HC Deb 08 November 1983 vol 48 cc243-74

[Relevant documents: Marketing and use of asbestos Document No. 9369/82, Protection from asbestos at work Document No. 10664/82; For relevant report of the European Legislation Committee, see HC 34-xvi (1982–83) paras. 1 and 2.]

10.29 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 9369/82 for a Council Directive amending for the fifth time Directive 76/769/EEC on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States relating to restrictions on the marketing and use of dangerous substances and preparations, and of the Explanatory Memoranda of 14th April 1983 and 3rd November 1983, and of European Community Document No. 10664/82 for a Council Directive on the protection of workers from the risks due to exposure to chemical, physical and biological agents at work: asbestos, and of the Explanatory Memoranda of 14th April 1983 and 3rd November 1983; and welcomes the achievement by the Community of a large measure of harmonised control in this crucial area, and both the Government's success in reaching agreement on these directives without reduction in the standards of protection of United Kingdom workers and the Government's intention of seeking early agreement on further restrictions on the marketing and use of asbestos fibres. The proposals for these directives were last debated by the House on 22 October 1981. If, with the permission of the House, I am allowed again to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, I intend to introduce the proposals, listen to the debate, and perhaps answer the points that are raised by Opposition Members on the subject of asbestos.

We believe that problems of asbestos are of great importance. That is why this country has taken a lead in the European Community in trying to frame Europe-wide regulations which will suit—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members kindly leave the Chamber in silence, please?

Mr. Gummer

We believe that the problems of asbestos are of great importance and, therefore, the United Kingdom has taken a particular interest and lead in the European Community in order to initiate the tough action that we believe is alone necessary if we are to contain a major problem.

The harmonisation of health and safety standards within the Community brings considerable benefits. It is one of the ways in which we can ensure that the costs are fairly covered and do not lead to a competitive disadvantage for this country. Therefore, we are introducing several changes in the law. The first directive is the worker protection directive. It will apply to all activities in which workers are, or may be, exposed in the course of their work to dust arising from asbestos or materials containing it. The control limits are the upper limits of permitted exposure and the directive requires action to be taken where they are exceeded. It is, of course, an upper limit and in order to meet those limits, most manufacturers will have to aim somewhat below them. The control limits set by the directive are 0.5 fibres/millilitre for crocidolite—which is blue asbestos—and 1 fibre/millilitre for other types.

In the meantime, article 1.3 of the directive allows member states to go further than the minimum requirements and we in the United Kingdom will be doing that. That is a symbol of the activity that we have tried to undertake, and I hope that all hon. Members will agree that it has been necessary for us to go further than some of our partners wanted. We shall continue to press to ensure that other countries come into line with the tougher arrangements that we have made.

The directive's requirement to reduce exposure to the minimum reasonably practicable rightly applies to all workers who come into contact, however slight, with asbestos. However, it was recognised that some circumstances warranted more specific measures. The directive therefore sets an action level of exposure at which additional protection measures come into operation. It is set at 0.25 fibres/millilitre over eight hours or an equivalent over three months.

I have decided not to go into the details of each directive, because I think that it is more important for hon. Members to discuss the areas that they think vital. With the leave of the House, I shall comment on their points at the end of the debate. However, the marketing and use directive has a different scope, and deals with the prohibition of crocidolite and labelling of asbestos products. The directive places a general ban on the marketing and use of products containing crocidolite. I refer to article 2. Member states are allowed to exempt certain products such as asbestos cement pipes, seals, gaskets and torque convertors, which are part of the clutch mechanism in automatic cars. The United Kingdom argued for total prohibition and we shall not be making use of those exemptions. That puts us at a disadvantage compared with our competitors, but we feel that we should support that higher level of safety.

The directive sets out a standard labelling scheme embracing all asbestos products made Dr marketed in the Community. That comes under article 3. This accords with the voluntary scheme already adopted by United Kingdom manufacturers. We shall have further discussions on prohibiting certain asbestos products. Discussions have been re-opened in the council working group on the prohibition of products containing asbestos other than crocidolite. Obviously the United Kingdom's general approach is to support the strongest measures in this area.

Many of the requirements of these directives were foreshadowed by the recommendations of the advisory committee on asbestos, in its final report in 1979. In 1980, when the European Commission published its proposals, the Health and Safety Commission decided to delay implementation—until the directives were agreed—of those advisory committee recommendations that over-lapped with the provisions in the directive. However, despite that, several initiatives were undertaken while negotiations were proceeding. There was an approved code of practice on work with asbestos insulation and coating which was published in 1981. It covered asbestos removal, which is recognised as the mcst dangerous type of work involving asbestos. I think that all hon. Members will agree that that is one of problems. Asbestos was so widely used that it is often not known to be present by those who are dismantling a building.

Two cases in Harwich, near to my constituency, are now before the courts, so I cannot comment other than generally on them. However, it is quite clear that proper action was not taken. We must be extremely vigilant. However good the regulations may be. asbestos can be found in all sorts of places where people do not expect to find it. All sorts of people, even those concerned with painting and decorating, must be vigilant.

Britain has carried out a full programme of research into the measurement and monitoring of asbestos in air. Parts of the programme have been completed and other longer-term projects are still under way.

It is a great improvement that the House now has more regular debates about health and safety. In the past the House has not spent enough time considering those issues. During an earlier debate we said that it was partly though British initiative in measurement that we have move forward on the European and international level. The British scheme has made that possible. One of our problems hitherto was that we could not achieve international agreement because of disagreement on how to measure this extremely difficult substance.

Most importantly, the Health and Safety Executive, through the factory inspectorate, and using existing legislation under the asbestos regulations of 1969 and relevant provisions of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, gradually moved the asbestos industry towards the standards recommended by the advisory committee on asbestos, which were set out in the draft directive.

We must admit that it takes some time to make the mechanical and other alterations for industry to meet the new, very strict regulations. I felt that the time it had taken to do many of these things might have been shorter. But the more I consider it, the more I believe that we did not lose time during that period because the factory inspectorate was moving the industry, in a direct line that could be plotted, towards meeting stricter and stricter controls.

Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)

Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the factory inspectorate is sufficiently numerous and well equipped — for example, with monitoring devices—to fulfil its functions?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend has made an important point. It is a crucial part of the whole decision. I am informed that currently the factory inspectorate is sufficiently numerous and has sufficient resources to do the job.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)


Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman may disagree, but that is my information. I am taking a personal interest to ensure that that remains the case. In such serious matters we cannot use the arguments that we sometimes use in our debates. There are sufficient resources at present. They have been increasing in real terms since 1979. It is important that we keep an eye on the matter. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens) is especially concerned because of the leadership he has shown about the Fulham power station.

In August 1982 the Health and Safety Commission and the Government decided that Britain could wait no longer for Europe on control limits, and that the control limits recommended by the advisory committee should be introduced from 1 January 1983. We introduced those limits, which were 1 fibre/millilitre for chrysotile —white asbestos; 0.5 fibre/millilitre for amosite—brown asbestos; while retaining a limit of 0.2 fibre millilitre for crocidolite—which effectively rules out its use in manufacturing. That is serious evidence of our great concern. I would have been happier had the whole of Europe moved as quickly as it should have moved. We are part of that Community. Sometimes hon. Members argue about our contribution to it. On this occasion we took a major lead in the changes that have been made.

On 23 August 1983 the commission, on the basis of the reviews for which it had asked, and taking account of the directives that has been adopted, agreed a programme for action on asbestos based on a new framework of legislation. Underpinning this system of controls will be three sets of regulations. I hope that the House will bear with me as I go through them because they are important as an introduction.

The first group is the asbestos licensing regulations which will bring work on asbestos removal under stricter control. They will require a licence for most work with asbestos insulation and coating. That will mean that the licence can be taken away so that we will, in effect, have a register of those companies which are licensed to do this work. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham will be pleased to know that such a register will be available. It will enable people to know that a firm has had a licence from the Health and Safety Executive.

I shall bring the regulations before the House this week and they will come into force next year. This will allow time for applications to be considered, licences to be issued and medical examinations undertaken. The Central Electricity Generating Board has voluntarily accepted that in future it will not sell power stations for demolition until it has supervised the removal of asbestos. All hon. Members will agree that that will remove many of the fears about the sale of a large centre covered with asbestos to a company that might be less than careful about its removal.

I come now to the Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations. On 18 October the Commission approved a consultative document incorporating draft regulations to prohibit the use of certain types of asbestos. If hon. Members wish me to go through those, I shall be happy to do so if, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you allow me to speak again in the debate.

The Commission recommended that these regulations should be introduced by June 1984. This is a tight timescale. The Commission is allowing two months for consultation and the chairman is aiming to submit proposals to the Secretary of State by April next year.

The third set of regulations implements the remaining requirements of the EC directives. As well as implementing the outstanding requirements of the directives — for example, on air monitoring, medical surveillance and record keeping—these regulations and an accompanying approved code of practice will implement the remaining workplace recommendations of the advisory committee on asbestos. The executive is working urgently on this and a draft consultation document will be presented to the Commission by January 1984. I have asked the chairman of the Commission to speed up the consultation process and I hope that final proposals will be agreed before the end of next year.

The Government have been pressing the Commission for the fastest possible timetable and I know that some parts of the industry feel that we have moved too far, too fast. I do not believe that that is true. I understand the concern and worry, but we are dealing with an extremely dangerous substance and it is important that the public should be reassured that people working with asbestos will not be subject to danger.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that if one does not speak seriously about this subject one cannot warn people effectively about the dangers. If, on the other hand, one constantly talks about the dangers, many people are worried unnecessarily. It is a difficult line to walk. It is better to warn people about the dangers, even though one may cause unnecessary worry, than to allow people to do things, as happened recently in one or two cases, not knowing the dangers of the substance with which they were dealing.

We are also taking action on new control limits. The limits will come into force on 1 August 1984. They are based on the conclusions of the Commission's working groups on medical aspects and engineering controls. The limit for crocidolite will remain at 0.2 fibres millilitre; the limit for amosite will be reduced from 0.5 to 0.2 fibres millilitre and that for chrysotile from 1 fibre per millilitre to 0.5 fibres millilitre. The Commission has also stressed that employers will be expected to comply with the limits before the above date wherever possible and the factory inspectorate will be pressing this whenever it can. I again emphasise that this is a tough programme. It is tougher than those to be found almost anywhere else in the world, and I am pleased that we are able to carry it out.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

The Minister has reflected on the Government's reorganisation of the factory inspectorate some years ago on a regional basis and involving a reduction in the factory inspectorate. Does he agree that, apart from rigorous enforcement, heavy sanctions are appropriate and that the current fines are lamentably low? If he is to pursue a tough policy, does he agree that heavy financial penalties are necessary, and will he say what fines he anticipates?

Mr. Gummer

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I answered a similar point at Question Time today. I am not satisfied with the way in which fines are being charged, so to speak, when a case comes up. There is some sign that they are not always taken as seriously as we should hope. We know from experience with the Health and Safety Executive that cases are taken to court only when necessary. Therefore, the more serious cases tend to be brought to court, and that should be reflected in the way in which fines are imposed. It is not for me to comment on that; I merely say that there is a feeling abroad on the issue.

As for the amounts of the fines, I am discussing this matter at present with the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission and will report to the House when I have completed those discussions. I will see what can be done because the hon. Gentleman has raised an important point which I shall not fail to follow up, and I will be in touch with him about it when I have an answer.

The asbestos industry working group is being established. We have agreed its composition and terms of reference. It will be chaired by the area director of the west and north Yorkshire area, who is in charge of the factory inspectorate's national responsibility group for the asbestos manufacturing industry, and we look to that for a great deal of help.

A considerable amount of additional guidance material will be made available, for one of the problems here is the small amount of asbestos which somebody may come across or which may be in a whole area where it was not expected to be. It is vital that suitable guidance material should be available, and we shall do our best to provide it. We are already providing a good deal and I hope that we shall make more available.

The proposals before the House owe much to earlier work. I have set out the Commission's programme for completing the framework of regulations, codes of practice and guidance to control work with asbestos. In the next year this work will be substantially completed. The Commission's proposals are firmly based on the great deal of progress that has been made in the last four years. That has enabled the United Kingdom to move quickly to implement the European directives and actually to lead those directives in the direction in which we wanted them to go, with a great deal more severity than they would otherwise have had.

While this work is being completed, the Health and Safety Executive will continue to ensure, using its existing powers under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, and particularly the asbestos regulations, that work with asbestos is subject to very tight controls indeed.

I am afraid that these problems will be with us for many years. Asbestos substitutes are increasingly making the use of asbestos in manufacture unnecessary, but the trouble is that we have used asbestos widely for many years. We do not always know where it is, there are some areas where we do not have successful substitutes, and hon. Members must accept that in a few areas one must balance one sort of safety against another. I will give one example which concerns me considerably. It is the question of the brakes on lifts in mineshafts. These are crucial to safety in mines. There is no adequate substitute at present for the asbestos component in those brakes. There are other examples, but that is a most startling one. It would be wrong to ban the use of asbestos and then make the cages less safe. It is not an easy matter and I ask hon. Members to be particularly careful in suggesting banning it. That is the sort of attitude with which we all start, but it is not all that easy.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

When the Minister says that there is no alternative to the use of asbestos in brake linings for mineshaft lifts, does he mean that scientifically there is no alternative or that on the same cost-effective basis there is no comparable alternative at a similar price?

Mr. Gummer

I understand that the position is much nearer to the first of those alternatives. There is no satisfactory alternative, even if we do not talk about cost limits. I believe that asbestos performs the task most effectively. I am keeping a close eye on this matter. My instinct is to be tough, because I am sure that that is the approach that the House expects me to adopt.

Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)


Mr. Gummer

I must continue. I should be happy to answer the hon. Lady later.

We have done our best to produce w!aat is some of the toughest legislation in such a large area. Europe has benefited from Britain's determination in this field. We are taking tough measures in those areas where the rest of Europe has failed to proceed as far. I hope that, in general, the House will agree that this is the way to proceed, although I shall be happy to listen to hon. Members and ascertain whether we can undertake other measures to help.

10.51 pm
Mr. John Evans (St Helens, North)

Now that we have returned to more normal times and proceedings after the excitement of an hour or so ago, it is worth mentioning that this is a major subject and the level of attendance in the House at this time of night shows the feelings of hon. Members.

I am especially pleased to participate in the debate when the documents enjoy the excellent title "Protection of Workers and the Marketing and Use of Certain Dangerous Substances and Preparations — Asbestos" because I can make a modest claim that I played an important role in bringing to public attention the dangers of asbestos. In 1977, after an 18-month investigatory period, I produced a report for the European Parliament on the health hazards of asbestos which was adopted by that Parliament in October 1977.

It is interesting to look back on some of the things that I asked for in the resolution that was put before the European Parliament. Paragraph 2 of the report states: Considers, however, that sufficient evidence has accumulated to show that asbestos presents a danger both to workers in the asbestos industry and to those exposed in other situations and that it is time to draw conclusions from this evidence". It is significant that that was written only six years ago. It was not universally accepted at that time.

Paragraph 3 of the report states: Stresses that asbestos is a carcinogen". I have great difficulties with that statement. Much opposition was mounted to try to have that statement watered down and amended. We now accept without dispute that asbestos is a carcinogen. Paragraph 4 of the reports states: Emphasizes that all varieties of asbestos in use in the Community can present a danger to human health". I stress that in 1977 some of these conclusions were being hotly disputed.

Paragraph 7 states: Calls for a ban on crocidolite in all Member States". We have not yet reached that point. I am a little disappointed that in document 9369/82 we are allowing the Germans and the Belgians to carry on using crocidolite. I am more disappointed at what will be inserted after the fourth recital. The paragraph states: Whereas, however there is at present no justification for a total ban on crocidolite (blue asbestos)". I understand the reason for the wording, and the jockeying for position that goes on in the Council of Ministers and the European institutions, with countries always trying to look after their own interests, but I should have preferred a different form of words in this context.

There are no 800 mm diameter pipes using crocidolite in Britain at present, but can the Minister assure the House that if someone wished to use such pipes in Britain, this amendment could not be used to introduce blue asbestos again? In the previous debate on the subject the then Minister said that we would inevitably have a statutory ban on the use of crocidilite in Britain, but we have no such ban as yet.

The major document, 10664/82, is a substantial step forward. It does not go as far as all of us would wish, but I appreciate what the Minister said about getting movement agreed by the 10 member countries. In article 3, new paragraph 2 states that a worker must not be exposed to asbestos for longer than a total of four hours during a 40-hour week. Given the undoubtedly dangerous nature of the substance, does not the Minister think that four hours is too long and that the time should be reduced to one hour? Although we would all wish such exposure to be removed completely, that would not be practicable now.

Article 5 adds the word "extraction", which is of major significance because, as the Minister said, and as the entire country now appreciates, the major problem is in the demolition of old buildings, warships, steelworks and power stations, which are covered in asbestos, much of it blue asbestos. It must be stressed that during the demolition of old factories and the breaking up of old warships and merchantmen, there is a potential danger to residents as well as to workers. Some women and children would not have the faintest idea that they were being exposed to asbestos.

Article 6 introduces the words the entry of respirable fibres into the air". I am not sure what that means, but perhaps the Minister can tell us whether it is significant. Article 12 refers to the protective equipment issued to workers and adds the vital words approved by the responsible authorities". That is significant, because it is diabolical that some employers have issued only paper face masks to workers stripping asbestos. It is essential that the Health and Safety Executive gives instructions on the protective clothing that should be issued to all workers who have contact with asbestos. Article 15 refers to a worker who has inhaled asbestos. It states that No worker shall be exposed … or continue to be exposed to inhaling asbestos at work if, following a medical check, it is considered that this could lead to a deterioration in his health. Would the medical authorities that carried out the check on the worker and decided that he was at risk inform the worker that he had been contaminated by asbestos? That is important for two reasons. The first is that he should not go back to anywhere else where asbestos is used and the second is that he can make a compensation claim against his employers.

Article 16 is also extremely important. The issue is of great significance not only to the worker but to his wife, children and dependants. The article states what facilities there must be for the laundering of the clothes worn by workers stripping asbestos. I understand that those workers are taking their clothes home, to be washed by their wives.

Ms. Richardson

The workers have always taken their clothes home for their wives to wash. My constituency of Barking has a history of workers who worked at Cape having contact with asbestos, and whose wives had to wash their overalls, and contracted asbestosis. It is a common and long-established practice.

Mr. Evans

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I shall refer to that aspect.

An amendment to the directive now lays down that special facilities must be supplied for the laundering of workers' clothes in the undertaking. If there are no special facilities in the undertaking, it states what steps have to be taken to launder the workers' clothes at laundries that can cope with such work. I accept my hon. Friend's point.

Article 18 states flatly: Forms of lung cancer caused by asbestos shall be regarded unconditionally as occupational diseases. It is important that the medical profession is aware of that. Doctors should make sure that when they carry out medical checks and inspections on individuals who are suffering from the effects of asbestos, they ask them about things that have happened that may have brought them into contact with asbestos. We are now aware that contact with asbestos can result in asbestosis, or a form of cancer, after a gap of even as long as 40 years. As the Minister said, that is the nature of the problem.

I worry about our practices in the shipyards and ship repair yards 25 and 30 years ago. I wonder whether I may have been infected by asbestos. None of us was aware of the dangers of asbestos. All the pipes, boilers, heat exchanges and heat pumps were covered with asbestos. It used to be mixed on the floor of the boiler room or engine room. There was dust everywhere. Not only the laggers lagging the pipes but the fitters, electricians and plumbers were in immediate contact with asbestos. As my hon. Friend said, we were taking asbestos home on our boiler suits, and our wives washed them, so our wives and children were put at risk.

When I referred to such matters a few years ago, and certainly in 1977 when I was producing the report, I was accused of being an alarmist and of scaremongering. It is possible to refer to such matters today and not be accused of scaremongering or causing alarm.

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for being an alarmist and a scaremonger because I have information which states that article 16 is in accordance with normal customer practice within United Kingdom industry.

Mr. Evans

I expected that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) would rise to the bait that I offered, and I am pleased that he did. I am prepared to accept that some factories, such as Turner and Newall, have excellent practices for dealing with the problem, but I am referring to a time when there were no facilities to deal with the widespread practices that occurred. The people involved are now being diagnosed as suffering from the effects of asbestos. I suspect that in almost every case where work is now carried out on new buildings involving the use of asbestos almost all of the regulations have been obeyed. It would be incredible to believe that any contractor installing new equipment would disregard the regulations.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)


Mr. Evans

I am speaking generally. My hon. Friend may wish to refer to a particular matter.

The Minister referred to the current problem of extraction. I wish to refer to a press article. I have warned the Minister of this fact. I also wrote to the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang), in whose constituency the yard to which I shall refer is located. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) also has constituents who work in the shipbreaking yard at Caern Ryan on Loch Ryan. The article to be published tomorrow in the magazine City Limits, makes a series of disturbing allegations about the activities taking place in the Caern Ryan yard.

I understand that the yard deals primarily with the breaking up of old warships. Hon. Members will appreciate that those ships contain a great deal of valuable metal, most of which is covered with asbestos in one form or another. The article alleges that the metal, which is covered with blue asbestos, is ripped out by hand or burnt off with oxyacetylene torches, and that the workers employed at the plant have virtually no protection. I understand that asbestos-covered plates, which have been burnt out of the inside of the old ships are often soaked overnight in the waters of the loch so that the seawater can wash the asbestos off the plates. A short time later the asbestos is washed up on the shore, dries out in the sun and is probably more lethal in that form than in any other.

I understand also that the workers are required to provide their own protective clothing and that there are no laundry or washing facilities at the plant. Consequently, the workers are obliged to take their working clothes home, thereby endangering their wives and children. Will the Minister read the article and investigate the allegations? If the allegations are correct, will he take the necessary action to ensure that this does not continue to occur?

I wish to deal with the role played by Government bodies and nationalised industries in this matter. I believe that the time has come when the Ministry of Defence, which is constantly scrapping old warships, should not palm them off to the first suitable tender from a subcontractor without giving any further thought to the matter, or worrying about the consequences of what happens when the ship is broken up. Will the Minister take this up with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that it has regard to the problem?

Many old power stations are also reaching the end of their useful life and there have already been scandals relating to the stripping of those stations. Again, the CEGB as a publicly owned industry cannot pass off its responsibilities in this respect. The same applies to the clearing of old steelworks and the demolition of old schools in which asbestos was widely used.

With regard to the Government's responsibility in this I recognise the Minister's interest, but we cannot be satisfied that the Health and Safety Executive has enough inspectors to carry out the task. If work is carried out which contravenes the regulations, the sanctions must be penal. Otherwise, the people responsible will simply laugh at us and carry on as before, putting at risk not just their workers but workers' wives and children and local residents.

I assure the Minister that if he brings in legislation to deal with that problem he will have the support of the Opposition.

11.11 pm
Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

First, I should declare the fact that I own 1,300 shares in Turner and Newall Limited, — out of a total issue of 108 million. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame!"] Hon. Members may say, "Shame!", but some of us believe in demonstrating in practical terms our confidence in the industries in our constituencies.

With regard to the EC directives on asbestos, I note that the Government's motion welcomes the achievement by the Community and also the Government's success in reaching agrecrnent … without reduction in the standards of protection cf United Kingdom workers". I am delighted to know that, but the motion is ironic in that the standards proposed for other EC countries are lower than those which will apply in the United Kingdom from 1 August 1984 and they will not apply until 1987.

That is my main criticism of the EC directives and the Government's attitude to them. The Government demand one standard from United Kingdom manufacturers but are willing to settle for a lower standard from EC competitors.

Mr. Rogers

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Smith

I will not give way at this stage.

That is the attitude of a Government who are supposed to be competitor-conscious and biased towards British industry. I should make it clear that I am appealing not for any lowering of British standards but for an increase in the standards to be applied to our EC competitors. I urge the Minister to carry out the pledge that he has give today and to press strongly for the standards to be applied in the United Kingdom in 1984 to be applied throughout the EC at the earliest possible date.

Mr. Rogers


Mr. Smith

The Minister referred to substitutes for asbestos. It is clearly necessary to ensure in producing such substitutes we do not produce a substance which is as great or even greater a danger to the health of those producing it as the asbestos products now being produced.

Mr. Rogers

When he talks about standards relating to the control of asbestos within the EC, would the hon. Member not agree that some of the 10 different member states have much higher standards than those proposed in the directive? It is wrong to speak in generic terms of the EC. Standards in the Federal Republic of Germany are far in advance of the standards being proposed.

Mr. Smith

With respect, I do not agree with the basis of that argument. Even if it were correct, we are talking about directives to be introduced by the EC for EC member countries. Those directives are not of the standards that are to be applied to the United Kingdom industry as from 1 August 1984.

The House will recall that Yorkshire Television produced a film called "Alice: A Fight for Life". In that documentary Yorkshire Television told blatant lies about TBA Industrial Products Ltd, which has its factory in my constituency. It accused the company of withholding pages of evidence from the advisory committee on asbestos when the very pages that the company was accused of withholding were published by the Simpson committee in its findings.

That film would have been as good and as important if Yorkshire Television had chosen to stick to the truth, deal with the facts and attack the villains of industry rather than blatantly sensationalise a human situation which gives no joy to anyone. I hope that Yorkshire Television will behave more responsibly in future.

As a result of that film the Government set up two working parties under Acheson and Gardiner. After seeing the film and considering all the evidence put before it by Yorkshire Television the medical committee of that inquiry concluded: we have not found any material which was available to the Advisory Committee on Asbestos which on reconsideration would have altered the conclusions in our previous report; The conclusion of the previous report, I remind the House, was that the public at large are not at risk. None the less, the Health and Safety Executive, because of the film by Yorkshire Television, and the hysterical pressure that it was designed to cause — for political rather than industrial safety reasons, some of us may feel—decided that British regulations should be amended.

So, without reference to the House until tonight, it has been decreed that as from 1 August 1984 control regulations in the United Kingdom shall apply to a measurement of 0.5 fibres per millilitre or below, whereas the regulations for the EC, not to be introduced until 1 January 1987, will apply to anything below 1.0 fibres per millilitre but above 0.5. In other words, where the regulations leave off in this country, they start to apply in the rest of the EC. I emphasise that the EC will reach present British standards of what is considered safe in 1987.

Even when the directives are enforced, they will regulate for only half of the standard being demanded and implemented in the United Kingdom by the Health and Safety Executive. To reach the standards that the United Kingdom industry is expected to reach—I am surprised that the Minister did not refer to this—United Kingdom industry will be involved in millions of pounds worth of investment between now and August 1984. When the Minister refers to speeding up the programme, he should bear in mind the fact that the investment capital required by British industry to meet the regulations is already causing financial problems. To speed the process up further would cause even greater financial problems.

Although British industry will require investment capital, EC industries will not — and they are our competitors. What is more, when those millions of pounds have been invested—it is right that they should be—it is likely that the rate of productivity will be slowed down as the machines will have to run more slowly, so as to produce less dust. If the Minister wants to protect British industry's competitiveness, it is important that he press for the same standards to be applied in the EC. Thousands of people are employed by the British asbestos industry and it is not true that the British trade union movement opposes the present position. That is certainly not true for shop stewards at TBA Industrial Products Ltd. in Rochdale. The Labour party cannot speak for the entire trade union movement on this matter.

I am delighted that United Kingdom asbestos workers are to be better protected than their EC counterparts, but I wish that the Government had also recognised the need to protect their jobs by objecting to the unfair competition that the directives create. The problem is that competition does not come only from the EC. It comes from other countries which practise virtually no dust control. I strongly hope that imports into the EC from such countries will be closely monitored.

It is widely recognised that blue asbestos or crocidolite is far more dangerous than white asbestos or chrysotile. The British industry has voluntarily banned the use of blue asbestos since 1970. It has not taken much credit for that. I agree with the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) that it is regrettable that the directives allow blue asbestos to be used in other EC countries, albeit only under certain special conditions.

In my speech to the House on 22 October 1981, c. 461 in Hansard, I expressed the hope that the Minister and the United Kingdom would press for the total banning of building asbestos throughout not only the United Kingdom but the whole of the EC. I am sorry that the Minister has failed to achieve that, assuming that he undertook to do so.

Article 8 is the best part of the directives. On this I compliment the Government because the article ensures a common European method of measuring airborne asbestos. As there will be a common measuring method, there will be standardisation and harmonisation. It is important to ensure that all laboratories engaged in such work shall become accredited laboratories and shall participate in regular cross-county exercises as advocated by the Health and Safety Executive and by the asbestos industry.

I welcome the proposals in article 12, especially those proposals that relate to personal protective equipment. In the United Kingdom respirators are approved by the Health and Safety Executive, but I am told by the industry that sensible agreements need to be reached between the executive and the United Kingdom companies on what is protective clothing and what is not, because of the diversity of sampling frequencies and variations in dust counts.

I welcome article 18, although it does nothing to help with the problem of positively identifying lung cancer or its causes. There is overwhelming evidence to prove that smoking by asbestos workers in asbestos factories can heighten the risk of cancer to those workers. I put forward a suggestion that would be welcomed by the employers' side of the industry and that the Minister might discuss with the trade union movement, which is seriously and properly concerned about the health of its members. The trade union movement should join the employers in agreeing to ban all cigarette smoking in asbestos factories.

Paragraph 2(a) in annex 1 needs some clarifying, which I hope the Minister will provide. Does it relate only to finished products and/or asbestos sheet that may be contained in building structures — such as asbestos concrete roofs or lagging insulation? When it says "other forms" does that include other forms included in the production process? In the same annex 1, paragraph 3 needs some clarification as to what is "a danger to health". Again, opinions differ on that matter.

Nothing in these EC directives is exceptional. They ensure that what the United Kingdom industry is doing today in 1983, the rest of the EC will have to do from 1 January 1987. They also ensure that what the United Kingdom industry does from 1 August 1984, the rest of the EC can, if it wishes, get away with not doing. It perhaps proves again that, in the matter of the safety of workers, the responsible members of the United Kingdom asbestos industry are the teachers of Europe, not the learners.

None the less, the directives are a step forward for the EC, and that is to be welcomed. The standardisation of methods of measurement is particularly welcome. Asbestos is a dangerous substance. No one denies that. Anything that helps to protect the health of those who work with it, whether in the United Kingdom or anywhere else in the world, is to be welcomed.

In this country we have the highest regard for the work of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive. They implement high standards, especially in companies of a particular size, where they are meticulous. We must now hope that member countries of the EC will be as diligent in applying the rules of these directives, and that United Kingdom Ministers will, as the motion says, pursue the intention of seeking early agreement on further restrictions on the marketing and use of asbestos fibres. The object of that pursuit must be to raise EC standards to United Kingdom standards, and thus protect the competitive capacity of the United Kingdom industry.

11.30 pm
Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)

I hope that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) will forgive me if I interpret his speech as being in some respects rather grudging of the advances that have been made in this country—although I do not accept that they are enough—simply because they are not matched by those made by some other countries in the European Community. I look forward to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), because he clearly knows more than I do about the regulations of other member states.

I accept that in some respects we are ahead of other member states, but we have taken a tremendously long time to get where we are now. For my constituents, that means generations. I had in my constituency the firm of Cape Industries. It was there for many years, and left in the 1950s. Still daily—I repeat, daily—we get cases of asbestosis among people who worked for or were associated with the firm. One hears of tragedy after tragedy. Nothing is too much, and no regulations are too severe, to counteract this disease.

We could not have had this debate 10 years ago, because it would have been incomprehensible to the majority of people. Now the whole subject of asbestos and asbestosis is widely recognised. I welcome that, because we should not sweep such matters under the carpet. We should have them in the open, and decide in what respect our regulations are lax and should be improved.

The hon. Member for Rochdale defended the firms in his constituency and other firms of great repute in this country. What he is really saying is that they should have done something a long time ago. They may be disadvantaged by EC regulations, because the United Kingdom is further ahead and therefore the competition from Europe may be greater. However, if we had led the way earlier, five or 10 years ago, we should not be in this position today.

Asbestosis is not confined to workers in the industry. There are many "casual" workers connected with the industry who are discovering that they have it. Some of them may have worked at a firm producing asbestos or asbestos products for only two or three weeks five or 10 years ago, but they have discovered that they are at risk of contracting asbestosis.

Only last week a woman came to my surgery and told me that her brother had died a few months ago, having worked for one of the three firms that delivered material to Cape Industries before the second world war. After the war he left that employment to do something else and he had contracted asbestosis only relatively recently. His contact with the material was traced back to the years when he worked as a deliverer before the war. We should consider streamlining the regulations for no-fault compensation and for the benefits that come through the Department of Health and Social Security—I accept that this issue extends wider than the remit of the Minister's Department—so that it is simpler for ordinary folk to obtain the benefits which they deserve and which they should have, both during their life and, when they are dead, for their families.

The effect of asbestos on the environment is increasing in importance because of its use in buildings over the past 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years or more. Local authorities are having a difficult time in trying to come to grips with the problem when they acquire information about asbestos which has been used in public buildings and in housing which is under their control. It is unfair that authorities should bear the entire responsibility for the removal of asbestos — I appreciate that the matter does not lie directly with the Minister—and its replacement with other materials, especially where large-scale replacement operations are required. We have heard about the Wandsworth experience and I am s Ire that in my constituency and in many others there are large public buildings and housing estates that are full of asbestos. It should be removed, but the responsibility for so doing should not rest solely with the local authority. That applies financially and to the research that should be undertaken by the Government to enable authorities to carry out the work in the best possible way.

There is a road in the borough which is in my constituency—it comes within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) —in which the houses are owned by the London borough of Newham. Over the past years some of the houses have been sold to the tenants, who are now the owner-occupiers. The borough of Newham has decided to replace the roofs of the dwellings that it owns because they contain asbestos. I applaud the authority for taking that initiative. The replacement work started recently. Those who have bought their houses from the London borough of Newham have applied for grants from the local authority in order to replace their roofs because they fear what might happen otherwise. Some of the houses in the road are privately owned and some are council owned. Thanks to the Labour-controlled London borough of Newham, the council houses are being done.

I shall not go into an argument about why the owner-occupiers bought their houses, because that is a matter for them. However, they have applied for a grant to do the same work. They have been refused, not because the London borough of Barking to which they applied is unwilling to give it to them, but because, apparently, the regulations do not recognise that asbestos is a dangerous product. Therefore, that must also be considered. It is no good just looking at the regulations affecting workers and saying how good the United Kingdom Government are. I accept that we are better than most EC countries, but the situation has now gone far beyond that. There s.tiould be an across-the-board departmental committee — perhaps there is already—to look at that whole issue.

Recently I came across a copy of a draft leaflet that was provided by the Department of the Environment and the

Welsh Office. It is headed "Draft 3". I suspect that it will be headed "Draft 99" by the time that it reaches the public. However, it is entitled "Information Note on Asbestos in Housing". It is for free distribution to the public. It was sent to the Association of Metropolitan Authorities for its consideration. It, in turn, quite properly sent it to its member local authorities. I am not involved in that sense, but I was given a copy because of my interest in the subject. The date in question is August or September of this year. The leaflet reads rather like "Protect and Survive". There is a very good description of asbestos. There is then a description of where asbestos is used in housing. It then describes the various types of asbestos-cement, insulating board, building materials and so on. The document then asks how asbestos products can be identified.

I remind the House that when the leaflet has been put into its final form, it is to be distributed to the public. It then tells the public what to do about asbestos building materials. This leaflet is being produced to send not to properly licensed contractors, but to ordinary people. It: Asbestos materials which are sound and undamaged and not releasing dust can be left in place. Do not disturb them unnecessarily. They can be painted to prevent fibre release. Emulsion paint can be used on insulation board, but asbestos-cement needs an alkali-resistant primer. Do not rub down before painting. If they are damaged or releasing dust the materials should be removed. If they provided fire protection, replace them with material of equal fire resistance"— if one should know what they are. Do not saw or drill asbestos material. If it is being removed … use a contractor. Otherwise, and here we go— Work outside if possible; open the windows if you have to work indoors; keep other people away from the work area; remove whole sheets or components—do not break them up; wet the material (provided there is no contact with electricity); do not work overhead; work gently and do not use power tools; spread a plastic sheet under the working area to collect the dust; clean up settled dust with a damp cloth and seal in a plastic bag whilst still damp". So it goes on. At the end the leaflet suggests what should be done with the material collected up. It is to be put in a strong plastic bag and the local authority is to be told to collect it. The buck is passed yet again, people having presumably been exposed to considerable risk.

I have delayed the House by quoting the leaflet because it is absurd. If we are even to consider issuing such a leaflet—which I have no doubt will be revised and made less absurd by the expert advice of the Association of Municipal Authorities and its member authorities—the Government should look beyond the rather narrow scope of the debate and set up cross-departmental committees. The Departments of the Environment, Health and Social Security, Employment and so on should get together.

The whole of the country — indeed, the whole of Europe—now understands the dangers of asbestos, not only at work but in the environment. I hope that the Government will put a jerk into their actions and ensure that people in future—we cannot guarantee those in the present—will be safe from this killer material.

11.51 pm
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

In some respects it is not inappropriate that the debate should follow our discussion on the Trade Union Bill. Some hard, and at times ill-informed, comments about trade unions were made today. It must now be said that the trade union movement has been consistently in the vanguard of the move to expose the murderous way in which asbestos has been casually treated.

I take this opportunity to praise the "Alice: A Fight for Life" programme which did so much to heighten public consciousness of the issue. The trade union movement has consistently pressed for stringent precautions to be taken in the handling of asbestos — not only in the manufacturing process but in the equally important construction and demolition industries.

Before being elected to the House I had the honour to serve the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union as a full-time officer in the northern region. Part of my duties involved industrial health and safety, and part common law matters. My union has encouraged and, perhaps more significantly, financed, pioneering legislation for asbestos-induced cancers. The northern region is justly proud of its part in that.

It is important to remind the House that the victims of asbestos-induced cancer are working people or their kin—people with no accumulated wealth, who could not have financed their own protracted, civil litigation against the wealthy multinational conglomerates that have caused them such terrible, cruel and, ultimately, fatal injuries. People in such circumstances can look only to their trade unions for support. There is no other institution in our society today that will take up a case for an ordinary, working person who has suffered such a terrible injury. Unions are justly proud of their fight for people who have been wronged. They have fought against the very rich and very powerful. That is a job that the trade union movement does alone.

The saddest job that I have ever had to do was to take responsibility for the involvement of the northern region of my union in asbestos-induced cancer common law cases. To watch healthy people wither away to skeletons before dying is absolutely heartbreaking. It is hard to tell a man who thinks that he is healthy—I see that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) is leaving the Chamber. —

Mr. Cyril Smith

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not leaving the Chamber, but simply taking my notes to the Attendant.

Mr. Brown

There is nothing twittish about dying of asbestos-induced cancer. It is hard to tell such a man that the union has obtained £70,000 for him. People are not fools. If they are given a large sum of money they realise that it is for a purpose. The saddest thing that I have ever had to do was to tell someone that we had got him a large sum of money. He burst into tears, not of joy but because he realised why he been given a large sum of money. He is now dead.

The most upsetting aspect of the common law side is a case in which the victim is dying and the insurance company, acting for the employers, deliberately delays proceedings because the compensation payment to a victim's next of kin is substantially less than to the victim himself. Insurance companies use that despicable tactic.

The regulations are important. Working people in the thermal insulation and construction industries, and indeed the general public, look to the House to prevent employers from causing industrial cancer. It is no use for the industry to pretend that blue asbestos is the dangerous one that is not used and that white asbestos is not nearly such a bad thing. It is a bad thing. We are talking about degrees, not absolutes, and the myth that white asbestos is gentle must be nailed. It is unsatisfactory that the main deterrent in the handling of asbestos should be the threat of trade unions taking common law cases on behalf of their members after the event.

Before I leave the issue of common law cases I should like to urge the House and the Minister to consider carefully the introduction at some future stage of no-fault legislation for the victims of asbestos-induced cancer. The difficulty of proving exactly when it happened, in what circumstances and whether the manufacturer rather than the employer at the time should be sued sometimes produces an unfair result for the victim. No-fault legislation is needed.

Do the regulations meet our purpose, which is to ensure the safety of workers and the general public? If we do not get this right, the licensing regulations will be a licence to kill and nothing else. I am sorry that the Health and Safety Executive has turned down the proposal of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union that Government inspectors should be supplemented by experienced worker-inspectors drawn from the industry itself. As that will not happen, will extra Health and Safety Executive inspectors be drafted in to enforce the regulations? Will there be fresh recruitment into the inspectorate? The policy will not work unless it is enforced. What attitude will be adopted to sanctions? There will not be prior inspection when licences are issued so may we have an assurance that any breach of the law will mean that the licence is revoked or, at the very least, that it will be revoked following a successful prosecution?

It is fairly easy at the moment to set up as an asbestos consultant. The industry has its rogues and they must be controlled. I was a little disturbed when the Minister said that a licence will be required for most work with asbestos. I may have misunderstood him, but if a licence is required for most work, for what work with asbestos will a licence not be required?

With the current staffing of the Health and Safety Executive there has been a shift away from the field-work side of enforcing the law towards a rather more policy-making role of writing guidance notes about the law. That is worrying and I am told that it is having an effect both on health and safety standards and on the morale of the service.

There is the problem of the EC directive, which lays down duties that are currently triggered off only by an action level, to which the Minister referred, of 0.25 fibres per cc. That means that large sections of the asbestos manufacturing industry are exempt or are getting past some of the regulations, one of which is the duty to provide medical surveillance. May I have an assurance that those provisions will be firmly enforced?

There appear in the 1969 legislation a whole series of requirements which are called "practicable duties." I hope that those duties will continue to be treated as practicable ones and that the phrase "reasonably practicable" will not be used in its place. There is a fear, particularly on the trade union side, that some erosion is intended. While that could not be drawn from the Minister's opening remarks, perhaps he will say that that fear is unfounded.

The trade union side, particularly my union, has called for some time for an environmental control limit. Will that suggestion be adopted? The idea has received widespread support from, among others, the Institute of Environmental Health Officers and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. To talk of using the occupational control limit, which the Health and Safety Executive sometimes does when dealing with asbestos, is not fair, because that limit is not used by the executive in other areas; the executive itself says that it is not appropriate for, for example, carbon monoxide. I therefore appeal for a specific environmental control limit for asbestos.

Following the "Alice: A Fight for Life" programme, we were told that an advice booklet would be published. The current booklet, "Asbestos and You", is very much out of date. Consultations have taken place and I understand that drafts have been drawn up for a new leaflet about asbestos. When is it scheduled to appear?

A large number of public buildings, particularly schools and hospitals, have enormous amounts of asbestos in them. Some that has been there for some time is flaking and crumbling, and it is when asbestos deteriorates and turns to dust that it is at its most dangerous. Can the Minister say what financial assistance to local authorities and area health authorities is being made available to help them deal with the problems that they face?

The hon. Member for Rochdale rightly referred to the connection between smoking and asbestos-induced cancers. There is some evidence to show that smokers are more suspectible to contracting an asbestos-induced cancer if they are exposed to asbestos. We should be fighting for the right of a person, regardless of his job, to smoke if he wants to. In a free society that is a decision that grown-up people should make for themselves and it should not be said that only people who do not smoke should work in circumstances where they will have a slightly reduced chance of contracting an asbestos-induced cancer. The working environment should be made such that nobody faces that risk.

11.59 pm
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

These directives come at a time when public awareness of the dangers of asbestos is acute. It should be remembered—it has been said already, but I believe that the point hears re-emphasising — that all asbestos kills: blue, brown and white. It should be remembered also that it is a long time since the first warnings of the dangers of asbestos were given to the Government. The Home Office first received official warning of the dangers 77 years ago. Those of us who have taken an interest in these matters over the years know that multinational companies have considerable vested interests in the asbestos industry. They have sought to conceal and camouflage the dangers of all types of asbestos and spent enormous sums in trying to propagate the idea that asbestos is good and to ensure that claims for compensation are not brought into court or, if so, were settled out of court.

It is important that those of us who are worried should praise the investigative journalists of Yorkshire Television and elsewhere who have brought the dangers of asbestos to public attention and done much to give effect to the directives before us and bring the Government's action in recent years to fruition. Without those revelations, little would have been done—just as little had been done since 1906 when the Home Office was officially informed of the dangers of asbestos.

If we have any doubts about asbestos dangers, we should take note of what happened here. Some years ago, it was discovered that there were deposits of asbestos within the Palace of Westminster. Within days, action was taken to remove quickly and professionally all the asbestos that was found in the Palace. That is an example to the rest of the country.

I hope that no one will be prepared to accept any suggestion, from whatever quarter, that asbestos is anything other than an extremely dangerous substance that kills a great number of people. The latest figures show that in 1981 there were 246 fatalities from asbestosis and a further 421 deaths from asbestos-related cancers. It should be remembered that only one in three of the widows of those who died have received the industrial benefits to which they are entitled, and which at present amount to the princely sum of 55p a week.

When we examine the rosy messages which emanate from the Asbestos Information Centre Ltd., which over the years has spent millions of pounds propagating the so-called benefits of asbestos, we put the message into perspective and always err on the side of caution.

The directives apply to all workers who are exposed to a specified concentration of asbestos for more than four hours in a working week. As others have done, I urge the Minister to pay attention to those who come into contact with asbestos on a more casual basis—certainly not on the basis specified in these directives. There is considerable evidence to show that many of those who contract asbestosis and the related cancers are only casually exposed to asbestos dust. It is important for the Government to bear that in mind and to take action to account for the dangers to which many people are exposed when they come into contact briefly with small amounts of asbestos. We must remember that it is a progressive disease that does not show itself until 10, 15 or 20 years after exposure to relatively small quantities of asbestos over short periods.

My hon. Friends the Members for Barking (Ms. Richardson) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) mentioned compensation. It is important that the Government should move rapidly towards the establishment of a compensation scheme that is independent of the pneumoconiosis medical panels. Many of us who have had contact with those panels are extremely dissatisfied with their composition, the way in which they carry out their diagnoses and the great meanness displayed in assessing disability benefit. I hope that the Government will ensure that independent compensation schemes are established so that those who contract asbestosis can speedily claim compensation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East suggested, it is important to move towards a no-fault compensation scheme. This would have the merit of providing compensation more promptly than is often the case today. We must also guard against such a scheme resulting in lower compensation payments being made than would otherwise be the case through individual claims. However, overall, the benefits of a no-fault scheme outweigh the disadvantages that are often alleged for such schemes.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Barking in urging the Government to do much more than they have hitherto in informing the public about the risk of contracting asbestosis from the environment. I join her wholeheartedly in urging the Government to make available funds to local authorities and others to deal with the considerable costs that often arise from combating asbestosis which comes from the environment. The Minister should tell the House what will happen with the dumping of asbestos waste if the Government proceed with their ludicrous plan to abolish county councils—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. We have had a wide debate and I have been patient, but the hon. Gentleman must direct his remarks to the directives.

Mr. Madden

I bear your cautionary remarks in mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I think that I have said enough for the Minister to take my point. I should be grateful if he would write to me about this matter.

I am pleased that progress is being made in securing several alternatives to the use of asbestos. It is interesting that the CEGB has said that it will make no new use of asbestos, and that the police, who have been involved in trials with asbestos-free brakes, reported that such brakes last three times as long as asbestos-lined brakes. It is interesting that Turner and Newall have removed 80 per cent. of the asbestos used in textile production. I understand that Cape Asbestos Fibre Company Ltd. is no longer using asbestos in the United Kingdom, and that Eternit expects not to be using asbestos within five years. That shows that progress is being made, and offers an example to many other companies to pursue alternatives. I remind those involved that funds are available through the European social fund not only for securing alternatives but for retraining workers in the asbestos industry.

There should be no shred of complacency by the Government or anybody else. If it has taken 77 years to reach this point, we have every right to urge that action from here on in is extremely rapid and that enforcement is rigorously made. I urge the Government to ensure that there are sufficient factory inspectors to make enforcement a reality. The fines involved should be considerably increased from the present ones.

I welcome the directives, but I hope that no one in industry will use the arguments of the hon. Member for Rochdale that industrial competitiveness compels industry not to make progress towards eliminating the use of asbestos or to adopt the standards set out in the directives. Those commercial arguments have been used for generations, so that working people's lives are put in danger. In the debate we must say that profits cannot come before the well-being and the lives of working people who produce the wealth of the multinational companies, which for generations have disregarded the dangers to which they have exposed the people who create their wealth.

I welcome the directives, and hope that the progress that has been outlined will be followed through rigorously by the Government. They are responsible not only to the hundreds who have died from this wretched substance over the years but to the hundreds who will die in the years to come.

12.12 am
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

The Minister said that the rest of Europe had failed to go as far as we would like. In many countries there are less strict regulations than in Britain. They owe much to pressure from asbestos manufacturing companies on the continent that have successfully fought off proposals before the EC to ban completely certain types of asbestos and tighten controls on others. Our regulations are lesser derivatives of the proposals before the EC.

That strengthens my view that the EC can come to agreements on only the lowest common denominator, which no one will argue with. While of importance to the House, the regulations should not be seen as a reason to stop the Health and Safety Commission and other institutions in British society from going further.

That view is backed up by the person who is to be the new chief scientist at the Department of Health and Social Security, Professor Ernest Acheson, who in August this year told the Government that there should be a complete stop to the manufacture and importing of asbestos. He has produced an atlas of cancer that analyses the areas in which cases of cancer are most prevalent. He compares the productive processes in those areas, for example, around ports and dockyards, where shipyard workers inhale large quantities of asbestos from lagging in ships. The map spotlights Barrow, where the incidence of one form of cancer is 17 times the national average.

Other black spots are Plymouth, Portsmouth, Chatham, Tyneside, Teesside, Merseyside, and Southampton, and the textile mills of Wigan, Rochdale and Leeds. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) mentioned, the gestation rates for those cancers are so long that large numbers of people who worked at factories that closed 15 or 20 years ago are not expected to suffer from cancer until the mid-1980s. The factory in Barking to which my hon. Friend referred is a case in point.

The new chief scientist at the Department of Health and Social Security is calling not for a modification in the inhalation levels of fibrous substances which may be cancerous, of which asbestos is one but for a ban on the importation and manufacture of such substances.

One problem involves the views of Britain and the rest of the European Community. On 23 August the Health and Safety Commission made stringent recommendations, to which the Minister referred, for banning the importation and use in manufacturing processes of brown and blue asbestos. In what percentages are brown and blue asbestos still used? If the Minister cannot answer that question immediately, perhaps he will write to me. I believe that 95 per cent. of industry does not use brown or blue asbestos. While the fact is welcomed, it means that the new rules will have little effect on the risks that still exist.

Recommendations have been put forward to halve the control limit for white asbestos, otherwise known as chrysotile. I want to establish how the levels are worked out. My relatively recent election to the House might belie the fact that I have some experience of asbestos. I worked, some years ago, in a factory that made brake linings not dissimilar to those referred to by the Minister. The factory also made linings for gearboxes for trains and for marine applications.

Five or six years ago a problem arose in that factory, which was a subsidiary of British Leyland. The drilling of the brake linings took place on the shop floor and the shop stewards tried to deal with the matter. Initially discussions took place about the provisions for more masks and goggles. The view seemed to be that it was the workers' fault that they had to deal with dangerous substances. The management finally agreed to install proper vacuum extraction equipment at the factory arid the fibres were removed from the manufacturing process in a relative safe manner.

Having examined the recommendations of the Health and Safety Commission, I sought to investigate the basis on which such levels could be assessed. To measure amounts of fibre as small as 0.5 fibres per millilitre is an extremely difficult task. That is the reason why people talk about eliminating the danger completely.

The Health and Safety Commission was responsible for producing the Simpson report, which states that the Committee has been unable to identify a threshold limit below which there is no evidence of ar, adverse effect.

The trade union movement has long campaigned for the abolition of any unsafe working practice which affects life or limb. If it is not possible to identify a threshold below which there is no adverse effect, despite the reduction in the fibre levels as recommended by the Health and Safety Commission, other evidence does not suggest that the current threshold will be sufficient in 10, 15 or 20 years to protect from cancer and asbestosis those workers who operate in such an atmosphere. Where do the figures originate? I am reliably informed that the limit as proposed by the Health and Safety Commission in August is half that proposed by the Simpson Committee a few years earlier. Those limits produced an acceptable risk of mortality of 1 per cent.

A recent article in Medical News states: The figure of one dead worker in 10,000 has been used to set control limits for exposure to radiation — an excess mortality of 0.01 per cent. The asbestos industry has claimed that it would have to shut down if measures to reduce risk to 1 in 1,000 (0.1 per cent. excess mortality) were introduced. The acceptable risk is therefore taken as 1 in 100 (1 per cent. excess mortality) —that is, the unnecessary death of one worker in every 100 as a result of the industrial process to which they are exposed.

That means that even if the recommendations described by the Minister halve the level recommended by the Simpson committee the exposure risk will still be one death per 200 workers. There are 20,000 people working in the industry, so one can quantify how many will die in future months and years, even with the improved standards. I mention the youth training scheme not in an opportunistic way but because it is relevant to the debate. Last Wednesday I led a delegation to see the Minister responsible for the scheme at the Department of Employment. With me on that occasion was a young lad who had just left a training for life scheme in Brighton which had been closed down when it was discovered that the kids on the scheme were working with blue asbestos. Inspectors have now moved in to ensure that that does not happen again, but it strengthens the argument. It is essential that the Health and Safety Executive should inspect every scheme before any young person is allowed to go on it because if that can happen in Brighton there must be other examples in other parts of the country.

The Health and Safety Executive took on 30 new inspectors this year in the first recruitment exercise for four years, but that will do not more than reduce the number of vacancies not filled in the past 12 months. It will do nothing to replace the 200 factory inspectors and health and safety inspectors lost in the past three and a half years. However well intentioned the regulations and however much statistical evidence is produced to back them up, any proposal to halve the permitted fibre level or improve the conditions for workers will be effective only if it is backed by the professional expertise of the health and safety inspectors to force employers, who have traditionally been reluctant to take any initiative themselves, to take the necessary action.

A recent written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) about financial help to education authorities which wished to remove asbestos from schools stated that: It is for local education authorities to order their priorities within the resources available to them." —[Official Report. 31 October 1983; Vol. 46, c. 283.] What is the point in the House debating asbestos levels and the diseases caused by them as a national priority if the buck is passed to local councils, already working on restricted budgets and having suffered cuts in their funds, so that they have to choose between, say, keeping a nursery or a school open, keeping meals on wheels cheap or removing asbestos from a school in which children are at risk from asbestosis in the future? The Government have accepted that power stations must be checked and asbestos removed before disposal of the sites. The Government should take an equal responsibility for schools and other buildings in which asbestos is known to exist and ensure that its removal is funded without further penalising already hard pressed local councils.

In reply to a question by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) on 29 July about possible improvements in methods of contacting and following up those who may have had earlier contact with recently discovered asbestos use the Minister said: There are no central agencies for making such contacts". He was doubtful whether practicable arrangements could be introduced on a general basis."—[Official Report, 29 July 1983; Vol. 46, c. 651.] Will the Minister tell us tonight whether that is reasonable, given the long period of gestation of diseases associated with asbestos—15, 20, 25 or 30 years? Of course, there will be practical difficulties in tracing people, but if it was say, Legionnaire's disease in a tourist centre, which received publicity, ways and means would be found to check. For instance, in breweries, private companies have contacted every cellarman and everyone who worked in certain pubs and have had them X-rayed and checked for possible effects of asbestos. Because of the long period of gestation of asbestosis and cancer caused by asbestos only Government agencies have the records to contact everyone.

Any debate that discusses ways and means of improving the health and safety of working conditions in this country or in Europe is to be welcomed. Two things have emerged from the debate. Action is taken only when there has been pressure from a trade union movement which has been campaigning for decades, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) said earlier, to eliminate such a danger, or when there has been publicity. It is no accident that the Health and Safety Commission has taken action in recent weeks following the Yorkshire Television programme, in the same way as it is no accident that it has made proposals to amend the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 following the "TV Eye" programme in July. Publicity and pressure from working people push the Government and firms to act.

The final responsibility for funding the removal of asbestos and following up those who might be affected must lie with the companies that have made millions of pounds of profit out of the exploitation of this product. It would be interesting to see the profit figures for, say, the past 10, 20 or 30 years of some of the firms that have been mentioned in the debate to quantify how much money is being made out of the use this substance when for 50 or 60 years it has been known from various reports that it is dangerous. The responsibility is clear. Those who have made blood money out of the deaths of working people should cough up and make the necessary arrangements to ensure that no more lingering deaths occur. That can come about only when the use of asbestos is banned and people are not forced to work with such dangerous substances.

12.29 am
Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

Most of the points which I wanted to make have been covered by my hon. Friends. I am speaking partly in answer to provocation by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith), who made some outrageous remarks.

The debate has produced a synthesis of the problem of acknowledgement of diseases in the industry and the compensation that ought to accrue to sufferers. The problem of asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma have been identified and well known for a long time.

It is odd that the Minister has colleagues in the European Parliament who have bitterly opposed the introduction of the directive. I remember a conference in Brussels which the asbestos lobby and industries such as those in the constituency of the hon. Member for Rochdale attended to tell us how nice and clean it was to work in the asbestos industry. The Tories turned up and supported the asbestos lobby's propositions. I am sorry for the Minister having to introduce this document when it was so vigorusly opposed by his colleagues on the other side of the water. That is not unusual. He might suggest to the leader of the Conservative party, in his other capacity, that she ought to get them into line.

The directive is only a first step. Asbestos will be banned and the vested interests of companies such as Turner and Newall Ltd. will be trodden into the ground. It is a company that oversees asbestos production from the extraction from the ground to its being dumped on the unknowing consumer. The problem of people such as the hon. Member for Rochdale is that they have not woken up to the situation. While British asbestos producers have sat back and produced products that comprise asbestos, the Germans have, yet again, leapt well ahead of us in developing alternatives. We do not need asbestos to make any of the products in which it is now used. There are adequate substitutes for all of them. So long as the ostriches who keep their heads in the sand look after vested interests, the British economy will fall behind those of its European competitors.

Asbestos is yet another example of Britain losing its way in the race. I understand why the hon. Member for Rochdale feels strongly about retaining the industry but it is a great shame that those who control it did not wake up, find and market the effective alternatives before our EC competitors.

Mr. Cyril Smith

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that less than half of the production of the company to which he referred is in asbestos? Is he further aware that it has spent millions of pounds on trying to find alternatives to asbestos and that it has for many years produced brake linings which contain no asbestos? It is absolute nonsense to suggest that only the French and the Germans are doing anything about alternatives to asbestos.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers

I have finished, Sir.

12.35 am
Mr. Gummer

It will not be possible for me to answer all the questions raised during the debate, but I assure hon. Members that if there are any points that I do not cover I shall write to them and no doubt we shall have a long correspondence on a number of issues.

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) teased me with some tendentious points, which I shall ignore—although I disagree with what he said about the Germans. It is difficult to compare one country with another. Everyone claims to be better at doing things and to have proper regulations. There is no doubt that the Germans were among those who insisted on the continued use of crocidolite. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) was right in saying that we have higher standards than the Germans on a number of matters. The Germans have not done the things that the hon. Member for Rhondda claimed they had done. I only wish that the Germans had been prepared to go along the lines that we should have liked to go along on a number of issues. I assure the hon. Member for Rhondda that I shall continue to press to bring the regulations to the standard of toughness that he wants.

It is all very well for the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) to say that if we have something that we think is always dangerous, however small the amount of it in the air, there can be no standards. We have to do the best that we can and we have some tough standards, which are tougher than those almost anywhere else. Because of our measures, others are now following us.

The United States of America decided recently to bring in standards as an emergency measure almost immediately which will mean that it is also demanding a limit of half a fibre a millimetere. The measure was published in the federal register on the fourth of this month, and will remain in force until the rules are permanently made into law. That shows that the action that the European Community took is having a major effect elsewhere.

The hon. Member for Rochdale should be pleased that one of our major competitors will be meeting standards akin to ours. He will no doubt agree that it is one of the great strengths of the European Community — I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East on this—that we are able to bring tremendous pressure to bear not only on those inside the Community but on others outside. Our action in the Community and the Community's actions internationally have resulted in considerable pressure on the United States.

Hon. Members asked me about the licensing regulations, and I am pleased to tell them that they were laid today, so we have done that as rapidly as we could. I am glad that even those who have doubts about whether we have been as successful as we might in bringing other members of the Community to the same level will agree that at least we are keeping ahead in protecting our workers.

Mr. Nellist


Mr. Gummer

I have so many points to answer that I shall not give way. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to cover in correspondence the matters that he wishes to raise. Nothing divides us in our desire to find answers.

The placing of crocidolite on the market and the use of this fibre and the products contained in it shall be prohibited. The hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) asked me to make this point clear, and I do so. The phraseology is nothing more than phraseology, not a means by which people can get round the articles. Article 12 on respiratory protective equipment will be approved by the Health and Safety Executive and no one else, and will have to meet stringent standards. The hon. Member for St. Helens, North made that point, as did the hon. Member for Rochdale. The article will ensure that some of the practices to which hon. Members have referred cannot take place within the law. I cannot guarantee that they will never take place, but we shall guarantee as much as we can.

The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) said that the Home Office had known about the problems of laundering of clothes since 1909. Most of us have to be careful about hindsight, at which we are better than we are at judging what should be done at the time. Therefore, I shall not apportion blame, but the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Richardson) is right to point out the serious problem of wives laundering protective clothing. That has been a feature not only in this industry but in many others where protective clothing began to be used to improve safety. In certain cases it actually extended the danger outwith the working place in a way that was not expected. I think that the hon. Lady will accept that this is a serious problem, not only in her own area but elsewhere.

The Health and Safety Commission's approved code of practice on work with asbestos requires that employers send the worker's clothing to specialist laundries which are equipped to deal with asbestos contamination. That is part of the approved code of practice, and it will be enforced. The hon. Lady was right to raise the matter. I am sure that the Health and Safety Executive pays a good deal of attention to it.

On the subject of exposure to asbestos and the time involved, the monitoring under the directive is over an eight-hour period. In the United Kingdom it will be over a four-hour period, which is a much stricter standard, but over and above that is an overriding requirement to reduce exposure to as low a level as is reasonably practicable for all workers. So it is not just a question of meeting the standards. In circumstances where it is possible to go beyond that, that will be expected and enforced by the Health and Safety Executive under the catch-all provision, which is an important part of our legislation, and which, as the hon. Member for Rochdale said, does not happen universally in the rest of Europe.

I support one thing said by the hon. Member for Rhondda. We sometimes talk as though the other countries in the Community are less concerned than we are. I have recently seen some of the attempts in France and Gerniany—I admit that this may not be true of Greece and other countries — where considerable efforts are made and where enforcement programmes and laboratory techniques are of a very high standard. It would be wrong for hon. Members to lead people to believe that this country has a superiority which makes us better than anyone else in all cases.

We shall press the rest of Europe to move into line with our rules. The industry has made progress during the past four years. It would of course be wrong to absolve all parts of the industry in all circumstances for actions or lack of actions. The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East should occasionally accept that some people —not everybody, but some people — are not setting out to destroy the health of every worker in their businesses. He has a very narrow view of humankind, which is sad, particularly in an area where we try to find answers that we can all support. The emotive language that he uses is not always helpful.

Perhaps I may raise a point of accuracy. The hon. Gentleman suggested that in the youth training scheme it was because we did not have proper monitoring or enough inspectors, and so on, that people were exposed to danger, as in the case of the young people that he mentioned. In fact, the danger was discovered precisely by that monitoring, and it was discovered before the young, people were exposed to danger. The scheme was then stopped. It would be good if he were occasionally to congratulate the people who did the job properly, instead of constantly carping.

Mr. Nellist


Mr. Gummer

I shall give way in a minute. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman why I think that. If he carps when he does not need to carp, people will not listen to him when he says something that matters. My view is that the people who spend their lives trying to make the system work should be congratulated when they get it right.

Mr. Nellist

On the point that the Minister raised, I will now say, if he wishes me to repeat it, that I welcome the stopping of that scheme and the intervention of professionally trained health and safety inspectors who saw the risk and removed the young people from it. However, my point was that it showed that the cutback in health and safety inspectors makes that less likely in other schemes. We are not debating the YTS and it would be wrong of me to refer to it too extensively, but it is a fact that those who have been injured or who have died while participating in the YTS have been in places that have never been investigated because of the over-stretching of the Health and Safety Executive. As a result of the over-stretching of the factory inspectorate, they have never been checked for registration. The Brighton example is an illustration of how the system should work, but for every example that the Minister can bring of the system working I shall bring him 100 where it is not.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman is probably exaggerating with his last word and his last sentence. It is not possible to inspect and overlook for 24 hours a day, or for the number of hours that a particular group is working.

Mr. Rogers

Why not?

Mr. Gummer

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is possible to have an inspector in every work place for every hour of the day, he is asking for the impossible and for something that is bonkers. That sort of inspection does not take place in any other industry. It is not even found in the coal industry because every inspector has about two mines within his responsibilities and he cannot be at both at the same time. It is clear that he cannot be in every part of any one mine at the same time. I do not think that we want to be led down this garden path by Labour members. I am merely suggesting that it would be a good thing to give credit where credit is due so that when we have to attack we sound more convincing.

When dealing with the selection, use and maintenance of respiratory protection equipment, it is not merely a matter of saying that a particular piece of equipment is acceptable. We must try to improve the equipment because much of it is extremely uncomfortable and unpleasant to wear. This leads its users to be less careful with it than they should be. We are trying to introduce improvements.

The Central Electricity Generating Board came of its own volition to me as the Minister responsible to say that it would be prepared to ensure that no power station was sold until it had supervised the removal of asbestos. I hope that others will take a leaf out of that book and I think that the board should be given credit where it is due.

The breaking of ships has been discussed, especially HMS Ark Royal. I am aware of the issue because others have raised it with me previously. My hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang), the Member for the relevant constituency, raised the matter with considerable speed once the facts became clear. The Health and Safety Executive has prosecuted successfully in this instance and has made numerous visits. It will continue to do so. Since my hon. Friend raised the matter with me I have kept him fully in touch. I shall continue to involve myself with the problem directly and personally. I shall certainly read the article to which the hon. Member for St. Helens, North referred, which I understand will appear tomorrow. I am impressed by his contact with the magazine in question. Perhaps he can slip me a copy shortly before it appears tomorrow. If there is any further information to give on anything that I do not know about, I shall chase it up as quickly as possible.

Under the regulations, large parts of asbestos factories will be non-smoking areas. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), because where we know that there is a proven extra danger—there seems to be increasing evidence that there is a considerable extra risk—it seems reasonable to ensure that workers do not smoke while working in asbestos factories, especially as we are trying to lower the risk all the time as far as we can. It seems not unreasonable to take that course and to ensure that there is no smoking in the factories. I am not sure that further discussion with the trade union movement is the way ahead now that no-smoking areas have been established in the arrangements.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we must put the health of the workers in those industries above everything else. Even if we cannot get others to come along with us as rapidly as we should like, we must make that decision. That will mean difficulties for the asbestos industry, and I accept that. In addition, there will be a resulting lack of competitive advantage. That is the price that has to be paid. However, I was determined to ensure that it would be paid, because in all honesty I could not see that we could demand less of the industry, given the health hazard.

The meeting that the hon. Gentleman asked for has now taken place between the officials of the Health and Safety Executive and representatives of the asbestos industry. We think we can overcome some of the special problems by the use of respiratory protection equipment, but if it costs money to protect people, that money may have to be paid. I do not think that the sum will be as large as the hon. Gentleman suggested in his worse moments, but we must accept that there will be a cost. We hope to minimise it without damaging the most important factor—the safety of the workers.

A question was raised about the ban on blue asbestos throughout Europe. I have sympathy with those who do not want us to run after the idea that if we get rid of blue asbestos, somehow or other white asbestos will not require attention. On the other hand, the ban on blue asbestos is valuable. We pushed for it, and it would be quite wrong to underestimate it merely because the industry has moved towards it of its own volition, without legislation. I was a bit sharp earlier with the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East, and he may say—and it is true—that the final banning comes only after we have phased out much of the material. Nevertheless, some material will be banned. The hon. Member for St. Helens, North asked whether the ban would mean that we kept out everything of that sort. I assure him that that is the intention, and that we shall watch the situation very carefully. The exemptions for the other member states are very few in number. We wish that there were none. We are not using them and we hope that very soon there will be none.

We are now introducing a quality control scheme for laboratories which undertake fibre counting. That has been set up and 90 laboratories are taking part. It will lead to a uniform standard of counting throughout the United Kingdom. That is quite right. We invented the system and got it right. We have converted the Americans and Canadians, and now the international system—and not just the European system—is based on our work.

The central reference laboratory set up by the advisory committee on asbestos is holding discussions with NATLAS—I very much dislike using that acronym, but it stands for the National Test House and Laboratory Accreditation Scheme — so that the quality control scheme will be part of the NATLAS accreditation. That will ensure that in Britain such laboratories are properly accredited. From what I have seen of other EC countries, their laboratory accreditation schemes are quite effective. We shall certainly be looking at that side of things too in our discussions in the EC.

The hon. Member for Barking mentioned the removal of asbestos, particularly from public buildings, and the associated problems. I hope that she will accept that I cannot answer that point now. However, I shall certainly see what can be done, and I shall discuss the other points that she raised with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, as they come more within his sphere of responsibilities than mine.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East referred to a leaflet that has already appeared. However, a revised version of the booklet is to be published early next year by the Health and Safety Executive and that will bring it up to date. I wholly accept the pressure being put on me about resources. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Coventry, South East was kind enough to say that we are now recruiting inspectors. He suggested, however, that we were not recruiting enough. However, he should remember that the introduction of the SHIELD computer has meant that we are using our inspectors much more effectively, because we have a much better way of zeroing in on our needs. I am keeping a close eye on that matter. I am assured that there are sufficient inspectors to do the job.

The hon. Member for Bradford, West has had a long interest in the subject. He sometimes sounds as if he is fighting hard to get me to listen to him. He is pushing an open door. I will examine his point about a no-fault, independent compensation scheme.

Waste dumping is not a matter for me, but I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman is informed im writing of the Government's plans in that area. The term "multinational company" is not necessarily a term of abuse. Many multinationals try to do their job properly. I am sorry that he feels that he must always attack them. Many people owe their livelihoods to the efficient, effective and sometimes extremely good safety records of multinationals. If, in the long-distant future, he were to do my job dealing with health and safety, he would find that some of those with the highest standards in health and safety are the multinationals. It is a pity to lump them together in a general way.

On the exemptions from licensing regulations, the hon. Gentleman was quick to point out that I had said "in almost all cases". There were only two exceptions which, for want of time, I did not cover. I refer to small-scale work of less than one hour. If, for example, a plumber has to move a piece of asbestos to do a job which might occur only every two years or so, it would not be sensible to insist on a licence. The other case is where work is on employers' premises, using their own workers, for one-off jobs. Those must be notified, and the details of precautions to be taken are then given. A licence would not necessarily be needed for that. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, should we need to extend the licensing regulations, we shall do so. We felt that we must first cover the important danger areas. Principles and practice in the approved code of practice on asbestos insulation and coating would have to be complied with in those circumstances. People cannot work without proper regulations.

I do not believe that, however careful we are, however tough the regulations are and however much we can bring our colleagues in the remainder of Europe together, we will remove the problem of asbestos easily. II is all-pervasive. We must watch for it everywhere. We must be careful about our solutions.

The hon. Member for Barking suggested that asbestos should be removed in all circumstances. I cannot comment on her specific examples, but sometimes it is best not to remove it but to seal it. Those are technical matters. It would worry me if we suggested to the public that the only way to deal with asbestos was to remove it. I hope that we shall not frighten people when it is best to seal it. I shall write to the hon. Lady on that matter and the other points that she raised.

If, after a reasonable lapse of time, any hon. Member has not received a written reply to points that I have not covered in the debate, I hope that he will contact me.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 9369/82 for a Council Directive amending for the fifth time Directive 76/769/EEC on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States relating to restrictions on the marketing and use of dangerous substances and preparations, and of the Explanatory Memoranda of 14th April 1983 and 3rd November 1983, and of European Community Document No. 10664/82 for a Council Directive on the protection of workers from the risks due to exposure to chemical, physical and biological agents at work; asbestos, and of the Explanatory Memoranda of 14th April 1983 and 3rd November 1983; and welcomes the achievement by the Community of a large measure of harmonised control in this crucial area, and both the Government's success in reaching agreement on these directives without reduction in the standards of protection of United Kingdom workers and the Government's intention of seeking early agreement on further restrictions on the marketing and use of asbestos fibres.