How the world's biggest asbestos factory tried to stop campaigners exposing the killer dust's dangers

Exclusive: Turner and Newall spied on journalists and activists before trying to accuse the of being communists in the 1980s

Executives at the world’s biggest asbestos factory spied on journalists and environmental campaigners who exposed the killer dust’s dangers and then launched a covert campaign to accuse them of being communists, it can be revealed.

Secret industry documents seen by The Independent reveal that the executives at Rochdale-based asbestos giant Turner and Newall monitored people they considered to be “subversive” and kept a dossier on their activities at the height of the debate about the mineral’s safety in the 1980s.

They also enlisted the help of disgraced Rochdale MP Cyril Smith in a clandestine but ultimately unsuccessful bid to discredit the makers of an award-winning documentary that told how asbestos workers were dying from cancer.

Leading campaigners are now calling for a full-scale inquiry into what they describe as “decades” of espionage against campaign groups in the UK.

The revelations also raise further concerns about Smith’s links to the asbestos industry after it emerged some years ago that executives at Turner and Newall wrote the speech he made about asbestos safety in Parliament.

Craig Bennett, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth, which it has emerged was listed in the Turner and Newall files, said the latest revelations are “shocking”.

Asbestos: The slow clean-up

  • 1898 Factory inspectors express concern about the “evil effects” of asbestos dust.
  • 1911 The first cases of asbestos deaths in factories are confirmed and recommendations made for improved ventilation.
  • 1924 The death of a textile worker in Rochdale is the first published case of asbestosis. The firm pays no compensation to the bereaved family.
  • 1931 Asbestos industry regulations introduced. Home Office survey finds widespread asbestos disease in the UK.
  • 1967 The asbestos register is established. Safety limits are proposed the following year. 
  • 1972 The first personal injury claim succeeds.
  • 1983 Asbestos licensing regulations are introduced.
  • 1985 Regulations introduce a ban on crocidolite (blue) asbestos and amosite (brown) asbestos.
  • 1987 Control of asbestos at work regulations introduced to protect workers from fibre exposure.
  • 1992 Laws are amended to ban rarer forms of amphibole asbestos. Later followed by a ban on chrysotile asbestos.
  • 1995 A report shows that asbestos deaths are increasing at an alarming rate. A quarter are away from asbestos manufacturing industries.
  • 1996 A report claims asbestos protection is vastly inferior to the claims stated by its manufacturers.
  • 1999 Asbestos regulations introduce a final, comprehensive ban on asbestos.
  • 2002 New regulations mean businesses have to start identifying and managing asbestos in their properties.
  • 2006 Previous regulations are brought together in the new Control of Asbestos Regulations.

“It is clear that as long as people have campaigned for a better world, corrupt sections of the elite have tried to undermine their activities and misrepresent their arguments. It is very clear now that there has been spying on organisations such as Friends of the Earth over many decades by government and commercial forces,” he said.

“It is shocking that business leaders who realised they were losing the argument on a vital issue like as asbestos resorted to these methods. There needs to be an inquiry into how public authorities and companies spent money investigating peaceful organisations campaigning for the public good in a democracy.”

A letter dated 11 January 1983 in the Turner and Newall archives reveals that executives had sent a staff member to an asbestos campaign meeting posing as a member of the public, who then sent back a three-page report detailing everything that was said. 

The executives also revealed they had ordered a “very confidential report” to be made on researchers involved in a Yorkshire TV documentary, Alice: A Fight for Life, which told the story of 47-year-old former asbestos worker Alice Jefferson, who was dying from malignant pleural mesothelioma. The film, directed by award-winning film maker John Willis, explicitly linked asbestos to cancer and attacked the Government’s perceived complacency in limiting the manufacture of asbestos in Britain.

At the time of the film, asbestos as a health hazard was not widely known to the public, and mesothelioma, the cancer caused by asbestos, was even less wellknown. The Government and leading doctors told people that asbestos was a vital industry and that its manufacture was safe.

Turner and Newall’s tried to discredit the film by producing a secret report on the researchers, local asbestos campaigners and industrial injury solicitors – listing their addresses, places they had visited, alleged connections and supposed political affiliations.

The report made claims that the researchers were communists – dangerous allegations at the time – and claimed they would “deny this if challenged”. It also claimed the researchers used the Friends of the Earth headquarters in London as their offices. 

The spies claimed one woman was known for her “left wing views” but was “not a member of any subversive organisation”. A solicitor was described as a Communist Party member, but was said to be “most anxious that this fact is not made known”.

It also named a number of Labour MPs linked to environmental groups including the Socialist Environment and Resources Association.In a paragraph on Friends of the Earth, it said evidence showed “what length those groups can go in their efforts in attempting to bring down a company”.

The documents, discovered in the archives of the now defunct company by Rochdale asbestos campaigner Jason Addy, also show how Turner and Newall executives reached out to Smith for help in a calculated smear campaign. In a letter marked “urgent” and sent from the firm’s Rochdale factory to MP’s office at the House of Commons, they made arrangements to meet him ahead of a select committee hearing where Yorkshire TV directors were due to give evidence and attached a number of questions they deemed “suitable” as “thought starters” for the committee.

At the hearing, the television directors were forced to defend suggestions that researchers on the programme had communist sympathies – allegations they had never previously heard. The executives later wrote to Smith thanking him for his “help and guidance” on the day of the hearing and added: “I doubt if we will ever succeed in ridding ourselves of the Yorkshire TV ogre.”

They also suggested a list of points which they felt it “would be useful” to submit to the committee. 

The files show that copies of newspaper cuttings headlined “Communist allegation over asbestos firm” were later circulated among joyful executives at the company. But their joy was short-lived. The outcry following the shocking film forced the Government to act and recommendations for lower dust levels in factories were implemented.

Smith had earlier announced that he believed Turner and Newall should sue Yorkshire TV for the “lies” in the programme and said he was “totally and absolutely satisfied” that there was “not the slightest health risk”. He said he had instructed his bankers to buy some shares in the company.

Smith, who died in 2010, responded to claims in 2008 that he had helped cover up the dangers of asbestos as “absolute rubbish” amid calls for him to be stripped of his knighthood.

James Cutler, who along with Peter Moore was one of the researchers on the film, told The Independent: “We were certainly not Communists. I was never a member of any political party. We never even visited the Friends of the Earth’s offices. We were journalists doing our jobs.

“Turner and Newall put together a lot of rubbish information and used it to brief MPs, but if you have to deny something in the House of Commons under oath, it puts a seed of doubt in people’s minds and that’s what they tried to do. It was underhand and pathetic.

“I never had a feeling that we were being followed, but we did feel when we went to Rochdale that it was a company town. If you were talking to a widow in one street, people in another street would know what you were doing.

“Our motto while making the film was to leave no stone unturned and that’s what we did. Ultimately, the firm stopped using asbestos.”

Mr Addy, the Rochdale-based campaigner and PhD researcher who uncovered the spying dossier as part of 12 years of research into the firm’s toxic legacy, said: “There now needs to be a full investigation into Turner and Newall’s role in undermining the democratic process and its links with Cyril Smith.

“Instead of defending dying workers and their families, he went on the offensive to defend asbestos.”

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