HC Deb 10 July 1967 vol 750 cc38-45

12.2 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Carcinogenic Substances Regulations 1967 (S.I., 1967, No. 879). dated 8th June 1967, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th June, be annulled. I have very little time in which to go through quite a lot of material of a highly technical and important nature. I shall be as speedy as possible. My concern with the Regulations is that it is now in a position where we either have to accept or reject them, despite the fact that we waited three years after the circulation of the preliminary draft. The draft of the present Regulations was brought forward on 20th December last year.

Unfortunately, the Instrument which has been laid is exactly the same as the draft of last December, despite the fact that a number of recommendations were made by experts to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary about certain additions and points of clarification which they regarded as necessary. I ask my hon. Friend to tell the House why no notice was taken of the recommendations and no change made in the draft.

There was not only criticism by individual experts. There was an article in the Lancet of 14th January setting out these points. There were also recommendations by the British Medical Association on the same points. I also understand that the draft Regulations were apparently never referred to the Advisory Committee as such. In view of the highly technical nature of this subject, which is very much a matter of specialist opinion, there being only a limited number of people with specialist knowledge, I would have thought that the Advisory Committee would have been the essential body to which to refer the draft. Why was this not done? We are learning all the time on this subject. It is important that in the light of new knowledge the Regulations should be as correct as possible.

These are the first Carcinogenic Substances Regulations to be made in this country. They are a real landmark in preventive medicine and must be regarded in that light. It is, therefore, important, as the various additions and points of clarification have not been added to the draft, that we get from the Ministry—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Lady will not emphasise that fact, because she is not in order in suggesting that things left out of the Regulations should be there.

Mrs. Butler

I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am asking my right hon. Friend to say, in answer to questions I shall put to him, as much as he can so as to give definitive guidance to the medical profession and industry in the operation of these Regulations.

The Regulations ban the manufacture and use of certain substances which are no longer manufactured in this country. Some of them are still imported. I understand that Regulations in regard to the import of these substances are to follow. The Regulations also restrict the manufacture and use of certain other substances: these are to be rigidly controlled and are called "Controlled Substances". Further—this is breaking completely new ground—the Regulations provide for the medical examination of workers concerned with some of these substances.

I ask the Department to reconsider the exemption in Regulation 5(1, iii) which concerns the proportion by weight of water to benzidine hydrochloride. The purpose of adding water is to make the dust less dangerous, but it has been suggested to me that this is too high a proportion of water and that it would allow the benzidine to settle out.

Again, if a laboratory used Prohibited Substances and thus came within the Regulations, would the Regulations apply to men employed in the factory but well outside the laboratory and therefore not at risk?

Regulation 6 sets out the list of Controlled Substances. Does the list of chemical names in paragraph (1) of this Regulation apply only to the substances themselves, or does it apply to other substances which may contain these substances as additives or impurities. If they do thus apply, is there any limit to the amounts Of the substance contained as an additive or impurity? If the Regulations cover additives or impurities, why is it not feasible to specify a lower limit? This may be reasonable, but I would be grateful if my hon. Friend could explain this.

I turn briefly to deal with Regulation 8 which refers to medical examinations, because this is of major importance. The first part of the Regulation says: Every person who is or has been employed in any manufacture, process or work referred to in paragraph (1) of the last foregoing Regulation … It is not clear whether the Regulations will apply to persons who have been employed in such manufacture in the past in firms where such manufacture process or work has been abandoned before the Regulations come into force. If they will not, they will not cover men in the rubber and cable industries in which dangerous substances were used in the past, and in respect of which cases of bladder cancer are still arising, and are likely to arise at any time.

If the Regulations are to apply only to people using or manufacturing the Controlled Substances on the date they come into force, this will have serious repercussions for a large number of men who may develop bladder cancer. This situation does not seem to be in keeping with the Press statement which was made when the Regulations were laid, namely: Provision is made for the medical supervision of persons who are, or have at any time been, employed in the making or use of these substances. Again if the Regulations are to apply only to firms using these materials on the date when they come into force, will this mean that only those persons who are, or have been, using these controlled substances on that date will be required to submit to a medical examination? I wonder whether my hon. Friend realises that if this is so many other employees who, in the past, have handled more dangerous prohibited substances will be under no obligation to undergo a medical examination? It is important to realise that in industrial situations both Prohibited and controlled substances are closely related, and that they will have been handled in the same factory.

If minute traces of the controlled substances mentioned in Regulation 6 bring a factory under the Regulations, Regulation 8 would seem to require a large number of people such as gas workers, persons testing water at sewage works, and rodent operators who have handled Antu on premises to submit to urine screening for the rest of their time in employment at the factory concerned. These people are regarded as being at low risk, and most medical opinion agrees that they should not be unduly frightened by being made to submit to this kind of examination, particularly when men at much greater risk, those to whom I have referred earlier, such as rubber and cable workers, will not be brought within the Regulation.

The advice which is usually given is that such men should be asked to undergo urine screening only if they have heard of the possibility of risk and have become worried and asked for the test. Where there is a shortage of highly skilled pepole to do the screening, it is important to keep the number of people involved to the lowest level compatible with a reasonable degree of safety.

There is the further point that this Regulation applies to workers employed under the provisions of the Factories Acts. There will, therefore, be two classes of worker, those working under the Factories Acts, and those who are not, although they may be doing the same kind of work. One group will have screening, and the other will not.

I have dealt as quickly as I could with the main points. I understand that there is a possibility of Orders following the acceptance of these Regulations. I hope that it will be possible for an Order to be introduced to grant exemption to some of these lower risk cases. Perhaps the Minister would like to consider this further. He might also at his discretion like to introduce an Order bringing under the Regulations certain classes which have not hitherto been considered.

In all that I have said, I have been seeking clarification, and I hope that my hon. Friend will realise that this is the only way in which it can be done. A number of experts, and certainly a number of people in industry, will read what my hon. Friend says as a guide to making these Regulations more effective. They are a landmark in preventive medicine in this country, and, in fact, throughout the world.

12.17 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I do not want to be more than a few moments, because time is short, but I join the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler) in welcoming these Regulations, which, as she says, constitute an important advance in industrial preventive medicine.

I echo the hon. Lady's comment that the Government have not heeded the representations of some of the people concerned, and have not drafted the Regulations in accordance with some of the technical advice which I have been given.

There is one point which I would like to raise with the Minister. It concerns benzidine dihydrochloride. I understand that this is a very dangerous substance. Modern research indicates that it should be used in a mixture of which water should form between 23 and 35 per cent. of the total. As the Regulation is drafted, water is to form not less than one-third or 33 per cent. of the total. I understand that the Department has accepted that there is good logic for what I have just suggested.

I do not want to go into the merits, but I do not believe that it will be acceptable just to say that the Regulations will not be enforced in their present form. I understand that it has been accepted that to describe one-third as the minimum is the wrong way to deal with it. The Regulation should, therefore, be withdrawn, and another put in its place. It is no good saying, "We know that this is not the right way to do it, but we are going to carry on with the Regulation anyway and we will wink if anybody has the wrong proportion of water in his benzidine dihydrochloride".

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do what I have suggested, and not take the sloppy way out of saying, "Very few people are concerned, and it does not matter very much. We will not prosecute anybody breaking the Regulation". As this Regulation is to be part of the law, it should be right, down to the last detail.

Under subsection (iv) on the same page, the use of any quay or dock is prohibited except for exporting this substance, but much of it has to be imported, and this will be made legal, I understand, in a subsequent Order. I should like an undertaking that this later Order will be laid, as it would be wrong to prohibit the import of these materials without another allowing it, or this business would come to a halt. Otherwise we certainly welcome the Regulations, and will not impede their progress.

12.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. E. Fernyhough)

As a non-technical man, I cannot answer the first point of the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), but I will see that he gets a reply. Nor can I give a definite assurance about future Regulations, but we will consider his point when those Regulations are being drafted—

Mr. Ridley

Those are very unsatisfactory assurances on two vital points. The hon. Gentleman has only to say that they will be taken firmly into consideration and met to get a willing nod from this side. But we cannot accept only that he will look at my point after the Regulations have gone through, as we might not be so keen to let them through if this is his attitude.

Mr. Fernyhough

The hon. Gentleman knows that that we must either accept these Regulations now or reject them. Now that I have advice from my experts, I can give an undertaking. The hon. Gentleman has known me long enough to know that I would not say "yes" knowing that tomorrow I would be in difficulty. If I say it, I want to mean it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler) on initiating this debate. I know her deep interest in this matter. I am sorry that she seemed to damn the Regulations with faint praise, but she will appreciate that they are a great step forward. They ban the manufacture and use of certain dangerous chemicals, unless the Chief Inspector of Factories has issued certificates of exemption, and his powers to do so are strictly limited. They also control the manufacture of chemicals which are slightly less dangerous.

The important thing is what the Regulations do to safeguard the health and well-being of workers who would and who have become victims of these substances. Only comparatively recently have we become aware of this problem. Because it was a new disease, it was not easy to bring in the Regulations. If they had been brought in as quickly as my hon. Friend wished, they would not have been so up to date. We are breaking fresh ground. Medical knowledge in this matter is becoming available almost week by week and we have tried to frame the Regulations to take into account all the latest information.

My hon. Friend was concerned that we did not consider some of the complaints about the Regulations, but we did. Those with responsibility for the final decision felt that the Regulations in this form met the position. We also consulted the advisory panel, which accepted them in this form.

The list applies not only to the substances themselves, but to others which might contain these as additives or impurities, but it is not intended that every substance which includes even the smallest amount of a controlled substance should come within Part III of the Regulations. Here, the principle of "the law is not concerned with trifles" will apply, and insignificant amounts will be ignored.

The Regulations apply to firms using any of these substances on the date that they come into force, or subsequently, but not to firms who used them in the past but no longer do so. There would be no power under the Act so to apply them. The workers who are required to have medical examinations will be in those factories which are now using these substances or which do so in future.

We have taken special steps to advise people who may in the past have been exposed of the importance and availability of medical screening. Over 50,000 cards were sent to former employees by firms in the rubber and cablemaking industry and in the dyestuffs and related industries. If any difficulties arise over screening persons exposed to these substances in the past but who are not covered by the Regulations, the factory inspectors will use their good offices to remove them.

We have no information to suggest that gas workers have used controlled substances and the Regulations would not affect them. Among the other persons whom my hon. Friend mentioned, the number would not be large—

Mrs. Joyce Butler

On a point of order. I am sorry to intervene at this stage, but it is important, in spite of all that has been said, that the Regulations are made and I would, therefore, with the leave of the House, ask permission to withdraw my Motion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

That is not a point of order, but I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary has heard what the hon. Lady said.

Mr. Fernyhough

I hope that, before my hon. Friend does that, she will accept that these Regulations are a great advance, which put this country before any other civilised country in the protection of these workers. In health and welfare, we are leading industrially.

Mrs. Joyce Butler

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.