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24 Oct 2002 : Column 486—continued

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that although there may be a commercial interest in saying that white asbestos is not dangerous, commercial interests are lined up that will profit greatly from zealous policing in relation to a white asbestos risk? Therefore, the balance of commercial interests is not all on one side.

Mr. Brown: The Government's concern is to protect our fellow citizens in the workplace and act proportionately in dealing with the risk. I was asked earlier about the risk from white asbestos, and there is such a risk. I am being candid about the ratio of risk in relation to blue, brown and white asbestos. All the advice says that the risks are different. Although a range of assessments has been made, the risk is still there.

Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. He acknowledged that there was some uncertainty about the issue. Although it is obviously wise for the Government to act preventively in respect of uncertainty and err on the side of greater health protection, is he now planning to take any action to reduce the uncertainty about health risk?

Mr. Brown: A research programme is in place, but there are obvious difficulties in getting absolute evidence of the relationship of risk between white, blue and brown asbestos. It would not be right to wait 30 years until the evidence shows up in people's ill health.

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We know that there is a risk and it would exist even if the white product could be separated from the mix that was commonly used in the building trade. It is a risk from which the Government have a responsibility to protect their citizens. We must take a decision in the presence of that uncertainty, in the knowledge that the results of a wrong decision would not be apparent for 30 years or more. We also know that a wrong decision would involve death from a particularly nasty disease. The Government's best estimate is that exposure of maintenance workers exclusively to chrysotile fibres—this relates to white asbestos—would give rise to an uncertain but actual risk of cancer.

In addition, excluding chrysotile from the duty to manage would make no practical sense. As recently as the 1970s, blue and brown asbestos were routinely added to white asbestos products during manufacture. In particular, that was done to improve the drying characteristics of the product. Applying different measures to the different fibre types could increase the costs of the duty to manage, as more analysis of the products in place would be needed to determine which regime should be applied. Even if the exclusion of white asbestos were desirable—it is firmly the Government's view that it is not—it would not be a practical way forward.

Concern has also been expressed by small businesses that some surveyors and asbestos removal contractors will use the legislation to oversell their services. We need to prevent that from happening. We have embarked on a five-year implementation programme, working closely with a number of organisations, including the Federation of Small Businesses and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, to ensure that the duty is properly understood and complied with. A crucial element in the campaign will be the need to advise duty holders to take a proportionate approach. In particular, that will involve leaving asbestos materials in place rather than having them removed when they are in good condition and are unlikely to be disturbed.

I seek to encourage the support of hon. Members in all parts of the House in ensuring that asbestos risks are properly managed without unnecessary expense. While extravagant claims have been made in the media about the cost of the proposals, the Health and Safety Executive calculates that the cost of full compliance with the duty will be about #1.5 billion discounted—in other words, at current values—over 50 years. Although that is a significant sum, it should be borne in mind that the costs will be spread among an extremely large number of duty holders whose individual costs will be significant only when the risks to health justify it. The Health and Safety Executive also calculates that the cost of completely eliminating all current risks from exposure to asbestos, including that of fully complying with all other asbestos regulation, would be #3 billion—a level that is again discounted. The elimination of this risk, together with savings arising from the better planning of maintenance and demolition work which will follow the introduction of the duty, is equivalent to total benefits exceeding #3.3 billion.

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If current levels of exposure to asbestos are allowed to continue over the next 50 years, nearly 5,000 people will die from asbestos-related disease. These regulations should go a long way towards preventing that human suffering and misery, and they deserve the full support of the House.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again. He was talking about practice in the 1970s, but I am not sure that he has answered my earlier question. The burden of my point to him was that there was a time—from memory it was 1980, but one could be more precise—when known manufacturers, such as Eternit in my constituency, were not including blue or brown asbestos in the mix. They were using white asbestos in concrete for roof tiling, and so on. Why is it not possible to reduce the burden of compliance costs on those who own and manage buildings that were constructed after that date?

Mr. Brown: We are proposing a practical way forward. The risk has to be assessed by the person who owns or manages the building, and the best way of managing the risk—or what is assessed to be the risk, as it may not be necessary to test the materials for their composition—might be to manage the material where it is, if it is inert. It would be necessary to ensure that people coming in to perform maintenance tasks, who might disturb the material in some way, understood what the risks were. I do not think that it is possible to draw a distinction between white asbestos and the more dangerous forms of asbestos—although I accept that scientific theory suggests that such a distinction exists—in the clear-cut, practical way in which the hon. Gentleman is urging me to do. Moreover, if it were possible and less burdensome to do as he suggests—I do not accept that it is—there would still be a risk. It is a mistake to say that there is no risk from white asbestos. Although we can argue about the proportion of risk between blue and brown asbestos on the one hand and white on the other, we know that the risk is there, and the Government have a duty to protect against it.

Mr. Lansley: I was not suggesting that there was no risk associated with white asbestos, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman is admitting that there is a lesser risk. If that risk is substantially less, but the costs imposed on the owners of buildings containing only white asbestos is likely to be similar to that imposed on other buildings, the balance of costs and benefits in relation to that part of our property estate is different from the risk that applies to the property estate countrywide. The purpose of the risk assessment is to ensure that we focus on dealing with the greater risk, and do so in a way that is proportionate to the cost.

Mr. Brown: I think that the proposal that I have put before the House is proportionate. These issues have always commanded consensus in the House until now, and I hope that they will continue to do so. Way back in 1983, when the then Minister, the right hon. Member

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for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), had responsibility for these matters, he said this to the House:

That is what the official Conservative spokesman said, when in government. Those are his words, not mine. I do not think that the House should wait for 20 or 30 years to make a more balanced assessment of the proportion of risk between white, brown or blue asbestos. With that, I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion.

5.29 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I welcome this debate, and I begin on a consensual note. The Minister for Work is a person of unimpeachable integrity, and I have the highest regard for him. He wants to protect the public, and we all have a responsibility to do so; indeed, I take mine every bit as seriously as he takes his. However, to discharge that responsibility, and to ensure that only necessary costs are incurred, regulation must be based on sound science and on credible assessments of risk. It would be a grave dereliction of parliamentary duty if regulation based on flawed science were forced through this House without adequate scrutiny, and at the cost of billions of pounds.

It is because a fear exists that the Government might be about to make a colossal blunder that it is my responsibility to flag up legitimate concerns. To that end, I should like to look at the root of the problem—the different types of asbestos—to consider the merits of the statistics bandied about, to focus on the commercial interests that are lobbying for these regulations, and to highlight some of the problems contained in them and in the code of practice. I should also like to ask the House at least to consider, for that must be our purpose today, an alternative way forward to that which the right hon. Gentleman—entirely sincerely, and on the basis of advice from others—is proposing.

First, let us consider the root of the problem. It is nearly 50 years since scientists first established that exposure to the sharp metallic fibres of blue and brown asbestos—amphiboles made from iron silicate—were a serious cause of lung disease, including the form of cancer known as mesothelioma. The reality is that many participants in the public debate have in recent times blurred the distinction between those metallic amphiboles and the much commoner white form of asbestos. The latter is a wholly different mineral—magnesium silicate. The fibres of white asbestos are soft, silky and biodegradable. Theoretically, intense long-term exposure to these fibres, which occur naturally in the air—typically, each of us inhales 20,000 of them a day—can cause health damage, just as intense exposure to any form of dust can injure healthy lung tissue.

However, the only hard evidence of which I am aware for such damage derives from studies of workers who were heavily exposed to white asbestos in its raw state—for example, in a large and unregulated asbestos mine in China. My concern is that the Health and Safety Executive—which originally proposed a glitzy publicity launch for these new regulations on 3 October, but hastily cancelled the event upon the legitimate complaint of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the

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Opposition—is basing the proposed regulations on research into asbestos undertaken by Professor Julian Peto in 1985. That research was conducted on workers in a Rochdale asbestos factory that was owned by Turner and Newall, to which reference has been made, and subsequently bought by Eternit. The study appeared to show that exposure to white asbestos had caused mesothelioma. That came as a bombshell, for until then no one had suspected that white asbestos might be dangerous.

A decade later, in 1995, Professor Peto's evidence was re-examined by other scientists—in a study, commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive itself, by Dr. Alan Gibbs and Professor Fred Pooley. The lung tissue of the exposed workers studied by Professor Peto unmistakeably showed damage by amphiboles, but the lung damage that the professor was examining had been caused not by white asbestos, but by residues from blue and brown asbestos. Furthermore, I am advised that at least 19 other scientific research projects concluded that white asbestos is a low-risk substance. As the Minister will be fair enough to concede, most of these studies have apparently been commissioned by the HSE. Indeed, the HSE reported to the World Trade Organisation less than a decade ago that white asbestos had a risk to health

As recently as June 2000, the HSE published a report, by John Hodgson and Andrew Darnton, about the risks to health from asbestos exposure. They concluded that the risk from white asbestos was theoretically zero, yet they were criticised by some scientists for exaggerating its risks.

The House will be aware—and if it is not, it should be—of the US court decision in 1991 that overturned the 1989 total ban in the United States on all asbestos. The judge in that case said that

Both the Health and Safety Executive and the European Union have—

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