Asbestos, an Election Issue
Revised March 12, 2015 (see important update at end of article)
As the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are on the brink of burying a long-awaited report on asbestos in UK schools, UKIP promises to get rid of unnecessary (asbestos) regulations by declassifying white asbestos cement (e.g. building cladding) as a hazardous substance (see: UKIP Agricultural Policy: Overview). This promise is, no doubt, intended to curry favor with UK farmers, many of whom have deteriorating asbestos roofed or clad buildings on their properties. The regulations UKIP pledges to annul have been implemented to protect Britons from potentially deadly exposures to a Group 1 carcinogen,1 responsible for the countrys worst industrial disaster. Unlike the politicians who wish to either hide or deny the asbestos hazard, the Labour Party has a specific program to address the challenges it poses. At the beginning of 2015, Shadow Minister of State for Employment Stephen Timms announced plans for a joined-up long-term national asbestos strategy which would support the injured and pursue the ultimate goal of decontaminating the national infrastructure and environment.
Today (March 9, 2015), a BBC broadcast, shown on national news throughout the morning, highlighted the problem posed by asbestos contamination of UK schools.2 In a filmed interview, 37-year old cancer sufferer Chris Wallace, who was exposed to asbestos at a Devon school, called for more to be done to prevent hazardous exposures. A spokesperson for Devon County Council, which paid compensation to Mr. Wallace, confirmed that all Devon schools have now been surveyed for the presence of asbestos. An HSE spokesman bemoaned the fact that no magic wand existed to eradicate the problem.
Asbestos in Schools (AiS) campaigner Michael Lees, whose school teacher wife died of the aggressive asbestos cancer mesothelioma in 2000, showed the BBC reporter data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. According to the figures, the number of contaminated UK schools is 86%, more than 10% higher than previously thought. Although some of the asbestos has been removed from schools, most of it remains because of Government policy to leave asbestos in situ and manage it until the eventual demolition of the building.3 Unfortunately, the authorities remain unaware of the true extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools as they specifically excluded asbestos from the recently completed Property Data Survey Programme,4 which audited the condition of school buildings.
The BBC report was planned to be broadcast when the Governments Review of Asbestos Policy for Schools was published, but the BBC could wait no longer. The review had been scheduled for release in June 2014,5 but is now more than eight months overdue and with the dissolution of Parliament less than three weeks away the Government has barely sufficient time to publish the report, let alone implement any recommendations made.
AiS campaigner Michael Lees has grown increasingly frustrated by the interminable delays:
I have little doubt the delays are now intentional, to prevent the scandal of asbestos in schools becoming an election issue. It is increasingly clear that the Government does not wish the scale of the problem to become public knowledge, for they are concerned at the publics reaction, and by delaying a few weeks longer the whole issue can be kicked into the long grass.
For the last fifty years successive Governments have suppressed the ever increasing evidence that teachers, support staff and children are being exposed to asbestos at school and dying. The policy review is the opportunity to make our schools safe from the dangers of asbestos. This opportunity must not be squandered.6
A Press Release issued by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) on March 9, 2015 (see: JUAC Press Release) was highly critical of the Governments lack of transparency:
The Government must stop prevaricating, admit theres a serious problem with asbestos in schools and use the findings of the Review to work with the teacher and support staff unions, and other interested parties, to develop a sensible long term strategy for the management of asbestos in schools. JUAC will continue to push the Government to honour its responsibility to ensure that adults and children are not harmed by asbestos in schools.
As Coalition parties pursue the well-established political strategy of delay, UKIP remains in denial. On January 23, 2013 Roger Helmer, a UKIP Member of the European Parliament, told a meeting of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs that there was zero risk from white (chrysotile) asbestos.7 Unsurprisingly, he cited a paper by scientists working for asbestos defendants to substantiate his claims. The lead author of that paper was David Bernstein whose findings on white asbestos have been disputed by international agencies as well as independent scientists. A paper published in the current issue of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health that examines the asbestos industrys attempts to subvert the global asbestos consensus concludes that:
Bernsteins most recent publication is based on selected literature and ignores both clinical and scientific knowledge. It undermines the World Health Organization (WHO) campaign to stop the use of all asbestos types, including chrysotile asbestos (all kinds of asbestos are carcinogenic). Independent, sound scientific findings provide evidence that chrysotile, like other forms of asbestos, is causative in asbestos-related morbidity and premature mortality.8
Last year, the Labour Party consulted with key stakeholders on a variety of asbestos issues. On January 12, 2015, Shadow Minister of State for Employment Stephen Timms said that a Labour Government would impose a standing three percent industry levy on insurers to fund life-saving mesothelioma research and would provide resources to enable the HSE to effectively protect workers from the imminent risk posed by millions of tonnes of asbestos-containing products hidden within the built environment.9 Timms said a Labour Government would introduce mandatory decontamination measures to remove the hazard: That is not going to happen in the course of one parliament but we think it is time for a strategy with a timetable for removing the asbestos, he said. Looking beyond our borders for international solutions, the Shadow Minister cited the Australian Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency as an example of best practice.
March 9, 2015
Update March 12, 2015
This afternoon (March 12, 2015), more than eight months after publication was due, the Department for Education (DfE) released the 31-page report entitled: The management of asbestos in schools: a review of Department for Education policy.
That this document has been published at all is almost certainly due to the clamor raised by members of the Asbestos in Schools group, the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, MPs and others who were concerned about the report being buried in the run-up to the general election.
While welcoming the publication, Russell Hobby, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, was “concerned that the report fails to set out a long term strategy in relation to asbestos in schools, despite recognising that school staff and children have died as a result of exposure to asbestos in schools.”10 Solicitor Adrian Budgen, national head of asbestos litigation at Irwin Mitchell, said:
“As MPs agreed a full programme for the removal of asbestos from the Palace of Westminster in recent years, they know the risks. Surely if such action is considered for Parliament, it should also be considered for all other public buildings – starting with schools.
“We have repeatedly called for a full risk register documenting in its entirety the presence of asbestos in public buildings including schools, as well as regular inspections to keep on top of this issue. We also believe all of those who work and attend sites where asbestos is present should also be informed of its presence. Sadly it appears that no commitment has been made on either of these issues.”
There will be a Written Ministerial Statement on Monday, March 16, 2015 and an Adjournment Debate on Tuesday, March 17, 2015.
1 Special Report: Policy A review of human carcinogensPart C: metals, arsenic, dusts,
and fibres. May 2009.
3 Parliamentary Written Answer Minister of State for Schools February 8, 2011. E-mail Minister of State for School Reform. M. Lees, February 6, 2015.
Department for Education. Asbestos management in schools. November 2013 http://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/276032/asbestos_management_in_schools_2013.pdf
4 Property data survey programme memorandum of supplementary information. Oct 17, 2011, p.8.
5 Lees M. Asbestos in Schools Current Issues and Strategic Policies.
British Asbestos Newsletter. Issue 94, Spring 2014.
6 Interview of Michael Lees by the author, March 8, 2015.
7 Roger Helmer. Evidence to Committee on Employment and Social Affairs asbestos hearing. January 23, 2013.
8 Baur X. How conflicted authors undermine the World Health Organization (WHO) campaign to stop all use of asbestos: spotlight on studies showing that chrysotile is carcinogenic and facilitates other non-cancer asbestos-related diseases. March 2015.
9 Banging the health and safety drum. January 12, 2015.
10NAHT comment on DfE report on asbestos. March 12, 2015.