Government blocks justice for mesothelioma victims
Eight years ago the TUC proposed a no-fault fund of last resort for people who were injured or who developed a disease through work but where their employer had not got insurance, or the insurer could not be traced. This proposal mirrored the situation with car insurance where people could make a claim if they got hit by an uninsured or “hit-and-run” driver.
The proposal was adopted by the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health and finally by the Labour government who, after a campaign by asbestos victims and unions, published a consultation on the proposals in early 2010. Unfortunately, after the election that year the coalition government said it wanted time to consider the proposals and discuss the plans with the insurance industry. After three years they finally came up with a very watered down proposal which would give limited compensation only to a small number of people. Rather than covering everyone with an occupational disease it was restricted to mesothelioma. In addition compensation would be only 70% of what they would receive if they could trace their insurer.
Since then the bill has gone through both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. At every debate the arguments for increasing both the scope of the Bill and the level of compensation have been overwhelming, yet each time the Tory and Liberal Democrat politicians have expressed sympathy with the victims and then trailed through the lobby to vote like sheep for the Government. The only change was that the amount of compensation was raised from 70% to 75%, and that was agreed by the government.
Last night the bill had its final stage in the Commons. There was a sombre mood because one of the strongest supporters of the trade unions arguments, the Labour MP Paul Goggins, was in a critical condition in hospital. Sadly he has since died. He had proposed a number of amendments to the Bill, including one to impose a levy on the insurance industry to pay for research into the deadly disease. In his absence the clause was moved by Conservative MP Tracey Crouch. Despite this, and a smattering of support from a few of her fellow Tories and a handful of Lib-Dems, the clause was defeated by 266 votes to 226. Other amendments to increase the level of compensation and backdate payments to those diagnosed after 2010 were also defeated even though the government did not even bother to even try to justify their case for opposing them.
The Minster, Mike Penning said that the bill was “a deal we have struck to get this bill to where it is today with the insurance industry”. So basically the industry that wants to pay out as little as possible for those victims has a veto over how much the Government agree they should pay out to people who are dying after their employer exposed them to asbestos. And this is despite the fact that the insurers received the premiums from the employers and it is the insurance industry which cannot trace the insurance policies. Naturally insurance companies are large contributors to Tory party funds (and they have the nerve to talk about trade union funding of the Labour Party).
However the biggest case for increasing the payments was the moral one. As Nick Brown, the Newcastle East MP, said:
“Compensation should be 100% of what is due. Victims, within a few months, are going to be 100% dead, so 100% compensation does not seem unreasonable.”
The Bill, which is now a weak imitation of the original proposal was finally approved last night and will now get Royal Assent. That said, it should not be seen as a failure. Every year of the 2,400 people diagnosed with mesothelioma, 300 of them are not able to trace an insurer and so get nothing. These people will at least get something. That is because of the work done by the victims’ support groups, their unions, the union lawyers and of course Paul Goggins and the small core of Labour MPs who have been relentlessly pursuing the case for this over the past seven or eight years.
Also this is not the end of the line. Unions are going to continue fighting for justice for all those who are made ill or injured at work, and that means 100% compensation, for everyone.