The All Party Parliamentary Group on Health and Safety ask MPs for their support
The asbestos in schools campaign is now under the auspices of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Safety and Health. On 15th July 2009 the chairman Michael Clapham MP, sent a letter to all Members of Parliament highlighting the asbestos problem in schools and asking for their support for the key points presented to the Prime Minister.
Government policy and statements on the risk to children have no scientific basis
On 21st July 2009 the Schools Minister and the Work & Pension’s Minister replied to Parliamentary questions asked by the Shadow Minister for Schools. The answers demonstrate that statements made by those in authority, including Government Ministers, cannot be justified. For without any scientific basis, levels of workplace exposure for asbestos contractors are arbitrarily being applied to children in schools.
Decisions have also been made to leave asbestos in place when primary schools are refurbished. The Government has taken these major decisions that affect the very lives of generations of staff and children, and yet this has been done without following the most basic principles of risk management, for neither the scale of the problem nor the risk have been assessed.
British Safety Council gives support for the key principles of the campaign
On 3 July 2009 the Chief Executive of the British Safety Council made a strong public statement which supported the key points the schools asbestos campaign had presented to the Prime Minister. He said:
“It is unacceptable that the UK, in 2009, has not yet undertaken a national audit of asbestos in schools, has not comprehensively assessed the risk that teachers and pupils in each and every school faces and has not delegated resources to take urgent remedial actions”
Majority of local authorities and dioceses fail to respond to DCSF questionnaire
Despite calls over the last twenty five years for a national audit of asbestos in schools the Government argue that it is not their responsibility to know the scale of the asbestos problem in schools, rather they claim that is the responsibility of local authorities and school governors. Documents that show the reason at this link
On January 29th 2009 DCSF and HSE issued a questionnaire to local authorities and dioceses about asbestos in system built schools and their level of compliance to the guidance. Just 30 out of more than 200 had replied by the deadline of 3rd April. The deadline was extended to 16th July by which time only 77 had replied. This proves that neither the Government nor the majority of local authorities and dioceses know the extent of the asbestos problem in their schools or the standards of asbestos management and it underlines the need for a proper national audit. At our meeting on 3rd June the Minister stated that she would treat local authorities and dioceses who had failed to reply with the same enforcement action as would be taken with those who were not complying with the guidance. (Details at this link)
Joint teaching union and ATaC project to assess the asbestos management in 100 schools
The joint teaching union and asbestos consultants association, ATaC, are undertaking a project to assess the standard of asbestos management in schools and will also trial a system of air sampling that will detect the hidden, deteriorating and dangerous asbestos in schools.
The group have asked school authorities to volunteer their schools for the project. Experienced asbestos consultants will assess the standards of management in 100 schools and give guidance on any improvements that might be necessary. The assessment will be free and the school’s identity will remain anonymous. It is believed that only on the ground inspections can determine the standards of asbestos management and any flaws that might be present. The Government will be asked to extend the assessments to all schools.
The teaching unions have asked their members and school authorities to volunteer their schools for the project. If you wish to volunteer your school then details are here. An example of a typical Teaching Unions' circular to its members about the project is that of the teaching union Voice.
Ministerial failure to act on PM direction
On 13th May the Prime Minister's agreed with the General Secretaries of all the teaching unions that there was a serious problem with asbestos in schools and one that had to be addressed. At the meeting on 3rd July it was apparent that the Schools Minister, Sarah McCarthy Fry, and her Department intend to maintain the status quo. The project to assess the standard of asbestos management in 100 schools was dismissed, as was a request to trial systems of air sampling. The reason for refusing to agree to the key points and properly assess the situation appears to be a fear of opening a “Pandoras’s box” of adverse publicity and financial commitment if it is shown that procedures for protecting occupants from asbestos fibres in schools are flawed. Detail of both meetings is at this link
The Minister stated that Government policy is that asbestos will normally be removed in major refurbishments from secondary schools, but it was stressed that the decision for primary schools rests with local authorities, however because of the lack of funds the refurbishment of primary schools is often little more than decoration. A recent letter from the Schools Minister underlined the policy that so long as the asbestos is in good condition it will be left in situ in primary schools for the remaining life of the school. It was pointed out that this policy is not based on risk as the younger the children the greater the risk of developing an asbestos related disease. More detail at this link
Advice to those in contact with asbestos in schools
Any teacher or support staff who believes they, or the children they are responsible for, have been exposed to asbestos should ensure that the school records the incident and they should also report it to their union.
In the absence of air tests there is no way of assessing whether asbestos fibres are being released from hidden, deteriorating asbestos. In system built schools in particular, adults should therefore ensure that any damaged sealant round doors, windows, skirting boards, structural columns or damage to walls, ceiling tiles or floor tiles are rapidly reported and remedial action taken. For detailed analysis look at: Paper 1 and Paper 2
Recent incidents and press coverage
To read about press reports of further asbestos incidents in schools and national and local media coverage of asbestos issues click here. There is also comment on incidents where analysis of the incident and the official response might be useful.