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1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle): First, I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on his success in securing an Adjournment debate on such an extremely important subject.

I assure the House at the outset that, unlike our predecessors, this Labour Government are determined to deal effectively with the new uses of asbestos once and for all. We have already initiated action. There will be no

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empty promises from the Government and no palliatives such as those that came from the previous Administration. We value human life and we know that asbestos represents a serious threat to it. We shall take the necessary steps to protect human health.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was alarmed by some of the information that my hon. Friend gave the House, both about the bad labelling and about a seeming increase in imports, as well as about

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some of the rather dubious connections between the organisations that purport to give information and the industry itself. I shall draw those to the attention of the Health and Safety Commission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In most cases, the fines currently handed down by the courts are pitifully low, which prevents the operation of an effective system of deterrence. We are considering

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what can be done about that. I welcome the fact that the Health and Safety Commission is already considering a variety of other actions connected with tightening our legislation to protect workers from the effects of working with existing asbestos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The quantities are being reduced, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone said, we cannot ignore the fact that chrysotile, or "white",

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asbestos is still being imported into this country. I am interested in my hon. Friend's information about increases in imports, and I should like to talk to him about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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