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Asbestos in Homes

Volume 495: debated on Monday 29 June 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Watts.)

I am grateful to have secured this debate, because it is on an important and complex issue, and I believe that there is a common-sense way to deal with it. I am also pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), in his place, because he has some knowledge about asbestos in relation to social housing, which is what the debate is about.

The debate centres on a report that was recently compiled for the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians by two ladies, Linda Waldman and Heather Williams, who have brought to the attention of UCATT a number of important issues. I want to talk about three of them tonight. First, I want to draw to the Minister’s attention the size of the problem. Secondly, I want to refer to the research in the paper, because it relates to a great deal of the current research and gives us an opportunity to consider the recommendations that have been made. Thirdly, I want to suggest to the Minister that he might think about taking some of the recommendations on board, as they would bring about the changes required without a prohibitive capital outlay.

The Minister will be aware that asbestos causes a range of diseases: asbestosis, pleural plaques, pleural thickening, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The latter two diseases are unrelated to dosage, and it is thought that just a small exposure can lead to mesothelioma. I want to bring his attention to a study done by the British Lung Foundation in January last year, which set out to explore how wide people’s knowledge of the dangers of asbestos was. It commissioned a survey of 399 tradespeople in January 2008, and the respondents were made up of plumbers, builders, carpenters, electricians, joiners and gas fitters of varying ages. The results showed that a third of tradespeople admitted to not being well informed about asbestos, and three in 10 incorrectly believed that asbestos had now been removed from all UK buildings. There is great ignorance about asbestos. Last year, there were more than 2,000 mesothelioma deaths in the UK, which has led some to suggest that the UK has a mesothelioma epidemic.

The TUC argues that there are at least twice as many deaths from lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos as there are mesothelioma deaths. Therefore, perhaps 6,000 to 8,000 deaths per year are caused by exposure to asbestos.

The work done by my hon. Friend on this issue is incredible, but does he agree that we need to step up the campaign, as some people think that because asbestos has been banned, and some buildings have been stripped out, the problem is declining? However, there is a time lag with mesothelioma, so the number of cases will increase in the next 10 years, which people do not yet appreciate.

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. We will see the number of cases increase until about 2015, then plateau and fall way by 2050. Tradespeople working on maintenance jobs who are exposed to asbestos are likely to develop mesothelioma, so it is important to consider what action might be taken on asbestos in houses.

As the Minister will know, asbestos was a common house building material from the 1930s until the 1980s. It was famed for its insulation and fire-proofing qualities. During that period, all forms of asbestos will have been used in house building: blue, brown and white. Blue and brown were banned in this country in 1985, and white was banned in November 1999. However, it is estimated that asbestos is in 90 per cent. of public sector housing, and the Health and Safety Executive estimates that 1.5 million workplaces contain asbestos.

There is ample evidence—this point is taken up by Waldman and Williams—that white asbestos is clearly associated with mesothelioma cancer. In that respect, I refer to a quote, which the two researchers used, from McCulloch and Tweedale’s book, “Defending the Indefensible: The Global Asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival”:

“In reviewing the science, it is important to remember that asbestos is such a toxic material that even relatively trivial exposure can result in serious or fatal injury. For that reason, one might have expected physicians and allied scientists to have led the campaigns against the mineral and against the companies that produced it.

Yet…not only was the medical profession’s reaction to the asbestos hazard often feeble, but scientists have been among the industry’s most strident defenders. There are two reasons why that was so: corporate suppression and intimidation meant that criticism of the industry came at a price.

Another factor was the convergence of the economic, political, and social interests of the scientific establishment and commerce. Careers could be made from industry-sponsored research. No-one commissioned research on behalf of asbestos workers”.

I think that that sums up clearly what we face when we talk about asbestos in the housing industry.

Many of the people who will be exposed to asbestos are repairs and maintenance workers. As the Minister will be aware, local authorities, arm’s length management organisations and housing associations provide secure tenancies, covered by the Housing Act 1985, which set out landlords’ duties and tenants’ responsibilities. Repairs are undertaken when a property is vacated and designated as void, but because local authorities need to turn these vacant houses over very quickly, very little has been done to monitor those houses and either to remove asbestos or to ensure that its location is recorded. There are some exceptions, one notable example of which is the London borough of Havering. Its ALMO set out to work with residents and rather than trying to sweep the issue of asbestos under the carpet, it has engaged with residents in dealing with the management of asbestos in its property portfolio.

In addition to the tensions caused by wanting to get the properties back into use so that rent can be earned, another issue at the core of the debate is the contradiction that results from the respective demands arsing from the landlords’ responsibility for repairs and the tenants’ rights to shape their houses into homes. The landlord is responsible for finding where the asbestos is, certainly within the communal areas, if not in the internal house, but the contradiction arises when the person living in the house wants to shape it to become a home because decorating and modifying the house might bring him into contact with asbestos, particularly if there is no register to show that the presence of asbestos has been identified.

Although social landlords have a particular responsibility, it has never really been shared with the residents, enabling them to work together. As the Minister knows, landlords now have a legal responsibility to keep an asbestos register, but that has not always been the case. Even now we find circumstances in which councils do not take the residents into consideration: they will look at the asbestos register and some will keep it up to date; others will not. The register therefore fails to act as it should to help residents living in those houses.

As I say, it is quite different in Havering borough, which has engaged with its residents and worked out an approach together to manage the asbestos in the housing stock. The result is that people who know where the asbestos is can carry out modifications to their houses without exposure to asbestos fibre.

The Health and Safety Executive approach, which, as the Minister knows, is more accepted by social landlords, is to manage asbestos in situ and contain it. It believes that that practice is much safer than trying to remove it. That approach is based on risk assessment and individual responsibility. The authors of the report, entitled “As Safe as Houses?”, argue that that stance “fails to recognise” the context in which asbestos is found in domestic dwellings or the desire of people actually to turn their houses into homes. That is where a contradiction arises. I believe that the asbestos register can could be used to make residents aware of where the asbestos is, and that it can be dealt with in a way that will not cause injury to health.

It was, to a degree, in recognition of that fact that following the implementation of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, the Health and Safety Executive ran a major asbestos awareness campaign under the slogan “Asbestos—The hidden killer”. An evaluation of the campaign suggests that it worked, and that tradesmen became aware of the dangers. The downside was that it did not include the residents of homes containing asbestos.

The asbestos register is an important tool because it gives information to contractors doing work on premises and to members of the emergency services, but residents, including home owners, are left to decorate or modify their homes facing the likelihood of being exposed to asbestos. We need a two-pronged approach. We need to establish where the asbestos is, using the register, and, having done that, to establish the stage of its erosion. We then need to ensure that advice is provided so that residents can choose either to leave the asbestos in situ or to remove it.

The authors of the report made eight recommendations. I do not know whether the Minister has had time to look at them. One of the most important is that the current legislation needs to be extended

“to ensure that the duty to manage is extended to the internal part”

of the domestic dwelling. It must be borne in mind that such dwellings become workplaces for maintenance workers as well as posing a danger to residents. The report also suggests that power tools should display a symbol advising users to check that they are not working on asbestos, and that there should be training to increase the asbestos awareness of all social housing staff and resident association representatives and training for maintenance workers, tradesmen and caretakers involved in social housing projects. I referred the Minister to the British Lung Foundation survey, which showed that few tradesmen were aware of the dangers. The final recommendation is that

“Regular public information campaigns should alert DIY enthusiasts of the dangers of asbestos”.

Implementation of the eight recommendations in the report, which the Minister can read, would create a rational way of dealing with asbestos without an enormous capital outlay.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on his success in securing this important debate. I echo the tribute paid by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) to the work that he has done in bringing the matter to the House’s attention and ensuring, along with others, that workers are given better protection from asbestosis and mesothelioma. I represent the area of a former shipyard in Chatham which is one of the hot spots in the south-east of England, and my constituents owe my hon. Friend a debt of thanks.

I thank the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, for which I have enormous respect and with which I have worked in the past, for commissioning the report to which my hon. Friend referred. I also thank Dr. Linda Waldman and Heather Williams for their work, which will contribute to improving the current controls that are in place to protect their members and the wider work force from exposure to asbestos.

In terms of fatal disease, asbestos is the most serious occupational ill-health problem that the country faces. The Government are concerned about the human suffering and misery behind the annual death toll, estimated at over 4,000 a year. Sadly, while there is nothing that we can do about those previously exposed, we can certainly do much to prevent further exposures. First, I will outline the legislation covering some of the issues raised in the report, and then I will comment on each of the report’s main recommendations.

Legislation in the mid-1980s banned the importation of the most dangerous types of asbestos. As the carcinogenic effects of asbestos became known, legislation was introduced in the 1990s leading to the total ban on the importation of all types of asbestos and prohibiting the use and sale of products containing asbestos. Research by Professor Julian Peto and Health and Safety Executive epidemiologists in 1995 showed that the largest group of workers at risk from asbestos-related disease were those in the maintenance and building-related trades such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians who disturbed building fabric.

Consequently, we introduced for the first time in the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 a duty to manage asbestos in non-domestic premises. That duty places a legal obligation on individuals who have responsibility for the repair and maintenance of non-domestic buildings to manage the risks from exposure to asbestos that may be in their buildings. Duty holders are required to identify the location and condition of any materials containing asbestos in their buildings. They must then assess the level of risk and put in place a management plan to manage those risks. Asbestos that is in good condition should be left undisturbed. Damaged asbestos must be encapsulated or removed by licensed contractors if necessary. The duty holder must ensure that the management plan and other pertinent information are readily available when maintenance or renovation work is planned or undertaken. They should ensure that the information on the location and condition of the materials is given to anyone likely to disturb it.

In considering the recommendation to extend the duty to manage to domestic buildings, we have to look at the scale of the risks that may arise. For those whose activities are liable to disturb asbestos frequently, the risk is cumulative through repeated exposures. In the context of this debate, we need to understand what the risk is from asbestos in all homes. A recent study, commissioned by the HSE, found no evidence of an increased risk of mesothelioma from carrying out DIY activities or living in certain types of buildings more likely to contain asbestos, such as high-rise flats, prefab houses, and council or ex-council houses.

While the analyses of non-occupational exposures in this study were based on relatively small numbers of cases and controls, and therefore have limited ability to detect small increases in risk, it is clear that such exposures do not represent major sources of mesothelioma risk. The only association between increased mesothelioma risk and exposure in a domestic setting was for people living with workers in jobs classified as medium or high risk before the age of 30. While anecdotal evidence provides examples of distress in specific situations, our policies have to take into account the whole context.

Does the Minister accept that one benefit we could bring forward would be to use the home information pack to inform people of what the property they might buy contains?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I shall come on to home information packs later in my remarks.

The duty to manage asbestos was introduced so that the risks from the thousands of tonnes of asbestos still present in non-domestic premises would be consistently managed. Those working on those buildings, such as plumbers, electricians and other maintenance workers, often do not know they are at risk from disturbing the material or if their work is putting others in the building at risk. The principles underlying the approach are evidence-based and proportionate towards compliance.

I shall now cover the specific recommendations of the UCATT report, starting with those that would require a legislative change. The report has made several recommendations with regard to private housing. The first is that the duty to manage should be extended to private households and the second is that it should be made mandatory for asbestos surveys to be undertaken at the point of sale.

My right hon. and hon. Friends will be aware that most residential properties now require a home information pack. That pack may include a home condition report, although that is not mandatory. Voluntary take-up of the report has been low. Although there is clearly a demand for information on the condition of the property, the report in its present format is not seen as the right means of achieving that by the home buyers, sellers or the industry more widely.

I understand from colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, who have responsibility for the issue, that a working group has been established to explore alternative options for ensuring that consumers have appropriate information about a property’s condition. The working group is not specifically looking at environmental matters that might affect homes, such as asbestos. The issue of whether and how the presence of asbestos in a home could be reflected in any new reporting arrangements is a matter for the industry.

The UCATT-commissioned report recommends that the duty to manage regulation is also extended to social housing and that asbestos surveys are also made mandatory for such housing. The Health and Safety Executive is currently evaluating the impact of the duty to manage regulation and that will inform any decision on amending, replacing or extending the scope of the regulations. The UCATT report will form part of the evidence for the HSE’s evaluation. We hope that it will be able to conclude that evaluation in the autumn.

The last recommendation of the report that would require legislative change is that warning symbols should be displayed on power tools to alert users to the dangers of working with asbestos, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned. The HSE will reflect on that helpful suggestion, which I believe is aimed at influencing behaviour. It might be that legislation is not the best way to influence the behaviours of workers and do-it-yourself enthusiasts. HSE research has concluded that media campaigns such as the recent hidden killer campaign, to which my hon. Friend referred, are the most effective method to influence behaviour. He mentioned the British Lung Foundation survey and its concern that workers were not aware of the dangers. I would hope that if that survey were carried out now, it would find that the hidden killer campaign has raised awareness and done what we all want to do by changing behaviour.

Follow-up research showed that the campaign was successful in raising awareness of the risks and appropriate precautions. In addition, 71 per cent. of workers also said that they either had taken, or were planning to take, a more precautionary approach to avoid exposure to asbestos at work. I think that we would all welcome that. The HSE is working in partnership with key stakeholders from the supply chain to increase the availability of all essential protective equipment recommended by the HSE to allow workers to work safely with asbestos.

I shall now focus on the report’s recommendations on the provision of training and campaign activity. I welcome the recommendation to prioritise asbestos hazards in training provision for maintenance workers. The Government fully agree with the need for improved knowledge about asbestos, where it may be encountered and the appropriate precautions to take. The asbestos at work regulations already require training to be given to those at work who might disturb materials containing asbestos, even inadvertently. There are now many providers of such training. Most are members of the UK Asbestos Training Association, which the HSE helped to establish.

For other workers who might be exposed to asbestos, employers already have a general legal duty to provide training and instruction to allow their general duty of care to be met. Employers who undertake work in demolition or maintenance, or any other work that is liable to expose employees to asbestos, have a separate duty to assess whether asbestos is present or is liable to be present, or to assume that it is present and then to take all the necessary precautions to prevent exposure to asbestos fibres.

On the specific issue raised by UCATT, the training provided for local authority and other staff in the housing sector should already include knowledge of asbestos where that is appropriate to their role. The Government, through the HSE, will continue to promote relevant occupational health and safety training in the context of the risks that employees face. The HSE recognises the importance of maintaining that work and, in partnership with many, including UCATT, will continue to raise awareness.

The UCATT report also calls for a review of the content of all current training provision for maintenance workers. The Government agree that maintenance workers, particularly apprentices and young trainees, need to be aware of the risks of asbestos. The HSE has already recognised that, is working with a major training provider linked to the union UNITE and plans to extend this to other key training and syllabus-setting bodies. The HSE intends to influence national vocational qualification and other course content in this sector, as it has in other sectors. That approach, together with the legal requirements in the asbestos regulations for those already in the workplace, should lead to a much better informed younger work force.

Similarly, as I outlined earlier on the labelling of power tools, any campaign must be based on evidence of what works best and needs to be underpinned by research and impact assessment. It is worth noting that independent research confirmed that the HSE’s campaigns targeting the building maintenance work force were effective in reaching and influencing their target audience—maintenance workers. The general public also noticed the campaign messages, and the HSE is planning a smaller campaign to maintain the impetus this year.

In conclusion, I confirm to my hon. Friend that the Government have done much since 1997, as a result of his badgering and hard work, to strengthen the legislation and control mechanisms concerning asbestos. That includes the total ban on the importation and use of asbestos—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).