In the worst possible of ways, building safety is back on the agenda. I was horrified when I watched the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower. And it seems to tell a wider story about the long term neglect of publicly owned buildings, including our schools.
Asbestos is a subject that hits close to home for me. The J.W. Roberts factory in Armley, in my constituency, produced asbestos until it was closed down. A large area of back to back terrace housing was heavily contaminated with asbestos dust from the factory. Kids were playing in asbestos dust like it was snow. 300 former employees of J.W. Roberts have died from asbestos related illnesses. A Yorkshire Evening Post investigation in 1987 established a connection between the factory and high rates of mesothelioma in the area. Through their efforts and those of my predecessor as MP for Leeds West, John Battle, Armley was kept on the agenda.
John Battle pushed for an inquiry in Parliament but the Thatcher government rejected it on the grounds that it would cause needless concern and that no one could have imagined that the dust would harm residents. Yet, it would have been impossible for management not to have noticed the dust as they went in and out of the factory. And if they knew workers in the factory had to be protected, how could they have ignored the factory’s neighbours who lived with the dust outside?
These sort of attitudes show a need for government action and regulations. Trade unions, campaigners and support groups have done a tremendous job at raising awareness of asbestos issues. And it is important that we all continue to do so.
Yet the story of asbestos in schools is also one of complacency, neglect and turning a blind eye.
The costs of taking action is deemed to be too high. Such an attitude shows contempt for the many teachers and school staff that come into work every day to give our children the best possible education. And it completely disregards the safety of our children, who are more vulnerable to asbestos exposure.
Whilst the political choice of austerity might be a new phenomenon, asbestos and the risks it poses is not. A complete ban on asbestos use in the UK eventually came into force in 1999 under Tony Blair’s Labour government. That’s some 100 years after it was clearly recorded that asbestos had ‘evil effects’ in a HM Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops Report in 1898.
Teachers and school staff are still dying from asbestos exposure they suffered at work through no fault of their own. Statistics show that in the region of 2,500 people have died from mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure every year for many years. In reality that number is likely to be higher and it does not take into account the other asbestos related diseases that can also be fatal.
In December last year BBC Yorkshire showed that in the last 5 years there have been 99 disturbances of asbestos in schools across England. Between 2006 and 2016 there were 230 asbestos related claims in English schools, 108 of which were settled. 32 local authorities have paid over £10 million in compensation. This investigation showed that there was no uniform approach to monitoring the presence of asbestos in schools. Few parents and teachers are even aware of the presence of asbestos. And that is why raising awareness is so important.
I was pleased to see Labour’s commitment to the phased removal of asbestos in schools in our 2017 manifesto as the Asbestos in Schools group has been calling for. It was a step forward, but sadly the attitude from the Tories seems to have shifted little since John Battle first raised the Armley asbestos disaster in Parliament 30 years ago.
It could not be any clearer now that there is an undeniable problem with asbestos in schools. It’s not going to simply disappear, the lives of staff, pupils and others are being put at risk and so why is the Government continuing to ignore this issue?
Alongside a phased removal, we need centrally funded, mandatory audits in every school built before 1999, with results published or at least stored centrally.
The government’s complacent attitude is entirely wrong. Their red tape is another person’s crucial protections. The evidence is there. It now needs to be acted on.
Rachel Reeves is a GMB member and the Labour MP for Leeds West, she tweets @RachelReevesMP.