Previous Section Index Home Page

25 Mar 2009 : Column 123WH—continued

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

25 Mar 2009 : Column 124WH

Asbestos (Schools)

4.15 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate and those who have assisted me in preparing it. I would especially like to thank Michael Lees, for his work campaigning on asbestos in schools over many years; the editor of the Daily Mirror and its reporters, especially Mark Ellis, for exposing issues involving asbestos generally and asbestos in schools in particular; the Manchester Evening News and the Rochdale Observer for their freedom of information work on the number of schools with asbestos in Greater Manchester and Rochdale; and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers union, especially its general secretary Mary Bousted—

4.16 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.27 pm

On resuming—

Paul Rowen: I hope that we do not get another interruption.

I should like to finish expressing my thanks to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers union and its general secretary, Mary Bousted, for the information and support that they have provided for the debate. I thank the all-party asbestos sub-group, chaired by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham)—I am delighted that he is here with us today—and Jason Addy of the Save Spodden Valley action group in my constituency of Rochdale. All errors of fact are my own.

Asbestos has no respect for status, position or job occupation. There are no safe limits; one fibre can be enough to cause asbestosis or mesothelioma. We know that the numbers of people dying of asbestos-related diseases are steadily rising each year. Currently, approximately 3,000 people die each year, with the peak expected over the next 10 to 20 years. Asbestos-related diseases have a long provenance. Typically, it can take 30 to 60 years before an exposure leads to a person developing the disease. That leads to difficulties in apportioning responsibility and problems in getting compensation. Many hon. Members have campaigned for better support for the victims of asbestos, including those who have worked in schools.

Asbestos is present in a large number of our schools that were built or modified between the 1940s and 1985, when its use was banned. It was mainly used as thermal insulation in boilers, in insulation boards used for fire protection, for acoustic purposes on ceilings, ducts, partitions and service shafts, and on steelwork for fire protection purposes.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he believe that one way forward would be for a national audit to be carried out either by the Health and Safety Executive or by local authorities together with schools? Once it has been
25 Mar 2009 : Column 125WH
identified where the asbestos is, a record could be published and related to training governors in each school on how to manage asbestos.

Paul Rowen: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He has a long history of campaigning—rightly, in my view—on asbestos-related diseases. I intend to cover that later in my remarks.

A recent freedom of information survey conducted by the Manchester Evening News showed that 903 out of 1,043 schools in greater Manchester contained asbestos. Last Wednesday, the BBC revealed that 1,499 of 1,606 schools in Kent, Sussex and Surrey contain asbestos. It also determined that systems for asbestos management are ineffective and that staff and pupils are at risk. The HSE has subsequently issued improvement notices. An earlier ITN report revealed that a school in Brent had failed to implement adequate asbestos management systems and had put staff and pupils at risk. In recent months, the HSE has issued 18 improvement notices to schools and local authorities for failing to identify asbestos, failing to implement a reasonable plan of action, or failing to manage risk.

Let me declare my interest in this subject. Prior to my election in 2005, I worked for 28 years as a secondary school teacher, spending 15 years as a deputy head, and for five of those years I was responsible for the maintenance of the school’s buildings. I shall return to that point. Teaching and the possible exposure of children to asbestos have been classed as low-risk, unlike other occupations such as plumbing or shipbuilding. Nevertheless, that low risk comes either with a long exposure time, or, for young children, exposure at a particularly vulnerable time. Statistics from the Department for Children, Schools and Families show that at least 178 teachers have died of mesothelioma or asbestos-related diseases since 1980.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): The HSE has said that that number represents what one might expect in the population as a whole, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it has missed entirely the point that one would expect a much lower number of teachers to be affected than people in occupations in which there is high exposure to asbestos, such as shipbuilding or construction? The call by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone for a national audit is therefore all the more vivid.

Paul Rowen: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. Indeed, statistics show that teachers are at a higher than average risk. The teachers union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, knows of at least 400 people who have contracted asbestos-related diseases. This issue is a ticking time bomb. There has been little to no research into the long-term effect of low-level exposure to asbestos. It is clear to me that the current system of local management by local authorities is not working. That is why I support the proposal of Professor John Edwards for a national centre for asbestos research at Sheffield university. This issue would be an important area for research.

The form of asbestos that has been used in UK schools is also important. Much of it is amosite and some is crocidolite. Amosite is estimated to be 100 times more likely to cause mesothelioma than chrysotile, whereas crocidolite is even more dangerous, being 500 times
25 Mar 2009 : Column 126WH
more likely to cause mesothelioma. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) recently told me about a constituent of hers who worked in Dorset schools as a support teacher for the deaf for 28 years, who now has mesothelioma and has only months to live.

The proportional mortality ratio is a statistical method of comparing the incidence of deaths between occupations. Where there is no exposure to asbestos, a male would have a PMR of about six and a female would have a PMR of 36. However, between 1980 and 2000, the PMR for male school teachers was almost 10 times greater, at 57, and for females it was almost three times greater, at 100. The PMR for female teachers was twice that of female nurses, but there are similar numbers of nurses to teachers. Can the Minister explain why their death rate should have been twice as great?

Since 1985, UK policy has been to deny that this was a national issue, and to put responsibility on to local authorities and the HSE. The Minister for Schools and Learners, the right hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), recently gave the same reply that Schools Ministers have given for the past 20 years when he said:

It is also clear from freedom of information requests that I have submitted to local authorities across the country that in many cases they are not meeting their obligations. That cannot continue. The majority of councils do not employ full-time individuals to monitor the safety of asbestos in public buildings, so it is not surprising that there is increasing evidence of asbestos incidents in schools being caused by the failure of asbestos management. It is unsatisfactory that the facts about asbestos and its management in schools have to be revealed by newspapers, television programmes and individual FOI requests. The Government, Parliament and the Department have a clear responsibility to take a lead and to develop clear policies for asbestos monitoring, management and removal.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I should say that my parents were both secondary school teachers, although they are now retired. My father was a drama teacher for 30-odd years, so he used to scramble around the ceiling of a school that was built during the period that my hon. Friend has mentioned to put up lights and things for school productions. I am sure that many of his colleagues across the country will also have been affected, or will have been at risk of being affected, perhaps unknowingly. My hon. Friend is concentrating on the information aspect; does he think that the problem is a lack of awareness, despite the efforts of journalists and hon. Members, about what is there?

Paul Rowen: No, the problem is not a lack of awareness; it is the lack of clear systems and policies to do something about this issue. In both the USA and Eire, clear policies have been adopted with a clear strategy, including a centrally conducted review of asbestos in all schools. In Eire, once national data were available, national plans were produced to remove asbestos, even, the Dail Eireann report states,

25 Mar 2009 : Column 127WH

More than 25 years ago, in the USA the federal Government carried out a national audit of asbestos in their schools, and the risks to teachers and children were assessed. Stringent federal regulations on asbestos specifically for schools were introduced, and resources proportionate to the risks were allocated, so that schools could manage their asbestos. In comparison, successive Governments in Great Britain have refused the requests of MPs and unions to carry out an audit or risk assessment, with the consequence that they do not know the scale of the problem and are therefore unable to allocate proportionate resources to the policy of asbestos management.

In my last five years of working in a school, I was responsible for building maintenance. We had an asbestos register, and if any work was carried out by contractors, I made sure that they were aware of it. However, despite the issues, I received no training or support to tell me what my responsibilities were as a deputy head. It is clear that governors and senior staff need support, as it is usually the head teacher who is charged if there are any failures in asbestos management.

The Northern Ireland Office has carried out a full audit of all schools in the Province and has allocated resources to remove asbestos. We need the same policy in England and Wales. We need to develop a policy that undertakes a national audit to give us an idea of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools.

Mr. Clapham: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned asbestos type and spoke earlier about blue and brown asbestoses, which were banned in 1985, as well as white asbestos. We have to be aware that, before white asbestos was banned, Leicester university did a study that showed it was just as carcinogenic and that there was no safe working limit with white asbestos. Does he agree?

Paul Rowen: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who knows a lot more on the topic than I can ever hope to. As I said, there is no safe limit for dealing with asbestos.

First, I suggest that we start the national audit with 100 schools that have been selected to provide a cross-section, followed by a full survey of all schools within a defined period—for example, five years. The Department should make additional resources available to any school that agrees to the survey and is shown to need remedial work. That work should be carried out by independent asbestos consultants, rather than local authority officers, many of whom are not qualified to carry out the sort of inspection that is needed.

Secondly, for the occupants of schools with asbestos, an assessment of risk needs to be undertaken by what I hope will be the newly established national centre for asbestos research, with particular emphasis on the risks to children. Thirdly, the campaign—carried out by the HSE in the past—to improve asbestos management in schools needs to be reinstated. Fourthly, a policy of the complete removal of all asbestos when schools are refurbished should be adopted—either under the Building Schools for the Future programme or the primary capital programme. Finally, a taskforce of teachers, governors, local authorities and the Department should be set up to look at the training and support provided to governors and head teachers in discharging their responsibilities
25 Mar 2009 : Column 128WH
for asbestos management in schools. Those are challenging targets, but they are vital for the future health and well-being of our young people.

4.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) on securing the debate. I know that he is passionate about the subject and, as he explained, he has had first-hand experience of tackling it during his time as a head teacher. I am particularly pleased to respond because my constituency of Portsmouth is one of the hot spots for mesothelioma. It has the fifth highest prevalence in the country, so many of my constituents are familiar with the disease.

As has been said, this is a particularly important subject in schools because the health and welfare of the staff and pupils working and learning in our schools is obviously paramount. They should be able to go to school with the confidence that the buildings in which they are working are safe and fit for purpose. Record capital investment in our school buildings is sweeping away the legacy of outdated buildings and is refurbishing local landscapes with school buildings that are fit for 21st-century learning. As has been mentioned, the Building Schools for the Future programme aims to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England that needs it, and the primary capital programme is providing the same regeneration in primary schools. More than 1,200 schools have now been rebuilt or refurbished. However, there are remaining schools that still contain asbestos.

We take the HSE’s expert advice, which is that it is safer to leave undisturbed or undamaged asbestos in place and carefully manage it, but that, where asbestos has become exposed, it should be removed. By law, schools must have robust processes in place to monitor asbestos carefully. It is the responsibility of both the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the HSE to monitor those processes. Responsibility for complying with the legislation lies with the duty holder which, in the case of maintained schools, will usually be the local authority. Those responsible for maintenance and repair in schools—or in any other non-domestic building—also have a legal duty to manage the risks arising from asbestos. That person—the duty holder—needs to take steps to identify whether asbestos is present in buildings and to assess its condition and record that information. They also need to assess and manage the risk to ensure that people are not exposed to asbestos fibres.

HSE guidance on asbestos surveys is currently being revised and is due to be published this summer. That has involved widespread consultation with internal and external partners, including local authorities. There will be two different types of survey: management surveys and refurbishment or demolition surveys. Management surveys will often involve minor intrusive work and some disturbance. The purpose is to locate, as far as is reasonably practicable, the presence and extent of any suspected asbestos-containing materials—ACMs—in the building that could be damaged or disturbed during normal occupancy, including in relation to foreseeable maintenance and installation.

25 Mar 2009 : Column 129WH

Refurbishment or demolition surveys are necessary prior to any refurbishment or demolition work being carried out. The intention is to locate all ACMs, so that they can be removed before that work takes place. As such, those types of surveys will be much more intrusive and destructive compared with the management surveys. Provided a full management survey has been undertaken, the duty holder only needs to undertake a refurbishment survey of the specific area to be refurbished—for example, a classroom. The results of asbestos surveys should be recorded and an asbestos register is often kept on site, as well as centrally at the local authority office. A log book is usually kept with the asbestos register on the school site for contractors to sign to prove that they have seen the asbestos register before they start maintenance or repair work that might disturb it. A survey may identify ACMs that require urgent work to repair, encapsulate or remove them.

As I said, the HSE advice is clear that it is safer to leave asbestos in place where it has been undisturbed and undamaged, rather than try to remove it. I am, of course, aware of the cases of mesothelioma among teachers. In fact, a few weeks ago, on mesothelioma action day, I shared a platform with a teacher from Poole—I do not know whether it was the same one referred to by the hon. Gentleman—who, sadly, had only months to live. We also need to be aware that asbestos poses more of a risk to those working with it on repairs and maintenance in general than to the staff and children within a school.

However, for both teachers and maintenance staff, we must have robust processes in place to control asbestos. We have produced clear guidance for schools and local authorities to help them to identify and manage the risks posed by asbestos. Asbestos surveys should be part of the regular condition surveys carried out at school premises as part of asset management plans. Asbestos surveys must be rigorous enough to identify damaged material that could contain asbestos, and further action, such as intrusive surveys and the repair or removal of any asbestos containing materials, should be taken as necessary.

It might be that not all local authorities are taking their responsibilities under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 as seriously as they should—the hon. Gentleman’s survey, which was conducted under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, certainly indicates that. I emphasise to him that it is not an option for local authorities and school employers not to comply. Cases of non-compliance are followed up by the HSE and that results in improvement notices or even prosecution. In September last year, we wrote to local authorities and schools about asbestos in system buildings and reminded them of their legal obligations and the actions that should have been taken to assess and control asbestos.

Next Section Index Home Page