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4.32 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Rhodia Eco Services Ltd. is a chemical manufacturing plant in Staveley in my constituency. It employs 75 people directly but also engages drivers and contractors, so an additional 40 to 60 people are employed on an ad hoc basis. Rhodia is the successor to Staveley Chemicals, which used to be a major employer in the town.

The Rhodia site is in a prominent position near the centre of Staveley. Everyone is aware of its presence, as well as its past. Homes in Staveley are issued with an action card telling people what to do if there is an emergency at the plant. It tells them about the initial warning system and the siren that is sounded. They are told to go indoors, shut windows and doors and keep away from cellars and basements. They are told to tune into local radio stations to find out what is happening. When the all-clear siren sounds, the emergency is over. The plant did not used to have an all-clear siren, and when there was a false alarm people hid for a number of hours, not knowing that it was all over. I raised that matter with officials, and the extra signal was introduced.

There have been four incidents at the plant in the past 18 months. I shall give details of the most recent emergency, which occurred on 3 November. The details are derived from information that I obtained at a meeting at Rhodia Eco Services in Staveley on 7 November. The meeting was attended by representatives from Derbyshire county council

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emergency services department, the firm's general manager and site manager, representatives of the Health and Safety Executive and of the Environment Agency, and members of the police and fire services. A local borough councillor, Jim MacManus, was also present.

I shall describe the incident in detail. Recommissioning was taking place at the chlorine plant. Because of a manual disconnection, a valve was left open, leading to an escape of chlorine gas. The procedure has been corrected, and that manual operation no longer takes place, so the problem that caused the incident has been resolved.

The gas escape happened between 1 pm and 1.15 pm. No one can be more precise, as there was some confusion in the plant. Six workers were affected—two employees, and four contractors. The ambulance service was finally called, and ambulance staff triggered the proper emergency procedures. The fire service was contacted, as were the police at 1.31 pm.

Although the company asked the ambulance service for help, it did not set the emergency procedures in train. That happened because the company finally acted to protect six workers, and to have them taken to hospital. The siren to which I referred earlier was not sounded until 1.50 pm, but people in the community were suffering distress well before then.

Staveley hall contains the offices of Staveley town council, but rooms there are also rented out to businesses. A strong smell, something like bleach, was detected in the car park, and many rooms were later rendered uninhabitable. Some of the events to which I refer took place before the siren was sounded. Rhodia Eco Services staff were contacted, and responded by suggesting the windows be opened to let the chlorine out—even though the procedures laid down require windows to be locked.

Many people suffered much discomfort, reporting runny eyes, hair that became like straw, and reddened complexions. Two hundred people took shelter in the local Morrisons supermarket, and others hid away in local schools. There was some confusion in the schools: although some people claimed to have heard the siren, kids were kept in, particularly at four schools in the area—at Netherthorpe, Norbriggs and Woodhouse in my constituency, and at Poolsbrook in the constituency of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes). The schools in my area were quite close to where the emergency happened, and they were visited by the police.

The siren sounded for 45 minutes, between 1.50 pm and 2.35 pm. It was switched off to preserve the batteries. People depended on local radio for information about the emergency that was still taking place. No all-clear was sounded.

At 3.19 pm, a build-up of chlorine was discovered in pipes on the plant. Things did not look good, and it seemed likely that the emergency might have to last for another four to six hours. At 3.27 pm, roadblocks were put in place in various areas of the town, including around the plant and in places where the prevailing winds had blown the chlorine. At 3.53 pm, it was decided to move children from the schools, although there were no school buses, and the 200 people were let out of Morrisons and the other shops, as it was felt that

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it would be better for them to get to their homes than to be locked away for any longer. It was not until 5.50 pm that the all-clear siren was sounded.

An inquiry is being conducted by inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency, which, under 1999 regulations, form the competent authority for the control of major accident hazards. They need to face up to a number of problems. Should not the inquiry be conducted publicly, or at least have some public element, so that the people who were affected are in a better position to describe what occurred? Why did not Rhodia alert the emergency services when it called for an ambulance, and why did it not do so at an earlier stage? Why did emergency services follow an odd sequence of events by blocking roads, then letting people out of buildings to return to their homes, which seems to be the wrong way round? In one case, a young woman at Staveley Netherthorpe school, who lived in Wingerworth, had to walk outside the area of the roadblocks to Brimington, in another part of Staveley, in order to be collected and taken home. That led to a great deal of confusion.

The town council subsequently called for a public inquiry and for the closure of the plant. A few years ago, one could not have imagined that that would happen, because everybody's employment was dependent on Staveley Chemicals. In 1998, two incidents involving escapes of acid gas in Killamarsh in my constituency led to a massive campaign to close a similar-sized plant, which then transferred its operations. Now that plant is operated by Onyx, which took over from SARP. Chemical reclamation no longer takes place there, but new processes are operating. There might be some future for the Staveley site, but not for the processes that caused the problems and led to the situation whereby action cards had to be issued.

Of the six workers who were taken to hospital, three returned to work the following day, two returned the day after, and one was signed off work for a week by his GP. He subsequently packed in his job as he was suffering from panic attacks. I have asked, with that person's agreement, for the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency to interview him. No one has been in touch with him since he resigned, either from the firm itself or from the officialdom that is engaged in the investigations.

I shall outline my second suggestion. At SARP UK, we had a visit from the then Minister for the Environment that eased the process of change and helped with later legislative changes on environmental matters. We need a visit from the current Minister for the Environment, who is responsible for the Environment Agency or perhaps the Minister for Work, who has responsibilities for the Health and Safety Executive. A visit took place to the site when it was under previous ownership, but that happened when the Conservatives were in office, and a Conservative Minister visited.

There are moves to arrange a public meeting in the area, and I shall attend it. It would be fruitful if a ministerial visit could take place at the time of meeting. I needed the opportunity to put those matters on the record. I have also looked for others devices to do that. This is my last opportunity to raise the matter before Christmas.

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Let me comment on the festive season. Some of my constituents will have a problem. They have received a letter from Serco Rail Maintenance, saying that essential railway engineering works will take place in the Clay Cross north junction area. Most of the Clay Cross railway is in a tunnel, and outside areas such as North Wingfield will therefore be affected. The letter states:

The problem is that people will have noise and disruption for Christmas. I hope that Serco Rail Maintenance, which I shall contact, will respond properly to their anxieties so that my constituents can have a peaceful Christmas, as I hope we all shall.

4.47 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): It is rather a coincidence that I am following the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) because I want to raise a similar issue. It relates to a company called Cleansing Services Group, which operated—I use the past tense, thank goodness—in the village of Sandhurst in my constituency. Three years ago, an explosion happened at the works, which was a chemical works although it was not authorised to be so. It had planning permission from the county council to treat oily waste and such substances, yet the Environment Agency gave it a licence to deal with much more hazardous waste, even though it had no planning permission for that.

Many villagers warned the Environment Agency, other agencies and people that things were not right at the site. A whistleblower was sacked for various reasons and won his case at the industrial tribunal. I visited several times and warned the agencies. They took some notice, but not enough. Three years ago, the place exploded. The effects on people's mental and physical health are difficult to measure. I shall not go into the same amount of detail as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire because I want to cover one or two other issues and I have raised the matter previously.

The pressure from villagers has driven the company off the site, and that might offer some encouragement to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire. It decided that the best way in which to proceed was to sell the site, and we are all thankful for that. However, the pain, misery and effects of the explosion persist.

I want a public inquiry to look not only into that incident and into the company, although those aspects should certainly form part of its terms of reference, but into the way in which the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, the county council and, to an extent, the health authority were monitoring the site. They were given many warnings about it and apparently visited it a number of times, yet they were unable or unwilling to take the necessary action. Such a public inquiry might determine that those bodies did not have enough power to take the action that we felt necessary, although I do not think that that would be the case.

My constituents, like everyone else, pay an awful lot of tax—an increasing amount, sadly, under this Government, but that is not my main point—to fund

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those agencies on whom they rely to look after their health and the environment. That is the agencies' job, yet in this case they have signally failed to do it. To bring justice to my constituents who live in the village of Sandhurst and, perhaps more importantly, to avoid similar situations arising in the future, there should be a public inquiry into the performance of the agencies that were supposed to be monitoring that site.

The Deputy Prime Minister and the former Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), were very generous with their time shortly after the explosion. They had a number of meetings with me, and said that they would consider holding a public inquiry. First, however, they wanted to see whether there would be a court case against the company. It was, in fact, taken to court and, a week or two ago, was fined £250,000 and ordered to pay £400,000 costs. It deserves to pay at least that. My point is that that court case is now out of the way, so the Government could decide to hold a public inquiry into what went on when Cleansing Services Group was not being monitored properly and when the explosion happened, causing so many problems for my constituents.

That company is known as CSG. I now want to move on to SEN, which stands for special educational needs. I have raised this subject many times in the House, in an Adjournment debate and on other occasions. It is a big issue in Gloucestershire. The county council there is run by an unholy Lib-Lab pact—I make that point only so that it is clearly understood; it is not a party political point—which has a policy of questioning the viability of the special schools in the area. It seems to want to close them all down.

A few years ago, I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill, which was meant to provide for greater inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools. I was assured by the Minister at the time that it should not be seen as giving a green light for the wholesale closure of special schools: I think that those are pretty close to the Minister's words. In Gloucestershire, however, it has had the effect of giving that green light, and the county council is trying to bring about such a wholesale closure.

The Bownham Park special school in Stroud has been closed, and I understand that two schools in the Forest of Dean have been closed, although they are to be put on the site of a new school. That has still had the effect of merging two schools into one, however. The general drift in the county is towards the closure of special schools. There is a very good special school in my constituency called Alderman Knight school, whose future is currently out to public consultation. Given the previous actions of the county council, we know what its desires and intentions are.

I have asked many times for the Secretary of State to visit Alderman Knight school; I promise that he would be made very welcome there. I want him to listen not just to the politicians, but to the teachers and the head teachers of the mainstream and special schools, who are all saying the same thing. Nor do I want him to listen only to the parents. I want him to listen to the pupils. I want him to stand in front of them, as I have done, when they break down in tears and speak of their fears of being forced to go to a mainstream school. Listen to the

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pupils, not me—it does not matter what I think. Listen to their fears. If all the special schools are closed, where is the choice? It is, of course, a fact that many pupils with special educational needs go to mainstream schools and do very well, which should continue. My only point is that that is not right for all pupils. If those schools close, these pupils will have no option.

The Government's intention may be inclusion—I do not generally dispute that—but those pupils will not be included in future life. They will be excluded from society because they will not have had the care and education that they need as special cases. They will not cope in mainstream schools, and they will therefore be excluded from society in future life. I ask the Minister to come to Gloucestershire and see what is going on. He should look those children in the eye and tell me whether he agrees with it. I do not think he will.

We have had CSG and SEN. Now I want to discuss the OFT. The Office of Fair Trading is another subject on which I have held an Adjournment debate. It is carrying out various investigations, as hon. Members know. The investigation that particularly concerns me is the one being carried out into horse racing. Again, I have a constituency interest. My Tewkesbury constituency contains Prestbury Park, which is the Cheltenham race course. In my view, it is the greatest race course in the world. I do not necessarily fear for it as much as for the smaller race courses—the Herefords, the Ludlows and the Southwells. Those are feeder tracks where horses, jockeys, trainers and owners may start their careers. They are very important, particularly to national hunt racing.

The OFT is investigating the control of British horse racing, and it says that the British Horseracing Board's control of the fixture list is non-competitive. Technically, I suppose that the OFT might have a point. However, despite the fact that this industry is always disunited and has more arguments and rows than any other I have ever known, the OFT has unbelievably managed to bring all the warring factions together in opposition to its plans. It may have a point: there may be things in British horse racing that need to improve. The issue as regards control of the fixture list is not the only one it has identified. There is also the sale of data rights to one buyer rather than a number of buyers, which we have heard about in relation to BSkyB. A parallel case has been dealt with in the European Union recently.

The OFT says that a number of points in British racing have to change. The interesting thing is that the British Horseracing Board—like racing itself—is not denying that it has to make changes. It is making changes, but we are very concerned that the OFT could end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater if it forces those changes through in a heavy-handed way.

Who says so? The industry says so, as I do, but interestingly the Minister for Sport and Tourism appears to agree with my points, as does the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), the competition Minister. They have been honest enough to tell me that. How can it be that the OFT is doing something that the Government and the industry do not want it to do? Somehow it has become so powerful that it can do that against the wishes of the Government and the industry. Surely that cannot be right. I know that the

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competition Minister and the sports Minister have made their views known to the OFT, but I hope that the Government's representations to it will be powerful enough to persuade the OFT not to drop the case entirely but to proceed sensibly and take on board points made to it by the many strands of the racing industry.

Those are the main issues that I wanted to raise. I want to finish on one point; I do not want to take up any more time. In wishing everyone in the House a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year, I echo the views expressed, perhaps differently, by other hon. Members, one of whom was my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). Many people in this country and throughout the world cannot look forward to a happy Christmas because of their personal circumstances. A year ago, I was in Ethiopia, and I witnessed the desperate poverty in that country at that time. Thank the Lord things are slightly easier this year, but countries such as Ethiopia and others in Africa that suffer from war, poverty and disease can be forgotten when we are concentrating, perhaps rightly, on Iraq or on the muddle in Europe over attempts to introduce a constitution. Many important issues may make us forget the plight of the starving people who live only to exist, and that of the children who each and every day have to walk miles to another village just to bring water back to their own village. That cannot be an acceptable life for anyone. When we concentrate on the problems of Iraq and the European constitution, we should not forget the plight of the third world.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, a very happy Christmas to you.

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