Previous Section Index Home Page

27 Feb 2007 : Column 892

27 Feb 2007 : Column 893

27 Feb 2007 : Column 894

Bill read the Third time, and passed.


Mr. Deputy Speaker: With the leave of the House, I will put motions 3 to 7 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),

27 Feb 2007 : Column 895

Prevention and suppression of terrorism

Public health

Children and young persons

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

Financial Management

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 25 (Periodic adjournments),

Question agreed to.






Post Office Closures

10.10 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I present a petition of more than 4,000 of my constituents who have expressed their concern about the potential closure of post offices.

The petition states:

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We still have business to conduct. May I ask Members who are leaving to do so quickly and quietly?

Annette Brooke: The petition continues:

To lie upon the Table.

Alzheimer’s Drugs

10.11 pm

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I present a petition of more than 5,000 signatures collected by members of the Southampton and district Alzheimer’s Society, many of whose members are carers for husbands, wives and other relatives suffering from that condition.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

27 Feb 2007 : Column 897

Climate Change

10.12 pm

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Last Sunday morning, at the Baptist church in my home town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, I was privileged to be present at the launch of an important campaign organised by the local Christian Aid group. As ever, in my experience, faith communities, especially Christian Churches, are at the forefront of pressure for the necessary changes in our land and in our world. The group told me clearly that tackling climate change is a moral imperative. Climate change is as much an injustice between nations as between generations, and the poorest people on the planet will suffer the worst. The petition has been signed by Sue Richardson of Christian Aid, who is working hard to organise this campaign, and by me, as the local Member of Parliament.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

27 Feb 2007 : Column 898

Sonae Factory (Kirkby)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

10.14 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): The Sonae chipboard factory in Kirkby in my constituency has been a source of controversy and concern since it first opened in January 2000. There have been four fires in the past 12 months. The most recent fire, which occurred last week, is the latest in a growing catalogue of incidents that have left many people understandably concerned about the safety of both the work force and the residents who live close to the factory.

Later in my speech I shall list the various prosecutions that have taken place, on behalf of Knowsley council, which is responsible for regulating the process under pollution control legislation, the Health and Safety Executive, which exercises responsibility for the health and safety of the work force, and the Environment Agency. First, however, it is important to highlight the concerns of local residents about Sonae. The skyline of Kirkby is dominated by an 85 metre high chimney stack, which, when the factory is operating, belches out a long plume of smoke—or as Sonae would have it, steam. The chimney stack is a navigational landmark for miles around, and I am told that pilots use it as a reference point on the flight path to Liverpool John Lennon airport.

Kirkby has a long and unhappy history of health problems, most particularly of cancer. A debate is currently under way locally about the causes of the high rates of certain kinds of cancer. I have recently been responsible, along with others, for the establishment of a monitoring group to consider what action is being taken and to monitor the research that is under way. However, there is a widespread belief in Kirkby that industrial pollution is at least part of the problem, and the name most often mentioned is, sad to say, Sonae. Time prevents me from going into the various theories on the causes of the abnormally high rates of cancer in Kirkby, but, at the risk of understating the case, I simply say that many local people are deeply suspicious of the effect that Sonae has on the town’s health. Councillor Terry Garland, one of the Northwood councillors, spoke for many earlier this week when he said:

It can be said with confidence that until modifications to the plant were carried out in 2005, which included the increase of the chimney stack height to 85 metres, there was a serious odour problem, which caused great nuisance and distress to many residents. There was also a problem with dust settling on vehicles and residents’ homes. To be fair, since the improvements at the plant, those problems have been reduced. Part of the reason for that, as far as I am aware, is the fact that emissions from the extended stack dissipate higher into the atmosphere and are less likely to ground locally.

27 Feb 2007 : Column 899

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): I support my right hon. Friend, as the Sonae factory is a cause of great concern and nuisance, and is a threat to the health and safety of my constituents. As he has said, the higher the stack, the further the pollution is spread over west Lancashire, affecting many people around the site. My constituents in Simonswood fear for their safety, so I absolutely support his plea to ensure that the plant is made safe.

Mr. Howarth: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The theory is that with the extended stack, the plume will disperse and therefore ought not to ground, although I am not scientifically well trained enough to support that theory or otherwise. However, my hon. Friend is right that the people of Simonswood have been concerned about the problem for many years. Indeed, some of them have worked closely with me and with her predecessor on the issue.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South) (Lab): The effect depends on prevailing winds. My constituents are similarly exposed, and I too am concerned that the higher the chimney stack, the further afield the residue will settle. Does my right hon. Friend agree that not just internal diseases but ophthalmic disorders are attributed to the Sonae factory?

Mr. Howarth: Before the stack height was extended, there were a number of incidents of the smoke plume grounding—on one occasion, in a school playground. As a result, people got runny noses, sore eyes and sore throats. My hon. Friend is right; such incidents, which have been recorded, are very unpleasant indeed.

Other modifications initially seemed to reduce the amount of dust generated, which is also a great nuisance, although I am told that complaints about dust have recently started to increase again.

I should at this point say a word or two about Knowsley council. Its environmental health team has been heavily involved in monitoring the plant for many years, and any improvements that have been carried out have to a great extent been at the council’s instigation. There is, however, a burden on the council because of Sonae. A disproportionate amount of its environmental health resources have to be allocated to work associated with the plant. Inevitably, that is at the expense of other problems that need attention.

Last Wednesday, Knowsley council unanimously passed a resolution stating:

Similarly, I pay tribute to the work force at Sonae and their trade union representatives, who are deeply involved in efforts to bring about improvements to health and safety procedures and practices at the plant. Nevertheless, last week’s fire has yet again highlighted people’s worries about the instability of the process, and heightened residents’ concerns about their own safety and well-being. That is hardly surprising, given the history of problems at the plant. According to Merseyside’s chief fire officer, Mr. Tony McGuirk,
27 Feb 2007 : Column 900
there have been four fires in the past 12 months, the most recent, which I have already referred to, being the most serious. Since April 2004 the fire and rescue service has been called to the premises on 33 separate occasions.

Sonae has been successfully prosecuted on six occasions by the Health and Safety Executive, Knowsley council or the Environment Agency. Let us consider the initial incidents. On 23 July 2000, a fire in the gas generator area developed. On 1 September 2001, an explosion and a fire in a fuel store occurred. On 17 December 2001, a fire occurred in a dust filter adjacent to the woodchip dryer. The HSE has prosecuted Sonae on four occasions since the factory first opened. Three of those incidents involved injuries to employees. In March 2000, an employee was trapped in a machine, and the company was prosecuted and fined £35,000. In April 2000, another employee was trapped in a different machine, and the company was fined £15,000. In June 2002, an employee was hit by a fork-lift truck, and the company was fined £12,000.

On 1 June 2002, a more serious explosion resulted in significant damage to the plant and serious injuries to a Sonae employee. It is understood that the HSE issued a number of prohibition and improvement notices and prosecuted Sonae as a result of that incident, for which it was fined £70,000, with a similar sum being awarded in costs. After that explosion, a major fire started in the external stockpiles of woodchips. The fire followed significant overstocking of the factory yards; supplies continued to be taken, despite the fact that the factory had closed down following the explosion. Fires continued to burn and emit smoke and fumes that affected residents over a wide area, until they were finally extinguished more than six months later in January 2003.

The Environment Agency prosecuted Sonae in connection with a series of pollution incidents affecting watercourses following that explosion and the subsequent fires in the stockpiles. The cases were heard on 2 October 2003, the company pleaded guilty to five charges and was fined £37,500.

On 11 March 2004, a leak in the thermal oil heat exchanger inside the hot gas generator—in effect, the wood burning furnace—led to the ignition of oil in the furnace. That caused the main safety vent to open and resulted in unabated emissions. On 4 May 2005, there was a fire in the area where woodchips are separated into size fractions before entry into the pressing area.

As I have said, the most recent incident took place on 20 February 2007, when a fire started as the result of an oil leak from pipework in a room occupied by pumps that circulate the hot oil used to power the chipboard press and the adjoining press hall. The fire spread to the main plant control room above the oil pump and the computer pump which controls the operation of the plant was destroyed.

Since the factory opened in 2000, Knowsley council has served many statutory notices on Sonae, including two prohibition notices, 10 enforcement notices, five variation notices and one notice requiring information, with which Sonae did not comply. In December 2005 Sonae pleaded guilty to three charges brought by Knowsley council under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and was fined £13,000.

Next Section Index Home Page