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24 Oct 2002 : Column 494continued
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): I have heard the hon. Gentleman suggest, in the Chamber and elsewhere, that business is burdened with too much red tape. Is he now suggesting that there should be statutory regulation of contractors who remove asbestos?
Mr. Bercow: I am not arguing for that. I am saying that there is a problem with a number of members of ARCA that are behaving irresponsibly and costing innocent citizens and businesses a great deal of money. I am critical of excessive regulation but, equally, it is important to emphasise that regulation to protect the public is necessary in a civilised society. I am glad that there has not been too much moralising in the debate so far, although I do not expect that that will continue. I care about safety as much as the hon. Gentleman does, but a legitimate democratic debate should take place about the level of regulation that is required, based on scientific assessment and not emotive theorising.
Mr. Jones: All hon. Members will sympathise with any business that has been unscrupulously hoodwinked into contracting for unnecessary work, but would not the right approach be to regulate those errant contractors, or to track them down and expose them? Would not that be better than attacking regulations that would be welcomed by good businesses that manage their properties to a high standard?
Mr. Bercow: I fear that the hon. Gentleman is conflating and confusing two issues. One issue concerns whether there is scientific and intellectual justification for the regulatory regime that the Government propose. Opposition Members are raising legitimate questions about that, on our own account and on behalf of others. We are not clear that there is such a justification. If a regulatory regime for white asbestos is needed, and we are not persuaded that it is, there is a separate issue that concerns the behaviour of individual contractors.
I am certainly sympathetic to a policy of naming and shaming those who use privileged status and corporate power to make other people's lives more difficult and expensive than would otherwise be the case. I am on the side of the underdogs, of whom there are a great many around the country. If the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) wants to join me in championing the cause of the downtrodden, the underdog, the oppressed and the unduly burdened, I will welcome him to the campaign.
Mr. Bercow: I am genuinely flabbergasted that despite the profuse material supplied on the cases to the Health and Safety Executive, the right hon. Gentleman, whose Department is responsible for and effectively the parent of the Health and Safety Executive, is woefully ignorant of the substantive arguments that are being advanced against those contractors. Is the right hon. Gentleman semi-detached within his Department?
Mr. Brown: Actually, I think that Xsemi-detached" was a term of abuse used against a former Conservative Minister by his own side. The person making the allegations, according to ARCA, is the hon. Gentleman. The letter says:
Mr. Bercow: This is extraordinary. I said that I have a high regard for the right hon. Gentleman. He really deserves a better status in life than that merely of unrewarded and unappreciated lackey of ARCA. That will not do at all. The right hon. Gentleman should have some regard for his own status. It is not his job to go taking from me material that is requested by a third party. The material has been provided to the Health and Safety Executive, the cases have been well publicised and the individual victims are well known. I am not proposing to go through all the detailed cases now for the simple reason that other right hon. and hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. I have already referred to the examples. I stand by them, I will elaborate on them, further and better particulars will be provided, the details will be given to the Minister and the hon. Member for North Durham, who is chuntering from a sedentary position, will have nothing about which to complain. He will be the first to complain if a detailed dilation on those cases causes me to take longer and to stop him making a contribution to the debate. I am a just fellow, and I do not propose to subject the hon. Gentleman to that disadvantage. It is simply not fair.
I want to focus on the cost of the regulations, because the right hon. Gentleman made an important point. He talked about a cost of #1.5 billion over a 50-year period. I thought that he had the figures the wrong way round and had misread his text. Previously, the Health and Safety Executive said that its estimate was not #1.5 billion but #5.1 billion. It then came up with a lesser figure of #3.4 billion, but the TUC, upon which the right hon. Gentleman is happy to rely when it suits him, previously suggested a potential cost of #80 billion.
Mr. Brown: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's generosity in giving way. The figure of #80 billion that is attributed to the TUC is simply wrong. I contacted the TUC because I wanted to get to the truth. It says that
I emphasise that the Health and Safety Executive's previous estimate of #5.1 billion represented the largest cost compliance assessment ever given for a new law. Even if we exclude temporarily and in the name of cordiality on the Floor of the House the figure of #80 billion, that earlier proposed by the Health and Safety Executive was the largest ever cost compliance assessment given for a new law. Now we are told that the figure is #1.5 billion; previously we were told that it was #3.4 billion. I believe that there is a serious concern that the regulations could prove much more expensive, and the Minister is not in a position conclusively to rebut that suggestion for the simple reason that the only figures that he has to go on are those supplied to him by the Health and Safety Executive. If the HSE has changed its mind twice, what is to stop it changing its mind a third time when the regulations have been given effect, the cost is being borne and it is too late to reverse or mitigate some of the damage thereby inflicted?
As if that were not bad enough, there are other potential scandals to consider. There is the evidence to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) referred that surveyors, estate agents and building societies are erroneously advising homeowners or prospective purchasers of the damage to the properties that has been sustained and their reduced value. Also, the alarm generated over asbestos is provoking an ever-rising tide of insurance claims. So large are the sums involved in this sort of compensation that it has now become the fastest growing area of liability.
The reality is that in those circumstances we have a legitimate reason to raise our concerns. I hope that Labour Members will not be gleeful at the thought of multinational insurance companies such as Sun Alliance having to make such massive and unjustified payouts. That company is already proposing to put aside #385 million as a contingency, principally to cover asbestos-related claims. We have to remember that ultimately everyone, including ourselves, will pay the bill in higher premiums.
Ministers, Labour Members of Parliament and trade unions must take care not to allow themselves to become front men and cheerleaders for what could turn out to be one of the most shameless public rackets of our time.
In the end, it seems obvious that in these circumstances we cannot just rest content with the view of the Government. We have to take account of what the environmental experts in the United States think, and of the fact that the World Health Organisation remains of the view that the controlled use of white asbestos is appropriate. It maintains that asbestos cement products are totally safe. We should also consider that the health and safety and risk management policy spokesperson for the Federation of Small Businesses, Dr. Jacqueline Jeynes, has stressed that
The FSB has called for a Select Committee inquiry into the subject. John Bridle, an experienced south Wales surveyor, qualified chemist and unpaid consultant to the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association, believes that such a study is essential and that a judicial review is likely without it.
The most important point of all is that these regulations appear to take no account of the disposal of the removed asbestos material. The waste regulations are even more ridiculous than the HSE's control of asbestos at work and approved code of practice may prove to be. The total results could be a gold-plated set of bureaucratic impositions that will promote an epidemic of illegal tipping and removal that could create a health hazard where none previously existed.
The HSE has neither the manpower nor the expertise to police these new regulations. The Minister wants to protect public health. Members on both sides of the Chamber share that objective. No one has a monopoly on concern for safety. I yield to no one in my determination that we and our fellow citizens in the workplace should be free of avoidable risks. Equally, however, there is not the slightest merit in legislating on the basis of science that we should not believe at a cost that need not be faced. The public interest demands a thorough debate and the readiness to consider alternative opinion, which the HSE has heard but which it currently chooses to ignore rather than to answer.
The Minister has set out his case. My responsibility is not to parrot the Government in the interests of a quiet life, but to give voice to the concerns of others and to raise questions that Ministers must address. There is still time for a Select Committee inquiry speedily but effectively to hear all the evidence before Parliament acts. That is the right course. To legislate hastily, ignorantly and expensively only to repent when it is too late would be the wrong course. I appeal to the House to endorse the case for expert debate and to resist the temptation to press the panic button.