On 5 May, ResPublica held an online event on the subject of our recent policy paper: ‘Why a National Asbestos Database Can and Should be Established’. This calls for a central register of asbestos currently in place across all public buildings (including schools, hospitals, and social housing).
Presently, information about the type, location and condition of asbestos is held by individual ‘duty holders’ in different formats. It is therefore difficult for people who use these buildings, including building contractors, to easily access accurate information. This in turn can lead to unnecessary disturbance and potential exposure to this highly carcinogenic material.
In response to our recommendation the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have stated:
‘It is not clear what additional benefits a national database would have over [existing practice]. Given the number of buildings in Great Britain that contain asbestos; the amount of maintenance and refurbishment work that is done on buildings; and the degree of detail on each building required to make the data accurate; any such national system would be hard to achieve and very difficult to maintain.’1
The event therefore discussed how existing technology, such as Asbestos SMART, which uses a mobile phone app, can capture, integrate, and centrally store data to be shared by all users.
Key takeaways from the event:
The panel was chaired by Jack Aldane (Campaign Manager, ResPublica) and included Andrew Paten (UKNAR), Charles Pickles (Independent Campaigner), David Morris MP, and Martin Docherty-Hughes MP. Each panellist commented on the HSE position with reference to emerging technology and evidence.
Andrew Paten, co-founder of UKNAR, who have developed Asbestos SMART, told participants that there are three irrefutable reasons for a national database now, drawing on COVID-19 and Grenfell:
1. Early and adequate investment now, prevents massive economic and social costs in the future.
2. Smart IT (Smart technology) is allowing us to do the unthinkable, through our mobile phones alone.
3. Demand for greater transparency in public health culture, is increasing, as people want to know about these threats.
Asbestos SMART is designed to store asbestos registers in a digital format that can be accessed through a QR code by those working on the premise.
"Everything could be set up for less than £1 million". In the long run, Paten added: "It will save, not cost money".
Commenting on the solution outlined in the presentation, David Morris (MP) said: "I'm absolutely amazed that this hasn’t happened before".
“I think the system has already been set up to allow the information to be gathered … we can utilise the framework we have already got and [the barriers] are not insurmountable … it is not a lot of money [to set up a central register] and it would save countless lives.”
Awareness about the problem of asbestos exposure already exists. “We now need to change the legislation.”
Asbestos registers are a requirement on duty holders, meaning that the data needed for a national database already exists in a piecemeal fashion. Until these are collated into a single source, however, transparency on rates of disturbance and exposure will remain limited.
When asked about how Government could ensure compliance, Martin Docherty-Hughes (MP) responded:
There are issues about validity of data and systems, about trust that data is being accurately collected and collated in comparable forms. And there are issues about who owns the data (e.g. HSE or the ‘duty holder).
"Transparency is central to enabling trust and, by extension, accountability".
Scotland is a devolved administration with a different legal and planning system as well as different education and health system. This may suggest a different requirement for a ‘national’ database and also the need for devolving HSE’s remit to Scottish Government.
“Why don’t we just handover the remit for HSE to the Scottish Parliament.”
However, a central register, regardless of jurisdiction is essential to providing this transparency and allowing us to hold individuals to account for non-compliance. Technologies can effectively allow for peer review.
“There are huge opportunities to use existing technology…somebody just needs to get on with it across government departments and across the four nations.”
Charles Pickles concluded the discussion with a reminder that Holland already has a national database for hazardous substances. He said a national asbestos database in the UK is "a realistic target that would allow all data to be standardised and analysed accurately".
Our aim is to change the HSE’s position on the need for a central database. We intend to overcome this by working with MPs, across parties, to organise parliamentary debates, and to make representation to education/health/BEIS select committees.
We believe that the evidence for introducing a central database is strong enough to warrant a change to the regulatory framework. The HSE must be made to acknowledge and act on that evidence by introducing a central database in order to save lives.
You can download the presentation slides here:
You can find the video recording of the discussion here: