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Asbestos in Schools

Update on System Built Schools

  • HSE belatedly revise flawed guidance
  • Formal complaint to Minister over ethics and technical standards of HSE tests and flawed guidance based on the tests .

(17 April 2009)

Guidance revised
In September 2008 HSE revised and reissued their guidance for System built schools. The revision has amended some of the March 2007 guidance that the Release of Asbestos Fibres in System Built Schools paper had highlighted as being inadequate or dangerous. It is a considerable improvement, although there are some important aspects that are still flawed so that the maintenance staff carrying out the work and the occupants of the schools will remain at risk from asbestos exposure. 

As eighteen months have passed since the March 2007 guidance was issued, it must be presumed that most schools have followed the flawed guidance and by doing so have failed to adequately prevent the release of asbestos fibres. In addition certain aspects of the remedial actions would have in themselves released asbestos fibres and possibly exposed the people carrying out the work and in all probability contaminated the schools and subsequently exposed the occupants. 

It must not be forgotten that the fundamental issue is that the measures of sealing the gaps with silicone sealant can only be considered as a temporary expedient as they do not solve the problem. They just hide it, as damaged asbestos materials, debris and fibres remain concealed in the walls, ceilings and columns of these schools.

28th October 2008

Vested Commercial interests

Because of concerns about the credibility and impartiality of the 2nd series of tests, HSE were asked in December 2007 to release information that would have confirmed whether or not the tests were carried out in buildings owned by one of the six shareholders of the company Scape System Build Ltd. This is a commercial company and as such they and their shareholders have an actual, or perceived, vested interest in the outcome of the air tests. The HSE refused disclosure stating that it would not be in the public interest to release the information “because of the adverse impact it would have on the ability of HSE to conduct investigations.”

An appeal was submitted and an HSE internal review confirmed their decision. HSE’s refusal to disclose the information was supported by the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in a letter of the 30 July 2008 and in a further letter of 20th January 2009.

A formal complaint was submitted to the Information Commissioner on 12th August 2008 who instigated an investigation into HSE’s refusal. On 31st March 2009, before the Commissioners investigation had concluded, HSE finally released the information. The Information Commissioner was critical of various aspects of HSE’s handling of the request including the delay in an adequate response being issued.

The information released by HSE shows that the air tests reported in the 2nd HSL report on asbestos fibre levels in System built schools were carried out in buildings owned by Nottinghamshire County Council, one of the six shareholders of the commercial company Scape System Build Ltd. Because of this there are serious questions over the credibility, independence and impartiality of the tests.

The year and a half delay from the original request has meant that peer review and public scrutiny of issues concerning the partiality and credibility of the tests has not taken place. As well as this being an example of a lack of openness in matters concerning the safety of the occupants of schools, it raises serious questions over why information that might have influenced the outcome of these crucial scientific tests, should have been kept from public scrutiny. 

The results from the 2nd series of tests are significantly lower than the majority of previous and subsequent tests carried out in System built schools. It appears that the selection of buildings used in the tests was directly responsible for the exceptionally low results being obtained.

The Minister with responsibility for the HSE has been asked to release all the information concerning these tests for public scrutiny and peer review.  If the concerns are proved correct, this apparent manipulation of scientific tests to achieve predetermined results is unacceptable and undermines the credibility of the tests..

The Minister has also been asked to convene an independent, expert panel to examine the tests, the conclusions, decisions and subsequent guidance issued by HSE in relation to asbestos in System built schools.

The Government policy that asbestos can be left in situ when schools are refurbished under BSF, PCP and PPP is partly based on the results of these air tests. It has been requested that this policy is also urgently reviewed.


Michael Lees 17th April 2009