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Asbestos in Schools

Welsh Assembly
answers on asbestos in schools

On 5th December, Leighton Andrews, the Education Minister in the Welsh Government, answered a series of questions about asbestos in schools. (pages 6,15 and 16)

The Welsh Government’s stance on asbestos in schools is the same as in England. They put the responsibility for ensuring the safety of staff and pupils from asbestos on the local authorities and abdicate their own responsibilities. However they have then failed to provide the resources and finances so that asbestos can be safely managed, and they have failed to provide an adequate system of inspection to determine whether schools are achieving satisfactory standards.

The situation has been compounded because over the course of many years successive Governments have failed to provide sufficient resources to maintain their school stock. This has meant that as the fabric of the buildings have deteriorated then so has the asbestos.

The Minister states “It is important that we do not allow people to become alarmist about the issue of asbestos in schools. As she rightly says, if properly managed, this is not a danger that people should have concerns about.”

Those are empty words, for it is only in the last month that by default the Minister discovered that a number of local authorities were not properly managing their asbestos. If he had been doing his job then he, and others, should have had serious concerns about the failure of Cwmcarn, and other schools, to safely manage their asbestos a very long time ago.

The Minister is reticent about giving details of how many local authorities and schools are not properly managing their asbestos, but it is clear that Cwmcarn is not an isolated case. In answer to a question he reiterated “I made it clear in my response to the debate led by your colleague the Member for Monmouth last week that I had concerns about the responses that we had received from local authorities, which did raise questions as to whether proper management plans were in place at a school level, and whether the full range of statutory responsibilities of local authorities were being undertaken.”

This failure of local authorities and schools only came to the Minister’s attention because an alert asbestos consultant found that Cwmcarn school was unsafe because they had failed to manage their asbestos.

If the Minister expects schools to manage their asbestos then he should have had a system in place that would have ensured the local authority, school authorities and school staff were fully trained in asbestos awareness and asbestos management. If they were not then there should have been a system of inspection that would have discovered this many years ago and then action could have been taken to remedy the situation. But because the Government had failed to fulfil their duties, this did not happen. As a direct consequence it is possible that staff and pupils have been exposed to asbestos over many years.

Michael Lees
8th December 2012