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Sale and Supply Goods Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

2.22 pm

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Despite its length, the Bill is simple and, I hope,

uncontroversial. It is intended to tidy and clarify one of the more antiquated corners of the law and at the same time update and strengthen consumer rights. Essentially, it will implement the recommendations of the English and Scottish Law Commissions in their report on the sale and supply of goods published in 1987. Hon. Members may find it convenient if I say a few words about the historical background to the Bill and then summarise some of its provisions. English and, indeed, Scottish law relating to the sale and supply of goods is of considerable antiquity. It is an area of law which to this day remains largely untouched by statute. Instead, over the centuries, certain common law principles emerged. Among them were the principles that goods sold by way of trade or business must be as described, must be fit for their purpose and must be of merchantable quality. Those principles were codified but not significantly altered in the Sale of Goods Act 1893. That Act was consolidated but not significantly altered in the Sale of Goods Act 1979. The result is that purchasers' rights when buying goods are essentially those conferred under the common law as it developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is not surprising that those rights have become a little antiquated in the light of modern trading conditions.

It was for those reasons that the Law Commissions were asked to look at the matter in 1987. While they saw no need for radical reform, they did conclude that one of the central principles of present law--the doctrine of merchantable quality--was out of date, and that the definition of what constituted acceptance of goods was both untidy and unclear. They accordingly made a number of


My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South-West (Mr. Jones) introduced a Bill to implement the recommendations in 1989, but for various reasons it failed to reach the statute book. I hope that I may be a little more fortunate.

Clause 1 implements the most important of the Law Commission's recommendations, which was that the outdated phrase "merchantable quality" should be replaced by a phrase more in tune with today's trading conditions. The Law Commissions suggested "acceptable quality", but the present Bill follows its 1989 predecessor in preferring the phrase "satisfactory quality", which I think is better.

A non-complaining buyer might decide reluctantly that goods he bought were of acceptable quality, even if by objective standards the quality was not satisfactory. The Law Commissions then went on to list some of the aspects to be taken into account in judging whether goods were of the required quality. These included fitness for purpose, appearance and finish, freedom from minor defects and safety and durability, and those are duly included in clause 1.

Clause 2 tackles the question of acceptable goods. Although it does not substantially modify the existing law in this area, it does clarify it and, in particular, makes it clear that in judging whether a buyer has accepted goods,

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account must be taken of whether the buyer has had a reasonable opportunity of examining the goods to determine that they are in conformity with the contract. The clarification is important, as there is considerable uncertainty over the extent of a buyer's right to reject faulty goods. A tidying-up operation is overdue. The rest of the Bill can be dealt with quickly. Clause 3 provides that if a buyer has accepted some of a batch of goods he does not thereby lose the right to reject the rest if they are not in conformity with the contract. Clauses 4 and 5 provide that where a buyer is not acting as consumer, he may not reject goods if the breach of contract is so slight that it would be unreasonable to do so. Because English and Scots law is slightly different in that area, separate provision must be made for each country ; hence the need for two clauses.

Clause 6 provides for the introduction of provisions equivalent to part I of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 for Scotland. That was a separate recommendation of the Scottish Law Commission which was taken aboard in the two Commissions' 1987 report. It does not substantively change Scottish law in that area, but is a useful clarification and will bring Scots law relating to the supply of goods into line with that of the rest of the United Kingdom. Differences in terminology between English and Scottish law mean that the new law needs to be set out in full, and that is done in schedule 1.

Finally, clause 7 calls up schedule 2 which makes a number of necessary consequential amendments to other legislation, and schedule 3, which makes some consequential repeals. Clause 8 deals with short title, commencement and extent.

To sum up, the Bill is intended to bring about a long-awaited amendment to an area of law which, although it does not have a high public profile, nevertheless governs every transaction that we make. In a sense it is historic, in that it represents a serious attempt to modify by statute what has hitherto been, to all intents and purposes, the preserve of the common law. The Bill is not intended to bring about any major shift in the balance of rights and obligations as between a customer and a supplier, but by updating and clarifying the law I believe that it will be of benefit to both. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you received any notification from the Secretary of State for Health that she intends to make a statement to the House about whether she intends to introduce an urgent review of ambulance services in the west midlands--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris) : Order. I shall take the hon. Lady's point of order after we finish the Bills.

Building Conversion and Energy Conservation Bill Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and question proposed, That the Bill be now read a second time.-- [Mr. McAllion.]

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2.29 pm

Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside) : This is a most appropriate time to be discussing the Bill. It is a great pity that the House has not had the opportunity to make any comments about it. It is most important that the Bill receives sufficient debate, that any conclusions are drawn and that we move to the Committee stage. The Bill is to allow the insulation of dwelling units provided by the conversion of existing dwellings, and for connected purposes. It is something that we should seriously consider--

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned. Debate to be resumed upon Friday 25 February.

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Remaining Private Members' Bills


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members : Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 20 May.


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members : Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 25 February.

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Points of Order

2.31 pm

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understand that a press release has been issued in conjunction with a review of the ambulance service across the west midlands by the summer. I recently had an Adjournment debate in the House in which I asked that the contract for patient services in north Staffordshire should be withdrawn and relet. Will you inquire whether the Secretary of State is prepared to come to the House so that the ambulance service thoughout the west midlands, including North Staffordshire, can be taken fully into account in the review that is about to take place?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : That is not even a matter for the Chair, as the hon. Lady presumably knows.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My point of order is certainly a matter for the Chair. I seek your advice and guidance. I see that we have on the Order Paper an extraordinary business motion--an omnibus business motion. It sets out in detail the timetabling of a series of debates next week. Although I have no interest in some of the debates, I have a particular interest in the debate on the motion in paragraph (ii)(a). As you will see, it provides two hours to deal with some of the most controversial legislation that is likely to come before the House. I do not know how long other hon. Members may wish to speak on the matter, but it would take at least two hours to set out the case for a separate Cornish Euro-seat, let alone the case for Plymouth to have its own Euro-representative. I note that the Leader of the House is not here to listen to my comments. My difficulty, and the difficulty facing the House, is that I understand from the guidance that I have been given so far that if I objected to that specific item in the extraordinary omnibus motion, the whole business for next week would fall and we would presumably have to call the Leader of the House to come before the House again on Monday to set out a new motion. Is it not an insult to the House, first, that we have an omnibus motion throwing together so many important motions, secondly, that the Leader of the House is not here to listen to the comments of hon. Members and, thirdly, that such controversial legislation would be dealt with in two hours? That is an example of extraordinary contempt for the House.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The matter is not debatable. The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Tyler) has put his point clearly. I regret to say that the hon. Gentleman, like all hon. Members, occasionally has to make a decision. He knows that, and he must make his own decision.

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Business of the House

Ordered ,


(1) notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business), the Speaker shall--

(i) at the sitting on Monday 14th February--

(a) put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew relating to the draft Airports (Northern Ireland) Order not later than Seven o'clock ;

(b) put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew relating to the draft Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order not later than one and a half hours after their commencement ; (

(c) put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Mr. Secretary Brooke relating to Cultural Objects not later than one and a half hours after their commencement ; and

(d) put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Mr. Secretary Lang relating to Housing (Scotland) not later than half-past Eleven o'clock ;

(ii) at the sitting on Tuesday 15th February--

(a) put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Mr. Secretary Howard relating to Representation of the People not later than two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first such Motion ;

(b) put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the names of Mr. Anthony Nelson relating to Financial Services, Banks and Banking and Building Societies, and of Mr. Secretary Heseltine relating to Insurance not later than one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first such Motion ; and

(c) put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Mr. Secretary Redwood relating to Local Government Finance (Wales) not later than half-past Eleven o'clock ; and

(iii) at the sitting on Wednesday 16th February--

(a) put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Mr. Secretary MacGregor relating to Channel Tunnel not later than one and a half hours after their commencement ; and

(b) put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Mr. Secretary Lilley relating to Pensions, Social Security and Terms and Conditions of Employment not later than Ten o'clock ;

and the above Motions may be proceeded with, though opposed, after the expiry of the time for opposed business ; and

(2) at the sitting on Monday 21st February, in Committee of the whole House on new Clauses committed thereto in respect of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, the Chairman shall (

(i) not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first such new Clause relating to capital punishment ; and

(ii) not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first such new Clause relating to the age of consent for sexual acts between men in Great Britain, respectively, put--

(a) the Question already proposed from the Chair ;

(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed (including, in the case of a new Clause which has been read a second time, the Question on any Amendment to such a new Clause which has been selected by him and which may then be moved and, thereafter, the Question that the Clause, or the Clause as amended, be added to the Bill) ; and

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(c) any Question necessary to dispose of any other new Clauses and Amendments thereto, which have been selected by him and which may then be moved.-- [Mr. Conway.]

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On 25 January, the House gave me permission to introduce my Bill, which is listed No. 4 on today's Order Paper, by a majority of 222 to 69. The measure would allow people at Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, to belong to a trade union. Someone objected to my Bill. Will the identity of that Member appear in Hansard ? It is wrong that an hon. Member can object to a measure without being identified in the official records.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : If my memory is correct, the hon. Member is a member of the Procedure Committee, which suggested that that should not happen.


Motion made, and Question proposed,

That Mr. Robert Jackson be discharged from the Committee of Public Accounts and Mr. Richard Tracey be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Conway.]

Hon. Members : Object.

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Ellesmere Port (Explosion)

Motion made, and Question proposed , That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Conway.]

2.35 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) : This is a serious matter, but I am sure that I and other hon. Members who are detained this afternoon regret that we were unable to travel to Rotherham for the memorial service of the late Member for Rotherham, Mr. Jimmy Boyce.

This matter affects several hon. and right hon. Members with constituencies near mine and needs to be seriously aired. At 20.40 on Tuesday 1 February, the fire brigade received a call to attend an incident at the Associated Octel plant on Oil Sites road, Ellesmere Port. The name of that road will give the House some sign of the nature of that part of my constituency.

The first crew took six minutes to arrive. On arrival, fire crews were met by a leak of ethyl chloride. One member of Associated Octel's staff had been overcome by fumes from the substance and was promptly taken to hospital. Two crews of firefighters, dressed in chemical protection suits, attempted to isolate the leak via two valves. Although the valves were closed off successfully, a large amount of the product continued to leak. Crews withdrew and, shortly afterwards, the leaking material flashed over, causing the whole plant to catch fire.

Attempts were made to extinguish the blaze, which was burning out of control, and at about midnight the officer in charge decided to withdraw firefighters due to the risk of failure of vessels within the plant.

The main concern was over a container known as the slops tank, which contained up to 30 tonnes of ethyl chloride. Firefighters then regrouped and mounted a major foam attack, using two foam tankers and another foam tanker belonging to the Shell company. The attack was conducted in extremely hazardous conditions and firefighters' actions prevented a serious situation from escalating.

Local residents in Elton, in my constituency, and in the Helsby area, which is in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad), were invited to stay indoors and to close windows. That was done by public address systems on fire appliances and by the local radio station. The Minister may ask his colleagues why no public address facilities are available to the police in such an area.

Although the fire had lessened, a serious fire was still burning, which took several hours to bring under control. A total of 225,000 litres of foam were used and the Cheshire fire brigade was supported by the Clwyd and Merseyside fire and civil defence authority. The all-clear was given to residents at 6 am, and motorway and rail links were opened shortly afterwards. Throughout the incident, constant air monitoring was undertaken.

Nearby industrial premises, including ICI Organics, Cabot Carbon, Kemira Fertiliers and the northern part of the Shell refinery were evacuated.

The process undertaken in the plant was the mixing of ethyl chloride and hydrochloric acid, which is used to make the anti-knock compound for petrol, tetra-ethyl-lead. A number of firefighters were treated as a result of exposure to the chemicals.

The details that I have just put on record were largely provided by the Cheshire fire brigade and are matters of

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fact. I must stress that the emergency services were absolutely magnificent and I have no doubt that, had it not been for the fire crews' skill and bravery, we would be discussing a major disaster today. My rusty chemistry tells me that one of the combustion products of ethyl chloride is phosgene, so a serious risk could have ensued.

Many lessons can be learnt from that incident. The Health and Safety Executive investigation is now under way and it would be wrong for me to speculate on the outcome of that inquiry. However, I shall make a few observations. First, should any prosecutions result from the inquiry, they would be small beer compared with the economic effect on the company, which will lose millions of pounds in income. The loss will also have a major impact on our balance of trade. Last year, the plant exported some 92,000 tonnes of tetra-ethyl and tetra-ethyl-lead worth some £240 million.

Secondly, once the cause of the accident is known, further studies will need to be made on the plant's design and location. For instance, if it is determined that the plant can be safely located at the same site, can the slops tank be relocated away from the reactor vessel? That tank had a two- hour fire retardant in the form of an intumescent coating. The fire brigade was so concerned at the height of the fire because those two hours were up. Nobody can put his hand on his heart and say that that vessel was safe. Even the volume that it contained was unknown, as the instrumentation had been destroyed at an early stage of the fire.

Thirdly, had the tank gone up, what would the resultant risk have been? The fire brigade was gearing up to evacuate its teams, but would it have been possible to evacuate residents down wind? Fourthly, did the Cheshire fire brigade and all the emergency services have sufficient resources at their disposal to combat that second eventuality? As it was, 181 firefighters were involved in the incident. Many constituents share my view that the financial allocation for emergency services in such a high-risk area is inadequate. Was the Seveso directive implemented?

Fifthly, had a decision been taken to sound sirens in the area, would those sirens have been adequate? Why were obstacles put in the way when the fire service argued for retaining the previously Government-controlled air raid warning systems in the area, which could be used to warn the public in the event of a chemical incident?

Sixthly, what would have happened if, at the same time, another serious incident had occurred? For example, could a house fire or chemical spillage on the M6 have been adequately covered? Many far-reaching issues arise from the fire. Questions must be asked and answers are needed, and the public should have access to that information. My purpose in bringing the matter to the attention of the House is to ensure that commitments which I, along with 135 other hon. Members who signed early-day motion 528, have made are met in full by the Government. Incidentally, I am horrified that one hon. Member--the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth)--has chosen not to sign the motion to date. If he disagrees with an aspect of it, he can seek to amend it, but perhaps he has better things to do with his time.

Many of the issues to which I have referred go far beyond the remit of the HSE. They cover at least two, and possibly three, Government Departments : the Home Office, the Department of the Environment and, to an

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extent, the Department of Health. In no way do I criticise the work currently undertaken by the HSE. I recognise that its statutory duties preclude the Minister from responding on any aspects of its work that may have a bearing on whether there will be prosecutions. To sum up, we are dealing with an area in which the petrochemical industry is an integral and extremely important part of the local economy. Many people from an extended travel-to-work area are engaged in the industry, which contributes massively to the national economy, but there is understandable disquiet as a result of the Octel incident. The need for a public inquiry is, in my view, irrefutable. I have made the Minister aware of the concern in and around my constituency. The decision lies firmly with him.

If the Minister ignores the reasonable demands of residents in that part of the country, which contributes so much to our export capacity, his inaction will be denounced. He must agree that the public interest is best served by a public inquiry, in a format that allows the cross-examination of witnesses, investigates what went wrong at Octel and whether such accidents can be avoided in the future and, if so, how. It must also examine whether the emergency services' resources and procedures are adequate in the event of a major incident.

Finally, in my view, the Minister has a duty to the people in my area--the residents, workers and companies who contribute so much to the export effort--to ensure that the facts are in the open in the way that I have described.

2.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Michael Forsyth) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) on raising this most important matter on the Adjournment and I welcome the attendance of my right hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad) in the debate. I know how concerned both are about the serious incident at Associated Octel. I very much regret that the hon. Gentleman's concern has prevented him from being able to attend the memorial service for the hon. Member for Rotherham. Jimmy Boyce was a fellow Scot, who believed passionately in his socialism and was never happier than when giving me and my Government colleagues a hard time from the Opposition Benches. It is very sad indeed that his time here should have been cut so short so soon after becoming a Member of the House, and at such a young age.

The hon. Gentleman paid tribute to all the emergency services. I join him in praise for all those involved in successfully containing this extremely serious incident. Thanks should also go to the Octel employees for their prompt action in implementing the emergency plan and summoning the emergency services, and to the works fire brigade. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, which I share, to discover the cause of the accident as soon as possible and to take steps to avoid a recurrence. As he knows, the Health and Safety Executive has started its investigation. It has two main strands : first, to establish why the leak and subsequent fire occurred and gather eye-witness statements while memories are still fresh ; and, secondly, to determine how the emergency was handled in relation to the emergency plans and whether the plans were sufficient.

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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that it is a complex technical investigation. It is still at an early stage. The cause of the leak and the source of the ignition have yet to be determined. The HSE investigators have the full range of its scientific and technical expertise at their disposal. The 14-strong team is led by Dr. Roger Nourish, who is head of the HSE's special hazards unit, and includes specialists in chemical, mechanical, electrical and process safety engineering, and scientists who specialise in fire, explosion and metallurgy.

Dr. Nourish has already met several representatives of local residents, including a councillor, to give them the opportunity to share their concerns at an early stage of the investigation. As is its normal practice, the HSE will make its findings public. That form of technical investigation by the HSE means that any changes needed can be identified and introduced with the minimum delay. The hon. Gentleman said that he would prefer a public inquiry. I share his and my right hon. Friend's concern for those who live and work locally. They deserve to be reassured that the highest possible standards are maintained.

However, we really must await the HSE report. That report will go to the Health and Safety Commission, which is a tripartite body and with powers under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to conduct a public inquiry. Ministers can set up such an inquiry and also have powers to direct the HSC to do so. The HSC has a good reputation for ensuring the highest standards of health and safety ; it will want to ensure that lessons are learnt from this incident and put into practice.

I am aware that, according to press reports, the plant was "20 minutes from disaster". That was because the intumescent coating on the vessel was designed to provide a minimum two-hour protection from a fire surrounding or engulfing it. The reports ignored the fact that the vessels were equipped with additional protective devices.

Mr. Miller : I accept that the coating was designed to provide protection for a minimum of two hours. No doubt the Minister will agree, however, that the chief fire officer was acting on the best advice available at the time. Given his understanding that the protection was designed to last for two hours, his anxiety at about midnight--and his consequent decision--were justified.

Mr. Forsyth : I am not criticising the chief fire officer's judgment in any way ; on the contrary, I am trying to explain that reporting of the incident which suggested that, after a further 20 minutes, the vessel might have exploded arose from a misunderstanding of the nature of the intumescent coating.

As I was saying, the reports ignored the fact that the vessels were equipped with additional protective devices, including pressure relief valves, designed to prevent a rupture and explosion. The intumescent coating was only the first line of defence. In fact, it held up well after the two hours had elapsed ; and, having been brought under control, the fire was allowed to burn itself out safely.

The HSE has advised me that "20 minutes from disaster" was a gross exaggeration ; nevertheless, it is examining the vessels and samples of the intumescent coating. That investigation should provide a clearer picture of the effects of the fire on the vessels and any lessons learnt will be acted on quickly. The HSE has also told me

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