Asbestos ping-pong between Cardiff Bay and Westminster

Cenric Clement-Evans asks who is responsible for safety of children in Welsh schools

85 per cent of schools in Wales contain asbestos. The health of the nation is at stake. Will someone please take responsibility for it.

When we started the Asbestos in Schools Wales campaign I expected there to be concerns about the costs associated with better managing the asbestos, particularly in these times of austerity. I expected a technical and passionate debate about whether we should remove asbestos from our schools (following the Australian decision for phased removal) or to leave in situ. What I had not anticipated, perhaps naively, was an argument as to who is responsible for asbestos in schools Wales. However, this is precisely what has happened

Much has happened since my previous post ClickonWales on this issue last September here. In particular, the very welcome Welsh Government guidance on ‘Asbestos management in schools’ was published in February, whilst in England the Department for Education’s consultation entitled ‘Policy Review: Asbestos Management in Schools’ closed at the end of March.

However the extent of difference between UK Government and Welsh Government over the issue has become very clear. In response to a series of questions at First Minister’s Questions in the Senedd on 28 January this year, Carwyn Jones said: “The responsibility lies with the Health and Safety Executive; that is quite clear. As regards ensuring that things happen as they should, that is the responsibility of the executive and also of the local authority environmental health officers. Also, of course, some responsibility falls on the schools themselves, if they have to dispose of asbestos, to ensure that that is done properly and safely. Guidelines will be published before long, which will include details relating to the responsibilities of those who have various duties relating to the management and disposal of asbestos. However, in terms of the responsibility, it lies with the Health and Safety Executive, and, then, of course, in terms of ensuring that the responsibilities are progressed, that is also a responsibility of the environmental health officers.”

On the 3 March the Education and Skills Minister Huw Lewis wrote to the Chair of the National Assembly’s Petitions committee advising that responsibility for the development of policies for the management and control of asbestos in schools in Wales has not been devolved to Welsh Government.

However, this is in sharp contrast to written answers given on the issue in Westminster.

On the 14 January, Baroness Randerson, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Wales Office answered Lord Wigley’s questions in the House of Lords about responsibility in Wales for asbestos policy for schools and about responding to the report of the Committee on Carcinogenicity. She said: 

The Health and Safety Executive has responsibility for regulations and guidance as it applies to the management and control of asbestos in all workplaces in Great Britain, including schools. However, within this framework, the development of policies for the management and control of asbestos in schools is a matter for the Welsh Government.

“The report by the Committee on Carcinogenicity was commissioned by the Department of Education. The report was a statement on the vulnerability of children to asbestos and made no recommendations; however, in England, the Department for Education is undertaking a review of its policy on asbestos management in schools. It is for the Welsh Government to decide whether they wish to review any policies as a result of the report.”

On 15 January in response to another question from Lord Wigley, Lord Nash the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools stated:

“The responsibility for the management of asbestos in schools in Wales is devolved to the Welsh Government and does not rest with the Department for Education.”

In the House of Commons Hywel Williams, MP for Arfon, asked a series of questions on 24, 25, and 27 January 2014 on asbestos in schools. On the 24 February, the Minister of State for Schools David Laws unequivocally stated that responsibility for asbestos policy for schools in Wales and the management of asbestos in schools in Wales is a devolved matter for the Welsh Government.

On 27 February the Secretary of State for Wales David Jones MP responded at greater length:

“The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has responsibility for enforcing legislation on the management and control of asbestos in all workplaces in Great Britain, including schools. The statutory responsibility for ensuring that risks from asbestos are managed, however, falls to the duty holder and to any employer undertaking work on asbestos containing materials in those premises. For schools this depends on its status and could be the local authority, the Board of Governors, the trustees or a proprietor. The HSE produces general guidance on the management of asbestos and the precautions that need to be taken before work is undertaken on any property where asbestos is present. It is for the Welsh Government to decide if it wishes to introduce overall policies for dealing with asbestos management across maintained schools in Wales.”

There is a further contrast provided by the actions of the respective Governments. The Department for Education has taken the following steps in respect of schools in England:

  • Accepted that it has overall responsibility for asbestos in schools.
  • Set up an asbestos in schools steering group.
  • Published Guidance on Asbestos Management in Schools in October 2012.
  • Asked the Committee on Carcinogenicity to consider the relative vulnerability of children to exposure to asbestos.

In contrast the Welsh Government’s response has been limited to the publication of guidance in February 2014, which largely replicates that given in England.

Whilst the ping-pong between Westminster and Cardiff Bay over which government has what powers and responsibilities may be of academic interest to some devolution watchers, there are profound implications for the safety and very lives of the schoolchildren of Wales and those who work in our schools.

What is clear is that, so long as this disagreement rumbles on, no Government is taking responsibility for asbestos in schools in Wales. That surely cannot be right in light of the Committee on Carcinogenicity’s conclusions that, “exposure of children to asbestos is likely to render them more vulnerable to developing mesothelioma than exposure of adults to an equivalent asbestos dose”.

Cenric Clement-Evans is the founding member of the Right to Know: Asbestos in Schools Wales Campaign and a campaigning lawyer at NewLaw Solicitors