HC Deb 08 July 1992 vol 211 cc447-54

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

11.33 pm
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

As the Minister will be aware, I raised the issue of lethal asbestos pollution in Armley in my constituency in the House on 25 November 1988. At that time, I urged the Government to set up a public inquiry into increasingly concentrated cases of people suffering and dying from the deadly asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma. These were people who had no known previous history of contact with asbestos, other than to have lived in the immediate neighbourhood of J. W. Roberts' asbestos factory in Canal road.

I was advised by the then Minister of Employment that people who were suffering, or who had relatives who had died, had to use the usual legal procedure of claiming against the company. Since then, lawyers acting on behalf of mesothelioma victims have been trying to get Turner and Newall plc of Trafford Park, Manchester—the owners of J. W. Roberts, which closed in 1958—into court to challenge the company with asbestos pollution in the neighbourhood, causing injury and death. Basically, it is an attempt legally to prove negligence in the face of foreseeable likelihood that harm would occur as a result of causing or permitting asbestos dust to permeate the atmosphere in or around the factory premises in Canal road, Armley, between 1925 and 1958.

In his reply, the then Minister—the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls)—said that the main requirement of the 1931 regulations was that … dust should be controlled by the use of exhaust ventilation equipment". That means blowing dust out into the neighbouring streets on the assumption that it could be dispersed at what were then described as safe levels. Many local people witnessed that the company allowed dust to escape from the factory into the streets in the vicinity.

The legal test is whether the company knew that the dust could cause serious or possibly fatal injury to those living in the 840 houses nearby who work in the local workplaces or who attend the Armley clock school.

There are now well over 30 recorded neighbourhood mesothelioma cases on which lawyers are working, but it takes time to develop a test case. Already, some of my constituents with mesothelioma—one at least was claiming for a deceased wife—have died. They were waiting for the completion of the legal procedures recommended by the employment Minister to whom I have referred. In some cases legal aid has had to be transferred to other relatives. We have seen examples of the legal delays that are likely to occur. I am haunted daily by the fact that most victims and their relatives will die before their cases get to court.

On 25 November 1988 the then employment Minister said: We do not know exactly what was being done at the factory. Nor do we have any data about actual asbestos exposure for either employees or members of the public nearby. At the time no one would have thought it worth collecting … records from so long ago are not kept. The Minister was wrong. I have reason to believe that the company and other sources, medical and environmental, did have that sort of data, and still do. The difficulty lies in seeking it out—discovering it—and, especially, forcing the company to disclose all that it knew and knows.

There have already been national television, radio and press investigations into the Armley asbestos tragedy. So far as I know, however, Turner and Newall plc has undertaken no inquiries into what has happened or is still happening. A responsible company would surely be coming forward to assist and, in view of the worst fears of the community, even to offer to carry out testing in the area.

In reality, there is emerging an intractable legal Catch 22 problem as a result of the document discovery provisions under the terms of section 34 of the Supreme Court Act 1981, rule 7a. Documents tend to be shifted around from one subsidiary to another within the parent group. Lawyers are expected to specify exactly what records they want without knowing what the company holds. Even if they manage to specify particular records, such as reports on the escape of dust from the factory and tested measurements of asbestos levels within the factory or in the surrounding area—even details of the factory's structure and its ventilation system—those documents are either outwith the rules of discovery or the reply comes back that the records no longer exist.

It is surprising that American lawyers who are challenging the same company—Turner and Newall—can insist on visiting its document depository at St. Mary's Parsonage, Manchester. They emerge with photocopies of documents, which are seen in the public domain in the United States. Yet to obtain the same documents and to use them in the United Kingdom is ruled out of order.

Airborne dust measurements that are reported to have been carried out at the factory could provide crucial evidence in this devastating story. I said on 25 November: It appears from the evidence of such an intense mesothelioma cluster that the factory had, and is still having, a lethal impact on the people in its neighbourhood."—[Official Report, 25 November 1988; Vol 142, c. 408–13.] In the same month, Leeds city council began a survey of a small proportion of the 836 houses in the neighbourhood. It tested 36 homes for asbestos pollution over a period of six months. On the basis of the results, a warning letter was sent to all residents between March 1989 and April 1992 alerting them to the possibility of asbestos pollution in their homes.

In November last the council decided to undertake a more thorough survey of 300 dwellings in the area. The detailed results of that survey are currently being processed and the full report on the findings is due to be published soon. Preliminary reports already suggest that asbestos dust is present in many of the houses, in roofing, cellars and window sashes. Already it seems reasonable to assume that all 836 houses need to be specially cleaned of asbestos pollution.

There is a means of cleaning the houses of asbestos which is properly licensed under the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations 1983. But—here is the nub—it will cost £7,500 per property. That would make a total of £6 million. The properties are back-to-back, terraced homes, of which 556 are owner-occupied, 169 are council-owned, 22 belong to housing associations and 95 are privately rented.

The local authority has to accept the cost of cleaning out its properties, but under the current arrangements it can offer only means-tested improvement grant aid to the private owners. Only 20 per cent. of the residents will qualify for the full means-tested grant. The majority will have to make some contribution and some will receive no grant.

Most of the families living in the Armley Lodge area simply cannot afford to pay for the decontamination work. Already their homes have lost their value. Their homes are unsellable and blighted. They live in personal fear of deadly asbestos pollution. The victims of the pollution should not even be asked to pay.

When the city council publishes the results of its survey of the extent of the pollution, it should also be in a position to publish a full programme of work to tackle the problem, to ensure that homes are safe and free of asbestos dust in the future, reassure local residents and lift the blight which currently afflicts the whole area. That requires that full and detailed financial backing for such a programme be committed.

The glimmer of good news is that there is a system which could get rid of the asbestos. To reassure residents, tests by electron microscope could be carried out after the clean-up work. But I hope that we all agree that none of the residents should have to bear the costs of decontamination. They are the innocent victims. They have already suffered, they are still suffering, and they have worried enough.

Home owners should not be expected to take on Turner and Newall plc. Nor should the Armley Asbestos Campaign, which represents all the local residents, regardless of tenure, be expected to appeal to law. They do not have any resources to do that. If we are to adhere to the make-the-polluter-pay principle, the money should not be squeezed out of the falling public housing budget of the city of Leeds. Nor should the poll tax payers of Leeds be expected to pay a levy for clearing up pollution caused by a private company.

Leeds city council is currently investigating the legal liability of Turner and Newall, pursuing the polluter-should-pay principle. Turner and Newall will be made aware of the results of the survey and the likely cost, and asked to contribute. But in the event of protracted legal action, people in the Armley Lodge area cannot he expected to hold on and wait for years of legal wrangling and court procedures, living in personal fear for themselves and their families, and trapped in houses which they cannot sell or leave.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

Will my hon. Friend accept the thanks of some 60 people in South Kirkby who worked at that factory, originally during the war as part of the war effort, and who have suffered from this terrible disease since? Will he acknowledge that for them to sue the company in the economic circumstances in which they find themselves is impossible? They are very grateful for the assistance given to them in their campaign by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle).

Mr. Battle

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The campaign will continue until a satisfactory solution has been found for everyone who has been blighted by the tragedy.

In the circumstances, I must suggest to the Minister the precedents that could assist positively. First, if land is contaminated, a 100 per cent. derelict land grant is available, across the board, from the Department of the Environment. Is it not possible to classify contaminated homes in the same way and to give them the same treatment?

Secondly, I urge the Minister to consider using the Bellwin scheme emergency funds, set up in 1983, to replace ad hoc arrangements for giving assistance to local authorities faced with serious disasters. Under that scheme, grants are paid to local authorities to help with additional expenditure caused by an emergency or disaster involving destruction of, or danger to, life or property. The grant covers immediate emergency works needed to safeguard life or property, or to prevent suffering or serious inconvenience.

What circumstances could people face which are more of an emergency than asbestos pollution? It is a danger to life, now and in the future. Their property has been totally blighted, and inconvenience and suffering has been endured by a community.

The Bellwin scheme can be activated, at the Minister's discretion, in respect of storm and flood damage, as set out in the letter from the Department of the Environment to local authorities on 6 February 1990. The scheme was called on to deal with flooding in the Severn valley and in Maidenhead in 1990. If the River Aire in Leeds had flooded more than 800 houses in Armley, they would have been covered by that scheme. Yet we face a far more deadly threat than two feet of water and a filthy layer of mud. Residents of Armley have faced the dangers of asbestos pollution for a generation and are still facing them.

When the risk of asbestos is so well known, and it is possible to decontaminate and to check homes to make them safe, it would be major negligence if remedial action were not supported immediately.

11.47 pm
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Sir George Young)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) for raising the important issue of asbestos pollution in Armley and securing the debate. I note that his concern about environmental and health matters is shared by his hon. Friends the Members for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright), for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), as well as by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope).

The hon. Member for Leeds, West spoke movingly about the human issues flowing from that tragedy, and I am full of sympathy for the matters that he has raised. I am familiar with the issues because I read the Adjournment debate that he initiated in November 1988 and he has pursued the matter assiduously ever since. I am aware that the dispute has been long and extremely complicated, and I hope to identify some possible options to deal with the problem. My interest, as a housing Minister, is in physical solutions to help to make the homes safe. The hon. Gentleman raised many other legal issues, on which I fear that I can shed no light.

I want to be realistic about what we can do. Central Government have no powers to intervene directly, or to set up a short-term rescue fund, however attractive that might seem. From the evidence available, the problem appears to be local and it is therefore proper for the local authority to tackle it, using its powers. I fully recognise the lead taken by Leeds city council in arranging surveys of properties in the area, and in advising householders on how they can best reduce possible risks to their health.

It is important to emphasise that the conditions that applied at the time of the operation of the Roberts factory do not exist now. The Government have prohibited the two most hazardous types of asbestos—blue and brown —and the most hazardous uses. There are now strict controls over all work activities involving asbestos, including demolition, removal and disposal of materials containing asbestos.

Emissions from scheduled asbestos works are currently subject to air pollution control by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution—HMIP—and workplace controls are enforced by Health and Safety Executive inspectors. Controls have been extended by part I of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The Act requires operators of "prescribed processes"—including asbestos works—to obtain written authorisation containing conditions under which processes must operate, including controls on emissions to the air. Those authorisations must be placed on a public register.

Under the new system of integrated pollution control, HMIP is concerned with not only air pollution but releases to land and water. The Government have led the field in raising and maintaining health and safety standards and over the years have introduced a comprehensive package of legislation with the overall aim of reducing risks to health from exposure to asbestos to an absolute minimum.

In situations where asbestos remains a health hazard, local authorities may be able to give house renovation grants towards the cost of remedial works. The grant system thus offers a potential source of help for owner-occupiers, private tenants and landlords for asbestos removal.

Under the grant system local authorities can give mandatory grants for works to make properties fit for human habitation. That may cover asbestos removal where the presence of asbestos causes a dwelling to fail the fitness standard as a result of serious disrepair, structural instability or poor ventilation. It is for the local authority to decide whether particular works qualify for grant aid, but it is conceivable that where presence of asbestos is a hazard to health it could make a property unfit.

In addition, local authorities have, powers to give discretionary grants for asbestos removal where works are required to put a dwelling into reasonable repair, or in conjunction with other works. Again, an authority must decide whether a particular remedial scheme satisfies grant requirements.

As the hon. Gentleman said, all renovation grants are subject to a means test. However, I do not agree with him that grants should not be means tested when dealing with health hazards. The means test ensures that available resources are targeted on those least able to afford to carry out works. Removing the means test for works dealing with health hazards would fundamentally undermine that principle. As the fitness standard is primarily about protecting occupiers against health hazards, it would mean paying non-means-tested grants for all or most works to make properties fit. The result would be that full grants would be given to many people who could well afford to carry out remedial works from their own resources. That would not be a justifiable use of public funds. The present system allows grants of up to 100 per cent. to be paid to those applicants who are in greatest need.

I recognise that means tests may need some adjustment to give more help to those who can least afford the cost of renovation work. I have been examining the operation of the test as part of the recent review of the house renovation grant system to see what changes may be desirable, but we have no plans to change the principle of means testing grants. I hope to be able to announce the outcome of the review very shortly.

Local authorities are allocated resources for private sector renovation grant expenditure as part of their annual housing investment programme—HIP—allocation. Leeds received an allowance of £5 million for its grant expenditure in 1992–93, as part of a total HIP settlement of £27.4 million. As the authority knows, that allowance is not a limit and it is free to exceed it if it wishes to claim the 75 per cent. Exchequer subsidy expenditure. It also has power to borrow temporarily to pay for grants and claim subsidy in the following year. The funding arrangements for renovation grants thus give Leeds City council considerable flexibility to meet possible demand for grants for works relating to asbestos removal.

In the last financial year, Leeds underspent its allowance for renovation grant expenditure by more than £2 million. It is, of course, for the local authority to determine its own priorities for expenditure within the resources available. However, I hope that the authority will give priority to using its grant resources to the full, including possible expenditure on asbestos work, in the current year.

For 1992–93 we have also set aside £30 million as supplementary credit approvals for mandatory renovation grants. These will be issued to local authorities facing heavy pressure from mandatory renovation grants. Leeds will have an opportunity to bid for a share of those resources when bids are invited later this month, if demand for mandatory grants—including grants for asbestos removal works—causes the authority to exceed its grant allowance. Any application from Leeds would, of course, receive careful consideration.

The local authority's HIP strategy and proposals for next year and future years offer the best means of providing extra resources to tackle the asbestos problem in Armley through the grant system. The problem could be highlighted in the authority's annual HIP strategy statement with a quantified assessment of the needs and resources required to alleviate it. That would allow works to be carried out according to a cost-effective and realistic programme over an appropriate time scale.

Placing a bid for additional resources within the context of the authority's HIP strategy has other advantages. It would allow proper account to be taken of it in the assessment of needs and particularly in the exercise of Ministers' discretion over grant resources. Progress in tackling the problem could also be properly monitored and reviewed within a broader housing context.

In addition to the grant system, it is possible that the statutory nuisance provisions, under section 82 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, may be of help to some individual householders whose homes are affected by asbestos dust. Under those powers, a householder affected by a statutory nuisance can bring proceedings against the owner to carry out works to abate the nuisance. That would allow a tenant to take action against a landlord to carry out remedial works. Where an individual owner-occupier is unable to obtain a grant to carry out asbestos remedial works to his property, there are other possibilities for raising money to pay for it. The Department plans to issue a revised booklet on sources of finance for home repairs and maintenance in the next few months.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Bellwin scheme —a good one to mention as it has Leeds connections. I have considered it and, sadly, I do not think that it offers any joy. An important component of the Bellwin scheme is that the assistance offered is for immediate action such as might follow a storm. Immediate action is taken to mean within two months of an incident. The money is to be used to refund local authorities that have to take immediate action within about two months of the incident. Under the terms set out in section 155 of the Housing Act 1988, it would be difficult to define as "immediate.' any action to be taken in the case under consideration.

The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about the disclosure of information by companies to those preparing legal battles about liability for deaths linked to asbestos. There is provision in British law for that, but it is a fairly detailed and complex area of law for which my Department does not have responsibility. However, if the hon. Gentleman would like to put his concerns direct to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, I am sure that my right hon. Friend would be happy to pursue them.

I have focused my remarks on that aspect of the problem that my Department has some ability to address. I have tried to outline ways in which owner-occupiers and tenants can obtain access to resources that will enable them to carry out the necessary work for their homes and put the problem behind them. To the extent that Ministers have discretion to try to help Leeds, I can say that we shall give special attention to the case that Leeds makes in its annual HIP bid to see whether we can make fast progress in bringing this sad problem to a conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Twelve o'clock.