A Summary of the Education Select Committee Hearing
ASBESTOS IN SCHOOLS
On 13th March 2013 the Education Select Committee held an evidence session on Asbestos in schools. These are the terms of reference and witnesses.
This was an important step in bringing transparency and openness to the issue. It allowed MPs on the committee to assess the scale of the problem and question witnesses, the Minister and HSE on Government policies.
1. Review of Government Policies
The Schools Minister, David Laws MP, confirmed that the Government would review its policies on asbestos in schools once the Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) publish its report in May on the relative vulnerability of children to asbestos. This will be an internal review undertaken by the Department for Education (DfE) and HSE.
2. Evidence of asbestos exposure in schools
The committee were given evidence of a lack of training and asbestos awareness amongst many school governors, headteachers, support staff and teachers and the failure of many schools to safely manage their asbestos. This had led to the cumulatively significant asbestos exposures of school teachers, support staff and pupils, in some cases over many years. A Medical Research Council document had given details of the extensive use of particularly amosite in school buildings and came to the conclusion that “It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings... Exposure to asbestos at school may therefore constitute a significant part of total exposure.”
3. Former pupils dying from asbestos exposure at school
Professor Peto is an acknowledged world expert on risk and a member of the COC. His evidence to the Committee puts the enormous scale of the asbestos problem into perspective when he quantified the number of people who could subsequently die from mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure as a child at school. He stated:
“It is reasonable to say that something in the order of 100 to 150 mesothelioma deaths a year in women now could be from asbestos exposure in schools in the 1960s and 1970s, and if levels (asbestos fibre levels) are ten times lower now, then it is reasonable to assume that may go down by a factor of ten in fifty years time under current conditions there might be 20 or 30 deaths a year in women and 20 or thirty deaths a year in men caused by asbestos exposure in schools...”
The Committee and witnesses agreed that a cost benefit analysis has to be carried out and the financial costs of asbestos remedial actions have to be balanced against the cost in lives.
4. Minister and HSE claim that policies working
David Ashton, a Director of HSE, and the Minister claimed that HSE and DfE policies have been, and are working. The latest statistics show that more than 128 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the latest nine year period but Mr Ashton explained that, in HSE’s opinion, the teachers’ exposures and their subsequent deaths were caused by asbestos exposure from activities and occupations not related to schools and he cited the case of teachers being exposed to asbestos when HMS Ark Royal was scrapped.
5. Exclusion of asbestos from audit of school buildings
The committee questioned at length DfE’s decision to exclude asbestos from the audit of the condition of school buildings. Julie Winn, the Chair of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, stressed how asbestos can be one of the most expensive items in maintaining, refurbishing or demolishing a school and if it is not included in the audit then any financial forecasts will be meaningless. The Minister justified the exclusion on the grounds that surveying for asbestos in all schools would be expensive and damage the asbestos.
Note: At the meeting with the Minister in January AiS explained that expensive and intrusive asbestos surveys are not necessary. All that is required is collation of the data that is already held by schools and local authorities. This data would become part of the audit on the Department for Education Asset Management Software system along with all the other data from school buildings. The Minister's justification for exclusion appears flawed.
6. Best practice
Julie Winn also gave an example of best practice. In the 1980s the USA carried out an audit of friable asbestos in their schools and undertook a risk assessment that estimated that for every teacher and support staff death nine people would subsequently die from their asbestos exposure as a child at school. They then introduced asbestos regulations specifically for schools where training was made mandatory. A system of inspecting standards of asbestos management was instigated and funding was provided so that schools really could manage their asbestos safely. A policy of openness was also introduced so that, by law, parents and teachers have to be annually updated on the measures being taken to manage asbestos. The Minister did not directly address the best practice examples given but informed the Committee that there is also a policy of openness over asbestos in schools in this country.
7. Proactive inspections
The Committee was told how the Government have declared schools as “low risk” and have therefore cancelled proactive inspections to determine the standards of asbestos management in local authority schools and will be only be carrying out a limited number of inspections in schools outside local authority control over the coming year. Mr Ashton considered that it is not necessary to inspect all schools and HSE claim that their inspections of 150 schools this year will give them a robust picture of the standards in the 34,000 schools in Britain.
8. Air sampling
Professor Peto stressed how there has to be a system to assess those schools that are most at risk. Michael Lees explained that as a practical solution AiS had proposed that DfE commission a trial of widespread air sampling in schools so that asbestos fibre releases could be identified and targeted action taken. Mr Ashton stated that it would not be useful to carry out air sampling.
9. Lack of training and asbestos awareness in academies
Concern was expressed that there are now more than 2,700 academies and the responsibilities and liabilities for managing asbestos now rest on the governors. However most governors were not trained and there is a general lack of asbestos awareness. The Minister did express some concern at the possible effect of the academies and free schools programmes and acknowledged that this would be addressed through a review of Government policy later this year. Roger Leighton, a head teacher, shared these concerns, highlighting the excellent support he received from his local authority and suggested that such ‘middle tier’ support was needed by academies and free schools.
10. Asbestos risk insurance is generally not available for pupils
In general public liability asbestos exposure risk insurance is not available for pupils and non-employees in schools. The Minister explained the Government’s solution to the problem. He said that lack of insurance is not a concern as there has only been one successful claim from a former pupil dying of mesothelioma therefore the cost would not be huge even if the cost fell back on the government.
Note: The Minister did not address the underlying reason why the insurance industry will not provide asbestos risk insurance for children in schools. These reasons are explained in an earlier newsletter and a referenced paper on the issue.
11. HSE: it is safer for asbestos to remain for the remaining life of school buildings.
Mr Ashton claimed that HSE policy for schools of leaving asbestos in place and managing it for the remaining life of the buildings is not based on financial pressures but because it is, in their opinion, safer for pupils and staff not to remove asbestos.
12. Written evidence.
Michael Lees gave oral evidence to the committee. His written evidence is at this link. All the written evidence will shortly be placed on the Education Select Committee web site.
13. A Selection of Press reports
ITV Interview and reports
Example of regional full ITV report and Interviews
Example of call for action on asbestos. Stroud MP Neil Carmichael
14. European parliament: On 13th March the European Parliament voted by a large majority (558 votes in favour - 51 against) in favour of the resolution on "Asbestos related occupational health risks and prospects for abolishing all asbestos". The resolution was on the initiative of Stephen Hughes MEP and many of the proposals are similar to those AiS and JUAC put forward at the Education Select Committe at Westminster on the same day. The full European Parliament text is at this link. Selected points are as follows:
- Calls on the EU to devise models for monitoring asbestos fibres in the air in the workplace ......
- Urges the EU to develop models for monitoring existing asbestos in private and public buildings ..........
- Urges the EU to conduct an impact assessment and cost benefit analysis of the possibility of establishing action plans for the safe removal of asbestos from public buildings and buildings providing services which require regular public access by 2028..... competent government ministers should coordinate the action ...
- Urges the Commission to recommend the Member States develop public asbestos registers ....
- Urges the Commission, in cooperation with the Member States, to ensure the effective and unhindered implementation of European asbestos legislation and to step up official inspections ....