Christopher Booker's NotebookSunday Telegraph
No ceiling to the asbestos scam
Next week, while MPs are still on holiday, the Government plans to rush through the most expensive law in our history, imposing costs on businesses of billions of pounds. A "duty" minister of the Department of Work and Pensions will scribble his signature on a statutory instrument placed on his desk by officials of the Health and Safety Executive, and by the time Parliament returns in October, the new law will be in force, too late for MPs to object.
This bizarre example of how most of our laws are now made, without need for an Act of Parliament, is a change to the Control of Asbestos at Work regulations which will give a field day to contractors licensed by the HSE, by requiring Britain's businesses, local authorities and hospitals to carry out a full "management programme" for all asbestos on their premises. Even the HSE itself estimates the cost of compliance at #5.1 billion, the largest cost estimate ever given for a British law. But even before the law comes into effect, evidence of the way unscrupulous contractors are exploiting the scare being whipped up over asbestos by the HSE and others suggests that this may wildly underestimate the true cost.
In my last report on the great "asbestos scam" in May, I gave an e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) where readers horrified by the sums quoted for asbestos work by HSE-licensed contractors could obtain expert advice. As a result of that article, 200 owners of homes and businesses who responded have been saved a total of more than #600,000 for work which could either be carried out perfectly safely and legally for a fraction of the quoted sums, or which proved wholly unnecessary.
At the heart of the asbestos scare is the confusion promoted by a powerful lobby, backed by two multi-national firms which manufacture asbestos substitutes, which blurs over the differences between the deadly blue and brown forms of asbestos and the much commoner "white" asbestos, a quite different mineral. Eighty-five per cent of all asbestos in Britain takes the form of white asbestos cement, which safely "encapsulates" the asbestos fibres for use in products such as roof slates. No proven case of ill-health has ever been linked to such products, and leading independent scientists in the field are incredulous at claims made to the contrary by the anti-asbestos lobby.
The damage inflicted by blue and brown asbestos fibres before their danger was fully recognised is tragic. But the fate of those few thousand victims has now been exploited, by use of flawed science and imaginary statistics, to whip up a hysteria which is generating a bonanza worth billions, not just for manufacturers but for all those cashing in on the scare, from lawyers specialising in compensation claims to the 800-odd specialist firms licensed by the HSE, many of whom belong to the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association.
Chief whistle-blower on this racket has been John Bridle, a scientifically-trained surveyor, much of whose time is now spent advising anyone from local authorities to pensioners on how to escape the clutches of contractors busy exploiting the scientific and legal confusion over asbestos.
In just one instance arising from my last article, the residents of a west London block of flats were faced with a #60,000 bill for removal of asbestos pipe insulation which contractors claimed had been laboratory-analysed as "blue". When Mr Bridle looked beneath the stickers purporting to cover the holes where samples had been taken, he found nothing. No samples had been taken. There was no asbestos in the building.
Yet the lobby exploiting this bonanza has had no greater ally than the HSE which, while publicly deploring the conduct of its more unscrupulous contractors, has been actively endorsing the confusion: not least through the new law it plans to rush through next week which will boost the already prevailing hysteria over asbestos to even greater heights. The TUC suggests that to remove all asbestos from Britain could cost #80 billion. Such is the scale of the bill we could be facing if this scare continues to rage out of control.
The one group of people in no position to stop it because they are on holiday are those supposedly entrusted with making our laws. It seems MPs are more irrelevant to the way we are now governed than ever.
Power switch to the regions creeping in
Even in the silly season it might scarcely seem news that when 120 journalists were last week invited to a London press conference by two MEPs not one turned up. But it might have been instructive for them to hear about the cunning with which John Prescott is pushing through his masterplan to divide up England under eight regional governments.
The purpose of the conference, hosted by the two MEPs for the UK Independence Party, was to launch an admirably researched pamphlet by Dr Richard North, their chief researcher, which tells for the first time the full story behind a policy officially regarded in Brussels as one of the three main pillars of European political integration, equal in importance with the single market and the single currency.
Dr North's history shows how Mr Prescott became converted to the vision of a regional Britain when leader of the Labour group in the European Parliament in the 1970s (he actually turned down an invitation to become the youngest ever European Commissioner).
It was Prescott who, after 1997, master-minded the setting up of Britain's first four regional governments, in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, with regional development agencies to administer the eight remaining English regions.
As the final piece in his jigsaw, the plan gives each English region its own parliament. Mr Prescott is using his role as local government supremo to transfer so much power to these agencies that, as each region stages a referendum, it may seem hard to argue that they should not be under electoral control. By switching massive sums of public money, initially from Scotland to the North-East, where the first vote is due, Prescott hopes to encourage support for his assemblies in one region after another. And by staging each referendum separately, he hopes to keep the issue as of no more than local interest.
It is vital the media should not wake up to the fact that one of the greatest political revolutions in our history is of national concern.
And, from last week's turn-out, Mr Prescott has little to worry about. But for anyone wanting to know more of what he is up to, Dr North's "A Democracy By-Pass: The Regionalisation of England", published by the European Parliament's Europe of Democracies and Diversities group, is available via email@example.com at £3.
Not our problem, try the EUIt was odd there was so little fuss last week over the brush-off given to Prince Charles after he wrote a private letter to Tony Blair asking for our Government to give more help to families forced to flee Zimbabwe by Mugabe's persecution. A Number 10 spokesman airily remarked that the Prince's letter was a matter for the Department of Work and Pensions, which was unable to shed any further light.
There is nothing new about this kind of disdainful response. A year ago, when I asked the Foreign Office about British policy on Zimbabwe, I was told that this now came under the EU as part of its Common Foreign Policy. It was not thought advisable that Britain should have its own policy, because this looked like the former colonial power trying to interfere. Next time Prince Charles wants to write a personal plea on behalf of Mr Mugabe's victims, he had better address it to Professor Prodi.
Half a dozen skyhooks, pleaseWhat is it about ladders which seems to turn the brains of our officials to jelly? I recently reported on the Shetland fishing boat skipper threatened with a #5,000 fine for refusing to use the type of rope ladder required under EU safety regulations because he had repeatedly found it to be dangerous. Pat Robbins, who runs a Berkshire game hatchery, tells me about his recent visit from an HSE inspector who noticed a ladder propped up against a 10-foot high grain bin.
"I don't want anyone climbing up that ladder until it has been secured from the top," he said. "And how then do you propose we get up there to secure it?" asked Mr Robbins. Exit one discomfited official.