HC Deb 29 July 1982 vol 28 cc1406-21 5.25 am
Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on health and safety at work, especially as nurses are demonstrating outside Parliament, until we shut up shop, for a decent living wage and the recognition of their contribution, not only to industrial health but to the general health of the country.

Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

Is my hon. Friend aware that nurses from the Hull general hospital have been demonstrating outside the Palace of Westminster throughout the night, and their demonstration will continue until 5 o'clock? I am delighted to see representatives of those nurses sitting in the Strangers Gallery observing our proceedings on the important issue of health and safety at work. The essential background to that issue is the nursing services that are provided by nurses such as those from the Hull general hospital.

Mr. Cryer

My right hon. Friend is quite right. It is regrettable that nurses and other health workers are being forced by this heartless Government into taking that action to demonstrate their value to the community.

I want to know what the Government are doing about health and safety at work. The Government have never given time to this important subject. The only occasion on which it was discussed was in an Adjournment debate that I initiated several months ago. Of course, the Government are prepared to devote hours and hours of parliamentary time to attacking the unions. We have had two major Bills legally to enslave them and attack their funds. However, the Minister will know that in most years more days are lost through industrial injury than through strike action. Nevertheless, the Government have done nothing to improve legislation on industrial injury, to which I shall come in a moment.

Let me give some figures. In 1976, 15 million days were lost through industrial injury in estimated days of certificated incapacity. That figure did not include, for example, people who suffer from pneumoconiosis, byssinosis, or occupational deafness, and people who are out of work for more than six months who claim industrial disablement benefit. Therefore, the people who are injured at work over a long term are not included in the figure of 15 million. The figure for days lost through industrial disputes was 3,284,000. In 1977, 15.7 million days were lost in certificated incapacity, and 10,142,000 in industrial disputes. In 1979, in the winter of discontent, 29 million days were lost in industrial disputes, and 13.1 million days through certificated incapacity. The Library could not provide me with the figure for 1980 of estimated days of certificated incapacity, but 11,964,000 days were lost in industrial disputes. My guess is that more days will be lost through certificated incapacity. That does not include people who are off work for the odd day or two because of minor injury.

Therefore, it is fair to say that each year the number of days lost through industrial injury far exceeds the number of days lost through strike action. Nevertheless, the Government are cutting back expenditure on the Health and Safety Commission. That means, of course, that stiff are also facing the squeeze.

Criticisms can be made of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive. The administration is cumbersome, and, in some cases, it has been ineffective. It has been reorganised once against the wishes of the factory inspectorate and a re-reorganisation is currently being considered by the administration which runs the executive and which administers rather than inspects.

Signs of the cumbersome nature of the administration have already been brought to Parliament's attention, but, nothing has been done. With regard to warrants, a key area of the expression of the power of inspectors, the executive has issued general warrants for inspectors, contrary to section 19(2) and (3) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 which specifically provides: Every appointment of a person as an inspector under this section shall be made by an instrument in writing specifying which of the powers conferred on inspectors by the relevant statutory provisions are to be exercisable by the person appointed". That means that any inspector can grant exemptions in a specific area where there are powers and regulations to do so. For example, an agriculture inspector can grant exemptions from a mines and quarries regulation. That has been accepted in evidence to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The evidence in the report of February 1980 states that in theory any inspector could grant an exemption. In practice we have administrative arrangements that certain people can grant exemptions for certain things. I should like to remind the Minister that the Act laid down requirements that the executive and the commission do not have the right to flout Parliament. Where Parliament says that an inspector's warrant shall state the specific powers, that should be carried out.

On 25 March 1980, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments drew Parliament's attention to the fact that The Committee learn from the Department of Energy's Explanatory Memorandum … that such instruments of appointment do not specify or distinguish powers of the kind purportedly granted by Article 15 of each of these Regulations, and that only 'administrative arrangements' govern the exercise of such powers. Therefore, the Committee concluded that the application of the powers in such a way was ultra vires. That is important because it reflects the way that administrative convenience is put before the specific operation of the legislation. That is reflected in other areas of activity.

There is extreme tardiness in producing proposals for legislation. On the question of lifting heavy weights, for example, in September 1976 the chairman promised me that guide notes for inspectors about the lifting of heavy weights would be produced by Christmas 1976 and a statutory instrument by 1977. That was five years ago.

I have promoted two Ten-Minute Bills to place a limit on weights lifted manually. For example, in agriculture the limit is 180 lbs and in textiles it is 120 lbs for adult males. There is no differentiation according to the age or fitness of those adult males. In addition, it inhibits a person's right to claim industrial injury benefit in the courts if he is faced by a statutory instrument which lays down a weight limit that is as high as the agriculture weight limit. That means that a person who works in agriculture and who injures his back is inhibited in that way.

Nothing has been done since 1977. There has been an impasse on the commission between the TUC and the CBI. There have been two working parties, and the second working party has produced a consultative document at long last within the past few weeks. That begins by saying: The number of accidents associated with manual lifting and handling has been a matter of concern to responsible bodies for a period of many years. They are dead right. It has been a matter of concern for many years. The Health and Safety Commission and the Minister have been significantly lethargic about bringing something before Parliament to remedy the matter.

I quote again: There has been a dramatic increase in the past twenty years of reported injuries from manual handling in premises subject to the Factories Act 1961 from 40,000 to more than 70,000 per year. Hence the necessity for a new approach to manual handling. On the commission's own figures a significant proportion of the 350,000 back injuries could have been avoided if the guides and regulations had been introduced several years ago. The consultative document is good and the proposals have much merit. I merely complain that it has taken far too long to bring them forward. The commission has reached an impasse. Because of the commission's construction, a consensus is always sought. That is not the best way of legislating to prevent industrial injuries.

Therefore, the Minister should consider something that existed prior to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. Where there is an impasse, an independent chairman should be appointed to institute an inquiry and to make recommendations to the Minister independently of the Health and Safety Commission. As a result of such facilities, the woodworking regulations 1970 were introduced, which had previously been the subject of delay. Such a system was proposed during debate on the Health and Safety at Work etc. Bill 1974, but the amendment was rejected. The value of the machinery has been demonstrated. It might well have been a means of resolving the handling of heavy weights.

Slowness and indifference can cause difficulties, as can confused codes of practice that are not clearly linked to statutory requirements. When connected with asbestos, slowness and indifference turn into a crime. In 1975 and 1976 the former Member for Sowerby, Mr. Madden, took up the cause of asbestosis victims at Acre Mill, Hebden Bridge. It was owned by a firm called Cape Asbestos and became, for a while, renowned throughout the country. At the time, there was slipshod supervision on the part of the Factory Inspectorate and Max Madden obtained an investigation by the Ombudsman. As a result, the then Secretary of State for Employment, now the Leader of the Opposition, established an advisory committee on asbestos, which was chaired by the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission.

The committee reported in November 1979. There were two earlier reports on thermal and acoustic insulation and the measurement and monitoring of asbestos in the air. In all, 41 recommendations were made. The General and Municipal Workers Union said that the report was not stringent enough, but it made 41 recommendations and if they had been implemented a significant step would at least have been taken along the road towards combating the dangers of asbestos. Before the Minister answered my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), I asked the Library how the 41 recommendations made in 1979 had fared. The reply was as follows: Your enquiry about the report of the Advisory Committee on Asbestos of 1979 has come to me for reply. As you noted, 41 recommendations were made. I have spoken to that section of the Health and Safety Executive which deals with hazardous materials and they tell me that none of these has yet been formally implemented. However, a great deal of work has been carried out leading, it is hoped, to eventual implementation. Ultimately, of course, ministerial sanction will be required for this to be done. Negotiations simultaneously on two draft EEC directives seemed to have introduced some delay into the process. I emphasise those last few words.

No doubt documents will be circulated and there will be many meetings about the wording of the regulations and whether one country will be satisfied with the views of another. Meanwhile, the toll of injury goes on month by month. It is astounding that over two years after the publication of a report by a serious committee, who examined the matter for three years, not one of the 41 recommendations has been formally implemented. Preparatory work has been done, but that does not affect the people who go into the factories every morning, or give them the rights that they should have.

It is almost unbelievable that anybody should allow EEC procrastination to prevent regulations from being implemented. Good God, we have a Parliament; we do not have to stand around and wait for the EEC to make up its mind. We could introduce regulations and change them if the EEC ones were better. I do not know whether that idea seems revolutionary now that we are in the Common Market, but I should have thought that it showed a certain amount of common sense and would have benefited those people who go into the factories every morning and want to see some improvement in their lives.

I do not often praise the media, but we are indebted to Yorkshire Television, John Willis the producer and the workers who made the programme "Alice, the fight for life". We are indebted to the late Alice Jefferson who contracted mesotheliomas—cancer of the lungs—from asbestos contact 30 years ago. She is not somebody we could have helped by the new regulations.

The debate and the television programme are a valedictory acknowledgement of Alice Jefferson's guts in fighting the disease that ended her life after working for nine months in an asbestos factory. It took Yorkshire Television to make a programme and produce the information that made people say "Look out, asbestos is a dangerous material. What happens to our bodies when they come into contact with this material?" It was not the Government, the employment medical advisory service or any other part of the Government machinery that provided the information. The General and Municipal Workers Union has been nagging away at the problem for a long time, but it took an important television programme to bring it to public notice.

A number of interesting points were made in the programme and I am grateful to the producer for sending me a transcript. Turner and Newall was quoted as saying before the programme that this year: Much of the steam has gone out of the anti-asbestos lobby and there is not that much concern in the United Kingdom. Another asbestos boss in the same year said: Now that the health scare is over profits should rise again. There was no reason why Turner and Newall should not rest content. The Government were attacking trade unions, like the General and Municipal Workers Union, which were arguing for better compensation terms and working conditions, proper scrutiny, and proper licensing for laggers to cut out the cowboys who, according to the Prime Minister, are the free enterprise entrepreneurs who make a profit out of death and injury. That is a pretty rich reward for the £40,000 that Turner and Newall has contributed in the past three years to the Conservative Party.

British Belting and Asbestos at Cleckheaton gave the Conservative Party £11,500. It is interesting to refect upon how it treated a Labour Party representative. While I was a Minister at the Department of Industry I opened a mill at Morley which had been converted from an old woollen mill. The mayor of Leeds went round at the same time and said that it would be a good idea for a representative of the Labour Government to visit British Belting and Asbestos at Cleckheaton because it had had only a Tory around previously and the workers would like to see a Government representative. My private office got in touch with the firm. It knew that I had raised questions about asbestos when I was on the Back Benches. It did not lay out the carpet but said that I would be accepted only if I undertook not to criticise the factory. I rejected the condition and the visit never took place.

Turner and Newall has an annual turnover of over £600 million. On the Yorkshire Television programme it stood convicted of withholding evidence from the Simpson inquiry, the major inquiry that took place between 1976 and 1979. Four pages were removed which showed that it had breached the law. The supposedly safe Fortex process breaches even the existing legal limits which are not all that stringent.

The programme made it clear that Turner's claim in 1978 that deaths from lung cancer do not differ significantly from the national average was untrue. The lung cancer rate at that time among the workers was almost twice the national average and rising. Turners had failed to tell the workers of the dangers of working with asbestos. We are talking of white and not blue asbestos.

Workers were interviewed on the programme and asked whether they knew of the dangers. They made it clear that Turners had not informed them of the dangers, although the firm claims that it provided the information.

A worker stated: We've all got to go sometime. It's just that I know I'm going to go sooner than I should be going. I'm not afraid of it. But the knowledge is there, that you're going to go before your time, through no fault of your own. I feel very bitter about it because, if they'd told me of the dangers, I wouldn't be in the position I'm in. Really and truly, they should have told me. They knew. That is taken from a programme broadcast in 1974, and it is about a man who died in 1973. The same problem is rearing its head again. Workers have a right to know about the conditions in their factory.

Recommendation 28 of the 41 recommendations of the asbestos committee is that there should be a medical scheme with the following features: employers legally required to inform the organisation of anyone currently in or entering employment where precautionary measures have to be taken regularly to ensure compliance with the asbestos regulations and to provide facilities for him to be medically examined". The recommendation enshrines the concept of the right to know.

Questions were raised in 1973 and 1974 and nothing has been done. It is scandalous that workers do not have a statutory right to know what is happening.

Eternet, near Cambridge, was also mentioned in the programme. That and other firms were shown to be ignorant or deceitful, or both.

Turner and Newall is a regular contributor to the Tory Party, paying £40,000 over three years, yet when Alice Jefferson sought compensation it offered only £13,600. That generous employer forced her to crawl to Leeds Crown court to get the decent sum of £36,000. She was so ill that she had to be helped in and out of court. Turner and Newall treats its workers with contempt.

On the programme a doctor from the West Riding claimed that malignant diseases of the chest were in epidemic proportions. The programme also pointed out that: By 1969 the British government felt it essential to introduce new regulations. But in fixing so-called 'safe' dust levels they took absolutely no account of the cancer-risks, even though research shows cancer can be sparked off by relatively small quantities of asbestos. The same year—1969—the asbestos companies predicted that the mesothelioma cancer rate has reached the crest of a wave, which will decline in the next decade. In fact, a decade later mesothelioma cancer deaths had more than trebled, rising by 330 per cent. The 1969 regulations are still operative without change today.

Dr. Selikoff of the New York hospital that specialises in cancer research related to asbestos said: laggers I think in Britain have been followed by us for about the last 20 years. Their experience has been extraordinary. For example, men who were 30 or 35 years from onset of their work, about 40 per cent. of them die of one or other form of cancer—mesotheliomas, that is a cancer of the lining of the chest, the lining of the abdomen, lung cancer, cancer of the oesophagus, the stomach, the colon, the rectum, cancer of the mouth, the tongue, the larynx, the kidney, we followed 17,800 laggers from 1967 through 1976, there were 2,271 deaths among them instead of the 1,660 we expected, given their ages in 1967. Of these—1 out of every 5 men died from lung cancer. It was simply a disaster. When the workers die, their relatives often have difficulty getting compensation. Doctors sometimes fail to put "asbestosis" on the death certificate and workers are kept in ignorance of the true dangers. The 1979 inquiry was also kept in ignorance of the true dangers.

Turners claimed, for example, to the asbestos inquiry that of 48 cases of mesothelioma none of these could be described as cases of slight exposure. Margaret Chrimes worked there as a telephonist. Emma Marshall was the firm's office cleaner. They both died of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma.

Turners told the asbestos inquiry in 1977 that the prevalence of asbestos disease in its British factories was no more than one in 300, yet Dr. Geoffrey Morris, then the company's chief medical officer and former lecturer in public health at Bristol university, was within a few months of concluding that the definite or strongly suspected cases of asbestosis at Turners biggest factory in Rochdale, far from being one in 300, was more than one in four.

I shall consider some of the recommendations of the 1979 committee. Recommendation 23 states: The requirement to provide protective clothing and respiratory protective equipment should be explicitly stated in the regulations and extended to include any workers whose person or personal clothing is liable to be significantly contaminated with asbestos dust. I remember in 1978 or 1979 that laggers at the Isle of Grain power station had to go on strike to get protective clothing. The workers caused a nuisance simply because they wanted protective clothing.

Recommendation 34 states: When the government's monitoring programme on asbestos in the general atmosphere is complete, the data should be assessed by the appropriate public bodies in the light of the medical evidence to determine whether any general limit on asbestos concentration in non-occupational environments is needed. Recommendation 36 states: Raw asbestos fibre and other loads liable to give rise to asbestos dust should be transported in such a way as to prevent the escape of asbestos dust. Recommendation 35 states: A new legal obligation should be introduced so that by 1 December 1980 no raw asbestos may be imported to the UK unless it is shipped in totally enclosed metal-clad non-ventilated ISO general purpose freight containers. Recommendation 40 states: All the existing legislation, regulations, codes of practice and guidance notes relating to asbestos should be brought together in one publication. Recommendation 41 states: Relevant legislation should be examined with a view to reducing the statutory limitations on the disclosure of information relating to asbestos. Recommendation 38 states: If experience shows that voluntary compliance with the present labelling scheme for consumer products containing asbestos is inadequate, it should be made obligatory by appropriate regulations. Those are good and useful suggestions which should have been implemented. However, according to the Minister in his reply to my right hon. Friend the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South the committee reported in 1979, making far-reaching recommendations for new controls which the Government intend to implement alongside the two directives on asbestos currently under discussion".—[Official Report, 27 July 1982; Vol 28, c. 453.] That has yet to be carried out. The Government must have information about the dangers from the Ministry of Defence, because it is heavily involved in repair and maintenance and the commissioning of new ships that make extensive use of asbestos in soundproofing and insulation.

The 1979 report is by no means perfect. It needs to be strengthened and there needs to be more medical supervision of workers, but the Government increased the fees for the employment medical advisory service examination by 540 per cent. in 1979 and a further 247 per cent. in 1981. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments reported on 14 April 1981: It seems to the Committee that a consequence of allowing `appointed doctors' to carry out the work of employment medical advisers will be further to increase the costs of the Health and Safety Executive and this will lead to an erosion of the Employment Medical Advisory Service. That possibility was confirmed in evidence given to the Committee. The very organisation that can provide a service in this area is being eroded by the Government and the increase in fees will not induce employers to use the EMAS services.

If the Minister says that an appointed doctor can be used, I say that company doctors do not shine as examples of objective assessors of the dangers of asbestos. The EMAS is being eroded, but we can ask what advice it has given the Minister about asbestos. The service has a duty under section 55 of the 1974 Act to keep the Minister adequately advised about safeguarding and improving the health of employed persons.

Should not EMAS hold its own inquiry into Yorkshire Television's findings? Will the Minister tell us when the 41 recommendations are to be implemented? We do not want to be told that it will be at some vague date in the future when the EEC discussions are completed. Why does the Minister refuse to supplement the 1979 report? Is it simply callous indifference or inertia?

It is not enough to argue that all the cases contracted the disease after contact with asbestos some time ago. It was stated in the YTV programme: So even in modern conditions, working at Turners could be dangerous. Donald Robinson has worked in several departments, but mainly in Fortex. —that is the new, less dangerous process, according to Turners. He thought that in modern times working at Turners was quite safe. Last year Donald, who is married with four children, was told he had the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. Donald Robinson is aged 39. It is a modern, contemporary, current danger. That is why it is important that the 1979 report should be supplemented with an inquiry into the YTV findings. Because the Minister has refused a formal inquiry, the General and Municipal Workers Union has announced that it will hold its own inquiry. That should not be necessary. The Government should institute the inquiry as a matter of urgency.

The Government also ought to tell us how many improvement and prohibition notices have been issued over the past two years. Has the factory inspectorate been diligent in that? Will the Government increase the fines, which are pathetic? In 1980, 18 informations were laid and 16 convictions were obtained, resulting in an average fine of £244. In 1979 there were 12 informations, seven convictions and an average fine of £54.

The evidence collected by Yorkshire Television shows that more Alices may well be at risk today. The young men and women working with asbestos today may be the Alices of tomorrow, in 20 or 30 years. We have a duty as a nation to check every possible fact and provide every possible safeguard to prevent those sad words of the late Alice Jefferson from ever coming true again and ensure that such a tragedy never happens again because of the dangers of asbestos. She said in the programme, when she was told that she was going to die: I says 'How long have I got then?, and she says 'Three to six months' and when you think that and that it's just the result of working, you know, for a paid wage, for a job that we didn't think was dangerous; it never entered your head it was dangerous. Makes me feel right bitter, because I know I'm 47'". That is a quotation from a moving documentary about people whose lives have been and are being prejudiced. This country loses more lives each year through asbestos, according to the General and Municipal Workers Union, than we lost in the Falklands crisis. The Government poured massive resources into dealing with the Falklands crisis. They should pour massive resources into putting into effect the 41 recommendations, into getting EMAS to sift the evidence, and setting up a new inquiry, so that we can claim that we are free from the dangers of asbestos. If there is no freedom from the dangers of asbestos as long as it is present, we must have a major initiative now, urgently, to substitute other materials for it so that we can eradicate the danger once and for all. If we do that we shall be remembering Alice Jefferson for having made a massive contribution, together with all the other people who contributed to the programme, to getting rid of a grave danger.

6.3 am

Miss Jo Richardson (Barking)

I am glad to join my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) in this debate about health and safety at work. He illustrated, particularly at the beginning of his speech, his considerable expertise in the matter of health and safety. I well recall the positive contribution that he made at the time of the passage of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act.

At the beginning of his speech my hon. Friend quoted figures and made criticisms, quite properly, of the lack of cutting edge of the Health and Safety Executive and the problems facing health and safety inspectors. Although I am less expert than my hon. Friend, I have discovered that the inspectors are overworked, because their numbers have been reduced. They are now expected to cover a far bigger area, which means that they can make only a cursory check instead of a more thorough check. This cut by the Government affects many people.

My hon. Friend principally highlighted the whole question of the dangers of asbestosis and all the problems associated with the asbestos industry. I did not see the television film to which he referred and to which there has been much reference in the newspapers—"Alice—A Fight for Life"—but I can tell him that cases like Alice's are multiplied all over the country. She did a great service in allowing her tragedy to be exposed to the public. Families of victims watched that programme and relived the nightmare of seeing one of their loved ones die of the same disease. There are families like that in my constituency of Barking.

Cape Asbestos used to have a factory in my constituency, and still has an office there. The company moved some years ago to Hebden Bridge—the constituency of my old friend and colleague, Max Madden, who did such a good job in taking the case to the Ombudsman. It is a commonly held saying in Barking even today, although it is a long time since Cape left, that almost everyone in the town knows someone or knows someone who is related to somebody who suffered from asbestosis. It has only to be mentioned in the town and everyone remembers the tragedies of those days. It is still with us.

Since I have been the Member of Parliament for Barking, I have been in contact with many families who have asbestos victims who have had to ask for my help to get compensation from their employers, whether it be Cape or other firms that use asbestos. I have also been involved in fights with the Department of Health and Social Security about industrial injury benefit. There is so little information about asbestosis that the process is incomprehensible to the ordinary person. I find it extremely difficult to follow an industrial injury benefit case and to make some sense out of it when it is connected with asbestosis.

I shall refer to a tragic case that I was recently involved with. A gentleman who, quite naturally, was extremely emotional because his wife was suffering from asbestosis, came to see me. He did not expect her to live more than a few months. She did not know that she had the disease. She knew that there was something wrong with her breathing and was in great discomfort all the time. The hospital had told him that she must never know that they believed that she had asbestosis because the strain of knowing would make her worse and accelerate her death.

The gentleman needed to apply for benefit on her behalf but she could not sign the form. With the help of the DHSS, I helped the gentleman to fill the form in and he signed it for her. That is unusual, but the Department accepted it. We then came to a great obstacle. The Department was prepared to accept that the form could be filled in on her behalf because she was not to know about it, but it had to send two DHSS doctors to examine her, whereupon, of course, she would know that there was something seriously wrong with her. It so happened that we never got to that stage because she died. Matters like that which hassle families and people's loved ones should be eliminated as much as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley talked a great deal about that advisory committee on asbestos. He referred to several of the important recommendations that it made in its last report in 1979. He rightly said that they have not been implemented and that the 1969 regulations are the ones that stand. The 1969 regulations give workers a one in 10 chance of dying of an asbestos-related disease because of the level of fibres in the air to which workers can be exposed. One of the committee's recommendations was that the number of fibres in the air to which workers could be exposed should be reduced. That might have quickly prevented some deaths.

There have been other important proposals which have not been implemented. As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley said, there were then two EEC directives. He was right to point out that the whole matter has got bogged down. The Health and Safety Executive does not seem to have got its final report recommendations implemented and the EEC directives do not seem to have come into effect. I gather that they are bogged down because the differences between the various European standards have to be resolved first. Apparently, as we have not been able to do that we cannot implement the directives.

Further consultation is taking place. As the Minister knows, in March 1981 the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities produced a report on the directives about asbestos and strongly supported the measures contained in them. I do not know whether the report has been debated in the House of Lords, but certainly nothing has been done about it.

So the story continues and so, year by year, the reports on the health hazards of asbestos grow. In March this year The British Journal of Industrial Medicine published a report on the findings of B. K. Wignall of St. George's hospital and A.J. Fox of the City University showing that women workers exposed to asbestos may run a higher than normal risk of developing cancer of the ovary. A survey of 500 women who worked in a Nottingham gas mask factory during the Second World War putting asbestos filters into masks showed that by 1978 five had died of cancer of the ovary when statistically fewer than three deaths would have been expected.

This was a real surprise, so the two researchers went deeper into the matter. They studied the data, traced a number of the workers who were still around and examined old factory records. They found that not all of the 500 workers had actually been exposed to asbestos as some had simply been stitching on masks and had not been in contact with the asbestos, but the five deaths had been among the group of women actually handling the asbestos. Here, then, is perhaps another fatal disease to be added to the long list of illnesses caused by asbestos.

People living in Whiting Avenue in my constituency had a terrible shock three or four years ago when one of them, digging fairly deeply in his garden, discovered a vein of blue asbestos. he was absolutely horrified as neither he nor anyone else in the street had realised that the whole estate was built on top of a store of asbestos left behind by Cape Asbestos. I do not say that it had been deliberately concealed, but it had been buried. The council had then acquired the property and built an estate on it unaware of the presence of the asbestos. As a result, the council and the residents were in considerable difficulty for a long time until the asbestos could be safely covered up and in many cases removed.

I emphasise especially the problem of disposal. What does one do with the asbestos waste when one has taken it out? What will happen to the domestic asbestos waste that is now appearing all over the country as a result of the film about asbestos shown by Yorkshire Television which has rightly shocked and angered people into finding out how much asbestos is in their homes and chucking it out. People are tearing down panels and throwing the asbestos into the dustbin and local environmental health officers are at their wits end to know how to dispose of it because it is dangerous. I hope that the Minister will be able to give councils some advice on what should be done before this goes much further.

Where will all this end? Are we to continue to live with this terrible threat hanging over so many of our people? Are members of the next generation to be allowed to suffer and die in the same tragic way as this generation? If we do not grasp the nettle now, we never shall, and another generation of workers will be exposed to the risk.

An early-day motion now on the Order Paper calls for the setting up of a Select Committee on asbestos. I strongly support the proposal, but we should not have to wait for the findings of a Select Committee. Why are there strikes by workers in asbestos factories? They are generated by the shock and horror of workers who saw the film and who are more frightened than they were. Why are environmental health authorities and departments now inundated with inquiries, many of which they cannot reply to? It should not be necessary for those things to happen. We need action from the Government now to enforce proper protection and safety standards.

I am glad to see in one of the papers that will be on the bookstalls today—I refer to Friday, and not the parliamentary day of Thursday—that the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases is pointing out the risks of white asbestos. SPAID is run by Mrs. Nancy Tate, who is an old friend of mine. I pay tribute to the tremendous work she has done in exposing the dangers of asbestos. She illustrates the risks of white, as distinct from blue, asbestos which has largely been ignored and which has damaged the lungs of between 17 and 20 per cent. of the people at Turner and Newall's works.

I also pay tribute, as did my hon. Friend, to the General and Municipal Workers Union which, in the same newspaper, announces that it is to hold a special inquiry. I am sure that that will be done extremely thoroughly and that the result will be well worth seeing.

Welcome though all those initiatives are, this matter is not the responsibility of those organisations. It is for the Government to provide adequate protection, advice and information for people who work with these dangerous materials. The Government should be grasping this fearsome problem and positively responding to the genuine and loud public outcry. I hope that the Minister's reply will help people to understand why the Government have been so inactive.

6.18 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. David Waddington)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) and the hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) on raising this important topic. I hope that my remarks will be a useful contribution to the debate.

The hon. Member for Keighley referred to nurses' pay. The Government's record on nurses' pay compares favourably with that of the Labour Government and it does not lie in the hon. Gentleman's mouth to criticise the Government for party political reasons. He knows perfectly well that the offer of 7½ pe cent. for nurses compares favourably with the settlements for the Armed Forces, the civil servants and teachers. He knows that the total amount of money spent on the Health Service has risen in real terms by 5 per cent. since 1979. He knows that to give way to the 12 per cent. pay claim would cost an additional £400 million and that that would mean less money available for buildings, patient care and services to patients. The real subject of the debate is health and safety at work. The hon. Member for Keighley said that the Government had not provided time to debate the matter. The Opposition can choose the topic for debate on Supply days. Not long ago we spent a considerable time debating asbestos when we considered two European directives.

The Government's duty is to be ever-vigilant and to do all that they can to improve health and safety at work. The number of accidents at work has fallen in each year since 1976. From the statistics one must conclude that the Health and Safety Executive has done a good job in improving safety and health in factories. The hon. Gentleman compared the number of days lost through industrial injury with the number of days lost through industrial action. I cannot accept that the fact that fewer days are lost through strikes than through industrial injury is an excuse for failing to bring sanity to our legal framework for industrial relations. That cannot be used as an excuse for failing to protect individuals from the abuse of industrial power. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should use a serious occasion to make such a trivial point.

The hon. Member for Keighley said that the Government had cut back on the work of the Health and Safety Commission. It was inevitable that economies would be made when we came to power in 1979. Compared with other parts of the Department of Employment, the executive has been fairly well protected from the cuts.

The subject of general warrants is a hobby horse of the hon. Gentleman, but he cannot identify any adverse effects of the power to issue general warrants. He says that an agriculture inspector could grant an exemption in relation to mines and quarries. That is interesting, but the hon. Gentleman does not live in the real world because no agriculture inspector has issued such an exemption and there is no intention that he should.

The hon. Gentleman was most ungracious about heavy weights. I should have thought that he would congratulate the Health and Safety Commission on publishing a consultative document on an involved and difficult problem. The hon. Gentleman argued that perhaps consensus was not the best way, but that was not the thinking of the Committee which considered the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. The thinking behind that Act was that consensus was a great thing to win so that changes acceptable to both sides of industry could be made.

The problem of asbestos is the really important issue. The hon. Gentleman said that the Health and Safety Executive had delayed dealing with the risk of asbestos. First, he talked as if the 1969 asbestos regulations did not exist. He talked as if no legislation was in force. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The hon. Gentleman said that nothing was being done in furtherance of the recommendations made by the Simpson committee. He then corrected himself and said that nothing was being done formally. He was right to add "formally". For example, the Simpson committee recommended a tightening-up of control limits for white asbestos. We do not have legislation requiring one fibre per cubic centimetre, but inspections by the Factory Inspectorate reveal that that is the standard that is being achieved throughout British industry. It is not good enough to talk about no legislation having been passed to implement the proposals of the Simpson committee. The realistic step is to examine the steps that have been taken to diminish the risks.

People are frightened when they are told of the consequences of inaction years ago. It can take 20 or 30 years from the first exposure to the first symptoms appearing. We should be ever vigilant in examining new evidence and assessing whether new risks have been revealed, but it should not be imagined that no progress has been made during 20 or 30 years.

Mention has been made of a public inquiry. I responded to a question recently by saying that I did not intend to set up an inquiry. I must give my reasons for saying that, and I think that they are easy to understand. One of the recommendations of the advisory committee on asbestos was that the advisory committee on toxic substances should review control measures as further information became available. The Health and Safety Executive is able to keep abreast of new research and literature and has experts on its staff. If they are doing their work properly, they can advise the Government on new measures which might be necessary as a result of the products of new research.

I can promise the hon. Gentleman that the HSE will look most carefully into all that was said during the two programmes on Yorkshire Television. It has already taken steps to try to ascertain whether the programme makers have in their hands any evidence that is not already at the disposal of the HSE.

My personal view is that the setting up of an inquiry could delay action. Action is necessary now and action will be taken. On 22 October 1981 the House debated two European directives. I made it plain that our negotiating position in the Community was based on the recommendations of the Simpson committee. I said that we believed that harmonisation would be a great prize and that it was wrong that some countries should have controls more lax than ourselves and thereby enjoy a competitive advantage. I think that many hon. Members recognised the force of that argument.

We were working in Europe to try to persuade other member States to adopt the high standards that we wish to see appertaining in Britain. However, there has been a great deal of delay. It was for that reason that on 20 July the Health and Safety Commission, unaware that on that very night the first of the Yorkshire TV programmes would be shown, decided that some further action should be taken in advance of agreement in Europe. That decision was embodied in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has already replied to the commission saying how much he welcomes the course that it decided to take.

The commission decided that proposals for revised regulations on the licensing of work with asbestos insulation and coating would be brought forward as soon as possible. Hon. Members will know that there is already a code of practice on the subject, in response to an advisory committee report, so it is wrong to say that no action was taken on the report. Furthermore, regulations will be brought forward and will introduce some important prohibitions. There will be a prohibition on the spraying of asbestos, which is acknowledged to be one of the most risky uses. There will be a prohibition on the use of asbestos materials in insulation and there will be a statutory prohibition on the marketing and use of crocidolite. Hon. Members will remember that there has been a voluntary ban on crocidolite since 1970.

At its mext meeting, the commission will consider whether further action should be taken on exposure limits. Hon. Members will recall that the advisory committee on asbestos proposed that the present limit of two fibres per cubic centimetre in the case of chrysotile—white asbestos—should be reduced to one fibre per cubic centimetre, but firms, almost without exception, operate under the one fibre limit so we shall be embodying in legislation that which is already observed.

Some people cry "Ban the lot. Do not use asbestos any more." They call for the use of substitutes. I remind hon. Members that a substitute providing the unique qualities of asbestos might be equally dangerous. I must also remind hon. Members that asbestos has safety uses. One must remember when one talks about the danger to those involved with asbestos at their work that they may be manufacturing something that will save lives, whether it is fire protection material or brake linings. One cannot ignore the social consequences. There are 18,500 people employed in the asbestos industry and they do not wish the industry to close. The Health and Safety Commission, which includes representatives of the TUC, does not believe that such a drastic step could be justified.

The hon. Member for Keighley spoilt his speech by leaving the important point of the debate and indulging in a contemptable attack linking asbestos with a so-called attack on the unions. It may be what we have come to expect of the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that tonight people will believe that we have been debating a matter of the utmost gravity and have not been indulging in filth. I do not challenge the hon. Gentleman's sincerity, but he must not be surprised if others wonder how sincere he is when he mixes up the terrible suffering of people from asbestosis and cancer with a debate about contributions to the Tory Party. I resent it greatly that he should have thought fit to waste the House's time pushing out such filth. He should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.

The hon. Member then went on to raise another and different matter. The hon. Member may grin, but let him take some punishment himself for a change, instead of uttering disgusting slanders. Let him remember that very often he wastes the time of the House, as he did when he had the impudence to say that a Committee in which he was involved, and members of EMAS who were there, had come to the firm conclusion that their work would be depreciated and interfered with as a result of the increase in fees. I and the hon. Member remember clearly our debates on this subject not long ago. Again it was one of his hobby horses—he alone said that.

Mr. Cryer

I am sure that the Minister regards it as disgusting that Turner and Newell paid more to the Conservative Party than it gave to one of its former employees. He will agree that that is not the sort of priority that he would support. The Minister seems obsessed with attacking me, but all that I did was to quote the report agreed by the Committee, which has the right to make that report. I did not elaborate or say that the Committee had misrepresented the position, I simply quoted evidence that was given to the Committee.

Mr. Waddington

The hon. Member is being a little ingenuous, as he was the moving force in the Committee.

The hon. Gentleman went on to deal with the question of fines and quoted the average fines for offences. It is perhaps more relevant to quote the maximum. Magistrates' courts can impose fines of up to £1,000 in the case of summary trial, and the case can be tried on indictment and if that happens, the fine is unlimited. That hardly proves that there are no adequate powers in the hands of the courts. It may be said that it is different if the courts are not using their powers to the extent to which they could.

The hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson), in a restrained speech that was all the more impressive for it, highlighted again and again the terrible tragedies that have resulted from the manufacture and use of asbestos. Nobody denies that, and it is important that we should make all the progress that we can to see that nobody working in the industry is exposed to an unacceptable risk.

The advisory committee on asbestos recommended that the number of fibres should be reduced. That is already happening as a result of the vigilance of our inspectors. The hon. Lady raised an important point about hazardous waste. We accept the recommendation of the Gregson committee and are setting up an inspectorate of hazardous waste, which will be there for the specific purpose of advising local authorities as to how they should deal with this difficult problem.

The hon. Lady said that she would like to see the setting up of a Select Committee. That is not for me, but if it were the wish of the House, the Health and Safety Executive would co-operate in every way to help the work of that Committee.

Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Would it be appropriate to say that the Select Committee on Employment, which has just reported on the commission, has said that at an early date it would be looking at the importance of the Health and Safety legislation, and this will be done early in the new Session?

Mr. Waddington

I am grateful to the hon. Member for reminding me of that. It seemed rather strange that hon. Members in an early-day motion should be calling for the setting up of a Select Committee to deal with this matter, when one would have thought that the appropriate Committee was the Employment Committee.

However, that is not a matter for me. What is a matter for me is that I should make it abundantly plain that whatever body of the House decides to investigate these matters, it will have every possible form of help from the Department. I hope that in the light of my remarks, hon. Members will go away a little happier, aware that action is being taken, and conscious of the reasons why decisions were not taken to impose prohibitions—because it was then hoped that there would be harmonisation and a swift passage of the two European directives.

Forward to