Asbestos (National Register)

– in the House of Commons at 1:09 pm on 13 September 2023.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons), Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons) 1:10, 13 September 2023

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a national register of asbestos present in non-domestic premises and of the condition of that asbestos;
and for connected purposes.

May I begin by thanking Mesothelioma UK for all the fantastic work it does to support those living with the asbestos-related cancer? As well as providing access to mesothelioma clinical nurse specialists across the UK, that charity offers a range of support services and dedicated research to help patients live better and longer lives. I found its work invaluable a few years ago in this place, when my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch and I were trying to get the Government into the sensible and correct place on the issue of compensation.

I represent an area with many former steelworkers, power station workers, dockers and a few miners, so respiratory industrial disease is an issue that I know well, including from my close family. Increasingly, the disease is not restricted to roles that involved directly installing material with asbestos; it also affects those who work in buildings with asbestos, such as teachers. Indeed, teachers are more likely to die from mesothelioma than the general public—sadly, I have heard examples of that from my constituents. A 2019 Government survey found that 80.9% of participating schools had asbestos on their estate, and although most had a plan for dealing with it, that figure speaks for itself.

I thank in particular my hon. Friend Jane Hunt, who, apart from being an excellent champion for her constituents, has done incredible work leading up to this 10-minute rule motion, including her recent Westminster Hall debate on asbestos in the workplace.

As most people will be aware, asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was used extensively in buildings in the UK and around the world between the 1950s and 1980s. It can be found in ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, flooring, textured paint and boilers, and it is often mixed with other materials, which makes determining its presence even more complex. In fact, asbestos is one of three materials considered so hazardous that they require their own regulations, the others being radiation and lead. Lead and radiation are tightly controlled, and although there has been a lot of work over the years to tighten regulations on asbestos—and, indeed, to ban it—many would say that it remains the poor relation of the three materials in public policy terms.

The scale of the problem cannot be underestimated. The Health and Safety Executive has said that between 210,000 and 400,000 buildings in the UK contain asbestos. Other estimates suggest 6 million tonnes of asbestos are spread across 1.5 million buildings in this country. Asbestos is, of course, the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK. HSE estimates that more than 5,000 people die from asbestos-related cancers each year, of whom half die from mesothelioma.

Governments of both sides have sought to address that issue. We have had bans on import, use, manufacture and supply. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 provide a framework for working with asbestos in non-domestic premises. The regulations are welcome, as they place a requirement on a duty holder to assess the presence, condition and exposure risk of asbestos in non-domestic premises. The duty holder is required to maintain an up-to-date register and share it with anyone who may be at risk of exposure or of disturbing asbestos-containing materials.

However, as welcome as those regulations and other interventions may be, there remain too many new mesothelioma cases in the UK, and there is a clear trend of rising cases among those who have worked in buildings with asbestos, rather than among those who worked directly with asbestos products and materials. A report by Alpha Tracker on the condition of asbestos in schools, hospitals and homes found that more than half of 1.3 million samples found to contain the material were already damaged; that 20% of asbestos-containing materials in hospitals and healthcare settings had high damage; and that 55% of asbestos in schools was in poor condition. We must therefore ask if the current approach is working and sufficient.

The UK National Asbestos Register, a new social enterprise established to help management and duty holders to manage the material, has identified five common failings in the current system. First, there are communication failures. Contractors rarely see an asbestos register, or records are mislaid or difficult to access. A contractor undertaking what seem like minor works, for example, may be unaware there are ACMs in that building and that they might disturb them.

Secondly, information is provided in a format that is difficult to understand, poorly arranged or too lengthy, meaning that documents are often incomprehensible. Thirdly, registers are not updated as work is undertaken, meaning that information is out of date, or the information is held on different databases. As contractors change, information can be lost.

Fourthly, the current system often results in there being no evidence of compliance or confirmation that any register has been accessed and read by a contractor or anybody undertaking works. Fifthly, although asbestos registers contain the same basic data, they are arranged in different formats, which makes them more difficult to understand. Andrew Paten, one of the founders of the UK National Asbestos Register, says:

“A standard, common format would allow everyone to become familiar with them and competent in their use, regardless of the property.”

As highlighted in the Work and Pensions Committee’s “The Health and Safety Executive’s approach to asbestos management” report, and in Mesothelioma UK’s “Don’t Let the Dust Settle” campaign, the introduction of a national asbestos register would go a long way towards solving those issues, and is necessary if the management-in-situ approach of recent decades, which makes good sense in many ways, as opposed to blanket removal, is to be maintained. I believe that a national register of the type proposed is absolutely crucial.

I recognise that questions and concerns will be raised about how such a national register would operate. It would bring together all the existing information on buildings with ACMs into one coherent database—as I have said, it is currently piecemeal and fragmented—not only making it easier for duty holders to record and maintain information about asbestos in their buildings, but making the information more easily accessible for those who require it.

There would be wider benefits to a national register. It would help to support a longer-term strategic approach to managing asbestos. If we have learned one thing in recent weeks in respect of concrete, it is that access to information and clear data is absolutely necessary when managing any risk in a building accessed by the public.

Furthermore, a national register would increase public awareness of the harmful effects of asbestosis, something that Mesothelioma UK believes is crucial to protecting future generations and for better treatment and care for those who suffer from asbestos-related conditions. Such a register would also ensure that the Health and Safety Executive could use that database to better target and improve its own enforcement efforts in this area. As I have said, recent issues with school building conditions in relation to concrete have shown us that we need to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to managing risks of this kind.

At the moment, there is no simple and cost-effective way to reverse our legacy of using these materials in non-residential buildings, but we cannot ignore the fact that we have a growing number of mesothelioma cases among those who have worked not just with, but within, buildings that contain those materials. That is why better asbestos management is needed, and a national register is key to providing that.

Question put and agreed to.


That Andrew Percy, Jane Hunt, Tracey Crouch, Sir Stephen Timms, Martin Docherty-Hughes, Ian Lavery, Holly Mumby-Croft and Ben Lake present the Bill.

Andrew Percy accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 November, and to be printed (Bill 354).