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The Deputy Prime Minister:
I thank my hon. Friend for his support for the emergency services, which will be well received by them. I am well aware of the Stanlow refinery as I went to school nearby in Ellesmere Port. I know of the concerns of people who live near such facilities, and of the requirement to ensure their safety. The industry has already made it clear that whatever lessons are to be learned will be passed on. The industry will conduct its own investigation, but the advice of its experts to the firefighting authorities has been valuable and was much appreciated by our firefighters.
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We shall certainly ensure that the lessons that are learned become best practice. There is much consultation and negotiation between the Government and various bodies. I recall hearing the explosion at Flixborough on Humberside in the 1970s. Many lessons were learned from that and implemented in the industry with its active co-operation, and I have no reason to doubt that that would not be the same in this case.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for coming to the Chamber so quickly to make a statement. On behalf of my constituents in Hemel Hempstead, I also thank him for visiting us yesterday at a very difficult time for us. I apologise that I was not available in the area that he visited; I was actually with constituents on the other side of the fire.
I praise the professionalism of what is without the shadow of a doubt the best fire service in the world, which has been fighting the fire in Hemel Hempstead for about 30 hours. As a former fireman, I dreaded going to such fires and as the crews were going to the fire I know they were dreading what they might see when they arrived, especially as they knew that people were working at the site. The luckiest men alive are the maintenance workers who walked away with only cuts and bruises even though they were only a few feet away from the initial explosion. I have met those maintenance workers, and the shock has set in as to how lucky they are.
This is a national disaster and the costs of fighting the fire cannot be borne by the taxpayers and the fire authority in Hertfordshire. It is physically impossible. I welcome the extra appliances that were sent from all over the country and, in particular, the other fire authorities that have been working so closely with my crews throughout last night and today. The situation looks promising, as the fire is out in a lot of the tanks, but the costs will be unbearable for the local community. Not only are there firefighting costs but, as the House will be aware, the industrial estate, which is closed to cameras today, is devastated by the blast damage, as are the local residents, and the next part of my question relates to the long-term effects on them.
When the depot was built, there was hardly any residential property around it, but over the last 40 years it has been surrounded by residential accommodation. Forty years ago, the site was probably assumed to be safe; clearly, it is not today. May we have an urgent inquiry into the siting of such depots? Such an inquiry should cover not only the facility itself but the emergency facilities around it. I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister was informed yesterday that the acute accident and emergency centre where the injured persons were taken is due to close next April, under Government proposals. If the depot remains in the area, my constituents will be worried about the long-term effects of that closure for their community.
This is not about party politics; it is about what is right and wrong for our constituents. I am so proud of my constituency and the way that people pulled together as a community yesterday. I thank them for all the work they did and I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for going there yesterday.
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The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. I was well aware that he was actively looking after his constituents' interests during my visit. I hope that he will accept that my intention was not to commit the chief constable or the chief fire officer simply to attend me, but to ask whether they wanted any assistance, so I was in and out quickly. I hope that he understands that that was the reason why I did not contact him when he was seeing to his constituents' needs.
As a former fireman, he will appreciate more than anyone the difficulties facing those firemen at present. I have referred to them waiting to go into the inferno, and we all admire the extraordinary courage of firefighters in those circumstances. Of course, the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), is also a former firemanso I have got them to the front of me and to the back of me. I felt that during the last dispute, but I will not go into that situation. Nevertheless, I have never doubted the courage of those people who, as workers, are willing to face danger in such a way. No other person is faced with that, and we are grateful to them for doing so on behalf of the community.
The hon. Gentleman referred to this as a national disaster. Again, the resources that we make available under the Bellwin scheme for such circumstances will be judged against the incident. Clearly, terrible and extensive damage was done to the industrial estate, and the insurers have already told those companies, as well as householders, that they are prepared to consider all those claimants. We will see what we can do in that regard.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the residential properties near to the site. Obviously, planning permission was given for them, but I will certainly look into that and see whether any lesson can be learned.
In regard to the emergency services at the hospital, that was certainly not expressed as a concern, but I readily take on board what the hon. Gentleman said. However, I give him the same offer as I gave to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman): if he desires to see me in a few days when the position is a little clearer, we can discuss exactly his fears and whether we can do any more to assist his constituents.
Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement, and I associate myself with the remarks that he has made about the professionalism of the emergency services involved. Does he agree that this incident is almost unique in its significance and that the range of public services and organisations involved clearly demonstrates the importance of the recent legislation on civil contingencies and the changes in emergency planning? Will he undertake to assess the outcomes of the incident against the legislation and the changes that have taken place, with a view to finding out whether any further strengthening is needed because of the incident?
The Deputy Prime Minister:
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about the emergency services. They expressed to me very strongly their gratitude for the new organisation, which brings together the various public agencies. They recently carried out an exercise in that
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respect. Indeed, one of the points made to me by the chief constable was that people from outside the area were already involved. People trained to do some of this work were sent in from other regions, although none was called in at that time. That also brings home to us the fact that the resources needed in this kind of incident are greater than those available, for example, to county organisations. Hence the importance of organising contingency funds and equipment on a regional basis, as in the legislation to which my hon. Friend referred. New equipment, new organisation and new ways to approach exercises to prepare for such events certainly played their part. We will take on board the lessons that we must learn and then discuss with the authorities how we may implement them.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): As my constituency borders the Buncefield storage depot, may I endorse, and associate my constituents and myself with, the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) and the Deputy Prime Minister, in which they expressed gratitude and praise for the emergency services for their exemplary courage, dedication and commitment over the past 30 hours? I visited the burning oil fields in Kuwait and never expected to see an equally terrifying inferno so close to a built-up area on the doorstep of my constituency.
May I raise two points that my constituents have put to me that have not been mentioned so far? There is a fear that the partly burned fuel might generate carcinogenic chemicals, so will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that that is not the case? Constituents whose homes have been damaged need to know as soon as possible whether they will be able to claim for those damages from the owners of the depot, or their insurance policies. I end by expressing my gratitude to the Deputy Prime Minister for the action that he has taken in response to these events.
The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks and for indicating that our emergency forces acted with exemplary courage. They certainly played their part with tremendous dedication in what he rightly called an inferno. The chief fire officer told me yesterday that he had never seen anything on such a scale. We are dealing with a situation on a scale that is quite unique in Europe. Indeed, we are in uncharted waters with the problems that come from the chemicals produced by burning oil and petrol, and it is thus difficult for me to give proper answers to such questions. I am advised that the chemicals are not toxic, but let us wait and see. Discussions are going on at the moment and investigations are under way. When we have further information, we will report to the House as soon as possible.
The insurance companies have made it clear that any claims for damage to homes will be properly entertained. However, if we find that there are any difficulties, which is sometimes the case when such terrible and tragic incidents occur, the Government can play a part in encouraging parties to come together so that people are properly compensated. The right hon. Gentleman can be sure that we will do all that we can to ensure that that happens.
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