"SEVERELY ill people are going to suffer because of this.”

That is the view of a Hampshire asbestos support group on Government changes to the compensation system for people who are diagnosed with terminal mesothelioma.

Hampshire Asbestos Support and Awareness Group has condemned a new deal that could allow lawyers to swipe up to 25 per cent of damages payments to people diagnosed with the disease.

And the illness is common in Hampshire as the substance was used frequently at the docks in Southampton and railway works in Eastleigh.

Lynne Squibb, of Hampshire Asbestos Support and Awareness Group, said it was “turning a terminal illness into a competitive market”.

Lynne lost her father Dave Salisbury to the disease in 2005 aged 72 and set up the group with sister Diane to help others going through similar traumatic experiences.

She said: “We are incredibly disappointed that the Government has gone down this path. They wanted to do this because they believed it would make claims quicker and more efficient but I beg to differ.

“As someone who has lost a family member to mesothelioma I couldn’t think of anything worse than having to shop around for the best deal.

“The Government has missed the point with this and in trying to improve the claims system have made it much more difficult. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

Solicitors said the threatened introduction of fixed costs would allow insurers to drag out legal cases, piling pressure on the terminally ill to agree lower settlements.

In evidence to a committee of MPs, they said the changes would leave sufferers “significantly worse off”.

And they accused ministers of allowing insurance companies to call the shots, striking an “agreement behind closed doors”.

Ian McFall, of Thompsons Solicitors, which has offices across the UK, said: “This will leave claimants significantly worse off.

“Some firms struggling for survival will look to take the maximum ‘success fee’, which will be to the disadvantage of claimants.”

Nearly 2,400 people, mostly men, die from mesothelioma every year, usually within nine months of diagnosis.

A ‘standardised mortality ratio’ (SMR) is used to identify blackspots, where a figure of 100 would be the expected number of deaths, given the age of the population.

The figures are far, far higher in Southampton (282), Eastleigh (253), Gosport (240) and Fareham (208) – and even in Winchester (139), New Forest (133) and Test Valley (130).

The controversy follows the end of “no win no fee” agreements, which guaranteed full compensation to successful claimants – and insured them against the cost of losing.

They were restricted in the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act, which has now been extended to mesothelioma cases.

The move was blocked in the Lords, but overturned by the Government, after a “review” widely attacked as a sham – prompting the inquiry by the justice select committee.

Ministers have insisted there is no “specific justification” for treating mesothelioma differently from other personal injury cases.

Giving evidence later, Derek Adamson, of insurers DWF, denied firms deliberately delayed cases, insisting that increased their own costs.

And the Association of British Insurers argued there were support groups to help mesothelioma victims find lawyers and negotiate.