Increased funding should be made available for research into the treatment and possible cure of the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma.
Compensating those with mesothelioma cancer is an issue I worked on for a long time before I entered parliament, having previously worked for a major insurance company.
It is a matter I have always been passionate about and even on the “other side” I felt more could be done to provide financial peace of mind for someone who will die incredibly quickly as a result of simply turning up to work and being exposed to asbestos.
That is why I was pleased the government introduced the Mesothelioma Bill, now Act, into parliament which would help to provide compensation for those who could not trace either their employer or insurer. It was warmly welcomed by all parties and, in contrast to other legislation, it went through parliament with little amendment.
I personally proposed two key areas of change; one was the level of compensation, which I felt was too low and has subsequently been increased to 80% of average civil damages, and the second related to increased funding for medical research into mesothelioma.
During the bill’s progress through parliament other issues were raised and it is interesting to see how these will, in fact, develop over the coming months and years.
Medical research, as mentioned above, needs to be addressed by the Department of Health.
Despite the UK having the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world, funding for research into treatment and cure is poor. It shamefully lags way behind other cancers and, given we are expecting our peak in incidences over the next five years, it is a shame that the historic underinvestment means people will continue to suffer painful deaths. This needs to be addressed urgently and I hope that the insurance industry will continue with its previously voluntary funding arrangements for research and the meso tissue bank.
In addition, the problem of asbestos in schools has been raised and is becoming more of a live issue among parliamentary colleagues. I think in the past there has been an element of snobbery relating to mesothelioma. It was seen as an industrial working man’s disease and perhaps an occupational hazard of those who spent their lives lagging ships or fitting heating systems. This was wrong. Although the mortality statistics show a heavy bias towards those in heavy industries, it is shocking how many former teachers or educational staff are being diagnosed with mesothelioma.
The Department for Education has issued a consultation document on asbestos in schools but it is clear that without a proper audit of where and how much asbestos there is in our educational infrastructure we shall never be able to cost up what it will take to remove it. Australia has taken an interesting long term strategic approach to removing asbestos from its schools and I would very much like to see the British government follow suit.
The other aspect that arose during the bill development had to do with the Ministry of Defence compensation schemes for mesothelioma victims. This is something I am now following up with the Royal British Legion.
Traditionally there was little awareness of mesothelioma but I think the recent legislation has altered that. With the latency of the disease being so long it is only now that there is a better understanding of this specific and fatal cancer. There is a lot more that needs to be done to improve how the government, as well as the insurance industry and medical research organisations deal with mesothelioma, but progress has been made.
As a nation we did not deal with the dangers of asbestos as quick as we should have. Unfortunately people will die in the coming years as a consequence. It is therefore for the government to make up for past mistakes. I am proud to have been a part of that step forward and more so to have persuaded the government of the need to increase compensation, but the fight is not over.
Tracey Crouch is MP for Chatham and Aylesford.
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