In the interests of good debate, and in recognition of the fact that no one party will ever have all the answers, this blog will from time to time step out of its comfort zone and invite contributions from elsewhere on the political spectrum. We are therefore pleased to announce a guest post from one of Labour’s “new generation”, John Park MSP.

Since 1999 the Scottish Parliament has taken positive and far reaching decisions on health issues – free personal care and the smoking ban are two that immediately spring to mind.

Perhaps not appreciated more widely is that our parliament also has a proud record in tackling the major problems faced by sufferers of asbestos-related diseases and by their families. These haven’t been health measures but rather justice measures. Most recently the Scottish Parliament agreed legislation to overturn a House of Lords decision that would have prevented workers exposed to asbestos from claiming against employers for developing pleural plaques (benign localised scars that can develop from exposure to asbestos).

And in 2006, following a Members Bill from Clydebank MSP Des McNulty, the Rights of Relatives to Damages (Mesothelioma) (Scotland) Act 2007 was introduced. Before our parliament passed this legislation, those affected by an asbestos related disease would have to make a choice between either making a claim for damages for their own pain and suffering, or waiting until they passed away – thus allowing their surviving family members to make a claim for loss. This change in legislation meant that they could claim for both, removing an agonising burden from sufferers and their families at a difficult time.

We have moved forward in terms of justice due to the vigorous campaigns run by local asbestos groups (particularly those established in the former shipbuilding communities on the Clyde) and the wider Scottish trade union movement. But another more troubling reason for the concentration on a justice approach to ensure that sufferers and their families are properly compensated – rather looking to advancements in health – has been the long-held view that a cure for asbestos related diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis was virtually unattainable.

However there is growing evidence from across the globe that with intensive treatment patients can survive much longer than previously thought possible, and in some cases the cancer has gone into remission. I have met many people who have lost a family member to an asbestos-related disease and what is abundantly apparent is the desperation they all felt experienced knowing that there was no hope of their loved one living for more than a matter of months after diagnosis.

Asbestos related diseases are considered by some as from a time gone by: not as relevant in this new post-industrial era as they once were. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cases of asbestos related diseases have yet to peak in Scotland and many estimate that that peak will happen some time in the next 10 years. Furthermore, a danger continues to exist from exposure. Although it is not being used in the construction of buildings and engineering projects any longer in the UK, it can still be found in buildings and manufactured products that were built before the full effects of exposure to asbestos was known.

Worryingly, despite significant resources being invested by the Health and Safety Executive into campaigns highlighting the dangers of asbestos, over 88% of people working in industry are unaware that exposure can be fatal, and 74% have had no formal training in dealing with asbestos.

For all these reasons I believe that if we want to genuinely make Scotland a better place to live and work that we must establish and support a collaborative research network. This doesn’t need to be a physical building. A proposal last year by the All Party Group on Occupational Safety and Health at Westminster recommended the establishment of a National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases (NCARD) – based on an example from Australia. This was agreed by the then UK Government but unfortunately the new coalition has decided not to support it and have scrapped the plans. I also raised the importance of this proposal having support from the Scottish Government during a Members Debate in January of this year. Unfortunately this received a lukewarm response from the Scottish Government – probably driven by officials in the health department rather than Ministers.

We have the powers, we have the need and we have shown in the past that we have the political will to tackle difficult issues such as this. Yes, of course there would be financial considerations, but surely the insurance industry would support such a move both in policy and financial terms? If the prognosis for those suffering from an asbestos related disease was better and there was a chance of a cure surely we could encourage insurance companies to make the necessary investment to support such an initiative? I hope so, because asbestos is a persisting scourge on Scotland’s proud industrial heritage and one we must tackle now.