Unite, the UK’s largest union, has revealed that newly appointed Brexit minister Steve Baker MP, has lobbied the government to weaken asbestos laws. Unite is demanding that the government now provide ‘cast-iron guarantees’ that asbestos regulations won’t be watered down.
Much of the existing legislation, which bans the use of asbestos and controls how the substance is removed, is governed by European Union legislation. Mr Baker’s appointment raises concerns that when the so-called ‘Great Reform Bill’ becomes law, he will be able to use his position to weaken asbestos laws, bypassing effective parliamentary scrutiny.
The latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive for 2014 reveal that, 2,515 people died as a result of developing mesothelioma, the incurable and fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs, caused by inhaling asbestos.
In October 2010, Mr Baker asked a series of parliamentary questions regarding asbestos. He asked the secretary of state for work and pensions: “If he will bring forward proposals to amend the provisions of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 to distinguish the white form of asbestos and the blue and brown forms of that substance”
Mr Baker also asked: “If he will commission an inquiry into the appropriateness of the health and safety precautions in force in respect of asbestos cement. And “If he will bring forward proposals to amend existing regulations governing the safe use of asbestos cement in line with the evidence cited in the Health and Safety Commission Paper HSC/06/055.”
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail, said: “It is alarming that an MP who holds such extreme views on asbestos has been given such a sensitive position. It demonstrates the Prime Minister is more interested in appeasing hardline Brexiters, rather than the welfare of workers.”
Mr Baker is also mentioned in a 2015 report by the Conservative Rural Affairs Group (CRAG), having contacted Lord de Mauley the parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) “about asbestos issues on farms”. The CRAG has long campaigned for a derogation “to allow the re-use of end of life asbestos cement sheets on farms” rather than the professional removal of the substance which is currently the case.
Mr Baker’s questions and the policies of the CRAG are in line with a well funded pro-asbestos lobby which argues contrary to scientific evidence that white asbestos is safe. The pro-asbestos group has the support of several right-wing politicians and commentators within both the Conservative Party and UKIP.
Gail Cartmail added: “Following these revelations it is essential that very senior government ministers give a cast-iron guarantee that the existing asbestos regulations will not be weakened or modified and the safety of workers will remain the priority.
“With thousands of people dying every year, directly as a result of being exposed to asbestos, the priority must be to ensure that the existing safety laws are adhered to and employers who ignore this life saving legislation are prosecuted and convicted.”