Charles Lewington and Wilf Weeks are advising Cape plc, which is fighting the claims, to whip up public anger over foreigners claiming legal aid to fight for their rights. The company has already settled the claims of hundreds of British workers, but is fighting those of South Africans - many of whom were only 12 and worked under taskmasters with whips.
Thousands of workers were affected by asbestosis, scarring of the lungs by fibres, or mesothelioma, a fatal lung cancer.
The Independent has learnt that Cape, which employs 5,000 people worldwide, has engaged Mr Weeks, the former head of Sir Edward Heath's private office, and Charles Lewington, a head of communications during John Major's premiership, to undermine the claims.
Mr Weeks is chairman of the lobbyists GJW Government Relations, while Mr Lewington runs the PR advisers Media Strategy. They plan to put pressure on Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, to stymie South African applications for legal aid by persuading a right-wing newspaper to encourage public outrage over the cost to the taxpayer of 1,900 claims made against Cape in the past week. In fact, if the claimants win their case, the costs are likely to be paid not by the taxpayer, but by Cape.
Mr Lewington is understood to have advised the company: "The wider political implications of the granting of legal aid to even a handful of non-British claimants will be immediately apparent to a paper like the [Daily] Mail. The political ironies are so delicious for a paper like the Mail (a Labour lord chancellor having to choose between black workers and multinationals) that the detail of the claims are likely to be of secondary interest."
According to Leigh, Day & Co, the solicitors representing the workers, the Daily Mail has contacted one of its partners,several times this week.
If successful, the litigation against Cape, relating to a former subsidiary, the Cape Asbestos Company Ltd, could cost between pounds 40m and pounds 100m in damages. The company pulled out of South Africa in 1979 but last year the House of Lords gave permission for five former workers to sue Cape in the UK.
Cape had asbestos mining and milling interests in southern Africa and records show it operated lower safety standards than those in Britain.Reuse content