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Lord Elton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, can he add to his remark that there is nothing in the Motion to delay the implementation of the regulations, and that the protection will be there?
Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the MSF section of Amicus. There seems to be a difference of opinion between the two sides of the House. On this side, we are concerned about lives; on the other side, it appearsthe noble Earl can shake his head from now until Doomsday
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, it is offensive to accuse me of not caring about lives. Of course I care about lives and the welfare of my fellow subjects; otherwise, I would not have used the energy and undergone the boredom of trying to get my pea-sized brain around this subject.
Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I accept the noble Earl's indignation. I shall tell him about my practical experience, not of looking at roofs, but of being engaged at British Rail. The noble Lord, Lord Marsh, mentioned his experience. I shall tell him about working in workshops where people lagged boilers, with dust everywhere. He may shake his head; I shall discuss white asbestos later. I do not think he has had to work anywhere with his hands; I am sorry about that. Twenty years later, people are dying from that experience because they did not know the dangers that arose from contact with asbestos.
One of my friends who died was a brilliant sportsmanhe played cricket and football. Anyone who saw him die as a result of inhaling asbestos would not be discussing whether the asbestos is white, brown or blue, or whether there are dangers. He would be asking what we can do about it if dangers arise from it. We know. I admit that there is a difference between asbestos in lagging and white asbestos. Nevertheless, dangers arise from it and they were pointed out. My
The French national biomedical research agency, which has been in conflict with the Canadians, says that all forms of asbestos are cancerous. The noble Earl referred to Professor Julian Peto. Professor Peto also wrote in the Lancet:
Some speakers referred to regulations. There are regulations, but many are necessary for health and safety, which is paramount. I would have expected a meeting of minds between noble Lords on that issue. Let us not imperil that by letting the issue seem like one of costs rather than preserving lives. Do not forget about this. Businesses and the CBI have accepted the risk, so why are we having this debate?
Let us move on. Let us implement sensible regulations. In some cases, white asbestos was mixed with blue or brown asbestos. Although, as the noble Earl rightly said, it may be 30 years since that happened, those deaths do not result until 20 to 30 years later. In more extreme cases, it will be up to 50 years before one sees the effects of exposure. The effects are so terrible when they emerge that I appeal to everyone in the House to support anything that will prevent deaths from any asbestos.
Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. My Motion merely asked for a scientific inquiry to be set up and for the Government to consider that within a year. It does not delay the regulations by a single day.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I know that the House is anxious to progress but I wish briefly to speak. As a Minister in the Department of Employment, I was responsible for health and safety for two years. I was tasked with deregulating health and safety regulations. I asked officials to send us all the health and safety regulations that affected business. There was a pause. After a day, they said they would need to hire a special van. We decided to look at the key elements in a major review. The boxes were
That experience taught me two things about the Health and Safety Executive and the Health and Safety Commission. It is a myth that the two organisations are full of risk averse people dreaming up regulations that will add enormous costs to business. We reduced the number of regulations by about 40 per cent, mainly by eliminating duplication. My second lesson was that the Health and Safety Executive's advice, particularly scientific advice, is second to none and impartial. The suggestion that it will provide what Ministers want to hear was not my experience. Asbestos has been the biggest single problem that health and safety officials have had to deal with.
I do not have a problem with the Motion put forward by my noble friend Lady Noakes in so far as it does not prevent the regulations being implemented. To my mind, the regulations have been subject to detailed, careful scrutiny and a cost-benefit analysis. They are looked at by officials who bend over backwards to balance the benefits against the costs for industry. My only anxiety is the message we are sending to the Health and Safety Executive's scientists. Surely we should back their judgment. We have no reason to believe that they operate in a partial manner. It may be an unpopular message to some of my colleagues. I say to my noble friend Lord Onslow that, when I entered the Department of Employment, I suspected that these scientists were uncommercial and did not understand the costs they imposed on businesses. I was pleasantly surprised to find the reverse.
Earl Russell: My Lords, we have just heard an important speech from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, to which I listened with great interest. There are two areas of uncertainty. One is scientific: the danger of white asbestos. The other is political, also apparent in many other debates: the extent of businesses' social responsibilities to the community. It is easy to confuse the two areas of lack of consensus with each other. I shall endeavour not to do so. It will be the judgment of the House whether I succeed. I suspect that very possibly I may not.
I listened with fascination to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who spoke with authority. The final words that linger in my mind from her speech are that the evidence is not conclusive. So far as I can discover, there is an area of lack of academic consensus on the
Business is usually very well capable of arguing its corner. I remember when we were dealing with the Statutory Sick Pay Act 1991, the heaviest and, in my view, the most unjustifiable burden on business that I have known during my time in this Houseplaced on it by a Conservative governmentI received innumerable representations from the CBI, the TUC, whose interest in the success of business is genuine but often forgotten, the Federation of Small Businesses and the National Farmers Union. All those bodies have been consulted about these regulations and have approved them. That fact weighs heavily. The thought of an improper and unjustifiable burden placed on business with the approval of all these bodies is about as improbable as a cruel and useless treatment of asylum seekers approved by the Refugee Council. It could happen, but the burden of proof resting on those who allege it is very heavy.
I am also influenced by the actions of my college, King's College London, which is now my former employer. In the old days of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, it used to be a standard joke that in the next world the Almighty would approach one or two among them and say, "Since you have been particularly wicked, in purgatory I shall give you charge of a university with two medical schools". My college principal is responsible for three medical schoolsKing's, Guy's and St Thomas'. They are all medical schools of some distinction. He will have had no difficulty getting expert academic advice from a wide range of people.
Just over two years ago, my college discovered asbestos in its roofing and immediately decided, in the absence of these regulations, to accept the responsibility that is now to be placed on it. That responsibility has already been discharged. The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, who is chairman of my college council, will confirm that King's College London is in no position to take on unnecessary burdens. It is feeling the financial draught, as all universities are. The fact that that decision was taken with informed scientific evidence behind it should be taken seriously.
I also have an article from the Annals of Occupational Hygiene, volume 44, No. 8, from the year 2000. It gives a statistical study that covers the same ground covered by Professor Peto. Although I have
The other problem is the social responsibility of business. Occasionally, one listens to Conservative spokesmen who sound as if they think that business should have no social responsibility. I am sure that the impression is misleading, but not enough trouble is take to show that that is so, just as on the other side not enough care is taken to show that we remember that business is the goose that lays the golden egg and that we depend on its profits for practically everything we want to do. We should get away from that pro and anti-business ideological division on all sides.
Some burdens are inherent in business, as they are in parenthood. One simply cannot get away from them. Some others are inherent in the interests of business in attempting to make a profit. I once said that there was no more extreme example of short-termism than killing one's customers. I think I was mistaken. An even more extreme example is to kill those on whose services one is daily dependent. It struck me strongly from the debate in another place on 24th October that more than 25 per cent of those who die because of asbestos are plumbers, electricians and carpenters. One has a responsibility to people whom one asks to do that sort of work. No firm wants a reputation for bringing about the deaths of those who attend to its plumbing. Incidentally, I hope the Minister has taken on board the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, about water pipes. That might be a matter for a suitable regulation on another subject. No doubt she will take other advice. A firm that persuades those people that it is not safe to do business there will not stay long in business. Here again, the social responsibility is in the interests of business. Beyond that, businesses have responsibility for contributing to common burdens, as ordinary citizens do. There is no specific claim to an exception.
When the name of Mr Jago was mentioned, there was a general cry of, "Well he would, wouldn't he?". However, in the same letter he has also said that he does not think that these regulations represent any new departure in the treatment of asbestos. He did not have to make that statement and it is not necessarily particularly in his interests. It ought to carry some weight.
That brings me to the proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for an inquiry. I have my doubts about the utility of that. When there is no academic consensus, the findings of an inquiry will depend almost entirely on who is appointed to it. The findings will be impeccable and will be compatible with all the known evidence, but one will know perfectly
The other matter that concerns me as regards the proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is that she proposes two different tasks for such an inquiry. As far as I can see, those tasks would not fit very easily together. The first is a purely scientific inquiry about the risks of white asbestos, which is a matter for scientists. The second is about whether the risk justifies the cost, which is a political decision and one that I do not believe academics are any more competent to make than anyone elsein fact, if they are particularly obsessive in the pursuit of academic truth, occasionally less so. It is essentially a political responsibility, and a buck that we cannot pass.
Finally, I turn to the example of the United States, about which a great deal has been said. I am not a believer either in the supremacy of business or in the supremacy of politics. In my view, we need a see-saw relationship between the two where the balance varies from time to time. Recently in the United States, both because of economic theory and power, the balance has tilted exceptionally far in favour of business. The state of US campaign funding has contributed to that outcome.
The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said that Americans reach, first, for their lawyers. But which Americans have access to the largest team of the most high-powered lawyers? The answer must undoubtedly be the big corporations. The globalisation of business has tilted the balance between political and economic power to a very large extent. In fact, one may say, certainly as regards the United States, and increasingly so in some other places, that bringing a big business to justice is about as difficult as bringing a medieval earl to justicea long struggle, but worth undertaking.
The fact that the process is different in the United States is not necessarily an argument for saying that we should follow that example. I believe that these regulations are justified in the present state of affairs, and I shall so advise my noble friends. The matter needs to be kept under review, but we do not need to ask the Minister to do that because I am certain that she will do so in any event. Therefore, should there be a vote on the matter, I shall advise my noble friends on these Benches to vote with the Government.
The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations are a critical element in the Government's asbestos regulatory regime. They provide protection for those who do, or may, work with asbestos. Since coming to office in 1997, the Government have done much progressively to strengthen the laws on asbestos in the workplace, including tightening the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987, as amended, to provide protection for those at work from inadvertent exposure to asbestos fibres. However, the Government believe that the risks from asbestos will not be fully controlled until one vital piece of the legislative jigsaw is put in place; namely, the duty to manage asbestos in buildings.
Research shows that over 25 per cent of those people currently dying from asbestos-related diseases, some 750 per year, have worked in building and maintenance operations. While virtually all exposure routes have now been effectively controlledby, for example, banning the use of asbestos productsit is estimated that 500,000 commercial and public buildings across the country still have materials in them that contain asbestos. In many cases, no one is managing the risks from the thousands of tonnes of asbestos still present in those premises. People working on those buildings, such as plumbers, electricians and other maintenance workers, often do not know they are at risk from disturbing the material, which is the real problem. Therefore, they do not know if their work is putting other users in the building at risk. A worker may be charged simply with replacing a light fitting; but, in the process of so doing, he may disturb asbestos that was safe up until that point. He will be unaware of the existence of asbestos, but in the course of his work he may multiply the hazard. That is the sort of situation that we have in mind.
The Health and Safety Executive is aware of numerous incidents where such workers have been exposed to asbestos, with this often resulting in construction projects being stopped and the premises evacuated, as well as potentially serious consequences for the workers involved. It is to deal with this unsatisfactory position that the Government are proposing new legislation.
In my view, the requirements of the new duty to manage asbestos are simple and straightforward: they will require those who have responsibilities for maintenance activities in non-domestic premises to assess whether there is any asbestos in their premises, and, depending on its condition, either remove it or manage it. That will ensure that maintenance activities carried out subsequently do not expose workers to any avoidable risk. The task of managing it may simply be
Considerable effort has been taken to ensure, as the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, suggested, that the duty to manage regulation is flexible, thereby allowing a proportionate approach to be taken towards compliance. If the noble Lord studies the regulatory impact assessment, he will see that that is the position. Significant expenditure is required only when the risk justifies it. The requirements are based on the sound business practice of establishing and managing risks efficiently, and closely follow current good practice in the workplace.
In common with the usual procedures on health and safety legislation, the Health and Safety Commission carried out widespread and comprehensive consultation before bringing its proposals to the Government, as pointed out by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. This clearly set out the costs and benefits of the proposals that were included in the regulatory impact assessment, which was published in the consultation document. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. A wide range of organisations expressed support for the proposalsthe CBI, the TUC, the British Property Federation, the Federation of Small Businesses, government departments with major property portfolios, such as the MoD and the Department of Health, various local authorities, including Birmingham City Council and many London boroughs which will have significant responsibilities under the new duty, NHS trusts, charities, trade unions, retailers, banks, universities, building and allied trade associations, utilities providers, as well as asbestos specialists. They all support the Government's policies.
The Government are aware of the views of a small minority who believe that chrysotile (white asbestos) is safe, and that, therefore, it should not be included in the proposals. However, that view is contrary to the majority of expert opinion, which supports the Government's view that all asbestos types can cause cancer. Indeed, all asbestos types are unequivocally classified as carcinogens by the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer, and by regulatory bodies across the developed world.
It is true that most expert opinion, with which I do not disagreeindeed, neither have your Lordships challenged it todaystates that blue and brown varieties of asbestos are more dangerous than white. The most recent review of the relevant evidence suggests that this difference is substantial. However, there is a problem: although chrysotile (white asbestos) is less dangerous, it is still dangerous for two primary reasons. First, it contains tremolite, which is a contaminant and which, as far as we can telland as pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlaycauses the mesothelioma risk.
As a result, the Government's estimate is that it will give rise to an uncertain and unacceptable risk of cancer. Noble Lords have referred to the background fibres in the atmosphere. Maintenance workers have on average 100 times the exposure of the rest of us and have a one in 5,000 risk. I repeat that you cannot extract white asbestos from the asbestos that is currently in our public buildings. The deaths of workers from asbestos and its related illnesses are equal to the deaths from all other accidents in the construction industry. We know that the construction industry is among the most dangerous in this country.
The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, called for an independent scientific inquiry. That always sounds seductive. I have to sayand I hope she will agreethat her proposals are ill-timed and inappropriate. When the European Union brought in Council Directive 1999/77/EC, which applies restrictions on the marketing and use of products containing chrysotile asbestos, it was mindful that scientific knowledge about asbestos and its substitutes was continually developing. No one says that the scientific research has closed. I assure your Lordships that I will do my best, in so far as I am not a scientist, to keep that evidence under review.
None the less, the directive included a commitment to ask the Scientific Committee on Toxicology and the Environment to undertake a further review of any relevant data on the health risks of chrysotile and its substitutes by 1st January 2003. This work is currently being undertaken by Professor Benedetto Terracini whose report will be available in December 2002. I will ensure that a copy of the report is made available in the Library as soon as it is published. If, as a result, any of your Lordships wish to table an Unstarred Question, that debate would encourage the further advance of our information.
To undertake a separate UK review at this time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has called for, on an issue that affects all member states in the EU, and when a major report is on its way to your Lordships' House, would add little to the wider scientific debate on chrysotile. The House may also be aware that the Select Committee on the European Union has recently written to Professor King, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, seeking his advice, and he will also be reporting in due course.
We accept that we cannot put precise numbers to the degree of risk, because chrysotile is mixed with more dangerous contaminants, from tremolite to brown and blue asbestos. The new duty to manage will impact on a large and diverse group of duty holders many of whom did not have health and safety responsibilities in the area. The HSE is aware of the considerable challenges that will result.
Therefore, we are happy to give the assurance that we will hold a review into the operation of the regulations, and these two issues in particular. This could be done by the end of next year, still some time before the regulations fully come into force. We will be able to take on board new scientific information. We will invite major stakeholders such as the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Property Federation to contribute to this review. I hope that I am meeting the merited concerns of your Lordships' House while not endangering further the lives of maintenance workers whom your Lordships have a moral responsibility to protect.