Page last updated at 17:59 GMT, Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Asbestos plan supported by MSPs

Asbestos fibres
The asbestos damages bill was given general backing in the parliament

Plans to compensate people in Scotland for past exposure to asbestos have passed their first hurdle.

The new law would overturn a House of Lords ruling which said damages could not be claimed for pleural plaques, a benign scarring of the lungs.

It was backed in general by MSPs, but concerns were raised that the Scottish Government could be left with huge extra costs in relation to MoD claims.

The legislation will now go on to the next stage of scrutiny.

If parliament passes the Damages (Asbestos-related Conditions) (Scotland) Bill, the Lords judgement - which stated sufferers could no longer use the condition as a basis for a damages claim against the negligence of an employer - would still apply in England and Wales.

It brings justice to many people who have legitimate worry, anxiety and impairment of well-being
Robert Brown
Liberal Democrat MSP
The Bill has gained cross-party support, but the convener of Holyrood's justice committee, Bill Aitken, warned Holyrood ministers may have to pay out millions following claims from employees who worked in former naval shipyards.

He said urgent clarification was needed from the UK Government on the issue, adding: "No-one doubts the government's good intentions - but had a fuller consultation process been followed, a number of complex issues would have been brought out much earlier."

The Scottish Government has said the Ministry of Defence had historically accepted liability in such cases and expected that to continue.

And Community Safety Minister Fergus Ewing agreed to seek clarification on claims from insurers and legal professionals that the compensation bill could be as much as 607m.

But he said some concerns were seriously exaggerated, adding: "We aim to analyse any new information carefully and report the results to parliament in good time."

'Wrongful exposure'

Opposition parties agreed, with the Tories' Jackson Carlaw telling MSPs: "We want to help - but we cannot do so on the basis of a blank cheque.

"If this legislation should proceed, as we hope it it does, then the government must act to provide the appropriate reassurance."

Labour MSP Richard Baker criticised insurers' arguments that pleural plaques did not lead to mesothelioma.

"Even if it is accepted that is the case, there is still the fact of the scarring resulting from exposure to asbestos," he said.

"In these cases, it must be proven to have been wrongful exposure."

The Liberal Democrats' Robert Brown said it was vital that Scottish ministers assess realistically the effects of the bill, in the light of all the figures.

"It brings justice to many people who have legitimate worry, anxiety and impairment of well-being - substantial harm in anyone's language resulting from the negligent or wrongful acts or omissions of their former employers."

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