Hidden Killer

Are Welsh schoolchildren and teachers sitting on a health time-bomb?
It is a frightening question and one which has been asked increasingly loudly throughout the last few months.
The concern relates to asbestos in our school buildings.
Between the 1960s and 1980s asbestos was widely used in the construction industry, in particular for roofing, spray coating, pipe-lagging, insulation boards and asbestos cement. Any building built or refurbished before 2000 is likely to contain asbestos.
The Health and Safety Executive estimates that half a million non-domestic buildings in the UK feature asbestos.
This figure includes many Welsh school buildings. Indeed, a Freedom of Information Act request earlier this revealed that more than eight of ten school buildings in Wales contains some sort of asbestos.
But how dangerous is it and how worried should teachers, pupils and parents be?
Fibres of asbestos dust cannot be removed from the lung once they have been breathed in. Their inhalation is linked to two forms of mesothelioma (affecting the lining of the lungs and of the abdomen), to lung cancer, asbestosis (in which the lungs develop scaring) and an inflammation of the lung called pleural thickening.
Leading the concerns is respected occupational hygienist Robin Howie. Back in April in the education newspaper SecEd, I reported Mr Howie’s appearance at a conference hosted by Nick Ramsey AM at the National Assembly for Wales.
Mr Howie claimed a hidden “horror story” was unfolding in UK schools with rates of mesothelioma “a factor of ten higher” in male teachers than in other people who do not work with asbestos. He said rates of mesothelioma in female teachers were “higher to a factor of two-and-a-half”.
He added: “These are significantly higher figures than we expect. And if the teachers are showing significantly high on the statistics then what about the children?
“I think the teaching statistics are the tip of the iceberg. For every teacher exposed, then we have 20-30 children.
“In about two-thirds of mesothelioma we cannot identify where the exposure to asbestos occurred. What we do know is that most of those people would have been in school. I think there is a significant risk of mesothelioma in schools containing asbestos.”
Mr Howie repeated these concerns in a recent edition of the ITV Wales current affairs programme Wales This Week.
For that programme, ‘Hidden Killer’, I also interviewed Tim Cox, of the NASUWT, who said the dangers of asbestos were causing increasing concern for union members.
“I think this is one of the most important issues we’ve ever had to deal with,” he stated. “We are talking about the long-term health of the population of Wales. We are talking about the teachers and support staff in schools at the moment but we are also talking about the children, the children of Wales, over the next 10 to 20 years, who could be affected by this terrible, terrible disease.”
Mr Cox is demanding the removal of all asbestos from schools as part of the Welsh Assembly Government’s plan to renovate their buildings.
However, the Health and Safety Executive’s policy is to advocate the safe containment of asbestos rather than its removal. The Welsh Local Government Association agrees, stating that “the removal of asbestos would be likely to raise the level of asbestos fibres within the air”.
The HSE’s own figures show that between 1980 and 1985 twenty-one teachers, lecturers and school workers died from mesothelioma. Twenty years later that figure had risen to 92.
However, it questions Mr Howie’s claims about rates of mesothelioma in teachers. It has carried out its own research through epidemiologist Julian Peto.
“The research by Professor Julian Peto, who is a world authority, suggests that the increased levels of deaths, because there is an increased level of at the moment across all those groups, not just teachers, suggests it may be linked to the increased environmental concentration of asbestos in the 60s and 70s which is when people will have got their exposure,” Steve Coldrick, of the HSE, told me.
“There are examples and I’m sure there will continue to be occasionally examples of people in schools being exposed from time to time to either very low levels or occasional levels of asbestos. The important thing to understand is that all the evidence indicates that does not mean either adults or the children are likely to develop these dreadful diseases.”
Asbestos expert Emma Corfield, of Core Surveys, said the majority of asbestos products in schools would be “low risk”, such as asbestos cement, floor tiles and Artex. “It’s when you start talking about the asbestos insulation board and lagging which would probably be in about 25 per cent of schools, nearly 30 per cent, that you are looking at needing a good robust management plan,” she stated.
She said local authorities had to support head-teachers who could not be experts on asbestos as well as educators running schools.
There is no legal requirement on local education authorities to have staff dedicated to asbestos management. At least four of the LEAs questioned by Wales This Week did not have dedicated staff.
The HSE is due to relaunch its asbestos campaign on Monday. The campaign focuses on tradespeople, who make up the vast number of deaths from asbestos-related diseases.
Those whose interest is asbestos in schools believe the campaign should be turning its attention to the education sector too.

High Pay Commission

A worker on a 40-hour week earning the minimum wage would have to work for around 226 years to receive the same remuneration as a FTSE 100 CEO does in just one year, according to the campaign group Compass.
It is calling for the creation of a High Pay Commission to launch a “review of pay at the top”.
It states that the review “should consider proposals to restrict excessive remuneration such as maximum wage ratios and bonus taxation to provide the just society and sustainable economy we all want”.
See here for more information on the campaign.

Looking Beyond The Label

Nearly a quarter of people in Wales believe 100,000 or more asylum seekers come to the UK every year – four times the actual figure.
The figure is revealed in a special ICM poll commissioned by the British Red Cross to mark Refugee Week.
Accoring to Sir Nick Young, chief executive of the British Red Cross: “There are many myths and stereotypes around this vulnerable group, and that is why this year the British Red Cross is urging people to look beyond the refugee and asylum seeker labels, and see people as the individuals they are.”
He said the ICM poll found that 23 per cent of people in Wales believed 100,000 or more asylum seekers come to the UK each year, when the actual figure is around 25,000.
“On average people in Wales also think the UK is home to 28 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers, when in fact only around three per cent seek refuge in this country,” he added.
“Reassuringly, however, 92 per cent of people in Wales have positive associations with refugees living in the UK. Confusion and misunderstanding should not be allowed to erode the UK’s long tradition of providing sanctuary for people fleeing persecution.”
The British Red Cross is using Refugee Week to highlight the positive contributions made by refugees and asylum seekers through its Look Beyond The Label campaign.
“Refugee week gives us the chance to not only celebrate individuals like these, but also to take pride in our own role in offering safety to those in desperate need,” added Sir Nick.

Turning memorial into political football

The ‘Wise and Foolish Dreamers’ project which works with relatives of International Brigaders has been looking into the possibility of a new memorial to complement the one already in place in Cathays Park.
Some relatives have raised the possibility of a memorial in Cardiff either naming those IB-ers who died or all those who went to Spain.
At the moment there is a general plaque in Cathays Park and a list of names on a memorial in South Wales Miners Library in Swansea.
Quite separately, Leanne Wood AM has suggested a plaque be put somewhere in the vicinity of the Senedd. This is something the project thought was a pretty good idea, worthy of further discussion.
As a group, we hope to not only remember people who gave their lives but also to encourage modern-day discussions about tolerance, war and peace.
Leanne Wood was looking for AMs’ support for the memorial.
This is usually the kind of subject explored intelligently and sensitively…
…and then, as you may have seen in the Western Mail, Leighton Andrews got involved.

Asylum Justice: Young Family to Stay in Swansea

Campaigners in Swansea are celebrating after young mum Venera Aliyeva was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
The UK Government had been trying to deport her and her two children to Azerbaijan.
But as What Is Wales? reported in 2007, locals began a campaign to have them returned from Yarl’s Wood detention centre to her home in South Wales.
Venera had previously suffered persecution on two counts in Azerbaijan: because she is a Baptist and an Armenian.
Today the Campaign for Asylum Justice revealed the family would now be allowed to stay in Swansea.

Battered over lack of ballot

During this month’s anniversary coverage of the 1984/85 miners’ strike much has been made of the lack of a national ballot among NUM members.
Lord Kinnock, in particular, has always used the union failure to ballot all its membership as a stick to batter Arthur Scargill.
But, at a distance of 25 years, that does not tell the whole story.
After all, six years previously, in 1978, with a Labour government in Downing Street, the NUM had held a national ballot.
This had concerned a bonus scheme which miners voted to turn down.
However, the Government and British Coal cast the ballot to one side and went ahead with the scheme in the Nottingham coalfield.
“It was that that destroyed our unity,” Tower Colliery chairman Tyrone O’Sullivan told me recently. “Where was Kinnock then?”
Following the wasted ballot of 1978 – ignored by the Government and the Coal Board as it suited them – the NUM changed its constitution to allow each area to hold ballots where job losses were threatened.
In March 1984 that is what Yorkshire miners did at the start of what would become a national strike and what other areas, such as South Wales, went on to do.
Nottingham, added O’Sullivan, “would never vote for strike action. In 1981 when five Welsh pits were threatened they did not support us”.
In 2005 Ian Lavery, Scargill’s successor as NUM president, stated: “I think ballots are fine, if everyone at the end of the day is going to have to experience the same outcome. I didn’t think it would be morally right that miners at Ellington [where he worked], which at the time had a huge future, should have the right to vote someone else out of a job…
“The ones that said we should have had a ballot were the ones who were against the strike, and wanted an excuse not to support the strike.”

Cutting back on the old bill

South Wales Police Chief Constable Barbara Wilding has had a busy week.
Her anger at her own police authority’s decision not to grant the 9.8 per cent rise in the council tax precept she demanded has put her into media overdrive.
Ms Wilding is due to step down from the role in December and told the South Wales Echo earlier this year that she was unlikely to “stay home and do nothing” as she would miss “having…influence… My husband says I should go into politics but that would be dreadful.”
Perhaps something semi-political, then? A job on a quango for instance? There must be some reason for all this activity.
During the last few days she has raised the possibility of cutting back policing of major events at the Millennium Stadium, the Ryder Cup and the M4.
One AM said “frankly, her attitude beggars belief.”
“The public is struggling to make ends meet, jobs are being lost across the region so it is not acceptable to ask people to pay three times the inflation rate,” said Plaid Cymru’s Chris Franks.
He might also have noted that Take That concerts and football matches are not the only items which have put strain on the force’s purse strings during the last few years.
There was, for instance, the embarrassing defeat the force suffered at the hands of one of its own officers at the High Court.
Neath Detective Timothy Hodgson, a “professional, efficient and effective” specialist in tackling complex fraud cases, retired in December 2006 after 30 years.
His case revolved around a programme called the 30-plus scheme, which is designed to encourage highly skilled officers to stay in the force after 30 years – the point at which they can take retirement.
Hodgson was accepted on the scheme but was forced out of the force months later.
With the support of the South Wales Police Federation he took his former employer to court – and won.
In June 2008 a High Court judge ruled that the force had acted unlawfully in not giving him a fair hearing before he was kicked out.
Fighting High Court cases is not cheap – and there were other officers too who were forced out.
Then there was the estimated £100,000 of taxpayers’ money thrown down the drain keeping another of the force’s own officers under surveillance after it wrongly suspected he was faking post traumatic stress disorder following a soccer riot in which he was hit by bricks and bottles.
The force used 11 officers to spy on PC Mark Pugh, a dog handler, even filming him as he put out the rubbish at home. He took his case to the Police Medical Appeal Board which confirmed his condition was genuine and awarded him a 100 per cent disability pension.
Its judgment stated: “It is the board’s view that the surveillance tapes in themselves did not constitute any form of credible psychiatric assessment.”
Going public with his findings in September 2008, Mr Pugh said: “I feel I have been treated very badly. I was astounded when I became aware of the level of surveillance on me. I have been told that it will have cost around £100,000 of public money.”
The case was defended in the press by Dougie Woods, the then director of human resources for South Wales Police, who said the force had a “duty to manage and ultimately reduce sickness levels”. He added: “I am sure that the public of South Wales would expect us to reduce sickness of officers and staff so that we continue to provide a value for money service and keep our communities safe.”
But what of Mr Woods himself?
Formerly a HR director at food manufacturers Coldwater Seafoods, Mr Woods took the £78,000-a-year police job early in 2007. However, in October 2008, he resigned suddenly after only 18 months.
Mr Woods was the third director of human resources with South Wales Police to be suspended from duty and then either resign or be dismissed within the space of a couple of years.
The South Wales Evening Post noted upon his departure: “Since he took the post he has been responsible for trying to save £11 million of force money over three years, regardless of the recent losses the force suffered due to the Icelandic banks collapse. His cuts have included retiring officers who have served on the beat for 30 years or more, as well as replacing officers who provide ‘back room’ tasks with civilians at cheaper cost.”
Disputes with its own staff aside, the force has also had to stump up a fortune for wrongful arrests. Plaid Cymru AM Leanne Wood discovered last year that during the previous two years South Wales Police had paid out £556,700 in compensation for wrongful arrests and other civil claims.
The pay-outs, which related to claims stretching back to 1997, dwarfed those made by the three other Welsh forces.
“It is a matter of concern that large sums of public money have been paid out by South Wales Police to resolve claims made by members of the public,” the AM noted.
Plenty of areas, then, for what organisations these days like to call efficiency savings.

Questions over opposition to inquiry

Cardiff Lib Dem councillors have reportedly added their support to the longstanding campaign for an inquiry into a number of miscarriages of justice in South Wales.
But the latest campaign calls – sparked by Plaid Cymru councillor Neil McEvoy – have caused a row.
If Cardiff council agrees to back the public inquiry then, as the South Wales Echo reports, it would force the city’s two representatives on the South Wales Police Authority into an embarrassing position.
Jacqui Gasson, the Caerau Liberal Democrat councillor who is Cardiff’s longest serving representative on the police authority, is said to be “furious” and is particularly concerned about an inquiry’s costs.
“This smacks of old Labour,” she told the South Wales Echo. “I will not be mandated to do anything. I want to know what the public thinks. Would the public agree for their policing suffering to pay for a public inquiry that should have been held more than 10 years ago?
“I agree in principle with what Neil wants but this should have been done 10 years ago and not at a cost to the police authority purse.”
Coun Gasson’s statement raises two points.
Firstly, the campaigners have indeed been calling for an inquiry for the last decade. Michael O’Brien, of the Cardiff Newsagent Three, for instance, did so on the steps of the Court of Appeal in December 1998 – virtually 10 years to the day. His voice joined those of South Wales Liberty (now South Wales Against Wrongful Conviction) and fellow miscarriage victims Jonathan Jones and Annette Hewins.
Should those who suffered the miscarriages and the families of those who lost loved ones in the unsolved crimes be denied answers simply because the police and politicians keep batting the issue into the long grass?
Secondly, we don’t have to go back 10 years to find a dedicated and experienced councillor, and a member of the South Wales Police Authority, saying she was “embarrassed and uncomfortable” about the oppressive actions of some officers in the cases.
She said she had been “horrified” at the appeal court judges’ comments in the Newsagent Three case, for instance, and added: “I am one of those people who believes the police cannot investigate themselves and because of the number of cases here I support a public inquiry.”
The councillor was speaking at a cross-party press conference in Cardiff in July 2002, and was reported in the South Wales Echo.
The councillor’s name? Jacqui Gasson.
Maybe Coun Gasson should go back to seeing this as a matter of principle. One of her roles as a police authority member, after all, is to ensure the force is “effective, efficient and accountable to the public”.
Coun McEvoy says of his motion on the inquiry: “Even if we aren’t successful in forcing a public inquiry, it is important that the capital city of Wales is saying what went on is unacceptable.”

DNA database ruling

The storage of innocent people’s DNA by the UK government “could not be regarded as necessary in a democratic society”, according to the European Court of Human Rights.
Court judges made the comment as they ruled that two British men should not have had their DNA and fingerprints retained by police.
The men’s information was held by South Yorkshire Police, although neither was convicted of any offence.
The judgment is likely to have major implications on how DNA records are stored in the UK national database.
The details of about 4.5 million people are held and one in five of them does not have a criminal record.
Under present laws, the DNA profiles of everyone arrested for a recordable offence in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are kept on the database, regardless of whether they are charged or convicted.
The European court found that the police’s actions in the case of the two men were in violation of Article 8 – the right to respect for private and family life – of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The judges ruled the retention of their DNA “failed to strike a fair balance between the competing public and private interests,” and that the UK government “had overstepped any acceptable margin of appreciation in this regard”.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said: “The government mounted a robust defence before the court and I strongly believe DNA and fingerprints play an invaluable role in fighting crime and bringing people to justice.
“The existing law will remain in place while we carefully consider the judgment.”
Phil Booth, of the NO2ID group, which campaigns against identity cards, said: “This is a victory for liberty and privacy.
“Though these judgments are always complicated and slow in coming, it is a vindication of what privacy campaigners have said all along.
“The principle that we need to follow is simple – when charges are dropped suspect samples are destroyed. No charge, no DNA.”
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics reports on the ethical questions raised by recent advances in biological and medical research.
Its director, Hugh Whittall, said: “We agree wholeheartedly with this ruling. The DNA of innocent people should not be kept by police.
“People feel it is an invasion of their privacy, and there is no evidence that removing from the DNA database people who have not been charged or convicted will lead to serious crimes going undetected.
“The government now has an obligation to bring its own policies into line.”
Plaid Cymru AM Leanne Wood said the ruling “should signal the start of a process whereby the police should destroy DNA and fingerprints of all those who have not been convicted”.
“We are living that people living in a so called democratic society yet these two men had to take their case to a European Court to defend their human rights,” she said.
“This decision comes just before the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the December 10. Now more than ever we must be vigilant about our rights. This case shows why we must remain vigilant about our rights.”

Celebrating personal growth

Who couldn’t enjoy Western Mail’s ‘Fast Growth 50’, its magazine round-up of the most successful companies in Wales?
Certainly not Professor Dylan Jones-Evans, academic, Western Mail business guru, creator of the ‘Fast Growth 50’ programme and, yes, blogger.
A full-page of the 34-page magazine is devoted to a celebration of this “passionate champion who is ahead of his time”.
He’s a man of many talents, there is no denying. After all, who was the editor of ‘Fast Growth 50’?
Why, none other than Professor Dylan Jones-Evans!

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