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19 July 2006 : Column 86WH—continued

I pay tribute, too, to the resilience of those directly affected by the Buncefield incident. Homes and businesses were damaged, trade was disrupted and jobs were lost. There is continuing uncertainty about the future of the site, as the hon. Member for Hemel
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Hempstead said. It is not surprising that many people, both locally and elsewhere, are keenly awaiting answers about the root causes of the incident and about whether such an event could happen again. The process of finding those answers began the moment that it was safe to begin. Buncefield and other sites that present major accident hazards are regulated by a joint competent authority, formed by the HSE and the Environment Agency in England and Wales, and by the HSE and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in Scotland. I shall generally refer to this joint competent authority, except when speaking of one of its parts.

The competent authority assumed formal control of the investigation from the police on 14 December, even before the fires were all finally extinguished. Investigators were able to move on to the site on 16 December. Even so, parts of the site remained so dangerous that they could not be accessed for weeks or even months afterwards. It is a normal statutory function of the competent authority to carry out investigations of major accidents. Those investigations are often highly complex and technical, requiring a wide range of specialist skills and expertise. It was quickly recognised, however, that Buncefield was an exceptional event requiring an exceptional response.

That is why the independent Health and Safety Commission, which advises the Government on health and safety policies, decided to direct a formal investigation on 20 December. The commission made that direction using its legal powers under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. It set out detailed terms of reference, including reports to be made and published, but that did not amount to a public inquiry. The commission could have directed a public inquiry with the Secretary of State’s consent, but decided that a formal investigation would better advance the interests of safety. The commission was mindful of the pressing need for answers felt by the local community—a point reiterated by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead—and other communities with fuel storage depots. Public inquiries generally take years to reach any substantial conclusions, and only when their processes have ended can a report be published. That would have seriously delayed sharing the important lessons of Buncefield.

By contrast, the current investigation, which the hon. Gentleman welcomed on 13 January, has already produced four reports in quick succession. They have been well received by local communities and local authorities, and they have led directly to work to improve safety. For example, Dacorum borough council has welcomed the good progress described in the initial report while recognising the need to get the investigation right.

I shall say more about the activities to improve safety in a moment. First, I stress that the investigation is certainly not being conducted in secrecy or behind closed doors. When the commission announced the investigation, it recognised the need for openness as well as speed to ensure public confidence. It adopted a number of unprecedented measures. For the first time, it appointed an independent investigation board, chaired by Lord Newton of Braintree, to supervise the investigation. The board has scrutinised the progress of
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the investigation to ensure that it is thorough and that it rigorously pursues all appropriate lines of inquiry.

The board’s terms of reference also require it to work closely with all relevant stakeholders and to keep them fully informed. That is why it appointed a community liaison officer to co-ordinate such work. Again, it is the first time that such an appointment has been made in such an investigation. The board has engaged openly and transparently in meetings with local residents and businesses, and it has received representations from interested parties. It is the first time that an investigation board has had such close contact with local interests.

More important, the board has ensured that the investigation’s findings have been put into the public domain as soon as they emerge, subject only to the necessary legal considerations. As the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) knows, it has published three progress reports as well as last week’s initial report. It is always challenging to strike the right balance between being open, thorough and sharing safety lessons without delay, and avoiding prejudice to potential legal proceedings. I am satisfied that the commission’s arrangements meet that challenge.

Last week, the investigation board published its initial report. It was announced through a written statement to the House by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). I shall not repeat everything in that statement, but it noted that the investigation has made good progress in identifying the root causes of the incident in spite of the widespread damage that the fire and the force of the explosion caused to the forensic evidence. I shall add to my earlier tributes to the investigation teams. They have worked hard and professionally in difficult and sometimes hazardous conditions to enable such progress to be made.

The board considers that enough is known to set out with reasonable confidence the sequence of events leading to the incident, although uncertainty remains about why the explosion was so violent. Work continues on that. The initial report does not make detailed recommendations, but it identifies several areas of concern arising from the investigation. They relate to the design and operation of storage sites, the emergency response to incidents and the advice given to planning authorities about risks to proposed developments around major hazard sites. Action is under way on all those matters. If I may tell the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, we expect an interim position on land use planning to be made available before the end of the year. It will then be subject to local consultation.

As early as February, the competent authority issued a safety alert to 108 storage site operators to review the safety of their operations in light of information emerging from the investigation. That was followed up by inspections of all 108 sites, and the preliminary findings were published on 13 June. Overall, they showed no areas of serious concern, but 50 per cent. of sites have been asked to make improvements. The competent authority took some enforcement action, and we expect more details about that to be made available in the autumn.

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The Environment Agency initiated a further programme on 11 April to consider the effectiveness of environmental protection at fuel depots. The results of that initiative will be published later this year. In parallel, the industry is working with the competent authority in a task group to improve risk control. The work includes reviewing and revising guidance on handling flammable liquids at storage sites, and an interim report from that task force is expected by the end of September.

A second safety alert was issued on 4 July about the working of certain high-level safety systems. Again, it came as a direct result of new information emerging from the Buncefield investigation. All information on actions under way in response to the Buncefield investigation is publicly available on the websites of the Health and Safety Executive or the Environment Agency, as appropriate.

I have already referred to the massive scale of the emergency response. Inevitably, there are important lessons to be learned from the event, and several reviews of the emergency response to Buncefield are under way. The advice that the Health and Safety Executive provides to planning authorities about developments around fuel storage sites is also under review. Preliminary conclusions are expected later this year, and relevant to that will be the work of the cross-government group, which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced in a statement to the House on 15 May.

Other work under way includes the extensive programme of environmental monitoring described in the initial report and carried out by the Environment Agency and other bodies to assess the full impact of the incident on the environment. As part of the investigation’s terms of reference, reviews are being carried out of the competent authority’s prior involvement in regulating activities at the Buncefield site. To ensure impartiality, the reviews are being carried out by people with no previous involvement in regulating Buncefield, and they will report to the Buncefield board. Finally, the competent authority is pursuing a criminal investigation and it will in due course make a recommendation on legal proceedings.

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Let me assure the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead that all Departments are working closely together in their response to Buncefield. The key co-ordination role is carried out by the Government office for the east of England, which covers the Buncefield site.

Finally, there is another initiative by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to learn the lessons of the Buncefield incident and its aftermath. She has asked the Government office for the east of England to convene a task force to investigate options for Government support to businesses and local economies in the period following an exceptional disaster such as the one under discussion. Our paramount concern is that all lessons of Buncefield are learned to prevent such an incident from recurring. However, if an incident occurs, we must ensure that the emergency response arrangements are fully effective. Good progress has been made in a relatively short space of time, but there is still much work to do. That work involves not only the Buncefield investigation board and the competent authority, but a range of agencies throughout central Government. The Government are committed to that effort and to ensuring that the widespread concerns created by the Buncefield incident are fully met.

It is vital to take the time to ensure that the investigation is thorough and gets its work right. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead agrees that it would be wrong to rush to hasty conclusions, as Dacorum borough council has itself recognised. The investigation must ensure that all the right lessons are learned, and it must provide robust evidence in the event of any subsequent criminal proceedings. Meanwhile, the Government are doing everything they can to work with other bodies to help the recovery effort in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Mike Penning rose—

Derek Conway (in the Chair): Order. The Minister has finished. Sadly, Mr. Penning has no right of reply, so the debate is now concluded. We now move on to the next debate.

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11 am

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I welcome the opportunity to introduce this debate. I am pleased to see the Minister for the Middle East in his place; I was expecting the Minister for Europe to answer the debate. The Minister for the Middle East is respected throughout the House.

I am glad that we have our security services MI5 and MI6 in place. It is difficult to imagine what sort of society we would have if such organisations were not doing that important work for us. However, I hope that the Minister will agree that it wrong to give any organ of the state, no matter what it does, a blank cheque. Hon. Members have a proper role in holding them to account—commensurate, of course, with national security.

We need a professional, properly funded and rational organisation in MI6. In my view, we want one that is free from inappropriate political interference and—a linked matter—one that acts in the British national interest. I want to explore today whether those two criteria were being met by MI6 in its present and immediately past activities. It seems to me—the Minister will doubtless respond to this point—that MI6 follows broad political objectives such as safeguarding national security and protecting our economic interests, and that it does so by providing the best, secure intelligence to further those aims.

In hindsight, it is clear that in the run-up to the Iraq war we were sold a distortion of intelligence to help a narrow political objective—to shape public opinion towards supporting a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The Minister will doubtless be familiar with the responses in the Butler report, a useful document. It gives an interesting description at paragraph 32:

At paragraph 34, the report states:

At paragraph 33, it states that

At paragraph 35, the report says that

Clearly, there are lessons to be learned. I do not want to revisit the entire history of the Hutton inquiry or of matters leading to the Iraq war, but that is an important perception. It would be useful to see whether the problem is being corrected.

I want to pursue two issues. The first is the role of John Scarlett, then head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, in the dodgy dossier and subsequently. The second is the use of information. It is clear that language was changed in order to turn neutral intelligence—the best available analysis, with all the caveats built into it—into something much more certain. In other words—I dare say that it was like a red rag to a bull—what Andrew Gilligan said was by and large right.

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It is clear that words such as “might” and “possibly” were removed, and more certain words such as “can” and “will” put in their place. We also know from extensive evidence in the Hutton inquiry that many of those changes were proposed by Alastair Campbell and No. 10. I do not blame Mr. Campbell; he was doing his job. However, I do blame John Scarlett, head of JIC, for succumbing to that pressure and allowing what was supposed to be a neutral intelligence document to be manipulated for political purposes. We now know that no weapons of mass destruction were to be found. There is a serious question over why John Scarlett should have allowed his intelligence to be changed in that way. Indeed, that episode did the intelligence services, which we want to hold in the highest regard, a considerable disservice.

I draw the Minister’s attention to the 45-minute claim, and also to a prominent article in The Observer of 15 May 2005 by the respected journalist Anthony Barnett. In it, he alleged that John Scarlett had asked another weapons inspector, the Australian Dr. Rod Barton, to sex up another dossier by inserting nine “nuggets”. The article stated:

In that capacity, Barton was preparing a document, but the group was preparing to reach quite different and damning conclusions. The article reported that

and it alleged—I have no knowledge of whether it is true—that Saddam

In response to that, The Observer quotes Dr. Barton as saying that

that is Dr. Barton—

Included in that article were suggestions that

The report continues:

that is John Scarlett—

Anthony Barnett of The Observer makes a serious allegation. I am not aware whether it has been properly investigated or a proper rebuttal given—if, indeed, a rebuttal is appropriate. I ask the Minister to comment on that report. I ask specifically whether it is true, and if so where it leaves John Scarlett, who appears to be continuing the mistakes—I put it neutrally—involved in drawing up the dossier before the invasion of Iraq. It would be helpful if the Minister were to publish the
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e-mail correspondence between John Scarlett and the ISG in that regard. It seems not to be a security matter, but a matter of public interest with no security implications.

I turn to another MI6 strand, which is the activities carried out by the information operations unit. The interests of the Government of the day are not necessarily those of the nation as a whole. That message is well understood by civil servants—it is established in the civil service code of practice—and it also applies to intelligence officers. Yet Nick Rufford, a journalist with The Sunday Times, produced a story on 28 December 2003 in which he alleged that attempts were made by MI6 through something called “operation mass appeal” to plant stories in the media about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector, was reported as saying

If that is so, it suggests that MI6 was being used to further a narrow political objective rather than anything in the national interest. If I worked for MI6, I would be rather concerned that my activities were being manipulated in that way. Nick Rufford’s story was backed up by a report by the respected journalist Seymour Hersh, on the other side of the pond, in which he reported a former American intelligence officer as saying,

We need to know what MI6’s role in this country is. Many of have naturally assumed that its activities have taken place abroad, but there are clear suggestions that it has been involved in disinformation campaigns on the UK mainland. Other newspaper reports, which I do not have time to refer to, suggest that the information operations unit has been planting favourable stories with friendly journalists and stories in other papers that are damaging to those who are critical of MI6’s activities—or perhaps I should say of the Government’s activities.

The other strand that I want to touch on in my last five minutes is the closeness of this country to the United States Administration. That has of course been a great strength to us over many years—indeed, since the second world war. The difference now is that the present US Administration are operating on a different basis of morality from that on which previous Administrations operated, up to and including the Clinton era. We have seen an abandonment of some of the norms of behaviour that the US introduced after the second world war with support from other western countries.

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