Martin spoke in the Westminster Hall debate on ‘Asbestos in Workplaces’ (19 April 2023). Here is an extract of the debate transcribed via Hansard:
Jane Hunt MP (Con, Loughborough): A freedom of information request to the Department for Education last year found that nearly 81% of schools reported that asbestos was present in their buildings. The responses to my survey indicate that schools are one of the hotspots for asbestos exposure, with one response stating:
“My lovely mum was a primary school teacher, who taught children with special educational needs. She was 64 when diagnosed with Mesothelioma, and 67 when she died…After investigations, she was asked if she’d ever worked with asbestos. She said no. It was an odd question as she was a teacher. Then we found out that asbestos is still present in UK schools today.”
Martin Docherty-Hughes MP (SNP, West Dunbartonshire): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this very important debate. Does she consider the idea of forcing educationalists—whether they are teachers or lecturers—to sign non-disclosure agreements about not discussing asbestos in their establishments on leaving their institutions to be an affront, and does she agree that it should end?
Jane Hunt MP (Con, Loughborough): I was not aware of that. Perhaps I could put that to the Minister for a response. If she cannot give one, I will try to get an answer from the Department for Education.
Another response to my survey stated:
“My husband was diagnosed in October 2012 with Mesothelioma at the age of 34…It changed our lives forever! We do not know exactly how or where he was exposed to asbestos but, from research, we believe he either had secondary exposure from his father bringing it home on his clothes from his place of work, or he could have been directly exposed in the schools he attended which all still contain asbestos to this day.”
A separate information request to the NHS found that more than 90% of hospital buildings contained asbestos. Hospitals were identified as another hotspot for exposure in my survey, with one response stating:
“Before her 40th birthday my wife was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, a mother of 3, who for her whole life worked as an NHS Nurse. She was studying and working in what you would expect to be a safe environment.”
A further freedom of information request to 20 local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales from the law firm Irwin Mitchell revealed that 4,533 public buildings still contain asbestos. That averages to around 225 buildings per local authority. Irwin Mitchell estimates that if the data provided is repeated around the country, about 87,000 public buildings contain asbestos.
Asbestos exposure is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with the HSE estimating that more than 5,000 people die from asbestos-related cancers every year. More than half of those deaths are from mesothelioma, a type of cancer that can occur on the lining of the lung or the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract. Shockingly, according to the HSE, the UK has the highest rate of mesothelioma deaths per capita in the world.
Mesothelioma is not typically detected in the early stages of the disease, as it has a long latency period of 15 to 45 years, with some prolonged cases of 60 years before symptoms show. Therefore, once diagnosed, it is often advanced, so up to 60% of patients die in the first year after diagnosis, with just over five in 100 surviving for five years or more.
Furthermore, while historically, men working in building-related activities as well as other heavy industries such as shipbuilding were the most likely people to develop asbestos-related diseases, we are now seeing a trend of younger people, both men and women, dying as a result of exposure. As Irwin Mitchell highlighted, over the past 20 years, an increasing number of people have developed asbestos-related illnesses from more indirect sources.
Martin Docherty-Hughes MP (SNP, West Dunbartonshire): The historical legacy of asbestos in heavy industry is well documented, but does the hon. Lady share my concerns and those of the Clydebank Asbestos Group in my constituency about the increasing number of women being diagnosed with asbestos-related conditions, critically reflecting the reality of women’s exposure and a failure to recognise the many types of asbestos-related conditions, which can also include ovarian cancer?
Jane Hunt MP (Con, Loughborough): I was not aware of the ovarian cancer element. However, I was going to mention family members washing work clothes covered in asbestos dust and that kind of thing, or non-industrial exposure. This is greatly concerning.
I will take this opportunity to share a few extracts from a statement provided to me by one of my constituents, whose husband died from mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos:
“[My husband] at first did not show much reaction when he was diagnosed. All he really wanted was to find out what could be done to help him. He felt angry later that it could have been prevented. [My husband] was very matter of fact that all he could do now was fight it and try to survive as long as possible.
I felt absolute terror, I felt extremely upset and tearful but because [my husband] was handling it so well, I kept some of my worst feelings hidden and just supported him in the way he wanted me to, but I felt an overwhelming panic that I was going to lose my wonderful husband to this devastating cancer. Something that was totally preventable.”
A number of regulations have rightly been introduced in the past 90 years to try to limit people’s exposure, including in 1999 a full ban on its import, supply and use in manufacture. The Government’s current policy reflects HSE advice, which states that, wherever possible, asbestos-containing materials should be left in situ.
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 provide the regulatory framework on working with asbestos and apply to all non-domestic premises. Under the regulations, the HSE requires duty-holders to assess whether asbestos is present in their buildings, what condition it is in and whether it gives rise to the risk of exposure. The duty-holder must then draw up a plan to manage the risk associated with asbestos. Importantly, that must include the removal of the asbestos, if it cannot be safely managed where it remains in place. Duty-holders are also legally required to remove asbestos-containing materials before major refurbishment or demolition work.
Despite those efforts, asbestos is still present in many buildings, and people are still suffering and dying from asbestos-related illnesses. We therefore need to take a look at what more we can do. I welcome the fact that the Work and Pensions Committee considered this subject as part of its 2022 report into the HSE’s approach to asbestos management. The Chair of that Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham, is here, and I thank him for his dedication to highlighting this very serious issue, and for his support and assistance with today’s debate. I am sure that he will want to speak in more detail about the findings of the Committee’s report.
Watch the debate in full here.