Previous Section Home Page

Spring, Richard

Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)

Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John

Steen, Anthony

Stephen, Michael

Stern, Michael

Stewart, Allan

Streeter, Gary

Sumberg, David

Sweeney, Walter

Sykes, John

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Taylor, Ian (Esher)

Taylor, John M. (Solihull)

Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)

Temple-Morris, Peter

Thomason, Roy

Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)

Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)

Thornton, Sir Malcolm

Thurnham, Peter

Townend, John (Bridlington)

Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)

Tracey, Richard

Tredinnick, David

Trend, Michael

Twinn, Dr Ian

Vaughan, Sir Gerard

Viggers, Peter

Waldegrave, Rt Hon William

Walden, George

Walker, Bill (N Tayside)

Ward, John

Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)

Waterson, Nigel

Watts, John

Wells, Bowen

Column 126

Whitney, Ray

Whittingdale, John

Widdecombe, Ann

Wiggin, Sir Jerry

Wilkinson, John

Willetts, David

Wilshire, David

Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)

Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)

Wolfson, Mark

Wood, Timothy

Yeo, Tim

Young, Rt Hon Sir George

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. Sydney Chapman and

Mr. Derek Conway.

Amendment accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved ,

That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 6703/88 and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Employment Department on 21st October 1993, relating to the burden of proof in the area of equal pay and equal treatment for women and men ; endorses the Government's view that the draft Directive breaches the principle of subsidiarity and would have a disproportionate impact in the United Kingdom ; shares the Government's view that the proposed Directive is wrong in principle and unnecessary for the proper determination of cases ; agrees with the Government that the United Kingdom's arrangements for deciding complaints of sex discrimination and equal pay are fair to both parties, and take proper account of the problems of evidence and the need to reach fair decisions with due regard to the interests of both parties ; and supports the Government's view that the draft Directive should not be adopted.

10.31 pm

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of which I have given notice to the Minister for Energy and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva), relating to a parliamentary question that I tabled on 3 May about a report published today, "Competition and choice in the gas market--a joint consultative document". A similar question was tabled by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth three days later. The Minister answered that question today, held a press conference outside the House and notified me of his answer to the hon. Gentleman, despite the question that I had tabled previously. That is a gross discourtesy to the House.

The document, which is effectively a Green Paper and which has been the subject of parliamentary questions, should have been the subject of a statement in the House. It is an insult to more than 18 million gas users in this country.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : The hon. Gentleman may think that, but it is not a matter for the Chair, as he well knows.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you recall the occasion when a press release was put out by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) about a speech which he never made in the House of Commons

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. That is not a point of order.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Undoubtedly you will have heard earlier today that the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People misled the House on Friday when he said that he had no knowledge about parliamentary questions

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, Madam Speaker told the House that she will consider the matter.

Column 127

Water Pollution (Worcester)

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

10.33 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester) : I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of great importance to the people of Worcestershire. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the way in which he has approached the issue and for being here tonight to respond to this short debate.

On Friday 15 April, a serious water pollution incident occurred in my constituency, which also affected the water in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) and for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) and caused supply difficulties in Gloucestershire and as far away as Coventry. It was a major incident by any standards, but not a dangerous one, as eventually became clear by great good fortune.

My purpose tonight is to explain what happened, to ask about the questions that the various inquiries which have been established must address and to ask the Government to do three things urgently. When the reports of the inquiries are available, that will be the time to apportion blame, if any, and to ensure that the lessons of this incident are properly learned.

The issues which I will raise tonight, and have done repeatedly since the incident, should not mask my general admiration for the way in which all the bodies and agencies involved have responded, both to the events themselves and to the public debate since. They have been models of openness, which I have found encouraging.

I am also grateful to my hon. Friends whose constituents were affected for their invaluable assistance, and, perhaps unusually, to the two members of the Government Whips Office who experienced similar problems in the past-- my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick)--for their advice.

It is generally not my intention to point the finger of blame tonight. Some Opposition Members--I see the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) in his place--have been quick to do so. I think they were wrong. Is it just a coincidence that their early-day motion singles out for criticism by name two public servants from the Government-controlled district health authority--two individuals of great personal integrity and professional skill--but does not mention the involvement of a Labour- controlled city council or a Liberal and Labour-controlled county council in the same emergency incident team ?

Opposition Members have named names in an irresponsible way, and have risked politicising an important issue. Finding the right responses to the issue will be more difficult in a party political climate. Their attitude contrasts with the highly responsible attitude of the three local authorities in my constituency, each of a different political composition, towards the incident.

Let us turn to the events themselves. Customer complaints began it all at about 8 am on Friday 15 April. They were related to water from the Barbourne treatment works in the centre of Worcester. The reports were of a strong paraffin-type smell and taste to the water coming out of their taps.

Column 128

The works was shut down within 80 minutes-- by any standards, a fast response. The decision to issue the formal warning not to drink water, though, was only made around midday on Friday. Information was provided on local radio, from a police helicopter, loudspeaker vans and letter drops. Bowsers containing emergency supplies began to arrive quickly.

An estimated 126,000 people were affected by the incident, plus thousands of others who were asked to save water as far away as Coventry. Indeed, water was actually cut off in many homes in the midlands.

South Staffordshire Water, upstream of Worcester, suffered a polluted reservoir, but by a miracle that company was not abstracting water for immediate consumption from the River Severn at the time, or the scale of the emergency would have been far greater, as much of the Black Country could have been directly affected.

The source of the pollution was tracked around 1 am on Saturday by the National Rivers Authority, to an industrial plant at Wem in Shropshire. The water was declared safe by 5 pm on Saturday, but the problems of taste, particularly in the more remote areas, continued well after that.

We must learn the lessons, not just for Worcestershire, but for everywhere where water is abstracted from rivers. There is no room for complacency. The worst did not happen, but tens of thousands of people were inconvenienced and alarmed--particularly the elderly, the disabled and those expecting babies, who are naturally very concerned about any possible long-term effects. We owe it to all these people to provide the maximum level of reassurance that those events will not happen again and that there is no long-term health hazard resulting from the pollution.

What, then, are the crucial questions to which public answers--and I stress public--must be given ? I will start upstream, at the source of the pollution itself.

The source of the pollution was Vitalscheme Limited, a recycler of industrial solvents, licensed by Shropshire county council waste regulatory authority. It was only licensed on 28 February 1994. Within six weeks, its activities had gone wrong, and pollutants were being discharged.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth) : Is my hon. Friend aware that Severn Trent is taking criminal proceedings against Vitalscheme Ltd for the way in which substances have been introduced into Severn Trent sewers ? Does he agree that there is now a powerful argument for companies such as Severn Trent to have a much greater input into the licensing of waste companies ?

Mr. Luff : My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I am delighted that Severn Trent has decided to take proceedings against the firm in question, but that limits what we can say tonight on the subject, as the proceedings are sub judice.

Something went wrong, and material was discharged into the river without authorisation, which led to the problems in my constituency. There have been press reports about the nature of the firm which it would be improper to go into in detail tonight. Of course, the company is the subject of those proceedings.

If those reports are accurate, questions have to be asked about the licensing regime, whether there was negligence, and whether access to the right information or whatever would have made it easier for Shropshire county council to

Column 129

deal with the matter. The system itself may be at fault. I understand that changes under an Act of Parliament introduced on 1 May may have dealt with the deficiency in the system which led to the problem. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will want to deal with those points.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that recycling is a hazardous and skilled business, and that there is room only for the best possible operators in the trade. On the face of it, on this occasion something went badly wrong. To my mind, the answers to those questions are the most important answers to be gleaned. Only by getting the issue right can we be sure that similar pollution incidents will be avoided in the future.

The polluted water passed through the Severn Trent sewerage works, apparently for several days. Unwittingly, Severn Trent became the polluter of the Severn. It must have been for several days, because the polluted water had to travel 70 miles to Worcester before it was detected. I know that sewage works are smelly places, but the National Rivers Authority will have to examine that issue carefully in its investigation.

Talking of the National Rivers Authority leads me to the question of the river itself. How could the National Rivers Authority fail to spot pollution that must have been there for several days ? As I say, there are 70 miles of river between Wem and Worcester. Perhaps more seriously, why was the NRA not part of the emergency incident team formed to deal with incident ? Did its exclusion from the team delay the analysis and finding of solutions ?

What of the Barbourne water treatment works in my constituency ? The works is old, and is scheduled for replacement by enlarged works at Strensham at the end of 1995. They have served Worcester well, and the procedures there are thorough, but the fact remains that the noses of my constituents--the customers of Severn Trent--proved better at detecting the pollution than the formal monitoring that was in place there. How could this be ?

I have read accounts of a similar incident in Philadelphia in the United States of America, involving the same chemical, which clearly illustrates the difficulties and properties of the particular pollutant involved. It is strange that my constituents' tastebuds were better than all the procedures in place at that treatment works. The puzzle must be satisfactorily resolved. Whatever the answer, I believe that only the superior filtration systems available at more modern plants can provide complete reassurance that the events will not be repeated.

What of Severn Trent's response to consumer complaints ? Within 80 minutes of the first calls, the plant was shut. But it subsequently took three and a half hours to issue the warning not to drink the water. We have to ask whether that is genuinely the best that could have been achieved. If a major toxin had been to blame, that delay could have been fatal.

The water smelt strongly of paraffin, yet could not be analysed quickly. Why ? Indeed, it took 14 days to work out the identity of the last pollutant--the smelly one. This question was asked in the Philadelphia experience, too, where the analysis took 20 days, but our inquiries must look into the apparent delay. Are the analytical facilities available for such incidents good enough ? Do we need to provide more resources to the NRA and make it the central facility for events of this kind ?

On the question of the health effects of the pollution, it is important to quote at some length from a report prepared for me by the department of public health medicine of the

Column 130

Worcester and District health authority. It confirms a conversation that I had with Professor Rod Griffiths of the regional health authority, himself an expert in this area. The report says : "By Saturday afternoon 16th April we knew that Severn Trent had looked for but not found any of the major groups of toxic chemicals including polyaromatic hydrocarbons and pesticides. In addition, "Trihalomethanes" (formed when chlorine reacts with any organic material present in water after treatment and used as an indicator of the possible presence of toxic organic chemicals) were reported to be normal. We also knew that whatever chemicals were present were at concentrations of one part per billion or less. 2-ethyl 4-methyl 1, 3-dioxolane had been positively identified at maximum concentrations of 0.02 parts per billion in tap water and was known to be volatile and smelly. The other chemical identified, in maximum concentrations of less than 1 part per billion, was reported to be an amine compound.

Advice was received through Professor Rod Griffiths on the basis of this information from the National Poisons Information Service (Birmingham) and the Health Advisory Group on Chemical Contamination Incidents (HAGCCI) that under these circumstances the chemicals did not pose a hazard to human health and that no other known chemicals as yet unidentified which could also be contaminating the water in trace amounts would be toxic at these concentrations.

The decision, taken jointly by a representative of the Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, the Advisors at the Regional Health Authority and by the Emergency Incident Teams in Worcester and Gloucester, was that there was no significant risk to health from drinking contaminated water and this advice was issued to the public."

I agree that questions need to be asked about where the samples that were analysed were taken and when. I accept that the conclusions arrived at by so many experts at the time must now be independently validated. On the basis of the evidence available to me, however, I am confident that the advice to the public was prudently and thoughtfully given, and that no blame attaches to any member of the emergency incident team for giving such advice. That evidence clearly contradicts the claims of the early-day motion to which I referred earlier.

What about the effectiveness and timeliness of warnings ? I was living in Worcester, but I did not hear about the incident until about 2 pm on Friday, and then essentially by chance. No letters were received in my road until about 7 pm. The delay in giving the warning not to drink the water is an issue, but how could we have achieved something approaching 100 per cent. awareness among the population more rapidly, once that decision was taken ?

There was considerable confusion of message. For example, acting on the same advice from Severn Trent on Saturday morning the two local radio stations offered different advice on the simple question of whether one could brush one's teeth. The letter that came through our door at home at 7 pm contrasted sharply with the reassuring tone of a Severn Trent spokesman on the television news a little earlier. There was also confusion about the areas affected, although Severn Trent denies that. The lists issued of places affected were confusing, and the names offered seemed to change from list to list. I appreciate the difficulties caused by the particular circumstances of the event. For example, the need for water conservation in other areas made the message more complicated. I do not believe that that aspect of the crisis was satisfactorily handled, however.

As for the provision of safe water, I have particular concerns about the experience of the rural areas. Perhaps those areas could also have done with better warnings.

Next Section

  Home Page