Previous Section Index Home Page

29 Mar 2007 : Column 1690

I want to raise the issue of east coast fishermen—the Deputy Leader of the House has some expertise in this area—which my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) will also doubtless hope to catch your eye in order to discuss, Madam Deputy Speaker. I attended a meeting on Monday with the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare, and as ever he was very courteous. He was asked a number of tough questions about what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is doing to rectify the situation and to save the UK’s inshore fleet from ruin. Having reflected on that meeting, I am not sure that we were satisfied by the answers.

The southern North sea inshore fishermen’s association and the Kent and Essex sea fisheries committee are battling against ill-thought out regulations produced, in the name of conservation, by DEFRA and the European Fisheries Council that have brought the UK inshore fishing industry to near collapse. This year, the EFC introduced by-catch limits of 25 per cent. on skates and rays. That quota is far too restrictive on individual catches and means that small-scale fishermen such as those in Leigh-on-Sea are legally allowed to land only a couple of those fish per day, which is hardly enough to make a living. The Minister put a different spin on matters, but I believe that there was no consultation whatever on the regulations. Many fishermen continued to fish illegally for six weeks, without even realising that they were doing so.

I welcome the recent DEFRA initiative whereby we exchange some of the British quota of North sea nephrops for German North sea sole, but what a crazy way to do business—swapping to try to deal with what turned out to be a crisis! It was also brought to my attention that it is not just the imposition of quotas per se—for example, 14 different species of skates and rays are classified as one group, ignoring the fact that each species is more abundant in some areas than in others—that is threatening our inshore fleet. Current fishing regulations treat radically different fishing techniques in the same way, which is very unfair. For example, long-lining is subject to the same regulations as beam-trawling. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to have a word with his colleagues and I urge the Government to press the EFC for a quota management review as soon as possible. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point if I have completely ruined his speech. This latest saga is yet another example of how important it is that the UK be properly represented at meetings. It is an absolute disgrace that these quotas were ever agreed to in the first place.

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Southend United community and educational trust. Last year, I congratulated Southend United on their imminent promotion to the championship, and this year is the 15th anniversary of their magnificent community programme. They have organised after-schools coaching, holiday soccer weeks and recreational activities for senior citizens, and received all manner of awards, locally, regionally and nationally. I thought this a good opportunity to praise a football team. The team have actively engaged in the debate on obesity, encouraging children to take part in increased levels of physical activity. They specialise in girls-only
29 Mar 2007 : Column 1691
coaching—that will doubtless meet with the favour of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning)—and they have organised body care and healthy living programmes that give children a better understanding of how to keep their bodies healthy. They have also introduced programmes such as “getting on with the blues”—actually, that is not a bad slogan for my party—and they target antisocial behaviour and support activities that assist local charities and voluntary groups. So Southend United are doing a splendid job, and I am quietly confident that we will retain our place in the championship.

I do not remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether you were in the Chair during the Christmas Adjournment debate, but I mentioned that the centenarians in Southend had set a world record. I am delighted to tell the House that this week that was formally recognised by “Guinness World Records” and I received a certificate on behalf of the centenarians. They participated in the largest ever gathering of centenarians. The previous record was 21 and we have now pushed that up to 23. The way that things are going in Southend, I am confident that we will be able to beat that record later this year. People are living much longer. In 1850, for example, people lived to 40 on average, but now it is no longer surprising to knock on a door—as we will all be doing in the local elections—and have it answered by a person of 90, 95 or even 100 years.

We should have more investment in several areas to ensure that the sight, hearing, mobility and general health of elderly people is maintained. That is why I am delighted that my party is leading the way in the national debate on the quality of life. If the Government accepted that agenda, it would reduce the demand on care services. For instance, age-related macular degeneration is the most common cause of blindness and visual impairment in the UK. However, early diagnosis and prompt treatment can prevent the rapid loss of vision.

I am closely associated with the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, which has drawn to my attention the postcode lottery that many rheumatoid arthritis sufferers experience when trying to gain access to treatment that would improve their condition significantly. Despite the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence approving anti-tumour necrosis factor-alpha therapy for rheumatoid arthritis in 2002, many primary care trusts refuse to fund its use adequately or they put a cap on the numbers of patients that can be treated. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass that message on to the Health Secretary.

The report by the Communities and Local Government Committee on small coastal towns was published on 7 March. I and other Members who represent coastal towns were concerned because the report said that the Government have no specific policies for coastal towns and that, despite much diversity, they share many common characteristics—physical isolation, deprivation levels, inward migration of older people, high levels of transients, outward migration of older people, poor-quality housing and the nature of the coastal economy. There is a high proportion of elderly people in our coastal resorts; I have already mentioned the number of centenarians
29 Mar 2007 : Column 1692
living in Leigh. I hope that the Government will adopt a national approach to promote and support seaside tourism. Like many other hon. Members, I supported the national tourism week at the beginning of March and I was pleased to learn that the photograph that we submitted from Leigh-on-Sea was in pride of place at the exhibition in Regent’s street. Tourism brings in £85 billion to the UK, so it would be in all our interests to adopt a national coastal tourism strategy, similar to that in Wales.

I recently visited Princes Avenue school and was greeted by the excellent head teacher, Mrs. Sandy Fletcher, who sadly retires today, and her deputy, Miss Judy Kaufman. They drew my attention to a survey of 5,863 people, which found that 38 per cent. of parents had taken their children on holiday in term time. All hon. Members realise that that happens because families can save £500 on the cost of holidays, but it disrupts schooling. More and more people are doing it, and the Government recognise that. The Association of British Travel Agents comes out with a lot of codswallop about responding to market forces, but I would like to see a little responsibility being exercised. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers blames parents. I am not brave enough to blame parents, but there must be a way round this—I will not call it a third way—and I hope that we can find a solution.

Another success for Southend is the fact that the YMCA has won the community impact award presented by the Prince’s Trust for its short film entitled, “Killer in a Can”. Despite having no knowledge of how to make a film, a team of 11 young people decided to raise awareness of the dangers of substance abuse after learning about the subject. They raised £800 to make the film by themselves. It has been shown on national television and used by Essex police. Is not that a good reason to celebrate the excellent work of our young people?

I make no apology for quickly mentioning buses again. We do not have enough buses in Southend, particularly for our elderly people. Why not? It is because 20,000 people were left off the national census in Southend, and so we have no funding for 20,000 people. I hope that a bus company that does not need a subsidy will come forward to provide extra services and that some generous individual or company might come forward with some money to subsidise those services.

Leigh-on-Sea town council is wonderful and is working hard with local businesses to get CCTV installed in a shopping centre. We cannot afford the capital cost of installation and, again, I hope that a benefactor may come forward.

A constituent, Gareth Rogerson, suffered 70 per cent. burns—they are full thickness burns—following a terrible car accident. He is a remarkable person and his family are very proud of him. His hands melted, so he has no hands. Some of us were privileged this week to meet Simon Weston, who suffered 46 per cent. burns—so we can imagine the bravery of this chap. He has friends in Limehouse whom he goes to meet. On a number of occasions, he has been stopped on the train for not being in possession of a valid rail ticket. Prosecutions have been mounted, but I will not name the organisation. The issue is being dealt with. I assume that Gareth is not the only person in this situation. I
29 Mar 2007 : Column 1693
know that it will be said that he should buy the ticket in advance and have it hanging on a piece of chain around his neck, but surely, given the extreme circumstances, can this not be dealt with differently? How anyone could bring the matter to a magistrates court hearing is beyond belief.

Finally, as it is Easter, I come to badgers. The badgers in our area have got together and decided that they like all sorts of back gardens in Southend. I spoke on Third Reading of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, which made badgers a protected species. I regret none of that but, 20 years on, I must confess that I had no idea of the impact of that legislation. To move badgers humanely from gardens is an issue. They are into the foundations, garages are collapsing and people cannot go into their back gardens—and I am not exaggerating. We all love badgers, although we should not stroke them, because they have powerful jaws and teeth. The issue needs to be dealt with.

I end by wishing everyone a happy Easter.

2.54 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who raised some important points. I believe that my constituency has the largest urban badger population in the country. I am delighted that some of them are going on holiday to Leigh-on-Sea, and I wish them well. I have about seven badgers and their young in my garden. I enjoy that; I feed them and watch them, and people come to my house to see them. They are beautiful, wonderful animals, but we must make sure that humans have rights, too. We must get the balance right. It is in the badgers’ best interests that we move them as quickly as possible when there is a conflict in an urban environment, as there often is in my constituency. There are plenty of places to which we could move the badgers where they would be much better off. That would be better than allowing that conflict to get out of hand; I assure hon. Members that that is very bad for the badgers.

The safety of my constituency is threatened by the proposal of Calor and Centrica to put a massive liquefied natural gas importation plant on Canvey Island. They wish to offload LNG from ships in an increasingly busy Thames. It would then be stored in two massive tanks and fed into the gas national grid. The Health and Safety Executive highlighted the project’s potential lack of safety and Calor’s application was rejected. Calor has appealed, so the matter is before Ministers. I have raised the issue in the House on several occasions, and I have obtained an undertaking from Ministers that a public inquiry will be held. Most importantly, it is to be held on Canvey Island, so that local people have direct and easy access to it.

Local opposition is strong. Canvey people have, in their thousands, signed Canvey Island Independent party’s petition, organised by Dave Blackwell, which I presented in the House. As always, I put local politics aside, and congratulate Dave Blackwell and his team on their important and helpful initiative. Top marks, however, go to George Whatley and his People Against
29 Mar 2007 : Column 1694
Methane team. They led the battle throughout, and organised a very professional referendum. They are true stars. We all got very wet doing the footwork on winter afternoons and evenings, but it was well worth the effort. The referendum results were astounding.

As I say, it was a very professional referendum, with sealed containers. People could vote, in private, however they wanted—either for against. The turnout was 68 per cent. of the total voting population of Canvey Island. That is much more than twice the amount who would vote in any local government election, which shows that the issue has gripped people. The result was even more remarkable: of those who voted, 99.6 per cent. voted against the LNG plant. Two of the people who voted for it filled in their referendum forms with me. They were operators at the plant, and they apologised to me for how they were casting their private vote. Of course, they had no need to tell me how they voted. The result certainly cannot be challenged; it has great credibility, and it cannot be ignored.

I urge the inspector who will eventually consider the matter to give as much weight as possible to that formal measure of public opinion. I do so respectfully, because I know that the inspector will deal with the planning issues carefully and professionally, as he must. I have absolute confidence in his judgment and his great courtesy in dealing with good, local people, who will represent themselves, while the big business will, of course, employ expensive barristers and professionals to represent it. I know that the inspector will be careful to strike the right balance in the inquiry.

If the proposals go ahead, the Canvey site will become one of the very few control of major accident hazards, or COMAH, sites in the UK. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), who is present on the Labour Benches, has one in her constituency, too. In the USA, such sites have a 6-mile residential homes exclusion area around them if they involve LNG. They provide that exclusion area for good reason. The incidents in Port Hudson and Cleveland, Ohio, show just what can happen when an uncontrolled vapour cloud detonation takes place. That is a risk with which Canvey and Castle Point people would have to live, and there is no six-mile limit, as is mandatory in the United States—not even a one-mile safety zone—for Canvey people. The plant is literally within spitting distance of homes and schools, as it is only a few hundred yards away.

Let me paint a true picture of the risk posed. An LNG escape would freeze everything in its path. The Health and Safety Executive and the fire service have confirmed that there is no way of controlling such a spill. Indeed, I am having another meeting next Monday morning with the local fire service. At atmospheric pressure, LNG would vaporise and form a massive, growing cloud that would float and blow around in the wind, combining with air to form an unstable and highly combustible mixture. On ignition, it would explode and flash into a high-temperature fire that would destroy everything in its path. Ignition could take place simply if a car passed through the area or if someone flicked a light switch within it. The direction of such a cloud would be indeterminate beforehand, and the effects on homes and schools would be indiscriminate. Unlike at Buncefield, where
29 Mar 2007 : Column 1695
the emergency services could use foam to control and contain the fire because it was fuel oil-based, not LNG-based, there is no effective firefighting strategy for an LNG incident. It would be a question of watching and following the fire, and clearing up the carnage afterwards.

Detonation may happen on Canvey Island, but it could also take place on the mainland in Benfleet or Hadleigh. A cloud could even blow over to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) in Leigh, where the ground is higher, and ignite there. This is not just a Canvey Island problem—it is a south Essex issue. There are many other causes for objection. The terrorist threat is significant, although I will not go into it too deeply. The main threat, however, is from an accident. Flixborough and Buncefield were thought to be totally safe the night before they went up. We know what happened there. Indeed, the HSE Buncefield report states in consultative document CD211, section 6, “Wider implications for other major hazard sites”:

There we have it: proof positive from the HSE, no less, that we cannot declare the Canvey Island plant proposal safe.

There is only one conclusion—the appeal should be rejected, to avoid unacceptable dangers to schools and homes, not only in my constituency but elsewhere. Neither the HSE nor the Government have a policy on the safe siting of a COMAH plant, for which I have been asking for months. The inspector therefore has no formal standards against which to measure the application that he is considering. I urge the inspector, therefore, to disallow the appeal on that point alone. However, there are many other reasons to reject it, including the dire implications of flood risk for the site, and the difficulty of building the massive tanks on stilts. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West smiles, but that is a requirement for new build on Canvey Island, which is in the flood plain and, in some places, is 6 or 8 ft below sea level.

Shipping and navigation safety is an important consideration. The environmental implications are significant, too. Just for the record, the plant would confer very little local benefit on my constituents—not that that is a big issue, because there is a national need. However, there are many other effective sites for the importation of LNG that do not give rise to conflicts with other interests and that are not sited close to homes and, in particular, schools. Let there be no mistake: the application is not about national need but about corporate profits. There is nothing wrong with that, but I told Calor and Centrica at the outset that if there was a safety issue—if safety was compromised in their application—I would fight them tooth and nail. Safety is compromised, so I will fight them with every ounce of effort to stop that ill-conceived project.

The conclusions are clear. There is ample evidence of the devastation that could be caused by an incident at such a plant. There is also irrefutable evidence from the HSE, no less, that the operation of the plant cannot be
29 Mar 2007 : Column 1696
guaranteed without the risk of an incident—it cannot be made fail-safe or totally safe. The Environment Agency has also confirmed that there are serious flooding risks on the site, which is another reason to reject it. There is no separation of homes and schools from the plant; there is no COMAH safe siting policy against which the inspector can measure the application and make a judgment; and there are more appropriate sites to meet the national need and the national interest. The inspector will consider all those matters very carefully. I say, with due respect to the inspector’s independence in making the decision, that I hope that the proposal is rejected.

I am pleased to welcome back the Deputy Leader of the House, who is an excellent Minister—I actually congratulated him on his return last night. Will he confirm that the Trade and Industry Secretary’s new policy to speed up the planning process for large scale energy sites will not be applied retrospectively to the Calor application, which is now being appealed on Canvey Island? I see that the Deputy Leader of the House has nodded, which I appreciate.

On the separate but related matter of flood defences, Canvey Island suffered more than any other community in the 1953 floods, when 58 people were killed on the island. Parts of the island, such as the Calor site, lie below sea level protected by sea walls, sea gates and, in some areas, simple earth banks. We all saw what happened last year in New Orleans, where the substantial levees were swept away in moments. That community was devastated last year, as Canvey was in 1953.

On 18 March, which is not yet two weeks ago, Canvey was at serious risk of flooding, and the sea barriers should have been closed. The Environment Agency is responsible for that, but it failed to do that simple but essential job. The Thames barrier was closed, pushing water back up the Thames towards Canvey Island, but Canvey’s defences were not activated. The result was predictable—Canvey suffered flooding and damage yet again. The Echo report stated:

This time it was not on the scale of 1953, thank goodness, but that was due to divine intervention rather than Environment Agency planning or judgment. Rather foolishly, a spokesman for the Environment Agency was quoted by the Echo as saying:

One of my constituents described that comment as “complacent in the extreme”. Another e-mailed me only yesterday to say that that demonstrates

I respectfully ask the Secretary of State to undertake an inquiry into the incident and to give me a report, because I must protect the interests of the people on Canvey Island whom I represent.

Next Section Index Home Page