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May 8, 2013

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Queen announces support for asbestos victims

Legislation will be introduced to ensure sufferers of the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma receive compensation where no liable employer or insurer can be traced, it has been announced in the Queen’s Speech.

As well as introducing the Mesothelioma Bill, today’s Speech — which marked the official opening of Parliament (8 May) — formally announced the Government’s plans to exempt the self-employed from health and safety law, in situations where their work poses no potential risk of harm to others.

The Mesothelioma Bill aims to establish a payment scheme for mesothelioma sufferers whose employer, or employers’ liability insurance company, cannot be traced. Details of the scheme, which will be funded by a levy on insurers, were originally announced in July last year, following an intractable period of negotiation between the Government, insurers and claimant lawyers.

Around 3500 mesothelioma victims across the UK, who are unable to claim compensation because they cannot trace a liable employer, or employers’ liability insurer, will be eligible to receive around £355m in payments in the first 10 years of the scheme, which is set to be operational in July next year.

A streamlined claims process should mean that where there is a traced employer or insurer, compensation is paid within three months, and three to five months in cases where no such party can be identified. The Ministry of Justice will be consulting on these plans later in the year.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) is also seeking to build an online portal for mesothelioma sufferers to register claims, so that all relevant information can be held in one place.

Anyone diagnosed with mesothelioma from 25 July last year would be eligible to make a claim. Payments would be in addition to the £200m the insurance industry already pays each year in compensating mesothelioma sufferers.

A technical committee will also be established to decide disputes about whether a particular employer maintained insurance at the time of the person’s exposure to asbestos, and provide for those decisions to be binding.

The plans failed to impress construction union UCATT, which accused the Government of being in the pocket of the insurance industry and pointed out that victims of asbestos-related lung cancer and other fatal conditions who cannot trace their insurer will receive no compensation whatsoever.

According to UCATT, the scheme will not assess individual cases and there will be banded payments based solely on the age of the victim. The union’s general secretary, Steve Murphy, said: “This watered-down scheme, which denies compensation to many victims and slashes compensation to those who qualify, demonstrates that the Conservatives are in the pocket of the insurance industry.”

The Queen’s Speech also outlined a Deregulation Bill, which aims to reduce or remove burdens on businesses, public bodies and individuals to spur growth in the economy.

Among its wide-ranging proposals, the Bill will exempt the self-employed from health and safety law, in situations where their work activities do not put others at risk. The proposal was originally identified by Professor Löfstedt in his 2011 review of health and safety legislation.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady commented: “Taking the protection of health and safety laws away from some of the UK’s many self-employed workers — who are more than twice as likely as employees to be killed at work — will not help businesses, nor grow our economy one bit.

“It’s a recipe for confusion, as many people will now be unsure about their rights and responsibilities. The result is likely to be an increase in workplace accidents.”

“Exemption sends the wrong messages to the self-employed,” added IOSH head of policy and public affairs Richard Jones. “It implies that sensibly managing health and safety is unnecessary, or dispensable for certain groups — whereas, it actually helps support productivity and businesses to survive.”

But the British Chamber of Commerce said the change would help increase business confidence. Its director-general, John Longworth, said: “Business welcomes the Government’s efforts to deregulate and remove needless red tape that prevents companies of all sizes from growing, innovating, and creating employment.

“Proposals around employment and health and safety law must be implemented without delay to increase business confidence, and allow firms to focus on growth.”

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