Remembrance Day: Justice for veterans with mesothelioma
On Remembrance Day is is worth reflecting on those veterans who died, not on the battlefield, but because of diseases they contracted while serving in the military, and how we treat these people. I am thinking in particular of those who develop mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. It can take decades to develop (usually around 40 years) and is always fatal. Most victims die within 18 months of diagnosis. Around 2,500 people develop mesothelioma every year in the UK and a large number are ex-military. Many are ex-navy as most ships were literally covered in asbestos until the 1980’s. It was used as a coating, insulator and flooring. Navy personnel were frequently exposed to high levels of asbestos dust in boiler and engine rooms, but even in their sleeping quarters and mess halls.
And it is not a small number who were affected. Academics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, have predicted that over two and half thousand naval veterans will die from mesothelioma between now and 2047.
That in itself is a tragedy, but to make things worse, many of them will be denied proper compensation.
Under the new Mesothelioma Act, anyone who develops mesothelioma as a result of their work can get compensation, even if you cannot trace their former employer. There is however an exemption, which is if you were in the armed forces. Ex-service men and women who were exposed before 1987 (which is most of them) will not be able to make a claim. This is because the Crown had “immunity” from prosecution until then. Instead, they are given a War Disablement Pension during their lifetime. If a person is single then this pension dies with them. What it means is that, instead of the lump sum they would be entitled to if they were exposed to asbestos as a civilian, they simply get a monthly pension. If they live for a year the maximum they can receive is around £31,000. This compares with an average civil payment for mesothelioma of over £150,000.
There is no way that this is fair, and even if they cannot sue the Ministry of Defence for negligence in exposing them to the killer dust, veterans should be able to claim under the new mesothelioma scheme. This would still mean that a 63 year old single veteran would receive around £133,000 lump sum.
So far the Government are refusing to budge, despite attempts by the shadow defence minister with responsibility for veterans, Gemma Doyle, to try to persuade them to act humanely.
In September of this year, the Royal British Legion issued a manifesto for 2015. One of the things it calls for is for the Government to offer veterans with mesothelioma the option to receive a lump sum in compensation, broadly comparable to payments awarded under the new Mesothelioma Scheme, instead of a War Disablement Pension/War Widow’s Pension. This would make a massive difference. They believe that at least 750 people would benefit from this because of the likely time when they were exposed and their personal circumstances. However, as over 250 veterans are dying from mesothelioma every year, time is running out for the government to do the decent thing.