Previous SectionIndexHome Page

24 Oct 2002 : Column 480—continued

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) rose—

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) rose—

Mr. Leslie: We intend to simplify where we can, but if there are clear reasons why options need to be improved or made less crude, we will have to face up to those decisions. We do not want to oversimplify, but we do want to strike the right note to deliver confidence and understanding in the system.

Mr. Don Foster: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Leslie: I am afraid that I do not have time.

Transparency must be our ultimate goal. If aspects of the formula can be seen as logical and rational, and based on clear reasons, that will be a major step forward.

Many former local government Ministers have participated in the debate this afternoon. At this moment, I feel a great deal of respect and affinity with what they endured during their tenure. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and I have met countless representatives, and we will try our best to strike the right balance in all these matters. What we see is a move forward from—and the demise of—the standard spending assessment. It failed because it tried to dictate centrally what local councils should be spending. That cannot be done by the Government. This Government want to invest more in local government services. Unlike the Conservatives, who cut council spending by 7 per cent. in real terms, we want to make sure that extra spending goes in. We have put in an extra 20 per cent. on top of inflation since we came to power, and a massive 5 per cent. real terms rise for the next financial year. Investing in local democracy and building quality public services is vital. We want a serious boost in services and a boost in investment. Giving councils a decent grant matters. That is the approach that we intend—

It being Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

24 Oct 2002 : Column 481


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

5 pm

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown) : We have an opportunity in Government time, at the request of the Leader of the Opposition, to discuss important matters concerning health and safety. Three sets of regulations are relevant: the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1999, the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 1998, and the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002. All three sets of regulations amend existing legislation that was originally made in the 1980s, and which carried the full support of both sides of the House.

The Government are effectively doing two things. First, we are implementing a number of European directives, including the health element of the chemical agents directive that lays down minimum standards for the protection of workers from health and safety risks caused by chemical agents. The directive largely reflects the approach already taken by the three sets of health-based regulations, which since the 1980s have set out a systematic approach to the control of substances hazardous to health, including lead and asbestos, in the workplace. The directive and existing legislation require employers to assess risks, prevent or control exposure, provide information and training for employees and, in some circumstances, monitor employees' exposure to hazardous substances and place them under health surveillance.

Although the more prescriptive requirements of the directive have meant making many amendments to our existing regulations, the changes largely involve making explicit what is already implicit in our current regulations or their approved codes of practice. In transposing the requirements of the directive, the Health and Safety Commission has made every effort to make only those changes that are essential. It has taken care to produce a legislative package that will deliver high compliance while minimising the additional costs to industry.

The second thing that we are doing is addressing the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, which will be amended to introduce a new legal duty to manage asbestos in non-domestic premises. Asbestos is the most serious occupational health problem in terms of fatal disease that the country faces.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): Has the Minister heard the concerns that many people have expressed about whether there is a difference between the health risks of white asbestos and those of the more dangerous blue and brown asbestos? Does he have evidence that suggests that white asbestos is as much a danger as the other forms of asbestos?

Mr. Brown: I shall come to that point but, if the hon. Gentleman allows me, I will deal with it in the order in which it appears in my speech.

In the 30 years between 1968 and 1998, 50,000 people died in the United Kingdom from asbestos-related diseases. The human suffering and misery behind those terrible figures continue today, and there is nothing that

24 Oct 2002 : Column 482

we can do about those already exposed. However, we can certainly do a great deal to prevent exposures today and so prevent painful and prolonged illness and death in the future.

Andy Burnham (Leigh): My right hon. Friend refers to people who have contracted asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma. Many people in my constituency—former employees of Turner and Newall—still have outstanding claims against the company, but they are currently stalled because the owner, Federal Mogul, has gone into administration in the United States. Something could be done for people who contracted mesothelioma in the past if the Government could unlock the injustice of the situation in which those people currently find themselves.

Mr. Brown: The situation is complex and goes slightly beyond the regulations under discussion. However, it is serious. My colleagues and I met a Treasury Minister to see what we could do to make progress on a range of issues relating to legal actions that appear to be stalled. I have no announcement to make on that, but we are working across the Government, with the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry, to determine what more can be done. The situation is serious, as my hon. Friend said.

Since coming into office in 1997, the Government have progressively done much to strengthen the laws on asbestos in the workplace. We have widened the range of work that requires a licence from the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that asbestos removal work is carried out safely. Those measures have certainly had an effect on reducing the risks of asbestos. However, I share the concerns of the Health and Safety Commission that one issue remains to be addressed, and that is why a new proposal is before the House.

Research shows that more than 25 per cent. of those currently dying from asbestos-related diseases worked in building and maintenance operations. Although virtually all exposure routes have been effectively controlled by, for example, banning the use of asbestos products, it is estimated that something like 500,000 commercial and public buildings across the country still have materials in them that contain asbestos. In many cases, no one is consistently managing the risks from the thousands of tonnes of asbestos in those premises. People working on those buildings, such as plumbers, electricians and other maintenance workers, often do not know that they are at risk from disturbing the material or whether their work is putting other users in the building at risk.

On the issue rightly raised by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), although the different forms of asbestos are often referred to by colour—blue, brown or white—in reality the colour of a material gives no indication of the type of asbestos it contains. It is not possible to detect asbestos by simply looking at material, which must be analysed to establish with any certainty whether it contains asbestos. The Health and Safety Executive is aware of numerous incidents in which workers have been exposed to asbestos. Those have often resulted in the construction projects being stopped and the premises evacuated, as well as in producing potentially serious consequences for the

24 Oct 2002 : Column 483

workers involved. It is to deal with that unsatisfactory situation that the Government have proposed new legislation.

The new duty to manage asbestos will require those who have responsibilities for maintenance activities in non-domestic premises to assess whether there is any asbestos in their premises. If asbestos is present, they must decide either to remove it or to manage it, depending on its condition, while ensuring that subsequent maintenance activities do not expose the workers to avoidable risk.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can help me with something. I thought he would mention the date on which a building was constructed. In my constituency, Eternit, which as he knows produces roofing materials and so on, incorporated white asbestos into cement and roof tiles from 1980 onwards until the practice was stopped in 1997 or thereabouts. The date of a building could give considerable guidance on what materials were used and compliance costs could be reduced on later buildings.

Mr. Brown: I thought that as well but I will go on to refute it. It was common practice in the industry to mix brown and blue asbestos with white asbestos to get what was thought to be a better product.

Next Section

IndexHome Page