SCOTTISH health boards could be given the power to re-claim the cost of treating people from killer conditions caused by exposure to asbestos.

A new bill is being launched today (Friday) which will allow the NHS to claw back the costs of caring for people who contracted industrial diseases like fatal mesothelioma, including those who worked on the Clyde shipyards.

The Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Scotland) Bill is the culmination of years of campaigning by Clydeside Action on Asbestos and Nationalist West of Scotland MSP Stuart McMillan.

More than £20million a year is thought to be spent by NHS Scotland diagnosing and treating people suffering from the effects of asbestos exposure - around £60,000 per patient. Campaigners say the number of people receiving treatment is continuing to increase.

The bill will enable the NHS and palliative care services to re-coup those costs from insurance companies who have already settled civil claims with victims. The costs of treatment will be calculated from a patient's initial diagnosis. However it is likely to be met with strong resistance from the Association of British Insurers.

There is currently provision in Scots law for the NHS to claim from insurers the costs of treating people involved in accidents but no recovery system exits for those who have contracted industrial diseases. The new law could open up insurance claims for other work-related conditions.

Lawyers said the fact that a recovery system is already in place for accidents means the bill's introduction should be achieved with little difficulty.

Phyllis Craig, Chairwoman of Clydeside Action on Asbestos, said: "We are urging the Scottish Parliament to address this issue as a priority.

"It is widely accepted that the number of people being diagnosed with mesothelioma continues to increase, placing an ever greater burden on the NHS and palliative care services.

"The responsibility for meeting these costs rests with the employers who exposed their employees to asbestos, contributing to the development of their illness. It is only just that the employers have to meet the costs of care that result from their negligence."

Stuart McMillan, MSP said: "We cannot underestimate the need for bringing this issue before the Scottish Parliament.

"The emotional and physical cost of being diagnosed with an asbestos related condition can be significant and it's the welfare of the person with the illness that is paramount. However, there is a substantial financial cost to the NHS in diagnosing and managing asbestos related conditions and this is something that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.'

Clydebank recently recorded the highest rate of mortality in Britain from the respiratory disease mesothelioma.

Mr Alan Kirk, Thoracic Surgeon and Director of Clydeside Action on Asbestos, said: "I would estimate that the real cost to the NHS for diagnosing and managing mesothelioma, which is a tumour in the lining of the lung, is in the region of £60,000 per patient.

"This is a significant sum and must be viewed in the context of more people being diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos related conditions. If these sums can be recovered as part of the civil compensation case, funds are going back into the NHS to help to care for the Scottish population."

The introduction of the bill is being supported by the STUC and Thompsons Solicitors, a law firm which represents asbestos victims. Around 90% of insurance cases are settled by employers.

Laura Blane, who heads the firm's lung disease division, said: "The medical requirements of our clients are highly specialised and can be required for many years, placing an enormous financial burden on the National Health Service. It is only right that those who cause harm pay for all the consequences of that harm and we fully support this Bill to ensure that the costs of employers' negligence in failing to deal with the danger of asbestos are met by those employers and their insurers."