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24 Oct 2002 : Column 502—continued

Tim Loughton: Perhaps I can turn the hon. Gentleman's question round. In response to my question, the Minister previously responsible for this issue said:

The hon. Gentleman said that that is rubbish, but a Minister made that statement in a written answer.

Mr. Heath: I have not seen the context in which that Minister made that statement. He may have been misled. However, the way in which the hon. Gentleman uses that quote now is grossly misleading. Mesothelioma is not caused by the ingestion of nickel or contraceptive pills. It is caused by the inhalation of fibrous material. That exclusively causes cancers of the pleura and the mesothelium. He must accept that.

No one contests the fact that chrysotile is a less effective agency for the disease than others, and thank goodness for that. Nevertheless, we have already heard

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that pollution from white and other forms of asbestos cause the same effects, which are, in any event, an innate effect of asbestos in the first instance. The hon. Member for Buckingham rubbished the work of Professor Peto, and he did not mention his collaborator, Sir Richard Doll, who happened to be the regius professor of medicine when I studied under him. Professor Doll was the greatest clinical epidemiologist not only of his time, but possibly of all time. I prefer to take his word rather than that of the hon. Gentleman in assessing the evidence before me.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger rose—

Mr. Heath: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is clearly an expert on the subject.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I do not claim to be an expert, but my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made the point that at least 19 other studies have been carried out. He is not the only one to have examined the issue.

Mr. Heath: There is a great deal of scientific evidence on both sides of the argument, and some hon. Members fail to understand that one cannot establish the absence of risk. It is part of the scientific illiteracy of this place that people want to have it proved that there is no risk. If there is evidence of risk adduced by proper scientific experimentation—which there is—the Government are right to take it seriously. They are there to protect the population. It would be a dereliction of duty to assume that there is no risk from white asbestos when the evidence clearly suggests that there is.

The next question is whether the regulations are excessive. I have considered the draft regulations—we have not had an opportunity to do more—and my judgment is that it is not excessive to ask people in a workplace to identify the areas of potential risk. That is not asking for a full structural survey or asking anyone to remove anything. It is merely asking people to identify where there is asbestos in a building. That has been accepted by the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the TUC and the National Farmers Union. All of them have sensibly been consulted and think that the regulation is about right. The argument that it is excessive cannot be sustained.

The hon. Member for Buckingham has one point. He was right to raise cases where asbestos is encapsulated, such as concretised asbestos. A case can be made for further study of that to determine under what circumstances such substances pose a risk. We should reconsider the fact that there is no requirement to remove such a substance that is in place and intact.

The hon. Gentleman also made a good point about cellulose, which is an alternative to asbestos and a potential carcinogen. We know that it causes farmer's lung, which often makes Joe Grundy cough in Ambridge. That disease is a result of cellulose getting into the lungs. There is an argument that more work should be done on that product.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned unscrupulous operators. If he is right—I am sure he is—that people are abusing the fact that the regulation will be

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introduced and the lack of knowledge about it, the Government should act to deal with that. They need to ensure that everyone knows the circumstances behind the regulation and what they must do and have no need to do.

The hon. Gentleman's argument about the companies involved was seriously damaged by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). His comments in respect of ARCA and its members lacked courtesy. The leader of his party managed to pick up a phone and call the Fire Brigades Union. Why did the hon. Gentleman not call ARCA to explain that unscrupulous operators were at large and to ask what action it was taking?

Mr. Bercow: I would not want the hon. Gentleman to be misinformed. It is not a state secret. The evidence is available. The cases have been publicised. ARCA cannot claim nescience in the matter. It is well aware of the facts and has a responsibility to study them.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is, as always, sesquipedalian in his tone. He is really saying that he did not get in touch with ARCA. That is clear from its letter, which states that it is extremely concerned that the allegations were not put to it, as the Minister pointed out. ARCA has a disciplinary committee to consider complaints. However, it appears that no complaints were received so it could not take action. I find that extraordinary, especially as the hon. Gentleman also mentioned members of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Chartered surveyors have a professional standing and a duty of care. They should not abuse the trust of their clients and evidence of that should be put before the responsible authorities at the earliest opportunity.

I have four points to put to the Minister. First, he did not address the decision to leave out the previous provision of due diligence. That is interesting. If a company can show that it has acted with due diligence in attempting to identify asbestos within the workplace, that should be an appropriate defence. It is not in the new regulations and there is a strong argument to suggest that it should be.

Secondly, clear guidance from the Health and Safety Executive is essential to determine what is and what is not needed so that people do not spend money unnecessarily removing parts of buildings or on complicated and expensive surveys. Such surveys are not needed when it is possible to identify parts of a building that clearly pose a risk or that give rise to a reasonable suspicion that there is asbestos in the fabric of the building.

Thirdly, the Minister, the commission and the executive need to work with responsible undertakers to make sure that they are not taking steps that are excessive and will involve extra costs to industry.

Finally, I should like the Minister to commission more work on encapsulated or concretised asbestos and on the potential dangers of other fibrous materials being used as asbestos substitutes. I would hate our successors in 30 years' time to be making the same arguments about a different scare, the latency of which is such that people are now inhaling the fibres that will cause them horrible illness and potential death at a later stage in their life.

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6.30 pm

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow): I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, which was initiated by the Opposition. It allows us to expose a crime that has been perpetrated on thousands and thousands of workers in the UK by unscrupulous employers. The extent of the problem of asbestosis-related deaths is revealed by the area that I come from, Tyneside, where two people die each week from that illness.

Tyneside has a history of heavy industry and shipbuilding, so we have a legacy of workers who have used asbestos in the past, largely through ignorance, and who now have asbestosis, which is causing their death. In Jarrow, 109 men are waiting for compensation through the compensation courts. Those are basically 109 dead men walking. They ain't going to recover. They ain't going to get any better. Even though they will die in agony, all they want is to get their compensation. But the problem will not go away once those men have got their compensation and, unfortunately, died. The problem will get worse. It has been estimated that it will not peak until 2010.

The men who have been suffering from asbestosis have had to worry not only about the illness and the fact that they have had to live through the illness with their family, but about the compensation. I have raised the issue twice in Parliament—and I will be brief and take your guidance on the length of speeches, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I am reminded once again of the unfairness of the way in which those men have been treated, of the scandal of those rogues at Chester Street Holdings, who potentially robbed 10,000 people on Tyneside of their compensation, and of the ludicrous Fairchild judgment, whereby the person suffering from asbestosis had to prove which employer at which time and in which place was the source of the single fibre that caused his illness. That is an absolute nonsense. I had a constituent, William Cuskin, whom I have mentioned in Parliament before. He was a painter who worked for numerous employers up and down the Tyne throughout his career. How on earth could he say which single employer gave him the disease?

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