Sefton Central Labour MP Bill Esterson said the Tory-Lib Dem government was branding terminal mesothelioma cancer sufferers claimant fraudsters in a House of Commons debate this week.
The MP called the debate in Westminster Hall to discuss the implications of the government's Legal Aid Reforms on mesothelioma sufferers.
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer which is commonly contracted by people who have worked in jobs where they inhaled asbestos or have been exposed to asbestos dust.
During the debate, Bill Esterson highlighted the seriousness of the condition saying: “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. Everybody who gets mesothelioma will die an agonising death.”
Bill said: "It cannot be right that victims of asbestos-related diseases should be required to surrender a quarter of the damages that they have been awarded to pay for legal costs. Those damages are awarded to recognise and compensate men and women who have suffered terribly, if it is at all possible to compensate them for the pain, suffering and life-shortening that resulted from their work.
"Mesothelioma has an extraordinarily long latency period of up to 60 years. 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 occurred at work.
"People were exposed to this terrible disease at work in situations which employers knew would ultimately kill the workers.
"The Government rejected a Lords amendment that would have exempted mesothelioma from the provision, but they have yet to say how sufferers and their families will be protected. In all the non-answers from Ministers, they have yet to justify to thousands of families why they did not exempt mesothelioma."
Bill said that despite pleas from the Labour Party and mesothelioma sufferers, the Tory-Lib Dem Legal Aid reforms were adding insult to injury for people with the condition.
Bill said: "Mesothelioma causes intractable pain and severe breathlessness, which means that more than half of all the very modest damages claimed are for pain and suffering. The Government’s proposals would have a disproportionate effect on mesothelioma sufferers, because victims receive a higher proportion of their damages for pain and suffering than those who claim for personal injury.
"The legislation requires terminally ill asbestos victims who succeed in a claim for compensation against negligent, guilty employers to pay up to 25% of their damages for pain and suffering in legal costs. They are not part of the compensation culture, nor are they legally aided, so to include them in that provision is wholly wrong. Many sufferers are so defeated by their illness that they never make a claim under current circumstances.
"We have a duty to the victims to ensure that the matter is dealt with properly and that this Government are held to account. We need to hear answers today as to what will happen in that review, and it needs to be done quickly.
"KPMG estimates that the insurance industry was given a £1.6 billion windfall when the Government ended compensation for pleural plaques. Unless the Government change their mind on mesothelioma, a similar windfall may be made available to the insurers at the expense of victims of industrial disease."
The MP said the Tory-Lib Dem government must act in the interests of the victims and not the insurance lobbyists.
Bill said: "Asbestos-related disease is not an accident. It is the result of negligence and lack of duty of care. The claims of dying asbestos victims are never frivolous or fraudulent.
"Mesothelioma sufferers who make a claim mainly do so because they and their families will not be at risk in terms of legal costs, which, without no win, no fee agreements, would be prohibitive. A claim may be valued at between £5,000 and £10,000, which is of great importance to the individual concerned, but which could be eaten up in costs and premiums under the Government’s plans.
"Mesothelioma sufferers would lose the whole of their compensation simply by not taking any action, which, as we have heard, is increasingly likely if no changes are made. Their access to lawyers would be restricted by making success fees unrecoverable from defendants, putting them at risk of paying defendants’ costs if they lose. Victims are already reluctant to claim because they have so many problems dealing with their rapid deterioration in health and trying to survive. The risk that if they lose they will have to pay such costs would be a massive additional hurdle for some of our most vulnerable people, to whom a decent, civilised society should and would guarantee support.
"Concern remains that the change to no win, no fee will cut the number of people claiming and the amount being paid by insurance companies. The insurance industry has a clear financial interest in cutting down the amounts paid out. How will the Minister or his colleagues ensure that that interest is balanced by how the review is run? Will he consider an independent panel to examine mesothelioma and compensation for victims and their families? Will he and his colleagues consider the call for an employers’ liability insurance bureau following the pattern of the Motor Insurers’ Bureau? We must ask why there is such a facility for traffic accident victims but not for those suffering from mesothelioma or other industrial diseases.
"Victims and their families want answers and protection. They have a right to that protection, given the suffering that they go through. It is time that Ministers gave answers about how that protection will be guaranteed, and soon, by this Government."