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Education Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 1056
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Asbestos in Schools
Wednesday 13 March 2013
Michael Lees, Julie Winn, Professor Julian Peto and Roger Leighton
RT HON David Laws MP and David Ashton
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 76
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
1. This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
2. The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.
Taken before the Education Committee
on Wednesday 13 March 2013
Mr Graham Stuart (Chair)
Mr David Ward
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Michael Lees, Asbestos in Schools Group, Julie Winn, Chair, Joint Union Asbestos Committee, Professor Julian Peto, Cancer Research UK Professor of Epidemiology, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Roger Leighton, Headteacher, The Sydney Russell School, Dagenham, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Welcome. It is a pleasure to have you here today before the Education Committee to talk about asbestos. We are delighted that we have such a distinguished panel to help inform our deliberations on the subject. Should parents be concerned about the risks to their children from asbestos in our schools? We tend to be quite informal here, so I hope you are comfortable with using first names.
Michael Lees: Certainly, Chairman, in my opinion, parents should be concerned; they certainly should not panic over it, but they should be concerned about the fact that children are going to schools and in some schools the asbestos management is not up to speed. It is not effective and in some schools it is actually not safe. Therefore, parents should certainly be informed about what asbestos is in their schools and also what is being done to manage it. If it is being managed correctly, then okay, but if it is not, then they should be concerned.
Q2 Chair: In some schools, you say it is unsafe. Can you quantify that in any way and can you tell us on what evidence base you make that assertion?
Michael Lees: Yes, indeed Chairman. For instance, there was recent case at Cwmcarn, which is a school in Wales, where they found that the heaters were emitting amosite fibres, and amosite is one of the amphiboles and up to 100 times more dangerous than chrysotile asbestos. It has been emitting asbestos fibres into the room. A warning was sent out about this in 1982 by the Health and Safety Executive. They warned them that they must seal the asbestos in these heaters or remove it. Yet, here we are in 2012 and these heaters were emitting asbestos fibres into the rooms. That is just one case.
There are other cases where it has been shown. Someone phoned me last week, very sadly, about his wife, who was a primary school teacher; she died last year from mesothelioma. She purely took books out of a stationary cupboard. Tests have been carried out that removing books from a stationary cupboard with asbestos insulating board at the back can emit 50,000 fibres in every cubic metre of air. Each one of us inhales about 20 cubic metres a day. So cumulatively, over a long period of time, just from those two examples, you can get significant exposure over a number of years. So, there is a danger in some schools, Chairman.
Q3 Chair: On the quantifying point, do you have any idea of how great the number of unsafe schools is?
Michael Lees: Well, unfortunately, no, we do not. We have asked the Government to carry out an audit to find out the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools, so they can actually prioritise and find out which schools are most at risk. In fact, the Government has specifically excluded asbestos from the property data survey programme, so they do not know the extent and we do not know the extent. The number of schools that are not managing their asbestos is also unknown because, once again, the Health and Safety Executive have carried out some proactive inspections, but we have 24,000 schools in this country, and when you consider the number of schools they have inspected-a matter of 200 or perhaps 300 schools-it is a very small proportion. We do not really know and the Government does not know about the standard of asbestos management. What we do know is that many of the members of the Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association go into most schools in the country, and they are deeply concerned about the standards of asbestos management in many schools.
Professor Peto: I do not disagree with the principle that something should be done about asbestos in schools.
Q4 Chair: My question, to remind you of it, because it was some time ago, was: should parents be concerned about the risk of asbestos exposure for their children?
Professor Peto: We do not know. If you look at the national trends in mortality from mesothelioma, they have gone down dramatically in recent years in men aged under 60 because asbestos stopped being used in about 1980, about 30 years ago, and we are now at last seeing a decline in the mesothelioma rate as a result of that.
Q5 Chair: We do have the highest rate in the world, is that right?
Professor Peto: We have got the highest rate in the world, with Australia; it is a dead heat. As Michael said, that is because we used large amounts of amosite, and that is the principal problem.
Q6 Ian Mearns: You have mentioned Australia. Don’t they mine asbestos in Australia?
Professor Peto: Yes, but it has not got a great deal to do with that. They used it in the same way. They mined blue asbestos, but Britain and Australia between them used half of the world’s production of brown asbestos, amosite; we put it in asbestos cement board and installed it in buildings, including schools, and that is the major problem.
There is a dramatic decline in mesothelioma rates below age 60, but that does not really address this directly. When we look in lungs in the general population, there is a tenfold reduction in the amount of asbestos in the lungs of people born after 1975 compared with people who were born around 1960. The people born around 1960 are crucial because they are the first generation that did not work with asbestos. If you were born in 1962, you were 18 in 1980 when we stopped using it. That is the first generation that was exposed environmentally but did not actually work with it. So, in the national death rates it is the people who were born since 1960 who are the crucially informative ones, because that is the mesothelioma risk in people who grew up with asbestos in schools and in the environment for the first 15 years of their lives and then, since 1980, have lived with the subsequent conditions. What we are concerned with is the subsequent conditions, and the mortality data only tell us what was happening 50 years ago; that is the problem.
Roger Leighton: We have already heard mention of the management of asbestos. It depends; if asbestos is currently being very well managed, then, like any risk in a school, it can be managed. Parents therefore should not be concerned.
Q7 Chair: Michael’s key point was that, if it is not being managed, there are unsafe schools; he gave specific examples and said he could not quantify it because we simply do not have the information. So if you have a combination of a number of schools that are clearly dangerous with a failure to know where those are or how many there are, then you have a position where you could not say to parents that they should not be concerned. Is that correct?
Roger Leighton: Yes, except-I will bring in here straight away the role of a local authority, which is key to this at the moment, at least-if the local authority still has a very active management plan working in collaboration with their local schools, they ought to be able to give quite a high level of assurance to parents in their area, working in co-operation with the schools, that things are safe.
Q8 Chair: You say they "should be able to".
Roger Leighton: If they have a very well managed plan themselves. We are talking about variation, again, between local authorities, as between schools.
Q9 Chair: Are there local authorities whose practices are, to pick a word, unsafe in your view? If so, who are they?
Roger Leighton: Not my local authority.
Q10 Chair: But you believe that there are some?
Roger Leighton: I gather from talking to people in my authority who deal with asbestos that there is variable quality across local authorities.
Julie Winn: I am a parent of children in a secondary school with a lot of asbestos in it, and I am also a former health and safety governor of a primary school and also a former chair of governors. What I understand about asbestos is significantly more than your average governor, if I can put it that way, and your average chair of governors. I do know that there are risks and I do know that in some schools they are not being controlled.
I do know that the HSE intervened in 2004 in Thurrock Council, and they identified that there were dangerous asbestos fibres being emitted and they called for the council to take action. When the HSE did their survey of a sample of schools in 2010 and returned back to that school, they found they had done nothing. So even with input from HSE and a directive to take action, schools have other priorities, and because they are unique places because of the number of children in them, they really need some help on this issue; it is not an issue that is high up on the agenda of most schools.
Q11 Chair: I did not get any "yes" or "no" answers to my question on whether parents should be concerned.
Julie Winn: I am worried.
Q12 Chair: Michael’s was a clear "yes", though he did not use the word. Julian, you said you were not sure, is that right?
Professor Peto: The average exposure level now-when I say "now", I mean 1980 because we have no data on what it is now-or rather 30 years ago after asbestos stopped being used-
Q13 Chair: You are going to take me a long way away from yes/no, aren’t you, Julian?
Professor Peto: There are now 400 deaths a year in women from mesothelioma; most of those are from asbestos in buildings-a good two-thirds of them are caused by asbestos in buildings. It is reasonable to assume that a fair fraction of that is due to asbestos in schools, because what happens to you when you are young is worse than what happens when you are old, in terms of causing cancer. It is reasonable to say that something of the order of 100 or 150 deaths per year from mesothelioma in women could in the future be due to asbestos levels in schools up to the 1960s and 1970s. If the levels now are 10 times lower than they were then, it is reasonable to assume that will go down by a factor of 10, so in 50 years’ time, under current conditions, there might be 10 or 15 deaths a year in women and 10 or 15 deaths a year in men from mesothelioma caused by asbestos in schools. If that is distributed across all schools, it would simply be too expensive. It is a brutal thing, but costbenefit analysis must apply at some level. You cannot rebuild all the schools in Britain to prevent about 25 deaths a year. These are deaths that will occur predominantly over the age of 70. You have to remember that is the effect of childhood exposure. That is the brutal fact.
Q14 Chair: I do not see it as that brutal, Julian. Squeamishness about costbenefit leads to a misallocation of funding, which costs lives, because people get carried away on one particular fashionable thing. It is important to be rational with the limited resource that we have.
Professor Peto: There must be some variation between schools, but if there were some where the levels were significantly higher, and they can be identified effectively, then it is worth doing that. What is not worth doing, in my opinion, is spending huge amounts of money in all schools. If you can identify the schools where the risk is high, it is worth identifying them and doing something about it, but it is not clear to me that you can.
Q15 Craig Whittaker: I want just to touch base back on the local authorities’ responsibility to have a management plan, which I think is the term you used. Is there no set type of data that they use in such a plan? Would that not be consistent throughout the country?
Michael Lees: There certainly is a set format they should be using but, in fact, not all local authorities do use the same format. One of the things they are supposed to have is an asbestos management plan that is specific for a school; some local authorities, in fact, have generic asbestos management plans. So if you look at two of their schools, you will see that most of it is exactly the same, which is completely wrong. Of course, there is an awful lot of verbiage in it that does not apply to that specific school. So there is a format they are meant to follow but, no, many of them do not.
Chairman, in answer to your last question, there are a number of local authorities where the whole local authority has had enforcement action carried out against it for failures to manage asbestos.
Q16 Chair: How many, do you know?
Michael Lees: Once again, the HSE has only looked at a limited number of local authorities, so one cannot say. I could give you a few examples.
Q17 Bill Esterson: How do parents know whether a school is safe or not or relatively safe or not?
Julie Winn: That is a really good question, Mr Esterson. In the USA in 1980, they carried out an assessment and audit of the asbestos in schools. As a result of that, they were actually more concerned and not less concerned. Because schools contain huge number of pupils, they realised they were special places, so they developed special regulation so that asbestos was properly managed in schools. One of the things they made mandatory was an annual report to parents, so that parents knew where the asbestos was and also knew what plans were in place to maintain it and keep it safe. It did not result in a panic but it does mean that parents are well informed, and having a parental overview in a school is usually proactive.
Q18 Neil Carmichael: Mine is a question about management plans, and the fact that you should have one specific to a school. Shouldn’t governing bodies be taking responsibility for this, have a plan that identifies the asbestos, know what needs to be done in certain situations and have a longterm strategy to militate against longterm problems?
Chair: Before I take an answer on that one, did I see all four of you nod? Is that assent to that from all four of you?
Professor Peto: Yes, absolutely.
Michael Lees: There is a particular problem-MPs have asked a number of parliamentary questions about it-about governors taking on the responsibilities for asbestos, and with more than 2,700 academies, the responsibility for setting priorities and deciding how to manage asbestos rests with the governors. Without mandatory training for governors, certainly, there is anecdotal evidence that governors do not have the training or awareness to say, "We’ve got to prioritise asbestos." You can imagine, particularly with academies, that they are taking on the liabilities of asbestos without being truly aware of what liabilities they are taking on.
Roger Leighton: You are absolutely right; governing bodies and headteachers have got a million and one priorities. Every pressure group, of course, thinks theirs is the most important. I am going to keep coming back to the role of a middle tier; let’s call it "local authorities" for the moment, shall we? There has to be something local sitting above governing bodies for me to really feel that this is going to work properly. There is this idea that you have 24,000 schools and the Health and Safety Executive going in and doing inspections; I cannot see that working. It is about the local authority.
Q19 Pat Glass: Can I specifically ask you about children? We have heard a lot about teachers but the APPG report Asbestos in Schools told us that, because they are still developing, children’s lungs are more susceptible. As the American study said, nine children will die to every one teacher. Is that something that you would agree with? The American study that Julie referred to told us that, for every teacher that dies, there would be nine children. Is that something you would agree with?
Professor Peto: It is certainly more than one. I do not know whether it is nine or three or five, but it is substantially more than one. The risk is not to the teacher; it is to the children. That is the fundamental point. If asbestos in schools is a concern, teachers are not the primary issue; children are the primary issue.
Q20 Pat Glass: So, are children more susceptible?
Professor Peto: They are more susceptible, yes.
Q21 Chair: Is that merely because the incubation period is so long-they will live long enough for it to get to them?
Professor Peto: Yes, the risk keeps on going up. The national death rate is higher at 85 than it is at 80. Once you have been exposed to asbestos, the risk goes on increasing for the rest of your life. It increases very steeply after a very long latency.
Q22 Pat Glass: Is it the length of time, the incubation period, or is it because they are young and developing and their lungs are more susceptible?
Professor Peto: There is no good evidence that they are particularly susceptible at all, biologically. There is very good evidence that living 20 years longer after exposure vastly increases your risk. That is the fundamental point.
Julie Winn: I would like to say that I do not think there is no good evidence. I think there is conflicting and incomplete evidence about the physiology of children and the impact of asbestos. We actually know very little about how mesothelioma develops in either adults or children. What we do know is there is a cumulative effect; the more fibres you are exposed to over a longer period of time, the worse the risk. I would say that the evidence is incomplete rather than there is no good evidence.
Michael Lees: My wife used to teach children that frankly I thought were probably slightly too young to be at school, because they were threeyear-olds. They sat on the floor a huge amount, and at one of the particular schools my wife taught in for six years, every single day they would sit on the mat to play the guitar and various things, and the asbestos was being damaged every single day. Also, young children, as we know, put their heads on desks and, if they are contaminated-and we do know that, in some cases, desks and furniture are contaminated with asbestos-then young children, purely because their faces are closer to the asbestos, will breathe it in.
Q23 Pat Glass: Moving back to the adults, is there any evidence that teachers, adults in schools, are at a higher risk than people working in other buildings?
Michael Lees: I believe there is. Certainly, once again, if you look at female primary school teachers, the latest proportional mortality ratio, the incidence of deaths, is 119, and the average for all people in every occupation is 100. However, if you compare it with female nurses, the present rate is 85 for female nurses. Between 1980 and 2000 the proportional mortality ratio for female schoolteachers was precisely 100 and for female nurses it was precisely 50. In other words, the schoolteachers-you are looking at two professions with an equivalent number of people, although there are slightly more nurses than teachers-were dying at a considerably greater rate, and they still are, than the female nurses.
Also, if you look at males and compare male teachers with somebody who has not been in a building-if you look at farmers, for instance-in Professor Peto’s evidence you will see that the PMR is 27 for farmers and 17 for farm workers, compared with 66 for male teachers. Yes, teachers are being exposed. If you compare likeforlike occupations with males, consistently for the 1980s, since the occupational statistics came out, male teachers have had a higher PMR than equivalent occupations such as doctors or solicitors. It is not a huge difference with males, but consistently they have had a higher PMR.
Julie Winn: The other thing about the statistics that it is important to realise is that this is an issue about asbestos in schools, so there are other occupants involved. We do not have full data. We do not have any statistics for pupil deaths and we do not have complete data for support staff deaths. If you are talking about the issue of the whole school environment and exposure in the population, you cannot rely on the statistics wholly in the costbenefit analysis; you have to think about everybody who is exposed in schools.
Professor Peto: I would just like to comment on what Michael said, because it is the only thing that I disagree with him on. The thing is that nurses and farm workers are exceptional. Farm workers and farmers are exceptional because they are the one identifiable group-there are a few others, forestry workers, for example-that spend most of their time out of doors. The point is that it is clear that asbestos in buildings was the main source of environmental exposure and caused an appreciable fraction of cases, about 15% of male cases and 60% to 80% of female cases, the majority of female cases, if you include domestic exposure. The question is whether schools are more dangerous than other buildings, not whether buildings are dangerous. The fact that farm workers have low risks simply reinforces the evidence that asbestos in buildings was a cause of mesothelioma.
The fact that nurses have lower than average female rates-it is only marginal but they do-reflects the fact, and there is strong evidence of this, that hospitals, where they spent much of their time, had less asbestos in them than average buildings. They are exceptional but if you take the generality of buildings-offices, homes, schools-the question is whether schools are more dangerous than those other buildings and what proportion of the exposure came from them.
Q24 Pat Glass: Are you able to tell us whether it is because more schools built since 1962 have got asbestos in them or is it because they are not managed properly?
Professor Peto: The asbestos was put in after the war. That was when all the amosite board went into buildings in Britain. It was all put in between 1950 and 1975. The crucial issue is how you identify whether or not there are some schools where the risk is higher than in others, not how you go about approaching all schools if you do not know what the problem is.
I would just like to make one other point in relation to the PMRs. The PMR of 119 for female teachers is based on 53 deaths over nine years, compared with 45 expected. It is not remotely significant. These data came out last Thursday. There is a typo in the middle of page 2 of my written submission, where it says 119 for female "secondary teachers". It should be "primary teachers". It is correct in the table; I edited it very hastily because I had one hour to do it before I resubmitted my evidence. The data up to 2005 in the original version I submitted showed a deficit in female teachers. Random variation is a major issue when you are talking about 53 deaths in nine years. I do not think it is true that there is any evidence that teachers are at higher risk than other women.
Michael Lees: It is highly relevant that people generally across the board are dying, particularly if you look at females, and the one thing that everybody does is go to school. If we are all in agreement that people are being exposed to asbestos in schools, what we are speaking about is the degree of the number of people who are dying. I think everyone accepts that people are dying in schools. The only argument here is about how many people are actually being killed from their exposure in schools. People are being exposed and people are dying.
Q25 Chair: For us, of course, it is exactly what we do about it. That is why your evidence today is great in trying to get a better understanding, but at our end we have got to make sure we get the right rules, priorities and regulations in place.
Michael Lees: It is absolutely essential that the Government assess the scale of the problem. To assess the scale of the problem, as I said in the first part of my evidence, they have to include asbestos in the property data survey programme; they have excluded it, and it is not too late to include all the evidence that local authorities and schools already have.
Q26 Chair: That particular proposal has got to be included. Do you agree with that, Julian? As briefly as you can, preferably with a "yes" or "no", should asbestos be included in the property data survey? It is specifically not included at the moment.
Professor Peto: I do not know what the best approach is. It is not just a matter of having a survey. I think there should be measurements to see what people are breathing in. I do not think the property surveys answer the question. I really do not. I am not sure that they are well done or whether or not they capture what matters. What matters is what people are breathing in, and there are two ways of measuring that: one is to measure it in their lungs and one is to measure it in the air. We are measuring it in lungs, which I think is useful, and we have shown a 50-fold reduction from men born in 1945 to people born in 1980 in the amount of asbestos in people’s lungs, but that does not tell you what variation there is between schools.
Roger Leighton: I agree with you that I need to include it, if it is a question of incorporating the data that local authorities should hold. I do not think it would be a sensible use of public money to do a separate survey.
Michael Lees: No, we are not asking for that.
Roger Leighton: I do not think anyone is asking for that. I am thinking that, actually, if that were included, that would serve the double purpose, potentially, of reviewing how effective the current audits of asbestos across authorities are.
Julie Winn: It has to be included, because if it is not, the financial forecasts that will come from that about managing the school stock will be meaningless.
Q27 Neil Carmichael: Do you agree with the DfE policy that asbestos in schools that is in good condition should be effectively left undisturbed?
Julie Winn: No, I do not. I think it is flawed for two reasons. The first reason is that it relies on asbestos being in good condition; there is enough evidence out there, which the HSE has collected through its sample surveys, to show that local authorities are not managing their asbestos effectively. We have school stock that is beyond its shelf life; 80% of it is in an unacceptable state. When they put asbestos into schools in the 1940s onwards, it would have been put into bonded products and the products will be deteriorating; we are now more than 50 years on.
Professor Peto: I certainly would not recommend doing anything if the asbestos is in good condition, beyond just keeping it painted and maintained and not breathing in when you are drilling holes in it.
Michael Lees: The problem is that we do not actually know whether the asbestos is in good condition. It is well known that in the case of system-built schools-about half the schools in the country are system built-they found out in 1987 that, while it appeared as if the walls were in good condition, when they slammed the doors they got 330,000 amosite fibres being emitted from just slamming the door five times. The asbestos appeared to be in good condition.
Jump forwards almost 20 years, and in CLASP schools, it appeared as if the structural columns, which contain asbestos insulating board, were in good condition. It was only when they carried out air tests-and I agree entirely that we should be carrying out air tests-that they discovered that the asbestos you could not see inside these columns was in bad condition. It was only through air sampling they discovered it.
Roger Leighton: I am not a scientist. I take advice. My gut feeling is that, if it is really well managed, the evidence, on balance, shows it is safe.
Q28 Neil Carmichael: So what this boils down to is that you need to know more about each school in terms of the situation of the asbestos. That comes down to the issue we raised before, on which you all agreed-that governors should have a proper plan and assessment of the asbestos in their schools.
Professor Peto: Can I just make one point? On the last page of my evidence there is a graph, which is figure 1, which shows the average level we see in lung samples of essentially the general population. I mean, they are people with resected lung cancer or collapsed lungs, but it is the general population. There is a 50fold reduction from men born in the 1940s to men born between 1975 and 1984. We have not got any data on women born between 1975 and 1984 because we have not analysed their lungs yet, but we are going to, and I am sure the women will show the same thing. They have always been below the men. The point is how much variation there is. There are two questions: if the level was 2,000 fibres per gram in the average person born 35 years ago, what is it now? We absolutely do not know that. We are trying to find that out but it is very expensive.
Neil Carmichael: So an updated analysis would be useful.
Professor Peto: It costs £2,000 per sample to do it through the HSE for the electron microscopy, if you want to distinguish between 3,000 and 500 fibres per gram. That is a recommendation that I would appreciate: tell the HSE to do some more electron microscopy.
This is the key point. If the average level in British lungs was 2,000 fibres per gram in people born 30 years ago and it is still at the same level, we would expect something of the order of 50 mesotheliomas a year in the future forever as a result of that exposure. If it is less than that, five times less, we would expect 10 mesotheliomas a year. We have got 2,400 mesotheliomas a year at the moment. The problem would be negligible at that level. We ought to find out whether or not the problem is negligible before we spend any more money on it. The problem could be completely negligible. The questions are, firstly, is 50 deaths a year acceptable? What is it now? Secondly, and crucially, are there some schools where the levels are a lot higher? That is the thing.
Q29 Neil Carmichael: So, you want to know more about the overall level of asbestos and identify hotspots?
Professor Peto: Yes, rather than regulations, which are very expensive and may not be effective. You want a very focused approach to identifying schools, if any, where the levels are much higher.
Q30 Chair: You could do that by doing what? Would you do it with your air tests? Are they expensive?
Professor Peto: At the moment, the air sampling is so expensive. What I would recommend to the HSE is-it is easier said than done-some procedure whereby you are getting a very large volume air sample over a period of time, and then you measure the asbestos fibres in it. It is expensive but it is probably not as expensive as what is being done now.
Michael Lees: We have specifically asked, as part of the Department for Education Asbestos in Schools Steering Group-it was a proposal that was put forward some time ago-for a trial to be carried out by the Department for Education and the HSE into widespread air sampling in schools, so that we could take very large volumes over a long period of time while the schools were occupied. We want a trial so we can devise a system, so that we can do it effectively and identify which schools are most at risk. This really answers your question: if we had that trial, then we could perfect a system to identify those schools most at risk.
Q31 Neil Carmichael: Let’s get on to the Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012). Do you think they are adequate?
Roger Leighton: I keep coming back to my mantra, "If the management system is effective, then I think they are"-if you have a well worked system that is backed up by the local authority and good services are provided. I spoke yesterday to Sarah, in Barking and Dagenham Asset Management. She has worked on this for 11 years. She has every single detail at her fingertips. We have annual surveys of every single school, updated, if necessary, even more frequently-every six months. All potential asbestos material is marked, etc.
Q32 Chair: Getting back to the issue of proportionate spend, how much are you spending doing that?
Roger Leighton: How much do we spend? It costs us £3,800 a year to buy into that service provided by the local authority.
Q33 Chair: Is that per school?
Roger Leighton: It is a large secondary school. It would be much less for a small primary. It could be £500.
Q34 Neil Carmichael: Julie, what do you think of the regulations?
Julie Winn: I think they are inadequate. There is no statutory definition of the duty holder in the regulations. They do not require asbestos surveys to be mandatory. A school can elect not to carry out a survey. The issue of competency is not clearly defined. There is no mandatory asbestos management training and there is no asbestos awareness training for staff made mandatory. Because of all those missing links, the management in schools shows a wide range of competency. I think the regulations urgently need review. For them to be reviewed in an effective way, you have to acknowledge that schools are unique places because of the volume of children they contain and because they are at a higher risk. They deserve specific regulation.
Q35 Neil Carmichael: You have to set that against Professor Peto’s point.
Julie Winn: I do. I am a lawyer. That is my legal answer.
Q36 Neil Carmichael: That could well be useful, but it is not necessarily relevant to the question I am about to ask, which is on the balance of risk we are hearing about the overall level of asbestos, the identification of hot spots and an awareness of what is in specific schools, against your concerns about the regulation.
Julie Winn: I understand that. On this point, I would draw on the principle that, where there is any uncertainty, you should always err on the side of health and safety. There is a lot of uncertainty around the issue of asbestos in schools, both scientifically and in terms of the statistics. I think the HSE would advocate the precautionary principle. If we are going to improve management in schools, the way to do that is through regulation.
Q37 Neil Carmichael: The HSE, as far as I know, has asked businesses and certainly farmers to have some sort of strategy for the management of asbestos roofs and so on that you would find on farms or in many businesses. They are obviously satisfied with that. I would expect all businesses of that type to have a plan. We have already discovered that some schools do not have plans. Why not?
Julie Winn: This is because there is a wide range of competency, and if you do not have mandatory training for duty holders and staff, you are bound to get a wide range of competency on the issue of management of asbestos. Some will know that it is good practice to get a survey and will get one, and others will say, "Well, the regulations do not require it so I am not going to bother."
Professor Peto: Can I make one point on the regulations? They ought to be tested. I mean, what you ought to do is to take a sample of schools that, by virtue of their construction, are likely to have higher levels and do long-term sampling, and if you find any where the level is high, you should then systematically examine the way in which the regulations have been applied in that school and compare it with a sample of other schools. The only thing that matters is how much asbestos is released. These regulations and their revision of risk assessment if circumstances have changed-it is legal nonsense and, of course, it is very often not implemented. All that matters is whether or not kids are breathing in asbestos and, until you find that out, everything else is hot air.
Michael Lees: Can I just make one statement about inspections? You are saying we have to know whether schools are properly managing their asbestos. Well, specifically, proactive inspections have been removed. You are asking what you can actually do to practically address this. The Government ought to reintroduce proactive inspections to see whether schools are effectively managing their asbestos. There ought to be a system of inspecting all schools.
Q38 Chair: Julian’s point was about doing it on a sample basis.
Michael Lees: It was. We are in agreement that you take the air testing, but I am also saying that management goes with it as well. That is what we have heard: if a school is not managing the asbestos, the chances are that the asbestos has been damaged.
Professor Peto: I do not know whether or not these regulations have had much effect. We stopped using asbestos 30 years ago. It is gradually disappearing. Things get painted over. Asbestos exposures would have gone down anyway 30 years after you stopped using it. I do not know whether the regulations have any substantial effect on what is breathed in.
Q39 Ian Mearns: One overriding concern that I do have is the fact that, within different construction types and within school buildings, there are many schools that are built to a type, CLASP for instance, where asbestos was used very extensively. In some CLASP schools, an awful lot of panels below windows were euphemistically called "kick boards" and were actually constructed using asbestos. So, it was dead easy to punch through or kick through, and it was something, I am afraid to say, that was done on a regular basis in some less orderly schools-asbestos panels being punched through or kicked through. An awful lot of those schools still exist. So when it comes to examining the school, frankly you could do some concentrated work looking at particular school construction types and save an awful lot of money, because if you find examples in one school, you will know it exists in dozens and dozens of others.
Michael Lees: Indeed, I agree entirely, and that is precisely what happened with system-built schools, where they rediscovered this problem in 2006. They found when you hit these columns, when you hit the walls and when you slammed the doors, you were getting 44,000 amosite fibres emitted into the rooms per cubic metre of air. The remedy for that, and the HSE say you are managing your asbestos successfully and effectively if you do this, is to just seal the gaps and cracks with silicon sealant, which, to you and me, is bathroom sealant.
We would advocate very strongly that that is not a proper system of asbestos management. It is a shortterm expedient. I know of a particular school; I saw it one week and it had not been sealed. The following month it had been sealed. Within a week after that, the silicon sealant peeled off. So, if you are going to have systems of asbestos management, they have to be effective. I agree entirely with particular types of school having a far greater risk than other schools.
Q40 Siobhain McDonagh: Julie, you have made some reference to it. Could you give us a bit more information on how the regulatory system for asbestos in schools in the UK differs from the arrangements in the US?
Julie Winn: In the USA, they have mandatory surveys with reinspections of the asbestos-containing materials every three years. They develop and maintain an uptodate asbestos management plan. We require just an asbestos management plan. It does not have to be maintained. They have annual reports to parents. They have periodic inspections. I think the best practice is every six months, where they have a wander around and a visual inspection that supports the mandatory survey.
They also have mandatory training for the duty holder in management of asbestos so that they have a high standard set. They make sure that staff have mandatory asbestos awareness training, because when you are walking around the school, unless there is a little asbestos sticker on it or you have thought to look at the plan, you will not know where it is. You will not know if a child is kicking a hole in something they should not or a ceiling panel that has come down has some asbestos in it. All those things that they do in the USA are things that we could take on board here. That would help to improve asbestos management in schools and would hopefully bring down the levels. I totally agree with Professor Peto that the only way to know whether or not there is risk in a school is to do the air sampling.
Q41 Siobhain McDonagh: Again, we touched on this: why do you think schools should have different regulations from other workplaces?
Michael Lees: One simple answer is the fact that they contain children. Absolutely everyone attends schools. The Medical Research Council, as you saw, in 1997 looked at the amount of asbestos in schools and they said it is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings, and they also considered that that exposure would be a significant part of a lifetime exposure. You are looking at pretty well everyone in this country-a large proportion have been exposed to asbestos at a very young age. They are a special case.
Q42 Siobhain McDonagh: Given that schools are required to keep a regular updated asbestos register, why would a national audit of asbestos in schools be anything other than an expensive duplicate exercise?
Julie Winn: A central collection of the data from the local authorities would mean that you could pinpoint the time and condition of the asbestos in the nation’s stock. Then you could do proper forecasts and a proper costbenefit analysis. We do not know how much is spent on the management of asbestos in schools. The HSE cannot tell us; we have asked that question. We do not know how much it would cost to remove it. If you have a starting point, where you collect everything centrally and do an overview, you can work towards a phased removal over time.
Q43 Siobhain McDonagh: Should any resulting national register be made public? Wouldn’t this cause unnecessary alarm when the asbestos is in a school but undamaged and highly unlikely to be disturbed?
Julie Winn: I do not think it would cause panic or alarm. It did not in the USA. You can only go on what has happened there.
Roger Leighton: I would be very wary of this. It would have to be handled extremely carefully.
Q44 Chair: But your local authority, with its superduper data-you can put your finger on everything-surely in the spirit of transparency can put it on the web and make available to everybody.
Roger Leighton: If it was done for all schools on the same day, yes. But I do not have quite as much faith in some of our parent bodies in some parts of the country, and there could be panic, which would be extremely disruptive and damaging to individual schools.
Q45 Chris Skidmore: I was just wondering if you could clarify what proactive inspections the HSE were specifically involved in and what the specific benefits of those proactive inspections are.
Michael Lees: In the inspections the HSE carried out in schools, they checked to see whether a school has a proper asbestos management plan and a proper survey, and that they are physically carrying out the actions that the asbestos management plan specifies. Because once you have identified the asbestos, the surveyor will say, "This is in a dangerous condition; you have to remove it immediately, or you can manage this and look at it every few months." Therefore you have got to check that they have got that in place and they are actually carrying out the procedures in the management plan. So, when the HSE carries out these proactive inspections, as I say, on a number of occasions they have identified schools and whole local authorities that do not have the management plans, have not trained the people and have not identified the asbestos.
Q46 Chris Skidmore: There was a recent decision that the HSE will no longer carry out proactive inspections in local authority schools but they will begin to carry them out in academy schools. Obviously, the explanation is that there may not be such great regulatory control over academies. Do you welcome that decision or do you think there is a fault in that?
Michael Lees: We certainly welcome it, but when you look at it, they are purely going to carry out the inspections in 150 schools. That is the whole of Britain, in fact. You are looking at 34,000 schools or whatever in the whole of Britain. It is a very small fraction. Yes, of course we welcome any inspection, but it is just a one-off.
Roger Leighton: I am just about to open a free school, so I am not at all against autonomy for schools. However, this is one of those few areas where it is best and most efficiently done by the local authority. The one change, coming back to your earlier question about changing regulations, that, thinking about it, would probably be sensible in this new landscape would be to give local authorities this key role, including over those schools that are no longer directly under their control in this particular area, so the HSE could then inspect the authority that would have had the responsibility and the power to inspect even the academies and the free schools.
Chair: For the record, Julie and Michael both nodded. You are both in agreement with that. I do not need any explanation. I just need you to nod. Thank you.
Q47 Chris Skidmore: Obviously we have seen the replacement of the Building Schools for the Future programme with the Priority Schools Building programme. Has that increased any risks posed by asbestos in schools?
Michael Lees: It has indeed, because the Building Schools for the Future initiative was purely looking at secondary schools, but in fact here, in a parliamentary debate, the Minister stated that in major refurbishments under the Building Schools for the Future initiative they would remove all the asbestos. Now, in the Priority Schools Building programme there is insufficient money to refurbish schools totally. So, we asked a question when this Government came in: "What are you going to do about removing asbestos when schools are refurbished." The answer came back that it is better to leave it in place and manage it than it is to remove it. That is with schools being refurbished. I am not saying that some are not going to remove it, but it is not a policy to remove it. We feel it should be a policy to remove it.
Q48 Chris Skidmore: In terms of the Department itself, they obviously set up the Asbestos in Schools Steering Group in November 2010. Do you think that will have an impact on Government policy, or is it having an impact on Government policy?
Michael Lees: Yes, the Department for Education steering group has, indeed, had a huge effect because we are able to have an input into it, and in fact we have worked exceedingly well with the Department for Education and the Health and Safety Executive. What has come out of it is the fact that guidance has been issued to schools about asbestos. It is highly constructive, yes.
Chair: Can I thank you all very much for giving evidence to us today? We have not managed to cover all the ground we wanted to, so it would be good to correspond with you if we do not think that some of the questions were already answered in your written evidence. Thank you very much indeed. That has been most illuminating.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Rt Hon David Laws MP, Minister of State for Schools, and David Ashton, Director of Field Operations Directorate, Health and Safety Executive, gave evidence.
Q49 Chair: Good morning and welcome, Minister, to what I think is your first appearance before this Committee, despite having been the Schools Minister for some time.
Mr Laws: That is right. Thank you, Chairman. You have let me off.
Q50 Chair: We are obviously failing in our responsibilities of scrutiny. We are delighted to have you with us today, and I am sure it will not be the last time. Mr Ashton, thank you for joining us as well. I know Mr Ashton heard the whole evidence of the last panel. Does the Government know enough about the asbestos risk in schools in England?
David Ashton: We know more about asbestos as a toxic material than virtually any other, because it has been hugely studied and, because of its toxicity, it creates a large number of victims, who can be analysed in the ways Professor Peto described. We have a great deal of information. My first note of caution to the Committee is to be wary of extrapolating from the historical data-the exposures from the active asbestos world, as I view it-into the much more passive residual asbestos world that we now have 20 years after we banned it. You need to be wary of simply extrapolating from one field to the other. It can lead to a number of quite misleading questions, but we do know a great deal about asbestos, yes.
Q51 Chair: My question was not how much we know; it was whether we know enough to be confident of the risks that children in particular face in our school buildings.
David Ashton: While it is an unfashionable answer so far this morning, I believe we do. We do know that it is strongly doserelated. You heard evidence to that effect this morning. The more you breathe in, the greater your risk. We also know there is a long latency period, which is clearly significant if you are very young when you are breathing it in; it sits in your lungs for longer before you die of something else than if you were middleaged when you were breathing it.
We do know the sorts of exposure levels that cause the current large numbers of mesothelioma deaths. We can clearly see from the epidemiology that certain professions are not at increased risk, but we are all at risk through being born in the 20th century when asbestos was being used, which is just a circumstance of being on the planet at this particular time for all of us.
A point that was not made this morning about epidemiology but which I would like to refer to is that, where death certificates show "Mesothelioma, Teacher", simply to go from that to working out the risk to teachers is to make quite a significant mistake, because the last known occupation of somebody who has died because of exposure over a period of 40 to 50 years of their life is not sufficient information on which to conclude firmly that they died because they taught in schools where there was asbestos. At that age, they lived in a community where asbestos was very much more actively used, including by the building trades who put it into those schools and who stripped it out of ships, and all the other things that people like me inspected at that time. This is what I call "the active asbestos era". Not to know their full history but to assume a link from their cause of death to their final occupation invites you to make a misleading policy decision.
People like me, who have had quite large asbestos exposures, would have "civil servant", or in my case "senior civil servant", on their death certificates, with whatever cause eventually, but that does not tell you that being a civil servant exposed you to a harmful level of asbestos-being a health and safety inspector in the west of Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s did. That is my biography and that of my colleagues. I put the spotlight on myself to emphasise that conclusions simply drawn from the fact that some teachers die from mesothelioma, and therefore there is an elevated risk to the teaching profession and the children in schools, are very questionable assumptions to base policy on.
Q52 Siobhain McDonagh: Most teachers are teachers throughout their professional lives. We are only just getting to the stage where people tend to use teaching as a second career. In most of my own experience, from people I know who are teachers who have died from mesothelioma, that has been their career.
David Ashton: Yes, and they have lived through the active asbestos era. An example of this would be from a particular town in the west of Scotland, which I will not name. Teachers who were teaching at that time in about 1980 were working in schools that contained asbestos. They also lived in the community where the Ark Royal was dismantled in the port. It was, as they said at the time, stuffed to the gunwales with blue asbestos because of the fire precautions, which is a key reason for using asbestos. You do not have an infinitely detailed knowledge of where their fractional exposures had been over the course of that life. This is not only my using the anecdote of that shipyard, which I was the inspector for. There is Professor Peto’s evidence about how much asbestos dust there is in the lungs of people and the 50fold reduction in the lungs of younger people because they were not alive in that active asbestos era, when it was being handled by the building trade and demolition trade all around us. That is a very significant piece of scientific and epidemiological evidence.
Q53 Chair: Thank you very much. Minister, in preparing for today, you have obviously had a read up on this and reflected on it. What are your thoughts, broadly, about where we are in policy terms? We have the regulations that came in last year. We heard fairly scathing criticism by some members of the last panel. I just wondered where you were at.
Mr Laws: Yes, I would summarise my position and the Government’s position in this way: if you look at the evidence that the HSE gave to you in paragraph 55, that summarises what I think is the advice we are getting at the moment and the position that previous Governments have taken. It explains the thinking behind the existing policy. Without taking up too much time, it basically says that, where airborne asbestos fibre tests have been conducted to measure or replicate the normal occupation of buildings, including schools, such testing confirms that the release of fibres into the air is normally 100 to 1,000 times lower than the control limit in the latest regulations, provided that asbestos is properly managed. Therefore, as long as asbestos is properly managed, teachers and pupils are not likely to be at risk in the course of their normal activities.
I think you know, Chairman, my predecessor, Nick Gibb, undertook to do a review of asbestos policy after the Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment reports, which I hope will be quite soon; I had a letter from the Chairman recently indicating that they hoped to agree their report at their next committee meeting on 9 May. We are going to review our policy after that.
There will be three things that I will want to look at. Firstly, obviously, there will be the advice that committee of experts gives us and the issue about longevity even at low levels of exposure. That is the latest and the best medical evidence that will be available to us. Secondly, obviously, there is the report you are going to do; I assume you will do one after these hearings.
Q54 Chair: Just for the record, this is a oneoff to look at the issue, and then the Committee will reflect on whether or not that is necessary.
Mr Laws: Any thoughts, obviously, that you produce we will look at closely. The third point is one that was raised by a witness in your earlier evidence session, which we may also pick up some useful evidence on when the HSE conducts its random survey of 150 autonomous schools: is the existing presumption that the duty holders will be the local authority in local authority schools, the governing body or the academy sponsor, in those cases, a robust and good assumption? Are they doing the job properly, and does the work the HSE does in inspecting those kinds of institutions show that they have the same robust controls that we would expect from local authorities?
Q55 Mr Ward: I am somewhat confused now. Do we have a problem in schools, as far as you are concerned, in terms of asbestos?
David Ashton: We have a problem that can be dealt with by some fairly mundane acts of management and routine preventive action, which are captured in the Control of Asbestos regulations.
Q56 Mr Ward: We have heard criticism of those regulations this morning.
David Ashton: You heard one criticism, which was that they should be replaced with sampling, which we disagree with. Sampling is a snapshot. It would be in the order of £5,000 to £10,000 per school to carry out the sort of sophisticated sampling that would give you meaningful information. The much less expensive sampling, which is called phase contrast microscopy, which is done at the end of an asbestos job, is a bit of quality assurance that a removal job has been done reasonably well, backed up by visual examination.
It was from that that Mr Lees extrapolated the rather alarming figures from a school called Cwmcarn. We did electron microscopy in that school, and our advice to the local authority there is that it is perfectly safe to reopen that school because the actual levels, by that more sophisticated method, were at the limits of measurable quantification by a more sophisticated technique. The one criticism you heard of the regulations was that they could be replaced by sampling; I do not think that would be useful. We would prove a negative, whereas the regulations are asking for positive management of the problem.
Q57 Mr Ward: Are we actually aware of the scale of the problem at the present time? What exists? What form is it in? How is it managed?
David Ashton: Yes, a very large amount of asbestos was used in many premises throughout the UK over many years; I think it was 3 million tonnes. We have a large legacy amount of asbestos. Maybe a third of it has been removed and the other two-thirds are still there.
Q58 Mr Ward: You used the word "maybe". Do we need a national audit? Do we need to know school by school?
David Ashton: We would not find that useful. If others felt that it was a good use of their time and money to do that, we would not object. Our advice is that this should be dealt with school by school. There is very clear advice on how to contain the problem and prevent this fibrous mineral dust escaping into the air. It does need vigilance over the many years in which the asbestos is present in schools, and that brings certain issues of reliability, management and corporate knowledge, which we would see as being solved by keeping good records at the level of the school that are updated as things change.
Q59 Mr Ward: So, how do we know that all of that is being done without a national audit, school by school?
David Ashton: From some general conclusions about the significance of asbestos in schools, we can attempt to answer the initial question about, "How concerned should parents be?" For instance, we are a Government Agency. We are not a lobby group. We take the evidence. We also have rather world-class laboratories doing the electron microscopy work in Buxton. We take that information and we draw general inferences from it. We suggest these are positions of general relevance. They include, for instance, our position that the normal air movement drafts in a school that has a false ceiling of asbestos tiles above which there is debris will not create measurably increased levels of asbestos for the occupants of that school. That is based on the more sophisticated form of microscopy.
We do not go to every school to re-prove that. We offer that from the scientific knowledge we have as a general and broadly reassuring conclusion that the mere fact of spending your time in a school that contains asbestos does not create significantly elevated risk by virtue of the movement of air. To make the fibres airborne and to create the risk, it is the application of physical force by hand or machine that greatly increases that risk.
Q60 Mr Ward: As a parent, how do I know that my local school is safe?
David Ashton: The first question would be the age of the school, because if it is newer than a certain age it will contain no asbestos because of the prohibition. If it is older than that, and it was of sufficient concern that, as a parent, you wish to have reassurance, the school ought to be able to answer some fairly simple questions. We have captured the essence of them on a onepage asbestos management checklist for schools. So, a very concerned parent -perhaps me, for instance, knowing what I know about asbestos; I was a primary school governor at the school my children went to, and it did have asbestos, so I was on the inside track-could choose to ask these broad questions.
I would agree with the evidence that was submitted in the earlier session that one ought to hear positive answers from schools about the existence, for instance, of an asbestos survey, management plan and knowledge of where asbestos is, so that when contractors come in to disturb it-which is the risk phase-they will be given the advice and the warnings and do that safely. A parent could ask that directly, perhaps, or it could be done through the governing body.
Q61 Mr Ward: Can I ask a question that links with the point about it being disturbed? Does the existence of asbestos in schools fit in, in any way, with the schools building investment programme at all? Is it a consideration when looking at investment in school buildings?
Mr Laws: The existence of asbestos? Only in this way; as you know, we have identified in the Priority Schools Building programme the 261 schools in the country that we think are in the worst state. That is just about the overall state of their buildings and not specifically asbestos issues. We are then going to basically rebuild all of those schools from scratch. Any asbestos issues that arise in them-and I am sure many of them will have asbestos in them-will be dealt with.
Otherwise, what we are doing is a survey of the entire schools estate. That is also focused on general maintenance issues, rather than the existence of asbestos. It is focused on that for two reasons. One is that to find out a lot about asbestos’ existence we would have to do really quite intrusive surveys, which we are not doing. The other thing is that the clear advice we have got from the HSE is that, provided the existing asbestos is safely and responsibly managed, it is safe for pupils and teachers and arguably safer than if we start digging around and exposing some of it. The real risk seems to be particularly when contractors and others go in and do bits of discrete work on a school, which could not only endanger them but also endanger people in the school if they come into the proximity of the byproducts of it.
Q62 Siobhain McDonagh: Why is asbestos not included in the property data survey that will in future be used to allocate funding for school maintenance?
Mr Laws: Yes, it does link to the last question. Firstly, it is because we think there are already duty holders who have the responsibility to do this job. The nature of the survey that we are doing in those schools is very much a visual one. To get very detailed information about the existence of asbestos in these schools, we would need to go around with quite intrusive surveys and we would need to dig around in school buildings and elsewhere. This would not only raise the cost but would potentially endanger and destabilise some of the materials that are there.
In terms of this survey, it might be helpful if I can very briefly give you some information about it, because I know it came up in the earlier questioning. In England, we have just under 23,000 educational institutions that will be part of this survey. Around about 3,000 of those will not be surveyed because they are essentially modern buildings that are in a good state; so we have about 20,000 that will be. Of those, for a little over 8,000, we are relying on data that have been sent in by local authorities from their existing surveys of the condition of their schools, which means we will be surveying a bit over 11,000 schools. Incidentally, we will have completed, by the end of this month, about 7,500 of those surveys.
Just to be clear, there are a few schools that are very modern, which we are not looking at because we do not expect them to have any significant maintenance needs; then there is a large block where we are actually using the existing local authority survey data. This survey, for the reasons I have given, is focused on basic school condition problems; it is not an attempt to have an intrusive survey into the existence of asbestos.
Q63 Siobhain McDonagh: Would you say the decision to exclude asbestos was deliberate?
Mr Laws: This survey was established and agreed some time ago. Therefore, I cannot anticipate precisely what was in the minds of the people who made the decision. My understanding is that it was an explicit decision to construct the survey in this way in order not to have a very intrusive survey and not to have one that would be unnecessary, since we already have duty holders who have these responsibilities.
Q64 Siobhain McDonagh: What assessment has the Government made of the change in asbestos risk resulting from the replacement of the Building Schools for the Future programme with the Priority Schools Building programme?
Mr Laws: We have not made any assessment other than the broad assessment that we make as a conclusion of what the HSE has told us, which is where asbestos is in place-which appears to be most of our schools; three-quarters seems to be the figure that is widely used-it is safe, provided it is maintained properly. The switchover from Building Schools for the Future to the Priority Schools Building programme, to the extent that the Priority Schools Building programme has had to be smaller because of the economic circumstances, will mean that there will not be as many schools that will have as large a piece of work done on them. But provided the other schools are being properly maintained, which is the key issue, there should not be any materially heightened risk.
Q65 Alex Cunningham: Local authorities hold the ring on a lot of this stuff. They have the expertise, the understanding and they have worked with schools for many years, but now we have seen this responsibility disappearing across free schools, academies and others. Do you have any additional concerns about how this is managed into the future in the light of that, Minister?
Mr Laws: Yes, this is an issue that I would certainly keep under review, and look at closely when we hold this review, which I mentioned earlier on to all of you, and when we get the information back from the HSE about the studies they are carrying out. You will probably know that they have carried out two studies previously; one under the last Government in 200910 on local authorities, which targeted the local authorities that looked riskiest from the information that came back. They ended up taking enforcement action against 10 of the 42 authorities that they focused on, so 10 out of 152. They also did a survey then of 164 academies, independent schools and free schools. They found issues with about 17% of those. The survey that the HSE will be doing, in an era when we are getting a more autonomous school system, will be important, and not only for the HSE; the Government can also look at and draw conclusions from it.
Q66 Alex Cunningham: If you are finding such a large proportion, you said 17%, do you agree with the argument made by the people we heard from earlier for a full survey involving asbestos and checking for asbestos? Would that be the correct thing to do?
Mr Laws: I am not sure it would. The key thing is for us to make sure as a Department we do not unnecessarily replicate in an unrealistic way, which we would have to keep on doing every few months if we were really going to nationalise the problem, the work that is being done at a lower level. We have to make sure that the checks in this system are actually working; David might want to say more about some of the actions that they took after the earlier surveys of local authorities, academies and free schools. My understanding is that quite a lot of the problems that they found and identified were not necessarily that they were finding enormous bits of exposed, dangerous asbestos; it is just that some of the many boxes that they rightly have to tick to demonstrate they have management plans in place, regularity of inspection and so forth did not meet the full HSE requirements. I do not think we should necessarily draw from the figures I gave the conclusion that we have got large numbers of schools across the country that are dangerous to children. If there were, then we would be very concerned indeed, but that is not the information I am getting from the HSE.
Q67 Alex Cunningham: Sorry, I was just going to say that, at the simplest level, one of my concerns is that in these days of autonomous schools a keen caretaker or site manager will decide, "Yes, we will take that wall out." Then when they take that wall out, there are problems related to asbestos. Is 12 pages of online training really sufficient to guide people properly so that they should not think, "We can take this wall out or that wall out"? How do we make sure that does not happen?
Mr Laws: They have a very clear duty and they have the responsibility still to have an asbestos management plan. They have clear guidance from the Department. They have the guidance that we published in October last year for headteachers and governors about how to manage asbestos properly. I do not think anyone can be in any doubt whatsoever about the importance of this and the responsibility, but it is perfectly sensible, particularly if there is an evidence base, for the Department to reflect on a more autonomous school system and whether it is satisfied that the checks and balances in much more of a local authority system are still there in the future. It is a perfectly sensible question, and we should address that issue in our review and be informed by the work that the HSE is going to do, which is well timed, at precisely these schools.
Q68 Alex Cunningham: David said earlier on that it would prove extremely expensive to start doing the full survey that some people would advocate, and that is something you have ruled out. Is there a cost factor in this at all?
Mr Laws: It is certainly a costbenefit factor, and I would emphasise more the benefit. What the HSE is saying to us is that you could go around and do £10,000 surveys in 23,500 schools and drill into asbestos to try to find out how much is there. But if it is being managed properly, there should not be a problem; that is what you should be checking. If you go around drilling into asbestos walls, you might end up creating a far worse situation.
Q69 Alex Cunningham: You make a very strong point, Minister. I am just concerned about the ones that do not manage it properly. How do we know where it is not being managed properly and, therefore, there is a danger?
Mr Ward: Can I link this to one of my later questions? One in six schools, according to our evidence, required enforcement action. That does not sound like ticking boxes.
David Ashton: When we do surveys of schools, they are samples but they are statistically valid subsets, of course, so that we can multiply up and convince our statisticians that is a valid thing to do. So, 150 nonLA controlled schools this year will be a sample from which we can draw robust general conclusions.
Our surveys, whether in local-authority-overseen schools or schools with other management arrangements, seem to find-in very round figures, because the detail is in our submission to the Committee-something around one in five authorities or schools have deficiencies that require advice or attention from us. We do not hesitate to serve enforcement notices where we need to. It is not that there is an asbestos risk on the day and the school needs to be vacated; it is not that, with perhaps the slight exception of Thurrock-the one such exception in all of the sampling-rather it is that they cannot convince us that their knowledge of their asbestos, and therefore their management approach to it, can be relied upon for the fairly longterm future until it is eventually removed from that school, perhaps when the school closes.
We express our lack of confidence in the current conditions in the form of an enforcement notice. A notice is a very strong tool to use because it is automatically a breach of the law not to do what the notice requires, unless it is successfully appealed against through a tribunal. We take strong action where we are not given sufficient confidence. It is not unreasonable to guess-perhaps I should not speculate too much-that a similar picture might emerge over the next 150 schools that we look at. If it is significantly different from that, we would react accordingly.
I would also make the point that, in deciding whether or not to remove asbestos from schools to a timetable and whether to accelerate its removal or to leave it until the end-of-life point of schools, the latter is our strong advice because we think that is safer. In making that decision about when you remove the asbestos, you have to bear in mind the level of exposure and the nature of the asbestos removal work that would be done in an accelerated programme, if there was a timed programme of removal. The asbestos has to be replaced with something, because it is fulfilling an important safety function. It is good for safety but bad for health. You have to deal with it and go into the structures. You will create potential exposures in orders of magnitude above what there could conceivably be from simply occupying schools. Therefore, if we are not convinced about the knowledge within the school and the competence to manage it, we take a strict line.
Q70 Mr Ward: You seem remarkably relaxed. If one in five or six schools required the equivalent of an enforcement notice because they were not complying with safeguarding of children requirements, it would be on the front page of every single newspaper.
David Ashton: I have a naturally calm demeanour, but it is annoying, despite that, to find with a problem about which we know so much, where the guidance is so clear and the precautions are so straightforward, that we are not satisfied in every school that we go to.
Mr Ward: Is this you when you are angry, David?
David Ashton: Yes, it probably is. I would just make the additional point, if I may, that one sees, let’s say, 80% compliance in many fields of health and safety. It is prudent to assume you would get the same level of compliance if you had a large asbestos removal programme. That is the nature of the imperfect world that we regulate. To observe that in a situation where you increase exposures by orders of magnitude through aggressive removal of asbestos unnecessarily would seem to me an unwise policy choice.
Q71 Chair: It is not primarily a financial decision to avoid bringing forward the phased removal. It is basically that it is less safe to have an earlier intervention than to leave it and manage it. That is the advice you are giving Ministers.
David Ashton: Yes.
Q72 Chair: Why does the Government not feel a right to know about asbestos in schools, like they have in the United States, is appropriate?
Mr Laws: Well, in a sense, there is a right to know, in that any parent can not only table a freedom information request, which is hopefully unnecessary, but ask a school whether it has got an asbestos management plan and whether it has made an assessment of asbestos, and presumably get a copy of that. Any parent can ask for assurances that the asbestos plan is being properly implemented. I think those rights, effectively, still exist.
Q73 Mr Ward: There have been some court cases, I believe, where claims have been made and in one case paid out; it was a dreadful case, where somebody died and there was negligence in that there was exposure to asbestos. If schools are unable to meet the claims against them, is there a risk that central Government will have to pick up the bill for this? Many local authorities, of course, have pooled arrangements for insurance, so individual schools are covered through that; that may not be the case with the fragmented system we are moving towards.
Mr Laws: All I would say on that is that our judgment of the potential financial risk is that it is not a huge one, even if it fell back on the Government; I think I am right in saying that, so far, there has only been one successful case in this area. We would expect the first line of accountability to be the duty holder. Given the fact that there has only been one successful case, it also does not look like a very large contingent liability for the Government.
Q74 Mr Ward: There was £240,000 compensation in that one case.
Mr Laws: Yes, I am not dismissing the size of the amount, but it is only one case so far.
Q75 Mr Ward: Would there be a risk for governors in future cases if the local authority was not there to cover the insurance costs?
Mr Laws: The governors are the people who are the duty holders, and therefore they have the responsibility here. Obviously, in practice, the Government would not wish to see any school suffer and be penalised.
Q76 Mr Ward: Would that be the case for free schools and academies?
Mr Laws: Yes, absolutely; there will be the same responsibility there.
Chair: Our time is pretty well up. Thank you, Minister and Mr Ashton, for giving evidence to us today. We will look forward to considering this further, as we know you will.