Farmers to fight a £6bn asbestos scam



A legal challenge is being mounted to the new asbestos regulations.

What is the most outrageous Government-supported scam in Britain today? Obviously there are a number of contenders. One is the Public Finance Initiative (PFI) whereby we pay private contractors up to three times the value of the hospitals and such that they build. Another is the Great Wind Scam, whereby we pour billions of pounds into the wind industry, to supply us, very unreliably, with derisory amounts of electricity. But there is shortly to be a legal challenge to another hugely costly scam – or part of it, at least – based on the way powerful lobby groups have managed to hijack government policy on the emotive and widely misrepresented subject of asbestos.

On behalf of some 50,000 farmers, and supported by the National Farmers’ Union, Bryan Edgley, who farms 2,500 acres in Buckinghamshire, is asking the High Court to declare unlawful a new set of asbestos regulations which, his lawyers will claim, are wholly unworkable, not based on proper science and could present farmers with a quite unnecessary bill for £6 billion.

The story of how the framing of national asbestos policy has been taken over by a group of lobbyists centres on the deliberate confusion of two very different minerals, both given the unscientific name “asbestos”. It is 50 years since the world first learnt of the dangers of exposure to the amphibole (or “blue” and “brown”) forms of asbestos fibre, iron silicates which remain in the lungs for years and can cause horrifying diseases such as mesothelioma. But in the years that followed, a systematic attempt was made to blur this type together with the very much commoner “white” asbestos, a magnesium silicate which quickly dissolves in the human lung, and which, particularly when it is used as a bonding agent in cement, poses no measurable risk to health at all. The fibres in cement (90 per cent of all asbestos products in the UK) undergo a chemical change which makes them no longer respirable.

The lobby groups that chiefly benefit from this confusion include the licensed contractors, who charge exorbitant sums for removing asbestos cement; and the lawyers who bring compensation claims on behalf of clients who no longer need to prove that their disease was caused by asbestos. Insurance companies do not even bother to contest such claims, knowing that they can be paid for by raising premiums for all their other customers.

Farmers are particularly vulnerable because some 50,000 British farms have buildings containing asbestos cement, which must eventually be replaced. The new Control of Asbestos regulations, which came into force in April, make it virtually impossible for farmers to remove and dispose of asbestos cement without the very costly help of the specialist contractors who lobbied for the regulations.

Mr Edgley, supported by expert scientific advisers, is seeking a judicial review of these ill-drafted regulations, on the grounds that they conform with none of the six basic criteria governing such law – not least because they create an “exposure threshold” which cannot be scientifically measured. Among many other requirements, they also compel anyone who requires the removal of asbestos to pay for everyone involved to be medically examined every three years thereafter, with all records to be kept for 40 years.

Since 2008, Mr Edgley and his advisers have been trying to put their case to ministers of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which is responsible for asbestos regulation through the HSE. Eventually, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington, a population biologist, was asked to hold an inquiry. But the Beddington committee consisted largely of members already firmly wedded to the official view, and Mr Edgley was astonished to discover that they did not even consider the scientific evidence that he and his team had supplied to the inquiry.

That is why Mr Edgley has decided that the only way the farmers’ case can be heard is by bringing a case in the High Court against Iain Duncan Smith, as the DWP’s Secretary of State – although the responsibility for the Beddington inquiry lay with his junior, Chris Grayling (whom Mr Edgley’s legal team will ask to attend the High Court, to explain why the committee was not shown the evidence).

Like many other businesses, the farmers face a double whammy, thanks to an extraordinary judgment last year by the Supreme Court, which opened the door for almost any business to be sued for compensation by anyone who can claim to have been dangerously exposed to asbestos while working for them. As I reported at the time, the court’s president, Lord Justice Phillips, not only made no distinction between the harmful and harmless forms of asbestos, but began his judgment with a scientific howler, by stating that probably every case of mesothelioma results from exposure to asbestos.

Phillips did not appear to have read the scientific literature, which shows that at least 25 per cent of mesotheliomas occur naturally, and many more may be attributable to the Salk polio vaccine. Virtually none, if any – as the HSE itself stated in 1996 – have been caused by exposure to white asbestos. But Phillips’s judgment has paved the way for a host of new compensation claims from people who may not have been damaged by asbestos at all – but which, thanks to his ruling, are scarcely worth contesting.

Finally, one part at least of this many-headed racket faces a serious legal challenge. It will be particularly interesting to hear Mr Grayling explain why the Beddington committee had no opportunity to examine the scientific evidence which was the reason it was set up in the first place.

It may not look like a ‘hotter, drier summer’ – but it’s global warming all the same

If, as this wettest summer on record continues, you Google for “hotter, drier summers, warmer, wetter winters”, you will find more than 4,000 entries. Look more closely and you will find these words on the website of almost every local authority in Britain. They all continue to predict that this is the weather we can expect, because this is what they were told in 2007 by the Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction. Since then, they clearly haven’t looked out of the window to see that the climate has indeed changed.

As the global warming scare continues to crumble, its true believers thresh around ever more wildly to claim every “extreme weather event” as proof that their Old Time Religion is still alive and kicking. They seized on the Russian heatwave of 2010 (which weather experts told them was “within the bounds of natural variability”), the Pakistan floods of the same year (though there had been floods just as serious in 1929), Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (since when hurricane activity has been at a historic low), the recent US heatwave (though four years in the 1930s were even hotter), and heaven knows what else. Floods, droughts, heatwaves, the record cold winter of 2010/11 – all are hailed as evidence that we live in a time of unprecedented “climate disruption” (even though the computer models failed to predict any of them).

I was reminiscing the other day about some of the “extreme weather events” I experienced before global warming was invented, such as the record 11in of rain that fell in one day in Dorset in July 1955, or the record 6.74in that fell in 40 minutes on Hampstead, where I lived, in August 1975. Further back, I recalled the Lynmouth flood disaster killing 34 people in August 1952, followed only five months later by the great North Sea flood of 1953 which killed 307 people in England alone. All the poor old warmists can go on now is a washed-out spring and midsummer – when every local council in the land is still telling us that we can expect “hotter, drier summers”. I am sure they were predicting much the same in Noah’s time.

The World Service is ‘not what it was’

In a fine flourish of sentimentality, the BBC marked the move of its World Service from Bush House by telling us that this was where it had won its reputation as “the most trustworthy and reliable news service in the world”. But as anyone who listens to it these days will know, that golden era is no more.

Even when Aung San Suu Kyi was recently praising the World Service as having been her “lifeline” during her years of house arrest in Burma, she could not resist telling her BBC hosts that it is “not what it was”. Its once reassuringly professional output has been dumbed down into an almost unrecognisable shadow of its former self, with relentlessly repetitive station IDs, constant daft bursts of music, the too often silly, unauthoritative voices of its presenters and a pervading air of political correctness, as it regales us with items on the fight for gay rights in Mali or a little talk on the threat of global warming by the “philosopher Alain de Botton”. In this respect, though, it is not that different from the rest of the BBC. One often gets the impression that what the BBC is about these days is, as much as anything, the BBC itself – as its self-regarding coverage of the retreat from Bush House perfectly exemplified.

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