Lord John McFall of Alcluith is a Labour Backbench Peer and former Chair of the House of Commons' Treasury Select Committee
With over thirty thousand deaths in the UK from the industrial disease Mesothelioma, the subject gained a rightful focus at Question Time in the House of Lords last week.
My interest in this issue has been long-standing since my time as MP for West Dunbartonshire, when I represented many constituents who had worked in the shipyards of the River Clyde.
The Clyde was in many ways the maritime powerhouse of the British Empire. Where once there were more than seventy shipyards in the river, today only two remain.
But the bitter legacy of this proud industry lives on in the blighted lives of many former shipyard workers. Asbestos was a key component in the building of ships and, as a result, many workers spent their days in clouds of asbestos dust.
These death-inducing particles are so thin that they enter the lungs and remain there dormant for many years. By the time people realise they have this fatal disease, their life span is already very short. The average life-span for a sufferer is eighteen months. So before Society’s debt can be paid to them in the form of compensation, many succumb to a debilitating and painful death.
As the law stands, sufferers face the iniquitous choice of claiming whilst alive, or waiting till they die, in order that their relatives are looked after financially.
But it needn’t be so. In Scotland, the law has been changed thereby eliminating such an unacceptable situation.
My former Scottish Parliament colleague from Clydebank, Des McNulty, pioneered the Bill – Rights of Relatives to Damages (Mesothelioma) (Scotland) Bill - ensuring that sufferers could claim for compensation, safe in the knowledge that if they died before the outcome of their court case, their relatives would be provided for.
Given that cases were taking two years or so, the risk of death for the sufferer was extremely high. To alleviate further distress, the Lord President agreed to designate a Judge to look almost exclusively at these cases, thereby making themselves so familiar with the procedures involved, that the time to process them was reduced considerably.
If the Minister, Lord McNally, adopted these measures in order to remove the burden of sufferers and their families, then, at a stroke, the Government would save themselves money by removing individuals earlier from any benefits being paid out. This would save court time and resources, and produce a more humane way of treating the sufferers of this terrible disease.