Asbestos: The lies that killed

Asbestos, now banned in the EU, kills up to 4,000 people a year in the UK alone. In this exclusive report, Ed Howker reveals how the industry hid the truth for decades and why the death toll will certainly continue to rise.

There are nearly one million documents on microfiche sitting in the office of the Manchester Metropolitan University Business School academic Geoffrey Tweedale. They expose a scandal that ranks among the biggest and costliest of our age: how the Lancashire manufacturing giant Turner & Newall (T&N), once the world's largest asbestos conglomerate, exposed millions to a lethal carcinogen in full knowledge of its dangers, using PR firms and politicians to hide a truth that it had secretly admitted to in 1961, namely that "the only really safe number of asbestos fibres in the works environment is nil".

Hidden in this massive archive are documents, revealed here for the first time, which tell the story of corporate recklessness that has led to the deaths of thousands of men and women in Britain who were once exposed to asbestos.

People living in the Spodden Valley area of Rochdale in the 1950s used to joke that they would get frost all year round. The local wood was nicknamed "the snow trees" and even the blackberries picked in late summer were covered with a fine white powder. But the "frost" was no joke - it was asbestos blown from extractor fans at the Turner & Newall factory in the heart of the valley.

Derek Philips never worked there, but for 19 years lived just yards from the site. He played bass in a band with T&N workers and recalls the factory as "the centre of the community". The guitars hang on the walls of his current home, a static caravan in the Pennine foothills where he waits to die of one of the asbestos-related diseases - meso thelioma, which appears decades after exposure to asbestos and which is killing more than 2,000 people every year in the UK.

His plight has been all too common in Rochdale. In the 1980s the New Statesman reported that on some roads near the factory every second household had lost a family member to asbestos diseases.

"I was diagnosed in October [2007]," says Philips. "A month later they drained three litres of fluid from my lungs. I couldn't even stand up properly. I've just no chance, have I? I didn't know about the risks."

In the coming months, how he was exposed to asbestos and who he was working for at that time will become vital issues as lawyers fight to win compensation for Derek.

The latest gambit of some insurers is to claim that their liabilities extend only to victims whose disease manifests (is triggered) when they are actually at work, not when they were negligently exposed, which can occur decades earlier. The union Unite is backing one of six test cases that have been presented on behalf of victims to Mr Justice Burton, who will rule in the high court this autumn. If he finds for the insurers, thousands of mesothelioma victims could find themselves without compensation for their suffering.

This long-running war between victims and insurers has an unlikely new player: Warren Buffett, the richest man in the world, who will watch the results of the "trigger issue" case with interest. Next year, National Indemnity Company, a division of the billionaire's Berkshire Hathaway, will take control of an office in the City of London that is unable to respond to telephone inquiries and has only one full-time employee. This skeleton of a business is called Equitas. It was worth $8.7bn in cash and securities when Buffett took it over in 2006. It had been created a decade earlier by Lloyd's of London to solve a multibillion-dollar crisis in insurance: the overextended liabilities of Lloyd's Names.

 

Who is liable?

 

By the 1980s, the burden of asbestos-related insurance claims underwritten by Lloyd's Names had become so great that the Names were threatened with bankruptcy. Equitas was established to manage the liabilities. Nearly half its reserves are dedicated to asbestos reinsurance claims predominantly from the United States. Some experts considered even Equitas's billions insufficient to cover the insurers. Buffett's deal augments the fund by a further $7bn to cover any shortfall and the Names will heave a collective sigh of relief when the transaction is approved formally by the high court next year.

So, what is in it for Buffett? When the Financial Times first interviewed him about the proposed deal in 2006, he admitted: "It will be long after I am dead before we know the final answers on how it all works out." Meanwhile, however, he will gain access to some of the most capable reinsurance analysts in the world.

Geoffrey Tweedale, author of Magic Mineral to Killer Dust, comments: "The deal will only be profitable if Berkshire Hathaway can limit their liabilities." In other words, Buffett would have to limit payments to the insurers that compensate victims. Alistair Darling's "bonfire of red tape" announced in the last Budget will help.

In July, the Treasury amended the Employers' Liability Regulations to revoke the requirement for businesses to keep insurance records for 40 years. But, in asbestos-related cases, decades can pass between exposure and the development of the disease. Without records, victims may be unable to establish who is liable. Tony Whitston, who runs the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, says: "It's a body blow to our groups who have to pick up the pieces when victims are unable to obtain justice."

The people of Rochdale have long experience of that.

Samuel Turner was a pioneer, spinning fireproof and corrosion-resistant textiles from Canadian asbestos on secondhand cotton machinery in the 1870s. From meagre beginnings, T&N grew to be the biggest asbestos conglomerate in the world, as well as a popular local factory.

Brian Penty worked at the site from 1963 until 1996: "There was a bowling green and Christmas parties for the kids," he explains. "It was a family thing. People never really took on board what was being said about asbestos."

Beneath the rosy tale of northern endeavour lurked a darker story. As early as 1898, government factory inspectors were warning that asbestos "easily demonstrated danger to the health of the workers". The T&N files first refer to asbestos cancer in Rochdale in the 1930s.

By 1947, the national factory inspector's report emphasised the incidence of lung cancer among asbestos workers but, astonishingly, no detailed research was undertaken by the government. Only in 1955 did Richard Doll, then a junior academic (and later famous for establishing the connection between tobacco-smoking and cancer), complete an epidemiological study in Rochdale which established the link between asbestos and cancer. He had been approached by T&N but the company initially refused to allow him to publish the findings. Later T&N persuaded its own scientist, Dr John Knox, to draft a paper discrediting Doll's work. Knox encouraged academic scepticism about asbestos diseases but clearly knew there was a problem. He regularly X-rayed employees and when the results showed them developing signs of disease moved them to less dusty jobs. They were not told why.

The signed witness statement of a worker who later died states: "They did not say in 1974 that I had asbestosis but I expect there was something on my X-ray which made them think it was time I came out."

And Brian Penty remembers a so-called "blood pressure survey" in 1982: "They actually drew blood. A couple of years later I was at my GP's surgery - he'd been sent the results. Apparently they were testing for asbestos in my bloodstream."

In public, T&N strove to be portrayed as a responsible employer. In 1944, a manager of the plant wrote to factory inspectors: "In a number of cases we make ex-gratia payments in addition to the statutory compensation. Where an employee has no standing for some technicality we pay compensation, as it appears desirable to deal with the problem on broad lines, and not to rely on some legal point in our favour."

Yet, when the first official asbestosis victim, Nellie Kershaw, died in 1924, the firm wrangled about paying compensation to her bereaved family. Finally they decided not even to contribute towards funeral expenses since, as one company manager warned, it "would create a precedent and admit responsibility". She was buried in an unmarked grave.

 

The T&N archives are full of death certificates of former employees, placed with internal correspondence never disclosed to grieving families. The official cause of death attributed to Edna Penham, a 64-year-old asbestos stripper at T&N, for example, was peritonitis. The company's personnel manager noted that his records showed she was "40 per cent disabled due to asbestosis", though there was no reference to this on her death certificate. It appears the coroner did not know. There was no inquest.

 

Keeping quiet

 

Eventually T&N employed the insurance giant Commercial Union to administer a fund for diseased employees. Geoffrey Tweedale found examples of former employees being placed under surveillance by the firm - desperate not to be held liable. Company policy appeared to be to mislead coroners' inquests, pay compensation only if forced and avoid payouts that might create precedents.

In 1964, T&N solicitors warned the directors: "We have, over the years, been able to talk our way out of claims but we have always recognised that at some stage solicitors of experience . . . would, with the advance in medical knowledge and the development of the law . . . recognise there is no real defence to these claims and take us to trial."

The company found government representatives only too pliant. One medical adviser is recorded as advising T&N to keep quiet about the cancer dangers of their product. In correspondence between two directors of the plant, the opinion of Professor Archie Cochrane, director of epidemiology at the Medical Research Council, was noted: "In tackling a problem of this nature [mesothelioma] one should either be completely frank with everyone or maintain complete secrecy - it is the latter that he feels is best at the moment."

In 1968, T&N circulated a confidential five-point plan entitled "Putting the Case for Asbestos". Drafted by the international PR firm Hill & Knowlton and designed to enable staff to field questions about asbestos cancer, it began, in capital letters: "Never be the first to raise the health question."

When government departments did raise questions about the safety of asbestos, the Board of Trade intervened, arguing that any suggestion that asbestos presented a danger would damage British jobs. So, the sale of asbestos products continued to grow in the UK throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

T&N also relied on the assistance of Cyril Smith, the larger-than-life Rochdale MP and parliamentary pioneer of the Saturday-night television chat-show sofa. During the summer recess of 1981, Smith wrote to Sydney Marks, the head of personnel, informing him that the House would debate EEC regulations on asbestos in the next parliamentary session.

The letter asks simply: "Could you please, within the next eight weeks, let me have the speech you would like to make (were you able to!), in that debate?"

T&N's draft is almost identical to the speech delivered by the Rochdale MP, stressing the need for less regulation and arguing that substitutes for asbestos should be approached "with caution". "The public at large are not at risk," said Smith. "It is necessary to say that time and time again."

Writing in the local paper, he claimed to have "worked very hard on the speech and have spent hours, both in reading and in being at the works, trying to master the facts about safety in asbestos".

A year later he declared 1,300 shares in the company. Six months after that J B Heron, the chairman of T&N, wrote to Smith again, thanking him for his assistance with the Commons select committee meetings which followed Alice, a Fight for Life, the Yorkshire Television documentary that highlighted the plight of T&N employees.

When last month the New Statesman approached Smith for a comment, he said: "If you've got the documents, it is all true."

 

Some may receive nothing

 

By 1999, the game was up for T&N when the European Union banned the import and production of asbestos throughout the EU. But with the factory's demise came the greatest in justice of all. In the UK, neither T&N nor its insurers faced substantial product liability claims or decontamination costs. Instead, the company was purchased by Federal-Mogul, a US company which later declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy - a status that ring-fenced its compensation liabilities.

With the company protected from its creditors, a UK-based T&N asbestos compensation scheme of just £100m was established by Federal-Mogul's UK administrators.

Those who, like Derek Philips, may have been victims of environmental exposure at T&N's factories may end up receiving little or nothing.

"The hardest thing," says David Cass, a solicitor specialising in compensation for mesothelioma victims, "is having to tell people who walk into my office, 'I won't get you an apology.'"

Who is left to provide one? T&N is now a shell. The civil servants and politicians who failed to regulate the industry are no longer in post; the insurers who took on the liabilities are long retired. They cannot account for their decisions now. But we will live, and many will die, with the consequences.

 

 

 

Asbestos: the killer facts

 

 

 

1

asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related death in the UK

4,000

number of asbestos-related deaths in the UK in 2005

79

number of teachers who died from mesothelioma between 1991 and 2000

13,000

schools in Britain may have been built using asbestos materials

60

number of years after exposure to fibres it may take for an asbestos-related disease to manifest itself

25%

of victims of mesothelioma work in the building or maintenance industry

2.2 million

tonnes of asbestos were mined worldwide in 2005

Research: Adam Lewitt

 

     

    This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food

    MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
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    The Tory civil war

    Even if David Cameron clears the fence marked Brexit, he will find a very deep ditch on the other side.

    We all know families who fight and argue in the privacy of their own homes but put on a flawless display in public. So it was, for a few days at least, with the Conservative Party when the campaign for the EU referendum began. Both sides were keen to keep it that way, in the long-term interests of their party. Last month, one MP dressed down Norman Smith, the BBC political reporter, for going on the airwaves and talking about “the Tory civil war”. At that stage, he was perhaps right to do so.

    Tempers are, however, beginning to fray. Members of White’s, the St James’s Street club and a foremost lair of the Tory grandee, were recently alarmed to see two of that species, Nicholas Soames MP and David
    Heathcoat-Amory, an MP until 2010 and a former Europe minister, going at it hammer and tongs about the European question during the lunch hour. Anyone familiar with Soames’s entertaining Twitter feed, which is currently devoted mainly to savaging fellow Tories in Vote Leave, will know that he is no stranger to technicolor vituperation.

    It was, according to the account doing the rounds, a ferocious argument, though no blows were struck. “Nicholas and David have known each other since school,” a friend of both men told me. “They have more in common than separates them. It just shows how fraught things are.” That is certainly true. I well remember Soames, a lifelong pro-European, expressing his genuine dismay that Heathcoat-Amory was defeated in 2010 because a Ukip candidate, standing ironically against a devoutly Eurosceptic Tory, split the vote in his Wells constituency and let in a Lib Dem.

    Another MP, using an appropriate public school metaphor for a gentlemen’s club packed with Old Etonians, likened them to boys who are friends but who, once on opposite sides of the sports field, let all hell loose at each other. One does not doubt that Soames’s and Heathcoat-Amory’s regard for each other will survive the referendum. Whether the same can be said for the two sides of the Conservative Party – unequal sides at that – come 24 June is quite a different matter.

    The way David Cameron has conducted his wing of the Remain campaign in recent weeks has horrified many Tory MPs, even some who are or were notionally on his side. “The personal attacks and crude propaganda have really upset the party and I don’t think he understands how badly this has gone down in the constituencies,” a Remainer told me.

    The personal attacks are certainly out in force. Downing Street has started to brief the media about those in particular disfavour. The Sunday Times reported on 15 May that Priti Patel, the employment minister, had behaved “appallingly” (her crime seemed to have been pointing out the government’s failure to supply enough school places to cope with the recent influx of eastern European immigrants). It also claimed that Cameron was especially angry with Michael Gove – which, since Gove has behaved with politeness and a complete lack of hysteria towards the Prime Minister, suggests that the latter must have a very thin skin indeed. Gove does annoy Cameron and his friends, not because of bad behaviour but because his detailed and measured analysis of what is wrong with the EU is hard to rebut, in contrast to more emotive outbursts by the likes of Boris Johnson that can be swatted aside.

    Meanwhile, Cameron has sought to ridicule Bernard Jenkin, one of the most vocal Leavers among MPs, for making a perfectly reasonable observation about the dilution of trade union legislation in return for the unions’ support of Remain. The snide side of the Prime Minister’s character, depressingly familiar to those who deal with him in private, is becoming more and more unchecked as tensions in the campaign rise. There have also been briefings against
    Penny Mordaunt, the armed forces minister, and, of course, Johnson. One attempt to terrify the country was to have the Sunday Times splash that, Brexit or not, Johnson would be the next leader and, therefore, prime minister. Downing Street seems not to realise that such an outcome is, for reasons few can fathom, one the general public seems to want.

    ***

    The Tory party has long been a coalition. Most diehard Leavers had no social or personal relations with their colleagues in Remain anyway, so that has not changed. Any breakdown in civilities among others at the moment is, for the most part, temporary. Many take the view of Jacob Rees-Mogg that the result must be binding whatever it is and the party must move on. Equally, many don’t, and if the outcome is a narrow victory for Remain it will be the worst possible result for the Prime Minister.

    Those trying to maintain peace in the parliamentary party – and it is important to note that a few dozen MPs have never really been interested in Europe and are showing little interest now – believe that things could have been worse. Veterans say the atmosphere is better than it was during the Major government, in the arguments over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty and Britain’s inglorious departure from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. That, too, is probably true, when one recalls that nine MPs had the whip withdrawn, John Major described some of his cabinet colleagues as “bastards” and he felt constrained to call a leadership contest to prove his mandate to lead the Tories. However, the vote is still a month away and there is scope for things
    to worsen.

    With the government and the Whitehall machine distracted by the referendum, other aspects of Conservative rule are causing irritation within the party. There is a sense that the whips and Downing Street have given up trying to take MPs with them on other issues, or to explain why changes of policy are being made. There is little doubt about the fragility of the economy, or that it could go south even if the UK remains in the EU – and George Osborne is felt to be doing too little to demonstrate the proverbial firm hand on the tiller, or to inspire confidence among his colleagues.

    The recent U-turn on academy schools has caused particular rage among MPs who had gone to great lengths to explain and defend the previous policy to their constituents. Now they find themselves having to do the opposite and, as one of the less self-regarding said to me, “No pompous Tory MP likes being made to look stupid.” There is a widespread belief even among the more feminist MPs – and, believe it or not, the Tories have them of both genders – that Nicky Morgan has proved she is nothing more than a token presence in the cabinet.

    Speculation about what would happen in the event of Brexit – and none of the 20 or so MPs I spoke to in preparing this piece, whatever their allegiances, would rule it out – is now starting to grip the Conservatives and is causing tempers to rise. Nobody seems to want Cameron’s immediate departure if the vote goes against him. There is talk of a “managed, orderly withdrawal” to see the party and the country through the initial shock of the change, with a contest getting under way formally at the Tory conference in October and the process – a vote of the parliamentary party, followed by a plebiscite of the membership to decide between the two most popular candidates – over by early December.

    Johnson’s high-profile Brexit campaign is, in effect, the start of his bid for the leadership and why Cameron is so agitated about him. Johnson, as I wrote here in March, has not made the best impression on his fellow MPs since returning to the House last May and it is far from assured that he will be one of the final two candidates. There is also an uncomfortable recognition that he achieved little for London as mayor, other than traffic chaos and a series of vanity projects. “We’d like to do a Checkpoint Charlie-style swap, halfway across Westminster Bridge, with Sadiq Khan,” a Remainer told me.

    However, Tory activists forcefully tell their MPs that Johnson is a “winner” who merits support in a leadership vote. Some younger MPs, yet to learn the difference between being a representative and being a delegate, are nervous of disagreeing. Three of them – Nigel Adams, Ben Wallace (a junior Northern Ireland minister and former soldier) and Jake Berry – are running a campaign for Johnson, organising lavish drinks parties for colleagues so the candidate can press the flesh. This irritates older MPs, who see it as a provocative manifestation of ambition and vulgarity that the party could do without.

    A prominent Brexiter is almost certain to be in the last two in the leadership contest, be it later this year or in 2019-20, whatever the outcome of the referendum. Whether that is Johnson depends on if he self-destructs during this campaign – his reference to Hitler in his Sunday Telegraph interview on 15 May suggests that is quite possible, given the opportunities ahead. What might entertain the general public – and his unrestrained remarks, such as about President Obama’s Kenyan heritage, probably do –
    increasingly angers his colleagues.

    It may then be up to Michael Gove to offer himself, something that is said to be unlikely at the moment but that may become less so if things go badly for Johnson. Whatever Cameron thinks of his Justice Secretary, his colleagues have nothing but praise for the way in which he has conducted himself. It is widely thought that, in the event of a Remain victory, Cameron will promote Gove, possibly even to deputy prime minister, as a very public healing of wounds, in an attempt to unify his fractured party.

    The favourite to end up in the last two with a Brexiter if there is an early leadership contest is Theresa May, described by one who knows her well as “cold, unfriendly, charmless, not as clever as she thinks she is, lacking imagination, unable to think outside the railway lines and intellectually dishonest”. However, he said that were the choice to be between her and Johnson, “I would, of course, vote for her.”

    The wider party probably would not. It is accepted that if Johnson reached the last two, the party in the country would elect him leader. His fate, therefore, lies in the hands of his parliamentary colleagues, whenever the contest comes.

    An MP who is a constitutional authority told me of his belief that even if Johnson became leader he would struggle to form a government, because a hard core of pro-Europeans might refuse to support him. Others, knowing the ambitions of their brethren, doubt that but the thought was recently echoed by the former MP Matthew Parris, probably the most articulate columnist writing in support of Cameron, who said on BBC radio that if there were a vote for Brexit he and others like him would leave the party.

    ***

    A victory for Remain might end Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions and the prospect of such a realignment. But unless that victory is substantial – at least as large as the 55-45 vote in the Scottish referendum – Cameron will struggle: and even that margin of victory in Scotland has not squashed demands for another vote.

    The Prime Minister has failed to grasp how many of his MPs are against the EU. A former cabinet minister, not known for hyperbole, told me that “more than 200” of the party’s 330 MPs would vote for Brexit in the privacy of the polling booths. The proportion of Leave activists is even higher. Some MPs still maintain that they can find hardly anyone in their shrunken constituency bases who wants to stay in.

    What we are witnessing is the expression of the resentments and tribal hatreds of many years, in a party that has never recovered from the splits after Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech and the Maastricht arguments, or indeed from the conduct of the debate over the UK’s entry into the then EEC during the passage of the European Communities Bill in 1972.

    A former minister, a pro-European, said: “Dave is going to have to bring in the people he has alienated but even then it is going to be hard for him to do more than limp on for a couple of years.” Another said the government now, with its small majority, deals with the Tory party on a “issue by issue” basis, seeking just to get over the next hurdle. Even if Cameron clears the Becher’s Brook-style fence marked “Brexit”, he may find a very deep ditch on the other side.

    Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph

    Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

    This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster