BOOKER prize-winning novelist and asbestos campaigner James Kelman has welcomed attempts to recoup the cost of medical treatment from companies that exposed workers to the material.

Legislation lodged at the ­Scottish Parliament could pave the way for health boards to claw back the costs of diagnosing and treating the victims of asbestos-related disease from former employers. Campaigners claim incurable diseases caused by ­exposure to asbestos, such as mesothelioma and pleural plaques, cost the NHS in Scotland about £20 million a year.

Kelman, who has campaigned for compensation for asbestos victims since the 1990s, said: "It's a step closer to getting industry to take responsibility, and for all those employers who used asbestos knowing what they were exposing the workers to. That would be a big improvement, but I'm sure as we speak the lawyers for insurance companies will be doing everything in their power to avoid it."

Kelman has previously ­criticised the legal hurdles facing sufferers, saying the "burden of proof is on the victim to prove that you are a victim".

Thompsons Solicitors, which is acting in about 80% of asbestos cases in Scotland, said it was representing about 1200 people at any one time. A spokesman for the firm said: "There are more cases coming forward than ever before from people who were historically exposed - hospital cleaners, school cleaners and so on."

The Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Scotland) Bill was lodged yesterday by West of Scotland MSP Stuart McMillan. Similar legislation was passed by the Welsh Assembly last November, but has been stymied by legal questions over how to enact it.

The NHS has been able to recover the costs of treating the victims of accidents since 2003, where an individual made a successful claim against a third party. However, this principle does not cover diseases.

Mr McMillan said: "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."

However, he added that he expects strong resistance to the move from insurers.

Dave Moxham, deputy leader of the STUC, which is backing the new legislation, said: "The NHS and palliative care services currently have to meet these costs from their own overstretched funds. It is time for the employers and the insurance industry to meet their obligations and reimburse the cost of the medical care, as these costs would not exist if there had not been negligence on the part of the employer."

Alan Kirk, a surgeon and ­director of the pressure group Clydeside Action, estimated the cost for diagnosing and managing mesothelioma - a tumour on the lung - at £60,000 a patient.

He said: "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."