1. Government Review of Asbestos policy for Schools has far reaching implications
For the last nine months the Government have been reviewing their asbestos policy for schools. The report that will lay out future policy has been delayed once again. It was initially planned to be published in June. The Department for Education (DfE) have stated that, once it has Ministerial approval, it will be published in September. However in a parliamentary written answer the Minister, David Laws MP, was less definitive and stated that it would be published in the Autumn.
The review has far reaching implications, both financially and for the safety of children and staff in schools. If it is to fulfil its potential the Government must first acknowledge that there is a serious problem that must be addressed. Gordon Brown did that when Prime Minister and so has the present Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt (1) but David Cameron and the Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, have so far given no such acknowledgement.
Long term strategic policies are then required that address the fundamental problems, those schools most at risk have to be identified, dangerous asbestos accessible to children removed and over time all asbestos should be progressively removed from all schools. In the meantime the Government has to provide the resources so schools can safely manage their asbestos. People have to be trained, funds provided so that schools can manage their asbestos and a system reintroduced to ensure they are.
The alternative is that the Government could give assurances that all is well, children and staff are safe, claim that their present policies are working and that only minor tweaks are needed – none of which would be justified, but would be far less expensive. For the sake of our children and future generations it must be hoped that the Government do not take this easy option – although there are signs that they may.
2. Children more at risk from exposure to asbestos. Over 4000 former pupils expected to die
The review is taking place because the Government pledged that it would review its asbestos policy for schools when it received the report they had commissioned from the Government’s advisory Committee on Carcinogenicity (CoC). The CoC concluded that children are more vulnerable to exposure to asbestos than adults, the younger the child the greater the risk. The lifetime risk of developing the asbestos cancer mesothelioma for a five year old child is about five times greater than an adult aged thirty.
To give an idea of the scale of the problem, the Education Select Committee was informed that between 200 and 300 former pupils will die each year from mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure at school as a child during the 1960s and 1970s. Over a twenty year period that is between 4,000 and 6,000 deaths from former pupils. But the asbestos exposures have continued, and will continue unless radical policy changes are made.
3. Former pupils with mesothelioma
There is increasing evidence that the predictions are coming true. Sadly in recent weeks there have been three cases of former pupils with mesothelioma, and in all cases there is evidence of asbestos being disturbed and damaged when they were children at school:
Sarah Bowman is 46 and has mesothelioma. She obtained justice when Brent Council paid substantial damages. The London Evening Standard reported “Ms Bowman was a pupil at William Gladstone High School in Brent between 1979 and 1984, when the ceilings of the classrooms and corridors contained asbestos. She told how pupils would push up ceiling tiles, and how workmen carrying out electrical maintenance would send asbestos dust falling onto the floor and pupil’s clothes....”
Sandra Naylor very sadly died this August of mesothelioma at the age of 51. As a child she went to school at Calverdale High in Airdie. Her solicitor said “The school had just been constructed when our client was a pupil there and for the first year or so she recalls workmen regularly working in the school. “It is believed that her exposure to the asbestos dust came from the work being undertaken by the workmen in various parts of the school whilst she was there as a pupil. “She has no knowledge of any other asbestos exposure in her life.”
Chris Wallace is 36 and has mesothelioma. His claim, that he was exposed to asbestos while a schoolboy in Devon in the 1980s and 1990s, was settled out of court when Devon County Council paid £275,000. However they would not accept liability and issued a statement that “Devon County Council takes great care to manage asbestos in its buildings and that includes regular inspections. Asbestos is safe so long as it isn’t disturbed.”
4. Policy of managing asbestos often fails
Assurances are meaningless if asbestos is being disturbed, if systems of asbestos management are failing and people are being exposed. Devon CC are just reiterating the Government policy for schools that “Asbestos which is in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed or damaged is better left in place and managed until the end of the life of the building as this presents less risk of exposure to the occupants than the process of removing it.” (2) Because of this policy most asbestos remains in schools, with extensive amounts of dangerous asbestos insulating board in places vulnerable to damage from children. There is also considerable evidence of asbestos being disturbed and damaged and of schools failing to manage their asbestos , with recent HSE inspections proving the point:
5. 29% of schools receive HSE enforcement action or written advice for failing to manage their asbestos
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspected 153 schools outside local authority control in England, Scotland and Wales, including foundation, voluntary aided, independent, academy and free schools. The inspections show that more than thirty years after being told to identify their asbestos and introduce a system of asbestos management, a significant number of schools are still not safely managing their asbestos. An HSE summary is at this link. The General Secretary of the NASUWT said “These results come as no surprise. They are yet another example of where increased ‘freedoms’ in and fragmentation of the system lead to important statutory and good practice provisions being ignored. It is alarming and disturbing that nearly a third of schools were either given written advice or served with an improvement notice regarding deficiencies in their asbestos management...”
6. Government confirms no system in place to assess asbestos management standards in schools
Following the round of HSE inspections Annette Brooke MP tabled a series of Parliamentary questions to establish the Government’s future policy for inspecting the standards of asbestos management in schools. In reply the Minister stated that “The HSE has no specific system in place to inspect the standards of asbestos management in schools.” Government policy requires schools to manage their asbestos, but they then fail to back up the policy with the necessary resources and to compound the problem they scrapped the system that identifies which schools are failing to achieve acceptable standards. Their justification is that, despite evidence to the contrary, HSE have classed schools as ‘low risk.’
There must be few people who would agree that schools containing asbestos are low risk when more than 4,000 former pupils will die from the simple act of attending school.
7. HSE give Ministers and MPs unjustified assurances that all is well
So long as asbestos exposures continue then so will the deaths, but there are signs that the fundamental changes that are desperately needed will not happen. HSE are advising the Minister on the policy review, and they have given unjustified assurances to him and the Education Select Committee that all is well and HSE policies are working, the teachers, support staff and former pupils’ deaths are from exposures anywhere other than from schools and that they are just a legacy of the past. They refuse to test the present situation objectively:
- They dismissed the proposal to audit the extent of asbestos in schools
- They further dismissed the proposal of widespread air sampling in schools.
- They prevented a warning being issued about amosite fibre release from warm air cabinet heaters.
- They advise that teachers do not need training as, in their opinion, they do not disturb asbestos.
- They claim that inspections to assess the standards of asbestos management are not necessary.
- They used to claim that “There is also no evidence to suggest asbestos can affect children more than adults” (3) until the CoC confirmed that children are more vulnerable to exposure to asbestos than adults.
The Minister stressed to the Asbestos in Schools Group that he bases his asbestos policy on advice from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). He assured them that if the evidence was that asbestos posed a risk to school staff and pupils then, regardless of cost, measures would be taken to ensure that schools were made safe. However HSE advise him that schools are safe and staff and children are not at risk from asbestos. They also told him that in general schools are effectively managing their asbestos. Therefore, he stated that on the evidence available to him he could not justify to the Treasury the need to spend large amounts of money on mitigating the effects of asbestos in schools. (4) Ministers are presently finalising future policy and HSE has conveniently provided the justification if they decide to change nothing.
8. HSE have overseen the worst mesothelioma incidence in the world
The HSE were formed in 1974 and so many of the people suffering and dying from mesothelioma now were exposed to asbestos in schools on their watch, including the three former pupils. The proof that HSE policies over the last forty years have failed is that the mesothelioma incidence in Britain continues to rise inexorably. We have the worst mesothelioma incidence in the world, by far, with twice of many people dying from asbestos related disease than are killed on the roads. It is appalling that people are dying from their asbestos exposures from just attending school. But HSE never admit they were wrong. If they prevail, and the Minister accepts their advice, then little will change. We cannot afford to wait for another forty years for further proof that HSE are fundamentally wrong. There is ample proof already.
9. Caerphilly Council take the lead in removing asbestos accessible to children from schools
One council refuses to follow HSE advice. In October 2012 Caerphilly Council closed Cwmcarn School because of the likelihood of exposure of the occupants to amosite from the heaters, walls and ceiling voids. In the expert opinion of two firms of asbestos consultants, the Council and an independent assessor, the school was unsafe. Despite evidence to the contrary, the HSE gave evidence to the Education Select Committee that “...it is perfectly safe to re-open that school...” (5) Caerphilly Council disagreed with HSE’s assessment and instead spent more than £1million removing and enclosing asbestos before the school was safe to re-open. They have now taken the decision to remove asbestos from their remaining schools:
“The £800,000 project ... will see amosite asbestos products removed from occupied areas of school buildings around the county.... Asbestos insulation boards are common in many of the affected schools and will be removed from ceilings, wall panels and vent shafts to reduce the risk of accidental disturbance.... Once completed, the programme of works will see 95 per cent of Caerphilly county borough schools free from amosite asbestos products within occupied areas of the school building.”
This council based their decisions on the evidence, and not on politically motivated HSE advice. In so doing the teachers, support staff and pupils will be safe from the dangers of asbestos in their schools. As Ministers make their decisions about future asbestos policy for schools, they should examine all the evidence and heed the example of this council.
(1) Meeting AiS and Gordon Brown MP 13 May 2009. Tristram Hunt MP 19 March 2014
(2) Parliamentary Written Answer Minister of State for Schools 8th February 2011
(3) HSE Director of the Disease reduction programme. Asbestos is killing hundreds in North Wales 2nd Nov 2009
(4) Meeting with the Schools Minister 19 Nov 2013 Lees contemporaneous notes
(5) Evidence HSE Director of Field Operations Directorate to the Education Select committee hearing on asbestos in schools. 13 Mar 2013
Michael Lees: firstname.lastname@example.org
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