UK Asbestos News: Good and Bad
February 25, 2010 was a day of mixed results with some outstanding successes and a few disappointments for campaigners on UK asbestos issues. News released detailed the success of the Asbestos in Schools Campaign, a nationwide movement backed by asbestos victims, trade unions and politicans concerned about the rising incidence of asbestos-related disease amongst school users. At a meeting which took place on February 24 between campaigners and the Schools Minister Diana Johnson, a logjam seems to have been overcome. After months of inertia, it was agreed that a steering group would be set up to look at the multiple issues caused by the presence of asbestos in the majority of UK schools. The first meeting of the steering group will be in March 2010. Speaking about these developments Michael Lees, who has been campaigning on this issue for more than 10 years, said:
"I am very pleased that the Minister Diana Johnson MP is now taking action in conjunction with the Asbestos in Schools group to work towards making our schools safe."
Michael's schoolteacher wife Gina died of mesothelioma on September 7, 2000, having been exposed to asbestos at several schools.
Even as observers were digesting this news, the Government released details of their long-awaited decision regarding pleural plaques. Incorporating the bad news in a package of measures designed to support people who have been exposed to asbestos,1 was a clear attempt to sweeten the pill. While some pleural plaques sufferers in England and Wales (those who had filed cases before the 2007 House of Lords decision which shut down pleural plaques compensation),2 will receive extra-statutory payments of £5,000, others will get nothing. As actuaries had estimated that the annual cost of pleural plaques to British insurers was around £25 million a year, this gesture will equate to about one year's worth of liabilities. The fact that the package announced yesterday included a one-off £3 million contribution by insurers towards asbestos disease research, means that the insurance industry could, in the long term, save more than £1 billion.3
The good news contained in the announcement by the Ministry of Justice included:
A press release issued on February 25 by the Association of British Insurers was cleverly crafted to downplay the enormous advantage insurers have gained from the government's refusal to reverse the Law Lords pleural plaques decision, saying only: The Government's decision not to reverse the House of Lords ruling is the right one.4 Responding to the government announcement, asbestos victims' groups, trade unions and legal specialists welcomed the improvements but expressed disappointment at the failure to meet the expectations of pleural plaques sufferers. GMB National Health and Safety Officer Dan Shears said:
It cannot be right that pleural plaques sufferers exposed to asbestos in Scotland will be compensated, whilst those working with the same hazardous materials, often for the same employer in the same working conditions, in the rest of the UK will receive nothing. Until everyone suffering from pleural plaques receives the same level of compensation, regardless of where or when they were exposed, GMB will continue to campaign for compensation and justice for all.5
In 2009, the Scottish Parliament reinstated the rights of plaques sufferers to receive compensation for their condition. That English and Welsh victims do not have equal rights is a glaring injustice.6 Whilst the Government has clearly taken on board the many criticisms arising from the inequitable situation faced by so many asbestos sufferers throughout the UK, thousands of pleural plaque victims have been left out in the cold.
February 26, 2010.
1 Government announces measures on asbestos-related illness. February 25, 2010
2 It is estimated that 6,000 pleural plaques claimants will be eligible for this compensation. A telephone line is being set up this week to answer questions regarding this scheme; http://www.justice.gov.uk/about/pleural-plaques.htm
3 According to the 2004 article: Zurich in Fight over Asbestos, pleural plaque compensation was costing UK insurers £25 million a year with pay-outs averaging £5,000-£6,000; a contemporaneous actuarial report predicted up to 200,000 UK asbestos-related claims in the coming 30 years, of which 75% would be for pleural plaques. Research by the UK Institute of Actuaries estimated that shutting down pleural plaque compensation could forestall 100,000 pleural plaque or pleural thickening cases, which could save insurers up to £1.4 bn ($2.5 bn).
5 Press Release. GMB Welcome some Aspects of Announcement by the Government but are Disappointed that Pleural Plaques will not be Compensated. February 25, 2010.