Asbestos victim had to pay back benefits

ERNIE BOAL cannot walk up his stairs without several pauses for breath. He cannot get further than 15 yards down his street without an inhaler. In the past 18 months his weight has shrunk to just seven stones, writes Heather Mills.

Mr Boal, 54, has asbestosis - a disease contracted during 15 years working day- in day-out with the lethal substance as a pipe lagger in the Clydeside dockyards. He, his wife and four children know the disease in his lungs is slowly killing him.

He was diagnosed in 1989, 19 years after the industrial use of asbestos was banned, when he went to the doctor complaining of breathlessness. At 48, his working life was over and the quality of his health and home life had begun its swift decline.

Like many of his former colleagues similarly exposed to the hazards of asbestos, he began a lengthy battle for compensation against 19 ship-fitting companies. Last year, he accepted pounds 125,000 in compensation - only to lose pounds 50,000 immediately to pay back the benefits he received while waiting to get his case resolved.

His story has been echoed by many accident victims interviewed as part of the Law Commission survey yesterday. Like others Mr Boal felt compelled to accept the compensation offer because he knew the state would be clawing back his benefit.

'I could not wait to go to court. That could have taken another five years and I may well not be here then,' he said. 'I have worked all my life, paying all my taxes and stamps and I have been poisoned. And this is how I am treated. I have to use my compensation to pay back benefits I have already paid for in my working life.'

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