HC Deb 18 April 1962 vol 658 cc649-58

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. M, Hamilton.]

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Charles Mapp (Oldham, East)

This is a sad story involving the loss of three adult lives in Oldham due to a gas escape from a street main to a house powered exclusively by electricity and without any gas fittings of any kind. During the course of my inquiries I found that the renewal policy of the North Western Gas Board was to a large extent linked with the tragedy, and I shall seek to establish that, while its policy of continual vigilance against possible leakages is vigorously administered, its renewal policy nevertheless rests on the assumption that the pipes are both safe and effective, and that there is no planned policy in which age, age defects or other weaknesses, including soil, play a leading rôle.

On Sunday, 31st December last, Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher, of 29 Marion Street, Oldham, invited four friends, Mr. and Mrs. Beasley and Mr. and Mrs. Knott, to share an evening meal and a little jollity in preparation for celebrating the New Year. Their house is a typical terraced house in a pleasant working class area, No. 29 being at the end of the street, with the gable end abutting to the pavement of Emma Street. The house was clean and well kept, electrically powered, and had concrete floors in all downstairs rooms.

It is known that they sat down to a meal about 8 p.m., that they enjoyed an odd glass of sherry before midnight and that Mr. Fletcher apparently let the New Year in. Late in the evening of the following day, 1st January, their niece, anxious about them, called at the house and found the newspaper in the door, the lights full on and the curtains drawn, and immediately returned to her mother, who thereupon visited the house and, hearing groans from the living room, telephoned the police and succeeded in forcing an entry through the back door. In the event, of the three men in the front room Mr. Fletcher and Mr. Knott were dead and Mr. Beasley unconscious, and in the other room Mrs. Fletcher was dead and the two other ladies were unconscious.

The evidence given at the inquest indicated that these six people had, following their meal, complained to each other about feeling unwell and, in the absence of any other reason, thought it might be due to the meal that they had had. As gas was not supplied to the house, the thought of gas did not enter their minds and the survivors say that no one even suspected gas. Technical evidence at the coroner's court indicated that gas had escaped from the main at the gable end of the house 5 ft. to 6 ft. from the wall and had found its way underneath the house. At 9 p.m. the following day, that is, 1st January, the gas engineer identified a gas smell in the neighbourhood of the stairs in the house.

Upon opening the street main later, it was found that a fracture had occurred in a cast iron pipe of three inches diameter which was laid 2 ft. 7 ins. below pavement level. The crack was round the circumference of the pipe which had been laid in 1910, and it was said that the subsoil was loose below frost level. I should say that about and before this date the weather was very cold and readings show that the temperature in the Oldham area remained below freezing point from 26th December onwards, reaching 14 degrees of frost on the 27th and 6 degrees to 12 degrees on the nights of 30th and 31st December.

There were no direct ducts into the house and it was thought that gas had escaped to the foundations of the house, bearing in mind that to some extent frost had sealed the normal ground surface. At the inquest the gas engineer stated that the normal expectation of life of this pipe was 100 to 120 years, though that may be startling to the ordinary layman, as it was to me. It was also added that subsidence might have been caused by percolating water.

Marion Street was reported to stand on the site of the old Honeywell Colliery, and also a reservoir, and in the opinion of the gas engineer the fracture of the pipe had probably been caused by ground movement. Following corre- spondence with the North Western Gas Board, I was told in a letter: Because it has been conclusively established that the age of the main or service pipe is not in itself any indication of its liability to fracture, the programme of replacement is based upon the information maintained on street record cards which embrace the whole of the Board's Area and which show the condition of mains and services and of the surrounding subsoil. The information on these cards is brought up to date whenever a main or service pipe is exposed by the Board for any reason and whenever any major street works are undertaken by local authorities or public utilities. The same reporting system applies to minor street works of any nature which come to the knowledge of the Board's distribution staff. Any defects are dealt with immediately. Following correspondence with the Minister, the policy of the Gas Board was confirmed, and in a significant paragraph of his letter of 15th March the Minister stated: More work is being done and no final answer has yet been found, but the industry is alive to its responsibilities and is making a serious effort to reduce the danger. This street, as I have said, is at the top of an old coal shaft and I find that in 1932 a 13½-ton road roller fell into a cavity in the street when the old shaft, 10 ft. in diameter, was revealed. The shaft head was 7 ft. 6 ins. below the street level. More recently, water mains were repaired on 15th May, 1961, outside this house. I gather that the defects which caused this tragedy were dealt with on 13th January, but I am not sure whether by repairs or renewal. My information, second hand so far, is that it was by renewals.

I have had the opportunity of discussing the general question with the Chairman and the Secretary of the Gas Council. I gather that there are 100,000 miles of street gas mains, that it costs between £5,000 and £10,000 per mile for renewal and that in 1961 32 people lost their lives in circumstances where they had not in any way been negligent. We—that is the representatives of the Gas Council and myself—did not differ for one moment on the vigilance—and I underline this—which the gas boards bring to their task of ensuring safety to the 12 million users, but it is clear that there is a wide divergence of view about the importance of age in relation to maintenance and safety when renewals are being scheduled. This is the real point of difference.

It seems, too, that the thinking in the gas industry itself has some reservations about the renewal policy, and I call in aid the postscript to a letter in the Manchester Evening News, some time in the middle of January, in which an official of the North Western Gas Board said: … age of gas mains is not a prime cause of fractures. The real cause has been unsuitable soil conditions leading to subsidence at the beginning of a frost or in the thaw afterwards. Age is a factor where this subsidence acts on old type mains which do not have the modern flexible joints. We now satisfy ourselves about soil conditions before we lay new mains. The Victorians did not. To combat this we have inspection units out every working day of the year concentrating on older areas in the winter. In quoting this statement, I understand that in the old days, whether the soil was suitable or not, it was used in the filling up process, whereas the present method is to examine such soil and to supply appropriate packing soil if this is found necessary. Secondly, I gather that the old joints are now condemned so that in this case there continued to appear to be two built-in defects, apart from the age of the pipe and the fact that the area had formerly been a coal shaft.

The real point at issue is, of course, the importance which the gas boards attach to age and the defects of age in respect of gas pipes. At present, they regard age as a minor contributing factor when considering replacement, and it is my submission that this case illustrates not only special conditions in the way of old coal workings, but that the mains were over-ripe for renewal, based both on age and subsoil conditions.

True, the question of finance must enter into this problem when the gas boards are faced with it. They are rightly jealous of their concern for public safety, but this case illustrates the need for an improved and altered policy in regard to main renewals. It is doubtful whether cast iron pipes can be expected to have an expendable life of over 100 years when laid below ground, and if we accept that contention knowing that the pipes are, in fact carrying lethal agencies, and we also assume that vigilance as such is the answer, in 1962 we are surely condoning tragedies that should be avoided.

The Minister must clearly be anxious about this problem. Sympathy in this kind of case is, naturally, universal and widespread. I have brought the matter to the House because I believe that we have a duty to question and to improve the renewal policy, to invest in the best brains to solve this anxious problem, and not least, if in fact the solution lies, as I think it does, in the direction of renewal with age playing a much more important consideration, face the financial adjustments that that will involve.

In these circumstances, in the light of what I have said—and I have tried to lift the matter to a higher plane, and not keep to a narrow constituency basis —I ask the hon. Gentleman to be forthcoming on the issue and to allay the public anxiety which has rightly arisen by agreeing to try to get the boards to give a higher degree of priority to the problem of age in relation to the renewal of these old service mains.

10.56 p.m.

Mr. Stan Awbery (Bristol, Central)

This problem applies not only to Oldham, but to all our large cities. Two years ago a similar explosion occurred in Bristol, fortunately without killing anybody. I suggest that the time has come for us to search for a remedy for this state of affairs, and that that remedy is to be found in the age of pipes. If the gas authorities took a census of old pipes they would know when they were due for renewal. They would be able to ascertain whether existing pipes were safe. Other difficulties arise which could cause explosions, apart from the age of pipes, but that is certainly a contributory factor, and I suggest the Minister should take up the census question with the gas authorities.

10.57 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. J. C. George)

The hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Mapp) has approached this human and technical problem with care, caution and responsibility. He has not overstressed the human aspects, but has painted a clear picture of a very painful tragedy. We are all sad when lives are prematurely ended, and a true earnest of our regret is provided by the steps taken to ensure that all contributory causes for which we carry some responsibility are closely examined. After weaknesses are found remedies must be devised to minimise, if not eradicate, the possibility of a recurrence.

The hon. Member readily and kindly accepted the anxiety of the North Western Gas Board to provide a safe system. He welcomed the widespread inspection system for the detection of leakages recently introduced and vigorously developed by the Board. I am grateful to him for his well-balanced comments on these matters. But even with an acceptable inspection system, tragedy can strike, as it did in Marion Street, Oldham, last New Year's Eve. The details have been accurately related by the hon. Member and I will not repeat them. The cause was the escape of gas from a hair crack in a three-inch cast iron main, running parallel with and some distance away from the gable end of No. 29.

In frostbound conditions, for a variety of reasons, line fractures are more numerous than under normal weather conditions. Furthermore, the leakage resulting—again due to the effect of frost—is frequently forced into unexpected channels of escape. In this case leakage entered from under the floor, as the hon. Member said.

Following the incident the crack which was discovered was sealed effectively with a substantial collar. An extended examination showed the main to be otherwise in good condition, with no material defects, and no corrosion. Later some suspicion of further leakage was reported in Marion Street, and examination revealed the presence of minute quantities of carbon monoxide. To allay all fears rather extravagant remedial measures were taken—service pipes were removed and renewed. This is the story of this sad and regrettable affair.

From the theme of the hon. Member's speech I assume that the collaring of the cracked pipe, rather than the renewal which he thought had taken place, will not have his approval. Renewal, and only renewal, will meet his idea of effectively preventing a recurrence. I will just say that the North Western Gas Board's engineers are men of high ability and long experience. They are fortified by the Code of Practice of the Institution of Gas Engineers, and while respecting the fears and anxieties of the hon. Gentleman, I ask him to accept that this type of repair has over the years been proved to be completely effective in thousands of cases throughout the country, and that there is no reason to expect it to be less successful in this case.

This main which was fractured was not one which had been neglected or ignored. A thorough examination by the inspection experts had been carried out in July, 1961, only six months before, and no defects were recorded. Therefore, we must assume, as the hon. Gentleman himself said, that either severe weather conditions or unusual earth movements caused the fine crack in an otherwise sound main line. A close watch will be kept, although there is every confidence that conditions are now safe and sound.

I turn now to the broader aspects of the problem. Deaths from fractured gas mains generally are the subject of this debate and I should like to remove a fairly widespread but erroneous impression that incidents of this type are responsible for a high proportion of the total deaths from accidental gas poisoning. We all regret that there are any deaths from this cause, but the actual position is that deaths from fractured mains in England, Scotland and Wales added together were: 1956, 3.3 per cent.; 1957, 2.6 per cent.; 1958, 2.2 per cent.; 1959, 2.5 per cent., and 1960, 2 per cent.

Mr. Mapp

Would the Minister be good enough to translate these percentages into numbers of people involved? It would be more helpful.

Mr. George

I had intended to do that next.

The percentages give the true proportion of total deaths caused by fractured gas mains and show that it is a relatively small percentage. The numbers were: 1956, 27; 1957, 21; 1958, 20; 1959, 24; 1960, 20. The year 1961 was not good and 32 deaths have been recorded, but we have not the actual percentage as the other accident statistics are not available. That puts this problem in its true perspective.

The hon. Gentleman has been very fair all the way along and he has evidently formed the strong impression that the principal causes of fractures are age, rigid jointing and poor soil conditions. He urges, first, that a plan for systematic renewal of old pipes be devised; secondly, that we invest in the best brains to solve this anxious problem; and, thirdly, that we face the financial adjustments involved.

Let us deal, first, with the dangers of age. Recently, Sir Charles Ellis, Scientific Adviser to the Gas Council, investigated this matter. His inquiries showed that not more than 10 per cent. of all fractures occurring during 1958, 1959 and 1960 could be fairly attributed to the pipe being weakened through age. The remaining 90 per cent. were caused by exceptional events which could not be anticipated.

Indeed, the quotation which the hon. Gentleman made from a mid-January Manchester Evening News began with the statement that the age of gas mains is not a matter of prime importance. I have with me a copy of the publication Gas Age which I will later hand to the hon. Gentleman. Ten photographs are reproduced showing cast iron gas mains in excellent condition after periods of service ranging from 103 to 128 years. Therefore, while it may have shocked the hon. Gentleman, as he said, to learn as a layman that cast iron pipes could be safe after 100 years, here is the actual evidence brought before us. There is abundant evidence that age alone is not a sound criterion on which to base a policy of renewal.

The hon. Member stated that he gathered that old joints are now condemned. I can find no confirmation of that from gas engineers. What was termed an old joint by the hon. Member is still being installed with absolute confidence in major trunk mains. It is true that flexible joints are now in common use and playing an important part in ensuring a safe distribution system. But it would be quite wrong to assume that mains with old type joints are significantly more dangerous and, therefore, due for replacement urgently.

The third major point made by the hon. Member, and supported again by a quotation from the well-informed, but anonymous official of the North Western Gas Board, referred to the laying of old pipes many years ago without regard to the suitability of the soil surrounding them. I agree that today pipes are laid with great care and attention to infilling, and that frequently these precautions were neglected in the long past. But it would be wrong to think that all old pipes were badly laid or that nothing is done to correct the faults of other days.

Throughout their life, old pipes, for many reasons, are exposed for inspection, and whenever soil defects are observed they are remedied. Where deficiencies are observed it is not uncommon for the work to be extended beyond the original length fortuitiously exposed. Soil deficiencies are being remedied, but I would not deny that weak spots still remain to be discovered and corrected. All gas boards are vigilant in seeking out weaknesses and the situation will improve steadily. If I have convinced the hon. Member that his fears about age and joints are unjustified, I should not imagine that he would advance soil weakness as a factor demanding this widespread and costly renewal of old pipes.

I hope that some of the worries of the hon. Member have been reduced if not removed. But while I have advanced arguments to show that widespread renewals are not required, that is not to say that a programme of reasoned renewal is not a permanent part of the policy of all gas boards. In England. Scotland and Wales the boards provide heat service for 13 million consumers through nearly 100,000 miles of mains. The industry is alert to its responsibilities. But transport and distribution for such distances in varying conditions means that an element of risk is ever present. I suggest that 0.3 deaths per annum for every 1,000 miles of main demonstrates that we are not condoning tragedies that should be avoided. Of course there is need for vigilance and no room for complacency.

In the North-West there are 13,000 miles of main at risk every day. Sixteen teams of three men using 16 special vehicles loaded with drilling equipment and elaborate gas detectors ply around their beats, giving special attention to areas of subsidence. They check the mains, drilling holes every 10 feet and lowering the gas detector to check leakages. Soil conditions are also checked by the drill holes. Since 6th April, 1958, over 3,300 miles of mains and 468,000 service mains have been surveyed in this way.

It is from actual conditions revealed by these surveys, plus all the information gained from the condition of pipes exposed for whatever purpose, that the plan and programme of replacement is drawn up. In this way last year 26 miles of pipe were "taken out of risk" in the North-West area alone. This work never ceases. Nothing and nobody is allowed to hinder or hamper it. The Board is conscious that there is much to do. The best brains are applied to the problem. Finance is generously provided, and I give the hon. Gentleman and the House the sincere assurance that neither vigour nor vigilance will be lacking in the drive to obtain results and to reduce pain and anxiety.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Eleven o'clock.