Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, can the noble Baroness clarify the question of the value for money on a human life that she quoted from the Department for Transport? The noble Baroness said that it had been doubled. The Department for Transport uses a range of values, as she knows. Some of us may complain about them, but they range from 100,000 for road accidents to 5 million for a rail accident and something like 50 million for signalling. There is an enormous range, and it would help the House if she could say to which figure she referred.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I referred to the figure used in the regulatory impact assessment prepared by the Health and Safety Executive and laid by the Department for Work and Pensions. The figure used in one of the detailed annexes is, as I recall, a little over 1 million, which is the Department for Transport's value. That figure is then doubled.

11.30 a.m.

Lord Walker of Doncaster: My Lords, in his speech, the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, declared an interest and said that he had asbestos in his barns. I have asbestos—on my chest. I do not whether that is a declarable interest.

For most of my adult life, prior to entering Parliament in the 1960s, I worked in industry with asbestos, mostly white asbestos. In the 1960s, when I was a junior Minister, I was much involved in the discussion of the regulations relating to asbestos. The debate so far today has carried echoes of the discussions that we had then, when I was persuaded that we should not legislate as rigorously as we might have done, because the dangers had not been fully assessed. Are we going down that road again? Do some noble Lords seek to take us down it again?

In the discussions on the regulations in the other place, the Minister said:

That is what we are discussing. I am aware of the argument that chrysotile white asbestos is not as dangerous as other forms of asbestos. What cannot be ignored is that, in many applications of white asbestos, it has been mixed with the more dangerous forms—blue or brown—and is, therefore, inseparable. The risks from the more serious kinds are likely to be contained in the mix with the white asbestos.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, for the past 30 years, blue asbestos has been screened at the mine from white asbestos, so it is not mixed.

Lord Walker of Doncaster: My Lords, it would be wise for me to leave the rebuttal of the noble Earl's detailed point to my noble friend the Minister.

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1241

The World Health Organisation said that all asbestos types could cause cancer. In the debate in the other place, a Member quoted from the WHO's recent review of chrysotile asbestos, which states:

    "Exposure to chrysotile asbestos"—

white asbestos—

    "poses increased risks for asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma in a dose dependent manner. No threshold has been identified for carcinogenic risks".

The Government's proposals appear to have widespread backing from industry and commerce. They claim a positive response to the regulations from the CBI, the TUC, the British Property Federation and the Federation of Small Businesses, among many others, including specialists in asbestos application.

Between 1968 and 1998, 50,000 people in the United Kingdom died from asbestos-related diseases. I wonder how many of those people might have been saved if I had rejected the siren voices in the 1960s when we were regulating and not been persuaded to take a different approach. The insidious nature of the afflictions tells us that there will be many more for whom we in this place can do little or nothing. However, we can try to help future generations. We must do something, and the regulations are a belated but welcome contribution to that end.

11.37 a.m.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I had not intended to speak in the debate. I do so only because I suppose that I should declare an interest. My first job in industry was with Universal Asbestos. My secretary, who has worked with me for 40 years, was also in Universal Asbestos. We made most of the asbestos products, and, in the United Kingdom, our main competitor was Turner & Newall. We then became Cape Asbestos. Gradually, we sought to replace asbestos products with others, but your Lordships are in danger of drawing the wrong conclusions: it is not asbestos alone, but the relationship to many lung diseases that causes problems. The best form of legislation on pollution control was the Clean Air Act.

I ask your Lordships to think for a moment about the generation that follows us, which suffers more and more from lung-related problems. Flats must have wooden floors—no carpets—and there are problems with dust and house-mites. I do not wish to promote asbestos, but it was called a "wonder product". When we made asbestos, as it was called—my noble friend Lord Onslow referred mostly to asbestos cement—we would bring in Cape Blue, a fibrous product, the whites and a range of others in an almost open lorry. We would tip it all down a tip, and I would take people round, pick it up and explain how it worked.

Asbestos cement products were highly necessary in the post-war years because of the damage. It was the most economic way of building factory roofs or farm buildings. We poured the asbestos fibre, sorted into its groups, into a slurry into which cement and other products were placed. There was a paper-making process, in which the mixture would go round a drum.

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1242

It would dry and end up as a sheet, which could be moulded on top of forms to make corrugated roofing known as Standard 6, Standard 3 or Canada tile. There was a range of such products, which were well designed and were used, depending on the pitch of the roof, to keep the rain out. It was economic and profitable. It was profitable because it was easy to assemble quickly. Your Lordships will remember that during the war many temporary buildings, known as handcraft huts, were erected. They had single frames without support and they are still in existence today.

There were other important applications because asbestos cement was used everywhere; for example, for drainage and guttering. However, there were more dangerous elements. Asbestos—apart from its ability to be a flexible reinforcing material for the manufacture of sheets or pipes—was used for its fire resistant qualities. Almost every ship built before a certain year will have its steel still covered with sprayed asbestos. We made a product called Seel and I sprayed reinforced steel joists with Seel for fire protection, wearing a simple cotton mask. That was a dangerous activity.

I should declare an interest too. In future, I shall probably, as a pensioner of Universal Asbestos, receive a pension that will allow me to meet the cost of travelling to your Lordships' House about three times per year.

In time, the industry changed its name and the word "asbestos" was dropped because people were worried about the claims. In the past, the farming industry had the problem of farmers' lung. After all, we have two nostrils—we have two of most things—but only one mouth—and many things go into our lungs. I give as a comparison passive smoking.

If I had had the money I would have tried to become a member of Lloyd's and might have had claims against me. In comparison to Europe, the United States and Japan did not have the same requirement to use economic, cheap products for rapid rebuilding after wars. Asbestos is located throughout the United Kingdom and the current regulations for its removal are simple. If one wants to redecorate a house or a flat and asbestos is found, a notification must be given to the local council. A specialist firm will then use filters to remove the asbestos at a cost of approximately 500 per dwelling. However, sprayed asbestos, which is found around many pipes, has often been coated with plaster and painted. Frankly, that is safe until disturbed.

There are reasons to believe that most asbestos cement products, because of the way in which they were assembled, would not, in themselves, be inherently dangerous—the amount of absorption in the lungs is very small indeed. The difficulty of airborne activity is associated with the blue fibres. One of the advantages that the blue fibre had, which is now a disadvantage, is that it could be teased open into more individual components and finer parts. Therefore it provided better insulation and support for manufacturing.

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1243

It would probably be impossible to conduct an audit of the whole of the United Kingdom. But if one could, it might be found that there was hardly a building which was not, in some way or other, linked to asbestos—whether the asbestos be in the ground and linked with other methane, or whatever. My concern is that there is a certain lack of knowledge and wisdom in introducing the regulations. We all support the need to protect people for the future. However, in digging up all the problems of the past, we would eventually raze the United Kingdom to the ground and be trying to establish ourselves in some form of freer territory.

It is worrying when governments, with all the best intentions in the world, seek to provide protection for past events. The economic benefits to this country which were provided by asbestos were considerable. I sit down saying that I believe the Government would be wise to take the recommendations of my noble friend Lady Noakes and produce some form of more reliable information, rather than creating the scares that now go with pathogens and so forth.

I spoke on this matter 40 years ago in your Lordships' House. I was nervous because Lady Summerskill was attacking me as a hereditary Conservative Peer. I say only that when I was a temporary shop steward in the Transport and General Workers' Union, witnessing suffering from asbestosis or pneumoconiosis, I remembered the words of my uncle, Stafford Cripps. There is no political division on this.

I hope that your Lordships realise that it is not the industry against politics. It is not management against worker. I merely ask the Minister to give more information that does not scare the living daylights out of me.

11.45 a.m.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, I want to speak briefly. I should like to ask the Minister a question. I became involved in asbestos—as everyone has been at some stage—when in the 1970s British Rail discovered that all its sleeping compartments were padded with asbestos. They always had been and no one realised the danger. I remember the efforts and lengths that we went to keep the issue quiet. We looked for special ways to deal with it; for example, stripping the asbestos out under water .

Today's knowledge of the danger of asbestos has been around for a long time. As the noble Lord, Lord Walker, said—and if I may say so, in a very impressive speech—the danger is well known. However, I believe that the reason employers are prepared to accept these onerous controls possibly arises from an appeal hearing in your Lordships' House recently when a number of people engaged in a "class action" against their former employers. The Law Lords found in favour of those appellants and, as I understand the position, there is now a potential legal liability on employers who find themselves liable to an action on those grounds. If that is so, it makes clear why employers would not be opposed to these regulations, which, if enforced, will give them some

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1244

protection. What is clear is that a large number of people have died as a result of asbestos and many more will die for the same reason. I was involved on the fringe of this issue with one of the appellants. I read the medical case notes and I am bound to say that it is an extremely unpleasant way of leaving this world.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page