Government 'in denial' about asbestos problem

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The government remains in “denial” about the scale of the asbestos problem in the country’s schools, a leading campaigner said this week after winning a prestigious award for his campaign to rid schools of the deadly substance. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

The government remains in “denial” about the scale of the asbestos problem in the country’s schools, a leading campaigner said this week.

Michael Lees was speaking after receiving the Fred and Anne Jarvis Award from the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in recognition of his long-running campaign to rid schools of the deadly substance.

Mr Lees, whose wife Gina, a nursery school teacher, died of mesothelioma 12 years ago, received a standing ovation when he collected his award at the NUT’s annual conference in Brighton last month.

Around 75 per cent of UK state schools contain asbestos and more than 140 school teachers have died from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma in the past 10 years. 

Mr Lees has been among those calling for a full audit of the schools estate to establish the condition of asbestos-containing materials. He also wants to see the safe and progressive removal of asbestos.

However, current government policy, based on Health and Safety Executive advice, is that schools should identify, protect and manage asbestos-containing materials, rather than remove them.

Mr Lees’ wife was just 51 when she passed away and she had been exposed to asbestos in a number of schools. Since then, Mr Lees has become a leading voice on the risks of asbestos exposure and after receiving his award he told SecEd that his fight to rid schools of asbestos would continue.

He added: “The government remains in denial about the scale of the problem and every new government only thinks five years ahead in terms of its policies, so we never seem to get anywhere. 

“We have a recent excellent example in Australia where the government has adopted a national policy of eventual eradication of all asbestos and has set targets for schools and other public buildings. This is what we need here.”

In 2005, Mr Lees set up Asbestos in Schools (AiS), an information website and campaign group which, among other achievements, has advised the DfE on recently published web-based asbestos awareness guidance for schools. He has also worked closely with teaching unions through the Joint Union Asbestos Committee.

Through this work, Mr Lees was instrumental in persuading the DfE to establish its own steering group which has since seen regular meetings take place between union and local authority representatives, governors, asbestos experts, including Mr Lees himself, and Department for Education (DfE) officials.

The government is conducting a review into asbestos which is expected to publish its findings in June. The DfE’s steering group is currently considering responses to this consultation from various parties. Mr Lees added: “We expect the government to act with transparency and to keep an open mind on this issue.”

The review comes after MPs on the Education Select Committee last year heard that millions of children and school staff could potentially have been exposed to asbestos dust over many decades. 

During a hearing in March 2013, the all-party committee was told that a lack of awareness and training about the dangers had resulted in a failure by schools to manage their asbestos properly. They also heard that up to 300 people a year could be dying of mesothelioma as adults after being exposed to asbestos as children at school. A Medical Research Council document shown to MPs said: “It is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings.”

MPs were told of particular concern about academies and free schools, where governors rather than local authorities now had responsibility and liability for managing asbestos. However, most governing bodies were not trained in asbestos awareness.

The Fred and Anne Jarvis Award was established by the NUT in 2008 and recognises the contribution of individuals who are not members of the union. The award is named after retired NUT general secretary Fred Jarvis and his wife Anne, a lifelong NUT member who died in 2007.

Speaking about the award, Mr Lees said: “I am absolutely thrilled. The union devoted quite a bit of time to this during its conference and a number of people, including the general secretary, spoke about the importance of asbestos management and the work that was being done to address this.

“Fred Jarvis himself was concerned about this issue in the 1980s, and he called for asbestos surveys and progressive removal from schools at conference in 1984. It is almost unbelievable that, 30 years on, this problem continues in our schools.”

NUT general secretary Christine Blower added: “Michael is a tireless campaigner who approaches his work with tenacity, passion and reason.”

Mr Lees’ Asbestos in Schools website contains advice, evidence and research about asbestos and mesothelioma. Visit www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk

CAPTION: Campaign: Michael Lees (middle image) began his asbestos in schools work after the death of his wife Gina, a teacher (above), 12 years ago


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