Government Response to the House of Commons DWP Select Committee’s Asbestos Report and Recommendations

Government Response to the House of Commons DWP Select Committee’s Asbestos Report and Recommendations:

Introduction:

LTB 190/2022 reported that following an inquiry, the Department for Work and Pensions House of Commons Select Committee of MPs had published its report into how the Health and Safety Executive manages the continued presence of asbestos in UK buildings. That report was attached to LTB 190/2022 and was welcomed by the TUC, CWU, all Trade Unions and asbestos victims campaign groups. On the other hand, the recently published Government and HSE response (copy attached) is to put it mildly, extremely disappointing and weak.

Background to the House of Commons DWP Select Committee Inquiry Report and Recommendations:

Despite the importation, supply and use of asbestos being banned in the UK since 24th of November 1999, twenty-two years later this toxic mineral still plagues public health, being linked to multiple diseases. Asbestos remains the largest single cause of work-related fatalities, with more than 5,000 deaths each year from diseases including Mesothelioma, Lung Cancer and Asbestosis.

Vast quantities of asbestos remain inside workplaces and public and private buildings throughout the UK because asbestos was used heavily in construction up until the 1980’s where it now still remains in-situ. The UK today remains a storehouse of asbestos. There are six million tonnes of asbestos in the UK, most of which can be found in over 1.5 million buildings across our public estate, including our hospitals and schools. This means that many people are still exposed to the potential dangers of asbestos on a daily basis. While workers are no longer manufacturing or installing asbestos, the substance continues to be the UK’s number one occupational killer, causing more than 5,000 deaths a year – a deadly legacy from the past.

The DWP Select Committee raised concerns last year with the Government about the UK’s policy on managing asbestos in buildings, following the publication of a report by ‘think tank Respublica’. In response, the Minister for Employment confirmed that the HSE would be reviewing the effectiveness of the regulations for managing asbestos.

The inquiry examined the current risks posed by asbestos in the workplace, the actions taken by the HSE to mitigate them and the results of the inquiry and final report feed into the Government and Health and Safety Executive’s asbestos regulations review aimed at looking into how asbestos can be handled more safely. Evidence has pointed to there being widespread non-compliance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 in the UK and a lack of information on the full extent of how much harm asbestos is causing. The UK has some of the weakest standards in Europe, while also having some of the highest Mesothelioma rates and there is widespread non-compliance with asbestos control law. Shockingly UK nurses and teachers are 3 and 5 times more likely to develop Mesothelioma because of the asbestos in the buildings in which they work.

Trade Union Support for DWP Select Committee Inquiry Report and Recommendations:

The inquiry and Select Committee’s final report, published in April was welcomed by the CWU, TUC and all UK trade unions who collectively have adopted a policy of seeking ultimate removal of asbestos from UK buildings. The Select Committee report (see LTB 190/2022), supported the Trade Union position on eradication by calling on the Government to agree a deadline for all asbestos to be removed from all public and commercial buildings.

The Government and HSE Negative Response to the DWP Select Committee Inquiry Report and Recommendations:

The Government and HSE have now published their response to the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s report on the management, removal and disposal of asbestos in public buildings.

The House of Commons DWP Work and Pensions Select Committee Chair, Stephen Timms MP stated “The Government’s response to the Select Committee report is extremely disappointing.” He added; “The Government argues that fixing a deadline for asbestos removal would increase the opportunity for exposure, but the risk is likely to increase anyway with the drive towards retrofitting of buildings to meet net zero aspirations. Setting a clear target should just be one part of a new properly joined-up strategy. This strategy should prioritise the highest-risk buildings and urgently boost the evidence base for the safe removal and disposal of a material that is still the single greatest cause of work-related fatalities in the country.”

Leading campaigners, industry bodies, and MPs heading the inquiry are without exception disappointed with the lack of concrete action being taken – with regulators seeming to kick several key recommendations for reform into the long-grass.

The recommendations put forward in the Work and Pensions report were both sensible and timely, and yet they have been almost completely rejected by the Government. To put it bluntly, the UK has one of the worst asbestos legacies in the world – and our current lack of an informed strategy for dealing with this is shocking. For any project involving old buildings it will mean increased costs, delays, and even untimely deaths. Industry, campaigners, patient organisations and Trade Unions are united in their disappointment of this missed opportunity.

In the report, published on 21st April 2022, the House of Commons DWP Work and Pensions Select Committee of MPs from all political parties suggested a suite of reforms that could radically improve asbestos regulations in the UK. These included:

  • Creating a ‘National Asbestos Database’ to record all asbestos currently remaining in public buildings – including type, quantity, risk factor, etc.
  • Changing the current policy of ‘management in-situ’, which is best described as a sticking plaster for a holding policy. Other nations have enacted prioritised, scheduled removal of asbestos from ‘at-risk’ buildings – the UK should follow suit.
  • Developing a National Asbestos Strategy between the Government and the HSE, which would coordinate efforts to remove asbestos from high-risk settings. (This would include CLASP-type schools; prefabricated structures built in the 50s & 60s with large quantities of amosite – ‘brown asbestos’).
  • Creating a robust research framework into the measurement of asbestos exposure using more advanced techniques than are currently practiced.

Unfortunately, the Government/HSE response shows little movement on any of these areas. On the recommendation for a phased, prioritised removal of asbestos from at-risk buildings – the Government says: “The Government could only advocate a proactive course of action in this area if there is compelling evidence that the, undoubted, increase in exposure to asbestos workers that will result from active removal, possibly prematurely, is justified in terms of reducing risk of exposure to building users. At present this evidence is not there.” This is despite much recent research showing an increase in ‘secondary exposure’ to asbestos, especially in older-build schools and hospitals.

According to HSE statistics released earlier this month on Asbestosis, Mesothelioma, And Lung Cancer in Britain, asbestos-related deaths have now climbed to over 5,000 each year. In 2020, there was 2,544 Mesothelioma deaths in total, with a similar number of Lung Cancer deaths linked to past exposures to asbestos.

Nurses and teachers are now 3 to 5 times more likely to develop Mesothelioma than the general UK population, while pupils are up to 10 times more likely to be exposed than teachers.

One of the most basic problems is that the HSE doesn’t actually know how many buildings in Great Britain contain asbestos, where it is, what condition it is in, or how it is being managed. Consequently, the HSE cannot regulate for the safe management of asbestos.

The Government/HSE response was equally negative about the potential of a National Asbestos Database for improving this position. It suggested that a new central register would require significant resources merely to duplicate existing information and undermine the requirement on duty holders to manage asbestos – whilst providing no clear indicator to the public that the risk of asbestos has been mitigated. This misrepresents the purpose of a proposed National Asbestos Database, which could:

  • Help collate data taken from asbestos surveys on the location and condition of asbestos in non-domestic buildings – which the HSE is currently unable to do.
  • Establish an evidence base for challenging the HSE’s assumption that the current policy of leaving asbestos in-situ is the safest option.

Industry bodies are now in the process of collating survey data from accredited asbestos consultants. Even in its raw form, this significant data sample reveals that there are many more buildings than the 300,000 which the HSE believe contain asbestos, and that the condition of this asbestos is poor – with over 70% of asbestos materials reported to be damaged. Re-inspection survey data confirms that much of this is not being addressed over 12 months later. Evidence that the policy of duty holders and management in-situ is not working.

The Asbestos Testing and Consultancy (ATAC) and the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants (NORAC) – the recognised trade bodies for UKAS accredited inspection and survey organisations expressed their disappointed with the response provided by the Government to the Work and Pensions committee. It was apparent to the two asbestos surveying trade bodies that what was being presented to the committee by Government and the HSE was not what they were seeing on the ground. The two organisations’ collective memberships have provided data on almost 750,000 asbestos items that were inspected between October 2021 and March 2022 and based on criteria determined by the HSE, almost 70% of these items were damaged. ATAC/NORAC added that they fail to understand why the Government has chosen to reject calls for a national database in addition to mandatory accreditation for asbestos surveyors as this would highlight the full extent of the problem facing the UK, one which has been ignored for decades. The Government responded positively following the 74 deaths that tragically occurred at Grenfell Tower with the establishment of a dedicated regulator, yet with almost 100 deaths occurring weekly as a result of past asbestos exposure and little understanding on the long term consequences of low level exposure, the Government chooses to ignore the recommendations of the Works and Pensions committee.

Mesothelioma UK – National asbestos-related cancer charity – expressed their disappointment with the Government response and invited those Government decision makers to come and spend a day with one of their nurses or to attend a patient support group and explain why the Government has made a choice to not prevent future generations dying of Mesothelioma. It’s the asbestos that must go, not more people.

The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) condemned the Government response and stated that the stark reality is that the UK has Europe’s biggest problem with asbestos, and the UK needs a proper strategy to deal with it. Things will get worse as buildings and building elements near the end of their lives decay, and more work is done by tradespeople that could disturb asbestos in order to meet climate change goals. Nurses, teachers and people in social housing are going to die from hideous, but avoidable diseases. People have a right to know about the poisons in their homes and work-places. Setting a goal which means that only one more generation of children goes to school with the risk of asbestos exposure and the last unnecessary death will only be a century away, does not seem overly ambitious.

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health Asbestos Report – October 2015

Seven years ago the APPG on Occupational Safety and Health published a report which backed the TUC call for asbestos removal when the TUC and CWU demanded immediate action. The all-party group of MPs accused the Government of complacency on the risks of asbestos in buildings and called for an asbestos eradication law. The report entitled ‘The asbestos crisis: why Britain needs a new law’ was published seven years ago this month by the House of Commons Occupational Safety and Health All-Party Parliamentary Group of MPs. The MPs committee said then, 7 years ago, that Government is being “far too complacent about asbestos.” The TUC General Council stated that they were 100 per cent behind the asbestos eradication campaign. If we do nothing, then it is future generations that will pay. We need to act now.  Around 40,000 men and women have died of asbestos related Mesothelioma since the UK asbestos ban in 1999. The Government rejection of the 40-years deadline to eradicate all asbestos from UK buildings which the Unions think is a moderate timescale is appalling.

Conclusion

Everyone should be safe at work. Asbestos exposure at work continues to cause thousands of deaths every year. Asbestos is still with us in workplaces and public buildings across the country. As a result, more than 22 years after the use of asbestos was banned, hundreds of thousands of workers are still put at risk of exposure every day. People are mistaken if they think asbestos is a problem that has already been solved. Asbestos is still very much present, and the risk of exposure is with us every day. There’s no cure for asbestos related diseases but it’s preventable for future generations with the removal of asbestos from all UK buildings. The Government’s blunt rejection of the recommendation firstly from the All-Party Parliamentary Group of MPs on Occupational Safety and Health in 2015 and now in 2022 from the House of Commons DWP Work and Pensions Select Committee of MPs for a dedicated programme for the phased removal of asbestos in public buildings is appalling and a dereliction of their duty to the UK public and working people.

Yours sincerely

Dave Joyce
National Health, Safety & Environment Officer

22LTB422 Government Response to the House of Commons DWP Select Committee’s Asbestos Report and Recommendations

Government Response to Work Pensions Select Committee Report on HSE Approach To Asbestos Management 2022

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