Mesothelioma is a terrible disease contracted by people who have breathed in asbestos fibres. Here is what mesothelioma does. If one asbestos fibre goes into someone’s lung it can lie dormant for many years, but when it becomes active there is no alternative—that person suffers horribly and then they die. There is no cure, no remission and no element of survival; they die. Everybody who gets mesothelioma will die an agonising death.
I arranged a debate in Westminster Hall, the second chamber of the House of Commons, about the changes to legal aid because of a new law passed by parliament which makes victims of mesothelioma pay their own legal costs. At present those costs are paid by the insurance companies but only if victims win their case. The new law will take a quarter of the compensation away from victims or more accurately their families, as the victims usually die before insurance companies settle the claims.
A good number of Labour MPs, also spoke briefly in the debate in Westminster Hall and a number of others spoke strongly in the debates on the LASPO bill. Some government MPs (including Tracy Crouch and Andrew Percy) also spoke on this subject and all of us who spoke pleaded with the government to exempt mesothelioma from the changes to the law on no win, no fee. In Westminster Hall alone, Dave Anderson, Dennis Skinner, Steve Rotheram, Nia Griffith and Paul Goggins all intervened in the half hour debate we were granted. Andy Slaughter has led for the Labour front bench and many it the Lords spoke powerfully on behalf of the victims and their families on this subject.
The government said that it would review the support given to victims of mesothelioma and their families. This follows the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act which included industrial diseases along with Road Traffic Accidents in measures to end no win no fee litigation in the courts. It is the LASPO legislation which threatens to hit the victims of mesothelioma and other industrial diseases by cutting the level of compensation. Remember that people who suffer and die from industrial diseases like mesothelioma become ill because they went to work and were not protected by employers who knew of the dangers.
The government says it wants to stop fraudulent insurance claims and that is why it has stopped no win no fee legal actions. But there is no evidence of fraudulent claims from those suffering from mesothelioma.
The House of Lords tried to amend the legislation and to exclude victims of mesothelioma from the changes to no win no fee legislation but the amendments made by the Lords were rejected by the government. The government instead said that it would hold a review and that it would consider how it would support the victims and their families. So far ministers have not said what that review will consist of and have not said when the review will be held. Victims and their families need to know and in the debate in parliament I pressed the government to say what will happen in the review so that those suffering from this terrible disease know how the review will be carried out and can prepare their evidence so that they do not lose out as a result of the end of no win no fee.
The idea that those suffering from mesothelioma could possibly be involved in fraudulent claims is absurd and it is disgraceful.
It cannot be right, that victims of asbestos-related diseases should be required to surrender a quarter of the damages they have been awarded to pay for legal costs. Those damages are awarded to recognise and compensate men and women, if it is at all possible to compensate them, for the pain, suffering and life-shortening illnesses they got from their work.
As things stand, if the legislation is enacted, that is what will happen. The government rejected the Lords amendment which would have exempted mesothelioma from this provision but it has yet to say how sufferers and their families will be protected and in all the non answers from government ministers, they have yet to justify to thousands of families why they did not exempt mesothelioma.
Bill Esterson is the Labour MP for Sefton Central