Previous SectionIndexHome Page

24 Oct 2002 : Column 490—continued

Mr. Clapham: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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

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

Mr. Bercow: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's observation, but it does not cohere with the professional judgment of the Environmental Health Agency in the United States, to which he has tempted me to return in

24 Oct 2002 : Column 491

a matter of moments. If he is able to contain himself, I will say something further about that matter of legitimate and academic debate.

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

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

The House should also know that the recent UK representation briefing to Members of the European Parliament referring to proposed amendments to the asbestos regulation observed that they are

Significantly, it goes on to add that

I wish to refer to the statistics. The Health and Safety Executive and opponents of white asbestos claim that it causes deaths from mesothelioma. This is extremely questionable, and the conclusion appears to have been reached by a scarcely credible three-stage process.

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

Since Health and Safety Executive officials began citing these figures, they have been supplied with extensive evidence by Dr. Gibbs and others showing that white asbestos cannot be identified as a cause of any mesothelioma death in the United Kingdom. However, all that actual evidence—as opposed to guesswork—has been ignored by the HSE, apparently in breach of its

24 Oct 2002 : Column 492

statutory obligation to take account of such evidence. Its fictitious figures have become a mantra that continues to be solemnly intoned by the anti-asbestos lobby on every occasion—Labour Members will no doubt prove my point conclusively this afternoon—even though in reality there appears to be no evidential basis for them.

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

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

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

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

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

24 Oct 2002 : Column 493

almost every case that the work is either not necessary at all or can be carried out legally and safely for a fraction of the cost quoted by the contractors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 Oct 2002 : Column 494

a cost to the UK economy that is far greater than the HSE's estimate of the cost of compliance with the proposed new regime.

Next Section

IndexHome Page