Michael Lees steps down

9th October 2015
Michael Lees, who set up the Asbestos in Schools group and initiated the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, stepped down from his roles in these organisations earlier this year. Michael, who lost his wife to mesothelioma, was a committed and effective campaigner on the issue of asbestos in schools. This tribute from Tony Whitston, former Forum Chair, given at an event last month to celebrate Michael’s achievements,  gives a flavour of the man.

“It is no exaggeration to say that Michael stands among that pantheon of remarkable asbestos campaigners, Alice Jefferson, June Hancock and Nancy Tait, all of whom were personally affected by mesothelioma, and through their courage, determination and sheer bloody mindedness faced down an uncaring and often callous bureaucracy.

Like Nancy Tait, Michael lost his spouse to mesothelioma and, like her, dedicated his every waking moment to fight for justice. Both were awarded an MBE. Both had to master complex, technical data to challenge government experts. Nancy’s expertise was recognised with an honorary doctorate. Michael deserves no less: in our view, anyone who can follow Robin Howie’s baffling statistics deserves the highest academic accolade!

It was said of Nancy that “She could be obstinate and uncompromising, even with those sympathetic to her cause.” We have to confess that when Michael came on the scene we soon learnt that he wasn’t taking his place in turn on any committee agenda and it was no use grumping about it. Michael was shrewd enough to recognise that the Forum was essentially a victim-first organisation and though we had our part to play we were not up to the task he had set. As things turned out, Michael gave us all a master class in how to establish an effective asbestos in schools campaign – the painstaking detail of which is known to many here who worked with Michael setting up the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) and working across the political divide.

It was said that Nancy’s benign appearance and gentleness of manner made her an unlikely campaigner.  We can recall a meeting where someone, referring to Michael, asked Who’s that posh bloke in a suit? That posh bloke in a suit, like Nancy, combined courtesy and charm with incisive shrewdness and steely determination as many a Minister and civil servant found to their cost.

Sadly, the organisation Nancy set up, OEDA, did not survive her. The same cannot be said in Michael’s case. Michael has ensured that the asbestos in schools campaign will continue on his retirement and JUAC will carry on the work he started and will build on his many achievements. That is no mean feat. All he has achieved came at great personal cost and, it has to be said, at considerable financial cost.

Michael has been an inspiration to us all, a good friend and comrade, a tireless campaigner who has an honoured place in the history of asbestos. We wish him well on his retirement.”