I was legal officer for the GMB, I saw old shipyard workers with asbestos scars on their hands who did not suffer from any other conditions, while some people exposed to quite low levels of asbestos developed mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers.

Under the current provisions, affected veterans can apply for a 100% war pension, if it is agreed that their diagnosis is related to their service. The Royal British Legion, which has campaigned on this, estimates that the option to claim compensation would affect 2,500 personnel, mainly—not surprisingly—naval veterans who handled asbestos in the course of their work. It tells me that asbestos has some peculiar effects for single individuals and widowers. The proposal is that the Secretary of State come forward with a scheme for veterans similar to the one outlined by the Government in 2014. It would also continue their work of supporting veterans, irrespective of where they served, and bring the law for veterans suffering from mesothelioma into line with that for civilians, who are covered by the 2014 Act. That is what organisations such as the Royal British Legion have been campaigning for.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans)

I support the view of Mr Jones that this matter must be dealt with. There is an urgency to it, because veterans suffering from mesothelioma simply do not have time for us to delay any further. We have heard about the campaign of the Royal British Legion, which calls on the Government to find fairer ways of compensating veterans suffering from this devastating condition. It has been an effective campaign, and it is right to highlight what a terrible disease mesothelioma is.

It is an unimaginable tragedy for veterans and their families to receive this diagnosis. We cannot imagine the enormous impact it has on their lives. To be clear, rectifying this unfair treatment will not make anybody suffering from the disease any better, but it might improve the quality of the period of life they have left and it might mean less anxiety about those they leave behind them.

Thousands of people serving in our armed forces prior to 1987 were exposed to asbestos while under military orders and have subsequently been diagnosed with mesothelioma. As the hon. Member for North Durham said, approximately 2,500 ex-service personnel are affected in this way. They clearly lose out very significantly when compared with civilians in the same position. For instance, while the civilian population suffering from mesothelioma is eligible for up to £180,000 in compensation, our ex-service personnel are eligible for only £31,000. Our veterans are clearly being treated less well than their civilian counterparts. This is a very significant difference, and it is no way to support our service personnel. I hope to hear some positive words from the Minister about this.

The military covenant commits the Government to removing disadvantages to service personnel—and this is most certainly a disadvantage at a very difficult time in people’s lives. We need to be able to deal with this—and quickly. The Royal British Legion summarises the situation very well when it says that it is

“unfair and has to change!”.

It is unacceptable to treat our terminally ill veterans in this way; the hon. Member for North Durham is correct in his call for urgency.

My concern is that this matter was already being discussed and highlighted as urgent when the Mesothelioma Act 2014 was being reviewed as a Bill in July 2013, yet so far this issue has not been resolved—despite assurances on many occasions that action was imminent. It is our duty to deal with it now before other ex-service personnel have their final months blighted by this financial worry and inequity. I hope that the Minister can allay these concerns today, so that we can see some positive progress made and deal with our veterans as we should.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

I endorse the comments of the shadow Minister once again. As the Minister will know, we have had some fringe discussions on this issue in the Defence Committee. Furthermore, Mr Anderson, who usually sits behind me but is not in his place, has tabled an early-day motion to highlight the issue. The Royal British Legion, as the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for North Durham (Mr Jones) have said, has been part of the campaign and has lobbied hard.

We are all aware of some constituents who have this problem, but if I can be forgiven for saying it, the longer this goes on, the more the guys who would probably qualify for any agreed compensation are likely not to be here any more. That may sound cynical, but it crosses the minds of the potential recipients of the compensation and those of elected representatives who want to reflect the opinion that they are given by such people.

I and the shadow Minister both want to see a fair and equal distribution coming out of the compensation process—as it is for civilians, so it should be for those who have served in uniform. As the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said when she dealt with the military covenant, these things should really happen normally, without any need for requests from this Chamber. The military covenant is clear; the negative obstacles should be taken away. Members should be able to express their opinion here on behalf of their constituents. There is an urgency about this matter because we need to put right an injustice. I just want to add my support to that of the shadow Minister and other Members who are not in their places today but would love to be here to support this request.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Scottish National Party, West Dunbartonshire

I commend Mr Jones for tabling the new clause. I wish to associate myself with what he said, and with what was said by my hon. Friend Kirsten Oswald and Jim Shannon. I also congratulate the Royal British Legion on the campaign it has been conducting over the past few months.

I believe that the Members who have already spoken have conveyed to the Minister the depth of feeling about mesothelioma and the impact of asbestos-related conditions on our service personnel. My constituency has a clear, direct link with mesothelioma through shipbuilding. We see the daily impact of asbestos on the lives of communities, not just the people who were in contact with it in the shipyards—both men and women—but their families.

It is inexplicable to me that we might not wish to provide equal support for our armed forces personnel. I think particularly of naval personnel who have been involved in the lagging of ship hulls during tours of duty, but I think also of Army personnel who have been based in premises that were built with asbestos cement, and mechanics who have dealt with vehicles that were insulated with asbestos. They will have not only come into contact with blue or white asbestos dust during their working lives, but brought it into their home lives.

I hope that the Government will recognise the intentions of the hon. Member for North Durham, and will seek to ensure that at least some cross-party work is done to enable us to bring this to a conclusion. Enough is enough: asbestos-related conditions form a major part of my constituency work. I am grateful to Clydebank Asbestos Group, which for many years, and with the support of many of my predecessors, has continued to work with other asbestos-related groups.

The Government really must listen to what the hon. Gentleman has said. Let us get this done.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 5:00 pm, 16th December 2015

The new clause would impose an obligation on the Defence Secretary to instigate a review of compensation for veterans with mesothelioma. My view is that such a step would not require legislation, and has been overtaken by events.

As I said on 19 November during the Adjournment debate on compensation for our military veterans who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, we recognise that it is a devastating disease that changes the lives not only of the people who are diagnosed with it but of those who care about them: their families and loved ones.

Veterans with mesothelioma caused by their military service are entitled to make a claim for no-fault compensation from the Ministry of Defence. The war pensions scheme provides a tax-free pension and supplementary allowances, along with dependants’ benefits. The Government ascribe great importance to the health and well-being of our veterans, and we are clear about the fact that they should not be disadvantaged as a result of their service. We are absolutely committed to supporting them and the wider armed forces community.

Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, and 40 years or more can often pass before it manifests itself and an individual is diagnosed, tragically with a short life expectancy thereafter. That is why it is so important to ensure that we provide the right support for those who are affected by the disease. We owe them all a debt of profound gratitude. I am therefore pleased to announce that any veteran who is diagnosed from mesothelioma from today will be offered a choice between receiving a lump sum of £140,000 and receiving the traditional war pension payments. It is currently proposed that the necessary legislative changes will come into force on 11 April 2016, but I am keen to consider options for bringing the date forward. Claimants choosing the option of a lump sum will continue to receive a monthly payment until the lump sum is paid. The Veterans Welfare Service will be on hand to help claimants to understand the new option.

As my hon. Friends will know, the policy of no retrospection has been maintained by successive Governments. Whether it should be applied to this group is a complex issue that has been the subject of much discussion within the Government. However, I have directed my Department to continue to review the options to support these claimants in a similar manner. I have received a great deal of correspondence, and I intend to write to the Members who have contacted my Department with a full update.

On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for North Durham to withdraw his motion.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

I think it would be rather churlish if I did not! I thank the Minister. What he has said shows his determination to put this wrong right, and, as with many issues, he approaches it not only with compassion but with the aim of ensuring that we do the right thing. This is doing the right thing by these veterans, to whom we owe a huge debt. I congratulate him on his stance and I will look with hope at the other work he is doing on retrospection. I accept that there are difficulties with that and I would not expect solutions tomorrow, but I take his commitment at least to look at retrospection. On the happy note that this is moving in the right direction, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.