Rights of Relatives to Damages (Mesothelioma) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:00 pm on 21st March 2007.

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Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 3:00 pm, 21st March 2007

I, too, am pleased to speak in the debate. As members said, many people should be congratulated on their support for the bill: my Labour colleagues Des McNulty and Duncan McNeil, who secured members' business debates on the subject; members of the Justice 2 Committee in the first session of the Parliament and the Justice 1 Committee in this session—the committees were linked by the convenership of Pauline McNeill, who never gave up on the issue; and Thompsons Solicitors, who helped many people in a tragic situation.

Few of us can imagine what it is like for someone to be told that they have mesothelioma, knowing that life expectancy for sufferers is short and there is no cure. The people who really deserve our congratulations and admiration are the sufferers of mesothelioma and their families, particularly the members of Clydebank Asbestos Group and other action groups. Those people were faced with tragedy, but continued to fight for justice for themselves and others. They deserve our admiration and our action.

Mesothelioma is a dreadful disease. As we heard, it is a type of lung cancer that is almost always fatal. The Justice 2 Committee in the first session of the Parliament oversaw legislation to speed up the compensation process in light of the short period from diagnosis, but we must deal with the unintended consequence of that legislation, which was that it was not possible for both sufferers and their families to claim the damages to which they should have been entitled.

The Justice 1 Committee's scrutiny of the bill required consideration of only a small number of questions. Did we accept the need for legislation? Should it apply only to mesothelioma cases? Should there be retrospection? The committee quickly agreed that legislation was necessary to address the dilemma and that it should be limited to mesothelioma cases. The committee was also convinced that retrospection to an identified date was the right approach. The Deputy Minister for Justice, Johann Lamont, responded quickly to ensure that that approach was taken. The committee's support for retrospection was not arrived at haphazardly; we acknowledged that legislation should not be made retrospective without detailed analysis taking place. On this occasion, the retrospective approach was possible, proportionate and the right thing to do.

In the stage 1 debate, I welcomed the Scottish Law Commission's more wide-ranging review of the law of damages. Too often, people who should be compensated face obstacles that cannot be justified. I am sure that all members of the Parliament would want to progress further legislation if it proved to be necessary. The Scottish Executive should use the Parliament's support to ensure that action is taken quickly.

Health and safety at work is a reserved issue, but the Minister for Health and Community Care, Andy Kerr, often stresses that members of the Scottish Parliament have an obligation to promote our constituents' good health, rather than just respond to their illnesses. Given the Scottish Executive's cross-cutting approach, I hope that the Minister for Communities will not mind if I talk about health in the workplace. The Scotland's health at work programme, which is part of the new Scottish centre for healthy working lives, has done much to encourage good working practices, but, like Kenny MacAskill, I cannot help but wonder about the possible damage that is being done to workers in industries in which people are required to sit in front of computers all day or work with chemicals that have only recently come on to the market, or to workers who are at risk of repetitive strain injury. We need to protect those people, too. It is essential that general practitioners consider their patients' work as a possible contributory factor in their illness. We should learn the lessons of the past, when we were perhaps too complacent, so that we can ensure that we protect workers in the future.

We cannot give mesothelioma sufferers back their good health by passing this bill, but we can try to make recompense for their suffering and that of their families. This is a good bill and a good day for the Parliament.