Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The DWP’s Mesothelioma Scheme: Just Not Good Enough

Amid all the excitement of the Olympics it is perhaps no surprise that a press release issued at the end of July attracted little attention. It came from the Department of Work and Pensions, and sounded like a piece of very good news in announcing that, from 25 July, £300m was being pledged for the support of mesothelioma victims.

There was a catch – and hats off to The Observer for disclosing it last Sunday. In this piece, Jamie Doward highlighted the fact that the scheme is only available to future victims of mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

To be fair, the DWP’s original press release, issued on 25 July, made clear that the scheme would only apply to “newly diagnosed victims”. It stated that the scheme “will allow around 3,000 mesothelioma victims across the UK who are unable to claim compensation because they cannot trace a liable employer or employers’ liability insurer to receive approximately £300m in payments in the first 10 years”, adding that around “300 mesothelioma sufferers a year currently lose out on compensation because they are unable to trace a liable employer or employers’ liability insurer”.

Lord Freud, the Minister for Welfare, declared: “We have worked tirelessly together with the insurance industry to agree this package of measures on behalf of those who face this terrible disease. The new scheme will mean that, for the first time, sufferers of diffuse mesothelioma, who cannot trace either a liable employer or employers’ liability insurer, will have access to extra payments.”

That sounds fine, so far as it goes – but the trouble is that it doesn’t go far enough. For starters, it seems that there will be a two year delay in the implementation of the scheme owing to the need for primary legislation. Mesothelioma is a terribly aggressive cancer, and the life expectancy of anyone diagnosed with it is nine months to a year. This means that anyone diagnosed with the disease now is likely to die before the scheme comes into force.

Moreover, as The Observer reports, there is considerable disquiet at the fact that the scheme only benefits suffers of mesothelioma. People suffering from asbestosis, pleural thickening and asbestos-related lung cancer are excluded from the scheme, but campaigners say these conditions amount to 50% of all asbestos diseases.

No wonder Tony Whitston, the chairman of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum, told The Observer he was “bitterly disappointed at the exclusion”. He went further, accusing the government of acceding to the wishes of “rich and powerful insurers”.

I have previously alluded to the rather too cosy relationship that exists between the present government and the insurance industry, and have much sympathy with Mr Whitston. There is something about the wording of the DWP’s press release that is worrying. Lord Freud comes across as too keen to praise insurers (in saying how “tirelessly” they have worked with the DWP), and the press release is also at pains to point out that the scheme is “funded by insurers”. Then comes a quote by Otto Thoresen, the Association of British Insurers’ Director General (rather than someone from, for example, the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum). Mr Thoresen has this to say:

“Mesothelioma is a particularly aggressive cancer and the insurance industry, working with government, is determined to do all it can to ensure that sufferers get the support they need as soon as possible. This package of measures will deliver help to claimants much faster, including to those who would otherwise go un-compensated.”

Regrettably, though, this conjunction of the government and the insurance industry has not done all that it can. The scheme only applies to people suffering from mesothelioma since 25 July this year, will not be wholly effective for two years, and excludes a vast swathe of asbestos-related conditions. The bottom line is that many people will continue to go un-compensated, and, as so often when it comes to this government and the PI sector, so-called ‘reform’ simply isn’t good enough.