19 July 2006 : Column 67WH

19 July 2006 : Column 67WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 19 July 2006

[Derek Conway in the Chair]

Buncefield Oil Depot Fire

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]

9.30 am

Derek Conway (in the Chair): Before I call Mr. Penning, I should say that as it is the hottest day of the year, it is in order for hon. Members to remove their jackets—particularly those who have not already done so.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Conway. I thank colleagues for getting up so early to come to our first debate on the Buncefield incident, and the Minister for taking the time and having the consideration to meet me yesterday to discuss the Buncefield inquiry.

At 1 minute past 6 on 11 December, an explosion registering 2.7 on the Richter scale rocked my constituency and neighbouring constituencies across Hertfordshire and the other home counties and parts of London. Tank 12 had been letting a rather large amount—200 tonnes—of unleaded fuel escape for a considerable time, and the vapour exploded in the car park areas of the Northgate and Fuji buildings on Mayland industrial estate. It was the largest explosion on mainland Europe since the second world war. Everybody accepts that the subsequent explosion and fire tested our emergency services to the extreme. We are all very proud of the absolutely fantastic job that they did.

I fully accept that the incident could not have been predicted. There had been similar, although not identical, incidents around the world, but as a former fireman, I am all too aware that no one had trained or prepared for an explosion of that magnitude or for a subsequent fire and explosions. I reiterate my admiration for the firefighters who came from all over the country to help my constituents in that national disaster.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): My hon. Friend has served his constituents with great assiduity. I am sure that this will not be the last time that he brings this matter before the House.

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge the great efforts and skill of the Essex fire service, which featured in the incident? Is he aware that its firemen got their skills because of the Canvey Island calor gas importation site, the first such site for liquefied natural gas in the world? It now takes liquefied petroleum gas from ships in the Thames and there is a proposal to change it so that it can take a full 5 per cent. of the nation’s total energy need in LNG across Canvey Island. As everyone here will understand, that is raising local fears.

19 July 2006 : Column 68WH

We must learn any possible lessons from the Buncefield fire. Will my hon. Friend explain later why the early detection systems at Buncefield failed to warn of the developing clouds of vapour that had been rolling around for 20 or 30 minutes prior to the explosion? That is a key point.

Mike Penning: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I should declare an interest as a former fireman, and not only in Essex. I trained on the foam monitor that protects the installation to which he refers. It was a pleasure to do a lot of training at Canvey Island and the neighbouring Coryton refineries. Some would say that I had an inside knowledge of the explosion and depot fire long before I came to this House.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that without the expertise of the Essex brigade and others—particularly the Essex brigade, because Essex has so many refinery installations and LPG facilities—we would really have struggled. I pay tribute to the Essex fire service.

On my hon. Friend’s second point, I will elaborate on the value of the safety devices at the depot, which has a knock-on effect for all depots and installations around the country. I have had the pleasure of taking some hon. Members around Buncefield to show them what happened. If any other hon. Member would like to visit, that could be arranged.

I was massively impressed with the national disaster plan that the Government have brought into force since they came into power. We could not even have tackled the Buncefield fire had not high-velocity pumps been purchased and training been done with them. Although we had major problems with water supply, the one thing that we did not have a problem with, once the high-velocity and high-powered pumps arrived, was capacity. However, we did not have the knowledge of what would happen once the firefighters started to fight the fire.

The Buncefield site is a national facility, part of almost a national grid of fuel for this nation. It was built in 1968. At the time, it was a stand-alone installation: there were very few buildings around it, although a couple of residential properties in my and neighbouring constituencies were quite close. In 1968, the decision was naturally made that the risk to properties around the site was minimal as there were so few of them. However, that is a long time ago now, and over the years there has been a substantial encroachment of building around the depot.

Some blame has been attributed to the local authority. People have asked why it gave permission for building around the Buncefield site. However, the legislation is clear: any local authority has to look at a planning application put to it. The authority had to ask permission or request information from the Health and Safety Executive to find out whether the development around the Buncefield depot was suitable and safe, and I understand from my local authority that on every occasion that it was asked, the Health and Safety Executive said that it could not see any problems. I have looked at the paperwork and understand that that is correct. I am afraid that it will probably fall to the inquiry to decide who was responsible and when mistakes were made, but on the planning side, I wish to emphasise that Dacorum borough council was
19 July 2006 : Column 69WH
exemplary in its role of making sure that no planning went ahead if any risk had been indicated by the HSE.

Some buildings were still being constructed literally days before the explosion took place. Some had been handed over to new owners by the developers the day before the explosion. I am particularly proud recently to have chaired a project called 20/20 Vision for the regeneration of my constituency, particularly the town and shopping centre, and the industrial area. Long before the Buncefield incident, we recognised that there was a major need to regenerate the area because in the 1950s the requirements of an industrial park were completely different from those of the 21st century. That project was well on its way before the Buncefield explosion.

I shall talk about the fire, but the explosion was the devastating thing. Yesterday morning, I had the honour of taking the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government around the Buncefield site. I also had the pleasure of taking the Deputy Prime Minister, in his previous capacity, around the site. Everybody who goes is simply shocked at the sheer devastation created by the explosion and subsequent fire. The Northgate organisation is wonderful—one of the things it does is operate the pay roll for the NHS. The Northgate building was absolutely devastated by the explosion: inside it, an eight-pump fire ensued, which alone would constitute a major incident.

What has to be addressed is what happened in the build-up to the explosion. I am conscious that I and colleagues must be careful in this debate not to jeopardise any possible prosecutions. If I move too far that way, perhaps the Minister would gag me immediately. I have no doubt that his officials will help him.

I desperately want to find out what has happened since the fire was put out by our brilliant fire service. The Deputy Prime Minister made a statement to the House the following day, which I praised. When asked specifically who was in charge of the Buncefield incident, he stated categorically that he was in charge. I discussed with him on several occasions what would happen after the fire was put out and how matters would progress, especially in respect of the environment, planning and the obvious need for an inquiry. As a new MP, I sometimes got a little lost in those negotiations, in which the civil servants told us one thing but probably did another. However, we achieved a broad remit for the inquiry through the negotiations.

The Deputy Prime Minister and I discussed whether we should have an open and public inquiry similar to the Marchioness inquiry. I pushed for that simply for the sake of natural justice, not only for my constituents but for the country as a whole. If we can have an open dialogue about what happened at Buncefield, there will be more confidence throughout the country not only that such an incident will not occur again but that nothing has been brushed under the carpet or in any way left out because it may cause embarrassment. I am not saying that that is the case, but it is a natural assumption about anything that is done behind closed doors.

19 July 2006 : Column 70WH

After a couple of days of negotiations with the Deputy Prime Minister, I was informed that he was not in charge but that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was responsible for the inquiry. I gather that that is why a Minister from that Department is with us this morning.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important in such circumstances to differentiate the immediate crisis response, which may be properly delegated to any senior Minister, from the follow-up action after the immediate crisis is past? Is it not the most important thing that Ministers can do to make it clear and announce publicly when responsibility transfers, if that is necessary, rather than having it wrung out of them in discussions?

Mike Penning: I could not agree more. That is exactly why I asked Mr. Speaker for this Adjournment debate. Sadly, seven months after the Deputy Prime Minister’s initial statement, many Ministers have come and gone. Many Secretaries of State have come to the constituency to have their photos taken and to say nice things about how well we are doing—I will come to the needs and aspirations of my community in a moment—but no one knew then or knows now who is in charge of the Buncefield incident.

It is clear that the inquiry falls under the remit of the Department for Work and Pensions. However, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has become the Department for Communities and Local Government. No one has come to the House and said to the country that a certain Minister is in charge, that he has a budget and that he will ensure that, whatever happens, all aspects of the Buncefield disaster will be addressed. That worries me. Further to what my hon. Friend said, I am being bounced from Minister to Minister as I try to find out who is in charge of which bit on which day. There was some surprise that this debate comes within the remit of the DWP. Many people expected a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government, but because the inquiry is continuing, immediately one talks about Buncefield, the matter comes under the umbrella of the DWP.

I wish to discuss the health and safety inquiry. I have nothing but admiration for the expertise and the hard work of the inquiry board headed by Lord Newton. Its job is difficult and technical. It has been good at providing briefings that are as simple as possible—without too much jargon—so that I can understand what is happening and what the inquiry has covered. It has had real difficulty in getting historical data, but it has done an absolutely wonderful job.

However, I have said since day one—I said this earlier in my comments—that the public sense of natural justice requires that whatever happens in the inquiry must be fair and seen to be fair. There is great concern that it continues behind closed doors. I regularly meet with representatives of my local business community, which has been and continues to be massively affected by the Buncefield incident. Some 4,000 jobs are still at risk. I still have regular meetings with companies in which I say, “Give us time, stay with us while the inquiry is taking place,” and their reply is, “What is happening with the inquiry?” My residents still come to me several months on. Only this past
19 July 2006 : Column 71WH
weekend, I met with residents of the Leatherstock green area of my constituency who are about to have the roof of their home removed. They had remedial repairs done but have suddenly discovered that there are structural problems and that the whole roof will have to be removed. They thought that they were over all such problems.

I went around my constituency this past weekend to discuss my constituents’ concerns with them before this debate so that I could highlight them as accurately as possible. People are still talking about their fears about the future of the depot—sadly, people are still experiencing nightmares and flashbacks—and why the inquiry is being held behind closed doors. I have reiterated from day one that the inquiry should be open and public, along the lines of the Marchioness inquiry, and not long drawn out. My great fear is that the process will take years and years.

What really tips me over the edge is not only that the HSE should not be conducting the inquiry behind closed doors but that it must address the safety failures to which my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) referred. They were mentioned in the fourth interim report, which was released last Thursday. The report is open in saying that there were catastrophic failures involving safety and back-up mechanisms, but for many years HSE was responsible for inspecting and approving the site and changes to it, and the safety devices. If the HSE inspects something, we expect that it has done so rigorously and that everything is perfectly safe.

Bob Spink: As I said, there is an LNG site in my constituency. I have met with all the emergency services and the HSE to go through all the safety systems and devices on that site to ensure that the testing procedures for them have been checked and double-checked, and that new procedures that more accurately reflect the reality of the situation that occurred at Buncefield are developed in order to test the devices. The public need to know that the safety procedures will work.

Mike Penning: My hon. Friend raises exactly the issue that I was coming to. The public must have confidence in the Government agency that is inspecting the depots and saying that they are safe. There are many such depots around the country, some of them much larger than Buncefield. It does not matter whether the inspection and approval of a facility occurred a week, a year or 10 years before, the public will always wonder why the HSE inspects itself. The public will see that a major part of the inquiry’s remit is to find out what went wrong, but that the HSE was part and parcel of the organisation that said that the depot was safe. They will ask themselves how the HSE can inspect the site and carry out an inquiry—possibly into its own actions—behind closed doors.

The situation is extraordinary. We were very lucky that no one died, so the police involvement has essentially been zero, and the HSE has gone ahead with the inquiry. That will take a considerable time, and we are lucky to have an independent chairman, Lord Newton, who has been absolutely brilliant at informing me about what is going on. None the less, like every other member of the public, I have no idea what
19 July 2006 : Column 72WH
evidence has been submitted to the inquiry or what is going on. If there were to be a criminal prosecution, however, the organisation that was responsible for the safety of the depot and its workers, as well as that of the residents around it, surely could not be judge, jury and defendant.

That is the most difficult thing to grasp, and I do not understand how we can have a situation in the 21st century in which the HSE—a Government agency—investigates the explosion and the subsequent fire when it was so integral to the depot’s safety before the fire. I shall continue to call for a full public inquiry by an independent board to be started as soon as possible. I am not saying that the HSE should not make its expertise available to the board, and perhaps even be part of it, but it is imperative that justice is seen to be done when so many of my constituents and others around the country are so worried about the effects of the fire.

Let us dwell for a second on how lucky we were. The vapour initially exploded in the car park. A breeze—it was a real act of God—had moved the vapour from beside the tanks, which were in the depot, into the car park, which was just outside it. If the explosion had taken place in the depot, no one there would have survived, and the fire and the explosions that subsequently affected the area would have been even more severe. I think that the inquiry would probably agree with that view; I know that the chief fire officer does

Some 31,000 people worked in the industrial area, and the explosion damaged their buildings. Some 2,500 people were evacuated from homes that had been damaged or were in what the fire brigade decided should be an exclusion zone, because there was a risk of further explosions. Just to show how fantastic my community is, I should say that of the 2,500 people who were taken out of their homes, just over 200 were put up by the local authority; the rest were looked after by loved ones and friends in the community of Hemel Hempstead. That clearly shows how well members of the community pulled together.

The council did a fantastic job. Many of its staff were way out of their remit and had little experience of such incidents. Let me publicly express my admiration for all the council’s workers, and particularly its senior management, who were absolutely brilliant and whose control room was up and operating very quickly. Organisations such as the women’s institute and the Red Cross were simply fantastic—we could probably have put the fire out with the amount of tea that they supplied. Typically, when this country comes under attack, we pull together, and this was an attack on our community.

I want to give colleagues time to speak, so I come now to my last point, which relates to my great concern about the environment in and around my constituency. I am concerned not only about the Buncefield explosion, but about the chemicals that have been found in the environment, which the report clearly indicates have nothing to do with Buncefield. I refer, in particular, to perfluorooctane sulphonate. PFOS is a particularly nasty carcinogen used in firefighting foams whose dangers have been known for many years. Before Buncefield, the Government were in what I might best describe as deep negotiations with the European Union
19 July 2006 : Column 73WH
about banning PFOS. They had drafted a statutory instrument to do so, which provided for a two-year sentence for those who brought PFOS into the country.

Two sorts of foams were used at Buncefield: synthetic foams and protein foams. I shall talk only briefly about synthetic PFOS foams, because my colleagues want to talk about them. However, I continually go on about protein foams, although nobody seems to be listening. Protein foams are often blood based and they have been used for many years. Indeed, I trained with them extensively when I was in the fire service. Protein foam is smelly, horrible stuff because it is based on blood. Blood tends to bubble up rather well, so people who are trying to smother a fire use blood. That might sound silly, but it was the traditional way of doing things. Protein foams were developed extensively during the war because petrochemical ingredients were in short supply.

I have deep concerns about protein foams. I know that they were used at the incident, because I saw them there in bulk supply, but it looked as if they had been in storage for a considerable time. As I have said before, I am concerned that some of that foam, which firefighters would never dream of using on anything else and which might have come out of storage, was disposed of at the incident. I have therefore asked the Minister to address a particular issue, although I fully appreciate that the environment is not in his brief and that he might have to write to me. I have asked for undertakings that none of the protein foams that were used were based on full-blood products and that where blood products have leaked into the environment—we already knew of the dangers of blood products in the 20th century—none of the firemen, or anybody else locally, had their life endangered.

I turn now to the issue of synthetic foams, of which PFOS is a major ingredient. Before the Buncefield incident, the Government were trying to ban PFOS, and no level was acceptable in drinking water. Recently, however, the drinking water inspectorate has said that it would be happy to have three parts per million in drinking water. Will the Minister explain the logic of saying that we should have no PFOS one minute, but then suddenly saying that we should have three parts per million? I emphasise that there is no PFOS in the drinking water in Hertfordshire, that the bore holes close to the incident have been closed and that extensive monitoring has taken place.

However, that monitoring has shown up another anomaly, which my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) will describe. The water table in areas with no link at all to the Buncefield incident has been showing extensive signs of PFOS. Where does the Minister think that those contaminants have come from? Will he make sure that testing takes place well away from areas where there is a natural assumption that any contaminants will have come only from firefighting foam? PFOS has been used in pesticides and insecticides in the past, and it might still be used in them. That is a major issue in the rural community outside my new town.

Next Section Index Home Page