Previous Section Index Home Page

9 Jan 2008 : Column 86WH—continued

10.29 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): In his usual pragmatic and courteous style, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) has not
9 Jan 2008 : Column 87WH
only done a superb job for his constituents, but made the Government address the issues in a way that should make life safer for all those of our constituents who live close to major accident hazard sites. That is very necessary, so I congratulate my hon. Friend warmly.

There are two such sites on Canvey island, both of which are potential threats. I have often raised the Calor liquid nitrogen gas proposals in this Chamber, so I shall not do so now. We have a new proposal, the Oikos biodiesel site, which I shall come to in a moment.

Lord Newton is the chairman of the Buncefield inquiry, and I congratulate him on his conduct of it, but I should have wanted more speed and transparency. I am sure that he will take note of that. As a result of the inquiry, the Health and Safety Executive has conducted a consultation, referred to in its consultative document CD211, “Proposals for revised policies for HSE advice on development control around large-scale petrol storage sites”. In section 6 of the document the HSE acknowledged:

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. We must proceed to the winding-up speeches.

10.31 am

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I echo other right hon. and hon. Members’ tributes to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) for securing this important debate, and for the work that he has done on behalf of his constituents and the many other people across the country who may face incidents of the same type in future. He spoke movingly of the horrors of the day. When the incident occurred, my noble Friend Lord McNally, who is a resident of St. Albans, was staying with my family in Cornwall, and was on the telephone to his family to find out what had happened. The impact of the incident in the wider area was brought home to me then.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead rightly paid tribute to the work of the emergency services and local authority employees, and the way in which the whole community handled the event and sought to come to terms with it. He poignantly expressed how traumatic it was for people, including children, and homeowners whose property was destroyed or damaged. He raised crucial questions, which other right hon. and hon. Members have echoed, perhaps the most crucial of which was how the decision was taken about how to handle the fire—whether to let it burn or to be more proactive, and perhaps place the environment at risk in the longer term. The hon. Gentleman made some very sensible suggestions about how the Government should respond to continuing questions from the community, to ensure that there is transparency and that everyone involved knows who to go to for a clear point of contact in resolving issues.

The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) addressed the issue of the speed of the inquiry, as did the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob
9 Jan 2008 : Column 88WH
Spink). The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) made telling points about the financial implications for local organisations and taxpayers. The last thing that the community needs after such a trauma, as we have heard, is greater financial pressure. It should be getting further support to deal with the problems caused by the incident.

The Major Incident Investigation Board has made it clear that its work is not concluded and that several more years’ research may be needed to deliver sound guidance to the industry. Arguably, what is missing is more guidance from Ministers to the community in Hemel Hempstead and the surrounding area, which has been severely affected by the blast. The Minister may recall the water contamination incident at Lowermoor in my own constituency some 20 years ago. The then Government were determined not to let all the facts come to light, and many are still buried today. I am convinced that the present Government do not want to make the same errors for the people of Hertfordshire that were made for people in North Cornwall all those years ago.

Specifically, is not it time that a Minister made a statement to the House about the Government’s present view on the safety of perfluorooctane sulfonate, the chemical dispensed at high speed along with water through high-volume pumps, to tackle the Buncefield blaze? The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead referred to the case of Mr. Archer, the local farmer whose calving success rate fell sharply after the incident. I read about his case with interest and a growing sense of horror before this debate, and although of course I have not had the benefit of any direct contact with him, I know that the hon. Gentleman is doing what he can to deal with the matter. Mr Archer was told in May last year that PFOS is not highly toxic, although there is clear evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the Government’s own risk analysis said so in 2004.

Government agencies are burying their heads in the sand when it comes to such individual cases. People are bound to wonder why, when the Environment Agency considered something toxic in 2004, the Food Standards Agency would suggest that it was not toxic in 2007, after it was possible that people and animals had been affected. As with those who have been affected by organophosphate poisoning from sheep dip or from pesticides used during service in the Gulf, or by exposure to contaminated air in aircraft cabins, it is in any Government’s natural interest to deny a causal link. It is easy to claim that there is not 100 per cent. of proof of anything, but the Minister would surely concede that when a farmer whose business has been very successful experiences a huge increase in the number of deformities in calves, something needs to be investigated, so there is a case for more Government action.

It cannot be right for the Drinking Water Inspectorate to invent a “safe” level of PFOS in the water supply. Indeed, the inspectorate itself has recognised that PFOS at the levels it calls safe is potentially unsafe for young children. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether he stands by the inspectorate’s guidance. At the same time, he could tell us whether it was really necessary to use PFOS to extinguish the Buncefield fire. Indeed, was it necessary to extinguish the fire at all? As the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead has suggested, it is not at all clear that the decision to use high-volume pumps
9 Jan 2008 : Column 89WH
was an operational one. Was political pressure brought to bear from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on the local gold command to use the pumps? After all, it took eight hours for the local operation to decide that HVPs were necessary, and expert advice not to use them was ignored at the time.

Now that contamination has occurred, the Government must not repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. In my own constituency, a not dissimilar event that resulted in water contamination has brought the whole machinery of government into disrepute. Twenty years after our water poisoning incident, I am still in touch with sufferers, and even in the past month it has been left to a coroner to try to get to the bottom of what occurred in 1988. The Government must not fall into the same trap of opacity with the Buncefield incident.

I hope the Minister will work with his colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure that complaints from the constituents of the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead are taken seriously. Experience in North Cornwall suggests that tests have to be carried out promptly if the full health effects of chemical contamination in water are to be properly measured and, more importantly, treated. In recent years a corrosive trend has emerged in which disasters or incidents occur and the Government respond by announcing an inquiry. The inquiry may take years to research and report, and there are no guarantees that the Government will, in any event, take notice of its recommendations. Meanwhile, those who were affected are left without answers and are forgotten as the media circus moves on to the next incident. I urge the Minister again not to indulge that trend.

I again congratulate the honourable Member for Hemel Hempstead, and other right hon. and hon. Members from Hertfordshire and the wider area, on raising questions about the incident, and continuing to press for more answers on environmental pollution, the financial implications, and the lessons that can be learned, so that other communities that suffer incidents—whether natural disasters, industrial accidents or whatever else might occur—can be sure that they will get the support they need from the Government and Government agencies.


Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): This is an appropriate and timely debate, for a number of reasons. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing it, and on the passionate, cogent and moving way in which he dealt with the history of what has befallen his constituents since the tragic events in question. The House knows the commitment and assiduousness that he has shown in attending to the interests of his constituents in this matter, and I pay tribute to him for that. His contribution is enhanced all the more by his own expertise in, and knowledge of, the fire services. Of course, the importance and dedication of our fire and rescue services, which were demonstrated at Buncefield, have been demonstrated many times since, not least, tragically, in Warwickshire recently.

All the hon. Members who spoke made cogent and telling points on behalf of their constituents, and I hope that the Minister will take them on board. I shall not repeat them, because I want to give him the maximum time to respond. All the points were soundly
9 Jan 2008 : Column 90WH
made and based on the evidence. The specific issues that affect the people of Buncefield and surrounding areas need to be addressed, but the debate has also highlighted related broader issues of public policy. Again, those were referred to in the debate. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) valiantly made the point that we need to look generally at how we deal with civil disasters and emergencies such as Buncefield once the immediate catastrophe has been dealt with. Our rescue services are good and highly professional, but once the immediate danger has been dealt with, what happens once the media attention and circus has moved on, as the hon. Gentleman said? How do we help the communities that are left behind to pick up the pieces? People in the communities surrounding Buncefield have genuine concerns and grievances.

We must consider, too, the length of time that it has taken to find out what went wrong, and the need for transparency and openness to restore public confidence. I, too, have the utmost faith in Lord Newton of Braintree, and I am sure that he will use every proper endeavour to resolve those issues. It may be the case that his inquiry has had to take place in private because it might recommend criminal sanctions, but it is important that it acts in a timely fashion. As soon as it has reached a conclusion, and decisions of the kind that may inhibit Lord Newton from speaking in public are out of the way, the facts must be placed fully in the public domain—that is what the people affected are owed.

The Planning Bill, in which the Minister and I are involved, went into Committee yesterday. It will look at ways in which we can speed up inquiries into major developments, but perhaps we should also look at the means by which we can speed up inquiries into the consequences of such disasters. A criminal trial arising from an incident such as Buncefield would be wholly unconscionable if it were allowed to drag on for a period of two years. We need to apply the same sort of discipline to Health and Safety Executive inquiries. Another point I wish to make on planning was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and by other hon. Friends. It is the question of how to deal with the impact of major developments that are necessary for the economic well-being of a major industrial country but which have adverse impacts on those who live near them. While the Planning Bill is in Committee, I hope that the Minister and his colleagues take on board the crucial importance of ensuring that the communities affected by things such as pipelines and ancillary developments are given maximum input in the development of national policy statements and in decisions on the specific sites of such proposals. The ability of those people to put their case or to seek redress thereafter must not be watered down in any way.

I am concerned about the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead about the lack of what lawyers would call “equality of arms” that arises when a small local authority, on the one hand, seeks to deal with extremely wealthy multinational companies on the other. The issue of fairness needs to be addressed by the Government, and the Opposition would be more than happy to co-operate with them and to look at ways in which local authorities can be enabled to carry out their functions on behalf of their residents without any kind of intimidation or hindrance.

9 Jan 2008 : Column 91WH

Another crucial point is the means by which we can ensure that help and assistance are channelled swiftly and effectively to those concerned. My hon. Friend referred to the observations made by our right hon. Friend the leader of the Opposition about the desirability of having a single Minister to deal with such incidents. Following that logic, such a Minister should have a dedicated small team and budget. My right hon. Friend was right when he said that two years ago, and events since—the Minister has personal experience of flooding in his constituency—have reinforced the need for such a Minister. In the past, I encountered difficulties when I dealt with people with wide, cross-departmental responsibilities, so it is important that someone is empowered to take decisions, get things done, and to push through the logjams that we have all encountered in such instances. I hope that the Government look seriously at those suggestions. Again, in a spirit of co-operation, the Opposition are more than happy to work with them to find a constructive way forward and to achieve the single, joined-up focus that is necessary.

Significant points were made on the question of resilience funding. There is serious concern that the importance of resilience in civil emergencies is perhaps not as widely recognised as the importance of resilience to, for example, the terrorist threat. Many people who work with the fire and rescue authorities are concerned that, historically, resilience funding for their operations has not been as generous, or as reflective of the need to acquire new and technologically advanced equipment such as the high-velocity pumps that were mentioned, as the support given by the Home Office to police authorities. The difference in grant settlements for police authorities and for fire and rescue authorities in the same areas in recent years, including this year, tends to reinforce that point.

Bob Spink: Does my hon. Friend accept that there might be a connection between the civilian and terrorist threat? My constituents are deeply concerned about the terrorist risk to plants near them, and rightly so, because one such plant was bombed by the IRA in the 1980s.

Robert Neill: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know well the plants to which he referred. We have such plants in the London part of the Thames Gateway. There is a large number of plants in civilian hands, and the terrorist threat as well as the ordinary civil emergency risk must be taken into account.

Within the existing funding envelope, I hope that we can look at a more sensible allocation of resources. I also hope that any changes to the planning regime will take those issues on board. We need an inherent scientific knowledge of risk in operations of this kind but sadly it is necessary, given the world in which we live, to look at the broader issues too, to ensure that communities that neighbour essential but inevitably risky developments are made safe. The remaining issues have been well rehearsed by my hon. and right hon. Friends, but I shall conclude by saying something on the importance of looking at the PFOS problem. Many people in the fire and rescue services have raised the issue with me in recent years, and I agree with the points made by the
9 Jan 2008 : Column 92WH
hon. Member for North Cornwall for the Liberal Democrats. The official Opposition support the need for greater clarity on the risks of PFOS. What is the position regarding its future use? We wish to ensure that those concerns are allayed, so I hope that Minister will address that and the other significant issues that have been raised in the debate.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): The hour and a half that is allocated for this kind of debate sometimes seems daunting but, invariably, I get only 10 or 11 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. May I first wish everybody a happy new year and congratulate the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing the debate? He has put his points across with great passion and his experience as a firefighter has shown through in the debate. In the time available, I shall try to deal with as many of the questions as I can before coming back to what I think is the key point regarding regeneration in that part of Hemel Hempstead and the support for people in and around the affected communities in Buncefield.

The hon. Gentleman got across very well the scale of the explosions and the consequential impact on the local community—people, young and old. I join him in paying tribute to the work of all the emergency services and the fire and rescue service in particular. He mentioned the new dimension equipment and, in particular, the high-volume pumps, which made a huge difference. They have made a massive difference across the country in a range of incidents, not only the Buncefield fire, but the recent flooding. He mentioned his local authority, Dacorum, which, with a range of agencies, including the Government, has done very constructive work over the past two years. I will say a little about some of that work.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned public confidence in the inquiry. Lord Newton is a very well respected former Minister in the Thatcher Government and is doing a good job in the inquiry. The issue of a public inquiry was raised by a few hon. Members, but I must say that a public inquiry might well have taken much longer.

It is worth noting some of the local comments as well. Just a few weeks ago, in December, a report from the Buncefield community taskforce said:

It is important to say for balance that some good work has taken place in involving local communities.

Mike Penning rose—

Mr. Dhanda: I will give way, but just once, because I want to make some headway on a number of points that hon. Members have made.

Mike Penning: I thank the Minister for being so generous; I am conscious of the time. There is no criticism whatever from me or any other Opposition Member of the way in which Lord Newton of Braintree has handled the inquiry. He has done an absolutely
9 Jan 2008 : Column 93WH
fantastic job, but as I have said before publicly with him, his hands are tied behind his back by the remit that he has been given. The public inquiry on which the then Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), and I were negotiating was one similar to the Marchioness inquiry, which was very short, very robust and very quick. An inquiry like that would not have affected the prosecutions that this inquiry may involve.

Mr. Dhanda: I am not in any way suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is criticising Lord Newton or the way in which he has been handling the inquiry. I wish to ensure that that is noted during the debate.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a farmer in the area and calves that have been born on his farm. As I understand it, DEFRA’s veterinary agency is looking into that. I have no further, more detailed information than that, but I know that it is taking a close look at that.

PFOS was mentioned by a number of hon. Members. PFOS is voluntarily being phased out at present, and I should like to get it on the record that the public may see foam being used, but PFOS is present only in the older stocks of foam. It is important that people are aware of that. I appreciate that hon. Members have asked more detailed questions about PFOS, to which I will ensure that there are written responses.

Giving a specific Minister responsibility was an underlying theme in the debate. In dealing with flooding in Gloucestershire, I have been dealing with a number of Departments—whether the Department for Transport in relation to damage to roads, people in my own Department, such as my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, who has responsibility for recovery from flooding, or other Ministers, such as those with responsibility for regional development agencies. I hear what hon. Members have to say on this issue and the Cabinet Office is considering it, but the most important principle is to have joined-up work happening across Departments, because even if a specific Minister has responsibility, they and their Department will not necessarily have all the qualities required to get the best out of this. This is not just about Ministers either, but about inter-agency working at official level in Departments and about how we work better with local agencies.

Insurance was mentioned. I am pleased to say that there has been some progress with regard to those who have applied for cover. I understand that 75 per cent. of those who suffered damage have now had all the repairs carried out to their homes. A further 11 per cent. have had most carried out, but 14 per cent. still need repairs to be undertaken on their properties.

Mike Penning: That is not right.

Next Section Index Home Page