Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002

– in the House of Lords at 11:08 am on 5th December 2002.

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Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative 11:08 am, 5th December 2002

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).

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

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.

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

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, 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 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.

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.)

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative 11:22 am, 5th December 2002

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.

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.

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 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.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

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.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

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.

Photo of Lord Walker of Doncaster Lord Walker of Doncaster Labour 11:30 am, 5th December 2002

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:

"Asbestos is the most serious occupational health problem in terms of fatal disease that the country faces."—[Official Report, Commons, 24/10/02; col. 481.]

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.

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

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

Photo of Lord Walker of Doncaster Lord Walker of Doncaster Labour

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.

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.

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 11:37 am, 5th December 2002

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. 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.

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.

Photo of Lord Marsh Lord Marsh Crossbench 11:45 am, 5th December 2002

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 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.

Noble Lords:

Cross Benches!

Photo of Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Labour 11:47 am, 5th December 2002

My Lords, my speech is not a teach-in on asbestos. I am speaking from knowledge gleaned from previous work in my trade union, Amicus, and through the Health and Safety Commission on which I served for six years. Therefore, I declare an interest.

The TUC has been mentioned. It acknowledges that white asbestos is not as harmful as blue or brown asbestos. However, it is a category one carcinogen and that means that it kills. The World Trade Organisation believes that it kills. The European Union has banned white asbestos as a killer. The International Agency for Research into Cancer believes that it kills. Surely, such important bodies cannot be ignored.

I shall not trade numbers today because that is a futile exercise. We all search for, and quote, statistics that prove our case. However, there are statistics on both sides. For me one death at work is one death too many. I know that others on this side of the House agree. There have been thousands, not a few, directly relating to asbestos over the years, and there will be more.

I am disappointed to see these Motions on the agenda. I do not believe that there is any need for an independent scientific inquiry. The regulations are about life and death. Asbestos produces deadly dust and fibres, as has already been said. It produces terminal cancer and takes lives. It affects the lives of all those who know asbestos victims; and that is what they are—victims.

As we sit in these glorious surroundings, our working environment, it is difficult to visualise the kind of working environments which create such illnesses. However, they exist for thousands of working people in this country today. The regulations that we are discussing today are not opposed by the most relevant employers' organisations, including the CBI—and the CBI is very vigilant on these issues. The chief executive of the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA), Mr Terry Jago, not only does not oppose them, but he positively welcomes them. The Asbestos Removal Contractors Association represents licensed contractors and accredited laboratories. It works closely with the HSE on the subject of asbestos and the issues of health surrounding it. The association has concentrated on improving standards for dealing with asbestos, its main aim being to ensure that asbestos is dealt with safely and that it is effectively managed. That is exactly what these regulations do. The ARCA believes firmly that the regulations spread best practice and that, as such, they will target the minority of businesses which currently fail to manage asbestos properly and show them ways to improve.

The regulations will help construction workers and their management to identify in advance where there is asbestos in a building. This will protect workers from being inadvertently exposed to any form of asbestos and will allow suitable precautions to be taken where any activities relating to the construction of a workplace are being carried out.

There have been complaints in some quarters in relation to the consultation process carried out in relation to these regulations. I can tell your Lordships' House that the ARCA is full of praise for the full and comprehensive consultation process which has been undertaken. So is the CBI and so is the TUC. "Full and comprehensive"—their words, not mine.

I am sure that some will accuse me today of over-reaction on this issue. Throughout the history of controls on asbestos, unions and trade unionists have been accused of scaremongering and exaggerating the dangers. Such accusations have always been proved wrong. If anything, the controls have been too cautious, too limited and too late.

During my time on the Health and Safety Commission I was only too well aware of what asbestos can do and does do to workers. As my noble friend said, asbestos is the greatest work-related health problem ever experienced in the UK. Three thousand people die each year as a result of asbestos-related diseases. As we sit here prevaricating, workers out there are inhaling the materials which will eventually kill them.

The workers that I am talking about are not as pampered in their working conditions as we are in this House. Not for them leather seats; not for them a heated Chamber or kind ushers to assist them. Workers who come into contact with asbestos put their lives on the line every day—their lives, not ours—and we have a responsibility and a major duty to those workers to pass these regulations as quickly as we can.

Photo of Lord Peyton of Yeovil Lord Peyton of Yeovil Conservative 11:53 am, 5th December 2002

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness, who spoke with reference to her own experience with the Health and Safety Commission, will not leave your Lordships' House today with the impression that those of us who disagree with her do so on the question of whether or not asbestos is dangerous and whether those who work in its neighbourhood should be protected from it. There is no challenge on that at all. All that some of us are trying to say today, as I understand it, is that we wish to be sure of the science and that the science is correct. The noble Baroness and those who feel like her have simply got to accept that every now and again government scientists, and scientists serving executive commissions such as the Health and Safety Commission, can be wrong.

They also can be extremely unconcerned with the effects of what they do. The temptation for those who possess power to use it is very real. They do not always think in terms of the unnecessary and avoidable costs in which their rulings may result. That is all that we are saying.

I would remind the Government that in Bill after Bill nowadays there are clauses giving Secretaries of State and Ministers more and more powers to do this, that and the other, and that sometimes those powers are used unwisely, oppressively and without proper care. My fear, which was awakened during the recent foot and mouth outbreak, is that government scientists find it all too easy, instead of making sure of what is the science, to give advice to Ministers, and that gives those Ministers' policies the garments of scientific respectability. That is what worries me.

As my noble friend on the Front Bench said, I wish only to be clear as to what is the science. I am not arguing at all about the menace of asbestos.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench 11:54 am, 5th December 2002

My Lords, these are very important issues. The whole asbestos story in relation to mesothelioma has been confusing over the years, with justified worry about the increasing number of cases of mesothelioma, awareness of the large amounts of asbestos in place in buildings and the profitable industry of asbestos removal. However, there have been some important studies in the past few years—particularly from Canadian millers and miners—which have shed light on the wide misinterpretation that may have occurred of previous data on risk.

I declare an interest in that one of the research centres in the UK on the topic of asbestos and mesothelioma is my own university, the University of Wales College of Medicine, and its partner, Cardiff University.

Mesothelioma is a horrid type of cancer which does not respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy and often causes severe pain. I have looked after patients with this disease, who are often young. Their tumours have been histologically diagnosed by Dr Gibbs, whose name has been mentioned already in the debate.

There are two families of asbestos. The first is serpentine asbestos, which is chrysotile or "white" asbestos. As the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said, these fibres are ubiquitous. They are everywhere in the atmosphere and have been so probably for millions of years. They are even found in samples of Antarctic ice. These short-coiled fibres are cleared from the lung relatively rapidly within a few weeks of being inhaled. From extensive studies in Canada and South Africa, the evidence is not there that they per se cause mesothelioma. These are the fibres found in artex ceilings and concrete. The fibres are locked in to these surfaces and are not released when in situ. As white asbestos may not itself cause mesothelioma, disturbing it and releasing the dust of the fibres into the air when it is removed may cause more problems than leaving it in place.

Fibres in the second group are very nasty. These are the amphibole mineral group of fibres, which are the commercial forms of "blue" or crocidolite and "brown" or amosite asbestos. The other fibre, tremolite, has not been used commercially but has been of significance in the studies to which I have referred because it is a contaminant of the white asbestos mined in Quebec in Canada. These amphibole mineral fibres are long, straight fibres which stick in the lung when they are inhaled and persist there for many years. They are the fibres that cause asbestosis and can sit in the lung until mesothelioma develops.

These fibres are found in lagging around pipes and have been used in specialised insulation as they are chemically resistant to acids. Brown asbestos has also been used in some building products, as has blue asbestos to a lesser extent. Most is hidden away and is not accessible except to maintenance men and firemen. Where it is present, it should be encased because when its removal is attempted the atmospheric fibre count in a building goes up dramatically. Whatever precautions are taken, these levels do not appear to settle back for many years. The Health and Safety Executive has data showing this.

The problem with Section 2 of the statutory instrument is that it does not adequately differentiate between the levels of chrysotile fibres, which are of less concern, and the permissible levels of other forms of asbestos—those in the amphibole group—which are either present on their own or in mixtures.

Perhaps I may briefly explain some of the research findings as I understand them. The Quebec asbestos miners and millers were mining white asbestos. They were found to have an elevated incidence of mesothelioma, but this was less than 30 cases among a workforce of over 10,000 people with very high levels of exposure. By contrast, in the South African amphibole miners, mining brown and blue asbestos, the relative incidence was ten-fold higher.

Analysis of the fibres found in the lungs of miners in Quebec showed that those who had a high level of tremolite fibres—the contaminants—were the ones who went on to develop mesothelioma. The tremolite was the contaminant; it does not appear that it was the white asbestos (chrysotile) fibres themselves that were linked with the tumours.

Not all white (chrysotile) asbestos is contaminated with tremolite; it is not found in the lungs of those exposed except in the workers exposed in the Quebec fields, where there are high levels of contamination. These workers were exposed at levels of at least 1,000 fibre cc years, whereas the standard in Europe for fibre exposure works out at about a lifetime exposure of 4 fibre cc years.

To put this in context, the background level of asbestos fibres, of which nearly all the fibres are chrysotile or white asbestos, in buildings in the UK is generally 0.001 fibres/cc or less, which is similar to levels measured in the street.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency advised the government to introduce a ban on chrysotile, but this was overturned in the courts on the grounds that there was insufficient scientific evidence to support the disease potential of chrysotile asbestos. The scientific evidence is such that there is now a "chrysotile defence" mounted in the US in cases of litigation.

A recent study from the Health and Safety Executive has shown that the potencies of the other fibres to cause mesothelioma is much greater. Chrysotile fibres in the Quebec workers, contaminated with tremolite, have a potency of 1, compared with amosite—brown asbestos—which has a potency of 100, and blue asbestos, which has a potency of 500. The potency of tremolite-free white asbestos is probably far below a relative risk of 1.

The situation may be further complicated by recent suggestions from research that the risk of developing mesothelioma is also linked to the presence in the patient of Simian Virus 40, which seems to predispose to tumour development.

This is a very complex picture. The scientific literature on the relationship between chrysotile (white asbestos) per se and asbestos-related disease is not conclusive. It is clearly there for the other forms of asbestos. The important problem of Simian Virus 40 in causing malignancy must also be considered and further researched.

This issue must remain under scientific scrutiny as the data are complex. I seek reassurance from the Minister that such revision of regulations can occur as and when other information comes to light. I understand that the Government must take a precautionary view, but they must not replace one risk with another, which may be greater, from alternative materials to pure white asbestos or from disturbing fibres which are in place.

Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour 12:04 pm, 5th December 2002

My Lords, I am puzzled by the trepidation of noble Lords opposite over these regulations. I had something to do with asbestos signs and controls when I was in charge of epidemiological planning in the Health and Safety Executive.

I should just like to add one extra point to the expert speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. We knew in the HSE that excess exposure to white asbestos (chrysotile) caused a large incidence of the crippling lung disease, asbestosis—which is not a cancer. If noble Lords could visit a sufferer from asbestosis trying to breathe or even walk across a room, I do not believe that they would think it was harmless. Surely, it is welcome that the European Union has adopted directives which these regulations implement and welcome that UK protection will be increased.

Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative 12:05 pm, 5th December 2002

My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer who may be affected by the regulations. I had not heard of them until last Thursday, when my noble friend Lord Onslow told me about them. I tried to obtain a copy from the Printed Paper Office. None was available; however, the PPO very efficiently obtained a copy for me quite quickly.

My main point relates to the process of scrutiny of these important elements of legislation. Statutory instruments are just as much legislation as anything else. Effectively, this a major Bill—in the sense that it will result in considerable cost. The estimates of the cost are uncertain but they appear to be anything above £1 billion. To impose on industry a cost of £1 billion without extremely good reasons would seem to be contrary to the Government's overall policy of reducing the burdens on industry in such a way as to enable British industry to be more effective, more efficient, more competitive and more profitable so that it can contribute to more employment and contribute, in the form of taxation on profits, to the national economy. Therefore, it is important to realise that the principle of proportionality is exceedingly relevant to this piece of legislation.

We know that the scrutiny of secondary legislation is inadequate. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, of which I was once a member, is purely concerned with vires; it is not concerned with merits or sustainability of proposals put forward in statutory instruments. I know that the House is now considering better ways of applying that kind of scrutiny. This is a very good example of where a better way is needed.

In primary legislation, the House of Commons, sadly, has abandoned to a large extent the proper process of scrutiny and this House is acting as an extremely effective long-stop in those matters. But when it comes to secondary legislation such as this, it is no less important.

I was fascinated by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. Frankly, it illustrates—this is no criticism of another place—that there is no way in which the expert opinion that we have just heard would be obtainable in another place. Those sorts of people do not get that sort of experience if they spend a lifetime in politics. It is a very good example, and one that I hope will be remembered, of the merits of the sort of people who are in your Lordships' House.

My point is that questions have been raised on accuracy and on the justification for this particular statutory instrument. It is 15 pages long. I have waded through it and I am not very much the wiser. I shall not dream of getting involved in the scientific discussion on the comparison between white and other types of asbestos. I merely note that experts have very different opinions.

I remind the House of the dictum of my noble friend Lady Thatcher that it is for officials to advise and for Ministers to decide. I question whether there was a proper, carefully considered ministerial decision. I should be interested to know, when the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, replies, when she first read through this statutory instrument. This is no criticism of her, but I suspect that it appeared in her box at a fairly late stage and I am sure that she devoted such time as she had to understanding it.

I remember the late Ernest Marples saying to me that the only way he felt he could do his job as a Minister properly was to say to his officials: "Look I shall do my boxes between 6.30 and 8.30 in the morning, and it is up to you to ensure that what I need to make a judgment on is in those boxes. It is no use filling my boxes in the 'Yes, Minister' way to prevent me making the right decisions". My question is whether there has been a proper ministerial decision on a matter of considerable magnitude in terms of potential costs. I am sure that legislation on asbestos is needed and we should all support any necessary legislation. But all my noble friend Lady Noakes is asking, as I understand it, is that there should be further consideration of the merits of this particular statutory instrument. I should find it hard to believe that the Government should resist that.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, can he add to his remark that there is nothing in the Motion to delay the implementation of the regulations, and that the protection will be there?

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour 12:10 pm, 5th December 2002

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the MSF section of Amicus. There seems to be a difference of opinion between the two sides of the House. On this side, we are concerned about lives; on the other side, it appears—the noble Earl can shake his head from now until Doomsday—

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, it is offensive to accuse me of not caring about lives. Of course I care about lives and the welfare of my fellow subjects; otherwise, I would not have used the energy and undergone the boredom of trying to get my pea-sized brain around this subject.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, I accept the noble Earl's indignation. I shall tell him about my practical experience, not of looking at roofs, but of being engaged at British Rail. The noble Lord, Lord Marsh, mentioned his experience. I shall tell him about working in workshops where people lagged boilers, with dust everywhere. He may shake his head; I shall discuss white asbestos later. I do not think he has had to work anywhere with his hands; I am sorry about that. Twenty years later, people are dying from that experience because they did not know the dangers that arose from contact with asbestos.

One of my friends who died was a brilliant sportsman—he played cricket and football. Anyone who saw him die as a result of inhaling asbestos would not be discussing whether the asbestos is white, brown or blue, or whether there are dangers. He would be asking what we can do about it if dangers arise from it. We know. I admit that there is a difference between asbestos in lagging and white asbestos. Nevertheless, dangers arise from it and they were pointed out. My noble friend, who suffers as a result of contact with white asbestos, said that his lungs are full of it. He is not alone. If there are dangers, we should take precautions.

The French national biomedical research agency, which has been in conflict with the Canadians, says that all forms of asbestos are cancerous. The noble Earl referred to Professor Julian Peto. Professor Peto also wrote in the Lancet:

"White asbestos is rapidly cleared from the lungs and could because of this be less dangerous than other forms of asbestos".

That is what we are discussing. He said that that was especially the case when exposure was short term. He added that prolonged exposure certainly causes lung cancer and that in his view it was not a risk worth taking. I repeat: it is not a risk worth taking.

Some speakers referred to regulations. There are regulations, but many are necessary for health and safety, which is paramount. I would have expected a meeting of minds between noble Lords on that issue. Let us not imperil that by letting the issue seem like one of costs rather than preserving lives. Do not forget about this. Businesses and the CBI have accepted the risk, so why are we having this debate?

Let us move on. Let us implement sensible regulations. In some cases, white asbestos was mixed with blue or brown asbestos. Although, as the noble Earl rightly said, it may be 30 years since that happened, those deaths do not result until 20 to 30 years later. In more extreme cases, it will be up to 50 years before one sees the effects of exposure. The effects are so terrible when they emerge that I appeal to everyone in the House to support anything that will prevent deaths from any asbestos.

Photo of Lord Swinfen Lord Swinfen Conservative

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, how long does he think the regulations will be delayed if the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is agreed to?

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, I do not know. The noble Baroness mentioned a year.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. My Motion merely asked for a scientific inquiry to be set up and for the Government to consider that within a year. It does not delay the regulations by a single day.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 12:15 pm, 5th December 2002

My Lords, I know that the House is anxious to progress but I wish briefly to speak. As a Minister in the Department of Employment, I was responsible for health and safety for two years. I was tasked with deregulating health and safety regulations. I asked officials to send us all the health and safety regulations that affected business. There was a pause. After a day, they said they would need to hire a special van. We decided to look at the key elements in a major review. The boxes were not done from six in the morning until eight at night. I am sure the noble Baroness spends a great deal of time on these matters.

That experience taught me two things about the Health and Safety Executive and the Health and Safety Commission. It is a myth that the two organisations are full of risk averse people dreaming up regulations that will add enormous costs to business. We reduced the number of regulations by about 40 per cent, mainly by eliminating duplication. My second lesson was that the Health and Safety Executive's advice, particularly scientific advice, is second to none and impartial. The suggestion that it will provide what Ministers want to hear was not my experience. Asbestos has been the biggest single problem that health and safety officials have had to deal with.

I do not have a problem with the Motion put forward by my noble friend Lady Noakes in so far as it does not prevent the regulations being implemented. To my mind, the regulations have been subject to detailed, careful scrutiny and a cost-benefit analysis. They are looked at by officials who bend over backwards to balance the benefits against the costs for industry. My only anxiety is the message we are sending to the Health and Safety Executive's scientists. Surely we should back their judgment. We have no reason to believe that they operate in a partial manner. It may be an unpopular message to some of my colleagues. I say to my noble friend Lord Onslow that, when I entered the Department of Employment, I suspected that these scientists were uncommercial and did not understand the costs they imposed on businesses. I was pleasantly surprised to find the reverse.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat 12:19 pm, 5th December 2002

My Lords, we have just heard an important speech from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, to which I listened with great interest. There are two areas of uncertainty. One is scientific: the danger of white asbestos. The other is political, also apparent in many other debates: the extent of businesses' social responsibilities to the community. It is easy to confuse the two areas of lack of consensus with each other. I shall endeavour not to do so. It will be the judgment of the House whether I succeed. I suspect that very possibly I may not.

I listened with fascination to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who spoke with authority. The final words that linger in my mind from her speech are that the evidence is not conclusive. So far as I can discover, there is an area of lack of academic consensus on the danger of white asbestos. However, that lack of consensus happens within parameters. It is, I think, agreed on all sides that there is a danger. The argument is about the extent of that danger. Incidentally, I should say that Professor Julian Peto, whose work has been much attacked in this debate, was working in collaboration with Professor Sir Richard Doll, whose reputation is of the very highest. I should also perhaps say that he used to be a close friend of my sister-in-law. I knew him very well and would have welcomed him as a member of the family. However, I am not declaring that as an interest, because I do not believe myself to be capable of reaching an independent scientific judgment on the evidence. I am interested in the reactions of the jury.

Business is usually very well capable of arguing its corner. I remember when we were dealing with the Statutory Sick Pay Act 1991, the heaviest and, in my view, the most unjustifiable burden on business that I have known during my time in this House—placed on it by a Conservative government—I received innumerable representations from the CBI, the TUC, whose interest in the success of business is genuine but often forgotten, the Federation of Small Businesses and the National Farmers Union. All those bodies have been consulted about these regulations and have approved them. That fact weighs heavily. The thought of an improper and unjustifiable burden placed on business with the approval of all these bodies is about as improbable as a cruel and useless treatment of asylum seekers approved by the Refugee Council. It could happen, but the burden of proof resting on those who allege it is very heavy.

I am also influenced by the actions of my college, King's College London, which is now my former employer. In the old days of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, it used to be a standard joke that in the next world the Almighty would approach one or two among them and say, "Since you have been particularly wicked, in purgatory I shall give you charge of a university with two medical schools". My college principal is responsible for three medical schools—King's, Guy's and St Thomas'. They are all medical schools of some distinction. He will have had no difficulty getting expert academic advice from a wide range of people.

Just over two years ago, my college discovered asbestos in its roofing and immediately decided, in the absence of these regulations, to accept the responsibility that is now to be placed on it. That responsibility has already been discharged. The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, who is chairman of my college council, will confirm that King's College London is in no position to take on unnecessary burdens. It is feeling the financial draught, as all universities are. The fact that that decision was taken with informed scientific evidence behind it should be taken seriously.

I also have an article from the Annals of Occupational Hygiene, volume 44, No. 8, from the year 2000. It gives a statistical study that covers the same ground covered by Professor Peto. Although I have had only 10 minutes to read it, on the whole it appears to uphold his judgments. What emerges clearly from that study is that the rate of cancer and asbestosis among those exposed to white asbestos varies heavily from sample to sample. There is need for some independent variable, probably several, to be established. That is a matter for future research. The Minister is always drawing my attention to the virtue of regulations in conferring flexibility. I am sure she will do so again today. It enables her to keep up—as I am sure, knowing her, she will—with the further development of academic thought in this area.

The other problem is the social responsibility of business. Occasionally, one listens to Conservative spokesmen who sound as if they think that business should have no social responsibility. I am sure that the impression is misleading, but not enough trouble is take to show that that is so, just as on the other side not enough care is taken to show that we remember that business is the goose that lays the golden egg and that we depend on its profits for practically everything we want to do. We should get away from that pro and anti-business ideological division on all sides.

Some burdens are inherent in business, as they are in parenthood. One simply cannot get away from them. Some others are inherent in the interests of business in attempting to make a profit. I once said that there was no more extreme example of short-termism than killing one's customers. I think I was mistaken. An even more extreme example is to kill those on whose services one is daily dependent. It struck me strongly from the debate in another place on 24th October that more than 25 per cent of those who die because of asbestos are plumbers, electricians and carpenters. One has a responsibility to people whom one asks to do that sort of work. No firm wants a reputation for bringing about the deaths of those who attend to its plumbing. Incidentally, I hope the Minister has taken on board the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, about water pipes. That might be a matter for a suitable regulation on another subject. No doubt she will take other advice. A firm that persuades those people that it is not safe to do business there will not stay long in business. Here again, the social responsibility is in the interests of business. Beyond that, businesses have responsibility for contributing to common burdens, as ordinary citizens do. There is no specific claim to an exception.

When the name of Mr Jago was mentioned, there was a general cry of, "Well he would, wouldn't he?". However, in the same letter he has also said that he does not think that these regulations represent any new departure in the treatment of asbestos. He did not have to make that statement and it is not necessarily particularly in his interests. It ought to carry some weight.

That brings me to the proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for an inquiry. I have my doubts about the utility of that. When there is no academic consensus, the findings of an inquiry will depend almost entirely on who is appointed to it. The findings will be impeccable and will be compatible with all the known evidence, but one will know perfectly well that if six different people had been appointed to carry out the inquiry they would have come up with different findings. The inquiry cannot create academic consensus where it does not at present exist. That can be done in one of two ways: either by a major conceptual breakthrough that changes the questions that we all ask, or by the slow accumulation of the small change of particular individual case studies so that, if I may so put it, the weight of coin in one pocket becomes grossly lopsided with the weight of coin in the other. That process takes time. I cannot see how an inquiry could take it any further.

The other matter that concerns me as regards the proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is that she proposes two different tasks for such an inquiry. As far as I can see, those tasks would not fit very easily together. The first is a purely scientific inquiry about the risks of white asbestos, which is a matter for scientists. The second is about whether the risk justifies the cost, which is a political decision and one that I do not believe academics are any more competent to make than anyone else—in fact, if they are particularly obsessive in the pursuit of academic truth, occasionally less so. It is essentially a political responsibility, and a buck that we cannot pass.

Finally, I turn to the example of the United States, about which a great deal has been said. I am not a believer either in the supremacy of business or in the supremacy of politics. In my view, we need a see-saw relationship between the two where the balance varies from time to time. Recently in the United States, both because of economic theory and power, the balance has tilted exceptionally far in favour of business. The state of US campaign funding has contributed to that outcome.

The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said that Americans reach, first, for their lawyers. But which Americans have access to the largest team of the most high-powered lawyers? The answer must undoubtedly be the big corporations. The globalisation of business has tilted the balance between political and economic power to a very large extent. In fact, one may say, certainly as regards the United States, and increasingly so in some other places, that bringing a big business to justice is about as difficult as bringing a medieval earl to justice—a long struggle, but worth undertaking.

The fact that the process is different in the United States is not necessarily an argument for saying that we should follow that example. I believe that these regulations are justified in the present state of affairs, and I shall so advise my noble friends. The matter needs to be kept under review, but we do not need to ask the Minister to do that because I am certain that she will do so in any event. Therefore, should there be a vote on the matter, I shall advise my noble friends on these Benches to vote with the Government.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) 12:33 pm, 5th December 2002

My Lords, asbestos is the most serious occupational health problem, in terms of fatal disease, that the country faces. In the 30 years between 1968 and 1998, 50,000 people died in the United Kingdom from asbestos-related diseases. As my noble friend Lord Walker expressed so eloquently, the human suffering and misery behind those terrible figures continue today. There is nothing that we can do about those already exposed. But we can certainly, and must, do much more to prevent exposure today and so prevent the painful and prolonged illness and death in the future to which the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, referred.

The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations are a critical element in the Government's asbestos regulatory regime. They provide protection for those who do, or may, work with asbestos. Since coming to office in 1997, the Government have done much progressively to strengthen the laws on asbestos in the workplace, including tightening the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987, as amended, to provide protection for those at work from inadvertent exposure to asbestos fibres. However, the Government believe that the risks from asbestos will not be fully controlled until one vital piece of the legislative jigsaw is put in place; namely, the duty to manage asbestos in buildings.

Research shows that over 25 per cent of those people currently dying from asbestos-related diseases, some 750 per year, have worked in building and maintenance operations. While virtually all exposure routes have now been effectively controlled—by, for example, banning the use of asbestos products—it is estimated that 500,000 commercial and public buildings across the country still have materials in them that contain asbestos. In many cases, no one is managing the risks from the thousands of tonnes of asbestos still present in those premises. People working on those buildings, such as plumbers, electricians and other maintenance workers, often do not know they are at risk from disturbing the material, which is the real problem. Therefore, they do not know if their work is putting other users in the building at risk. A worker may be charged simply with replacing a light fitting; but, in the process of so doing, he may disturb asbestos that was safe up until that point. He will be unaware of the existence of asbestos, but in the course of his work he may multiply the hazard. That is the sort of situation that we have in mind.

The Health and Safety Executive is aware of numerous incidents where such workers have been exposed to asbestos, with this often resulting in construction projects being stopped and the premises evacuated, as well as potentially serious consequences for the workers involved. It is to deal with this unsatisfactory position that the Government are proposing new legislation.

In my view, the requirements of the new duty to manage asbestos are simple and straightforward: they will require those who have responsibilities for maintenance activities in non-domestic premises to assess whether there is any asbestos in their premises, and, depending on its condition, either remove it or manage it. That will ensure that maintenance activities carried out subsequently do not expose workers to any avoidable risk. The task of managing it may simply be a matter of leaving it alone, or barricading it off. Those responsible must ensure that information on the location and condition of these materials is given to anyone likely to disturb it.

Considerable effort has been taken to ensure, as the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, suggested, that the duty to manage regulation is flexible, thereby allowing a proportionate approach to be taken towards compliance. If the noble Lord studies the regulatory impact assessment, he will see that that is the position. Significant expenditure is required only when the risk justifies it. The requirements are based on the sound business practice of establishing and managing risks efficiently, and closely follow current good practice in the workplace.

In common with the usual procedures on health and safety legislation, the Health and Safety Commission carried out widespread and comprehensive consultation before bringing its proposals to the Government, as pointed out by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. This clearly set out the costs and benefits of the proposals that were included in the regulatory impact assessment, which was published in the consultation document. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. A wide range of organisations expressed support for the proposals—the CBI, the TUC, the British Property Federation, the Federation of Small Businesses, government departments with major property portfolios, such as the MoD and the Department of Health, various local authorities, including Birmingham City Council and many London boroughs which will have significant responsibilities under the new duty, NHS trusts, charities, trade unions, retailers, banks, universities, building and allied trade associations, utilities providers, as well as asbestos specialists. They all support the Government's policies.

The Government are aware of the views of a small minority who believe that chrysotile (white asbestos) is safe, and that, therefore, it should not be included in the proposals. However, that view is contrary to the majority of expert opinion, which supports the Government's view that all asbestos types can cause cancer. Indeed, all asbestos types are unequivocally classified as carcinogens by the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer, and by regulatory bodies across the developed world.

It is true that most expert opinion, with which I do not disagree—indeed, neither have your Lordships challenged it today—states that blue and brown varieties of asbestos are more dangerous than white. The most recent review of the relevant evidence suggests that this difference is substantial. However, there is a problem: although chrysotile (white asbestos) is less dangerous, it is still dangerous for two primary reasons. First, it contains tremolite, which is a contaminant and which, as far as we can tell—and as pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay—causes the mesothelioma risk.

Secondly, as was mentioned by other speakers, you cannot tell the colour of asbestos from its colour. White asbestos, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, was mixed with brown and blue to improve its drying qualities. However, you cannot detect that from the colour. Moreover, if you test it, you will create the very disturbance that these regulations are designed to prevent happening. Therefore, in an effort to find out what you want to know, you will increase dramatically the risks that follow from such activity. That is why we should not take that risk.

As a result, the Government's estimate is that it will give rise to an uncertain and unacceptable risk of cancer. Noble Lords have referred to the background fibres in the atmosphere. Maintenance workers have on average 100 times the exposure of the rest of us and have a one in 5,000 risk. I repeat that you cannot extract white asbestos from the asbestos that is currently in our public buildings. The deaths of workers from asbestos and its related illnesses are equal to the deaths from all other accidents in the construction industry. We know that the construction industry is among the most dangerous in this country.

The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, called for an independent scientific inquiry. That always sounds seductive. I have to say—and I hope she will agree—that her proposals are ill-timed and inappropriate. When the European Union brought in Council Directive 1999/77/EC, which applies restrictions on the marketing and use of products containing chrysotile asbestos, it was mindful that scientific knowledge about asbestos and its substitutes was continually developing. No one says that the scientific research has closed. I assure your Lordships that I will do my best, in so far as I am not a scientist, to keep that evidence under review.

None the less, the directive included a commitment to ask the Scientific Committee on Toxicology and the Environment to undertake a further review of any relevant data on the health risks of chrysotile and its substitutes by 1st January 2003. This work is currently being undertaken by Professor Benedetto Terracini whose report will be available in December 2002. I will ensure that a copy of the report is made available in the Library as soon as it is published. If, as a result, any of your Lordships wish to table an Unstarred Question, that debate would encourage the further advance of our information.

To undertake a separate UK review at this time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has called for, on an issue that affects all member states in the EU, and when a major report is on its way to your Lordships' House, would add little to the wider scientific debate on chrysotile. The House may also be aware that the Select Committee on the European Union has recently written to Professor King, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, seeking his advice, and he will also be reporting in due course.

We accept that we cannot put precise numbers to the degree of risk, because chrysotile is mixed with more dangerous contaminants, from tremolite to brown and blue asbestos. The new duty to manage will impact on a large and diverse group of duty holders many of whom did not have health and safety responsibilities in the area. The HSE is aware of the considerable challenges that will result.

Therefore, we are happy to give the assurance that we will hold a review into the operation of the regulations, and these two issues in particular. This could be done by the end of next year, still some time before the regulations fully come into force. We will be able to take on board new scientific information. We will invite major stakeholders such as the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Property Federation to contribute to this review. I hope that I am meeting the merited concerns of your Lordships' House while not endangering further the lives of maintenance workers whom your Lordships have a moral responsibility to protect.

Annulling these regulations would have far reaching consequences and I am confident that your Lordships will back away—

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, I am not going to press my Motion, so the Minister can leave out that bit.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I will. I was going to threaten the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, with the European Court of Justice and a few other remarkable things, but in his greater wisdom he has backed away from the nuclear deterrent.

In support of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I am as confident as I could be—and I do not say this lightly—that if the previous government were on these Benches they would be bringing forward these regulations. I ask your Lordships to think about that, given the independence of the HSE and its impeccable academic research and the wide-ranging responsibilities of the Health and Safety Commission and the degree of consultation. I would challenge any noble Lord opposite who has held Front Bench responsibility to say that if they were sitting here, they would not be bringing forward these regulations today. I know that they would do so.

It is not often that we debate issues that directly impact on the lives of individuals. If we do nothing, then the clock ticks for every week that the regulations are delayed. One worker dies. We can make a difference today by supporting the regulations, rejecting the siren calls to annul or to have a scientific committee of inquiry, given that we have a major Europe-wide review due as well as the input of the Chief Scientific Adviser, and my assurances that I am happy to come back to the House with our review in a year's time.

I hope that your Lordships will agree that I have done my best to meet the legitimate concerns about the developing state of scientific knowledge, but in turn I hope that none of your Lordships is willing to play Russian roulette with the lives of maintenance workers, the consequences of which will possibly not be manifest until 30 to 35 years' time, or even longer. Many of us will not be there to see it, but those workers and their children will pay the bill of our neglect today.

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, I do not in any way apologise for the prayer to annul. We have had an extremely interesting debate. The contributions of my noble friend Lord Forsyth, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the Minister have been well worth listening to. I particularly liked the Minister conceding quite a lot of what my noble friend Lady Noakes was asking for, but pretending that she was not. That is the skill of a superb politician. Talleyrand would be proud—although she does not limp like Talleyrand.

The Minister said that she would keep the regulations under review and come back. That is a sensible view to take. I take slight exception to what the noble Lord, Lord Walker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, said. The idea that one would pass by on the other side when someone is suffering and be accused of not caring is not true. It is impossible to emphasise that more strongly.

Having said that, there have been arguments flying around that white asbestos is a grade one carcinogen. So is the euro coin, as a matter of technical interest.

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, one would have to have an enormous nose to do so. I thank all noble Lords for taking part in the debate and beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.