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24 Oct 2002 : Column 483—continued

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

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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) rose—

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

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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.

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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I have received a fax from the National Farmers Union. It says

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.

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