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BLAIR PROMISES ASBESTOS RETHINK

WALES: I Regret the Decision. If We Can Change It We Will; BLAIR PROMISES ASBESTOS RETHINK.

Byline: By MARK HOOKHAM Parliamentary Correspondent Daily Post (Liverpool, England), June 14, 2006

VICTIMS of asbestos-related cancer were celebrating last night, after Tony Blair vowed to overturn a court ruling denying them full compensation.

The prime minister expressed "regret" for a shock Law Lords judgement, which would see compensation for mesothelioma sufferers and their widows drastically cut.

The aggressive form of lung cancer killed 178 people in North Wales over the 20 years up to 2000.

The Law Lords ruled last month a worker exposed to asbestos dust by several employers must seek a proportionate share of compensation from each.

The judgement came as a bitter blow to mesothelioma victims who, since 2002, could seek full compensation without proving which employer caused the fatal exposure.

The leading test case which prompted the ruling involved North Wales woman Sylvia Barker.

The 58-year-old was awarded pounds 152,000 in the High Court three years ago following the 1996 death of her 57-year-old husband Vernon.

Mr Barker worked for John Summers and Sons at Shotton steelworks on Deeside.

He was exposed to asbestos while employed at Shotton, as well as when he worked for another company and during 20 years of self-employment.

The damages awarded to Holywell widow Mrs Barker are now being reassessed by the High Court to reflect the proportion of blame.

Trade unions and Labour MPs demanded a change in the law following the ruling, arguing it was impossible to bring a claim against several employers.

Furthermore, the dangers posed by asbestos - which by attacking the lining of the lungs, causes a painful, lingering death - were known since 1965, they argued.

Speaking yesterday at the GMB union conference in Blackpool, Mr Blair agreed to fight the ruling.

He said: "I regret that decision.

"We are looking at the moment to see the best opportunity for us to change it, and if we possibly can change it, we hope we will be able to announce something in the next couple of weeks."

The prime minister is believed to be planning a change in the law so all former employers are classed as sharing overall joint responsibility, making it easier for sick workers to win full compensation packages.

Mr Blair could introduce the safeguards for workers into the Compensation Bill - currently going through Parliament - or a Bill to be unveiled later this year by the Department for Work and Pensions.

MPs threatened to amend the Compensation Bill themselves if the Government failed to act.

About 1,900 people die across the UK each year from the disease. That figure is expected to rise to 2,450 when it peaks in nine years' time.

Welcoming the decision, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "The Government is to be congratulated for doing the right thing, and we hope that legislation will be introduced soon, to end the wait and anxiety of those who have mesothelioma and their dependants."

Solicitor James Thompson, who represents Mrs Barker, said last night: "We welcome Tony Blair's statement that he regrets the House of Lords' decision.

"Hopefully he has acknowledged what we thought was the case when the announcement was first made.

"But we would urge the Government to act quickly.

"The opportunity is there now for it to be done."

mark.hookham@central-press.co.uk

Prime minister Tony Blair at the GMB union conference in Blackpool yesterday