HC Deb 11 July 1996 vol 281 cc668-74

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

10 pm

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I am pleased to secure this debate on the Government's policy on asbestos. My initial concern arose when asbestos was discovered in two tower blocks in my constituency and in one in neighbouring Walthamstow, and last week I raised the matter in parliamentary questions to the Minister with responsibility for housing.

The Government do not properly recognise the burden on councils and housing associations when asbestos is found in their properties. Tenant safety must, of course, come first, but there is a serious knock-on effect for other tenants and for people waiting for improvement grants.

The Waltham Forest Independent showed the cost when it said that the most popular option among tenants was for blocks to be knocked down but added: Rehousing the 270 tenants may take time. Housing officer Simon Hendey said there were funds to move 80 households this year"— and that is on top of the £800,000 given to housing associations for 20 other homes, so there is a huge burden. The council is doing its best. It is preparing asbestos location drawings and keeping tenants informed.

I then attended a conference in Sheffield on 1 June organised by the Construction Safety Campaign. I was shaken by what I heard, and resolved to raise the matter in Parliament. It pointed out: 3000 to 3500 people in Britain are killed by asbestos every year. This will increase to 10,000 deaths a year in ten years. Those most at risk are in the building industry—plumbers, electricians, carpenters and heating and ventilation engineers.

When the fatal disease takes hold—it does so among men mainly—their families suffer enormous hardship. Asbestos is responsible for more occupation-related deaths than any other cause. One in 10 building workers will die between the ages of 40 and 50. Asbestos exposure will kill more people in Britain than were killed in the armed forces during the second world war. It is beginning to reach bubonic plague proportions.

We are still importing asbestos. About 11,500 tonnes was imported last year. More than 126,000 tonnes has been imported in the past eight years.

Alan Dalton, author of "Asbestos Killer Dust", and the national health and safety co-ordinator for the Transport and General Workers Union, wrote to the Health and Safety Executive today spelling out the problems and solutions that are necessary. He says that there should be a ban on all forms of asbestos—at present, brown and blue asbestos are banned, but white asbestos should also be banned. He gives reasons for that. He quotes the American Journal of Public Health, which said: it is prudent policy to treat chrysotile"— white— asbestos with virtually the same concern as the amphibole forms of asbestos. Mr. Dalton stated: In practice, in many cases … white, blue and brown asbestos are often mixed together. It is therefore impossible to distinguish between the different types … There are now safer substitutes for all forms of asbestos that are often technically more effective. Banning white asbestos would simplify the asbestos regulations, since there would no longer be the need for detailed guidance". He believes that a complete ban on white asbestos would be a progressive example of deregulation … It should be a legal requirement to identify, label and institute a management control programme of asbestos in all buildings. Mr. Dalton says that there should be asbestos audits, with removal required if the asbestos is in a dangerous state or likely to be damaged. That audit should be a public document, available to employees, trade union representatives, firefighters and contractors.

I tabled a parliamentary question pressing for a national audit, and was told that the Government rely on public awareness. My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), in a parliamentary question, asked how much had been spent on the campaign to raise public awareness. The answer was, very little. In the four years 1990 to 1994, nothing was spent. In 1994–95, £469,700 was spent; last year, £2,000; and 1996 to date, just £5,500. That is inadequate, and the case for a national survey stands.

Asbestos should be removed by a specialist contractor licensed for all types, not just the most dangerous—all asbestos is dangerous. Mr. Dalton stated: The asbestos licensing system must be tightened up and enforced because it is as easy to get an asbestos licence as a dog licence. There are a lot of cowboy operators, yet only 13 licences have been revoked since 1983. It is not unknown for firms to contract out the work to self-employed operatives, then tell them to bring their own respiratory masks and equipment.

There is a huge shortage of health and safety inspectors. The Government refer to contacts and site visits rather than inspections. The HSE's target of 6 per cent. of asbestos removal sites is far too low. It often relies on written documentation that is poorly examined. In 1985, there were 2,700 health and safety visits, but the figure had fallen to 800 by 1994. In the four previous years, the number of visits had fallen to 400 a year.

The notification period for asbestos removal work is being reduced from 28 to 14 days, which is a retrograde step. Such work should be well planned, for safety's sake.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley also asked how many prosecutions had been brought for breaching asbestos regulations. The reply referred instead to informations, of which there have been only 437 since 1986. Fines are ridiculously low, ranging from £100 to £9,000—but the higher figure is an exception, and clearly such fines are not a deterrent to contractors who are paid a lot of money for asbestos removal.

The HSE says that what really matters is the stigma of prosecution, not fines—but last year, the executive wanted more than £250,000 to name rogue companies. So much for stigma. If asbestos laws are broken, and workers and the public are exposed to asbestos dust, the individuals responsible should be imprisoned.

Alan Dalton says that asbestos face masks must be improved, because even top-of-the-range examples leak. Clydeside Action on Asbestos found the substance inside a respirator, and the Transport and General Workers Union in Scotland has called for the Sabre Phantom respirator to be withdrawn from use. Even an HSE press release this month states that protection offered by respiratory protective equipment can be very much less than would be predicted from laboratory tests.

In a parliamentary answer, I was told that the masks are the responsibility of the manufacturers, and that they should carry out the research to improve the standard of their products. There is no pressure from the Government to obtain that improvement, and that is a disgrace.

There should be protection for asbestos sampling companies. They should be independent from the removal company, and should have a hot line to the HSE to report any abuses. There should be safer methods of disposal, better compensation for asbestos victims and action at European Union level. I was told in another parliamentary answer that the United Kingdom has not made any proposals for "concerted European Union action" on asbestos. We should be pressing for a total ban.

The Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases tells me that the Department of Social Security often unfairly refuses benefit to asbestosis sufferers. I do not have time to go into detail, but I am told that claims are often refused when there is no presence of asbestos bodies, even though those asbestos bodies do not carry well to the laboratory for tests.

Even when asbestos bodies are present, it might not be enough for the DSS to grant benefit. The DSS special medical boards delay awarding industrial disablement benefit, and, if an asbestosis sufferer dies, the payment is halved. That is a disgrace. The society said that the special medical boards should be investigated.

The compensation recovery unit claws back victims' benefit. Clydeside Action on Asbestos told me: By 1994 the CRU was having a totally negative effect on any potential case and there were many instances where cases were abandoned rather than the injured parties, their widows and families having to face a long, tortuous process only to have the awards dashed from their hands. In 1995, the Select Committee on Social Security made a clear recommendation. It said: The Committee understands the particular and special case of people with asbestos related conditions. We believe that the special circumstances of asbestosis sufferers should be recognised. Because of the unique difficulties of pursuing claims and because of the high mortality rate of asbestos related sufferers, we believe that all recovery in these cases should cease at the earliest opportunity. When Clydeside Action on Asbestos went to see the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans), he said that the DSS wanted one hundred per cent. of their pound of flesh. That was a despicable response.

Under the Employers Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969, employers are required to have employers' liability insurance. Many of the companies go bankrupt or do not register the identity of their insurers. There should be a change in the law so that they have to do that. It would benefit the state, because it would not have to pay out the benefit. The insurers should be paying the compensation.

Greenpeace has contacted me about Bermuda, which is a United Kingdom dependent territory. There is a proposal to dump asbestos waste from the United States naval base at St. George's. The United Kingdom Government have been asked for assistance. If the waste is dumped at sea, as is suggested, it would be a precedent in breach of the London convention against the dumping of industrial waste at sea. Denmark's Environment Minister, Mr. Svend Aukin, said that would be putting the health of the seas at risk. He said that if the United States, the United Kingdom and Bermuda did this, it would be a Bermuda triangle of irresponsibility. There are even more asbestos issues. There is likely to be a great deal of asbestos in the Ministry of Defence housing that is to be sold off. Has its presence been recorded? That should be stated before any property is sold. Armed forces personnel who are exposed to asbestos are restricted in their ability to claim compensation. That is unfair.

In 1989, Westminster council moved homeless families into the Walterton and Elgin estates, knowing that the asbestos was in a dangerous state. A former chief executive of Cambridgeshire county council, John Barret, said that the families were put at risk despite the clearest advice and instructions to the contrary, and that the decision was informally but powerfully taken by senior Conservative councillors". Those councillors should face imprisonment.

Council workmen were also unprotected. The role of the HSE in this scandal was very poor, and should be examined.

Asbestos is in brakes. I asked a parliamentary question about that, to which the answer was that a survey in 1994 showed that 4,500 tonnes of white asbestos were used in brakes, and that mechanics who work on brake linings were at low risk if they follow HSE advice. That is a very big if. It went on to say that the UN Economic Committee for Europe suggested a prohibition on the use of asbestos in brake linings on or after 1 October 1998. It should be sooner. Where is the firm commitment to that from the UK and the European Union? They should come into line with that at the very least.

Asbestos is also in gutters. Again, I have asked parliamentary questions, but no assessment has been made of the risk. White asbestos is still used, even though other materials are more commonly used. If that is so, there should be no objection to a ban on the use of white asbestos in guttering. Many substitutes for asbestos are available and should be used. They are shown in pages 110 to 112 and appendix 3 of the book "Asbestos Killer Dust".

There is a major difference between the parties on this issue. The Conservative Government have not taken the dangers from asbestos seriously. The Labour party has. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), the Labour party spokesman on this subject, has put into writing our commitments: Labour will give employees greater protection against dangerous working conditions; safety representatives and trade union representatives will have improved rights in this field; the Health and Safety Executive will be strengthened, with new powers.

Labour will introduce a new crime of corporate manslaughter—if I do not get there first with a private Member's Bill. Labour will also make it easier for victims and their families to receive compensation. Most important—this is the clear blue water, or the clear white asbestos, between the parties—Labour will ban the importation of hazardous asbestos-based products.

Before that happens, I urge, even at this late stage, the Government to take this matter seriously, and to act at home and internationally on the dangers of asbestos.

10.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison)

This is an important issue. I shall outline the policies that we have in place to address the important issues that arise from the use of asbestos.

The Government are well aware of the tragic legacy of the past use of asbestos, and the devastating effects it has had on the health of many people—including asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. The Government recognise the public concern about exposure to asbestos and welcome this opportunity to reassure the House just how seriously we treat the issue.

Our strategy for controlling the risks from asbestos stems from the work of the Advisory Committee on Asbestos. The three-part strategy is, first, to prohibit the most dangerous types and uses of asbestos; secondly, to license the most dangerous types of work with asbestos; and, thirdly, strictly to control all other work with asbestos. That is achieved through regulations made under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, enforced by the HSE and local authorities.

Imports of blue and brown asbestos ceased in 1972 and 1980 respectively by voluntary agreement after their health effects became fully recognised. In 1985, European legislation banned the marketing and use of those forms of asbestos, the spraying of asbestos and the installation of asbestos insulation, and also required asbestos products to be labelled.

Since then, further Community legislation has expanded the prohibitions on the marketing and use of asbestos to a wide range of materials and products containing white asbestos. Perhaps it is easiest to describe those few uses of asbestos that are still allowed. The remaining uses are, in fact, mainly in asbestos cement, used to make products such as corrugated sheeting, and in friction products such as brake pads, gaskets and seals.

Substitutes for asbestos have been found for many of its original uses. The Government accept, as do our European colleagues, that there are a small number of uses for white asbestos that are critical for safety reasons for which no less hazardous substitutes are available—for example, brake linings in heavy goods vehicles and trains.

Although the current use of asbestos is severely limited, large quantities have been imported into the United Kingdom in the past and are still present in homes, public buildings and offices. That asbestos has not been removed because it is not intrinsically dangerous; it is exposure to asbestos fibres that causes a hazard to health. The risk from that exposure depends on the level of the fibres in the air and the type of fibre present. Asbestos materials that are not releasing fibres do not need to be removed as they do not pose a risk to health.

For that reason, it is Government policy that asbestos materials that are undamaged and are not releasing fibres should be managed in situ. Materials that are slightly damaged should be repaired and sealed or encapsulated. Only materials that are badly damaged or are likely to be disturbed or damaged should be removed.

A further reason for not removing asbestos materials from buildings is that removal in itself is a hazardous task. Levels of asbestos fibres in the air may be significantly raised during removal operations. In addition, disposal of asbestos waste is a significant problem. At present, all our asbestos waste is sent to landfill, so a policy to remove asbestos from buildings would put additional pressure on our landfill sites.

Government policy is to manage asbestos properly in situ wherever possible, but that message needs to be spread to workers and the public to minimise the risks to their health. My Department has made considerable efforts to that end for some years. Practical guidance from the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive is aimed at underpinning the legislative framework and controlling the risks to workers from exposure to asbestos.

I know that the HSE is determined to maintain its tough enforcement policy on asbestos to ensure that the regulations are observed. For example, the House may be aware that a demolition contractor who flouted the regulations was gaoled by the courts in January.

In addition to its important enforcement role, the HSE has been actively working to increase our knowledge about the risks from asbestos. In many cases, it is Government-funded research that has filled the gaps in our knowledge and helped us to deliver effective policies for tackling the asbestos problem, which unfortunately will be with us for some years to come. The HSE's successful asbestos awareness campaign is a case in point.

The Government consider that the regulatory regime is effective in protecting the health of those who work with asbestos, if it is properly observed. Guidance from the HSE and the Department of the Environment includes the advice that employers should locate, identify and keep a record of all asbestos in their premises, and ensure that all workers and contractors who are likely to come into its presence are aware of its presence.

Further, we are concerned that some specific groups of workers might still be at risk because they are perhaps unaware that they are working on asbestos materials, or are not as aware as they should be of the strict precautions the regulations actually require. Those workers include building maintenance workers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, computer cable installers and gas fitters.

The HSE's national publicity campaign, which began in February 1995, reminded those workers to look out for what is termed the "hidden killer". It reminded them to take strict precautions to protect themselves. This year, the HSE is shifting the focus of its awareness campaign to workplace building owners and managers, under its "good health is good business campaign", which has been welcomed by all sides of industry. We are working to raise awareness of the risks of exposure to asbestos fibres and of how best to manage asbestos materials, and we are issuing information leaflets to householders and more detailed guidance to local authorities and building managers.

We are also funding a project to review the risks to health from exposure to fibrous materials in the environment. The outputs of that work will be published early next year, alongside a further revision of our guidance on asbestos materials in buildings. In addition, we shall issue new, more detailed guidance for householders and a technical manual for environmental health officers.

The Government will continue to encourage the use of substitutes for asbestos products wherever possible. The current controls have been agreed throughout the European Union, and we shall work with our colleagues in Europe to explore the question whether tighter restrictions are now justified.

Existing asbestos materials are a greater problem, and need to be managed correctly. The Department of the Environment has done a great deal already to raise awareness and to ensure that asbestos materials are properly managed. I assure the House that those efforts will continue, so as to ensure that risks to workers and the public alike are minimised, as they should be.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Ten o ' clock.