Landmark Demonstration against UK Pleural Plaques Ruling 

Report by Laurie Kazan-Allen



They came for their friends, their community and for themselves; they were there for people like Brian Fairbrass (Benny), who committed suicide having been diagnosed with pleural plaques and for Peter Braddock, whose pleural plaques have been superseded by asbestos cancer.

Protesters gather outside Parliament

The demonstration and Parliamentary rally in Westminster was over a defendants' decision by the House of Lords (October 2007; see British Asbestos Newsletter Issue 69) on the Rothwell case, a conjoined appeal over the issue of pleural plaque compensation. The Law Lords' decision signalled the end of UK pleural plaque compensation and reversed more than 20 years of precedents during which compensation for this condition was routinely awarded by the courts. The events on January 29, 2008 were supported by the a cross-section of UK trade unions including the GMB, UCATT, the T&G and Unite, formerly Amicus. Asbestos victim support groups from Manchester, Sheffield, Hampshire, Cheshire, Liverpool, Derbyshire and Glasgow, and activists from all over the country were also out in force.

Protesters streaming towards Portcullis House

The meeting room in Portcullis House, which should have held 200, overflowed with groups of delegates massing at the back and standing in the aisles. More than 30 MPs were named during the proceedings with many more slipping in and out as their schedules allowed.1

The packed meeting room

Amongst the protestors, frustration had given way to anger at the betrayal by a government and judicial system which was out of touch with the reality of ordinary men and women. For the first time in a long time, so one MP said, the Attlee Suite was the venue for a meeting dominated by an issue of class, the working class. How can someone's body sustain pathological tissue change and the individual not be injured? This is not a matter of legal analysis; it is an emotional issue for a whole segment of society. People with pleural plaques are not the “worried well,” said the eminent medical specialist Dr. Robin Rudd.

Robin Rudd

They live in a state of constant anxiety. Within their close-knit social network, laggers know many former colleagues who have endured terrible suffering from terminal asbestos-related diseases. They are anxious when they have a cough or when they experience difficulty in breathing. When suspicion arises that they may have pleural plaques they await scans, appointments and check-ups, always expecting the worse; why wouldn't they, when they have seen so many of their colleagues go down this path. An analysis of data from one GMB branch of the Heat & Frost Laggers listed 58 branch members who had contracted asbestos-related disease (out of only 350 in total):

  • 25 had pleural plaques (7 later contracted lung cancer or mesothelioma);
  • 8 pleural thickening (2 later contracted lung cancer or mesothelioma);
  • 15 asbestosis (3 later contracted lung cancer or mesothelioma);
  • 3 lung cancers;
  • 7 mesotheliomas.

Twenty-three of the branch members had died from their illnesses.

Pleural plaques affect not only the sufferer but the family. This “innocuous condition,” which the Law Lords found did not warrant compensation, can totally alter the personality and behaviour of an individual and send him into a cycle of depression where he refuses to talk about his concerns, withdraws from social interaction with friends and easily grows irritated and angry with those closest to him. An identity crisis can ensue during which the sufferer will constantly monitor levels of physical fitness, stop spending money, develop obsessive-compulsive disorders and experience suicidal impulses. Plaque sufferers are, said Jimmy Parrish, Officer of the Heat & Frost Branch of the GMB, not “lumps of wood.” How can you tell them that they have “sustained damage but not been harmed.”

There is little doubt that depriving pleural plaque sufferers of compensation is part of a sustained attack by vested interests to minimize their asbestos-related liabilities. Mentioning other onslaughts on victims' rights such as the Chester Street debacle and the Barker case, MPs called the asbestos defendants and their insurers “international spivs” and the Law Lords “old fogies.” MP Tony Lloyd who had worked for Turners Asbestos said he wanted to see the executives who had exposed workers to the asbestos hazard in jail. Alan Ritchie, General Secretary of UCATT, said corporate behaviour on asbestos had shown a “pure contempt for those whose only crime was to work for a living.”

Overwhelming support for Parliamentary action to reverse this “iniquitous decision” was evinced by the trade union general secretaries in attendance and scores of MPs who agreed that it was likely the Parliament in Holyrod would act to restore compensation for plaque sufferers in Scotland. When this happens, it would create a north-south, post-code lottery in which some would continue to be deprived of their rightful due. This was unthinkable. A political strategy for the coming months was outlined by MP Michael Clapham who stressed the need for trade unionists and asbestos victims to continue the pressure on their elected representatives.

Michael Clapham MP

January 30, 2008


1 MPs in attendance included: Michael Clapham, Doug Henderson, Charlotte Atkins, Ian McCarthy, John McFall, Kevin Baron, John Battle, Jimmy McGovern, Iain Wright, John Robertson, Ann Cryer, Frank Doran, Tony Lloyd, Dennis Skinner, Doug Naysmith, Jon Cruddas, Julia Goldsworthy, Kevin Jones, Stephen Hepburn, Ian Gibson, Nick Brown, Peter Kilfoyle, Kelvin Hopkins, Gordon Marsden, Alison Seabeck, Nigel Griffiths, Celia Barlow, Jon Trickett, Dave Anderson.



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