HC Deb 21 July 1999 vol 335 cc1197-200 3.45 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create new offences relating to negligent or malicious practice involving work with asbestos; to increase the penalties available to the courts for existing offences; to confer new powers on the Health and Safety Executive; to amend the law with regard to the employment rights of health and safety representatives; and for connected purposes. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who is a sponsor of this Bill, for providing me with details of the film "DOA"—Dead on Arrival. In the opening scene, a man enters a police station and says, "I have come to report a murder." When asked who has been murdered, he replies, "I have."

Tens of thousands of men in Britain and across Europe could do the same, because they have been exposed to asbestos dust, often through the negligence and malpractice of their employers and contractors. In this country, there are an estimated 3,000 asbestos-related deaths a year: from asbestosis, asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma, a particularly nasty and painful form of cancer, for which prognosis for any form of recovery is very poor.

At a conference on asbestos-related diseases in 1997, Dr. John Moore-Gillon said: People with mesothelioma all die, usually after a few months of increasing pain and breathlessness. There can be no condition which is more distressing for the patient, relatives and to the completely powerless doctor, as those individuals plough inexorably downhill. Current projects based on a paper in The Lancet entitled "The continuing increase in mesothelioma mortality in Britain" suggest that, in 10 years' time, such deaths among men could range from 1,000 to 2,100; in 20 years' time, from 1,300 to 3,000; and in 30 years' time, from 1,000 to 3,200. The ratio of other asbestos-related deaths to mesothelioma is currently 2:1. On just a 1:1 ratio, Professor Julian Peto has estimated that, in the next 35 years, asbestos-related cancer will kill 500,000 men in western Europe.

Asbestos-related deaths have a long latency period—anything from 15 to 60 years from exposure to the deadly dust—so many of the murders of those who are still alive cannot be stopped. However, we can act now for the future. Many trade unions and health and public safety campaigners have long pressed for the law to be strengthened. To their credit, the Government have done that in a number of respects: they have introduced tighter regulations on asbestos licensing and exposure at work; and they have been negotiating hard for a Europe-wide ban on white chrysotile asbestos. Safer substitutes have now been scientifically established, so I hope that there will not be much more of a delay before white asbestos is banned in Britain and throughout the EU. If the date set for a total EU ban is some years ahead, I hope that that will not stop the Government announcing an immediate ban in this country.

Campaigners have also rightly pointed to the inadequacy of sentences delivered by the courts in cases involving negligent or malicious work with asbestos which places the lives and health of workers or innocent members of the public at risk. In a parliamentary answer to me in April, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), said: I am concerned that the general level of penalties imposed by the Courts for Health and Safety offences, including those related to asbestos, do not match their seriousness, especially given that lives are being put at risk."—[Official Report, 27 April 1999; Vol. 330, c.91.] The Minister was being too polite. Many of the sentences have been derisory, and despite the fact that some bigger fines have been imposed, judges still seem out of touch. They fail to see the gravity of the offence and continue to assess life far too cheaply. They have also been reluctant to imprison asbestos cowboys, even where the crime has been blatant.

The first ever custodial sentence—three months—on a cowboy contractor for serious breaches of asbestos regulations was passed on Roy Hill by Bristol Crown court in January 1996. The second one, and the longest to date—nine months—was handed down to Paul Anthony Evans by Birmingham Crown court in September 1998. Despite not having a licence, Evans subcontracted the stripping of a factory roof of asbestos and its disposal. He hired a van and dumped 300 sacks of asbestos around the city. The court was told that some of the bags had been left open and others had burst on inspection, releasing the asbestos fibres into the air. Children were found playing with the asbestos, some of which had been dumped on a school playground and some near a supermarket. I do not think—nor, I suspect, do most members of the public, especially people in Birmingham—that nine months' imprisonment was a sufficient sentence.

Mr. Justice Scott Baker, in an important Court of Appeal judgment last November, set out for the first time a range of factors for determining penalties. However, as in earlier judgments, he still managed to reduce the penalty imposed on the guilty party. It is hard to believe, but those were advances.

Earlier this year, there was a significant setback in the shape of the judgment in the case of the Medley brothers—Neil Peter Medley and Andrew Craig Medley. Their company, Medleys Limited, employed schoolboys to remove asbestos tiles from the ceiling of AE Turbines of Yeadon, Leeds. They employed two 15-year-olds and a 14-year-old for that work, and they also pleaded guilty to undertaking asbestos work in an old boiler house without a licence, failing to leave the premises in a clean state to prevent the spread of the asbestos, and placing employees at risk during work at a school by not properly maintaining records or medical surveillance. About 60 other charges were ordered to lie on the file. Neil Medley was ordered to do 240 hours of community service and pay £4,000 costs, and his brother was given half that penalty.

That was a grossly inadequate sentence. The judge, John Cockcroft, said that he could not send them to prison as, he claimed, the maximum punishment allowed by health and safety laws was an unlimited fine. He said: Only time will tell in relation to cases of this sort whether disease caused by exposure to asbestos will cause Parliament to look again at the maximum sentences for these offences. The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians expressed its horror at the leniency of the sentence. George Brumwell, its general secretary, said: We believe the sentence is an insult to the thousands of asbestos victims and their families. This case illustrates that the law must be toughened up so that punishments received for health and safety crimes match the nature of the crime. Asbestos kills people. UCATT drew attention to the Turin court decision three years ago when nine owner-managers of the Societa Italiana Amianto asbestos factory were jailed for terms of between seven months and eight years, and ordered to pay personal compensation totalling £6 million. They were found guilty of murdering 32 workers and causing the occupational diseases of the 11 still alive. Mr. Brumwell said: This level of punishment would make a real difference in attitudes of employers in this country. My Bill would increase the range of penalties, including imprisonment, for those organising work with asbestos who place another person's health or life at risk by undertaking negligent or malicious practices in the performance of that work. It would strengthen the powers of the Health and Safety Executive in the investigation of suspected breaches of asbestos law and regulations. Any obstruction of the HSE's investigations would be a crime with stiff penalties in its own right. It would introduce offences of corporate neglect and corporate malevolent practice whereby the directors of a company organising work with asbestos, which places another person's life or health at risk by negligence or malicious practice, would also be subject to penalties, including possible imprisonment.

I favour the enactment of the Law Commission's 1994 proposed reform of manslaughter law. It proposed three new offences—reckless killing, killing by gross carelessness and corporate killing. My Bill nods in that direction for asbestos offences.

My Bill would also increase penalties for offences under the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act 1920. The maximum penalty of a fine not exceeding £1,000 for employing a child in an industrial undertaking is far too low. It should be an imprisonable offence to employ any child on work with asbestos.

The Attorney-General has the right to appeal what he considers too lenient sentences. However, according to the Lord Chancellor, that does not apply to health and safety asbestos cases. My Bill would extend that right of appeal. It would also require the Lord Chancellor to arrange specific training courses for all judges who are likely to deal with asbestos cases, explaining the sentences available to them.

I know that Ministers were deeply disappointed by the Medley judgment, and are still actively considering how to respond. My Bill comes at the end of this parliamentary Session, so it will not make progress on this occasion. However, it points the way, and I hope that more realistic sentences that reflect the deadly seriousness of asbestos abuse will be enacted in the not too distant future.

Madam Speaker

Order. I have been indicating the digital clock for some time.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Nick Ainger, Mr. Michael Clapham, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Tom Cox, Mr. Neil Gerrard, Dr. Norman A. Godman, Helen Jackson, Mr. Gerald Kaufman, Mr. John Smith, Dr. Howard Stoate and Mr. Tony Worthington.


Mr. Harry Cohen accordingly presented a Bill to create new offences relating to negligent or malicious practice involving work with asbestos; to increase the penalties available to the courts for existing offences; to confer new powers on the Health and Safety Executive; to amend the law with regard to the employment rights of health and safety representatives; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 July, and to be printed [Bill 147].