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that, even if the vessels or the reactor had exploded, the off-site effects would have been minimal. I well understand the concern of local residents and businesses, but, according to the HSE, they were never in danger and the safety provision and plans are designed to ensure that. People downwind of the site, however, were advised to stay indoors as a precaution against smoke inhalation.

The hon. Gentleman has suggested that local residents should have been evacuated. To be fair to him, he has not done so today, but I understand that he has done so previously ; if he has not, others have. I apologise if I have misquoted the hon. Gentleman, who is now shaking his head vigorously.

Evacuation would not have been sensible. The correct response is for residents to stay indoors with their doors and windows closed. Leaflets giving that advice had already been given to local people as part of the information required under the Control of Industrial Major Accidents Hazards Regulations--CIMAH--which are our way of complying with the Seveso directive.

Throughout the incident, teams of Octel employees and the emergency services were touring residential areas downwind of the site, but detected no danger from hydrogen chloride fumes. I am also advised that phosgene was never released and that, even if matters had proceeded further, it is unlikely that that would have happened.

Mr. Miller : My comments about phosgene--like my comments about the safety of the slops vessel--derived from the best advice that was available to the fire brigade at the time of the incident. The brigade was working on its own ; its instruction sheets show that, in certain states of combustion, phosgene can be a product of a fire of that type. It was using the best possible judgment at the time.

Mr. Forsyth : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Neither of us, I suspect, is particularly expert in this area. The advice that I have given has come from the Health and Safety Executive. In so far as it will provide reassurance to his constituents, I am sure that he will welcome it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the design and location of the plant. The Health and Safety Executive requires plant to be built to the latest standards and will ensure that it is at Octel. That is the assurance which the hon. Gentleman sought. Moreover, the prohibition notice currently in force requires the firm to provide evidence that hazards have been properly assessed and appropriate precautions taken.

The HSE does not believe that isolation of the slops tank would be either viable or desirable. The tank is an integral part of the ethyl chloride plant, but I shall ask the HSE to consider the hon. Gentleman's concerns carefully.

On the location of the plant, the CIMAH regulations aim to minimise the rise of a major accident and to limit the effects of any accidents that occur. Clearly, even after all reasonable steps have been taken to comply with health and safety law, the risk of accident cannot be removed altogether. We must await the results of the HSE's investigation before considering what more might need to be done. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's point about whether conditions could ever arise in which phosgene is generated is addressed.

Mr. Miller : The point on which my constituents would like clarification is whether the Minister has ruled out, in absolute terms, a public inquiry into the incident.

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Mr. Forsyth : The Health and Safety Commission has powers to call a public inquiry and Ministers have powers to direct it to set up an inquiry. We can also, off our own bat, establish a public inquiry. I should like to read the Commission's report to see how it proposes to handle the report that it will receive from the executive before reaching any view. I am not ruling out the possibility, but it would be wrong to address that matter until we have seen the results of the executive's investigation and report and of the consideration by the commission.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there were sufficient resources for the fire brigade and other emergency services. As he knows, the Cheshire fire brigade classified the incident as a major fire and 263 firefighters were involved. I gather that, in future, as a result of plans to withdraw two emergency rescue tenders from service, the heavy rescue equipment formerly carried on them will be carried on 16 front-line pumping applicances. A dedicated crew will be allocated to the chemical incident unit, which will move to Crewe. That is in addition to the unit based at Ellesmere Port fire station. I understand that the chief fire officer of Cheshire fire brigade has said that the brigade's firefighting and rescue capability will be enhanced by those measures.

The hon. Member may be aware that the changes require the approval of the Home Secretary. It is my right hon. and learned Friend's practice to grant such approval only where he is satisfied that nationally recognised minimum standards of fire cover will continue to be maintained. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's concerns are brought to his attention so that he can take them into account. I should mention how the work of emergency planning units on sites covered by the CIMAH regulations is funded. The regulations allow local authorities to charge site operators for providing such services. They are not covered by the civil defence funding arrangements.

I shall now discuss the concerns about arrangements for warning the general public. The off-site warnings are provided for in the CIMAH arrangements. I understand that there are two sirens on the Octel complex ; one is used to warn of fire and the other to warn of gas escapes. Those

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sirens can be heard up to two and a half miles away. On the night of 1 February, both sirens were sounded at 20.32. The gas warning siren remained on until 01.15 on 2 February ; the fire warning siren stopped at 21.00.

In addition, a fire brigade rescue tender toured the Ellesmere Port area adjacent to the M53 to alert the public by loudhailer. Two other fire brigade vehicles were sent to Helsby and Hapsford to assess off-site effects. They reported negative effects and so local hailers were not deployed. The villagers of Ince, Elton and Helsby were warned by television and radio.

I know that there have been complaints from residents in the area who were worried that they were not warned, but I understand that they lived in areas upwind of the incident, so there was no need to warn them.

In the light of representations made by local people, I will ask the Health and Safety Executive to consider the adequacy of the off-site arrangements- -indeed, I understand that it already plans to do so.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston mentioned worries about whether the emergency services could have coped with another incident in the same area. For large incidents, plans exist for Cheshire fire brigade to supplement its front-line fire appliances with others from neighbouring brigades. On that occasion Clwyd and Merseyside assisted. The plan required the most important fire stations in Cheshire to be manned by moving other appliances from the surrounding area to backfill behind the appliances that were called in to the Octel incident. In the event of a second incident in the Cheshire fire brigade area, those supporting appliances would have been used. Cheshire is well placed to receive substantial support, if required, from Merseyside fire brigade.

I am grateful for the positive approach that the hon. Gentleman has taken to the matter, especially in his discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and myself. I have asked the Health and Safety Executive to keep me in touch with developments, and will keep the hon. Gentleman informed as well.

Question put and agreed to .

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Three o'clock .

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