Asbestos: Live with it, Minister tells pensionerJANUARY 2011:
FOR the past 18 months, the Constituency office of Nick Griffin MEP has been trying to help a pensioner who has been left to live in a bungalow built with asbestos.
Asbestos is a silicate mineral formerly used commercially for its desirable physical properties. The inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause serious illnesses, including malignant lung cancer, mesothelioma (a formerly rare cancer strongly associated with exposure to amphibole asbestos), and asbestosis (a type of pneumoconiosis). Long exposure to high concentrations of asbestos fibers is more likely to cause health problems, as asbestos exists in the ambient air at low levels, which itself does not cause health problems.
The European Union has banned all use of asbestos and extraction, manufacture and processing of asbestos products.
After his office had explored every avenue available seeking help for the pensioner, Nick Griffin wrote to the Housing Minster and his letter lays out the full history of the pensioner's predicament.The letter to protect the identity of the constituent.
The Right Hon Grant Shapps MP
Minister for Housing and Local Government
Communities and Local Government
Dear Mr Shapps
Re: Presence of Asbestos in Former Social Housing Property
I write to with regard to a case I have been looking into on behalf of one of my constituents, a pensioner from Frizington in West Cumbria. He approached me last March for assistance with an asbestos problem in his bungalow.
He, along with a number of other people in his area, purchased his home from the social housing provider, Home Housing. The properties, built by Home in the 1970’s, conformed to the relevant building regulations in place at the time, which allowed the use of asbestos.
A ban on the use of blue and brown asbestos was introduced in 1985, followed by white asbestos in 1999, so Home would have been aware at the point of sale that the properties contained this now banned substance, primarily in the ceiling of the heating cupboards. They chose, however, not to share this information with the prospective purchasers.
In 2005 British Gas, repairing a boiler on one of the similar houses on the estate, discovered the asbestos. Subsequent surveys revealed that it was present in my constituent’s house and many other similar properties formerly or still owned by Home Housing. The work to replace boilers undertaken by British Gas on these properties exposed the sheeting (which contained white and brown asbestos), rendering it a health hazard. Home Housing subsequently arranged for the asbestos to be removed by specialists from the properties they still owned. They declined to do this, however, or to contribute to the very substantial costs of specialist removal, for the properties they had sold to my constituent and others on the estate.
He now fears that he and his wife are at risk from the asbestos they cannot afford to have removed. He knows of at least 25 of his neighbours, and other home owners from nearby estates in Frizington, who are in a similar predicament. They have been advised by a solicitor that they would have a legal case against Home Housing for compensation, but they are not, apparently, eligible for legal aid and cannot afford to fund a legal action.
They raised their concerns with their local Labour MP, Jamie Reed, but my constituent says that after showing some initial interest, they heard nothing further from him. He then raised the matter with me, as his MEP. My office has engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Mr Mark Henderson, Chief Executive of Home Housing, regarding this matter. Mr Henderson takes the view that Home does not owe a duty of care to my constituent in relation to the presence of any asbestos that is present in his property, relying on the caveat emptor principle and holding that it was those conveyancing for my constituent who owed a duty of care to ensure that the property was adequately surveyed.
It is not clear to me that a Court would necessarily agree that Home Housing were justified in deliberately withholding a material fact - the presence of asbestos sheeting - in the properties they were selling. A fact which, if disclosed, would certainly have affected the price they were able to secure for these properties, assuming they were able to sell them at all without first decontaminating them of asbestos. In equity if not law Home Housing’s conduct towards a group mostly comprised of their elderly and far from prosperous former tenants seems very hard to justify. This is not the level of morality one expects of a social housing provider, and further calls into question the wisdom of privatising the provision of social housing, which my Party would not have done.
However, I find more compelling Mr Henderson’s implicit argument that, were Home Housing to concede any liability in this matter, they would lay themselves open to a potentially ruinous spate of similar claims affecting hundreds of properties they have sold off over the years. Bringing about the ruin of a major social housing provider is not, to my mind, in the public interest given the growing pressure on the availability of housing for the less well-off applied by a combination of massive immigration and the recent cuts in housing benefit and support.
Nonetheless it is intolerable that British pensioners should be forced to endanger their health in properties they bought in good faith and oblivious of the asbestos risk, because they cannot afford to decontaminate them. Given that compelling the vendor to finance these works, albeit fair and equitable, would cause wider hardship to even more, again mostly poor and elderly people, the only remaining way forward would seem to me to be assistance from the public purse.
I therefore appeal to you, on behalf of my constituent and the hundreds of others who likewise find themselves in this plight through no fault of their own, to provide a one-off grant from public funds to pay the cost of making their homes safe again where they cannot afford to do so themselves. Such a means-tested one-off grant would seem to me to be fair in the circumstances. The more so as it is the fault of government that there is not a crystal clear legal duty on sellers to disclose material defects in the goods they are selling at the time of sale. As my constituent’s case illustrates, the principle of caveat emptor is too easily the refuge of the rogue, from which they are free to wash their hands of the innocent victims who suffer the consequences.
Thank you for your attention in this matter.
Nick Griffin, MEP
North West Parliamentary Constituency
Constituency Office: 01697 344480
PO Box 107, Wigton, Cumbria CA7 0YA
There was no help forthcoming from the Housing Minister, so Nick broke the disappointing news to the pensioner.
Dear Mr *****
Re: Presence of Asbestos Sheeting in Your Home
Please find attached, for your information, a copy of the letter received from the Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP, Minister for Housing and Local Government (dated 15th December 2010), in response to my letter of 10th November 2010).
The Minister is not, unfortunately, willing to act on my suggested resolution to your situation (and indeed the many others who are affected by the presence of asbestos in their homes) - i.e. that his department should make available a one-off, means-tested grant to people like yourself, who cannot afford to decontaminate their homes from asbestos.
Mr Shapps enclosed a copy of the Tenant Services Authority complaints factsheet with his letter. I have not forwarded this to you, as I am aware you have already been refused help by the Housing Ombudsman Service because you own your property.
As neither Home Social Landlord nor the Ministry for Housing and Local Government is prepared to intervene to help you with your case, I’m afraid it appears that the only option available to you is to pursue action through the courts.
Please do not hesitate to contact me again if you require any further assistance.
Nick Griffin, MEP
North West of England Parliamentary Constituency