THE statistics are frightening. About 4,000 people die from asbestos-related diseases every year and, even now, half a million workplaces are thought to contain asbestos which is putting employees' lives at risk.

Here in the industrialised North-East, harrowing, heartbreaking reports have emerged from inquests into abestos-related deaths with disturbing regularity. We all know the dangers and the devastating consequences.

And yet, Wear Valley District Council allowed employees to work with dangerous abestos materials for nearly five years without telling them.

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The authority was told about the toxic material at Woodhouse Close Leisure Complex in Bishop Auckland in 2001 but did nothing to remove it or warn its staff.

Whether it was a cover-up or a cock-up, it is an absolute scandal which has left workers like Robert Batie, who worked at the centre for 13 years, living in fear for the rest of his life.

We consider it appalling that there has been no apology from the council and unbelievable that opposition councillors were kept completely in the dark.

We also find it unacceptable that the punishment for such criminal neglect is a pitiful £18,000 fine, which will be paid by the taxpayers of Wear Valley.

We accept that the directors who were responsible at the time of the scandal have all since left the authority. A new regime is in place and action is being taken to deal with asbestos which remains in council buildings.

But none of that helps Mr Batie or his colleagues who were so disgracefully let down.