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Update on Asbestos in Schools

Update - 5 February 2009

Parliamentary Asbestos sub-Committee Meeting.
3rd February 2009

The issue of asbestos in schools was not on the agenda of the meeting but the Chairman Michael Clapham MP ensured that it was discussed at length. Ten MPs attended and those who spoke expressed their concerns and that something had to be done.

Voice and ATL had written to the chairman as had the NUT in the past. The chairman and three senior members of the asbestos consultants’ association attended so that when Michael Clapham read out the Schools Minister’s comment that schools are effectively managing their asbestos, they were able to say with professional expertise that many are not. Recent very public proof being the BBC report on asbestos in schools where an on the ground inspection had determined that the standards of asbestos management were unsatisfactory.

The Minister also refused the committee’s request to reinstate the campaign to improve the asbestos management in schools and reduce the exposures of teachers and children, stating that a schools’ campaign would divert attention from the present HSE campaign to reduce the exposure of carpenters, plumbers, electricians and decorators.

John Battle MP questioned the Minister’s statement that the mesothelioma deaths amongst teachers were average. Michael Lees explained that in a profession where there should be minimal or no exposure that teachers’ deaths should not be average, and that the year on year increase was inevitably the result of the ageing and deteriorating asbestos materials in schools and that the teachers deaths are but the tip of an iceberg. Carole Hagedorn is a teacher and has mesothelioma, her husband added that although the teachers’ deaths are shown in the statistics the children’s subsequent deaths are not as they occur many years later.

The Minister has refused MP’s requests and that of Voice, ATL and the NUT for a national audit of asbestos in schools, saying that it was the responsibility of local authorities and school governors. Instead he has circulated a questionnaire to them asking about their compliance with the regulations and guidance on asbestos in system built schools. The questionnaire also asks how many and what type of system built schools are owned by the local authorities. A senior asbestos consultant doubted that local authorities would admit that they are breaking the law, and hence a false picture will be obtained of standards in asbestos management. The chairman of ATAC stated that the only effective manner in which standards can be assessed is by inspections on the ground. The members of his association had offered to carry out assessments in 100 schools and give advice on improvements. However only 4 schools had agreed. The chairman agreed that the inspections should take place. The Liberal Democrats Shadow Work and Pensions Minister stated that a recent FOI request had determined that many local authorities did not take asbestos seriously as the majority do not even have full time officials to manage their asbestos. In his experience as a former teacher there is a lack of asbestos awareness and training in schools. Carole Hagedorn agreed.

The Chairman will again write to the Minister expressing the concerns of his committee and stated that they will keep pressure on the Government.