A steering group of experts set up to manage asbestos in schools may be disbanded, according to a leaked report.
Ministers have considered scaling back the work of the Department for Education’s (DfE)Asbestos Steering Group, in a bid to save money.
A DfE document handed to ministers for consideration in February this year said the department could “stop policy work and reduce stakeholder engagement on asbestos”.
The document, drafted by a civil servant, warned: “This is an emotive policy area and closing down the current stakeholder group would be controversial.
“Furthermore, any isolated incident of a school closing due to asbestos will mean we need to be able to respond.
“We are hence proposing to put this on a care and maintenance basis (rather than having permanent officials working on it). We will need effective stakeholder management in closing down the steering group.”
More than 100 teachers are reported to have died from mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer, in the past 13 years.
The steering group of union reps, local authorities, governors and asbestos experts has been meeting DfE officials regularly about effective management of the substance in schools.
Responding to the leak, a DfE spokesperson said: “No work on asbestos in schools has been stopped. We will be launching a thorough review into asbestos policy shortly and the steering group continues to play an active role in informing policy.”
The document, which was leaked to The Guardian, showed comments indicating that ministers accepted the provisional recommendation but that the group would be cut only after MPs had questioned David Laws, the schools minister, in March this year.
The comment about the proposed cut said: “David Laws (schools minister) says only after the Select Committee hearing. (The secretary of state Michael Gove) agrees.”
The document, entitled Asbestos Saving?, suggests the work of two civil servants would be saved if the cuts were made.
The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) this week called for transparency from the DfE.
It chair Julie Winn said: “It is depressing, but not entirely surprising, to learn that the DfE is considering this move.
“Working together with the union, employer, and school governor representatives, as well as the asbestos experts, is the best way for the DfE to address this long-standing health issue.
“The fact that the DfE is even considering such a move shows that it is not serious about its responsibilities and is more focused on silencing voices which challenge its view that the presence of asbestos in at least 75 per cent of our schools is not a problem.
“If this is indeed the DfE’s intention, the forthcoming review of asbestos policy in schools is likely to be a complete sham, with the conclusion being that asbestos in schools is not a problem and therefore consultation with stake holders is not necessary. We profoundly disagree with such a cynical approach.”
Asbestos campaigner Michael Lees said: “It is most disturbing that the government is considering scrapping the DfE Asbestos Steering Group. For the first time in 50 years the very serious problems of asbestos in schools are being addressed. The group has the expertise and skills to make schools safe from the dangers of asbestos. Advances have been made with the introduction of asbestos awareness guidance specifically for schools, and the commissioning of the government’s advisory committee on cancer to assess the asbestos risks to children. Further advances will be made.
“The group however has been critical of government policies towards asbestos in schools and has advocated that there should be fundamental changes in that policy. I have no doubt that is the reason that the minister wishes to scrap the group.”
In March, MPs were told that potentially millions of staff and pupils could have become exposed to asbestos dust in schools over decades. The all-party Education Select Committee heard that a lack of awareness and training about the dangers had led to a failure by schools to manage their asbestos properly.
A Medical Research Council document presented to MPs said: “It is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings.”
MPs heard that there was 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.