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Asbestos in Schools

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment

Extract from Hansard page 1420. 30th January 2012

for fuller extracts and comment on the debate click here.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to the curtain-raiser debate we had a few hours ago in which, among others, the noble Lord, Lord Newton, spoke. He told your Lordships that the nature and problems of mesothelioma called for special treatment. It took us a very long time to recognise the immense dangers to public health caused by mesothelioma. It took us even longer after that to take steps to ban the use of asbestos and, finally, to get under way with proper means of compensation for the victims of this frightful disease.

In the 1970s I was privileged to have a lot to do with the late Nancy Tait, who was described in her Guardian obituary two years ago as a,“tenacious campaigner for the victims of asbestos diseases”. Nancy was the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases, which lobbied hard for tighter controls on asbestos, and she fought for the rights of victims to adequate compensation. In 1976, the Silbury Fund published a booklet entitled “Asbestos Kills”, written by Nancy, exposing the failure of Governments to act against the risks, even though the Department of Health had known, at least from 1968 onwards, that: “mesothelioma can be produced by slight exposures, and … We must assume that no amount of exposure is completely free from risk”.

Water pipes were still being made of asbestos cement; electric toasters were still being made with the element wound around a piece of asbestos, and in people’s homes, sheet asbestos was being cut for partitions, to block fireplaces or to line doors. Thirty-six years later, people are still being diagnosed with mesothelioma, which is, as we have heard, an extremely unpleasant disease which kills the sufferer within an average of something like 12 months from the date of diagnosis, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said.

Now the Government have decided, according to yesterday’s Independent on Sunday, that in a major survey to be undertaken of England’s 23,000 schools to plan a huge refurbishment programme, asbestos is to be ignored because of cost implications. The systembuilt schools of the 1960s were riddled with amosite brown asbestos sheeting, which is one of the reasons why we have the highest incidence of deaths from mesothelioma in the world. As a result of this possibly illegal exclusion from the survey, compounded by the stripping of funding needed by local authorities to carry out their survey responsibilities under the Control of Asbestos Regulations, instead of the decline in mesothelioma deaths—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said that that decline was expected to occur from 2012 onwards—as they tail off over the next 40 years, they may continue for the rest of the century.