– in Westminster Hall at 5:07 pm on 19th April 2023.
I remind Members to bob if they wish to be called in this debate, as a number of names have joined the list since I first had notification of it. I call Jane Hunt to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered asbestos in workplaces.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, in this debate on proposals to manage asbestos in workplaces and introduce measures to prevent the public’s exposure to it. I thank Mesothelioma UK, a national charity based in my constituency, for its work supporting those living with asbestos-related cancer. As well as providing access to mesothelioma clinical nurse specialists at the point of need in hospitals across the UK, the charity offers a range of support services and does dedicated research. I also thank the House of Commons participation digital team, which ahead of the debate helped me to create a public survey on the issues that I will raise, and the very many people who shared their experiences through that venue.
Earlier this month was Global Asbestos Awareness Week, which is crucial to Mesothelioma UK. It consistently receives feedback from patients, families and professionals that the public should be made more aware of the risks of asbestos, and that action should be taken to ensure that deaths from exposure to it are prevented for future generations. Currently, there are three hazards considered dangerous enough to have their own regulations: radiation, lead and asbestos. While lead and radiation are now strictly controlled, and as a result account for zero deaths, the continuing low profile of asbestos in public policy is putting the public in danger. That is supported by the mortality statistics, which I will go into shortly.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was extensively used as a building material in the UK from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, and found its way into products such as ceiling tiles, pipe insultation, boilers, sprayed coatings and garage roof tiles. Given that it was often mixed with other materials, it can be difficult to determine its presence. There has also never been a widescale investigation into exactly how many buildings contain asbestos. We can therefore go only by the estimates produced by various organisations when trying to determine the extent of its presence.
One such estimate is from the Health and Safety Executive, which believes that between 210,000 and 400,000 buildings in the UK contain asbestos. However, other sources say that there are about 6 million tonnes of asbestos, spread across approximately 1.5 million buildings—the most asbestos per capita in Europe.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. The Work and Pensions Committee criticised the Government and the HSE for showing a lack of imagination in working towards wholesale removal of asbestos in non-domestic buildings. Does she agree that the HSE should fund research to inform a wider credible strategy for wholesale removal?
I certainly agree that there is work to be done. That sounds like a very good idea. The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Sir Stephen Timms will speak later, I believe.
A freedom of information request to the Department for Education last year found that nearly 81% of schools reported that asbestos was present in their buildings. The responses to my survey indicate that schools are one of the hotspots for asbestos exposure, with one response stating:
“My lovely mum was a primary school teacher, who taught children with special educational needs. She was 64 when diagnosed with Mesothelioma, and 67 when she died…After investigations, she was asked if she’d ever worked with asbestos. She said no. It was an odd question as she was a teacher. Then we found out that asbestos is still present in UK schools today.”
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this very important debate. Does she consider the idea of forcing educationalists—whether they are teachers or lecturers—to sign non-disclosure agreements about not discussing asbestos in their establishments on leaving their institutions to be an affront, and does she agree that it should end?
I was not aware of that. Perhaps I could put that to the Minister for a response. If she cannot give one, I will try to get an answer from the Department for Education.
Another response to my survey stated:
“My husband was diagnosed in October 2012 with Mesothelioma at the age of 34…It changed our lives forever! We do not know exactly how or where he was exposed to asbestos but, from research, we believe he either had secondary exposure from his father bringing it home on his clothes from his place of work, or he could have been directly exposed in the schools he attended which all still contain asbestos to this day.”
A separate information request to the NHS found that more than 90% of hospital buildings contained asbestos. Hospitals were identified as another hotspot for exposure in my survey, with one response stating:
“Before her 40th birthday my wife was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, a mother of 3, who for her whole life worked as an NHS Nurse. She was studying and working in what you would expect to be a safe environment.”
A further freedom of information request to 20 local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales from the law firm Irwin Mitchell revealed that 4,533 public buildings still contain asbestos. That averages to around 225 buildings per local authority. Irwin Mitchell estimates that if the data provided is repeated around the country, about 87,000 public buildings contain asbestos.
Asbestos exposure is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with the HSE estimating that more than 5,000 people die from asbestos-related cancers every year. More than half of those deaths are from mesothelioma, a type of cancer that can occur on the lining of the lung or the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract. Shockingly, according to the HSE, the UK has the highest rate of mesothelioma deaths per capita in the world.
Mesothelioma is not typically detected in the early stages of the disease, as it has a long latency period of 15 to 45 years, with some prolonged cases of 60 years before symptoms show. Therefore, once diagnosed, it is often advanced, so up to 60% of patients die in the first year after diagnosis, with just over five in 100 surviving for five years or more.
Furthermore, while historically, men working in building-related activities as well as other heavy industries such as shipbuilding were the most likely people to develop asbestos-related diseases, we are now seeing a trend of younger people, both men and women, dying as a result of exposure. As Irwin Mitchell highlighted, over the past 20 years, an increasing number of people have developed asbestos-related illnesses from more indirect sources.
The historical legacy of asbestos in heavy industry is well documented, but does the hon. Lady share my concerns and those of the Clydebank Asbestos Group in my constituency about the increasing number of women being diagnosed with asbestos-related conditions, critically reflecting the reality of women’s exposure and a failure to recognise the many types of asbestos-related conditions, which can also include ovarian cancer?
I was not aware of the ovarian cancer element. However, I was going to mention family members washing work clothes covered in asbestos dust and that kind of thing, or non-industrial exposure. This is greatly concerning.
I will take this opportunity to share a few extracts from a statement provided to me by one of my constituents, whose husband died from mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos:
“[My husband] at first did not show much reaction when he was diagnosed. All he really wanted was to find out what could be done to help him. He felt angry later that it could have been prevented. [My husband] was very matter of fact that all he could do now was fight it and try to survive as long as possible.
I felt absolute terror, I felt extremely upset and tearful but because [my husband] was handling it so well, I kept some of my worst feelings hidden and just supported him in the way he wanted me to, but I felt an overwhelming panic that I was going to lose my wonderful husband to this devastating cancer. Something that was totally preventable.”
A number of regulations have rightly been introduced in the past 90 years to try to limit people’s exposure, including in 1999 a full ban on its import, supply and use in manufacture. The Government’s current policy reflects HSE advice, which states that, wherever possible, asbestos-containing materials should be left in situ.
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 provide the regulatory framework on working with asbestos and apply to all non-domestic premises. Under the regulations, the HSE requires duty-holders to assess whether asbestos is present in their buildings, what condition it is in and whether it gives rise to the risk of exposure. The duty-holder must then draw up a plan to manage the risk associated with asbestos. Importantly, that must include the removal of the asbestos, if it cannot be safely managed where it remains in place. Duty-holders are also legally required to remove asbestos-containing materials before major refurbishment or demolition work.
Despite those efforts, asbestos is still present in many buildings, and people are still suffering and dying from asbestos-related illnesses. We therefore need to take a look at what more we can do. I welcome the fact that the Work and Pensions Committee considered this subject as part of its 2022 report into the HSE’s approach to asbestos management. The Chair of that Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham, is here, and I thank him for his dedication to highlighting this very serious issue, and for his support and assistance with today’s debate. I am sure that he will want to speak in more detail about the findings of the Committee’s report. However, I would like to mention two issues that were raised by the Committee and which Mesothelioma UK has highlighted in its new campaign, “Don’t Let the Dust Settle”.
The first of those is the Committee’s recommendation that a central asbestos register is introduced. The lack of in-depth and up-to-date data is proving to be a barrier to dealing with the risk posed to the public. A central register would help to alleviate that problem and support a longer-term strategic approach to managing asbestos. It would also provide vital information on the level of compliance by those with a duty to manage asbestos on their premises, and ensure that enforcement action is focused in the right areas.
As one respondent to my survey put it:
“The existence of asbestos in public and private buildings is rife yet there is no proper cataloguing of this or scheme to remove this highly dangerous substance. The hospitals caring for people with asbestos related cancers are full of the very substance that is killing them. There is a need to systematically catalogue and schedule a programme of removal of asbestos from all buildings”.
Without a register and steps being taken to remove asbestos, the British Occupational Hygiene Society estimates that we are likely to see a spike in occupational, and potentially non-occupational, illness arising from asbestos exposure in around 2060. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister reconsidered the Government’s position on a national register.
The other recommendation from the Committee is that a deadline is set for the removal of all asbestos from non-domestic buildings. That approach would bring our strategy in line with that of France, where a general plan has been implemented to remove asbestos from every building within 40 years. Under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the UK is obligated to seek out and adopt international best practice. Currently, the classification of acceptable exposure levels to asbestos fibres in the UK is 10 times greater than that now allowed across Europe.
The current way to deal with asbestos—to leave it in situ—is clearly not working, given that the people affected by asbestos-related cancers are becoming younger and younger. Materials are degrading over time through wear and tear, and are being damaged inadvertently. Research published last year by the Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association and the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants identified that more than 70% of asbestos-containing materials managed in situ had deteriorated, indicating that management of the risk was ineffective.
We therefore simply cannot afford to delay asbestos removal further. That is particularly true in education and health settings where many of our most vulnerable stay, work and study. The majority of those who have contacted me ahead of the debate are in agreement that in order to deal with the current risk, we need a national asbestos strategy. That approach has proved effective in other nations, which have accepted that leaving asbestos in situ is not safe. Since developing national asbestos strategies, such nations have seen an improvement in their asbestos monitoring and detection technologies and practices. The UK needs its own asbestos strategy that incorporates this best practice, as well as a timetable for the safe removal of asbestos, prioritising the highest-risk asbestos in settings such as schools and hospitals. Taken together, those two actions will help to focus minds across Government and industry, and will help to drive progress.
I will close with extracts from a statement provided by another of my constituents, whose husband died of mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos. Her husband said before his death:
“I was never told about any risks of working with asbestos. The environment was so dusty that sometimes you could struggle to see clearly. It was therefore obvious to me that health and safety was being ignored.”
My constituent said later that her husband
“was 69 when he died from Mesothelioma…We had been married for 45 years.”
She continued that he
“was a family man who always put others first. His death from this terrible disease has deprived me of a loving husband and friend, his daughters of a wonderful father and my daughters’ children of an amazing grandad.”
The grandfather of one of the members of my team also died from mesothelioma. We must put a stop to this. Please, don’t let the dust settle.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank Jane Hunt for bringing this extremely important discussion to Westminster Hall.
I want to pay tribute to a number of people—I will be brief—who have been campaigning for generations on asbestos-related cancers. These are the people in the field, who deal with individuals who have died, and who assist and support people through the darkest period in their lives. Asbestos-related cancers and, in particular, mesothelioma are dreadful diseases. As has been mentioned, 60% of people when diagnosed with mesothelioma die within a year, but by heck has it been a struggle to get rightful compensation for many of the people involved—not just for them, but for the families, and everyone who has suffered.
I give a big thank you to the TUC, the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, the Asbestos Victims Support Group Forum and the different forums up and down the country—I can see members present. I also say a big thank you to Mesothelioma UK for all its work, but by heavens, that has been a very difficult task, because successive Governments have not done anything to protect people from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers.
With mesothelioma, it is not just people in heavy industry, but, as the hon. Lady mentioned, teachers—and if it is teachers, it is kids. We should not forget that kids are more susceptible to mesothelioma in that environment. They are five times more likely to get the disease than teachers. I think 400 teachers have died since 1980— 21 a year. What have we done about it in this country? Absolutely nothing. The Government have failed at every turn to do anything at all about mesothelioma.
What has happened as a result of that? People are dying, and not just teachers, but plumbers, doctors, nurses and people in the NHS. We are talking about people in the building industry and patients in hospitals. People within the school and educational estates are dying. It just takes a drawing pin into asbestos and a little bit of dust lodges in someone’s lungs. They do not feel it. They could have that little bit of dust in their lungs for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years and die as a result of it once they are diagnosed.
It is essential that we do more as a Government than we have ever done before. We are one of the only Governments in the world where cancer-related diseases and deaths are on the increase, and we are doing absolutely nothing about it. That is really not acceptable. It is as if we have kicked the can down the road to 30 or 40 years’ time. Mr Paisley, you will remember Alice Mahon, the MP for Halifax, who recently died of mesothelioma—after being in this place, by the way, for more than a decade. It was because of her work in the national health service as a nurse, and she died as a result of mesothelioma. She had an awful death.
I could speak for ages about this issue, but I understand that lots of people want to get in on this debate. It is important to recognise that every now and again we speak about mesothelioma, cancer-related diseases and everything that is killing people, but we do nothing about it. We will have another debate in 10 years’ time and say we have not done anything. We have to get our act together. We have to make sure that we support people who, unfortunately, have lost loved ones because of diseases like this. They need proper compensation and proper support. But listen: if we prevented this and took action in the first place, we would not need to support those people, and we would not have the deaths that we are having.
I will not put an official clock on you, but for guidance, colleagues, you have four minutes.
I congratulate Jane Hunt on leading the debate, and I am pleased to follow my friend and good colleague, Ian Lavery, who obviously has personal knowledge of this subject.
We have heard about the life-threatening danger of asbestos, which includes diseases as serious as lung cancer. For employers, the health and safety of our staff should be our utmost priority, but we still hear of cases today. That is where I am coming from. Clusters of individuals have become ill due to spaces being riddled with asbestos.
We have similar problems in Northern Ireland. I always bring a Northern Ireland perspective to these debates; it adds to the comments of others across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where we are often challenged by things not just collectively, but individually in our regions. We must work together towards making all spaces asbestos-free. We must study the figures in greater depth and take the steps necessary to protect and save lives.
When discussing issues relating to asbestos in workplaces or mesothelioma, I often recall a situation in Northern Ireland in late 2018. A Northern Ireland Cancer Registry investigation was triggered by a former member of staff who approached the registry with concerns that several cancers had been diagnosed among people who had been working in one area of the Ulster University Jordanstown campus. However, the NICR found insufficient evidence to prove that it was asbestos in the university that caused cancer in those staff members.
Specific figures for Northern Ireland show that cases where asbestos-related illness was the primary or secondary cause of death increased from 63 in 2019 to 99 in 2020. In some cases, that has been put down to historic working practices and the widespread use of asbestos in the building trade before 1980, with little awareness of the long-term implications. You will recall this story, Mr Paisley: I can remember films of east Belfast and Harland & Wolff—the hon. Member for Loughborough referred to shipbuilding in particular—where asbestos was flying through the streets. Kids were playing in it and breathing it in because they did not know any better. Ian Lavery said a pinhead is enough to be affected. Many people died from that. When I first got elected to the council in 1985, I had a number of constituents who lived in Greyabbey and Ballywalter and worked in the shipyard. The shipyard employed 30,000 people at one time. The number of deaths from mesothelioma or asbestosis was incredible. I have seen men of the ’60s and so on who just could not get a breath and seen the impact of what has happened to them because they did not know. Now that we do know, let us take steps to ensure it does not happen again.
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 are retained EU law, so they will sunset at the end of the year. The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is still to complete its parliamentary passage. The Government have not yet set out their intentions with this issue specifically. Does the hon. Member agree there must be sufficient planning to prevent a gap in legislation for asbestos, considering the serious health risks?
I agree with the hon. Lady but I will refer that to the Minister, who I think will be better placed to reply. Again, I am throwing the burden on to the Minister to respond. I know she will be more than happy to do so.
The Government have paid out some £40 million in compensation for asbestos-related illnesses in Northern Ireland, with Belfast shipbuilding unjustly being linked to most of the claims. Asbestos was used in the building materials until it was discovered later that the inhalation of fibres could also cause cancers. Where there has been more in-depth research into links between cancer and asbestos, that has proved to be an ongoing problem. The Department of Education in Northern Ireland—the hon. Members for Loughborough and for Wansbeck referred to this, and I know others will as well—has many buildings that teachers and children use that contain asbestos.
I will highlight one other area that the hon. Lady did not refer to. I do so because I live on a farm, so I understand that asbestos risk is an ongoing problem. I removed one of the roofs just last year. I had to get a specialist company in to do so. They came—it was like “Star Wars”—booted from head to toe, and we were not allowed up near the top of the yard, because obviously stuff was everywhere when they were removing it.
I conclude with this because I am conscious of time. Many have asked what the price of a life is, when preventive steps should be taken to stop lives being unnecessarily lost. Compensation for those who unduly lost loved ones is one thing, but ensuring that proper precautions are taken to make workplaces safe is another. I hope that today, as a joint collective across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we can do both. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
We owe a great debt to Jane Hunt for securing the debate and the way in which she moved the motion. I used to be a union organiser in the public sector before I became a Member of Parliament, in the National Union of Public Employees. In the early ’70s, when the debate started about the health, safety and welfare at work legislation, which was put in law in 1974, the issues and dangers of asbestos were known. Huge profits had been made by Turner & Newall and other companies from selling asbestos, and it was installed regularly in lots of places even after the dangers were well known. Asbestos lagging on pipes in heating installations and on exhaust systems of buses and other vehicles led to an awful lot of workers getting mesothelioma as a result.
Our great friend Alice Mahon was also a member of NUPE. She worked in a dilapidated old hospital building in Halifax and in this building. I was at her funeral in Halifax last month. It was a sombre occasion. It was a huge gathering at the minster in Halifax that paid tribute to a wonderful MP and a very principled campaigner. The collection was for victims of asbestos in the Calderdale area. In this debate, we should remember that asbestos can affect anybody. Who would have thought that a Member of Parliament would get this kind of condition from being in this building? This is not about MPs, but a lot of people whose voices have not been heard: those who clean buses or trains, those who work in or install heating systems and, indeed, people quite innocently doing a few home repairs, not realising they have actually pin-pricked into asbestos in a building.
My grandmother, when she lived in Durban Avenue in Clydebank, had a white picket fence brought out of a sheet from Turner’s asbestos factory in Clydebank. The right hon. Member is right to remind us of the differentiation around how people get asbestos. It also relates to where the asbestos is now dumped. Does he share my concern that, besides the traditional aspect of asbestos, it is hidden in grounds across our country? They also need to be investigated—that is to say, hidden asbestos dumps.
The hon. Member raises a very important point. There are a number of unaudited rubbish dumps around the country, including unaudited rubbish dumps from the Ministry of Defence, many of which will contain asbestos remains that are completely unknown. Somebody will come along, perhaps to construct something on that site, and dig it up. As a result, asbestos will be released into the atmosphere. We are facing a serious issue of epidemic proportions.
In the 45 seconds that I have left, I thank the Minister for being present. We need a full audit of all the asbestos dangers in the country, including the tips and so on that we have mentioned. We need a programme of containment and labelling of it everywhere before it is removed, and we need a programme of removal. We should not be the worst country in Europe, or indeed in most of the world, on the question of asbestos safety; we ought to be the best. None of this is new. All of this has been around a long time, and I hope that today’s short debate will serve as a reminder that this House is determined that we will rid this country of the dangers of asbestos, and the danger of taking lives 50 or 60 years from now.
I, too, congratulate Jane Hunt on securing the debate and on her speech. As she said, the Work and Pensions Committee published a report on asbestos management on
Our report opened with this point:
“Asbestos-related illness is one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times.”
Asbestos is still the biggest source of work-related fatalities in the UK, and the fact that we used brown asbestos for a long time, and used it very heavily—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the debate but there is a Division in the main Chamber. Please try to be back here within 15 minutes.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The assumption in the current regulations, as the hon. Member for Loughborough said, is that if the asbestos is in reasonable condition and not disturbed, it should not harm anybody, but that assumption looks increasingly unsafe. We have heard from others about the extent of the problem of asbestos in schools and hospitals—I understand that the scale of the threat will be highlighted in a big article in The Sunday Times magazine this coming weekend—but I worry that there has not been enough focus on this problem over the last few years.
In 2019-20, the Health and Safety Executive conducted 907 inspections of work by licensed asbestos inspectors, which is 40% fewer than in 2012-13. The fall in number of asbestos enforcement notices from 2011-12 to 2018-19—a period when the HSE really struggled with resources and should have had more support—was 60%, which was much greater than the fall in the number of HSE enforcement notices in that period, at only 10%.
The Minister’s predecessor, Chloe Smith, told our Committee that the Government had “a clearly stated goal” that
“it is right to—over time and in the safest way—work towards there no longer being asbestos in non-domestic buildings.”
We agreed with the Minister about that, and I hope the current Minister will reaffirm that view, but we think we need a plan to achieve that goal, not just a hope that it happens by happenstance. As the House has been rightly reminded, we recommended a 40-year deadline to remove all asbestos from non-domestic buildings and a plan to achieve it, and that the HSE should develop a central digital register of asbestos in non-domestic buildings.
We know that we will have to do a lot of work to our buildings to deliver net zero in the next few decades, and that means two things. First, asbestos left in place will not be left alone for long; it will be disturbed. That potentially creates a big problem, but it also creates an opportunity, because we can remove asbestos at the same time as making the net zero changes that will have to be made, and so achieve removal relatively cost-effectively. That is what we should be doing.
Since the Select Committee’s report, published research has strengthened the case for action. We have heard about the report of the Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association, which I am glad will become an annual report. One of the lessons from that survey is that producing a national central register of asbestos, as recommended by the Select Committee, will not involve massive new data collection. A lot of the data is already there. It needs organising, assessing and quality-assuring, but that is a wholly manageable task. The industry has done a large chunk of it already without any Government support; with Government support, the whole thing becomes a very manageable task.
I welcome the programme of inspections in 400 schools that the Health and Safety Executive has been undertaking. The HSE has made the point that a lot of those schools do not have a plan for managing asbestos risk. The Irwin Mitchell report, which has been mentioned, estimates that if we do not do anything, it will take 80 years to get rid of asbestos from all local authority buildings, so we really need to get a move on.
Finally, and to echo an earlier intervention, if the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill reaches the statute book in its current form, there will be no UK regulations on managing asbestos for the first time since 1930. I do not think that anybody wants that to happen, so perhaps the Minister can reassure us that there will be secondary legislation to fill that gap. Can she tell us when it will be published and whether it will be consulted on? I ask her as well to reconsider the Government’s response to those two crucial recommendations for a 40-year deadline and a central register.
I congratulate Jane Hunt on securing this important debate. It is particularly timely for those constituents of mine who were forced to take strike action in February when their employer, a local social housing provider, was accused of forcing them to handle asbestos in tenants’ homes, a job that they were not properly trained for. Thankfully, that strike was successful, but at a cost of significant disruption to the tenants and, of course, great anxiety for those workers, who feared being exposed to such a lethal substance. I raise it today as a reminder that asbestos is not a historical tragedy. We continue to live with asbestos today, and it is vital that employers in high-risk sectors are reminded of the duties they have to keep their staff safe.
I was an active trade unionist when we first began to reckon with the dangers of asbestos. Experts warned of the dangers for decades, but it was only in the 1970s, when confronted with rising rates of mesothelioma across the UK, that the construction industry was forced to acknowledge the devastation that asbestos can wreak. Even then, it was not until 1999 that we finally achieved a total prohibition on its use, more than 15 years after the first law banning some forms of asbestos had been introduced. I am not sure that it will ever be possible to calculate the number of people who were exposed to asbestos in buildings that were built or refurbished in that 15-year window alone, but we can say with some confidence that lives could doubtless have been saved if we had acted far sooner.
So we are gathered here today to confront a deadly legacy. Asbestos can be found everywhere in our lives—in the environment, our schools, our homes and our office buildings. Indeed, the Labour Research Department found that there were 451 premises in London alone with asbestos and that two thirds of NHS premises and buildings that were considered still contain asbestos today.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, asbestos remains the largest killer in the workplace and its enduring prevalence means that, tragically, there are healthy people alive today who will die from asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, of which the UK has the highest number of cases in the world.
As a former regional secretary of Unite the union, I have represented thousands of workers in construction, which is the industry with the highest asbestos-related mortality rates. I have seen at first hand the terrible suffering that these vicious diseases inflict, and I know just how important it is that we deliver a strategy to rid our country of this ticking time bomb as soon as we possibly can.
I want to express my gratitude to charities such as Mesothelioma UK, as well as the Merseyside Asbestos Victim Support Group, for everything they have done to bring this issue to broader attention.
Any objective assessment of the progress made in the more than two decades since asbestos was banned for good, and in particular over the last 13 years of Tory Government, cannot but lead to the conclusion that that progress has been woefully inadequate. The families of those who have lost their lives to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are angry. They have just cause to be angry, and so do those whose loved ones will lose their lives in the future.
The Work and Pensions Committee’s recent report revealed that there is no clear strategy on how to realise the vision of an asbestos-free Britain and that there is a lack of meaningful investment and research into the removal of asbestos. It called for a pan-Government and system-wide strategy and for a legally binding 40-year commitment to the removal of asbestos from all non-domestic buildings. That is the kind of clarity and certainty that the victims of asbestos rightly deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate Jane Hunt on bringing forward this really important debate and on her wonderful speech, which was well-informed and passionately delivered. I will make a few brief observations and then ask a few questions of the Government.
The management of asbestos in buildings is a reserved matter—it is for the UK Government and the Health and Safety Executive, which has UK-wide responsibility for enforcement of legislation and regulations. The Scottish National party would call for health and safety legislation to be devolved to the Scottish Government so that we can create fairer working practices and conditions and rectify buildings to adequate standards. I do not know whether Members are aware of this, but Scotland is, I believe, the only place in the United Kingdom where people can receive compensation if they develop pleural plaques. I ask the Minister why that is not available across the UK.
I am grateful to the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the TUC, which have given me a really good briefing for today. I have listened to hon. Members carefully, and I note with interest the fact that many have referred to teachers who have been affected. I taught in a further education college, and when I took early retirement in 2011—that worked out well—I was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. In it was a paragraph that said I would waive all my rights to claim compensation from the college in the event of my getting asbestosis. I had a good lawyer look at the NDA and I refused to sign it. My remarks to the then principal of the college were, “You worked in that building too. You might want to reconsider putting this in an NDA.”
Asbestosis can affect everyone and can do terrible things. We have heard numerous examples from Members across the spectrum of how people can contract it and the terrible price they pay if they suffer from it or from mesothelioma. It has been difficult to listen to some of the stories we have heard this afternoon, so why will the Government not collect comprehensive and accurate data on the extent, type and condition of all asbestos in public buildings, including schools and this place—as we heard, there have been problems here? Surely it is a false economy not to tackle this issue of asbestos as soon as possible. We cannot keep kicking down the road the dangers people are facing, waiting to see what happens 50 or 60 years on.
The Health and Safety Executive has had a 54% cut in funding. Will the Government commit to reversing those cuts and letting it do its job properly? We heard about the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill and the sunset clause. This has to be addressed. We cannot just ignore this problem.
I thank Sir Stephen Timms, who chairs the Work and Pensions Committee, for the work it has done. The Government are well aware of what is happening, so I ask them to please do something about it. If not, please devolve the powers to the Scottish Government.
Here is something that no one has mentioned yet: can we have a public awareness campaign on this issue? We all know about it, but there are people outside the House who do not understand. We have all sorts of public campaigns on how to detect cancer; we have all sorts of information and awareness raising. Can the Government confirm that they will look into that for this issue as well?
I also thank, as someone has already done, the TUC, the Joint Union Asbestos Committee and the Asbestos Victims Support Groups’ Forum. This huge issue affects many people, including in my constituency, where there was formerly a steelworks, among other things. But we have to be reminded that it is not just people who worked in heavy industry who contract this disease. Please will the Government take on board everything they have heard this afternoon, answer some of the questions, bring forward help for the future and not keep kicking things down the road?
Mr Paisley, it is of course a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, sir. I, too, start by thanking Jane Hunt for bringing this important debate here today. I think we can all agree that, in her opening remarks, she made an absolutely firm case on the real dangers of asbestos.
I also thank my hon. Friend Ian Lavery, Jim Shannon, my right hon. Friends the Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) and my hon. Friend Mick Whitley, who all made excellent contributions and highlighted the real dangers, but also some tragic real-life stories of the real impact that asbestos is having.
As we all know and as has been said here today, asbestos is a deeply dangerous material. It was therefore right, and long overdue, that the last Labour Government banned the import, supply and use of asbestos in 1999. Yet asbestos remains all too prevalent in many buildings across the UK, as we have heard. The serious dangers that asbestos poses, despite being banned for almost a quarter of a century, are shown nowhere more clearly than in the number of people who have died as a result of asbestos-related conditions. Each year, there are about 5,000 asbestos-related deaths in the UK, with 2,300 in 2021 alone attributed to mesothelioma, and almost 500 mentions of asbestosis on death certificates.
The risk that asbestos poses for working people in particular—they are forced to spend significant periods in workplaces riddled with it—is significant and deeply alarming, because there are just so many workplaces, especially in the public sector, where asbestos remains present. The TUC found that 90% of schools still contain asbestos. We have heard similar statistics for hospitals—the NHS—and other public sector buildings.
It seems that the primary protection at the moment is through the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, but with so many people contracting asbestosis after being exposed in their workplace, there is real concern that the existing legislation is just not enough, so the Government need to look long and hard at whether further protections, which are actually enforceable, are needed.
I am rushing slightly because time is limited. The Government first need to make clear whether the current legislation and protections for working people from the risks of asbestos exposure will actually exist beyond the end of the year, because right now that is far from clear. Under the Government’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which will automatically delete a huge number of pieces of employment rights legislation, the Control of Asbestos Regulations will cease to have any force unless amended or replaced by secondary legislation. The Government were warned of that when they were rushing the retained EU law Bill through Parliament. They were warned that sunsetting so many rights and protections was reckless at best and dangerous at worst. They were even pushed on the Control of Asbestos Regulations specifically during the passage of the Bill. The Minister responsible answered that the Government saw opportunities to reduce business burdens and reaffirmed that the United Kingdom has high standards of health and safety. I would be grateful to hear this Minister’s views on where they are going with that. We have a number of asks for the Government. Evidence on the number of asbestos deaths and the number of buildings that still contain asbestos shows us that we need to more, not less. The Government should start by following through on recommendations made to them. First, they must ensure adequate data collection and reporting of buildings that contain asbestos. Many locations are not known about until renovation starts. Secondly, the Government should conduct a serious review of the adequacy of asbestos exposure limits. The UK’s limit is 10 times lower than limits across Europe and 100 times lower than the limit recommended by the International Commission on Occupational Health.
Thirdly, the Government should reverse the cuts made to the Health and Safety Executive’s funding. Because of cuts of up to 50% between the levels seen under the last Labour Government and 2019-20, there has been a huge reduction in the number of inspectors, from 3,700 to 1,000. At the same time, the Government should reverse their attacks on trade unions and their ability to organise, because trade union health and safety reps play a critical role in keeping workers safe.
Time not permitting, Mr Paisley, I will conclude by saying that I will be grateful to hear the Minister’s response to each of those four questions, particularly the one about retained EU law and how the Government plan to continue regulation and legislation in this area.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Jane Hunt for bringing this important debate to the House. I too extend my heartfelt sympathy to all those individuals in Great Britain and beyond who have lost a loved one or a colleague, or who are living with the impact of asbestos-related disease. I thank all hon. Members across the House for coming here to talk about their concerns, their impactful stories and their truths, as well as all the members of the public in the Gallery who have joined this afternoon.
Asbestos continues to be a problem experienced around the globe. As my hon. Friend mentioned in her opening remarks, earlier this month the United Kingdom joined other countries in recognising Global Asbestos Awareness Week, designed to remind us all of the impact of asbestos-related disease and how it continues to be felt. As Marion Fellows said, I shall be talking about raising awareness later in my speech, but I wanted to take this opportunity to welcome the important work done by charities to support people affected by this devastating disease, such as the charity Mesothelioma UK, which is based in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and all those who do the great campaign work that has been outlined today.
I agree with Imran Hussain. Asbestos was banned in Great Britain in 1999, and stringent interventions and regulatory controls are now in place to prevent people from being exposed to it, but I assure the House and all those listening to or reading the debate that I too, when preparing for the debate, put similar searching questions to the HSE and my colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions property team, one of whom is a former HSE inspector and removal specialist. I have not just come here to read the speech I have been given, and I hope that that reassures everyone.
In this analysis, will the Minister include the problem of unmarked dumps around the country, particularly Ministry of Defence dumps, which are highly likely to include large quantities of very dangerous blue asbestos, which is probably the worst type?
I have a feeling I will be sent a note on that, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We have spoken about a lot of matters this afternoon, and I hope I will be forgiven if I do not respond to every question. I shall respond to some, and I assure right hon. and hon. Members and the Chair of the Select Committee, Sir Stephen Timms, that I shall put a copy of the responses in the Library of the House.
Under the law on dumping locations, asbestos must be disposed of in licensed sites, but we are aware of some issues of illegal dumping. The HSE supports local authorities in their enforcement responsibilities in this area, but I will take that point away.
Before I move on, I will try to answer some questions before progressing with my speech. On the question regarding asbestos research from the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, the Health and Safety Executive has published a comprehensive science and evidence strategy associated with a delivery plan, and it includes commitments. It will continue to research and publish those findings.
On the retained EU law questions, the focus continues to be on ensuring appropriate regulatory frameworks, and maintaining the United Kingdom’s high standards for health and safety protection, but we balance that with reductions in burdens to business. The HSE’s approach is closely aligned with the Government’s pledges to do more for business, to promote growth, to deal with disproportionate burdens and to simplify the regulatory landscape.
Our standards are all about health and safety protections, and they are among the highest in the world. The HSE will continue to review its retained EU law to seek to look at the opportunities, but it always looks at what is happening around the globe, as has been mentioned.
I do not think the Minister would suggest that we should scrap all asbestos regulations for the first time since 1930, so that does imply that there will be some secondary legislation. Can she give us any indication of when that will be forthcoming?
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are looking at exactly that at the moment. The rules and regulations are for the HSE. It has the experts and it needs to do what it sees fit. I will be looking very closely at the HSE, which will be bringing proposals to Ministers; that is being looked at currently. As soon as I have more to share, I will do so. We are clear that the HSE is committed to its regulatory role and to supporting wider Government priorities.
The right hon. Member for East Ham, who chairs the Work and Pensions Committee, talked about resourcing, as did other Members. We know that this area is highly risky. Licence holders—those who undertake removal work—are individually reviewed and that is followed up. The inspections are really important. Our end-to-end approach provides assurance that the licensing regime is fit for purpose and working effectively. The HSE takes that very seriously. In ’23-24, as part of its planned inspection activity, the HSE will continue to carry out inspections across the construction industry where asbestos exposure risks continue to be raised. Inspection work in schools and other organisations, which has been mentioned this afternoon, will continue to happen to effectively manage that asbestos legacy.
The HSE allocates budgets and resources on the basis of levels of expected interventions, including inspection, investigation and enforcement activity, and does not allocate budgets at sub-activity level, such as for construction and health inspection. We have a range of different interventions and a way of doing things on which the HSE is very strident, and I reassure the House that nothing has changed.
I will mention NDAs, because, like others, I have been appalled this afternoon to hear about the issues affecting teachers. This is a matter for the Department for Education, but I will ask my officials to raise it with the DFE so that a response can be provided.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw asked how we are supporting people suffering with asbestos-related diseases. In 2022-23—it says ’23-24 in my notes; I do not think that is right, but I will get my officials to check whether that is the case—1,890 payable industrial injuries disablement benefit assessments took place, and the scheme provides a weekly payment based on the assessed level of disablement. I will write to the hon. Lady with further details and confirmation for her. There are lump sum compensation payments as well, and I am happy to send her further details on that.
I am running out of time, but okay.
I just wanted to say that my point was to show the difference in the compensation for pleural plaques; I was not insinuating that there was no other compensation in the rest of the UK.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point and I am happy to expand on that further. She will be keen to know that, later this year, the HSE’s “Asbestos and You” campaign will move to a new focus on the duty to manage asbestos safely in buildings by highlighting the requirements placed on those responsible for the buildings to manage any asbestos present.
The Government are not opposed to an asbestos register, or any steps regarding support to improve the safety regime to enable effective risk management. However, I understand from the HSE that the suggestion that Great Britain creates a national register for buildings would need to be considered carefully because of the potential unintended consequences.
In Great Britain, the regulations require duty holders to either survey premises constructed before asbestos was banned or to presume that it is present. Most duty holders decide to survey. and to arrange a register and plan for every room and area detailing the presence of any type of asbestos-containing materials and their condition and quantity. The new register would therefore require significant resources from duty holders and the Government. I understand the point made by the Select Committee Chair. The concern is about duplication of information, and there is no clear understanding that risks of exposure would be improved. We want people to focus on the duty to manage, and to presume that asbestos is in situ, but I will expand on that in my further response.
I will try to conclude, because I believe I am one minute over, Mr Paisley.
Are you okay with that? Thank you very much.
The challenge, as we all know, is that there is no easy way of safely removing asbestos from buildings, and disturbing asbestos inevitably creates fibre release and increases the risk to health. Provided it is in good condition, the HSE confirms that it is likely to be safest to remove asbestos at the end of a building’s life. If removal is in a staged and phased way, there is a pathway for Great Britain no longer to have asbestos in its workplaces, as we have heard this afternoon.
I have much more to say, which I will share with the House in a further response, but I hope that my remarks now have reassured Members that the current regulatory regime and framework for Great Britain remains sufficiently robust and enables the legacy of asbestos exposure risk in workplaces to be managed. I will comment on the concern about women later in my broader remarks, because I am conscious that I have not had time to respond now. I strongly want to continue to work with Members, the sector, campaigners and the HSE to ensure that we develop an asbestos-free Great Britain, as my predecessor my right hon. Friend Chloe Smith said. I take on board all elements of the debate today, and will continue to work robustly with the HSE, the Select Committee and all campaigners to deliver that.
I will take just a moment to thank everyone for being present today and the Minister for her remarks at the end of the debate. In particular, I thank Ian Lavery, who chairs of the APPG that deals with asbestos, and the right hon. Member for East Ham, who is the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee and has been particularly helpful with my preparation for today.
Those of us present today are from across parties, and we have all tended to agree, so let us make some action and actually achieve something, please. We have a catalyst for change in the remedial action to be taken towards net zero on buildings. To me, that is the ideal opportunity to make the change and to get asbestos out of our buildings. I request that that happens.
I thank especially Mesothelioma UK—present here today—which is a great charity, among other great charities, that provides support and research into this terrible disease. Again, I thank the many people who responded to my survey. I had many hundreds more quotes that I could have used, but I am afraid that I just did not have time. I thank everyone again.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered asbestos in workplaces.