Marks & Spencer accused of asbestos breaches

Marks & Spencer in Broad Street, Reading
Image caption Among the stores at the centre of the case is the Marks & Spencer in Broad Street, Reading

High Street retailer Marks & Spencer is being prosecuted after allegedly failing to protect shoppers and workers against asbestos.

The Health and Safety Executive accuses Marks & Spencer and two of its contractors of breaches at shops in Reading, Bournemouth and Plymouth.

Refurbishment work was being carried out at the time of the alleged breaches, between 2004 and 2006.

At Winchester Crown Court, Marks & Spencer denied all the charges.

Jurors were told three out of four Marks & Spencer stores have suspended ceilings using tiles made in part from asbestos.

The material is easily-broken and releases fibres into the air - and is one of the most dangerous sources of asbestos.

Workman decontaminated

Jurors were told there was no doubt that Marks & Spencer knew it had an issue with asbestos as the firm had its own code of practice for dealing with it.

Yet when work was carried out in Reading's Broad Street store in 2006, the process was chaotic, said Richard Matthews, prosecuting.

It seemed Marks & Spencer did not want to release enough floor space to allow contractors to carry out the work safely for fear it would lose out on sales, the court heard.

Mr Matthews said the firm had also failed to carry out sufficient surveys to identify the location of asbestos in the stores.

In one case it was only found when a workman began to saw through a partition. He had to be decontaminated.

Mr Matthews said: "Marks & Spencer had a duty to make sure asbestos did not take those working in the store by surprise.

"If that meant making the store unsightly to customers or interfering with their shopping experience then so be it - better an unattractive store in the short term than the risk of anything else in the long term."

Marks & Spencer has pleaded not guilty to breaching three counts of section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act, relating to its own staff, and three counts of section 3(1), relating to members of the public and other workers.

Each charge relates to each of the three stores and dates from September 2004 to November 2006.

PA Realisations, formerly known as Pectel Limited, faces one charge relating to the works at the Reading store, while Willmott Dixon Construction faces two charges relating to the Bournemouth store.

Mr Matthews said Marks & Spencer could not shift the blame on to its contractors as it had a "duty of care" to ensure the work was carried out safely.

The hearing continues and is expected to last up to 15 weeks.

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