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Houses of Parliament to sit empty for 6 years after asbestos scare

09 September 2016

A senior parliamentary committee is to recommend that all MPs and peers vacate both of the Houses of Parliament for as long as six years to allow for urgent repairs.

Asbestos FibresIn a report due to be released, the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster is expected to conclude that MPs should be relocated to the Department of Health’s building, while peers are to work in the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre.

This follows a report from last year that 9 out of 10 schools in the UK still contain asbestos – but the policy for asbestos found in school buildings is to keep it undisturbed.

Riddled with asbestos

It was reported in 2008, and was known internally long before then, that the Houses of Parliament, specifically the service shafts and corridors within, were riddled with the deadly material asbestos.

A study into the condition of the Palace of Westminster uncovered potentially fatal fire hazards, large quantities of brown asbestos (amosite – one of the more dangerous forms of the potentially carcinogenic material) and leaking pipes.

houses_parliament_nw080609_2A detailed investigation of the service shafts behind the committee rooms and chambers had warned of “significant dangers” to “all persons”. The study of the investigation was released in early 2008, and documented fears that risks were not being adequately addressed.

One of the main problems was found to be an access door to an asbestos-contaminated shaft besides the Commons’ kitchen that was wedged shut with a spoon and was often opened when the room became too hot.

“On opening this door, cold air rushed in and it was like standing in a wind tunnel,” the report states. “Asbestos fibres would be readily dispersed in the kitchen areas if the dust and debris was disturbed in the riser in any way.”

The team who inspected the shaft at the time only entered while wearing protective clothing and breathing masks to protect them from the asbestos dust and fibres. Unsecured access doors were regularly discovered, and an email, dated October 2007, suggests that there was a rising frustration among the consultants.

One had said: “In view of the fact that in December 2006 I issued a report on the risers [service shafts] warning of the consequences of riser access doors being unlocked and unsealed, the Palace of Westminster authorities may wish to consider whether or not they have taken adequate steps to protect employees and visitors from exposure to asbestos fibres in accordance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.”

1415118556250_wps_42Of 20 samples which were taken during a survey in August 2007 from four different service shafts, eleven showed the presence of amosite in debris on the floor and walls.

As a result from those inspections, the report says: “We became aware of the significant dangers and risks to the health and safety of persons not only gaining access and working in the risers and ducts but generally to all persons within the Palace of Westminster.”

In an earlier draft of the report, dated December 2006, it was said that many of the shafts had “airborne asbestos fibres present” and – because inadequately secured – “there is a serious risk of asbestos contamination of many areas and offices.”

Leaking roofs and rotting stonework

Parts of the Palace of Westminster are so riddled with asbestos, frail stonework and aging electrics and wiring, it has been said that the Grade I-listed building would be knocked down if it was not protected.

“The roofs are leaking. The stonework is rotting. We need to do a great deal more in fire compartmentation,” according to Lord Lisvane, formerly the most senior Commons official.

Some of the restoration committee’s members were sceptical of the need for a total relocation at first, rather than have the repairs set out in stages to allow some of the members to remain in situ.

asbestos-warning-signsAfter more than a year touring the crumbling parts of the building and interviewing experts, a source close to the committee has said that the weight of the evidence has swayed the sceptics to the urgent need of action.

Members of both of the Houses of Parliament are expected to vote after they study and assimilate the committee’s most recent report.

It is estimated that a 6 year restoration of the entire building would cost between £3billion and £4.3billion. However, if the vote took the decision to spread the repairs to allow members to sit in situ, it would take an estimated 32 years and could cost as much as £7.1billion.

It has been reported that the Prime Minister is in favour of the move, meaning that the parliamentary vote would be likely to pass.

Asbestos still present in 9 out of 10 schools in the UK

It is well known that asbestos is present in the majority of building within the UK – especially in those built before the late 90s when asbestos was eventually banned in construction in the UK.

What is less known, however, is the fact that asbestos is present in 9 out of 10 schools in the UK. A worrying report made by the Lancashire Evening Post in March 2015 found that at least 570 schools in central Lancashire alone still contained asbestos.

The national health and safety officer Ian Watkinson stated that the figures show “a scandal on a local and national scale.

“Parents don’t know, nor do teachers, and most of [the asbestos]  is not being managed properly. Children, teachers and other school workers are being needlessly exposed to deadly asbestos fibres on a daily basis.”

The national policy towards asbestos in schools is to leave it as it is unless it becomes a problem. The Health and Safety Executive have said that asbestos is “here, it’s endemic, it’s under control and if we monitor it it’s the safest policy.”

Removing all of the asbestos from school buildings would likely cost billions of pounds, but many people believe that a more rigorous approach should be taken to remove it, especially from our school buildings.

Jan Garvey, from the National Asbestos Helpline, has said: “The likely decision for the removal of asbestos from the Houses of Parliament does come as good news, as it helps to raise the awareness of this dangerous substance. However, it does show that there is still a lack of knowledge by some MPs towards the lack of action being taken towards asbestos in the majority of our schools.

“It is disappointing that they are taking these precautionary measures for themselves, but are refusing to acknowledge the basic health and safety needs for thousands of school children and teachers across the UK.

“At the National Asbestos Helpline, we have already had to help several teachers and ex-pupils who have been exposed to asbestos dust and fibres during their time in affected school buildings. Sadly, some of these people have gone on to develop asbestos-related health conditions such as pleural thickening, asbestosis and even mesothelioma – a terminal cancer which affects the lining of the lungs.”

It has been found that at least 224 teachers have died from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma between 2003 and 2012 alone, and the figure for other asbestos related deaths in teachers and school workers could be much, much higher.

Further reading

What is asbestos?

What is mesothelioma?

House of Lords’ mesothelioma debate: Why is funding for mesothelioma research so low?

Asbestos still present in 9 out of 10 schools in the UK


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