Asbestos disease is probably the biggest cause of occupational death and respiratory illness throughout the industrialised world. It is impossible to put a figure on the number of deaths but it is likely to run into tens of thousands each year. Wales is no exception with around several hundred associated deaths each year.
The link between asbestos and occupational disease has been known for over a hundred years or more. However, this wonder insulator, famed for its heat retardant properties proved more valuable to employers than the lives of the workers who used it and inhaled its pernicious fibres.
Asbestos exposure is responsible for a number of associated diseases. The most serious is Mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs; a terminal disease , for which there is no cure, which usually results in death within 3-9 months. There are a hundred or so new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in Wales each year.
The Health and Safety Executive estimate a similar number of asbestos related lung cancer occur each year. In addition there are literally hundreds of cases of asbestosis , a progressive fibrosis of the lungs causing increasing respiratory disability . Another by product of asbestos exposure is a thickening of the pleura (lining ) of the lungs.
Despite the abundant knowledge of the occupational hazards associated with asbestos, its use continued , virtually unregulated until the early 1980’s. For those exposed to asbestos , it could be anything from 10-50 years before they might develop any of these various asbestos related diseases.
The impact of Asbestos disease on the NHS in Wales is enormous . It is difficult to be precise, but undoubtedly amounts to several million pounds each year. In the majority of these cases, particularly with the support of trades unions , civil claims are brought by the victims or their family representatives against their former employers, which lead to the payment of compensation and court judgments or settlements out of court.
It is increasingly rare for employers or their insurers to deny legal liability. Swathes of legal actions over the years have established without doubt the negligence and disregard for health and safety of employers for failing to protect workers from the risk of asbestos exposure or at the very least the failure to warn them of the potential hazards of exposure
The Asbestos (Recovery of NHS Costs) Bill is a private members Bill. Its purpose is to create a legal entitlement to the Welsh Government to recover the cost of medical treatment. It will create a legal obligation on any employer or insurer when settling an asbestos civil action, to obtain from the Welsh Government a certificate specifying the full cost of medical treatment received by the asbestos victim and to repay the full amount to the Government.
Just as a foreign tourist might be required to repay all the costs of medical treatment received whilst in Wales, so the negligent employer will equally be required to pay the full cost. It is important to note that the Bill does not propose to create any new entitlement to damages or compensation for asbestos victims but only applies to those cases where a civil action has been successfully concluded.
It is only right that in cases such as these where the negligent employer has caused the illness that the hard pressed NHS should be able to recover the full cost of the treatment provided.
Secondly it will be an objective of the bill that the monies recovered, after the deduction of an administration charge by the local health board, should go into a separate fund which will be allocated each year by the Health Minister to provide additional support to asbestos victims and their families.
This may be in the form of additional counselling services, additional palliative care or other forms of support. However, it is intended it will be focused on those most directly affected by the disease. This could amount to several million pounds per annum.
The legislation is similar in principle to existing legislation which allows government to recover the cost of medical treatment in road traffic and workplace accident cases.
This Bill is well within the legal competence of the Assembly, as a health measure under Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and is one of the first pieces of legislation being brought under new provisions for private members bills .
In March 2013 the bill passed stage 1 of the Welsh legislative process. With Government support it is likely the Bill will complete its legislative passage in May and then proceed to receiving Royal Assent by this summer.
Mick Antoniw is Assembly Member for Pontypridd and previously worked as a trades union solicitor with Thompsons