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Pleural plaques victims deserve compensation, says MSP

Victims of a benign asbestos-related condition should be entitled to seek compensation despite objections from the medical and insurance professions, a Government minister said today.

MSP minister for community safety Fergus Ewing insisted the Scottish Government was right to draft legislation to overturn a decision by the House of Lords which stopped people with pleural plaques - scarring on the lungs - from making claims.

He also took a swipe at insurers for raising "alarmist" concerns over vastly increased payouts and costs.

He told the Scottish Parliament's Justice Committee:"The Government's view is that it should continue to be possible to obtain damages when pleural plaques or similar asbestos-related conditions develop as a result of negligence."

Mr Ewing said the lords' decision was based on pleural plaques not being a harmful condition.

The SNP government insists the scarring is proof of exposure to asbestos.

The condition could multiply the risk of fatal disease - such as mesothelioma - by 1,000 and lead to considerable anxiety, Mr Ewing said.

He added: "Many people with pleural plaques are in our old industrial heartlands and will know from family experience about the potential lethality of asbestos.

"And while pleural plaques will not be outwardly visible, they and their loved ones may have seen the x-ray and see the scars in their mind's eye."

Fundamental differences in the condition's impact have been highlighted by medical experts including Professor Neil Douglas, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

Prof Douglas warned that it would be "fundamentally wrong" to compensate for a condition with no harmful symptoms.

Insurers also claimed Scotland would face 30 per cent of the British total for claims, while having only 10 per cent of the population.

Industry representatives said UK Government figures suggested an annual cost to defendants of between £76 million and £607 million.

But Mr Ewing dismissed the "embroidered" figures and added: "We really do think some of the figures being quoted are close to alarmist and therefore we don't recognise that they're likely to be valid or accurate."

He went on to say that asbestos claims are more likely to be around 10 per cent of the UK total, based on health and safety data.

He added that "floodgates" would not be opened if legislation is agreed and claimed separate figures were in stark contrast.

Mr Ewing continued: "I'm also confident that the Bill reflects our values and expectations about how our fellow citizens should be treated.

"That is what this Bill and indeed this Parliament are all about."

The Justice Committee had asked medical and experts to attend the evidence session but no one was available.

In his submission, Prof Douglas said: "We have the greatest of sympathy for those who do develop asbestos-related conditions, including mesothelioma, but it would be fundamentally wrong to use the existence of pleural plaques as a basis for compensation claims within this Bill."

Professor Anthony Seaton, of Aberdeen University, argued in his submission that up to 55,000 men in Scotland could qualify under the legislation even though evidence that they have a disease is "flimsy in the extreme".

Other critics included the CBI which criticised the legislation on the grounds it could undermine confidence in Scotland's "stable" legal environment.

The Association of British Insurers argued that pleural plaques are symptomless, do not affect health and do not develop into asbestos-related diseases.

And Dr Martin Hogg, of Edinburgh University's law school, argued: "The change proposed in the Scottish Bill will, in my opinion, only add fuel to concerns that we are living increasingly in a compensation culture, and could be productive of ever-more speculative claims by those worried that they may contract an illness but who may never go on to do so."

Defenders of the plan, including Clydeside Action On Asbestos, said the condition indicates past exposure to asbestos and could point to a higher risk of developing a potentially fatal illness.

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