Report reveals asbestos risk to Parliament

The joint committee on the Palace of Westminster has recommended that MPs move out of the Houses of Parliament for a 6 year period between 2022 and 2028 to allow full refurbishment of the building to take place.

This recommendation follows a report published last year, which raised concerns about the levels of asbestos within the 19th century structure.

London-based safety experts Goddard Consulting found asbestos contamination in almost every service shaft and in piping ducts behind committee rooms and chambers when it carried out its survey in 2015, raising fears that asbestos fibres may already have been in the air provided to the House of Commons chambers

The toxic material was also believed to be in many plant rooms, underfloor voids and corridors. Of the 20 samples taken from 4 of the service shafts 11 were found to contain amosite (brown asbestos), a cancer causing substance.

Asbestos is linked to many cases of industrial disease compensation, including mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. The material must be removed and disposed of by specialist contractors to minimise the risk of exposure to the fibres.

Why is there so much asbestos in the Houses of Parliament?

Many buildings constructed or refurbished in the early decades of the 20th Century were insulated using asbestos. Asbestos use continued in the UK for some time after other countries had banned the material. A total ban of asbestos finally became law in 1999.

The 170-year-old Houses of Parliament buildings underwent renovations in the 1940s after the buildings were bombed during the Second World War. It has been stated that there has been significant underinvestment in maintenance of the buildings since that time.

A previous survey and report by Goddard Consulting in 2005 warned that there were risks in leaving access doors to service shafts unlocked and unsealed yet the latest survey found one of the asbestos contaminated shafts apparently wedged shut with only a spoon.  

By not implementing the recommended safety measures from the 2005 report the Palace of Westminster authorities may have neglected to take adequate steps to protect MPs, staff and visitors from exposure to hazardous asbestos fibres. This would be in breach of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.

A spokesperson for the House of Commons explained that in such a complex area professional opinions may differ and that they had found alternative and equally effective ways of addressing the problems in order to manage the hazard.

What is the cost of asbestos removal?

Removing asbestos is a complex and time-consuming but necessary process, adding to the cost of any refurbishment.

It would be possible to carry out the work on the Houses of Parliament over a 32-year rolling programme at an estimated cost of £6 billion.

It has been suggested that a more cost effective way would be for MPs to move out of the building for 6 years until the work is completed, reducing the estimated outlay to around £4 billion.

MPs and peers are due to vote on this proposal within the next few months.