The Work and Pensions Committee, a Cross Party committee, made up of 11 MPs (six Conservative, four Labour and one SNP) and chaired by Stephen Timms, on 21 April 2022 published a hard hitting and wide ranging report setting out recommendations to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) about the management of the risks caused by the presence of asbestos in non-domestic buildings.
This issue is important. Although the use of asbestos has been banned since 1999 there is no room for complacency. There may be asbestos in any building built before the year 2000. The UK has one of the highest rates of Mesothelioma in the world and a key reason for this is thought to be that brown asbestos was so heavily used here. The HSE estimates that at least 300,000 non-domestic premises in Great Britain contain asbestos.
Management of most work with asbestos in non-domestic buildings is regulated by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and the HSE has a key role in implementing these regulations. It issues codes of practice and guidance on asbestos management, licenses businesses which carry out asbestos removal work and inspects their work.
The Work and Pensions Committee considered whether the HSE is meeting its objectives. It read 49 written submissions and over three days heard evidence from organisations representing people who have asbestos related illnesses, trades unions and from Chloe Smith, the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work and Sarah Albon, Chief Executive of the HSE.
The report questioned the current approach of the asbestos regulations, which is to say that if asbestos is in good condition, well protected and unlikely to be disturbed, it can be left in place in buildings. The Committee’s view was that this policy is not sustainable in the long term. Various witnesses argued for a pro-active programme of asbestos removal. Charles Pickles, from the Airtight on Asbestos Campaign, expressed particular concern about prefabricated system-build “CLASP” schools which were built about 60 years ago. He said that the amount and type of asbestos in these buildings was too dangerous for a policy of management in situ to be operated. It was also pointed out that there is likely to be an increase in retrofitting of buildings in order to achieve net zero climate change targets, which will lead to more disturbance of asbestos materials in buildings in coming decades.
Whilst the Committee accepted that removal of asbestos creates risks (because it involves disturbance of asbestos), it criticised the HSE for failing to carry out research into the costs and benefits of removal of asbestos from buildings. It also said that the current regulations, which place responsibility for management of asbestos on the owners of buildings and on contractors whose work disturbs asbestos, are not fit for purpose.
The Committee’s recommendation is that asbestos be removed from non-domestic buildings within 40 years and it urged the Government and the HSE to develop and publish a plan to achieve this, focusing on removing asbestos from the highest risk buildings first, including schools.
The HSE was also criticised for not doing enough to monitor compliance with existing asbestos regulations. It inspects only a tiny fraction of the non-domestic premises which contain asbestos and the Committee heard anecdotal evidence that many construction workers did not check the asbestos register of a building before starting work on a new site.
The Committee recommended that a central digital register of asbestos in all non-domestic buildings be set up and suggested that this start with public buildings, such as schools and hospitals.
The Committee also urged the HSE by October 2022 to set up a system using air monitoring and sampling techniques to measure the level of asbestos exposure in non-domestic buildings.
The Committee noted that over recent years there has been a drop in enforcement measures against organisations which have breached asbestos regulations. It acknowledged that the HSE’s funding from Government had, in real terms, nearly halved between 2010/11 and 2019/20. The Committee urged the HSE to commit to a sustained increase in inspection and enforcement activity relating to the asbestos regulations and asked the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the HSE receives adequate funding over the medium term to support this increased activity.
The Committee urged the HSE and the Government to incorporate the recommendations of its report into their longer-term approach to asbestos management. The HSE is currently reviewing the effectiveness of the asbestos regulations and has said that it will take into account the recommendations of the report.
The Work and Pensions Committee has set out a detailed and ambitious plan of action to deal with the legacy of the UK’s heavy use of asbestos, in the form of asbestos materials which have been left in buildings. Let us hope that the HSE and the Government share the Committee’s ambition and meet the specific goals which have been recommended.
Here is a link to the Committee’s report: