Children are being "negligently and knowingly exposed" to asbestos by the State, a Westcountry GP-turned-MP has claimed.
Tory backbencher Dr Sarah Wollaston, the MP for Totnes, made the claim during a debate on a new law which will award £100,000 compensation payouts to around 300 victims of a fatal asbestos-related cancer every year.
Dr Wollaston welcomed the Bill and said she had seen first-hand the indignity and pain the "terrible disease" mesothelioma had inflicted on her former patients.
But she warned the Bill did not go far enough and questioned what was in place for victims who have been “negligently and knowingly exposed by the state” to asbestos.
Dr Wollaston said: “I think it would be a terrible shame to pass a Mesothelioma Act without taking the opportunity to act on a very important area of prevention and that is because there is no safe lower exposure limit for asbestos and children are particularly at risk.
“A child being exposed at the age of five will be 2.5 to around five times more likely to develop the disease than an adult aged 30.”
She said 228 teachers, who would each have had 30 children in the classroom with them, had died as a result of negligent exposure to asbestos since 1980.
She also said 75% of schools contained asbestos and Health and Safety Executive evidence suggested 13,000 of 23,800 schools were built during the peak use of asbestos, which was now crumbling.
Dr Wollaston continued: “Now when you consider every time you put a drawing pin into an asbestos board and take it out again you will release around 6,000 asbestos fibres, I think the trouble is the argument that we take in this country, which is that we should literally cover up the asbestos, isn’t really good enough.
“We know the evidence is when you slam doors, when you have children kicking what are called literally kick boards around classroom edges that the level of asbestos fibres in the air can increase by 6,000 times, I think we should go far further than we are.”
Dr Wollaston added: “The trouble is this Bill is about compensating people who have been negligently exposed in the course of their work.
“What will we be saying to future victims who are being negligently exposed in the classroom? They won’t have an employer. They are being negligently and knowingly exposed by the state, I’m afraid.
“And it’s simply not good enough that we take a view there’s nothing we can do about this.
The proposed new law was “not perfect”, Disability Minister Mike Penning admitted.
Mr Penning made the admission after Labour attacked Government plans to make insurance companies contribute to compensate victims of mesothelioma – a cancer which targets the lining of the lungs and is caused by exposure to asbestos fibres.
Under the proposals, those unable to receive compensation from former employers because they cannot trace them or their insurers will get compensation through a scheme funded by a levy on current insurers.
Many victims include shipbuilders, electricians and plumbers who were exposed to asbestos while handling lagging and insulation.
The Opposition claimed that insurance companies are getting away cheaply as the estimated size of the levy – £350 million – is small when firms’ profits are taken into account.
Mr Penning acknowledged that the Mesothelioma Bill – which will enact the changes – is not perfect, but said it was better than nothing.
Intervening in the minister’s speech at the Bill’s second reading, Labour’s Kevan Jones (North Durham) said: “I know the insurance companies are trying to sell this as a generous scheme, but all estimates say it’s going to be something like £350 million.
“If you look at the profits of Lloyds of London last year alone it was £2.7 billion.
“Do you not think that when you put this into perspective actually insurance companies get away very cheaply?”
Mr Penning replied: “Nothing is perfect. Nothing is perfect but there was nothing there before and if we were to have carried on with the way it was going nothing would be there going forward for these people who are suffering so much. They need help today.”
Mr Penning said compensation payments would be roughly 75% of the amount paid out in average civil damages - the "absolute maximum" the insurance companies said they could absorb without passing costs on to new businesses.
He warned the scheme could be jeopardised if the levy on insurance companies was set “disproportionately high”.
He said: “The scheme will make claimants eligible people according to a fixed tariff, according to the age of the person that has the disease.
“The payment will be based roughly on 75% of the amount of average civil damages. Those who have followed the progress of the Bill through the Lords will also realise that that figure has raised in the Lords from 70% to 75%.”
He went on: “Setting the payments at the right rate is crucial to the success of the Bill and the ultimate establishment of a payment scheme.
“Paying the scheme rate of 75% brings the levy right to the limit of what the insurance (companies) have indicated they can absorb without passing the costs - absolutely crucial this – without passing the costs on to new businesses and that is the absolute maximum that will be realistic within the fixed payment schemes.”
He added: “The scheme could be jeopardised if the levy were set disproportionately high. We will have a debate on this going through the Bill, I am sure, that won’t I hope take away from the importance of the Bill and making sure that the Bill gets on the statute book.”
Mr Penning also spoke of the need to get the Bill through Parliament quickly.
He said: “Timing is key to get this legislation through and we expect there will be a peak in claims in 2015, which is why it’s so opportune that we are going for it now.
“We really must act now and launch the scheme as soon as possible with the regulations as soon as we can after Christmas and I expect that to take place, and the regulations to be in place should we get it through this House in April 2014.”
Tory MP Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford), who worked in the insurance industry, said the Government should ensure that women who contracted the disease as a result of doing their "wifely duties" - such as washing their husbands' work overalls - received compensation too.
She said the Bill was unclear about whether victims would be forced to pay the legal fees of their claim from their compensation payout, adding the Government needed to “stand up” to the insurance industry and ensure claimants received higher payouts.
The MP, who has constituents suffering from the disease, said: “I do think we need to make sure that we are putting the victim at the heart of this compensation scheme, not ... the insurers and the lawyers who may benefit out of this.
“In the middle of the constant stand-off between insurers and lawyers remains a person who will die a most horrible death and this Bill, while welcome in principle, still puts too much in the pockets of other interested parties.”
Shadow disability minister Kate Green said Labour would not oppose the Bill at second reading as it wanted payments to get to victims as quickly as possible, but added it does not go far enough to bring them justice.
Ms Green added that payments could be set higher than 75% of average civil damages but remain within the levy of 3% of gross written premium agreed by insurers.
She said it was not credible that the companies could not be more generous.
Ms Greens said: “Payments, as has been noted, will be set at just 75% of average civil damages – admittedly, as you said, an uplift on the 70% initially proposed.
“It’s claimed that the industry cannot afford to pay a greater sum without passing on the additional costs to current employers’ liability customers.
“I have to say that the notion that this multibillion-pound industry – which has been collecting premiums for decades while doing all it can to avoid payouts, that is to be gifted £17 million by this Government under this legislation and lent a further £30 million to help with the introduction of the scheme and the smoothing of the first year’s payments – that the idea that this industry cannot and should be more generous is quite simply not credible.
“I certainly hope that we will bring the industry to understand that it would be right and proper for it to be more generous to its victims than the scheme currently suggests that it will be.”
She went on: “The opposition will be pushing for payment levels to be increased and we believe they can be when the industry itself has accepted a levy of 3% of gross written premium is affordable and when the impact assessment has shown that payments set at even 80% or even 90% of average civil damages are affordable within a 10-year period.
“You (Mr Penning) said that the proportion of gross written premium which the levy represents was more important than the 75% level which has been derived from that 3% figure.
“It is our reading of the figures that in fact there is scope for the industry to be more generous even within its own accepted cap of 3% of gross written premium, and that is something that I hope we will be able to explore in detail with you in committee.”
Pointing out the Bill would deal with a "relatively small cohort of people for whom traceability of employer or insurer has not been possible".
Conservative MP Robert Buckland used the opportunity to debate the discrepancy of compensation rules between claims resolved in life and those resolved in death.
The Swindon South MP said: “The regime that applies to posthumous claims for damages is still, in England and Wales, dramatically different from those which are made during the lifetime of a claimant.”
Known as the "Swindon disease" due to the large numbers of railway workers in the town who contracted mesothelioma, Mr Buckland said bereavement damages and funeral expenses are not payable during the lifetime of a claimant.
He said: “It is clear that claims that are brought by widows after death will be about 20% – one fifth more valuable than an equivalent claim made during the life.”
He added: “So the dilemma for mesothelioma sufferers, going through all the pain and the struggle that they have to endure is this: do they resolve their claims during their lifetime, for what would be a lesser sum, or do they die with a claim unresolved?”
Labour's Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) said: ``Frankly it is shameful that we spend so little on research into the causes and treatment of mesothelioma.
“This is a disease which will kill 2,400 people this year and in the region of 60,000 people over the next 30 years.
“We should be devoting much more into research. I applaud the initiative that was taken by the small number of insurance companies to set up the research fund, which the British Lung Foundation have been managing, and some good and promising work has been done.”
Mr Goggins said an amendment in the Lords to make the cash pot more sustainable, better funded and more reliable in the long term was narrowly defeated.
He added: “But that doesn’t remove the need for ministers to do much more in relation to the funding of research.”