Health and Safety Executive Investigating Asbestos Release in Parliament
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is now investigating the asbestos release in Parliament which it has emerged could have affected as many as 117 members of staff.
At a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) considering the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, Dr John Benger, the House of Commons’ top official, confirmed that the Health and Safety Executive was investigating who was responsible for the leak. The release occurred between 23 and 27 October in Speaker’s House, the residence and offices of the Speaker of The House of Commons, but was noticed until 19 November.
Meg Hillier, the committee chair, accused House authorities and contractors of “dancing on a pin head” instead of taking responsibility for the release. An asbestos survey found asbestos in around 2,500 places on the Parliamentary estate.
Dr Benger told the committee that the release took place in the bedrooms of the Speaker’s residential accommodation, which is currently not inhabited by the Speaker while ongoing fire safety work takes place.
Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown described the confusion over the future of Parliament’s Restoration and Renewal Programme as ... 'dire'
The site was closed immediately upon discovery of the asbestos, and Dr Benger says he was first told about an asbestos release potentially affecting three staff on 10 December. However, the HSE was not formally notified until 10 February, and all 81 contractor staff and 36 House Authorities' staff potentially affected were not told until 17 February.
Pushed by Hillier on the delay in telling potentially affected staff and the HSE, Dr Benger said: “There are definitely lessons to be learned… I'm not for a minute saying that this is a defensible position. It's not a defensible position. This shouldn't have happened.”
Benger put the delay down to “dispute at every stage” about whether the release met the threshold for reporting.
The PAC meeting comes as the Restoration and Renewal Programme for the Palace of Westminster faces fundamental questions about its future. Last month, the House of Lords and House of Commons Commission recommended scrapping the programme’s Sponsor Body and rethinking plans for a full decant of MPs and peers while the work to save the crumbling Palace of Westminster takes place, over concerns about costs reaching between £7 and £13bn.
Benger told PAC that no matter what happened, the House of Commons Chamber would need to be decanted for a "a very very signifcant" period during the Restoration and Renewal programme for necessary work to take place in the chamber. Benger said he was "confident" that Parliament would need to sit in that time and so an alternative venue for the Commons would need to be found.
Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown described the confusion over the future of Parliament’s Restoration and Renewal Programme as a “dire situation”. Clifton-Brown made the comments after evidence from Sarah Johnson, the chief executive of the beleaguered Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body, who told the PAC the programme and sponsor body was “at a bit of a crossroads… I'm not sure personally what happens now, if I'm being honest.”
The Sponsor Body has estimated that without a full decant, restoration work could take an additional 27 to 48 years, with costs rising to between £11bn and £22bn. With a decant, work to remove Parliament’s asbestos could take 300 people up to three years, David Goldstone, chief executive of the Restoration and Renewal Delivery Body told PAC,
The House of Commons and Lords Commissions will hold a joint meeting on Thursday to decide on their future recommendations for the programme.
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