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New Clause 1 - Establishing additional schemes

Part of Mesothelioma Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 12th December 2013.

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Photo of Nick Brown Nick Brown Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne East 3:15 pm, 12th December 2013

I shall speak to new clause 7, tabled in my name.

I would love to be able to assume that the Minister’s general assurance on looking at other asbestos-related conditions embraced, in its generosity, a commitment to look again at pleural thickening and pleural plaques, but that would be an unwise assumption—unless he wants to intervene and say something now. I see that he does not, although I would happily give way if he did.

I identify myself with everything my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said in moving new clause 1. My new clause deals with something different and specific: pleural thickening and pleural plaques. Prior to 2007, it was possible, if the victim could find an employer and an insurer, to sue in common law for pleural plaques. Indeed, people were able to obtain substantial settlements for pleural plaques.

It might help the Committee if I set out the distinction between pleural thickening and pleural plaques, and mesothelioma. The two things have a common cause: asbestos fibre getting into the lung, with the body’s defence mechanism responding by hardening around the fibre or the fibre’s causing scarring on the lung. That is the pleural thickening or the pleural plaque. It does not, however, of itself—this is a common misconception—go on to develop into full-blown mesothelioma and that form of lung cancer.

I often find myself explaining that to constituents, because they are not just unsure, but confused and frightened, and worried that because they have been diagnosed with pleural plaque, their life expectancy has been dramatically reduced. Such a diagnosis does not necessarily mean that. It does mean, however, that they have been exposed to asbestos dust, and worry and anxiety that come with that are very real. It also means that they may have developing within them some other condition, because of the exposure to the dust.

The number of cases is substantially greater than the number identified with mesothelioma. The annual number of cases of pleural thickening, assessed for industrial injury disablement benefit, has more than trebled since 1991, reflecting changes in the criteria for compensation and the number of new cases annually. There were 460 such cases in 2012, compared to 150 in 1991. Between 1998 and 2012, nearly 15,000 cases of pleural disease were confirmed by chest scans, but there is no direct or precise estimate of the current prevalence of pleural plaques in the UK, because people would need a scan to confirm the diagnosis. However, in absolute terms, the condition is likely to be common, with one expert suggesting that as many as 36,000 to 90,000 people a year may be developing plaques. That is one expert’s estimate, and it can only be an estimate.

The question is: should people with this condition be entitled to any form of remedy at all? No person asked to be given such a thing. People get it by exposure to asbestos. Until 2007, it was possible to take a common-law case to gain compensation. That was fought by the insurers, all the way up to the House of Lords. In the decision of Rothwell v. Chemical and Insulating Co Ltd, which became the definitive case, all future such awards were stopped.

I am not telling tales out of school, Mr Howarth; you will remember this. There was a huge campaign in the Labour party when we were in government to try to get some compensation for the victims of pleural plaques. The settlement arrived at after strongly argued discussions among colleagues and friends was that those who had made claims prior to the decision would get something—the reasoning was that they had some limited expectation of success, so it would be wrong to have their hopes struck down—but that there could be no future expectation. I disagreed with the settlement then and I disagree with it now.

It is unfair that people who did not ask for the condition—the condition having been inflicted upon them without their consent—should be denied any form of redress. Had they been inflicted with an external condition, such as facial scarring rather than scarring on their lungs, they would be entitled to compensation. In any event, it is unreasonable to say that people may be inflicted with something to which they never agreed and that is bound to worry them and be a cause of distress. Moreover, the condition is an indication of exposure to asbestos and therefore results in an enhanced likelihood—we can argue about the degree of enhancement —of developing a much more serious asbestos-related condition that is almost invariably fatal.

The feeling about that in the north-east of England is very strong. Every single Member of the previous Parliament from the region—I know the region is overwhelmingly Labour—committed themselves to a campaign to secure justice for the victims of pleural plaque.

The forecasts for sufferers of mesothelioma, which we discussed earlier, are all we have to guide us. I have no quarrel whatever with the public servants and the specialists who put together those forecasts. I am sure they have done their best, but within those figures there are, as we discussed in relation to a previous clause, a substantial number of variants. The figures cannot be absolutely relied upon, and in any event, we know that the profile of victims will be different in the coming decade from the past decade.

In the past decade communities and regions, such as the one I represent, with a preponderance of heavy engineering, shipbuilding and every single industry from thermal insulation and lagging to railway-related industries, in which asbestos was sprayed as a fire retardant with limited protection for the operatives involved, had the historical cases. My view is that future cases will be more broadly spread. We will find cases among members of the teaching profession who put pins into asbestos-clad boards and people in the construction sector who drilled into asbestos plates. At one stage, asbestos was used as a construction material for outbuildings, which were assembled by drilling into the asbestos. Victims from such industries will be coming through in the future. They will not have shown up yet, and we do not know just how many there are. I hope the predictions are correct and that the public safety measures for which the House voted have effect, but if those measures have been more honoured in the breach, or if the condition is more prevalent than the assessors say, we will have a rising profile, or at least a steady profile, of mesothelioma cases. There is no reason whatever why the profile of pleural plaque and pleural thickening cases will not follow the same broad trend.

People with such conditions are our fellow citizens. An injury for which they did not ask and that they did not want has been inflicted upon them. There should be a straightforward, simple and proportionate remedy for their condition. My new clause invites the Minister to do no more than think about it. I hope he will think about it.