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7.40 p.m.

Lord Howie of Troon rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to end the use of asbestos-based products in the United Kingdom construction industry.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the House will be well aware of my longstanding connection with the construction industry, although in recent years I have been more of a commentator and journalist than a participant on the building site. I hope that after this debate we shall see the end of the use of asbestos materials in the construction industry.

However, I must begin with a confession. Many years ago when I was a young structural engineer in the late 1940s, designing and seeing built industrial buildings of various kinds, we used a great deal of asbestos as cladding material on the roofs and sides of buildings. We thought then that it was a useful construction material. Because we thought it was useful we used it. We did not then realise that it was not only useful but lethal. We now realise how dangerous it is and we wish to see its use brought to an end.

The term "asbestos" refers to a group of fibrous materials which have useful construction qualities. They have high tensile strength; they conduct heat poorly and they are highly fireproof. There are three main forms of asbestos: chrysotile, amosite and crocidolite. These are popularly known as white, blue and brown asbestos respectively. Because of the well-known dangers which they pose, blue and brown asbestos have been banned in the United Kingdom and throughout western Europe for some time. White asbestos, however, is also regarded as a killer by the Health and Safety Executive. The following point is the important part of my

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submission tonight. Nevertheless in 1994, 71,200 tonnes of asbestos cement products were imported to this country, mainly from Canada and South Africa although some came from elsewhere. Those products are used in the construction of new buildings and in the maintenance of existing ones. I am not talking here about asbestos that, historically, is found in situ; I am talking about new asbestos which is being imported to this country and used in the construction industry.

There are four main diseases connected with asbestos. They are not invariably fatal although some of them are, but they are always debilitating. The Health and Safety Executive maintains that asbestos can never be regarded as absolutely safe. The Construction Safety Campaign calculates that 3,500 people are killed by asbestos each year and that those in most danger are in the construction industry. The Institute of Cancer Research has estimated that deaths from asbestos inhalation will triple by the end of the century and might reach 10,000 a year by then. Therefore a clear danger exists. What can be done about it?

Last September the Health and Safety Commission recommended that the Government should extend the European Union's existing ban on asbestos to cover the use of white asbestos as well as blue and brown asbestos, except for a small number of applications where no satisfactory alternative is readily available. Unfortunately that recommendation was not taken up by the Government at the time. In a debate in another place last year the then Government recognised that there was a problem, but they were more concerned with the management of asbestos already in place and in increasing awareness of the danger among construction workers and in the industry. The Minister at the time, James Clappison, said,

    "it is Government policy that asbestos materials that are undamaged and are not releasing fibres should be managed in situ. Materials that are slightly damaged should be repaired and sealed or encapsulated. Only materials that are badly damaged or are likely to be disturbed or damaged should be removed".

No one would argue with that, as far as it goes, but it fails to deal with imported materials. In fact it rather implies that imported materials are safe to be used in schools, other public buildings and private homes, whether they contain asbestos or not. However, these building materials--roof tiles, for example--are easily damaged during transit or installation or in case of fire. Continuing to use them only adds to the problems of management which concerned Mr. Clappison.

There is, however, a management problem in identifying asbestos material imports. On 18th June the rapporteur of a Council of Europe report on asbestos, Tom Cox, MP, stated in another place that his committee was deeply concerned about the inadequate labelling of materials. In the same debate another Member said that the materials coming in from Poland were poorly labelled and that many construction companies were using roofing slates and other materials imported from Poland unaware that they contained asbestos.

The obvious solution is to ban the importation of asbestos materials where suitable alternatives exist. As regards housebuilding, there are suitable alternatives,

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the most obvious of which is slate. It is not only suitable but it is also a much better material for roofing, as anyone with eyes in his head can see. It is more environmentally friendly, as we tend to say nowadays. Of course there are environmental enthusiasts who would quibble at the creation or extension of slate quarries. However, slate quarries are a minor blemish on the environment and their extension is preferable to continued disabilities and deaths.

However, it has been argued in the industry that it would be impractical to impose a ban except over a lengthy period. However, France announced a ban on white asbestos last July which came into effect on 1st January this year. The manufacturers of asbestos products were able to shift to other materials without great difficulty. If it can be done in France I rather imagine that it can probably be done here too.

Of course asbestos imports cannot be stopped entirely. They are needed, for example, in the motor industry for brake linings and other such things. However, I am talking tonight about the construction industry where the materials are still used. But asbestos is not needed in construction. I wonder whether the new Government will bring a ray of light to this matter. I notice that last October Frank Dobson, who was then an environment spokesman, demanded a ban on hazardous asbestos products such as roof slates. He also wanted tougher penalties on businesses which expose workers to dangerous asbestos, and more activity by the Health and Safety Executive in identifying and eradicating dangerous asbestos. Those are brave and bold words. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that the time has now come to deliver.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, we all owe a debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Howie of Troon for introducing the debate on this most important subject. As he described, asbestos is dangerous. It has been a known danger for many years. We recognise that responsible people have tackled the problem in a number of different ways. I give one example from Manchester City Council. As early as 1983 it adopted a policy to deal with asbestos in council premises. In 1984 it set up a dedicated asbestos removal unit within the direct works department which provides a service for all council buildings in which asbestos is a problem.

At its annual conference recently, the MSF Union unanimously passed a resolution calling for the total banning of asbestos. The motion was moved eloquently by a member of the union whose branch is involved in the construction industry. He told us harrowing tales of numbers of his branch members dying as a result of asbestosis.

In preparing for the debate, I was absolutely shocked to discover that asbestos roof tiles are still being marketed and sold in this country. We need to recognise the vulnerability of people who suffer ill health and death from asbestos. That does not extend only to building workers but to people in buildings where asbestos is loose. As my noble friend pointed out,

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asbestos is also used in other areas. I highlight the automotive industry, where it can be used in brake, clutch and gasket linings.

I have to advise my noble friend that the requirement for asbestos in the automotive industry is no longer necessary. There are alternatives; and new design techniques can ensure that all new automotive products can be built without the need for asbestos.

Lord Howie of Troon: My Lords, I am happy to agree with my noble friend, as I often do. But he has overlooked the fact that in this country a substantial number of older cars, including my own, require asbestos. He is right regarding new cars, but the problem with older cars exists.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I take the point my noble friend makes. I shall come back to it later.

However, if there were a total ban on asbestos I am sure that modern engineering technology could develop alternative products that would fit the older motor cars to which my noble friend refers. I believe that that is now within the technical capability of the industry.

We need to recognise the realities of life. My noble friend mentioned that older motor cars have used asbestos for brake and clutch linings. I, too, have had cars of that generation. The position is almost worse than he suggests. I used to do my own maintenance-- I still do--on old and decrepit motor cars. In order to keep brake and clutch linings going beyond their normal life, you can knock out with a wire brush the glazing that sometimes occurs. That is probably one of the worst things you can do with an asbestos product. It generates particles.

Many years ago a friend of mine was demolishing his garage which had an asbestos tiled roof. He asked me whether I wanted anything from the garage he was demolishing. I thanked him; and we took off all the asbestos tiles. I spent many happy hours brushing off the tiles with a wire brush to make them suitable for reuse. Again, that was probably a horrendous thing to do with asbestos tiles.

I give those two examples in order to articulate the realities of people's lives, in particular, if I may so put it, at the bottom end of economic activity. If people are poor they cannot afford new parts and have to make do and mend. There will be practices that experts would frown upon and think are horrendous. We need to realise that these activities go on. Those realities form part of the argument that I put forward for a total ban so that eventually the risk of inhalation of asbestos dust leading to illness is eradicated.

My noble friend referred to the fact that France has banned asbestos products. He deployed the argument that we should ban asbestos products in the building industry. I agree with that. I argue that we need a total ban on asbestos in this country. But we need to think in terms of the European dimension. We have supposedly a single market with free movement of products. So we need to recognise that there is a need for a total ban across Europe on asbestos. If we say that such a ban is good for Europe, surely we should argue on the

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worldwide stage that asbestos should not be used in future. In doing so, we need to recognise the damage that can occur to people involved in mining asbestos and in producing asbestos-based products. People in the supply chain also suffer quite significantly.

In arguing that we should stop the production, manufacture and distribution of asbestos worldwide, we must also recognise that alternative employment and economic activity will be required for those involved in the asbestos industry. I hope that my noble friend does not mind my widening the terms of his debate. It is an important subject. I am sure that my noble friend on the Front Bench who will wind up will not be able to say, "Yes, yes, yes", to all that I have suggested, but I hope that the Government will bear these points in mind.

7.58 p.m.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I do not intend to take up a great deal of the House's time. I am anxious to listen to the Minister on this subject. However, I believe that the debate has become a little confused about the types of asbestos. I do not pretend to the technical knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Howie. However, my impression is that there are two types of asbestos which one might call unacceptable--the blue and the brown--and the white which merely qualifies as undesirable and which it would be nice to replace. If one had had the sense not to call all three "asbestos", for some earlier convenience, and were to rename the white "Howie-ite", everyone would love it.

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