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The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Lady for her supportive remarks, which I think will be appreciated by all those who have been involved in this terrible incident. Of course there are many lessons to be learned, and many of the questions that she has asked
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today cannot be answered until later, but full inquiries will be made right across Government, in the bodies responsible for health and safety and for the environment, the Department of Trade and Industry and all other appropriate bodies.

The Environment Agency has been very much involved from the beginning. Indeed, tackling the fire was delayed for a while until we knew the full environmental consequences of the foam and the water passing into the water supply—and, of course, because of the heat of the fire. We have to make a judgment when we intervene, and that was a difficult judgment for the fire authorities. As they have said, the incident is probably unique in size and scale; that has caused them great concern, and our hearts are with them in their efforts to deal with this difficult problem.

It is proper to ask all those questions, and we will do all that we can to answer them. If the hon. Lady would like a meeting with me in a few days' time, when we have a little more information, I would be delighted to arrange one.

I shall indeed take the co-ordinating role across Government, to ensure that Departments work together to find the answers to deal with the problem. The fire certainly has not been defeated yet; people are still bravely fighting it, and it will continue for a time yet.

The hon. Lady asked about panic buying. The various authorities and the oil companies have made it clear that it is not necessary to get involved in panic buying, because the proportion of ordinary fuel used from this depot is much smaller than that used for aviation. There is a special problem with aviation fuel, which the DTI is looking into.

I do not think that we are complacent. The point that I made was that the New Dimension programme was bringing all the agencies together and providing the proper equipment. Nearly £2 million has been invested over the past two years to assemble the equipment and get the agencies to work together. It was quite comforting to hear from the police, the fire authorities and the agencies how the multi-agency approach had worked this time, because they are properly exercised and had the equipment to deal with the fire. As I said, if we had not provided the special pumps that can pump water from three miles away—indeed, water is now having to be provided from as much as a mile away—about 18 fire engines would have been needed. We are all grateful to see that the proper equipment is there to deal with this difficult problem.

As for the damages and the Bellwin scheme, to which the hon. Lady referred, she knows as well as I do that if the local authority spends more than £2 million, extra expenses under the Bellwin scheme can be considered. For the police authority, that figure is something like £319,000. As in all local authority budgets, a certain amount of money is made available for such contingencies. We shall consider all the circumstances.

Stringent conditions are laid down about siting such plants near housing, but the plant in question originated about 40 years ago and has been there ever since. Any lessons that we have to learn from that will certainly be taken into account.
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The hon. Lady raised a number of very proper questions to which I cannot give adequate answers yet, because we must wait until the fire has been defeated for proper investigations to take place. As I have said, however, if she would like to come and talk to me about that in the next few days, I shall give her any further information that we have by then.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): First, may I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for coming to the House to make his statement so promptly, and for giving me notice of what he intended to say. I echo his comments, and those of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) from the Conservative Front Bench, in commending the police and fire services and all the other agencies for the extraordinary way in which they have responded to this unprecedented emergency. I have spoken with colleagues on Hertfordshire county council, and they have nothing but praise for the exemplary way in which the local services have handled the disaster.

The Deputy Prime Minister is indeed correct to say that we have been lucky in terms of casualty figures and, obviously, a police investigation into the cause is ongoing. However, does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that any lessons can be learned at this stage in terms of future planning policy about the siting of such depots close to residential and commercial areas? Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that any early information gained about the cause of the accident will be passed on to other depots, four of which are much larger than the one in Hemel Hempstead, and that safety checks will be carried out at other depots as a matter of urgency?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledge that Hertfordshire has had to deal with four major national incidents in the past 10 years, including the Hatfield rail crash, so will he be flexible about the arrangements for an application for extra funding under the Bellwin scheme? In terms of the environmental and health impacts of the incident, what assessment has been made of the consequences of burning large quantities of oil at a temperature different from that of a combustion engine? For example, has any assessment been made of the likely profile of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, produced as a result of incomplete combustion, and what would be the likely consequences of those in the food chain?

In terms of the particular soot solution and the impact on people with respiratory illness, what discussions have taken place with the primary care trust to ensure that adequate provision will be made should seasonal infections and air pollution co-exist to lead to an increase in acute episodes of illness? I also understand that the hospital episodes statistics unit has been badly damaged by the incident. What implications will that have?

The Deputy Prime Minister has confirmed the statements from the police yesterday that there is no need to panic buy. What actions have the Government taken to ensure that public fears are allayed and that it does not become a reality?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Lady for her words of support, which will also be much appreciated by those dealing with the fire.
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On the issue of planning, we have tough rules about the siting of such plants, which is also covered by the common European rules. They are very different from the situation 40 years ago when the site was originally planned. Any lessons to be learned will not wait until the final result of our inquiries. If information of immediate use, interest or value arises with regard to improving safety, it will be made available so that changes can be made to other sites.

The Bellwin scheme judges individual incidents, not a collective number of incidents. For example, it provided resources for dealing with the Carlisle flooding, based on the criteria that I mentioned earlier.

The questions of chemical reaction and combustion are matters for the Health and Safety Executive and I shall draw them to its attention. The health authorities in the area acted quickly to provide the proper advice and make hospital services available. Thank goodness, they were not greatly used, but they were in place—they were stood down quickly after very few people turned up. As the hon. Lady said, we are grateful that the incident happened early on a Sunday morning. There would have been many people in attendance at the nearby industrial buildings on a Monday morning, and we have all seen the pictures of them. If it had happened at a different time, we could have been dealing with a very different situation.

I hope that the problem of panic buying will be helped by the statement in the House and by the statements made by the chief constable and the fire officers. They are to be congratulated on giving as much information as quickly as they could and on making it clear that panic buying was not necessary. All the signs are that people have taken that advice, but we will continue to make it clear that there is no need for any panic buying.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that my constituency is dominated by the Stanlow oil refinery and it will come as no surprise that constituents have expressed concern about whether such incidents could occur locally. May I join my right hon. Friend in praising the fantastic work done by the emergency services over the past 24 hours? It reflects the sort of co-ordinated action that I have seen in previous incidents in the petro-chemical industry. It is important that we learn lessons from this across the whole industry. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is too early to speculate about what went wrong and whether the location should be moved, but will he assure me that there will be a cross-industry study to determine whether changes are needed and that we ensure that best practice across the sector applies to the distribution terminals? By their nature, they are places where the risk is real, due to the transfer to vehicles. Can we be assured that every possible lesson is learned and put into place?

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