Previous SectionIndexHome Page

24 Oct 2002 : Column 509—continued

6.46 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): The important thing about this debate is that it is taking place before the Government have signed the statutory instrument relating to the new regulations, which are likely to involve organisations throughout the country in costs exceeding #5 billion. The new regulations encompass all types of asbestos—blue, white and brown—and treat them in the same way. That is why they are fundamentally flawed.

The use of blue and brown asbestos was finally made illegal in 1985, but a study in the same year marked the onset of the confusion that lies at the root of all our present problems. Scientists, lobbyists and, finally, legislators began—through what originally stemmed from a misreading of the scientific evidence—to blur the distinction between the different types of asbestos. The encapsulation of the fibres of white asbestos in cement is by far the most common use of the material. Asbestos cement is used in such products as roofing slates, and accounts for 85 per cent. of all asbestos in use in the United Kingdom. It presents no risk to human health at all. Not a single case of health damage has ever been scientifically ascribed to exposure to asbestos cement products. There is simply no mechanism whereby such damage could occur.

Only a decade later, when Dr. Peto's evidence was re-examined by other scientists, did it emerge that he had made a fundamental error. If there is one point of consensus in the Chamber this evening, it is that there is a plethora of contradictory scientific research evidence, and I endorse the request by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) that that evidence should be heard in Select Committee. Determined attempts have been made to find fresh evidence for the dangers of white asbestos. Further studies have emerged, based on workers exposed to raw asbestos in China, Italy and elsewhere, which seem to indicate that there is a very slight risk from prolonged and intensive industrial exposure.

In recent years, we have seen a deliberate policy to blur any distinction between the different types of asbestos and their uses, and to suggest that all types of asbestos material can be equally dangerous. In this way, the Health and Safety Executive has helped to create the potential for immense unnecessary public alarm, not least because by far the most widely used form of asbestos in the United Kingdom is asbestos cement, which poses no risk to human health.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Angela Watkinson: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not, because I am short of time.

Millions of commercial and domestic properties in the United Kingdom include some form of asbestos in their construction. The commonest of all is white asbestos cement used in roofing materials. No one has been in a better position to exploit the confusion and alarm resulting from the blurring of the differences between the various forms of asbestos than the specialist contractors licensed by the Health and Safety Executive to carry out asbestos-related work. A recent nationwide investigation has shown that property occupiers ranging from farmers, householders and shopkeepers to local

24 Oct 2002 : Column 510

authorities and NHS hospital trusts are vulnerable to commercially motivated advice, and can become involved in unnecessarily costly asbestos removal that could be carried out at a fraction of the cost by an unlicensed building contractor.

The HSE's proposed new regulations increase the likelihood that the public will continue to be exploited in this way. The chief purpose of the new law will be to impose on all workplaces—some 1.5 million collectively—the duty to carry out a written risk assessment of all asbestos materials on the premises, combined with a continuing programme for their safe management. According to the consultation paper published by the HSE earlier this year, the new requirements alone will cost the organisations involved #5.1 billion. Other sums have been quoted today, but this figure takes no account of the fact that hundreds of thousands of organisations, bewildered by confusion over the dangers of asbestos, will be reluctant to take responsibility themselves for assessment of the risks posed by asbestos, and will therefore call in the HSE's licensed contractors.

There is too much doubt about the integrity of the scientific research on which new regulations on the control of asbestos have been based for any confidence to be placed in them. I urge the Minister to re-examine the evidence.

6.51 pm

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): I should begin by declaring an interest as a member of the Transport and General Workers Union. Also, as has been registered, I was formerly employed by Thompson's, the trade union solicitors, which gives money to my constituency Labour party. I should further inform the House that I am a Canadian citizen, so I have some idea of the asbestos industry in Canada.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) said, white asbestos is produced in Quebec. In 1988, Thomas Mancuso concluded a study on American railway machinists of the steam locomotive era, which was published in the XAmerican Journal of Industrial Medicine". The machinists used white asbestos, or chrysotile. According to the study, one mesothelioma occurred for every 13 machinists hired. Chrysotile kills people. I accept that there is a scientific dispute as to whether it is as deadly as brown or blue asbestos. From what we know, it probably is not, but it certainly kills through the inhalation of fibres.

The World Trade Organisation—a body not easily swayed, as my hon. Friend said—dealt with a case brought by Canada, against France, relating to the introduction of a ban on white asbestos. That case was lost, as was the subsequent appeal. The WTO does not readily restrict trade, but it will do so when there are health and safety implications. It did so in respect of the chrysotile from Canada because it is dangerous and kills people. Conservative Members should move on in respect of this issue. Enough scientific evidence has been published to justify moving on and supporting measures such as the Government's proposed draft regulations.

According to Library note SN/SC/1641, dated 5 February, there were two consultations on the draft regulations, not one. The first ended on 20 October

24 Oct 2002 : Column 511

2000, and the second was published a year later, on 21 November 2001. The critical comments arising from the first consultation related to two areas: clarification of the phrase Xduty holder"—relating to the occupier of premises and the question of who has the duty in respect of asbestos—and widening the scope of the 1987 regulations. Nothing in the Library document suggests that either consultation raised the question of the non-dangerousness of white asbestos at that stage. It is being raised very late in the day, which seems strange.

The draft regulations themselves do not place a great burden on occupiers of premises in which people are employed. Such an occupier simply has to make an assessment of the risk of those premises based on whether there is asbestos in there and, if so, what, if anything, the occupier proposes to do about it at that stage or in the future. It does not put an obligation upon the occupier at that stage to do anything; it depends on the nature of the findings. Regulation 4 is quite clear on that.

On the compliance costs of the regulations, the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) talked about building works being held up when asbestos is found. However, the regulations will stop that. If the regulations come in, we will know whether asbestos is in a building, so if a development is proposed five years later, it will not catch people by surprise when the building is pulled down.

Mr. Bercow: Why has the Health and Safety Executive already changed twice its estimate of the prospective cost of the regulations and, in the circumstances, what is to prevent it from doing so a third, a fourth, a fifth or even a sixth time?

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman knows that estimates are estimates and are open to change. The fact that a body changes its estimates does not automatically mean that the underlying regulation is wrong. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues talk about contractors. He spent about a minute and half in a short debate saying why he would not do what he urged be done—name and shame. He is protected by absolute privilege in the Chamber, but he would not name and shame any of these unscrupulous contractors.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Select Committee should look into these matters. However, as a member of the Committee, I can tell him that when we discussed a programme of work in October, no member of the Committee said anything about looking at the regulations or at asbestos, even though the matter now comes under the remit of the Committee. That seems contradictory and reinforces my view that action is always taken late in the day.

It is too late. Let us move on from this debate. White asbestos kills people; let us regulate.

6.57 pm

Mr. Nicholas Brown: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply. This debate, in Government time, must come to a conclusion at seven o'clock, so I shall keep my remarks brief.

24 Oct 2002 : Column 512

The debate, perfectly properly, has concentrated on the dangers of white asbestos, chrysotile, and the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is entitled to his doubts. As the Minister, I must listen to the debate and the views of Members on both sides of the House, but I must also take careful note of the advice available to the Government. That advice is that the best estimate is that exposure exclusively to chrysotile fibres by maintenance workers would give rise to an uncertain but actual—and so unacceptable—risk of cancer. The Health and Safety Executive believes that all types of asbestos present a degree of risk, and, therefore, all are included in the regulations as part of a precautionary approach.

Hon. Members are entitled to make points about uncertainty. I acknowledge that there is uncertainty, but I cannot accept—this is not the advice available to the Government—that there is zero risk. It would be something like 20 or 30 years before we were able to get to the truth of this as far as maintenance workers were concerned. My hon. Friends the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) and for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) have spoken movingly about the impact of this terrible disease on their constituents.

The hon. Member for Buckingham made the same point in a slightly different way. He spoke about the massive payments that are paid in compensation in asbestosis cases and the dangers of the insurance institutions being put under severe pressure if they continually make these massive payments.

Surely the rational thing to do, as a united House, is to bring in regulations that work on a proportionate and precautionary basis to prevent such massive cases from ever coming about for future generations. It is a terrible thing, but there is nothing we can do for those who already have this condition, except to look to financial compensation. But surely, for future generations and those who might be affected in the future, we should prevent such cases from happening. It is the Government's contention that the propositions before the House are proportionate. Incidentally, there is a defence of due diligence—

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

Next Section

IndexHome Page