Asbestos compensation scheme criticised by campaigners

Chest X-ray
Image caption Mesothelioma is a form of cancer which can take decades to develop

Campaigners have expressed fears thousands could miss out under a new compensation scheme for those with the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma.

The Queen's Speech included a scheme to help those with the disease, which is usually contracted in the workplace, who cannot trace their insurer.

But campaigners said victims of other asbestos-related conditions would miss out and criticised a cap on payouts.

Ministers said the scheme was a "major breakthrough" for victims.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of internal organs, notably the lungs, and almost always arises from exposure to asbestos.

People do not develop symptoms of the disease until about 30 or 40 years after exposure and there is no known cure.

'Fait accompli'

Cases in the UK have been rising in recent years, with official figures showing about 2,400 die each year from the disease.

Because of the delay in developing symptoms, some workers who were negligently exposed to asbestos at work find it difficult to trace an employer or insurer who is liable to pay compensation.

On Wednesday, the government announced a Mesothelioma Bill, which will set up a payment scheme aimed at addressing this "market failure".

The proposal is to offer all victims using the scheme a flat-rate payout set at 70% of the average compensation paid out by insurers to those victims not using the scheme.

It will be paid for by a levy on insurance companies which provide employers' liability and is expected to cost the insurance industry £300m over the next 10 years while helping more than 300 sufferers a year.

But campaigners say the scheme does not go far enough in compensating victims, and thousands who suffer from other asbestos related diseases, such asbestosis and pleural thickening, will not receive anything.

The proposed 70% cap on compensation is also a "red line" for campaigners.

Tony Whitston, chairman of the Asbestos Victims Support Group, said: "What appears to be a great deal brokered by government, and costing the insurance industry a small fortune, is in reality something entirely different.

"This scheme excludes 50% of asbestos victims, pays 'average' compensation only to victims dying from the cancer mesothelioma and then slashes average compensation by 30%.

"This scheme is not what we expected. It was presented as a fait accompli to asbestos victims and saves the insurance industry a small fortune at huge cost to asbestos victims.

"The bill needs to be unpicked and repackaged if the victims' best interests are going to be truly at its heart."

'Life is a mess'

There have also been concerns that only those who are diagnosed after 25 July 2012, when the government first announced details of the scheme, will be eligible for compensation.

Arthur Butts, an electrician who is now his 70s and was diagnosed with the disease two years ago, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that there was "no sense" in the cut-off point.

"I feel a bit cross about it," he said. "I feel it's discrimination on a large scale."

"I think the compensation could come in full from when you were diagnosed. If they had the disease they'd be a little bit more understanding."

The effect of the disease on his life had been "terrible", he said.

"I'm not living a normal life. I can't do anything. If I exert myself anything other than walking up the garden I have to have a five minute sit down to take a breath.

"Life is just a mess."

The British Lung Foundation said it would seek to amend the bill to ensure a "long-term, sustainable research fund" is set up to find a cure for mesothelioma.

'Devastating disease'

It said "a shamefully small amount" was spent on research - only £400,000 in 2011, compared with £11.5m spent on lung cancer.

But Otto Thoresen, director general of the Association of British Insurers, welcomed the bill saying: "The insurance industry wants to do all it can to help sufferers and has worked with the government on this package of measures that will deliver help to claimants much faster, including to those who would otherwise go uncompensated."

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: "The mesothelioma support scheme will be a major breakthrough for the many victims of this terrible disease - who have been failed by successive governments and the insurance industry for many years.

‪"It will end the injustice that means many victims and their families do not receive compensation and it will help around 3,000 people over the next 10 years as we reach the forecast peak in cases.

"We urgently announced the scheme in July last year to ensure as many people as possible will be covered."

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