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August 5, 2010

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Union fears ‘backtrack’ over asbestos support

Construction union UCATT believes the Government is planning to renege on a commitment by the previous Labour administration to fund medical research into the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma.

The union’s fears were raised after it learned of a seemingly cagey response from the Department of Health, when quizzed on the issue by Labour MP Stephen Hepburn.

Mr Hepburn asked the Health Secretary if he would support and provide funding for the establishment of a national centre for asbestos-related disease (NCARD), and what the policy is on increasing expenditure on research into asbestos-related disease.

Replying last week on the Secretary’s behalf, a written answer by Mr Burns said the National Cancer Research Institute has been tasked with carrying out a review of research into mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

He explained: “The outcome of the review will inform the future strategies and work of the Institute’s partner funders, and help develop the potential to build research capacity and increase research investment in asbestos-related diseases. The review is due to report in the autumn.”

He added: “Future levels of expenditure on research in asbestos-related diseases will be determined by the success of relevant bids for funding.”

Reacting to the minister’s response, UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie described the Government’s apparent failure to honour the commitment to fund the NCARD as “sickening but unsurprising”.

Added Mr Hepburn: “This is another kick in the teeth for workers who have been exposed to asbestos. Mesothelioma is currently incurable; it is disgraceful that the Government will not honour a commitment to invest in research to develop a cure, or for more effective treatment for this awful disease.”

However, a Department of Health spokesperson disputed the suggestion that it was backtracking on the NCARD, insisting: “The idea of creating a research centre for asbestos-related disease was raised with the previous administration but no agreement was reached.”

Speaking on the issue in February, the then Justice Secretary Jack Straw said the UK must become “a global leader in research into asbestos-related disease” and that research must be expanded, but the centre itself appears not to have been set in stone.

However, a pledge by Mr Straw to compensate certain people affected by a ruling denying pleural-plaques sufferers a right to damages is now under way, in the shape of the Pleural Plaques Former Claimants Payment Scheme.

The scheme, which opened for applications on 2 August, was announced after the Labour government, following consultation and the consideration of expert reports, decided not to overturn the Law Lords’ decision that the existence of pleural plaques does not constitute actionable damage under the civil law.

To soften the blow to those who had already begun, but not resolved, a legal claim for compensation before the Law Lords’ ruling, Mr Straw said such people would be eligible to one-off payments of £5000.

For more details about the Pleural Plaques Former Claimants Payment Scheme, and how to apply, visit www.justice.gov.uk/guidance/pleural-plaques-compensation-scheme.htm Applications must be received by 1 August 2011.

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