HC Deb 18 June 1997 vol 296 cc278-84

1 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

First, I should like to offer my congratulations to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle). I know that it is a little belated, but this is the first time I have been able to address her in the Chamber. I know that she has a good understanding of environmental issues, good sense and tenacity. I know that she will do a first-class job.

I intend to make the case for banning asbestos. I will put the evidence on behalf of that and then suggest to my hon. Friend a course of action. I believe that the case for banning white asbestos is irresistible. Today, 11 people will die either because they worked with asbestos or because they had contact with it unwittingly. Of those 11, four will die of mesothelioma, four from cancer of the lung and the others from asbestosis or other asbestos-related diseases.

I have not just plucked those figures from the air—they are based on research that was supported by the Health and Safety Executive and published in 1985. It showed that in the next 25 years the number of deaths would increase to reach a predicted death rate of between 5,000 and 10,000. That is a matter of great concern, and when the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission commented on his advice to the previous Government in January, he said: Asbestos is one of the biggest occupational health challenges facing us today. I should like to mention some cases with which I am familiar in which white asbestos has been a factor. In my former job I represented miners who had been injured at work and I still do some medical appeal tribunal work.

In 1980, I dealt with the case of a man who developed asbestosis, having spent all his life working in a colliery as a lamp room attendant. The only link that we could find to relate the disease to his occupation was the fact that as he dismantled and reassembled the oil lamps, he had fitted a small white ring of asbestos above and below the glass in those lamps. Until recently, those lamps were used to detect methane gas. It was that contact with asbestos which caused the man to develop asbestosis in later life.

I am currently dealing with the case of a constituent, Mr. Ted Dudley, who is an elderly miner. In the 1950s, he worked with machines that had asbestos linings. Two years ago, his lungs were found to be full of asbestos material and part of his lung was removed. I emphasise to the Minister that that condition became apparent 40 years after the man's contact with asbestos.

In answer to a written question that appears in the Hansard of yesterday's date, at column 39, I was informed that in 1995–96 there was one award in each year to teaching professionals who contacted an asbestos-related disease. That does not include figures for posthumous claims. I should point out to my hon. Friend that those who have been in contact with asbestos unwittingly are often unaware of their condition and that the disease is generally discovered on death. The same answer reveals that the total number of awards for asbestosis in those two years came to 2,644.

Asbestos is one of the most dangerous substances in widespread use. It is, therefore, of great concern that it is still used despite the availability of effective substitutes. It is true that, in general, those substitutes tend to be a little more pricey, but that is because of the market. I suggest to my hon. Friend that if white asbestos were to be banned, the market for substitutes would expand and their price would fall. If there were such a ban, I am sure that the 1,000 people who are currently employed in the manufacture of materials that include asbestos would be absorbed by the expansion of the industry producing non-asbestos alternatives. If we consider the socio-economic costs of asbestosis to society—the cost of compensation, medical treatment and care—those substitutes become considerably cheaper than asbestos.

In September 1996, the World Health Organisation expressed concern about white asbestos and recommended that when available, substitute materials should be used. I am informed by the Association for Manufacturers Against Asbestos that there are alternatives that could be used for the manufacture of most materials that currently rely on asbestos.

Huge amounts of asbestos are imported by Britain from Ireland and Belgium, and an increasing amount is also imported from Poland. In 1995, the value of imported white asbestos materials was £45 million. The major exporter and the largest manufacturer of asbestos materials is ETEX of Belgium, which owns Eternit Belgium, Eternit United Kingdom, Eternit France and Tegral of Ireland. My hon. Friend may find it interesting to know that Mr. Liam Hughes, the chair of the Asbestos Information Centre, is also chief executive of Eternit United Kingdom. That is hardly a recommendation for impartiality, but his evidence is drawn on by the Health and Safety Commission.

Increasing amounts of asbestos sheet is being imported from Poland. The raw material is taken there from Russia to complete its manufacturing process. The increase in those imports is quite alarming. According to Extrastat, which provides the relevant statistics on the industry, between April 1996 and April 1997 imports from Poland increased alarmingly. My hon. Friend should note that those statistics are somewhat bizarre for 1997. Those for 1996 record that in April, 38,180 kg of asbestos were imported by Britain at a value of £9,366. In the year-to-date column of the 1996 statistics we see the same figures. That shows that April is the beginning of the financial year. When a comparison is made with the 1997 statistics, we see that the value of asbestos imported in April 1997 is recorded as being £121,990. The value shown for the year to date-as I have said, the financial year begins in April—is £304,146. It is clear that there is an enormous difference between the two figures. Indeed, a reference states, "Suppressed commodity code."

The figures relate to money value, but weights are not mentioned. I am sure that the Minister is well aware that, because of the value of the pound, the amount of asbestos material that will be imported for the value that I have described will be considerable.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

My hon. Friend is aware that I am at present the Rapporteur at the Council of Europe for a report on asbestos. My colleagues and I will follow with great interest the points that he is making. We have found that there is an enormous movement of asbestos within the 40 member states of the Council. We are deeply concerned about the inadequate labelling of the materials that are being moved. That is causing enormous problems. I hope that my hon. Friend and the Minister will take that on board.

Mr. Clapham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. The materials coming in from Poland are poorly labelled. Many construction companies are using roofing slates and other materials imported from Poland, unaware that they contain asbestos. It is alarming that many of those slates will be used in repairing public buildings such as schools.

I am aware, of course, that asbestos materials are already in public buildings and I acknowledge that it is not always appropriate to remove them. It is necessary, however, wherever there are asbestos materials, to ensure that those materials are contained and that work is maintained at the highest possible standard in containing it. Where asbestos material is removed, the work must be done safely in accordance with the HSE guidelines. My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that we must regulate some of the cowboy demolition companies.

What should be done in the light of the evidence that I have put before my hon. Friend? Given the overwhelming evidence that white asbestos is dangerous, we must act now. I ask her to consider a complete and immediate ban in the United Kingdom on all white asbestos materials. She will know that France has already imposed such a ban, along with six other European countries. The French ban came into being on 1 January 1997.

Eternit France, to which I have already referred, argued that it would be put out of business. It said that the French ban would be catastrophic for the industry. I note from its January newsletter, however, that it was able to announce the conversion to new technology of its entire production base. It has not taken that company long to adjust to the ban in France. That company, which argues the merits of asbestos through the Asbestos Information Centre, knows full well that its production base is being changed to meet the ban. That says much for the Asbestos Information Centre.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the possibility of moving on from a United Kingdom to a European-wide ban. I ask her also to consider a thorough review of asbestos licensing operations. That is important, because we find that many companies that work in the demolition sector tend to be those which do not care a great deal for their employees. Finally, I ask my hon. Friend whether she would be prepared to consider what might be done to require building owners to survey their buildings to locate asbestos.

1.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

First, I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on his success in securing an Adjournment debate on such an extremely important subject.

I assure the House at the outset that, unlike our predecessors, this Labour Government are determined to deal effectively with the new uses of asbestos once and for all. We have already initiated action. There will be no empty promises from the Government and no palliatives such as those that came from the previous Administration. We value human life and we know that asbestos represents a serious threat to it. We shall take the necessary steps to protect human health.

I hope that my hon. Friend will indulge me a little: this is the first debate that enables me to confirm the Government's strong commitment to health and safety. I shall say a few words about that before coming to his justifiable worries.

We intend to put an end to what we believe has been a progressive erosion of governmental commitment to protecting people's health and safety over the past 18 years. The previous Administration did not, in our opinion, give health and safety the attention that it deserves. Main responsibility was concentrated exclusively at Under-Secretary of State level. We, however, have allocated two Ministers to this important area, the Minister for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), and myself.

We are unequivocal in our support for the important work that is done by the Health and Safety Executive and the commission. We have met their representatives and we have been impressed by their professionalism, expertise and commitment, and especially by the consensual, tripartite way in which they work. I wish to commend also the work of the Trades Union Congress and many individual trades unions in this extremely important area. They have great expertise and provide a mechanism with which to try to educate workers about the dangers of asbestos. That work is priceless.

We intend to be positive and proactive when it comes to health and safety.

My hon. Friend mentioned that the death toll from asbestos-related diseases is horrendous. About 1,200 people were killed by mesothelioma last year and about twice that number died from lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Even worse, as my hon. Friend said, the death toll is predicted to continue to rise over the next two to three decades.

We know that most of those now suffering from asbestos-related disease are suffering as a result of exposure that occurred many years ago. I am determined that strong and effective measures are taken to minimise the risks posed by this killer substance. I am determined also that the death toll from asbestos in the long term should be reduced. Failure to recognise and accept the dangers from asbestos over previous decades, and failure to take all possible action when necessary, leaves us with a legacy of exposure to asbestos that will continue to claim lives for decades to come. We must safeguard the health of current and future generations by taking firm action now.

Large quantities of asbestos have been used in the construction of thousands of buildings—for example, schools, hospitals and office blocks—and work involving asbestos still represents an enormous health risk. That is one problem. Another is the justified concern about the continuing import of asbestos.

I was alarmed by some of the information that my hon. Friend gave the House, both about the bad labelling and about a seeming increase in imports, as well as about some of the rather dubious connections between the organisations that purport to give information and the industry itself. I shall draw those to the attention of the Health and Safety Commission.

The commission has given priority to the asbestos problem in recent years and we all know that the import and supply of blue and brown asbestos—the most hazardous types—have been banned for several years. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, large quantities of both those types of asbestos remain in buildings, forming a potentially lethal legacy.

I am especially worried about the fact that, as my hon. Friend said, two teachers have now been discovered to be suffering from asbestosis. That demonstrates the danger that lurks in public buildings, and the legacy of the use of such substances. We must do what we can to minimise that danger.

Obviously, there is a considerable risk to those whose work disturbs asbestos during maintenance or other building work, or when the asbestos is removed. Those are the danger times. The commission has run an extensive publicity campaign to raise awareness among building workers, who are the people most at risk—although I recognise the extension of the risk that my hon. Friend described.

The casual nature of the building trade and the culture of sub-subcontracting undoubtedly puts building workers at risk. My hon. Friend talked about "cowboy" employers, and I do not dissent from that opinion. We must consider stronger action than mere publicity.

The Health and Safety Executive will take enforcement action, where that is merited, for breaches of asbestos regulations. Last year, the courts imposed a landmark custodial sentence for breaches of health and safety legislation. I welcome that—but there is bad news, too.

Only recently, fines totalling £3,800 plus costs were imposed by north Surrey magistrates for asbestos-related offences committed by Surrey county council and W. S. Atkins Ltd. on council premises. The Surrey case is worrying because it involved what was thought to be a blue chip company, from which one might have expected higher standards. If blue chip companies are being hauled before the courts for failing to observe existing statutory requirements, I dread to think what the cowboy companies are doing.

We should not be tempted to think that those involved in the Surrey case received a bloody nose. I do not regard £3,800 as much of a bloody nose. Even worse is the fact that the average fine secured by the HSE over the past five years for breaches of the law controlling asbestos at work was a mere £1,120. That is a pretty feeble sum by anyone's standards, given the fact that exposure to asbestos can cause appalling suffering, and even death.

I am determined that breaches of legislation designed to safeguard people's health against the effects of exposure to asbestos should be treated more seriously. Indeed, that should apply to all health and safety offences, to provide an effective deterrent for those who might otherwise contemplate flouting the law. In short, if the penalties are worse, companies will realise that they simply cannot get away with being lax and treating people's health and safety as some kind of afterthought.

In most cases, the fines currently handed down by the courts are pitifully low, which prevents the operation of an effective system of deterrence. We are considering what can be done about that. I welcome the fact that the Health and Safety Commission is already considering a variety of other actions connected with tightening our legislation to protect workers from the effects of working with existing asbestos.

The commission is considering extending the scope of the current statutory licensing scheme covering asbestos stripping to include work with asbestos insulation board, and placing a new duty on owners or occupiers to survey buildings for the presence of asbestos. It is also considering extending the circumstances in which a licence to remove asbestos can be revoked, and how to exert stronger pressure in Europe to extend the existing prohibitions.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who brought to my attention the worrying level of imports and the movement of badly labelled hazardous materials throughout Europe.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the effective way in which she is putting the case and telling us that the Government will take more action on this important subject. She mentioned Europe, and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, in his excellent introduction, pointed out that France has an import ban. Many other countries also have tighter restrictions on the import of that deadly material.

Surely a Labour Government, keen on the health and safety of workers—my hon. Friend is certainly showing that she shares that attitude—would not want to do less than a country such as France. While we are talking about tightening the rules in Europe, will my hon. Friend ensure that if we achieve tighter restrictions on asbestos here, the banned substances will not be dumped in the third world?

Angela Eagle

I thank my hon. Friend for his sage intervention. He should have a little faith; I hope that he will like what he hears when I reach the end of my speech. However, I have only five minutes left and a lot more to say.

My Department has commissioned an independent assessment of the risks to health from environmental exposure to asbestos, including exposure in homes, schools and public places. I hope that the House will recognise that we are beginning to consider what we can do to give help, advice and some duties to local authorities and to the owners or managers of buildings in which asbestos is present.

Much of what the Health and Safety Commission is doing is good, but I believe that it can do more. I have, therefore, asked it for advice on how more urgent action can be taken, and for that advice to reach me quickly. For example, I believe that a duty to survey buildings for the presence of asbestos is vital, as it addresses an area of high risk and will enable priority to be given to identifying and properly treating the asbestos that remains. It is also important that such a duty will allow the presence of asbestos to be labelled, so that people know where the hazard lurks.

The quantities are being reduced, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone said, we cannot ignore the fact that chrysotiile, or "white", asbestos is still being imported into this country. I am interested in my hon. Friend's information about increases in imports, and I should like to talk to him about it.

Most such asbestos is used in asbestos-cement products, and both of the main uses can be replaced relatively easily with non-asbestos alternatives. Although there are some temporary shortages of alternative fibres, I agree with my hon. Friend that the problem can be overcome.

The Government consider that continued use of products containing asbestos should be forcefully challenged. A prohibition on supply or use will lead to significant reductions in the overall risk to human health, by protecting current generations from exposure, so we want to move to that position with all speed.

The Government recognise, of course, that there are still some very specialised uses for which alternative fibres or processes cannot be used. However, such uses must be strictly limited in number, and allowed only where no viable alternative can be found.

Supply of the most hazardous forms of asbestos has already been banned, and we believe that the time has come to phase out remaining uses of the material altogether. There is a European Union proposal, which has been on the table for some years, for a complete ban on the supply of asbestos, with only limited derogations for genuinely essential uses. We must watch the derogations loophole carefully.

No agreement has yet been reached. It is interesting that, originally, the failure to reach agreement arose because France blocked support. Now, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the French have taken action and we believe that there is now greater urgency and a real chance to achieve an agreement that will ban white asbestos within Europe. Such a move will have our full and active support.

Naturally, we are concerned to ensure that tangible and beneficial action emerges from all that work and we are seconding to the European Commission a senior specialist on asbestos from the HSE, to lead that work and bring the prohibition into Community legislation as quickly as possible.

Irrespective of the work in Europe, we have concluded that the best course now is for us to consider what action is necessary in this country.

The Minister for the Environment and I have discussed with the Health and Safety Commission our wish for a mechanism to be put in place, as a matter of urgency, for introducing a domestic ban on the import, supply and use of all asbestos. We have asked the commission to advise us on how that could be achieved and to what timetable.

We are anxious to see urgent action, but people should understand that the Health and Safety Executive and the Health and Safety Commission have a duty to consult. We shall take speedy action that is consistent with the duty of the HSE and HSC to consult.

The risks posed by exposure to asbestos are serious and require urgent action. We shall take that urgent action and—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. We must move on to the next debate.