HL Deb 14 May 1981 vol 420 cc660-80

5.46 p.m.

The Earl of Cranbrook rose to move, That this House take notes of the Report of the European Communities Committee on asbestos (17th Report, H.L. 122).

The noble Earl said. My Lords, I beg to move that this House now takes note of the 17th Report of the Select Committee on the European Communities for this Session. This concerns the subject of asbestos. The report concerns two draft directives, one produced by DG3 and one by DG5, respectively No. 5682/80, restricting the marketing and use of asbestos, which was presented to the Council in March 1980, and No. 9953/80 on measures to protect workers from risks due to exposure from asbestos, which was presented to the Council in September 1980.

The report before your Lordships was prepared by Sub-Committee G of the Select Committee. Oral evidence was taken on two occasions, in August 1980 and in February 1981, from representatives of the Health and Safety Executive. Each session related separately to one or other of the draft directives and I hope that this temporal separation will be clear to your Lord ships in the transcript as it appears in the report. I should like to express the thanks of the Sub-Committee to Mr. C. D. Burgess of the Health and Safety Executive and his colleagues for their assistance. Written evidence was also received from the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission and from other bodies of persons concerned with the problems of asbestos, and is published with our report.

As your Lordships will know very well, the dilemma posed by the use of asbestos, which of course exists in various forms each with somewhat different properties, is a very clear and important one in society. If inhaled, airborne asbestos dust is a serious hazard to health. In relatively massive quantities over long exposure it leads to the acutely crippling condition known as asbestosis. But worse than this, even slight exposure has been linked statistically to the onset, much later in life in some cases, of malignant diseases such as cancer of the lung or mesothelioma.

The report before your Lordships, largely including detailed evidence from the Health and Safety Executive, deals with the nature and causes of these diseases in some detail. On the other side of the coin, the fibrous structure of asbestos and its mineral nature provides it with distinctive properties which have led to its very widespread use in the past, particularly as an insulating material and in construction products. Whether we like it or not, a vast amount of asbestos is already in the man-made environment. It is at present incorporated in domestic buildings, in industrial buildings, in vehicles and in many other places.

I do not pretend for a moment that there can be an equation in human suffering, and it must be remembered that as against the deaths and the crippling diseases that have been caused by asbestos there must also be many occasions on which injury has been prevented or life saved by an asbestos product, especially in connection with fire risks. On balance, there is therefore an incentive to continue to permit the use of asbestos until equally effective substitutes can be found, provided that its injurious characteristics can be contained and its use can be safe.

In the United Kingdom the most important national review of the problems posed by the use of asbestos has been provided by the reports of the Advisory Committee on Asbestos, three of which were produced, the last of them (the third) in 1979. I hope that the noble Earl who will in due course answer this debate, my noble friend Lord Gowrie, may feel that this occasion is a fit one on which to report on the progress which has taken place in the implementation of the advisory committee's recommendations.

At the Community level, there have been close links between the Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, as will be apparent to any of your Lordships who are to read the evidence. As a consequence, in the main, the proposals of these two draft directives are in line with the ACA's recommendations. None the less, there are certain issues that are potentially contentious which have been identified by Sub-Committee G, and it was thought right to bring these issues before your Lordships' House in debate.

The first that I shall touch on concerns, broadly speaking, the definition of "asbestos". On the grounds of available evidence in the United Kingdom, one form of asbestos—that is to say, crocidolite, which is known more conveniently as blue asbestos—is treated as a significantly greater hazard to health than other forms. This approach is also followed by the Commission. But in some other member states of the Community, these distinctions are not made in their national regulations. On the other hand, as a result, presumably, of initiatives from these other states, the draft directives also propose to control two minerals that are little used in the United Kingdom; that our own Health and Safety Executive do not, in fact, consider hazardous as ordinarily encountered in the United Kingdom. These are the minerals known as actinolite and tremolite. A discussion of their nature is to be found in the report.

So far as blue asbestos is concerned, the United Kingdom at present operates a voluntary ban. The Advisory Committee on Asbestos has recommended that this should be made statutory. In the give and take of Community discussions, the committee feel that it is important to ensure that the power to impose a statutory ban on the importation of blue asbestos, or of products containing it, is not eroded. Recent proposals to amend the draft directive 5682/80 have been put forward by the Netherlands Presidency. In this respect, these particular proposals would strengthen the United Kingdom's position. Where other forms of asbestos are concerned—for instance, actinolite and tremolite, which I mentioned a moment ago—I suggest that it would be wise if United Kingdom representatives could take a broad, rather than a narrow, definition of asbestos in order to have something to give, as it were, in debate.

On the problems of the differential toxicity of the various types of asbestos, the committee, in paragraph 40 of the report, take the view that there are no levels of exposure to asbestos dust of any kind that can truly be considered "safe" at our present state of knowledge. At the best, these very low levels should be termed as those that are "presumed non-injurious". Any regulations that are ultimately imposed by these directives must clearly incorporate flexibility, to accommodate any future changes in knowledge of the toxicity of asbestos dust as a result of future research.

Other points of concern relate to the place of work, or the place at which the danger of exposure to asbestos dust in the atmosphere can exist. The draft directive 9953/80, in its present form, takes a very broad view of the place of work. This is probably desirable, but is also likely to be contentious. In the committee's view, it is likely to be fairly easy to impose safety regulations in places where products containing asbestos are manufactured. In such places, management, workers, their representative unions and all concerned are sure to be well aware of the hazards and of the methods available to control them.

But difficulties are much more likely to arise when contact with asbestos is sporadic, unexpected or secondary to the main occupation. This is particularly so in cases of dismantling or altering existing buildings, or of dismembering or, in other ways, disposing of products which contain asbestos. The committee would support any measures to disseminate information on the hazards of asbestos. This would include appropriate labelling and clear instructions on the precautions that are necessary to prevent the inhalation of asbestos dust. In the committee's opinion, anyone who has been made alert to the potential consequences of exposure to airborne asbestos dust is likely to approach the material with the necessary degree of caution and responsibility that it deserves.

The committee also felt concerned over medical matters, as expressed in the draft directives. There are proposals for annual medical assessments for workers involved in the asbestos industry, broadly speaking, or for workers who are liable to be exposed to asbestos. The committee understood that medical inspections of this kind are already routine in industrial circumstances in some member states, although they are not so, necessarily, in this country, but proposals of this nature would accord with existing procedures in such states.

The committee took note of the Health and Safety Executive's opinion that annual health assessments cannot necessarily improve health or prevent disease. Obviously, certain predisposing conditions—among which I personally would assume that asthma or chronic bronchitis would be numbered—would probably make it inadvisable for a person to work even in a controlled atmosphere. It is clear from the evidence before your Lordships' committee that any habitual smoker would also be ill-advised to risk exposure to asbestos dust, because of the synergistic effect of tobacco smoke with asbestos.

In a case where there has been a breakdown of control and a harmful release of asbestos dust, there are proposals for maintaining health records of the workers concerned. These are to be maintained for a minimum of 30 years after exposure. In the report, the evidence from the Board of Faculty of Occupational Medicine draws attention to the difficulties of maintaining such health records, particularly if they are to be based on doctors' records. Given that people are likely to change jobs and to change doctors more than once in subsequent working life, it appears that this may be an excessive burden to throw on to the medical profession alone. Furthermore, given the doubts which have been expressed as to the efficacy of annual medical assessments, it must be questioned whether the extra costs falling on United Kingdom industry if some such system were to become mandatory would be usefully matched by commensurate benefits to employees.

Another topic which particularly attracted the attention of your Lordships' committee was that concerning the method of counting airborne fibres. This is central to any monitoring system. In the draft Directive 5682/80 the term "harmful release of fibres" is not precisely defined, but I presume that it would be assessed by the use of detection systems such as those proposed by the other Directive, No. 9953/80. This method involves the collection of an air sample by a suction apparatus in which there is a filter. This apparatus is carried by the individual for a fixed reference period during his work time. The filter is then treated with an appropriate solvent and the trapped dust that has been caught on the filter—including asbestos fibre if it is present—is deposited on a slide. This slide is then inspected visually and counts of the fibres are related to air-flow to obtain a value for fibre concentration.

The optical method which is recommended in Article 8 subsection (8), is time consuming and fatiguing for the operator at the microscope. Only a small number of samples can be handled in a day, and the committee were told that the range of variation—apparently reflecting operator-related factors—is very wide indeed. We were told that this variation could amount to 50 per cent., and I personally have some doubts that statistically meaningful results could be obtained from anything but a moderately larges series of samples collected in the course of any one exercise. With this background information your Lordships' committee was interested by the alternative method offered by a counter which was demonstrated to Sub-Committee G by Vickers Instruments. This counter takes advantage of the capacity of asbestos fibres to align in a magnetic field, which are then counted by mechanical means. We were told that this machine gives more consistently reproducible results on identical samples than any human operator working by standard optical procedures. On the face of it, this machine appears to offer a more reliable sampling method. In the opinion of the committee it would be useful to ensure that proven methods of sampling air other than the optical method should be permitted as alternatives.

There were other valuable and positive suggestions for minor alterations and improvements to the draft directives made by other witnesses, which will be found in the report. These suggestions affect one or other, or both, of the draft directives. The committee naturally hope that they will be noted by the Government and brought forward in the negotiating process. It is the opinion of the committee that Community-wide progress is likely to proceed more smoothly if regulations are introduced by stages, on a progressive basis, and it is considered especially important to permit further modification in the light of future research where technical matters are concerned. Most important of all, it is necessary to ensure that at no time should the United Kingdom's national capacity to impose stricter regulations than those suggested by the Community where these are considered necessary by our own Health and Safety Executive, be jeopardised. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the European Communities Committee on asbestos (17th Report, H.L. 122).—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)

6.04 p.m.

Lord Hale

My Lords, my first duty is to apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, who has just delivered an extremely able and remarkable speech covering a whole series of problems with clarity and brevity. It is something I could never do and cannot anticipate doing now. I apologise to the noble Earl for having put down my name to speak the moment that this debate appeared on the Order Paper but I felt it was something of a duty to speak to this debate, although at the time I was not in a condition to think that I would be able to speak at all. In fact I do not propose to be controversial, particularly since I have heard nothing from the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, with which I would disagree.

My problem is, what is all this about? I was surprised to learn that we have got into a situation whereby the admirable report of the advisory com- mittee—which is apparently now out of print so that some members of the committee did not even have an opportunity of reading it in full—has not been implemented in any detail and that the Government are still considering their attitude to it. I presume that this is because the Government knew that the directive and that this whole matter would have to be legislated on. If I remember correctly the advisory committee's first report was published in 1979, the committee having been appointed in 1976. The report was widely distributed and commented upon and received a very good reception in general. We are now told that there is even an argument about the order in which it would be desirable to take these two Bills in pursuance of the directive. The noble Lord spoke about the dilemma which one faces when one attempts to harmonise Continental measures on a matter of high complexity; on matters in which asbestos is used for only very limited purposes in some countries but for considerably more purposes in other countries. This seems to raise one of the real problems faced by the Government; how long can we go on endeavouring to find the lowest common denominator of Continental opinions on one matter and the highest common multiplier on another, in order to try to apply to varying operations and types of use, as well as to varying opinions, the merits and demerits of different types of asbestos? What is the advantage? What advantage is likely to come from all this?

It has been said from time to time that this can be monitored and that can be monitored. I do not want to go back into what was a very dark and dismal past, when there were some very dreadful cases, or even to the Ombudsman's remarkable report on the operations at Hebden Bridge. Out of all the cases of abuse there has come the problem of the factory inspector or the officer who is carrying out analogous duties. Those of us who have had experience over a good many years of attempting to enforce industrial laws of this kind know that it is virtually impossible for a factory inspector, however distinguished, however gifted, however honest (they are very talented and very gifted personnel) to carry out these monitoring duties. It used to be a rule that the decent thing was to make an appointment in advance of each visit. This seems to be perfectly reasonable. However, in the Cape Asbestos case, which went to the Court of Appeal and which was won by the workmen—the first case of its kind—an immense amount of evidence showed that the workers had cleaned up the place in the few hours before the visit of the factory inspector.

If you make an appointment in advance, this is what happens. I recall that when I was in the Army I received, in my capacity as bombadier, a notice that the War Office would be visiting our No. 3 and No. 5 sites on the following day. Within 24 hours, all the charming little hits of decoration outside each gunsite had been rallied together and planted at judicious intervals around No. 3 site and No. 5 site, ready for the visit. Indeed, the major commanding me, a gallant man who I believe is happily still alive, collected little Christmas trees, possibly on my advice, to plant and decorate around the sites.

The dangers of the old type of factory have, I hope, gone. In some of the older factories, however, no precaution of any kind was taken long after it was known that this was a grave and a serious poison. The danger of Common Market harmonisation is that the EEC countries carry out some of the rules, but not all. If anybody has read, as I have, the history of the explosion at Seveso, which was a totally different poison and had no connection at all with asbestos, they will know of the extent to which almost every industrial rule was ignored. The fact is that harmonisation does not produce a harmonised effect.

I think I would not be unfair in saying that one or two members of Sub-Committee G asked questions which did not seem to be fully answered by the distinguished and gifted witnesses from the advisory committee and the Health and Safety Executive. The noble Earl has cleared up one doubt which was expressed about medical inspection. He referred to the recommendation that there should be a medical inspection of persons who are to be exposed to the risk of asbestos for the first time. In three or four words the noble Earl explained what he meant. He said that if a worker has got asthma or bronchitis to a great degree, an asbestos factory is not really the place for him, and he should be fully advised accordingly.

This commentary on the directives and the advice of the committee is a very clear indication that in this House there is a family tradition. I remember the noble Earl's predecessor in title, his father, performing fantastic feats. One was his last performance, which I saw. He produced during the course of a Bill which related to ecology a series of scraps of paper, one after the other, delivered a brilliant and informative speech and sat down with a Bill which went through a further stage without opposition. It was one of the most remarkable feats which I have seen in either House. We have reason to be grateful to the noble Earl and his committee for performing well an extremely exacting task in, I think, unusual circumstances. In later debates we shall be looking for more information.

6.18 p.m.

The Earl of Gosford

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for giving your Lordships' House a chance to discuss this important subject. I am grateful to him for covering the ground so scrupulously in his speech. I must also say that I share the emphasis which the noble Lord, Lord Hale, has expressed.

It is clear that the hazard to human health presented by the use of asbestos is acknowledged by the need to harmonise, because of the abundant and detailed evidence from all parties and countries concerned. Regulations in the United Kingdom, and those proposed by the Commission, would appear to be sound and sensible, but how sound and how sensible are these proposed directives? What is it we are trying to achieve? What do we want?

As I understand it—I believe that there is a doctor in the House—asbestos (I am not going to discriminate between the harmful effects of different types) is a mineral, the fibres of which thread and mould together. Thus its Latin name serpentaria. It is for this reason that it is useful. It is for this reason also that it is dangerous. Whereas other minerals are absorbed into the body, asbestos does not dissolve. Because of this, the fibres are trapped in the body and not excreted, causing a build-up of fat which brings the body's immunity level down. The build-up produces the carcinogenic effect. Thus unless there is total protection at all times, asbestos remains lethal.

The evidence is clear, that no asbestos fibre is without danger, therefore we should not be lulled into a false sense of security that by restricting the use of the most dangerous, crocidolite or blue asbestos, and imposing a mandatory ban, where a voluntary one has existed for some years, on the import of raw crocidolite, we have tackled the problem. Nor must we be lulled into thinking that if we harmonise asbestos regulations "to remove the disparities between the legislation in force in the member states" we have solved the problem and have done all that is possible.

The report makes this clear, as do the draft proposals. In fact harmonisation may indeed be a retrograde step for the United Kingdom, as is evidenced by the exchange between the chairman, the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and Miss Newton of the Health and Safety Executive. The chairman asked: Did other member states produce documents which you would have considered of comparable weight and significance? The answer was No, no other member state as far as we know has had a type of committee on the same scale as the Advisory Committee or which has carried out the kind of systematic investigation that the Advisory Committee has carried out". But, as I applaud the Government for tackling the lead issue, they, like the report and the directives that we are discussing today, do not appear to have the commitment to make a ban on these substances. Why is it that this country would rather say, "Well, we are doing better than so and so", than take a lead, as, outside the Community, the United States of America and Sweden have in effect done, for which we would be respected?

With all the best intentions, we know that none of these proposed directives will be foolproof. While the law may be adequate in the United Kingdom it cannot be enforced; there are not enough inspectors, as is evidenced by two local occurrences which have come to my notice recently. First, at the Morgan Crucible site in Battersea Church Road, a 250 ft. asbestos-lined chimney was brought down with explosives, causing asbestos dust to travel eastwards with the wind. Of what use is monitoring when hundreds of local people have already inhaled the dust? A building on the same site clad in corrugated asbestos roughly in excess of 500 square yards was broken up, allowing the fibres to escape with little or no dousing with water, no protective clothing for the workers involved and no transporting from the site in sealed containers, all as witnessed by the local people.

Recently, just down the same road, but concerning the Latchmere Baths, a statement under sworn affidavit was made in court by the managing director of the demolition firm concerning the breaking up of the asbestos-lined boiler room, that a prohibition notice was served on him by the factory inspectorate due to public pressure.

On the open market—and I believe that the draft quotes about 3,000 items—there are no restrictions on the use of short fibres called "talc" (to name but one item) as binding agents in tablets, to make white rice white and to make cooking pads which can deteriorate and the fibres enter the skin; and babies can still be covered in talcum powder.

Even if a worker can be protected at work—and, as the noble Lord, Lord Hale, and the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, have already pointed out, it is advised by the draft that he is physically fit first, in order to become contaminated afterwards—I do not believe it possible to be as scrupulous as is necessary over a period of years. So, while a ban must be pressed for, I should like to ask the Government to give some assurance that proper education on dangerous substances will be introduced in schools: then people will be truly educated into demanding their right to be free from these dangers. The total cost of monitoring and safety equipment must be prohibitive and I shall not even ask Her Majesty's Government for figures. I believe that better protection and devices like the M88 for automatic counting of asbestos fibres are, in the end, a red herring. We cannot get away from the fact that it is the person least able to protect herself or himself who suffers the most. What worker could turn down a job in the asbestos industry—and this includes demolition—when unemployment is the alternative? It has been proven, too, that local communities cannot protect themselves against commercial interests.

The taking down of asbestos buildings, asbestos-lined chimneys, and so on, in the recommended way would not be prohibitive; it would only slightly dent the profit margin in any land development deal. Article 4.1 proposes, that, as safer and suitable substitutes become available, the use of asbestos should be phased out". But no time-scale has been laid down.

At this point I should also like to draw to the attention of Her Majesty's Government—and I must apologise for not giving prior warning of this—the Department of Employment's precautions about the use of asbestos in the construction industry, printed in 1974. Under the heading Demolition they say: Demolition processes were judged to fall within the subcommittee's terms of reference and there was general agreement that over the next 20/30 years the removal of asbestos lagging, extensively used in the past for thermal insulation of steam and chemical plant, will be a major hazard, especially since much of this material is likely to contain crocidolite (blue asbestos), which is believed to be far more dangerous than other forms of asbestos". We have discussed the other forms and I think it is clear that no one can be sure that the other forms are, in the end, safe.

Someone must take the lead. I would hope that it would be a courageous Government in this country. And what of the responsibility of the European Community towards those who are mining asbestos? Italy mines 130,000 tonnes per year and the majority of asbestos used within the Community is imported, to the tune of 800,000 tonnes per year. It is acknowledged that little or no adequate protection is possible for the miner. When there are now alternatives for asbestos the welfare of those miners must weigh heavily on the European conscience.

So much detail—having to do with evidence of inhalation levels, et cetera—is discussed in these documents, which is well-meaning, that I have an alarming feeling that, until a country has the courage to promote a ban, all the people will just be used as guinea pigs as the submission by Alan Dalton of the Work Hazards Group of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science states. I quote: Since 1935 it has been known that exposure to asbestos dust can cause lung cancer—lung disease, asbestosis, caused by asbestos was noted by the factory inspectorate in 1898! Yet production has soared since that date … each year more is mined and used than in all the years before 1930". Without a commitment to ban asbestos, certain words and phrases in the draft's proposals, and, T am afraid, the committee's report, take on a sinister ring— "when properly used", "reasonably practicable", "it is essential however that the UK's competitive position within the EEC is not eroded", "it is the conditions in which crocidolite is used, not the use itself".

6.31 p.m.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, first I should like to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, on his excellent introduction of this subject of asbestos, which has an ongoing concern and interest for everybody in this country, or in fact everybody in the world. I am also very grateful to him for allowing the asbestos counter to be demonstrated to the committee, because the development of this particular counter was supported by the EEC. I want to talk about this later, and also to declare an interest. I was very interested also in what the noble Earl, Lord Gosford, had to say, because I think he touched on a number of points that do concern us. He talked about enforcement. He talked about the position of this country in the way it can lead developments in asbestos. He also talked about a ban. I hope that what I have to say will help him to understand the present situation in better perspective.

My Lords, we are dealing with two directives here which have originated from two different directorates in the Commission at different times. But they do not cover the whole of the asbestos saga. I should just like to complete the picture for your Lordships, to show what I believe has turned out to be a very good example of how Community funds can be used effectively to serve industrial purposes.

Also we must bear in mind that asbestos is mostly imported into the Community and Canada has a specific trading interest to preserve in this respect. The Canadian Government are closely involved with the EEC through the Framework Agreement for Commercial and Economic Co-operation signed in October 1976, which is designed among other things to maintain the flow of trade between Canada and the Community.

Matters of concern in the minerals sector with asbestos have been identified, and these include harmonisation of asbestos fibre definition—and this, as the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, said, was of very great concern to the Committee—and the techniques of measurement in the workplace as well as epidemiological studies. The issues there are, therefore, being taken seriously by the supplier and the user. I will come back to these points later. Also the Simpson Report from the Advisory Committee on Asbestos assesses the risks to the workplace and the economics of protection. I welcome the worldwide lead taken by the United Kingdom in this subject.

I have been personally involved on the asbestos scene acting as a contractor to the Commission in the development of a rapid asbestos fibre counter for monitoring the workplace. I do not believe that it is really necessary to declare such an interest to your Lordships as we are all on the same side when it comes to the EEC. But it is significant to note that the Commission now manage some 250 million units of account per year in the research sector, and I have always taken the view that it is important for the United Kingdom to secure an adequate proportion of the available funds in the free market, despite the fact that quite a lot of them are earmarked for disposal through specialist centres such as the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority working in the nuclear field. However, it is becoming more difficult to compete for funds because of the exchange rate. From the Commission's point of view research and development work supported in England costs them more as they get less sterling per unit of account now than they used to. The rate has now altered from 66 to 52 per 100 units. This is not compensated for by the decline in other Community currencies. If exporters here have to face the high value of sterling, the Commission face the same hurdle when they come to consider contracts in the United Kingdom.

In the particular case of asbestos the fibre counter is based on fundamental research carried out by the Medical Research Council Pneumoconiosis Unit in Wales, and with the help of the Commission a highly effective product has now been introduced which can meet the requirements laid down in the asbestos regulations now being proposed by the Commission. It can therefore be seen that the regulations proposed in document 9953/80 can now be enforced, and therefore it is sensible, I think, to introduce them.

Asbestos is a material with important industrial properties. Its tensile strength and resistance to heat and chemicals give it a high added value in product form in relation to the resource cost. Substitutes are being sought, but I do not see the arguments for banning all asbestos types when effective safety measures can be employed. Mercury and lead processing, for example, have their attendant dangers, but are regarded as practically safe when certain precautions are taken. The same with asbestos. It is perhaps a matter of degree, but I believe that there are new and effective ways of sampling and monitoring the workplace for this pollutant and that it is not necessary to go for a complete ban just because of the deficiencies in the monitoring techniques. We can see that the Commission are supporting the development of new techniques and I think we should support ways of permitting asbestos to be used with the necessary safeguards. Evidence suggests that there can never be an absolute cast-iron safe minimal level of exposure, but equally this can also be said of other things, such as lead, and even the natural atmosphere is not 100 per cent. pollutant free. To say of a victim that he was only a little exposed is meaningless, because I think the critical point is that he either has the disease or he does not. Equally you cannot say that somebody was just a little pregnant; either you are or you are not.

A complete ban would theoretically leave no doubts—no exposure, no disease. This may be over-simplification perhaps, but the point I want to bring out is that I think there are no practical grounds for a total ban. The evidence also draws attention to the fact that there is a credibility gap in the test procedures. The tedious optical counting techniques are analyst-dependent and may be subject to large errors, particularly at the more hazardous end of the scale where fibres may be too fine to be seen by the expert and alert eye. The work supported by the Commission in developing a fully patented instrument within the British technical domain which increases accuracy, eliminates human error and automates the examination process is a very important element in being able to look at these two directives sensibly now.

The case, too, for tightening the limits over the years is, I think, justified if new and more effective testing techniques are adopted. The sensitivity of the test is crucial in the context of setting the limits. A highly sensitive "go, no-go" test is wasted if the limits are too loose. Equally a low sensitivity test may keep the statistics looking good but may fail to alert operators and inspectors to any dangers. A very simple example of "go, no-go" tests is of course the one used at airports before boarding an aircraft. The alarm is set to trigger off when the level of disturbance across the screen registers a mass of metal which is compatible with a fire-arm. If the sensitivity is too high every 10p piece, bunch of keys or, conceivably, metal hip joint, will give the alarm, but this does not cast more suspicion on the individual or mean that the security men are doing a better job. It may give the public a greater sense of confidence, but in fact high sensitivity in this case merely shows that the test is not matched to the need and is more likely to be regarded as a nuisance.

From the detailed evidence given by the Health and Safety Executive, I think that it is very interesting to see that the Commission have taken careful note of the recommendations of our Advisory Committee on Asbestos in the Simpson Report who have been reviewing the Asbestos Regulations 1969. Whether the Commission did this because no other member state had tabled for discussion any report of the same calibre, I do not know, but I am very glad to see that the review of the Community regulations by the Commission is proceeding in parallel with the review here by the Health and Safety Executive of our own 1969 regulations.

I think that the Health and Safety Executive must be congratulated on the firmness with which they have presented their case in Luxembourg and I hope that in co-operation with the Commission they are able to reach successful conclusion. This is an example, I think, of the Commission being able to do an acceptable job if they take the best and most experienced advice in the first place on formulating directives.

As I understand the situation now, the Social Questions Working Group of the Council of Ministers is still involved with proposals covering the risks of lead in the workplace and the decks will not be clear for dealing with asbestos for a month or two yet. The important point which has been emphasised by the Health and Safety Executive is that although there may be differences of opinion as to safe levels, reference periods, and sampling times, the regulations must be looked at as a whole so that an acceptable package can be arrived at.

The committee was told that the differences between ourselves and the Commission are largely over points of detail such as over the Commission's preference on meeting continental requirements for annual medical checks. I do not think that in any sense it can be construed that such checks would help the prevention of disease, but the arguments for medical checks in the United Kingdom are related to compensation procedures legislated for in the Compensation Act 1931 rather than prevention procedures, and if the proposed Commission regulations are concerned with prevention rather than compensation then medical checks do not make sense and merely have nuisance value especially at yearly intervals. The Health and Safety Executive felt that two yearly intervals would be much more acceptable and that this is compatible with the keeping of adequate records, which I think are necessary in this case.

There are many different ways of protecting the worker in the workplace, but it is highly important that any preventative measures should be effective and seen to be effective. The Commission has now taken steps to support the development of effective sampling and monitoring techniques by which the proposed regulations can be properly enforced. When implemented they will reduce the medical hazards of working with asbestos to an absolute minimum which can be regarded as 99.9 per cent. safe and the risks remaining will be those which involve a failure of the new procedures to work.

However, we must remember that the introduction of asbestos substitutes may introduce new hazards in the workplace and the action of the Commission in supporting further work with my own company to look at the way asbestos fibre counting techniques may be improved, and to look at the feasibility of continuous monitoring of the workplace is very important. I can say also that techniques for doing this are now being evolved and will be available in the foreseeable future.

The whole question of fibre technology I believe now needs to be looked at far more seriously as similar needs for control arise with all new substances now being used in industry, a lot of which are used in fibre form including such things as glass and polypropylene. There is a recurring pattern of fibres usage in industry which now demands consistent measurement techniques which can be adopted by the operator and by the competent inspection authority.

Out of all the evidence presented to the committee I felt that the greatest concern was registered over Article 8 of 9953/80 and the question of definitions and sampling, and measurement standards. This comes out again and again in the evidence and, as I said at the beginning, asbestos fibre definition and measurement techniques are regarded by the Commission as being vitally important in the context of the Canada/EEC framework Agreement. If the Commission are in a lead position internationally, then I think that they should show more interest in this aspect of standards work and the idea of setting up a reference laboratory or unit certainly would make sense. However, the Commission's dilemma is that their involvement in setting standards can be criticised as an interference with the work of the International Standards Organisation who are involved with setting performance standards for products incorporating fibre reinforce ments. Basically it is wrong for the Commission to try and pre-empt the International Standards Organisation. If there is a need to ensure harmonisation within the European Community for other reasons, then this is a different matter and the issues should not be confused with the ISO ones.

Standardisation is vital for the working of the regulations which have now been proposed by the Commission and to the best of my knowledge the United Kingdom and Canada are the countries which are most concerned with the standards work in asbestos. The Health and Safety Executive take the view that the Commission does not specify the asbestos standards accurately enough in the proposed regulation. Luckily the standards involving sampling and measurement appear not to fall within the area of the International Standards Organisation and there may be other ways of dealing with this problem. Using the words of the Health and Safety Executive, there are many ways of skinning this cat". For example, the British Occupational Hygiene Society defines asbestos fibre as being anything between five and one hundred micrometres long, yet the Commission define fibres as being longer than five micrometres. So there is an example of a small discrepancy which could give rise to many doubts.

I think that there is a case for looking more closely at the idea for an EEC reference laboratory to be established perhaps as a unit attached to one of our own laboratories. We could, for example, consider how the Institute or Faculty of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh could be used for this work. The IOM which was started by the National Coal Board to look at the incidence of pneumoconiosis and silicosis in coal mines could be established as a reference laboratory for asbestosis for the European Community and I would ask the Government to encourage the Commission to provide financial support so that this can be put into effect as soon as reasonably possible. I think that we in this country are in a leading position to do this. Also, the Dutch proposals which have just briefly been outlined by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, concerning asbestos materials and the way in which asbestos must be firmly fixed in the materials before it can be acceptable as a product in the market-place is a subject which could also be looked at by the reference laboratory.

The principal factor which I think has emerged from our inquiry is that the Commission are proposing to introduce regulations in an area where there is a genuine requirement for them to deal with what is crippling disease. They have also taken steps to support the development of effective sampling and monitoring techniques to ensure enforcement of the regulations and to ensure that all workplaces, including both sites and factories, are covered. The wording of some of the articles, particularly Articles 8 and 11, needs to be carefully re-drafted so that there is no confusion over the question of standards and that inspectors are allowed a degree of discretion compatible with the Health and Safety at Work Act allowing defects to be remedied when they are brought to light.

I think it can be said that the Commission's proposals concerning asbestos are fully justified and that they are taking the right steps in supporting the development of safety techniques. There is much more work to do, but I hope that the Government will give full support to the Health and Safety Executive in its work with the EEC to fight for the best regulations.

6.50 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, first, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for introducing this report and, indeed, for chairing the committee which produced the report. In his introduction the noble Earl highlighted many of the points which I would have wished to bring to your Lordships' attention this evening and, indeed, I have no intention of wearying your Lordships at this hour—which I suppose is a relatively early hour compared with some of the hours to which your Lordships have been sitting recently—by repeating the points which he made. Other points which I had thought of raising this evening were drawn to your Lordships' attention by the noble Earl, Lord Gosford.

This report, of course, deals with the health hazards of asbestos, and particularly of those people who have to work with asbestos. As your Lordships will no doubt by now he aware, this is a highly technical report, but it is a report which highlights the danger of asbestos and the crippling effects and death which can be caused to those who come into contact with it. As the noble Earl said in introducing this report, one always has to balance the savings made by the use of asbestos in many different circumstances with any lives which may have been lost in the production of the material. As always, one must strike a balance between these two sides of the balance sheet.

I think that it is undoubtedly right that, in a sense, one of the reasons behind this directive, and behind so many other directives from the EEC, is an attempt to get uniform standards within the European Economic Community as a whole. There are obviously many reasons for the establishment of equal standards throughout the Community, but certainly one of the reasons, which must always be important in the question of the establishment of standards, is that unless you have equal standards, you can in fact have a situation where unfair competition exists between the different countries of the Community. Indeed, you would have a situation of countries imposing lesser standards and then competing unfairly with us.

On the other hand, we must consider whether the standards proposed by the EEC meet the standards which our own Health and Safety Executive considers necessary. Clearly, dangers are increased or decreased by the setting of standards at any particular level. However, what has become clear in the debate this evening is that at no level of standards can one be absolutely sure that the possibility of danger has been eliminated. Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Gosford, was leaning towards the suggestion that the whole question of standards was a red herring because, in fact, you could never be certain, however stringent the standards you set, that you were creating an absolutely safe environment.

The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, spoke of the introduction of substitute materials. Clearly, we should be looking for the introduction of such substitute materials in the future, and hoping that they will come along in the reasonably near future. The noble Earl, Lord Gosford, rightly pointed to the dangers caused by the demolition of buildings, and he referred specifically to a number of buildings recently demolished just south of the river in Lambeth, where, in fact, danger had been created by the atmosphere being polluted with asbestos dust.

The Earl of Gosford

My Lords, I was in fact referring to the Battersea area, not Lambeth.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, Battersea is in the borough of Wandsworth and I apologise if I have lumped the whole of the southern area in the word "Lambeth". Of course, concern was expressed by the TUC to the committee, and this is the only point that I had underlined which was not mentioned by other noble Lords. The TUC was very concerned about the proposals, and particularly the proposals in relation to blue asbestos. It thinks that if the importation of blue asbestos is allowed, even though it be in the form of manufactured goods—pipes and so on—it would be a retrograde step and should be resisted.

The noble Lord, Lord Ironside, thought that there was no case for a ban because of inadequate monitoring procedures. I think that it may ultimately come to that, but in the meantime I think that we shall have to live with the existing situation, that we shall have to ensure that the highest standards are enforced; and we shall be able to use the new technical forms of counting the danger as and when they become available. But in course of time, when substitutes are developed, we may find the use of asbestos slowly fading out. However, for the present, I am sure that the way ahead is to ensure that adequate standards are enforced, that those standards are maintained and that we are satisfied that the standards enforced in the Community and in this country are adequate.

6.59 p.m.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, Sub-Committee G of the European Communities Committee is rightly very much respected for its careful scrutiny of the environmental aspects of proposals received by the European Council of Ministers. Its report on the two draft directives debated tonight and the presentation of it to this House by my noble friend Lord Cranbrook reflected this close attention. If I may, I should like to congratulate my noble friend not merely on his presentation but also on his whole conduct of the proceedings of the committee. Evidence received and heard from organisations and individuals—again, to whom we give our thanks—directly concerned with the manufacture, use and potential health risks of exposure to asbestos, has now been helpfully supplemented by this debate this evening and by all who have contributed to it.

In initiating the debate, my noble friend outlined the inter-relationship between the two draft directives now before the Council of Ministers and their necessary links with the recommendations made by the Advisory Committee on Asbestos, particularly in its first and final reports. When preparing the draft directives, the Commission itself took the view that exposure to and control of asbestos in respect of workers, consumers and the general public must be looked at together. The two proposals under debate have been put forward as part of a set of measures intended to fulfil, in part, the Action Programme on Safety and Health agreed between member states in July 1978. Further draft directives are envisaged to reduce the contact of food and drink with asbestos and to minimise exposure to asbestos in the general environment.

The Government share the sub-committee's view that discussion of the draft directives must be coordinated with each other and with the development of policy on asbestos in the United Kingdom. The Government regret that negotiations on the draft directive on the protection of workers, with more detailed provisions, could not have preceded those on the marketing and use of asbestos. With discussion yet to begin on the former, it is not possible to be certain in all instances what the European Commission had in mind in the draft provisions, but this does also mean that the views of this House can be taken into account at the start of negotiations in preparing a United Kingdom line. With this interesting debate tonight we in the Government are better placed to use to advantage this otherwise condemnably slow progress on the draft directive on the protection of workers.

The unique properties of asbestos which led originally to its widespread use have made it difficult to replace with suitable and cost-effective substitutes which might not, after several decades, be shown to have similar risks to health. As a general principle, the Government agree with the advisory committee that the control of a useful if hazardous material is preferable to its prohibition but believe that a ban is appropriate where the risk is demonstrated to be serious, and present or likely future controls are unlikely to be satisfactory. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ironside for clearly putting a view of that necessary balance, and also to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on behalf of the official Opposition, for also appealing that a balance be struck.

The speech of the noble Earl, Lord Gosford, was perhaps more critical, but it was a very informed and clear one. He asked me a specific instance about the demolition of the Morgan Crucible chimney. My advice is that this act of demolition was carried out following consultation between the company and the construction inspectors of Her Majesty's Factory Inspectorate. Levels of emission were measured and found to be predictably low, and any exposure also very short. But I have to acknowledge to the noble Earl that what was disquieting was that through ill luck, if you like, the chimney was demolished on the day of the Fastnet yacht race—that awful day which your Lordships will recall—and it was a very windy day, and therefore had that been known the inspectorate might have thought differently; but my advice is that the levels of emission measured were found to be low.

The Earl of Gosford

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, for answering that question. I did not really make it clear, but the question in fact was not on the Morgan site. However, I am pleased that he has been able to answer that. The question was on the report of 1974 from the Department of Employment concerning the 20 and 30 years in the future that lagging was going to be taken away from places like hospitals, schools, et cetera, and they did not foresee that there were any adequate precautions for maintaining safety in this removal. I was wondering whether since 1974 there had been any news on this.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, the noble Earl was kind enough to explain that he had not been able to give me notice of that question. If I may, I shall write to him, or if he cares to put it down for Written Answer I shall return to it.

The Advisory Committee concluded that the application of asbestos in thermal and acoustic insulation and by spraying should be prohibited. With confirmation of this recommendation during consultations, the Health and Safety Commission is to publish for comment draft regulations to ban these uses of asbestos and to license work to remove the coatings already in place when this is judged to be necessary. The Government agree with the sub-committee that the limit value for crocidolite presently in the draft directive—

The Earl of Gosford

My Lords, I must sympathise with the noble Earl. I believe that I quoted it three or four times quite incorrectly.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I should have done my homework orally as well as visually.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, if the noble Earl used the words "blue asbestos" it would be simpler.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, and I hope he will be as helpful when we return to the telecommunications Bill.

On the subject of the ill effects of exposure to blue asbestos and the availability of suitable substitutes for almost all its uses, the advisory committee recommendation and the uncertainty of the eventual text of the draft directives all suggest that there could be merit in a qualified statutory ban on the use of raw blue asbestos fibre. The desirability and practicability of extending this statutory ban to imported products containing blue asbestos is also under close examination. For other types of asbestos, the Government are taking careful note of the differences between the limit values included in Article 9 of the draft directive on the protection of workers and those recommended by the advisory committee, with special reference to exposure to amosite.

The sub-committee's concern to avoid a reduction in present standards of health and safety through harmonisation is recognised by the Government. It therefore continues to be our aim in negotiations to ensure that existing United Kingdom standards of protection can be maintained while taking account of the provisions of the draft directives, the Government's reaction to the advisory committee's recommendations and the implications for United Kingdom industry. There is provision in Directive 80/1107/EEC (under which the draft directive on the protection of workers is made) for individual member states to adopt more stringent standards than those established in the directive, and subsequent directives on individual substances, for the purposes of improving health and safety. However, the trading advantages of har- monisation—to which many speakers referred-mean that the United Kingdom would prefer to secure agreement to a directive from which no derogation would need to be sought.

The practical considerations of compliance and enforcement must also be taken into account when considering when, where and how the draft directive should be applied. For example, as worded at present, all the provisions of the draft directive on the protection of workers would apply to all workers exposed directly or indirectly to any listed single type of mixture of asbestos for any length of time at any exposure level. Many commentators on the proposal have said that this is neither necessary nor practicable and it does seem excessive to require, say, full medical examinations and records for a person who may be assembling ready-cut asbestos cement sheets on a building site for a fraction of his working day or week. In consultation with representatives of employers, workers, scientific and medical interests the Government are therefore examining whether a clearer concept of controlling personal exposure to asbestos dust—the purpose of both the draft directives—can be offered.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, as one who for many years had to carry out medical checks on workers potentially exposed to asbestos in one of Her Majesty's Royal Ordnance factories, it seemed to me that the main effect of those regular medical checks was to induce a sense of false safety, as it were. If one found anything, one could not do anything for the individual; the real safety came from the controls on the use of the material rather than from the regular medical examinations. My experience was that once one carried out those examinations, the individuals concerned went away feeling the risks had all gone and they need not apply the various safeguards which were urged on them.

The Earl of Gowrie

I am grateful to the noble Lord, with his great experience as a doctor, for confirming the point I was making; namely, that it might seem excessive to require full-time medical examinations on site—not only excessive, but possibly not efficacious, either.

The encouragement of substitution and a review of the directives' implementation should help achieve a progressive reduction in the exposure of workers to asbestos. Under the general duties of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, employers are already required to do all that is reasonably practicable to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. The Government would favour future ministerial reconsideration of the limit values, together with other provisions of the two draft directives, if there are any technical or medical developments.

Progress in these fields will also be important in guiding the choice of monitoring methods used, for instance to assess compliance with the limit values. As my noble friend knows, the advisory committee in its second report recommended that until better methods were available, the phased contrast microscope should be retained as the standard analytical tool. It also recommended that there was a need to reduce variations in count obtained by the development of a standardised microscope technique and that this work should be conducted by a central reference laboratory. That was set up in 1978 at the Institute of Occupational Medicine and jointly funded by the Health and Safety Executive and the Asbestosis Research Council with the participation of major United Kingdom manufacturers of products containing asbestos.

My noble friend will be interested to know that a report from the Central Reference Laboratory has been received by the Health and Safety Executive. Among other things, that report contains recommendations for new counting rules which are suitable for use with manual and certain automatic counting devices which the advisory committee saw as a means of easing routine estimations of airbourne asbestos in the workplace.

As a result of two recent meetings involving hygienists from the United Kingdom, other member states, from Canada and representatives of the European Commission, it is planned to conduct a series of trials to evaluate various counting methods, including the Central Reference Laboratory method to which I referred, in order to develop an agreed method for use on the draft directive on the protection of workers. It is anticipated that the Institute of Occupational Medicine will be closely involved in that important work.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend to comment on the idea for a European reference laboratory and say whether the role could be taken over by the Institute of Occupational Medicine?

The Earl of Cowrie

My Lords, I can comment to the extent that it is certainly an interesting notion. Of course, we in this country are very fortunate in our Institute of Occupational Medicine, and if it can give a lead or become the model for European procedures, that would be excellent. What one would not want is that at high cost to us all, we duplicate the procedures needlessly.

The harmonised rules should be designed to be used by automatic as well as manual counting and whatever method is used, an agreed procedure is necessary to help ensure that each country and laboratory is adopting the same approach to assessing compliance with agreed limit values. The Government welcome the attention paid by the sub-committee to the development of automatic counting methods but believe it would be premature in the near future to seek their specific inclusion in the draft directive on the protection of workers. To insist that each employer covered by the directive, especially as presently drafted, should use automatic counting as the standard method of monitoring atmospheric concentrations of asbestos for all work operations, would be fearfully expensive. However, the method of counting should be reviewed regularly within agreed general rules appropriate to all accepted methods. Counts obtained of airborne concentrations of asbestos provide one aspect of information essential to managers, workers, doctors and hygienists to enable them to assess the need for and correct type of precautionary measures.

The old adage that prevention is better than cure is very appropriate in the case of asbestos-related diseases. The sub-committee noted that information from individual medical examinations was, because of the progressive nature of the illnesses, usually too late to help the individuals concerned. However, combined with dust measurements and knowledge of hygiene controls, they can and should provide valuable epidemiological data and are an important element of preventive medicine. We would therefore wish to see less specific attention paid in the draft directive to unnecessarily detailed head-counting and more on placing individual examinations in the case of the epidemiological work. That way forward would combine well with provisions in both draft directives for greater information on the possible health risks for workers and consumers from exposure to asbestos dust.

The Government accept fully the value of co-ordinated instruction, training, health surveillance, atmospheric monitoring, workplace controls and planned substitution as a package of complementary elements in reducing the incidence of asbestos-related diseases. All those elements are present in the two draft directives before us tonight, but the contributions to this useful debate have confirmed our view that the blend is not yet right. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, in particular my noble friend and his colleagues on the Environmental Sub-Committee of the European Communities Committee. The views expressed will help to guide our decisions on the advisory committee's recommendations and our negotiating line on both proposals with the aim of achieving a harmonised and effective framework of controls on exposure to asbestos in all member states. The Government's procedures and intentions on lead in petrol show that we are acutely conscious of health and safety issues. I thank all noble Lords who have paid tribute to the work of the Health and Safety Commission.

On Question, Motion agreed to.