Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, claims management companies are sometimes described in more popular language as “claims farmers”, and they are a real pest. Inasmuch as the Government are seeking to do something about the claims farmers, I am totally in support of them. However, I have added my name to Amendment 166 to which the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, has just spoken. As he and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, have rightly said, in these provisions are all the seeds of the law of unintended consequences. Just as trade union organisations which do a superb job for many of their members will be caught by some of these provisions, so too will the campaigning charities, to which the noble Lord referred in his remarks. Amendment 166 suggests that a regulated person would not be in breach of the rules set out in Clause 54 if,
“(b) the body to which the payment is made for the prescribed legal business is a registered charity that has been granted an exemption by the claims management regulation unit”.
As my noble friend Lord Pannick said a few moments ago, they have been doing a pretty good job up until now, so why do we not have confidence in the work they undertake?
I want to return to an issue that I raised at an earlier sitting of the Committee: mesothelioma and asbestos victims. The example I want to give your Lordships is that of a charity that works specifically with the victims of asbestos exposure. I shall quote Mr John Flanagan, on behalf of the trustees of the Merseyside Asbestos Victim Support Group, who wrote to me to say that if the Bill goes through in its present form,
“it will have catastrophic results for us if it goes through without amendment”.
For that reason, I hope that noble Lords and the Government will look favourably on the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. The Merseyside Asbestos Victim Support Group was formed in 1992 and became a registered charity in 1993. The founding members were ordinary working people who had been struck down with asbestos-related diseases of the sort I have described. They and their families felt that there was a lack of help and assistance for those suffering from asbestos-related diseases and that the only way to solve this was by creating their own support unit for people in the same situation as themselves. Given the emphasis the Government rightly place on voluntary endeavour, encouraging people to get engaged in the
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big society, I would have thought that they would thoroughly approve of a group like this, which is made up of people who are trying to help themselves.
The work of the group is primarily that of visiting victims who have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, including the terminal condition of mesothelioma. As I said during our last proceedings, the prognosis once the disease has been diagnosed normally means that the victim has nine months to live. Victims of asbestos in almost all cases have not contributed in any way to their condition and they were not informed of the associated dangers or presence of asbestos in their workplace by their former employers. The idea that such people could be vexatious litigants or that these are frivolous claims is patently absurd and I do not think that anyone would advance that in your Lordships’ House.
MAVS is supported by and works closely in association with local clinicians on Merseyside to provide a holistic support framework. It is an impressive community. Services are based locally and work is carried out with other voluntary organisations-at no cost to the patient or to the community. Clinicians give out leaflets to patients on diagnosis with the recommendation that they should contact the support group. Again, this is highly compatible with the plea that voluntary organisations should take up more of the burden. This is something that they are doing already, and yet they are going to be hit by the provisions in the Bill. A full range of advice and support is provided to patients and their families, including help with welfare benefits such as industrial injuries disablement benefit, pension credit, attendance allowance, disability living allowance and carer’s allowance. They assist with the completion of complex application forms and offer practical help and support, providing assistance wherever it is needed. Sometimes victims and their families just need the support of a friend at the end of the telephone who understands what they are going through when times are really hard or challenging. They also provide details of legal advice experts, thereby preventing victims from falling into the hands of the claims management companies that the Government say quite properly that they want to deal with. Other asbestos victim support groups around the United Kingdom work tirelessly to provide the same services.
The majority of the people who run MAVS are volunteers, just like those described by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in the trade union movement. I might add that the volunteers include those who themselves have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. The management body, the trustees, also includes patients diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease and family members whose loved ones have been lost through asbestos-related illnesses. The Merseyside group co-ordinates with the Cheshire Asbestos Victim Support Group to hold an annual Action Mesothelioma Day, which helps to bring about awareness among the general public of asbestos disease and serves as a memorial day to commemorate those who have died from this insidious disease. I gave the figures during our last proceedings, but I remind noble Lords that some 30,000 people have already died of this horrible malignant disease, and it is predicted that
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before the terrible legacy of industrial disinterest in the past ends, there will be another 60,000 fatalities. The day is also used to raise much-needed funds for the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Research Fund and the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund; both organisations are working to try to find a cure for the disease.
The majority of the individual asbestos victims groups’ charities within the United Kingdom attend the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health’s sub-group on asbestos, thus providing invaluable expertise and insight on this disease and the situation of those who have been affected. The Merseyside group also gives talks to the local community, including the Liverpool Community College’s building and construction section, to warn and educate upcoming apprentices of the dangers of asbestos and how to deal with it when it is discovered in their workplace. The charity works on a global scale with organisations such as the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, which works towards a global ban on the use of asbestos. This collaboration has already produced a ban on asbestos in many countries which took the lead from the European Union ban back in 1999.
The charity was successful in obtaining lottery funding in 1997 for three years. It made a further bid for continued funding but was unsuccessful, being told that it was in the envious position of being able to attract donations from the legal sector for the work that it undertook. It set up financial arrangements under the solicitors’ code of conduct with several asbestos-related disease specialist solicitors to ensure its continued funding and existence. It considered the term “referral fee” objectionable, as this funding from solicitors is in recognition of continuing work for and on behalf of victims and certainly not in the same context as payments made to claims farmers. This essential funding, together with donations from victims, is vital to its continuing existence.
Inasmuch as the Bill will scrap referral fees, particularly those payments to claims farmers, it is to be commended. However, there is an irony in that CMCs will set up alternative business structures-so-called ABSs-to avoid their demise and that the hounding of the public will continue unabated. They will find a lacuna; they will find a way around, as those groups who are about just making money invariably do. The people whom the Government want to catch will escape, while those who have been performing this extraordinary public service out of an altruistic spirit will be caught. Genuine charities such as MAVS will have their funding from expert lawyers specialising in asbestos-related diseases cut altogether. If ever there was a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, this is surely it.
The Government do not seem to realise the impact that the Bill will have if the amendment is not accepted. Terminally ill people do not have the energy to fight their own corner and are often beaten into psychological submission, especially when their mind is on what will happen to their family when they are no longer there. Surely it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that those least able to defend themselves are not treated as collateral damage in this Bill. That is why
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the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, is so important. Let us remember those words from John Flanagan, who said that, if the Bill is enacted,
“it will have catastrophic results for us if it goes through without amendment”.
That is an intolerable, unconscionable situation which I hope the Minister will take very
Lord McNally: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, made a powerful case, as he did the other night, for help for those suffering from exposure to asbestos, but I do not believe that he should then link that deep concern to one form of fundraising for charity. Indeed, it is debatable whether it is any healthier for a charity than any other body to have such a dependency relationship with lawyers who are supposed to be providing a professional service, so we are not convinced that any exemption should be made for charities.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, if there is a depletion of funds of charities such as the one that I described today, are the Government saying that if those charities cannot raise that through voluntary endeavour and voluntary giving, the Government themselves will fill their coffers?
Lord McNally: No, of course the Government cannot do that. There was one thing that I was interested in. I do not know this because it is always dangerous to think aloud at the Dispatch Box, but on the powerful case for aid for charity I do not see why wealthy solicitors’ firms or wealthy solicitors could not make donations to that charity as long as there was no link with the search for work. It is worrying to have a charity that is dependent on making referral fees to certain solicitors. I am more comfortable with our banning referral fees.
During a visit to Northern Iraq a few months ago...