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18 Jan 2005 : Column 225WH—continued

18 Jan 2005 : Column 226WH

Installation of Oil Fired Heating

3.30 pm

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise another important environmental issue. When there is a huge leak of oil at sea, we are quickly made aware of it through the media. The damage to the environment is widely known and understood. The work that has been done to prevent oil spills at sea has been so effective that the names of past incidents are readily remembered. Torrey Canyon, Exxon Valdez, Amoco Cadiz and Sea Empress are just a few that come to mind.

The problem of oil spills that are not at sea is far less publicised. One example, which occurred in July 2003, was reported by my constituent, Phil Hope of Colemansmoor road in Woodley. The name is pure coincidence; I do not believe that he is related to the Minister.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): Order. I am glad that the hon. Lady clarified that. I was about to call her to order for not referring to the hon. Gentleman by his constituency.

Jane Griffiths : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My constituent reported that his daughter had led him to warn the Environment Agency of pollution to the River Loddon at the bottom of his garden. He stated:

As an aside, I am not a fan of swans. They cannot break a man's arm, as reputed, but they are nasty, fascist birds, and I do not like them.

Some of the pollution reached nearby Dinton Pastures, and a spokesperson for the country park said that staff there smelled the oil and contacted the Environment Agency. So far, wildlife has not been badly affected. A spokeswoman for the agency stated:

The leak is believed to have come from a school via a surface water drain. That report was not from the national media, all of which beat a path to the door of my constituent, but from the local Reading Evening Post. It comprised the sole report of the incident.

The following are not my words but those of the Environment Agency in its February 2004 position statement on oil pollution of inland waters:

Oil is a persistent and toxic pollutant. Agency figures show that there are more than 5,000 oil spill incidents a year in England and Wales. Although some of them affect land, the vast majority affect the water environment: rivers, streams and ground water,
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including sources of drinking water, which can be tainted at very low concentrations, making them unsuitable for use.

In one example, a root was left in the base of a newly installed oil tank. It punctured the tank, and the oil headed towards a water borehole. The only way to deal with the problem was to drill a borehole into the polluted area and try to pump out more oil than was emptying into the ground. The water borehole at risk provided the water for four or five villages, and there was no other nearby source.

The effects of oil spillages may be long term. They can and do harm or kill wildfowl, mammals and fish. Of course, oil is carcinogenic to humans. As I indicated, I am aware of spillages that have had damaging effects in particular areas. They have been reported in local newspapers and on local radio.

The problem is by no means confined to spills from commercial premises. I am happy to say that those have been addressed by measures on agricultural fuel oil storage dating from 1991 and 2001 which set minimum standards for oil storage at industrial, commercial and institutional premises. Ten per cent. of all sites designated as contaminated by local authorities were contaminated as a result of domestic oil spillage, according to the journal Property Matters in March 2003.

Although it can be hard sometimes to track the exact source of oil pollution because of the diffuse nature of the problem, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister estimated that between 1995 and 1998 there were

The latest Environment Agency statistics show that the problem persists. The agency believes that the current level of pollution of inland waters by oil is unacceptable and that, according to the position statement on oil pollution of inland waters of February 2004,

Oil-fired domestic heating has been a growth area. Since 1993–94 the market for oil-burning appliances has doubled. Oftec, the Oil Firing Technical Association, estimates that 80,000 tanks were sold to the domestic market in Great Britain in 1998, half of them with a capacity in excess of 2,500 litres. The industry estimated that in 1997—the latest statistic that I have—the market was growing at about 30 per cent. per annum. The vast majority of oil tank installations are plastic, with the balance being steel. Half of them have a capacity of over 2,500 litres.

The ODPM has expressed the following concern:

That is from the regulatory impact assessment on part J of the building regulations on combustion appliances and fuel storage systems. However, the problem goes beyond that. Spills sometimes occur during delivery.
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There is evidence of vandalism being a significant factor. According to Oftec:

On that basis the condition of an oil tank stands out as a prime candidate for inspection and report during the   forthcoming home condition inspection process. Alternatively, could the tank be inspected at the same time as the householder has their boiler inspected? I would be grateful for the Minister's views on those points.

There are 1 million domestic oil storage tanks of which only 10 per cent. are bunded. Bunding is the addition of a secondary containment system, a second skin. Oil is five times more likely to be lost from a non-bunded tank, mainly because leaks and overflows from a tank will be contained by a bund. The new Control of Pollution (Oil Storage)(England) Regulations 2002 are welcome as far as they go. Under those, oil tanks must have a secondary containment system with a capacity of at least 110 per cent of the tank's storage capacity.

There is, however, an exemption from those controls on oil tanks for private dwellings where the storage capacity is 3,500 litres or less; in contrast, they bite on industrial premises where the storage capacity exceeds 200 litres. It stretches belief that an industrial tank containing 201 litres is somehow more hazardous than a domestic tank containing 3,499 litres. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain why the requirement to bund should not be extended to new domestic tanks, at least the larger ones.

Another part of the answer may lie in professionalising Oftec. Oftec was set up in 1991 as part of the Government's competent persons scheme in a broad and commendable attempt to improve standards in the construction industry. Every Oftec-registered technician must hold a current certificate of competence. Under the building regulations self-certification scheme, Oftec may exempt individuals and companies from the requirement to notify local authorities of work to install oil-fired combustion appliances and oil storage tanks and pipes.

In 2003, the ODPM undertook an assessment of Oftec's success. At that time—12 years after its establishment—Oftec covered around 30 per cent. of all installers, but membership is voluntary. Oftec registration is merely a sign of quality within the industry, not a requirement. The Department noted that 1,600 registrations lapsed in December at the end of the three-year registration. Given the ODPM's express concern about non-specialist installers, I suggest that oil-fired systems should be installed only by properly qualified and competent technicians. A healthy Oftec with an equivalent status to the Council for Registered Gas Installers—CORGI, as it is known—and with 100   per cent. coverage of installers is highly desirable. Would the Minister consider making membership of Oftec mandatory for installers and services? Oftec could then play a leading role in professionalising the oil heating installation industry in the pursuit of higher standards and environmental protection. I believe that there is scope to raise training requirements for Oftec registration and for Oftec to assume a greater regulatory and supervisory role.
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Taking effective action against this problem stands to be a net benefit to the economy as well as the environment. It was estimated that the benefits of the oil storage regulations on existing tanks would amount to £250 million, from avoiding clear-up costs, reimbursement to the Environment Agency and the cost of replacing lost fuel, together with between £15 million and £56 million a year from regulating new tanks; and that is from a limited assessment of benefits.

Let us not forget also the costs to householders and businesses. An oil leak can spread the fumes and smell of the heating oil throughout the house. In one extreme case a house had to be demolished because the oil had got so far into the foundations that it was the only way the problem could be treated. Yet most householders are not aware of the possible problems.

The United Kingdom is required by European Union directives on dangerous substances and groundwater to prevent pollution of the water environment. That is simply good sense. It is much better for the environment if we prevent pollution rather than having to clean it up afterwards.

The Environment Agency's latest survey shows what a steep hill this will be to climb. It must be right to batten down now on this avoidable source of pollution. No wonder the agency is currently calling for

It would be helpful to know how the Government will respond to this call. I hope that, as I have had an opportunity to give the Minister advance notice of some of those points, he will be able to respond in some detail.

I conclude by saying that when hon. Members' constituents have a gas boiler installed in their home, they can be confident that the person coming to install it will do a quality job. Our constituents with oil-fired heating systems and tanks have a right to have similar confidence.

3.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on securing this debate on oil installations. I was interested in what she said about pollution incidents, the way in which they are being controlled now and might be controlled in future and in her suggestions. I also congratulate her constituent on an excellent choice of name.

Addressing oil pollution risks is an important part of the Government's overall policy on sustainability. In relation to oil installations, sustainability means using oil efficiently to avoid extravagant consumption and carbon emissions as well as limiting oil spillage in transit, dispensing and through leaks from storage installations, so that pollution incidents and expensive clean-up operations are minimised.

I want to begin where my hon. Friend began—with the problem of oil pollution affecting fresh waters. Throughout the late 1990s, the Government introduced legislation to set minimum standards for oil storage
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facilities at industrial, commercial and institutional premises in England. Similar regulations have been proposed for Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the Welsh Assembly Government are also considering their introduction.

The control of pollution regulations for oil storage for England were introduced, as my hon. Friend said, on 1 September 2001, and they are being implemented in three phases. The final phase, starting on 1 September this year, will affect all oil storage tanks not previously covered and associated pipe work at industrial, commercial and institutional installations and tanks above a 3,500-litre capacity serving dwellings, a point made by my hon. Friend.

The regulations will provide minimum standards for larger domestic installations, but there are no other requirements under those regulations aimed at controlling pollution risks arising from the majority of domestic storage installations, which generally have a much smaller capacity—600 to 1,000 litres is most common. However, it is a statutory offence under the Water Resources Act 1991 to cause or knowingly permit the pollution of controlled waters, including ground and surface water. In 2002, there was a 10 per cent. fall in the number of all categories of oil pollution incidents—the second successive year of reduction since the regulations were introduced. It is obviously too soon to make positive judgments about the overall effect of the regulations, but the signs are pointing in the right direction. We will not be able to evaluate them all in practice until there is a full year of incident data following the final enforcement date of September this year.

Although the oil storage regulations do not address the risk arising from most oil tanks that serve dwellings, those have been controlled on a risk basis in England and Wales under part J of the building regulations introduced in April 2002. Similar provisions again apply in Scotland. My hon. Friend mentioned part J, the regulatory impact assessment that was published in support of it in October 2001 and the possibilities for improving the controls on storage tanks. The requirements for measures against oil pollution in those regulations came into effect on 1 April 2002. They require that oil storage tanks and the pipes connecting combustion appliances be properly constructed to reduce the risk of oil escaping and causing pollution, and that tanks bear durable notices containing information on how to respond to an oil escape.

Approved document J, which was published in support of the regulatory requirements, provides guidance on how to comply with the regulations. To control the risk of oil pollution, it calls for risk assessments. Where the risk is considered unacceptable, it calls for storage tanks to be protected by secondary containment. My hon. Friend described them. There are impervious bunded enclosures and catchpits, and there are also certain types of double-skinned tanks that serve this purpose.

It is true, however, that views are changing about the pollution risk from domestic central heating. It seems that the provisions in approved document J may only partially address the risks as they are now perceived. I am pleased to say that my officials have therefore begun discussions with representatives of the Environment
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Agency and the oil industry to see what additional guidance might be needed and how best it might be conveyed.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Oil Firing Technical Association, Oftec. It is one of the organisations approved under the building regulations to operate competent persons schemes. Membership of its scheme enables firms to carry out oil installation work covered by the building regulations and to self-certify the compliance of their work with all relevant requirements. The Oftec scheme began in April 2002. In order to register, firms must demonstrate their competence at meeting building regulation requirements, including those covering pollution.

Periodic, random inspections by Oftec help to ensure that the standards of scheme members do not slip following their registration. Although a number of registrations are not renewed each year, I am told that, overall, numbers are healthy and rising, and I welcome that. The approved Oftec scheme covers the installation of oil fired combustion appliances and related storage tanks and pipe work. It does not deal with maintenance, because those ongoing activities are not covered by the building regulations.

The competent persons scheme relieves much of the regulatory burden and allows local authority building control departments to concentrate more on checking the activities of unregistered firms. I am also pleased to say that my officials are pursuing with local authorities, industry and others how such enforcement can be improved.

My hon. Friend raised a number of questions in her presentation, and I shall try to address them now. First, on the issue of inspecting existing tanks—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence has just walked in and sat down. When I say "tanks", I am referring not to anything in his Department, but to oil installation tanks. I wanted to ensure that he did not feel that there was a cross-departmental—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. As a former member of the Defence Committee, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that tanks leak oil.

Phil Hope : The regulations governing the leakage of oil from Ministry of Defence tanks will be quoted by my hon. Friend, but I think that I should move on rapidly.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East that home information packs will contain information about inspecting existing tanks, but they will cover only what can be visually inspected. The home information pack reporting system will come into effect in the first half of 2007. Although the packs will cover only visual inspection, they are a step in the right direction and will make an impact.

Tanks may also be inspected as part of regular combustion appliance servicing visits, but those are currently not mandatory. Section 2 of the Building Act 1984 enables such requirements for regular inspections, but those powers have not yet been used. National benefits in terms of combustion safety and efficiency could be obtained from such visits as well as from
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pollution risk management, which was the main focus of my hon. Friend's concerns, and I have asked my office to look into those possibilities. There would need to be wide consultation before new regulations were made, but we have started to consider what could be done.

My hon. Friend asked about the bunding of at least the larger domestic tanks. The difficulty is that the building regulation requirements on this matter came into effect less than three years ago. It would be premature to revise them before we have had a comprehensive survey of implementation planned for the next financial year. Her comments are welcome, but we have only recently introduced the regulations and we are undertaking that comprehensive survey. However, as I said earlier, my officials are working with colleagues, particularly at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and also at the Environment Agency, and considering how best to publish further advice, given the concerns that she and others have raised.

With regard to my hon. Friend's question concerning making membership of Oftec for installers and servicers mandatory, I have to say that to do so now would be premature. She drew parallels with the CORGI system, which is covered by the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998. The strict provisions in those regulations arise as a result of the severe risks of carbon monoxide poisoning that can occur because of defective gas installation work. As I have said, the Oftec competent persons scheme relieves much of the burden on building control departments, thereby giving those local authority departments the opportunity to concentrate on unregistered workers, the group that my hon. Friend mentioned and is concerned about.

I believe that the competent persons scheme is a good scheme and that the consequent ability of building control departments to concentrate their efforts on unregistered workers is working. I do not think that we need, or would wish, to proscribe unregistered work again until we have surveyed implementation of part J and, as I mentioned earlier, the final step in implementing the oil storage regulations. My hon. Friend's points were well made, but we need to allow existing regulations to take effect and the schemes to operate. We need to survey the impact before we make a decision on any further action.

In general, we are doing a lot. Although it would be premature to alter things now, I hope that I have made it clear that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is investigating how the regulatory powers may be used to include maintenance, should that eventually be shown to be necessary. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment met the Environmental Industries Commission last week to discuss its ideas for reinforcing the storage regulations with provisions for regular inspections of tanks—an MOT test for tanks, in the same way that cars are regularly inspected. That would go a long way towards meeting the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East. I am pleased that my colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are meeting with relevant bodies to consider the possibility of more regular inspections of tanks. I have received other representations calling for more regulation of the oil installation industry, and I believe that many of the things that I have described are positive responses to those calls and concerns.
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Although we may not be doing everything that my hon. Friend asks for, I hope that she has been persuaded that there is a lot happening. We are working hard on the oil storage regulations; we are currently surveying information that has been returned to assess the impact of the regulations and their efficiency; and there is ongoing dialogue between my Department and DEFRA and representative bodies in the industry to establish whether there may be better ways forward.

We are mindful of the pollution risks associated with domestic heating fuel and we are following an appropriate course of action, given that the regulations were introduced relatively recently, the need to monitor their efficiency and the discussions that are currently taking place to bring about progress in this matter.

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