Monday, 25 March 2013

Asbestos in Schools: the evidence

Last week I wrote about a House of Commons Education Select Committee and its consideration of evidence, on March 13, from a number of parties on the issue of asbestos in schools. I've since been able to find out more about what transpired over two sessions of evidence.

The focus of the committee's questioning centred on the extent to which parents should be concerned for the safety of their children, given the presence of asbestos in schools. The committee looked at how much more people in schools are at risk compared to personnel in other buildings, and how should asbestos be managed.

The first evidence session
Key witnesses in the first session were Michael Lees, of the Asbestos in Schools Group; Julie Winn, Chair, Joint Union Asbestos Committee; Professor Julian Peto, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Roger Leighton, Headteacher, The Sydney Russell School, Dagenham.

There was general agreement to the effect that long-term sampling through widespread air tests (conducted in volume and over time) are necessary to understand the scale of the problem and those schools most at risk. A central source of information on this would provide cost-benefit analysis and mean that a greater understanding will be gained with the result of asbestos being removed over a phased time period.

The evidence from Professor Peto was alarming. He told the committee that 200-300 people are dying every year, because of asbestos in schools in the 60s and 70s, and that this will only slowly reduce with 40-60 deaths still happening in 50 years time. The net effect is that thousands will die over the next 50 years directly from exposure in schools.

There was agreement about one of the biggest areas of concern: how asbestos in schools is being managed. Management is regarded as inadequate, with training and surveys not currently mandatory. There is concern that governors have little awareness, understanding or training in managing asbestos. Local authorities are supposed to have individual plans per school and yet many have one for all schools. There is the question of who is responsible in schools outside local authority control, many of which are unaware of the liability they are taking on in regard to asbestos.

Transparency and availability of data was also identified as a problem. Although Roger Leighton expressed his concern that hysteria and panic could result if schools were identified as particularly at risk, Julie Winn felt that this information should be disseminated. Indeed, she suggested that we take a lesson from the USA, where such information is widely published and readily available. There, the response has been proactive engagement rather than hysterical reaction. While I respect Mr Leighton's concerns, overall I agree with Ms Winn's views.

The second evidence session
In the second evidence session, David Laws, the Minister of State for Schools, and David Ashton, Director of Field Operations Directorate, Health and Safety Executive (HSE), provided the government's response to the issues raised in the preceding session.

Mr Laws was asked whether asbestos should come under the Department for Education's (DfE) Property Data Survey Programme. He rejected this suggestion, on the grounds that it would be intrusive and because the HSE maintain that so long as existing asbestos is managed properly it is safe. He confirmed that although the survey was commissioned before his time, the decision to exclude asbestos from the survey was deliberate. For Mr Laws, including asbestos in the Property Data Survey could actually be dangerous: he said that it would both expensive and potentially destabilising to bring it within the survey's remit.

This last contention is flawed. At a meeting with Mr Laws in January, representatives of Asbestos in Schools explained that expensive and intrusive asbestos surveys are not necessary, not least because asbestos fibres are airborne and so do not necessitate the drilling of holes in walls and other such activity. 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 DfE Asset Management Software system along with all the other data from school buildings. 

The European perspective
Interestingly, March 13 also saw a vote by the European Parliament. A large majority (558 votes in favour - 51 against) voted in favour of the resolution on 'Asbestos related occupational health risks and prospects for abolishing all asbestos'.

Key points are as follows:
  • The EU should devise models for monitoring asbestos fibres in the air in the workplace
  • The EU should develop models for monitoring existing asbestos in private and public buildings
  • The EU should 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
  • Member States should develop public asbestos registers

These recommendations seem eminently sensible to me - not least if they could be implemented as soon as possible.

Meantime, the sterling work of all involved in highlighting the continuing dangers posed by asbestos in schools is to be applauded. It is to be hoped that the government takes due stock of it, to the extent that a full inquiry is initiated in the very near future.