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24 Oct 2002 : Column 497—continued

24 Oct 2002 : Column 498

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I point out to the House that 60 minutes are left for the debate and that there are nine hon. Members seeking to occupy it, including one Front-Bench spokesman? I hope that hon. Members will feel good will one to the other.

6 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): My right hon. Friend the Minister approached the matter in a balanced way. He explained that regulation was necessary to give people protection in the workplace. The record should be put straight.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) referred to the ILO—[Hon. Members: XWHO"]. Indeed. The hon. Gentleman said that the WHO had produced no evidence that white asbestos posed a danger. I refer to a recent statement issued by the WHO. Its latest review of the health risks from chrysotile asbestos states as one of its conclusions:

That statement is based on the scrutiny of studies carried out throughout the world, from Japan to France and the UK. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that about two years ago the HSE commissioned a study from Leicester university. After that study concluded that there was a carcinogenic risk from white asbestos, the HSE began to address the matter.

There have been two consultation exercises over a four-year period.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman could have made an identical statement in which the WHO referred not to white asbestos but to hot alcoholic beverages, contamination by nickel-based coins or contraceptives—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). If no threshold is given, such statements are almost meaningless.

Mr. Clapham: The statement referred to chrysotile asbestos. As the debate proceeds, the hon. Gentleman will hear evidence presented by my hon. Friends, some of whom in another life were personal injury lawyers. They will explain that they have dealt with cases of mesothelioma caused by white asbestos.

The record needs to be put straight. Last year, 5,000 deaths in the UK resulted from exposure to asbestos, and there were 1,700 new diagnoses of mesothelioma.. Many of those cases were probably caused by white asbestos.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clapham: I cannot give way at this point.

The hon. Member for Buckingham should also be aware that when chrysotile is mined, a dangerous and carcinogenic form of asbestos—tremolite—can become

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mixed with it. The two cannot be separated, so mined white asbestos is highly polluted. Tremolite is even more dangerous than blue or brown asbestos.

Tim Loughton: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clapham: No, I have let the hon. Gentleman intervene once, and I want to make a little progress.

Given the figures that I have cited for the number of deaths and mesothelioma diagnoses in the past year, it is obvious why we need the regulations: we need to be able to reduce the number of deaths in the workplace. Unless we take action now, we are likely to face the kind of situation in the future that we are facing now, which stems in many ways from the workplaces of the 1960s, when blue and brown asbestos was used without any real consideration for the health problems caused. As a result, we are picking up many of the mesothelioma cases that were caused by exposure in those times.

Let me give the House an idea of the incubation period using a case that I dealt with personally. One of my constituents—a miner—was exposed to asbestos. I represented him at a tribunal and obtained a mining engineer's report. It was proved that there was asbestos in brake linings that that man had used in the latter part of the 1950s. In other words, it took from 1958 or 1959 until 1997 for the tumour to develop. The asbestos had been in his lungs for all that time. So there is a long incubation period, and the fact that we are now dealing with dangers from the 1960s shows that it is necessary to take action now to prevent problems in the future.

Mr. Francois rose—

Tim Loughton: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clapham: No, I shall not give way now; many of my hon. Friends want to intervene.

We are saying that the regulations are necessary because we need to reduce the number of deaths in the workplace. Under the regulations, employers simply have to identify the deadly material and work out a plan to deal with it. That is all we are requesting.

The hon. Member for Buckingham said that the present situation in America results from massive asbestos claims, which are causing multinational companies to face going into liquidation. I understand that, at present, the majority of chapter 11 bankruptcies in America are being caused by the asbestos problem. For example, Federal Mogul, which took over Turner and Newall, has gone for administration under chapter 11. We are now faced with an enormous problem.

SunAlliance has been mentioned, and I understand that it is to appear in court next January in connection with the Turner and Newall cases. There is an argument which says that, although it provided employer's liability insurance, it tried to exempt asbestos cases, and it will be proven in the courts whether it was correct to do that.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is being a trifle gullible and credulous in relation to the behaviour,

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in the United States and our own country, of insurance provokers on one hand and lawyers on the other. He is a little unwise to take all that at face value. I simply ask him this question: if he is going to slate the record in the United States and to talk about companies going bankrupt because of asbestos, will he identify a single case of company in the United States facing a successful claim because of an incidence involving white asbestos? Name, date and details, please.

Mr. Clapham: I will have experts provide the hon. Gentleman with the information that he requires. I cannot give that information now. We know that white asbestos was widely used in the United States, so many of the claims being lodged against companies will be for exposure to white asbestos. I now come to the reason why the hon. Gentleman has objected to the regulation. He referred to Mr. Bridle of Bridle Associates, who is an apologist for the asbestos industry. The hon. Gentleman said that this man was not in receipt of payment, but I refer him to the XBritish Asbestos Newsletter". I ask him to read it carefully and follow through Mr. Bridle's linkage to the Canadian asbestos industry. The hon. Gentleman may well find that his statement proves to be untrue. He could contact the editor of the newsletter who will provide him with a great deal of information about Mr. Bridle. It appears that the hon. Gentleman has based much of his case on expertise provided from that direction. I advise caution, if that is what he has done.

Mr. Bercow: My thesis was based on evidence from a number of sources, to which I referred in some detail, and individuals were named. If the hon. Gentleman thinks his case is so strong, why has he refused to debate these issues with John Bridle? Mr. Bridle is not scared of the hon. Gentleman, so why is the hon. Gentleman scared of Mr. Bridle?

Mr. Clapham: I can assure the House that this hon. Gentleman is not afraid of Mr. Bridle or of many other people. Mr. Bridle has made certain accusations in writing that are wholly untrue. He alleged that my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and I are in the pay of groups who would benefit by manufacturing substitutes for asbestos. No such payment has been made to me, and I think I can speak with honesty for Tom Cox when I say that no such payments have been received.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he should refer to colleagues by their constituency and not by name.

Mr. Clapham: In conclusion, information shows clearly that white asbestos is a carcinogen.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clapham: No, I am not giving way. There are 5,000 deaths a year in this country, and the number is increasing year on year as a result of exposure to asbestos. Dr. Peto's work suggests that the number may well reach 10,000 by 2015. We must take the action set out in the regulation now if we are to protect people in the workplace for the future.

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6.13 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): This is an interesting and, I hope, useful, debate despite its rather curious provenance. Apart from anything else, it gives us an opportunity to address matters of health and safety which have newly become the province of the Minister for Work. Under normal circumstances it might have been a good opportunity for him to dilate further on exactly what that means in terms of his work load and responsibilities in the Department. I am aware of the small industry that comes along with the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, and the wide range of interests that run from dangerous pathogens to nuclear installations, railways and so on. At some stage, probably not today, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would be kind enough to set out exactly what he is responsible for, and whether next time there is a rail crash—I hope that this does not apply—he will come to the Dispatch Box to explain the circumstances.

I also hope that the move to the Department for Work and Pensions will enable the Government to pursue two areas more actively. One is a single inspectorate for many of the purposes of health and safety and other matters that fall within the Government's province, as we have urged for a long time. The other is the role of rehabilitation, as, clearly, the Minister is in a good position now to examine the responsibilities of employers in terms of rehabilitation after health and safety events and seeing that through to a conclusion that gets an individual back into work.

The genesis of the debate has been referred to by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham)—it is the dichotomy between the experience in the United States and in North America generally and what is happening in the United Kingdom. Largely, it is a legal differentiation. As hon. Members know, the Fairchild, Fox and Matthews case has come to the House of Lords, and a helpful interpretation has been given of the rules of causation in this country. In America, the reverse is happening—there is a move away from responsibility. For instance, Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has made a very unhelpful comment suggesting new legislation to reduce the liability of companies in the United States for asbestos-related injuries.

Part of the reason for that change of attitude may be the differences in scale in judicial terms. I note that, last month, a jury in the United States awarded damages of $53 million. That is a colossal amount of money, albeit in a case based originally on 8,000 claims against 250 defendant companies. Nevertheless, it is a huge award. In comparison, the United Kingdom average award is about #100,000. The legal situation and the parameters are therefore totally different.

We also know, however, that the number of claims in this country is growing—1,500 claims per year and rising—and is likely to go on increasing. That alarm, coloured by the United States experience, has transferred itself to some hon. Members and some people outside the House, who are trying to influence the legislative framework on asbestos within which we work. It is a complicated matter, as the latency of the disease—30 or 40 years—means that it is very difficult to establish the causative factors. Often, it is very difficult

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to identify the particular companies in question, especially when someone has been employed by a series of companies or when companies have simply changed their corporate structure or disappeared completely. The legal position is therefore murky.

Having listened at length to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), I think his argument boils down to three points. First, he maintains, on the basis of his judgment, that there is no risk from white asbestos—chrysotile. Secondly, he argues that, in the absence of risk, the regulation is excessive and would involve excessive cost. Thirdly, he adduces the existence of unscrupulous operators who are profiting from a situation that he believes is contestable. I shall deal with those points in turn.

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's science training is adequate to support some of the comments that he made in terms of the nature of iron silicate and magnesium silicate—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that mine is not either. I do not claim to be a top scientist, but I do claim to have a science degree. I have a degree in physiological sciences, as it happens, but no matter—[Interruption.] I have no problem with the hon. Gentleman making fun of my background and training. I simply adduce the fact that he seems to think that one salt, iron silicate, is metallic and that another salt, magnesium silicate, is not. That suggests that he has not understood the evidence before him.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the carcinogenic effect of various substances. He said that other carcinogens, such as nickel and alcohol, should be dealt with in the same way. I challenge him to name a single mesothelioma that has as its causative agent anything other than asbestos or a similar fibrous material. If he can find someone who has a mesothelioma that is caused by nickel, alcohol or contraceptive pills, I will yield to him on that point. However, I do not think that he will be able to do that, because mesothelioma is exclusively the result of a particular type of fibrous substance.

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