Government rejects recommendation to set a 40-year deadline for asbestos removals from public buildings
The UK Government has refused a recommendation by the Work and Pensions Committee that policymakers commit to ensuring the removal of all asbestos from non-domestic buildings no later than 40 years from now.
What did the committee suggest should happen?
In April 2022, the House of Commons committee published its report entitled The Health and Safety Executive’s approach to asbestos management, in which it proposed that the government and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) put together and publish a strategic plan geared towards removing asbestos from non-domestic buildings with a deadline of 2062.
The select committee also said that policymakers should prioritise the removal of the highest-risk asbestos, including in schools.
It was suggested by the select committee that the government and HSE could begin the process by working on improving the evidence base for the safe removal and disposal of the potentially lethal substance, bearing in mind the relative costs and benefits.
Alongside this, the report stated that policymakers should integrate such measures with government proposals to upgrade the built environment linked to ‘net zero’ aspirations and wider strategies for waste management.
How did the government respond to the committee’s suggestions?
The government put forward its response to the House of Commons committee’s report on 21st July. In it, ministers said that “moving to a fixed deadline for removal would increase the opportunity for exposure which remains difficult to support if the current risk of exposure is very low where asbestos can be managed safely in-situ until planned refurbishment works”.
The government further argued that many public estates would face significant disruption if a deadline for asbestos removal was imposed outside existing estate strategies.
The response further read: “There also remains a concern that introducing a deadline would stimulate poor removal and disposal practices with a further risk of increase in asbestos exposures”.
Risk of asbestos exposure “likely to increase anyway”
Responding to the government’s verdict on the select committee’s report, Stephen Timms MP – who also chairs the committee – said: “The government argues that fixing a deadline for asbestos removal would increase the opportunity for exposure, but the risk is likely to increase anyway with the drive towards retrofitting of buildings to meet net zero aspirations”.
The Labour MP for East Ham continued: “This [the government’s] strategy should prioritise the highest-risk buildings and urgently boost the evidence base for the safe removal and disposal of a material that is still the single greatest cause of work-related fatalities in the country.”
However, the government said in its response that there was already a “mature and comprehensive plan” in place to manage legacy asbestos risks in Great Britain, as set out in the Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR) 2012 and the ‘duty to manage’ in regulation 4.
The government did, though, accept that it needed to take further action in order to understand the “likely rate of elimination due to current levels of asbestos removal through planned refurbishment and demolition”.
Also pointed out in the government’s response was that the HSE had been undertaking national modelling as part of the CAR’s Post Implementation Review (PIR), which is set for publication before the end of 2022. Although estimates were used as the basis for this, the modelling indicates that the numbers of buildings still containing asbestos will substantially decrease over the coming decades.
The occupational safety and health (OSH) regulator also intends to carry out research drawing upon digital information, in order to “more accurately define the scale and location of buildings likely to contain asbestos and this evidence can be used to inform future work and priorities”.
Also rejected by the government was a select committee recommendation that the HSE works with other parts of government on the development of a central digital register of asbestos in non-domestic buildings, describing both the location and type of the material.
The HSE provided evidence to the committee in relation to this, with such messaging then being echoed by the government, which said that a new central register would necessitate duty holders and government dedicating significant resources.
The government also said that the information provided under such a measure would duplicate existing information that duty holders were legally required to provide in accordance with the CAR 2012. Furthermore, the government stated, even with such a measure in place, there was no clear indicator that this would lower the risks of asbestos exposure.
“Management of asbestos is a complex, sensitive issue”
A HSE spokesperson said to the magazine of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH): “Management of asbestos is a complex, sensitive issue and a key priority for HSE. We welcome scrutiny, and repeat our previous thanks to the committee. We will act on any suggestions where there’s evidence doing so would be beneficial.”
Ruth Wilkinson, IOSH head of health and safety, said that the organisation of health and safety professionals had been “pleased to support the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry and we supported the recommendation for there to be an overall ‘plan’ developed by the government and HSE.”
She added, however, that with the removal of asbestos being “fraught with risks”, the organisation had urged that caution be taken “over doing this without considering research and evidence around safe removal and disposal. We requested that any options, planning and decision stages consider all hazards and risks in relation to ‘in situ’, removal, transportation and disposal.”
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