Government U-turn on killer asbestos after firm took officials out for lunch

Civil servants agreed to a U-turn on problematic form of asbestos after the firm which manufactured it entertained three officials to lunch and flew one of them to England, declassified government files reveal.

A file on asbestos gives an insight into the pressure which big asbestos firms brought to bear on mid-ranking civil servants — and the potentially deadly consequences for decades to come.

Turner and Newall, one of the UK’s largest companies at the time, had set up Turners Asbestos Cement Co Ltd in Ballyclare in the 1960s. Ultimately, Turner and Newall was to be overwhelmed by multi-million pound claims for compensation and it finally went under in 2001.

Company documents later revealed that for many years Turner and Newall knowingly exposed its employees to lethal asbestos, and used a PR firm to play down the risks to health, while making huge profits.

One file released at the Public Records Office in Belfast under the new 20-year-rule records many years of asbestos issues. The file is only being released now as it was not closed until 1986.

During an October 1969 Ministry of Commerce visit to the Turners factory in Ballyclare, the official visiting, W McC [sic] Taylor, said that he had come under great pressure to use the firm’s products for Government contracts.

“The firm hopes to expand its sales of asbestos cladding by selling to the Ministry of Commerce for its advance factory programme. I was subjected to very strong pressure regarding this aspect of their activities...”

A note later that month from an unidentified official expressed concern at what he said was an undertaking to use asbestos cladding in future factories.

He said: “I would have thought that, in view of the past history of asbestos cement sheeting, I would have been consulted before any indication was given to the firm...we are well aware of the problems which arose in the past with the product and the numerous complaints which came from the tenants.

“Furthermore, at that time Turners were not inclined to be very helpful. As far as the Maintenance Section is concerned, I understand that the problems of cracked sheeting are still continuing.”

But the following month another official whose signature is not clear said that he had been contacted by a Mr Elser from the asbestos factory pushing for the use of the product. He said “I was impressed by his argument” and committed to a test use of the material in a new factory.

The following month the company sent an invitation to “luncheon at the Dunadry Inn” for several officials, followed by a tour of the firm’s premises in nearby Ballyclare. A John T Dunwoody confirmed that he, along with two other officials, would take up the offer.

Two days after the lunch meeting, a letter from the firm expressed “delight” at the opportunity to introduce officials to those running the factory. It added: “In considering the major question of whether or not to increase capacity at Ballyclare it was a great comfort to know that the ‘hatchet has been buried’ and asbestos cement will be given a fresh opportunity by the Ministry of Commerce to prove itself on advance factories”.

The firm subsequently invited officials to visit “at our expense” sites in England where asbestos had been used. Mr Dunwoody subsequently visited Manchester to inspect asbestos products and despite some problems with the cladding which he inspected, they were explained away as being not relevant to the company’s operation in Ballyclare.

It is clear from a memo five years later that the asbestos cladding was by that stage again being used, partly, it was said, to sustain jobs in Ballyclare. An 11 February 1975 memo from VD McGoldrick, whose department is unclear, to Mr FM Craig in the Department of Commerce’s Emergency Division, referred to disruption to electricity supplies.

He said: “Our factory building programme depends upon the availability of both asbestos cement and rolled steel cladding.

“We prefer the latter but use the former on the smaller buildings both for economy and to provide local employment. We are suffering from a serious shortage of all forms of cladding at present and we would extend the use of asbestos cladding if it were available as a substitute for steel.

“In spite of our efforts to get supplies from Great Britain we are losing time on our factory contracts.”

He referred to Turners Asbestos Cement Co and said: “We believe that four shifts are essential at the Ballyclare plant if the shortfall in cladding is to be overcome for factories and the other buildings for which we are responsible.”

Yet just a year later, a memo detailing the use of asbestos by government since 1947 recommended: “In view of the increasing concern about the application of asbestos in buildings it would be advisable to consider ways of reducing its use to a minimum, particularly the amount of exposed surface area in the building.”

One of the sites where asbestos was used appears to have been Pennybridge Industrial Estate in Ballymena.

By 1985, as the Government moved to ban the use of most forms of asbestos, the long-term costs of using the product became very apparent.

A July 1985 internal memo from John Caldwell at the Industrial Development Board referred to the use of asbestos cladding in its factories as “a dangerous and sensitive matter” given “the known harmful effects of asbestos dust and the potential for adverse publicity if the IDB is not seen to be conscientious about dealing with any risks in its properties”.

Asbestos is now said to kill 4,000 people a year in the UK, with many dying horrific deaths.

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