LBWF Chief Executive Martin Esom’s evidence at the Town Hall asbestos trial: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

The following speaks for itself.

18 September 2015

Dear Mr. Esom,

We write to you about the letter dated 30 January 2014 that you submitted to the HSE and the courts prior to LBWF’s recent prosecution over Town Hall asbestos contamination.

We remind you that this letter was produced in lieu of an interview under PACE; and that you explicitly recognised it might ‘be used in the event of any enforcement proceedings’. We further remind you that in the letter, you underline that you are intent upon ‘frankly’ dealing with the issues at hand.

All this being the case, we are very surprised at some of the points that you make, and three are especially troubling.

1. The availability of the 2002 Town Hall asbestos survey

One issue in the trial was how LBWF had treated the 2002 asbestos survey of the Town Hall, and whether it had made the survey available to those contractors who subsequently were employed there.

At point 14 of your letter you write: ‘LBWF wishes to emphasise that the 2002 survey was always available to contractors’.

However, witnesses who gave evidence at the trial told a different story.

Angela Ferdinand Sergeant, a senior LBWF employee, stated that: ‘“The policy for contractors working in any LB Waltham Forest building is to provide a permit of work and a copy of the asbestos register or survey. However, in the Town Hall the asbestos survey was not readily available”’.

Ellen Beckerman, a technical and project manager with GBNS Ltd., stated that, having been asked to provide a quote ‘to do a refurbishment survey on the [Town Hall] ground floor’ in December 2011, her company was not provided with copies of previous surveys or asbestos history prior to starting work.

Keith Stafford, an asbestos surveyor/analyst with GBNS Ltd., corroborated, observing: ‘When I first came to the town hall on the 19th [January 2012] I asked around and eventually found an asbestos survey from 2002’ [emphasis added].

And a gas engineer who worked on the boilers in the Town Hall basement stated: ‘“I have never been given any information about the asbestos in the basement or any of the buildings I have worked in. I have not been shown copies of any asbestos surveys or registers whilst working in buildings in Waltham Forest”’.

2. The extent of remedial work after the 2002 Town Hall asbestos survey

At point 19 of your letter, you write: ‘There is unfortunately, due to the passage of time, no documentary evidence confirming that the recommended remedial steps in respect of the Category B items [in the 2002 survey] were conducted. It is submitted by LBWF that any removal or encapsulation works would have been undertaken as part of the routine asbestos management regime…it is assumed that the recommendations were remedied, as the same items are not identified in later surveys’.

However, this paragraph, and particularly its last sentence, is directly at odds with evidence provided by one of the most authoritative witnesses, the aforementioned Keith Stafford, who, writing of his experiences in early 2012, stated to the court as follows: ‘The second time I saw the 2002 survey was during the meeting on 1st February [2012]. As I was flicking through the 2002 survey I noticed that the picture shown on page 29 for Room 12 was exactly like the one I had taken the previous day…in the same room. The pictures shows 4 pipes which had been cut off, most likely with an oxy-acetylene torch, with asbestos lagging on the pipes which has been highly damaged. The asbestos debris can be seen on the small shelf just below the pipes. The pictures in my report…show asbestos on the filing cabinet and the floor below’.

In addition, we note, having examined the two surveys in detail, that it is very difficult to compare them, due both to their differing scope, and changes in the basement’s physical layout and nomenclature; and we also underline the obvious point that anyway the 2012 surveyors made no systematic attempt to re-examine the finding of their 2002 predecessors, and indeed (as Mr. Stafford’s evidence shows) until fairly late in the day were actually unclear as to their nature – all of which which casts further doubt on the veracity of your observations.

3. Use of the basement

Your letter contains two references to those who used the basement prior to 2012.

At point 12, you state: ‘The basement was used in the main by the legal, finance and electoral departments as an archive/filing area; therefore a small number of employees on these teams would have deposited and retrieved files. Other teams would have used the basement to a lesser extent merely to deposit files for storage on an occasional basis. The reprographics team would have also used the basement’.

At point 52 (b) your concluding ‘submission’ is that ‘The basement was not used as a heavily occupied work place, but an infrequently accessed storage area’.

However, again the reality is not as you present it. For you first downplay and then ignore the very salient fact – substantiated to the court by no less than seven witnesses – that the basement was not just a storage area but also housed the print room, which the reprographics team occupied, not intermittently, but on a permanent basis.

And if in 2014 you really were in any doubt on this matter, you could have also consulted the GBNS report of 2012 – in earlier correspondence you admitted having this in your possession – which shows incontrovertibly on pp. 93 and 94 that the print room was (a) used by 4 to 10 staff on a daily basis for between three and six hours, and (b) contaminated.

As the chief executive of a council making a statement to a court of law, it goes without saying that you have a duty to ensure that your evidence is comprehensive, unambiguous, and truthful. Based on the examples cited, we believe that you have fallen well below the required standard. Indeed, it appears to us that the statements we have highlighted are inexcusably inaccurate, and potentially misleading, certainly far from ‘frank’ iterations of the facts.

Finally, we note that others more qualified than ourselves have come to similar conclusions. Mr. Tilley’s submission to the court on behalf of the HSE itemises and then demolishes your fallacies, case by case. And it is notable, too, that when LBWF’s counsel at the Westminster hearing – no doubt having alighted upon your concluding ‘submission’ – made the point that the Town Hall basement was used only as a storage area, he was slapped down by the judge on the basis of the witness statements, and had to correct himself.

Given the serious nature of these matters, we trust that you will respond in full and by return.

Yours sincerely,

Trevor Calver and Nick Tiratsoo