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10.1 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I would like to extend my thanks to Mr. Speaker for selecting this topic for debate.

The issues that I wish to bring to the attention of the House relate to the deaths of Ann Mawer and Sue Barker on Christmas eve in 2007. On that Christmas eve, 52-year-old Ann Mawer went to work at Fred's Taxis in the town of Immingham. Within about 15 minutes of arriving at work, there was a horrific explosion at the taxi office, which killed both Ann and her friend and co-worker, Sue Barker. So intense was the fire that resulted from the explosion that the women had to be identified through DNA. Sue Barker's husband, who was the owner of the taxi firm, was injured in the incident.

The deaths of those two women devastated the town of Immingham and the neighbouring village of South Killingholme. What should have been a time for families turned into a time of mourning for those communities. Hundreds of people attended the funerals of the women.

From our investigations, it appears that a container with 25 litres of petrol had been filled up and taken into the taxi office that Christmas eve and stored under the counter where Ann and Sue worked. Either an office gas fire or an electrical appliance provided the ignition source that led to the explosion.

Since that dreadful accident, I have been working with Ann Mawer's sisters, Sylvia Layton and Diana Ryan, to do all we can to ensure that no other person dies in such horrific circumstances. In a nutshell, the families are calling for the rules relating to fire safety to be toughened up. They also want harsher penalties for health and safety offences. They also believe that there needs to be far better training or education, so that people are aware of fire risks.

One of the main pieces of legislation governing fire safety is the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. That order brought together fire safety legislation into one document. It requires any person who exercises some level of control in premises to take reasonable steps to reduce the risk from fire and to ensure occupants can safely escape if a fire does occur. That responsible person is meant to carry out or to nominate someone to carry out a fire risk assessment, identifying all risks and hazards. They are meant to consider who may be specifically at risk. They are meant to eliminate or reduce the risk from fire as far as is reasonably practical and to provide general fire precautions to deal with any risk.

The responsible person is meant to take additional measures to ensure fire safety where flammable or explosive materials are used or stored. They are also meant to create a plan to deal with any emergency and, in most cases, to document the findings. The guidance states that achieving fire safety is often a matter of common sense, but that the person responsible will have to ensure that sufficient time is put aside to work through the necessary steps.

To help ensure that premises comply with the legislation, an online self-assessment form is available. I have concerns about that. I looked at that self-assessment form and it
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is easy to fill in, but I do not think that it does anything to make anybody aware of the risks that could be inherent in a particular workplace. Indeed, as I went through those documents, I could not see anything that appeared to prevent the storage of such an amount of flammable fuel in such a small, enclosed office space. I feel that this needs to be reviewed, and there are some questions I would like the Minister to address tonight.

First, are the laws regarding the storage of flammable substances such as petroleum in an office workplace robust enough? Should there be, for example, a prohibition on storing large amounts of petrol in confined spaces? Also, is self-assessment always sufficient? Can small and micro-businesses have the necessary knowledge—and, indeed, time—to self-assess the risk and act accordingly? Are the guidelines as they currently exist realistically enforceable? Is it sufficient to call for the use of common sense? I am sure that everybody will agree that one person’s idea of what is sensible is not necessarily the next person’s idea.

Following the inquest on 16 July this year into the deaths of Ann and Sue, the coroner, Paul Kelly, wrote to North East Lincolnshire council on 18 July. In that letter he stated:

That is where Fred’s Taxis was located.

The council replied to the letter from Mr. Kelly on 24 July, stating that it agreed

and that it is looking to use the incident

However, the council also agreed

I certainly agree with that point.

I have been researching this issue along with relatives of Ann Mawer, and I think that there is contradictory and conflicting guidance about containers. On one hand, I read that according to the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002—DSEAR—there are no longer specific controls over the storage of petrol at workplace sites other than filling stations, yet on the other hand that workplaces need to comply with the requirements of DSEAR but do not need a licence. The legislation also seems to state—I would like the Minister to clarify these points—that workplaces no longer need to comply with regulations about containers. Yet it also states that no one should store more than 50 litres of petrol in a work room, and only then do so when it is
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kept in a properly labelled metal cabinet or bin with spillage retention. Some of those points appear contradictory, and I should like the Minister’s Department to look into making the guidance about what is and is not allowed much clearer.

I have also read that if a building is attached to a home or public place—I am not sure whether a taxi firm would be regarded as a public place—it is illegal to store more than 20 litres in two 10-litre metal containers. However, if plastic is used, no more than 10 litres can be stored, in two 5-litre containers. The House can see that there are several different amounts and types of container, and it is hardly surprising that people are not sure what they can and cannot do.

I have raised the issue with representatives of Humberside fire and rescue service, who have expressed their concern to me about people’s ignorance and sometimes risky behaviour as regards the storage of flammable substances. Although fire deaths are declining among the general public, deaths among firefighters are increasing. They believe that that is partly due to poorly stored flammable substances that they are not aware of. We therefore need better training and education for employers about keeping employees safe. Diana and Sylvia have called for that as well as for an examination of whether the law is sufficient to prevent such accidents from happening in future.

Last week, on 9 October, I took Ann Mawer’s sisters Diana and Sylvia to lobby the Minister responsible for health and safety, Lord McKenzie. The sisters put their case to him very powerfully and brought along a petition signed by more than 3,000 residents of the town of Immingham calling for an update in the law concerning the storage of flammable and hazardous substances in offices and workplaces. That shows the strength of feeling in our community about the loss of Ann and Sue in such tragic circumstances. Lord McKenzie indicated that he would examine the guidelines to see whether they could be updated to address our concerns. He has also agreed to meet us again when North East Lincolnshire council completes its investigation into the events of that day.

On penalties, I understand that the Health and Safety (Offences) Bill, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), had its Third Reading in the House of Lords on Friday and should gain Royal Assent shortly. The Bill will amend various aspects of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 to increase the maximum fines available for health and safety offences. It will also make a prison sentence an option for most health and safety offences, whereas at the moment it is available only for certain offences. It will also mean that offences that used to be tried in lower courts can be tried in either lower or higher courts.

As my right hon. Friend stressed when he spoke in support of those changes, there are nearly 250 work-related deaths a year in the UK, nearly 30,000 major injuries and well over 100,000 more minor injuries that keep people off work. As he put it, the Bill

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell me when he anticipates the Bill gaining Royal Assent and when it will come into force. If someone is charged with any health and safety breaches in relation to the
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deaths of Ann Mawer and Sue Barker, will they be tried under the old rules or the new? I hope that my hon. Friend and Lord McKenzie will work with Ann’s family to identify where the law may be lacking and suggest changes that will increase workplace safety.

Each April in North East Lincolnshire, there is a workers memorial day to remember those who have lost their lives in the workplace. Wreaths are laid by families and friends and by public representatives to remember those who lost their lives in Immingham, in Grimsby and in Cleethorpes. The event in our area is organised by Immingham resident and Transport and General Workers Union member Nobby Styles, who has campaigned for the event to be recognised nationally. Next year, we who lay our wreaths every year will be joined by Sylvia and Diana, who will lay a wreath in memory of their sister, Ann. The memorial plaque in Immingham where we lay our wreaths is located just yards away from where the explosion took place last Christmas eve. I hope that my hon. Friend can look seriously at the concerns raised by the whole community.

10.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): I am sure that the whole House will commend my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) for bringing this issue to its attention. Let me say how sorry I was to read about this incident, which resulted in the tragic deaths of Ann Mawer and Sue Barker. I am sure that all Members wish to express their deepest sympathy to the families of Ann and Sue.

My hon. Friend referred to a meeting that she had with my ministerial colleague Lord McKenzie last Thursday. She was able to meet Ann Mawer’s sisters, Diana Ryan and Sylvia Layton, to hear their views on the incident and to discuss the legislation on the storage of petrol. My noble Friend has agreed to meet my hon. Friend and Sylvia and Diana once the legal proceedings that may follow have been concluded, in order to discuss their further concerns.

The fire and its cause have been investigated by North East Lincolnshire council under health and safety legislation, as enforcement responsibility for the taxi office premises in question falls to the local authority, not the Health and Safety Executive. As the council is still considering whether there should be any legal proceedings as a result of the incident, I am sure that you will understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as will my hon. Friend, that this evening I cannot go into specific detail about what happened. However, I hope it will be helpful if I outline the legislation covering the workplace and work activities in general, and specific legislation covering the storage and dispensing of petrol. I will then consider what we can do to remind people of all the dangers associated with petrol and how it should be handled.

First and foremost, all employers, regardless of their business, are required under health and safety legislation to ensure that the risks to their employees are avoided or reduced as far as is reasonably practicable. They also have a similar responsibility to avoid or mitigate risks to members of the public from any activity undertaken as part of their business. This primary legislation has been in force for more than 30 years. It forms the basis of
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Great Britain’s health and safety system and lays down the core principle that those who create risks are responsible for removing or controlling them. There is also further, secondary legislation that spells out in more detail what employers must do to meet their duties: the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, which explicitly require employers to carry out risk assessments and then act on them.

There is further specific legislation that deals solely with the health and safety risks from dangerous substances, including petrol. The Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 reinforce the general duties in the legislation that I mentioned earlier by specifying the need to eliminate or reduce risks from flammable substances, including, of course, petrol. It can therefore be seen that there is comprehensive legal coverage to ensure that employers working with highly flammable substances, including petrol, know that they have to assess the risks and take steps to eliminate or reduce the chance of accidents arising from their activities. This means that employers are not free just to store petrol in any way they want, but must do so safely. The workplace legislative regime is very relevant to the tragic circumstances that have brought us to the House this evening and, as I have noted, the enforcing authority is still considering the compliance with these requirements in respect of this accident.

I should add that all this legislation is supported by published HSE guidance, including information available on the HSE’s website, aimed at making it clear what is required of employers and providing advice on how they might go about doing what is necessary. For example, the HSE has published free leaflets on fire and explosion risks in the workplace and on working safely with flammable substances aimed at giving small businesses advice on the relevant legislation and on the control measures that are necessary. More comprehensive, priced guidance is also available, including an approved code of practice on the storage of dangerous substances.

The HSE also recognises that to small businesses the legal framework may sometimes appear complex and may divert attention from the key actions that they need to take to manage their health and safety needs effectively. So, to help small businesses focus on key risks likely to cause injury or harm, the HSE has produced simplified, straightforward guidance, such as its “Five steps to risk assessment”, and example risk assessments available on its website.

Finally, on the legislation in this case, there is safety law that applies specifically to petrol filling stations. The Petroleum (Consolidation) Act 1928 sets out a well established regime designed to ensure that all activities relating to the storage and dispensing of petrol at filling stations are undertaken safely. It does that through a licensing regime whereby any petrol station operator must hold a licence from the local petroleum licensing authority, which is usually the fire authority or the local authority—in this case, it is North East Lincolnshire council’s trading standards service. Petroleum licensing authorities can and do place conditions on licences, requiring or prohibiting anything that they think expedient to the safe storage or dispensing of petrol.

To bring about consistency around the country, licensing authorities have agreed a national set of conditions, which they are all encouraged to apply. One of the
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conditions lays down the types of portable containers that can have petrol dispensed into them at petrol stations. In essence, they are: metal containers meeting certain prescribed constructional and labelling requirements and not exceeding 10 litres in capacity; plastic containers that also meet certain prescribed constructional and labelling requirements and not exceeding 5 litres in capacity; demountable fuel tanks of motor boats or similar vessels, or containers approved under the United Nations packaging scheme for carrying petrol in containers by road. Again, I believe that the law, as applied in this country, is clear on the types of containers that can be filled at petrol stations.

It may help my hon. Friend to know that the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act also regulates non-workplace storage of petrol—storage in domestic property or private clubs and the like, where there is no employment. That covers what you or I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, can keep in our home, shed, garage or similar location. In essence, for anything other than small amounts of petrol, similar licence requirements as for petrol stations apply. However, in recognition of the fact that many people need to keep small amounts of petrol as emergency supplies for cars, or for petrol powered equipment such as lawn mowers, there are exemptions from the need for a licence in certain circumstances. In general, those allow for the storage in domestic premises of no more than two 10-litre metal vessels and two 5-litre suitable plastic vessels. In the latter case, “suitable” is legally defined and essentially means constructed of appropriate plastic material, with a capacity of no more than 5 litres and appropriately marked.

Those are sensible requirements on domestic and other non-workplace premises to allow reasonable access to petrol while ensuring that no one stores larger quantities of petrol in premises not suited to such an activity. Anyone who did so would, of course, endanger not only themselves but neighbouring property and people who would be affected in the event of a spillage or fire.

The Government do not necessarily see additional regulation as the solution to all problems. Indeed, there might often be more of an issue about the level of compliance with existing regulations. Awareness of the law and guidance is therefore also important and I understand that my noble Friend Lord McKenzie has asked the HSE to liaise with a body known as the petroleum enforcement liaison group, which is made up of representatives from enforcing authorities—the experts who deal daily with these issues on the ground— and representatives of the petrol industry to consider the factors involved in this tragic incident, with a view to getting the relevant messages and lessons that need to be learned across to people who have duties under the various petrol-related legislation. My hon. Friend raised a number of points this evening and I will ensure that my noble Friend reads the debate and answers her in full, which I am sure he will be pleased to do.

The Government believe that the law covering the storage of highly flammable liquids, including petrol, is well established and has contributed to an extremely low level of accidents over many years. However, I agree that we must never be complacent. Any tragedy such as the one that has been brought before the House this evening should make us think again about what else can be done to avoid such accidents and incidents in future. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the
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case. Once again, I express my deepest sympathies to the families of the two ladies involved.

Throughout our careers in the House as constituency MPs, we are each touched by tragic cases among the people we represent. It is our duty to do everything we can to support families in such circumstances. Normally when one begins an Adjournment debate, one congratulates the hon. Member, but I did not do so because I did not think that “congratulate” was an appropriate word to use in this case. I commend my hon. Friend for bringing the case to the House and for the work that she has
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done on behalf of her constituents. She has described the pain that has been felt in the communities of Immingham and South Killingholme. She has performed a good service for her constituents this evening and I know that she will continue to pursue the case. That is the right thing for her to do, given the tragic circumstances in which the two ladies lost their lives.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o’clock.

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