Merseyside Asbestos Victims Support Group: A Force for Change
On March 31 1993, John Major had been Prime Minister for three and a half years, the British number one record was Young at Heart and a pint of milk delivered to your doorstep cost 36 pence. Technology at that time was pretty much as it had been for years: TV viewers had four channels to watch, most telephone calls were made on BT landlines and the internet revolution had yet to begin. The transmission of information took place as it had done for decades via: local grapevines, face-to-face meetings, leaflets and traditional media. The world wide web, although it existed, remained the preserve of a handful of techies and the invention of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace was still years away. Although things are very different now to what they were in 1993, there is one strand, however, which links together March 31 of both years: the Liverpool and District Victims of Asbestos Support Group, now known as the Merseyside Asbestos Victims Support Group (MAVSG).
On this day twenty years ago a small group of local health and safety campaigners met at the Hardman Street office of the Trade Union Community Resource Centre to formalize discussions on Liverpool's asbestos tragedy; present were Billy Packer, Charlie Kavanagh, John Flanagan, Gerry Stanley, John Ellis, John Dunleavy, Richard Jones and others. Following up on decisions taken at public meetings earlier in the year, they resolved to establish a Liverpool-based group for asbestos victims, one of the first groups to be formed in England. Its purpose was to reach out to sufferers, provide practical support, help navigate bureaucratic pathways and lobby for changes to medical and benefits systems which were in the 1990s unresponsive at best and obstructive at worst.1 From the very beginning, support for this project was expressed by local Members of Parliament including Eddie Loyden, representing Liverpool Garston, and Peter Kilfoyle, from Liverpool Walton whose brother died from mesothelioma.
The impact of decades of asbestos use in Merseyside had produced a predictable outcome: an elevated incidence of asbestosis and asbestos cancer amongst former dockers, construction workers, shipbuilders, laggers and factory workers. In 1993, the majority of sufferers seen by MAVSG were suffering from asbestosis; people like Gerry Stanley who recalled: When I went into the Royal, the doctor said you have asbestosis and that was it. I got on the bus and went home. Medical consultants, GPs and nurses, the first point of contact for most of the injured, were unaware of the benefits and help which were available. It took years of outreach work, meetings, discussions and information sessions to create the integrated approach needed to improve the experience of people diagnosed with an asbestos-related injury.
Many of MAVSG's clients were occupationally exposed to asbestos by the same employers: Cammell Laird Shipbuilders, Pilkington Glass, Bibby's (now Beoco), Courtaulds, Plessey's, Lever Brothers, Cadbury's and Tate & Lyle. It seems strange to see the names of food manufacturers on this list but in the 1980s the Northwest of England produced more manufactured food than anywhere else in the country. While assembly line workers at these plants were not necessarily at high-risk of asbestos exposure, the mechanics and fitters in these facilities most definitely were. Also amongst the earliest of MAVSG's clients were people who had worked in the dockside warehouses where bag recycling took place; most of those employed in this industrial sector were women and many of the hessian sacks they processed had been used for shipping asbestos.
Even as MAVSG was finding its feet, discussions were ongoing about the formation of another group in an industrial center 40 miles away: Manchester. As bad as things were in Liverpool, they could be expected to be even worse in Manchester considering the huge volume of asbestos cargo transited through its docks and the large number of people employed at the Trafford Park factory of the UK Asbestos Giant: Turner & Newall. In 1994 the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victims Support Group (GMAVSG) was formed. Given the common struggle of asbestos sufferers in Liverpool and Manchester, it was logical that the two groups would collaborate. That they did so enthusiastically and effectively was of utmost importance not only for their constituents but also for sufferers all over the country who would come to benefit from their efforts.
In an interview with the British Asbestos Newsletter, Manchester-based Tony Whitston, Chair of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, said:
Within a year of its formation, the Merseyside group, under the talented and indefatigable leadership of its full time worker, John Flanagan, drawing on the experience of Scottish support groups, had set up a respected organisation dedicated to the support of asbestos victims. Despite an increase in its workload, the Merseyside group found time to assist the development of the Greater Manchester group, whose growth and success owes so much to the generous support of the Merseyside group during its early years.
However, the influence of the Merseyside group stretched much further than Manchester. MAVSG played a key role in setting up the All Party Parliamentary Occupational Health and Safety Asbestos Sub-Group. Peter Kilfoyle, MP for Walton, Liverpool, the Honorary Secretary of the Merseyside group, took MAVSG's proposal for an Asbestos Sub-Group to Parliamentary colleagues on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health and Safety. MAVSG collaborated with asbestos support groups and others to put forward an agenda of work for the Sub-Group, aimed at eradicating the many injustices asbestos victims face. Much of that work has been successful and we owe a debt of gratitude to the Merseyside group for playing such a crucial role in ensuring that the concerns of asbestos victims continue to be heard in Parliament.
Collaborative work, exemplified by the Merseyside group, has been the cornerstone of the national Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum, and its role in the work of the Forum is indispensable, as is the Merseyside sense of humour and gritty determination to defend the interests of asbestos victims over two decades of dedicated work.2
As Tony Whitston so rightly points out, MAVSG staff have acted both as innovators and facilitators in improving the plight of British victims. They have also taken the lead in representing the national asbestos victims' community at meetings overseas. The attendance of John Flanagan at high-profile gatherings, including the Global Asbestos Congress 2000 (Brazil), Asbestos Issues in Poland Conference 2004 (the first international asbestos conference to be held in Poland), the Global Asbestos Congress 2004 (Japan), and the Asian Asbestos Conference in Hong Kong (2009), was a visual manifestation of the solidarity of British groups with sufferers the world over.
After twenty years, it is right to take note of the accomplishments of the Merseyside group; there have been battles which have been won and battles which have been lost but whatever the eventual outcome over the last two decades the people from this group, including John Flanagan, Sam Kloezeman, Ryan Larkin and so many wonderful volunteers and supporters, have engaged in the battles that needed to be fought. Long-time health and safety campaigner Rory O'Neill speaks for us all when he says:
Nationwide, asbestos victims and their families get a raw deal. There are a few stellar exceptions, where the pain of disease and loss is eased by expert and sympathetic advice and support. In Merseyside, MAVSG has for two decades provided a model that should be replicated nationwide. MAVSG has been crucial in supporting the local community and in securing improved rights and treatment for asbestos victims nationwide. It has played a critical role in reducing the deadly toll of asbestos.
Ladies and gentlemen of MAVSG, we salute you.
1 Flanagan J, Whitston W. Asbestos Victims Support Groups in England. International Journal of Occupational Health, 2004;10;2:177-182.
2 Interview Tony Whitston, February 11, 2013.