Christopher Booker's notebook
Home 'written off' in mix-up over asbestos Emergency services kept at bay by fear of dust Round up all the useful idiots Guinness is good for EU
In a scare that threatens to become the most costly and unnecessary that Britain has ever seen, the same shock that Mrs Jenny Jones recently suffered may soon be inflicted on many other homeowners.
Mrs Jones and her carpenter husband, Dai, who live in a village in Ceredigion, west Wales, recently applied to their building society for an increase on their mortgage to pay for an extension to their bungalow. After a surveyor inspected the property, Mrs Jones wondered why it was taking so long for the loan to be approved. Finally First National explained not only that there would be no loan, but that her house was worthless and unsaleable, because the survey had shown that it contained unspecified quantities of asbestos.
Fortunately Mrs Jones was put in touch with one of the country's leading asbestos experts, John Bridle, whose name will be known to regular readers of this column. He was quickly able to confirm that she was yet another victim of the astonishing confusion that has been allowed to develop over white asbestos, one of the commonest building materials in Britain. The bungalow's asbestos cement roofing and partitions were all in good condition. Health risks from asbestos cement are zero and its presence should have no effect whatever on a house's value.
Last year, I reported in a series of articles how the genuine dangers attached to the blue and brown forms of asbestos have been cynically used to demonise the much commoner white asbestos, a wholly different mineral, which in its usual cement form has never been associated with a single proven case of ill health. On the basis of this scientific confusion, deliberately fostered by commercial interests, a regulatory framework has been erected which in effect gives a monopoly to several hundred specialist contractors, licensed by the Health and Safety Executive, and enables them to overcharge the public by hundreds of millions of pounds a year.
The situation has now been made far worse with the approach of a new law, implementing an EC directive, which by next May requires every business in the country, as well as hospitals, local authorities and owners of social housing, to identify all asbestos on their premises and draw up a plan for its management. Because the regulations make no distinction between those types of asbestos which pose genuine risk and the much commoner types which are harmless, this has not only provoked widespread fear and confusion but created an immense business opportunity for the 800 members of the HSE-approved Asbestos Removal Contractors Association.
Last year, when I highlighted examples of absurd overcharging by ARCA members, this led to three Parliamentary debates (and incidentally saved Sunday Telegraph readers some £3 million pounds). It has now led to the setting up of a new body, Asbestos Watchdog (www.asbestoswatchdog. co.uk), equipped to give businesses and members of the public expert advice on all problems associated with asbestos, and on how to manage it safely and legally without having to pay the inflated prices charged by many contractors. Mr Bridle is the new body's chief inspector.
The arrival of Watchdog, backed by some of the top independent asbestos scientists in the country, has been welcomed by Bill MacDonald, head of asbestos policy at the HSE, and Ben Gill of the National Farmers Union. Watchdog is now in active talks with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, one of many organisations, including building societies, which it seems have been seriously misled by disinformation on asbestos.
When presented with the case of Mr and Mrs Jones's unsaleable home, Mr MacDonald admitted "the extent of some organisations' ignorance on asbestos is horrifying". At least, thanks to The Sunday Telegraph, there is now one organisation equipped with the expertise to combat that ignorance.
A tiny example of the hysteria aroused by confusion over asbestos was an incident last Thursday when a builder fell through an asbestos cement garage roof in the Glamorgan village of Sully. Although he was badly concussed, an ambulance crew refused to approach him for fear that he was contaminated. They were clearly unaware that, even though the white asbestos sheet was broken, any fibres were firmly locked into the cement and posed not the slightest risk.
Firemen called to the scene refused to open the garage door, lest deadly fibres should contaminate the countryside. Eventually, they were lowered through the roof, wearing special clothing, and the victim was driven to hospital by an ambulance driver in a face mask. The only people to show common sense were the police, who were powerless to intervene.
Last week John Prescott launched his campaign to hold referendums next year on the question of whether England's three northern "Euro-regions" should have elected governments. At least he has now alerted the media to the fact that this is a story of national importance. Previously it had served his strategy not to have the coverage merited by what amounts to the most far-reaching revolution in England's internal government in 1,000 years.
Mr Prescott did not, however, explain one key part of his strategy, which is stealthily to acquire for these new regional organisations so many of the powers now exercised by local authorities that, by the time people are invited to make their choice, it will seem inevitable that such influential bodies should be made into democratically accountable institutions. Already every kind of official activity is being re-organised on regional lines, from planning and the fire service to the courts and the police, from government agencies such as English Nature to county archives.
Most people are quite unaware of the degree to which Prescott's regional governments are already being created, around his existing unelected regional assemblies and development agencies. Soon we will be faced with a fait accompli. To students of how the "European project" has extended its powers over the years, this technique has long been familiar and is known as engrenage (gearing, or spiralling).
Among those recruited to serve Mr Prescott's cause have been various bishops, acting as chairmen of the "constitutional conventions" that have been set up to proselytise for an elected assembly. Thus the Bishop of Liverpool is chairman of the "North-West Constitutional Convention" (NWCC), and his counterparts of Birmingham, Exeter, Durham, and St Albans chaired the conventions in the West Midlands, the South-West, North-East, and East of England respectively.
I asked those bishops what they thought they were achieving by supporting this cause. The only reply was from the Rt Rev James Jones of Liverpool, who said he supports elected regional government but denied that his convention was a campaigning body. Its purpose, he said, was to provide a forum in which people could discuss what form an elected assembly should take.
Since these conventions have been notoriously reluctant to admit anyone who opposes regional government, and since the NWCC has received money from the Campaign for English Regions, it is hard not to conclude that these gentlemen may have allowed themselves to be exploited as what Lenin called "useful idiots".
During the six months when Ireland holds the EU presidency next year, it anticipates having to chair 2,200 meetings of the Council of Ministers and its committees, organise council meetings in eight Irish cities, receive thousands of EU officials, and host lavish EU summits with Presidents Bush and Putin. So great will be the cost that the Irish government has been looking for sponsors.
Guinness is one of several companies that have agreed to contribute, on condition that their logos are prominently displayed in front of television cameras at events and receptions. No doubt we shall be told the new EU constitution is "pure genius".