By LINDA WALDMAN STEPS Centre member
‘Disgraceful’, ’a class decision’ and ‘an outright injustice’ were just some of the angry phrases heard as people from all over the country joined forces to express outrage at the House of Lords’ decision that pleural plaques can no longer be compensated in English law.
Asbestos victim support groups from as far afield as Glasgow and as near to Westminster as London’s East End were joined by the GMB and UCATT trade unions and others – including lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, journalists and researchers such as myself – to lobby against the Lords’ decision, made on the 17 October 2007.
For more than 20 years, asbestos sufferers in the UK have claimed damages for pleural plaques, but the Law Lords decreed that pleural plaque was ‘innocuous’ and was not a precursor to other more severe asbestos-related diseases. Pleural plaque sufferers, they said, have ‘sustained damage but not been harmed’.
On 29 January I saw politics in action. The mood in the Atlee Room was thick with emotion and solidarity as we heard about asbestos-related diseases and how it ‘squeezed the life out of sufferers’ and about current sufferers’ experiences.
Various experts spoke about pleural plaques, detailing the anxiety, concern, depression and frustration of sufferers. Lawyers spoke of the historical precedent in British law and of the fact that Scotland was already considering a bill to define pleural plaques as actionable and compensatable damages.
As a social anthropologist, I described the detrimental effects of pleural plaques on men’s identity, on their ability to earn money and support their families, arguing that they experienced a form of social disintegration.
Throughout the lobby, MPs entered the room and listened to these persuasive arguments. Some of these MPs expressed their own outrage and committed themselves to raising this in parliamentary sessions.
I hope this action will result in policy being made. Describing the situation and expressing outrage is not, in itself, enough. Trade unions spoke about the steps needed to pressure MPs to address these issues, about their poster campaign to lobby the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw to ‘put right’ the House of Lords Ruling. Thermal insulation engineers (or laggers), maintenance workers, plumbers, carpenters and others exposed to asbestos through the activities of companies such as Cape plc, Turner and Newall etc. will be challenging their MPs to address these issues.
I am asking my MP, who represents my small village in East Sussex, what he is doing about this issue and how he is representing me. Perhaps, after reading this, you would like to do the same?