The Guardian recently reported that Companies House was planning to delete millions of records it holds on dissolved companies. The proposals are to delete records older than 6 years old. There seems to be no pressing need for this, other than administrative convenience, but the consequences for asbestos victims seeking to pursue claims for compensation could be devastating.
Asbestos diseases develop many years after the asbestos exposure that caused them. For example, the average latency period before mesothelioma develops is about 35 years. In the intervening period, the employer who caused the asbestos exposure may have gone out of business. Furthermore, the person who develops the disease may not remember the name of their employer, or know whether the original employer changed its name or was a subsidiary of another company.
All this information is vital for a solicitor pursuing a claim for compensation. They have to identify not only the correct employer responsible for the asbestos exposure but also the insurance company on cover for the relevant period. The historical data held at Companies House is absolutely vital to this process. If these proposals go ahead it will show a scandalous disregard for the interests of people suffering with asbestos diseases. And it seems the pressure for these proposals may be coming from MPs who have been lobbied by people who were directors of dissolved companies who seem to want their involvement in these companies shielded from public scrutiny. There is no public interest in destroying these documents, in fact the opposite is the case. The only beneficiaries would seem to be people and businesses who can hide past misdeeds.
What is particularly scandalous is that this story comes close on the heels of the uproar about the HMRC taking over 12 months to issue proof of employment statements to solicitors acting on behalf of asbestos victims (only mesothelioma cases are prioritised. These delays risk claims being ‘timed out’ or victims dying before a claim is settled. The situation has got so bad that the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, Andrew Tyrie MP, has written to HMRC and told them to get the problem resolved as a matter of urgency.
Asbestos victims already face huge obstacles in securing compensation given the passage of time between the exposure to asbestos they experienced at work and the diseases developing. These latest developments represent a further set of unnecessary obstacles put in their way if the proposals are allowed to go ahead. They would represent an appalling disregard for the rights of asbestos victims to secure legal redress and justice. Government ministers cannot be unaware of the implications, or the specific problems faced by asbestos victims and those suffering from other ‘long-tail’ diseases. Parliament has already had to step in to establish the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payments Scheme to compensate mesothelioma victims unable to trace the insurers of their, now defunct, former employer. And the reason most of them can’t trace this information? Because insurance companies decided to destroy, or simply failed to maintain, records of old insurance policies on ‘administrative’ grounds.
This negligence led to many asbestos victims dying uncompensated. The lesson from this awful story is that the unnecessary destruction of historical records will deny access to justice for people with terminal or chronic illnesses and allow those responsible to escape justice. The Government must step in to ensure these proposals do not go ahead.
The Asbestos Victims Support Groups’ Forum has written to the Chair of Companies House and Secretary of State. We would urge people contact their MP to add their support to the campaign against these proposals.
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