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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 16/02/2003)

How much longer will the HSE tolerate this racket?
A very unpopular form of democracy
Martyred for the EU
How to fix horse races

How much longer will the HSE tolerate this racket?

Nick Brown, the minister for work at the Department for Work and Pensions, was last week handed a dossier, compiled with the aid of readers of The Telegraph, showing how confusion over asbestos is being exploited to create a racket costing hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

The Tory shadow spokesman, Oliver Heald, supplied the minister with a representative sample of case-studies in which asbestos removal firms licensed by the Health and Safety Executive have misrepresented the law to justify overcharging members of the public hundreds of thousands of pounds, apparently with the connivance of the HSE.

These were only a few of the hundreds of cases which came to light following a series of articles in this column last year. Thanks to advice from the asbestos expert John Bridle, the surveyor who has been the chief whistleblower on this racket, readers have been saved nearly £2 million.

Last October, when challenged on "the asbestos scam" in the Commons by the then-Tory spokesman John Bercow, Mr Brown promised that, if given evidence, he would look into it. On Thursday Mr Heald, as the new Tory spokesman, provided what he asked for.

The dossier confirms the extent to which HSE-licensed firms in all parts of the country quote absurdly inflated sums for asbestos-related work which, when examined by independent experts, is shown either to be unnecessary or which could be safely carried out for only a fraction of the cost. When Cold Norton parish council in Essex discovered small fragments of white asbestos cement under a patch of grass being dug up to plant a tree, a local HSE-licensed firm advised that the entire patch would have to be excavated and removed, at a cost of thousands of pounds.

Following one of my articles, the parish clerk Mary Bryant contacted Mr Bridle. (His email address is jbridle@ whiteasbestos.fsnet.co.uk). She was advised that the fragments of asbestos in the soil posed no risk and could be safely left in situ. Despite initially supporting its licensed firm, the HSE was eventually forced to concede that Mr Bridle's advice was correct, saving the parish council a crippling expense.

At least in this case sanity prevailed. Others in Mr Heald's dossier are more serious. Several involve deliberate falsification of evidence. A golf club in south Wales was billed £40,000 for removal of asbestos in its roof, and was then told, with the support of an HSE inspector, that more asbestos had been found, which would cost a further £40,000. Independent analysis showed that there had never been asbestos in the building.

In a similar case, the residents of two blocks of flats in Kensington, London, were charged £40,000 for asbestos removal, then told that further samples had shown that another £60,000 of work was necessary. Again when, thanks to The Telegraph, Mr Bridle peeled off the stickers over the supposed sample points, this revealed that no samples had been taken. The material was horsehair. When Mr Bridle spoke to the HSE's head of asbestos policy, Bill Macdonald, he admitted that this was "fraud" but declined to take any further action.

The minister will be put on the spot by Mr Heald's evidence, citing the names of the firms and HSE officials involved, because he normally relies on HSE officials for his advice. Since the dossier raises serious question marks over their own involvement, Mr Brown will have to carry out a truly independent investigation. Mr Heald has also put down a series of parliamentary questions, drafted with the aid of leading scientific experts on asbestos, exposing just how unworkable and scientifically illiterate are new regulations on asbestos management which even the HSE admits will cost businesses billions of pounds.

Meanwhile, following the remarkable response to my articles last year, plans are well-advanced to set up a national asbestos watchdog, financed by a businessman who has been saved a million pounds through my articles, to provide the public with reliable advice. A university-backed research programme is to expose the serious flaws in the HSE's science and show how official statistics on asbestos-related deaths are fictitious. I shall give further details of these initiatives shortly.

A very unpopular form of democracy

Following my revelation last week that 25 district auditors across the North-East are to investigate the improper use of ratepayers' funds to finance the North-East Assembly's campaign for an elected regional government, it seems that John Prescott's scheme to set up elected assemblies across England has hit another set of buffers.

His department has just released on its website a summary of responses to last year's White Paper on regional government. Of 459 organisations responding, including local authorities, only 28 per cent supported his plan, 28 per cent are against, and the rest "undecided". Of individual responses, only 7 per cent were in favour and an overwhelming 72 per cent against.

Meanwhile key historical documents only made available to MEPs last week confirm just why the plan to install regional governments throughout the European Union has been central to Brussels's long-term planning since the 1970s. A series of internal reports on the proposals for monetary union made clear that a single currency could not work without setting up regional administrations which would allow Brussels to control the transfer of funds from richer to poorer regions.

These documents, to be raised in the Lords on Thursday by Lord Stoddart of Swindon, explain the dramatic conversion to the cause of regional government of that champion of the single currency, Jacques Delors, as he laid plans for economic and monetary union in the run-up to Maastricht in the late 1980s. It was he who in 1988 put in place the rule which forced Britain to set up regional "government offices" in 1994, the foundation of Mr Prescott's subsequent plan for elected regional governments.

The only snag, as with Mr Blair and the euro, is that Mr Prescott cannot achieve this without referendums, which he seems increasingly likely to lose.

Martyred for the EU

Philip Pedley, who teaches at the Northants public school Oundle, has for the past 23 years been taking parties of pupils on historical visits to Germany. A centrepiece of the trip has always been a tour of the Ploetzersee prison outside Berlin, where the Nazis executed more than 2,500 of their opponents, including many of those involved in the von Stauffenberg bomb plot in 1944.

"This place of horror naturally chills our pupils," he says, "but I have always regarded the visit as a pilgrimage in honour of those sane individuals who gave their lives for freedom." On his latest visit, he was horrified to see the memorials dominated by a lavish new display commemorating "victims who died for the European Union".

This names four German Socialists who believed in a pan-European labour movement. "The idea," says Mr Pedley, "that these brave idealists laid down their lives for the European Union is worse than absurd. It is an outrageous, cynical and immoral rewriting of history. If the memory of such people is no longer inviolate, then God help us all."

How to fix horse races

Members of the British Horse Society and the British Horse Driving Trials Association have been startled to receive an "Ethnic Monitoring Questionnaire", asking how they would describe their ethnic origin. An accompanying letter from Pat Gaywood, "project officer of the Equity and Ethics Managament group of the British Equestrian Foundation", explains that the British Horse Society has to meet "certain criteria" on "racial equality in sport", because "failure to comply with these standards may mean that equestrian sports in the UK could lose out on any government funding".

The questionaire asks horse-lovers to define themselves according to the usual politically-correct list of categories, starting with "British, Irish or any other white background". It then gets into its stride with a whole succession of categories, including "Mixed" ("white and black Caribbean", "white and black African", "white and black Asian"), followed by eight more sub-groups, ranging from Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and "any other Asian background" to "Chinese or any other ethnic group" (obviously no one has told the British Horse Society that China is in Asia - let alone that Asian people are not usually black).

The Earl of Onslow, who sent me this delightful vignette of what passes for common sense in modern Britain, says he has taken particular pleasure in imagining what the response to this questionnaire might be from his friend and fellow-member of the British Horse Driving Trials Association, the Duke of Edinburgh.