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14 May 2002 : Column 228WH

Gas Leaks (Newton Heath)

1 pm

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): There have been a number of gas leaks and gas explosions in the north-west, the most recent of which happened over the weekend in Nelson. Fortunately, there were no fatalities. I do not want to dwell on the possible causes; however, the fact that explosions happen causes massive concern in local communities.

In November last year there were two significant explosions in Manchester. One, in Tameside, the neighbouring borough to my constituency, led to fatalities. The other occurred in Newton Heath in my constituency. Although it caused massive damage to property, it fortunately inflicted only minor injuries on people.

A second gas leak occurred in Newton Heath some time later. I shall say more about that in a little while, but people in such a small community are bound to be worried that there is something systemically wrong with the provision of gas in urban communities when two gas leaks occur so close together, with one leading to an explosion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes) will speak about events in his constituency, but I shall deal with the explosion in Newton Heath, and draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister a number of questions that go to the core of the matter. We need to determine whether the system is operated safely, whether existing procedures are adequate in the event of an emergency, and whether investigations of the causes of a leak are acceptable. The answers to such questions need to be in the public domain.

The Newton Heath explosion happened on a Saturday. Local people have told me that gas could be detected from early morning. Transco found out about the leak only much later in the day—I am not seeking to claim otherwise—but it is certain that the gas had been escaping for a considerable time. The gas build-up was a danger long before the explosion actually happened. If the explosion had happened earlier, instead of loss of property and minor injury there could have been a major human catastrophe, with deaths on a large scale. The area is densely populated, and an explosion big enough to destroy houses is surely big enough to destroy people. The scale of the leak is therefore a matter for concern. I do not know whether Transco can do more in terms of early detection, but there are questions that need to be addressed.

I want to place on record my appreciation of the role of the emergency services. The police and others acted quickly to move people out of the area once the extent of the leak became known. The various statutory services and the local authority ensured that the evacuees were housed overnight. One or two boundary problems aside, the population of the area were treated relatively well, given the extraordinary circumstances.

However, once it had been informed of the leak, Transco took some hours to begin the process of shutting the system down. The system had not been shut down even by the time the explosion took place. I am not competent or expert in these matters so I do not know whether that is in the nature of the system that we

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operate, but most people would hold the common-sense view that, once a leak is identified, the necessary safety valves should be turned off and the system closed down in a way that rendered it at least safer. When the gas that had escaped already had dispersed, the system would be safe.

Clearly, that is not what happened in the Newton Heath explosion. Is my hon. Friend the Minister satisfied that Transco had installed the necessary technology? Is the company able to close systems down as quickly as humanly possible?

I accept that, in some circumstances, the process cannot be immediate, but we need to know, beyond peradventure, that the system on that day was being closed down with all possible speed. As I said, it is not clear to me that it was.

The second matter that concerns me has to do with the inquiry that was held into the explosion. I contacted the Health and Safety Executive immediately after the explosion. I was told that the HSE did not play an active role in the leak investigation, but allowed Transco to carry that out.

We know that self-regulation can work in some areas, but we also know—to our cost—that it is not always helpful, especially when official regulators do not put pressure on those who regulate themselves to drive the case for safety hard and efficiently. We have seen that with the railways. Is my hon. Friend the Minister satisfied that it is right and proper that the HSE does not consider a life-threatening explosion such as occurred in my constituency sufficiently important to require that it move in and take over the investigation to guarantee public confidence in the results?

I have seen a copy of the official report. I am grateful to Transco and the HSE for making it available. However, it does not reach a definitive conclusion. As far as I understand it, it says that the pipe that fractured had suffered from corrosion over the years, and from road vibration. Those and other factors led to the pipe cracking, ultimately, with the result that gas escaped.

Worryingly, the report does not suggest that the leak was a one-off accident that occurred to a unique pipe in a unique set of circumstances. People need to be confident that Transco's stock of piping is not riddled with the faults that led to the leak and explosion in my constituency. Much of the piping network was laid at roughly the same time, using contemporary techniques and technology. Does my hon. Friend the Minister believe that a lot of the piping stock has become time-expired? If so, a genuine, broad-based risk exists. If not, we need expert and independent reassurance that we can sleep safely, and that the same problem will not arise again with pipes that lie under roads which carry heavy traffic.

To give the company credit, Transco has paid out small amounts in compensation for the inconvenience caused to people. Such people include those who lost the contents of their freezers when the electricity was shut down and they had to leave their houses. I understand that such compensation was paid out pretty much on the nod.

However, Transco has not yet responded to people whose homes were destroyed in the blast. I understand that it has not accepted responsibility for the explosion.

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That defies common sense. Mrs. Dennisor and Mrs. Charlesworth resided in homes that were destroyed. Six months on, they are entitled to feel that real progress should have been made with their predicament.

Finally, I wish to turn briefly to the second leak in Newton Heath, which occurred some months after the original explosion. Once again, my constituents were evacuated from their homes and taken to emergency centres. Again, the emergency services and the local authority responded well. Fortunately, there was no explosion as Transco was able to work on the leak and close the system down. Nothing untoward took place, but it is clear that the potential existed for a major gas leak causing major damage.

One of the rumours abroad is that the pipe was supposedly disused and that Transco's own records had it down as no longer carrying a gas supply. I cannot emphasise enough the sense of the bizarre and the human tragedy that could be caused if our urban and other areas contain pipes that are full of gas but are believed to be empty. Those pipes, by definition, would not undergo maintenance or routine repair because they presumably do not exist on the repair and maintenance record books. This is a matter of fundamental importance. If the rumour is wrong, can the official situation be put on the record independently? Can we know what really did take place?

Gas is a necessary part of our lives. No one wants to disinvent the supply system. What we want is a Transco that is commercially successful and technically competent. However, the supply of gas carries with it a price, and that price is made much higher if the technical system and its maintenance are such that we cannot sleep comfortably at night. We must be able to believe that we can sleep without gas explosions becoming a feature of our lives.

I do not know what the pattern of leaks and explosions is and how the recent events tie in with Transco's record over a longer period. Perhaps because my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and I have recently been exposed—almost literally—to these problems, we have become sensitised. In any event, these important issues must be satisfactorily answered and put in the public domain. Without that, my constituents will continue to believe that they are in peril. I need answers—I need to be able to tell my constituents that they are not at risk and that they live in a safe environment. That has to be done in a way that is transparent and seen to be independent.

1.12 pm

Mr. David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) on securing a debate on this most important subject and for giving me the opportunity to make a brief contribution.

My hon. Friend's constituency and mine share a border. Many of his constituents in Clayton and Newton Heath have kinship and workplace connections with mine in Droylsden and Failsworth and other parts of my constituency. We share the same accident and emergency services—Greater Manchester fire, police and ambulance—and in the context of today's debate the same gas emergency services from Transco.

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The terrible events that my hon. Friend referred to and which took place on 17 November in his constituency were preceded just a few days earlier by a horrific gas explosion and fire just a couple of miles away in my constituency. In that incident, about 300 residents were evacuated from their homes in Cavendish Mill after reporting a smell of gas. After a few hours, Transco engineers declared the building safe and allowed residents back in. Less than an hour later, a massive explosion occurred, as a result of which many residents were made homeless, several were injured and, tragically, one man lost his life.

In the knowledge of this incident, it is easy to understand the heightened sense of alarm and enormous loss of confidence in the gas emergency services felt by my hon. Friend's constituents and, indeed, by many others across Greater Manchester and throughout our region. The explosion in north Lancashire this week will have rekindled that sense of alarm among our constituents.

I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the Health and Safety Executive's investigations into these incidents. Indeed, I understand that the coroner will, this week, receive the final reports of the fire service and the Health and Safety Executive into the Ashton-under-Lyne case, so their findings should soon be in the public domain. However, it is clear that something went terribly wrong to produce the sequence of events that led to the tragedies in Newton Heath and Ashton back in November, and some very serious questions need to be answered.

The Health and Safety Executive says on its website of the gas supply pipes:

It goes on to say that if that point were reached, a rapid increase might occur in both the rate of failure and the number of incidents, some of which could well involve multiple fatalities. I am sure that many of my hon. Friend's constituents, like mine, feel that that point has been reached already.

The big question is what the regulatory authorities—Ofgem and the Health and Safety Executive—and Transco are doing to deal with the problems and to eliminate the risk. The track record of Transco in particular does not fill me with confidence about its willingness or ability to deal competently with the issue. Obviously, the answer is for substantial investment to go into the replacement of worn-out gas supply pipes and installations. The wrangle over the true cost of funding and the appropriate length of the replacement period goes on between the regulator and Transco but, ultimately, the integrity of the supply and the safety of the public is in the hands of the gas engineers and fitters who install and maintain the pipework.

Five years ago, Transco made 1,000 engineers redundant as part of a cost-saving programme. Now we hear from industry experts—Transco admits that this is true—that it is 1,000 engineers short of the number needed just to maintain the network. The recruitment and training of apprentices has been slashed. The leader of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union told the Public Administration Select Committee just a few months ago:

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The time taken to repair gas leaks is on the increase, as my hon. Friend has mentioned. We hear that Transco does not have proper records of its supply system. Subcontractors carry out 60 per cent. of Transco's maintenance work, with serious questions being asked about the standard of some of that work. There are reports of skilled engineers working hours massively in excess of the legal limit just to keep up with the emergency call-out work. It has been claimed that they work 16 hours without a break at weekends and try to snatch a few minutes' sleep in their vans.

Investing in the skills of the work force requires a long-term view, but all the indicators are that Transco is preoccupied with short considerations, aimed at splitting its assets in preparation for yet more sell-offs and fragmentation in the industry and driven by the need to maximise shareholder value at the expense—potentially—of public safety.

One engineer was quoted in the press last year as saying:

Another said:

Sadly, we have had our bangs in our part of Greater Manchester. My hon. Friend and I are listening to the concerns of our constituents. However, I am far from convinced that the industry regulators and the powers that be in Transco have really got the message and that we are not on the verge of a collapse of public confidence in the safety of the gas industry even greater than that witnessed in the railway industry.

1.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) on securing this debate and raising a number of important points of concern. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes) made a number of wider points about gas safety and the future of the gas industry in general. These deserve a clear response, although today my comments will relate specifically to the gas leaks and explosions referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central.

My hon. Friend spoke of the gas incident in his constituency at Crawford street on 17 November. I reaffirm the Government's commitment to ensuring that Transco implements its programme to replace all iron gas mains at risk—that is, within 30 m of property—including those in excess of 12 in in diameter. That programme was recently reviewed and has been accelerated in agreement with the Health and Safety Executive, which will regulate compliance. I hope that the comprehensive information about the incident on 17 November that the HSE and Transco have already made available to my hon. Friend and their offer to meet him has helped an understanding of the cause of the incident and the subsequent action taken by Transco.

My hon. Friend noted that Transco investigated the incident and reported back to the HSE but he is concerned about the adequacy of Transco's response to the gas leak and, indeed, its management of the subsequent evacuation. I reaffirm that the HSE is

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satisfied that Transco met its statutory obligations in those areas, although both my hon. Friends raised wider issues about the nature of those obligations.

I am content that, in this case, the HSE acted appropriately in not launching its own immediate investigation into the incident. Under current legislation, Transco has a duty to investigate such incidents and report back to the HSE. On being informed of the incident, Dr. Johnson—the head of the unit with overall responsibility within the HSE for gas pipeline safety—immediately contacted Transco and satisfied himself that it had already taken the action required under the emergency response arrangements: the emergency services were present; the situation was being brought under control; and, importantly, that no further people were at risk.

I also note the reference made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central to the gas leak on 23 March this year in his constituency at Weir Pumps Ltd., Ten Acres lane. I shall also address the issues relating to that incident.

The explosion at Crawford street occurred because of the fracture of a 15 in spun iron main. Mains of that type were introduced after the second world war to transport gas between holders and keep the network in balance—they are much larger than ordinary mains supply pipes. They make up less than 2 per cent. of the total iron mains population of about 116,000 km, and historically they have given rise to very few incidents. However, as there were three similar incidents in the Manchester area in a short space of time—my hon. Friend drew attention to that point—the HSE charged Transco with conducting research to determine the risk from such mains and the priority for their replacement.

Against that background, and in given the specific points that my hon. Friend made today on the incidents in question, I assure him that we view all gas escapes as potentially serious. Transco has risk assessment procedures in place to ensure that resources are targeted at urgent preventive work and to provide an efficient response when serious incidents occur, many of which cannot be foreseen. In this instance, however, the research has specifically charged Transco with examining pipes with a diameter of more than 12 in to determine whether they are of greater concern than the rest of the iron network.

It is important that I reaffirm for my hon. Friend the key details of the incidents, as advised to me by the HSE. The HSE established that Transco logged the first report of a gas escape at 19.42 hours. The HSE has investigated statements that gas escapes were reported earlier but has found no evidence that such a report was made to Transco before 7.42 pm. At that point, a Transco competent person was dispatched to deal with the report, which was classified as an uncontrolled escape. Consistent with the seriousness that Transco views such reports, that competent person arrived at Crawford street 12 minutes later. He then assisted the police with evacuating houses in Crawford street and Briscoe lane. He also called for a distribution team to attend, as he suspected a serious escape from the gas main running down Briscoe lane.

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I am satisfied that, in relation to that incident, Transco met its obligations under the Gas Safety (Management) Regulations 1996 to attend an escape as soon as reasonably practicable and to stop it within 12 hours of the first report of the leak. Those actions are necessary to protect both the public and Transco workers.

My hon. Friend referred to the switching off of the gas main. It is certainly true that the police and Transco initially concentrated on the protection of the residents and the houses near the leak, evacuating about 100 people in the initial stages of the incident. Those actions undoubtedly prevented major injury, but I think Transco acknowledges that it could have started to depressurise the gas main more promptly after the escape was reported. As a result of the lessons learned on that occasion, its procedure has been changed.

Depressurising a main is far from simple, however. If the process is not properly managed, the whole connected gas network could be at risk. It took about seven hours to complete the process of reducing the pressure, so it is unlikely that the outcome would have been significantly affected if the reduction had been started earlier.

I shall move on to Transco's investigation of the incident and the HSE's responsibilities. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Gas Safety (Management) Regulations place a duty on Transco to carry out a thorough investigation of the circumstances of an incident and to send a full report to the HSE. The HSE's experience of such reports is that they are open and frank about the facts.

The HSE and I are satisfied that Transco acted promptly in initiating the investigation of the causes of the Crawford street incident and in establishing remedial action, including instructing Advantica Technology to undertake the necessary forensic work. I understand that my hon. Friend has received copies of both the Transco and Advantica reports for his information.

I am also satisfied that the HSE's initial response, on being informed of the Newton Heath incident, and its decision not to launch an immediate investigation were appropriate, taking into account the fact that Transco had taken all the necessary action and that the emergency services were in attendance. In those circumstances, the HSE's actions were consistent with its policy on the investigation of incidents.

The decision not to launch an immediate investigation was based on the duty placed on Transco by the Gas Safety (Management) Regulations to carry out a thorough investigation of the circumstances of the incident and to send a full report to the HSE. Arguably we might want to consider those arrangements, but they are the provisions under the current regulations.

Mr. Lloyd: My hon. Friend suggests that we might want to examine those arrangements. I have no doubts regarding the competence of the consultants who carried out the investigations in relation to Newton Heath. However, the public in general and I in particular would feel much happier if we knew that those who commission such investigations are independent of the operator. The question that must be answered was put by my hon. Friend the Member for

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Ashton-under-Lyne: is Transco making an adequate investment in safety, or is it putting commercial pressures ahead of the safe operation of the system? Only an independent regulator can give the public the reassurance that the balance is being properly maintained in the public interest.

Dr. Whitehead: That is an arguable point. The arrangements under the Gas Safety (Management) Regulations are that Transco carries out the investigation and makes a report to the HSE. The history of those arrangements shows that the investigations and the reports are thorough but, as my hon. Friend points out, independent investigation might reinforce public confidence in the process.

The HSE has assured me that it will continue to monitor Transco's implementation of the recommendations in the report on the Newton Heath incident. My hon. Friend may also want to know that two vacant inspector posts dealing with pipeline safety in the north of England have recently been filled through recruitment and transfer, thereby considerably increasing the total number of inspectors.

The HSE will be holding a meeting with Transco on 21 May when progress on the actions will be discussed. I have asked them to update my hon. Friend on the outcome of their meeting.

I cannot comment on the Cavendish Mill incident on 17 November because the HSE is still considering the issue of legal proceedings. An investigation is under way into the Weir Pumps incident on 23 March. I understand that that incident was the result of vandalism. When the report is received, the HSE will review it and consider whether further action is necessary.

I want to talk briefly about Transco's mains replacement programme. As hon. Members will know, the responsibility for maintaining and replacing pipes falls to Transco. Some of the pipes are extremely old, dating back to the Victorian era, but there is an accelerated programme—agreed with the HSE—to replace all iron gas mains located within 30 m of buildings. Within 30 years, 91,000 km of iron mains will be replaced—five years earlier than if the mains had continued to be replaced at the rate that has prevailed since 1977.

The detail is available for everyone to see. The HSE has made a proportionate response to managing the risks presented by iron gas mains. That sends out the message that we understand public concern and will continue to respond appropriately.

I have listened carefully to the points raised by my hon. Friend and recognise his understandable concern for the health and safety of his constituents. I reassure him that the HSE has carefully considered its obligations in respect of the Crawford street incident and has offered to meet him to discuss his concerns. I confirm that the offer remains open.

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