Leading article: Betrayed and still not paid

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It would be pleasant to think, 21 years after John Major promised a "classless society" on becoming Prime Minister and shortly after this newspaper was founded, that the class divide was no longer such a scar on the face of modern Britain. And in many ways, we are mostly middle class now, as we discovered when we reported the findings of a big study of social attitudes earlier this year.

Yet there are still some debts from the past to pay. The death of miners in South Wales and North Yorkshire last month were a reminder of the price paid in human life for the industrial revolution that gave us our wealth. The shock of those five deaths was the greater because underground mining has nearly ended in this country. How much greater the shock ought to be of the 4,000 deaths a year caused by an industry that closed down completely some years ago: asbestos. As we report today, the long period over which mesothelioma develops means that the death toll from the asbestos industry will not peak in Britain until 2016.

Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by asbestos fibres in the lung. It can be long and slow to develop, but there is nothing that can be done to avoid it, or the breathless end that it brings. In east London it is known as "the Barking cough". It begins in a common enough way: a tickle in the chest and a slight pain in breathing. Eventually, the sufferer suffocates. In other parts of the country it has other names, but it afflicts the manual working class, such as the workers at the Cape Asbestos factory in Barking, where South African asbestos was imported here to make fire-resistant products, from fabrics to hairdryers.

The deadly legacy of asbestos is not restricted to those who produced it. Dockyard workers unloading the lethal cargoes were frequently exposed, as were the carpenters, laggers, plumbers, electricians and shipyard workers who routinely used it for insulation. People who played in dust-coated streets near factories as children have also been killed by it. Even wives who washed their husbands' dust-covered overalls have ended up suffocating to death through mesothelioma.

The Independent on Sunday has campaigned for justice for the victims of asbestos and their families; for most of them, that justice has been forthcoming, in the form of compensation paid out by insurance companies or industrial injuries disablement benefit. For a large minority, however, justice has been delayed, and in these cases that often means justice denied. A group of four insurance companies has held out against meeting asbestosis claims, and is resisting attempts by victims and their families to secure their rights in court, fighting the case all the way to the Supreme Court in December.

The four companies have been distanced by the Association of British Insurers, which says: "Most active insurers are happy to pay to people with employers' liability policies." To make matters worse, some of the executives of the companies concerned have been paid bonuses to reward them for what their critics see as a strategy of delay, evasion and cost-cutting.

This is a prime instance of the conflict between mere profit maximisation and business responsibility, of which both David Cameron and Ed Miliband spoke at their recent party conferences. Well, here is a practical test of the notion of such responsible capitalism, which is no abstract rhetoric but which affects as many as 25,000 families. These are the people about whom political speeches are so often made, the families of those who have worked hard, played by the rules and who in many cases have paid the ultimate price. As Hugh Robertson of the Trades Union Congress says, whether the insurance companies have legal commitments, "the courts will decide, but they certainly have moral commitments".

Even if compensation is paid, most victims will never get to enjoy it. Eight years ago this month, Charles O'Farrell died from mesothelioma, leaving behind a 47-year-old daughter with learning difficulties for whom he was sole carer. He was exposed to asbestos while working as a steel erector in a gas works and his family began fighting the company's insurers for compensation while he was still alive.

The insurers should back down now, and save the families the last few months' delay in the courts. If they persist, we hope the courts make an example of them. In the past, we have described the slowness of compensation for asbestos-related illnesses as "the betrayal of our working class". It is time for that betrayal to end.