The House of Lords, on two occasions has defeated Government proposals to take up to 25% of damages received by victims of mesothelioma as “success fee” payments to lawyers.This week, in the House of Commons, the Government agreed not to implement the proposals until after a full Review had taken place and they have also said it will now be their intention to put a new scheme into place:
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Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the cruellest industrial diseases is the asbestos-related lung cancer mesothelioma, which can strike up to 40 years after exposure and has thus far claimed the lives of 30,000 workers? Is not one of the best things that the Government can do to support such workers is to respond positively to the all-party calls made in both Houses for mesothelioma victims not to have to face surrendering up to 25 per cent of their much-needed compensation to pay legal costs-compensation which they need in facing the last nine months to one year of their lives?
Lord Freud: I am spending considerable time on mesothelioma currently and I hope to sort out the real problem, which is the large number of people suffering from the illness who are getting no compensation at all because they cannot trace who was insuring them. I hope to see some real progress in this area-looking at the whole area of mesothelioma, both those who have been traced and those who are untraced-and to report back on that in the not too distant future, certainly before the summer.
Lord Wigley: My Lords, on the question of mesothelioma, to which the Minister referred a moment ago, can he indicate whether the ideas which he will be working on over the coming period will require legislation? If so, why are the Government not taking advantage of the legislation that is currently going through this House?
Lord Freud: My Lords, it is possible, depending on the outcome, that we will need primary legislation on mesothelioma. However these things take time and we will have to structure any solution in consultation with the various stakeholders in order to get there. There is not time at the moment to attach any relevant legislation quite as rapidly as the noble Lord suggests.
Monday April 23rd 2012
Moved by Lord McNally
That this House do not insist on its Amendment 31 to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 31A.
31A Because it is not appropriate to make an exception from clauses 43, 45 and 46 for proceedings which include a claim for damages for respiratory disease or illness arising from industrial exposure to harmful substances.
Lord McNally: My Lords, when we were opening this debate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, intervened to make the very valid point that it was only by him raising the issue of mesothelioma in debate in this House that this important issue has received the attention that it deserved. I pay tribute to him, having known him for a long time as an adept campaigner. Whatever happens, he can take great credit for the way that he has focused attention on this terrible disease. As with some of our other debates, however, this is not about whether you are in favour of or against mesothelioma victims. This is a debate about how our legal system is being reformed.
We are implementing fundamental reforms of conditional fee agreements, or CFAs, following the recommendations in Lord Justice Jackson’s review of civil litigation costs. The current regime allows for risk-free litigation for claimants and substantial additional costs for defendants. We want to restore a fair balance
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to the system, with meritorious cases being brought at proportionate cost. We are therefore abolishing recoverability of success fees and “after the event”, or ATE, insurance premiums. These reforms are intended to apply across the board and will cause a real shift in our society’s approach to litigation.
That is the general case, and it is important not to lose sight of it in considering respiratory disease claims, mesothelioma claims or others, but I want to repeat some specific points about mesothelioma. No one is suggesting that these tragic cases are contributing in any way to what has been described as a compensation culture-this is a horrible disease which acts very fast, and that suggestion has never been any part of my case in putting forward the Government’s position, as noble Lords know. It is a horrific disease and we have nothing but sympathy and compassion for its victims. Recent Governments of all colours have taken measures to help claimants in these cases, and this Government are continuing that work with due urgency.
In an earlier debate I spoke of recent legal changes that have significantly lowered the bar for mesothelioma claims. These cases are always tragic but they are mainly straightforward and relatively low risk. The costs should not be as high as they can be under the current regime. Legal costs need to be controlled in these cases, as in others. These reforms have been carefully put together as a balanced package. Having considered the interests of claimants against the interests of defendants, we are implementing a number of additional measures. These include a 10 per cent increase in damages for non-pecuniary loss and, in personal injury cases, a cap on the success fee of 25 per cent of damages, excluding future care and loss. Let me emphasise that that is a maximum cap. No lawyer is required to take any success fee from a claimant, and many lawyers will wish to maximise the damages that victims can receive. We are also introducing qualified one-way costs-shifting so that “after the event” insurance is no longer necessary in respect of the other side’s costs.
These measures are intended to work alongside the abolition of recoverability to ensure that all sides have an interest in keeping costs down and resolving more claims more quickly. Because speed is the other crucial element in mesothelioma cases, it is imperative that fair compensation is paid as quickly as possible. Under the current regime, however, standard cases can take as long as two years or more to be resolved. That is often longer than the sufferer survives. The Government have their part to play in speeding up this process and we are engaged with stakeholders and government colleagues in relation to it. However, to exempt mesothelioma cases wholly from our reforms would be to retain the status quo, undermining the package of reforms and allowing cases to drag on.
I should highlight that the reforms under Part 2 are not taking place in isolation. Last week I met with the Minister for Welfare Reform, my noble friend Lord Freud, to discuss the work that he is actively undertaking with stakeholders. I am glad to confirm that real progress has been made and that the Department for Work and Pensions hopes to make an announcement before the House rises for the summer on a programme
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for settling these disputes, a programme that will be speedier and avoid unnecessary litigation.
The Government are not ignorant of or indifferent to the plight of mesothelioma sufferers. These are important cases which need to be dealt with as quickly as possible-that is a matter of humanity. Of course, greater speed generally also means reduced costs, which benefits everyone. As I say, we are actively working with the DWP to ensure that victims can access the help that they need. I urge noble Lords to consider the whole picture, not just the element of reform which we have in front of us today. The work that we are doing on civil litigation costs is closely related to the work that we are undertaking on helping mesothelioma victims who are unable to trace their insurers. To undermine one reform may be to endanger another, which is a scenario that we should avoid. I urge noble Lords not to insist on Amendment 31 and to support Motion E. I beg to move.
Motion E1 (as an amendment to Motion E)
Moved by Lord Alton of Liverpool
Leave out from “House” to end and insert “do insist on its Amendment 31”.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, before the vote on 15 March on Report, a cross-party group of 18 Members of your Lordships’ House signed a letter urging us to defend the rights of mesothelioma victims. The House subsequently voted by a majority of 31 in favour of that amendment, which enables victims of asbestos to keep 100 per cent of their much-needed compensation. The amendment adds nothing to the public purse-that is why there is no financial privilege claim against it-but it seeks to support terminally ill victims of mesothelioma and their families.
All sides of your Lordships’ House have agreed that such cases are, as the Minister has just reiterated, not part of a compensation culture. No one has been able to give any examples of fraudulent or frivolous claims, and nothing that the noble Lord has said today would dispute that. Indeed, at no stage during our proceedings has he ever either asserted or implied that. However, I was concerned to see that the Minister in another place, Mr Jonathan Djanogly, in disputing this amendment, said that the current regime,
“was meant to promote access to justice but has frequently ended up as something of a racket allowing risk-free litigation for claimants, inflated profits for legal firms, and punitive additional costs for defendants”.-[Official Report, Commons, 17/4/12; col. 265.]
I wonder what the noble Lord has to say in contradicting that assertion made in another place. The Minister there was challenged to name one case where a mesothelioma victim had taken an unreasonable or vexatious case to court. He chose not to do so. On reflection, I am sure that he would want to reconsider linking bogus claims to the issue of mesothelioma.
The Minister then said two other things which I ask the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to ask his right honourable friend the Justice Secretary, Mr Kenneth Clarke, to ponder. One was the suggestion that people dying of mesothelioma should be “watching the clock”, which
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is a phrase that was used in the other place-in other words, policing what lawyers are charging. He said that,
“it is quite right that someone who employs a lawyer has some idea of what is on that lawyer’s clock and what they are charging. That is very important. If someone is sick, they will have family who can help them through their sickness”.-[Official Report, Commons, 17/4/12; col. 268.]
I suspect that when you are dying, especially from a debilitating and excruciatingly painful disease, you may have other things on your mind than watching the lawyer’s clock. As one widow put it:
“Mesothelioma sufferers are in constant pain and always fighting to breathe, they suffer horrendously and they and their families are traumatised at what the future holds”.
She also said:
“Whilst you are trying to cope with the physical and emotional trauma that comes with the words, terminal illness you cannot contemplate the extra worry and anxiety that claiming compensation would bring”.
It is also erroneous to suggest that everyone has relatives to fight their corner for them. Even if they do, should that be their primary concern when a loved one is in the last few months of their life? It is not the job of someone dying of mesothelioma to become the Government’s regulator or watchdog, watching the clock or challenging exorbitant legal fees. That is the job of regulators, not victims of a lethal industrial injury.
The Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East, Mr Paul Goggins, who kindly shepherded this amendment in the Commons, asked with great clarity:
“How can the Minister expect such victims and their families-people who have received the diagnosis and know that they are going to die-to shop around for the cheapest possible lawyer when they need every ounce of their energy to fight their disease?”.-[Official Report, Commons, 17/4/12; col. 278.]
Although our amendment was rejected in the Commons, it once again enjoyed all-party support and the government majority was one of the smallest since coming to office. That underlines the crucial role of your Lordships’ House in scrutinising legislation, especially on a day when the House is once again being told that it must be reformed. It is worth noting, as I did earlier in an intervention following the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, that this issue was not even debated in earlier Commons stages. Our Lords amendment gave the Commons its first opportunity to consider an exception for those who had no chance of surviving their illness and little hope of seeing justice done in their lifetime. It is not a bad illustration of what one national newspaper described as “the conscience role” frequently played by this House and how it scrutinises and examines details of legislation and its effects. When an issue of this importance, affecting thousands of terminally ill people can be overlooked at Second Reading and then caught by a guillotine at Committee and Report stages, leaving it completely undebated, that raises some serious questions about which House is most in need of reform.
By sending this amendment back to the Commons, it finally allowed a one-hour debate to occur last Wednesday, although the Member for Scunthorpe, Mr Dakin, was at the very beginning of his remarks when the guillotine fell and we never got to hear what he wanted to say on behalf of his constituents. Other
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honourable Members of the House of Commons also hoped to speak but were unable to do so.
In the Division which followed, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament were among those who voted for the amendment. The speech by Tracey Crouch, the Member of Parliament for Chatham and Aylesford, who previously worked in the insurance industry, is especially noteworthy. She said:
“It is not my insurance background that drives my real interest in this issue; it is on a constituency basis that I care most. Medway has been highlighted as a hot spot for mesothelioma, which is unsurprising given that the towns have historically provided the industrial hub for Kent, and that the Chatham dockyard was one of the biggest employers for many decades”.
Supporting her, Andrew Bingham, Conservative Member of Parliament for High Peak commented on the all-pervasive nature of this pernicious disease. He said:
“My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend, has a higher than average incidence of mesothelioma. We have no shipbuilding, but there has been significant employment in other asbestos-related industries across the High Peak.-[Official Report, Commons, 17/3/12; col. 271.]
Unsurprisingly, with 30,000 deaths thus far, and many thousands more to come, many honourable Members talked about their own experiences in dealing with asbestos-related cases, and there was a series of very well-made speeches. Mr Andy Slaughter, the Member of Parliament for Hammersmith, reminded the House of Commons that it is misleading to suggest that victims would be better off as a consequence of a 10 per cent uplift if some victims were to lose up to 25 per cent of their damages. He said:
“The Government have refused to reduce base costs for lawyers, which would be the obvious way to stop inflated costs. Instead, they are going after victims’ damages. The beneficiaries of all this will be the defendants and their insurers. They will have significantly reduced liabilities if they lose”.-[Official Report, Commons, 17/3/12; cols. 269-70.]
Tracey Crouch said:
“I note the Association of British Insurers is warning that mesothelioma sufferers might not benefit from those reforms if the amendment goes through. I do not believe that, and I want to issue the counter-warning that, on fatal industrial diseases such as mesothelioma, the Government will be judged on what they do to help victims, whether through financial or other types of support.-[Official Report, Commons, 17/4/12; col. 272.]
I spoke to Tracey Crouch earlier today and she told me that if we send this amendment back to the House of Commons she will persist in championing it. The reason why Members feel so strongly was summed up very well by Mr Ian Lucas, the Member of Parliament for Wrexham. He is a lawyer and said:
“I am a solicitor, and I did not go into the law to take damages away from a dying person, pending the outcome of a claim”.-[Official Report, Commons, 17/3/12; col. 275.]
Finally, in resisting the amendment in the Commons, Mr Djanogly said that if it were passed,
“claimants in mesothelioma cases would have an advantage over others”.-[Official Report, Commons, 17/3/12; col. 268.]
An advantage over others? It is hard to think of many advantages enjoyed by victims of mesothelioma. That was an ill-judged and insensitive remark.
The Minister argued that it would be unjust to single out one class of claimants for exemption. Of course it is never possible to do what we would like for
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everyone-I fully accept that-but does that mean that we can never see the difference between one category of victims and another? Is there not a difference between someone lodging a claim for whiplash and someone who has contracted a terminal illness? Are we really incapable of prioritising or seeing grounds for exceptions, as we have now, for instance, in medical negligence cases-and rightly so?
Noble Lords should recall that mesothelioma has attracted more legal challenges to limit liability for compensation than any other disease. Exceptionally, mesothelioma has a latency period of up to 60 years. It is a fatal disease; there is no cure. No industrial disease places claimants in such difficult circumstances when facing the stress of taking legal action.
It is moving to reflect on the comments of the late Lord Newton of Braintree, who was one of the key supporters of this amendment. Lord Newton, a former Secretary of State, Minister for disabled people and Leader of the House of Commons, referring to victims of asbestos exposure, said:
“I have some experience of claims relating to that disease-or rather to mesothelioma … I think there is a real case for wondering whether we should not maintain assistance to that group of people … this condition is what you might call very slow burn. Exposure to asbestos that occurred very many years ago may give rise much later to mesothelioma, one of the nastiest forms of cancer”.
He concluded by saying:
“I hope my noble friends on the Front Bench will not consider that this amendment would have a scattergun effect but that it is well targeted and deserves careful consideration”.-[Official Report, 30/1/12; col. 1359.]
In a letter to the Times from my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, the noble Lords, Lord Beecham and Lord Avebury, and myself and others, we remarked on the creation of an exceptional injustice if this amendment is not supported. We said:
“Asbestos victims should not, and financially cannot, subsidise other claimants’ access to justice, nor can they afford to defend test cases run by rich insurers”.
The letter urged Parliament,
“to protect asbestos victims from a gross injustice”.
Following the Commons debate, I am glad to say that the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Freud, held talks last week with the right honourable Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East, Mr Goggins, and me. They are actively trying to find ways forward and I welcome that. As one can imagine, we were treated with characteristic respect and understanding. The movers of the amendment made it clear to Ministers that we are looking for a constructive outcome. If it comes to a Division, I hope that the House will continue to support the amendment while we continue to seek an agreed way forward. Society owes a huge debt to those who are now losing their lives to this terrible disease. Thousands of people will lose their lives in decades to come as a result of criminally negligent exposure to asbestos long after the dangers were known to government, industry and health and safety enforcement agencies. I hope that noble Lords will join me in keeping this issue in contention until a just solution is achieved. I beg to move.
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Lord Avebury: My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord McNally in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has fought so tenaciously for the rights of mesothelioma victims and their bereaved families over many months and previously, before we got to these debates. I know that he has always espoused their rights and tried to do the best that he could for them. I also thank my noble friend Lord McNally for what he said about the Government’s intentions, the programme for settling cases without the necessity to go to court and the development of a scheme analogous to that which operates in the case of motor accidents where it is impossible to find the insurer. I welcome those moves but they are not in any way in conflict with what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, proposes in his amendment.
The arguments in favour of the amendment have been covered exhaustively in both Houses and I do not propose to repeat any of them now. I will say only that it is incomprehensible that, in the face of near unanimity on all sides among those who have spoken in those debates, the Government are still unwilling to give way. The argument that the amendment undermines the principle that in CFA cases the success fee and the ATE are to be paid by the winning claimant is destroyed by the concession that has been made on clinical negligence cases.
In moving to reject the amendment in another place, Mr Djanogly said that it was unnecessary because there was nothing in the Government’s proposals to prevent cases being taken or those affected receiving appropriate damages. If he had read the evidence that was provided by the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, he would know that that was not true because many victims have said that they would not have brought cases if they had known that the success fees and ATE insurance would be deducted from the damages awarded. The Minister did not reply when asked directly by Kate Green whether he accepted that some cases would go unrepresented and unpursued.
Secondly, he trotted out the argument of inconsistency. Throughout these debates we have been perfectly clear in saying that we wanted to make an exception for the victims of what is universally acknowledged to be a particularly horrible disease that is invariably fatal, and the majority who voted for it were fully aware they were making an exception to the general pattern of CFA cases. The Minister then insinuated that the claims dealt with in the amendment were part of the compensation culture-an infamous suggestion when we are talking about people who are terminally ill. He went on to say that the Government were not persuaded that these cases were substantially different from other personal injury cases. I question whether he bothered to read our debates or has any knowledge of the ordeal that is experienced by mesothelioma sufferers in the final months of their lives. This is graphically described in the evidence submitted by the victims and relatives’ organisations, and known about directly by many past and present honourable Members from testimony that they received at their advice bureaux.
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Finally, the Minister said that the Government were determined to bring down the cost of litigation. Let us be clear that, as my noble friend Lord McNally acknowledged, in this amendment we are talking about whether the claimant or the defendant pays the success fee. No cost to the taxpayer arises.
In another place, five Conservative honourable Members defied the Whip by voting for the mesothelioma amendment and several others abstained. It can be assumed that if it had been a free vote, the other place would have upheld the amendment and we would not be debating it today. It is only right that we should give them another opportunity to set aside the callous treatment that the Government have insisted on all along, and to substitute what we all know is the fair and compassionate answer.
Lord Morris of Aberavon: My Lords, I add my support to the noble Lord, Lord Alton. As constituency MPs, many of us saw cases to do with this very issue and the difficulties that some of our constituents had in establishing liability after years of contact. I added my name to the noble Lord’s original amendment and heard his speech then, which set out the case admirably. I congratulate him on continuing to expose such an injustice. At this late hour, all I wish to say is that my support continues and I hope that the noble Lord will succeed.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, why success fees should be claimed at all by lawyers in this type of case just defeats me. The problem is in identifying the insurers of a particular firm that may have exposed the sufferer to asbestos many years before. I am delighted to hear that discussions are afoot on setting up a scheme akin to the Motor Insurers’ Bureau, whereby insurers come together to meet the damages and costs of a sufferer who cannot identify a particular insurance company behind his former employer. I hope that comes to pass. If it does, it will cure a lot of problems. It is obvious when a person suffers from mesothelioma; you do not have to prove that someone is suffering from this condition.
As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision last year, it has to be shown only that an employer has exposed an individual to asbestos in the past for that individual’s claim to succeed. The statistics show that these cases settle. What does that mean? It means that the fees of the lawyer are not at risk; he will have his ordinary fees paid by the insurer. Therefore, why should he get a success fee over and above that? On Report, I proposed that there should certainly be no success fee payable if a case settles before steps are taken to bring it to trial. I ask the Minister to take this into account when regulations are drawn up under what will be Section 46. The lawyer is not at risk. He has done nothing to earn more than the fees that he can properly charge. We did not have success fees in the past. We acted for people and, if we lost, we did not charge them. When we won, we got our costs and the expenses that we had paid from the other side, properly taxed. That was how the system worked.
I hope that the Government can bring in a combination of the Motor Insurers’ Bureau scheme for this type of case and couple it with regulations that say that no
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success fee should be charged when a case settles. That would do a great deal to alleviate the problems of which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, speaks. He is right. I stand along with Ian Lucas, my Member of Parliament in Wrexham, who as a lawyer says, “We didn’t come into this profession in order to take money from injured people”. I think that only a heartless claimant’s solicitor would charge a success fee in cases of this nature.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I have no doubt at all about the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the compassion for victims of mesothelioma that he expressed at the outset of his speech. None the less, he felt that he must advise the House to reject the amendment so powerfully moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool.
I say to the Minister that there is no virtue for the Government in dogmatic consistency. I believe that they would do themselves good and, much more importantly, they would do a great deal of good for those diagnosed with mesothelioma, as well as their families and dependents, if they would agree to make an exception in this instance. If they were to do so, it would not create a permanent anomaly, and in the short term I do not believe that it would undermine the central principles of the Government’s reforms because they are absolutely secured in the legislation that Parliament will pass. In any case, the Minister need not fear because this is a category of cases that is going to reduce in number over time. Mesothelioma is, I understand, exclusively associated with exposure to asbestos. All too belatedly the terrible damage that asbestos can do to human health was recognised, and for some time due to regulations and industrial practice there has been no further exposure of people to this hazard. We can foretell with confidence that this category of cases will dwindle and, I think, disappear. Therefore, the Minister need not worry that there will be a permanent anomaly. I say to him that he does not need to persist in a doctrinaire position which runs counter to his own very real human sympathies.
Lord Faulks: My Lords, what was said in the other place about there being some advantage, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, in any case of mesothelioma was most unfortunate and was, I hope, a simple slip of the tongue. Using this appalling disease to give an example of the compensation culture was equally ill advised. It plainly is not.
There is no dispute about the diagnosis of mesothelioma on any occasion. However, this is part of Part 2 of the Bill, and Amendments 31 and 32 have the effect of undermining the structure of the Bill. Part 2 was the result of Lord Justice Jackson’s report and represents an attempt to remove some of the more unattractive and, frankly, almost iniquitous aspects of the system that had grown up as a result of the changes unleashed by the previous Government’s legislation. The fact that this amendment would create an exception to this new, much fairer and proportionate system is not of course itself a reason for objecting to the amendment if it would be a denial of justice to these very deserving cases. There is no doubt that they are highly deserving cases and that they need
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compensation quickly. The Government have announced that there will be an increase in general damages by 10 per cent. I have to admit that I remain somewhat queasy, in common with other noble Lords, about the 25 per cent success fee that will be paid to successful lawyers in these cases, but the Government have said-and I think they are right-that the competition for these cases is such that they cannot imagine that those lawyers will insist on their success fee. A number of experienced lawyers are well geared up to taking these cases, as they have done over the years, and I very much doubt that they will want a success fee. They are, after all, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said, lawyers who will recover the costs to which they are entitled. If those costs are not agreed, they will be entitled to have them assessed by a costs judge, and in due course qualified one-way costs shifting should assist.
What is important about these cases is that, as a result of a series of Acts of Parliament and decisions of the courts, they are no longer difficult to prove. With respect, they are not like some of the more complex clinical negligence cases where there are great differences of opinion over causation or diagnosis. It really is not complicated to prove these cases; nor should it be.
Therefore, the question is this: will lawyers take the cases? If they will, there will not be the terrible denial of justice to which the noble Lord refers. In my view, they will take the cases. They will be properly rewarded financially for doing so and they will have the satisfaction of representing those who deserve compensation. Therefore, while having every sympathy for the sufferers and great admiration for the campaign that has been launched on their behalf, we need to stand back and say what this amendment is about. It is about whether lawyers will be paid more money and whether the fact that they will be paid less money will prevent these cases taking place. I do not believe that it will.
Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, has made a very persuasive case for those who suffer from mesothelioma. Part of that case is that he believes-and he has much support for this-that there will be sufferers from mesothelioma who will not be able to recover damages unless the amendment that was previously passed remains in the Bill. We have just heard from an expert on personal injury cases-my noble friend Lord Faulks-who has expressed the contrary view. He said that lawyers will be prepared to take these cases because they are not very difficult to prove and that there will be no deficit for potential claimants if the amendment is not restored to the Bill. That leaves those of us who are genuinely interested in knowing the truth about these claims on the horns of a dilemma. Given that there is no claim of financial privilege in relation to this amendment, the answer to that dilemma is extremely important.
Therefore, I, for one-and I am sure that other noble Lords around the House share this view-would be grateful if in replying to this debate or at some point during the debate the Minister could tell us whether the department has made an assessment of this problem. What is the department’s view? Does it
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accept that cases will not be brought if the amendment is not restored to the Bill? If so, there is a very powerful case for an exception, as otherwise people will be denied justice for an extremely serious illness by reason of what I think the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, called dogmatic consistency. I share his view that dogmatic consistency is not a necessity for any Act of Parliament. Indeed, one has only to examine half a dozen at random to see how little dogmatic consistency there is in Acts of Parliament. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will give us that information during this debate so that we can make an informed judgment in deciding whether to vote and, if so, how.
Lord Wills: My Lords, the case for this amendment was powerfully made in this House last month and in the other place last week, and I rise now briefly to add another voice in urging Ministers to think again, even at this late stage, and to try to find a constructive solution to this issue.
Before coming to your Lordships’ House, I was an MP in Swindon. Because of that town’s industrial history and particularly because of the large railway works, which employed many thousands of people over many years, this illness was known locally as the Swindon cancer. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his sterling efforts on behalf of all my former constituents who have suffered from this terrible disease and, I am afraid, will suffer from it in years ahead.
Ministers have claimed that it would be wrong for various reasons-I understand and completely accept what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has said about this-to make a special case for this one disease. The fact, however, of this disease’s particular virulence, that it is inevitably fatal, that it progresses with terrifying speed, that it is hard even to find palliative care for it once it has taken hold, all argue powerfully for it being just such a special case.
It is unconscionable to force sufferers from this terrible disease, and their families, at a time when every hour is precious to them, to go through the processes required by this Bill to secure the compensation to which they are entitled. Those are fundamental points for me-whether they can secure lawyers and whether success fees are to be secured for the lawyers. Every hour is precious. The people who are diagnosed with this illness have months and sometimes only weeks to live. We should not force them to go through the processes required by this Bill.
As my noble friend Lord Howarth has already said, accepting this amendment would do no damage to the fundamental principles behind the Government’s reforms of the legal aid system. It is the only decent thing to do.
Lord Bach: My Lords, it is the Opposition’s view that there should be no moneys taken from victims’ damages in these cases. That is the basis of our view. So we speak in favour of the amendment that has been so well moved.
There is a great feeling across this House that we have to protect victims of industrial disease and ensure that they and their families are not victims once again
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of reforms that are there to deal with dodgy whiplash claims and motor insurance premiums. In another place, as we heard this evening, there was a very powerful and intelligent debate on this subject. Those who often express the view that debates in this Chamber are always of a superior nature to those of another place should read Hansard carefully and look at what took place in that very short hour towards the end of Tuesday last week. It was a very good debate.
Honourable Members on all sides of the Chamber spoke with passion, knowledge and experience about this subject. Not least was Ms Crouch, a former insurance executive, who criticised both her Minister and the Association of British Insurers for their stance on these amendments. Indeed, as I understand it, she has spoken to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, today and has also put out a press release. I am delighted that a number of Members of Parliament on all sides who spoke in that debate are listening to our debate this evening.
I could also mention Mr Andrew Percy who represents Brigg and Goole, which the noble Lords will know is famous for its historic shipbuilding past, and Mr Andrew Bingham, the MP for High Peak, an area that also has a high incidence of asbestosis. They spoke against the Minister’s proposals and, to their credit, voted in the Opposition’s Lobby. Their concern was perfectly understandable. Why on earth, with absolutely no savings to the state, are we reducing the amount of money that victims get from those who harm them, while handing that money to lawyers or insurers instead? Those Members on all sides who voted were not persuaded by the stupid assertions-if I may call them that-of the Minister in the other place that industrial disease sufferers should be treated in the same way as an organised gang faking whiplash injuries for payouts or someone lying about a slip or a trip on a pavement crack. Again and again, the other place heard stories of horrific suffering of victims-and the fact that you simply cannot fake cancer of the pleural linings, peritoneum or cardiac sheath.
The history of asbestos-induced diseases-and, indeed, general industrial diseases-is not a proud one for the insurance industry. It knew for decades that asbestos killed before it acted and only then at Parliament’s promptings. Insurers have fought cases-to the death-trying to get out of paying just awards to genuine victims. There is a long history of insurers fighting claims until after the death of the claimant. It is in part thanks to their tireless lobbying that compensation levels in England and Wales are not by any standard generous in cases of this kind. They are forensically calculated to reflect pain, suffering and loss of amenity and costs of past and future losses. They are far less than victims receive in comparable jurisdictions. For example, Mealey’s Litgation Report in 2007 maintained that the average jury award in the United States for mesothelioma was $7.5 million-the average award here is £65,000. Of course, the differences between jury and judge-calculated awards and our judicial systems apply, but there is a huge difference.
No one could argue that the damages victims of this disease receive are very great; they should certainly not be eaten into in the way that this Bill, if allowed,
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would permit. We start from a low baseline before we even consider docking damages to prevent these claimants coming forwards.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: Does the Minister not support my argument that it is better that there should be no success fees at all, rather than that success fees should be claimed against the insurers, which is what this amendment amounts to-in other words, a continuation of the current system? Does the Minister not agree that in these cases, which are easy to prove once you establish the insurer, success fees are really irrelevant?
Lord Bach: I am grateful to the noble Lord again for calling me the Minister-it is a couple of years, I think, since that was the case. I take his point though; it is a serious point. I am not convinced that lawyers who take up these cases, if this Bill in its present form becomes law, will not take success fees. In fact, I am pretty certain that they will. I cannot see why they would not. It may be a shame, but in the reality of the legal world, if they are entitled to take success fees, they will do so.
Lord Faulks:Does the noble Lord have any basis for saying that other than simply speculating?
Lord Bach: I certainly do not have the experience of the noble Lord in this area of the law, but with the greatest respect I ask whether his view is not as speculative as mine. We just do not know, but I would have thought that the history of legal proceedings of this kind is that where success fees are available they will be sought. Maybe not always up to 25 per cent, but they will be sought.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: Surely it would be for the Lord Chancellor to amend the regulations that he has to make to prevent success fees being charged in these circumstances.
Lord Bach: That may be what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, would suggest to the Lord Chancellor that he should do, but is there any indication that that is what will be done? Will regulations be put before Parliament that say it is forbidden to take a success fee in a case of this kind? If so, will not the Lord Chancellor run into exactly the same sort of problems that critics of this amendment raise here against the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and me? Will that not be the position?
Lord Thomas of Gresford: Not if there is an abuse, as the noble Lord suggests. If claimants’ solicitors in cases which are not difficult to prove start charging success fees, which the Lord Chancellor or public opinion decide is simply not acceptable, then the Lord Chancellor will have the power to stop it.
Lord Bach: It may not be difficult to prove, and I understand what noble Lords say about that. But there is a history, I have to say, of insurance companies taking an extremely long time to agree to settle cases of this kind. For whatever reasons-and I do not want to go though them tonight in this House-it may be
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that a case will take quite a considerable period of time, even if, at the end, liability is not denied. I want to stop soon and allow the Minister to respond.
Lord Higgins: Does the noble Lord agree that the crucial thing we have to decide this evening is whether we should send the amendment back to the Commons? I find that I now understand the issues put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, much better than I did at earlier stages of our parliamentary proceedings. Given all the representations that we have received, that is probably true at the other end of the building as well. Therefore, there may be a strong case on those grounds for their reconsidering it. The argument is otherwise very simple, which is that they did not conclude the debate on this amendment in the previous exchanges in the House of Commons. Therefore, if we send it back, it will give them an opportunity to do that. Indeed, if the Minister sought the leave of the House at the end of the debate in the other place, he could actually reply to the debate, which he was prevented from doing by his own guillotine.
Lord Bach: I am very grateful to the noble Lord-I think the whole House will be grateful to him-for shutting me up. That is the first thing that he succeeded in doing, but he also made the point that this is about whether this House believes that the other place should have a closer look at this. What worries me slightly is that, as I understand the programme Motion in the other place, there may be only one hour in the programme for all the matters that they have to consider; but I am not sure that I understand the procedures of this House, let alone those of the other place.
The noble Lord has persuaded me to sit down now. I think that was his intention. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to the points that have been made. Surely the other place should take up this matter again-it is of such huge importance.
Lord McNally: I think it was the line, “I want to stop soon” that provoked my noble friend Lord Higgins to get to his feet.
Again, this has been a very useful debate, with two parallel arguments. I go back to my opening remarks: nobody underestimates the horror of mesothelioma and the importance of getting speedy redress for sufferers. Parallel to that, however, are the attempts that we are trying to bring forward to bring some order to the costs of litigation. It simply is not true that the Jackson reforms are intended just to catch dodgy whiplash claims. There was a general feeling that the amendments to CFAs which the previous Administration introduced brought in an overall inflation of costs in our legal system. We all pay for that inflation.
I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Wills, said, but the truth is that the present system which the sufferers have to use is slow and expensive. I repeat that the intention of this Government is to move as speedily as possible to get to where we can through agreement with the industry, to get litigation out of the way. It is true, as has been said by a number of noble Lords, that there was callous treatment of sufferers. There was
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slow movement in addressing the issue, but that accusation does not lie at this Government’s door. We have moved very quickly in our attempts to get agreement with the industry.
Lord Bach: As far as that is concerned, the setting up of a body in order to get a move on with this was mentioned in a White Paper from the previous Government two years ago. We have seen absolutely nothing after two years to suggest that that body will be set up soon. Indeed, every comment made by the insurance industry as a whole has been opposed to any organisation that would stand in, as it were, when they cannot find who is responsible for these diseases being caused.
Lord McNally: As I made clear in my opening remarks, my noble friend Lord Freud hopes to be able to make a Statement on this by the summer. The House, the insurance industry and sufferers from this disease should understand that we mean business on this. We are addressing this with a real sense of urgency. Whatever happens regarding this amendment, the plight of sufferers from this disease deserve fairness and speed in settlement for the many reasons that have been put forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said that there is no virtue in dogmatic consistency and he even had the strong support of my noble friend Lord Carlile in that. Certainly, there is no virtue in dogmatic consistency, but we need to consider the integrity of the legal system as a whole and fairness between different claimants. There are two parallel debates. There are the necessary Jackson reforms of legal costs, which will apply across the board, and the need to move with speed to get a system that deals with the problems of mesothelioma victims as quickly as possible. We can only make our impact assessments.
My noble friend Lord Carlile asked whether we thought that the Jackson reforms will prevent sufferers’ access to justice. We do not believe that. We would not have brought this forward if we had thought it. The point was made about success fees. I repeat that they are not compulsory. As my noble friend Lord Faulks has pointed out, there may be some proper, healthy competition among lawyers that will address the question of success fees.
It is not the responsibility of somebody suffering from a terminal illness to watch the clock as far as costs are concerned. It is the responsibility of government. The Jackson reforms take that responsibility away from claimants. Not just in this particular case but in the broad there was no responsibility on litigants or their lawyers to watch costs. That was the weakness of the whole system. The Jackson reforms put some emphasis back on to the responsibility to watch costs-not on somebody suffering from a terminal illness but through the reforms that we are putting through across the board in this area. For a claimant who does not have to pay a success fee, the 10 per cent uplift could mean more compensation than he or she would otherwise have got. I make no firm claim on that. It is not a question of being callous towards the sufferers. On the contrary, the Government are taking very speedy action to try to get in place an agreement which I am sure we all agree should have been in place many years before.
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Sadly, this is not a problem that will go away. That is one of the reasons why I believe that we need a sense of urgency in our approach to this. Although we are now fully aware of the dangers of asbestos, this insidious disease can strike 20, 30 or 40 years after exposure. Therefore, there is a need not for a complicated, expensive, lawyer-based system of compensation, but for a system that will address the needs of sufferers. I am sorry that I cannot help more in relation to making it an exception. Horrific as the disease is, it is not an exception to the way in which the justice system should work. We should have a system in which lawyers get a proper return for the job that they do and in which those deserving compensation receive proper compensation. It is not a case of grabbing 25 per cent of that compensation. Competition and even some morality might drive that out of the system. Even bigger than that is the prize that the Government are seeking: a system that is not lawyer-based but one that is based on need, clearly agreed with the industry. As I have assured the House, we hope to make a Statement by the summer and we hope to have a system in place that brings speed and fairness to the sufferers of this disease. I ask the House to reject the amendment and to support the House of Commons resolution.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in this debate and in the earlier debates. The Minister has, with his usual courtesy, dealt with the arguments that have been put forward today. I reiterate my thanks to him for the time that he has spent with me, with Mr Paul Goggins last week and with the noble Lord, Lord Freud. He has said a number of things this evening on which the House should reflect, one of which was about the new scheme that it is hoped will be brought in in future and which will be a lot less reliant on lawyers. If we can achieve that, I think that there will be consensus in your Lordships’ House that it will be a very significant and purposeful step forward and it is certainly one that I will wholeheartedly support. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, has told us that that announcement will be made in the summer. However, it will require primary legislation, which is not before us, so there will be at least another 18 months from the time of the announcement before anything is on the statute book.
In the course of this evening’s proceedings, there has been dispute between different lawyers and different Members of your Lordships’ House about the practical effects of the law as now drafted on victims of mesothelioma. Pending the announcement in the summer and the new legislation that might come, I beg your Lordships not to play Russian roulette with the lives of people who have a terminal illness. I beg you not to be drawn into either side’s arguments about how this might work out and not to take chances but to preserve, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said the amendment would do, the status quo and keep things as they are at the moment until such time as we have something better to put in its place.
Success fees have been mentioned a great deal during the proceedings. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said that many lawyers would not want them, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said that they should not take
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them, and the Minister said that they would not be compulsory. However, the Bill provides for lawyers to take, if they wish, up to 25 per cent in compensation. They can take that as their payment, not for the base fee-they will get that anyway-but in addition to the base fee if they are successful in pursuing a case.
I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said earlier that it would be better if such a system were entirely swept away, but it has not been. If we are to wait for regulation, how do we know whether those regulations will be put forward by the Government or whether they will be successful? I do not think that we should do this on a wing and a prayer.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, thanked me for my persistence but, 40 years ago, in 1972, the noble Lord issued a pamphlet championing people who were suffering from mesothelioma. Thirty thousand people have died from the disease over the years. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has just intimated, probably the same sort of number will die before this is all over.
We are often accused of being preoccupied with fringe issues, but in a week or so, we shall have Workers’ Memorial Day. Surely, this evening, it would be fitting for us to recognise the sacrifice that workers have made in the service of their companies and this country in many heavy industries. This does not affect just those who have worked in heavy industries as even those who washed the clothes of people working in those industries have contracted this awful disease. Surely this is something on which we can raise our voices tonight, knowing that there are Members in another place who wish to pursue this further in the House of Commons and who were denied the opportunity to do so at earlier stages. Many of the issues that we have been debating this evening, which are new, should have been debated in Committee in another place much earlier on. We have been reassured that there are no financial questions. This is not about austerity; it is not about fraud: it is not about ambulance chasing; and it is not about a compensation culture. However, it is about elementary justice. I hope that your Lordships will agree with my Motion. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Division on Motion E1
Contents 214; Not-Contents 205.
Motion E1 agreed.
Division No. 4
Adams of Craigielea, B.
Alton of Liverpool, L. [Teller]
Armstrong of Hill Top, B.
Armstrong of Ilminster, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L.
Bath and Wells, Bp.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L.
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Browne of Belmont, L.
Browne of Ladyton, L.
Cameron of Dillington, L.
Cameron of Lochbroom, L.
Carter of Coles, L.
Clark of Windermere, L.
Cohen of Pimlico, B.
Collins of Highbury, L.
Davies of Oldham, L.
Davies of Stamford, L.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B.
Evans of Parkside, L.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L.
Falconer of Thoroton, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B.
Faulkner of Worcester, L.
Finlay of Llandaff, B.
Foster of Bishop Auckland, L.
Foulkes of Cumnock, L.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B.
Gordon of Strathblane, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B.
Griffiths of Burry Port, L.
Harris of Haringey, L.
Hart of Chilton, L.
Hayter of Kentish Town, B.
Healy of Primrose Hill, B.
Hilton of Eggardon, B.
Hollis of Heigham, B.
Howarth of Newport, L.
Howells of St Davids, B.
Howie of Troon, L.
Hughes of Stretford, B.
Hughes of Woodside, L.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L.
Janner of Braunstone, L.
Jones of Whitchurch, B.
Kennedy of Southwark, L.
King of Bow, B.
King of West Bromwich, L.
Kinnock of Holyhead, B.
Knight of Weymouth, L.
Lea of Crondall, L.
Liddell of Coatdyke, B.
Lister of Burtersett, B.
Low of Dalston, L.
Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
McFall of Alcluith, L.
McIntosh of Hudnall, B.
Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.
McKenzie of Luton, L.
Martin of Springburn, L.
Masham of Ilton, B.
Massey of Darwen, B.
Morgan of Drefelin, B.
Morgan of Ely, B.
Morgan of Huyton, B.
Morris of Aberavon, L.
Morris of Handsworth, L.
Morris of Manchester, L.
Morris of Yardley, B.
Neill of Bladen, L.
O’Neill of Clackmannan, L.
Patel of Blackburn, L.
Patel of Bradford, L.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Reid of Cardowan, L.
Rendell of Babergh, B.
Richardson of Calow, B.
Royall of Blaisdon, B.
Scotland of Asthal, B.
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Smith of Basildon, B.
Stevenson of Balmacara, L.
Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Taylor of Bolton, B.
Tunnicliffe, L. [Teller]
Turner of Camden, B.
Wall of New Barnet, B.
Walton of Detchant, L.
Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Watson of Invergowrie, L.
West of Spithead, L.
Williamson of Horton, L.
Wood of Anfield, L.
Woolmer of Leeds, L.
Young of Hornsey, B.
Young of Norwood Green, L.
Ahmad of Wimbledon, L.
Allan of Hallam, L.
Anelay of St Johns, B. [Teller]
Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, L.
Ashton of Hyde, L.
Astor of Hever, L.
Baker of Dorking, L.
Black of Brentwood, L.
Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, B.
Brittan of Spennithorne, L.
Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L.
Cavendish of Furness, L.
Chalker of Wallasey, B.
Cope of Berkeley, L.
De Mauley, L.
Eden of Winton, L.
Falkner of Margravine, B.
Forsyth of Drumlean, L.
Garden of Frognal, B.
Gardiner of Kimble, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B.
Grade of Yarmouth, L.
Green of Hurstpierpoint, L.
Hamilton of Epsom, L.
Harris of Peckham, L.
Harris of Richmond, B.
Heyhoe Flint, B.
Hill of Oareford, L.
Howard of Lympne, L.
Howard of Rising, L.
Howell of Guildford, L.
Hunt of Wirral, L.
Jenkin of Kennington, B.
Jenkin of Roding, L.
King of Bridgwater, L.
Kirkwood of Kirkhope, L.
Lamont of Lerwick, L.
Lang of Monkton, L.
Lawson of Blaby, L.
Lee of Trafford, L.
Lester of Herne Hill, L.
McColl of Dulwich, L.
Macdonald of River Glaven, L.
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MacGregor of Pulham Market, L.
Magan of Castletown, L.
Mar and Kellie, E.
Marks of Henley-on-Thames, L.
Mayhew of Twysden, L.
Moore of Lower Marsh, L.
Morris of Bolton, B.
Norton of Louth, L.
Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, L.
Palmer of Childs Hill, L.
Perry of Southwark, B.
Phillips of Sudbury, L.
Roberts of Conwy, L.
Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Ryder of Wensum, L.
Sanderson of Bowden, L.
Scott of Needham Market, B.
Selkirk of Douglas, L.
Shackleton of Belgravia, B.
Sharp of Guildford, B.
Shephard of Northwold, B.
Shutt of Greetland, L. [Teller]
Smith of Clifton, L.
Steel of Aikwood, L.
Stoneham of Droxford, L.
Stowell of Beeston, B.
Sutherland of Houndwood, L.
Taylor of Goss Moor, L.
Taylor of Holbeach, L.
Thomas of Gresford, L.
Tyler of Enfield, B.
Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Wallace of Tankerness, L.
Willis of Knaresborough, L.
Younger of Leckie, V.
Amendment 31 provides for an exception for victims of mesothelioma and industrial related respiratory diseases:
House of Commons Debate
Mr Djanogly: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 31.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendment 32, and Government motion to disagree.
Mr Djanogly: The Government recognise that mesothelioma is a truly terrible disease—a terminal illness that has a devastating impact on the families of its victims—and we are wholly committed to doing everything we can to help its victims to achieve justice and get the support that they deserve. The Lords amendments seeking to exempt mesothelioma and industrial disease cases from our reforms to no win, no fee agreements in part 2 of the Bill are not the right way to advance the cause of sufferers.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Djanogly: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give me a chance to put forward our opposition to the amendments.
First, the amendments are unnecessary. The legal climate in which mesothelioma cases can be brought has wholly changed in recent years, and nothing in our proposals should prevent cases from being taken or those affected from receiving appropriate damages. Secondly, in making an exception to our change to the
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no win, no fee conditional fee arrangements regime, the amendments would create inconsistency and damage the wider goal of our reforms—to restore sense to the costs of litigation, which have been substantially increased by the way in which no win, no fee cases operate, largely to the detriment of defendants.
Ian Lucas: How can appropriate damages be recovered by mesothelioma victims if a proportion of those damages is to be taken from them to cover the cost of legal fees?
Mr Djanogly: This is not a question of whether mesothelioma sufferers receive adequate legal support but of how much their lawyers get paid for providing it. We are saying that that must be more reasonably assessed, and that is the point of our reforms.
Let me remind hon. Members that the current regime of no win, no fee conditional fee agreements was meant to promote access to justice but has frequently ended up as something of a racket allowing risk-free litigation for claimants, inflated profits for legal firms, and punitive additional costs for defendants.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Can the Minister tell us of one case in which a mesothelioma sufferer has taken something to court that did not deserve to go there—one case in which a sufferer from this horrible disease, which leaves them dying in a horribly painful way, has in any way abused the system?
Mr Djanogly: Let me repeat what I said: this is not a question of whether the person making a claim has a valid claim but of how much his lawyer gets paid. That is what we are looking at, and that is where the system needs reform. To be clear—I say that because I have heard that some hon. Members are not clear about this specific point—I emphasise that under our proposals the client’s lawyer’s costs will still be recoverable from the losing other side.
However, clauses 46 and 48 abolish the recoverability of the success fees and insurance premiums that have pushed up prices for everyone.
Helen Jones: Is the Minister aware that the lead asbestos case was very complicated and took six years to get to the Supreme Court? Does he really think that lawyers will take those kinds of cases without an assurance that their costs will be met?
Mr Djanogly: As I have just said, lawyers’ costs will be met in the usual way. What we are talking about is the success fee. That is where the problem has come into the system.
Helen Jones: Will the Minister give way?
Mr Djanogly: No; if the hon. Lady listens, I will answer the question.
Our reforms are intended to redress the unfairness that exists in our civil litigation system between claimants and defendants. They will move conditional fee agreements
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back to the position that they were in before the Opposition’s disastrous reforms in the Access to Justice Act 1999. Our proposals are premised on the similar treatment of classes of cases, based on the costs or difficulty of bringing a claim. The Lords amendments would introduce a new unfairness between claimants, based only on the type of disease or illness, and essentially dependent on whether it was caused in the workplace.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): A number of my constituents who worked on the docks in Goole and in power stations have been affected by this illness. There seems to be a lot of confusion in this debate. For simplicity’s sake, will the Minister say whether my constituents who worked at the docks and who are suffering from this awful disease will receive more or less money in compensation under the Government’s proposals than they receive at the moment?
Mr Djanogly: That will depend on the arrangements that they make with their lawyers. Under the new system, for the first time since the Opposition’s reforms which did so much to create a compensation culture in our country, the client will have an interest in what their lawyer is being paid. Until we get back to that situation, there will be an ongoing ratcheting of costs, which is not in the interests of such claims.
The Opposition’s Lords amendments rate one sort of claim above another. Somehow, a mesothelioma claim is automatically more worthy than a personal injury claim. The Government simply do not accept that. I acknowledge the concern in the other place, which underpinned Lords amendments 31 and 32, that the new arrangements will prevent lawyers from being willing to take mesothelioma cases and leave claimants out of pocket, but I believe it to be mistaken.
Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): The Minister says that a mesothelioma claim is not, by definition, more serious than a personal injury claim. That obviously depends on the personal injury claim. However, every single mesothelioma claim is a serious matter. Will he at least acknowledge that there is a difference between all mesothelioma claims and some personal injury claims?
Mr Djanogly: All non-clinical negligence personal injury cases, including respiratory disease claims, have been out of the scope of legal aid since 2000—let us acknowledge that—under changes introduced by the last Government. Although some expert reports may be required in respiratory disease cases, the Government are not persuaded that they differ substantially from other personal injury cases in a way that merits the retention of the recoverability of after-the-event insurance premiums.
John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister may be aware that Barrow is the constituency with the second highest number of mesothelioma suffers in the country. Does he not understand how insulting and potentially distressing it is to those sufferers to be branded as part of a compensation culture?
Mr Djanogly: As I said, this is a question of what lawyers get paid. I am in no way assessing the vulnerability of the individuals whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
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I point out to the hon. Gentleman that significant steps have been taken in recent years to lower the barriers to bringing compensation claims for these disastrous diseases. A fast-track procedure for mesothelioma cases has been introduced in the High Court. Over the past few years, various legal changes, including primary legislation such as the Compensation Act 2006 and judgments of the Supreme Court, have removed many of the hurdles for sufferers of respiratory diseases in bringing claims.
The legal climate in which such cases are brought has been transformed in recent years. Judgments of the Supreme Court have removed many hurdles, and a judgment only last month means that victims of this dreadful disease who are able to trace an insurer will now be paid and not miss out on compensation. As I said, a fast-track procedure has been introduced to ensure that claims are dealt with as quickly as possible.
A key outstanding barrier is identifying the employer’s liability insurer when an employer no longer exists, and the Department for Work and Pensions continues to work with stakeholders to see what more can be done to address that. Overall, however, cases are much less difficult to undertake than in the past, and there is no reason to believe that legal firms will stop bringing them, even under the new arrangements, or that they will be particularly expensive.
Kate Green: Does the Minister not accept, though, that some cases will now simply go unrepresented and unpursued, and that victims will instead have to rely on the Government’s own compensation scheme, in which the average payment is £16,000? This change will be an expensive choice for the Government, because it will lock people out of access through the courts.
Mr Djanogly: Decisions are made about such cases now, and even under the existing system, if there are large sums involved, ATE insurance companies want to know the likelihood of losing. A lawyer also has to make such an assessment. As things stand, the balance is not right, and we want to rebalance the situation.
Partly as a consequence of what I have said, I do not believe we should accept the view that critics sometimes advance that our reforms will leave victims of this terrible disease out of pocket. It is true that under our plans individuals will pay legal costs out of their general damages. Crucially, though, damages for future care and losses are protected, and general damages are being increased by 10% to offset a success fee capped at 25%. It is of course entirely up to the lawyer whether any success fee is taken from a claimant’s damages at all.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Even if damages for future care and losses are protected, the average life expectancy for advanced mesothelioma has been disclosed as being about nine to 12 months—so that is a great comfort. How can the Minister seriously tell the House that there will be no loss of damages given that the 10% uplift, which is very indistinct, is compensated for by a 25% loss of damages? We should not blame the lawyers, we should blame the Government, who are taking damages away from mesothelioma and asbestosis victims.
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Mr Djanogly: I am actually saying quite the opposite. I am saying that damages are going to be increased, not decreased.
The aim of our reforms is to end the current situation whereby legal firms can get away with charging what they want because the claimants do not have a stake in keeping an eye on the bill. At a time when the cases in question are becoming easier to bring, we should not accept amendments that would reduce pressure on legal firms to cut their fees. Instead, our focus should be on cutting inflated margins, not making exemptions for one type of disease.
I understand claimants’ fear of being left liable for high defendant’s costs should they lose, but under our reforms, we are protecting personal injury claimants from the risk of paying such costs, including in industrial disease cases, by introducing qualified one-way costs shifting.
Helen Jones: Even if I accepted the Minister’s argument about plaintiffs keeping an eye on fees, which I do not, how would someone with no legal training who was dying of mesothelioma be supposed to keep monitoring their lawyers’ fees?
Mr Djanogly: People entering into a conditional fee agreement have a relationship with their lawyer, and it is quite right that someone who employs a lawyer has some idea of what is on that lawyer’s clock and what they are charging. That is very important. If someone is sick, they will have family who can help them through their sickness.
The Government are determined to see more proportionate costs in civil litigation, with greater fairness in the risks borne by parties. Without our reforms, high and disproportionate costs in civil litigation would continue. Moreover, if the Lords amendments were accepted, claimants in mesothelioma cases would have an advantage over others who may be suffering from equally debilitating conditions. That cannot be justified.
Mr Slaughter: I will be as brief I can, because a number of my hon. Friends also wish to speak to the two amendments on industrial diseases. If appropriate, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall say a brief word about the Lords amendment on metal theft as this is the only opportunity to do so—[ Interruption. ] In that case, I shall deal with it later.
The first amendment ensures that victims of respiratory industrial disease—for the main part asbestos-induced diseases such as mesothelioma—will not have their damages taken away by lawyers and insurers. The second ensures that victims of industrial diseases as a whole are treated in the same way.
The Government plan to allow claimants’ lawyers to take up to 25% of industrial disease victims’ damages and for the victims’ insurers to take an uncapped additional amount. The current system says that the losing defendant or their insurer should pay the costs of bringing that case. They are still highly contentious and contended cases. Some 60,000 people in Britain will develop mesothelioma over the next decades because of past exposure, and almost 40,000 have died thus far—the highest levels in the world. The Association of British Insurers continues to obstruct victims of asbestosis in high-profile, Supreme Court cases to try to absolve
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insurers from paying out. After a recent ruling in favour of victims, the
headline read, “Disappointment at pleural plaques ruling”.
Asbestosis is not the only problem, which is why the other place made two amendments. One amendment was specific to respiratory disease and the other encompasses serious industrial diseases. These are not slips and trips, minor accidents at work or road traffic whiplash cases; they are diagnosable medical conditions that can, with difficulty, be proved to have resulted from a breach of duty by an employer. Symptoms include deafness, blindness, spinal degradation, leukaemia, cirrhosis of the liver caused by exposure to chemicals, organ damage, loss of limbs and more.
The diseases are the by-product of hard and often manual work over decades. They are inflicted on people who have spent their lives contributing to the economy of this country in heavy industry, manufacturing and public services. Many of the diseases do not manifest for years—they are the legacy of our heavy industries and of our proud traditions of manufacturing. In time, modern industries will cause diseases as yet undiagnosed.
The Minister has repeatedly said in debates on the Bill that the aim of part 2 is to fix the “compensation culture” or to lower motor insurance premiums, but whose car insurance is affected by mesothelioma sufferers getting their full and just compensation?
Eighteen noble lords from all parties and none signed a letter supporting the amendment. I shall not name them all, but I should mention Lord Alton and Lord Bach, who moved the amendments in the House of Lords, Lord Avebury, and the late Lord Newton, who spoke so powerfully to the amendments. They demonstrated the depth of feeling that the Government should be so crass as to treat mesothelioma sufferers in the same manner as those affected by whiplash. As the noble Lord Avebury said:
“Unscrupulous claimants may be able to fake road traffic injuries, but not mesothelioma or asbestosis. It is impossible for the victims of these horrible diseases to launch a frivolous or fraudulent claim, and it is unconscionable that people on their deathbeds should be mulcted of thousands of pounds out of the damages that they are awarded by the courts.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 March 2012; Vol. 736, c. 313.]
The Government contend that that is not relevant and that they are trying to get people to shop around for the best rates, but who, diagnosed with mesothelioma, with perhaps months to live, will shop around for the lawyer that takes the least damages from him—the so-called skin in the game so beloved of the Minister? On average, cancer caused by asbestos exposure kills in about 12 months. General damages are, on average, about £65,000. The victim’s lawyer will now receive up to 25% of that sum. The after-the-event insurer, who insures the claimant in case his action fails, will take an unlimited sum for the premium. Because insurance companies fight mesothelioma cases to the end—often until after the victim dies—such cases are inherently risky to bring, and the cost of insuring the claim can be huge.
The Government have refused to reduce base costs for lawyers, which would be the obvious way to stop inflated costs. Instead, they are going after victims’
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damages. The beneficiaries of all this will be the defendants and their insurers. They will have significantly reduced liabilities if they lose. Insurance companies will also benefit, because the Government are promoting a new market in legal expenses insurance—a tax on all citizens worth billions to the industry—although how they expect people to insure against industrial disease I do not know.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): The dangers of asbestos and the risks of asbestosis and mesothelioma have been known since the 1920s. Successive Governments of both persuasions have ignored them. In the London fire brigade, in which I served for 23 years, we used asbestos equipment regularly. Every firefighter who worked with the London fire brigade or any other fire brigade has had their personal files annotated with “Exposed to asbestos”. The Government—whichever Government—have a responsibility to those workers, because we have failed to protect them. Is my hon. Friend saying that, in rejecting Lords amendment 31, the Government are not accepting their responsibility to people who have been exposed?
Mr Slaughter: That is exactly what is happening.
Mr Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North) (Con): Shameful!
Mr Slaughter: I hear cries of “Shameful!” from the Government Benches. There should be a little humility and a little humanity from Government Members on these issues. We are talking about debilitating diseases, with the longest gestation periods of any diseases—they strike after many years, when it is often difficult to trace employers and when insurers evade their responsibilities—and they kill quickly and painfully. Those are the targets for the Government in this Bill.
The Association of British Insurers’ briefing for this debate—as well as that of some defendants’ lawyers—which claims that the amendments reduce the damages for victims and expose them to the risk of adverse costs is demonstrably false. We have raised that issue with the ABI, which claimed that Members of this House already knew that damages would be reduced by the Bill, hence it did not address that issue. Such tactics do the insurance industry no credit. This Bill does the Government no credit, and neither does resisting these amendments. We ask for full and proper justice for those who have given their working lives—and often their lives—to some of the most painful and debilitating medical conditions. They should not become victims of lawyers, insurers, unscrupulous employers or this disgraceful Government.
Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): I wish to speak only briefly. I am inclined to support Lords amendment 31 this evening, but I intend to listen to the debate carefully before the Division. In the meantime, I hope to make clear my views on this issue.
I ought to start by placing on record the fact that I used to work for one of the UK’s largest insurance companies. My views might therefore surprise many, particularly on the other side of the House. I have always felt that we as a nation have simply not done enough to support mesothelioma victims, but that includes all parties—Government, insurers and lawyers. I have views on mesothelioma—but not on other asbestos conditions—that are different, in part, to those of the
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insurance industry. With meso, people die quickly and painfully, and often with good cause for compensation, but without any early settlement in sight. A person can have mesothelioma only as a consequence of exposure to asbestos; therefore, it is impossible to bring a fraudulent claim. It is clear that all parties should be working together to ensure that, when a victim passes away, they are able to provide financial security for their family.
It is not my insurance background that drives my real interest in this issue; it is on a constituency basis that I care most. Medway has been highlighted as a hot spot for mesothelioma, which is unsurprising given that the towns have historically provided the industrial hub for Kent, and that the Chatham dockyard was one of the biggest employers for many decades. Shipbuilding and ship repairing have long been associated with asbestos-related conditions, and the predicted figures for future cases of mesothelioma in Chatham follow the pattern of other areas with a shipping past. However, we must not forget that other professions, not least teachers, are coming forward with the condition—including a constituent I met recently.
Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend, has a higher than average incidence of mesothelioma. We have no shipbuilding, but there has been significant employment in other asbestos-related industries across the High Peak. I praise her for pointing out that other professions are involved as well.
Tracey Crouch: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is clear that this disease affects many people.
In recognition of the high number of cases of mesothelioma, and of the swift and horrible deterioration in the health of its victims, my local primary care trust continues to invest in providing specialist nursing for meso victims, including dedicated Macmillian nurses and support staff. That is hugely welcome for those who suffer directly, and for the families who support them through their dying months. I should like to thank them for their commitment and dedication in often very difficult circumstances.
I should like to see everything possible being done to support mesothelioma victims, especially in regard to providing financial peace of mind before they pass away. Anecdotal evidence shows that sufferers often pass away long before their claim has been settled, leaving their grieving families to settle the claim. Sometimes, the stress of doing so is too much and the claim is no longer pursued. Much has been done on the employers’ liability tracing office, but not much has been done on the insurer of last resort, the employers’ liability insurance bureau—ELIB. That is disappointing. Each party is blaming the other for the lack of progress, as is always the case. The people who lose out are the victims and their families. Although this involves a different Department, I hope that if the Government take away one message from my short contribution today it is that there should be no more delays. It is time to resolve the issue and set up ELIB now. Too much time has passed on consultation, and it is time for action.
If I have one concern about Lords amendment 31, it is its breadth. I want to see meso victims receive a fair package of compensation, and I am concerned that the
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Bill as drafted will cause a significant sum of their compensation package to be lost in success fees paid to lawyers. The amendment is not meso-specific and could be interpreted as relating to other respiratory diseases—hence my slight hesitation in wholeheartedly supporting it. However, meso claims account for over half of all asbestos-related claims, so, on balance, it is an important addition to the Bill.
I recognise that the proposed Jackson reforms include a 10% uplift in general damages. I note the Association of British Insurers is warning that mesothelioma sufferers might not benefit from those reforms if the amendment goes through. I do not believe that, and I want to issue the counter-warning that, on fatal industrial diseases such as mesothelioma, the Government will be judged on what they do to help victims, whether through financial or other types of support. The 10% uplift is necessary and right.
I know that others are keen to speak and, as promised, I shall listen to the rest of the debate with interest. I pray that I never contract a disease as nasty as mesothelioma, but I also pray that the Government do all that they can to support those who do, including by providing easy access to justice and ensuring that full and fair compensation is paid to the victims as quickly as possible.
John Woodcock: It is an honour to follow such a powerful and brave speech from the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). She spoke incredibly well on the subject.
I wish to speak briefly in support of Lords amendment 31, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) will listen carefully. I also hope against hope that he will reconsider his decision, because the sight of him sitting there laughing while this subject is being discussed, and labelling victims in my constituency and across the country who suffer horribly as being part of a compensation culture and a racket, does a gross disservice to those people, and ultimately to the Government he represents.
Let us be clear—as the Bill stands, individuals who have contracted horrific and rapidly life-shortening diseases could now be required to pay the cost of bringing their case out of the damages they receive rather than have the defendant meet the costs. This represents a major change to the underlying principles of criminal damages cases in the UK, creating the potential for unlimited costs to be borne by successful claimants. In extremis, it could lead to a defendant, having successfully proven that their employer’s negligence has left them with an almost certainly fatal disease, being left with a bill to pick up for bringing the case.
Mr Djanogly: It is important to get this right. The particular disease falls within the Government’s proposals to introduce one-way cost shifting, which will mean that losing claimants will not pay defendants’ costs.
John Woodcock: As the shadow Minister has made clear, it does not cover disbursements. The Minister has not been able to set out a proper case. He has tried to claim that compensation will go up as a result of these reforms. Frankly, all the people looking at this—I see the Minister nodding his head now—do not agree. Given the
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level of concern and alarm expressed by victims who contract the disease incredibly quickly, many thousands of people are left wondering when they are going to be struck, and the families left behind cannot understand the Government’s attitude towards this incredibly difficult subject.
On average, those who successfully pursue claims for mesothelioma see compensation in the order of £65,000. Under the unamended Bill, their lawyer could receive 25% of that. On top of that, their after-the-event insurer could take an increased premium, and because mesothelioma claims are risky, those premiums can be very high indeed.
From my own constituency, I have seen the appalling impact of mesothelioma on the lives of those who suffer and their families. The industrial tradition of Barrow and Furness means that shipyard workers are particularly affected because of the historic use of asbestos in ship construction. This has left the town, as I said in my intervention, with the second-highest mortality rate from this disease among males anywhere in the country—topped only by West Dunbartonshire, which is, of course, another shipbuilding area. These people served their country through the fine ships they built to defend our shores. They were failed by successive Governments, and this Government now have a duty to address that wrong. That is why sufferers have pushed and pushed for better compensation, and that is why it would be a travesty for this House to vote today to reduce the payments they can get.
Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): I start by echoing the distress expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) about the tone of the Minister’s remarks, which showed a real lack of empathy with the situation that mesothelioma sufferers and their families face. What happens in so many of these cases is that victims become aware of the illness many years after they been exposed to asbestos, and often after the organisation responsible for that has long since disappeared. They face a troublesome problem in identifying who was responsible in the first place and they are then faced with the shocking news that their lives are shortly going to come to end and they are going to experience agonising circumstances in the run-up to their deaths.
For many of the people who have been on that journey, the last thing on their minds when they receive this appalling news is the idea that they need to embark on some complicated and potentially costly hunt for compensation. People who work with victims of asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, say that it is hard to persuade them to make claims because they are so heartbroken by their recent experiences. They tell me that if those who seek advice learn that there may be a cost impact, many are likely to choose to let the matter drop. It would be a real dereliction of duty on the part of all of us if we allowed that to happen.
The Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team has given me some examples including that of Roy Redfern, a joiner in the building trade from Chesterfield who also worked for Severn Trent for 16 years. He was diagnosed
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with mesothelioma, but died before he could obtain compensation. His wife Vicky and his daughter Helen pursued his claim, but when they came to see me this week they said that if they had been told that costs would be attached at the time when they were facing the tragedy, they would not have proceeded with the claim. This is not just about the fact that the increased costs will mean victims ending up with less money; it is also about the impact on victims and their families who pursue claims in the first place.
I also question the level of costs that the Government will save. Under the 2008 mesothelioma scheme, every claimant receives a compensation payment regardless of whether the company concerned still exists or whether the exposure to asbestos is secondary. A person aged 77 or over receives £12,666, while one aged 65 receives about £22,000. If someone subsequently pursues a successful civil claim, the Government recoup the money through the compensation recovery unit. If fewer people proceed with their claims there may be a cost saving, but the Government will not be able to recoup that money.
Finally, there is the question of whether approving the exemption for mesothelioma sufferers would open the floodgates. Surely the fact that we cannot always do the right thing for every single group does not mean that we should never do the right thing for any group. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), these people face an agonising death, and they are never the cause of their circumstances but always the victims. At a time when the Government are proposing massive savings in justice bills, for us to make this small concession to one group of people who are suffering terribly would show the human side of the House. I urge all Members to support the amendment, which was backed by members of all parties and huge numbers of Cross-Benchers in the other place, and to show that the House of Commons has a heart.
Anna Soubry: As you have probably gathered, Madam Deputy Speaker, I did not plan to speak in this part of the debate. However, after I had listened to a couple of speeches—notably that of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), and what I could hear of that of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins)—I was struck by the fact that the issues do not sit comfortably together.
There is genuine concern about the possibility that people suffering from what is indeed a horrible condition will lose out in some way, but I have to say, quite bluntly, that I do not understand why on earth the Government are involved in this aspect of disputes between people and their employers. One of the real problems is employers who do not have the guts, decency and honesty to admit liability, stop messing about, sort out compensation, pay it as swiftly as possible, and let people die in dignity and security.
Many hon. Members are aware that I am a lawyer, and as such, I say that we must be honest about the other problem. I will always defend my profession and the other profession involved, that of solicitors. The real problem is not just that employers are not doing the honourable thing; we have to make sure that we, as lawyers, also do the honourable thing. It cannot be right that we do not behave honourably when we are representing somebody. We must make sure that the fees we charge are the right ones.
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I say bluntly that I have looked at solicitors’ websites, including only today, and been horrified by how they advertise themselves. They say, “This is the money we can get you.” I do not believe—I know that some Opposition Members are solicitors—that that is the way solicitors should work. I will always defend good, honourable lawyers, but what I have described cannot be the right approach when bringing an action on behalf of somebody in real need of our assistance—that is what lawyers often do. This idea that we are all heartless and just in it for money is simply not true. In my experience, most lawyers, certainly those at the criminal Bar, are, most of the time, social workers with wigs on, and we do a lot of hard work pro bono. However, I am sorry to say that there is a section of lawyers who see this as a way of making money out of other people’s pain and distress. So we want employers to do the decent thing and we want the Law Society to be far more honourable and to regulate its own members far harder. Perhaps if we could achieve that, we would not face this farce.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Given what the hon. Lady has said, does she think it is appropriate to leave it up to the victims of mesothelioma to be the people who police what lawyers are charging? What the Minister said earlier, in a shockingly insensitive remark, was that the victims can watch the lawyer’s clock; it will now be the job of people whose lives are running out to watch the lawyer’s clock.
Anna Soubry: That is a strong point, but I have sympathy with the Minister’s argument, because everyone who is engaged in litigation has a duty—some of us have been engaged in litigation in difficult emotional times, with divorce being a very good example—to ensure that things are being done on their behalf in the right way. Some hon. Members are muttering from a sedentary position. Of course when somebody is sick it does seem heartless and cruel to say that they should be watching the clock, but we hope that they would be taking an interest in the conduct of their case. I respectfully suggest that that would include the costs. Often these people have families, who would also want to ensure not only that the costs are being properly done, but that the case is being properly conducted. That is what I would say on that point. I just hope that somewhere along the line there will be some way of sorting this out, given all the various submissions that have been made.
Ian Lucas: I shall be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have read an excellent letter from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) to the Lord Chancellor, which set out an unanswerable case against this proposal. It is wrong, in principle, that the Government are proposing this evening to reduce the damages of a successful mesothelioma claimant. I am a solicitor, and I did not go into the law to take damages away from a dying person, pending the outcome of a claim.
I have been very much strengthened in my conviction by the words of my constituent Marie Hughes, whose husband Phil, a massively respected head teacher in Wrexham, died from mesothelioma, having worked for four years at the Brymbo steelworks in his youth. She has written to me explaining, in her own words, why she
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thinks this proposal is wrong, and I am going to read this out to the Minister, whom I respect. I hope that he will listen. She says:
“Had we had to undergo the further anxiety of financial implications we would not have attempted to claim. The thought of ‘shopping around’ for deals on success fees like other claimants as the Government suggests would be an unimaginable burden. Any monies available were needed to sustain our day to day costs, my inability to go to work while my husband was ill, and the need for travelling/sustenance funding when receiving treatment away from home, also supporting our family in further education. If there was a chance of treatment, we could not gamble with our savings as the stakes were too high. By the final 3 months of Phil’s life, tumours had also developed on his spine resulting in paralysis from the chest down—and all this while he was fighting to breathe.
My husband was not there to proudly escort his daughter down the aisle, though he had spoken of this dream several times during our precious time together. He never saw grandchildren. He bravely bore his condition and battled to the end but Mesothelioma takes no prisoners.”
I appeal to Government Members to reconsider their position. They should listen to the Lords and accept the amendment. To take damages away from these victims would be an appalling act of which the Government should be ashamed.
Mr Llwyd: I agreed with everything the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said. His views are shared by many Members on the Opposition Benches—and one or two on the Government Benches as well, I am sure.
I want to speak briefly to amendments 31 and 32. I am sure I am not the only MP who has received many representations on the important issue in question. Lawyers should not skin people who are dying. I was a lawyer—both a solicitor and a barrister—and I would be ashamed of taking back as much as possible from the damages claims of people who may not have long to live. That is disgusting, but there is a very real worry that the Government are creating that problem in attempting to address what they call the compensation culture. Many of us do not recognise that such a culture exists, but even if it does, it involves petty claims such as whiplash injuries and people tripping up, or pretending to trip up, on pavements. In trying to sort out that problem, the Government are creating a problem for industrial injuries cases.
Under clause 43, a success fee under a conditional fee arrangement will not be recoverable from a losing party in all proceedings. Instead, it will be paid out of the damages of the injured person, meaning they may lose 25% of their damages.
Mr Djanogly: I should address this point as it has been raised about half a dozen times. The 25% is a maximum. Because under the current system people will always pay the lawyers the maximum, Members seem to be assuming that under the new system the maximum will still be claimed, but under the new system people will be encouraged to pay their lawyers less, not the maximum.
Mr Llwyd: Well, that is what a person such as the Minister thinks will happen, as he believes in the market ideology. He was a commercial lawyer, and never got his hands dirty as some of us have had to do over the years.
Clause 45 removes the recoverability of the after-the-event—ATE—insurance premium from the losing defendant. Therefore, that premium will in many instances
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be taken out of the damages awarded to the injured party. The amendments passed in another place would exclude industrial disease claims from these provisions, thus allowing the claimants to keep 100% of their compensation. We must uphold those changes and exempt such individuals and therefore prevent what would be a glaring miscarriage of justice.
Industrial disease cases are utterly different from road traffic claims. Cases centring on diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma are complex and require intensive research before liability is admitted. As a result, fraudulent industrial disease claims are almost an impossibility. Because of their complexity, such claims cannot be dealt with by inexperienced litigators, but if there is neither the uplift required to allow a solicitor to take a case on a CFA nor a recoverable ATE premium, many experienced solicitors will be unable to take on cases where the chance of recovering their costs is low without the client having to pay them from their damages. That is particularly true of low-value cases in which the additional liabilities may dwarf the amount of damages awarded, leaving the claimant worse off than when they started.
The potential for injustice, I am afraid, is huge. The defendant in such cases is often a multi-million pound organisation with access to teams of lawyers. It is also worth noting that after-the-event insurance also pays for additional expenses such as medical reports, without which industrial disease claims would fall at the first hurdle. Thus, without expert reports, which are necessary to prove liability, and the support of experienced solicitors who know this area of law thoroughly, claimants will simply be unable to proceed with their cases.
The situation is dire enough for those suffering from asbestosis, but as the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers has pointed out, if an individual who is diagnosed with asbestosis goes on to develop later in life a fatal disease such as the lung cancer mesothelioma, but has not brought a claim for asbestosis, they will be unable to claim compensation for that fatal disease. They will then effectively be denied compensation twice.
The view which seems to underpin much of part 2 of the Bill is that all no win, no fee claims are bogus. That is clearly not true, and I hope I made it clear that it is well nigh impossible to bring a fraudulent industrial disease claim on account of the high degree of medical evidence necessary. Industrial disease cases centre on situations in which an individual has suffered over a period of years on account of negligence by their employer. These individuals should not fall further victim to this Government’s reforms because of their doubts about the petty claims industry. That would deny them justice, and I hope it is the last thing on the Minister’s mind; although, having listened to his earlier comments, I am not sure how committed he is to these claimants in anyPaul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): I begin by paying tribute to Lord Alton and those who supported him in proposing amendment 31. We have had a number of powerful contributions to this evening’s short debate, but none more so than that from the hon.
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Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who made a thoughtful and compassionate speech that was listened to carefully. I urge the Minister, even at this late stage, to show some compassion and to listen carefully to the expressions of concern that are not just reserved to the Opposition, but are being expressed publicly and privately on both sides of the House.
What this issue boils down to is: who pays the legal fees when a claim for damages is concluded? As we have heard from the Minister, legal aid is no longer available. Since 1999, the losing defendant has paid; now, the Government are saying that the claimant must pay. I have to be completely honest and open with the Minister: if he was proposing to switch the burden to claimants for road traffic claims only, which account for 70% of personal injury claims, I would not be contributing to this debate. It would remain to be seen whether he was right to think that that would drive down costs, but I do not have evidence to argue to the contrary in those cases.
However, amendment 31 is not about whiplash cases; as we have heard, it is principally about people with a fatal respiratory disease: mesothelioma. These are people who, frankly, expect to be dead within one year of their diagnosis; who face the prospect of excruciating pain and difficult medical treatment; who have to cope with the trauma and upset that they and their families feel. These people are not ambulance-chasers; they are not part of a compensation culture, and they deserve justice.
The truth is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) alluded to earlier, many of these people do not claim now, such is the trauma they have to face. If the Government’s proposal is enacted, it will drive that number down still further. How can the Minister expect such victims and their families—people who have received the diagnosis and know they are going to die—to shop around for the cheapest possible lawyer when they need every ounce of their energy to fight their disease?
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to comments made by the widow of someone who died from mesothelioma, which were brought to my attention by Tony Whitston from the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victims Support Group. These are compelling remarks and I ask the Minister to reflect on them. The widow says:
“I know the mere talk of legal action, court cases and costs was the farthest thought from mine or Peter’s mind. Whilst you are trying to cope with the physical and emotional trauma that comes with the words terminal illness you cannot contemplate the extra worry and anxiety that claiming compensation would bring. Mesothelioma sufferers are in constant pain and always fighting to breathe, they suffer horrendously and they and their families are traumatised at what the future holds.”
It is up to the Minister to bring some hope to people in that situation, not injustice, yet Ministers want to make successful claimants pay up to 25% of their award for pain and suffering as a success fee to their lawyer. I know that that success fee is not a bonus for the lawyer but is meant to cover the costs of other cases, but why should the successful claimants—the mesothelioma sufferers—have to pay? Surely their former employers and their insurance companies should have to pay.
The Government say that there will be a 10% uplift in general damages in the awards, but that is an estimate and cannot be guaranteed. Even so, those who were
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awarded payments would still pay thousands of pounds in a success fee. Ministers also talk about qualified one-way cost shifting, but that does not take account of the disbursements that are often required in these complex cases, costing on average £8,000 a claim.
I have never believed that compassion belongs to one party in this House. I believe that it can be found all around the Chamber and Members of Parliament from all parties are concerned about the issue. I finish my speech by urging the Minister to listen, even at this stage, to the voices of those who have spoken in tonight’s debate and those who might speak to him after the debate in more private surroundings. I urge him to listen because what the victims of mesothelioma want from him is not only compassion but justice.
Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): It is 43 years since I started work as a coal miner, and during the many years for which I was a union rep I saw some horrendous accidents: men who had their legs cut off by broken ropes or broken chains; a man buried alive under thousands of tonnes of coal; a man impaled on the roof of a coal mine by a machine; and a man whose pelvis was broken by another machine. I represented people with stress-related illnesses. I represented thousands of people in my 35 years as a trade union representative and I sat on social security tribunals, went to social security tribunals and sat on industrial tribunals, but nothing could convince me that anything is more pernicious than the situation for people who are suffering from mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is an exceptional case, because of what the disease does. When I first became aware of mesothelioma, I asked a solicitor, Ian McFall from Thompsons Solicitors in Newcastle, to explain to me exactly what it was. He said that one fibre could go into someone’s lung and 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, and that makes it a special case. Everybody who gets mesothelioma will die an agonising death.
The real real reason why mesothelioma is an exceptional case is that the problem was known about for more than a century. Asbestos was identified as a poisonous substance in 1892 and has been banned for use in this country for almost half a century, yet employers knowingly exposed their workers to it day in, day out. They knew the dangers and ignored them for decades. They were eventually held accountable, but ever since the first successful case against the employers and their insurers on asbestos-related diseases, the employers and the insurers have kept coming back to the courts and to this place.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) asked why we in this place were involved in this issue, but we constantly have to rewrite the law because people are using the law and this place to get away from their responsibilities. The decision on pleural plaques a few years ago was welcomed by KPMG because, as it said, that was a £1.4 billion handout to the insurance industry in this country. Those were the people who were clapping their hands on that day, not those who have asbestos-related diseases.
Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that that is why the constituents whom we have been speaking to feel so angry? They
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cannot understand why the Government are on the side of negligent employers and their insurance companies instead of on the side of mesothelioma victims.
Mr Anderson: What can I say? Someone said earlier that no empathy is being shown, but I think that empathy is being shown—to the insurance companies. We can take our guidance from that.
The Minister talked about the compensation culture, but it is very easy to stop that culture: tell employers to stop killing people at work and to stop poisoning people at work. Then people would not be able to claim compensation. That is exactly what needs to be done. We are talking about employers who have contempt for workers and their families. They let workmen go home in dirty work clothes that their wives then washed, and became infected with mesothelioma through doing so. What happened was known by employers. We are talking about employers who were using young kids in Namibia to fill plastic sacks with raw asbestos. They put young kids of seven, eight or nine in the sacks to tamp the asbestos down. That is the type of people we are dealing with—people with no regard for human life. Some successful cases were brought by a trade union in South Africa and they got £38 million in compensation. That £38 million was welcome but it did not save the lives of any of those kids.
We have had 42,000 people die in the past 40 years in this country and 60,000 more will die in the next 50. That is more than 1,000 people a year and more than were being killed in the coal mines in this country in the disastrous years of the 1930s. That is why this is a special issue. We should be looking to people such as Chris Knighton in the north-east of England who has led a campaign on behalf of her husband who died 15 years ago—a man who was fit enough to ride from Newcastle to Berwick on a bike on a Sunday morning and think nothing about it. He fell down one day in the local club and when he went to see the doctor, the doctor told him, “You’ve got mesothelioma.” He asked, “What does that mean?” The doctor said, “It means you’re going to be dead in nine months’ time.” Those are the people we are standing up for today. We are not standing up for big business or insurers—we are standing up for ordinary people who have been exploited for years. If we do not support the amendments to this legislation we will be letting those people down. I say to the Liberal Democrats in particular, “If you ever want to claw back from where you are now, support these amendments tonight. You will never be forgiven if you don’t.”
Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I rise briefly to support Lords amendment 31. It cannot be right, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and others have said, 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. In my constituency, the number of cases of asbestos-related diseases is far too high. The link between mesothelioma and exposure to asbestos in the shipbuilding industry is well known, as we have heard tonight. There is a common pattern involving high levels of mesothelioma and areas of shipbuilding
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or areas that contain ports and dockyards. Hartlepool is a former shipbuilding area and it is the 16th-worst affected place in Great Britain for deaths caused by mesothelioma.
In considering Lords amendment 31, I ask the Minister to consider one harrowing case out of many from Hartlepool. Mr C was diagnosed with mesothelioma after he had complained of breathing difficulties and a pain in his rib cage. Originally it was thought he had pneumonia but a CT scan and a bronchoscopy showed that he had mesothelioma. Mr C had left school at 16 and worked at South Durham Steel and Iron Company for the best part of a quarter of a century. He was regularly exposed to asbestos dust in the air and was not provided with any protective clothing or equipment. He was awarded £67,000 in compensation in recognition of his excruciating pain and suffering. He died five months after receiving that award.
The Government’s argument against the amendments—that the Bill protects against frivolous or fraudulent claims—is offensive in the extreme. The idea that these constituents of mine are ambulance chasers or people looking for a quick buck is risible. The notion that tens of thousands of pounds of damages should be taken from workers and their families who have suffered the harsh effects of a painful illness is another insult and injustice to them.
In a little over 10 days, the country will observe workers memorial day to commemorate those who lost their lives as a result of injury or neglect at work. Having listened to the Minister tonight and seen him in his place, I have to say that he does himself no credit with the smirking and the body language that is offensive to every single sufferer. The best way in which he could make amends is by honouring the spirit and values of workers memorial day, accepting Lords amendment 31 and getting rid of this huge injustice.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Sadly, the incidence of—
Debate interrupted (Programme Order, this day ).
The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 31.
The House divided:
Ayes 292, Noes 256.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H (2) ),
That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments 1, 2, 24, 31, 32, 168, 170 to 172, 194 and 196;
That Mr Jonathan Djanogly, Mr Shailesh Vara, Mr Andy Slaughter, Yvonne Fovargue and Tom Brake be members of the Committee;
That Mr Jonathan Djanogly be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Angela Watkinson.)
Question agreed to .
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords .
Helen Jones: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During the last debate, many of us were dismayed by the conduct of the Minister, who giggled and grinned through descriptions of people dying of mesothelioma and what they suffered. I have to say that in almost 15 years in this House, I have never seen conduct that so demeans a Minister of the Crown and is so damaging to the reputation of the House. Is there anything that you can do to ensure that in future Ministers pay proper attention to such serious debates and conduct themselves as would be expected from a Member on the Treasury Bench?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. The Minister is welcome to respond if he wishes, but he is not under any obligation to do so.
Mr Djanogly indicated dissent.
Mr Speaker: No, he is not going to respond.
The hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) will know that I came into the proceedings relatively late, and in those circumstances it is not for me to act as umpire on the matter, which would be wrong. However, her observations, sincerely expressed, have been noted, and all I would say is that each and every one of us in this place is responsible for his or her own behaviour and for the impression that we give in the conduct of debate. Let us leave it there for tonight.
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Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill
Consideration of Lords message
Mr Speaker: I must draw the attention of the House to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendment 1B. If the House agrees to the amendment, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.
Lord Chancellor’s functions
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1B.
Mr Speaker: With this it will be convenient to consider the Government motion to disagree with Lords amendments 2B and 196B, the Government motion to insist on its disagreement with Lords amendment 31, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
Mr Djanogly: As you have reminded the House, Lords amendment 1B, dealing with the statutory duty for legal aid, impinges on the financial privileges in this House. I should also say that my interests remain as I declared at the last stage of ping-pong on 17 April. I ask the House to disagree to this amendment, and I will ask the Reasons Committee to ascribe financial privilege as the reason for doing so.
Let me first address Lords amendment 31, which concerns the sensitive and important issue of mesothelioma, in the light of the amendment we have tabled. I should emphasise at the start that the Government take very seriously the plight of mesothelioma victims and do not believe that mesothelioma cases are being brought inappropriately. We should appreciate that the issue in mesothelioma cases is not so much causation as process. In effect, the challenge for the Government, employers and insurers is how we ensure that we have procedures in place that enable sufferers to receive compensation more quickly and without the stress of having to pursue protracted litigation.
Much has been done by recent Governments to improve the position of mesothelioma sufferers when the employer’s insurer can be traced. There is now also a consensus that more needs to be done in respect of sufferers who cannot trace their employer’s insurer. Let me be clear that the Government are committed to action on that point. We are working closely with insurers and other stakeholders on this pressing issue with a view to making an announcement before the House rises in July.
I have considered very carefully the points that have been made both in debates in the House last week and the other place last night. We have also held ministerial meetings with campaigners on behalf of mesothelioma victims, including with Lord Alton, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch).
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The Jackson reforms in part 2 of the Bill are due to come into effect in April next year. We have reviewed that timetable in the context of mesothelioma. On careful reflection about the special position of mesothelioma sufferers, I can now give the House the assurance that we will not commence the relevant provisions in clause 43, on success fees, and clause 45, on after-the-event insurance, in respect of mesothelioma claims in April next year. Rather, we will implement the clauses in respect of those claims at a later date, once we are satisfied on the way forward for those who are unable to trace their employer’s insurer. The amendment commits the Lord Chancellor to carrying out a review of the likely effect of the clauses in relation to mesothelioma proceedings and to publish a report before those clauses are implemented.
Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The concession that the Government are making goes some way to dealing with the concerns that many on both sides of the House have expressed in relation to mesothelioma, but it does not deal with the point raised in the other place by Lord Thomas yesterday, which was that success fees should not be claimed in such cases because liability is not in issue. What will the Government do about that?
Mr Djanogly: As I have said, this is not an issue of causation. I heard Lord Thomas speak in the other place yesterday, and I very much agree with what he had to say, which was essentially that in cases in which causation is not an issue, there is—in many respects—no reason why solicitors should have a success fee for that type of work. But the Opposition have made their case, as have others, and the Government have to deal with things as they stand. That is why we are offering to make this concession, but it is a time-limited concession only. The overall Jackson reforms stand as our preferred way to move forward.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for having listened closely to the debate last week and to the debate in the House of Lords. But is it not the case that this legislation facilitates a solicitor recovering a success fee from the client’s damages, and that if this legislation did not proceed, that could not happen?
Mr Djanogly: No. The hon. Gentleman rather distorts the implications of the legislation. We are capping success fees, which are currently 100%, at 25%.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): On the point about the delay until the review has been undertaken, is that merely a delay or is it a genuine review? If it is a review, what will it consider and will he give an indication of its timetable?
Mr Djanogly: Given the timing of this development, we have not thought through the exact procedures of the review, but it will certainly be undertaken before we move to ending the provisions that remain.
We now come to the amendment in lieu passed by the other place in respect of clause 1, and what has been described as a purpose clause. It was suggested variously
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in the other place yesterday that this amendment would have no effect; that it would have some effect, although that effect was not entirely clear; and that it would have a future effect in guiding successive Lord Chancellors when consideration was being given to what services might be added to the scope of legal aid under clause 8(2).
The difficulty the other place has so far had in establishing the precise effect of the amendment is instructive as this House decides whether it should stand. A duty with an uncertain effect is desirable neither in legislative terms nor for the person attempting to discharge that duty. However, it is the Government’s view that the effects of this duty can be described and are highly undesirable. The amendment would remove the uncontroversial, unambiguous duty the Bill places on the Lord Chancellor to ensure that legal aid is made available according to part 1 of the Bill. This made a clear link between the duty and legal aid. In terms of a clear duty, it does not get much clearer than this. However, the amendment would not only remove that but would replace it with a duty that would bring ambiguity and uncertainty. It refers to “legal services” rather than “legal aid”.
The argument was also made in the other place that the amendment had no effect other than to underline the Government’s commitment to the principle of access to justice. We contend that the imposition of any duty on the Lord Chancellor in legislation must create in law a potential course of action through challenges to the discharge of that duty. If it is accepted that the imposition of such a duty must give rise to a potential course of action, the amendment’s effect must be to bring into question the range of services provided under the Bill. The matter would then turn on the question of which legal services meet people’s needs. That contrasts with the clear and unambiguous duty in clause 1(1) requiring the Lord Chancellor to
“secure that legal aid is made available in accordance with”
The Government believe that the question of which legal services meet people’s needs is not relevant to the Bill. Schedule 1 lists the services that Parliament, following consideration of first principles and extensive consultation, believes it appropriate to make available under legal aid. To reopen that question via an ongoing duty would frustrate our intention to bring certainty and clarity to the scope of services funded by legal aid. The amendment would result in only one thing: numerous expensive judicial reviews—more than likely at taxpayers’ expense as the boundaries of the new duty are tested and because the question of which services should be provided would be reopened.
It was said yesterday in the other place that such JR applications would almost certainly fail, and that consequently there would be no cost implications to the amendment. However, even rejected applications have an inherent cost: lawyers are paid legal aid fees for their work up to that point and the Government pay their own lawyers to defend such cases.
I would also like to address the argument put forward in the other place about the amendment’s effect in guiding future Lord Chancellors. It seems novel to include in the Bill an overriding duty that activates when the Lord Chancellor considers adding a service or services to the scope of legal aid. I am not convinced
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this is possible, and I am certain it is unhelpful. Adding services to the Bill requires the affirmative approval of both Houses. Such a process will be more than adequate to ensure that the Lord Chancellor takes account of the relevant factors when considering what, if any, services should be added to the scope of legal aid.
I emphasise, however, as Lord McNally did in the House of Lords yesterday, that the Bill’s present form arises from extensive debate and consideration across both Houses and reflects decisions about the future nature of legal aid. In short, the amendment is incompatible with the Bill. It would muddy both the duty to which the Lord Chancellor is subject and the scope of services that might be funded.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am not arguing that the House should agree to the Lords amendment, but the Minister will know, as the Lord Chancellor does, that I have asked that the Government to consider bringing immigration matters—whether onward appeals by judicial review or when a judge gives permission for a case to go to a higher court—back within the scope of legal aid. Will he put on the record the response to that plea, which I have made to the Lord Chancellor and him several times?
Mr Djanogly: My right hon. Friend finds the right moment to ask about something not subject to the amendment. It is an important point, however. My right hon. and learned Friend has written to him about onward appeals in immigration cases. The Department will conduct a review of the impacts of withdrawing legal aid in such cases once we have sufficient data and after implementation of the reforms. I envisage allowing about a year for the reforms to take effect before starting such a review.
Lords amendment 2 was passed in the other place yesterday by the extremely narrow margin of three votes. Unusually for this topic, no one spoke other than the mover and my right hon. Friend Lord McNally. That indicates how far we have moved. I remind the House of the main points. First, and crucially, legal aid to obtain the full range of injunctions and orders to protect against domestic violence will remain exactly as at present. There is no evidential gateway for legal aid for these remedies, and those who need legal aid to protect themselves can get it, regardless of their means.
Secondly, although we have removed most of private family law from the scope of legal aid in favour of funding mediation and less adversarial proceedings, we have made an extremely important exception for victims of domestic violence. That is so that they can take or defend proceedings about child contact or maintenance, or about the division of property, without being intimidated by their abuser during the proceedings.
We have made significant changes to the detail of this exception in response to concerns expressed in both Houses. We have accepted in full the Association of Chief Police Officers’ definition of domestic violence. We have also significantly widened the list of evidence that we will accept as demonstrating domestic violence for the purposes of the exception. That list will now include undertakings, police cautions, evidence of admission to a refuge, evidence from social services and evidence
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from GPs and other medical professionals. That is in addition to the range of evidence that had already been confirmed, including the fact of an injunction or order to protect against domestic violence having been made, a criminal conviction or ongoing criminal proceedings for domestic violence, a referral to a multi-agency risk assessment conference and a finding of fact by the courts that there has been domestic violence. We have also doubled the previously announced time limit for evidence for this exception from 12 months to two years.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): We all noted the Lord Chancellor’s commitment in the Chamber last week to extending the time limit to two years. Will the Minister clarify whether that will also apply in cases of child abuse, which seem to be encompassed by the definition of domestic violence that now applies in the Bill? Clarification would be welcome on that, as there are clearly instances in which proceedings might be brought in relation to child abuse after more than 12 months, including in care proceedings, in which it would be entirely appropriate to grant legal aid.
Mr Djanogly: Yes, I am pleased to be able to confirm to the hon. Lady that that is the case.
We think that we have struck the right balance, although some will disagree. However, such disagreement misses the fact that there are two important safeguards to our system, which will provide genuine victims with a route into legal aid even if they do not have the headline forms of evidence. First, when a court has to consider whether domestic violence is a factor in a private family case, it may consider any relevant evidence, including police call-outs or evidence from domestic violence support services, or other types of evidence that have not even been suggested by the Opposition. This is also relevant in regard to the time limits. When a case involves older incidents of domestic violence and a court considers that the matter is still relevant and makes a finding of fact, legal aid funding could still be triggered. There is also the more generic safeguard of the exceptional funding regime.
We continue to believe that the evidential requirements should not be on the face of the Bill. The level of detail required means that those requirements will be much better left to regulations, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, rather than to primary legislation. Given how far we have moved on this topic, and the safeguards that I have outlined today, I invite the House to disagree with Lords amendments 2B and 196B.
Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I shall try to keep my comments short, as I know that a number of colleagues wish to speak in the debate. The Bill sustained 11 defeats on Report in the Lords, which is a record for this Parliament, and a further three yesterday. The Government need to show some humility when they have suffered 14 defeats, and I am pleased that we have seen some evidence of that today.
It is still unclear why the Government are so resistant to Lords amendment 1B. They have given different reasons on different days for their opposition to Lord Pannick’s amendment. A statement of legislative purpose is frequently included in legislation of this nature. Lord Pannick’s drafting of the amendment would result in a statement of purpose within the financial limits set out
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in the Bill. The key question is whether there should be a duty on the Lord Chancellor to take into account citizens’ needs before making arrangements for legal aid provision. The amendment has been drafted with reference to the financial resources available, and would therefore not incur further expense for the Government. The Government cannot have it both ways. They say that the amendment replicates provisions that are already in place, and that it is therefore unnecessary. They also say that it would add to Government expenditure. We will be voting against the Government on Lords amendment 1B.
Lords amendments 2B and 196B focus on domestic violence, so it is worth reminding this House what we are talking about, which is the availability of legal aid for victims of abuse to leave their abuser and protect their children. It is also worth reminding this House that on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report the Government believed that they had correct both the definition of domestic violence and the evidence that they would accept as proof of domestic violence. Only last week—thanks to the efforts of Baroness Scotland and others in the other place, but also thanks to victims’ groups, women’s groups and others who contacted us—did the Government finally accept our definition, or the Association of Chief Police Officers’ definition, of domestic violence. I accept that progress was made last week, too, in the acceptance of most of our evidential criteria for proof of domestic violence. We welcome that progress and the direction of travel.
The remaining issues of contention relate to two issues. The first is whether evidence from more than two years ago is acceptable, and the second is whether evidence from specialist domestic violence organisations will count as acceptable proof of abuse. The Government have said that they will accept evidence only of admission to a refuge, for example.
On the time limit issue, the Government have moved from one year to two years. The Minister will be aware that examples were given in the other place of real cases of real victims who would get legal aid currently, but would not get it in the future—even after the change to two years. To enable more victims to get access to legal aid and to ensure consistency, the Lords propose moving to the general limitation period for civil litigation, which is six years.
On the evidential criteria, even allowing accessing refuge services as evidence of eligibility for legal aid will exclude many women who are simply unable to access such services yet are experiencing violence. Baroness Scotland drew attention to research from women’s aid. On 16 June 2011, 224 women were turned away from refuge services—163 because there were no bed spaces, 13 because they had no recourse to public funds, and 48 because of complex needs. None of those would satisfy the evidential criteria necessary to secure legal aid. Of the 125,000 women and children who suffer domestic and sexual violence each year, only 17,615 are in refuges.
Even with last week’s concessions, this Bill still leaves too many vulnerable women and their children exposed. The Lords amendments are supported by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, Mumsnet and many
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other community groups. We will vote against the Government in their attempt to overturn the Lords amendments.
Lords amendment 31 deals with mesothelioma. I was told this morning that the Government were not willing to give any ground on this issue either. The key question here is whether victims of industrial diseases such as mesothelioma should have to hand over part of their damages to their lawyers and insurer or whether the wrongdoers should fund the cost of the successful litigation. I pay tribute to the noble Lord Alton as well as to Lords Bach and Beecham for their work. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), who I see is in his place, and the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) also deserve a mention for their efforts. Much progress has been made as a result of their work over the last few hours and days.
Members of all parties made powerful speeches last week about the impact of mesothelioma on their constituents. Someone suffering from this horrible disease is not making up their cancer to make a quick buck; they cannot possibly be part of the compensation culture. Mesothelioma is virtually incurable. This disease is inflicted on the hard working—those who have spent their lives contributing to Britain’s economy in heavy industry and in manufacturing. The Government have agreed to an amendment whereby changes affecting proceedings cannot happen until the Lord Chancellor has carried out a review of the likely effects of the provisions on those proceedings, and published a report on the conclusion of the review.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has touched a raw nerve. Plymouth is a hot spot for mesothelioma, and it also has an extremely low-wage economy. These people are not millionaires, and losing a significant proportion of their damages simply is not fair on those who have this horrible disease and whose families have had to live with it. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that he is doing in attempting to change the present position.
Sadiq Khan: What my hon. Friend has said echoes some of the powerful speeches that were made last week.
It is worth bearing in mind that the progress that has been achieved is due to work done by Members in all parts of both Houses. We welcome the concessions that have been made today, we welcome the pause, and we approach the amendment in good faith. For reasons that we appreciate, the details could not be fleshed out today, but we assume that there will be an independent assessment of the evidence gathered during the due diligence phase.
We hope that the review will consider the impact on victims’ damages. According to some, they will increase by up to 10% as a result of the Government’s proposals, but others disagree, and we expect the review to look into that.
Mr Djanogly: It would, in fact, be a matter for the judges who would apply the 10% increase, rather than for the Government.
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Sadiq Khan: Of course the Minister is right, but if there is to be a review of the impact on those who suffer from this disease, we will expect the impact of the Jackson changes on the level of damages to serve as a benchmark, rather than the changes affecting victims per se. We hope that the pause will lead to a rethink by the Government.
We hope that the review will consider the impact on access to justice—some say that lawyers may be unwilling to take on such cases, and that as a result they may not be heard—and the interaction of the reforms with the new employers liability insurance bureau. We also believe that the data should take real-life experience into account.
Andrew George: The right hon. Gentleman will have heard my intervention on the Minister, when I sought to distinguish between a mere delay in the implementation of the policy and a genuine review. I hoped that the Minister would give me some indication that if the findings of a review required the Government’s policy to be amended in some way, there would be an opportunity for a rethink.
Sadiq Khan: Given the calibre of the Ministers involved and that of the Members of both Houses who have engaged in discussions over the last few hours and days, I believe that this will be a genuine review. I am sure that not only sufferers from the disease but colleagues who have been involved would be devastated if it were not.
We welcome the review, but the report needs to be based on proper evidence, and the genuine concerns that exist must be addressed. We support the proposal for a pause, and we are willing to work with the Government to ensure that we get this right.
Several hon. Members rose —
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Hon. Members can see how many of their number wish to take part in the debate. As it will end at 5.40 pm, I ask them to be mindful of others when making their contributions.
Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): In the light of your comments, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a short speech, and will confine my remarks to the Government’s amendment to Lords amendment 31.
Let me first pay tribute to the work of Lord Alton, Lord Avebury, the late Lord Newton, and others in the House of Lords for tabling the original amendment. Without their dedication and commitment to ensuring a workable outcome for those with mesothelioma, we would not be where we are today.
I welcome the fact that the Government have listened carefully to the case presented in both Houses for exempting mesothelioma victims from the current proposals. It is not right to force victims of an extraordinary disease—when no fraud is possible and compensation is certain—to shop around for a lawyer during their last few months of life in an attempt to pay the lowest possible success fees as a proportion of a payment that they deserve. Discussion of this issue should never have been a fight about compassion for those with mesothelioma —it is a pretty heartless person who does not show compassion for those who suffer from the disease—but,
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rather, should have dealt with how best to protect the interests of the people who find themselves victims, and those of their families.
Without the amendment, the practical implications of the law as drafted for victims of mesothelioma would have been hugely damaging. Regardless of what colleagues on either side of the House may think of lawyers and insurance companies, it would ultimately be the victim, who would be going through intense suffering through no fault of their own, who lost out. The amendment rightly exempts mesothelioma from the overall package of reforms in the Bill, but it should be considered the beginning, not the end of the discussion. If ever there was an opportunity to kick-start progress on speeding up compensation payments to victims, it is now.
Like others, I seek assurances that there will be proper parliamentary debate on the commencement order and the report from the Lord Chancellor, and that future legislation will be synchronised with other initiatives that the Department for Work and Pensions is working on. However, more than anything, I urge the Government to conduct the review not with lawyers or insurers in mind, but with the sufferers at the centre, and to come forward with alternative proposals to ensure that they are protected, financially and otherwise, as soon as possible.
I started by thanking the noble Lords for tabling amendment 31 in the first place. It is only right that I finish by saying that I am sure that the late Lord Newton of Braintree, a co-sponsor of Lords amendment 31 who passed away recently from a respiratory disease, would have been pleased, as a former Leader of this House, that the Government have listened, that cross-party consensus has been achieved and that common sense has prevailed.
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who has played a brave and important role in discussions over recent days. I pay tribute to her for that. In relation to Lords amendment 31 and amendment (a) in lieu, the whole House is rightly paying tribute to Lord Alton and his supporters in another place for raising the issue in the first instance and for then persisting in their opposition to what the Government have until now been proposing in the Bill.
I also want to thank Lord McNally and Lord Freud for the constructive approach that they took in a meeting that I attended with Lord Alton last week, and in the days since. I welcome the concession that the Minister is offering this afternoon, and I appreciate that he cannot go into great detail about any proposals, which he said he hoped the Government would be able to bring forward before the summer recess. However, I can tell the House that his ministerial colleagues made it clear in the meeting I attended that they are striving to negotiate and implement a system of compensation and support for mesothelioma victims that is swifter and more sympathetic than the one currently in place. I am sure that the whole House would want to encourage them in their endeavours.
Whether amendment (a) in lieu is sufficient will depend entirely on the answers to a number of questions. In particular—this has already been raised—what will the extent and conduct of the review be? Crucially, how will
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the commencement of the relevant provisions of the Bill be aligned with the proposals that the Department for Work and Pensions hopes to publish before the summer recess? I would be happy to take an intervention from the Minister if he wishes to make a clear commitment this afternoon that he will not seek to implement the relevant provisions in the Bill unless and until an improved system of compensation is in place.
Mr Djanogly: I do not want to give any binding commitments about the process today, because things have not been finalised. However, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that if the process is to be improved by the Department for Work and Pensions, which we hope it will be—he will have some insight into our proposals from the discussions he has had—that could well require DWP legislation, in which case we would look to roll the ending of the provisions into the commencement of the DWP provisions. That is how I foresee the process now, but again, I am not making that a commitment.
Paul Goggins: I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful intervention, because if there is to be legislation to introduce the new system, there will have to be full parliamentary scrutiny of those proposals in both Houses.
It has been a privilege and a pleasure to support Lord Alton in his efforts to protect mesothelioma victims. He has asked me to say that he is grateful for the cross-party support he has received from this House, and that, along with other Members of both Houses, he awaits with interest the outcome of the review and the details of the new compensation scheme. Above all, he is pleased that Parliament has acted to protect mesothelioma victims.
For my part, I am pleased that the Minister’s comments of last week—in particular that the families of dying mesothelioma victims should, and would, be watching the lawyers’ clock as fees mounted—have now been overtaken by an acceptance that mesothelioma victims are not part of a compensation culture and that they should not be expected to pay their lawyers a success fee out of their damages, and, finally, that through the amendment in lieu and other measures that will follow Parliament should continue to do all in its power to give mesothelioma sufferers the best possible help and support.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I welcome the Government’s concession and amendment on mesothelioma. This issue vexed many of us last week. The original amendment was somewhat wider, in that it related to respiratory diseases in general, and that caused a lot of us pause for thought. The new amendment is appropriate, however, as it deals specifically with this deadly condition. It reflects the will of both this House and the House of Lords. It promises a proper review and a report at the end of that. It has also been introduced in recognition of the fact that there is a genuine sense of urgency as many mesothelioma sufferers —including constituents of mine in Swindon, which, like many other industrial towns, has a proud heritage but also, sadly, a deadly legacy in the form of this awful disease—do not have time on their side. That is why this is an exceptional case. That is why in this instance, in which a House of Lords decision has put causation beyond any doubt, we are dealing with a particularly unusual set of circumstances.
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It has already been observed that lawyers charging success fees need to take care to ask themselves questions in cases where causation is not part of the equation, and where, frankly, the argument is first about making sure all the facts are marshalled so the evidence can be put in train to prove liability and, secondly, about questions of quantum. As those matters do not involve complex issues of law, lawyers should ask what sums it is appropriate for them to charge their clients.
As I have said, there is also, necessarily, a sense of urgency in these cases. We must create a system that will allow for a more speedy resolution of mesothelioma cases. In particular, we must address the issue of the traceability of insurers of former employers as that is often a challenge for mesothelioma sufferers and those representing them. Mention has been made of the Motor Insurers Bureau. Many accidents are caused by uninsured drivers who then go on their way. It can be difficult to trace them, but victims can claim from that bureau, which is funded by the insurers, in a civil court. I know all Members would like to see a similar scheme adopted in the months ahead, and the Government have made a welcome early concession that they will report back on that before the summer recess.
We have had debates in Committee, the House and another place about domestic violence, and the Government are to be commended on the progress made on that. I reiterate that it would be better to put the criteria for the assessment of evidence in regulations rather than in the Bill, as it is patently clear that regulations can be amended more swiftly. If there are genuine injustices as a result of the operation of the new rules, regulations can be amended by negative or affirmative procedure. They provide a far more flexible way of dealing with the challenges ahead than primary legislation. For those reasons, I am happy to support the Government on the vexed issue of the domestic violence criteria.
It has been a long journey; this Bill has taken a considerable amount of my time and that of everybody else who has taken a keen interest in legal aid. Some extraordinarily important debates have taken place, and I pay tribute to all Members in this House and in the House of Lords for engaging in a very constructive, important and challenging set of debates as the Bill has proceeded. It is now coming to the last stage, and I am glad that the Government have, in many respects, listened, adapted their position and made appropriate concessions.
Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): I wish to say a few words about the Government amendment. I hope that it means that the Government will come up with a satisfactory system by which mesothelioma sufferers can be fully compensated, without them or their families being robbed of the compensation they receive and so richly deserve.
Hon. Members may well be aware that, in years gone by, Rochdale was home to the world’s largest asbestos factory, so this is a massive issue for my constituents. It is fair to say that they suffer from the connections that they have had with asbestos over many years. Just last Saturday, I was knocking on doors in my constituency, as I do every weekend, and I called upon a lady in Littleborough, Mrs Beryl Greenwood, who told me about her experience with this disease. She had been married to her husband, Kenneth, for many years, and he had contracted the disease from having worked as a
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welder on the railways. He had worn asbestos gloves at that time and, no surprise, he passed away a couple of years ago. I suppose the good news is that she was served well by solicitors; she and her family received a fair amount of compensation and were treated reasonably. She told me that the issue was that none of that compensation will ever bring back her husband, whom she loved dearly. The point I am getting to is that the Government now need to amend this Bill—we are asking them to be genuine in this—so that the people and the families who suffer from this terrible disease are treated fairly, responsibly and respectfully.
Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I do not intend to detain the House for long, because I am aware that plenty of other hon. Members wish to speak. I just wish to add my voice to those thanking the Government and the Ministers for their concession on this matter. My constituency is very rural but, like the constituency of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), it contains a large asbestos-related industry. That industry was born and based in High Peak, so my constituency has a higher level of mesothelioma than the national average. The Government’s movement on this issue is to be commended. Last week, I, along with one or two of my hon. Friends, voted in the Opposition Lobby on this matter. I subsequently received an e-mail from a constituent telling me that he was actually proud of his MP—he said that this does not happen very often.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), because she has driven this through, along with the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) and those in the other place. I welcome the amendment in lieu and am particularly pleased to see that a report will be published on the conclusions of the review. That gives me great confidence that the review will be meaningful and searching, and will come forward with something that all of us across the House can support when the day comes. I look forward to that report.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): When the Lord Chancellor introduced the statement to the House which preceded this Bill, I asked him about the provisions in relation to domestic violence. He thought that I would be pleased with the answer, because the Government had recognised that domestic violence was, to some degree, a special case. I was not pleased with the answer, because at that point the definition of “domestic violence” was unique to this Bill, it did not cover all cases and it was, in my view, fundamentally flawed. So the first thing I wish to say is how glad I am that the Government have now decided to use the Association of Chief Police Officers definition of “domestic violence”.
I need to push one point further, however. The failure of the Government to understand the reality of the lives of victims of domestic violence is reflected in how they have constructed this Bill. I will never forget the moment when I talked to two local police officers in my constituency who dealt regularly with victims of domestic violence and who told me about a case that they had just dealt with of a woman who had been beaten up by her husband by 12 years earlier but did not report it until he started biting pieces out of her body. That case, although
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it made me tremble with horror, is shockingly not that exceptional. We should not forget that, in this country, two women are murdered every week following a history of domestic violence. We should not forget how few women ever report it. Why do they not report it? Overwhelmingly, the victims of domestic violence think, “It was my fault.” That is how they feel, so they do not go to the police or to social workers. They conceal it, as they think it is caused by something that they did.
Such women often report because of someone else. When women are pregnant, they will report their victimisation by their partner because they want to protect the child in their womb. The problem with the distance travelled by the Government is that they have not yet gone far enough. I hope to be able to persuade the Minister to take that last step and to accept wider forms of evidence. We know that women do not necessarily go to a refuge; they go to a place of refuge. They might go to their sister, to their school friend or to their mum, and they are the people who women will tell first about their experience of victimisation.
Some very perturbing evidence from Welsh Women’s Aid suggests that the average time—the average, not the extreme—that a victim might take before reporting a domestic violence incident and getting to the stage of resolving the private family law issues is five and a half years. That average time would be excluded by the route that the Minister is pursuing. I beg him to recognise that the House of Lords got this one right and to say that he will take the last step and ensure that the other victims are properly protected. That is important because by allowing these women to use private family law to protect themselves and their families, we will prevent future domestic violence homicides. The Minister could do that by changing his position on the amendments.
Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and I pay tribute to the work done by her and other Opposition Members when they were in Government. They undoubtedly made huge advances in the prosecution of people who had committed offences of domestic violence and put protection in place to enable victims of domestic violence to come forward in both the criminal jurisdiction and the family and civil jurisdiction. That protected not only those women but their children. We part company, however, on this matter as I believe that the Government have gone as far as they should in their acceptance of the definition of domestic violence and what should support any allegation of domestic violence.
I do not think that it is fair simply to criticise those on the Front Bench for not understanding domestic violence, especially if it were suggested that they did not do so by virtue of the sex of the ministerial team or the Secretary of State. I am not suggesting that the hon. Member for Slough said that herself, but others have. It was interesting that in her speech she told us that the peculiarity and horror of domestic violence, which is demonstrated in the fact that women will often suffer for year after year without making any formal complaint or any complaint at all and that they suffer in silence, came as a surprise and a shock to her when she first learned of it in a conversation with two police officers.
Many Members on both sides of the House have experience by virtue of their work in the health service, the criminal justice system or—I am thinking in particular
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of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant)—as a solicitor in the family division. Unless one has had that first-hand experience, some of the appalling stories one hears beggar belief. It is difficult to accept the fact that appalling abuse can go on, year after year, unreported.
It has been generally accepted across the House that we still have a long way to go. Members of this House conducted an admirable investigation into the inadequacy of our stalking laws, notwithstanding the efforts made by the previous Administration. We know that more legislation is needed to protect from stalking which is, in my opinion, not only an offence of abuse but, in effect, an offence of violence because of the psychological damage it causes. Recent events in Nottingham, which my Broxtowe constituency touches on, show that we still have police officers who, when it comes to domestic violence, simply do not get it. A woman was murdered who had repeatedly complained to the police.
The real subject of this debate is whether the Government have finally got it right. I welcome the changes they have made and I am pleased and proud that they listened to what others have said. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) about regulations. We do not need to put all the provisions on the face of the Bill. I am more than content for the matter to be dealt with in regulations, which give us flexibility, so that if a point arises that we have not yet thought about or even discovered, it can be added to the regulations.
On the question of evidence, I caution against saying that all that is needed is a simple complaint to someone, somewhere along the line. There has to be something more substantial than that. After all, that one has been abused in some way by a partner or ex-partner is a serious allegation to make. Although I do not for one moment suggest that the overwhelming majority of complaints are not properly made, it has to be said that still, in a very small number of cases, people make false allegations to advance some other dispute in which they are involved. That is why I err on the side of caution.
I am pleased that the Government have accepted the point about a report to a GP, which is more than someone just saying to a GP, “He hit me.” There will be some reason and some visible sign of why a woman has gone to her GP. I have no difficulty with that, nor with reporting abuse to a refuge. As I think I asked the Secretary of State, why on earth would a woman go to a refuge if she had not been a victim of domestic violence? She is hardly likely to go to a refuge for a pleasant break away from home. She goes because she is undoubtedly the victim and is taking concrete measures that support her complaint. I support the Government on those measures and congratulate them.
On mesothelioma, last week I made an off-the-cuff speech, even though, to be truthful, I knew little about the subject. I urged the Government to find an alternative way to sort the matter out. They have done so and I am delighted to support them on that.
Ian Lucas: I thank the Minister for his letter today setting out the concession that has been made, and I am grateful to him and the Lord Chancellor for that concession.
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I thank my constituent, Mrs Marie Hughes, whom I quoted extensively last week. I also thank the peers who listened to last week’s debate in the Commons and, as a result, sent this matter back to this House. Had they not done so, we would not have had the concession.
I pay tribute to those Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs—I think there were five Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats—who voted against their Whip last week. They listened to the debate, participated in it and contributed to the expression of the overwhelming view, both in this House and in the other place, that the measure could not proceed in the form in which it appeared last week. It was clearly wrong, and I am pleased that we have reached a different position.
Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): I shall be brief. I pay tribute to the Government for the moves that they have made on the Bill and I welcome the progress on the definition of domestic violence. Although they have extended the range of evidence that will be required, there is still some way to go. I recall that last week the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) suggested that the time limits might be up to three years.
I am speaking on behalf of a constituent who came to see me a few weeks ago. She had been habitually abused—emotionally abused—over a number of years. The last straw for her was when her husband tried to set fire to her. She went to hospital. She has medical evidence but she did not want to press any charges. She is, understandably, so traumatised by the experience that she has been through that several months after the incident she can barely speak. She is years away from being able to take to a court or tribunal the levels of evidence that have been suggested. I support amendments 2B and 196B, particularly on her behalf.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), I welcome the amendment on mesothelioma and the moves towards a review, if there is to be one. Oldham is not far from Rochdale and many of my constituents worked in the industry. Once people are diagnosed with the disease, they are, unfortunately, likely to be dead within 18 months. It would be outrageous if 25% of the damages were taken from them. I support amendment 31, but I acknowledge the moves that the Government have made.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): I wish to place on record my gratitude to the Lords for their amendments and for their hard work. I also place on record my gratitude to the Opposition Front-Bench team for all the hard work that they have done on all aspects of the Bill, and to my hon. Friends and some on the Government Benches who have fought against certain provisions of the Bill.
I welcome the Minister’s concession on industrial diseases, including mesothelioma, and the fact that the Government will review the issue. I hope they will abandon the proposal to make victims contribute to the lawyers’ costs if they are successful. I ask the Government to consider other industrial diseases that should be placed in the same category, such as industrial deafness, industrial blindness, severe spinal degradation, leukaemia, cirrhosis of the liver and other organ damage.
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It cannot be said that people suffering from those conditions are out to make a quick buck. Although we support the idea of a limit on insurance claims or the suggestion that the victim should pay a contribution towards the damages, it is disgraceful that the provisions should apply to people affected by serious illnesses. To say to people who suffering from such illnesses, “By the way, once you have gone through the process of proving your case, your lawyers will have to take their costs from your damages” cannot be right. It is plainly unfair and unjust. I can see that the Lord Chancellor disagrees with me. If I am wrong and he wishes to intervene, I am more than happy to give way.
The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): I just want to say that the lawyers do not have to take 25% of the compensation. All the costs are recovered from the defendants in a case that has been won. It is only those costs that are irrecoverable from the defendants that can sometimes be recovered. In a straightforward case there is no reason for anything to be recovered over and above that, and lawyers should not automatically take 25% of the claim and say that it is for their costs.
Yasmin Qureshi: But there is nothing to stop them doing so. The legislation should be simple and straightforward: a person’s compensation, whatever it might be, should be theirs and the legal costs should be a separate item that they can claim for. If I am awarded damages worth £100,000, I should get £100,000 and not have to pay £25,000 to someone else. Any legal costs should be paid separately by defendants’ insurance companies, which are incredibly rich and have loads of money that they can—
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Lords message, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, 17 April).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83G),
Legal Aid and Sentencing of Offenders Bill – Debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday April 25th 2012 at 5.15pm – Debate relating to Commons amendments on mesothelioma.
That this House do not insist on its Amendment 31 and do agree with the Commons in their Amendment 31C.
31C: Page 32, line 36, at end insert the following new Clause:—
“Sections 43 and 45 and diffuse mesothelioma proceedings
(1) Sections 43 and 45 may not be brought into force in relation to proceedings relating to a claim for damages in respect of diffuse mesothelioma until the Lord Chancellor has—
(a) carried out a review of the likely effect of those sections in relation to such proceedings, and
(b) published a report of the conclusions of the review.
(2) In this section “diffuse mesothelioma” has the same meaning as in the Pneumoconiosis etc (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979.”
My Lords, I would like to start by paying a sincere tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for his vital role in pursuing his cause conscientiously and relentlessly. I know how conscientious and relentless he can be when he gets hold of a campaign, this time in the cause of mesothelioma victims and their families. I know others have followed his lead, but, as he pointed out, when this Bill first came before the House, there was no mention of this cause and he has, quite literally, put it on the front pages. He can take great personal credit for helping us achieve the position we have reached today and on which I hope all sides can agree.
In the past few days, we have had the opportunity to debate at some length issues in relation to the plight of sufferers of this terrible disease. I and ministerial colleagues have also held a number of meetings with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others, including my noble friend Lord Freud, which have been extremely productive. I am grateful for the general recognition of the value of what the Government now propose in respect of a pause in commencement of the reforms in Part 2 in relation to mesothelioma.
Let me be clear about what we are doing. The Jackson reforms in Part 2 of the Bill are due to come into effect in April next year. They will continue to come into effect then, except in so far as they affect mesothelioma claims. Mesothelioma claims will therefore continue for the time being with the current arrangements of recoverable success fees and insurance premiums. As I informed your Lordships on Monday, we are working hard to agree an acceptable scheme to help victims who are unable to trace their employer’s insurers; as I said, I hope that we will be in a position to make an announcement before the Summer Recess. The arrangements for any new process will obviously take some time to bring forward. We will review the position in due course and publish the findings of that review. Only after we have done so, and we are satisfied that the time is right to implement the provisions in Part 2 in relation to mesothelioma, will we do so.
Amid general approval in the House of Commons yesterday, one issue was raised which related to the terms of the review that we have committed to undertake. I hope that your Lordships will understand that I cannot say much more at this early stage about the precise terms of that review, but it will be a proper and appropriate one. My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor will publish the results, and we will not commence our reforms as far as mesothelioma is concerned until we are satisfied that a structure exists which enables swift and fair compensation for victims and their families.
The strength of feeling in this debate has been palpable and genuine. I am glad that we have been able to meet some of the concerns expressed by tabling the amendment that we have. I beg to move.
Lord Alton of Liverpool:
My Lords, I first thank the Minister for the kind remarks at the outset of his speech. I suspected that he might have meant that I have been a bit of a pain in the neck on this subject.
Lord Alton of Liverpool:
He put it rather more elegantly. The Minister having had a tough time during proceedings on Part 1 this afternoon, he will be glad to know that I can be very warm in what I am about to say to him, and also to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for the encouragement and support that they have given me as I have taken this amendment forward at every stage of the Bill.
It puts me in mind of a passage from EM Forster’s book, Two Cheers for Democracy. He said that only “love, the beloved republic” deserved three cheers, but that sometimes the cantankerous, difficult, awkward Member of Parliament who sees some minor injustice and is able to get it right is the justification for our system. I suspect that that is something that unites us on all sides of this House and, indeed, in another place as well. On that note, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is about to intervene.
I was going to draw the House’s attention to the fact that our dear friend Tam Dalyell from another place recently published his autobiography and entitled it The Importance of Being Awkward.
Lord Alton of Liverpool:
I am happy to be in the company of another member of the awkward squad on this occasion; I was happy to be in the Division Lobby with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, during earlier proceedings on this Bill. Although it has not been possible for us to achieve all of the things that we would have wished to achieve during the proceedings, it speaks well of your Lordships’ House that we were willing to send back to the House of Commons for the second time, on Monday, the provisions in the Bill which relate to men and women who have been exposed to asbestos and, as a result, have developed the fatal illness of mesothelioma.
Yesterday in another place, Mr Jonathan Djanogly, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, moved an amendment in lieu of Amendment 31, which was agreed in the other place, as the noble Lord has told us, without Division. The amendment specifies that the mesothelioma provisions may not be brought into force until the Lord Chancellor has carried out a full review of their potential impact and has published a report on the conclusions of the review. The practical effect of this is that terminally ill victims will not have to surrender up to 25 per cent of the compensation which they have been awarded in success fees over and above the base fees which lawyers will already have received. There is now an opportunity to recast what many of us believe is, in any event—and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, alluded to this during our proceedings earlier in the week—an immoral use of success fees in cases where causation is not in issue, as well as to devise a new scheme which the noble Lord, Lord Freud, told us on Monday is now being worked on by the Department for Work and Pensions.
Therefore, before we leave this matter I would like to ask the Minister—and during a conversation yesterday I was able to give him some notice of my intention to do this—if he would clarify one or two questions which arise from the Government’s announcement and the amendment in lieu. First, is the Minister able to assure us that there will be absolute synchronisation between the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the mesothelioma provisions in the Bill will not be implemented in advance of the new regime coming into force? Secondly, Mr Jonathan Djanogly told the House of Commons yesterday that the new proposals,
“could well require DWP legislation, in which case we would look to roll the ending of the provisions into the commencement of the DWP provisions”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/4/12; col. 839.]
That would certainly be the best way to proceed; can the Minister tell us when he expects his noble friend Lord Freud to be able to make a statement on the shape of the new scheme and whether there will be formal consultation with victims’ groups and other interested parties before a Bill is introduced? Also, do we have any idea of a timetable for the proposed legislation?
Let us assume for a moment that such a scheme—which has proved elusive in the past—were not brought forward, and that the insurance industry simply decided to play fast and loose with the Government: what would the Government do in those circumstances? Would they simply rely on the outcome of the review which they have instigated, and if the internal Ministry of Justice review concluded that it wanted to proceed with the mesothelioma provisions which have now been suspended, can the Minister assure us that there would be robust parliamentary scrutiny and opportunities to contest such an outcome? Will formal commencement orders be required, for instance, before the now dormant mesothelioma provisions in the LASPO Bill can be put into effect? Would such orders be introduced by statutory instrument, and, if so, is it the case that they would not be subject to parliamentary debate? In those circumstances, can the Minister assure the House that the Government would find a way for both Houses to be able to return to this question? It would be a pretty unsatisfactory situation if we were unable to do that.
With regard to the review itself, will it be conducted entirely by Ministry of Justice officials? Will the Minister at least reflect upon the desirability of involving some independent voices—perhaps, at least, a representative of one of the asbestos victims’ groups? Will those conducting the review call witnesses, take evidence and have a record of proceedings—will it be transparent?
I will end by making two short observations. First, as I have said, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords, and indeed honourable Members of another place, who have supported this amendment at every stage. In particular, I want to put on the record that the right honourable Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East, Mr Paul Goggins, and Tracey Crouch, Member of Parliament for Chatham and Aylesford, gave considerable help, across the political divide, to ensuring that the case there did not go by default. The cross-party concerns which were raised in this House and in another place, and which were followed through by votes in the Lobby, were crucial in persuading the Government to think again.
I also pay tribute to the indefatigable efforts of Mr Tony Whitston of the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victims Support Group, whom I met with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and Mr John Flanagan of the Merseyside Asbestos Victims Support Group, for keeping these issues before us. The information and case histories which they have provided have been focused, understandable and rooted in their own day-to-day experience of working with the victims of this killer disease. Their resolve and dignified approach do them, and those who they represent, great credit. I know how grateful they are to your Lordships for insisting that their case be heard.
Secondly, and rather topically, this outcome says something about the particular strength of your Lordships’ House. Like the Minister, I served in another place for 18 years before I stood down. When the Bill came to us, I was staggered to find—as the noble Lord mentioned at the beginning of his remarks—that the issue of mesothelioma, which has after all claimed the lives of 30,000 British people, had not been debated or scrutinised at any stage. I repeat the observation I made on Monday last, that that is a vivid example of the vicious use of guillotines and programme Motions. The revising role of this Chamber—carefully scrutinising legislation and assessing its impact—is a strength that should not be lightly dismissed.
Finally, in three days’ time it will be Workers’ Memorial Day, which commemorates those killed, injured or made ill through work—a day that is meant to highlight the importance of good health and safety in the workplace. Asbestos disease is often called “the widowmaker”. In 2010, asbestos-related diseases accounted for 93 per cent of all industrial injuries disablement benefit payments for respiratory disease. It is a wretched disease—a death sentence with fatal consequences. All over this country, men and women were exposed for decade after decade to toxic substances, mainly at work, which ruined their lives and cost many their lives. As well as those 30,000 who have already died in the United Kingdom from mesothelioma, an estimated 60,000 more are yet to lose their lives due to past exposure—the vast majority of which, of course, occurred at work. The victims of this disease sacrificed their health and often their lives while working to support their families and contributing to the wealth of this country.
Throughout our debates, I have argued that it is iniquitous that such people should have to surrender up to 25 per cent of the damages they have been awarded. Happily, the Government have been persuaded that there is no racket involved in these cases, no ambulance chasing, and no compensation culture. They are right to have thought again, and I welcome that. We all now wish them well in coming forward with a far better approach to dealing with such cases. Linked to that is a promise that we remain diligent in monitoring the progress that has been made.
Once again, I am appreciative to the House for the support and encouragement that it has given in pursuance of this important matter.
My Lords, I want to add only a few words about the outstanding role of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in leading this campaign during the proceedings on the Bill over many weeks and months. I do not think that anybody else could have had the success that he has achieved, because he is one of the most assiduous Members of this place. If he likes the label given him by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, it is a title that he well deserves and which we would all be proud to wear.
I want to add only one question to those that have already been posed. In the review of the potential impact, will it be possible for asbestos victims and their relatives to make representations and be heard orally by those conducting the review? This is important, if I may say so, because some of the material provided to us by Tony Whitston was of great importance in deciding certain questions—in particular, whether or not people would be deterred from taking proceedings if the Bill had come into effect in its previous form. There was abundant written evidence from victims that if they knew that 25 per cent was going to be deducted from their damages, they or their bereaved relatives would not have bothered to go into the fray. It is important that that evidence is presented to the review.
Perhaps I may say, finally, how grateful we are to my noble friend Lord McNally, because he has listened carefully all the way through. In particular, as he mentioned earlier, he was willing to meet the noble Lord, Lord Alton, myself and others, and take carefully back to his department the arguments that we put. That meeting and the further meetings that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, had with him have been instrumental in enabling the Government to arrive at this welcome conclusion.
My Lords, I also welcome the Government’s shift on this matter. I am sure it is one that will give the noble Lord, Lord McNally, considerable satisfaction, given the family dimension and his understanding of this condition. It will, I hope, be of considerable benefit to many thousands of sufferers and their families. I join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I am aware of his campaigning ability from many years in another place. We campaigned sometimes together and sometimes on opposite sides. When one was on the opposite side, my goodness, one knew one had a contender to deal with. The diligence that he and other colleagues across parties have applied to this issue will be of considerable satisfaction to the groups of campaigners who represent sufferers and their families.
I want to raise a couple of points with the Minister. I note with interest that the definition of diffuse mesothelioma used here is the one that was incorporated in the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979. Another dimension of what he mentioned a moment ago is the fact that there are still people who cannot trace their employers or pinpoint which employer was responsible at the time at which the disease may have developed. That is the case for a number of diseases. The 1979 Act, as noble Lords will remember, arose largely from the position of slate quarriers, but many other workers were affected in the cotton and pottery industries and some in the steel industry.
I am not going to reopen the debate that we lost the other night. We lost that one, and so be it, but there will be some cases in which there is suffering that is not covered by any other provision. When the review is undertaken, I hope that some consideration can be given to whether there are other cases of industrial workers who have suffered loss of health, and in many cases loss of life, and do not have an avenue through which to get compensation. If they do get compensation, they should not have that compensation unreasonably eroded. I hope that can be taken on board by the DWP. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, the Minister in the DWP who may be handling this, also has a good understanding of the suffering that arises from these conditions, so hopefully we can make progress.
Finally, this may be a lesson for us in this House to try and try again. We could have abandoned this the other night without insisting on the amendment that we put through to the other place. We did not and that is what enabled progress to be made on this occasion. There may be other instances when we need to be equally tenacious and determined in order to make sure that the other place gives adequate attention to a subject and that progress such as this can be made.
Lord Thomas of Gresford:
I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for all the very hard work that he has put into this matter. I also pay tribute to the work of the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victims Support Group, in particular to Tony Whitston, who has lobbied so hard on behalf of victims; and there are other support groups, such as the Merseyside support group, which have lobbied just as hard.
I argued on Monday that success fees ought not to be claimed by solicitors in this type of case. I was pleased to hear the Minister in another place, Mr Djanogly, say yesterday:
“this is not an issue of causation. I heard Lord Thomas speak in the other place yesterday, and I very much agree with what he had to say, which was essentially that in cases in which causation is not an issue, there is—in many respects—no reason why solicitors should have a success fee for that type of work”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/4/12; col. 831.]
I was strongly supported on Monday by my noble friend Lord Faulks, and I am grateful to him for the concern that he has shown on this issue. An objection was made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, that it was impossible to guarantee that solicitors would not charge a success fee against their clients’ damages.
I interjected that if public opinion saw it as an abuse, no doubt the Lord Chancellor would step in to deal with it by way of regulation. There is another way in which this issue could be approached. I suggest to Mr Whitston, his excellent organisation and other similar support groups that he should draw up a list of solicitors who have indicated to him that they would not charge a success fee when, ultimately, the new regime for CFAs is introduced for mesothelioma sufferers. The support group could receive applications from solicitors to be put on an approved list and satisfy itself that firms that are accessible to victims in those industrial parts of the country where the disease is most prevalent—shall we say Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and, of course, the industrial areas of north and south Wales?—are geared up and competent in this area of work. Sufferers from mesothelioma turn to the support groups, and if they had a list of solicitors who had undertaken not to charge success fees against the damages they receive and who they are satisfied are competent, that would be a great way forward.
I follow the point that the noble Lord made the other night; I well understand it and have some sympathy with it. Clearly, if the sort of provision he is suggesting were to be made, it would be very helpful. Does he feel that it should be limited to mesothelioma, because there are many other cases of compensation in which it is equally unreasonable that there should be a deduction of up to 25 per cent from the compensation?
Lord Thomas of Gresford:
The noble Lord will recall that on Report, I referred not only to cases of mesothelioma that Mr Tony Whitston drew to our attention from the Brymbo steelworks in Wrexham but to cases of pneumoconiosis that I have known. He is a slate quarry person; I come from a colliery area and I know of the long-term suffering of those victims. With mesothelioma, that could be done now and could be extended to other diseases in due course.
The support groups would be uniquely placed to monitor the service that such firms gave to mesothelioma sufferers, who could report back on their experiences to both the support groups and their successors. That is the answer to those who say that solicitors will not do this work at all unless they are cosseted by success fees. It spreads the work around the country to areas that are particularly concerned with this disease, where experience could be built up by firms of solicitors. It may discourage any idea of focusing litigation of this type in the City of London branch offices of firms that then claim to be paid at City of London rates. Anecdotal evidence suggests that that happens in some CFA cases.
As my noble friend Lord Faulks said on Monday, there are lawyers who are dedicated to achieving the best result for their clients and not so much for their fees. I have no doubt that they would flock to be placed on an approved list and forbear charging a success fee at all. I hope that such an approach will appeal to the Minister, the Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice.
My Lords, I begin by congratulating the Minister for being a member of the luckiest Government there can ever have been in the history of Parliament. The odds against drawing three votes on crucial amendments, two on Report and one at this stage of proceedings so that the Government win the vote, as it were, must be immense. He has managed to do that and I congratulate him on it. I just hope for his sake and the Government’s that their luck does not begin to run out.
On this issue, the Minister also deserves some congratulation if, as I suspect he did, he played a part in persuading his fellow Ministers, and the right honourable and learned Gentleman the Lord Chancellor, that there had to be some give or concession. If he played a part in that, I congratulate him and think that he has served the House well in that regard.
I, too, want to compliment those outside the House. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, stressed, the co-ordinator of the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victims Support Group, Mr Tony Whitston; Mr John Flanagan, the Merseyside equivalent of that organisation; and many others outside have worked incredibly hard to make sure that people who do not always have a very loud voice have had a say in Parliament—or rather in this House of Parliament. It is absolutely clear that when these matters were raised in the House of Commons when this Bill was first taken through, they were completely dismissed. It was only when the Bill came to the House of Lords that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, with his usual courage and zeal, managed to raise these matters, with the help of the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Wigley. Eventually, at the very last minute, he got a concession from the Government.
I pay tribute, too, not only to those I have mentioned but to the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the Conservatives who abstained in the vote on Monday night. Had they not played the part that they did, the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, would not have gone through. I remind the House that it won by nine votes. If it had been lost there would have been no review or concession; there would have just been rejoicing in the Ministry of Justice. It was as close as that. It is because of the bravery of those who were prepared to abstain or vote against their own Government that we are here today congratulating the Government, quite rightly I am sure, on their concession.
Seriously, it is a good concession and we know, or trust, that the review will be genuine. We look forward to playing our part in making sure that the sufferers of this terrible disease get a fair deal when the Government have had their review. Not only the noble Lord, Lord Alton, but all of us will be watching very closely to see how developments move forward in this very vexed field. As for this House, for once it can congratulate itself.
I think that if the noble Lord were to ask Señor Torres, he would find that a draw is also sometimes a victory. He is the Chelsea centre forward. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, is a Leicester City supporter and does not mix in that kind of high-class company.
I was very grateful for the comments at the beginning of the speech of the noble Lord. I notice that he quickly tailed off towards the end to start initiating rebellions, and so on. I have continually made the point that I am well aware that any Minister is a bird of passage, but I have always been a lover of this place—I mean the whole Parliament building. I sometimes say when I show visitors around that I never come into this place without a sense of awe for what it stands for and what it does. Anyone who stands at this Dispatch Box takes the buffeting and advice and has to work through very much with the help of the awkward squad. The only problem with the awkward squad is that when one campaign is over it immediately starts on another. I noticed from the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Wigley and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, himself that further campaigns will be on the way.
I can absolutely guarantee that we will work in a synchronised way with the DWP. That is not such a surprise. It is a sign of our industrial heritage that quite by chance my noble friend Lord Freud and I have family members who have died of this horrible disease. Taking the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, when my sister died of it, because it was not possible to identify which of her employers had been responsible, there was no way forward for her. I do not think we need to worry. Certainly while my noble friend Lord Freud and I are responsible for this, we will make sure that there is a sense of urgency in our approach to these matters. If the insurance industry were to start playing fast and loose or stalling on this matter, I would suggest that it researched the Hansards of these debates and it would know that it was storing up significant trouble for itself.
I have helpfully been sent the replies to the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I mentioned that the report will be synchronised. Commencement of the provisions in Part 2 will be by statutory instrument in the usual way. They do not require the approval of both Houses. The amendment means that the commencement cannot begin on mesothelioma claims until a review has been carried out and a report published on the likely effect of the provisions on mesothelioma claims.
Questions were asked about whether people will be able to give evidence to that review and who will be on it. At this moment, it is very difficult to give firm commitments, but given the list of usual suspects interested in this case we are not going to be in the business of trying to put forward some kind of whitewash scheme. We will make sure that this is a proper review and that Parliament has a proper opportunity to see the outcome. If asbestos victims want to contribute to such a review, it makes sense that they should do so. Certainly, I would not want a barrier to that.
My noble friend Lord Thomas’s suggestion is not a matter for government, but I hope that the campaigning organisations in this area take note of it because it is a useful initiative on claiming success fees.
I think I have covered the questions that were asked. I am extremely grateful for the contributions. At the beginning of the Bill, I could not even say “mesothelioma”, but now I manage to get it out. We should thank the campaigning organisations outside. Sometimes we hear about lobbying, and everybody sees it in the most sinister terms. Sometimes lobbying is very good and very helpful to Parliament in its work. This is a case where lobbyists have found parliamentary champions who have had an impact. As I say, this is something that neither the noble Lord, Lord Freud, nor I will lose sight of—and even if we tried to, the awkward squad would keep us up to the mark. I beg to move.
Motion C agreed.
From: ALTON, Lord
Sent: 20 April 2012 16:05
To: ALTON, Lord
Subject: Mesothelioma Amendment 31 – Monday’s Debate.
April 20th 2012: Letter sent to all members of the House of Lords –
You will recall that eighteen of us wrote to you just before the March 15th vote on an all-party amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill concerning victims of mesothelioma. The House subsequently voted, by a majority of 31, in favour of the amendment, enabling victims of asbestos to keep 100% of their much needed compensation. This amendment does not add any extra cost to the public purse but seeks to support terminally ill victims of mesothelioma and their families. All sides have been agreed that such cases are not part of a “compensation culture” or that they provide examples of fraudulent or frivolous claims.
You may wish to read the debate in the Commons when, earlier this week, the amendment was considered there. For ease of reference, the debate is attached to this email. Although the Lords’ amendment was rejected, it enjoyed all-party support and the Government majority was one of the smallest since coming to office. Underlining the crucial scrutiny role of your Lordships’ House, it is worth noting that this issue had not even been debated during the earlier Commons stages. Our Lords’ amendment gave the Commons their first opportunity to consider an exception for those who have no hope of surviving their illness, and little hope of seeing justice done in their life time.
In this week’s Division, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs were among those who voted for the amendment. The speech of Tracey Crouch MP (Chatham and Aylesford), who previously worked for the insurance industry, is especially noteworthy:
“It is not my insurance background that drives my real interest in this issue; it is on a constituency basis that I care most. Medway has been highlighted as a hot spot for mesothelioma, which is unsurprising given that the towns have historically provided the industrial hub for Kent, and that the Chatham dockyard was one of the biggest employers for many decades.” Supporting her, Andrew Bingham Conservative MP for High Peak commented on the all pervasive nature of this pernicious disease: “My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend, has a higher than average incidence of mesothelioma. We have no shipbuilding, but there has been significant employment in other asbestos-related industries across the High Peak. I praise her for pointing out that other professions are involved as well.”
Mesothelioma has attracted more legal challenges to limit liability for compensation than any other disease. Exceptionally, mesothelioma has a latency period of up to 60 years. It is a fatal disease; there is no cure. No other industrial disease places claimants in such difficult circumstances when facing the stress of taking legal action. It is moving to reflect on the comments of the late Lord Newton of Braintree who was one of the key supporters of the amendment and which, along with a copy of a letter sent to The Times by Baroness Butler Sloss, Baroness Finlay, Lord Beecham, Lord Avebury and others is pasted below.
Following the Commons debate, I am glad to say that Lord McNally and Lord Freud held discussions with supporters of the amendment and are actively trying to find ways forward. Movers of the amendment have made it clear that we are looking for a constructive outcome. Meanwhile, the amendment has been re-tabled for further consideration on Monday and should it come to a Division I hope that the House will continue to support it while we continue to seek an agreed outcome.
Finally, It has been said that it is unjust to single out one class of claimant for exemption. Of course it is not possible to do what we would like to do for everyone, but should that mean that we cannot do the right thing in such an exceptional case? Society owes a huge debt to those who are now losing their lives from this terrible disease, and the thousands who will lose their lives for decades to come, as a result of criminally negligent exposure to asbestos long after the dangers were known to Government, industry and health and safety enforcement agencies.
Alton of Liverpool , on behalf of movers and supporters of the amendment.
Remarks by the late Lord Newton of Braintree in support of the amendment:
“Having made that point, which will indicate that were there to be any question of pressing some of these amendments to a vote-I understand that there is not-then my noble friend on the Front Bench will be thrilled to hear that I would not be minded to support them, I turn to the more positive point about Amendment 156A and the amendment later on of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, relating to asbestosis. I have some experience of claims relating to that disease-or rather to mesothelioma, the form of cancer to which it often gives rise-in my capacity as both Minister for Disabled People and Minister for the industrial injuries compensation scheme, and latterly as chairman of a hospital sometimes concerned with these respiratory diseases. I think there is a real case for wondering whether we should not maintain assistance to that group of people.
There are two reasons for that. One is that this condition is what you might call very slow burn. Exposure to asbestos that occurred very many years ago may give rise much later to mesothelioma, one of the nastiest forms of cancer. In consequence, there could be significant difficulties in proving the causation. Therefore, there is a case for making sure that legal aid is available in such cases. The nature of this disease and the problems associated with it also make a strong case in ordinary human terms for ensuring that people who have contracted it through no fault of their own as a result of something that happened during their employment should be helped to establish whether their employer could be held liable for that, or, indeed, whether they should get compensation in any other way. Therefore, I hope my noble friends on the Front Bench will not consider that this amendment would have a scattergun effect but that it is well targeted and deserves careful consideration.”
Text of a letter which appeared in The Times, signed by Baroness Butler-Sloss, Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool, Lord Avebury, Lord Beecham, Professor Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, and Lord McFall of Alcluith:
Sir, There have rightly been many reports on the damaging effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Prosecution of Offenders Bill on legal aid. But nothing has been reported on the grossly unjust effect of Part 2 of the Bill on victims of asbestos dying from the cancer mesothelioma.
Provisions in the Bill require terminally ill asbestos victims who succeed in a claim for compensation against negligent, guilty employers to pay up to 25 per cent of their damages for pain and suffering in legal costs associated with the conditional fee agreement system (CFA). The Government’s argument that this will deter frivolous and fraudulent claims is, frankly, risible as far as dying asbestos victims are concerned. The Government has identified increasing road traffic accident claims and alleged whiplash claims as the real problem (in total, whiplash claims add up to a staggering £2 billion annually), especially as road traffic claims amount to more than 70 per cent of all personal injury claims.
The Government’s additional argument that making mesothelioma sufferers pay legal costs will drive costs down as they shop around for the best “deal” is untenable as many sufferers are so defeated by their illness they never make a claim as things stand now.
Legal aid provided public money for test cases and difficult and meritorious cases to be run, until the present CFA system required losing, guilty defendants to pay. It is now proposed that one claimant must pay for another claimant’s chance to gain access to justice. Important test cases which have determined the right of mesothelioma sufferers to claim would never have been run under the new prescription.
Asbestos victims should not, and financially cannot, subsidise other claimants’ access to justice, nor can they afford to defend test cases run by rich insurers. Eighteen peers have signed a letter calling on colleagues to support all-party amendments at the Report Stage in the Lords to protect asbestos victims from a gross injustice.