HC Deb 24 October 2002 vol 391 cc481-512

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

5 pm

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown)

We have an opportunity in Government time, at the request of the Leader of the Opposition, to discuss important matters concerning health and safety. Three sets of regulations are relevant: the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1999, the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 1998, and the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002. All three sets of regulations amend existing legislation that was originally made in the 1980s, and which carried the full support of both sides of the House.

The Government are effectively doing two things. First, we are implementing a number of European directives, including the health element of the chemical agents directive that lays down minimum standards for the protection of workers from health and safety risks caused by chemical agents. The directive largely reflects the approach already taken by the three sets of health-based regulations, which since the 1980s have set out a systematic approach to the control of substances hazardous to health, including lead and asbestos, in the workplace. The directive and existing legislation require employers to assess risks, prevent or control exposure, provide information and training for employees and, in some circumstances, monitor employees' exposure to hazardous substances and place them under health surveillance.

Although the more prescriptive requirements of the directive have meant making many amendments to our existing regulations, the changes largely involve making explicit what is already implicit in our current regulations or their approved codes of practice. In transposing the requirements of the directive, the Health and Safety Commission has made every effort to make only those changes that are essential. It has taken care to produce a legislative package that will deliver high compliance while minimising the additional costs to industry.

The second thing that we are doing is addressing the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, which will be amended to introduce a new legal duty to manage asbestos in non-domestic premises. Asbestos is the most serious occupational health problem in terms of fatal disease that the country faces.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil)

Has the Minister heard the concerns that many people have expressed about whether there is a difference between the health risks of white asbestos and those of the more dangerous blue and brown asbestos? Does he have evidence that suggests that white asbestos is as much a danger as the other forms of asbestos?

Mr. Brown

I shall come to that point but, if the hon. Gentleman allows me, I will deal with it in the order in which it appears in my speech.

In the 30 years between 1968 and 1998, 50,000 people died in the United Kingdom from asbestos-related diseases. The human suffering and misery behind those terrible figures continue today, and there is nothing that we can do about those already exposed. However, we can certainly do a great deal to prevent exposures today and so prevent painful and prolonged illness and death in the future.

Andy Burnham (Leigh)

My right hon. Friend refers to people who have contracted asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma. Many people in my constituency—former employees of Turner and Newall—still have outstanding claims against the company, but they are currently stalled because the owner, Federal Mogul, has gone into administration in the United States. Something could be done for people who contracted mesothelioma in the past if the Government could unlock the injustice of the situation in which those people currently find themselves.

Mr. Brown

The situation is complex and goes slightly beyond the regulations under discussion. However, it is serious. My colleagues and I met a Treasury Minister to see what we could do to make progress on a range of issues relating to legal actions that appear to be stalled. I have no announcement to make on that, but we are working across the Government, with the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry, to determine what more can be done. The situation is serious, as my hon. Friend said.

Since coming into office in 1997, the Government have progressively done much to strengthen the laws on asbestos in the workplace. We have widened the range of work that requires a licence from the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that asbestos removal work is carried out safely. Those measures have certainly had an effect on reducing the risks of asbestos. However, I share the concerns of the Health and Safety Commission that one issue remains to be addressed, and that is why a new proposal is before the House.

Research shows that more than 25 per cent. of those currently dying from asbestos-related diseases worked in building and maintenance operations. Although virtually all exposure routes have been effectively controlled by, for example, banning the use of asbestos products, it is estimated that something like 500,000 commercial and public buildings across the country still have materials in them that contain asbestos. In many cases, no one is consistently managing the risks from the thousand; of tonnes of asbestos in those premises. People working on those buildings, such as plumbers, electricians and other maintenance workers, often do not know that they are at risk from disturbing the material or whether their work is putting other users in the building at risk.

On the issue rightly raised by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), although the different forms of asbestos are often referred to by colour—blue, brown or white—in reality the colour of a material gives no indication of the type of asbestos it contains. It is not possible to detect asbestos by simply looking at material, which must be analysed to establish with any certainty whether it contains asbestos. The Health and Safety Executive is aware of numerous incidents in which workers have been exposed to asbestos. Those have often resulted in the construction projects being stopped and the premises evacuated, as well as in producing potentially serious consequences for the workers involved. It is to deal with that unsatisfactory situation that the Government have proposed new legislation.

The new duty to manage asbestos will require those who have responsibilities for maintenance activities in non-domestic premises to assess whether there is any asbestos in their premises. If asbestos is present, they must decide either to remove it or to manage it, depending on its condition, while ensuring that subsequent maintenance activities do not expose the workers to avoidable risk.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can help me with something. I thought he would mention the date on which a building was constructed. In my constituency, Eternit, which as he knows produces roofing materials and so on, incorporated white asbestos into cement and roof tiles from 1980 onwards until the practice was stopped in 1997 or thereabouts. The date of a building could give considerable guidance on what materials were used and compliance costs could be reduced on later buildings.

Mr. Brown

I thought that as well but I will go on to refute it. It was common practice in the industry to mix brown and blue asbestos with white asbestos to get what was thought to be a better product.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the difficulty of identifying the asbestos, which might be a mixture of the different types, from its colour, but surely it would be fairly easy to analyse whether an asbestos was white, blue or brown. Blue and brown asbestos are made up of iron silicates whereas white asbestos is based on a magnesium silicate. It would not be a difficult scientific test to detect the absence or presence of either type.

Mr. Brown

Perhaps it would be better if I dealt with the matter where it occurs in my address to the House. We are trying to get the duty to manage the problem to be carried out in a proportionate and easily handled way. The advice to me is that to require distinctions to be drawn between brown, blue and white asbestos on the basis of analysis is a rather cumbersome way forward. In any event, there would still be a remaining problem from white asbestos although, as I will tell the House, it is a problem of a lesser order albeit a real one.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

On the distinction mentioned by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) between an iron silicate and a magnesium silicate, it is not so much the chemistry as the structure of the fibre that matters. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Mr. Brown

There is a range of uncertainties about the matter, and the Government must make their decisions on the best advice available to them. There is a risk from white asbestos. It is not a safe product.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a certain amount of mythology about the colour of asbestos? Exposure to white asbestos still gives one 150 more chances of contracting mesothelioma than not being exposed to it.

Mr. Brown

Mesothelioma is a terrible way to die. There are risks connected with white asbestos, even if it is pure white asbestos and not mixed with brown or blue asbestos. Those risks are real and present and the Government want to safeguard against them. I hope that the House will accept that the Government's position is proportionate. It is certainly based on professional advice.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)


Mr. Brown

I shall take the intervention, then perhaps I can make progress.

Mr. Salmond

I refer to the backlog of claimants. I suspect that all hon. Members have constituents who are affected. In Scotland there are 500 cases waiting at the Court of Session, and another 700 have not even reached the Court of Session, and we know that there is a similar situation south of the border. In the discussions between Departments, have the reasons for the backlog been identified? Is it merely a matter of appointing more judges, in which case why cannot that be done? Or is there some other blockage in the system, both in the Court of Session in Scotland and in the High Court south of the border?

Mr. Brown

I am not sufficiently familiar with the Scottish legal system to give the hon. Gentleman a definitive answer, but if it helps him, I will make inquiries of those who are able to give such an answer and write to him. However, the regulations that we are discussing today are designed to protect for the future, rather than deal with the tragic backlog of what are essentially common law cases seeking compensation for something that has already happened. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have done their best in this area. We are looking at what more can be done. If the responsibility lies on anybody, it lies on those who caused the injury to the worker and on their insurers. It is there that some of the difficulties in law lie. I will write to the hon. Gentleman and try to get a more professional clarification of the point from someone more familiar with the Scottish legal system than I am.

The duty to remove or manage the problem is designed to make sure that maintenance activities are carried out safely and that workers are not subsequently exposed to avoidable risk. There is an obligation to ensure that information on the location and condition of these materials is given to anyone who is likely to disturb them.

The Government are not alone in wishing to legislate to protect building and maintenance workers from asbestos in buildings. A similar duty is likely to be imposed by the asbestos worker protection directive currently under negotiation. However, the United Kingdom legislation will go further than that required by Europe in one important aspect. The legislation in the UK will not be triggered by the maintenance works starting, but will require that those responsible for maintenance work in premises assess the risk in advance and properly plan how best to deal with it. Such an approach is essential if we are to prevent maintenance workers from being exposed to lethal asbestos fibres.

The regulations have been designed to be flexible, allowing a proportionate approach to be taken towards compliance. They require significant expenditure only when the risk justifies it. They are based on the sound business practice of establishing and managing risks efficiently, and closely follow current good practice in the workplace.

As the duty will apply to all non-domestic premises, sufficient time needs to be allowed for duty holders to comply, particularly those with many properties. The draft regulation allows an 18-month lead-in before the duty comes into force, but duty holders will be advised to start planning how best to comply as soon as possible.

Responses to consultation exercises on the duty to manage have been overwhelmingly positive. Those who responded positively include the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress, the British Property Federation, the Federation of Small Businesses, Government Departments with major property portfolios such as the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health, local authorities, national health service trusts, charities, trade unions such as the GMB, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and the National Union of Teachers, retailers, banks, universities, building and allied trade associations, utilities providers and asbestos specialists.

The CBI welcomed the clear indication in the latest proposals that the resolution of asbestos risks is a team effort. The British Property Federation confirmed that the Health and Safety Executive had a good understanding of the operational requirements of landlords and managing agents, which is crucial to maximising the health benefits of the regulations. The Federation of Small Businesses indicated that the notion of a duty to manage was acceptable. The TUC supported the commission's proposals. A major property owner and leaseholder, the Royal Bank of Scotland—which now owns NatWest—agreed that any proposal involving removal of an unknown hazard would benefit workers.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

So far the Minister has not mentioned the National Farmers Union, although he may be about to do so. I have received a number of representations from farmers in my constituency whose barns contain white asbestos and who fear they could face a collective bill amounting to several millions of pounds. I hope that common sense will be used, that the regulations will not be policed too zealously, and that my farmers will not be financially disadvantaged because of a problem that some believe does not exist.

Mr. Brown

No one from the National Farmers Union has approached me directly. I would be unlikely to overlook any representations that had been made; I think I would have remembered.

Those most at risk from asbestos on farms are the workers, the farmers themselves and their families. It is in their interests that the risks, if risks there be, are properly managed. If the asbestos is stable, one way of managing it properly might be just to leave it alone.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I have received a fax from the National Farmers Union. It says The NFU is encouraging its members to comply fully with these regulations and urging them to realise the importance of workplace protection from exposure to asbestos. I think the Minister has the NFU on his side.

Mr. Brown

Not for the first time! I thank the hon. Gentleman for making a helpful intervention. I am sure that that was not for the first time either.

The list of supporters is pretty comprehensive, but let me now deal with our critics. The Government are aware of concerns expressed in some quarters about the need for a duty to manage asbestos on premises, including views expressed by a small but vociferous minority who claim that the inclusion of white asbestos—chrysotile—is unnecessary because it is no more dangerous than other commonly used materials such as talcum powder. That is dangerous nonsense. The experts are unanimous in saying that all asbestos types can cause cancer. All asbestos types are unequivocally classified as carcinogens by the World Health Organisation's international agency for research on cancer, and by regulatory bodies throughout the developed world.

It is true that most experts believe that the blue and brown varieties are more dangerous than the white, and the most recent review of the relevant evidence suggests that the difference is substantial; but there is a wide range of scientific opinion and a good deal of uncertainty. The vociferous and, I have to say, commercially interested minority take a position at one extreme of the scientifically arguable range, and then behave as though the uncertainty did not exist.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that although there may be a commercial interest in saying that white asbestos is not dangerous, commercial interests are lined up that will profit greatly from zealous policing in relation to a white asbestos risk? Therefore, the balance of commercial interests is not all on one side.

Mr. Brown

The Government's concern is to protect our fellow citizens in the workplace and act proportionately in dealing with the risk. I was asked earlier about the risk from white asbestos, and there is such a risk. I am being candid about the ratio of risk in relation to blue, brown and white asbestos. All the advice says that the risks are different. Although a range of assessments has been made, the risk is still there.

Mr. Laws

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. He acknowledged that there was some uncertainty about the issue. Although it is obviously wise for the Government to act preventively in respect of uncertainty and err on the side of greater health protection, is he now planning to take any action to reduce the uncertainty about health risk?

Mr. Brown

A research programme is in place, but there are obvious difficulties in getting absolute evidence of the relationship of risk between white, blue and brown asbestos. It would not be right to wait 30 years until the evidence shows up in people's ill health. We know that there is a risk and it would exist even if the white product could be separated from the mix that was commonly used in the building trade. It is a risk from which the Government have a responsibility to protect their citizens. We must take a decision in the presence of that uncertainty, in the knowledge that the results of a wrong decision would not be apparent for 30 years or more. We also know that a wrong decision would involve death from a particularly nasty disease. The Government's best estimate is that exposure of maintenance workers exclusively to chrysotile fibres—this relates to white asbestos—would give rise to an uncertain but actual risk of cancer.

In addition, excluding chrysotile from the duty to manage would make no practical sense. As recently as the 1970s, blue and brown asbestos were routinely added to white asbestos products during manufacture. In particular, that was done to improve the drying characteristics of the product. Applying different measures to the different fibre types could increase the costs of the duty to manage, as more analysis of the products in place would be needed to determine which regime should be applied. Even if the exclusion of white asbestos were desirable—it is firmly the Government's view that it is not—it would not be a practical way forward.

Concern has also been expressed by small businesses that some surveyors and asbestos removal contractors will use the legislation to oversell their services. We need to prevent that from happening. We have embarked on a five-year implementation programme, working closely with a number of organisations, including the Federation of Small Businesses and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, to ensure that the duty is properly understood and complied with. A crucial element in the campaign will be the need to advise duty holders to take a proportionate approach. In particular, that will involve leaving asbestos materials in place rather than having them removed when they are in good condition and are unlikely to be disturbed.

I seek to encourage the support of hon. Members in all parts of the House in ensuring that asbestos risks are properly managed without unnecessary expense. While extravagant claims have been made in the media about the cost of the proposals, the Health and Safety Executive calculates that the cost of full compliance with the duty will be about £1.5 billion discounted—in other words, at current values—over 50 years. Although that is a significant sum, it should be borne in mind that the costs will be spread among an extremely large number of duty holders whose individual costs will be significant only when the risks to health justify it. The Health and Safety Executive also calculates that the cost of completely eliminating all current risks from exposure to asbestos, including that of fully complying with all other asbestos regulation, would be £3 billion—a level that is again discounted. The elimination of this risk, together with savings arising from the better planning of maintenance and demolition work which will follow the introduction of the duty, is equivalent to total benefits exceeding £3.3 billion.

If current levels of exposure to asbestos are allowed to continue over the next 50 years, nearly 5,000 people will die from asbestos-related disease. These regulations should go a long way towards preventing that human suffering and misery, and they deserve the full support of the House.

Mr. Lansley

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again. He was talking about practice in the 1970s, but I am not sure that he has answered my earlier question. The burden of my point to him was that there was a time—from memory it was 1980, but one could be more precise—when known manufacturers, such as Eternit in my constituency, were not including blue or brown asbestos in the mix. They were using white asbestos in concrete for roof tiling, and so on. Why is it not possible to reduce the burden of compliance costs on those who own and manage buildings that were constructed after that date?

Mr. Brown

We are proposing a practical way forward. The risk has to be assessed by the person who owns or manages the building, and the best way of managing the risk—or what is assessed to be the risk, as it may not be necessary to test the materials for their composition—might be to manage the material where it is, if it is inert. It would be necessary to ensure that people coming in to perform maintenance tasks, who might disturb the material in some way, understood what the risks were. I do not think that it is possible to draw a distinction between white asbestos and the more dangerous forms of asbestos—although I accept that scientific theory suggests that such a distinction exists—in the clear-cut, practical way in which the hon. Gentleman is urging me to do. Moreover, if it were possible and less burdensome to do as he suggests—I do not accept that it is—there would still be a risk. It is a mistake to say that there is no risk from white asbestos. Although we can argue about the proportion of risk between blue and brown asbestos on the one hand and white on the other, we know that the risk is there, and the Government have a duty to protect against it.

Mr. Lansley

I was not suggesting that there was no risk associated with white asbestos, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman is admitting that there is a lesser risk. If that risk is substantially less, but the costs imposed on the owners of buildings containing only white asbestos is likely to be similar to that imposed on other buildings, the balance of costs and benefits in relation to that part of our property estate is different from the risk that applies to the property estate countrywide. The purpose of the risk assessment is to ensure that we focus on dealing with the greater risk, and do so in a way that is proportionate to the cost.

Mr. Brown

I think that the proposal that I have put before the House is proportionate. These issues have always commanded consensus in the House until now, and I hope that they will continue to do so. Way back in 1983, when the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), had responsibility for these matters, he said this to the House: "It is not a substance for which one can set a level below which there is no risk but a substance about which we do not know the lowest level of risk. We must therefore assume that a single fibre could do real damage which may not be seen for 20 years or more."—[Official Report, 28 July 1983; Vol. 46, c. 1411.] That is what the official Conservative spokesman said, when in government. Those are his words, not mine. I do not think that the House should wait for 20 or 30 years to make a more balanced assessment of the proportion of risk between white, brown or blue asbestos. With that, I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion.

5.29 pm
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I welcome this debate, and I begin on a consensual note. The Minister for Work is a person of unimpeachable integrity, and I have the highest regard for him. He wants to protect the public, and we all have a responsibility to do so; indeed, I take mine every bit as seriously as he takes his. However, to discharge that responsibility, and to ensure that only necessary costs are incurred, regulation must be based on sound science and on credible assessments of risk. It would be a grave dereliction of parliamentary duty if regulation based on flawed science were forced through this House without adequate scrutiny, and at the cost of billions of pounds.

It is because a fear exists that the Government might be about to make a colossal blunder that it is my responsibility to flag up legitimate concerns. To that end, I should like to look at the root of the problem—the different types of asbestos—to consider the merits of the statistics bandied about, to focus on the commercial interests that are lobbying for these regulations, and to highlight some of the problems contained in them and in the code of practice. I should also like to ask the House at least to consider, for that must be our purpose today, an alternative way forward to that which the right hon. Gentleman—entirely sincerely, and on the basis of advice from others—is proposing.

First, let us consider the root of the problem. It is nearly 50 years since scientists first established that exposure to the sharp metallic fibres of blue and brown asbestos—amphiboles made from iron silicate—were a serious cause of lung disease, including the form of cancer known as mesothelioma. The reality is that many participants in the public debate have in recent times blurred the distinction between those metallic amphiboles and the much commoner white form of asbestos. The latter is a wholly different mineral—magnesium silicate. The fibres of white asbestos are soft, silky and biodegradable. Theoretically, intense long term exposure to these fibres, which occur naturally in the air—typically, each of us inhales 20,000 of them a day—can cause health damage, just as intense exposure to any form of dust can injure healthy lung tissue.

However, the only hard evidence of which I am aware for such damage derives from studies of workers who were heavily exposed to white asbestos in its raw state—for example, in a large and unregulated asbestos mine in China. My concern is that the Health and Safety Executive—which originally proposed a glitzy publicity launch for these new regulations on 3 October, but hastily cancelled the event upon the legitimate complaint of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—is basing the proposed regulations on research into asbestos undertaken by Professor Julian Peto in 1985. That research was conducted on workers in a Rochdale asbestos factory that was owned by Turner and Newall, to which reference has been made, and subsequently bought by Eternit. The study appeared to show that exposure to white asbestos had caused mesothelioma. That came as a bombshell, for until then no one had suspected that white asbestos might be dangerous.

A decade later, in 1995, Professor Peto's evidence was re-examined by other scientists—in a study, commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive itself, by Dr. Alan Gibbs and Professor Fred Pooley. The lung tissue of the exposed workers studied by Professor Peto unmistakeably showed damage by amphiboles, but the lung damage that the professor was examining had been caused not by white asbestos, but by residues from blue and brown asbestos. Furthermore, I am advised that at least 19 other scientific research projects concluded that white asbestos is a low-risk substance. As the Minister will be fair enough to concede, most of these studies have apparently been commissioned by the HSE. Indeed, the HSE reported to the World Trade Organisation less than a decade ago that white asbestos had a risk to health too small to be measured. As recently as June 2000, the HSE published a report, by John Hodgson and Andrew Darnton, about the risks to health from asbestos exposure. They concluded that the risk from white asbestos was theoretically zero, yet they were criticised by some scientists for exaggerating its risks.

The House will be aware—and if it is not, it should be—of the US court decision in 1991 that overturned the 1989 total ban in the United States on all asbestos. The judge in that case said that more people would die of the inhalation of toothpicks in the United States than they would from asbestos fibres". Both the Health and Safety Executive and the European Union have—

Mr. Clapham

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

I say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I like and respect, that I will give way to him once, but this side of the argument and the concerns that it embodies need to be heard. I am keen to hear his case later. I shall give way once, because I am a generous and a public-spirited fellow, but no more.

Mr. Clapham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is right that the proposed ban in America was overturned. The situation today is that corporate America is facing an enormous problem from asbestos, and many of the section 11 cases—those companies seeking administration—have been caused because of asbestos liabilities. Had the law in America been retained, corporate America might be in a different position.

Mr. Bercow

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's observation, but it does not cohere with the professional judgment of the Environmental Health Agency in the United States, to which he has tempted me to return in a matter of moments. If he is able to contain himself, I will say something further about that matter of legitimate and academic debate.

Both the Health and Safety Executive and the European Union describe white asbestos as a class 1 carcinogen. However, as I am sure Members know, oral contraceptives, alcohol and nickel compounds all fall into the same category. Furthermore, I understand that the only tests conducted on white asbestos show its carcinogenic potential for humans to be about 160 years at levels of exposure approximately 200 times those at which the Health and Safety Executive recommends regulatory action.

The advice that I have received is that most raw materials, including so-called safer alternatives to asbestos, are all carcinogenic, but that the finished products containing the fibres are not. All of the above findings are significant and, under the Health and Safety at Work, &c. Act 1974, the Health and Safety Executive is statutorily obliged to take full account of conflicting scientific opinion and new evidence as they become available. Yet despite the apparent evidence of its own scientists that the Peto study was fatally flawed and what I gather to be private intimations from Health and Safety Executive experts to this effect, the HSE has never changed its public line, but rather continues the campaign to demonise white asbestos.

The House should also know that the recent UK representation briefing to Members of the European Parliament referring to proposed amendments to the asbestos regulation observed that they are likely to incur significant costs for British businesses in remedial measures, including possible liability for compulsory building surveys of 'all' commercial property in the UK. Significantly, it goes on to add that similar proposals were rejected in the USA as 'unnecessary'. There is also strong evidence that both EC directives and Health and Safety Executive regulations on this issue are based on flawed research. I wish to refer to the statistics. The Health and Safety Executive and opponents of white asbestos claim that it causes deaths from mesothelioma. This is extremely questionable, and the conclusion appears to have been reached by a scarcely credible three-stage process.

First, the HSE took the total number of deaths each year attributed to mesothelioma. Then, because it had been established that exposure to blue or brown asbestos was a cause of mesothelioma, it took an arbitrary percentage of that figure and ascribed it to asbestos in general. Finally, because of its belief—apparently without evidence to support it—that some of these deaths must have been due to white asbestos, it went on to make the fanciful and, some would say, intellectually disreputable assumption that 10 per cent. of asbestos-related deaths must have been caused by exposure to white asbestos.

Since Health and Safety Executive officials began citing these figures, they have been supplied with extensive evidence by Dr. Gibbs and others showing that white asbestos cannot be identified as a cause of any mesothelioma death in the United Kingdom. However, all that actual evidence—as opposed to guesswork—has been ignored by the HSE, apparently in breach of its statutory obligation to take account of such evidence. Its fictitious figures have become a mantra that continues to be solemnly intoned by the anti-asbestos lobby on every occasion—Labour Members will no doubt prove my point conclusively this afternoon even though in reality there appears to be no evidential basis for them.

What about the commercial interests? The campaign for the new regulations has been actively promoted, at a cost of millions of pounds, by the two major multinational companies, Eternit and Saint-Gobain, that are now the market leaders in providing asbestos-substitute materials. Those materials have never been subjected to proper safety tests despite recent evidence from Edinburgh university that one of them—cellulose—may be carcinogenic. Hon. Members cannot have it both ways. In Britain those companies have carried out their lobbying through such bodies as the Association of Manufacturers against Asbestos and Westminster Advisers.

Since 1999, when the HSE finally dropped the clear regulatory distinction it had earlier made between blue or brown asbestos and white asbestos, the HSE has generally spoken of all forms of asbestos as if they were interchangeable. In that way, the anti-asbestos campaign has created the potential for immense public alarm. No one has been in a better position to exploit the resulting confusion than a new class of some 800 specialist contractors, called into being by the HSE to carry out asbestos-related work under a special HSE licence.

Mr. Lansley

Lest my hon. Friend continue further on that line of argument, perhaps he could tell me what evidence he has for a lobbying campaign by Eternit. I have an Eternit plant in my constituency, and I have approached the company for its advice. It has at no time sought to initiate contact with me or taken the line that my hon. Friend suggests. I find it curious that he should ascribe such lobbying to that company.

Mr. Bercow

As my hon. Friend knows, I invariably understate my case, and today is no exception. My distinct understanding is that that company has made representations—as it is entitled to do—to the HSE. Certainly, the people with whom I have been in contact have the distinct impression that the company is a leading advocate of the regulation that the Minister is commending to the House today. I would imagine that my hon. Friend will hear in due course from the company or part of it. We shall have to see.

Most of the contractors to which I refer belong to ARCA—the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association. In recent months, a nationwide investigation, involving more than 700 examples, has shown that those contractors and surveyors, who often work in close collaboration, have been using their privileged position to tell property occupiers of every type, including farmers, small shopkeepers, householders—to whom the regulations are not supposed to apply—residents of blocks of flats, local authorities and NHS hospital trusts, that their premises contain asbestos which the law requires to be removed and which can be done only by a licensed contractor at an exorbitant cost. However, when the details have been checked by independent experts, it has turned out in almost every case that the work is either not necessary at all or can be carried out legally and safely for a fraction of the cost quoted by the contractors.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

My hon. Friend is probably aware that banks and building societies are now using that as an excuse not to grant mortgages, especially on flats in affected blocks. Does my hon. Friend agree that financial institutions are acting irresponsibly in the matter?

Mr. Bercow

I am as alarmed as my hon. Friend by that phenomenon, to which I intended to refer. It compounds difficulties, increases anxieties and threatens ballooning costs, and both the Government and the Opposition have a responsibility to take it into consideration.

Cases are legion in which companies have been told that asbestos is contained in their premises and that removal will cost a large sum of money. In those cases, it has subsequently transpired either that there is no problem at all or that it can be satisfactorily tackled for a fraction of the cost. There is a well known case in south Wales, and an extremely alarming one in west London, into which investigations continue. There is another case at Dulverton in Somerset. I am anxious about them.

In fairness to the Minister—this is another rare note of consensus, and I propose that we all enjoy it—he did refer to such cases. However, I should have preferred greater evidence of real and steely determination to crack down on the cowboy contractors who take citizens for a ride and risk bringing the Government into disrepute.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

The hon. Gentleman is right, that we can make common cause on this matter. If he gives me a list of the cowboy contractors who are behaving as he alleges, I shall report them immediately to their professional association. It has a disciplinary procedure to deal with such matters. I shall personally make sure that it is enforced.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to the Minister for that. I undertake to provide the details that he needs. He has increased my work load, but that does not matter as I can now increase his.

However, the Minister should not be so coy. The Health and Safety Executive, for which his Department is responsible, has all the ammunition it needs. It is aware of the facts and details involved, and mutters its irritation, but it has failed to deal with recalcitrants. If the HSE is not robust enough, I hope that the Minister is.

The cases described all occurred before the new regulations requiring all workplaces to carry out a full asbestos survey, risk assessment and monitoring programme were considered. On the evidence of confusion and sharp practice that is now available, the risk is that regulations that are not soundly based will merely provide the more unscrupulous surveyors and contractors with a field day. They will be unwittingly aided and abetted by the Health and Safety Executive at a cost to the UK economy that is far greater than the HSE's estimate of the cost of compliance with the proposed new regime.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I have heard the hon. Gentleman suggest, in the Chamber and elsewhere, that business is burdened with too much red tape. Is he now suggesting that there should be statutory regulation of contractors who remove asbestos?

Mr. Bercow

I am not arguing for that. I am saying that there is a problem with a number of members of ARCA that are behaving irresponsibly and costing innocent citizens and businesses a great deal of money. I am critical of excessive regulation but, equally, it is important to emphasise that regulation to protect the public is necessary in a civilised society. I am glad that there has not been too much moralising in the debate so far, although I do not expect that that will continue. I care about safety as much as the hon. Gentleman does, but a legitimate democratic debate should take place about the level of regulation that is required, based on scientific assessment and not emotive theorising.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

I shall give way for the last time to the hon. Gentleman, who has been patient.

Mr. Jones

All hon. Members will sympathise with any business that has been unscrupulously hoodwinked into contracting for unnecessary work, but would not the right approach be to regulate those errant contractors, or to track them down and expose them? Would not that be better than attacking regulations that would be welcomed by good businesses that manage their properties to a high standard?

Mr. Bercow

I fear that the hon. Gentleman is conflating and confusing two issues. One issue concerns whether there is scientific and intellectual justification for the regulatory regime that the Government propose. Opposition Members are raising legitimate questions about that, on our own account and on behalf of others. We are not clear that there is such a justification. If a regulatory regime for white asbestos is needed, and we are not persuaded that it is, there is a separate issue that concerns the behaviour of individual contractors.

I am certainly sympathetic to a policy of naming and shaming those who use privileged status and corporate power to make other people's lives more difficult and expensive than would otherwise be the case. I am on the side of the underdogs, of whom there are a great many around the country. If the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) wants to join me in championing the cause of the downtrodden, the underdog, the oppressed and the unduly burdened, I will welcome him to the campaign.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

We can make common cause on this. I have a letter from Terry Jago, the chief executive of ARCA, who says: We are extremely concerned about these allegations, particularly since at no time has any contact been made with the Association with regard to them. I really think it important that the hon. Gentleman gives us the names and enables me to pursue the matter, probably on behalf of the whole House.

Mr. Bercow

I am genuinely flabbergasted that despite the profuse material supplied on the cases to the Health and Safety Executive, the right hon. Gentleman, whose Department is responsible for and effectively the parent of the Health and Safety Executive, is woefully ignorant of the substantive arguments that are being advanced against those contractors. Is the right hon. Gentleman semi-detached within his Department?

Mr. Brown

Actually, I think that "semi-detached" was a term of abuse used against a former Conservative Minister by his own side. The person making the allegations, according to ARCA, is the hon. Gentleman. The letter says: We would there fore suggest that in your response to Mr. Bercow, it may be appropriate for you to ask him to provide details to the Association, giving the names of the member companies about which the allegations are made, to enable these complaints to be investigated. The hon. Gentleman is making the accusation—give us the names and we can investigate them.

Mr. Bercow

This is extraordinary. I said that I have a high regard for the right hon. Gentleman. He really deserves a better status in life than that merely of unrewarded and unappreciated lackey of ARCA. That will not do at all. The right hon. Gentleman should have some regard for his own status. It is not his job to go taking from me material that is requested by a third party. The material has been provided to the Health and Safety Executive, the cases have been well publicised and the individual victims are well known. I am not proposing to go through all the detailed cases now for the simple reason that other right hon. and hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. I have already referred to the examples. I stand by them, I will elaborate on them, further and better particulars will be provided, the details will be given to the Minister and the hon. Member for North Durham, who is chuntering from a sedentary position, will have nothing about which to complain. He will be the first to complain if a detailed dilation on those cases causes me to take longer and to stop him making a contribution to the debate. I am a just fellow, and I do not propose to subject the hon. Gentleman to that disadvantage. It is simply not fair.

I want to focus on the cost of the regulations, because the right hon. Gentleman made an important point. He talked about a cost of £1.5 billion over a 50-year period. I thought that he had the figures the wrong way round and had misread his text. Previously, the Health and Safety Executive said that its estimate was not £1.5 billion but £5.1 billion. It then came up with a lesser figure of £3.4 billion, but the TUC, upon which the right hon. Gentleman is happy to rely when it suits him, previously suggested a potential cost of £80 billion.

Mr. Brown

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's generosity in giving way. The figure of £80 billion that is attributed to the TUC is simply wrong. I contacted the TUC because I wanted to get to the truth. It says that this is not a TUC figure, it never has been and the TUC has never worked out the cost. I do not know where the figure comes from, but it is nothing whatever to do with the Health and Safety Executive or the TUC.

Mr. Bercow

On this occasion, on the Floor of the House, as I do not have the paper in front of me, I note what the right hon. Gentleman says.

Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

No, I will not.

Tony Worthington

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

No, I have made the point clear to the hon. Gentleman and I do not intend to dilate on it further.

I emphasise that the Health and Safety Executive's previous estimate of £5.1 billion represented the largest cost compliance assessment ever given for a new law. Even if we exclude temporarily and in the name of cordiality on the Floor of the House the figure of £80 billion, that earlier proposed by the Health and Safety Executive was the largest ever cost compliance assessment given for a new law. Now we are told that the figure is £1.5 billion; previously we were told that it was £3.4 billion. I believe that there is a serious concern that the regulations could prove much more expensive, and the Minister is not in a position conclusively to rebut that suggestion for the simple reason that the only figures that he has to go on are those supplied to him by the Health and Safety Executive. If the HSE has changed its mind twice, what is to stop it changing its mind a third time when the regulations have been given effect, the cost is being borne and it is too late to reverse or mitigate some of the damage thereby inflicted?

As if that were not bad enough, there are other potential scandals to consider. There is the evidence to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) referred that surveyors, estate agents and building societies are erroneously advising homeowners or prospective purchasers of the damage to the properties that has been sustained and their reduced value. Also, the alarm generated over asbestos is provoking an ever-rising tide of insurance claims. So large are the sums involved in this sort of compensation that it has now become the fastest growing area of liability.

The reality is that in those circumstances we have a legitimate reason to raise our concerns. I hope that Labour Members will not be gleeful at the thought of multinational insurance companies such as Sun Alliance having to make such massive and unjustified payouts. That company is already proposing to put aside £385 million as a contingency, principally to cover asbestos-related claims. We have to remember that ultimately everyone, including ourselves, will pay the bill in higher premiums.

Ministers, Labour Members of Parliament and trade unions must take care not to allow themselves to become front men and cheerleaders for what could turn out to be one of the most shameless public rackets of our time. In the first five substantive pages of the regulations I saw no fewer than 25 areas of ambiguity. A colleague has seen no fewer than 45 areas of potential error and uncertainty in the first 15 pages. So, there are real grievances. Questions need to be posed and answered in relation to the proposed code of practice as well as the regulations. The Government are seeking to ram through the House highly detailed and controversial regulations, which hon. Members are not equipped technically to evaluate and upon which, plainly, there is not a scientific consensus.

In the end, it seems obvious that in these circumstances we cannot just rest content with the view of the Government. We have to take account of what the environmental experts in the United States think, and of the fact that the World Health Organisation remains of the view that the controlled use of white asbestos is appropriate. It maintains that asbestos cement products are totally safe. We should also consider that the health and safety and risk management policy spokesperson for the Federation of Small Businesses, Dr. Jacqueline Jeynes, has stressed that white asbestos cement based and hard encapsulated products pose a negligible risk, and do not need to be treated in the same way as blue or brown asbestos.

The FSB has called for a Select Committee inquiry into the subject. John Bridle, an experienced south Wales surveyor, qualified chemist and unpaid consultant to the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association, believes that such a study is essential and that a judicial review is likely without it.

The most important point of all is that these regulations appear to take no account of the disposal of the removed asbestos material. The waste regulations are even more ridiculous than the HSE's control of asbestos at work and approved code of practice may prove to be. The total results could be a gold-plated set of bureaucratic impositions that will promote an epidemic of illegal tipping and removal that could create a health hazard where none previously existed.

The HSE has neither the manpower nor the expertise to police these new regulations. The Minister wants to protect public health. Members on both sides of the Chamber share that objective. No one has a monopoly on concern for safety. I yield to no one in my determination that we and our fellow citizens in the workplace should be free of avoidable risks. Equally, however, there is not the slightest merit in legislating on the basis of science that we should not believe at a cost that need not be faced. The public interest demands a thorough debate and the readiness to consider alternative opinion, which the HSE has heard but which it currently chooses to ignore rather than to answer.

The Minister has set out his case. My responsibility is not to parrot the Government in the interests of a quiet life, but to give voice to the concerns of others and to raise questions that Ministers must address. There is still time for a Select Committee inquiry speedily but effectively to hear all the evidence before Parliament acts. That is the right course. To legislate hastily, ignorantly and expensively only to repent when it is too late would be the wrong course. I appeal to the House to endorse the case for expert debate and to resist the temptation to press the panic button.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. May I point out to the House that 60 minutes are left for the debate and that there are nine hon. Members seeking to occupy it, including one Front-Bench spokesman? I hope that hon. Members will feel good will one to the other.

6 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

My right hon. Friend the Minister approached the matter in a balanced way. He explained that regulation was necessary to give people protection in the workplace. The record should be put straight.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) referred to the ILO—[HON. MEMBERS: "WHO"]. Indeed. The hon. Gentleman said that the WHO had produced no evidence that white asbestos posed a danger. I refer to a recent statement issued by the WHO. Its latest review of the health risks from chrysotile asbestos states as one of its conclusions: Exposure to chrysotile asbestos poses increased risks for asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma in a dose dependent manner. No threshold has been identified for carcinogenic risks. That statement is based on the scrutiny of studies carried out throughout the world, from Japan to France and the UK. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that about two years ago the HSE commissioned a study from Leicester university. After that study concluded that there was a carcinogenic risk from white asbestos, the HSE began to address the matter.

There have been two consultation exercises over a four-year period.

Tim Loughton

The hon. Gentleman could have made an identical statement in which the WHO referred not to white asbestos but to hot alcoholic beverages, contamination by nickel-based coins or contraceptives—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). If no threshold is given, such statements are almost meaningless.

Mr. Clapham

The statement referred to chrysotile asbestos. As the debate proceeds, the hon. Gentleman will hear evidence presented by my hon. Friends, some of whom in another life were personal injury lawyers. They will explain that they have dealt with cases of mesothelioma caused by white asbestos.

The record needs to be put straight. Last year, 5,000 deaths in the UK resulted from exposure to asbestos, and there were 1,700 new diagnoses of mesothelioma. Many of those cases were probably caused by white asbestos.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clapham

I cannot give way at this point.

The hon. Member for Buckingham should also be aware that when chrysotile is mined, a dangerous and carcinogenic form of asbestos—tremolite—can become mixed with it. The two cannot be separated, so mined white asbestos is highly polluted. Tremolite is even more dangerous than blue or brown asbestos.

Tim Loughton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clapham

No, I have let the hon. Gentleman intervene once, and I want to make a little progress.

Given the figures that I have cited for the number of deaths and mesothelioma diagnoses in the past year, it is obvious why we need the regulations: we need to be able to reduce the number of deaths in the workplace. Unless we take action now, we are likely to face the kind of situation in the future that we are facing now, which stems in many ways from the workplaces of the 1960s, when blue and brown asbestos was used without any real consideration for the health problems caused. As a result, we are picking up many of the mesothelioma cases that were caused by exposure in those times.

Let me give the House an idea of the incubation period using a case that I dealt with personally. One of my constituents—a miner—was exposed to asbestos. I represented him at a tribunal and obtained a mining engineer's report. It was proved that there was asbestos in brake linings that that man had used in the latter part of the 1950s. In other words, it took from 1958 or 1959 until 1997 for the tumour to develop. The asbestos had been in his lungs for all that time. So there is a long incubation period, and the fact that we are now dealing with dangers from the 1960s shows that it is necessary to take action now to prevent problems in the future.

Mr. Francois


Tim Loughton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clapham

No, I shall not give way now; many of my hon. Friends want to intervene.

We are saying that the regulations are necessary because we need to reduce the number of deaths in the workplace. Under the regulations, employers simply have to identify the deadly material and work out a plan to deal with it. That is all we are requesting.

The hon. Member for Buckingham said that the present situation in America results from massive asbestos claims, which are causing multinational companies to face going into liquidation. I understand that, at present, the majority of chapter 11 bankruptcies in America are being caused by the asbestos problem. For example, Federal Mogul, which took over Turner and Newall, has gone for administration under chapter 11. We are now faced with an enormous problem.

SunAlliance has been mentioned, and I understand that it is to appear in court next January in connection with the Turner and Newall cases. There is an argument which says that, although it provided employer's liability insurance, it tried to exempt asbestos cases, and it will be proven in the courts whether it was correct to do that.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman is being a trifle gullible and credulous in relation to the behaviour, in the United States and our own country, of insurance provokers on one hand and lawyers on the other. He is a little unwise to take all that at face value. I simply ask him this question: if he is going to slate the record in the United States and to talk about companies going bankrupt because of asbestos, will he identify a single case of company in the United States facing a successful claim because of an incidence involving white asbestos? Name, date and details, please.

Mr. Clapham

I will have experts provide the hon. Gentleman with the information that he requires. I cannot give that information now. We know that white asbestos was widely used in the United States, so many of the claims being lodged against companies will be for exposure to white asbestos. I now come to the reason why the hon. Gentleman has objected to the regulation. He referred to Mr. Bridle of Bridle Associates, who is an apologist for the asbestos industry. The hon. Gentleman said that this man was not in receipt of payment, but I refer him to the "British Asbestos Newsletter". I ask him to read it carefully and follow through Mr. Bridle's linkage to the Canadian asbestos industry. The hon. Gentleman may well find that his statement proves to be untrue. He could contact the editor of the newsletter who will provide him with a great deal of information about Mr. Bridle. It appears that the hon. Gentleman has based much of his case on expertise provided from that direction. I advise caution, if that is what he has done.

Mr. Bercow

My thesis was based on evidence from a number of sources, to which I referred in some detail, and individuals were named. If the hon. Gentleman thinks his case is so strong, why has he refused to debate these issues with John Bridle? Mr. Bridle is not scared of the hon. Gentleman, so why is the hon. Gentleman scared of Mr. Bridle?

Mr. Clapham

I can assure the House that this hon. Gentleman is not afraid of Mr. Bridle or of many other people. Mr. Bridle has made certain accusations in writing that are wholly untrue. He alleged that my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and I are in the pay of groups who would benefit by manufacturing substitutes for asbestos. No such payment has been made to me, and I think I can speak with honesty for Tom Cox when I say that no such payments have been received.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he should refer to colleagues by their constituency and not by name.

Mr. Clapham

In conclusion, information shows clearly that white asbestos is a carcinogen.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Clapham

No, I am not giving way. There are 5,000 deaths a year in this country, and the number is increasing year on year as a result of exposure to asbestos. Dr. Peto's work suggests that the number may well reach 10,000 by 2015. We must take the action set out in the regulation now if we are to protect people in the workplace for the future.

6 13 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

This is an interesting and, I hope, useful, debate despite its rather curious provenance. Apart from anything else, it gives us an opportunity to address matters of health and safety which have newly become the province of the Minister for Work. Under normal circumstances it might have been a good opportunity for him to dilate further on exactly what that means in terms of his work load and responsibilities in the Department. I am aware of the small industry that comes along with the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, and the wide range of interests that run from dangerous pathogens to nuclear installations, railways and so on. At some stage, probably not today, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would be kind enough to set out exactly what he is responsible for, and whether next time there is a rail crash—I hope that this does not apply—he will come to the Dispatch Box to explain the circumstances.

I also hope that the move to the Department for Work and Pensions will enable the Government to pursue two areas more actively. One is a single inspectorate for many of the purposes of health and safety and other matters that fall within the Government's province, as we have urged for a long time. The other is the role of rehabilitation, as, clearly, the Minister is in a good position now to examine the responsibilities of employers in terms of rehabilitation after health and safety events and seeing that through to a conclusion that gets an individual back into work.

The genesis of the debate has been referred to by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham)—it is the dichotomy between the experience in the United States and in North America generally and what is happening in the United Kingdom. Largely, it is a legal differentiation. As hon. Members know, the Fairchild, Fox and Matthews case has come to the House of Lords, and a helpful interpretation has been given of the rules of causation in this country. In America, the reverse is happening—there is a move away from responsibility. For instance, Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has made a very unhelpful comment suggesting new legislation to reduce the liability of companies in the United States for asbestos-related injuries.

Part of the reason for that change of attitude may be the differences in scale in judicial terms. I note that, last month, a jury in the United States awarded damages of $53 million. That is a colossal amount of money, albeit in a case based originally on 8,000 claims against 250 defendant companies. Nevertheless, it is a huge award. In comparison, the United Kingdom average award is about £100,000. The legal situation and the parameters are therefore totally different.

We also know, however, that the number of claims in this country is growing—1,500 claims per year and rising—and is likely to go on increasing. That alarm, coloured by the United States experience, has transferred itself to some hon. Members and some people outside the House, who are trying to influence the legislative framework on asbestos within which we work. It is a complicated matter, as the latency of the disease—30 or 40 years—means that it is very difficult to establish the causative factors. Often, it is very difficult to identify the particular companies in question, especially when someone has been employed by a series of companies or when companies have simply changed their corporate structure or disappeared completely. The legal position is therefore murky.

Having listened at length to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), I think his argument boils down to three points. First, he maintains, on the basis of his judgment, that there is no risk from white asbestos—chrysotile. Secondly, he argues that, in the absence of risk, the regulation is excessive and would involve excessive cost. Thirdly, he adduces the existence of unscrupulous operators who are profiting from a situation that he believes is contestable. I shall deal with those points in turn.

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's science training is adequate to support some of the comments that he made in terms of the nature of iron silicate and magnesium silicate—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that mine is not either. I do not claim to be a top scientist, but I do claim to have a science degree. I have a degree in physiological sciences, as it happens, but no matter—[Interruption.] I have no problem with the hon. Gentleman making fun of my background and training. I simply adduce the fact that he seems to think that one salt, iron silicate, is metallic and that another salt, magnesium silicate, is not. That suggests that he has not understood the evidence before him.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the carcinogenic effect of various substances. He said that other carcinogens, such as nickel and alcohol, should be dealt with in the same way. I challenge him to name a single mesothelioma that has as its causative agent anything other than asbestos or a similar fibrous material. If he can find someone who has a mesothelioma that is caused by nickel, alcohol or contraceptive pills, I will yield to him on that point. However, I do not think that he will be able to do that, because mesothelioma is exclusively the result of a particular type of fibrous substance.

Tim Loughton

Perhaps I can turn the hon. Gentleman's question round. In response to my question, the Minister previously responsible for this issue said: Individual cases of mesothelioma or of lung cancer caused by asbestos are not pathologically or clinically distinguishable from those due to other causes…Since every member of the population has been exposed to asbestos from multiple sources, the definitive linkage of individual cases to a particular source is not possible."—[Official Report, 18 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 33W.] The hon. Gentleman said that that is rubbish, but a Minister made that statement in a written answer.

Mr. Heath

I have not seen the context in which that Minister made that statement. He may have been misled. However, the way in which the hon. Gentleman uses that quote now is grossly misleading. Mesothelioma is not caused by the ingestion of nickel or contraceptive pills. It is caused by the inhalation of fibrous material. That exclusively causes cancers of the pleura and the mesothelium. He must accept that.

No one contests the fact that chrysotile is a less effective agency for the disease than others, and thank goodness for that. Nevertheless, we have already heard that pollution from white and other forms of asbestos cause the same effects, which are, in any event, an innate effect of asbestos in the first instance. The hon. Member for Buckingham rubbished the work of Professor Peto, and he did not mention his collaborator, Sir Richard Doll, who happened to be the regius professor of medicine when I studied under him. Professor Doll was the greatest clinical epidemiologist not only of his time, but possibly of all time. I prefer to take his word rather than that of the hon. Gentleman in assessing the evidence before me.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger


Mr. Heath

I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is clearly an expert on the subject.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

I do not claim to be an expert, but my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made the point that at least 19 other studies have been carried out. He is not the only one to have examined the issue.

Mr. Heath

There is a great deal of scientific evidence on both sides of the argument, and some hon. Members fail to understand that one cannot establish the absence of risk. It is part of the scientific illiteracy of this place that people want to have it proved that there is no risk. If there is evidence of risk adduced by proper scientific experimentation—which there is—the Government are right to take it seriously. They are there to protect the population. It would be a dereliction of duty to assume that there is no risk from white asbestos when the evidence clearly suggests that there is.

The next question is whether the regulations are excessive. I have considered the draft regulations—we have not had an opportunity to do more—and my judgment is that it is not excessive to ask people in a workplace to identify the areas of potential risk. That is not asking for a full structural survey or asking anyone to remove anything. It is merely asking people to identify where there is asbestos in a building. That has been accepted by the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the TUC and the National Farmers Union. All of them have sensibly been consulted and think that the regulation is about right. The argument that it is excessive cannot be sustained.

The hon. Member for Buckingham has one point. He was right to raise cases where asbestos is encapsulated, such as concretised asbestos. A case can be made for further study of that to determine under what circumstances such substances pose a risk. We should reconsider the fact that there is no requirement to remove such a substance that is in place and intact.

The hon. Gentleman also made a good point about cellulose, which is an alternative to asbestos and a potential carcinogen. We know that it causes farmer's lung, which often makes Joe Grundy cough in Ambridge. That disease is a result of cellulose getting into the lungs. There is an argument that more work should be done on that product.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned unscrupulous operators. If he is right—I am sure he is—that people are abusing the fact that the regulation will be introduced and the lack of knowledge about it, the Government should act to deal with that. They need to ensure that everyone knows the circumstances behind the regulation and what they must do and have no need to do.

The hon. Gentleman's argument about the companies involved was seriously damaged by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). His comments in respect of ARCA and its members lacked courtesy. The leader of his party managed to pick up a phone and call the Fire Brigades Union. Why did the hon. Gentleman not call ARCA to explain that unscrupulous operators were at large and to ask what action it was taking?

Mr. Bercow

I would not want the hon. Gentleman to be misinformed. It is not a state secret. The evidence is available. The cases have been publicised. ARCA cannot claim nescience in the matter. It is well aware of the facts and has a responsibility to study them.

Mr. Heath

The hon. Gentleman is, as always, sesquipedalian in his tone. He is really saying that he did not get in touch with ARCA. That is clear from its letter, which states that it is extremely concerned that the allegations were not put to it, as the Minister pointed out. ARCA has a disciplinary committee to consider complaints. However, it appears that no complaints were received so it could not take action. I find that extraordinary, especially as the hon. Gentleman also mentioned members of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Chartered surveyors have a professional standing and a duty of care. They should not abuse the trust of their clients and evidence of that should be put before the responsible authorities at the earliest opportunity.

I have four points to put to the Minister. First, he did not address the decision to leave out the previous provision of due diligence. That is interesting. If a company can show that it has acted with due diligence in attempting to identify asbestos within the workplace, that should be an appropriate defence. It is not in the new regulations and there is a strong argument to suggest that it should be.

Secondly, clear guidance from the Health and Safety Executive is essential to determine what is and what is not needed so that people do not spend money unnecessarily removing parts of buildings or on complicated and expensive surveys. Such surveys are not needed when it is possible to identify parts of a building that clearly pose a risk or that give rise to a reasonable suspicion that there is asbestos in the fabric of the building.

Thirdly, the Minister, the commission and the executive need to work with responsible undertakers to make sure that they are not taking steps that are excessive and will involve extra costs to industry.

Finally, I should like the Minister to commission more work on encapsulated or concretised asbestos and on the potential dangers of other fibrous materials being used as asbestos substitutes. I would hate our successors in 30 years' time to be making the same arguments about a different scare, the latency of which is such that people are now inhaling the fibres that will cause them horrible illness and potential death at a later stage in their life.

6.30 pm
Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow)

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, which was initiated by the Opposition. It allows us to expose a crime that has been perpetrated on thousands and thousands of workers in the UK by unscrupulous employers. The extent of the problem of asbestosis-related deaths is revealed by the area that I come from, Tyneside, where two people die each week from that illness.

Tyneside has a history of heavy industry and shipbuilding, so we have a legacy of workers who have used asbestos in the past, largely through ignorance, and who now have asbestosis, which is causing their death. In Jarrow, 109 men are waiting for compensation through the compensation courts. Those are basically 109 dead men walking. They ain't going to recover. They ain't going to get any better. Even though they will die in agony, all they want is to get their compensation. But the problem will not go away once those men have got their compensation and, unfortunately, died. The problem will get worse. It has been estimated that it will not peak until 2010.

The men who have been suffering from asbestosis have had to worry not only about the illness and the fact that they have had to live through the illness with their family, but about the compensation. I have raised the issue twice in Parliament—and I will be brief and take your guidance on the length of speeches, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I am reminded once again of the unfairness of the way in which those men have been treated, of the scandal of those rogues at Chester Street Holdings, who potentially robbed 10,000 people on Tyneside of their compensation, and of the ludicrous Fairchild judgment, whereby the person suffering from asbestosis had to prove which employer at which time and in which place was the source of the single fibre that caused his illness. That is an absolute nonsense. I had a constituent, William Cuskin, whom I have mentioned in Parliament before. He was a painter who worked for numerous employers up and down the Tyne throughout his career. How on earth could he say which single employer gave him the disease?

Mr. Kevan Jones

Does my hon. Friend agree that many of his constituents, and many of the people whom I dealt with when I handled asbestos claims at the GMB union, were told when they were working with asbestos that it was safe? Many of them are now dying a horrible and cruel death. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) also spoke of a safe type of asbestos.

Mr. Hepburn

I agree with my hon. Friend. We must realise that we cannot save those people who are dying of asbestosis. We can do nothing about the people who will get the illness in years to come because of their past exposure to asbestos. We can do nothing to relieve the stress caused by Chester Street Holdings and the Fairchild judgment. What we can do is reduce, if not eradicate, the risk of people getting asbestosis in the future. That is exactly what the asbestos in the workplace regulations are about. They are commonsense measures. All they say is that an employer must identify where the asbestos is in his workplace so that if any contractor comes to do any sort of work, the contractors and workmen are protected.

I have heard the arguments about white asbestos. One Opposition Member said that it was no more dangerous than talc. If it is no more dangerous than talc, let him put it under his arms for the next 12 months after he has had a wash. I hope he will not contract the disease from which people are dying a terrible death week in, week out in my constituency.

It does not matter what colour the asbestos is. It does not matter whether it is white, blue or brown. It is a killer. Yes, it is a killer to varying extents, but would we ask a person whether he would rather be run over by a mini or by a 10-ton truck? At the end of the day, the person will die; it is only a question of how long it will take.

I welcome the regulations, which I hope will be introduced sooner rather than later to protect people in the workplace.

6.35 pm
Mr. Liddell-Grainger

Having been in the building trade in the area where the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) lives, I know that one of the first things to look for when entering a building is where the asbestos is. If someone finds asbestos, they must do something about it. I saw more building projects held up because asbestos had been found than for any other reason, and they were held up for longer than any other projects. As a result, sub-contractors went bust. That happened many times on Tyneside.

The regulations refer to a duty to identify…where asbestos may be present in buildings". That is fine, if the asbestos can be found.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) mentioned Federal Mogul, which is included in chapter 11. It is in my constituency, and it is a big employer. It may continue to be; we will see what happens in a month's time. I know that the factory has major problems, but I also know that whoever goes in to change things will have a problem with asbestos. It will take a long time to clear the site.

Bridgwater is 100 acres short of industrial land. We desperately need land. If the regulations are introduced and we have to explore every part of every building to make them watertight, building and regeneration will be held up. That applies to other areas as well as mine. especially parts of the north-east, which is still changing from a heavy-industry to a light-industry area.

Another problem is the requirement to keep records of location and condition. "Condition" means condition today. Buildings are intended to have a considerable lifespan. Many factors may change their condition, such as water or air. Will it be necessary to re-regulate every five years because checks have to be made again? How will it be possible to make certain that part of a building has not deteriorated to the extent that it must be removed earlier?

Then there is the risk to workers. Those exploring a building to establish where asbestos is must take samples, which disturbs the asbestos. Someone carrying out such a process for a surveyor's report, through the Institution of Chartered Surveyors or any other organisation, might cause a problem while trying to find out where the asbestos is, and the material might have to be removed anyway. I may be putting this in a rather longwinded way. What I mean is that the regulations may result in more problems than positive results.

I do not dispute the fact that we must know where asbestos is, but most buildings are that sort of age. White asbestos in particular dates from a time when there was a massive amount of industrial building, and mostly concrete, tin and asbestos were used for the roofs.

The regulations prescribe a duty to establish where premises are, and their condition, before any maintenance work is begun. How will those going into the building know about its condition? Someone examining lengths of piping covered in asbestos will have to establish whether a percentage, or the whole amount, is damaged, whether it can be re-used and whether it can be left. I do not understand how the regulations will regulate that. It must be in the interests of specialist firms to have the stuff pulled out if any of it is not in good condition before rebuilding starts.

If such matters are not addressed, the regulations may be unenforceable. As the Minister knows, there are one or two cowboys in the building industry. We do not want to create a problem because they are looking for ways of getting around the rules.

6.39 pm
Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I welcome the regulations, which should have been implemented many years ago. I also very much welcome the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), who treated the issues under discussion with the seriousness that they deserve. They are a serious concern in our constituencies.

Clydebank in my constituency has had the highest rate of asbestos deaths in the country for many years because of the shipbuilding and ship repairing industry and Turners asbestos factory. These are serious matters. People have died because of the material and the regulations seek to prevent people from dying in future. Anyone who turns this place into a public school debating chamber in which we make party political points when deaths are involved is not doing anyone a service.

We all anticipated that the main objection would be made in terms of white asbestos. In such circumstances, we can only look at what scientists have said. Asbestos is one of the most investigated materials ever and it is very difficult to investigate whether something causes disease over a period of 30, 40 or 50 years. In 1998, the World Health Organisation concluded that white asbestos caused asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, so it is clear that this is not only about mesothelioma. Many diseases, including lung cancer, are affected by asbestos. In 2002, the United Nations ruled that all forms of asbestos should be added to an international list of chemicals subject to trade controls. The international chemical review committee said that such controls were another big step towards eliminating the risks associated with asbestos. A prestigious scientific body concerned with occupational health, the Collegium Ramazzini, called for an international ban on all mining and use of asbestos, including chrysotile, and concluded that it causes cancer.

The International Programme on Chemical Safety, which is sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation, concluded that exposure to chrysotile posed increased risks for asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The French medical research council established that all asbestos fibres are carcinogenic. The World Trade Organisation, adjudicating on a trade war between France and Canada on the issue, concluded that chrysotile was an established carcinogen and that there was no safe threshold.

Those judgments are not from Select Committees. but from controlling bodies, and they are based on research such as that of Smith and Wright, which says that chrysotile is the main cause of pleural mesotheliomas in humans. Research conducted by Mancuso found that chrysotile is far more hazardous in the induction of mesotheliomas and asbestos cancer risk much higher than was previously thought. The findings of Yano and others show that heavy exposure to white asbestos alone can cause lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma in exposed workers. The conclusion of Chaturvedi and Chaturvedi is that chrysotile asbestos cannot be used without risk.

I am very grateful to Robin Howie, a distinguished Scottish scientist, for writing to me about the issue. He said that the critical study on the effects of chrysotile on health was that initiated in 1966 by the McDonalds and co-workers on Quebec white asbestos miners—people working only with white asbestos. By 1992, those authors had observed 108 deaths from pneumoconiosis, 657 lung cancer deaths and 38 mesothelioma deaths. There were 174 more lung cancer deaths than one would have expected in such a population. Robin Howie tells me that the critical fact is that Canada exports more than 95 per cent. of the chrysotile that it produces. If chrysotile is so safe, why do the Canadians not use more of it?

Many people have pointed out that we should also take into account the evidence heard in courts across the continents. Court after court around the world has concluded that all forms of asbestos have caused thousands of deaths. An article in the Financial Times this week showed that ABB was going down because of asbestos claims. Two hundred and fifty of the largest firms in the world are now approaching the United States Supreme Court because they, in turn, are being killed by asbestos. They have been found guilty over and over again, and white asbestos has been involved in those judgments. If they believed that white asbestos was harmless, surely they would have mounted an intensive collective research project to prove it, so that they could win in court. They have not done so because they could not. Now, they are protesting about the level of damages.

There is very little time left, and I am sorry that I shall be unable to respond to any questions about any of those pieces of research. On white asbestos, I would simply say to the hon. Member for Buckingharn (Mr. Bercow): "Don't stay in Buckingham. I do not know what the rate of asbestos-related death is there. Come to Clydebank and see what misery and death tins substance has caused." The regulations will prevent further deaths, and that is rather more important than the points that the hon. Gentleman was making.

6.46 pm
Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

The important thing about this debate is that it is taking place before the Government have signed the statutory instrument relating to the new regulations, which are likely to involve organisations throughout the country in costs exceeding £5 billion. The new regulations encompass all types of asbestos—blue, white and brown—and treat them in the same way. That is why they are fundamentally flawed.

The use of blue and brown asbestos was finally made illegal in 1985, but a study in the same year marked the onset of the confusion that lies at the root of all our present problems. Scientists, lobbyists and, finally, legislators began—through what originally stemmed from a misreading of the scientific evidence—to blur the distinction between the different types of asbestos. The encapsulation of the fibres of white asbestos in cement is by far the most common use of the material. Asbestos cement is used in such products as roofing slates, and accounts for 85 per cent. of all asbestos in use in the United Kingdom. It presents no risk to human health at all. Not a single case of health damage has ever been scientifically ascribed to exposure to asbestos cement products. There is simply no mechanism whereby such damage could occur.

Only a decade later, when Dr. Peto's evidence was re-examined by other scientists, did it emerge that he had made a fundamental error. If there is one point of consensus in the Chamber this evening, it is that there is a plethora of contradictory scientific research evidence, and I endorse the request by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) that that evidence should be heard in Select Committee. Determined attempts have been made to find fresh evidence for the dangers of white asbestos. Further studies have emerged, based on workers exposed to raw asbestos in China, Italy and elsewhere, which seem to indicate that there is a very slight risk from prolonged and intensive industrial exposure.

In recent years, we have seen a deliberate policy to blur any distinction between the different types of asbestos and their uses, and to suggest that all types of asbestos material can be equally dangerous. In this way, the Health and Safety Executive has helped to create the potential for immense unnecessary public alarm, not least because by far the most widely used form of asbestos in the United Kingdom is asbestos cement, which poses no risk to human health.

Mr. Kevan Jones

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Angela Watkinson

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not, because I am short of time.

Millions of commercial and domestic properties in the United Kingdom include some form of asbestos in their construction. The commonest of all is white asbestos cement used in roofing materials. No one has been in a better position to exploit the confusion and alarm resulting from the blurring of the differences between the various forms of asbestos than the specialist contractors licensed by the Health and Safety Executive to carry out asbestos-related work. A recent nationwide investigation has shown that property occupiers ranging from farmers, householders and shopkeepers to local authorities and NHS hospital trusts are vulnerable to commercially motivated advice, and can become involved in unnecessarily costly asbestos removal that could be carried out at a fraction of the cost by an unlicensed building contractor.

The HSE's proposed new regulations increase the likelihood that the public will continue to be exploited in this way. The chief purpose of the new law will be to impose on all workplaces—some 1.5 million collectively—the duty to carry out a written risk assessment of all asbestos materials on the premises, combined with a continuing programme for their safe management. According to the consultation paper published by the HSE earlier this year, the new requirements alone will cost the organisations involved £5.1 billion. Other sums have been quoted today, but this figure takes no account of the fact that hundreds of thousands of organisations, bewildered by confusion over the dangers of asbestos, will be reluctant to take responsibility themselves for assessment of the risks posed by asbestos, and will therefore call in the HSE's licensed contractors.

There is too much doubt about the integrity of the scientific research on which new regulations on the control of asbestos have been based for any confidence to be placed in them. I urge the Minister to re-examine the evidence.

6.51 pm
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I should begin by declaring an interest as a member of the Transport and General Workers Union. Also, as has been registered, I was formerly employed by Thompson's, the trade union solicitors, which gives money to my constituency Labour party. I should further inform the House that I am a Canadian citizen, so I have some idea of the asbestos industry in Canada.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) said, white asbestos is produced in Quebec. In 1988, Thomas Mancuso concluded a study on American railway machinists of the steam locomotive era, which was published in the "American Journal of Industrial Medicine". The machinists used white asbestos, or chrysotile. According to the study, one mesothelioma occurred for every 13 machinists hired. Chrysotile kills people. I accept that there is a scientific dispute as to whether it is as deadly as brown or blue asbestos. From what we know, it probably is not, but it certainly kills through the inhalation of fibres.

The World Trade Organisation—a body not easily swayed, as my hon. Friend said—dealt with a case brought by Canada, against France, relating to the introduction of a ban on white asbestos. That case was lost, as was the subsequent appeal. The WTO does not readily restrict trade, but it will do so when there are health and safety implications. It did so in respect of the chrysotile from Canada because it is dangerous and kills people. Conservative Members should move on in respect of this issue. Enough scientific evidence has been published to justify moving on and supporting measures such as the Government's proposed draft regulations.

According to Library note SN/SC/1641, dated 5 February, there were two consultations on the draft regulations, not one. The first ended on 20 October 2000, and the second was published a year later, on 21 November 2001. The critical comments arising from the first consultation related to two areas: clarification of the phrase "duty holder"—relating to the occupier of premises and the question of who has the duty in respect of asbestos—and widening the scope of the 1987 regulations. Nothing in the Library document suggests that either consultation raised the question of the non-dangerousness of white asbestos at that stage. It is being raised very late in the day, which seems strange.

The draft regulations themselves do not place a great burden on occupiers of premises in which people are employed. Such an occupier simply has to make an assessment of the risk of those premises based on whether there is asbestos in there and, if so, what, if anything, the occupier proposes to do about it at that stage or in the future. It does not put an obligation upon the occupier at that stage to do anything; it depends on the nature of the findings. Regulation 4 is quite clear on that.

On the compliance costs of the regulations, the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) talked about building works being held up when asbestos is found. However, the regulations will stop that. If the regulations come in, we will know whether asbestos is in a building, so if a development is proposed five years later, it will not catch people by surprise when the building is pulled down.

Mr. Bercow

Why has the Health and Safety Executive already changed twice its estimate of the prospective cost of the regulations and, in the circumstances, what is to prevent it from doing so a third, a fourth, a fifth or even a sixth time?

Rob Marris

The hon. Gentleman knows that estimates are estimates and are open to change. The fact that a body changes its estimates does not automatically mean that the underlying regulation is wrong. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues talk about contractors. He spent about a minute and half in a short debate saying why he would not do what he urged be done—name and shame. He is protected by absolute privilege in the Chamber, but he would not name and shame any of these unscrupulous contractors.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Select Committee should look into these matters. However, as a member of the Committee, I can tell him that when we discussed a programme of work in October, no member of the Committee said anything about looking at the regulations or at asbestos, even though the matter now comes under the remit of the Committee. That seems contradictory and reinforces my view that action is always taken late in the day.

It is too late. Let us move on from this debate. White asbestos kills people; let us regulate.

6.57 pm
Mr. Nicholas Brown

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply. This debate, in Government time, must come to a conclusion at seven o'clock, so I shall keep my remarks brief.

The debate, perfectly properly, has concentrated on the dangers of white asbestos, chrysotile, and the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is entitled to his doubts. As the Minister, I must listen to the debate and the views of Members on both sides of the House, but I must also take careful note of the advice available to the Government. That advice is that the best estimate is that exposure exclusively to chrysotile fibres by maintenance workers would give rise to an uncertain but actual—and so unacceptable—risk of cancer. The Health and Safety Executive believes that all types of asbestos present a degree of risk, and, therefore, all are included in the regulations as part of a precautionary approach.

Hon. Members are entitled to make points about uncertainty. I acknowledge that there is uncertainty, but I cannot accept—this is not the advice available to the Government—that there is zero risk. It would be something like 20 or 30 years before we were able to gel. to the truth of this as far as maintenance workers were concerned. My hon. Friends the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) and for Wolverhampton, South West (Rob Marris) have spoken movingly about the impact of this terrible disease on their constituents.

The hon. Member for Buckingham made the same point in a slightly different way. He spoke about the massive payments that are paid in compensation in asbestosis cases and the dangers of the insurance institutions being put under severe pressure if they continually make these massive payments.

Surely the rational thing to do, as a united House, is to bring in regulations that work on a proportionate and precautionary basis to prevent such massive cases from ever coming about for future generations. It is a terrible thing, but there is nothing we can do for those who already have this condition, except to look to financial compensation. But surely, for future generations and those who might be affected in the future, we should prevent such cases from happening. It is the Government's contention that the propositions before the House are proportionate. Incidentally, there is a defence of due diligence—

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.