Every year the first friday of July see’s Action Mesothelioma Day in the UK, where events take place across the country to both raise awareness of the scourge of asbestos and to commemorate and remember those who have succumbed to the individious diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.
Raising awareness of asbestos and the issues surrounding the legacy of 100 years or so of its widespread use in this country has always been challenging for victims and campaigners. This year perhaps more than ever before, with Brexit and the continuing fall-out politically and economically of the referendum, and England’s latest footballing disaster holding the nation’s attention, Action Mesothelioma Day and its important messages will at best receive the odd cursory line here and there in the media. But those messages of life and death have an importance deserving of the nation’s attention. With around 2,500 people dying this year from mesothelioma, and a further 2,500 succumbing to other asbestos related diseases, the paucity of attention given to Action Mesothelioma Day is shameful.
With such human carnage, we need also look to see how our Government has responded to the plight of the innocent victims of asbestos, and the protection of its citizens from exposure to asbestos that remains in situ across the country, especially in our schools. This Government has been strong on concerning words, but arguably limited and even contradictory in its actions.
On a positive note this year, the Government announced that it will use £5 million from the fines it is levying on banks that has been earmarked as part of the Military Covenant, to fund a mesothelioma research centre for the next three to four years. Whilst asbestos campaigners have long argued that there needs to be meaningful research funds made available for asbestos related diseases, it is perhaps instructive that this move by the Government only came about through links to the Military Covenant. Although the funding is to be welcomed, it is in reality inadequate given that it is £5 million over three to four years, arguably representing a minimalist approach, but of course the Government will undoubtedly seek to refer to it time and again to show how they have listened and taken action.
A further positive move, again linked to the Military Covenant, was the announcement that ex-military personnel who have contracted mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos whilst in the armed services and who until now were not eligible for lump sum compensation, will now be entitled to £140,000. It is disappointing however that this compensation has so far not been made available to those ex-military personnel who have suffered other asbestos related diseases.
Thus the Government can refer to two positive moves it has made recently whenever the topic of asbestos is raised with them. But what you will not hear about are instances where the Government actually seek to act to the detriment of asbestos victims and their families. It is bad enough their inaction, such as not appropriately addressing asbestos in schools, but when they positively act in a detrimental way, this needs highlighting to ensure hypocritical claims of concern that they continue to espouse are placed into the appropriate context. It is highly symbolic that in the very week of Action Mesothelioma Day this year we have been provided with such an example. Cyril Hollow, worked for 20 years as a decorator in the Royal Navy dockyard at Devonport. He was negligently exposed to asbestos by his employer, the Government, and died in 2010 of lung cancer. His family brought a legal action against his employer, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and in Exeter County Court in 2014 following the admittance of negligence by the Government the central issue was that of contributory negligence, and how much the damages to be awarded should be reduced due to Mr Hollow’s smoking habit. The Government argued the damages should be reduced by between 85 and 90%. In the event the judge decided that a fair and equitable reduction should be 30% and damages of £80,000 were awarded instead of over £100,000 that would have been awarded without the contributory negligence.
A major issue has been how asbestos and smoking interact in causing lung cancer, and because of the lack of research into asbestos diseases, much remains unknown as to the precise interaction, with experts widely disagreeing as a consequence. The 30% reduction due to Mr Hollow’s contributory negligence was in fact a far higher reduction than in two previous asbestos lung cancer cases where smoking was an issue. In the case of Badger v MOD (2005) a reduction of 20% was made, and in Shortell v BICAL (2008) the reduction was 15%. In Mr Hollow’s case the Government were however not content with the 30% reduction, and in the week of Action Mesothelioma Day, Lord Justice Tomlinson in the Court of Appeal has granted a request by the Government for a full appeal to be heard on the issue of the level of contributory negligence.
Whilst Mr Hollow may not have been a member of the armed services, he served his country by working in the Devonport dockyard, and yet the Government wish to decimate the compensation they have to pay for his death. The country may not hear much about Action Mesothelioma Day, but those attending the various events will have had in their thoughts Mr Hollow and the thousands of other victims of asbestos.