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Mr. Henderson: I am sorry, I cannot give way as I must complete my response to the hon. Member for Chichester. However, I shall remember the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and give way to him generously on another occasion.

All applications for EU membership will be considered, and detailed negotiations will take place with those countries that the Commission believes are ready to enter into them. We must also keep in close touch with other nations that hope to meet the membership criteria at a later stage. EU members should assist them in preparing to make the changes necessary in order to meet those criteria.

There are many implications for the future of the existing nations of the European Union and those who wish to join it. In the time ahead, I hope that those who are truly committed to the future of democracy and to a successful, prosperous Europe of political understanding will work together to meet the challenges. I hope that they will do so regardless of the minor differences that may exist among people about local party political issues. I hope that those people will use their endeavours to meet the challenges to ensure that the enlargement of the European Union takes place. We will then achieve the success and stability that is crucial to our future.

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Asbestos Imports

1 pm

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

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

I have not just plucked those figures from the air--they are based on research that was supported by the Health and Safety Executive and published in 1985. It showed that in the next 25 years the number of deaths would increase to reach a predicted death rate of between 5,000 and 10,000. That is a matter of great concern, and when the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission commented on his advice to the previous Government in January, he said:

I should like to mention some cases with which I am familiar in which white asbestos has been a factor. In my former job I represented miners who had been injured at work and I still do some medical appeal tribunal work.

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

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

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

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

In September 1996, the World Health Organisation expressed concern about white asbestos and recommended that

I am informed by the Association for Manufacturers Against Asbestos that there are alternatives that could be used for the manufacture of most materials that currently rely on asbestos.

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

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

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

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): My hon. Friend is aware that I am at present the Rapporteur at the Council of Europe for a report on asbestos. My colleagues and I will follow with great interest the points that he is making. We have

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found that there is an enormous movement of asbestos within the 40 member states of the Council. We are deeply concerned about the inadequate labelling of the materials that are being moved. That is causing enormous problems. I hope that my hon. Friend and the Minister will take that on board.

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

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

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

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

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

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