§ Motion made, and question, proposed, That this House do not adjourn.—[Mr. Lang.]8.17 pm
§ Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)
A major health and environmental issue is beginning to arise with the demolition of power stations, because of the asbestos in them. Many people are greatly concerned about what has happened and what will happen.
I am aware that the Minister has made a major policy statement on the selling of power stations and I understand that in future all stations will be cleaned of asbestos before they are put up for sale. I welcome that, as I am sure many others do in all areas of the United Kingdom. I feel certain that the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens), who is in his place and hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will welcome that part of the Minister's statement. I hope that the Minister will outline in some detail exactly what his statement means.
I utterly deplore the incompetent actions of the Central Electricity Generating Board, which it would undoubtedly have continued had it not been forced to change its policy. I am informed that as recently as a month ago residents were told by the board's officials, when they started to express their concern about what was happening, that the board could not do anything as the matter was out of its hands. The officials told the residents, "We have the fullest confidence in the contractors who will be involved in the station's demolition." If they did say that, how dare they have said it. People's health has been put at risk by the incompetence of some of those who have been involved in the demolition of power stations. My constituency of Tooting is just across the river from Wandsworth and the Fulham power station.
I am sure that everyone is becoming more and more aware of the enormous dangers that asbestos presents. It is without doubt the most lethal of all materials. In any power station there are tons and tons of asbestos, from the basement to the roof. There is asbestos in the lagging of steam pipes and it is present in boiler drums and fan cases. There are enormous quantities of asbestos in power stations. For about 20 years before I became a Member of this place I worked for the Central Electricity Generating Board. That means that I understand fully the concern of communities in many areas. Over the past month, more and more of my constituents have been contacting me to express their concern. They are extremely worried about the dangers posed to them by the demolition of Fulham power station.
I am concerned about the health of all local people and the action that is taken when power stations are demolished. We know that even the minutest particles of asbestos can cause the greatest of dangers to one's health. All the medical evidence shows that to be so. I believe that the Minister has a duty to demand a full report from the board on what actions it has taken with the sale of power stations apart from the Fulham station.
I understand that the local residents were not notified that Fulham power station had been sold or that it was to be pulled down. When they started to make inquiries, they were told that a reputable firm would be dealing with the removal of the asbestos. I suggest to the Minister that he 1402 should spend some time, if he has not done so already, examining the history of the so-called reputable firm which was involved in the demolition work.
The Minister should also make inquiries about the way in which the asbestos was removed and the amount which has been taken out of the station, because those are crucial factors. I stress that there is ample evidence that the board acted deplorably in its lack of concern once the station had been sold, knowing, as it must have done, that there were enormous quantities of asbestos in the station. It has acted abominably and has failed to take account of the general interests and welfare of the communities in its area.
Had the Minister not taken the action that he took today, the board would have continued with its policies. The Minister may be aware of the report in the East Anglian Daily Times on 28 June about Cliff Quay power station, which is coming to the end of its life. The article dealt with the concern expressed by local residents about the effect of the closure of the power station. It said:A spokesman for the CEGB South East Region said yesterday that the public had nothing to fear from the dismantling of power stations.The CEGB and any site buyer had to follow rigorous safety procedures.We and the Minister know how meaningless that is. I believe that the Minister, whatever he may say in the House, and whatever his comments on radio, should tell the CEGB officials of his deep worry at the way in which they have sold these power stations without considering the effect on the communities living near them.
I should like the Minister to say whether the CEGB will be responsible for removing asbestos, or whether contractors approved by the board will be given that work. Communities up and down the country will be interested in knowing that. That is a major issue, but there are many other matters that need to be explained fully to local people. The Minister has been in the House for many years, and he knows the importance of this issue. He knows that his reply tonight and any correspondence that he sends to any hon. Member will receive a great deal of coverage on television or in the national and local press.
What will be the CEGB's role in areas where power stations are sited and in the adjoining areas? Because I became anxious over what I read about the Fulham power station, I wrote to the chief executive officer of the London borough of Wandsworth to ask what consultation he had had with the Fulham and Hammersmith council and the CEGB over the demolition of the Fulham power station. My constituency is about a mile away, across the river, from that station. It is my duty as a Member of Parliament to find out what is happening. In such a case the best person to approach is the chief executive officer of the local authority.
There must be many similar cases up and down the country about which local authorities must be kept fully informed. Will local councils, the CEGB and the Health and Safety Executive be involved in monitoring the removal of asbestos during demolition? If so, who will pay for the work? Will monitoring take place at all times when asbestos is being removed? I assure the Minister that it is crucial to have that question answered, because asbestos is so dangerous that its removal must be monitored all the time.
Whether the CEGB is itself responsible for the removal of asbestos, or whether it appoints approved contractors, what powers will the local authorities have to enable 1403 council officials to enter the power station that is being demolished, at any time of the day or night, to see what work is taking place and, if necessary, to stop the work? Local authorities have a duty to inform their residents about what is happening. Will local communities he kept fully informed of the general health and safety conditions to be observed during the demolition of a power station? That again is crucial.
There are other crucial issues. I have to repeat that word, because notification of any contact with asbestos is crucial, and the fullest information about the work must be given to the local community.
How will the waste be removed from power stations? Where will it be dumped? Will local authorities in those areas where the asbestos waste is to be dumped be kept fully informed? I am sure that all hon. Members recall the incidents five or six years ago when chemical waste was being dumped irresponsibly in many parts of the country. Often, no one knew what was being dumped or where. It was only by chance that local authorities found that sites that had been allocated for the dumping of waste contained some of the most dangerous chemical waste imaginable. We are entitled to know where the asbestos waste will be put and people within those communities must be kept fully informed of what is happening.
What type of transport will be used for the movement of asbestos waste? Will it be a special type of lorry, because one assumes that most of the removal will be done by lorry? The lorry must be sealed so that once the asbestos waste is in it cannot come out. I am sure that every day we all see lorries going through our cities carrying rubbish stacked up, with no protective cover. We often see the rubbish blowing in the roads. I hope that that will not be allowed to apply to the movement of asbestos.
What sort of site security will there be once a power station is closed and demolition starts, or even before it is demolished? What sort of site security will there be so that no one is allowed to get in, especially children who are often unaware of the dangers of this material and who find a power station a pleasant place to play in?
I should like to bring to the Minister's attention a report in The Guardian on 29 June about the fears of people living near the Kingston power station in Surrey, another of the stations that have been closed down, which is awaiting demolition. The report said:Local residents claim that they have found their property covered in a fine white dust, which they fear is asbestos.A gentleman who lives near the station said:I am worried about the safety of my family. No one seems to be the least bit interested. It is a scandal.The report went on to say:The CEGB says that the station is surrounded by a secure fence, which is guarded round the clock.The reporter commenting on the fears of those living adjacent to the Kingston power station said in response to the generating board's claim that there was a secure fence and that, in theory, no one could get access to the station:Yesterday, I had no trouble in gaining access to the site and walking through the old hopper house.That backs up the criticisms that I have repeatedly made about the generating board. I shall not pursue that point, but it emphasises why so many other questions have to be answered following the statement today by the Minister. It is crucial that once a station is closed down or demolition work starts no one other than those who are authorised to 1404 have access to the site to do the necessary work should be allowed access, yet we saw from the report of only a month ago that at Kingston it was easy for people to get access.
We are entitled, as are all the people in the country, to ask for the publication of a list of all the stations that are closed or due for closure, so that local people can be fully informed about them. I hope that the Minister will ensure that it is published. Many of the stations were built 40 or 50 years ago, so over the next two or three years more will be closed.
It has come to my attention that Sir Walter Marshall was asked about that, and he replied:There is a list, but we do not honestly believe that it would be in the public interest if we published it.I do not know whether that is true. I hope that it is not. If it is true, I hope that the Minister will leave that gentleman in no doubt that there must be no secrecy about which stations are closed or will be closed. The CEGB has a duty to make such facts clear to communities.
When the demolition of power stations begins, what will be the Government's role, aware as they are of all the potential health dangers to local communities? Will the asbestos working group of the Health and Safety Executive be called in to monitor what happens at power stations? This problem could last for 10 years. That is how long it may take to demolish the obsolete power stations.
Having worked in the industry, I know that every power station is different and will present different problems when demolition begins. I hope that no one, be it the CEGB or the Government, will ever say, "We are sorry if there were mistakes, but we really did not understand what was happening." Therefore, there must be the fullest involvement by the Government in such an operation.
Are the Government satisfied with the present controls relating to asbestos? I am sure that every hon. Member has read recently about asbestos in schools, in factories, and so on. About 18 months ago asbestos was removed from a ward in Springfield hospital in my constituency. The work was carried out in such a way that I referred the case to the ombudsman because I was worried about the lack of proper safeguards. Yesterday a report appeared in The Standard headed'Danger station' to be sealed off.Blue asbestos has been discovered at Goodge street tube station and the station will be closed for two days so that it can be removed. That is another example of the dangers.
On 26 July the Bristol Evening Post published an article about the Portishead power station headedSafety first for deadly asbestos.According to the report, 400 tonnes of asbestos will have to be removed from that power station when demolition begins.
There are countless examples of the fears and dangers that the removal of asbestos from power stations, factories, schools and so forth causes for local communities as well as for the people involved in the removal work.
The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 provides that six weeks' notice of the removal of asbestos should be given so that companies and local inhabitants may be made aware of it. Does that apply in inner London? If the Minister cannot answer that question tonight, perhaps he would be kind enough to let me know later. I ask because, as the Minister probably knows, there are many obsolete power stations in inner London. That will become a major issue in the next five years. My hon. 1405 Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) told me that there is an old power station in his constituency which will soon be demolished. What provision is there to inform the local community of what is happening.?
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
The West Ham power station is to be decommissioned next month, but it is not yet certain whether it will be demolished, kept for standby or, as I hope, nominated for combined heat and power, as suggested in a recent report. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point, because the effects of asbestos dust are not known for perhaps 20 years after it has been inhaled.
§ Mr. Cox
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. Whatever happens to that station, I am sure that local residents will find this debate interesting.
What is being done to help strengthen the Health and Safety Executive factory inspectorate? It is unfortunate that, when such an important issue is involved, the factory inspectorate does not have sufficient personnel to monitor the work. The Government should give high priority to ensuring that there are sufficient qualified factory inspectors to monitor the work.
A few months ago the EC changed its requirements for people who work with asbestos. I understand that stricter safeguards were imposed on people who work with it for more than four hours a week. Will that be applied here? Many people who are following this debate would like to know that.
I am glad that we are not pushed for time, as this issue must have the fullest possible discussion. I am sure that the Minister will be the first to agree with that. Does he agree that the law should be strengthened so that those who have been convicted of offences concerned with the removal of asbestos are not allowed to set up new firms to carry out the same line of work within a few months?
The hon. Member for Fulham, who probably knows more about the matter than I do, will develop the point. It has come to my attention that some members of the supposedly reputable firm that was engaged to demolish Fulham power station had been convicted of and fined for offences relating to the removal of asbestos.
This matter is one of those that come up in the House from time to time about which there is no party political argument. I shall agree with everything that the hon. Member for Fulham says. We are discussing matters of great concern to us and to our constituents. I accept that I have put many questions to the Minister, but I have tried to do so fairly, and I have tried to outline the comments made to me by my constituents. We have the opportunity this evening to begin to restore public confidence, and the Minister's statement earlier today went a long way toward achieving that. If he can answer in detail the questions that I have asked, and that other hon. Members will put to him, we shall have gone a long way towards achieving the purpose of this debate. I hope that the Minister will respond openly and frankly to those questions.
§ Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)
I am glad to support the remarks of the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). Part at least of his career with the Central Electricity Generating Board was spent at Fulham power station. He 1406 was an elected member of the local authority in Fulham, and has not been forgotten by the residents. We shall always be glad to welcome him back, not in a parliamentary capacity because that might cause me some inconvenience, but in any other capacity in which he cares to return.
May I lose no time in thanking my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for his statement today, which took the form of a letter to me. We had spoken informally about the problem, and on Monday of this week he met me, with councillor Kim Howe, the leader of the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, councillor Gerald Wombwell, the chairman of the engineering committee, and Mr. Bruce Cova, the director of environmental health. The action that followed was effective and quick, and the hon. Member for Tooting will agree that it is an especially happy chance that his Adjournment debate came tonight. I doubt whether he knew— I certainly did not— that a statement would be made today.
The first person to be aware of the sale of Fulham power station was me. I spoke to the environmental health director, who immediately put in hand the steps that led to the Health and Safety Executive coming quickly to the site, as a result of which the monitoring programme is now under way. It is correct to say that at no time was the borough council informed of what was happening, nor was anyone under any legal obligation to inform it.
In the distant past, before the Under-Secretary ascended the slippery pole on which he now reclines, he introduced a private Member's Bill under which the demolition of any building for any purpose should be reported to the local authority so that the citizens would know what was happening. While most demolition programmes are harmless, some are not; and some, at the very least, cause considerable inconvenience. We all wish that my hon. Friend had been as successful with that Bill as he has been in his prompt negotiations with the board.
The first site meeting that I attended was held on 12 April, by which time two groups of local citizens had rightly begun to be extremely alarmed. I pay tribute to the individuals who have maintained such a strong and well-informed grip on this matter. Mr. John Gurter has been prominent in advancing and expressing the fears of the local residents, and Virginia Watson was the organising secretary of the group of concerned citizens who surrounded the offices of the CEGB this morning and can be said to have precipitated the statement that we have all welcomed.
Although the local authority has no responsibility for matters relating to asbestos, it responded very well. It is always easy to say that a local authority does not want to know, will not give information, or refuses to meet people, but in this case most fair-minded people would agree that it responded quickly and sympathetically.
I attended a long meeting of the engineering committee at which the factory inspector and the director of environmental health services spoke and answered questions. As a result of that meeting, which took place about a month ago at Hammersmith and Fulham town hall, a working party was set up consisting of councillors of both the main parties, residents of the neighbourhood, the appropriate officers of the council and the factory inspector. I have no doubt that the existence of that working party has greatly speeded up the flow of information and has put at rest at least some of the anxieties that beset the citizens.
1407 The new owners of the power station made the necessary application to the Health and Safety Executive, and stated that they intended to move quantities of asbestos as part of their programme of demolition. In fact—and this is a point that the hon. Member for Tooting did not make—nobody, not even the CEGB, knew how much asbestos was on the site. The owners told me that there were only 300 tonnes, but figures as high as 3,000 tonnes were quoted. I hope that under the new provision which my hon. Friend the Minister has announced, the public will know how much asbestos is involved, and that, if the board does not know already, it will make it its business to find out and tell us before work is undertaken. Uncertainty over such issues caused the major part of the anxiety.
When I called on my hon. Friend the Minister on Monday, both the factory inspector and the director of environmental health services were present. They repeated what they had said at the town hall meeting to which I referred—that is, that they were completely satisfied that the local residents were in no danger from asbestos dust. True, the work at the site had been stopped twice, once because birds had broken through the sheeting enclosing the building and another time because the monitors, for the first and only time, showed that the dust level had suddenly increased.
We have been receiving daily reports from the monitors, but the expense of manning these monitors is being met by the ratepayers of Fulham, as is the cost of the four members of the staff of the director of environmental health services, who are on site throughout the seven-day working week. The costs are mounting to about £20,000 a month, which is a heavy burden for the ratepayers to shoulder. The Greater London council is kindly helping us with this outgoing, but I am not sure that it is the responsibility of the citizens of Fulham or of Greater London to pay for an essential service that is more properly the responsibility either of the vendors or the buyers in what was a commercial transaction, or, possibly, of the Health and Safety Executive.
I understand the difficulty of making people retrospectively responsible for other people's costs, and I know that my hon. Friend is reassuring himself that the Health and Safety Executive is always available to cope with emergencies, even though, as the hon. Member for Tooting has said, its staff is fairly thin on the ground. Although we can look forward to reassurances about the future, it is only right that I should point out that the people of Fulham are being mulcted of heavy expenditure to ensure their safety.
Is there any comfort that the Minister can give me or them about the ultimate financial responsibility for the precautions that are being taken? The Minister's letter to me today referred to asbestos, and of course it is only asbestos that the Health and Safety Executive is dealing with in this case. The local authority, through its environmental health director, is well able to intervene on nuisance, dust and other inconveniences caused by the demolition programme. However, it has no responsibility for asbestos. If the owners ask the environmental health officer, his four staff members and monitors to leave the premises, they would have no alternative but to depart, bag and baggage, from the power station. I do not believe that the owners will say that, and if they do I have no doubt that there will be some way of avoiding the undesirable consequences of such an instruction.
1408 This is a matter on which the law is perhaps imperfect. I know that the purpose of the Health and Safety Executive is to be available, with its special skills and high professionalism, to intervene in cases where the country's 150 local authorities do not have on their staff people with the same skills. However, I hope that the Minister will find time to explore the possibility of a halfway house. Even if the local authority has no right to lay down the law about what should happen in cases where asbestos is moved, it should at least have the right, when it hears in advance, as happened at Fulham, to go to the site and ensure that the law is properly observed.
Many of the residents may not accept the fact, which I accept, that so far there is no risk—present or future—to the health of those who live in the immediate neighbourhood of the Fulham power station. The monitors have shown no sign of asbestos dust, except on the one occasion that I mentioned, and I understand that the new owners fulfilled their promise to clear the asbestos in a safer way than the one previously used. As the House will know, asbestos is usually mounted on chicken wire. When demolition is carried out the asbestos and the wire are put in sacks. The sacks get ruptured and the dust escapes. In this case, the chicken wire was detached before the dust was put in bags. Moreover—another point that was raised by the hon. Member for Tooting—there has been no dust reading either at the Fulham power station site or, I am told, at the ultimate disposal site in the west of London, about which both he and I are concerned.
We are calling the attention of the House to a national risk because Fulham is only the first power station to be demolished and there may be other buildings, owned by other authorities or private companies, which will cause the same risk and whose owners have not participated in the pledge that we have been so glad to hear today. As the hon. Gentleman says, this is a national problem, not simply one for my constituency.
The Minister will have to come forward as soon as possible with a new look at the legal problems besetting the movement of asbestos and perhaps other toxic substances, because there are other toxic elements in the Fulham power station besides asbestos. I think that I am right in saying that the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which requires six weeks' notice of demolition to be given to the local authority and other responsible bodies, does not apply in London. It would be helpful to know why.
Contractors who are allowed to move asbestos should be identified and approved. In the case of the Fulham power station the consultant was, I am told, a man of high repute in his field. I am not one of those who accuses the new owners of any improper behaviour, but there is no doubt that they have irritated everybody, including me, by not keeping their word on many of the matters that we have discussed. Although they have fulfilled their promises on the main issues, we have all been unnecessarily vexed by their inexperience and lack of knowledge of the kind of information and treatment which citizens are entitled to receive these days, and on the smaller elements in our various discussions such as the holding of site meetings for local citizens, providing me with biographical notes on the company directors, and so on.
One thing is certain. We need to be sure that nobody in future will be allowed by the Health and Safety Executive to move asbestos unless we are confident that he has the experience, reliability and integrity to do so 1409 safely. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to tell us what constraints the Government mean to place on those who carry out such contracts in future. I hope that he will also be able to show that bodies in addition to the Central Electricity Generating Board will be invited to give the same pledge that the CEGB has given today.
I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on the EC directive to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, I think that my hon. Friend will tell us that Britain has led the field in its rigorous constraints on the handling of asbestos. The Government have done, and are doing, all that they should for the problem's European dimension. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell us that the ratepayers of boroughs, districts and county councils will not have to pay for the future movement of asbestos or for demolition contracts including the movement of asbestos. It is simply not their job to meet such costs. In Fulham, those costs will amount, over a year, to a penny rate.
I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give us good news tonight about the impact of the problem on future demolition contracts. I also hope that he will be able to say something about the regulations that he is about to introduce, which will cover many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Tooting and me. However, he may not be able to tell the people of Fulham that much can be done for them. They were the guinea pigs, and have had to pay the bill. Nevertheless, we have put things right as quickly as any democratic Administration can hope to do, and we respect the speed with which the Minister has acted.
In conclusion, I make this plea: will my hon. Friend give some thought to the cost and worry that my constituents have been put to, and search his heart—if not his pocket — for ways in which they can be recompensed for costs that others will not have had to bear?
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
The House, the country and the citizens of West Ham and Fulham will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) for raising this debate. Perhaps I should add at this juncture that in 1974 West Ham met Fulham in the cup final. However, the citizens of those areas are not the only ones involved. Many people live near power stations that may become redundant, like the station at West Ham. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting has already mentioned Kingston as a case in point. However, we hope that following this debate such problems will not arise. Perhaps there will be a rethink about the demolition of power stations. Alternatively, the stations may be converted for a combined heat and power scheme or kept for standby purposes that the CEGB has not as yet designated.
This debate is a Hammersmith and Fulham occasion for at least three reasons. I am rather surprised that we have had to have it tonight, because the risks from asbestos were known. However, I shall come to that later. The problem is not unknown, and could not be unknown, to the CEGB. London docklands has long known of the risks of asbestos. The ratepayers of Hammersmith and Fulham—I should declare an interest as I am one of them—may be paying money, but the residents of West Ham have paid, over the years, with their lives.
1410 I had the privilege of introducing a private Member's Bill which is now an Act and has bearing on the asbestos problem. Alas, the Government have not yet made the regulations under that Act. I look forward to them being made in the near future.
The risks from asbestos at a work place are well known and are covered by legislation. Risks in the environment at large, particularly from the demolition and transport of asbestos materials, are also well known. Warnings galore have been issued in the last few years. That is what makes me concerned about the fact that we have to have this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting, as the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens) said, has experience of Fulham power station. His family's experience goes back a long way. Fulham power station was a municipal power station initiated by the borough. I do not believe that the CEGB has thrown away the plans because it was constructed in the middle 1930s. Estimates of the amount of asbestos involved must have been made.
I suspect that there is a difficulty in relation to cost. If the CEGB disposes of power stations to other owners, it is up to the new owners to dispose of the building if they have an eye on the site. The costs of asbestos removal and the careful monitoring that is necessary are placed automatically on the new owners. It is in the new owners' interests to minimise expenditure. That is how the conflict of interests arises and why statute and the activities of environmental health offices are crucial.
I hope that people with large asbestos installations that need to be demolished will take responsibility for ensuring that the demolition is carried out responsibly before they sell the site. That might get rid of the inherent conflict of interests.
The other matter that I cannot understand involves the conditions for demolition that one would suppose that the CEGB would put on a sale. What one learns about firms and their reputation, which is sometimes found to be incorrect, is horrifying. The Government have a responsibility to find out exactly whose responsibility it is.
I deplore the fact that we have to have this debate. Thank goodness Parliament can deal with such matters. We have a legislative and executive longstop in our prized Adjournment debates. I hope that there will be no further need for Parliament to debate the matter. I hope that the Minister will examine why we had to have the debate. It should not have been necessary. Enraged citizens always have doubts about official bodies which make such a debate necessary. Let us learn our lessons, and let there be no need for future debates about asbestos. Let us hope that the Government's action is in tune with public opinion and let us ensure that such complaints do not occur again.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)
I should like to begin by echoing the comments of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) in the sense that this is an occasion on which we can do something which we all too rarely do, although we often could, which is to point to the particular advantage of the parliamentary system of government. There is no doubt that the actions we have seen over the past few weeks owe their genesis to the assiduity of my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens) and the elected council. We have a system which allows people to put their problems and worries to their elected members 1411 so that activities can be monitored and those responsible brought to account. That is one of our prized possessions and the reason why all of us are here. Even though there may not be many of us here this evening, we represent what is perhaps the most important activity in which this Chamber engages, which is to ensure that the fears, concerns and genuine worries of individual constituents are debated in Parliament. In that sense we are almost unique.
It is true that in dealing with asbestos all of us who seek to approach the matter with care and responsibility are faced with a real dilemma. We are right to say how serious a risk the substance presents and I congratulate the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) on his prescience and on his luck in securing this debate this evening.
The hon. Gentleman rightfully made play of the nature of the substance with which we are dealing. That is one way of considering the problem — to underline, to remind and to refuse to ignore the damage to health that can be caused by we know not how little of the substance. There lies the real problem. It is not a substance for which one can set a level below which there is no risk but a substance about which we do not know the lowest level of risk. We must therefore assume that a single fibre could do real damage which may not be seen for 20 years or more.
The hon. Gentleman was right to emphasise the danger of the substance, but I am sure that he will agree with me that the other side of the dilemma is that we do not wish to raise fears where fears ought not to be raised—not in order to hide anything but merely not to raise concern where concern is unnecessary. That is the dilemma. We must ensure that people realise how dangerous the substance is and how careful must be their handling of it, but we must not make people frightened to breathe the air in London in case their health is damaged. I hope that nothing I say this evening leads people to believe that I am scaremongering on the one hand or complacent on the other. It is easy to appear to be both at different times.
As the hon. Member for Newham, South said, for many years asbestos has been known to be dangerous. For many years before that it was not known to be dangerous. The seriousness of the danger has grown not in reality but in one's understanding of it. There were times when it was known that asbestos was likely to be dangerous, but the full spread of the danger and, indeed, the different dangers of various types of asbestos have become known only recently.
In this country, as in many others, there are considerable quantities of asbestos. It has been used widely in a whole range of products. It was thought a most useful product to use for everything from roofing to the pads on ironing boards. It was all-pervasive—mined, brought into this country and used very widely indeed. We are, therefore, discussing one important aspect—a great quantity, but still one aspect—of a problem which will be with us for many years to come.
The problem with asbestos is that there is a great deal of it, that it is extremely dangerous and that much of it is not known about. In the past, people were not careful enough—I am not making a particular statement about any particular people—to look over their plans, not only for power stations but wherever asbestos was to be used. Indeed, many plans were not careful to delineate what material was used and where the material was, and various 1412 materials were used as part of passing changes that were made. Some asbestos was exposed when what were thought of as minor alterations were made.
Therefore, we cannot estimate either the amount or the position of the material. Where the stuff is and how much there is of it presents a great problem. We cannot consider asbestos in power stations and the responsibility of the CEGB in isolation. We must look at it as part of a major problem which will be with us and, I am afraid, with our children.
As for the CEGB, I shall not dissent much from the remarks of the hon. Member for Tooting, although he was rather niggardly on one point. I shall not go into the question of who was responsible for what. The announcement I was able to make today in my letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, as a result of our meeting last Monday and our previous discussions on this issue, came from a willing decision to change the policy on the part of the CEGB. I pay direct personal tribute to the board of the CEGB and to Sir Walter Marshall, for it has been their decision; it was something they wanted to do and they took the decision.
If every time somebody changes his view about how something should be done and we immediately say, "That proves you should have done it that way before", many people will not change their view for fear of being accused of accusing themselves. We should give credit to the CEGB for saying, "We have been told by the citizens of Fulham and people throughout the country that they would feel more assured if we had full responsibility to control the removal of asbestos from power stations before selling them". In that sense it is a compliment to the CEGB, for it is felt that it has sufficient responsibility, resources and expertise to be better at controlling the stripping of asbestos than most other bodies might be.
We in this House should accept that there are two aspects to health and safety. There is the reality of protecting people's health and ensuring their safety. There is the second, and no less important, need to ensure that they believe that their health and safety are protected. A person can be perfectly well protected but fear that he is in danger. If that is so, his emotional and mental stale will be badly affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham is right to say that our duty does not end with ensuring that people are not at risk, for we must ensure that they know that they are not at risk. One of my hon. Friend's complaints—it is one that I take seriously—is that the people of Fulham felt that they were at risk even in circumstances in which the best scientific information showed that they were not. It is the responsibility of us all to protect the public from that fear.
It has been said by my hon. Friend, his council, protestors and many others that the CEGB would be more likely to ensure that these matters were handled properly and that they would prefer it to control them. That is what Sir Walter Marshall has agreed to do. I have discussed these matters with them and I know that the Department of Energy, which is more directly responsible for the relationship, has also done so. I was pleased to receive confirmation from my noble Friend that this is what the CEGB intends to do. I understand that it will be making a formal announcement tomorrow.
The hon. Member for Tooting asked how the CEGB would control the operation in future. It will be for the Board to decide, as it would be if it were removing asbestos from a power station that it intended to hold on 1413 standby, to convert or to do as it is expecting to do with a power station that is close to my constituency, the Cliff Quay power station at Ipswich.
Generally the CEGB uses a contractor that is expert in the removal of asbestos. Excellent though the CEGB may be, it is not primarily concerned with the removal of asbestos and therefore it is not unreasonable for it to use a contractor whose main job it is. The board has a list of approved contractors and I know that it exercises considerable care to ensure that it maintains a list of reliable contractors. It has the opportunity to ensure that the contractors do the job properly. There is also the monitoring that is carried out by the Health and Safety Executive, which I understand is preparing improved regulations. The executive's position is most important and it has been accepted by both sides of the House.
The hon. Member for Tooting has said that in this debate we shall not enter into a party political discussion. I am pleased about that, for health and safety, as a result of an accident in the past, is not a party political matter. It is the one reason why I can be sanguine about the result of the 1974 general election. In 1974 the then Conservative Government had prepared legislation to bring into being the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive as a result of the Robens committee report. The then Conservative Government lost the election and the succeeding Labour Government introduced the present health and safety structure. It can be said that the present structure was brought into being with real all-party support and not merely that which is sometimes mouthed.
Although I understand the worries of my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, I believe that the Health and Safety Executive, especially in those installations for which it has prime responsibility and where the local authority does not, should take control. I am alive to the worries of the local people, and I do not want to underestimate them. We must proceed on the best available scientific information. I am assured by the Health and Safety Executive that it will do all the monitoring necessary to protect the health of those who do this work and the environment.
Neither my hon. Friend nor I am in a position to make such a judgment. That is why we have a Health and Safety Executive and why that body is at arm's length from the Government. It is not a body to which I can say, "Monitor 18 times around that installation" because I think that it would be a good idea for political or non-political reasons. Both sides of the House were correct to make it clear that the Health and Safety Executive should be a free-standing, independent body. I must rely on the Health and Safety Executive's advice that its monitoring is fully adequate to protect the public and those who demolish power stations.
§ Mr. Martin Stevens
During my remarks I conceded the point to which my hon. Friend the Minister has referred. I should like the relationship between the local authorities and the Health and Safety Executive on these matters to be the same as that between the constitutional Monarchy and the elected Government. The local authority should have the right to be informed, and, if not the right to advise, the right to warn.
§ Mr. Gummer
It is often true in these matters that we believe that what we have experienced is the general rule. 1414 I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that generally it is the custom, although not the legal requirement, for the Health and Safety Executive to discuss a matter of this importance with the district council, borough council, or whatever authority is responsible. There is some evidence that on this occasion the consultations were neither early enough nor sufficient. I have asked the Health and Safety Executive—I can but ask because Parliament has given me no greater powers—to pay particular attention to my hon. Friend's worries. I assured the leader of his council about that.
We must not have too many people in charge. I want responsibility to be returned to the owners of the building and the people who are doing the demolition. Our health and safety arrangements are based on the principle that the employer is responsible for his workers' health and safety. It does not matter how stupid someone may be—if the employer has not dealt properly with a problem he is responsible. That has always been our view and it is one which I wholly support.
The Health and Safety Executive is responsible for ensuring that the law is obeyed and that the regulations are met. I believe that the hon. Member for Tooting would agree that it also has an important advisory responsibility. As he said, many different circumstances must be faced—not just different power stations but differences within power stations, which means that the advice of experts is necessary. I pay tribute to the executive because it leads the world in such work. Some problems will arise when we look at future legislation.
I hope that the hon. Member for Newham, South will not accuse me of straying on to a problem that he and I have debated before if I say a few words about the European Community, because I think this is an example of where the European Community is seen at its best. We have sought to ensure that the regulations about the removal and transport of asbestos will apply throughout the Community. That is most important because we are talking about matters involving great expense. The hon. Member for Tooting mentioned them and I think that he was right to do so.
There is always the danger that one country will feel that it can have lower health and safety regulations to ensure that the costs of production and demolition in one country are lower than in another. Therefore, side by side with improving and extending the regulations in this country, the Government have sought to create a regimen in Europe that will ensure that the regulations will apply throughout the Community. We have not completely succeeded. There are one or two areas in which we want to go further than we have been able to convince our European partners to go. We intend to go further.
We shall not be restricted to the terms of the directive. Our view is that if we want better standards and are prepared to pay for them, we should have them. The Government have been clear about that. We have ensured that the European Community has been able to produce directives which will mean that the handling and demolition of asbestos within the European Community will be carried out under rules and regulations which are probably the best in the world. The British have led the way, and the Health and Safety Executive and the commission have been the means whereby we have been able to do that. I wish we could have done it quicker and 1415 easier, but, as the hon. Member for Tooting admits, the problems are so great that it has been difficult to get the regulations right.
We strengthened and tightened the measurement regulations at the beginning of the year and improved the regulations as we learnt more about asbestos. One of the difficulties has been in counting and testing the fibres. There is some evidence that people have not been able to distinguish between asbestos and plaster fibres, which could be dangerous. We have talked about white dust. I do not know what it is but I assure the hon. Member for Tooting that I shall look into it. Demolition causes a great deal of dust; some may be asbestos and some may not. It is important to know what the fibres are so as to reassure the public. The Health and Safety Executive has produced the basis for the world standard. It was a scientific matter which gave us considerable difficulty. Through the Health and Safety Executive we paid for some major research which has formed the basis for the European and Canadian measurements system. We have led the world in that.
Although we highlight our constituents' worries, we should at the same time tell them how much has been done and honour this country's system which makes it possible.
The hon. Member for Tooting asked who will do the monitoring. It will be the Health and Safety Executive. Local authorities will still be free to monitor the environment if they wish. That is right because they may have special reasons for wanting to do so. It is not for me to say whether the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham has made the right decision about wanting so much monitoring over so long a period by so many people. That is a matter for it. Although I shall search my heart, my conscience and my pocket, I cannot hold out any hope to my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham that I can find any money to cover it. However, I believe that that is right. If the borough council makes that decision, it will have to do the monitoring. All I can say is that it is the job of the Health and Safety Executive to do all the monitoring or to see that the necessary monitoring is done—it may be done by someone else. I take seriously the criticism that the monitoring that should have been done has not been done, but I do not believe that it can be sustained.
I was asked about site security. The responsibility for that is clear. Under the health and safety Acts and the legislation under which we work there is clearly a responsibility on us to ensure that people do not endanger themselves by breaking into sites where there is dangerous material. The hon. Gentleman may point to a reported occasion when the site was not secure. That was wrong. There are the means and the powers under the Acts to ensure that, if there is proof, a prosecution can be made. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right. One usually finds in such a situation that there has not been the best security. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the legal backing to insist upon proper site security is there and that the Health and Safety Executive is determined to see that it is not breached. If the hon. Gentleman has any specific examples, I shall see that they are looked into.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the disposal of waste. I do not want to duck that problem, but disposal is a matter for my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment. However, I understand that the waste disposal sites are licensed under the Control of Pollution Act 1974 by the waste disposal authorities. They take particular account of the material that we are talking about. We are also taking special care about the 1416 bagging of the asbestos. My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham mentioned the changes in Fulham because of the problem. As he knows, there is double bagging to ensure that the bag is not contaminated by the asbestos. That process is monitored. I believe that I am right in saying that there is no sign from the monitoring that there has been any escape of asbestos.
§ Mr. Martin Stevens
It may be helpful to my hon. Friend in considering the Fulham case if I tell him that I understand that double bagging did not take place. The new owners of the power station regarded one bag as sufficient. This is simply to add to my hon. Friend's knowledge of the case.
§ Mr. Gummer
I am happy to know that. All that I know is that it is in the hands of the Health and Safety Executive to insist on double bagging or any other bagging. It is for it to decide if it feels that the provision that is made is not sufficient. There are changes. Some site conditions require a different approach. My hon. Friend mentioned the breaking of the polythene covers round the site. Monitoring is not the most important thing. The most important thing is the integrity of the site. We must ensure that the dust does not come out anywhere. The inspection of the integrity of the site is important. My hon. Friend must accept that there has been a change. The polythene covering appeared to be broken, so the next lot of covering, which is being put up at the moment, was made of a different material. We hope that that will overcome that problem, which led not to danger but to the putting up of the prohibition notice while a way was found round the problem. There is no doubt that the Health and Safety Executive will have to find different answers, because there will be different problems on different sites.
There are between 400 and 500 active asbestos disposal sites in the United Kingdom. A code of practice was published by the Department of the Environment in 1979. It will be affected by the change in our attitudes to asbestos. I should like to tell the House what we intend to do.
I hope very much that in the autumn I shall be able to lay the new regulations on asbestos which by then will have come from the Health and Safety Executive to the Health and Safety Commission in their final form. They are based on very wide consultation. The new regulations will be tougher than those which obtain elsewhere, although we have managed to get most of them accepted throughout Europe. Curiously enough, the directives made this slightly more difficult. To make the regulations acceptable throughout Europe, we may have to change slightly some of the measures that we intend to take—not to make them less effective, but simply to change their form.
In the future, people licensed to deal with asbestos stripping will have to be registered. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is important. The people involved will therefore have to be of good character and decent background. The hon. Gentleman will accept that occasionally people will have made mistakes and left undone things that they ought to have done. This may have become publicly known and they may even have been prosecuted. It would therefore be wrong for me to guarantee that no one who has done something that he ought not to have done will ever be involved again. Nevertheless, people involved in this work will have to be 1417 registered and the Health and Safety Executive will clearly be anxious to ensure that they are suitable because in the act of registration the Health and Safety Executive takes on additional responsibility by stating that the person is suitable for the job.
The regulations will also extend the rules about how such work is done and the protection for those who do it, not because the present regulations are unsatisfactory in the sense of being too loose but because we wish to take into account the better ways of checking now available which were not available when the regulations were laid two or three years ago.
Today's debate has been an ideal opportunity for us to ventilate—perhaps "discuss" is a better word—at some length a matter of great importance. As a nation, health and safety are very high on our list of priorities. People talk about Government cuts, but I assure the House that the resources available to the Health and Safety Executive have been increased in real terms every year since 1979 when the Government took office. We have taken those steps because we believe in the importance of health and safety.
We have also encouraged the Health and Safety Executive in the use of modern techniques. The new Shield computer arrangements have meant that it has been able to concentrate considerable resources on those areas in which its help is most vital. Asbestos is clearly one such area and we shall ensure that it continues to take up a large proportion of the Health and Safety Executive's means.
When one considers the problems of asbestos in a general context, the words of the hon. Member for Newham, South should ring in our ears. He expressed the hope that we should not have to debate this again. He may express that hope, but I am sure that he is wrong. First, in purely practical terms, we are bound to return to the subject as new problems, dangers and fears arise. Secondly, I believe that we should also return to it in real terms. The only way to ensure that the health and safety of our nation are protected and that people do not become lax and think that the regulations may be set aside in the interests of short cuts and quicker profits is to ensure that these matters are constantly ventilated in the House. It would be wrong of me ever to criticise my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I sometimes feel that matters which are not the subject of party political division are not debated as often as they should be. Private Members' time is very limited. The raising of worries and fears on occasions such as this is thus very valuable.
In conclusion, may I say that if I have omitted to cover any of the points raised I hope to deal with them in correspondence because they are all important. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this subject. The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham have good reason to believe that they are well represented. He put his case well. I am glad that we can at least tell the CEGB that its decision under the wise guidance of Sir Walter Marshall will mean that many of the worries, although many of them may be unfounded, will not continue to disturb communities when power stations are sold.
It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.