Letters from the Minister: No problem, no need for change
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
The following is a record of the recent correspondence between David Morris MP and the Department for Work and Pensions Minister, Mims Davies, who is responsible for oversight of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE):
On the 5th of June David Morris MP wrote to the Minister raising his concerns about the presence of harmful asbestos in our public estate, including schools and hospitals, and the need to reform the HSE’s air testing regime so that we might detect airborne fibres that are not visible to the naked eye. He also invited the minister to join an online event which showcased the reforms and practices that have been introduced in France to improve air monitoring and better manage asbestos in buildings.
In her letter of reply, dated 22nd June, the Minister stated that the HSE does not regulate for ‘general air pollution’ and that this was a matter for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The Minister also went on to state that asbestos related deaths among teachers and nurses were in line with the death rate for the general population, that those who had died had been exposed before the ban in 1999, and that those most at risk from asbestos are in building and maintenance trades. On this basis the Minister declined to join our event.
David Morris replied with a letter of clarification on the 10th August. In this he restated that the air monitoring regime falls squarely within the HSE’s duty to manage (CAR 12) and is consequently an area for oversight by the Department for Work and Pensions, and not Defra. He reiterated that ambient asbestos fibres are a threat to all those who work in, or use, public buildings and that the UK’s air monitoring regime could be improved by adopting scientific practice already applied in other countries, such as France and Germany, which the HSE is duty bound to do under the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974. He also pointed out that deaths among teachers and nurses have been rising and that this was not a historical issue relating to exposure, prior to the 1999 ban.
The Minister responded on the 14th September and stated that the current duty to manage asbestos ‘never intended to include a periodic air testing requirement for normal occupation’. This was designed to protect the most vulnerable (building workers) and that ‘statistical research does not support the view that former teachers and nurses are at a particular risk compared to the general population’. Exposure to asbestos, she said, predates the current arrangements and that prevention is better than detection when it comes to managing asbestos. The Minister explained that the costs of introducing more sophisticated air monitoring methods, such as TEM microscopy, were not proportionate to the current assessment of risk.
The letters from the Minister reveal a startling refusal to reconsider any aspect of the current regulations to manage asbestos. Despite the evidence from other advanced countries, where reforms have been introduced, the Government and HSE see no need for change.
The Minister, and HSE, also reiterate that teachers and nurses are not at any more risk to asbestos related disease than the general population. This despite evidence that teachers and nurses experienced about four- and two-times higher mesothelioma deaths respectively than would be expected from typical asbestos fibre concentrations in buildings containing asbestos in good condition.
Our point about air testing is that it forewarns of any exposure, enabling action to be taken to mitigate risk before people are harmed. Detection is prevention. We know that our public estate is full of asbestos. The extent and condition of this aged material makes a very good case for periodic and targeted testing within areas known to contain high risk asbestos. Yet the Government and the HSE report that the system of control is effective, while others report that it is not. We believe the HSE to be complacent, by not effectively auditing their system, through effective testing. Looking at the emerging statistics for mesothelioma deaths, cannot assess whether the system today is preventing elevated asbestos fibre concentrations. Accurate testing enables real time control and foresight: that is why we are calling for it.
If the experience of Covid-19, has taught the British public anything, it is that effective testing and monitoring is essential in combating invisible threats. The response from the Minister looks totally out of step with the crisis of our times.
On the question of cost. Avoiding a crisis is more cost effective than dealing with the aftermath. From a health perspective preventing early death and enabling a healthy life, is preferable and more cost-effective than the expense of prolonged treatment and claims for compensation. The asbestos industry will respond with the necessary investment in microscopy when this is required. It will not supply if there is not a demand.
 Howie R. Mesothelioma Deaths in Teachers and Nurses in Great Britain. Environmental Health Scotland. 2017;29(4):35-37.
You can find the full correspondence between David Morris MP and Minister Mims Davies, here: