Asbestos research funding – Taking stock

It is now two weeks since Action Mesothelioma Day so it is useful to take stock of where we are as regards asbestos research funding.

None of the three main political party leaders made any mention of Action Mesothelioma Day on the day, suggesting the lack of political importance they and their advisors place on mesothelioma and asbestos matters in general. With the run-up to the election already underway, if they considered there to be any political mileage for themselves in mesothelioma they would no doubt have made some reference to it and Action Mesothelioma Day. Several Labour Party politicians did attend Action Mesothelioma Day events and the All Party Parliamentary Sub-Group on asbestos seminar this week in London. It was reported from the Action Mesothelioma Day event in Manchester that shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, pledged that a future Labour Government would if necessary compel insurance companies via legislation to provide funding for research into asbestos diseases. It also appears that a Labour Government would match any funding made by insurers.

It is probably most unlikely that the Conservatives will put forward any fresh proposals as regards research, seemingly contenting themselves that they have already done enough as regards helping mesothelioma victims with the passing of the Mesothelioma Act, and bringing forward their own research proposals. However, as has become clear the Coalition government resorted to a shameful sleight of hand as regards mesothelioma victims, giving with one hand and taking away with the other, following their sordid little deal with the insurance industry to ensure that the LASPO provisions apply to mesothelioma claimants. It will be interesting to see the Report of the House of Commons Justice Committee on Mesothelioma claims to be published on the 1st August, and what it says as regards bringing mesothelioma claims within LASPO and the deal struck with insurers.

The Liberal Democrats appear in an unsurprising mess generally, and face election wipe out. With many of the policies they have supported in Coalition it will be extremely difficult for the electorate to take any promises that run counter to this seriously. So even if they were to promise research funding from insurers or public funds, could it be believed?

The British Lung Foundation have been in talks with the insurance industry in the hope of persuading them to fund asbestos research. Lord Alton, speaking at the Manchester Action Mesothelioma Day event, gave the disappointing, but perhaps not entirely unsurprising news that talks between the two parties have failed to produce anything tangible. Whilst the central argument of the British Lung Foundation to insurers is powerful, in that if insurers fund research, in the long run this could be hugely cost beneficial to them in having to pay less compensation, it faces the difficulty of the insurance industry being made up of different companies who might have differing perspectives, and whose owners might question paying out sums where a benefit might not be seen for a number of years.

The Labour Party might find that any legislation compelling insurers to fund research could face a legal challenge, which could potentially dramatically slow any progress in getting money into research. For mesothelioma victims it would be a positive move for a future Labour Government to unpick the LASPO/Mesothelioma Act deal the Coalition Government had with the insurance industry. Whilst we wait to see the Justice Committee Report, the government in defending the decision to include mesothelioma claims under the LASPO provisions sought to argue that there was no justification for mesothelioma claims to be effectively favoured over other types of civil law claims and therefore remain outside of the LASPO provisions. The government said that whilst mesothelioma was a horrid disease, there were other horrid diseases and it could not be justified to give preferential treatment as regards legal actions to mesothelioma claimants. Whilst it is true that there are other horrid diseases, it may be asked which diseases are there that have been negligently caused on the scale of mesothelioma? I may be wrong but it would seem to me both the nature and sheer scale of the disease do make it unique and therefore meriting a different claims regime to the LASPO system.

No political party has thus far mentioned the £52 million saving for the government which the Mesothelioma Act is calculated to achieve over a 10 year period. It is this saving that I argue should be immediately utilised for research purposes. The online petition I set up calling on the government to fund research has now passed 1600 signatures, but of course this number is far short of what is needed in order to have any impact on any political party’s stance on the research issue. I wrote to the Department of Works & Pension to ask what would happen to the £52 million saving and whether it could be used for research. I received a somewhat blocking reply stating that research was a matter for the Health Department, not the Department of Work and Pensions. Just another example, convenient or otherwise for the government, of the difficulties faced when trying to get movement on such an issue.

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