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Asbestos in Schools

David Laws Schools Minister
Concerns about his response to PQ

Just before Christmas the Schools Minister, David Laws MP, answered a parliamentary question. The response is useful as AiS will be meeting the Minister next week and he has clearly laid out his position on certain critical issues.

Concerns over his statement are below

  • The Department for Education considers a national register of schools containing asbestos is unnecessary. The Schools Capital Spending Review considered that it was unacceptable that the Government are unaware of the condition of its £110 billion school estate and recommended that “The first step should be to collate all existing information sources and to establish a simple, well-designed database to manage this information.” Asbestos is potentially one of the most expensive items in maintaining, refurbishing or demolishing a school, and yet DfE have specifically excluded it from the present audit of the condition of school buildings and from the central data base. When asked who made the decision, DfE acknowledged that it was “Ministers.” An FOI request for documents that show why the decision was taken was refused.

  • The Department for Education does not know the extent of asbestos in schools, and does not consider that it is their responsibility to know. Despite this being contrary to the recommendations of the Schools Capital Spending Review. The former Schools Minister stated: “Data from the PDS will be “used to provide evidence of the current condition of schools, and enable future maintenance funding allocations to be focused on the buildings with the greatest need.”  Because DfE have specifically excluded asbestos from the audit (PDS) and the central data bank they will be unable to determine which buildings, schools or local authorities are in the greatest need, and any financial forecasts based on the audit will be meaningless.

  • The Department for Education does not know how many asbestos incidents there have been in schools. They also do not consider that is their responsibility to know. This is an untenable position and contrary to DfE and HSE claims that their asbestos policy for schools is “evidence based.” Without this evidence it is difficult to comprehend how DfE can justify their claim that schools are safely managing their asbestos, staff and pupils are not at risk and schools are a “low risk” environment.  This failure to collate basic data is compounded by the fact that HSE no longer carry out proactive inspections in schools to assess whether they are safely managing their asbestos.  

  • It would appear that having published the basic on-line asbestos awareness guidance that the Department for Education are satisfied that they have done enough for headteachers, governors and school managers to safely manage their asbestos. 

  • Asbestos policy for schools is in part based on the 2009 HSE case control study and on the mesothelioma mortality data. A main conclusion in the study on teachers’ deaths has been previously quoted by Ministers, HSE and DfE despite the fact that it has been proved to be fundamentally wrong. The document remains uncorrected and Ministers continue to refer people to the document.  

  • Previous parliamentary answers have in effect dismissed the mesothelioma deaths of teachers as they are “broadly in line for the average for all occupations.” The inference in the answer is that an average rate of death is acceptable, however the opposite is true. Instead it shows that a considerable number of people are dying, particularly when one considers that the average is based on a mesothelioma death rate in Britain that is by far the greatest in the world at more than twice that of France, Germany or the USA. DfE also put to one side that people should not be dying in a profession where there should minimal or no asbestos exposure. DfE policy is also made without them taking into account that schools are unique as for every teacher there are more than 20 children who are being exposed to asbestos at the same time.
    See previous PQ: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm101213/text/101213w0005.htm#1012145000563

  • In the 1980’s USA assessed that for every teacher and support staff death nine former pupils would subsequently die from their asbestos exposure at school. They also audited the extent of asbestos in their schools. Because of this they introduced stringent asbestos regulations specifically for schools. In comparison our Government refuses to even assess the scale of the problem and therefore it is an easy step for them to deny that there is a problem.

Michael Lees,
Devon EX22 7SD