HC Deb 30 March 1976 vol 908 cc1103-15
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

The Parliamentary Commissioner's Report on his investigation into the enforcement of the Factories Act at Acre Mill, Hebden Bridge, has given rise to serious public concern. Although the Parliamentary Commissioner recognised that responsibility for complying with the Factories Act and the Asbestos Regulations rested with the occupier of the factory, he made several criticisms of the action of my Department and of the Factory Inspectorate. These I accept.

The Health and Safety Commission and its Executive, of which the Factory Inspectorate is now a part, will study the Report closely, and, if anything still remains to be put right, this will be done.

I would emphasise to the House that the Report relates to the circumstances at Acre Mill between 1939 and 1970. The position has changed radically in the years since then. New Regulations to control the health risk from asbestos came into force in 1970, backed by stringent hygiene standards for the control of asbestos dust. These Regulations are being rigorously enforced by the Factory Inspectorate, which is currently instructed to make special visits to all firms subject to the Asbestos Regulations.

Fifty-one firms have been successfully prosecuted for 120 contraventions of the Regulations. Effective use is also being made of the new powers given to the Executive under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act since the beginning of 1975. Sixty-six prohibition notices and 15 improvement notices have been imposed on 45 firms to remedy hazards involving asbestos.

More than 150,000 copies of a leaflet "Asbestos and You" have been distributed to workers in the industry; 193,000 copies of technical data notes on asbestos have been distributed free; and 27,500 copies of a booklet, "Asbestos Health Precautions in Industry", have been sold. Guidance is also to be issued shortly on the problem of dust arising from the use of sprayed asbestos in buildings. A labelling scheme for consumer products is being introduced.

In 1971, work started on a long-term medical environmental survey of asbestos workers. This survey is intended to obtain more information about the medical effects of asbestos exposure and to measure the effectiveness of dust control methods for the protection of workers.

I have discussed the present position with the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission and the Director of the Health and Safety Executive. I have every confidence in the way they, and the factory inspectors throughout the country, are carrying out their responsibilities.

However, we still do not know all we need to know about the health risks from asbestos, including risks to the public and the causes of mesothelioma. The Health and Safety Commission, by agreement with Ministers concerned, has therefore decided to set up a committee to undertake a wide-ranging review of the health risks from asbestos and to make recommendations on any further action which, in its view, ought to be taken.

The Chairman of the Commission, Mr. Simpson, will himself act as chairman of the new committee, whose membership will be announced in due course. Interested Government Departments, including the Central Unit of Environmental Pollution, will be closely involved in the work of the committee.

The composition of the committee will reflect a wide range of scientific, medical and practical expertise and will include representatives from both sides of industry.

The committee will have the following terms of reference: To review the risks to health arising from exposure to asbestos or products containing asbestos including: persons exposed at work; members of the public exposed to asbestos generated from work activities; and members of the public exposed to asbestos from consumer products and from asbestos waste. To make recommendations as to whether any further protection is required. The committee's terms of reference enable it to cover all risks from asbestos, including its release into the working and general environment and either to satisfy itself that present safeguards are adequate or to make recommendations on how improvements should be made.

The report of the committee will be published and considered by the Health and Safety Commission and Ministers responsible for the matters reviewed.

I wish, in conclusion, to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden), whose skill and persistence in raising this matter has been of such importance for his own constituents and for many others besides.

Mr. Prior

I start by expressing the sympathy of the House with those who have suffered as a result of this terrible disaster, particularly those who died at Hebden Bridge or who are still suffering from the effects of the disaster.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a number of questions? First, is he aware that the Opposition welcome the setting up of the committee of inquiry? Will the inquiry sit in public, or will it be a private committee? On the whole, we believe that the public will want to be kept fully informed of the activities of the inquiry.

Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the standards for fibres per cubic centimetre of air in our Regulations specify two fibres per cubic centimetre, whereas the United States Regulations specify half a fibre per cubic centimetre? Does he think that our Regulations are tightly enough drawn in view of what has happened, and will he ask the Health and Safety Executive to satisfy itself on that?

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied with the long-term medical and environmental survey? Is he aware that there is a great deal of anxiety not just about asbestos dust but about other forms of dust as well and about the need to try to reach a simple control mechanism for assessing the quantity of dust in the atmosphere at any time? Should more work be done on that?

Finally, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the rather disturbing report that inspectors always notified when they were likely to arrive at premises instead of making off-the-record inspections, which are always more effective and tend to keep people much more on their toes?

Can the right hon. Gentleman give us any information on those points?

Mr. Foot

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, first, for his expression of sympathy. I am sure the whole House will wish to echo that.

If I may, I shall take the right hon. Gentleman's questions in reverse order. I know that criticisms were made in the evidence given to the Ombudsman or Parliamentary Commissioner about factories being informed beforehand about the visits of inspectors. However, I do not think that much proof was given. In any event, the practice is different now. Except in particularly exceptional circumstances, visits are not made on that basis and no prior information is given.

The right hon. Gentleman's third question was about making the forms of control simple. I think that we all agree about that, and I am sure that is one matter which will be considered in the recommendations to be made by the committee.

On the right hon. Gentleman's question about the comparison of the strictness of Regulations here and in the United States, I understand—although I may be incorrect—that there has been a proposal in the United States for a more stringent Regulation but that that has not yet necessarily been adopted. However, it will be pre-eminently a question for the committee to recommend whether there should be a tightening of the Regulations.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's first question about whether the inquiry will be public, certainly the findings of the Committee will be public and the evidence will be public. I shall give consideration to whether the proceedings themselves should be public. But I should like to take into account what the Health and Safety Commission itself may have to say on that subject. One aspect of this question is whether better evidence might be given more swiftly if that were not necessarily a condition. But I do not rule out the possibility in my consideration, which I promised, of what the right hon. Gentleman said about that.

Mr. Madden

Will the Secretary of State and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary accept my gratitude for the promptness of the statement this afternoon following what is clearly a highly disturbing report from the Parliamentary Commissioner? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the public concern, which undoubtedly exists, about the dangers associated with asbestos can be satisfactorily dealt with only by a wholly independent inquiry which takes evidence in public and publishes that evidence and its full report?

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is of paramount importance that there should be more stringent controls over the use of asbestos by workers directly using that material and the public at large? Does he agree that the Report calls into question the overall reorganisation of the Factory Inspectorate on a highly centralised basis, which many of us fear will lead to strings of Acre Mills throughout the country? Will he consider these matters and make another statement at an early date as public concern on this important issue is mounting, and mounting quickly?

Mr. Foot

I certainly undertake to make a further statement on this matter at an early date, partly because I shall have to announce the other members of the committee.

I do not agree with the view that the centralisation of our Factory Inspectorate arrangements, in so far as they have been centralised, will injure the possibility of dealing with the matter. I believe that if the Regulations under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act had been in operation many of these dangers might have been avoided. I think that should be taken into account. The House and the country should also take into account that a whole series of measures have been taken to try to make the Regulations even more stringent since these terrible events occurred.

My hon. Friend, as the whole House must be aware, has pursued this matter throughout the whole of the time that he has been a Member of Parliament. He has been to the Department and given us great assistance and information on this subject. Any suggestion that he makes will be taken into account. Before making a fresh statement, I should like to consider whether the inquiry should be public. We think that the proposed inquiry is the best way of going about it. However, I am prepared to take account of any representations which may be made, particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Does the right hon. Gentleman, as a good House of Commons man, appreciate the difficulty which the House gets into when the Parliamentary Commissioner, who is a servant of this House, has not yet reported to the House? This is not the first time, as the Home Secretary and others will realise, on which this difficulty has arisen. This is an important matter, and we do not wish the right hon. Gentleman to delay the important decision that he has made, but will he undertake to consult his right hon. Friends, particularly the Leader of the House, on how we may avoid the difficulty which arises when the Parliamentary Commissioner has made no report to the House, when neither the House nor the Select Committee has had a chance of considering it and yet the Government, no doubt for the best motives, have again jumped the gun?

Mr. Foot

I appreciate the point made by the hon. and learned Gentleman. This is not a question primarily for me. It is a question which governs the publication of all these reports. However, when the Report was published yesterday we thought it right that a statement should be issued as speedily as possible. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who has been principally in charge of these matters in the Department of Employment throughout and was principally responsible for conducting the Health and Safety at Work etc. Bill through the House of Commons, made a statement then because we thought it only right that a statement should be made at once. We also thought that a statement should be made here as speedily as possible. That has been done. However, I will consider the point made by the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. John Mendelson

Whilst everybody would expect the Government to make a statement as quickly as possible—I support what my right hon. Friend said—is it not imperative now to accept that the Parliamentary Commissioner had to play a part in these matters? Does not that highlight the fact that self-regulatory processes ought to be built into the surveillance of industry so that there should not be any need to call on the Parliamentary Commissioner to have anything to do with such investigations? Is there not every reason for my right hon. Friend to condemn those responsible for the situation which made this appeal to the Parliamentary Commissioner necessary in the first place?

Mr. Foot

I understand the point made by my hon. Friend. Even if this matter had not been referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner, however, a committee would have been set up and there would have been an examination under the legislation that we have established. I am not in any sense criticising the fact that an appeal was made to the Parliamentary Commissioner. I think that it has been beneficial to the whole situation. However, it is not correct that, if this matter had not been referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner, there would not have been an investigation. I think we are all agreed that it is absolutely necessary that every possible step must be taken over the whole range of matters covered by this subject to have action taken. I believe that the committee which has been proposed at once by the Health and Safety Commission is the best way of dealing with the matter.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

Is any consideration to be given to older and, indeed, retired workers who may conceivably have been exposed to this asbestos risk in places of work which were not covered by the Factories Act—for example, laggers with outside contractors and possibly some Post Office workers whose work did not come within the ambit of the Factory Inspectorate?

Mr. Foot

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to the debate which was replied to by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State a few days ago. However, he will find that most of those points were covered in the reply which was then given.

Mr. Urwin

I join in the welcome extended by the House to my right hon. Friend's proposal to set up an inquiry, which I hope will be public. Will he tell the House what steps he proposes to take to ensure that employers encourage people to become more learned in the implicit dangers of handling asbestos? Secondly, is he satisfied that the numerical strength of the Factory Inspectorate is adequate to deal with the serious problems arising from the use of this material?

Mr. Foot

Under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, there is a much stricter obligation upon employers to inform workpeople about the situation. I think that makes the situation very different from when these events occurred.

We are eager to increase the strength of the Factory Inspectorate in so far as we have the resources to do it. It is essential to get the policy carried out successfully.

I promise to consider whether the inquiry should be public and to report to the House on it. I should not like the House to assume that we are committed to that idea yet. There are obvious advantages in a public inquiry in some respects, but there are also some disadvantages. We want to weigh them before making the decision.

Mr. Alan Clark

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is irrelevant to cite the number of cautions and prosecutions by the Factory Inspectorate as they have no effect on tragedies which follow breaches of the Regulations? In considering negligence or oversight, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how many prosecutions have been undertaken against State corporations or their subsidiaries? In particular, is he aware that over 200 people in the city of Plymouth have died from complications resulting since asbestosis became a notifiable disease without a single prosecution having been undertaken against the Devonport Dockyard, where these people worked?

Mr. Foot

I understand that asbestosis is not a notifiable disease at present. The hon. Gentleman suggested that prosecutions were of no importance. I should have thought that, at any rate, they underline the fact that the situation now is different from what occurred when these tragic events which were reported to the Parliamentary Commissioner took place. I think that prosecutions and the Act under which they are brought make a difference. I should require notice of any question about the situation in Devonport Dockyard, but I would be happy to look at that aspect of the matter and report to the hon. Gentleman.

Mrs. Bain

We welcome the statement by the Secretary of State, but will he consider two possible interim measures to allay public concern? First, will he consider introducing constant monitoring of asbestos fibres in places of work rather than the spot checks which appear to have been a regular practice in the past? Secondly, will he consider introducing more effective penalties on employers who infringe Regulations on health and safety applying to the handling of asbestos and ask the committee of inquiry, when it is set up, to look at the Swedish regulations, which are much more rigorous?

Mr. Foot

Answering the hon. Lady's first question on monitoring, I understand that that already takes place. That is the present situation. On her second question on the effectiveness of deterrents, it is quite true that the actual nature of the penalty depends not on the Regulations but on the courts. Although there have been many successful prosecutions, I understand that there may be criticism—that is not a matter for me—about the scale of penalties imposed. As for the hon. Lady's statement about the regulations being much more strictly enforced in Sweden, I doubt whether that is the case but I am certainly prepared, and I am sure that the Health and Safety Commission is perpetually prepared, to look at the kind of regulations operating in other countries and to learn from them, particularly when we are dealing with a new kind of danger and a new kind of development. One of the purposes of having the Health and Safety Commission surveying all these matters is that it should have the resources to look at the possibility of remedies across the whole field.

Mr. Bidwell

While not wishing to dwell too much on this specific case which is to some extent sub judice, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he would agree that if we are to leave these matters to factory inspectors we are unlikely to make much progress over the whole field of industrial diseases arising from all kinds of dust in industry and that there is no better substitute than a most vigorous campaign on the part of both management and the trade unions specifically? All too often we have had brought to us, as Members of the House, tragic cases where respiratory systems have broken down as a result of the workman himself having failed to take precautions because of the discomfort of wearing dust-prevention masks and other gear, which has led to laxity, which is partly the responsibility of the trade union concerned and partly that of industrial management.

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend will be aware that when the Health and Safety etc. Act went through the House it included a special clause to try to encourage a maximum association of the trade unions with safety precautions, and we have moved further in that direction than we have ever attempted to do before. I have stated that I accept the criticisms made in the Parliamentary Commissioner's Report, but it would be most unfair for many factory inspectors up and down the country who are carrying out their duties in a perfectly proper manner to be blamed for something that occurred, under other factory inspectors, a long time ago.

Mr. Speaker

The Minister has promised a further statement. I will take two more questions on this. There is a lot of business to be done.

Mr. Newton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this will greatly increase public concern about all aspects of asbestos, including the dumping of asbestos? The proposals for dumping asbestos by the Essex County Council have already caused a great deal of concern in the village of Shalford in my constituency. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the inquiry will cover conditions for the dumping of asbestos waste and will also consider whether such proposals should be allowed to go ahead until the position has been cleared up?

Mr. Foot

The question of dumping of asbestos waste is among many matters that can be considered by the committee, but I should not like anybody to think that that cannot be dealt with in any other way before the committee reports. As it stands, it is a matter for local authorities, but the Health and Safety Commission does its best to assist in the advice and encouragement it gives to local authorities concerning asbestos. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise any particular case, we will examine it. We are not prepared to wait to deal with some of these matters until the committee reports.

Mr. Pavitt

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the question of safety standdards and take technical action as far as half a fibre per cubic centimetre of material is concerned? Is he aware that medical opinion is strongly of the view that there should be a greater margin of safety between that and the two fibres per cubic centimetre, and bear in mind that rather than merely await the report of the committee it would do no harm in the meantime to have a much wider margin of safety in the industry?

Mr. Foot

I shall certainly look at the point my hon. Friend has made, because he is a much greater expert on this subject than I am. It is a matter for the committee, but that does not preclude action in that or other fields if we or the Health and Safety Commission want to take action. The Commission is seeking all the time what action it can take in the light of the latest knowledge that it has.

Mr. Prior

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not wish to delay the House, but my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) has raised a point about the difficulties of the House in these matters when the Ombudsman has told the Minister concerned about his Report and the Report is not available to the House itself. I understand that in this case the Report will not be available for about a month, and it appears that everyone has the opportunity of knowing about the Report except Members of Parliament. This is an unfortunate position, which ought to be looked at either by the Procedure Committee or by some other Committee, because it raises difficulty for a Member of Parliament, which certainly no one in the House would want, to get mixed up with a question-and-answer session this afternoon on an altogether different point. It is something that the House ought to consider.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. It is another reason why the Select Committee on Procedure should get down to work. I shall look into this matter as well.

Mr. Foot

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I add that I understand that the reply of the Parliamentary Commissioner on the Report is to some extent the property of the individual Member of Parliament who made the application. My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby behaved perfectly properly when he received the Report and made a statement on it. Then the question arose of how we should comment upon it. We thought it right to comment upon it at the very first opportunity last night and to report to the House on it immediately. If, however, the procedure were to operate differently, it would mean that the hon. Member who raised the matter might not get the information first. There is a case for the Member who first raised the matter having the information first and for him to have the choice as to how he is to release it, because he is more intimately acquainted with the matter than anybody else.

Mr. Madden

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Obviously I had to consider, with the Parliamentary Commissioner, the publication of the document. That reflects on what the Secretary of State has said. I became aware only today of the difficulties in regard to publication of the Report generally. I shall certainly make urgent representations to the Parliamentary Commissioner to see whether sufficient copies can be placed in the Vote Office to meet the obvious wishes of hon. Members, and other points that have been made to make the general arrangements more satisfactory will be taken into account.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do his best, but I am not sure that he can succeed since the Parliamentary Commissioner has to go through a certain procedure. My only other point of correction—an important one—on what the hon. Member said is that it is not the privilege of the hon. Member concerned to decide whether to publish a report. That is the privilege of the complainant, the constituent of the Member, and he alone can decide whether or not the report is to be published.

Mr. Speaker

We shall leave that matter for the time being.