HL Deb 11 May 1976 vol 370 cc905-40

5.20 p.m.

Lord HALE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will state their immediate proposals for controlling the use of asbestos and in particular reducing the danger of asbestosis or mesothelioma to workers in the asbestos-using industries, their relatives and their contacts. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the British Factory Inspectorate have a longstanding history of high repute. Your Lordships will not be surprised, if I tell you that I find they possibly had their first origins with the work of the Member for Oldham, Mr. John Fielden, in 1833. Their responsibilities are very great; their expertise has to be very great and varied. They have always been understaffed and have complained about being understaffed. Often one man is responsible for surveying 100 or more factories in a limited period. They are always liable to be called upon in emergencies to give expert advice or occasionally, as in the case of Flixborough, to face almost insoluble problems of investigation. More recently, of course, they have acquired even more expertise in the Chemical Division; and with the almost daily introduction of new materials new perils are also introduced. In their annual report will be found listed things we had not even heard of a few years ago, such as Vinyl chloride, which seems to be capable of producing a vast variety of grave afflictions.

Only a few weeks ago I was satisfied that mesothelioma could only originate in asbestos, and the reason is that mesothelioma differs from the lung disease of asbestosis in that the effective agent has to pierce the lung. The ultimate cancers are invariably fatal and generally on the pleura or the perineum although they may occur elsewhere. It is reasonable to think that only asbestos, with its minute, pointed fibres, could pierce the lung in that way. In the last week or two we have had evidence that fibreglass, which is now often used in minute portions and often ground up into minute particles, may be capable of producing a corresponding disease, with symptoms that cannot, of course, be investigated.

I had intended to apologise for the fact that I arrive in this House almost as a complete stranger, because for quite a number of days I have been sitting upon a Private Bills Committee from what seems to be early in the morning. But it may comfort your Lordships to know that most of the heavy documents I brought to use in my speech have been lost somewhere between the River Nene and the River Ouse, and I am having to speak impromptu, in spite of the generous assistance of the Daily Mirror this morning, who reported what I was going to say. I confess I am grateful, because I have not been mentioned in the Press for about four years and, in its time, the Daily Mirror has got me a lot of votes. Incidentally, I rather agree with them about curves. I therefore speak under a little difficulty, but why should I worry about that when I am to have the privilege of being followed immediately by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale? The noble Lord comes from an old legal family and has many and varied talents. I understand he is making his maiden speech from the Front Bench. The noble Lord is respected and liked by all of us, and we shall all listen to him with great pleasure.

The debate will be concluded by the noble Lord, Lord Jacques. The Government, with their nefarious record, are damned lucky to have a chap like the noble Lord to be able to defend some of the things I am going to talk about, because everybody knows there is a problem here. The noble Lord has helped me, and he has introduced me to the good side of the Department of Health and Social Security and to the employment advisory service under Dr. Suzette Gauvaine and Dr. Greenberg, where investigation is quite elaborate, of an admirable kind and computerised, too. So far as I know, the computer is actually producing fairly accurate figures. But somewhere in this organisation is something quite different, something which indulges in falsity and does not care about the answers given in the House of Lords—something which buries valuable information in some "Fort Knox" at the Elephant and Castle and uses in relation to its information for this House something which our Gallic friends call "Je m'en foutisme"—a disregard for fact, or a refusal to give information in relation to something which is of vital importance.

One of the difficulties about factory inspectors—and, on and off, I have been dealing with mines inspectors and factory inspectors for about 50 years—is that they take the view, on reasonable grounds, that if they are to get the best co-operation out of employers, they should give warning of their approach. There is no question that they constantly do give warning, and, so far as it can be cleaned up, the factory is cleaned up the day before they arrive. I do not want to refer even to one of my own many personal delinquencies, but I can recall the day we got a note to say that the general would inspect gunsites 1 and 3. The major, who was a grand fellow, took me out and we spent the day previous to the intended visit stripping all the amenities—there were not many—from gunsites 2, 4, 5 and 6. We laid down paving stones, with the active co-operation of our men; and when it was all finished the major said to me: "Will that look all right?" I then ventured for the first time on sarcasm to one for whom I had a great regard, and said: "Perhaps we might put a Christmas tree on either side of the door". I am happy to say that when the general arrived the next day, he particularly admired the Christmas trees!

That is all very well, but when one is talking about poison, it becomes a different matter. The House has received, and I believe more people than ever have digested, two important documents in the last few weeks. One is the report of Sir Alan Marre, now retired from being the Parliamentary Commissioner, published in 45 typewritten pages and now reproduced in print as part of the annual report on the Acre Mill at Hebden Bridge. I thought it might be invidious of me to comment upon the story that he so vividly and carefully and in measured words was called upon to relate; we are all grateful to him for this investigation and for this gifted report. But it is necessary for me to emphasise what he himself said briefly, that the employers were outside his terms of reference; that he was investigating and reporting only on the Factory Inspectorate, and that therefore the conduct of the employers was to be considered only as part of the res gestae of the main investigation.

I thought that perhaps, particularly as when I asked Her Majesty's present Government whether there were records of successful cases being brought for tort in relation to industrial lung diseases T was told that they could not recall any, I might deal with a case that I subsequently discovered. I say frankly that I did not think there were any when I put the Question. This is not the Cape Asbestos Company; this is the Central Asbestos Company. For some reason, they have both changed their names since and "asbestos" does not appear in the titles.

These were not very bad employers. They had a couple of little factories at Bermondsey, which were wholly unsuitable for their purpose. But in their later years they did something which very few employers did. They submitted workers to an X-ray examination, particularly of the lungs, every two years. Whenever they got an adverse report, they gave a copy to the workman, but they never observed the regulations. Even the cleaning up the day before the visit was perfunctory, although it took place—heavy dust was removed from the rafters and a few bags were shifted around. Even then, of course, asbestos had to be kept in impermeable sacks, but they did not have any most of the time. The Factory Inspectorate wrote to them once every six months, over a good many years—I think from about 1953 to 1961—calling attention to the deplorable state of the factory and saying that something must be done and steps must he taken at once. That was the lot. There were calls, talks and advice, but by 1964 the firm were saying frankly, "We just cannot obey the regulations in these premises" and it was probably perfectly true. In 1968 they closed down.

I shall confine myself for the moment to Bob Smith, because I see that that wretched clock is gaining on me again. Bob Smith was a workman in that factory. He worked there for about six years, during the period I am covering. In about 1961, a new factory inspector, Miss Crosthwaite, came to take over and she was shocked and disgusted at what she found. She said, "Drastic action must be taken". On one occasion, she took a dust count and found that the dust in that factory was from 170 to 680 times the maximum permitted dust per cubic centimetre. It is almost unbelievable and difficult to visualise. Moreover, the ventilation was defective.

This otherwise decent little factory had a very popular manager, Mr. French, who had risen from the ranks and he took a rather daredevil view of the risks, but I am perfectly certain that it was because he was that type of decent, rather reckless man. He once said to the factory inspector "It is not really as serious as all that. I have got it myself and it is not putting me out. I go on working." But in 1966, although he wore a mask, Mr. Smith was finding acres of black when he blew his nose. He was getting worried and noticed that a friend of his was ill almost to the point of death. When his friend died, he asked for another examination and was afterwards told that he had asbestosis. There followed what was a more or less routine process—a fortnight on short time, an application to the Pneumoconiosis Board, an assessment of a miserable 20 per cent. pension or something like that and an expectation of life, estimated a year or two later, of six years—and he was then 44. He then did the one thing that was worth doing. He went to see his Member of Parliament who was one of the ablest and most respected Members of the House, and he is still there. He advised him imperatively to see a firm of solicitors and, furthermore, he wrote to the then Minister of Labour calling attention to the state of the factory. Still nothing had been done.

I rely on the Sunday Times for this report—I think it an excellent paper, by far the best of the 120 that the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, records himself as buying in the few months before he published his biography, though I confess that I have not read the Council Bluffs Nonpareil or the Moose-Jaw Times-Herald—and some years later they published a very full account of the case. One can hardly believe what happened. Miss Crosthwaite had gone. I rather thought that, like Miss Preen in The Man who came to Dinner, having devoted herself to nursing, she had now gone into armaments on a big scale and was going to blow up humanity.

But now that Miss Crosthwaite has moved to the Prison Service, she has some quite frank things to say about the Factory Inspectorate. In 1964 they had—I must be fair about this, even if the clock menaces—brought a prosecution against the firm on three charges and the magistrates had fined them £75 on one charge, £75 on the second and £20 on the third; and to mark their sense of the gravity of the case the magistrates ordered them to pay in addition costs amounting to 10 shillings.

Bob Smith's friend was dead, but there were six others in much the same position. Bob Smith was fortunate enough to go to one of the most experienced firms of solicitors in such matters and an action for damages was brought. This was a case that the Inspectorate, or the Ministry, had never heard of. The case lasted for 12 days and £86,000 was collectively awarded. Of course, it should be said that the case of The Central Asbestos Company is now being conducted by the insurance company. They are not to blame for what followed.

There was an appeal to the Court of Appeal and the hearing was reported. I have a photostat copy of Lord Denning's judgment but I have not the time to refer to it. Finally, the company took the case to the House of Lords on the question of the Statute of Limitations. Their Lordships heard the matter for five days and reversed the judgment—fortunately not in the case of Mr. Smith but in that of Mr. Dodd—Sby the narrowest possible margin: two one way, two the other and one half on one side and one half on the other. That decision, therefore, will not bind any future court, because the judge decided on special circumstances and that judgment was upheld. I should mention that Bob Smith was just able to visit the hospital and see the manager die.

I hope that your Lordships will forgive me. I plead for the permission of the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington. I have not had the privilege of speaking to her about this debate because I was a prisoner first in the Moses Room and then in a Committee room. However, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was good enough to provide me with this document. In 1968 the Standing Medical Advisory Committee reported on the control of the cancer hazard to the general public due to asbestos. Mrs. Tait, the Churchill Scholar in Asbestosis whose pamphlet was published a few days ago—perhaps it had a sensational cover but it contained a mass of detailed information giving references to every statement and quoting the practice in almost every country—applied for a copy of this document about eight years ago and was told that it was private. It brought to the public a useful, constructive report suggesting the measures which should be taken in factories to prevent and reduce cancer, but from time to time they have said, "This is private, or, "Officers of the Inspectorate very properly are writing articles". In support, I have material from the Office of Labour in Geneva which gives all this kind of information.

Your Lordships will have observed in the last week or two that some remarkable events have happened. Not only have I been mentioned but half of England has been mentioned in the Press as consisting of neglected cancer heaps, despite the warning in this document of the steps which should be taken. A few days ago on 26th April Mr. Henderson asked a question about the document in another place and was told that in view of the increased public interest they had now decided to release it and that that day it had been placed in the Library of the House of Commons. That was eight years too late and there was no reason at all for concealing the document.

I will conclude, my Lords, but I must do so with something that I promised. I said that I hardly believed it and I blamed it on the Sunday Times in case of inaccuracy. I referred to the letter that Mr. George Strauss wrote to the Minister of Labour. Another new, gifted and brilliant factory inspector was doing his work and demanding, again from his senior officers, that drastic action should be taken. Mr. Strauss wrote shortly before Christmas 1966. The new inspector, Mr. Fallaize, visited the factory two or three weeks later in the following January. He made an inspection and reported that half-filled sacks were lying about, that there was dust all over the floor, that there were no impermeable sacks, that there was an ineffective ventilator and that dust was lying by the extractor shed. That report went to its appropriate place and the Minister wrote to Mr. Strauss to say that he was glad to inform him that the district inspector's report on a very recent visit had shown a great improvement in conditions. He hoped that that would convince Mr. Strauss that the Inspectorate were carrying out their duties and said that the district inspector had reported that there was no need for action.

If this is true—and I want to know whether it is true, although I do not ask my noble friend to reply tonight—it is the most outrageous document that I have heard of in all these years of Parliamentary history. The people working at and directing the Central Asbestos Company were no doubt doing their best. On the other hand, it is the man higher up, whom we never hear of at all, who is really responsible, but from 1953 until they closed in January 1968 they were pouring poison all over Bermondsey. Deaths do not come quickly as with Jack the Ripper, but certainly they murdered a lot more people than Jack the Ripper and people are still suffering from this disease. If anybody is concerned about this disease they should see it. I say that the record of somebody inside the Ministry of Health is so disgraceful that it is impossible to overlook it and to overlook the neglect of safety precautions all over the country which could have been taken, had a little more activity been shown. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hale, who has done so much in bringing to our attention the dangers of asbestosis, is really quite an honour. I also feel rather nervous at following him after the very kind build-up that he gave me. In fact it is an occasion when one is rather nervous, to follow such a distinguished speaker and to be followed later in the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Platt, who is probably one of the greatest experts in this subject. However, I hope I shall not quote too many facts that can be disproved.

This is obviously a subject which is extremely emotive and anybody who is suffering or has suffered from these awful diseases must have all our sympathy. But it is not just a question of our sympathy; we obviously have to do all we can from now on. I think a lot has been done quite recently since the full implications of the dangers of asbestos and its result in asbestos-related diseases has become known. We are all actively concerned with asbestos. Between a quarter and a half of all those people in this country over 50 years of age have asbestos in their lungs. The point is that it is not so much having asbestos in one's lungs as, I believe, one's susceptibility to the disease. There is a mass of material available: in fact there is so much material that, as the noble Lord, Lord Hale, has said, one could go on for a considerable time quoting cases, but it would appear that the level of asbestos is the vital factor.

There has been a lot of emotive talk about the dangers of asbestos. It varies so much and is such a complicated and complex subject that it is very dangerous to generalise. At some time in our lives we have all been exposed to asbestos. I have handled asbestos and I have been round asbestos factories; therefore, doubtless I have asbestos in my lungs, but I think the work that has been done by Dr. Newhouse in the TUC Centenary Institute conclusively shows that it is the dosage which really counts. Since 1969 regulations have come into force. Perhaps there have been occasions when the Inspectorate has fallen down or something has gone wrong, but the levels have come right down and I think we can be proud of the 1969 regulations, which have done a lot. I am not saying this is the end of the road, by any manner of means. It would be quite wrong to say that, but we have led the world with these standards. A number of other countries are now quoted as having lower standards, but I must point out that these are standards which are being talked about; they are not necessarily being applied and therefore our two-fibre per millilitre level is an effective level as opposed to a lower, ineffective level, or unpoliced levels. Consequently the reduction in asbestos has reduced the risk very considerably. The banning in 1969 of crocidolite has had a tremendous effect especially on mesothelioma. The only problem here is that there will be a lot more cases coming up because of the long period it takes to manifest itself—15 years or so, or up to 50 years.

One thing is certain from all the research that has been done: the more we know, the more we realise that research has to be carried out in order to find some vital answers. How big is this problem? As I have said, each individual case is a tragedy in its own right and I am not going away from that point; but I should like to bring it a little into perspective in terms of the total number of deaths in this country. I will quote rounded figures because it is obviously going year by year. There are in this country about 583,000 deaths—obviously a high proportion of these are due to old age, but of those deaths 38,000, or about that figure, are lung cancer deaths. Mesothelioma actually accounts only for under 200 deaths. So it is a relatively rare disease, but I should like to come back to that point in a moment. Asbestos accounts for 140 deaths. If we put these two figures against traffic accidents, which are tragedies in their own right, there are 7,000 of those. The point is that the number of deaths from mesothelioma is small within the total universe of deaths, but within the working population affected by asbestos, which I believe is about 15,000, it is obviously quite a high percentage and we must do something about it.


My Lords, will the noble Lord forgive me for intervening for one moment? He has quoted the number of deaths from this disease and I am wondering whether he can tell me and the House whether those statistics were arrived at by post mortem examinations or just on the evidence of external examination at death?


My Lords, I stand to be corrected on this point and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, will correct me if I am wrong. But, so far as I know, these are post-mortem cases because they go on to the register and are recorded. The point at issue is one that I was coming to and I think I see the point which the noble Lord is alluding to. It is, I believe, the 38,000 lung cancer deaths. This is an area in which we do not know how many deaths were caused by asbestos. Certainly not all, but a proportion must have been so caused and I want to come to the subject of lung cancer and its relation to smoking in a moment.

As I have said, the 1969 standards have shown a considerable improvement and provided they are absolutely adhered to they were designed to reduce the risk and to leave a safety margin. New research is to be undertaken and the Committee that has been set up under the chairmanship of the Health and Safety Council we obviously welcome most sincerely. The standards of two fibres per millilitre at the moment are workable. Obviously it would be better if we could reduce these levels, but there are certain problems here.

Just covering the subject of other countries, we import about 150,000 tons of asbestos a year, which costs us about £18 million, but the largest producers are Russia. Out of the 4,500,000 tons produced, they produce about 2 million tons and I am sorry to say that they are producing a terrible problem at the moment in a number of underdeveloped countries because this asbestos is being shipped in jute bags and the level of dust is quite enormous. So unfortunately it is a worldwide problem and it is being perpetuated in a drastic way in other countries. Therefore I think it is also our responsibility to try to improve that situation where and how we can. That is easier said than done, of course.

It is easy enough to talk about these research findings in your Lordships' air-conditioned Chamber and to look upon each individual statistic as just so many points. But as I have said, they are individuals and they have suffered. It is, unfortunately, easy when looking at the problem, to look at it a little too emotionally on occasions, and it is easy to misinterpret this information, which is highly complex. As a layman, I feel I am not in a position to assess the position, and it will be up to the Committee, which I gather is holding its first hearings in June, to assess the information very fully. I hope the Committee will report very soon. We need some definitive answers to allay the fears, or to do something if those fears are totally justified, of not only the people concerned in asbestos factories, but the general public as a whole.

My Lords, from the research that I have seen—and I have read quite a considerable amount of this material—the danger for the ordinary public and in the home is relatively slight. Obviously, there are occasions where people who live near the old factories, or near a tip which has not been properly covered, can be exposed to these risks. But it is a question of dosage, and overall the general public is not exposed to much of a risk. There has been much talk recently about the Underground; for instance of Highgate Station having a particularly high level. In that case, London Transport have carried out tests, again with the TUC Centenary Institute, and the levels were found to be one-thousandth of the acceptable level. In fact most of the dust came from the contact between the wheels and the rails. There was a considerable amount of pollution, admittedly, but very little of it was asbestos.

I think the public ought to be reassured on these points because I think that needlessly they may take action which is unnecessary and which causes alarm. I am not, by any manner of means, saying the danger does not exist, but, especially when you are talking about locked-in fibres, in most cases exposure to the public is quite safe. It is a totally different matter when you come to boards like Asbestolux boards which the do-it-yourself enthusiast can work with. Here, what the noble Lord, Lord Hale, and others have been bringing to the attention of everyone is very valuable, because in my opinion the do-it-yourself enthusiast should not use asbestos. It is all right if done in the open, but it is very tempting to use a power drill or a power saw, and then you start exposing yourself to quite considerable risks. This is an area, therefore, where the actual use of asbestos must be discouraged wherever possible; but there are so many applications of asbestos and it is such a remarkable material that we cannot talk about banning it at this stage. We must make it as safe as possible. It is really a question of equations, because we must have asbestos in building, for the fire regulations. If you do not use it, you reduce very considerably the strength of the building. The use of asbestos gives 20-minutes fire protection, so if you do away with it you may have many more deaths from fire. Therefore it is an equation in which you set one side against the other.

Looking at the main related asbestos diseases, I have mentioned mesothelioma, and would like to say that of those deaths, the current notification rate is 234. It seems that about 70 per cent. of cases of mesothelioma are directly related to asbestos. Perhaps the figure is higher. But one point we should remember is that not all cases are related to asbestos. Research may show that there are other dangerous factors about at the moment. I know the noble Lord, Lord Hale, spoke about this, and I know he did not say that it was all related to asbestos.


My Lords, I had not intended to interrupt the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, but I would put one point. The people who are now found to have a direct association with asbestos are precisely those the noble Lord has been dismissing as taking risks. They are the people who have had different sorts of contacts with asbestos, who have breathed it in the air, who have worked it in the home, and who have seen father on the roof breaking it up, and so on; so the two figures given by the noble Lord really contradict one another.


Yes, my Lords, I appreciate what the noble Lord, Lord Hale, is saying on this point. I was merely saying on mesothelioma that there are other cases and we have to watch out for this, especially concerning glass fibre which is one of the substitutes we have been talking about. In the manufacture of PVC there are many carcinogens, and perhaps we can find out more as we go along on this subject.

I think that I have probably spoken too long already, but there are one or two further points I should like to raise: first, mesothelioma is not connected with smoking, but the one related disease that it is lung cancer. We do not know what proportion was caused by asbestos, but one terrifying fact emerges, namely, that the non-smoker in an asbestos factory is eight times more likely to get lung cancer. But, and this is a frightening point, if he smokes, he is 90 times more likely to get lung cancer than a non-smoker outside. Much has been said on the subject of trying to prevent smoking, but, frankly, I should like to see a ban on smoking in asbestos factories; not that I can prove in any way that it is the actual inhalation of asbestos at the time and smoking at the time that cause the damage, but more to make the point of this vastly increased danger of smoking.

My Lords, I have already mentioned the satisfactory levels, and the fact that the industry has considered in the past that the two-fibre level was satisfactory. We must work on this, and if possible reduce the level. It is a cost equation. It is not just the cost of producing asbestos in conditions which technologically are possible, because you can do anything you want if you are prepared to pay for it, but it is the cost benefit of producing asbestos. We will probably have to live with some risk, and it is our duty to reduce that risk to as low a level as possible. At the moment, if this is the case, money will be required to work on substitutes, and money will have to be spent now, and probably public funds. The industry has spent quite a lot of money on producing substitutes, and has succeeded in producing quite a number. However, there are some areas where asbestos is irreplaceable. I gather that at present the industry is spending about £80,000 on research, which is a quite considerable sum of money. I should be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, could tell us the total figure, and whether this figure is going to be increased.

One of the areas which was obviously worrying us all was the question of spraying. Could the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, confirm as a fact that there is only one company still spraying; it is not spraying chrysotile but chrystolite. It is going to stop spraying, fairly soon I believe. It is dangerous, and must be stopped. In the future we shall need to have sprays for the undersides of buildings where fire protection is needed, and the protection of mineral fibres which can be put on is possibly not so effective; they have to be heavier, which creates a problem in ships.

One of the other things I am glad to see happening is colour coding, which is vitally important, not only to people working in the industry, but for those putting up the material. Laggers will be particularly glad of this, but it is most important to the handyman. Warnings are going out this autumn. This is vitally important. One area where there has been no proof of a connection, although there has been a great deal of talk about it, is in ingested fibres. We obviously take in quite a number of fibres a year. I believe a pint of beer has a figure of 5,000 fibres in it. This is a terrifying figure, but when you consider it in relation to the size of these microscopic fibres that means that all the beer consumed in this country in a year would produce one thimbleful of fibre, so the size of the fibre is minute. All the research I have seen so far indicates that there is no danger from ingested fibres. I should be grateful if the noble Lord could cover this point in his reply.

Finally, and perhaps rather appropriately, I should come to demolition and stripping. This obviously causes a considerable amount of dust. Provided the code is adhered to the danger is limited. But stripping is a different matter because outside workers come in and take off material and put it back. I believe that anybody concerned with either demolition or stripping ought to be registered. Therefore, the contractors ought to be licensed. I believe that some work has been done, and this is being looked at at the moment.

There is one point which I feel should be looked at very carefully. It is that the onus should be put on anybody who wishes to demolish a building in which there is asbestos to inform the local authority that he is going to demolish the building which has asbestos in it. Then it would be up to the local authorities to ensure that a licensed contractor is used, observing the code, and that the risks are therefore minimal. Quite how this would work I do not know; it would have to be done in conjunction with the Factories Inspectorate. But I feel that a system is most important, because some building is going up with a vast amount of asbestos in it. Probably the people using it most of all are the Post Office. When these buildings have to come down we are going to have considerable problems. So the importance of licensing contractors is, I think, something that we ought to look into now, and I hope the noble Lord will be kind enough to mention this point in his reply.

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, may I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Hale, for once again raising this subject, which is increasingly becoming of concern to all members of the public, not only to the people who work in asbestos industries. We are grateful to the noble Lord for giving us the opportunity yet again to discuss this question. I am very sorry that my noble friend Lord Avebury is not able to be here today. He is a great expert on this subject. Unfortunately, he unavoidably has to attend another committee meeting. I am no substitute for Lord Avebury, and I only want to speak about one or two points, particularly in relation to the general public and what has become a great fear among the general public about asbestos. For the first time, recently people in general have begun to wonder what they themselves can do about it.

It seems odd that this circular from the Standing Medical Advisory Committee, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hale, referred, should not have been published since 1968; that is, for 8 years. There are in it various recommendations, some of which, I am sure, could easily have been implemented as from 1968 onwards. I should like to ask the Government whether they have implemented, for instance, the second recommendation about marking materials for domestic building and workshop use which contain asbestos, or what is the reason why it has not been done in those 8 years. I should also like to ask whether it is not a bit odd to issue a document which, as its seventh recommendation, says: The use of different types of asbestos in this country, the extent to which the public is exposed to asbestos dust, and the hazard associated with this exposure, should be reviewed in five years' time from the introduction of the Asbestos Regulations 1969, that is in May 1975. Well, this is May 1976, and this document was published, I believe, on 28th April this year.

One could ask oneself more than one question about a document like this. First of all, what can be the reaction of the medical members who have given of their time to try to help the nation create a proper policy on asbestos and find that their efforts are put on the side for eight years? It is not an unusual occurrence for papers of this kind within our nation, and it is increasingly discouraging people from taking part. Today I had a telephone call from Dr. Hamlin, who is a member of the all-Party Committee for Freedom of Information, under the chairmanship of Mr. Arthur Lewis, a Member of Parliament. He feels that the publication of this document in particular provides a typical example of withholding information which the people of this country have a right to have published. He claims—and I have not been able to verify it—that it would hardly be possible in Sweden, which is a country, as your Lordships know, where the utmost communication between Government and people is looked for; and to a certain extent the same thing applies in the United States of America. It may be that we could learn a lesson about publication of these papers from this particular one.

As the paper states, the regulations at present in force on asbestos need to be reviewed urgently. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, has referred to the present standard, of two fibres per millilitre of air, as being, he thought, more or less satisfactory—although I may have misunderstood him—or as low a standard as we could possibly enforce at the moment. But it was, after all, introduced not to abolish the risk of asbestosis; it was introduced with the certain knowledge that it would only reduce to 1 per cent. the incidence of asbestosis in the industry. But since then all the medical research, I would claim, in the United States, in Canada and in the Medical Research Council at Penarth has indicated that this standard is not low enough to prevent even asbestosis, let alone other chest diseases, and that it is not low enough to keep the incidence to 1 per cent. So we are faced with the problem of answering two other questions relating to this.

We have already had reference, in the statistics which the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, gave, to the number of deaths from lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. We see how often the actual cause of death could also have been given as heart failure, because of excessive strain on the heart due to cancer of the lung or other lung diseases which, because of the heart failure, were never diagnosed. We do not know to what extent that has influenced the statistics on the number of deaths.

I am also very disturbed, as an ordinary person, about what I understand the medical profession now generally agree about; namely, that the dosage can be very much more minimal than we expected it to have to be in the past, and that the results of that inhalation, or absorption, of asbestos fibre may not show themselves for perhaps as long as 50 years, but certainly for quite a great number of years. This is very worrying to the average person who reads these facts in the Press. Therefore, all of us welcome the setting up of the Simpson Committee to look into all these matters. It was announced in this House on 30th March. So far as I am aware the members of the Committee have not yet been announced. I have just been told by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that it hopes to meet in June for the first time. I am not aware that the members have been announced yet, but am happy to hear that its first meeting is not too far distant.

When it starts deliberations there are some things that I believe we should ask the Simpson Committee to look into, if it has not already been asked to do so. One of the most important is that it should be empowered to look into the materials used in substitution for asbestos. The noble Lord, Lord Hale, mentioned fibreglass, which is one material that is frequently used in substitution, and there are others. It may be that if the materials are expected to have the same qualities as asbestos they also have the same dangers, and I think that the Simpson Committee is the perfect vehicle for looking into these matters and protecting the nation in that way.

I would also hope that the Simpson Committee would publish its evidence as it goes along, and that we shall not have to wait until the complete report is ready, because then we shall have the same problem, for a different reason, that we have had with this recent publication. It is most important that the information should be permeated to the nation as soon as it is available.

There is one other point that I should like to ask the Government to have a look at and consider, and perhaps reassure me about. Have the Government a policy for compensation for workers who are employed in premises not covered by the Factories Acts? This is something I do not know. Their only remedy would be to prove negligence on behalf of their employer, and this is a costly legal exercise. I should like to know, for instance, what remedy a man who is working a shovel on top of a waste dump has should he acquire a disease due to working with asbestos waste. There was a reference to this in the Press about a week or ten days ago, when it was found that a lot of this asbestos waste had not been properly bagged and that there was not enough topsoil available to cover the waste properly. Therefore, it was a danger not only to the man who was using the bulldozer on the waste dump but also to people living in the neighbourhood.

Lastly, the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, talked about cost effectiveness, and that there is so much you can do and so much you cannot do. We spend an enormous amount of money on cancer research and trying to find a cure for cancer. Should not we spend it on prevention and protecting people against substances such as asbestos?

6.25 p.m.


My Lords, like others I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hale, for bringing up this extremely important subject. I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, who made only one crashing mistake because he said that I was a great expert on this subject, and I want to tell your Lordships right from the beginning that I am not. From what we have heard today I think that the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, is probably a much greater expert on the subject of asbestosis than I am.

I was at one time very involved in the question of silicosis and the Sheffield grinders who, in those days, used sandstone wheels for grinding knives and swords and other sharp instruments. They used to get silicosis, which led to a general fibrosis, a thickening, hardening of the lung, and in those days this used to lead on to tuberculosis. Thinking of those days (which has no direct application to what we are talking about today), I remember in relation to possible substitutes for sandstone that it was always said in the Sheffield grinding trades that you could not get the same results by grinding on carborundum and similar substances. That was the general belief until the law made silicosis a compensatable disease, and then the general belief that you had to do it on a sandstone wheel suddenly died out. I think that that kind of action can sometimes achieve more than other kinds of prevention.

Not being an expert on asbestosis I shall try to keep my remarks as short as possible, and I hope that any medical information I may give will be accurate. It is of course true, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, that asbestosis, and certainly mesothelioma, are really very rare diseases. But he was also so right in saying, "Yes, but we must not compare these with the general death rate of the population over a whole year, or something like that. What is the death rate in people who really are exposed to asbestosis either in their work or in their leisure pursuits?" and that is a very different matter.

The subject takes further importance in that some of the results of asbestos lead inevitably to death and are, therefore, extremely serious for the individual, even if their seriousness for the population as a whole may be quite limited. Really asbestosis, to use that as a sort of all-embracing term, takes three forms: one is rather like the silicosis, or pneumoconiosis, which you get in grinders, mineworkers, and others, causing this gradual fibrosis of the lung. The second form is that that leads on to cancer of the lung which, as I think has been said, can be almost indistinguishable from cancer of the lung caused by any other substance. This brings me to the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, who sat down with the remark, "We know the cause of cancer: why don't we prevent it instead of looking for cures?". That leads me directly to cigarette smoking. We know the cause of most cancers of the lung, and nothing is being done about it. That is by the way.

It is very difficult to distinguish these forms and it may be impossible until the post-mortem, which is rather late in the course of the disease. It is true, therefore, that 20 or even 10 years ago, when asbestosis was hardly talked about, there were many cases of death from cancer of the lung, but it was never really considered. Nevertheless, I do not think that, by and large, asbestosis is a common cause of cancer of the lung in the general population and I think that Lord Redesdale would agree with me, from the figures he gave, that when one has a combination of asbestos and cigarette smoking one gets 90 times the cancer rate.

The third one is mesothelioma, a malignant tumour, a cancer of the pleura —that is the covering of the lung—and occasionally a similar covering in the abdominal organs, the peritoneum, but that is very rare indeed. I think the general belief among experts is that asbestos, like silicate dust, causes its effects largely by its physical rather than its chemical qualities. It remains there in the lung, insoluble; it remains for the rest of the person's life and it can do things to body cells—irritating them, penetrating them and so on—which, in rare instances, can lead to the development of cancer. That, I think, is the present state of affairs and it is therefore largely a random process. Thus, we would expect that some cases develop within a year or two of exposure to asbestos whereas others may take very many years, just as with cigarette smokers some die at the age of 40 or even 35 while others carry on into old age without getting cancer. These, like so many of the processes in biology, are really random effects.

The question of substitutes must be considered very seriously. Last night I spoke with a considerable expert on the subject and I understand that this is now being seriously considered in regard to fibreglass. It is probably the size of the fibre in the fibreglass which apparently makes it, as things are at present, much less liable to cause cancer of the lung and other lung diseases than is asbestos. However, if the fibreglass people—those who use fibreglass for all sorts of useful purposes—were to reduce the size of the fibres, the whole situation might be changed. This is very much in the minds of the experts on this subject.

So much has already been said by others—and they have said it very well indeed—that I have little to add. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hale, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, for bringing to our attention the hold-up of the report from the Standing Medical Advisory Committee—of which I was once a member—of the Department of Health and Social Security. This is an extraordinarily important document but apparently it has been held up for eight years. It is probably too much to hope that we will get an explanation for that, but we can hope that the lesson sinks in and that we will not have to put up with such delays in future. This is a very complicated subject and, as we know from those who have spoken and from others, to find a cure is not likely to he possible, at any rate in our time. To find preventive measures, however, is possible. We know most of them or what they should be. The thing is to make quite certain that they are enforced, and that is a matter for legislators, factory inspectors, engineers and others, just as much as it is a matter for the medical profession.

6.35 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I wish, first, to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hale, for introducing this subject again; he and I debated it not long ago and it is not easy, therefore, to find new points to make. I wish also to congratulate my noble friend Lord Redesdale on his maiden speech, so to speak, at the Dispatch Box, and I would comfort him by saying that although he was interrupted, when I made my maiden speech in the other place I, too, was interrupted, and I have always thought it an honour to he interrupted in one's maiden speech. I wish also to congratulate the Parliamentary Commissioner, Sir Alan Marre. This is an excellent report. He has gone into very great detail and as he is now retiring I hope that our gratitude will be received by him, not only for this report but for the work lie has done over many years. I am delighted that Mrs. Nancy Tait used her Churchill Fellowship in connection with this excellent report. It is a very unemotional report and I assure noble Lords that if they had seen Mrs. Tait the other day, as I had the honour to do, at the Press conference in this House, and had seen how well she handled the Press, they would agree that it has been very courageous for the widow of one of the victims of this unfortunate disease. We are thankful to her and I hope that she will be remembered in the years to come.

I want to consider the future because most noble Lords have gone into the details of the matter. I should like to know, however, why the 1971 report as well as the other report has not been published. We really do not know, despite the figures we have heard today, how many are suffering and how many are considered to be at risk. In the previous debate on this subject I asked a question and I received what I thought was a most contradictory' answer from the Minister. He told me: It has not been used since 1954". That is a dump, to which I had referred, near a school. The Health and Safety Executive has no statutory obligations in respect of this tip. Nevertheless, it has provided the local authority with advice and guidance after its inspectors visited the site…". The answer went on: The local authority has fenced off the footpath and covered it with non-hazardous material". What was the point, as it had been going on since 1954, of taking that action if it was not dangerous? Surely it must have been dangerous or at some risk to people all those years, otherwise it has been a waste of money to fence it off and cover it over.

It says in the Standing Medical Advisory Committee's document: The tipping of asbestos waste should be permitted only under strict control. Therefore, we note and welcome the Asbestos Research Council's Code of Practice for the Handling and Disposal of Asbestos Waste Material and would recommend that local authorities should adhere to the guidance issued by the Department of the Environment in Circular 80/69…". Does that mean that local authorities have not been taking any notice, or did they receive that circular? Perhaps the noble Lord would let me know what action has been taken by other local authorities if they have received that circular. Like other noble Lords, I hope that the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, who, I gather, has already sent out invitations to Members to serve on the committee announced the other day, will be able to publish the names soon and perhaps it will be possible to announce them in this House. I am very interested to note, too, that asbestos has been included in the environmental research projects in the air and water in the EEC programme for 1976 to 1980. As this has been done, I hope that Her Majesty's Government will be able to give some information on the subject. Unless the Committee is set up fairly quickly, we may be rather behindhand; so I hope that the matter will be treated as urgent.

It has been remarked by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that one of the difficulties about asbestos is that it is useful and cheap and it is of course fireproof. Therefore, coming out of today's debate, there must be some consideration for the general public. Either we must remove the doubts about asbestos being as dangerous as has been stated recently or experiments should be urgently undertaken to find a substitute material or to cut down the amount of asbestos in the sheeting. I gather that that is something which can be done. Also, the licensing system must be improved as regards the disposal of the waste. I believe that this should have been done under the Control of Pollution Act for the protection of water and public health. A joint Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Health Organisation expert committee on food additives has stated that much more research is needed in regard to food, and I hope that the United Kingdom Food Additives and Contaminants Committee will investigate the problem soon or, if they are doing so now, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, will tell us.

I should like to suggest that, as is done with Rawlplastic and Screwfix asbestos, which, I gather, both have warning labels, labels giving instructions with regard to the care to be taken in the use of products should be placed on a wide range of other products. Examples are hairdryers, vinyl asbestos floor tiles, linoleum and roof slates. None of this is done at present, and I gather that these products should be marked because they are in daily use and can be dangerous. I also feel that leaflets could be given to workers explaining how the use of asbestos should be undertaken and making it clear that, if they keep it damp and use hand tools instead of power tools, they will create much less dust, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said. It should also be emphasised that the waste should always be collected and that the overalls of workers should be made of manmade fibre and should be washed at the work premises and not taken home to the wives to wash, so avoiding an added possibility of the women coming into contact with the asbestos dust.

In regard to masks, I believe that it is essential that a mask with a filter should be worn. I understand that gauze masks are not sufficiently safe. Over the years, I have had the opportunity of going round the Royal Naval Dockyards, where an excellent doctor, Captain Harris, made a special study of the disease and its prevention, As a result, for some time now men working with asbestos have worked in air-conditioned chambers such as this Chamber—probably even better—and have had protective clothing. This has made a tremendous difference and one seldom comes across cases, though one will of course have to wait to see whether cases will develop, as the disease takes between 10 and 50 years to show itself. However, the regulations are being well carried out.

The Asbestos Industry Regulations were introduced as far back as 1931 and again in 1969 for the safety and welfare of employed persons. I should like to know why more action has not been taken. I gather from what has been said already that spraying has practically stopped but it has been banned in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago since 1972. The United Kingdom Joint Advisory Committee on Safety and Health in the Construction Industry recommended that, in the case of new construction work, employers should seriously consider using less toxic substitute materials in place of asbestos, whereas the Asbestos Information Committee of the United Kingdom, which is advised by the Research Council, still published a leaflet called, Asbestos—Public not at Risk. From this and from what we have heard today, it is clear that there are many contrary opinions.

There is also the question of the people who break up asbestos. Scrap merchants should really be warned. I gather that the document sent round to local authorities says that asbestos should not be used for insulation purposes where it will have to be broken down to permit regular inspection. I regret to say that that still goes on with many pipes which have been lagged. I hope that it will be ensured when such pipes are renewed in the future that lagging is not done with asbestos.

The noble Lord, Lord Platt, mentioned fibreglass. I have seen drawings done following X-rays which show people with these little glass needles in the lungs. I hope that the noble Lord may say when he replies that investigations are being made into fibreglass because we do not want to dispose of one danger and start another. We are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hale, for having raised this matter again and I hope that, when the Minister replies, if he cannot answer all the questions tonight, he will write to us so that we can have the satisfaction of knowing that the matter has been looked into.

6.48 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that I may crave the indulgence of your Lordships, my name not being on the printed list. I have been wrestling with the problems of dust—not asbestos dust, but coal and stone dust—for many years. One of the reasons why I rise is to congratulate my noble friend Lord Hale for having once again raised this problem of dust in the world of asbestos manufacture. I have known my noble friend for many years, in and out of season, and from two angles. He has constantly sought to focus the attention of the people who matter and to bring the laws to the notice of those who are the victims of this kind of dust. What can be done? That has for many years been the theme song of my noble friend in the field of prevention. I have said previously in your Lordships' House and I would say it in any sphere, but particularly in this: a fence at the top of a cliff is much better than an ambulance at the bottom.

The other point which my noble friend has always had in mind is that those who succumb as victims to this terrible disease, while no compensation would be adequate, need to have something done for them. What can be done to make them feel that what they have contracted and what they are suffering can be endured more easily? What can be done to help them endure the terrible hardship of this disease? I join with all your Lordships in congratulating my noble friend for once again bringing to the notice of your Lordships' House and of the outside world—in particular the employers and the general public—the fact that some people suffer in the process of the manufacture of asbestos. I listened with interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, and was rather amazed to hear her say that in those factories which do not come under the Factory Inspectorate—I hope that there is none—the only recourse which those who contract the disease have is for damages on the basis of negligence at Common Law.

I am not sure whether that is absolutely correct. I recall when we in the mining industry were discussing the question of silicosis, as it then was. Remember, my Lords, that the word "pneumoconiosis" is quite a modern one; it was not coined until 1943. I recall that under the then Workmen's Compensation Acts, and since under the Industrial Injuries Act, benefit can be claimed by any person who in the course of his employment has contracted a lung disease as a result of any kind of dust, whether it be silica dust or any other kind of dust. At one time the prescription was restricted to silica. I thought it advisable to put that matter on the record—


My Lords, I am so grateful for what my noble friend has said. It was out of and in the course of employment that about 10,000 conflicting decisions on the meaning of the section, and the whole question of silicosis or anthrocosis were made by a medical referee. If he decided that a man had got it, he could be called up again three months later and be given a certificate that he had recovered.


My Lords, I do not want to get into a legal argument with my noble friend, but the onus of proof was altered under the Industrial Injuries Act. At one time the onus of proof as to whether Mr. X was suffering from this or that disease was on the person himself. But now it rests upon the Department of Health and Social Security.

But setting that point apart, I wish to say in the main what I took to be the thread running through the whole speech of my noble friend. This is how I interpreted his speech. He posed the questions: Is there a sense of urgency in the matter? is enough being done in terms of prevention to reduce the incidence of this disease among those employed in the manufacture of asbestos? That is what I thought was being asked as I listened to the speech of my noble friend. In my humble judgment there is a wonderful lesson to be learnt from what has taken place in the coal mining industry regarding the incidence of pneumoconiosis. I pay tribute both to the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers. They have worked with wonderful spirit and co-operation at pit level, area level, and national level. In regard to minimising dust in the pits, they have done, and are still doing, a wonderful job.

I wish to refer here to notes sent out by the National Coal Board. If I interpret the speech of my noble friend correctly, there is not the sense of urgency that there might be in this matter; I do not put it any higher than that. But the objective of the National Coal Board is to eliminate pneumoconiosis from the mining industry. As long as there are new cases, combating the disease will be a priority task; the notes from the National Coal Board go on to indicate what has been done in the way of prevention. Because of the ravages of asbestosis, and the hardship and sorrow that it must bring domestically I hope that prevention will be priority number one in the manufacture of asbestos.

Before I conclude I wish to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale—I did not realise that he was making his maiden speech from the Opposition Dispatch Box—but what I asked was not a hostile question. I thought that he had given some remarkable figures concerning this matter, and I was so interested that I wanted to see whether he could satisfy me on how the diagnosis of these cases is arrived at; whether it was by post-mortem or otherwise.

6.56 p.m.


My Lords, first I should like to compliment my noble friend Lord Hale on his tenacity and his initiative in raising this question once again, and I assure him that his feelings and his views on these matters have respect in all parts of the House. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on his maiden speech from the Opposition Dispatch Box. His speech was informed and it was moderate, and we hope that we shall hear the noble Lord speak from that position on many occasions in the future.

The use of asbestos is controlled by the Asbestos Regulations, 1969, and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The Asbestos Regulations apply to premises and activities subject to the Factories Act 1961, where asbestos is used and processes are carried out which can give rise to asbestos dust in such concentrations as is liable to cause danger to health. In cases where these regulations do not apply, similar standards are enforced under the general powers of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

I should also explain that these regulations, and the legislation, apply to building sites and demolition sites. At this point I should also assure the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that his suggestion of registration of those involved in demolition work involving asbestos will receive consideration in conjunction with a similar recommendation made in the other place. In the meantime, I should point out that in the case of blue asbestos, before it can he disturbed or removed, it is necessary to give 28 days' notice to the factory inspector.

The Health and Safety Executive, which enforces these regulations, interpret these concentrations by reference to hygiene standards which are based on the British Occupational Hygiene Society hygiene standard of two fibres per millilitre for chrysotile asbestos, which was established in 1968. For blue asbestos, which was thought to be much more dangerous, the standard was set at 1/10th of that for chrysotile and amosite asbestos. This was a far more stringent standard than any other then in use throughout the world.

The Asbestos Regulations are designed primarily to reduce or eliminate exposure to asbestos dust by the provision of exhaust ventilation, by design of new buildings in such a manner as to eliminate places on which dust can settle, and by special requirements to keep the buildings and plant clean. Loose asbestos and asbestos waste must not be kept and moved, except in closed receptacles. Special requirements exist for the notification of operations involving blue asbestos.

When it is not practicable to control asbestos dust by exhaust ventilation, personal protective equipment must be provided, including approved masks. In such cases, the regulations require employers to provide protective clothing for all workpeople exposed to asbestos dust; to provide suitable accommodation for its storage when not in use; and to ensure that such clothing is either cleaned at the factory or packed in suitably-marked containers before despatch from the factory for cleaning. The Health and Safety at Work Act imposes on employees the obligation to co-operate with their employers in carrying out these requirements, so that there should now be no question of workers taking home overalls or other clothing contaminated with asbestos dust.

Inspectors of the Health and Safety Executive are instructed to visit at least once a year all factories to which these regulations apply, and more often if necessary, and to enforce the regulations strictly. Between May 1970, when the regulations came into force, and the 31st December 1975, there were 120 successful prosecutions against 50 firms under the Asbestos Regulations. Between January 1975, when the Health and Safety at Work Act came into force, and the 25th March this year 70 prohibition notices and 31 improvement notices, containing 127 requirements relating to asbestos, were issued.

How effective has the current hygiene standard been in the prevention of asbestosis? Unfortunately, since asbestosis takes time to develop it will be some years yet before this question can be answered with any degree of certainty. Stringent enforcement of the hygiene standards has undoubtedly resulted in considerable improvement, and in 1970 the Employment Medical Advisory Service set up a continuing survey to monitor the health of asbestos workers in order to produce the necessary information to validate the standard. In conjunction with the Employment Medical Advisory Service, the occupational medicine and hygiene laboratories of the Health and Safety Executive are measuring asbestos dust concentrations to which workers are exposed. But because of the time it takes for these diseases to develop no immediate conclusions can be anticipated. So far this on-going survey of asbestos workers has covered 12,000 workers and represents the majority of workers covered by the Asbestos Regulations.

Although asbestosis is the most well-known disease associated with asbestos, exposure to asbestos can also give rise to lung cancer and mesothelioma. These conditions may occur independently. The most important cancer afflicting asbestos workers is cancer of the lung, and it has been confirmed that asbestos workers who smoke cigarettes run a vastly increased risk of developing lung cancer compared with other smokers and non-smokers. Mesothelioma is a rare tumour of the lining of the chest and abdomen. It does not respond to any treatment at present available. It can present difficulties in diagnosis, even to experts in this field. Like other cancers, it is not yet possible to establish a dose response relationship; nor, indeed. to be certain that asbestos is the only causative factor. It came into prominence in the early 1960s, when reported among workers in South African blue asbestos mines. Subsequently, there were a number of reports from various countries, including the United Kingdom, of cases of mesothelioma in people who had worked with asbestos or lived near asbestos works, or even lived in the same household as asbestos workers. There are indications that mesothelioma has been associated with all forms of asbestos except anthophyllite. Cases have also arisen in persons where no exposure to asbestos has been identified.

The proportion of people with mesothelioma who have had a history of exposure to asbestos varies. An analysis by Greenburg and Lloyd Davies for 1967–68 showed that 68 per cent. of cases had a definite history of occupational exposure to asbestos, but nearly 16 per cent. did not have any history of exposure to asbestos, even after the most detailed inquiries. This would seem to suggest the possibility of other causative factors. There is usually a long latent period between the history of exposure to asbestos and the contraction of mesothelioma. In Greenburg's survey, 85 per cent. had a history of last exposure 25 years previously. Reduction in the incidence of mesothelioma as a result of improvement in the working environment would not become evident for many years.

A mesothelioma register for Great Britain has been maintained by the Employment Medical Advisory Service since 1967. Notifications are currently running at approximately 230 cases per year.

Claims for disablement benefit for pneumoconiosis, including asbestosis, and for diffuse mesothelioma under the Social Security Act are dealt with by pneumoconiosis medical panels composed of doctors who specialise in this work. They have the duty of diagnosing the disease and assessing the degree of disablement. They also undertake the medical surveillance of certain workers in dusty industries, including the asbestos industry. The pneumoconiosis medical board normally makes an assessment for a limited period so that the claimant is examined regularly; and, if necessary, the assessment can be increased if the dis- ability caused by the disease becomes worse.

On the question of compensation, as I think is generally known to the House, it is a matter for the employer. At present, any employee suffering from industrial disease or injury may recover damages against his employer if he can show to the satisfaction of the courts that the employer was negligent or in breach of a statutory duty. However, the House will be pleased to he informed that the Royal Commission on Civil Liability and Compensation for Personal Injury is expected to complete its work by the end of this year. It is at that point of time that Government policy in relation to compensation will be reconsidered.

I should like now to refer to the reports which in some quarters have been called secret reports. The reports, to which various noble Lords have referred, were both prepared by the standing subcommittee on cancer of the Standing Medical Advisory Committee. The Standing Medical Advisory Committee is a statutory advisory body to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, and not the Secretary of State for Employment. The Committee considers with the help of its subcommittees a wide range of health matters and offers appropriate advice. Action resulting from this advice takes a number of forms, depending on what is considered to be most useful and desirable in the particular circumstances.

The reports were intended as a review of the current situation at the time for the guidance of Government departments responsible for the manufacture, safety and use of asbestos products. The 1969 regulations were, at the time of the first report, being drafted; and this report was considered in conjunction with the drafting. Both the 1968 and the 1971 reports, each of which, I might say, were contained on one sheet of foolscap, were circulated to interested Government Departments at the time of their production and there has certainly never been any intention that they should be regarded as secret. In view of the recent interest shown in them, copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and made available to anyone requesting them.


My Lords, might I make a single comment on that? When my noble friend is talking about the absence of secrecy, does he know that when these seven dying men sued for damages the inspectorate claimed Crown privilege for the very report on the operations of the company which was certainly due to the men as much as to the employers?


My Lords, my noble friend and the House will be aware that I cannot answer for something said by an inspector as a witness in any particular case.


My Lords, it was an application to the court by counsel for Crown privilege.


My Lords, I can only repeat that I was not aware of what my noble friend has said and therefore I cannot answer him; but I will take note of what he has said and if I can get any information about it I will certainly do so.

The reports deal with the control of the cancer hazard in the general population due to asbestos and not to occupational exposure. Recommendations in the reports have largely been overtaken by events—in particular, the Asbestos Regulations of 1969 and the voluntary labelling scheme for marking asbestos products. Following that, we have the event that no raw blue asbestos has been imported into the United Kingdom for many years. While on this point, I should like to say in regard to spraying that it is our information that there is now no spraying in new buildings. There may be a slight amount of spraying by way of repair to old lagging; and in that case it is subject to very strict regulations.

I should like to refer now to the further action the Government are taking. We are collaborating in the EEC. The EEC has commissioned what is known as the Zielhuis Report. That report has been submitted to the experts of the various Member-countries and they have been invited not merely to give their opinion on the report but to relate their experience from research and experience in the field on the medical problems concerned. I should expect that in due course there will be recommendations by the EEC to the Member States.

The Committee which was announced by my noble friend Lord Oram in the House earlier this year has been referred to in the debate, and I think that all need do is to underline its terms of reference. They are to enable it to cover all risks from asbestos including its release into the working and general environment—and I stress the word "general"—and it has either to satisfy itself that the safeguards introduced in 1970 for persons employed at work and other subsequent legislation are adequate, or, alternatively, to make recommendations on how improvements should be made. The report of the committee will be published and its recommendations considered by the Health and Safety Commission and the Ministers responsible for the matters under review. In the interim period the regulations will be strictly enforced. Furthermore, it seems sensible wherever possible to replace asbestos by safe or less hazardous substitutes.

Whether such substitutes are safe we do not know, but I can assure the House that some research work is going on. For example, recent observations that mineral fibres, including glassfibres, produce cancer when experimentally injected into the chests of rats have stimulated further concern; although it was an artificial situation. Some forms of glassfibres have very fine fibres and the effect of these on the lungs is unproven. Fibre size rather than chemical composition is thought to be the cause of injuries to the lung. This, I think, was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Platt.

While this research is continuing it is Government policy and the policy of their agencies to recommend the use of substitutes wherever practicable. While we do this, I would suggest that we should not embark upon scaremongering. I think that in recent times there has probably been a little of that and it could give rise to unnecessary concern. There is no convincing evidence that the normal use of a few square inches of asbestos on, say, an ironing board on which to stand the iron is hazardous to health. I think that that should be said.

Nevertheless, consultations with the Asbestos Research Council and the Asbestos Information Committee are in progress on the introduction of a voluntary labelling schemes for products containing asbestos. Household goods and do-it-yourself goods which contain asbestos will be covered by this scheme. Leaflets which set out ways and means to avoid exposure to asbestos dust in the use of do-it-yourself materials will be made available by the Asbestos Information Committee for distribution to retailers. Products labelled in conformity with the scheme should begin to be seen in the shops in October. The scheme cannot operate sooner because there is a long waiting list for labelling machines. The Asbestos Information Committee also supplies leaflets warning of the hazards of asbestos at work.

We still do not know all we need to know about the health risks from asbestos and it is for this reason that a considerable amount of research is currently in progress. This includes research into dust diseases including the carcinogenic effects of asbestos by the Medical Research Council's pneumoconiosis unit at Penarth. In addition, at Penarth the Health and Safety Executive is also funding a new approach on the identification and quantification of fibres, including asbestos fibres, likely to produce carcinogenic effects in man. Research into the immunological aspects of pneumoconiosis, including asbestosis, is being carried out at the Cardiothoracic Institute at Brompton hospital.

I should like now to conclude by saying a little about asbestos waste. The disposal of asbestos waste is subject to the provisions of the Deposit of Poisonous Wastes Act 1972. Under this Act, persons wishing to remove waste from any premises and deposit it elsewhere must give written notice to the local authority and water authority for the areas in which the waste is situated and in which it is intended to deposit it. The disposal of asbestos waste will shortly be covered by the disposal licensing system introduced under Part 1 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974. Under the licensing system local authorities have powers to lay down conditions for the disposal of most types of wastes for the purpose, among other things, of safeguarding public health. Local authorities also have powers under the Public Health Act 1936 to require the removal of noxious material or the abatement of a statutory nuisance, which includes a deposit prejudicial to health.

The Act also empowers local authorities to deal with the abandoned waste sites for which there is no equivalent provision in the Control of Pollution Act 1974. When people work on these sites, the Health and Safety at Work Act also applies. Inspectors of the Health and Safety Executive are currently undertaking special visits to land-fill sites where asbestos waste is deposited, to determine the exposure to asbestos dust and to ensure that adequate precautions are taken.

My Lords, I would conclude by assuring the House that the Government and the Health and Safety Commission share the concern which has been expressed, both in the House and elsewhere, about health risks from asbestos. The Government's present policy is directed to a reduction of these risks to the lowest possible level. I believe that I have dealt with most of the points which have been raised. In so far as I have not, I will see that noble Lords receive a communication from me.