Work & Pensions Select Committee recommends sweeping reform of the UK`s asbestos management system

Today`s report by the Work & Pensions Select Committee calls on the Government to commit to a strategy to remove all asbestos from public and commercial buildings within 40 years. This would be a major advance on the Government’s current policy, which is for the HSE to manage the remaining stock of asbestos in buildings in situ.
Following a 10 month House of Commons inquiry, the Committee concluded that the risk to health will only increase as buildings are retro-fitted to meet ‘net zero’ targets, which will dramatically increase the disturbance of asbestos-laden walls and ceilings in schools and hospitals.
The Committee concluded that:
  • Asbestos-related illness is ‘one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times’ with thousands of deaths each year from past exposures.
  • While the use of asbestos was completely banned in the UK over 20 years ago, its legacy lives on
  • Asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK
  • An increase in retrofitting in response to net zero means that more asbestos-containing materials will be disturbed in coming decades – and therefore a cross-government approach to its removal is needed.
  • The HSE needs more funding to boost its enforcement activity.
The Committee’s conclusions are warmly welcomed by the campaign group Airtight on Asbestos, which has long argued for a stronger and more proactive programme of asbestos removal. Airtight on Asbestos founder, Charles Pickles, comments:
“This is a hugely important call to action that will be welcomed by asbestos victims and their families. Health officials have long downplayed the dangers of asbestos. For decades, the UK has been ill-equipped to deal with the threat due to inadequate regulation and institutional inertia. By calling for change, the Committee has put much-needed pressure on the HSE to clean up its act.”
The reforms proposed by the Committee nearly entirely align with the recommendations put forward by Airtight on Asbestos:
  • Change the current policy of ‘management in-situ’, which is as a sticking plaster for a holding policy. Other nations have prioritised the scheduled removal of asbestos from ‘at-risk’ buildings. The UK should follow suit (and now will, it is hoped).
  • Create a ‘National Asbestos Database’ recording all asbestos currently remaining in public buildings – including type, quantity and risk factor.
  • Develop 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 – or ‘brown asbestos’.
However, some important gaps remain:
  • Requiring the HSE to assure (rather than assume) that buildings are safe through periodic sensitive air monitoring – this was a central plank of the Airtight on Asbestos campaign but is not addressed in the Report.
  • Nevertheless, it does urge HSE to create a robust research framework to measure exposure using different techniques. This research might impact future Government policy, with the possibility of a U-turn on improved monitoring procedures and environmental air limits in the future.
The focus now turns to the Government, and ultimately the HSE. Says Pickles:
“We are delighted to see the Committee has listened and agrees with the central goals of Airtight on Asbestos: it’s a huge opportunity to “Build Back Better” and improve lives. We called for a National Strategic Asbestos Plan: they recommend it; we called for a National Asbestos Database: they recommend it; and we called for asbestos levels in buildings to be evidenced: they recommend it.
In combination, all of today’s recommendations could radically improve asbestos management and save lives, however the recommendations are merely words until implemented”.
The Airtight on Asbestos campaign was spearheaded by the think tank ResPublica, which has also campaigned on asbestos management reform for a number of years.
ResPublica Director, Phillip Blond comments:
“This Report is a rare opportunity for reform. The inquiry has brought into conflict two opposing visions for the future of our asbestos strategy, and the Committee has reached a decisive conclusion. The Report is a big win for sensible policy and common sense, recognising our current approach is no longer fit for purpose. Now, it is the responsibility of the Government to take its recommendations forward. 
Unfortunately, the Committee’s failure to endorse routine air monitoring represents a big hole in its overall approach. Whilst there is hope of this changing in the future, for now the absence of a decisive call for improvement may give regulators license to tread water. We simply cannot afford to delay – otherwise future cohorts of teachers and nurses could be consigned to an early death by asbestos-related diseases which they developed whilst merely doing their jobs”.
During the inquiry, Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work Chloe Smith MP claimed that the Government has “a clearly stated goal” to remove asbestos from the UK`s public buildings. Sarah Albon, Chief Executive of HSE, concurred by saying “we should look to remove it”. However, the Committee found little evidence of a concrete plan to meet this aim.
Says the Report:
“We agree with this ambition but greatly regret that neither HSE nor the Government has articulated a clear and comprehensive strategy for achieving this. There is no written down, fully developed, and long-term plan to match the Government’s goal… Moreover, the Government has so far failed to signal its intent by setting a clear timeframe for the removal of most, if not all, asbestos”.
Hence, it is an encouraging sign that the Committee has issued a timeline of action for the HSE – including a recommended deadline of 40 years for the
complete removal of asbestos from non-domestic buildings.
Charles Pickles argues that:
“The current regime for managing asbestos in situ may have worked in an era when the buildings were new and most exposures happened during construction, but times have changed. The demographics of those dying from asbestos are shifting, and it is now teachers, nurses and children – people who have never had direct contact – who are at risk. New dangers demand new strategies for dealing with them; some
It is therefore vital that the Government accept the committee`s findings and implement its recommendations soon. The phased, prioritized removal of asbestos with early focus on high-risk buildings should be priority No. 1. Until then, we encourage the committee to continue to hold the Government`s feet to the fire on this issue on which it has been standing still for too long”.
Available for interview:
  • Charles Pickles — lead campaigner for Airtight on Asbestos
  • Phillip Blond, Director of ResPublica
Please contact Sam Chandler by reply, or on +44 (0)7890 175472.