“We Will Never Go Away!” 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

 

 

Dave Holst, a member of branch 143 of the General Boilermakers Union (GMB) summed up the mood of the October 28, 2008 parliamentary lobby on pleural plaques, when he told a packed audience in the Grand Committee Room: “We will never go away!” Such was the strength of feeling of those in attendance that this theme was picked up time and again by those addressing the meeting as well as those speaking from the floor. Prior to the 3 p.m. session in the House of Commons, a demonstration had been mounted on College Green, Westminster attended by hundreds of trade unionists, asbestos victims, members of asbestos support groups and others outraged at the 2007 House of Lords decision which shut down pleural plaques compensation.1

 

 

The Law Lords' finding that these plaques did not constitute an injury is viewed as a gross insult to those whose lives have been spent in the construction of the national infrastructure. Comments made in the decision that a man of “ordinary fortitude” would not suffer psychiatric disquiet over a diagnosis of pleural plaques reveal the Law Lords total disconnect from real life. “If members of the judiciary had worked with asbestos they would understand the wrong that pleural plaques represent,” said trade unionist Dave Trigg, branch secretary of Unite. “

Addressing delegates to the House of Commons lobby, chest consultant Robin Rudd said that “pleural plaques are an injury in themselves… (they) can be as large as dinner plates.”

 

There was absolutely no doubt, Rudd continued, that the damage done by plaques is “more than minimal.” The fact that plaques are hidden deep within the body is an irrelevance, “the abnormality inside is as real as the one outside.” Psychiatrist Rajiv Menon spoke of the patients he had seen who had been “overwhelmed” by a diagnosis of pleural plaques. Comparing the psychological presentation of a plaque sufferer to that of a plane crash victim, he highlighted the “profound psychological destructive impact” this condition can and does cause.

In his comments, veteran Manchester MP Gerald Kaufman pledged his support for the campaign.

 

“This is,” he said “something the Labour Government needs to put right... we look to Jack Straw to work with us and find a way through (this injustice). Labour MPs are working with you to put right what should not have gone wrong.” MP John Battle from Leeds, a passionate advocate for the rights of asbestos victims, was incensed at yet another attempt by the insurance industry to off-load asbestos liabilities.

 

Returning to the situation which prevailed before the 2007 decision would not cost the government a penny, Battle pointed out. “The insurers are the ones who should be forced to pay,” having received the premiums. Criticizing a pleural plaques briefing distributed by the Association of British Insurers to MPs,2 Battle held up color photographs provided by Dr. Rudd which all too graphically showed the disastrous effect of this condition on human tissue. Nick Brown, Newcastle East MP, Chief Whip and Regional Minister for the North East, referred to the “remorseless outcome” of the court decision which is affecting working class men, many of whom had worked in the Northern shipyards, railways, engineering and heavy industry.

 

MP Tony Lloyd was exposed to asbestos when he worked at a Turner & Newall factory and in the demolition industry. He spoke of the “management recklessness” which put profit before safety and the “contemptuous” insurers who are refusing to pay plaque claims.

The day's events were organized jointly by the GMB (Britain's General Union) UNITE and UCATT, the construction union, all of which are committed to reinstating “social justice” to those affected. GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny brought the meeting to a close thanking the 30 MPs who attended the session and who play a crucial role in the alliance backing the campaign along with trade unionists from many organizations, asbestos victims, members of the medical profession, lawyers and concerned citizens.

 

Forcing employers to compensate those they have injured serves multiple purposes; it exposes corporate negligence, compensates victims for their suffering and reimburses them for the financial impact of their disease, and dissuades employers from future bad practices. Kenny was appalled to learn that Solicitor David Pugh, who helped mastermind the defendants' strategy in the pleural plaque litigation, is shortlisted for the Eclipse Proclaim Personal Injury Defendant Lawyer Award 2008:

“The cynical removal of compensation payments from workers made ill by their jobs is one thing. The trade union movement's campaign to restore the compensation is well on its way to success. But to give an award to the bloke who defended the removal of the compensation which has been paid in many cases, not to workers concerned but to their families because the worker was long dead from the disease, is vile. It says a lot about the immoral culture that predominates in parts of professional circles in the UK today.”3

UCATT's Alan Ritchie is also disgusted:

“These awards show that the insurance industry has no shame. If any decent person had denied compensation to thousands of people whose health has been damaged by asbestos, they would struggle to sleep at night. But in the insurance industry they are rewarded by their peers.”4

MP Stephen Hepburn, who represents the asbestos hotspot of Jarrow, agrees:

“Hundreds of my constituents' lives have been blighted by asbestos and many have died. To find out that one of the people responsible for making their quest for justice more difficult is set to receive an award at an up-market restaurant in London is sickening.”

Hepburn tabled Early Day Motion 2349 on October 27, 2008 which criticized the nomination of the Sheffield-based Solicitor David Pugh, a Partner at the commercial law firm of Halliwell's, and expressed the concern of the House of Commons that:

“an awards ceremony that purports to recognise excellence within the personal injuries sector should consider Mr. Pugh's attack on workers' compensation for occupational injury an example of excellence.”5

Despite the mounting anger at Pugh's nomination, Halliwell's website continues to boast about his success, calling the 2007 Law Lords verdict “one of the most groundbreaking personal injury litigation decisions in UK legal history.” It has been estimated that it will save the insurance industry and the Government up to 30 billion.6

To raise public awareness of the disgrace which this nomination represents, members of the GMB and their supporters will demonstrate outside the Café Royal, the central London venue where the ceremony is being held, on November 4.

October 31, 2008

_______

1 Kazan-Allen L. The End of UK Compensation for Pleural Plaques? British Asbestos Newsletter, Issue 69, Winter 2007- 08.

2 This briefing included comments such as: pleural plaques “are benign and do not impair quality of life”; making pleural plaques compensatable would create rights based on anxiety about the prospect of future illness… This fundamentally changes the law of negligence, and will increase costs for businesses, government, local authorities and insurers”; the causes of breathing difficulties experienced by plaque sufferers are “a history of smoking, obesity or heart problems unrelated to any asbestos exposure.”

3 http://www.gmb.org.uk/Templates/PressItems.asp?NodeID=97769

4 UCATT Press Release. UCATT outraged that a leading lawyer who denies compensation to asbestos victims is set to win award. October 28, 2008.

5 http://edmi.parliament.uk/EDMi/EDMDetails.aspx?EDMID=36729&SESSION=891

6 Lawyer on shortlist for first PI awards. October 24, 2008. http://www.sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk/

 

 

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