Christopher Booker's notebook
Fatal cracks appear in asbestos scam as HSE shifts its ground
It is not often that a newspaper columnist can claim to have played a part in a change to the law that could save this country several billion pounds. But such will be the effect of a proposal by the Health and Safety Executive to end an absurdity in Britain's asbestos law which was originally highlighted here.
Since 2002 this column has campaigned to expose the commercial racket created on the back of a legal muddle over different types of asbestos. Thanks to a scientific blunder, the law has confused those types of asbestos (blue and brown) which cause serious damage to human health, with much the commoner products containing "white asbestos", a wholly different mineral posing no medical risk.
One such product, found in millions of homes, is artex, a textured plaster applied to walls and ceilings, containing amounts of white asbestos so small that they are no danger to anyone. When the HSE drew up its 2002 Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations, it was persuaded by the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA) to include artex as a high-risk material, only to be handled by HSE-licensed contractors, such as members of ARCA.
ARCA admits that the inclusion of artex in the regulations provides a third of its members' income: hundreds of millions of pounds a year, paid by householders, businesses, housing associations and local councils, for work which in many cases is not necessary or which could be carried out by ordinary builders for a fraction of the cost.
The expert who has done more than anyone to expose this absurdity is John Bridle. The value of his work was recently recognised when he was made an honorary professor by the Russian Occupational Health Institute, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
When Prof Bridle began to expose the scientific flaws in the regulation of asbestos he was in direct conflict with the HSE. But his marshalling of the evidence, backed by an array of top scientists, has been so authoritative that he and the HSE are now closely collaborating. One recommendation, expressed in new draft regulations, is that artex should no longer be classed as a high-risk material.
The practical effects of this can scarcely be exaggerated. Recently Prof Bridle, on behalf of Asbestos Watchdog (www.asbestoswatchdog. co.uk), the body he launched through this column, was asked by a west London council to inspect just one block of flats containing artex, which a contractor had quoted £720,000 to remove. He found no need, for legal or safety reasons, to remove the artex. Since the council has thousands of such flats, without Prof Bridle's intervention or a change in the law, it might face a bill for billions of pounds.
ARCA is lobbying hard against any change in the law. But the HSE, resting its case on scientific facts, is standing its ground. If the new law comes into effect, as planned, this will represent a victory for common sense for which the HSE will deserve the nation's thanks.
Cameron's first goof is on Kyoto
David Cameron may have won plaudits for his debut as Tory leader, but he has already made a tactical blunder. He has lent his support to the Government's "Kyoto approach" to global warming, and all its associated wishful thinking, just when the balance of the debate is tipping the other way.
The EU may wax sanctimonious about the US, but it is America that has cut its emissions, while the EU's continue to rise, hopelessly missing its Kyoto targets. Wind power now appears to be pie in the sky, while the penny drops that nuclear is the only answer. "Kyoto-ism" is seen as a mad self-deception, which can only result in crippling the world's economies to no purpose.
Cue for Mr Cameron to pledge his support to it, and to enlist as his champion John Gummer - whose major contribution to the "environment" is his energetic chairmanship, for some undisclosed sum, of Valpak, a company set up to steer businesses through the crazy EU recycling rules which Gummer himself introduced when he was environment minister.
On this one, I fear, Dave has goofed.
'Nobel' prize for a noble people
In the Swedish Parliament on Friday an international jury presented a Right Livelihood Award (known as the "Alternative Nobel Prize") to Roy Sesana, a Kalahari bushman who has been leading his people's fight for the right to stay in the reserve that is their ancestral homeland.
In recent months, the Botswanan government, supported by the EU and the Foreign Office, has stepped up its drive, using force and torture, to evict the last bushmen from the reserve and to herd them into the unspeakable settlement that they call "the place of death".
On his way to Stockholm I met Mr Sesana with members of the staff of Survival International, the organisation that has fought so tirelessly to bring this tragedy to the world's attention. I first met him in 1996 - the year that the Botswanan government launched its forcible eviction policy - with that great champion of the bushmen, Laurens van der Post.
As the leader of the First People of the Kalahari, Mr Sesana has matured into an impressive figure: wise, strong and humorous (with a playful gift for mimicry) but passionately eloquent about the plight of his people. I asked him, if they were free to go back to their traditional way of life, how many would return. "Many hundreds," he replied.
That the British Government is prepared to act as an apologist for this flouting of a constitutional guarantee, which was given to the bushmen when Botswana gained independence from Britain in 1966, is a cause for deep shame.
To proclaim Jesus is illegal
John Banda is a 74-year old Zambian accountant and devout Christian, formerly treasurer of the United Church of Zambia, who now lives in east London. To demonstrate his faith, he sometimes carries a placard containing two quotations from the New Testament: "Jesus Christ is Lord. Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out."
On October 26 Mr Banda was stopped near London Bridge by three policemen, who said that the wording was in breach of the Public Order Act 1986 as it is a criminal offence to display written material which is "threatening, abusive or insulting" and intended to "stir up racial hatred". The policemen told him in no uncertain fashion that, if he continued to display his placard, he would be arrested.
Mr Banda comments: "When I came to Britain I thought I was coming to a Christian country. I did not realise that to advertise my faith would make me a criminal." He has every intention of continuing to do so.