Lucie Stephens has sent Freedom of Information requests to every Local Education Authority in the country — over 200 of them.
She’s requesting information about asbestos in schools, and for a reason that’s very close to her heart. Earlier this year, Lucie’s mother, a teacher, died of mesothelioma, a cancer that is almost exclusively caused by exposure to that substance.
Now Lucie is acting on the promise she made before her mum passed away: “To do my best to make sure no-one else has to suffer like she has.”
We were really interested to hear how Lucie came to use Freedom of Information as tool in her campaign, so we got in touch to ask her a few questions.
Your WhatDoTheyKnow profile page and your petition make the reason for your campaign clear – at what point did you realise that Freedom of Information would be a useful tool?
After Mum’s diagnosis I wanted to know how safe my daughter’s school was. I wrote to them and got a positive response: her school does contain asbestos and they were willing to share this information with me.
I then wrote to my local council to request the same information for my borough. This took a lot longer, and involved frequently having to chase and remind them of deadlines missed.
I thought all parents and teachers should know if their school contains asbestos. I didn’t want them to have to struggle to access the information from their local council in the way that I did.
A friend suggested that FOI would be a good way of getting hold of consistent information, and at this point it also became clear that it would be a useful way to analyse how well asbestos is being managed in our schools.
Had you heard of the Freedom of Information Act, or used it previously?
I had heard about FOI before but hadn’t used it. It had always seemed a complicated and challenging process, so I was nervous of it. I knew what questions to ask but was still worried about getting the format right.
I had made contact with the National Union of Teachers (NUT), as they are also campaigning to get asbestos removed from schools. I asked them to advise on the best wording to use in order to get the information that I required, and they were really helpful.
Once you have all the data for every school in the country, what will you do with it?
Every parent and teacher should know if their school contains asbestos.
I am planning to use the data collected to produce an easy-to-access national map that parents and teachers can use to find out if their school is affected. By telling parents which schools have asbestos we are enabling them to hold their school, local education authority and ultimately (we hope) the Department for Education to account. The map will also be useful for campaigners and journalists concerned with the issue of asbestos in schools.
What would be the ideal outcome of your campaign?
I want policy on asbestos in schools to change.
Each school should be expected to produce an annual report on the extent of asbestos and how it is being managed. This will increase transparency and accountability until we get to the point where all asbestos in schools has been removed.
At the same time the Department for Education needs to change its approach. It needs to commit to the phased removal from all schools by 2028.
To achieve this they need to earmark funds specifically for asbestos removal and set annual targets for the number of schools that will be asbestos free. The phased removal should start with the most dangerous schools first but seek to remove all asbestos by 2028.
By revealing which schools contain asbestos, the campaign will make it easier for parents to hold the DFE to account over their plans for the removal of asbestos.
Have any of your FOI requests been turned down?
I made my requests to local authorities, asking them to provide the figures for every school in their jurisdiction. Most have not provided information for academies and free schools as they do not have a statutory responsibility for them.
There were various refusals and partial responses, from authorities which just issued generic statements that ‘all local schools built before 2000 contain asbestos’ with a link to their online schools directory, to those claiming that the information sought would take too long to collect, and so refusing to issue it, or requesting payment before the information could be released.*
Some areas withheld data on the number of claims that they had received from teachers, school staff and ex-pupils, stating that the figures were low enough to make it possible to identify the individuals concerned. Some areas refused to release details of the amount of money paid out in claims, stating that this would breach data protection. This rule was not applied consistently, though, as some areas did release figures relating to only one claim and settlement.
I was very irritated to find some authorities who, because they claimed to be unable to answer one of my seven questions, then refused to answer any of them. To date we only have data from 135 local councils of 152 approached. Some are very overdue in providing the data.
In gathering the data it was clear that there is huge variety in the ways in which asbestos is being managed in schools. It was also apparent that there is a wide range of ways in which FOI requests are handled.
What benefits did you get from using WhatDoTheyKnow?
Without WhatDoTheyKnow I wouldn’t have been able to collect the data.
The site was really easy to use. It was very helpful in managing the data as it appeared, and in reminding me when authorities were overdue in providing information.
In some cases I used my right to a review to challenge the handling of a request, and this led to further information being released. I definitely wouldn’t have made a challenge without the site making the process straightforward in the way it does.
It has also been great to have the data held on a public site like this, so that I’ve been able to direct journalists and campaigners to the source of the data directly.
The only challenge with the site was that the number of requests was capped. I can totally appreciate why this was, and in fact when I did contact the team and ask for this cap to be removed so that I could complete the requests in a shorter timeframe, they were very helpful. Having ascertained that I was sending bulk requests for a valid reason, they acted quickly to remove the cap.
You can read more about Lucie’s campaign, and lend your support, on her petition page.
* Note: Making an FOI request is almost always free, but authorities can charge under certain circumstances, and they can refuse to respond to a request outright if it will cost more than a certain amount — currently £450 — to do so.
Image: Webercw (CC by-nc/2.0)
‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ and in this case the question is too simple and would lead to unnecessary work and worry. Asbestos comes in many forms and if undisturbed and contained is normally best left that way. Too many people with too little knowledge panic and cause themselves and others unwarranted worry. After 40 years in the construction industry and specialising in health and safety I would recommend leaving it to the experts.
The questions in the FOIs submitted by Ms Stephens demonstrate a sound understanding of the subject; she has not simply asked which schools were built with asbestos. In practice it’s rarely practical to simply ignore asbestos risk, and at minimum school staff and pupils are entitled to know if they are working in a school that contains asbestos. The ongoing legal debate about liability for asbestos exposure, and the difficulties local authorities have in arranging insurance, demonstrates that this a live issue.
Why are people “entitled” to know if the school contains asbestos? If you take that line, perhaps you also believe every square inch of schools should be tested daily for any potentially infectious bacteria and viruses, and parents informed of the risk so they can decide whether to keep their children away from school? This would probably means no one would ever go to a school, or a hospital for that matter, as there are always bugs around and some risk. But at least everyone’s “informed”, so that’s all right then.
Thousands of schools and other buildings, and millions of domestic properties, probably including Ms Stephens own home, have *some* form of asbestos somewhere. What matters is the type of asbestos and whether dust is being generated on a regular basis that could lead to the unfortunate but extremely unlikely infection that leads to mesothelioma.
There is no evidence given that Ms Stephens’ mother contracted the illness at a school – she could have ingested particles in her own home, as could Ms Stephens herself as a child, or when she walked past a building site one day sixty years ago – so all this seems like a massive over-reaction and another excuse for parents and the media to become over-excited and find ways to blame the State and local authorities for past building practices.
I have sympathy for Ms Stephens’ loss but we are surrounded by known risk hazards every day – carcinogens in our food, diesel particles in the air, natural bacteria and viruses, never mind tiny amounts of asbestos – and the cost to remove asbestos from schools (or indeed every building in the country, which is the inevitable next step “to protect our children”) would be prohibitively expensive and impractical.
Parents have a right to know if their school contains asbestos as it has been proven to cause asbestos associated illnesses and kill these ex-students during their adult years.
Teachers have a right to know if their school contains asbestos as it has been proven to kill British teachers during their later years.
This is the kind of sarcasm that is completely unnecessary and breaks your argument apart. Of course children will still go to school and of course every parent acknowledges and accept some kinds of risk. However there is difference between the risk of a child getting a few cuts and bruises from playing and on the other hand, inhaling asbestos that can inevitably cause their death.
British schools are in a state of disrepair and decay. It was only six years ago when I was in a classroom where the ceiling collapsed (and the asbestos with it) on top of our heads. The building, like most of the other schools in the town, was built in a hurried fashion during the 1960s. Not one school in this area has made an effort to prioritise removing asbestos and this is an incredibly serious matter.
Here’s your evidence.
As stated in the article:
The cause of her death was confirmed as malignant mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure.
Recording a conclusion of industrial disease, coroner Elizabeth Earland said: “I’m satisfied Mrs Stephens was exposed to asbestos during her time as a teach in schools in Buckinghamshire, which underwent building repairs from the ’90s upwards.
“On the balance of probability, and noting the type of repairs at the time and the materials involved, I believe this led to fatal asbestos exposure.”
“Why are people “entitled” to know if the school contains asbestos? ”
People are entitled to know what the local authority knows with regard to asbestos on their estate.
Think of this from FOI perspective. If the document is there, then there’s largely a right for the public to get access to it. What it’s used for is really irrelevant.