(a) a publicity programme to raise awareness of former members of the Armed Forces who may be at risk of, or susceptible to, mesothelioma; and
(b) a monitoring process to ensure the comprehensive and prompt detection of mesothelioma cases.’.—(Danny Kinahan.)
This new clause would place a duty on the Secretary of State from the date sums are due to be paid to pay compensation due to former members of the Armed Forces who have contracted mesothelioma during the course of their service is paid swiftly. It would also
require the Government to put in place a publicity programme to raise awareness of those who are at risk of mesothelioma and a monitoring process to ensure the comprehensive and prompt detection of mesothelioma cases.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I would first like to say how pleased I am to see new clause 1 added to the Bill. I do not intend to rerun all the arguments on mesothelioma today, because we all know that it is a deadly disease. I wish instead to speak to our new clause, the purpose of which is to push for compensation payments to be made as quickly as possible. Those who heard last Thursday’s Westminster Hall debate on the armed forces covenant annual report will know how essential it is that things happen more quickly.
I very much welcome the announcement made before Christmas about those affected by mesothelioma having the choice of receiving either £140,000 or a war pension, which I think was an extremely good move. I am keen to hear from the Minister on how that is proceeding and whether there have been any changes. I welcome the fact that he is still considering whether the Ministry of Defence will look at retrospective cases, because I think that is absolutely essential, particularly for the families who have lost loved ones.
I would like to praise all those who have worked on this matter, such as the Royal British Legion, the shadow Armed Forces Minister, and the hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane). Just after the announcement in December, the Royal British Legion stated:
“Whilst we are pleased that the Minister has indicated that he will review special arrangements for these individuals, we urge him to do so quickly under the terms of the Armed Forces Covenant and in light of the limited life expectancies and extreme suffering of these veterans.”
That is the key: we want compensation to be paid quickly. I hope that the Minister will indicate today how that will be done so that everyone can go away confident that it will happen quickly. Those involved know that mesothelioma is a deadly disease and that, unfortunately, an individual is lucky to live more than one or two years after diagnosis. However, that diagnosis might be made 30 or 40 years after exposure.
We also want to ensure that compensation is comprehensive and that every single person who might be affected is personally contacted by the Ministry of Defence to ensure that they know that there is a chance they have the disease. When it comes to submarines, I am told that it is the P, O, Valiant, Resolution, Dreadnought and early S classes that might have contained asbestos, and in the Army it is the Centurion tank. I am asking the Minister to look at all the places where there might have been asbestos and ensure that the message gets to every person who might have been exposed to it, and extremely quickly. I am told by one source that this could involve as many as 2,500 people, although the Royal British Legion says the number is only 60. It is essential that we look at who was serving on those submarines at the time and work out how to get the message to them personally.
Does my hon. Friend mean that 2,500 people are affected, or that 2,500 people may contract mesothelioma in the end, because I suspect that the number is much higher? I am slightly confused on that point.
My hon. Friend is right to ask that question, because I went through exactly the same thought process when I received those figures. I am told that 2,500 people may be affected. However, many more will have served on all those different submarines, and indeed in the various tanks. The onus is on the Ministry of Defence to work out exactly which ships and what equipment contained the threat of asbestos, find out how to contact the people affected and then get the message to them. That is really what we are pushing for. We are keen to make sure that the MOD also looks at other illnesses that may well be hiding in the background of those who have worked with depleted uranium or had carbon monoxide poisoning.
We should always be thinking of how we look after our armed services, not just those who serve but their families, well into the future. We must set that example for everyone who has joined the services. It is a fantastic career that I myself have thoroughly benefited from. They must know that their families will be looked after and that we will look at all the risks well into the future. We want this to be dealt with very quickly and to make sure that there is a good campaign that ensures that everyone is informed. We must keep an open mind and think about how we will look after all our armed services and their families into the future.
I start by doing something I have done very rarely in this House, and that is to say “Thank you” to the Government. I thank them for the important steps they have taken in treating people who have served this country, in many years of war, in the way that they should be treated. Sadly, though, because of the potential effects of retrospective legislation, some people may be left behind, and I want to focus on them.
I spent a lifetime working in the trade union movement before I came here, including representing people in the mine works who had a variety of diseases such as vibration white finger as a result of being exposed to the damage caused by pneumatic tools, and pulmonary diseases caused by exposure to coal dust and stone dust. However, I had never heard of mesothelioma until about 15 years ago, when I was asked by a friend if I could do some fundraising on behalf of an organisation that was being set up by a woman called Chris Knighton—the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Research Fund, of which I am very proud now to be a patron—and I asked them what it was about. I have been castigated in the past by a member of the public for the brutal way in which I have exposed this disease, but it is a brutal disease. I was told about it very bluntly by a solicitor from Thompsons some 15 years ago.
When someone is exposed to asbestos, the fibres lie dormant for decades, but one day they wake up, they suffer horribly, and then they die. There are no two ways about it. Once someone has full-blown mesothelioma, they have a death sentence. The only thing that is questionable is how long it takes to happen. In a small number of cases medication and drug treatments such as chemotherapy can help, but it only slightly extends the time in which people suffer and eventually die.
There is a huge moral issue for all of us regarding what happened. Asbestos was shown to be poisonous as far back as 1892—a long, long time ago. It was banned from 1965 onwards—50-plus years ago. It was seen as one of those wonderful things that did so many good things for people. In a huge number of different areas, it was seen as being something worth working with, so it was in lots of places that people would not even have thought about—when changing brake drums, lagging pipes, and all that sort of thing. I myself have worked with it. It is in schools and other buildings. It is in our own homes.
As long as asbestos is not disturbed, people are usually okay, but a lot of those who were exposed to it worked in places where it was in the air all the time, so they were working with it without knowing, and they should have known. Clearly, in some cases they were criminally exposed. I am not, by any means, saying that about the MOD. The history of fighting for justice for people with asbestos has been long, tortuous, and hard.
When my party was in government from 1997 to 2010, we would take two steps forward and one step back. There were challenges in the courts by insurance companies and £1.4 billion was handed back to them, because the Law Lords allowed them to no longer make payments for certain asbestos-related diseases. Thankfully, through the efforts of successive Governments, people with mesothelioma are treated much better now than they used to be, but the truth is that a significant group of people are still affected by that case. I am not going to argue about the numbers, because that case is so moronic that it overrules any discussion about numbers.
My hon. Friend is explaining very well the history behind how we have got to where we are today. Will he join me in paying tribute to the trade union movement? Without its expertise and campaigning zeal, the conversation taking place with regard to not just this Bill but others would not have started.
I appreciate the work my hon. Friend has done on behalf not just of the armed services, but of our part of the world, where he has been an MP for many years, and long may that continue. He is right to say that the trade union movement has been involved from the beginning, and without it we probably would not be where we are today in trying to right this wrong.
“Does the Prime Minister agree that everything must be done to deliver on the military covenant—both the spirt and the letter?”
The Prime Minister’s response was unequivocal:
“I certainly agree with both parts of the right hon. Gentleman’s question…We make a promise to our military that because of the sacrifices they make on our behalf they should not have less good treatment than other people in our country and indeed that, where we can, we should provide extra support.”—[Hansard, 4 November 2015; Vol. 601, c. 961.]
He did not say that we should support service people only up to a certain cut-off date or, “Well, I’m really sorry, but retrospective legislation doesn’t apply.”
There is absolutely no doubt that these people are a special case, because of what we ask them to do. By “we”, I mean us as a nation and, more pointedly, us as representatives of the state. We ask them to go to places where human beings should not usually be made to go. As part and parcel of them doing that on our behalf, they have been exposed to this horrible disease.
On the same day, I raised with the Prime Minister the specific issue of people who were exposed before 1987:
“Thousands of people who served our nation in the Royal Navy before 1987 are not entitled to full compensation. That means that people who have been exposed to asbestosis and have contracted the cancer disease mesothelioma stand to lose out massively when compared with people in civilian life.”
His response was:
“I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I understand that the Defence Secretary is looking at the matter. As I have said, since putting the military covenant into law, we have tried every year to make progress…I am happy to go away and look at the point that he makes.”—[Hansard, 4 November 2015; Vol. 601, c. 962-63.]
I am delighted with that response and, as I said earlier, with the fact that that the Secretary of State came back to us on this and moved some way when we debated the issue towards the end of last year.
The truth, however, is that while we are looking into this matter, people are dying, and they are dying without getting compensation equivalent to what they would get if they had not been in the armed services. That is quite simply wrong. I know that it asks a lot of the Government to go back and try to redress the issue, because there are always problems—unintended consequences—when we open up access to compensation, but this issue is far too important to ignore, and it would be wrong and, I believe, a breach of the military covenant if we do not address it.
The Prime Minister has said that we will go the extra mile for these people. I know that this is not part of the new clause, but I ask the Minister, please try to do more. Let us work together across the House to make this work in a way that delivers what these people deserve.
I, too, pay tribute to the Minister for accepting amendments that I tabled in Committee, and for looking at this issue in a practical way. That has been his approach to the Bill: he has looked at where he can make a practical and real difference to people’s lives. In Committee, he announced that, from that date onwards, people would have a choice about whether to accept compensation as a lump sum payment or as a war pension.
My hon. Friend has just outlined the issues involved in retrospection. I am aware of them from my time as a Minister, when I had to deal with issues such as pensions, but will the Minister consider this point? Will he make an exception for individuals alive today who were diagnosed just before the cut-off date that he had to introduce? As my hon. Friend said, they are under a death sentence—in many cases, they will not live for very long—so can that specific group be looked at? From speaking with my hon. Friend, I understand the difficulties of retrospection, so I know that there is a broader issue, but could individuals who already have a diagnosis and may be in receipt of a war pension be looked at? I do not expect the Minister to come up with an instant solution and say yes, but it would be very much appreciated if he could go away and consider that point.
The armed forces have no trade union or anyone to fight for them, except armed forces charities and Members of the House. It is very much the responsibility of Members of the House to be their champions, to fight their cause, to fight for what is right, and to fight for justice for them. I totally and utterly agree with my hon. Friend that people alive today who have received such a diagnosis are under a death sentence. The acknowledgment that their service in the armed forces has caused them to suffer from this most hideous of diseases would make a difference to them and their families. My brother-in-law died of mesothelioma, so I know how short but horrific such a death is, and how horrific it is for the family to watch as people struggle to breath and die inch by inch, day by day.
This subject is very emotive, but it is one that says what we are as a country and how seriously we take our responsibilities to the members of the armed forces who faced risk not in war, but in their place of work. As a country, we have accepted such a responsibility for people who worked in civilian life, and we have a moral responsibility to accept that we have a duty to meet the needs of those armed forces personnel currently diagnosed, who are dying now, and to give them access to the compensation scheme.
I hope that the Minister will take this matter very seriously. As Opposition Members have said, the Minister has been very active in this matter and supportive of making changes to the Bill. I hope that this is another change that he will accept, consider and bring forward.
I put on the record not only that I sat on the Select Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill, but that I am a proud member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, attached to the Royal Air Force. Along with other members of the Committee, I raised the issue of compensation for servicemen and women who have contracted mesothelioma. We were united when we raised it with the Minister in Committee, so I welcomed his announcement of the news that compensation would be made available as a lump sum payment.
Earlier, Danny Kinahan quoted the Royal British Legion, which led the campaign on this issue so strongly. I, too, would like to quote it. When the Government made the announcement on lump sum compensation payments, the Royal British Legion said:
“Thank you to everyone who gave their support; the new changes really will make a difference for the families of thousands of veterans diagnosed with Mesothelioma.”
I am proud that we have taken some really positive steps for veterans who are struggling with this disease and their families. Without the need for the new clause, the Government have taken steps in the right direction. Of course time is of the essence and I urge the Minister to put forward a timetable. Also of the essence is how we publicise the scheme to people up and down the country.
We must do the right thing by the people who spend their time protecting our great country. I want to recognise the welcome news that the Government have announced compensation for veterans with mesothelioma.
The SNP fully supports the new clause and its aims of creating accountability and ensuring the speedy implementation of the compensation. We are supportive of its efforts to raise awareness and to move at some speed.
It is inescapable that there has been real inequity in how we have treated veterans suffering from mesothelioma. I entirely agree with Mr Anderson that until now the situation has not been consistent with the military covenant and has not been an appropriate way to treat our armed forces.
As we have heard, this is a matter of urgency because veterans who are suffering from mesothelioma simply do not have time for us to delay. The campaign run by the Royal British Legion has been incredibly effective. It is right to highlight what a terrible disease mesothelioma is and the injustice of this situation.
The tragedy of a mesothelioma diagnosis cannot be overstated. As Danny Kinahan said, veterans and their families in this situation do not have time to spare. While rectifying this unfair treatment will not make anyone who is suffering from the disease any better, it may well improve the quality of the life they have remaining and it may mean less anxiety about those they leave behind.
Ensuring that there is a swift process and a campaign of awareness would be useful mechanisms in allowing us to deal better with our veterans as we should, so we fully support them. I call on the Government to look just a little further and to deal fairly with the group of about 60 veterans who are currently in receipt of a war disablement pension by allowing them to access this contribution. That would simply be the right thing for the Government to do.
This is another important step forward that is being taken in the Bill. I again pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Jones for the difference that he made to the Bill in Committee.
All of us who serve former industrial communities are very conscious of the terrible disease that is mesothelioma and of the appalling and swift end it brings to the people who are unfortunate enough to suffer from it. It is an issue that many of us have campaigned on and for which we have campaigning groups in our constituencies because of the industrial legacy that we have. In my constituency, I am pleased to work closely with the Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team, which has done a tremendous amount of work to highlight the appalling plight that afflicts mesothelioma victims.
To see measures being brought forward in this context is incredibly positive. In recent years, the Labour party has campaigned tirelessly in support of the Royal British Legion’s campaign to ensure that there is a better deal for veterans who have fallen victim to mesothelioma. We therefore welcome the Government’s announcement of an improved compensation package for armed forces veterans who suffer from it.
My hon. Friend Mr Anderson was right to say that it is a clear breach of the armed forces covenant that veterans who have suffered from this awful disease have received up to £150,000 less than civilians. We are delighted that the pressure has forced the Government into action. I echo the comment of my hon. Friend Mrs Moon about the credit that needs to go to the Minister for taking a positive approach in Committee, for being open-minded and for being willing to think again about the initial positions that the Government took. It is welcome that he has taken that step and it reflects well on him.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon said a few moments ago, where possible we would like the Government to go the extra mile and take extra steps to support veterans of our armed forces. There was an anomaly because members of the armed forces were being treated less well than those in civilian trades, and we all felt that that wrong needed righting. I echo the comments of Nusrat Ghani about the urgency of this pressing matter. The House should feel proud that we have put right something that was wrong, as that is the least that our service personnel who have tragically contracted mesothelioma deserve. The new compensation package is a great victory for everyone who has supported the Royal British Legion in its campaign, and I am pleased and proud to be supporting it today.
I thank Danny Kinahan for his opening comments, and Mr Anderson, whom I know has campaigned on this issue for a long time and played a positive part in the progress made to date. I thank Mr Jones, and Mrs Moon who spoke passionately, as well as my hon. Friend Nusrat Ghani and Kirsten Oswald who has rightly pressured me on this issue for some time. I also thank Toby Perkins for his kind comments.
It would have been impossible for anyone involved in this issue for a period of time not to be deeply moved and determined that the House should do all it can to move this issue forward. I am pleased that we have managed to make positive steps in recent times, but I am clear that we cannot simply rest on our laurels. I am determined to try to push this issue forward.
I hope I have demonstrated that the Government are committed to supporting veterans with mesothelioma and the wider armed forces community. On
Claimants will be given a choice of either the new lump sum or the existing war pension payments. The details will be explained in correspondence, and I have asked the veterans welfare service to be on hand to help claimants understand the options available to them. I am determined to do all we can to support claimants. In addition to my announcement on
When individuals leave the armed forces, their healthcare needs become the responsibility of the national health service in England and the devolved Administrations. Most people with mesothelioma will see their GP first, because they are concerned about their symptoms. Given concerns over a potential monitoring process, I have been told—I will go back and check again—that unfortunately there is currently no reliable screening test for mesothelioma. The aim of screening is to pick up cancers at an early stage of the disease before symptoms develop, but mesothelioma can be difficult to diagnose since the usual test for lung diseases often appears negative.
We are engaging with NHS bodies on disseminating information to GPs, respiratory clinics and other healthcare professionals, so that when they treat a veteran with mesothelioma caused by military service, they can direct them to the Gov.uk website and the Veterans UK helpline, which have details of how to make a claim under the war pensions scheme and the new lump sum option.
The Minister is giving a good response. May I politely suggest that some people in the NHS will never have seen mesothelioma—I mean no disrespect, but it is relatively rare? One body that might be able to play a key role is the British Lung Foundation—I mentioned earlier a fundraising group that I worked with, and it has given the BLF more than £1 million. A lot of that is about identifying mesothelioma as early as possible.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful suggestion, and I shall instruct my officials to take it up.
On retrospection, whether to apply the lump sum to those diagnosed before
Following my announcement on
I hope I have demonstrated that the Government are absolutely committed to trying to resolve this issue as fairly and as fast as possible. Hon. Members have made kind comments about my efforts to deal with this issue quickly, and I will be proactive in making the changes. If I may, I simply ask Members to allow me that credit, and with that in mind, to take me at my word that I am trying to move these issues forward. I do not believe that legislation is required, but I am deeply committed to moving the issue forward as quickly as I can, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider withdrawing his new clause.
I am grateful for the debate we have had, and pleased with what I have heard from the Minister. I am also particularly pleased with what I heard from Labour Members, and we have gained a great deal from today. It would be wrong of me to pursue the matter further, knowing that the Minister will come back and keep the House updated, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.