5 Dec 2002 : Column 1233

House of Lords

Thursday, 5th December 2002.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Peterborough.

Message from the Queen

Lord Luce: My Lords, I have the honour to present to your Lordships a message from Her Majesty the Queen signed by her own hand. The message is as follows:

    "I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament".

Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]

11.6 a.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton : My Lords, on behalf of my noble and learned friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, I beg to introduce a Bill to make provision about policing in Northern Ireland and the exercise of police powers in Northern Ireland by persons who are not police officers, and to amend the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

Licensing Bill [HL]

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to which the Licensing Bill [HL] has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

Clause 1, Schedules 1 and 2, Clauses 2 to 4, Clause 177, Clauses 5 to 8, Schedule 3, Clauses 9 to 111, Schedule 4, Clauses 112 to 176, Schedule 5, Clauses 178 to 196, Schedules 6 to 8.—(Baroness Blackstone.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1234

Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002

11.8 a.m.

The Earl of Onslow rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations, laid before the House on 31st October, be annulled (S.I. 2002/2675).

The noble Earl said: My Lords, first I must declare an interest. I am a name at Lloyds and have been clobbered, and I have some asbestos barns at home. I would not have dreamt of raising the subject on either of those counts in your Lordships' House. I raise it because I am genuinely worried about the costs, about the science, and about one or two other related issues on which I shall address your Lordships.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to the Minister who, yesterday, took much time out of a busy day to receive me in her office. She and her officials were helpful and kind. I did not necessarily agree with what she said, but with justification she said that I did a small "bounce" on her. I shall not tell your Lordships the nature of the "bounce", but I believe that she will agree that it was only a rather small, cuddly, bouncy, woolly, toy playball.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, we would all agree that the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, is a teddy bear in disguise.

The Earl of Onslow: President Roosevelt produced the teddy bear.

It is said that the regulations are introduced to stop 4,700 deaths over the next century. That is one death every 10 days or less than two-thirds of 1 per cent of the total death toll. I do not believe that a statistic like that can be regarded as a statistic, especially as, at the moment, the government death book attributes to mesothelioma only 250 deaths a year, mostly among those born before 1940 and the number is falling.

It is perfectly reasonable to say that the figure is probably an underestimate. Even if 600 deaths a year were to be treated as an underestimate, that does not coincide with the figure for asbestos-related deaths given by the Government of 3,000 to 4,000 a year. Those figures came from Dr Julian Peto, whose study was reasonably well rubbished by Dr Gibbs and Professor Pooley in what I believe would be regarded as peer review in the scientific world. There is some evidence that the Government have ignored that. However, the figures are central to the Government's case.

Yesterday in the Minister's office we went through the matter at considerable length. She and her officials tried to persuade me. I hope that your Lordships know me well enough to understand that if I had been persuaded that what the Government are doing now is correct, I would have withdrawn my Motion, regardless of any embarrassment that may have been caused or whatever mud had stuck on my face. I would have been prepared to say that I was wrong. However,

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1235

I agree with the Government that if only 1.5 billion over 50 years is required to keep everyone quiet, that is peanuts and does not matter. I shall turn to the cost issue later.

I hope your Lordships will bear a little science lecture from someone who studied no science even at GCSE, which in my day—in the year of the coronation—I believe was called school certificate. I have had to sap up on the matter, but I believe that I am reasonably well informed.

Blue and brown asbestos are iron silicate, very nasty and non-water soluble. White asbestos is magnesium silicate. Magnesium is water-soluble and the fibres themselves dissolve. Everyday we breathe in 20,000 of them because it is all around us. The place is wall-to-wall white asbestos fibres, even though we cannot see them.

Yesterday's claims on ratio danger for asbestos were that blue was a factor of 500; brown was a factor of three; and white was a factor of one. If that is correct, why do the regulations in the fibre rules state that white asbestos fibre tolerability is only two-thirds that of the blue and the brown? That kind of figure does not make sense to me.

The next point is that if these deaths are all caused by asbestos, why have there been no deaths caused in the white asbestos mines? There have been no recorded incidents of death caused by white asbestos. The HSE in some evidence to the World Health Organisation quoted the Meldrum report. That report said that there is,

    "no reliable evidence to associate mesothelioma with white asbestos".

The Government's own agency said that. If that is the case, and the HSE are saying something different now, either the Government must show that Meldrum was wrong or they must say that he is right. If he is right, do we really need these regulations and their associated costs?

When the Americans introduced similar regulations the matter was taken to court. There is a quote from the judge that has been thrown about quite frequently; I suppose it is because it is quite a good quote and well worth repeating. When throwing out the regulations, the judge said:

    "More Americans will die of inhaling a toothpick than they will of inhaling white asbestos".

It is not as though the Americans are not frightened of diseases; they reach for their lawyers at the drop of a hat. Even now we are a race of anarchists compared to how the Americans reach for their lawyers.

Furthermore, when the Twin Towers were hit, 40 tonnes of white asbestos were released into the atmosphere. Everyone screamed, "Panic". The Environmental Protection Agency, when told that the measurements were well above existing safety levels said: "We know, but there is not any real risk to the public".

I shall now give a little lecture on trans-substantiation. The reason that I use trans-substantiation means that I can quote the Council of

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1236

Nicea, which gets above the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who is bound to quote the Long Parliament or the Rump Parliament. But what happens with white asbestos is that the magnesium silicate that goes into the cement then becomes calcium silicate. One could say that white cement is not covered by the regulations as they stand. Calcium silicate is called Wollastonite. Wollastonite is absolutely safe. I have a piece of paper from someone with authority who tells me that. I have not read it yet, but that is what I am told it says. No one has in any way argued against that point. So we have this trans-substantiation. It is not homoiousian; it is homoousian. It becomes completely different. So there is no real danger.

I turn to the next hole in the regulations. The regulations do not cover the third of water mains that are made of blue asbestos piping. One cannot have it both ways: to cover harmless white asbestos roof sheeting on the one hand and, on the other, not to cover what could be—but some would say is not—the blue stuff, which everyone says is dangerous, underground. The argument will be, "Oh, well, it is not going to be disturbed". It is not going to be disturbed; no one is talking about disturbing anything, but we are talking about making a survey of it. Therefore, if one surveys what is on someone's roof or in someone's wall, which is not going to be disturbed, one should survey the blue piping underground. There can be no difference in that argument.

Finally, I turn to the subject of costs. The TUC is reputed to have said that the provisions would cost 80 billion. I do not have any authority for stating that figure, but it has been bandied about. There is, however, a figure from the Health and Safety Executive. It first said 8 billion. In a letter to John Bercow on 22nd October, Mr Nicholas Brown said that the cost would be 3 billion. Yesterday, the cost was stated as being 1.5 billion. Will it tomorrow be one and tuppence? As far back as Edward III's Windsor Castle, government costs have overrun. The building of these Houses of Parliament cost twice or three times the budget. The cost of groundnuts in Tanganyika went all over the place. Nimrod aeroplanes cost miles in excess of their budget. It would be unkind and tactless of me to mention the Dome, but I am tempted to be mildly unkind and tactless.

The United Kingdom representative to Members of the European Parliament—I think that he goes by the unfortunate name of UKREP, which is quite disgusting—briefed MEPs on 2nd May, stating:

    "There is strong evidence that both the EC directives and the HSE regulations on this issue are all based on flawed science".

There have been times when established science has been proved wrong and been overthrown. Questions should be asked. Let us think about the Lying-in Hospital in Vienna. Semmelweis says, "Everyone must wash their hands, because that will stop puerperal fever". All the established scientists said no, but he was proved right. Thirty or 40 years ago, we treated mental illness with lobotomies and electric shock treatment. We do not now, because the established science of the time was criticised.

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1237

I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that there is a case for scientific query. More than anyone else, because she is an academic, she knows that on occasion, we must think outside the box—as the dreadful modern cliche has it. I beg her to think outside the box and say, peradventure, "My advice may not be accurate—although I completely concede that honest and good men have given it". She is an academic, and I have seen her chew up the late Lord Mackay—admittedly, with the help of the redoubtable Lady Young. Those of us on Lord Mackay's side of the House listened and accepted what she said because she won her intellectual argument. That is the ground on which I beg the Government to look outside the box and think again, scientifically. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations, laid before the House on 31st October, be annulled (S.I. 2002/2675).—(The Earl of Onslow.)

11.22 a.m.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Onslow for bringing the regulations to the House's attention. I shall speak in support of my noble friend's Prayer and, with leave, also to the separate Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I apologise to noble Lords for the lateness with which the Motion appeared. Noble Lords may well be aware that the statutory instrument itself was not available in the Printed Paper Office until last Thursday afternoon. Any noble Lords who tried to find the regulatory impact assessment will have found that the copies deposited in the Libraries of both Houses were copied only on the odd sides of the page. I received a full copy only at the weekend.

For the record, I declare an interest as the director of a company that has received a number of asbestos-related claims. I also state for the record that I have neither sought nor received any advice or opinion from that company for the purposes of today's debate.

It is the duty of those of us on these Benches to remind Ministers of the regulatory burdens that the Government impose on British industry. The Confederation of British Industry estimates that the Government have added 47 billion to British industry's costs since 1997; the British Chambers of Commerce calculates the regulatory burden alone at 16 billion. That represents a serious drain on the productive capacity of this country, and accounts in no small measure for the faltering economy to which the Chancellor had to own up in his recent Pre-Budget Report.

The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations seem to be competing for some kind of prize for imposing burdens on business. Of course, they do not rival the 5 billion annual pensions raid, with which the Minister will be familiar. Indeed, the Minister's department seems to be the home for business burdens and might better be named the burdens on work and pensions department.

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1238

The cost involved in the regulations is unclear. Less than a year ago, the Health and Safety Executive said that the cost was 8 billion or 5 billion. Now, magically, it is 3 billion or 1.5 billion. Whatever the costs are, they are spread over several years, but they have significant front-end loading, with the first few years bearing the main burden. Many have been concerned that the cost estimates produced will prove to be significant underestimates for both industry and the wider economy, which may well be affected by the regulations.

Against those costs, the Government set the value of the benefits in terms of the value of preventing fatalities. The assumptions underlying those calculations are contentious and significantly weight the answer in favour of the benefits outweighing the costs. For example, the calculations use a Department for Transport figure for the value of preventing a fatality, itself a controversial topic, and then arbitrarily double it.

Those detailed calculations are important, but the heart of the issue is whether the scientific evidence supports the regulations. No one on these Benches objects to regulations aimed at harmful substances—provided, of course, that they are supported by the scientific evidence and are proportionate.

The regulations treat white asbestos in much the same way as blue or brown asbestos. That is where the scientific evidence is worrying. I am no scientist, but my noble friend Lord Onslow has already made a powerful case that the scientific evidence on which the Government rely is at best arguable and at worst downright wrong. In that light, the calculation of costs and benefits may well be incorrect and the regulations disproportionate.

My noble friend explained that white asbestos is chemically entirely different from brown and blue asbestos. However, the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive—I shall probably refer to them interchangeably and incorrectly—have demonised white asbestos in much the same way as the very different brown and blue asbestos. There is compelling evidence for the latter's involvement in mesothelioma and lung cancer. As my noble friend said, white asbestos is a naturally occurring fibre that we inhale in quite large quantities every day. It can be harmful in excess, as can many substances, but there is no credible evidence of harm from ordinary exposure that would justify the full force of the regulations. I understand that there is no evidence that white asbestos is dangerous once encapsulated in cement—which accounts for most of its use in this country.

It is difficult to understand how an organisation such as the Health and Safety Commission, which is usually regarded as sensible, could have found itself waging a jihad against white asbestos. It appears to date back to a study by Dr Julian Peto in 1985, to which my noble friend referred. As my noble friend described, that study has been undermined by later work by Dr Gibbs and Professor Pooley—work commissioned by the Health and Safety Commission but then ignored by it.

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1239

The Health and Safety Commission has already achieved a ban on white asbestos in new products. That ban, achieved in 1999, was well ahead of the European requirements, and the UK supported the European directive—despite the fact, as my noble friend pointed out, that UKREP warned that there was strong evidence that both the EC directives and the HSC regulations on the matter were based on flawed research. It probably also warned that Europe was out of step with both the United States and Japan, which have reached completely different conclusions about white asbestos, based on detailed scientific examinations. The Government are now going beyond a ban on new white asbestos products with these new onerous and extensive regulations that attack existing white asbestos.

It is my understanding that there is no evidence to link white asbestos to any deaths. The Health and Safety Executive's regulatory impact assessment, which uses a figure of around 4,700 avoided deaths to justify the regulations, appears to calculate the impact of blue, brown and white asbestos without distinction. However, if some of those deaths have been incorrectly attributed to white asbestos, the cost-benefit case for the regulations could fall down.

I said that I was neither a scientist nor a statistician, but I read the regulatory impact assessment. Noble Lords who have read it will know that it is complex and requires expertise—certainly beyond mine—to be understood fully. For all those reasons, my Motion proposes that the Government set up an independent scientific inquiry to examine the scientific evidence relating to white asbestos that underlies the regulations. I am aware that the Government generally prefer not to set up independent inquiries and rely instead on their own scientific advice. We saw that in the case of foot and mouth disease, and I hope that that experience will have taught the Government the value of the objectivity that independent examinations can bring. My Motion does not ask the Government to withdraw the regulations; it is not a fatal Motion. It does, however, ask the Government to set up an independent inquiry, to consider the regulations in the light of its findings within one year and to report to Parliament at that stage.

I expect that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, will say that the Confederation of British Industry, the National Farmers Union and other trade bodies have accepted the regulations. I am puzzled as to why British industry has not challenged them. According to my research, most of the representative bodies seem to have taken the scientific opinions of the Health and Safety Commission at face value and have concentrated only on implementation issues. In particular, the NFU, which should have been concerned about the science because of the prevalence of white asbestos in farm buildings, has meekly accepted the HSC's assertions about the medical risks from asbestos. The HSC may well be proved right, but

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1240

I believe that there is sufficient doubt about the science to warrant an independent scientific inquiry. I hope that the Minister will agree to my Motion.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page