Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Lancaster.)
I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to raise the important issue of asbestos in schools. It is an important issue not only for the people who work in the schools but for the parents of the children who are being educated in them.
The recent report on asbestos in schools is welcome, but it is unfortunate that it was not published earlier. We have been waiting more than eight months for its publication, which was always described as imminent. None the less, it provides a useful, informed and welcome background to the debate on the effects of asbestos in schools. Much of it is based on, or responds to, the publication of a report on asbestos in schools by the all-party parliamentary occupational safety and health group, which I chair. I am sure that this report would never have been produced had it not been for the work of the all-party group, the joint union asbestos committee, the GMB and the Asbestos in Schools Group. May I particularly mention Mr Michael Lees, who lost his teacher wife to mesothelioma and has campaigned consistently since?
Let me digress slightly by referring to an exclusive report in The Independent by Andrew Grice, who interviewed the Minister. The report states:
“The Schools Minister warned that Mr Cameron’s announcement of 500 more free schools in the 2015-20 parliament was ‘a number picked out of a hat.’ He warned: ‘The Tories want to scatter 500 new schools around the country, regardless of whether they will be good quality schools or whether they are actually needed. This is a barmy way to make policy.’”
The report continued:
“He added: ‘Worse still, it would mean a £4bn raid on other budgets, consigning children and teachers to crumbling classrooms and leaving some without a school place at all. It is impossible to justify.’
Mr Laws claimed Downing Street had not wanted to go public before the election about the need to tackle asbestos in school buildings, even though it was a ‘child safety issue.’”
I would certainly appreciate it if the Minister expanded on that in his response.
The Department for Education has acknowledged that children are more at risk from asbestos exposure than adults are. That is a significant step forward; it acknowledges that asbestos in schools is an issue. It includes a call for greater transparency from schools and employers, and makes it clear that asbestos training is compulsory for teachers and supporting staff. All those who are responsible for managing asbestos will receive training. That is well overdue, given the complete lack of awareness in many schools, as outlined in the report. There is also a welcome commitment to develop air sampling.
That is all a step forward but it by no means goes far enough. More than 291 schoolteachers have died of mesothelioma since 1980. They were dying at a rate of three per year in 1980, but the number of deaths has increased each year and they are now dying at a rate of 19 a year. The report acknowledges that caretakers, cleaners, maintenance staff and children are known to be at a greater risk. However, statistics do not show how many pupils have been killed by past exposure, as people often die more than 40 years after exposure, by which time they may have worked in a wide range of jobs. Let us not forget, however, that for every teacher working in a school there are 20 to 30 children and they are more at risk.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate on a very serious issue. It is very important that we recognise that it is not only staff and support workers—the teachers and so on—but children who could contract asbestos-related diseases in school. Should we not be doing everything we can to take the right measures to reduce the incidence in children, rather than just looking across the board at teachers and staff?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and again I have to congratulate the National Union of Teachers on its assistance in dealing with this issue. The genuine concern is that we do not scare parents into believing that their children cannot go to school for fear of catching mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases, and we have tried to follow that approach through the report the TUC has drawn up. However, we say clearly in the report that action has to be taken. We also recognised that we cannot deal with this overnight and that the process has to be gradual, with gradual investment. That should start with some of the older schools being stripped of asbestos, and we could take things on gradually from there.
The review is somewhat complacent in places. It states that the Health and Safety Executive’s view is that schools overall are low-risk health and safety environments, similar to offices and retail premises. But there is a fundamental difference between offices, retail premises and schools, which is that schools contain children. The fabric of school buildings suffers considerably more disturbance and damage than most offices and retail premises. In addition, children are in the building for long periods of time and they are more vulnerable than adults to exposure to asbestos. However, most parents would not think that 4,000 to 6,000 people dying over a 20-year period as a result of attending school was low risk.
I am also surprised that the Government are unaware of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools. They have just completed a two-year survey on the condition of school buildings, which deliberately excluded asbestos. The review simply states:
“Based upon the age of the school estate, we can estimate that a majority of schools in England contain some asbestos, although the exact amount is unknown.”
That is an astonishing statement after a multi-million pound audit. If when the Government first came to office they had simply asked the local authorities, they would have found that the something like 87% of schools contained asbestos.
Although this debate is principally about schools in England, this is a UK-wide problem.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the House for consideration. In Northern Ireland, a significant number of school buildings still contain asbestos. There has been a programme to address when asbestos becomes a danger, but the fact is that asbestos that has not been disturbed or damaged is better left alone. The policy in Northern Ireland is that properly managed asbestos should not cause any health problems. Has the hon. Gentleman found that that is the case in some of the schools with which he has been involved? Sometimes the best way to address the asbestos issue is not to do anything until the school comes to the end of its life.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Experts tell us quite clearly that asbestos is safe if left alone, and I have vast experience of that in my own life. When I worked in the shipyards, asbestos could be easily identified. We were told that if it was left alone, it was comparatively safe. However, in school buildings, where people are banging doors, putting drawing pins in walls, and maintaining pipes, asbestos cannot be left undisturbed. It is important that maintenance staff are trained to identify asbestos and to know how best to treat it. If would be preferable if asbestos could be left alone, but not all schools can do that. Indeed, the banging of doors causes the stuff to circulate in the air.
As I said, asbestos is a UK-wide problem. A recent report in Scotland showed that 79% of schools contained asbestos. That was based on responses from 22 of the 33 councils. Since 2007, the number of schools in Scotland with asbestos in a poor or bad condition has fallen from 39% to 17%. That is because the Scottish Government have for many years collated data on the condition of the school estate and presented it online in a clear, understandable format that allows people to see how the measures that are in place to improve the school stock are succeeding.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities states:
“there has been significant expenditure imposed on Councils throughout Scotland through the presence of asbestos in education premises (mainly schools).”
I am reliably informed that Wales also has a major and well publicised problem with asbestos in schools.
It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that children and staff are not harmed simply by attending school. It is good to see that the Government are finally going to ensure that those who manage asbestos are trained to do so and that the guidance to schools will be updated, but unfortunately that just does not go far enough.
What are lacking are concrete proposals and a strategic vision to introduce the long-term strategies needed to eradicate asbestos from our schools. There needs to be a proper assessment across the UK of the level and condition of asbestos in the nation’s schools so that plans can be drawn up to remove the worst of it as it continues to deteriorate. Simply leaving it in place until a school is refurbished will put millions of school kids and other workers at risk.
The Government must also introduce more inspections to assess how well asbestos is being managed and spot where children are being exposed to risk. It is simply not good enough to leave it to chance, especially as a recent trial survey by the Health and Safety Executive led to a number of enforcement notices.
In conclusion, the report should be seen not as the end of the line, but simply as the launching pad for a proper, comprehensive policy aimed at ridding our schools of this killer dust once and for all. Speaking personally, I have seen far too many deaths from asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, and watching someone die from such a disease is horrendous. I remember a former workmate with the disease describe it as feeling like a tree growing inside you, eventually choking you to death. I really do not want to see our children suffering that experience in 10, 20 or 40 years’ time.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate and on chairing the all-party group on occupational safety and health. I had the honour, or otherwise, of chairing the asbestos in schools group, which has come under the umbrella of the hon. Gentleman’s all-party group, for which I am grateful. I also congratulate its lead campaigner, Michael Lees, who has received an MBE, and rightly so, for his tireless work in raising awareness and bringing about a change of heart. I think that it is quite timely to have this debate after the policy has been announced, although it might have been anticipated that the debate would be a call for that policy announcement. I think that it can be used constructively today.
I will say a little about the asbestos in schools group. It has a very wide representation, including from the teachers’ unions, independent schools, industry and local authorities that have very good practice—that has brought home to me what varying practice there currently is across the country in managing asbestos. I took on the chairmanship of the group following a very sad experience with one of my constituents, Rosie. I had known her for a long time, having met her every time I went around canvassing, and I knew that she had been a peripatetic teacher. She came into my constituency office one day and was extremely ill, and within a few months she was dead. She died of exposure to asbestos. It was incredibly sad. We know that a very high proportion of our schools—at least 75%—still have asbestos in them. We know that at least 20 teachers a year die as a result. We know from the evidence that children are more vulnerable than adults. It seemed to me that there was a real mission to try to get change. I was aware that other countries were far ahead of us and, in some cases, had had policies in place for over 30 years—a fact that is much overlooked, or perhaps people do not want to look at that issue in this country.
It had been agreed before the last general election that there would be a steering group, with representatives from the asbestos in schools group and officials from the Department for Education, but the first job after the election was to get that group agreed and reconvened, and I am pleased to say that we did so. There have been so many meetings that I have been involved in, either at the Department for Education or here in Parliament, discussing the issue that it seemed at times that we would take two steps forward and one step back.
I found it difficult sometimes to understand and respond to the approach of the Health and Safety Executive. I felt that there was a mindset that asbestos in schools was just like asbestos in any other buildings. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North described very well why that is not so. Usually in office buildings there are no young people boisterously charging around, which can obviously happen in schools. Schools are a totally different environment, and within that environment are those very vulnerable children.
At an early stage, we achieved agreement that there would be some online training. A significant breakthrough occurred when we pressed for the Department for Education to liaise with the Department of Health on the matter. The committee on carcinogenicity then commenced a study. That was quite a breakthrough—rather a sad one, which confirmed what everybody who had been campaigning knew: that children are more vulnerable than adults and therefore asbestos in schools must be addressed. At that point, the policy review was commissioned, for which I thank the Government.
I welcome the key proposals in the policy review. Greater transparency from schools and local authorities is vital. Measures to assist schools in the effective management of asbestos is extremely important, as is compulsory asbestos training for teachers and support staff. I welcome the introduction of monitoring to see how well people are doing in managing asbestos. Something that we discussed at almost every meeting was testing to provide evidence about the fibres released into the atmosphere. I welcome the study in 50 schools. Even though 50 schools sounds like a small sample, the study will cost a very large sum—hundreds of thousands of pounds, I believe. That evidence collecting will be all-important.
I remain very concerned about schools that remain outside local authority control. If the Minister has time, I would like him to say a little more about how academies are to be encouraged to participate. Parents should be concerned. Free schools can be set up in almost any building. That worries me. I would like to be reassured tonight that academies and free schools will have the same monitoring as other schools, for the sake of our children.
It is not just monitoring that free schools and academies might have to take on board, but insurance as well. Whose responsibility is it to insure against future mesothelioma or cancer-related illness linked to schools?
That matter has concerned the group greatly. Of course, we have discussed it with the union representation and there is a recommendation that academies should be encouraged to participate in a risk-protection scheme. It would be helpful to know a little more about that. The problem affects all such buildings, regardless of their governance. The worry is that with such a wide range of governance, the same protection may not be given to children throughout the system. That is my concern.
A good start has been made and I welcome the fact that after so many years we have a policy. I agree that long-term strategies are needed. We need a complete audit and I regret that the two-year property survey of the condition of school buildings excluded asbestos. I hope that will never happen again, because it did not make sense.
We have made a good start to take us into the next Parliament. I feel fairly confident that children will be better protected than they have been, and that is the crunch point. Given the size of the task, we need cross-party support as we look to a more far-ranging policy in future. I hope that, with Members speaking in all parts of the House, we are laying down a marker that this has to be a cross-party approach, but meanwhile the Government have given great leadership.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this Adjournment debate. He has been an absolutely fantastic, tireless campaigner on this issue. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on the work that she has been doing through her chairmanship of the asbestos in schools group, which has been incredibly important. I join them both in paying tribute to Michael Lees, a gentleman whom I have met and engaged with on many occasions regarding mesothelioma in particular. His campaigns have opened my eyes to the extent to which we should be concerned about asbestos in schools.
I welcome the recent report and agree with the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole that it demonstrates real leadership. It would have been helpful to have had the report a little while ago, as it is now too close to Dissolution for us properly to think through what we can do in taking it forward, but it is nevertheless welcome.
This issue is incredibly important to me because mesothelioma is a disease—a condition—that affects my constituency owing to its dockyard history. It is what is known as a mesothelioma hotspot. The disease is not just centred on traditional workers who have lagged ships or been involved in heavy industries in the past. I have spoken about mesothelioma on many occasions in the House. It is important to remember that it can be contracted by exposure to a single fibre of asbestos. Teachers and others who work in educational establishments are beginning to contract mesothelioma later on in life, because just putting a single pin in a wall can disrupt the asbestos there and lead to their exposure to it, and then, significantly, to their contracting this fatal cancer.
We need to remember that, sadly, most people die of this cancer very quickly and very painfully. It is wonderful that there are meso victims out there who are real champions and stalwarts who have fought this disease for many years, but most people die very quickly, and often without any kind of financial security whatsoever. This Government have gone a very long way towards making sure that people are compensated properly for mesothelioma as a consequence of exposure to asbestos. However, that compensation might not necessarily extend to asbestos in schools. I will return to that shortly.
I should like to say very firmly and categorically that the increased funding going into the schools capital programme is welcome. Some of my local schools have benefited from that increased funding; some have not. One particular school springs to mind whose sports hall is completely out of bounds because it is riddled with asbestos. It has applied for previous rounds of capital funding to try to deal with this but has not been successful. I shall continue to support it in future rounds to try to ensure that it can get its sports hall back into use.
One of the issues that I am particularly concerned about—the right hon. Lady raised it briefly—is the number of schools that are not under local education authority control. I am a huge supporter of our academy and free schools programmes, but they do create a bit of uncertainty when talking specifically about asbestos.
I worked in the insurance industry before I first entered the House. I campaigned very much on mesothelioma within the industry and I forewarned it that I would continue to do so as a Member of Parliament, so it is no surprise that I have maintained that position on various pieces of legislation that have been introduced. I am worried about future claims. Some schools will of course fall within public liability insurance categories, but as the right hon. Lady has just pointed out, thousands of schools have not yet signed up to the risk protection arrangement scheme. Their future liabilities may not therefore be assigned to an insurance policy, and a significant number of teachers or children exposed to asbestos might not necessarily get the compensation that they deserve. We have to remember that mesothelioma can be contracted only by exposure to asbestos—there is no other way of getting it—so people deserve compensation.
I would say very firmly that the Minister cannot do this by himself; there needs to be joined-up thinking and working with the Department for Work and Pensions on compensation issues. As I have said, under the Mesothelioma Act 2014, it has secured compensation for those who were unable to find their insurers, but schools do not fit within that programme at the moment, so there may well be room for improving it in future and for the Department of Health—particularly the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who has responsibility for life sciences—funding research on mesothelioma. Meso is a very nasty and painful cancer, so ensuring that we come up with a cure or treatment would benefit many thousands of people each year.
It might not sound like a lot for the teaching profession, but more people die of mesothelioma every year than from road deaths in the United Kingdom. Without doubt, the coming years will see an increase in the number of people who have worked in educational establishments contracting mesothelioma because of the condition’s latency. That is why I congratulate the Minister on the strategy and on the improvements in capital funding, but we need to continue to fight and to do as much as possible. Everybody realises that we do not have the money completely to rebuild all the schools that contain asbestos in this country, but we must try the best we can to mitigate the effects of that asbestos. I congratulate the Minister on what he has done, but will he please do the extra little bit more, particularly in working with other Departments and agencies and in listening to the groups chaired by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole?
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan)for securing this debate and for giving us an opportunity to discuss an extremely important and, with the publication at the end of last week of the Department’s review of policy on asbestos, timely issue. I thank him for his significant contribution as a member of the Department for Education’s asbestos in schools steering group, and for his chairmanship of the all-party group on occupational safety and health.
The asbestos in schools steering group has done invaluable work in developing the review of asbestos management in schools. I thank all its members for their insights and dedication, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has been a doughty campaigner on the issue for many years and who has chaired the steering group. I am particularly delighted that we have been able to bring this matter to a conclusion and to publish the review before the end of her time in Parliament, given her retirement in a couple of weeks’ time. I know that she would not have forgiven me if I had failed to get the review out in time. I am pleased for her that she has had the satisfaction of seeing all her work produce a positive outcome.
As my right hon. Friend mentioned, with the general election coming up, it is important that there is cross-party support for this campaign. It is therefore appropriate that as well as hearing speeches from a Labour Member and my right hon. Friend on the Liberal Democrat Benches, we have heard from another long-standing campaigner on the issue of asbestos in my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). I welcome her comments and pay tribute to the work that she has done to champion this issue nationally and in her constituency. There are a number of issues, even in the review that we have published, that need to be taken forward actively in the next Parliament. It is therefore important that the cross-party consensus remains and that there are Members of the House who will continue to push the matter forward with Ministers in the new Government.
I join other hon. Members in recognising the campaigning of people outside the House, including Michael Lees, who has been mentioned by everyone who has spoken. He has been a great champion outside this place for ensuring that the issue of asbestos is taken seriously.
For my Department, nothing is more important than the health and safety of children and staff while they are in our schools. The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that those who are responsible for school buildings are equipped with the resources, information, guidance and support that they need to do their jobs effectively. I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the measures that we are taking to ensure the safety of our schools, as part of our extensive efforts to improve the condition of the school estate.
As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North mentioned, last week we published a review of the Department for Education’s policy on the management of asbestos in schools As well as considering the available evidence, we invited stakeholders to tell us their views about the existing arrangements for managing asbestos in schools and how they thought we could help schools to manage asbestos effectively.
Based on the age of the school estate, we estimate that a majority of schools in England contain some asbestos. That is because asbestos was widely used in the construction of buildings in Britain, particularly between 1945 and 1975. The same is true of many non-school and non-education buildings that were constructed in that period, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware.
If asbestos is damaged or disturbed and fibres are released, they can cause serious diseases including mesothelioma, which is a form of cancer. The hon. Gentleman explained in vivid and striking terms the effect that that dreadful illness can have on people. I am sure that the House will agree that any single case of such a disease, from any cause, is a tragedy, and that we must all do what we can to minimise the risks.
The expert scientific view, which the Department obviously has to follow, is that asbestos can be managed effectively so that it does not pose a risk. Indeed, the national regulator of asbestos management, the Health and Safety Executive, upon whose expert opinion the Government base their policy and practice, advises that provided that asbestos-containing materials remain undamaged, it is often safest to manage them in situ. The experts say that effective management is often safer than removing asbestos-containing materials, because removal can greatly increase the risk that asbestos fibres will be released into the air and there is a risk that small quantities of damaged asbestos will remain after removal.
The Government are determined to do whatever we can to ensure that all those who are responsible for the safe management of schools, whether they are local authorities, academy trusts or free school trusts—I entirely agree with the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole made about such schools—governing bodies or school staff themselves, have the information, understanding, guidance and resources that they need to keep our schools, and all those who learn and work in them, safe from any risk of harm.
That is why we updated the regulations in 2012 to ensure the safe management of asbestos. It is why we have invested £5.6 billion over the Parliament in ensuring that schools and those responsible for their buildings have the funding that they need to improve their condition, ensure the safe management of asbestos and fund its removal where that is necessary. It is one of the reasons why we have introduced multi-year allocations for maintenance: we recently announced £4.2 billion of funding over the next three years, we are reforming our approach to target more effectively areas with the most need, and we are introducing multi-year funding to give those who are responsible the certainty that they need to plan ahead and manage their buildings effectively. It is why we have established the condition improvement fund, to enable academies in small trusts and sixth-form colleges to bid for funding to help with specific maintenance projects, including asbestos management or removal. Before the end of this Parliament we expect to announce another round of allocations to academies and sixth-form colleges, which in many cases will include asbestos as part of the works to be completed.
Our Priority School Building programme is removing asbestos wherever appropriate, as part of rebuilding some of the worst school buildings in the country, and the Government have long provided information and guidance on the safe management of asbestos. We undertook to review whether we could do more to tackle barriers to the safe and effective management of asbestos in all our schools, and I am grateful to all those who contributed to the review.
In the past, the issue of mesothelioma has been bogged down with missing companies and insurance companies, and we cannot have the same problem for potential claims for mesothelioma in schools in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time. Will the Minister clarify the position on insurance for free schools, academies, and those education centres outside local authority control?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, that issue was not directly part of the review we published last week, so if he will allow me I will write to him before the Dissolution of Parliament to set out our thinking on those points. If he wants to make further representation on that issue directly to the Department—notwithstanding that we have only a short period before end of this Parliament—I would be pleased to receive it.
I pay tribute to the all-party occupational safety and health group, the committee on carcinogenicity, and members of our Department’s asbestos in schools steering group. I am grateful to all those who submitted evidence to the review, and to the many Members of the House who have taken a keen interest in this issue. I pay tribute to our excellent officials in the Department for Education. They have liaised directly with hon. Members on this matter, advised Ministers, and done all the really hard work on the review and the detail of the proposals.
The review that we published last week sets out actions in the following four areas that the Government are taking forward to build on our current approach. First, a key task is to ensure that all those who have a role to play are aware of their responsibilities and understand what they need to do to manage asbestos safely. We will soon publish new, more user-friendly guidance on asbestos management in schools, and we will work with our partners to ensure that it is widely disseminated. There can be no excuse for any person with responsibility for a school building not to know how to manage asbestos safely.
Secondly—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said earlier, this is one of the most important conclusions in the review—as well as providing more guidance and support to those with responsibility for asbestos management, we must also ensure that they are held accountable and are doing their job effectively. Evidence from Health and Safety Executive inspection initiatives has demonstrated that although the majority of duty holders for schools manage their asbestos in compliance with the law, there is room for improvement. For example, an inspection initiative in schools outside local authority control during 2013-14 found that 13% of schools were not compliant with regulations and had to be served with improvement notices. Previous inspection initiatives produced similar results for other schools. In 2010-11, 17% of the schools inspected were served with improvement notices, and in 2009-10, 10% of local authorities inspected were served with improvement notices. None of the duty holders in that area should therefore have any level of complacency.
The inspection initiatives highlighted a number of common issues. Some schools were found to have no written asbestos management plan, or had documentation that had been allowed to go out of date. Other common faults were a lack of asbestos training for in-house staff likely to disturb asbestos, and poor communication with contractors and other visitors about where asbestos was located.
To tackle those issues, our review proposes new measures to increase the transparency of asbestos management and the scrutiny of those responsible for it. We are now consulting on the best way to collect information from schools on how they manage their asbestos. We propose to ask those responsible for asbestos management in schools to confirm that their schools have an up-to-date management plan. We also plan to ask them if they are carrying out regular management activities, such as implementing procedures to prevent the disturbance of asbestos and communicating with staff and visitors about the presence of asbestos in a school. Once the Department holds this information, it will be able to take appropriate action to ensure that cases of inadequate management are addressed. This will be a significant step towards improving awareness and compliance, and ensuring that the proper management of asbestos is a priority in all schools that contain it.
I underline that this is ongoing work and we will be consulting. Inevitably, that consultation will run into the period of the next Government. The next Government will therefore also have to take some key decisions, which is why momentum is very important. In response to the specific question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole, I underline that our expectations will be on all duty holders, whether local authorities, individuals schools or chains, to ensure that they are doing that job properly, and we will want to be satisfied that that is the case.
Thirdly, we want to improve the evidence base on the risks posed by asbestos in schools. The review highlights the lack of contemporary evidence about the levels of asbestos fibres present in schools. This is due partly to the limitations of existing techniques for sampling asbestos fibres in the air, but if we can design a reliable study it would be a significant step forward in our understanding of the risks and therefore how best to minimise them. We are working actively with the Health and Safety Executive to establish the feasibility and optimal design of a major new study into the background level of asbestos fibres in schools, and we expect the study to begin by 2016.
Finally, we will continue to invest in the school estate in a way that ensures asbestos can be dealt with adequately, so that over time and where appropriate we see a reduction in the number of school buildings with asbestos-containing materials. In the course of this Parliament, the Government are spending a total of nearly £18 billion on school buildings and new school places. On top of that, in February 2015 we announced a further £6.2 billion of funding to maintain and improve the condition of the school estate going into the next Parliament. Our extensive capital investment programme is targeted at those schools in the worst condition. Where appropriate, we reflect the risks posed by asbestos when making funding decisions. We give local decision makers the funding they need to prioritise asbestos-related works. By improving the condition of the school buildings in the worst condition, our capital programmes will reduce the presence of asbestos in the estate and the risks posed by the remaining asbestos.
The first phase of our Priority School Building programme is rebuilding or addressing the condition need of 261 schools in the worst state of repair. The vast majority of these schools are being rebuilt and so will have any asbestos removed when the existing buildings are demolished. The second phase of the Priority School Building programme, which we announced recently, will address condition need in a further 277 schools. We primarily used information from the property data survey to assess the scale and severity of condition need. However, we also gave applicants the opportunity to identify significant issues that would not have been identified through the property data survey, for example where the costs of safely managing asbestos are excessive and are of such significance as to affect the integrity of the building. All applications that stated that their school has a significant asbestos-related issue and provided relevant supporting documentation, were assessed by independent technical advisers. We took this assessment into account when prioritising the blocks to be included in the programme. All successful blocks within Priority School Building programme 2 will have asbestos issues dealt with appropriately, whether they were raised as a specific concern in the application process or not, because we might discover some of these issues when we go on-site.
We also directly fund the maintenance and improvement of academies and sixth-form colleges through the academies capital maintenance fund and the building condition improvement fund for sixth-form colleges, which are now being combined into the new condition improvement fund. A number of these schemes involve the removal of asbestos—for example, where an academy is replacing its boilers and pipework—and we also allow academies and sixth-form colleges to bid to this fund where they have significant asbestos that is proving difficult to manage.
Asbestos can be managed effectively—and is being managed effectively in the vast majority of schools. The review we published last week is just the latest step in these ongoing efforts. Working together, we can ensure that asbestos is managed effectively in all schools and over time in a safe and an evidence-based way. As the school estate is modernised and replaced, asbestos will be removed from school buildings.
I welcome today’s debate and the contributions from all hon. Members who have participated. Through our school building programme and the measures announced in the review, I hope that we will ensure that the schools estate is a safe environment for all pupils and teachers.
Question put and agreed to.