§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Michael Brown.]10.52 pm
§ Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)
It gives me no pleasure to return to the subject of lethal asbestos pollution in Armley in my constituency, which I first raised in the House on 25 November 1988 and again on 8 July 1992. Initially, I urged the Government to open a public inquiry into increasingly concentrated cases of people suffering and dying from mesothelioma—the deadly, asbestos-related cancer—in Armley. I spoke of people having no known previous history of contact with asbestos, other than having lived in the immediate neighbourhood of the J. W. Roberts asbestos factory in Canal road, before it closed in 1958.
In the debate on 25 November 1988, I was told by the then Minister of State, Department of Employment that sufferers or people whose relatives had died should try to obtain compensation by claiming damages at civil law. He urged my constituents to take legal action. Many have done so, and lawyers acting on behalf of mesothelioma victims have tried to get Roberts's parent company, Turner and Newall of Manchester—now Turner and Newall plc—into court, to challenge that company over asbestos pollution of the neighbourhood, causing suffering and death.
As I spelt out from the testimonies and eyewitness accounts of the time, local people living in Arley place, Nunnington terrace and attending the nearby Armley Clock primary school can all recall the Roberts' factory blowing out asbestos dust in huge quantities day and night. At times, a layer of lethal snow-like substance covered the streets, pavements and window ledges. Hundreds of residents in the surrounding terraced streets, which run right up against the factory walls, regularly encountered dust from the factory. Its lethal legacy for people who lived in the neighbourhood has been more than 40 recorded deaths of mesothelioma and asbestos-related cancers. Since I first raised the matter in the House, many more people have suffered and died. We still seem to be no closer to calling the company to account for what has happened.
In his reply on 28 November 1988, the then Minister of State, Department of Employment conceded that the situation could be complicated by the time lag and the fact that the firm may no longer be in business. That was an easy mistake for him to make, for, as recently as 22 March 1993, the chairman of T and N plc, Mr. Colin Hope, in reply to a letter from the chairman of the local Armley asbestos campaign, which is fighting the pollution blight currently overhanging their 836 homes, had the nerve to state:As you know, the factory in question was not owned or operated by this Company. It was owned and operated by a company known as J. W. Roberts Limited ("JWR"). JWR ceased production at that factory in 1958/59, and vacated and sold the premises shortly thereafter. Although JWR continued in business for some time after leaving the Armley site, the company ceased to trade over twenty years ago.I am aware of the various comments and allegations that have been made about JWR's Armley factory, particularly as the source of the contamination to which you refer. Those comments and allegations are not accepted. In any event, they relate to the period when JWR's Armley factory was still in operation, over thirty five years ago. Given the state of medical and scientific knowledge in the years prior to 1959, it is not believed that any legal liability would arise out of the matters alleged.125 Although the chairman may cynically disown the company, I have detailed correspondence from 11 March 1964 in which the same T and N plc sought to convince Her Majesty's Inspector of Taxes that, for tax purposes, J. W. Roberts of Armley was still in business as an integral part of T and N and should be taken into account when calculating tax reductions. Is it too cynical to suggest that JWR is counted in only for profits, but discounted when it comes to its responsibility for local lives? Nor is it true that the chairman should give the impression thatGiven the state of medical and scientific knowledge in the years prior to 1959the company did not know the dangers of asbestos. I have referred in previous debates to factory inspectorate reports dating as far as back as 1849, which provided the first warnings that exposure to asbestos could mean danger to health and premature deaths.
In March 1928, Dr. H. De Carle Woodcock, a well-known lung specialist, drew attention at the inquest of Walter Leadbetter of Aviary Mount in Armley to the inhalation of asbestos dust as the cause of fibrosis of the lungs. In the late 1920s, Dr. Grieves—the local doctor—undertook a particular study of patients working at the factory. That thesis is still available in Edinburgh university. Not only is it historically inaccurate to suggest that the dangers of asbestos were not known before the factory closed, as the previous Minister suggested in response to me in 1988, but, more significantly, T and N itself knew. Moreover, the company itself commissioned research into the dangers and then covered up that research for years in order to protect its business interests.
The company resisted the introduction of the 1931 asbestos industry regulations, as is set out in a letter of 30 December 1932. Mr. Turner wrote to Mr. Newall suggesting that the companytake a small risk by stretching the regulations to suit our own ends.By the late 1940s, the company was actively deleting references to any link between carcinoma of the lung and asbestosis. Thus, as the company's own extant records show, the death from asbestosis of Mr. Wren in 1947 was expunged from the asbestos case files. The company's lawyers were more concerned to ward off compensation claims than to face up to the deadly truth about its product.
In 1954, the company's medical adviser, Dr. Knox, joined forces with Professor Richard Doll of the Medical Research Council to produce a study on the risks to asbestos workers of lung cancer. That research was funded by Turner and Newall, but proved too devastatingly sensitive for the company to publish. An internal company memo challenges the conclusions asnot supported by adequate evidence".Dr. Knox was instructed to tell Professor Doll that the research could not be published even in The Lancet medical journal. Professor Doll's reply reads:Dear Dr. Knox,I was shocked to hear of the decision of your board not to approve publication of our proposed paper. I feel that any positive findings with regard to the cause of cancer must be made available to all research workers in the subject. I would not have undertaken the work in the first place had I imagined that there would be any attempt made to limit the dissemination of scientific data.That was four years before the Roberts factory closed in 1958. For 48 more months, the lethal asbestos dust was spewed on to the streets of Armley. Four more sets of first-year pupils started school at Armley Clock primary and played in a playground covered in that dust.
126 It is just not true that the dangers were not known to medical science at the time. They were, and they were researched by Turner and Newall itself, which effected a cover-up. Moreover, internal company memos in the 1960s make it plain that acknowledging any causal connection between asbestosis and carcinoma of the lung wouldmake settlements both more difficult and expensive".In its own words, the company contrived toward off the evil daywhen the dangers would threaten the profits of the operation. In other words, the mesothelomia and asbestos connection was known well before the 1960s—as earlier debates on this matter have seemed to suggest.
I know all this to be true because of the documentation that I have cited—and much more which I should like to put on the record—which comes from Turner and Newall's own depository. In the light of previous responses in letters from the former Under-Secretary of State for Health, Lord Skelmersdale, and the former Minister of State, Department of Employment, who responded to an earlier debate, I urge the Minister to allow me to place that documentation in the House of Commons Library. I have it in microfiche form so it will not take up too much room. It is important that both the Minister and her Department and many others interested in and concerned about the issue should be able to study the information for themselves. That truth must be released.
In the debate of 8 July 1992, I referred to the problems of disclosure—of legally forcing the company to disclose all that it knew and knows. As a result of the freedom of information laws in the United States, American lawyers representing the Chase Manhattan bank, which is claiming against Turner and Newall for spraying asbestos in its Manhattan headquarters, have since 1987 gained legal access to all Turner and Newall's United Kingdom files. They have copied more than a million documents. The problem is that no such access is available here in Britain, even though I could go to a library in New York and read the material.
Here, despite Ministers' advice back in November 1988, it has taken almost three years of legal wrangling to get a disclosure in the court. A district judge first ordered T and N to disclose some categories of document back in July 1991. On 11 September 1992, Mr. Justice Laws insisted that a further four categories of document, including all those related to the knowledge of the hazard of asbestos dust and to the layout and the processes of the Roberts factory, be disclosed.
Turner and Newall put in for permission to appeal in March 1993. That appeal was heard on 9 December 1993. At the Court of Appeal, the Turner and Newall banisters said in court that they conceded finally that they ought to drop their appeal. That means that between September 1992 and December 1993, at estimated court costs of £25,000 to the victim clients, the entire legal process was stalled.
Nor is the matter settled yet, because on 8 February, Penningtons solicitors, on behalf of Turner and Newall plc, applied for their time for the compliance to be extended until 1 May 1994. One may think that that is reasonable, but I know that the company lawyers have submitted a detailed affidavit of 4 February 1994 spelling out that, as they are to put all their records on computer and are to use an American company to do it, it would be too difficult for them to comply with that order. They said that the preliminary search work and drawing up of computer 127 specifications cannot be completed until the beginning of July and that the real process of making the documentation available may not happen until 1995.
I argue that this is a company cynically playing for time to ward off what it referred to as the "evil day" when it will have to face public challenges on what it knew about the dangers to the local people of blowing asbestos dust into the neighbourhood of Armley.
Significantly and tragically, a key victim, Mr. David Young, died in December. He went to his death determined to call Turner and Newall plc to account, and, as he said,to prevent anything like this happening again".Tragically, he leaves no one to take over the fight for his case. Another key test case is of a person who is not well, already 70 years old and is fighting on behalf of her husband who died as a result of mesothelioma.
Before Christmas, I visited a widow who has an income just above the level necessary to qualify for legal aid. She and her family cannot afford to employ lawyers to fight for compensation for her deceased husband and others who have died. It would cost too much. She therefore depends on others getting the company into court.
Turner and Newall pulled out of Armley in 1958, but in a classic case of exported pollution, opened under the name of Hindustan Ferodo in Ghatkopar in Bombay, India. That asbestos dust pollution continues to this day in India. Turner and Newall is a major, multinational group currently valued at £1.2 billion. Its shares on the stock exchange are at an all-time peak. I have already launched a campaign urging shareholders at least to question in what they are investing. In the meantime, I urge the Minister to take seriously and publish a report on the work of Professor Peto, who predicts that deaths from asbestosis and mesothelioma are about to escalate on a scale massively underestimated by the Health and Safety Executive in the past. While Lloyd's may be nervous about the insurance claims implications, the tragic reality is that hundreds more people will be dying needlessly.
§ 11.3 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe)
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), not only on securing the debate, but on the persistence with which he has regularly made his case and on the way in which he has represented his constituents. I am aware that there is a high incidence of the disease in his constituency and they can feel well represented by his efforts.
I also welcome to the debate the other hon. Members with an interest, my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates), the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden), who is no longer in his place, and the hon. Members for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell), for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), and for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar). I have not done justice to one or two; I also welcome the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie). Of course we will study very carefully anything that the hon. Member for Leeds, West sends us or places in the Library. I look forward to seeing the hon. Gentleman's microfiche information.
I want now to consider two particular matters and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in warning me 128 that he was going to raise them, particularly as the first issue does not directly concern my Department, but is more the province of the Lord Chancellor's Department. However, I will do my best to make some preliminary comments on disclosure of information.
I appreciate the hon. Member's concern about the difficulties of obtaining evidence held by defendants. However, under English law, the duty to disclose documents can be very onerous on both parties in a given case. A party is generally required to disclose all non-privileged documents that are, or have been, in his possession, custody or power relating to the questions in the action. The test of what is relevant is very wide. It is taken to include any document leading to a train of inquiry. Moreover, the obligation is a continuing one—all relevant documents must be disclosed whenever they come into a party's possession.
With regard to companies, a parent company may be obliged to disclose documents in the possession of its subsidiaries, although that is a question of fact in each case. The court will look to see whether the subsidiary is under the unfettered control of the parent company.
There are court procedures to ensure that a party complies with those obligations. For example, the court can order a party to swear an affidavit verifying that he has disclosed all relevant documents.
The obligation to disclose is, of course, subject to a number of limitations and exceptions. In particular, privileged documents, such as correspondence between a party and the party's lawyers, need not be disclosed.
Some of the issues relating to disclosure are extremely complex and much depends on the facts of each case. I cannot hypothesise about how the rules might apply in the case to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, but I will undertake to ensure that his concerns, his comments in the debate and any comments that he wishes to make to me in supplementary correspondence, will be most faithfully referred to my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor for his comments.
The hon. Gentleman referred almost at the end of his excellent speech to the Peto report. Professor Peto is an eminent epidemiologist who has provided much insight into the nature of certain diseases caused by exposure to substances in the past. Mesothelioma is typical of these, associated as it is with exposure to asbestos decades ago.
Professor Peto first publicly aired his concern over the increasing rise in mesothelioma deaths last August. On that occasion, he estimated that the number of deaths could rise as high as 5,000 per year. However, earlier this year he revised that estimate toas high as 3,000 per year by 2020".When he subsequently appeared in an item on the same subject on the BBC's "Breakfast News", on 2 February 1994, he further revised his predicted figure down to 2,000. He has yet to publish his views on those figures.
Professor Peto's predictions are based on figures supplied to him in mid-1993 from the national mesothelioma register which is maintained by the Health and Safety Executive. The HSE is in the course of an in-depth study of the figures, but provisional results suggest that estimated future mesothelioma death rates, although serious, are unlikely to reach the levels predicted by Professor Peto.
The HSE has looked at the mesothelioma rates in people born in five-year periods, up to the group born between 1955 and 1959, to establish whether those born more 129 recently are less likely to suffer from mesothelioma. It is not possible to look at younger groups, because the time taken for the disease to develop means that very few cases have so far occurred among them.
The HSE's studies show that men born between 1940 and 1944 have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma at a given age. For those born later, the risk decreases, and it decreases quite markedly for those born after 1948.
The HSE estimates that the peak annual death toll from mesothelioma is likely to be at least 1,500, probably reached between the years 2010 and 2020. However, to that figure must be added the deaths due to other asbestos-related diseases—asbestosis and asbestos-related lung cancer. The combined total of all fatalities due to asbestos exposures is already estimated to exceed 3,000 per year, and it could rise to between 5,000 and 6,000.
Professor Peto was not fully aware of those trends when he made his earlier forecasts. The HSE has now provided him with some additional data, and his later predictions are now closer to those of the HSE. I mention those facts not to belittle what the hon. Gentleman has said about the seriousness of the issue but, rather, to record the seriousness as currently perceived by the HSE.
Although there is understandable public concern about current deaths from mesothelioma and future estimates, it is very important to be sure that the lessons of the past have been learned, that current workers are effectively protected and that conditions giving rise to the disease are a thing of the past.
The younger group—those aged under 40—now showing a decreased mesothelioma rate would in the main have been first exposed to asbestos after the introduction of stricter and more comprehensive regulations and after the voluntary industry ban, in the late 1960s, on the use of blue asbestos, the type most closely associated with mesothelioma. The mesothelioma mortality figures therefore suggest a reduced risk after those measures were introduced.
The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the extensive measures that were introduced in the 1980s, following the report of the Health and Safety Commission's advisory committee on asbestos, to bring an end to asbestos-related diseases—measures such as the formal prohibition of blue and brown asbestos and the licensing of asbestos removal contractors. Because of the long latency period between first exposure to asbestos and the diagnosis of mesothelioma, the current figures, as publicised by Professor Peto, cannot tell us anything about the effect of that legislation and industrial practice since 1980.
130 Professor Peto has also expressed concern about the number of younger men, particularly in the building industry, who are currently contracting the disease. Such people could have had significant exposure to asbestos because of its widespread use in construction in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of that asbestos is still in place, and Professor Peto is rightly concerned that building workers might still be at risk today.
The Government and the HSE fully share Professor Peto's concerns. Although his remarks were based on anecdotal evidence, the HSE's preliminary analysis of deaths from mesothelioma in the 1980s shows a relatively high incidence among occupations such as electricians, heating and ventilation installers and carpenters. The HSE is now discussing with Professor Peto the scope of a possible study which could reveal a fuller analysis of the occupational history of younger people who are now developing mesothelioma. The purpose of that study would be to identify whether any further specific action needs to be taken.
§ Mr. Battle
Will that study include people who might have contracted mesothelioma but might have had no history of working in any of those occupations? Will their histories be traced, or will the study concentrate on electricians, plumbers, joiners and so on who had regular contact?
§ Miss Widdecombe
I will write to the hon. Gentleman about the precise terms of reference, but I understand that it will be a fairly comprehensive study. I shall specify what is envisaged so that the hon. Gentleman has the right information.
Controlling risks from asbestos remains a high priority for HSE inspectors, who now demand a high level of awareness by industry and continue to maintain a vigorous enforcement policy of current controls. Inspectors are finding that current legislation provides an effective framework for enforcement and control of activities that could expose workers to asbestos.
I rehearse that evidence because, in the light of what the hon. Gentleman has brought before the House, it is important to stress that the risk is fully recognised and that all possible measures are being taken to protect workers today and in future. I repeat my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on raising this very important issue. If there is anything further that he would like from me, I invite him to meet me in the Department.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.