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February 28, 2013

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MPs to hear evidence on asbestos in schools

Schools minister David Laws and the HSE’s director of Field Operations Directorate, David Ashton, will be among the witnesses giving evidence to a group of MPs on issues relating to asbestos in schools in England.

The Education Select Committee will be holding a one-off oral evidence session on 13 March. The first panel of witnesses – including Michael Lees, from the Asbestos in Schools Group; Julian Peto, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; and Julie Winn, chair of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee – will give the MPs the opportunity to question interest groups, experts in the field and individuals with direct experience.

This will be followed by evidence from the schools minister and the HSE on relevant government policies.

The GMB union, which represents school support workers, has fed in evidence as part of the JUAC submission. The Department for Education (DfE) is currently carrying out an audit on the condition of schools in a bid to establish refurbishment priorities, but GMB is concerned that asbestos is specifically excluded from the audit.

John McClean, GMB national health and safety officer, said: “GMB welcomes the call for evidence on asbestos in schools. Last year’s report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health & Safety made it clear that a cohesive and clear strategy to deal with this serious matter needed to take place. Hopefully, the Education Select Committee will reach similar conclusions that enable the DfE to begin dealing comprehensively with this problem”.

“GMB has major concerns with the manner in which asbestos is managed in schools, as it is obvious that it is often unclear who the duty-holder with legal responsibilities is. As more schools leave the control of local authorities to become academies or free schools, there is a very real danger that the little knowledge over asbestos within school buildings will be lost.”

The union fears that many school governors do not understand their responsibilities with regard to managing asbestos in schools, and believes that the DfE should do more to address this situation.

The debate on asbestos in schools hit the headlines recently following conflicting technical assessment reports on the potential risk of asbestos exposure to pupils and staff at Cwmcarn High School, in Caerphilly.

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Would it be feasible for our government to adopt the AHERA model that exists in schools in the USA where the asbestos survey findings and the ‘responsible person’ for each shool is required to be published. This forces a clearer school policy on asbestos management and introduces a transparency that does not currently exist.