London, (Parliament Politics Magazine) – The fifth anniversary of the Grenfell tragedy has once again brought into focus the issue of building safety and the terrible human consequences that can occur when flaws in a regulatory regime are allowed to endure.
While there are still vital lessons to be learnt on fire safety, we must also be wise to other threats to health and life that persist in buildings up and down the country.
Despite being banned more than two decades ago, asbestos remains in 300,000 non-domestic buildings. It is the single greatest cause of work-related fatalities in the UK, with more than 5,000 deaths in 2019, including from cancers such as mesothelioma. (It also remains in many homes, but that topic is outside the scope of this article.)
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that the total annual cost of deaths from mesothelioma is £3.4 billion and around £3.1 billion for deaths from asbestos-related lung cancer, with most of these costs an attempt to estimate the pain, grief and suffering caused to victims and their loved ones.
While the extreme exposures of the late twentieth century are now thankfully behind us, the drive towards retrofitting of buildings to meet net zero aspirations means the risk of asbestos exposure will escalate in the coming decades. At the same time, retrofitting presents a unique opportunity to tackle the problem. A new approach is now urgently needed.
Current asbestos regulations devolve responsibility to individual building owners and maintenance managers. But this will not be good enough given the escalating risk to human health.
Our Work and Pensions Select Committee report, published earlier this year, calls on the Government to commit to a new joined-up system-wide strategy to remove all asbestos from public and commercial buildings. Ministers should set a deadline of 40 years for removal.
The Government and HSE have stated their ambition to remove all of the material. However, they have so far failed to articulate a plan or timescale to meet their goal.
They should draw up a new strategic plan, which should focus on removing the highest risk asbestos first, and early removal from the highest risk settings, including schools. There also needs to be a commitment to improving the evidence base for safe asbestos removal and disposal, taking account of relative costs and benefits.
In the meantime, the HSE must do much more to monitor compliance with the current asbestos regulations and boost enforcement. The number of asbestos enforcement notices issued annually by HSE dropped by 60% between 2011/12 and 2018/19.
Given a drop in Government funding it is not surprising that enforcement work has fallen over the past decade. However, the level of decline in asbestos enforcement is much greater than for HSE enforcement work overall. We have seen no evidence that compliance with asbestos regulations has improved dramatically during that time.
The HSE should commit to a sustained increase in inspection and enforcement activity. The Government should provide the funding to enable the increase.
As part of our inquiry we looked at how asbestos removal is handled in other countries, discovering that the direction of travel in Europe is towards tighter regulation and lower exposure limits for workers.
HSE told us that European proposals may not necessarily be grounded in the real-world experience of asbestos exposure and highlighted the problem of asbestos being so widespread in Great Britain.
An asbestos regulatory policy which prioritises only that which is immediately practical, means risking tolerating poorer health standards and higher costs in the longer-term. HSE should thoroughly assess the move towards more stringent asbestos occupational exposure limits in Europe.
The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work Chloe Smith told our inquiry that the Government has a ‘clearly stated goal’ that ‘it is right to over time and in the safest way to work towards there no longer being asbestos in non-domestic buildings’.
Now is the moment for action. The time for a laissez-faire approach is over. Setting a clear deadline for the removal of asbestos will help to focus minds. The clock is ticking. Government and HSE must act.
Rt Hon Sir Stephen Timms MP
Chair, Work and Pensions Select Committee