Open Letter from Michael Lees
Subject: HSE's Schools Asbestos Policy
Date: September 4, 2009
I thought you would be interested in my overall impression and conclusions about yesterday's (September 3, 2009) asbestos in schools meeting with HSE.
HSE were represented at a senior level, with Steve Coldrick, Director of HSE Disease Reduction Programme, who chaired the meeting, Rosalind Roberts, Head of the Services Sector who chairs the CLASP Working Group, Sarah Mallagh, Head of the Asbestos and Cancer unit and David Bryant Public Services Sector-government, defence and education. The asbestos in schools group was led by Paul Rowen and representatives attended from the NUT, NASUWT, ATL, Voice, ATaC, the Hazards campaign, UNISON, and I was there.
As with other HSE meetings I have attended I had the feeling that they were telling us what they were doing and we were there so that they could tick the box that they had met us to listen to our concerns. The fundamental point is that they do not consider that asbestos in schools is a serious risk and are therefore content that they are allocating proportionate resources. We did not expect it, and it was made clear that there will be no step change in policy, all they ever do is tinker with the major issues and get immersed in the relatively minor ones. They will just carry on as they are; they do not want our input in policy making, but will wait until they have made decisions and issued guidance, at which point they will ask us what we think.
HSE at times made statements that were presented as facts without mentioning that they were just an interpretation of the data. At times they made crucial statements that were factually wrong. Steve Coldrick was asked about his remarks in last Thursday's Western Mail, but rather than withdrawing them he added further intemperate remarks.
Twice the Chairman Steve Coldrick was asked whether HSE consider that schools should be treated as a special place, and twice he avoided answering the question. During lunch I asked Rosalind Roberts and Sarah Mallagh what the HSE policy is. They stated that no particular occupation or workplace is treated as a special place, and they added that is because all are treated as special places. In simple terms the answer is: No the HSE does not consider that schools should be treated as a special place. This is unacceptable as HSE staff know there is an increased risk to children but refuse to assess the scale of it; instead, they use asbestos fibre levels and policies designed for asbestos contractors and apply them to children. The recent report commissioned by UCATT highlighted the asbestos risk in social housing, where the need for an assessment of the increased risks to children applies just as much as it does in schools. The meeting was no more than I expected, it was a stout defence of HSE policies towards asbestos in schools. HSE personnel would not acknowledge that they might be wrong and that what they are being told by the combined teaching unions, school support unions, asbestos consultants, medical consultants, solicitors and coroners should be heeded. I find their arrogance astounding.
On Monday it will be nine years since my wife Gina died and I first started investigating why school teachers are being exposed to asbestos and dying of mesothelioma. Over the years we have presented evidence to HSE of both the manifest failures of schools to manage their asbestos and evidence of the tragic results of their policies. All those years ago I naively thought that they would take heed of the evidence, learn from the failures of the past and make fundamental changes in policy that would make our schools safe. Instead they ignore the lessons of history, deny that schools are failing to manage their asbestos, deny that staff and pupils are being exposed to cumulatively dangerous levels of asbestos, even deny that people are dying as a result and then insult those who say otherwise. HSE are not giving the government, the press or the public the true facts but are instead making statements that are at the best just spin and interpretation, at the worst they are manipulating scientific tests to achieve the results they desire, knowingly using flawed data and making statements that they know are factually wrong.In my opinion what HSE have done over the years, and have failed to do, amounts to corporate manslaughter.
We need to take the Asbestos in Schools Campaign forward politically and publicly and show the public that they are not being given the truth, but are instead being fed HSE spin and interpretation. Until the public and the government are given the whole picture then a proper and safe asbestos policy will never be adopted for schools. HSE have failed to make schools safe throughout the 35 years of their watch, their past and present policies have failed to address the fundamental issues, and unless there is a profound change in their very mind set, I have no doubt that teachers, support staff and children will continue to die from the legacy of asbestos in our schools.