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Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, my speech is not a teach-in on asbestos. I am speaking from knowledge gleaned from previous work in my trade union, Amicus, and through the Health and Safety Commission on which I served for six years. Therefore, I declare an interest.
The TUC has been mentioned. It acknowledges that white asbestos is not as harmful as blue or brown asbestos. However, it is a category one carcinogen and that means that it kills. The World Trade Organisation believes that it kills. The European Union has banned white asbestos as a killer. The International Agency for Research into Cancer believes that it kills. Surely, such important bodies cannot be ignored.
I shall not trade numbers today because that is a futile exercise. We all search for, and quote, statistics that prove our case. However, there are statistics on both sides. For me one death at work is one death too many. I know that others on this side of the House agree. There have been thousands, not a few, directly relating to asbestos over the years, and there will be more.
I am disappointed to see these Motions on the agenda. I do not believe that there is any need for an independent scientific inquiry. The regulations are about life and death. Asbestos produces deadly dust and fibres, as has already been said. It produces terminal cancer and takes lives. It affects the lives of all those who know asbestos victims; and that is what they arevictims.
As we sit in these glorious surroundings, our working environment, it is difficult to visualise the kind of working environments which create such illnesses. However, they exist for thousands of working people in this country today. The regulations that we are discussing today are not opposed by the most relevant employers' organisations, including the CBIand the CBI is very vigilant on these issues. The chief executive of the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA), Mr Terry Jago, not only does not oppose them, but he positively welcomes them. The Asbestos Removal Contractors Association represents licensed contractors and accredited
The regulations will help construction workers and their management to identify in advance where there is asbestos in a building. This will protect workers from being inadvertently exposed to any form of asbestos and will allow suitable precautions to be taken where any activities relating to the construction of a workplace are being carried out.
There have been complaints in some quarters in relation to the consultation process carried out in relation to these regulations. I can tell your Lordships' House that the ARCA is full of praise for the full and comprehensive consultation process which has been undertaken. So is the CBI and so is the TUC. "Full and comprehensive"their words, not mine.
I am sure that some will accuse me today of over-reaction on this issue. Throughout the history of controls on asbestos, unions and trade unionists have been accused of scaremongering and exaggerating the dangers. Such accusations have always been proved wrong. If anything, the controls have been too cautious, too limited and too late.
During my time on the Health and Safety Commission I was only too well aware of what asbestos can do and does do to workers. As my noble friend said, asbestos is the greatest work-related health problem ever experienced in the UK. Three thousand people die each year as a result of asbestos-related diseases. As we sit here prevaricating, workers out there are inhaling the materials which will eventually kill them.
The workers that I am talking about are not as pampered in their working conditions as we are in this House. Not for them leather seats; not for them a heated Chamber or kind ushers to assist them. Workers who come into contact with asbestos put their lives on the line every daytheir lives, not oursand we have a responsibility and a major duty to those workers to pass these regulations as quickly as we can.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness, who spoke with reference to her own experience with the Health and Safety Commission, will not leave your Lordships' House today with the impression that those of us who disagree with her do so on the question of whether or not asbestos is dangerous and whether those who work in its neighbourhood should be protected from it. There is no challenge on that at all. All that some of us are trying to say today, as I understand it, is that we wish to be sure of the science and that the science is correct.
They also can be extremely unconcerned with the effects of what they do. The temptation for those who possess power to use it is very real. They do not always think in terms of the unnecessary and avoidable costs in which their rulings may result. That is all that we are saying.
I would remind the Government that in Bill after Bill nowadays there are clauses giving Secretaries of State and Ministers more and more powers to do this, that and the other, and that sometimes those powers are used unwisely, oppressively and without proper care. My fear, which was awakened during the recent foot and mouth outbreak, is that government scientists find it all too easy, instead of making sure of what is the science, to give advice to Ministers, and that gives those Ministers' policies the garments of scientific respectability. That is what worries me.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, these are very important issues. The whole asbestos story in relation to mesothelioma has been confusing over the years, with justified worry about the increasing number of cases of mesothelioma, awareness of the large amounts of asbestos in place in buildings and the profitable industry of asbestos removal. However, there have been some important studies in the past few yearsparticularly from Canadian millers and minerswhich have shed light on the wide misinterpretation that may have occurred of previous data on risk.
I declare an interest in that one of the research centres in the UK on the topic of asbestos and mesothelioma is my own university, the University of Wales College of Medicine, and its partner, Cardiff University.
Mesothelioma is a horrid type of cancer which does not respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy and often causes severe pain. I have looked after patients with this disease, who are often young. Their tumours have been histologically diagnosed by Dr Gibbs, whose name has been mentioned already in the debate.
There are two families of asbestos. The first is serpentine asbestos, which is chrysotile or "white" asbestos. As the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said, these fibres are ubiquitous. They are everywhere in the atmosphere and have been so probably for millions of years. They are even found in samples of Antarctic ice. These short-coiled fibres are cleared from the lung relatively rapidly within a few weeks of being inhaled. From extensive studies in Canada and South Africa, the evidence is not there that they per se cause mesothelioma. These are the fibres found in artex ceilings and concrete. The fibres are locked in to these
Fibres in the second group are very nasty. These are the amphibole mineral group of fibres, which are the commercial forms of "blue" or crocidolite and "brown" or amosite asbestos. The other fibre, tremolite, has not been used commercially but has been of significance in the studies to which I have referred because it is a contaminant of the white asbestos mined in Quebec in Canada. These amphibole mineral fibres are long, straight fibres which stick in the lung when they are inhaled and persist there for many years. They are the fibres that cause asbestosis and can sit in the lung until mesothelioma develops.
These fibres are found in lagging around pipes and have been used in specialised insulation as they are chemically resistant to acids. Brown asbestos has also been used in some building products, as has blue asbestos to a lesser extent. Most is hidden away and is not accessible except to maintenance men and firemen. Where it is present, it should be encased because when its removal is attempted the atmospheric fibre count in a building goes up dramatically. Whatever precautions are taken, these levels do not appear to settle back for many years. The Health and Safety Executive has data showing this.
The problem with Section 2 of the statutory instrument is that it does not adequately differentiate between the levels of chrysotile fibres, which are of less concern, and the permissible levels of other forms of asbestosthose in the amphibole groupwhich are either present on their own or in mixtures.
Perhaps I may briefly explain some of the research findings as I understand them. The Quebec asbestos miners and millers were mining white asbestos. They were found to have an elevated incidence of mesothelioma, but this was less than 30 cases among a workforce of over 10,000 people with very high levels of exposure. By contrast, in the South African amphibole miners, mining brown and blue asbestos, the relative incidence was ten-fold higher.
Analysis of the fibres found in the lungs of miners in Quebec showed that those who had a high level of tremolite fibresthe contaminantswere the ones who went on to develop mesothelioma. The tremolite was the contaminant; it does not appear that it was the white asbestos (chrysotile) fibres themselves that were linked with the tumours.
Not all white (chrysotile) asbestos is contaminated with tremolite; it is not found in the lungs of those exposed except in the workers exposed in the Quebec fields, where there are high levels of contamination. These workers were exposed at levels of at least 1,000 fibre cc years, whereas the standard in Europe for fibre exposure works out at about a lifetime exposure of 4 fibre cc years.
To put this in context, the background level of asbestos fibres, of which nearly all the fibres are chrysotile or white asbestos, in buildings in the UK is generally 0.001 fibres/cc or less, which is similar to levels measured in the street.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency advised the government to introduce a ban on chrysotile, but this was overturned in the courts on the grounds that there was insufficient scientific evidence to support the disease potential of chrysotile asbestos. The scientific evidence is such that there is now a "chrysotile defence" mounted in the US in cases of litigation.
A recent study from the Health and Safety Executive has shown that the potencies of the other fibres to cause mesothelioma is much greater. Chrysotile fibres in the Quebec workers, contaminated with tremolite, have a potency of 1, compared with amositebrown asbestoswhich has a potency of 100, and blue asbestos, which has a potency of 500. The potency of tremolite-free white asbestos is probably far below a relative risk of 1.
The situation may be further complicated by recent suggestions from research that the risk of developing mesothelioma is also linked to the presence in the patient of Simian Virus 40, which seems to predispose to tumour development.
This is a very complex picture. The scientific literature on the relationship between chrysotile (white asbestos) per se and asbestos-related disease is not conclusive. It is clearly there for the other forms of asbestos. The important problem of Simian Virus 40 in causing malignancy must also be considered and further researched.
This issue must remain under scientific scrutiny as the data are complex. I seek reassurance from the Minister that such revision of regulations can occur as and when other information comes to light. I understand that the Government must take a precautionary view, but they must not replace one risk with another, which may be greater, from alternative materials to pure white asbestos or from disturbing fibres which are in place.
Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, I am puzzled by the trepidation of noble Lords opposite over these regulations. I had something to do with asbestos signs and controls when I was in charge of epidemiological planning in the Health and Safety Executive.
I should just like to add one extra point to the expert speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. We knew in the HSE that excess exposure to white asbestos (chrysotile) caused a large incidence of the crippling lung disease, asbestosiswhich is not a cancer. If noble Lords could visit a sufferer from asbestosis trying to breathe or even walk across a room, I do not believe that they would think it was harmless. Surely, it is welcome that the European Union has adopted directives which these regulations implement and welcome that UK protection will be increased.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer who may be affected by the regulations. I had not heard of them until last Thursday, when my noble friend Lord Onslow told me about them. I tried to obtain a copy from the Printed Paper Office. None was available; however, the PPO very efficiently obtained a copy for me quite quickly.
My main point relates to the process of scrutiny of these important elements of legislation. Statutory instruments are just as much legislation as anything else. Effectively, this a major Billin the sense that it will result in considerable cost. The estimates of the cost are uncertain but they appear to be anything above £1 billion. To impose on industry a cost of £1 billion without extremely good reasons would seem to be contrary to the Government's overall policy of reducing the burdens on industry in such a way as to enable British industry to be more effective, more efficient, more competitive and more profitable so that it can contribute to more employment and contribute, in the form of taxation on profits, to the national economy. Therefore, it is important to realise that the principle of proportionality is exceedingly relevant to this piece of legislation.
We know that the scrutiny of secondary legislation is inadequate. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, of which I was once a member, is purely concerned with vires; it is not concerned with merits or sustainability of proposals put forward in statutory instruments. I know that the House is now considering better ways of applying that kind of scrutiny. This is a very good example of where a better way is needed.
In primary legislation, the House of Commons, sadly, has abandoned to a large extent the proper process of scrutiny and this House is acting as an extremely effective long-stop in those matters. But when it comes to secondary legislation such as this, it is no less important.
I was fascinated by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. Frankly, it illustratesthis is no criticism of another placethat there is no way in which the expert opinion that we have just heard would be obtainable in another place. Those sorts of people do not get that sort of experience if they spend a lifetime in politics. It is a very good example, and one that I hope will be remembered, of the merits of the sort of people who are in your Lordships' House.
My point is that questions have been raised on accuracy and on the justification for this particular statutory instrument. It is 15 pages long. I have waded through it and I am not very much the wiser. I shall not dream of getting involved in the scientific discussion on the comparison between white and other types of asbestos. I merely note that experts have very different opinions.
I remind the House of the dictum of my noble friend Lady Thatcher that it is for officials to advise and for Ministers to decide. I question whether there was a proper, carefully considered ministerial decision. I should be interested to know, when the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, replies, when she first read
I remember the late Ernest Marples saying to me that the only way he felt he could do his job as a Minister properly was to say to his officials: "Look I shall do my boxes between 6.30 and 8.30 in the morning, and it is up to you to ensure that what I need to make a judgment on is in those boxes. It is no use filling my boxes in the 'Yes, Minister' way to prevent me making the right decisions". My question is whether there has been a proper ministerial decision on a matter of considerable magnitude in terms of potential costs. I am sure that legislation on asbestos is needed and we should all support any necessary legislation. But all my noble friend Lady Noakes is asking, as I understand it, is that there should be further consideration of the merits of this particular statutory instrument. I should find it hard to believe that the Government should resist that.
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