Compensation Bill [Lords]

– in a Public Bill Committee on 20th June 2006.

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[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair]

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower 4:30 pm, 20th June 2006

I should point out to hon. Members that copies of the money and Ways and Means resolutions connected to the Bill are available in the room. I should also point out that adequate notice should be given of amendments; as a general rule,Mr. Atkinson and I will not call starred amendments. Please would all hon. Members also ensure that mobile phones, pagers and so on are turned off or in silent mode in Committee.

We come first to the programme motion, debate on which may continue for up to half an hour.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I beg to move,

That—

(1) during proceedings on the Compensation Bill, in addition to its first meeting on Tuesday 20th June at 4.30 p.m., the Standing Committee shall meet on Thursday 22nd June at9.00 am and 1.00 p.m. and on Tuesday 27th June at 4.30 p.m;

(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the order shown below and shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 7.00 p.m. on Tuesday 27th June: Clauses 1 to 8; Schedule; Clauses 9 to 17; and remaining proceedings on the Bill.

We had a constructive discussion in the Programming Sub-Committee yesterday, and I hope that the Committee will therefore agree the programme motion. I welcome you to the chair, Mr. Caton. You conducted last night’s meeting efficiently and smoothly, and I am sure that all members of the Committee look forward to working with you to ensure the Bill’s smooth passage through Committee.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons

As the Minister says, we had a useful discussion in the Programming Sub-Committee yesterday. She will recall that on Second Reading there was a good deal of discussion about asbestos-related diseases and mesothelioma. Pressure was put on the Minister to use this Bill as a vehicle to introduce legislation on that. Will there be time in Committee to look at that issue?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right that there was a great deal of pressure, from him and other Government Back Benchers, about the dreadful situation facing people with that tragic disease of mesothelioma. He will know that I said on Second Reading that we were determined to look carefully at the House of Lords’ judgment to see what we could do. He will, I hope, be pleased to hear that the Government intend to bring forward legislation to deal with the Barker judgment in the House of Lords, in order that those who have suffered from mesothelioma will be able to recover full compensation from negligent employers.

We intend to table an amendment to the Bill. Whether that is in Committee or on Report will be determined by how we get to the detail of it, but I assure my hon. Friend and other members of the Committee that it is our absolute intention to ensure that those who are presently suffering or who will suffer from that awful disease will get the compensation that they so rightly deserve.

Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Labour, Midlothian

I have two questions. May I ask about back payment, which may also be discussed? Also, will the Bill apply throughout Scotland under a Sewel motion? It is extremely important to recognise that the legislation should cover the whole of the United Kingdom, not England alone.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It would be quite inequitable if we were to legislate only for one part of the United Kingdom and not all of it. Whether that is done by a Sewel motion or via the Scottish Executive is being discussed as we speak. We are in contact with the Scottish Executive to ensure that we work together so that everyone in the United Kingdom affected by that dreadful disease is properly compensated.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham Labour, Barnsley West and Penistone

Is it the intention of the amendment to restore the law back to the 2002 Fairchild decision? That actually established fairness, which Barker took away.

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

Order. I must remind Committee that we should be debating the programme motion. We are getting into the subject matter of the proposed amendment but we cannot consider that until we have an amendment before us.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I am grateful to you, Mr. Caton, for that advice. I hope that we will have a full debate on those aspects when we bring the amendment forward, but my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) knows my intention and that of the Department: to ensure that everyone is properly compensated in this area.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Caton, as I do your brother Chairman, Mr. Atkinson. We have considered Bills under your firm tutelage in the past and I know that you will continue to be firm and fair.

In deciding whether the allocation of time is suitable, and whether any knives are needed in the programme motion, it is worth pointing out that there issues inpart 2 deserve proper scrutiny. Therefore, if in light of the Minister’s statement, which I welcome, it is her intention to table in Committee the welcome amendment dealing with the Barker judgment, would it be possible to have extra time if we needed it? We would have to debate the amendment to see whether it properly tackles the issues raised by the Barker judgment over the allocation of damages to mesothelioma sufferers, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned.

At that time, will the Minister tell us whether she has plans to tackle the problem of those who currently have no one to sue? As she knows, there are concerns that some individuals cannot trace their employer’s insurer or were not affected in their workplace. Clearly, given that there should be a quick response to that dreadful illness and that cases should be dealt with out of court, Ministers might have to give further thought to ways of helping some of the other sufferers as well. I would be grateful to know whether she is thinking of doing anything to help other sufferers of that dreadful disease. Of course, one problem is that the disease takes such a long time to act. The condition can attack 30 or 40 years after a person was working somewhere, after which it operates incredibly fast. It would help to know whether a better tracing system could be found.

The usual channels will want to keep an eye on our progress on the first part of the Bill to ensure that debate is balanced and that we have the chance to discuss the important part 2 issues as well as the question of mesothelioma. We will want to examine the language in clause 1 to see whether it needs further clarification. Should it be discretionary or compulsory for the courts to have regard to paragraphs (a) and (b)? We will examine the phrase “desirable activity” and see whether other words might better encompass that concept. We will want to test whether the use of the expression “particular steps” in clause 1 might change the law, as some have suggested.

I pay tribute to my right hon. and noble FriendLord Hunt for bringing forward clause 2 in the other place, but we will want to test whether “an offer of treatment”—the wording in the clause—includes the provision of such treatment. We would want to avoid the silly situation in which an offer once accepted might nullify the effect of clause 2. I would be interested to know the Minister’s views on that in due course.

There are issues in part 2 that we will need to discuss, and which will affect the decision on the programme motion. We will want to be sure that all claims managers are covered by the new or professional regulator. That must include trade unions, because although the vast bulk of them do an excellent job for their members, and are to be applauded for doing so, there have been examples in recent months and years of a small number of trade unions abusing the situation. The Minister acknowledged that on Second Reading.

We would also like to be sure that inappropriate advertising of claims and legal services is tackled by the Bill or under regulations and guidance derived from the Bill, because clearly there is concern among outside bodies that such advertising in hospitals and other places is inappropriate.

We will also want to discuss who the regulator should be. The Government have said that it should be Lord Falconer and a trading standards department. We believe that something more substantial is required. We would like the Minister to explain why the Financial Services Authority and other regulators that already operate in the financial sector and cover insurance should not be available to deal with what is after-the-event insurance. There are no two ways about it: it is a financial product as well as being vital to making claims.

Subject to the two important issues that the usual channels will ensure that the balance of debate does not get out of hand, and that we might be given some consideration if the Minister decided to introduce in Committee the important matter of mesothelioma, we are content with the programme motion.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport)

I wanted to make one point. I am not sure whether it is to do with the motion or whether I should raise it as a point of order. Despite being short, clause 1 is complicated, and it took up a large part of Second Reading, so the grouping of amendments obviously required the judgment of Solomon. I am anxious not to waste the Committee’s time by seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Caton, on clause 1 stand part. I hope that it will be possible, when discussing amendment No. 11, to refer in general terms to some of the amendments in the third group of amendments, because they bear heavily on the merits or otherwise of amendment No. 11. For me, doing so would avoid the need for a clause stand part debate.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I thank the Minister and the Whips for accommodating a request on timing from our corner of the jungle. Like other hon. Members, I serve on other Committees and I am grateful that the timetable allows us not only to do that but to do the other jobs that were fixed beforehand.

I apologise for missing the excitement of the Programming Sub-Committee, but having had profitable conversations with the Whip I trusted that what had been promised would be delivered. I am vindicated, and the Minister lives up to her reputation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and I will be happy to consider the implications of the Minister’s announcement about mesothelioma. As I said on Second Reading, it is a hugely important issue and one that many hoped might be dealt with under the Bill. If it can be proceeded with satisfactorily through an amendment to the Bill, and if that is moved in Committee, it self-evidently may have an impact on time. However, dealing with the current rather muddled legal situation may require technically complex drafting, and it is important that everyone is satisfied that the provision does what we want. I therefore flag up the fact that we may need to return to the programme motion, given that it is based on the Bill as we see it now. I do not argue for more time in Committee unless it is needed, but if we are to make such a change in Committee we must get it right. I am sure that all parties will be willing to accommodate that, and to ensure that we have enough time.

In that context, the earlier that we start discussions or informal consultation about the drafting of such a provision the better. I am keen always to be co-operative and helpful, and we want to ensure that as far as possible the drafting is seen to work before it is formally tabled.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Given that it is a technical matter and that a lot of legal issues may be thrown up by it, does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Minister were to table an amendment it would be useful to have a helpful explanatory note about how it would tackle the issues in Barker and Corus?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

That would be helpful. I know that the Minister will try to do so.

I have a four-page note on the implications of Barker v. Corus from my hon. and academic Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), whose life work has been to study and teach the law of negligence. I have read it twice and I am still not sure that I understand all the implications. I am sure that it just requires a bit more fresh air and a flannel and less distraction because of the World cup. The serious point is that, yes, the more information we get at an earlier stage, the better. If that is not possible, I would be happy for that information to be provided on Report, with plenty of opportunity for colleagues to think about it. Ideally, though, it would be provided in Committee.

I have two final points. I have never before been on a Committee in which the Conservative party—for that matter, any party—has done a sort of trailer for the real film of all the things that are to come. Now we know what issues the Conservative party will treat us to. It is always useful to know what is coming down the tracks, and we look forward to discussing those issues. The one that we clearly need time for—the trade union relationship and trade union solicitors—was referred to in part 2, which is much less controversial. There is a willingness to make sure that we understand what the law is and what it should be.

Lastly, in case people comment later, I have always taken the view that, in Committee, we should be as lightly whipped as possible, because Committee stage is when people should be able to express individual opinions. So, if my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire and I have a difference of view—I have not discussed with him whether we do—we shall vote differently. In my view, that is what Committees should be for: to allow Members to express their view unless there is a party manifesto commitment. I do not think that there are any great party manifesto commitments at stake. I hope that we will have a constructive debate and be persuaded by the argument, not by pre-ordained views that drive us into a particular voting Lobby or in a particular direction.

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower 4:45 pm, 20th June 2006

Let me respond to Mr. Brazier’s earlier question. There was a difficult decision as to whether to put all the amendments together and debate them in common. We decided that to do so would give the Committee a better opportunity to discuss all the issues. Like the hon. Gentleman, I hoped that we would avoid a separate stand part debate because we would have covered everything in detail by that point. The more general points would be most appropriately made in the debate on the amendments grouped with amendment No. 27.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Normally, I hope that the programme motion will pass virtually unscathed, but we have had an important debate about what is in the Bill and what we hope will be in the Bill.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) is absolutely right: mesothelioma is a disease that can be 30 years in gestation but which once  diagnosed can cause a quick and painful death. We want to make absolutely sure that sufferers and their families are as protected as possible from the consequences of the disease. The Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Constitutional Affairs have been working with stakeholders to find ways to improve the claims process and the tracking of employers and insurers. We know that to be important.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

The hon. Lady will be aware that some major insurers in this country—Norwich Union, Zurich and so on—have good systems for tracing companies that were insured by them through the years. The same is not true of some others. Clearly, a level playing field helps everyone. It helps the claimant because he is able to trace an employer’s insurer and therefore has someone to sue. It also means that the system is fairer.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. We are aware of that. It is one of the reasons that a great deal of work is going on in that area.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I warmly welcome the inclusion of the amendment on mesothelioma. The issue of pleural plaques was raised on Second Reading. Has that issue been considered on the scope of whatever amendment the Government are bringing forward?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

We are concentrating on the Barker judgment and have asked officials to work on that. As for timing, I would like that amendment to be introduced in Committee for two reasons. First, I said as much on Second Reading, but, secondly and more importantly, Labour Back Benchers in Committee have been most vociferous in advocating the cause of mesothelioma sufferers. It is appropriate that my hon. Friends should be the first to ensure that such changes take place. However, if it cannot be done by the end of our time in Committee, we can come back to the issue on Report.

In reflecting on the issues, we have received cross-departmental support for what we are trying to do. I can tell the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that the Bill is a Labour party manifesto commitment, and I am pleased that the proceedings are taking place. However, I hope that people do not underestimate the amount of work that has already been done in the short time since the Barker judgment to make sure that people who suffer from mesothelioma and their families receive the justice that they deserve. I know from comments in Committee that everyone here will help us to try to achieve that.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Absolutely. We will make sure that an explanatory note is attached to any amendment that we table. On that basis, I recommend the programme motion to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.