Chapter 13 - One Fibre Can Kill
Extract from pages 305-320
Stage Five: The Scare Is Challenged (1)
A few weeks before Fortune published Parloff’s article in March 2002, we were contacted by a senior member of the Federation of Small Businesses. He wanted to put us in touch with someone he thought had a remarkable story to tell. John Bridle had been working in the asbestos industry for 40 years. His practical knowledge of asbestos products was second to none. Until the mid-1990s, when he sold his companies, he had been one of the biggest importers of white-asbestos cement products in the country. But he had continued to follow with amazement the campaign by the anti-asbestos lobby to portray white asbestos as a mass killer. He had been in contact with many of the leading independent academic experts on asbestos, who shared his dismay at how the science was being distorted.
What was particularly alarming Bridle in January 2002 was a set of new regulations proposed by the HSE, after close consultation with the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA). This was the body that represented most of the 800 specialist firms licensed by the HSE who had the exclusive right to handle or remove most forms of asbestos. Even on the HSE’s own original estimate, the cost of its new Control of Asbestos at Work (CAW) regulations would be £8 billion. This would make them one of the two most expensive laws ever introduced in Britain.
In theory, the purpose of these regulations, nominally implementing a series of EU directives, might have seemed entirely reasonable. This was to require everyone owning or managing Britain’s five million commercial or public buildings, including blocks of flats, to identify any asbestos in their properties, and to ensure that it posed no risk.
In practice, however, so great was the general fear and confusion now surrounding everything to do with asbestos that most property owners would wish to call in the supposed official ‘experts’: the asbestos removal firms. What Bridle feared, with good reason, was that this would repeat what had already happened in America. The contractors (or surveyors working for them on hefty commissions) would have every incentive to talk up the dangers of any asbestos they found, even to invent its presence. They would then insist that it needed to be removed, demanding vastly inflated sums which their customers would find it hard to question.
Bridle showed us considerable evidence that this was already happening, even before the new law came into force. In his role as a consultant, he had been called in to advise on a whole series of cases where contractors had grossly exaggerated the dangers of real or imaginary asbestos in a building; and then demanded anything up to £100,000 or more, for work which could in fact have been carried out, safely and legally, for a fraction of that figure. In many instances they were charging for work that was not necessary at all.
So widespread were such practices that Bridle had tried to raise them with senior officials of the HSE. Not once had any action been taken to call these rogue contractors to account. Indeed, in certain parts of the country, it was only too obvious that local HSE inspectors were working hand in glove with contractors to uphold their fraudulent claims.
In every way, it appeared, the system set up by the HSE in consultation with the contractors, was designed to maximize their profits at the expense of the public. To work with asbestos, the HSE, based on information supplied by the removal industry, had drawn up a ‘protocol’, MDHS100, which was heavily skewed in favour of removal, even when this was not necessary. It was widely promoted to the industry that, to qualify to carry out the work, it was now necessary to have a certificate called a P402. This required no expertise in asbestos other than familiarity with the procedures laid down in MDHS100. The P402 was administered by the British Institute of Occupational Hygienists (BIOH), which sounded like an official body but was in fact a private charitable organization closely linked to the contractors and other anti-asbestos campaigners. There was in fact no legal requirement to hold one of its certificates.
Whenever samples of asbestos needed testing these had to be sent to a laboratory approved by the ‘UK Accreditation Service’ (UKAS). Again this sounded like an official body but was in fact a private company closely linked to the contractors, who owned many of its ‘approved’ laboratories. Even the HSE’s own ‘asbestos helpline’, to advise members of the public, was run by one of the largest of the contractors.
Such was the potentially fraudulent system which was about to be greatly reinforced by the new CAW regulations, drawing millions more property owners into the net. What would make the new rules particularly damaging was the opportunity they would give to contractors to treat white asbestos products on the same basis as the dangerous amphiboles, since these comprised well over 90 per cent of all the asbestos-containing materials in the country.
Nothing better illustrated the influence of the contractors over the drafting of the new law than its inclusion of ‘decorative textured coatings’, such as Artex, used in the walls and ceilings of millions of homes built between the 1950s and the 1970s. These coatings were made of plaster mixed with amounts of white asbestos so small that they posed no conceivable threat to health. The chairman of ARCA told a conference in 2000 how, when the
HSE originally proposed that Artex should be listed in the regulations as a ‘high risk material’, he had expressed surprise, pointing out that Artex posed virtually no risk. The HSE had nevertheless asked him whether ARCA would still like to see Artex retained on the list. The chairman’s reply was that, since it was potentially a very lucrative source of income, they would be very grateful.
In January 2002 we began reporting all this in a long series of articles in the Sunday Telegraph.57 When we gave Bridle’s contact details, the response from readers was startling. First hundreds, eventually thousands of emails poured in from members of the public, describing their shock at the exorbitant sums demanded of them by asbestos contractors. Particularly interesting was how many of these were private homeowners, who were not supposed to be affected by the HSE’s proposed regulations. But already, it was clear, they were falling foul of the system, often at the behest of surveyors, estate agents and building societies, telling them that, unless all asbestos was removed (even if it was only an asbestos cement roof on their garage), their homes would be devalued by up to £50,000.
So committed was Bridle to his role as ‘whistleblower’ that, in many instances, he was happy to give the practical advice needed to resolve such problems for nothing (most cases involved white asbestos cement, which householders, unlike businesses, were still legally entitled to remove themselves). In more serious cases, requiring an inspection, Bridle would charge for his time; but invariably this still resulted in huge savings for the customer over the sums demanded by contractors.
It was not long before we calculated that he had saved readers of the Sunday Telegraph several million pounds. One, a London businessman, who had been saved over £1 million on work needed to his properties in Mayfair and Birmingham, was so impressed that he agreed to set up Asbestos Watchdog, a company dedicated to saving members of the public from the wholesale frauds being practised under the officially approved system.
Inevitably our campaign to expose the inadequacies of the HSE’s proposed regulations (and the misinformation being put about over the dangers of white asbestos cement) provoked a storm of protest from the anti-asbestos lobby. This provided a curious picture of the coalition of interests it represented. On one hand were the asbestos contractors, supported by the HSE (which dismissed our campaign as ‘irresponsible’). On the other were Labour MPs, such as Michael Clapham, who had long been a strident champion of the ‘ban asbestos’ campaign; trade unions, such as the GMB (which published a glossy booklet attacking our campaign); ‘asbestos victim support groups’; and, in the background, the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, now being run from London by Laurie Kazan-Allen, whose brother Stephen Kazan was one of the most prominent asbestos plaintiffs’ lawyers in the USA.
It might have seemed odd, thus, to see left-wing politicians and trade unions lining up in support of a lobby whose real purpose was to enrich various commercial interests: first, the asbestos removal industry; second, the lawyers who, increasingly in Britain as in America, were making a fortune from often dubious compensation claims; and thirdly the multinational companies which only supported the cause because they thought it would help them to sell ‘asbestos substitutes’
What angered these critics even more was when our campaign won the support of the Conservative Party, then under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith. In August 2002, when it emerged that the HSE was hoping to sneak through Parliament the statutory instrument which would put its CAW regulations into law before the end of the summer holiday, Duncan Smith wrote to Nick Brown, the minister responsible for the HSE, demanding that this should not happen until MPs had been given a chance to debate the regulations.
The government had already reduced its estimate of the cost of the CAW regulations from £8 billion, first to £5.1 billion, then to £3.4 billion. Now, faced with this demand from the leader of the opposition, it gave way. In October the Tories’ front-bench spokesman John Bercow moved, in a trenchant speech, that the regulations should be withdrawn for redrafting, on the grounds that in their existing form they would merely act as a ‘cowboys’ charter’.He cited several examples of how the public was already being ripped off by the very people to whom the new law would give even more opportunity to exploit public ignorance. The Minister promised to look at Bercow’s examples. But he then claimed, without explanation, that the cost of the regulations had now miraculously come down even further, to only £1.5 billion.
No sooner was the debate over than he left the Commons chamber to sign the regulations, unamended, into law.
Two months later a further lengthy debate was initiated in the House of Lords by a Conservative peer, Lord Onslow. He again emphasized how the dangers of white-asbestos cement had been wildly exaggerated and that this could lead to the public being defrauded on a colossal scale.
By now the anti-asbestos lobby was becoming so irked by Bridle’s attempts to expose what they were up to that they concocted a strange little plot to discredit him. Three years earlier, after a meeting at the HSE when Bridle had revealed in confidence to those present some commercial details about a large overseas company he was acting for, these had immediately been leaked to Eternit. So embarrassed by this breach of confidentiality was the head of the HSE, Tim Walker, that, by way of making up to Bridle he said he could help him obtain one of the new P402 certificates, which the HSE itself had advised Bridle was to become a legal requirement for working with asbestos. Bridle went on a course, to be taught about the HSE’s MDHS100 protocol by someone who turned out to have virtually no knowledge of asbestos science. When he was told he had qualified, he ran off two sample letterheads, including a reference to P402, sending one to the BIOH to inform them that he had passed.
He was then informed, however, that he was not qualified after all, because he regarded the MDHS100 as so flawed that he would not use it. He never used the BIOH’s qualification again. But two years later, after his whistle blowing campaign had attracted such attention, the BIOH brought pressure on his local trading standards office to prosecute him for fraudulent use of its certificate under the Trade Descriptions Act. Out of the blue, Bridle was faced with five criminal charges, all relating to his innocuous use of the P402 qualification on the letterhead he had sent to the BIOH.
This seemed so surreal he assumed the court would throw it out. But the story then became ever murkier. The HSE claimed to have lost its notes on the meeting at which Walker had suggested to Bridle that he should obtain a P402 qualification. In Bridle’s absence, while he was lecturing in America, his solicitor, without authorization, pleaded guilty on his behalf to all charges (the solicitor was later struck off). In 2004 the case was reheard, in front of a judge who found its arcane details so confusing that he settled on what he thought was a compromise fair to both sides. He accepted that Bridle was ‘honest’, of ‘impeccable character’ and had not ‘attempted to deceive’, striking out four of the charges. But on the two remaining counts he found Bridle technically guilty.
Bridle’s enemies were overjoyed. A lurid version of his conviction was immediately given wide circulation round the industry and the trade press. From then on, whenever he was involved in any asbestos-related battle, details of his ‘criminal record’ were anonymously sent to everyone involved, from judges to the local papers.
Undeterred, Bridle carried on as before. His opponents therefore now tried a different tack. The chairman of ARCA privately said he now wished to support the campaign to ‘clean up the industry’, providing Asbestos Watchdog with offices and funding. Bridle was also suddenly treated by the HSE with much more respect. In November 2004 it appointed him as an official ‘stakeholder’, to be consulted by the HSE on future asbestos policy.
In his now regular meetings with senior HSE officials, Bridle lost no opportunity to report some of the more flagrant cases of fraud and overcharging that he and Asbestos Watchdog were continuing to come across. The victims ranged from private homeowners, churches and charities to businesses so big that they were household names. On just one large factory in the Midlands, thanks to the intervention of Asbestos Watchdog, the makers of JCB earth moving equipment were able to save nearly £6 million over the price quoted by contractors. One of Britain’s largest housebuilders was quoted £8 million as the cost of clearing a prospective building site in the east of England. When a Watchdog inspection revealed only a scattering of asbestos cement fragments, these were removed by an honest contractor for less than £10,000.
It was clear that, for many of the firms and organizations that could see no alternative to dealing with licensed contractors, the cost of dealing with asbestos had become precisely the disaster Bridle had predicted. It was reported, for instance, that the Royal Albert Hall alone had faced a bill of £70 million for the removal of asbestos, much of it probably quite unnecessary. According to another report, the bill faced by the Royal Palaces was £10 million, most of which, with proper advice, could again probably have been saved.
Among the organizations falling foul of this disaster were local authorities and housing associations, which between them owned and managed millions of properties. One of their most serious problems was that presented by Artex, which, under the CAW regulations, only licensed contractors were now permitted to handle. It also had to be sent for expensive analysis to a UKAS approved laboratory. For this alone the housing associations estimated that their bill could end up at more than £1.3 billion. Asbestos Watchdog inspected a typical block of council flats in Hammersmith, where each flat contained small quantities of Artex below the windows. The cost of removing this from the flats had been quoted at £700,000. The council owned dozens of similar blocks across the borough.
The HSE’s senior officials still refused to take any action on the specific examples of fraud with which they were presented. But so huge and unnecessary was ‘the Artex problem’ that they eventually agreed to review the requirement that it could only be handled by licensed contractors.
This would be a devastating blow to ARCA, for whose members Artex work contributed as much as a third of their income. They therefore lobbied the HSE relentlessly for it to be retained in the regulations. In June 2005, when Bridle was due to meet senior ARCA members at a London hotel, they boasted to him that they had just had a successful private meeting upstairs with the current HSE minister, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, unaccompanied by his officials. They were now confident that they would get their way.
Over the following year, however, the HSE’s own laboratory, the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) carried out exhaustive tests on Artex that confirmed research carried out for Asbestos Watchdog showing that it posed no measurable risk to health. In July 2006 the HSC issued a press release announcing that, to implement EC directive 2003/18, it would shortly be introducing a new, amended version of the CAW regulations.
On one hand, as a concession to the campaigners, the maximum permissible exposure limit for all forms of asbestos was reduced to one fibre per millilitre. This was a change for which the campaigners had long been lobbying Brussels, because it rated chrysotile as just as dangerous as amphiboles. On the other hand, Artex was to be ‘removed from the licensing regime as research shows that the levels of exposure to asbestos fibres from such work are low’.
In June 2006 he had enjoyed another victory, after being invited by Thailand’s health minister to speak at a conference in Bangkok. A fellow speaker was to be Dr David Bernstein, an internationally respected, independent toxicologist based in Geneva, whose work on asbestos was recognized all over the world (he had been used as a consultant by, among others, the European Commission).
It then turned out that the conference was organized by Laurie Kazan-Allen’s International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, to lobby the Thai government into banning white asbestos. When she heard that the Thai government had invited Bernstein and Bridle to put an alternative point of view, she insisted there was no way they could be allowed to attend.
When Kazan-Allen spoke, she flashed up large pictures of Bridle and Bernstein, attacking them both as spokesmen for the Canadian chrysotile industry and describing Bridle as a charlatan. The following day, Bernstein and Bridle had a long meeting with the minister, who was sufficiently impressed by their evidence to announce that his country would now be reconsidering its decision to ban white asbestos.
To the anti-asbestos campaigners, this made Bridle more of a hate-figure than ever. A concerted effort must be made, it was decided, to destroy his reputation so effectively that he could inflict no more damage on the cause.
A first puzzling sign came when the senior officials of the HSE suddenly broke off the friendly relations he had enjoyed with them for two years, without explanation. But he only discovered what was really afoot when friends in two of the more honest removal companies warned him that a researcher for a BBC radio consumer affairs programme, You and Yours, had been trawling around the industry for anything damning about him she could dig up. It seemed she was being advised by a particularly zealous anti asbestos activist, an ally of Kazan-Allen, who had himself worked for a firm of lawyers specializing in compensation claims.
When Bridle contacted her to find out what she was up to, it became obvious that nothing he said was going to influence the slant of the planned programme. Even when he invited her to look at documentary evidence that would disprove some of her wilder charges, her response was that this would not be necessary.
When You and Yours went out on 18 October, it was one of the most bizarrely partisan programmes the BBC can ever have broadcast. Echoing the points made by Kazan-Allen in Bangkok, Bridle was attacked as a charlatan, a liar and a fraud. Every point ever made against him by his enemies was presented again in the most distorted fashion. Inevitably, full play was made of his conviction in 2004, to portray him as a crooked ‘businessman’ with a criminal record. Spokesmen for every group opposed to his campaign were wheeled on to say their piece, including two asbestos removal contractors, two senior HSE officials and the veteran anti asbestos lobbyist MP Michael Clapham.
The programme was full of factual errors. One HSE official denied that Bridle had ever been appointed a HSE ‘stakeholder’ (the letter officially confirming this had been among the evidence the researcher had refused to look at). But the most damaging allegation was that he routinely broke the law by ‘testing’ asbestos himself, instead of sending it off to be analysed by a UKAS approved laboratory.
Had the programme bothered to check the hearsay evidence it was given by Bridle’s enemies, it would soon have discovered that there was not a shred of truth in this charge. If asbestos could be accurately identified on sight, the law did not require it to be analysed. So experienced was Bridle in recognizing almost every type of asbestos product that in most instances he did not need to ‘test’ it. Wherever there was any doubt, however, he sent it to be analysed by one of the greatest experts in the country, Professor Fred Pooley of Cardiff University (whose laboratory was accredited by UKAS).
What was particularly odd about this farrago of make-believe was not just that it should be broadcast by the supposedly impartial BBC, but that it should appear on a programme which claimed to champion ‘the consumer’. Bridle’s sole crime was that for four years he had been trying to expose a major commercial racket. Instead of investigating the facts and supporting the man who was trying to save ‘consumers’ from this scam, You and Yours had allowed itself to be used as a mouthpiece by the very interests which were defrauding the public to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds a year.
By all those who stood to lose from Bridle’s campaign, this carefully planned operation to discredit him was regarded as a major coup. Transcripts and CDs of the programme were instantly distributed throughout the trade, publicized on the internet and, as on the previous occasion, sent to anyone who had professional dealings with Bridle: from companies for which he had acted, to the judge in a case in which he was an expert witness.
Bridle was legally advised that, although the programme was blatantly defamatory, to sue the BBC for libel would be a gamble. With a bottomless purse of licence-payers’ money, its lawyers could afford to run up the costs to such an astronomic level that, on a limited budget, he would find it hard to stay in the game. More effective, he was advised, would be first to mount a complaint to the broadcasting regulator Of com, on the grounds that the BBC had broken pretty well every professional rule in the book. An official rebuke would force the BBC to withdraw.
A formal complaint was duly lodged. For months, the BBC continued to spin out the resulting exchanges. By the time this book went to press, Ofcom had not yet given its verdict. Meanwhile, Bridle’s campaign continued. He received dozens of messages from people and companies he had helped, shocked at how the BBC had been used to discredit him. In the weeks following the broadcast, enquiries to Asbestos Watchdog rose by a third.
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