HC Deb 18 May 1976 vol 911 cc1218-26
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Albert Booth)

In my predecessor's statement to the House on 30th March, he said that the Health and Safety Commission had decided, in consultation with Ministers, to set up a committee to review the health risks from asbestos and that the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, Mr. Simpson, would himself act as chairman of this committee. The committee's report will be for the consideration of the commission and of Ministers concerned.

I am now able to announce the membership of the committee. This will consist of three members nominated by the TUC; three members nominated by the CBI; four members of the medical profession who specialise in epidemiology, lung diseases, and occupational medicine; two occupational hygienists; a consultant chemical engineer and physicist; an environmental health officer; and a representative of the National Consumer Council. A full list of members will be circulated in the Official Report.

The membership of the committee has been very carefully considered, and not only reflects the constitution of the Commission by including representatives of both sides of industry, but also includes independent members with the best medical, scientific and environmental expertise available in this country. In view of the wide-ranging terms of reference, consumer interest has also been taken into account.

I trust that hon. Members will agree that we are very fortunate in obtaining the services of these people, who represent such a wide range of knowledge and expertise, and I am grateful to them for undertaking to give their time and effort to the important task which lies before them.

In order to deal with the task of the committee expeditiously, it is proposed to set up working groups to deal with groups of subjects and on to which individuals may be co-opted in order to take advantage of their special skills and experience.

In his earlier statement my predecessor undertook to consider with the Health and Safety Commission whether the proceedings of the committee should be held in public. We have carefully considered all the relevant factors and both the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission and I agree that it is a matter for the committee itself to decide how best to carry out its difficult task.

The committee contains many independent members, and the committee's report and the evidence given to it will be published by the Health and Safety Commission, which itself is independent. This will, we are quite convinced, adequately protect the public interest, whatever conclusions the committee come to on this issue.

I have also asked the Chairman that if the committee considers that there are any recommendations which it feels ought to be made in advance of its final report, interim reports should be submitted to the Health and Safety Commission on these aspects of its work so that the public may be kept informed of its progress.

Mr. Prior

In the interests of brevity, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman merely whether he is aware that the Opposition support the setting up of this Committee in the way in which it has been done? We believe it right that the committee should decide whether to sit in public and that the committee should decide whether, through the Health and Safety Commission, to make interim reports if necessary. We just want the committee to get on with its work as quickly as it can in this very important matter.

Mr. Booth

I very much welcome that response by the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Strauss

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the terms of reference of this committee are wide enough? Is he aware that the recent regrettable incidents which have led to the setting up of this committee are part of a continuing history? Only a few years ago, in South London, particularly in my constituency, a number of people died from asbestos poisoning because of a company operating in Bermondsey, and it was then shown that not only was this the result of gross neglect on the part of the company but it was also the result of a gross neglect on the part of the inspector from the Department of Industry at the time, who did not tell the truth to the public or the Minister. Can my right hon. Friend assure us, therefore, that what happened on that occasion will be looked into carefully to ensure that the same difficulties and faults that then existed have been overcome and do not exist today?

Mr. Booth

I am satisfied that the terms of reference are wide enough. I believe that they will enable this body to examine the medical aspects of the problem to discover whether there are satisfactory means of monitoring levels of asbestos in industrial and other environments and that the committee will be able to look at methods by which the problem can be controlled and to inquire into the production and use of asbestos.

Mr. Churchill

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the establishment of a committee is no substitute whatever for action by the Government on this question? Is he further aware that it will not be accepted by the public, and in particular by workers who come into contact with this very dangerous material, that there is any justification whatever for the committee sitting in secret? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman state what action has been taken by the Government, following representations that have been made to the Department of Employment by myself and other hon. Members over two years, in regard to the principal violator of these regulations, namely the nationalised Central Electricity Generating Board, which has been sub-contracting to certain firms that do not implement the safety regulations applicable to CEGB employees when it comes to stripping the lagging from power stations?

Mr. Booth

A very thorough inquiry has been made into all of these serious allegations, both in the interests of health and safety and to ascertain to what extent our current regulations are adequate. I believe that this committee, bringing a very special expertise to bear on the problem, can be most helpful in giving some public guidance and in enabling the House to take decisions whether we want to introduce further statutory regulations and what type of machinery we require in Britain to improve health and safety standards in this area.

Mr. Madden

Can the Secretary of State say whether he has fully considered Early-Day Motion No. 326 standing on the Order Paper in my name and those of 155 hon. and right hon. Members calling for this inquiry to be wholly independent and fully public, and will he he also assure the House that this inquiry and suggest that all its proceedings should be public and that all the evidence submitted to it should be published? Will he also assure the House that this inquiry will consider health risks associated with material used to replace asbestos and the organisation of the Factory Inspectorate, which is highly relevant and to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) has already drawn attention? Will he make these views known to the Health and Safety Commission, because if the public are to be reassured they must have maximum confidence in this inquiry and its final report?

Mr. Booth

I have discussed with the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission the Early-Day Motion to which my hon. Friend refers. If this were an inquiry into a particular incident, such as that at Flixborough, it would be a different matter. There would be a clear-cut issue on which it would be appropriate to instruct the inquiry that all the evidence and all the proceedings must be public. But this is an inquiry dealing with a far more wide-ranging issue, and in these circumstances it would be wrong to issue such an instruction.

Those involved in the inquiry must be able to decide how they can most quickly and expeditiously deal with matters, whether they should set up separate working groups and co-opt people, and what evidence they should be able to take privately and what publicly. But it is my understanding from a discussion with the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission that he would commend to the inquiry that all its written evidence is made available in its written report.

Mr. Newton

Is the Secretary of State aware that public concern has become even greater since his original announcement and that what he has said today will be much welcomed on both sides of the House? In view of the greater concern, will he not now take steps to make sure that no new proposals for dumping asbestos, in Essex or anywhere else, will be allowed to go ahead until this committee has reported or at the very least until we have the views of the technical sub-group that is now operating in the Department of the Environment?

Mr. Booth

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's remarks and I accept that the matter has become an issue of greater urgency since we first turned our attention to it, which is why I attach great importance to the inquiry being able to publish its recommendations as quickly as the inquiry and we would wish, before completion of its full study. On the issue of dumping, which is currently a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, I will undertake to discuss with him the point raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Cryer

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the whole of the report and the whole of the evidence is to be published? Secondly, will he agree with me that it is desirable that he should add his personal recommendation to the Committee that its hearings should be in public, and will he confirm that subgroups will be set up, particularly to investigate the lagging industry and also the use by local authorities of asbestos installation in schools and other public buildings?

Mr. Booth

I assure my hon. Friend that the indication that I have already given as to the kind of arrangements that can be covered within the terms of reference of the inquiry would indicate the need to set up quite a considerable number of sub-groups. It will be a matter for those conducting the inquiry how they take evidence on these matters.

I have judged it not wise to insist at this stage on issuing any instruction that all the evidence taken must be made public. Members of the committee may well wish to take evidence which will contain allegations which they may want to check or to verify before determining whether it should be a matter for publication. But in terms of the written evidence, I can assure my hon. Friend that the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission and myself indicated to the inquiry that we would wish to see that form of evidence made available with its. report.

Mr. Henderson

Can the hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance today that all these inquiries will be held in public? Will he at least undertake to convey to the chairman of the committee the very strong feelings of all hon. Members on all sides of the House that it should conduct all its business in public, since there seems to have been too much of a cover-up in relation to this matter previously? Since many authorities on this subject live overseas—in the United States, Sweden and elsewhere—can he give an assurance that adequate funds will be at the disposal of the committee to enable it to bring the best experts in the world here to give us the benefit of their knowledge and advice?

Mr. Booth

May I make it crystal clear that there is no question of a cover-up involved here. I believe that when the hon. Gentleman reads the list of those who have accepted the invitation and have undertaken to serve on this inquiry he will realise that they are not the kind of people who would lend themselves to a cover-up and that they will do their duty fully and thoroughly and deal with the matter in a highly responsible way. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will reserve judgment until he has examined the list of people who will be concerned in the inquiry.

Mr. Radice

While welcoming this inquiry, may I ask my hon. Friend whether my own union, the General and Municipal Workers, which has a large membership among laggers and other construction workers, is represented on the committee?

Mr. Booth

Yes. I can give that undertaking. I can inform my hon. Friend that we have already considered this and that the General and Municipal Workers' Union may well wish to assist the inquiry, both by providing individual people and with the advice of its organisation to the group which will be dealing with the particular area in which that union's members have special concern.

I omitted to answer the question put by the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson) about overseas experience. I am convinced that the terms of reference of the committee and the people who have accepted an invita-

tion to serve on it will be such as to ensure that comparison will be made with the best standards operating in this field overseas.

Mr. Sainsbury

Can the Secretary of State assure us, on that point, that adequate funds will be available? The Government have already been asked to ensure that the committee takes into account environmental research and knowledge on this subject in other countries. Can he also say whether the committee, if it thinks fit, can commission short-term research projects?

Mr. Booth

From my discussions with the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission I have no reasons to think that there is any problem of shortage of funds. I will undertake to look at the point and to ensure that the work of the Commission is not impeded by lack of finance.

Mr. English

Will my hon. Friend endeavour to introduce a little perspective into the attitude of hon. Members opposite, such as those making party political points on this highly unsuitable issue? Is he aware that asbestos has been in use in this country for nearly a century, that it has been known to be dangerous for most of this century and that in the course of that time it has killed far fewer than have died from other developments in that period, for example, the motor car?

Mr. Booth

It is certainly the case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) has said, that this danger has long been known. This House most recently introduced regulation proposals in 1969. It is now high time that we had this matter examined in depth by experts in the field, so that we may consider whether further legislation is necessary.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Will the hon. Gentleman do his best to ensure that the need for particular action is not lost in the general inquiry and if it appears that the inquiry will take a rather long time, will he actively encourage the committee to produce interim reports which might recommend changes in legislation immediately?

Mr. Booth

I will certainly undertake to do that.

Following is the information:— The following persons have agreed to serve on the Committee: — Professor E. D. Acheson, Dean, Faculty of Medicine, Southampton University. Professor of Clinical Epidemiology. Mr. A. C. Blygnton, Secretary, Legal Department, Transport and General Workers' Union. The Hon. Paul Bradbury, Chairman, CBI Safety, Health and Welfare Committee. Lately Personnel Director, Imperial Group Limited. Dr. J. S. Gilson, CBE, Director, Medical Research Pneumoconiosis Unit, Penarth. Acting in an independent capacity. Mr. H. D. S. Hardie, OBE, Director, Turner and Newall Limited. Mr. W. Lewis, Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians. Mr. A. Lomas, National Union of Dyers, Bleachers and Textile Workers. Professor A. Mair, Professor of Community and Occupational Medicine, Dundee University. Dr. M. Molyneux, Occupational Hygienist, Institute of Naval Medicine. Dr. C. J. Stairmand, OBE, Consultant Chemical Engineer and Physicist. Dr. J. Steel, Consultant to WHO in Industrial Hygiene. Senior Lecturer, Nuffield Department of Industrial Health, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Consultant in Occupational Hygiene to the North of England Health Service. Mr. F. G. Sugden, MBE, Chief Environmental Health Officer, Middlesbrough. Professor M. Turner-Warwick, Professor of Medicine (Thoracic Medicine), University of London. Consultant Physician to Brompton and London Chest Hospital. Mr. A. W. Ure, Member CBI Safety and Health Panel. Member Royal Commission on Compensation for Personal Injury. Director, Trollope and Colls Limited. Mrs. R. Waterhouse, Member of National Consumer Council. Member of Council of Consumer Associations. The committee will start work without delay and anyone who wishes to give evidence to it should write to: The Secretary of the Asbestos Committee, The Health and Safety Commission, Baynards House, 1 Chepstow Place, London, w2 4TF.