Fresh fears are raised today about the way schools are protecting teachers and pupils from potentially-deadly exposure to asbestos.
The leading authority on asbestos, the Asbestos Training and Consultancy Association, took a snapshot of 16 UK schools and found that none was meeting health and safety rules on managing the substance.
It reports: “All of the schools inspected contained asbestos with the majority being of an age and type that would be expected to contain considerable amounts.
“None of the sixteen schools were found to be fully compliant with HSE guidance and only four could be said to have an adequate standard of asbestos management. The majority had unacceptable standards which were either ineffective or unworkable and with the potential to cause a contamination or exposure incident.
“In one school the system of asbestos management was virtually non-existent despite the fact that there was a significant amount of asbestos known to be present.”
According to the chairman of ATAC John O’Sullivan: “These are not minor problems that have crept in over recent years; rather they are fundamental problems that are endemic in schools in the UK.”
And leading campaigner Michael Lees, whose wife contracted mesothelioma as a teacher and died in 2000, said: “The Government’s policy of managing asbestos in schools has failed, for this report is but further evidence of the appalling standards of asbestos managements in many schools.
“It is unacceptable that in the 21st Century a civilised society has failed to implement measures that protect the most vulnerable people in that society – our children.”
Last year What Is Wales? investigated concerns about asbestos in Welsh schools. Read the report here.
The UK Government yesterday claimed that the post mortem examination report into the death of biological weapons expert Dr David Kelly was being kept secret to protect his family.
Campaigning MP Norman Baker asked Justice Minister Michael Wills who had made the decision that medical reports and photographs connected to the death of Dr Kelly should not be closed for 70 years.
He also asked on what legal basis the decision was made.
Mr Wills told him: “No determination has been made that the medical reports and photographs connected to the death of Dr. David Kelly should be closed for 70 years.
“Rather, Lord Hutton noted in his statement on 26 January that he had requested that the post mortem examination report relating to Dr. Kelly not be disclosed for 70 years in view of the distress that could be caused to Dr. Kelly’s wife and daughters.
“The Ministry of Justice is now considering the most appropriate course of action. The options available will need to be considered carefully.”
Rhondda-born Dr Kelly became caught up in media allegations that 10 Downing Street had interfered with an intelligence report ahead of the invasion of Iraq.
On July 17, 2003, after two days of a grilling by MPs, Dr Kelly left his home in the Oxfordshire village of Southmoor and went for a walk. His body was found in woods nearby the following day. There was a knife at the scene and a cut to his left wrist.
The official line taken by the 2004 Hutton report is that Dr Kelly took his own life. But there’s still been no inquest, the usual procedure in sudden or violent deaths. A group of doctors has raised objections about Lord Hutton’s conclusions.
Last September, for a programme called Wales This Week: The Welsh Connection, I interviewed a friend of Dr Kelly’s, Welsh author and security expert Gordon Thomas.
He also disagrees with Lord Hutton.
“Twelve or thirteen doctors are saying he almost certainly was murdered,” said Thomas. “I don’t believe he committed suicide but I don’t know for certain who murdered him.”
He called for a full inquest into Dr Kelly’s death.
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office, which deals with MI5 and MI6, told me at the time it was “long-standing government policy not to comment on intelligence issues”.
The NHS in Wales is to come under the scrutiny of management consultants McKinsey and Co, it was revealed today.
This is the same company which early this year was employed by the UK government to find out what changes could be made to the NHS in England.
McKinsey and Co recommended slashing 137,000 jobs in England – a suggestion that was then rejected out-right by the UK Health Minister Mike O’Brien.
WAG stresses that the terms of reference agreed with McKinsey and Co “states that there will be no compulsory redundancies.”
The health union Unison today said WAG’s deal with McKinsey and Co – which has been asked to develop a five-year “strategic plan” for the Welsh NHS – is a complete waste of money.
But how much money will be spent on the consultants exactly?
When the English NHS report turned out to be useless, the UK government refused to say how much it had paid the firm.
“It was part of existing work that McKinsey was doing for the department,” a Department of Health spokesman said at the time. “There isn’t a breakdown of the individual cost of the report.”
Will the Welsh Assembly Government be more forthcoming?
While it expects “the cost of hiring McKinsey to be outweighed by the efficiency gains we will realise over the next five years”, it won’t say how much it is costing.
“Due to commercial sensitivity, we are unable to provide details of the value of the contract,” a WAG spokesperson told me.
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.
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.
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.
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.