The marketing and use of asbestos have been progressively restricted by UK and EC legislation since the 1980s. Of the three commercially important fibres, amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue) were banned in the 1980s. The use of chrysotile (white asbestos) in more dispersive applications such as paints, sealants, floor underlays and roofing felt was banned by a 1991 EC Directive, but about 10,000 tonnes of the fibre are still imported annually into the UK, mainly for use in asbestos cement and friction products such as brake linings.
Despite these controls, asbestos continues to cause a heavy toll of death and disease, mainly among people exposed to the fibre many years ago. About 3,500 people die in the UK every year from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, and the figure is expected to rise for some decades.
Introducing an adjournment debate in the Commons on 18 June, Michael Clapham (Lab, Barnsley West and Penistone) said that asbestos is "one of the most dangerous substances in widespread use." Effective substitutes are available for most applications of chrysotile, and although these are "a little more pricey" their cost would fall if the fibre was banned. "If we consider the socio-economic costs of asbestosis to society - the cost of compensation, medical treatment and care - those substitutes become considerably cheaper than asbestos."
Urging the Government to ban chrysotile immediately, Mr Clapham pointed out that seven European countries have already done so. In France, where a ban came into effect last January, the dominant manufacturer of asbestos products, Eternit, had argued that it would be put out of business. But in January, Mr Clapham noted, the company "was able to announce the conversion to new technology of its entire production base."
In response, Ms Eagle told MPs that "unlike our predecessors, this Labour Government are determined to deal effectively with the new uses of asbestos once and for all...There will be no empty promises from the Government and no palliatives such as those that came from the previous administration."
In fact, the main distinction between Labour's policy and that of the previous Government is that Labour is thinking about taking unilateral UK measures while its predecessor preferred to work for common action at EC level - and in practice the outcome may be pretty similar.
Last February, the former Environment Secretary, John Gummer, announced that the UK would continue to work with other EC countries to "extend the [existing EC] ban on asbestos to all types of asbestos, with a limited number of exceptions for genuinely essential uses where safe and effective substitutes cannot be found at affordable cost."
The UK had in fact supported an EC proposal on these lines issued in 1993. The measure failed, in part because of strong opposition from France. But the shift in French policy means that "there is now greater urgency and a real chance to achieve agreement that will ban white asbestos within Europe," according to Ms Eagle.
The Minister also announced that the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) has been asked to advise on how a UK ban on the import, supply and use of asbestos could be achieved, and to what timetable. However, she dampened hopes of rapid action by pointing out that the HSC is legally obliged to consult on its proposals.
In principle, unilateral action by the UK could be contrary to EC single market rules. However, any such infringement appears unlikely to attract legal action from the European Commission given that no proceedings have been taken against France or the six other Member States with restrictions on chrysotile.
In any event, the HSC's legal duty to consult means that regulations to ban chrysotile probably could not be introduced until next year, by when the Commission may itself have revived its 1993 proposal. The Commission promised last autumn that it will "propose a ban on asbestos with exemptions as soon as there is any prospect of this being supported by a qualified majority of Member States."
Intriguingly, Ms Eagle did not mention a potentially rapid route to banning chrysotile. Under section 140 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, the Secretary of State has powers to ban the import, supply and use of any injurious substance or article in order to prevent harm to human health or pollution, and in doing so he needs to carry out a public consultation of no more than 14 days.
Ms Eagle also announced that several other measures are under consideration by the HSC. These include a new duty on owners and occupiers to survey buildings for asbestos - a move which she considers "vital" - and to label any asbestos found, an extension of the present licensing system for asbestos removal to encompass work with asbestos insulation board, and an extension of the circumstances in which asbestos removal licences can be revoked. The Department of the Environment has also commissioned a fresh assessment of the risk to health from environmental exposure to asbestos, including exposures in homes, schools and public places.
The Minister also took the opportunity to signal the Government's general determination to "put an end to...a progressive erosion of governmental commitment to protecting people's health and safety over the past 18 years," and its "unequivocal" support for the HSC and Health and Safety Executive.
A particular concern, she said, were the "pitifully low" fines imposed for health and safety offences, preventing effective deterrence. The average fine for breaches of the asbestos licensing regulations over the past five years was £1,120 - a "pretty feeble sum by anyone's standards." The Government, she said, is "considering what can be done about that."