Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I draw hon. Members' attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. I am pleased to have secured the debate, because the issue of asbestos and the changes that are being made to relax standards in respect of it is important. I shall make three main points. First, the use of asbestos in the UK and Europe generally has left us with a bitter legacy. The Government recognised that when they introduced the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, which were, and still are, a positive step forward. Changes are being made by means of an amendment to the EU asbestos worker protection directive.
Secondly, the proposals dilute the current practicethe way in which we impose standards in respect of asbestos. I draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister early-day motion 1224, which stands in my name and has attracted the signatures of more than 100 MPs who are concerned. I shall refer to other, much more eminent people who have voiced concern about the proposed change. Thirdly, certain experts say that the research on which the proposal has been based is flawed. That will be the major plank in my argument that the Minister should press for the standards to remain as they are and should decline to accept the proposals.
It is 100 years since the first death related to asbestos was reported in Parliament. It was reported in 1906 to a Committee that dealt with workers' compensation. In the 100 years since that death, there have been an enormous number of such deaths. One expert, Robin Howie, takes the view that, over the period from 1929 to 2020, between 663,000 and 820,000 deaths will have been caused by exposure to asbestos. The investigative journalist Peter Martin, writing in The Sunday Times Magazine on 16 May 2004, estimated that the number of asbestos-induced deaths in the UK between 2000 and 2050 could be as high as 186,000. Again, I draw the Minister's attention to the need to ensure that we have robust standards.
Each year, there are about 1,900 diagnoses of mesothelioma, which is a cancer. The TUC believes that asbestos causes two to three times as many cancers overall as it does mesothelioma, so we are talking about a considerable number of people who are put in jeopardy each year by asbestos exposure. Asbestos has now been banned, but although the first Act of Parliament that set standards to minimise the exposure of workers to the dust came in 1931, it took another 68 years before we banned asbestos. That was done in November 1999 after this Government came to power.
31 Jan 2006 : Column 2WH
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, during the period that he has mentioned, the industry fought back and constructed an argument that white asbestos was safe and blue asbestos was the dangerous one? That argument has been ridiculed over the past few years, which has made a significant difference. Science is sometimes used by industry to justify its profits and position.
Mr. Clapham : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention; what he says is correct. Although blue and brown asbestos were banned in 1985, there are still a considerable number of deaths. He will be aware that the Health and Safety Commission asked Leicester university in 199899 to carry out research before it advised on a ban, and that that research showed that there was no safe level for working with white asbestos. White asbestos is just as dangerous as other types of asbestos. That is why we must ensure that the high standard of protection against asbestos exposure is not reduced.
Making the corporate control of asbestos a statutory priority was at the core of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002. That positive regulation assigned the responsibility for managing asbestos in some 500,000 non-domestic premises to property owners, landlords, licensees, tenants, employers and building and maintenance managers. That was a positive step.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, which is on a very important topic. May I draw to his attention the sad experiences of Southfield school for girls in my constituency? It had a lot of asbestos in its buildings, which was disturbed by renovation work in 2003. The whole school essentially had to be relocated for the best part of a year, and all the records and equipment were lost. Even though we do not use asbestos today, the legacy of its use in buildings affects even schoolchildren in 2006.
The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 showed the Health and Safety Commission's determination to make safety a priority. It is understandable, therefore, that there is widespread concern about the consultation document that has been issued. The consultation finishes today. The document is called "Proposals for revised Asbestos Regulations and an Approved Code of Practice" and it proposes a relaxation of asbestos protection. Some believe that the HSC is now more concerned with cost cutting than ending the national asbestos epidemic. In my view, there is a real need to cap that epidemic.
The amendment that is to be made will use the concept of sporadic and low-intensity exposure to asbestos. I accept that that wording is taken from the directive, but the concept is causing serious unease. Dr. Nancy Tait of the Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association says:
Two Health and Safety Executive publications from 1995, "Asbestos alert" and "Asbestos dust: The Hidden Killer", drew attention to the fact that many decorative plaster finishes contained asbestos and that asbestos fibre was the hidden killer.
I shall draw the Minister's attention to a discrepancy in the figures that I believe shows clearly that deaths are occurring in the home as a result of people being subject to airborne asbestos fibre. A letter from Nancy Tait refers to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council's report on asbestos-related diseasesCm 6553which states in paragraph 48:
who received industrial disablement benefit. There is a massive discrepancy and that may well be because of the long latency period. Many of the people who died after retirement may have been subject to asbestos exposure during their working life. I suggest that among those figures may be a number of deaths caused by exposure to airborne fibres in schools, although when I asked a question a couple of years ago about the number of teachers who had died of mesothelioma there was one. That is explicable because it is more difficult to put a death into an occupational category if it occurs after retirement. I suggest that the figures that Nancy Tait referred to include people who have been exposed to airborne fibres in domestic premises. That is another reason for setting much stronger standards and not accepting a relaxation.
I want to refer to a number of concerns that have been expressed. The TUC believes that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos and that reliance on the concept of sporadic and low intensity exposure to asbestos will inevitably lead to more tragedy. It recently stated:
"Given the risk of a fatal disease, even at low exposure, the nature of the maintenance and construction industry and the low level of general enforcement outside of the licensing regime, it would be irresponsible to exclude all sporadic and short term exposure work . . . The HSE should be committed to increasing protection, yet for some groups this proposal would decrease the level of protection they currently enjoy."
"The adoption of a risk based approach by the HSE will result in the deregulation of work with textured decorative coatings such as Artex, the asbestos content of which can be as high as 5 per cent. by weight; previously only a licensed contractor acting within defined parameters was permitted to work with this kind of material".
Those unions are concerned that relaxation via the amendment to the directive will result in people being put more in jeopardy. The workers who will be put in jeopardy will be electricians, carpenters working in households, joiners, builders, plumbers and so on. There is a real need to ensure that we do not accept a relaxation of standards.
31 Jan 2006 : Column 4WH
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He will know that one of the HSE's arguments for the relaxation that he has just described is that cement containing asbestos is already exempt on the basis that it poses a very low risk. Does he accept that argument or does he believe that cement containing asbestos should be included in the regulated materials?
Mr. Clapham : I believe that cement containing asbestos needs to be covered by the same strict and robust standards that we have had previously. It is dangerous to relax standards for any situation in which asbestos fibres are likely to be present. We must be very cautious about that.
John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): The cement was examined when it was mixed and only about a year old. The problem is that asbestos was added to cement in the 1960s and cement dries out; in old buildings it dries right through. The problem with fibres can exist 20 or 30 years later, but the delay factor has been ignored. When the HSE and insurance companies say that asbestos is inert, they are wrong. It is not dead material. It comes alive again and kills people.
The research on which the Health and Safety Commission's proposals were based is flawed. I want to draw the Minister's attention to what Robin Howie said. He was an occupational hygienist and president of the British Occupational Hygiene Society. He said that the research was carried out under unrealistic conditions and that the findings did not reflect the level of exposure that would take place in the real world. The removal of asbestos-containing textured coatings was done under controlled conditions by operatives working for licensed contractors in asbestos enclosures fitted with negative pressure extraction units. He made the point that the use of skilled operatives using the latest technology and equipment has not produced results that will be replicated by untrained workers employed by unlicensed contractors, unobserved and working without the same technology used in the research. That is a major point. If those controlled conditions cannot be replicatedthey obviously cannotin the real world, people will be put in jeopardy.
Furthermore, Howie pointed out that the health and safety laboratory researchers measured the level of exposure experienced by the operatives in that enclosure. What they did not take into account was the airborne asbestos fibre concentrations that would be experienced by unprotected families living in homes where textured coatings had been removed. The health and safety laboratory study was commissioned jointly with the Association of British Insurers, a body that works energetically to reduce asbestos-related liability.
The problem is that the research cannot be replicated in the real world and textured coatings in domestic premises will be removed by unlicensed contractors with the danger that they will not use the protection necessary to ensure that airborne fibres are not left when the family returns to the premises. Again, further inspections are necessary following removal of asbestos coatings and I shall refer to that in a moment.
31 Jan 2006 : Column 5WH
I want to bring to the Minister's attention a paper published in 2005, which was co-authored by Daniel McElvenny of the HSE's epidemiological and medical statistics unit, which details the increasing incidence of asbestos cancer from secondary exposure such as that experienced by plumbers, gas fitters, joiners, builders and electricians. If textured coatings are removed from the licensing regime, it is highly likely that more deaths will occur among that group of workers. That is something that the Minister should take on board. The paper produced in 2005 by the HSE actually supports the point made by the agency in 1998 that there should be no relaxation. I cannot see what has changed since that paper was published in 2005. Only a sceptic would say that cost was a factor.
There is another issue of greater public concern: when textured coatings are removed by unlicensed contractors, they are likely to be dumped in unlicensed sites. According to Environment Agency statistics, someone fly-tips in England and Wales every 35 seconds; there are around 70,000 incidents per month. Following the introduction in 2004 of more stringent regulations for waste disposal, the number of landfill sites that accepted asbestos fell dramatically, and the cost increased. It is hard to see how the combination of unlicensed contractors and the reduced number of landfill sites can do anything but increase fly-tipping of that dangerous material, exposing more people to greater risk. Again, the Minister should take that point on board. Perhaps that fact should be brought to the attention of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
It is known that it takes a long period of exposure for someone to develop an asbestos-related cancer. I referred earlier to secondary exposure, but let me bring to the Minister's attention a case that I dealt with between 1996 and 1997 of a miner who had been subject to secondary exposure. He recalls finishing his national service and starting work with British Coal, or the National Coal Board as it was then. He worked for just four months in 1954 with a machine that had asbestos brake linings. In 1996, he fell ill. His illness was diagnosed as mesothelioma, and he died in 1997.
The point is that that man did not have asbestosis. I recall taking him to tribunals, and we could not establish asbestosis because in order to establish it there must be fibrosis of the lungs; in other words, the illness must be pneumoconiosis, and asbestosis is a form of pneumoconiosis. The diagnosis was that there was asbestos fibre in his lungs, but it had not coalesced. As a result, we had to fight through the tribunal to establish that he had been working in conditions in which he was subject to asbestos. Finally, we established that point, and he was paid industrial injuries disablement benefit. That man had been working with a machine more than 40 years ago, and it took that long for the mesothelioma to develop, even though he was exposed for only a very short period.
What is to be done? In 1998, the HSE was persuaded that there should be no relaxation of controls on removing asbestos coatingsor, should I say, textured coatingsbecause of the danger that it presented to those who could be exposed, and its document of 2005 supports that. So what has changed? Could it be that the HSE is now looking into cost cutting, as many people believe? That may be the case, but my view is that, given
31 Jan 2006 : Column 6WH
the evidence available, the methodology on which the proposal is based should be thoroughly reviewed. I hope that the Minister will order that review. I also hope that she will support continuing the process of third-party inspections by an independent body when a textured coating has been removed. That way, the family moving back into the premises can be safeguarded from exposure to airborne fibres.
Also, I hope that the Minister, who represents the lead Department on the issue, will instigate a cross-departmental approach for the victims of asbestos. Three Departments are involved in the issuethe Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Department of Health and, of course, the Department for Work and Pensions, which has the lead. The Department for Constitutional Affairs is involved because it recently put out a consultation paper suggesting that the number of specialisms in the courts should be reduced, among them the mesothelioma specialism. That specialism has been in place in the Queen's bench division of the High Court for the past three years, and it has meant that live mesothelioma cases have been settled within four weeks, and posthumous cases within seven weeks. There is a danger that if it is dropped as a specialism we will be back to longer periods in court.
I also ask the Minister to consider whether it is time to introduce a scheme for people suffering from asbestosis, and particularly mesothelioma. It could be similar to the scheme that the Department of Trade and Industry operates for miners, but better. It should be financed by the insurance companies and based on settlements commensurate with what men and women would receive in court. That would stop the indignity of being dragged through court.
As regards the Department of Health, there is a real need to introduce a treatment and care strategy. If we can marry up the legal and health sides, we can make a lot of progress for asbestos victims. I hope that the Minister will take that on board, and I hope that, having heard the evidence that shows that the proposal was based on flawed research, she will order that the matter be thoroughly reviewed, with a view to maintaining the current high standards.
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) for initiating this debate and for giving such an excellent speech, detailing concerns that many of us have about the European worker protection directive. I am also grateful to him for tabling early-day motion 1224.
The debate is timely, marking as it does the end of the public consultation on the directive. I say at the beginning that there is much in the directive that we can support and welcome. For example, I particularly welcome the tightened provisions and the single lower control limit of 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre of air. That is an important provision, which will be welcomed in the industry.
As the hon. Gentleman said so eloquently, there is a long history attached to dealing with asbestos-related illnesses. I represent Rochdale, which, as many Members will know, was the site of the world's first asbestos factory, and the largest. There are not many
31 Jan 2006 : Column 7WH
people in Rochdale whose families have not been touched by the effects of asbestos-related diseases over the past few years.
The first asbestos victim from Rochdale, Nelly Kershaw, died in 1924; the first mesothelioma victim was reported in Rochdale in 1936; and a study in the 1950s established the link between asbestos and lung cancer. Despite all that evidence and the fact that people knew about the deadly effect of the mineral, it was not until 1997 that that the product was finally banned. An excellent book, "Magic Mineral to Killer Dust: Turner and Newall and the Asbestos Hazard", highlights graphically the steps that industry took to hide information about the effects of asbestos and related disease, and prevent it from coming into the public domain.
The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone expressed concern about the proposed changes in relation to textured coatings. We have to look at what is happening and who is wagging the tail. It is a factwe have seen it reported in the pressthat the insurance industry continues to do everything possible to minimise costs and risk.
John Battle : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point, because Turner and Newall, in my constituency, was the very company that had the asbestos tragedy that I raised in the House in 1998. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) set out the evidence in his excellent contribution; in addition, only last Thursday the insurance companies overturned a High Court ruling that we got 20 years ago, saying that they would no longer recognise pleural plaques as evidence of mesothelioma, or potential asbestos pollution. Does not that prove that the insurance companies are determined to wriggle out of paying compensation and move away from their legacy?
Paul Rowen : I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. I know that he has had a long battle in respect of the Armley factory. Last week was a severe set back for all those workersthere are many thousands in Rochdalewho may suffer as a result of that decision. I hope that the Minister will take up the suggestion of the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone and try to bring some order to the situation and stop the insurance companies from denying some comfort to dying people and their families in their last days.
The proposal that we are discussing flies in the face of evidence and concerns about the use of textured coatings. Yes, we are not using asbestos any more, but it is still found in many thousands of buildings. We simply do not know the scale of the problem. It is an accepted factback in the 1980s the then Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), admitted itthat there is no safe limit as far as asbestos is concerned. Why, then, are we going ahead with declassifying and handing over to people who will not be aware of the potential effects and dangers, will have had no training and could be exposing themselves to severe risk?
31 Jan 2006 : Column 8WH
As has been said, the research is flawed. Before we go ahead and introduce the new changes, we need to ensure that we have the best research available. Again, it is a fact that, throughout history, science and research have been used to suit industry's needs. I am in no doubt that the directive is a cost-cutting measure that will, if implemented, result in some tragic consequences.
"The asbestos experience demonstrates starkly the political and social problems in revamping health and safety laws, compensation payments and medical surveillance. Occupational diseases are deeply social and political. Industry inevitably influences both politicians and the formulation of industrial laws. The events surrounding the introduction of asbestos regulations in 1969 should banish any naive ideas that government and industry logically follow the healthiest and safest option."
We have the healthiest and safest option at the moment, but if we proceed with the introduction of the directive in its proposed form, we will not have that and we will suffer the consequences in years to come.
John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on raising this subject again. He has fought tirelessly on this issue throughout his time in Parliamentoften unacknowledged by many in the media and so on. He has kept the issue alive in the House, in Parliament and in Departments. His expertise on these matters is second to none, because he has worked through cases and the law, and we owe him a great debt for insisting that the subject is kept in the forefront of the public mind.
Last week, on 26 January, Norwich Union, on behalf of a consortium of companies, overturned in court a decision that we got in Manchester in 2004, under Lord Justice Holland, which ruled that asbestos victims could claim if they had pleural plaquessigns of mesothelioma and cancer later down the line. Last week that decision was overruled: pleural plaques were declared inert. It was said that they would not be a problem, so people could not claim compensation from the insurance company. I want to say a little bit about why that demonstrates that the insurance companies are absolutely determined not to pay out for victims; they want to hold on in there and keep court cases going for years and years, as they have in my constituency, in the hope that the people will die out and take the evidence with them.
When I first stood for Parliament a young man of 48 came into my office. He was off work sick with chest problems, but volunteeredhe was not a Labour party memberto help in the campaign. He asked if he could do a bit of office work. I found out that he lived in the Armley neighbourhood near the office and near to J. W. Roberts's factory, which made asbestos blankets but which had closed in 1956. That factory was part of the Turner and Newall group over in Rochdale. We discovered during our research that although laws were brought in to protect the workers, to some extent, in the 1930s, for some strange reason that factory thought that it was okay to carry on blowing the dust out on to the streets nearby after work. People picked it up and used it as snowballs, for example, and it was on the lintels and
31 Jan 2006 : Column 9WH
window sills. What was the result? More than 400 people in my constituency in a cluster around that factory have died of mesothelioma. The young man I mentioned was one of those people. Two years after he came into my office he was dead of mesothelioma. All he had done was go to the local school and play in the asbestos dust.
It took us eight years to get Turner and Newall into court. Why? It said that the problem was in the neighbourhood, rather than the factory, and the laws only affected workers, not the neighbours. We established the precedent that the company was liable for polluting the neighbourhood. We had to clean up all the houses. This Government gave money to the councilsome £5 millionto strip the asbestos out of all the houses and clean up the neighbourhood. That was a cost to the public. Can we get the money back from the company? No. The company was taken over by Federal-Mogul in America, which campaigned for years to try to stop paying out money to the victims.
Then what happened? Last week, we got a decision. I should just like to mention Professor Richard Doll, who died last year at the age of 90. He gave his life to campaigning for people with lung diseases. He campaigned against the odds, when everyone was saying that he was wrong. He campaigned to ensure that asbestosis and mesothelioma were taken seriously, as well as smoking-related diseases. He would be turning in his grave if he had heard the decision on 26 January. If he had been there, he would have spelled out that pleural plaques areto use his wordsan indicator of exposure to asbestos that is latent, not inert, 20 years down the line. That man in my office had been in the playground; 40 years later the disease was evidenced in his lung. Exposure to one fibre gave him mesothelioma.
We must remember that this is a disease with a time line. It is a disgrace for the companies now to declare that pleural plaques are no longer compensatable, because there is no proof that people are suffering. It is a bit like saying, "It's all in your head, really. You're worried about it, but there's no problem. You might get it later, but it's nothing to do with us. Move away."
I want to contrast what is happening with two other examples. In America, people are given compensation if they have the potential to die from mesothelioma or asbestos-related disease. That is allowed at the early stages. One reason why the companies will not pay out on the Armley cases is because we deal with actual cases in Britainpeople must have proof that they have the disease. However, in America, it is the potential that matters. Sometimes, the lawyers refer to those people, rather abusively, as "the worried well", but the companies pay out. The Armley cases at the back of the line are potential cases. If they can accept potentiality in America, why do not the insurance companies and the big multinationals accept it here?
We found out, after research, that the company in my constituency moved the Armley factory to India, so it could carry on producing and move away from any regulation here. We got someone outside the factory gates in India to show that the workers there would be killed within 40 years in the same way that people in my neighbourhood had been.
Let me draw another parallel. There is one question that we should be asking the insurance companies, and I would be very interested to ask it. We should say, "Okay, you say pleural plaques don't count. You say if I've got them, they're inert and don't really matter. So can I have my life insurance? How long will you give me?" I bet my bottom dollar that they would cut back provision and increase my premium if I had pleural plaques. Well, they cannot have it both ways: they cannot ask me to pay more because I have pleural plaques, but go to court the day after and tell me that they do not count for anything and will not kill me. They are having it both ways, and we should expose the scandalous way in which they are trying to move away from the problem. Insurers who deduct from life insurance but who campaign to say that pleural plaques do not count should be challenged.
Last week, three judges in the Court of Appeal overturned the decision that Mr. Justice Holland made in Manchester in November. He ruled that victims of asbestos pollution could claim on the basis of pleural plaque evidence, and Richard Doll would have supported that. The Court of Appeal decision was dividedtwo of the judges were for it and one was againstand even the chair of the bench, Lord Phillips, said, "Oh well, the court is divided. It will obviously have to be looked at again." So the case moves on to the Lords. We should build a campaign against the Court of Appeal decision in memory of Richard Doll and say that we want it overturning. Lady Justice Smith, who ruled against the appeal, said that Mr. Justice Holland's decision should stand. If we do not campaign against the Court of Appeal decision, but let it stand, the asbestos companiesthe Turner and Newalls and the Federal-Mogulswill wriggle out of their responsibilities, backed by their insurers.
We do not have the detailed figures, but Richard Doll showed where the curve is and we could guess how many people are affected. Asbestos use has stopped, and we can look back over the 50s, 60s and 70s and work out who might be affected 20, 30 or 40 years down the line. The asbestos insurers have done their calculations and have an idea of how much they will have to pay out and they are trying to bring that curve down. That is what this is really about.
We should campaign to say that time is up. We have the scientific evidence, and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has put it in a much wider context. We should not backslide and let the Health and Safety Executive and the insurance companies say, "Well, this is a difficult one. We've done a bit about it. We've stopped it happening in the future. But we won't address the legacy of the past." The victims are being denied justice and we should continue to fight for them.
Jon Cruddas (Dagenham) (Lab): I shall be relatively brief because a few of my colleagues want to speak and several of the points that I wanted to make about the
31 Jan 2006 : Column 11WH
pleural plaques judgment and the policy issues have been made in the three excellent speeches that we have heard. I, too, want to speak against the changes to the licensing regulations that apply to the removal of textured coatings that contain asbestos, such as Artex. Such changes would mean that contractors could manage textured coatings regardless of their experience or qualifications. Unlicensed contractors will not have the training or insurance to ensure that workers, householders and their families are adequately protected against exposure.
By way of background, let me say that the borough that I representBarking and Dagenham in east Londonis one of the country's hotspots for asbestos-related cancers and mesothelioma. According to the Health and Safety Executive report "Mesothelioma mortality in Great Britain: an analysis by geographical area, 19812000" the standardised mortality ratio and the number of deaths in my area are the highest in London and the ninth highest in the country; indeed, for women, the figures are the highest in the country. East London remains a hotspot, partly because of the legacy of the Cape asbestos factory in Barking. The testimonies of the people who worked there are very similar to many others, with the stories about snowballs in the yard and women washing out clothing, and that accounts for the high mesothelioma rates. Such problems are transportable round the country and they are not the product simply of our industrial heritage in the north of England; they exist in this city today. That is an important point.
In Barking and Dagenham, we have set up an asbestos group with the London Hazards Centre, and I was fortunate and privileged enough to chair the first meeting a few months ago. We are working hard on this agenda, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) for his long record of work on this issue, for his expertise and for his tireless campaigning, which is a credit to public representation in this country.
The proposed decreases in safety controls will weaken the protections currently offered to many groups of workers, many of whom are constituents of mine. Many of the policy issues have been covered in previous contributions, however, so I shall just give a simple example. I held a surgery on Friday night in Dagenham, and the 29th case that came through the door was that of Mr. Michael Barclay of Marsh Green road in Dagenham and his mate, Bob Bailey, who are constituents of mine. They are both plumbing and heating fitters in a neighbouring local authority's work force, and I simply want to read a bit of an HSE report about an incident that they logged in 2004. This is Mr. Barclay's testimony:
"I went to the job on 21/06/2004 and identified that a water heater inside the sink unit which was surrounded by suspected asbestos material. Left the job and informed the manager to use an asbestos removal team"
"Manager informed these people and asked them to fax him when they were going to be there so work could be stopped. This didn't happen, on 22/06/2004, a new central heating boiler was to be fitted. Walked into the property to find two men in there, one with a crow bar and another with a hammer who were hitting out the asbestos. They weren't wearing any breathing masks or taking other precautions"
"I left the boiler in the flat and left immediately. I returned to the yard and made an incident report to my manager. The same day, the manager received a clearance certificate from Cavendish Laboratories saying that the property had been air-tested and been given the all clear. On 23/06/2004, at about 10:30AM, myself and my partner, Bob Bailey, arrived at the site with other materials e.g. pipework and radiators. On arrival, there was a plumber at the premises, noticed that the warm air unit that was supposed to be taken out and disposed of was still there. There was lots of dust as well as debris on the floor. Immediately phone my Manager, which is Paul Gibbons and he told us not to touch anything and he attended straight away. He had some sample bags."
He took the bags away, and of four samples, three tested positive within two hours. The job was closed and the locks were sealed. The matter was reported to the services managera safety officer at the boroughand a report was made to the safety manager at the HSE on 30 June.
Mr. Barclay then describes in detail the countless efforts that he has subsequently made to contact the HSE. He has made 13 different formal representations, and there have been representations from his union to find out the details of the HSE report. Mr. Barclay was reliably informed that the HSE
That happened in a regulated part of the building industry in east London, where licensed contractors do local authority work today. That raises several issues, which are applicable to some of the proposed relaxations in the regulations regarding coated materials. First, there is the ease with which people can get clearance statements. Secondly, there is the question of licensed contractors with a lot of work hiring guys with no knowledge of working with asbestos. The people whom Mr. Barclay described had no safety equipment and were just banging the asbestos out with mallets. Thirdly, there is the issue of prevalence. In my area, we have a massive council estate with a long history of asbestos-related incidents, and the problem is dormant in many of our houses, where Artex is used throughout. We seem to be moving in the wrong direction in relaxing the regulations, and all the policy issues that have been raised today demonstrate that.
I shall say nothing more, because my colleagues have covered all the substantive policy issues. I simply make the point that when it comes to the day-to-day realities of work in modern Britain, the problem of asbestos has not been resolved, as Mr. Bailey and his mate have shown. It is a day-to-day hazard, and we should be moving in the opposite direction, not relaxing the regulations covering work in certain industries.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing this important debate. I certainly take the view that there is no more important issue for legislators than protecting the safety of our constituents. All our constituents should be allowed to come home from work at night free from any causes of danger to their lives. I say that as a former shipyard worker who worked with this deadly material. Like many thousands of my
31 Jan 2006 : Column 13WH
colleagues, I live every day with the fear that there is something inside waiting to come out, and that is not a pleasant experience. Having watched some of my former colleagues suffer and die, I know that there is nothing more horrible than to die of an asbestos-related disease. It is not only the victims who are affected but their families, who have to watch them die.
Dr. Gibson : Does my hon. Friend find it ironic that there is a picture in the newspapers today of the Prime Minister having a lung function test? Did my hon. Friend's work mates ever have lung function tests or was the company doctor so tame that even that was too much?
Jim Sheridan : My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. I, too, saw the picture of the Prime Minister in the newspaper. It would not take the colleagues I worked beside in the shipyard long to blow into a tube, because they would not have the breath, but at least we are making progress.
Having worked in the shipyards, I can well remember when the sun would shine into the bilges of the ships. It is not often believed, but there are sunny days in Glasgowthe third Wednesday in May, I think. When the sun shone through we would see the particles and our gaffer would say, "Oh, that's okay, it doesn't affect you. That's all in the insulators"the "white mice" or "laggers", as they were called. "It's only the guys working with that stuff who'll be affected. Don't worry about it, just carry on doing what you're doingyou're fine." People would go home in the belief that their employer knew better than they did. They carried on working, only to find out in later life that that was not the case. Indeed, some of the gaffers and foremen are now dying from mesothelioma as well.
I well remember driving a van for Breville, delivering the insulation to the people who were stripping out the asbestos in the bowels of Lennox Castle hospital. They were six young men, stripping out asbestos with their bare hands and wearing no protective equipment whatever. At the same time, they were eating their chips, as we call themor lunch, as it is called herewith the stuff on their hands. Being the kind of person I am, I raised the issue with the employer on site, only to findsurprise, surprisethat when I got back to the depot my services were no longer required. That is the nature of the beast with such companies.
I have had other unfortunate experiences. Scottish law recently changed. It used to be that when a claimant died, the claim died with him and the family received no compensation whatever. However, I pay tribute to my union, the Transport and General Workers Union, for going to court and getting the law changed. Some of the insurance companies and those representing them had developed a practice whereby they would get the claimant to courtsometimes with great difficulty for that individualand make them face a GP sitting beside a lawyer. The GP would try to judge how long that claimant had to live and a technical reason would then be found to suspend the case in the hope that that person would die before it started again. Those are the kind of people whom we were dealing with, but thankfully the law has been changed, as a direct result of the trade union's action.
31 Jan 2006 : Column 14WH
Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend also aware that the insurance companies are seeking to challenge claims under tort and common law by arguing that an individual who has worked with asbestos over 20 years and in 10 different companies, for example, has to prove which company got the asbestos fibres into their lungs? If they are unable to prove that a specific company is responsible, their claim fails. That is another case of insurance companies and employers trying to wriggle out of their responsibilities.
Jim Sheridan : My hon. Friend makes a perfect point. Trying to get people who have moved between different sites around the country to identify which company is responsible is ridiculous. Often a company will sub-contract a job to another company, so claimants become involved in a paper chase. That is outrageous, and people are losing out. Companies are finding loopholes to avoid facing their responsibilities and paying out compensation.
I do not wish to take up too much time, as others wish to speak, but it would be remiss of me not to mention Clydeside Action On Asbestos, which is a voluntary organisation that does excellent work in the west of Scotland. It is now common practice for its volunteers to wear a black tie every day, because it is guaranteed that there will be a funeral. The group does magnificent work counselling families, giving advice to those who have contracted this horrible disease and offering guidance on some of the legal loopholes.
In concluding, I am extremely concerned that companies are moving out of this country and into developing countries, such as India. I despair to think that in years to come people in underdeveloped countries will suffer from the same horrible disease that people in this country suffered from in the 1950s and 1960sand even todaywhile the employers and the insurance companies walk away scot-free.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Caton, I take your warning on board. I would like to cover ground that has already been covered, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) not only on calling today's debate but on his excellent work over many years, not least with the all-party group on occupational safety and health, which has pushed the issue hard.
When I entered Parliament four years ago I was told not to go looking for causes because they would come to me. Within six months of my becoming an MP, a lady called Ann Howells walked into a surgery in one of the villages in my constituency and tearfully told me about the recent loss of her husband through asbestos-related disease. She explained that she had no support and guidance and that she did not know where to turn. That was the first instance that I had come across and it prompted me to look at the research work and all the matters that have been alluded to, and the issue became a cause for me.
31 Jan 2006 : Column 15WH
Unlike the constituencies of other hon. Members who have spoken so passionately, articulately and knowledgeably, mine is not in a hotspot. In some ways that causes its own difficulties, because the level of support and guidance in relatively remote and rural areas is significantly different from that on Merseyside, Clydeside or wherever there are docklands or a history of heavy industry involving asbestos. However, that does not make the need to support the people affected any less urgent. I am pleased that in south Wales we have established a support group for those who have been affected by asbestos-related diseases, with union support and the help of a firm of lawyers. The group is growing in numbers, and it is surprising how many isolated people come forward once one starts banging the drum on this issue.
I echo support for a national scheme such as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone proposed. If we are staring at the start of a rising bell curve for asbestos-related disease among people exposed 20, 30 or 40 years previously, now is the appropriate time for the Government to consider implementing something similar to the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease scheme, with which many of us are familiar. If we carefully consider such a scheme now, it could be in place before we reach the peak of the bell curve and, in addition to addressing the diseases, could help the worried well. They include the families, who may not have been exposed to heavy industry directly but may have washed the clothes of those who were. We can help them avoid the added trial of taking their cases through the courts one by one in ways that will have the insurers standing against them at every turn. If the Minister is to take one message from my brief contribution, I hope that it is to speak with ministerial colleagues and consider the possibility of introducing a scheme similar to the COPD scheme.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): We have had an excellent debate and I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on having secured the debate. He has demonstrated his long-standing commitment to addressing the issue. He has also, as has been said, managed to secure the debate on the very day on which the Health and Safety Commission consultation ends. That is extremely timely; the random nature of the balloting process for our debates sometimes has a logic of its own.
We have heard good speeches from other hon. Members with a commitment to tackling the issue, including my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), who spoke about the problems in his constituency. The right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) made a passionate speech about compensation, an extremely topical issue that really merits a debate on its own, and which he aired fully. I shall not touch on it now because of the limited time available, but it would repay us to come back to it in future. We also heard about the experiences of the hon. Members for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas), for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), and about some of their work on the issue. I am pleased to see that there is such a strong
31 Jan 2006 : Column 16WH
corps of hon. Members who take the matter seriously and who are determined to follow through their concerns over a long period.
It is tempting for those of us who are not so well informed on the issue as some of the hon. Members who have spoken today to think that the asbestos problem belongs in the past, and that we have got through it. However, the figures that have been cited for new cases and for deaths from mesothelioma demonstrate that we are experiencing the problem now, and that the full cost of the problems caused by asbestos is beginning to show in our health figures. We are dealing with a massive legacy, as a number of speakers have said. The HSC estimates that some 500,000 commercial, industrial and public buildings and the common areas of some 4 million rented residential properties are likely to contain asbestos, so the legacy is enormous.
In the light of the ghastly diseases associated with asbestos, and the concerns that hon. Members have expressed about the way in which certain commercial operators have acted over the years, it is not surprising that there is a lot of emotion about the issue and a great deal of concern about whether commercial interests are influencing the development of legislation and guidelines. However, it is important to make the pointI am sure that the Minister will do so laterthat, although there must be a great deal of concern about the emotional and commercial issues, we are entitled to ask the Health and Safety Commission to base its judgments and guidelines on the evidence.
A number of hon. Members questioned whether the HSC was basing its judgments on the evidence or being swayed by commercial reasoning. In my view it has, on the whole, tried to strike the right balance between excessive regulation and exposing people to unacceptable risk. I take at face value its attempts, in new regulations
Although the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has raised legitimate issues today, we ought to accept at face value the HSC's attempts to strike the right balance. It spelled out what it was seeking to do in a press release dated 18 January, which said:
"The draft package implements changes to the European asbestos worker protection directive and tightens statutory protections for those working with asbestos, by introducing a single, lower control limit for worker exposure".
"The consultation takes into account new research. This research shows that the risk from asbestos-containing textured decorative coatings is comparable to the risks from work with asbestos cement, something that already does not require a licence. It is proposed that work with such textured coatings will no longer require a licence."
The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone is perfectly entitled to raise his concerns. I shall return to them in a moment, and the Minister must address them head on. He is also entitled to say that it is clear that the HSC changed its view over the years, so the situation cannot be regarded as having one obvious solution. The recommendations have changed over time, and we are entitled to ask whether it is right that that should have happened, and what evidence has been used as a basis for change.
"Work with asbestos cement has never required a licence because the risks are relatively low, and below the level to attract a licence. The new research suggests that the risks from work with textured coatings are even lower than the risks from work with asbestos cement."
There is a table showing the predicted deaths over a 50-year period for 500,000 general building workers, working 0.5 per cent. of their time on asbestos-containing materials for 10 years. In that time 0.3 asbestos cement removal workers and 0.1 people working with textured decorative plaster are expected to die. In other words, despite the concerns of the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone about the existing asbestos regulations, the HSCusing its own evidenceconsiders that the product is considerably safer than cement, which does not now require the same degree of regulation. That is why I asked whether the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone believed that cement should be included in the protections and regulations. The logic of his position, surely, is that we should tighten the regulations rather than ease them.
That is the HSC's case, and it is perfectly entitled to it. Its job should be to assess risk, and to make us aware of the types of risk with which we are dealing. There are risks in everything; there are risks in crossing the road. I say that not to be childish or to score points but to illustrate the HSC's job. It has to ensure that people are not subjected to unreasonable levels of risk and that we do not spend a lot of money protecting ourselves from minuscule risks.
That case having been made by the HSC, I hope that the Minister will address some of the concerns about the evidence on which it bases its conclusions, such as those raised by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, who considers that the evidence from trials was secured under unrealistic conditions. He mentioned that controlled conditions with extractive units would not be replicated by untrained workers, and that the research could not be replicated in the real world. Those are legitimate concerns. If the HSC has come to its conclusions on the basis of an utterly unrealistic scenario that would not be faced by real workers in the real world, none of us will be happy and we will not want to expose people to the risks. We understand that perfect conditions are often not reflected in the real world, as the hon. Member for Dagenham said.
As a politician without medical expertise or knowledge of asbestos as a product, I want to know whether the evidence that the HSC has gathered, which
31 Jan 2006 : Column 18WH
seems to be its basis for changing the regulations, is rational and soundly based, or whether the concerns of the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone are legitimate. I congratulate him on having raised the matter, and hope that the Minister will address that particular point.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I, too, thank the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) for bringing this important subject to the attention of the House. Of course, this might well be our only opportunity to rehearse the draft regulations in such circumstances. The hon. Gentleman has a long and honourable record of leading on occupational health matters in the House, and I am pleased to collaborate with him in the all-party group on occupational safety and health. I take seriously the passion and sobriety of the comments made by other hon. Members and the sober, careful and dispassionate analysis developed by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws).
The debate has been useful. It is about a dreadful disease and complex of diseases that are particularly vicious, not only in their intensity and almost inevitable fatality but because they arise through latent effects, often over a long time. Frankly, I have no special expertise on the area, but I have a little more familiarity with some of the policy issues on exposure to ionising radiation, and there are some analogies. Effects can be immediate in such cases, but they typically occur over the long term, leading to cancers and other horrible diseases. However nothing is visible by way of hazard, unless it is mediated and exposed by equipment.
I take the point that there may be cases in which problems have been obvious and should have been dealt with at the time, but that is not typical. In relation to asbestosis there is both an occupational risk for carpenters, joiners, plumbers and so on and a long-term risk of domestic exposure for people in the house afterwards. I agree with the hon. Member for Yeovil that the Health and Safety Commission should approach the matter objectively, partly because of the intensity of the feelings concerned. I certainly do not think that health and safety matters should ever be approached in the House in a partisan spirit. We should start by looking at what is right and build our thoughts from that.
From my own somewhat jaded ministerial experience, I know that in some issues of scientific policy experts will always come with different views and present them within Departments or outside the frame, and that they will comment on departmental decisions, which are ultimately the responsibility of Ministers. Ministers are well advised to take seriously the objective advice that they receive, to ask questions about its quality and, if necessary, to seek further adviceI do not advise that they depart from that. That is the way in which I would expect the Minister to approach the subject.
The difficulties that have emerged from the debate include the nature of risk. Clearly, the HSC must take the lead. It has demonstrated to my satisfaction that, although there is no question but that there is an element of risk, the risk is definitely less than that for other substances. It would normally be the practice in
31 Jan 2006 : Column 19WH
government to set the control level above the point at which there is real concern about occupational health. I remember from my time looking at becquerel counts that the control level is an order of magnitude different from where real danger is likely to arise. It has to be set appropriately, however.
There is also the question of the European directive. The Minister needs to comment on the fact, which I know has concerned some TUC representatives, that there are two tests in the European directivesparsity and low intensity. I take it that that implies two tests rather than merely being tautologous.
We should also remember when considering risk elements that they will vary in particular circumstances. They may depend on the type of coating, the way in which it is placed on the wall, the likelihood of people ingesting it when they remove it, and so on. It is not simply a matter of saying that such things are safe or below the control level; the work has to be seen in context. I am concerned that there is no guarantee that the work will be done to a satisfactory standard by a non-licensed contractor. Indeed, the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) has given examples of what goes wrong and there must be concerns about what happens. At the same time, if the requirements of the regulations are too onerous or inappropriately onerousthis is not an excuse but a statement of factpeople will be more likely to take the law into their own hands, knock the stuff out with a hammer and fly-tip it. I suspect that that is the worst of all possible outcomes. It is also worth saying that there is a general obligation, even if the specific regulations on textured coatings are lifted, for contractors to operate a safe working practice. The difficulty that Ministers are bound to have is that we are not likely to know for 40 years whether what has been done wrongly will have any effect. That is the dilemma.
The long-term effect is real. On the other hand, it is impossible to give a permanent certificate for the status quo in such issues. They must be re-evaluated. Just because something has been restricted in the past is not in itself an argument for restricting it indefinitely if the risks are found to have changed. It is, I think, an argument for caution in making changes. Given the nature of the disease and the facts that have been properly set out by hon. Members from all parties, we cannot simply look for a commercially attractive solution without considering the matter coolly and objectively. It is therefore up to the Minister, based on the advice that she receives from the HSC, to make her own case.
It is important that the Government should be informed by a number of general considerations. First, Ministers need to satisfy themselves that they have a proper understanding of the risks involved. I gather that the HSC is to look againalthough we do not have all the data yetat some of the issues. Those need to be factored into the decision, even if they cannot be factored into the consultation document because the consultation is now closing.
Secondly, even if changes are made in the regulations, I hope that there will be some follow-up. It is right that when the commissionor local authorities acting on its behalfconsiders building work, it should carry out
31 Jan 2006 : Column 20WH
proper monitoring of the activities that are undertaken. It is possible to take tests in buildings after the event and ask, "Was it really cleared? Is it safe for domestic reoccupation?" We should bear in mind, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) said some time ago, the fact that risk tends to arise from the removal of such substances rather than leaving them in place, and it is tremendously disruptive to the activities of schools and families when it is necessary to impose restrictions.
The Government have also got to be readyto steel themselvesto maintain specific controls where they are seen to be appropriate, in the light of any further evidence, and even to reintroduce elements of specific control for particular casesperhaps taking into account the way in which the surfaces are configured or the nature of the anticipated occupational exposure for those removing them. Indeed, in the light of any monitoring that will take place if the regulations are relaxed, it should be possible to consider and, if necessary, to act on any changes that give rise to concern. Again, I emphasise to the Minister that it is not easy to do that. If Ministers do not carefully control the process, something could be let out the consequences of which we may not see for 40 years. That is why she has, rightly, to proceed with caution. If she had any doubts about thatI do not think that she didshe will have no doubts after this debate that there are real concerns. People have been killed, and there is a legacy that we should all be concerned about, whatever our politics, and however much we may have particular commercial or other interests.
We need to get this right. It is a matter that goes far beyond sectional interests. This is one of those occasions when Ministers have to respond frankly to the public concern, look at all the evidence coolly and objectively, be prepared to keep their minds open to any changes that the evidence may bring over time, and do the right thing on behalf of our community and the people who work in it.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing the debate. It has been a thoughtful debate on a very difficult subject, and I congratulate all the hon. Members who have participated. I am aware that there are great concerns about asbestos. They are shared by Members of all parties, as is highlighted by the list of those who have sponsored an early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend.
Asbestos is an emotive issue and feelings run high, not least because of the tragic cases that have arisen, some of which hon. Members have highlighted in this debate. Many of us who represent former industrial areas or areas where there has been a strong mining community come across such cases in our daily activities as Members of Parliament. However, although these are difficult issues, I must stress that the precautions necessary to work with asbestos materials should also be proportionate.
The Health and Safety Commission continues to take the risks from asbestos very seriously. About 3,500 people in Great Britain die every year because of past exposure to
31 Jan 2006 : Column 21WH
asbestos. That has been well illustrated by many hon. Members. Although we all recognise that this is a dreadful legacy, it is important to remember that there is a delay of between 15 and 60 years between exposure to asbestos fibre and the onset of asbestos-related disease. Most of those dying now were exposed to asbestos from the manufacture and installation of asbestos products between the 1950s and 1970s, when exposures were often high due to less stringent control measures. It is estimated that the number of deaths will peak between 2011 and 2015, but those will still in the main be due to past exposures, some of them from decades ago.
Although the current high death rates do not in any way reflect current levels of exposure, it is necessary to retain stringent controls, and asbestos is one of the few substances that has its own set of regulations. Although asbestos is no longer imported or used, asbestos products are still present in many buildingswe have heard some examples this morningthat were constructed or refurbished between the 1950s and the 1980s.
We have heard some horror stories. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) mentioned that schoolchildren used to make snowballs from asbestos; that clearly indicates that there was a time when asbestos was not thought to be the dangerous substance that we now know it to be.
John Battle : I just want to correct that. It was thought to be dangerous in 1936, but the companies concerned would not accept responsibility for what happened in the neighbourhood, although they accepted it for the factories. That is the problem.
Because of the continuing risk from asbestos, the HSC has consulted on proposals that it believes would further strengthen the regulatory protection for workers. Today is the deadline for responses to the HSC's consultation on asbestos regulations. That is a happy coincidenceor perhaps the powers that be have managed to make it happen. It may help to clarify matters if I explain some of the HSC's proposals, but I should emphasise that before the HSC puts any advice before Ministers, it will carefully consider all the comments made during the consultationand, of course, during this debate. Therefore, at this point in time Ministers have before us no proposals or advice from the HSC, and I should notand cannotpre-empt anything that it might say to us.
It is proposed to retain the requirement currently in regulations for those employers who undertake high-risk work with asbestos materials to be licensed by the Health and Safety Executive. It is important to understand the purpose of asbestos licensing. It should not be confused with separate requirements to control work with asbestos, which apply to all work with asbestos.
The example highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) should not happen. Last year, the HSE issued 155 enforcement notices. There are situations in which licences are revoked. That example was horrific, and action should be taken. If my hon. Friend gives me the details of it, we can pursue that.
31 Jan 2006 : Column 22WH
Another important proposed amendment to the legislation would require employers to provide specific training for all workers who are, or who are likely to be, exposed to asbestos fibres. The proposed regulations would specify the training required to enable workers to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills, and although that is already covered in existing guidance, it would in future be a specific legal requirement. That would apply to all work, both licensed and unlicensed; that is an important point. Maintenance workers and others who are likely to encounter and disturb asbestos products during the course of their work will need asbestos awareness training. This requirement is imperative if we are to ensure that workers appreciate the possible risks and are able to use the correct measures sufficiently to reduce those risks. The training requirement would also support the duty to manage asbestos in non-domestic premises introduced into the regulations in 2002.
During the consultation, there has been great focus on a single element in the proposalsthe proposal to remove asbestos-containing textured decorative coating from the licensing regime. I take this opportunity to describe that proposal, and to explain why it has been made by the HSC, andperhapsto allay some of the concerns raised in this debate. The HSC is consulting on the proposal to remove such textured coatings from the licensing regime because recent research and a risk assessment have demonstrated that the risk is very much lower than was previously thought. I appreciate that hon. Memberssuch as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is no longer presentmay challenge that assertion, but that is the current judgment of the HSC. The consultative document includes a summary of the research on the removal of textured coatings and a wider risk assessment, and proposes amendments to the regulations on that basis. The HSE used research undertaken by the Health and Safety Laboratory, along with previous measurements, to calculate the risks to licensed asbestos removal workers from work with various different asbestos-containing materials.
I take on board the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone about the controlled nature of the experiments, which was also reflected in some of the remarks made by Opposition Members. There will be a review of the science, recognising some of the concerns that have been raised; a peer review is currently being undertaken. That will of course be a part of the consultation exercise, and it will also form part of the material that will be taken on board by the HSC commissioners when the report is eventually given to them.
Not all textured decorative coatings contain asbestos. Most such coatings contain chalk and gypsum plaster. In the judgment of the HSEI appreciate that this is a matter of judgmenteven when work to remove textured coatings is carried out poorly and dust is produced, only a very small proportion of that dust is released as asbestos fibres. Work with those textured coatings is currently within the scope of the HSE's licensing regime.
It could be asked why all work with asbestos is not licensed. Asbestos licensing is a regime that is intended to cover the highest-risk asbestos-containing materials. Work with lower-risk materials and certain types of work of short duration are not licensed
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|