The number of annual deaths from mesothelioma in the UK is greater than the number of road accidents. The government’s Reported Road Casualties in Great Britain Annual Report for 2014 shows that there were 1,775 reported road deaths compared to 2,538 people who were victims of the fatal cancer of the lung linings, according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) Annual Report.

At the end of January, the House of Commons began its second reading of an amendment to the Mesothelioma Act 2014, which if left in its original form, could lead to a further rise in deaths from mesothelioma because research funding has been cut by 25 per cent. The aim of the amendment is to ensure a “research supplement” is provided by the insurance industry.

Continues to cause devastation to the lives of thousands

Britain’s legacy of using asbestos fibres as low cost insulation throughout much of the twentieth century in industries, such as shipbuilding, textile manufacturing and construction continues to cause devastation to the lives of thousands of former workers, their wives and families. Despite a fall in mortality rates for many other types of cancers, such as cervical, testicular, thyroid and malignant melanomas, life-expectancy for mesothelioma sufferers remains, on average, between 4 to 12 months.

Very few would disagree that funding for research is crucial to finding a cure for malignant mesothelioma and improving the effectiveness of long term asbestosis treatments. Yet those man and women who were innocently exposed to asbestos face being victimised a second time. On the 12th January, the government announced they would reduce the level of insurance industry funding into mesothelioma research by nearly a third (27.5 per cent) from £32 million in 2014/2015 to £23.2 million in 2015/16.

Insurers are required to pay an annual levy

Following agreements reached with the insurance industry over the Mesothelioma Bill the government introduced the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme (DMPS) in July 2014 as a “fund of last resort”. The scheme is aimed at helping around 3,500 victims of asbestos-related mesothelioma cancer who, every year, are unable to trace their original employer or insurer.

Under the regulations, insurers are required to pay an annual levy to meet the costs of the scheme. However, in December the levy for 2014 /15 was reduced to 2.2 per cent from the 3 per cent originally agreed between insurers and government MPs. The reason for the cut was said to be the lower than expected take up of the scheme in the first six months.

Insurers will only need to make up the difference

The full cost of running the scheme in 2015/16 is estimated to be £31 million. But it was discovered that the amount levied in 2014/15 was greater than the final cost of the scheme for that year. Consequently, £7.8 million has been carried forward into 2015/16, which means that insurers will only need to pay £23.2m to make up the difference.

In response to the announcement there have been calls for the government to maintain the levy at the 2014/15 level and use any surplus “to extend the compensation scheme to all victims of asbestos or for research into treatment”.

Consequently, on January 29th the House of Commons began its second reading of a further amendment to the Mesothelioma Act 2014, which proposes that the levy on insurers must also provide an additional amount for research funding. The “research supplement”, however, many not exceed 1 per cent of the amount set for the specific purpose. Clearly there is a concern among those MPs involved in the Bill to ensure that provision for funding vital research must continue even though the first cuts were applied in the same year the levy rate was agreed and have continued to be imposed.

Cost of the scheme only

When the Mesothelioma Bill was originally debated in parliament, the governments said that the three per cent levy was the amount that insurers said they could afford without passing costs on to customers. The government also said that the levy amount would raise enough funding to guarantee 100 per cent mesothelioma compensation for all future scheme applicants and to victims of other asbestosis diseases. It is now being alleged that insurers are just being charged for the cost of the scheme only.

At the time when DMPS was introduced, many asbestos victim groups, MPs and asbestosis lawyers were hugely disappointed that so many sufferers would be excluded. Only claimants diagnosed with mesothelioma after 25th July 2012 are allowed to apply while those who suffer with other asbestosis diseases are also unable to apply. The strict rules of eligibility, which excludes so many victims may also be the reason behind the so-called low take up of the scheme in the first six months.

Research funding is essential if doctors are to be able to more effectively treat mesothelioma patients and improve survival rates. When DMPS was introduced, the British Lung Foundation (BLF) warned that the proposed initial funding (£350 million) would not be enough to meet the future demands for the expected numbers of confirmed mesothelioma cases.

Additional funding may simply be insufficient

One month before DMPS was launched in June 2014, the latest report from HSE showed that the number of mesothelioma deaths had risen by more than 10.6 per cent from 2,291 in 2011 to 2,535 in 2012. HSE currently estimate that 5,000 people will die from asbestos exposure each year and a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths can be expected by 2050.

The BLF also advised that at least £11 billion was the actual amount of funding needed, and the only real answer to reducing suffering for mesothelioma patients was to increase the amount. The recent manipulations in levy funding can only put back hope for the many sufferers of asbestos exposure in the UK. The proposed amendment to the Mesothelioma Act to ensure some additional funding is made available may simply be insufficient to tackle one of the most obstinate of fatal cancers.