John Street’s Diary

Written By: John Street
Published: July 16, 2017 Last modified: July 16, 2017

Shadow on the sun

Brexit minister Steve Baker has lobbied the government to weaken asbestos laws, leading the Unite general union to demand that Theresa May’s government now provides “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. 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 2013 and 2012, there were 2,556 deaths and 2,549 deaths respectively. In October 2010, Baker asked a series of parliamentary questions regarding asbestos. He asked the then work and pensions secretary “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”. 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.” Baker is also mentioned in a 2015 report by the Conservative Rural Affairs Group (CRAG) as having contacted Lord de Mauley, then a parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, “about asbestos issues on farms”. 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. Baker’s questions and the policies of CRAG are in line with a well-funded pro-asbestos group which argues, contrary to scientific evidence, that white asbestos is safe. This group has the support of several right-wing politicians and commentators within both the Conservative Party and UKIP. Cartmail said: “Following these revelations it is essential that 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.”

Dance before the storm
At 4-1, Anne Marie Waters is the bookies’ second-favourite to win the UKIP leadership stakes. Guido Fawkes blogged: “Waters is a former hard-left Labour Party candidate turned hard-right founder of Sharia Watch UK. She was blocked from standing as a UKIP candidate at the general election (under UKIP’s leadership rules this could become an obstacle if she is deemed as not being in “good standing” for the past two years). She set up PEGIDA’s UK branch with Tommy Robinson, who introduced her at her leadership launch last month. Waters has called Islam “a killing machine”. Nuttall has condemned her and the party will split if she wins.”

Bozos

Veolia Environmental Services has been accused by the Unite general union of hiding behind Brexit when it failed to incorporate overtime pay into annual holiday pay, citing “Brexit legal uncertainty”. Unite hailed an employment tribunal ruling as a “landmark victory” which will have implications for the union’s several thousand members working on French-owned Veolia’s council waste and refuse contracts across the UK. Employment judge Skehan found that the voluntary overtime worked was part of members’ normal pay, because there was an intrinsic link between the overtime and their role, and because it was performed with sufficient regularity to be part of normal pay. Despite Veolia having claimed Brexit as the reason for not incorporating overtime pay, when it came to the hearing the company did not put forward any legal arguments to back up that “spurious” contention. As a result, voluntary overtime must be included in the calculation of the successful claimants’ holiday pay for the first 20 days of their holiday each year in accordance with EU law. Contractually guaranteed overtime should also be included for the first 28 days based on long established UK law, which Unite said Veolia was forced to concede on day two of the hearing. Unite national officer for local government Fiona Farmer said: “This judgment will have widespread implications for the several thousand members we have working for Veolia across the UK, who should be getting average holiday pay and could be in line for backdated payments.”
Is this art?

What’s in a name?

A lot, at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport anyway. An official statement said: “In a move that acknowledges the way the Department’s remit has evolved, the Prime Minister and Culture Secretary Karen Bradley have agreed a departmental name change. The Department will continue to be referred to as DCMS in all communications, but is now the department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.”

Warning

Mike Smithson, of the Political Betting website, blogged: “After the manifesto the other big avoidable mistake of May’s election 2017 campaign was the refusal to take part in TV leaders’ debates which became part of the UK political scene at the 2010 election. (It) reinforced the narrative that she was avoiding situations where she would be put on the spot. Remember how her non-participation caused stories about her refusal to go on Woman’s Hour and other programmes. The public expect leaders to come under scrutiny at election times and woe betide those who don’t accept that. Given her experience it is going to be a very brave incumbent prime minister who refuses next time.”

Dirty Davey

Francesca Rhys-Williams and Jack Hughes, writing on behalf of the Post-Crash Economics Society at the University of Manchester, gave a ferocious response when it was announced that George Osborne has been appointed an honorary professor of economics at their institution. “As if five jobs weren’t already enough…” they blogged. “While the university has stated that Osborne’s position will be unpaid, we still argue that this is a questionable prioritisation for the university. Time and resources should be devoted to expanding the economics syllabus with a variety of policy makers and academics. Osborne’s track record demonstrates that he, like the economics curriculum at Manchester, doesn’t take a holistic approach to the economy. While Osborne was Chancellor, fiscal economic policy in the UK became very focused on GDP and unemployment levels which do not take into account inequality, health indicators, educational standards, environmental degradation, job security and many other things that are essential parts of the economy. His austerity policies and legacy have received much criticism from academics and economists for worsening the economic recovery.”

About John Street

John Street is Tribune's diary columnist.