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Asbestos in Schools

Comments on the Minister's reply to the Parliamentary debate

Asbestos in schools

25 March 2009

Ministerial reply from Under Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Sarah McCarthy - Fry

See Hansard full script of the debate
See parliament's video of the debate

The parliamentary debate was an excellent one. It was sponsored by Paul Rowen MP who has been a deputy head and so has had practical experience. He is a Liberal Democrat Shadow Spokesman on Work and Pensions and was supported by interventions by Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs. You can see the points made in Hansard.

In reply the Minister unfortunately avoided addressing some important points raised by Paul Rowen and gave some obscure and misleading remarks in others. 

Asbestos not removed in school refurbishment

For instance she gave the impression that asbestos will normally be removed when secondary schools are refurbished, whereas the Secretary of State has specifically stated that this is not necessary, and indeed some local authorities have confirmed that they will not be removing the asbestos hidden in the walls and ceilings during refurbishment. She also adroitly avoided addressing the question whether asbestos removal would take place in the 20,000 primary schools.

Other countries take action the UK refuses to take

Paul Rowen outlined how the Government has no clear asbestos policy compared to some other countries such as America who had assessed the scale of the problem and the risks some twenty five years ago and had allocated resources so that their schools could manage their asbestos. Whereas in the UK the Government has denied that it was their responsibility and has refused to assess the scale of the problem and the risks.

Denial of Government and Departmental responsibility

The Minister again denied that it is the Department of Children’s School and Families responsibility and she argued that it is not necessary for the Government to know the extent of asbestos in schools. She claimed that was the responsibility of the local authority, as was managing the risks. She should have explained how, without having a robust method for analysing the scale of the problem, and identifying  asbestos that has deteriorated over forty years, the Government can properly allocate the necessary resources to enable schools to manage asbestos properly.

Government conducts flawed analysis of standards of asbestos management in schools

Instead of a comprehensive audit the Department have put an electronic tick box questionnaire on the web asking local authorities whether they were complying with the law and guidance for managing asbestos in system built schools.

A similar exercise has been carried out twice before and the results in both cases gave a picture that all was well, as no authority is openly going to admit that they are breaking the law. However when ground inspections were carried out a very different picture appeared which showed that almost a fifth of the schools were not managing their asbestos to the extent they warranted improvement notices.

Departmental guidance relies on bathroom sealant and leaving damaged asbestos in place for future generations of children

Despite frequent asbestos incidents in schools (see link, many more examplesavailable) that were all too often the result of inadequate systems of asbestos management, the Minister stressed that Government policy is that it is safer to leave  asbestos in place if it is not deteriorating and manage it. The Minister did not propose a robust method of identifying whether hidden asbestos is damaged or deteriorating.

The Minister mentioned her Department’s guidance for system built schools, but avoided mentioning that the guidance recommends leaving damaged asbestos, debris and fibres in the walls and ceilings and that the recommended solution is to seal it in by squirting bathroom sealant in the gaps. That does not solve the problem, it just hides it. This is a temporary expedient; a sticky plaster solution. It is not a safe or long term strategy.

Recommended methods of surveying identify the hazard and not the risk.

Only airborne asbestos fibres pose a risk to health. The Minister explained surveying methods at length but failed to say that the recommended methods of surveying for normal occupation only identifies the visible asbestos and does not identify when hidden asbestos is damaged and releasing asbestos fibres, whereas comprehensive air sampling achieves that. It was only air sampling that discovered that hidden asbestos was releasing dangerous levels of asbestos fibres in system built schools. The proposed guidance for surveying is an improvement, but it only identifies the hazard and not when that hazard becomes a risk to health. In schools one needs to go one step further and have an effective method to monitor asbestos fibre levels on a daily basis.

Proposed solutions

Mr Rowen asked that the Government, Parliament and the Department should take the lead, assess the scale of the problem and the risks, implement rigorous systems of training and reinstate the campaign to improve asbestos management in schools. Furthermore Government policy should be changed so that all asbestos is removed from schools that are refurbished under the Building Schools for the Future initiative and the Primary Capital Programme.

Minister replies with platitudes

The Minister finished by stating that nothing is more important than the safety of children in our schools. This appears to be no more than a platitude, for it is regrettable that her words are not borne out by the facts as the present policies have allowed numerous asbestos incidents in schools to take place that have caused widespread contamination and exposure of the occupants.   (link )
Paul Rowen asked for fundamental changes in Government policy that would practically address the problem.  In reply the Minister avoided the main issues and instead offered superficial remedies that are not a long term solution. She once again put off the day on which the Government will have to address the mammoth problem of asbestos in schools. Until that day our teachers and children will remain at risk.



Michael Lees
26nd March 2009

Further information:
www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk     www.schoolasbestosaction.co.uk
Hardsworthy House,
Devon EX22 7SD
tel:     01409 241496
mob:  0791 0947362