HC Deb 27 July 1979 vol 971 cc1355-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mather.]

4 p.m.

Mr. Vivian Bendall (Ilford, North)

I wish to raise the subject of the stripping of blue asbestos in my constituency. I have to go back a little over the history of the matter so that it is clear and concise to everyone concerned. A decision was taken two years ago by British Rail to convert an existing workshop in its Ley Street sidings to use for stripping blue asbestos from railway carriages.

The problem was that the local authority, the London borough of Redbridge, did not learn about this matter until last May, although the decision was taken two years ago. I believe that British Rail failed, under circular 71/73, to give the local authority notice of what it intended to do with this shed, so the local authority had no opportunity to consider its conversion for this purpose.

Thus, the local authority's hands were tied when it came to giving an opinion about this use. The decision was made two years ago, and the likely expenditure by British Rail is more than £500,000.

I have to explain the planning situation. It is not mandatory for British Rail to tell the local authority that it will carry out this work, but I understand that an undertaking was given some time ago to a former Government that, wherever this type of work was likely to be done, full consultations would take place with the local authority. That did not happen over this shed, and that is serious. The local authority could not make the representations that it wanted to make.

Another matter which has concerned my local authority is that when it at last discovered in May this year, when the work was almost completed, that it had not been informed, it asked for a meeting with British Rail. The council has protested that, having had the meeting the person with whom it was dealing was transferred almost the next day from the Eastern to the Southern region. There was therefore a lack of continuity. Much of this matter revolves around article 4 of the general development order of 1977. I shall speak about that later.

My constituents, the local authority and I are deeply concerned. Most of us are now well aware of the dangers of asbestos and the asbestosis which it causes if taken in any quantity. Our main concern is that the siting of this shed is in a highly populated residential area. The nearest properties to the sidings are within about 50 yards. There are at least four or five schools in the almost adjacent area. The children at these schools number in excess of 2,200. The sidings are very close to a major factory of Plessey, where between 1,500 and 2,000 workers go to their daily work. They are also close to a milk bottling plant, which deals with 20,000 gallons of milk per day. The sidings are also close to the main swimming baths, which are used not only by the general public but by numerous schools within the area.

I have received many letters about this matter, not only from the general public but from governors of various schools in the area. I received a letter today from the local health authority, which is deeply concerned about this problem.

Another point concerning the positioning of this building which gives many of us great concern is that it is rather close to the main railway line. A few years ago a derailment occurred very close to this building. Although great precautions have been taken by British Rail to make certain that there will be no escape of asbestos fibres, if there were a derailment and the building collapsed as a result of that, or if a hole were knocked in the side of the building, it is quite possible that fibres could escape into the atmosphere.

There is also the question of human error. No one is infallible. I think that my constituents feel that perhaps this sort of building, with this sort of use, should be sited not in residential areas but away from them so that if there is a problem the siting immediately reduces the element of risk to people in the neighbourhood. Indeed, if one were discussing the location of an atomic energy plant, one would not be looking at residential areas in which to build it.

I should also explain that the work is carried out not in the building but in the railway carriages, which are sealed. The men working on this type of work have to wear special suits, rather resembling space suits. They are meticulous as regards washing down and other facilities so that dust does not get out into the atmosphere and reach the general public. However, I am a little concerned about the washing facilities, because it is possible for fibres to go down the drainage system. Having made inquiries, I under- stand that the water used goes into the surface water drainage system. I have not yet, in my experience and inquiries, seen any reports of the Thames water authority or other authorities which could or might be concerned about the fibres going into the water system. Therefore, there is an element of danger from that point of view.

There is also a very modern and well equipped negative air system which is, I understand—as are the filters—the best and most up to date that is available in this country. But again, although I understand that there is a secondary generator, or a second opportunity to use other electricity should that fail, if something went wrong with the negative air system mechanically, there could then be cause for concern and worry.

Another point that gives concern is that there has been vandalism in the past affecting this workship. Young people have been seen throwing stones and bricks through the windows. This is a danger because once the negative air system is turned off, as it could be at night, if a window were broken fibres could escape.

I should like now to deal with another aspect that has also been causing concern, namely, how the asbestos, once it is stripped from the railway carriages, should be dealt with.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) has been much involved in this matter. His constituency borders one side of the railway track. My hon. Friend, on hearing rumours that the asbestos was liable to be stored in polythene bags, one inside the other, in a car park in his constituency, was prompted to write to the British Railways Board, which assured him that this was not the case and that the asbestos would be stored in a building immediately adjacent to, and attached to, the workshop where the work is carried out.

I visited the site. It was a pleasant conducted tour. The party was made to feel very welcome by British Rail's representatives, who were kind and explicit in showing us round the works. Some local residents were also helpful. I was prompted to ask the same question. I was told that the blue asbestos in the polythene bags would be stored adjacent to the main building and collected by a special lorry under the jurisdiction of the Greater London Council. Seen by some members of British Rail in this building last Tuesday, I was given a third story—that it would be stored not in the building and collected from there but in an adjacent railway carriage. We have now heard three different stories of how the asbestos is to be dealt with and administered.

We are dealing with a very dangerous substance. We know the dangers that it can cause to health, not immediately, but 20 or 25 years after a person has been exposed to it. The storage of the asbestos and how it is dealt with is a matter of great concern. A railway carriage is not perhaps the right place. It should be stored under lock and key in a building provided for such storage. It would be better if the handling of the bags took place inside a building rather than putting the bags outside a building to be loaded on to a lorry or a railway carriage. An accident could happen. A bag could burst open and there would be immediate problems because the fibres would go into the atmosphere.

Another matter of concern which I learnt about during the last week is that until a year ago British Rail had been stripping asbestos in the open for a period of two and a half years. If that is so, albeit that it was inside a sealed railway carriage—I am told it was safe because small amounts only were being stripped—the fact remains that one cannot be equated with the other. British Rail is now concerned that the work should be inside a building. I suggest that the stripping in the open should never have taken place in the first instance. I would be interested in the Minister's comments.

This information came to me on good authority from the public health and engineering department of the Greater London Council. I am told that the Health and Safety Executive was happy with the situation. If it was happy that the work took place in the open but has now directed that it should take place inside, I fail to see how the two matters equate. The amount of asbestos handled is immaterial. Once a small amount escapes into the atmosphere, if the fibres are the right size, the danger to health becomes immediate.

In view of what has happened, and in view of the gross incompetence, I believe, of British Rail in not going to the local authority and making its intentions clear, the Minister should look closely at the 1977 Act and make it mandatory rather than simply seek an assurance that local authorities are kept properly informed. In view of what has happend at the sidings in Ilford, I urge the Minister to hold a full inquiry into this matter and to give an opportunity to the local authority to put its case in full.

4.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

Sir Richard Barlas is in his usual place in the House for what I believe to be the last time. I am sorry that time does not allow me to pay a full tribute or to give proper thanks to him for the help that he has given the House over the years. We all wish him well in his retirement. We shall miss him when he is not in his usual chair in future debates.

A serious problem has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Bendall). I know how strongly he feels about the blue asbestos stripping carried out by British Rail in his constituency.

The residents of the area adjacent to the Ilford maintenance depot, where it is proposed that the stripping of blue asbestos should take place, fear that they may be exposed to a dangerous level of asbestos dust. Much alarming publicity has been given to this issue. I can understand the concern, because we now appreciate that blue asbestos is a dangerous substance.

I assure my hon. Friend and his constituents that the advice that I have received from those who have genuine technical expertise is that there is absolutely no public danger whatever from the operations that are going ahead at Ilford. Those operations are being examined by my Department's Railways Inspectorate working in conjunction with the Health and Safety Executive. The executive has an advisory committee on asbestos.

In whatever time is left at the end of the debate I shall tell my hon. Friend, from the material with which I have been provided from those who know about asbestos, precisely what the safety precautions are. Time will not allow me to particularise them. I shall write my hon. Friend the fullest letter setting out all the information that I have been given about the safety precautions at the depot. I am sure that he will circulate that to those who are interested.

There has been a dispute between British Rail and the Redbridge council about the way in which this matter was handled at first. I must explain briefly why the Ilford depot and others like it have been set up. Before 1969 the dangerous qualities of blue asbestos were not fully appreciated by anybody in this or any other industry. Unfortunately, before 1969 blue asbestos was widely used in railway rolling stock.

At Ilford we are particularly concerned with the interior trim of many drivers' cabs and guards' compartments where the blue asbestos was painted over. That finish is prone to damage by scuffing and abrasion. What that happens, the asbestos becomes exposed and there is a risk of asbestos fibres becoming airborne.

British Rail has carried out extensive monitoring of asbestos in the air on rolling stock. The levels of asbestos are well below the recommended threshold value for environmental and other purposes. Nevertheless, British Rail prudently concluded that the best course of action would be to remove all blue asbestos insulation to be certain that there was no risk to its operating staff or the public. British Rail put in hand a comprehensive programme to eliminate blue asbestos insulation from 800 locomotives and 7,000 passenger-carrying vehicles. That is a major task.

The task will take a number of years. The programme involves three separate stages. As an immediate precaution, any exposed insulation is sealed where it is in the vehicle, using a tough emulsion paint. At a number of depots, of which Ilford is an example, the task of stripping the asbestos insulation from driving cabs and guards' compartments will be undertaken.

At those depots, and at the main workshops where asbestos insulation is removed from locomotives and other vehicles during general repairs, the work is carried out in specially set up asbestos houses, of which the segregated portion of the carriage sheds at Ilford is a typical example.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree with the steps that British Rail proposes to take. There is no danger whatever to the staff of British Rail or the travelling public. However, as a course of ultra prudence, British Rail decided to strip the blue asbestos from these vehicles. That is a safety measure that is hard to criticise. We now come to the locating of the asbestos house which British Rail chose to set up for the purpose of stripping.

My hon. Friend underlined the serious dispute between British Rail and the London borough of Redbridge. The borough complained to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment about a breach of the code of practice which it believes British Rail committed. Before I give any reply I should make it clear that the dispute arises out of a complex area of planning law. Town and country planning law is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment. Therefore, what I say will be a general indication; as it were, a lay understanding by a Minister in another Department. What I say is subject to detailed guidance from the Department of the Environment. Specific queries about the law, or specific complaints about the code of practice, must eventually be taken up by my hon. Friend, and others who are interested, with the Secretary of State for the Environment.

The dispute concerns the question whether this development—opening an asbestos house at an existing workshop—constituted development under the Town and Country Planning General Development Order 1977. It is said that either this was a change of use which had nothing to do with the planning laws or that it was merely permitted development within the order that I have mentioned.

If British Rail had taken the view that this was permitted development, it would have followed the code of practice that it had undertaken in 1973 to follow, to which I have referred. I am assured that British Rail took the view, in good faith, that this was not permitted development within the terms of the order. It therefore decided that the code of practice did not apply. That is where the dispute arises.

The Redbridge borough council is not yet altogether clear in its complaints, but as it is complaining about a breach of the code of practice, I take it that it is a possibility that the planning authority in that borough now suggests that it thinks that this was permitted development and should have been notified.

If the Redbridge borough council had been notified, and if the local planning authority had decided to take steps, what would have happened? My understanding is that if at the time the local planning authority became aware, or was notified, that a permitted development was to take place, and considered that the circumstances warranted it, it could make a direction under article 4 of the general development order, thereby removing the general planning permission and requiring a planning application to be made in the normal way.

Had the code of practice been followed in this case, and had Redbridge borough council been notified and decided that the circumstances warranted it, it could have made a direction. I need not itemise at this stage the steps that might then have followed, which would certainly have given rise to the consideration of a planning application and a whole variety of procedures that would follow. It can sometimes lead to appeals to the Secretary of State for the Environment and public inquiries. That was not done.

At this stage, I can only describe the process which the Redbridge borough council says should have been followed. No doubt the borough council and my hon. Friend will receive a response from the Secretary of State for the Environment giving his opinion of the matter and also any matters arising out of it that my hon. Friend wishes to raise.

I am not expressing any opinion on the question whether this was permitted development within the terms of the requisite order. It may be that British Rail was entirely correct in thinking that this was not permitted development, but that is outside the scope of my responsibility. It seems to me that that is probably the origin of the dispute between the two bodies.

As to the handling of the matter generally, I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said and it seems to me that the great burden of his complaint—apart from the code of practice—is that residents of the area, and the local authority concerned, did not discover until a very late stage indeed that a decision had been taken that this plant was to be opened. In the light of what he said, I must consider whether that delay in notification and the lack of consultation has in itself contributed to the considerable alarm in the area, once it was found that something of this kind was going on.

Of course, there had been controversy about a similar asbestos house set up in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) two or three years previously. I shall consider carefully what my hon. Friend said and see whether there is room for discussions with British Rail about the handling of these matters, in order to make sure that, apart from the town and country planning laws—which are not my responsibility—there may be consultations when it is known that controversial matters of this kind are in hand, even though it is possible that the controversy is needless, that there is no danger, and that matters can be satisfactorily explained to the public once notification is given.

That is the position on handling. Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to leave the matter there. I shall consider the matter further in the light of what he said, to see whether there is any difficulty that might be improved in future.

I shall touch briefly on the question of the safety of the plant, to which my hon. Friend referred, having said already that I will have to give fuller details in a letter. He mentioned in particular the disposal of the asbestos, and I shall try to deal with that. The handling of blue asbestos is controlled by the asbestos regulations 1969. These require, as a matter of law, exhaust ventilation arrangements in buildings where blue asbestos is being handled to prevent the entry of asbestos dust into the air of any work place. They also lay down that protective equipment be provided for persons working where asbestos dust is present. The regulations are particularly strict over the use of approved respiratory protective equipment and of protective clothing, over its cleaning after being worn and the training of staff in its correct use. Other sections of the regulations lay down the procedures to be adopted for storage of the blue asbestos and its movement from a factory or similar workplace.

My hon. Friend referred to the possibility of an accident, with a hole being knocked in a wall. The regulations control the atmosphere inside the workplace, so this is not a dust-laden workplace from which it is possible that clouds of fibre could be emitted if an accident occurred.

There are then important matters about disposal of the waste, about which my hon. Friend is obviously concerned. He said that he had received a lot of versions about this. Regulation 15 of the 1969 regulations requires that all asbestos waste in a factory should, when stored, be kept in suitably closed receptacles which prevent the escape of asbestos dust. Regulation 17 requires that where the receptacles contain blue asbestos, they should be clearly marked "Blue asbestos. Do not inhale dust." They are both legal requirements that British Rail is obliged to follow.

What is happening at Ilford is that the responsibility for checking the disposal of the waste rests with the Greater London Council. I am informed through the inquiries that I have made—I shall make further inquiries into the differing versions that my hon. Friend says that he has been given—that British Rail intends to place all waste collected as a result of the stripping operations in double-skinned, impervious bags that will be sealed and temporarily stored inside the asbestos house. Subsequently, those bags will be removed by a specialist contractor, listed by the GLC, and taken direct to a disposal site that is licensed to handle asbestos waste.

I have been authoritatively informed that that is what will happen. As I have explained, there are various legal requirements which mean that that is what should happen. I shall make sure that in due course my hon. Friend is notified and reassured that that is what will happen in future with regard to the disposal of the waste.

I cannot deal with other matters now. I shall write to my hon. Friend more fully. I warn him that I have the most intricate technical details to place in his hands, but I hope that the intricacy of them will reassure him that real expertise is being applied in order to ensure that there is no danger whatever to the residents of his constituency and to those who live in the locality of this asbestos house.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock till Monday 22 October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 26 July.